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My very long trip report - Part 1, traveling on our own

This is a very long trip report so I am dividing it up into multiple posts between traveling on our own, the Rick Steves South of Italy tour, and what I learned. I hope I don't bore you too much.

May 1 – We’re on our way
I couldn’t believe it! We were on our way to Italy. My husband’s sister and I boarded our Delta Flight and after a long layover (which we didn’t mind) in Atlanta we headed for Rome. This trip had been so long in the making. Until we landed in Rome the following day, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it was real. As you may remember, it started two years ago when the Denver travel agent stole my friend’s and my money just before we were to leave on our Trail of Lippizaners tour. Once that was resolved – jail time for her, no money for us – it was time to move on. Italy was my first choice, especially the south of Italy where their grandparents were born.

Rome on our own
We landed in Rome, wide-eyed with wonder and excitement. We both had Euros so we didn’t need to find an ATM. This made life easier for both of us. You’ll laugh that before the trip neither of us had used an ATM to withdraw money. We’re old school people who write checks to pay bills and go to the bank to deposit/cash checks.

It’s a good thing I can be assertive. Walking out of the airport we had to deal with two “unofficial” taxi drivers wanting more that the stated fare before we found the “official” taxi queue. Thank you to all on the Forum who warn travelers about taxis at FCO. Our driver spoke almost no English but with my 15 words of Italian and Microsoft Translator we managed to have a short conversation about gas prices and sites along the way. I like Microsoft Translator better than Goggle Translate when offline with its phrase book and conversation memory.

We were soon at Hotel Due Torri, our home for the next four days. RS Italy guidebook says the hotel is overpriced but I don’t agree. I booked our room in September for almost €50/night less than the guidebook rate scale. Preplanning pays off. The hotel is small, friendly, safe and walking distance to everything in Old Rome. As soon as we checked in we headed out for gelato and to explore the neighborhood. The first thing we learned about Rome was that we easily got lost but we soon learned landmarks to get us back to the hotel. We often asked for directions because maps don’t show that a street is the size of an alley and only a couple blocks long. We splurged the first night for dinner at Ristorante Alfredo Alla Scrofa home of Fettuccine Alfredo, close to the hotel but only OK food and not worth the price.

The next morning we were up early to walk to the Colosseum. We had signed for Walks of Italy Caesar’s Palace tour which included the Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. Our guide was an art historian and very informative, comparing Rome to lasagna so we could visualize the multi-layer, multi-millennium ruins. Afterwards we wandered to the Pantheon and sights surrounding it. In our wanderings we found a little restaurant that I can’t remember the name which served good saltimbocca for an early dinner. It might have been Antica Trattoria Due Colonne on Via del Seminario since it was a few doors down from an antique store that was in the basement of the seminary. On our way back to the hotel we stopped again at Gelateria Giolitti for gelato, but bought pastries instead.

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The next morning we were up very early to walk to meet our Walks of Italy tour group for the Pristine Sistine tour. After taking a marvelous photo from Ponte Umberto bridge of St. Peter’s with the lights from San Angelo Bridge reflected in the Tiber River (the best picture out of the1200 I took), we made it to the meeting place before it started to rain. It was amazing how quickly street vendors descended on us with cheap umbrella and plastic ponchos. My €5 red umbrella kept me dry until the next day when it gave its life protecting from the wind. The Pristine Sistine tour was almost overwhelming, so much to see in so little time. It was well worth the time and pre-entry admission to see Sistine Chapel, a too quick walk through of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. Afterwards SIL and I regrouped at the hotel, got lost trying to find a recommended restaurant for lunch (found it in time for dinner) then made our way to Piazza Navona, Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Farnese, sampling coffee and pastries along the way.

Not knowing what would be open on Sunday, we booked Eating Italy’s Sunday tour of the Jewish Quarter. For three hours we ate our way through the neighborhood while getting a history lesson from our guide. It was great – great food, great company. I was thrilled to meet Alan who posts frequently on the Forum and his wife and their friend. All were as nice and interesting as I imagined. After our gelato, we headed towards the Rose Garden across from Circus Maximus. Only locals were viewing the roses since it’s not a tourist attraction except to gardeners like SIL. Ruins on Palatine Hills were across the street. From there we tried to find the cat sanctuary but of course got lost. By then the wind started to blow, the temperature dropped and it rained again. We found a touristy restaurant for soup to warm us up then headed back to the hotel. It was early. We were very cold so we picked up pastries at Gelateria Giolitti and ate those plus trail mix for dinner.

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The next 12 days were spent on the Rick Steves South of Italy tour.
Afterwards, we were again on our own.

Calabria on our own
When my sister-in-law joined me on the tour, it was important to both of us that we visit Mongrassano Calabria where her and my husband’s grandparents were born. They immigrated to the US in about 1909, built a life and raised a large family.

