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June 2022 Village Italy trip report (better late than …)

Let's try something new:

In March 2022, I decided I needed to go somewhere before September, when my husband and I would take our Covid-cancelled trip to Northern Italy, so I signed up for the RS VIllage Italy tour that began on June 13. Then I began a slightly obsessive research phase, reading various tour scrapbooks, making packing lists, and fretting about the possibility that a positive covid test could put the kibosh on this adventure. As it happened, I had a mild case in late May and was able to get a recovery letter to cover any future positive tests on tour or when trying to return to the States.

Still, it was a relief when, just before my tour, the government stopped requiring the test to return home.
Here’s a recap. I’ve pulled most of it from my Book of Face postings during the tour. My apologies for the shifts between present and past tense.

Saturday/Sunday, outbound/arrival: I flew American’s flagship business class from Raleigh to London Heathrow (best flight of my life! Recently refurbished airplane, food that was actually delicious and a good five hours or so of sleeping.) Heathrow was its usual mess, with a crowded bus ride to another terminal and a five-hour layover (spent gratefully in the BA lounge) and finally an easy flight to Venice that landed in the afternoon. I had arranged a shuttle to Padova and after finally finding it, was on my way.

Sunday, arrival day: I checked in to the funky “art hotel” that Rick seems so taken with and, after consulting the handsome fellow at the desk, walked a few blocks in the early evening for pizza and vino at a nearby restaurant. And then went happily to sleep.

Monday in Padova: Welcome to the tour The next morning, I set off for the botanical garden and a little more walking around before finding lunch, taking my pre-tour covid test and meeting our guide, David Tordi, and fellow tour-goers at 5 at the hotel. We chose our tour buddies, received our Whisper devices, and set out for a quick walking orientation and a better than expected getting to know you dinner.

Tip: If you have wired, noise-canceling earbuds (I have the old Bose ones, which aren’t sold anymore), they can plug into the Whispers and provide better sound quality and ease of listening. Mine aren’t sold anymore, but I saw lots of choices starting at about $20 on Amazon.

Tuesday: In Padova, we visited the Scrovegni Chapel to see the Giotto frescoes, and they’re fantastic. Giotto is, I am told, the father of Italian painting. We also visited the anatomy theater at the University of Padova. I found it equally astonishing and creepy. We were free for lunch, the afternoon and dinner. I wandered through the very large basilica of St. Anthony and was struck by the wall of photographs from believers seeking intercession and had dinner with a handful of tour members. So, a lot in a day and change.

Wednesday, hello to the bus: I had my first “bag drag” experience and was sorry I hadn’t been more ruthless with myself about overpacking. We got on the bus and drove to Ravenna to see the mosaics in the Byzantine Basilica and Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a highlight of the trip so far. (Look her up … amazing woman.) We had time to wander and have lunch and then we drove on into Umbria to the little hill town of Montefalco, where we stayed in an 18th century villa (Villa Pambuffetti, family owned and run) and were treated to a vigorous thunderstorm that brought a welcome break from the heat. At dinner I had an excellent local red wine called sangrantino, which was new to me. Most of us wound up at the same restaurant in this very small town and had a convivial evening with David, our guide, providing language services.

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Continuing ...
Thursday: On day four, we headed to Assisi and received a gigabyte of info from our local guide about St. Francis, church history, frescoes, various popes, etc. I was feeling quite thoroughly churched. Also, it was really hot!

That evening we went to a truffle farm (they grow the trees under which grow the truffles) and watched two energetic dogs sniff them out. The place is beautiful, and to look over the hills and valleys at nearby towns coming alight in the dusk was a striking reminder of just how old, and how breathtaking, Italy is. Our truffle-centric dinner was a hit with the truffle lovers on the tour. Some of us, not so much.

Friday: The next morning, we left pretty little Montefalco and stopped in Deruta to see how ceramics are made, from the pottery wheel onward. I made a purchase or two.

Thence up very winding Umbrian roads to Civitella del Lago, a very small hilltop village with great views and very very old buildings. This was a “guide’s choice” side trip. Later, we went to a beautiful old winery just outside Orvieto for a lesson in wine and food pairings. Now we are in our guide’s home town Orvieto he and his two band mates are going to play for us while we have drinks at a nearby bar.

This trip overlapped with several religious observations in various towns – St. Anthony Day in Padova and the Corpus Domini celebration in Orvieto. That celebration is kicked off by the Ladies Parade, with about 100 re-enactors in medieval dress stalking the streets. Plus torches! And drummers! There’s a much bigger to-do on Sunday when, alas, we are leaving. The internet dates this to 1339, when the Reliquary of Holy Corporal of Bolsena was carried in procession here. The theology escapes me, but the commitment is impressive.