Our adventure began when we rented a car at Naples Airport. Renting the car was easy. I did so online through AutoEurope/Hertz. With my driver’s license, international driving permit and credit card there was no problem picking up the stick shift car. But getting out of the airport area and onto the highway was a bit of a challenge. After one wrong turn we found the highway. Map sites said there were four toll roads. Wrong. We only found one on our drive south. I grabbed the toll ticket and we were on our way until the toll booth to pay the €4.50 toll. I had been forewarned to keep a bag of change handy for tolls. Good advice. SIL’s job was to read Waze GPS. Waze was much easier for us to follow than Google Maps. During the Rick Steves’ tour, I peppered Tommaso with questions about road signs, tolls and road conditions. His patient explanations gave me confidence to drive south.
We couldn’t believe how good the highways were, six and four lane all the way south. Instead of going up and over mountains, the Italians tunneled through, some tunnels 1 ½ miles long, then bridges spanned the whole valley. Mongrassano is a very small village set on a scenic ridge overlooking sloping valleys on both sides. It is so small it does not have a hotel. When we turned off toward San Marco Argentano about three miles north of Mongrassano, the roads became narrower but still easy to drive. The town however had very narrow cobblestone streets. We found our bed and breakfast B&B del Borgo, checked in using Google Translate to communicate and locked ourselves out while trying to figure out the three door locks. Once back in we played with the locks, taking turns who was in and who was out until we figured the locks out. Then it was on to Mongrassno.

The road was narrow and twisty but not as bad as the map looked. We drove through town and parked at the far end. Not knowing where we were, we were happy to see the cemetery. What better place to start family research than looking at old graves. Interesting but it was not the right choice. All the graves are crypts above ground and it looks like they’re emptied out every 100 years, so no old graves. We did find the family name and talked to a couple people with the same last name visiting family members’ graves. We did not want to intrude so went on our way heading back to the B&B before dark. We the only free parking was in front of the church a couple blocks away.

The next morning we loaded our luggage in the car and headed back to Mongrassano. Let’s just say we were the Sunday entertainment. In a town that does not get tourists, two older women walking around taking pictures of derelict houses were quite a curiosity. Very friendly people tried to help us find relatives’ homes. Fifteen words of Italian on our part and no English on their part didn’t get us far even with Microsoft Translator. But we appreciated their effort and smiles.

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By noon it was time to head back to Naples to return the rental car and go to our hotel. We now felt comfortable with driving in Italian. The only toll booth we went through gave us a bit of a concern. There was no ticket booth, just a pay booth and we knew we didn’t miss it. Turns out the toll was a flat €2.50. About 100 km south of Naples we stopped for gas at an Autogrill. Surprisingly, they pumped the gas for us and we had no problem paying by US credit card.

We got lost trying to find the airport in Naples and ended up almost to the port, a seedy area. After pulling over, regrouping and figuring out Waze directions we headed in the right direction. Since the gas station was on the opposite side of the highway, we turned the car in to Hertz with slightly less than a full tank. After stressing over getting lost, they took pity on us and didn’t charge to fill the tank. We then took a taxi to Stelle Hotel next to Napoli Centrale train station. By dinner time I was starting to lose my voice which soon became the worst cold I’ve had in my life.

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Venice on our own
The next morning we took the train from Naples to Venice. Five hours later we boarded the vaporetto to go to Hotel Rosa Salve in San Marco. After checking in we headed out to explore the city, first to St. Mark’s Square. We wandered around , ate an early dinner and headed back to the hotel.

We awoke the next day with plans to go to Murano and Burano. We both love crafts. I knit. SIL quilts. However our day quickly changed when SIL couldn’t find her passport. She’s very embarrassed which she shouldn’t be when I tell the story. Here’s why I love Hotel Rosa Salva: thinking that the desk clerk did not return her passport when when we checked in, SIL talked to desk clerk Antonio. A guest who was checking out and heading out the door heard her inquiry and said she had found a passport the previous night at E Rose Salva bakery next door and turned it in to the cashier. Antonio called the bakery and confirmed a passport had been turned into the Polizia. He sent us to the Carabinieri. They called around and could not find the passport. Back to the hotel. I started looking for trains for the next day to go to the US Consulate in either Florence or Milan, both are only open 8:30-12:30. Understandably Sister-in-law was in tears, worried and angry at herself. Antonio called the room to let us know he called around to the Polizia and found the passport. The Polizia would bring it to the hotel. Because they didn’t give him a time, he told us to go out and enjoy the sunshine. We were gone only about 10 minutes when Antonio called to say the Polizia were at the hotel with SIL’s passport and we needed to hustle right back. He called once more while we’re on our way and sent an employee out to meet us. Thanks to Antonio, Paula got her passport back. She is one lucky lady. The chances that all pieces would fall together in her favor were nil. Instead of the islands we went shopping in the tourist shops for glass Christmas ornament and lace. We took the vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore to view Venice from the Bell Tower. We then took the vaporetto around the Grand Canal to Rialto, wandered across the bridge and through San Polo neighborhood.