Saturday: All hail Orvieto, a hilltop city that has 30 centuries of continuous civilization, and all hail the Etruscans, who were brilliant and powerful and from whom Rome stole many ideas. It’s been a busy 24 hours, even though I’ve spent the last few resting my aching legs in my room. Our guide, David Tordi, lives in Orvieto and we met his parents this morning, out having a stroll. David was a highlight of the trip – good-natured, so patient with all of the humans he had to wrangle for 14 days, and a fountain of knowledge. And funny, which is great.
I went out early to stroll the market before the group took a quick walking history tour of Orvieto. We have learned that during Mussolini’s decades in power, he spent a lot of capital restoring significant old churches etc. across Italy. That’s why you’ll see an ancient church with a newer roof. Huh.

Sunday: We left Orvieto Sunday morning just as the town was gearing up for the Corpus Domini procession and so forth, off through the hills to the little (excellent) Etruscan museum in a little town called Chianciano Terme. The Rick Steves-provided guide at the museum was learned, funny and quite risqué, a neat trick. There were books, so of course I bought one …

Then we drove for a bit to nearby Agriturismo La Pietriccia, where we were offered a snack and wine, told about the slow food movement that’s so essential in Tuscany, then instructed to wash our hands, don disposable aprons, gloves and hats, and given a hands-on cooking lesson that produced a hearty lunch, with more wine. I have to say that red wine day drinking is not a skill I have developed but one does what one must. Ahem.
Finally, we drove about 90 minutes to Villa Lecchi Residenza D’epocha, a sprawling old villa and spa in the countryside with a glorious view. We had a lovely dinner outdoors and next are off to Siena. It’s quite hot here during the heat of the afternoon but the evenings and early mornings are cool and breezy. We are covering a lot of ground, with Lucca, Levanto and the Italian Riviera still to come!

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Monday in Siena: beautiful old city (but aren’t they all?) known for its Palio, or horse race around the central square. It’s on July 2 and there will be 60,000 people crammed into the center. Siena is quite hilly and everywhere you turn there’s a gorgeous little street lined with ancient buildings.
A tour friend and I had a wander, stopped for an espresso (caffe naturale), did a little souvenir shopping, stopped for lunch (vitello tonnato, delicious… I have overcome my streak of unfortunate menu selections), wandered some more, doing our best to stay in the shade because it’s hot. We also saw a pizza about a meter across proudly displayed in a window. Fabulous place to spend a day or three. We returned to the beautiful country villa for an afternoon at the pool (or a shower and a nap) before a delicious dinner together al fresco. This setting was idyllic, vast views of the countryside, trees strung with white lights. Very very nice.

Tuesday in Tuscany: We left the beautiful country estate en route to Lucca, where we’ll spend the next two nights. On the way, we spent an hour or so at the American memorial cemetery just outside Florence. Here lie 4,392 soldiers who died while taking Italy from the Nazis and their Fascist Italian collaborators. Six sets of brothers are buried side by side, and 1409 others are inscribed on a wall of the missing. Four women (three nurses and one OSS typist) also rest here. It’s beautiful and haunting and very much worth a visit.
From there, we stopped in Pistoia, with its pretty old center, for a wander and lunch, which for me featured fried anchovies that were perfetto. We rolled into Lucca in the afternoon, had a brief orientation walk and then reconvened (most of us) for a Tuscan steak dinner graciously organized by our guide. Twas the solstice and a beautiful night in this appealing old city.

Wednesday: I loved Lucca and really enjoyed our city history tour with a funny, energetic native. (Her name is Elena Benvenuti, and when my husband and I visited Lucca in September, we spent a supremely enjoyable afternoon with her as our private guide.) Every time she mentioned Pisa (apparently a mortal enemy of the city since time began), she’d mime spitting. What was Lucca’s Roman amphitheater now is a busy space lined by cafes and gelaterias and a farmacia, conveniently for me, as I needed a mask for the tour bus and forgot mine. We drove to an olive oil cooperative, where we had a tasting and a nice farm lunch while learning a lot about olive oil and then saw the vintage machinery. The rest of the afternoon and evening were free time; that evening I had a splurge solo dinner in the garden at Canuiela, a delicious end to our time in Lucca.

Thursday: We made our way from Tuscany into Liguria, detouring in Carrara for a trip to a marble quarry, which involved a little bus on very narrow, very twisty roads and some moments when we cleared another vehicle by inches. Carrara has quite a history, from the time that everything was quarried and transported by human and animal labor and sculptures were the work of artists like Michelangelo to today, when designers send 3-D computer files for sculptures that are executed by robots and finished by hand with power tools. There’s an eccentric open air museum.
From there, we got back on our big bus and drove to Porto Venere, where we spent a drizzly hour wandering in the rain and having lunch before boarding a ferry that took us eventually to Monterosso, from which we took a train to Levanto, where we are staying for two nights. Lots of transportation! Mercifully, our luggage came by bus and we didn’t need to do a “bag drag” onto a boat, etc.

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Levanto is a pleasant beach town with a blue-collar vibe, and the nice family who own and run our hotel put on quite a seafood feast for us. The five towns, or Cinque Terre, are justifiably famous for their dramatic and colorful concentrations of houses on cliffs over the sea. Very beautiful, especially as seen from the sea.

Friday in Levanto; we are free to spend the day as we wish, a nice break from the brisk pace of the tour. The street cleaning machine got my attention very early this morning, so I dressed and went to wander Levanto before it was really awake. I try to do this everywhere to see a place minus so many people.
A tour pal and I bought a day pass for the trains that conveniently run up and down the coast and set off for Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre. We had about an hour to enjoy things, walking along a terraced trail through vineyards and gardens and gawking at spectacular views, before everyone else woke up and descended on the town. We took the train to tiny Corniglia and took a shuttle from the train to the town; otherwise, it’s a climb of 385 steps. We did walk down them, though! We decided to surrender to the crowd and the heat and came back to Levanto for lunch, after which I had a wine-assisted afternoon nap. Tonight, dinner and packing for a morning departure to Lake Orta, our last stop before heading home or off on further adventures.

Saturday, last stop: We left Levanto in the morning (suitcases thoughtfully transported to the bus for us) and drove through Genoa and into the Piemonte region for our final night at Lago d’Orta, where we stayed in a family-run (Swiss, very precise!) hotel and enjoyed a stroll downhill to the village and a boat ride over to the little island for one last church visit. Then came an afternoon of exploring for some, napping and packing for others (such as myself) and then we gathered for one last group dinner at a restaurant on the lake.

It was lovely, sitting there, laughing and talking and watching darkness fall, little boats head home and lights come on. We toasted our splendid guide, David, and emerged into a lively, music-filled town square. Most of us had morning flights from Milan’s sprawling and stylish Malpensa airport, which meant a 7 a.m. departure and a hurried last breakfast. I was lucky to be on the same flight to JFK as a couple from St. Louis so we spent a few more hours together in the lounge chatting about the tour and our families and life in general.

Rick Steves really means it when he says no grumps are allowed on his tours — even when we were all hot and tired — and I enjoyed traveling with and getting to know the 23 folks with whom I spent the past two weeks. I landed in Raleigh on schedule (whew … the airport was packed and a bit chaotic.) I do love Italy and could happily visit it many more times. (In fact, my husband and I did spend two weeks in early fall 2022 visiting Venice, Bologna, Lucca and Milan and I’m going on the RS South Italy tour in April.)

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A few thoughts in retrospect: I was one of four solo travelers, all women, on the tour, and I’m glad to have sprung for the single supplement to have a room to myself. I’m an introvert at heart, and a lot of “peopling” was packed into these two weeks.

The bus experience was more pleasant than I’d anticipated; the only challenging situation was ending a long hot walk to board the bus and immediately put a mask on my very sweaty face. I had bought a little rechargeable fan (which my husband scoffed at) that was a huge help on hot days. There are a couple of bus-intensive days, but the drives are broken up with stops (mandated by law for the driver’s sake, I believe).

I bought the ebook version of the guide and referred to it on my phone or tablet rather than schlepping the book itself, and I used Google maps a lot for walking directions to restaurants and sights during free time.
Finally, I used the Earworms Learning course in Italian before the trip, and that was very very helpful. I bought the course on Audible before my first Italy trip a few years ago so this was a refresher for me; it’s also available directly from the company and now it’s on Spotify!

Overall, it was an enjoyable new experience. It's good to try new things!

This has been longer than I expected, and if you've read this far, bravo!

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6184 posts

Thank you so much for this. We did this tour a few years ago, well 5 or 6 years ago, I guess, and loved it.

Thanks for the memories!

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It may have seemed long writing it, but was a breeze reading. Lovely trip report.

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Tammy, we highly recommend it. It ranks right up there among our favorites. And it is one that we would seriously consider doing again!