Our last day in Venice. We walked around sightseeing before heading over the Accademia Bridge to the Gallerie dell’Accademia. We had tickets for the Leonardo DaVinci drawing exhibit. After looking at the permanent art exhibits we viewed the DaVinci collection. The detail of his pen and ink drawings was amazing. Even more amazing is that they have survived for 500 years. Many of the drawings were on scraps of paper, 4”x4” or 6”x6”. Many of the pieces of paper had multiple drawings -- body parts, faces, battle scenes. Vitruvian Man highlighted the exhibit. From there we did the last of our souvenir shopping and ate our last pizza lunch. Our final tour was the Walks of Italy Afterhours Doges Palace/St. Mark’s Basilica. Once again, Walks of Italy didn’t disappoint. Our local guide was knowledgeable and brought the exhibits to life while talking about the salt water flood damage eating the marble columns and warping the marble mosaic floors. Since the tour was after the cruise ships left, there were very few tourists in the piazza. Our original plan was to eat dinner or at least have dessert at Caffe Florian but we changed our minds and settled for dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel. The rest of the night was spent packing and repacking trying to cram everything into our carry-ons that we would check and totes and packable backpacks to carry on,

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The hotel arranged a water taxi to take us to the airport. Expensive but worth it. No worry about being late. The best part was the parting view of Venice. At the airport SIL’s lost passport report caused concern going through immigration. The immigration police were very helpful and expedited the problem so we made our flight with time to spare.

Nine and half hours later we went through customs/immigration in Atlanta. It was my first time using Global Entry. A very helpful flight attendant took the time to walk me through the three minute process. SIL had TSA precheck but not Global Entry but it only took her less than 15 minutes to go through the line. Another three hours and we were home in Phoenix.

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Thanks for the detailed trip report, horsewoofie. I had forgotten about the fiasco of 2 years ago. Sorry no money, but at least some resolution. This one definitely came off easier despite the cold and passport situation. How lucky SIL was to get it back. Hope the cold resolved itself when you got home to rest and sleep in your own bed.
Where to next?

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994 posts

Thanks for the report! I’ve been enjoying it!

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11368 posts

That passport fiasco ended up OK. Whew! I also place them in the exact same zippered pocket inside of my zipped purse. Once at a hotel, they go into the safe.

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6670 posts

Thanks for this, entertaining and instructive! You two are enterprising travelers who roll with the punches and "keep on the sunny side" even when it rains.

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6378 posts

Thanks, Woofie. Can't wait to read the rest.

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14269 posts

Oh excellent! I am so happy things turned out well on this trip. It sounds like you and SIL had a wonderful time and saw so much.

My heart sank when I started reading about the passport but I am SO happy it turned out OK. It sounds like the guy at Hotel Reception was very helpful as well.

Off to read the next 2 installments!

Thanks SO much for posting! You know you captured the hearts of everyone on the forum with the horrible scamming tour person and I know everyone is so happy that things turned out well on this trip!

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2252 posts

Thank you, horsewoofie, for this awesome trip report. I love the way you have divided your trip into the 3 different portions of your entire vacation! I am so happy this all worked out so well with you after what you went through. You're a terrific writer and I enjoyed reading every word of each segment. I felt like I was there!

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107 posts

Enjoying your trip report! I've been looking for it since you posted your departure in May. We're on the So. Italy tour in September and I can't wait!

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3903 posts

Thanks for sharing this excellent trip report. Glad you made it to Europe!

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681 posts

Thank you for your excellent report. It makes me want to go back to Italy sooner rather than later.

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Thanks everyone for your kind words. I'm going to post to all three installments to answer questions. Only question to far on "Part 1" is where am I going next? I don't know yet but next trip will be in 2021 since next year's expenditures are to paint the house and finish remodeling the bathroom. It will depend who wants to go with me. Maybe a self-planned Lippizaners' tour from Vienna, through Graz/Piber to Trieste/Lipica and to Venice if my travel companion in a horse person. Or a Rick Steves' South France tour if travel buddy isn't a horse person. Lots of time to decide but I've started saving for a trip now.

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3246 posts

Such lovely and descriptive writing, HW!
You met such kind people along the way; and I know that made up for last years' horrible time with the criminal travel agent.
Off to read Parts 2 and 3!!

("Woofies " are what I call bits of fluff on your clothes that need brushing off.
Learned that in Scotland as a student, many years ago!! :) )

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789 posts

Excellent report, but you’re making me feel guilty for not starting mine. 😅