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I did this tour in, I think, 2010, and I enjoyed noting the differences. Our “Guides choice” was a visit to Cortona which everyone loved and was relatively quiet. We visited two very elegant villas outside Lucca. We went in October and just made the last ferry of the season to the CT. When Iwas done with walking trails took a massively overcrowded train to Vernazza where everyone got off. Took one look at the crowded streets and stayed on the train back to Levento and spent a nice quiet afternoon on the beach with a book! What else I remember about that tour was meeting my friend limoncello!

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2251 posts

Thank you for posting this terrific and comprehensive trip report. I was on this tour a few years ago and very much enjoyed the revisit with you, You're an engaging writer and I’m happy you had such a positive experience. So did I!

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6891 posts

Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us! I love staying in the smaller towns in Italy! I was in Italy at the same time as you and relate to some days where a second gelato was “necessary” to cool off! ; )

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Wonderful report. Going on this same trip in April. I’m curious which restaurant you went to for your Tuscan steak dinner in Luca and if you recommend it?

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I think it was L’Oste di Lucca, and they were very gracious with our large group, even letting us uncork and pour wine some of us had bought at the earlier winery stop. It was better than fine, but if you’re looking for an exceptional dinner in Lucca, I loved Canuiela, and when my husband and I returned in the fall, we had a fabulous dinner at Osteria da Pasqualino Gubitosa. You’d want to reserve that in advance, via email from their website.

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Thanks so much for this wonderful trip report! I’m going on this tour - my first with RS - in May and I’m really excited 😊

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924 posts

Great trip report Felicia! Did you have a favorite town and if so, why was it your favorite?

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13636 posts

What a fun trip report! I'm not sure how I missed it when you originally posted it but glad it was bumped back up. I loved walking down memory lane on this one as well. Such a fun and different tour!

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I enjoyed reading your trip report! We did a similar tour many years ago that included Tuscany & Umbria. One of my memorable stops was Levanto. Our tour guides aunt lived there. We had our lunch meal at Zita’s overlooking the valley. We were on a culinary tour and it was the best Italian food we had in Italy. The Tiramisu was the best ever. Thanks again for sharing.

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Thanks, everyone, for your kind words.

@Calimom, I really liked Ravenna and would have been happy to spend a night or two there – the tour stops for a few hours. I also liked Orvieto a lot.

But Lucca was my favorite town for so many reasons – the beautiful city wall that has become the city's signature; the walkable, well-preserved city center: the very good restaurants and shops. I liked it so much that I added it to the trip my husband and I took in the fall.

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Thank you for your detailed trip report. I will be taking this tour in October.

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Village Italy and South of Italy are my two favorite tours out of 13 RS tours we have done since 2004. I would repeat these two tours in a heartbeat if time and money permitted. We are doing RS Scandinavia tour in September 2023. I too would have liked more time in Ravenna, home to eight Unesco Heritage sites. When I mentioned this to our guide she pointed out tour was called "Village Italy" not "Port City Italy".

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Felicia, thank you for this lovely trip report! I enjoyed reading about places we’ve been (Lago d’Orta), and places we will visit on our upcoming My Way Italy tour! We are considering Orvieto or Lucca for our post tour days, so thank you for sharing your experiences!

Laurie

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Thanks for your report! It brought back such good memories. This was my first RS tour, done in 2017. I just finished Sicily and Paris and the Heart of France, bringing my #of tours to 7, and Village Italy was just about my favorite. Sounds like your experience was very much like mine, except we did not have any excessive heat. We went in late May. I, too, kept making the bad menu choices! But I sure managed to eat plenty of good food. We did Civita di Bagnoregio, which I see is now off the itinerary. Good thing, because it has just gotten too popular. Other than that, there’s nothing I would change about this tour!

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Thanks so much for doing this trip report. I really want to do this tour. I’ve been to Lucca and Levanto before on another tour but of course wouldn’t mind going back. But to get to Ravenna, Assisi and Siena all on the same tour seems fantastic to me! Your description makes it sound even better.
I do have a question about the last stop at Lago d’Orta. Did it seem like a good place to stay an extra day or two or did you see enough in one evening to move on? What do you think? I will probably want to go to Milan for a couple of days before flying out regardless.

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Lake Orta is really pretty and pretty quiet, from what I could tell. If you wanted a day to just relax before continuing your trip, you’d be fine here, especially if Milan, which is so big and buzzy with energy, comes next. The hotel has tennis courts and a pool, if I remember correctly, and there are boats to hire and cruise around.

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I completely agree that it's better late than never even though I ignore my own feeling on that sometimes. I so appreciate that you followed through and shared with us.