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My very long trip report - Part 2 RS South of Italy tour

Rick Steves South of Italy Tour
Day 1 Rome: After checking out of Hotel Due Torri, we wandered around the shopping area on Via del Corso. I wanted a nice poncho or rain coat for the inclement weather but could only find the cellophane-thin ones. We ate the best pizza for lunch at a small place we’d walked past all week. It was then time to retrieve our luggage from the hotel and take a taxi to Hotel San Francesco in Trastevere to meet our Rick Steves tour group. About half of us were new to Rick Steves tours. Other people had taken six to nine tours. Everyone was very nice and my first impression didn’t change during the tour. We were very fortunate to have long-time Rick Steves guide Tommaso Pante as our guide. After introductions and choosing “compadres”, i.e. buddies, we set out on a walking tour of Trastevere. We ended at Hostaria Luce for our first group dinner. Dinner was delicious and food allergies were accommodated.

Day 2 Rome: Our morning adventure was taking the tram to visit the Capitoline Museum with its ancient Roman artifacts. Public transportation is out of my realm of experience. It’s almost non-existent in Phoenix and inconvenient when it is. The Capitoline was the most uncrowded museum we visited in Rome. As a dressage rider I was impressed by the gigantic statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. There’s no other way to describe the Boy Extracting a Thorn statue except as sweet. We then headed to the Jewish Ghetto for our second tour. Our Rome guide Francesca added more understanding about the neighborhood. The brass name plaques in the cobblestones in front of the houses where the Nazis rounded up the Jewish citizens who would die in the concentration camps caused us to reflect on the horror of the war. We were then free for lunch and the rest of the day. Sister-in-law and I mentioned to tour mate Patricia that we couldn’t find the cat sanctuary. She laughingly said it was across the street and showed it to us. After the three of us ate lunch, we wandered back to the hotel to regroup and plan our afternoon. Jet lag and 10 miles a day walking caught up with SIL and me. Our plan to see Trevi Fountain was forgotten when we slept away the afternoon. What we loved about our tour group was their inclusiveness. Around the corner from the hotel was a family owned restaurant Trattoria da Paola where we ran into two tour mates and ate dinner together.

Day 3 Road to Vieste: I set the alarm clock to get us up sometimes too early for breakfast before the days’ tours began. We boarded the tour bus, driven by Salvatore, early to drive to Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa. After an introduction to the ruins we were on our own to explore the columns, arches and statues and “ooh and aah” at the surviving mosaic floors. We were soon back on the bus traveling over the Apennine Mountains on our way to the Gargano Peninsula in Puglia. I was amazed, especially coming from Arizona, to see snow on the mountain peak. FYI: Prior to the tour I was concerned about potty stops during the drive. It was not a problem. We stopped about every 1 ½ hours at Autogrills. On arrival in Vieste we took a walking tour of the town on our way to Hotel Seggio. At dinner Tommaso learned from one the hotel employees that there was a religious festival in celebration of Santa Maria di Merino. The city square, band gazebo and main road were festooned with colored light arches that resembled stained glass. The local band played a short concert.

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Day 4 Vieste: The morning started with a parade in honor of Santa Maria in front of our hotel. Cardinals, priests, city dignitaries, parishioners and bands paraded down the narrow steps carrying statues of saints and flags, bands playing and songs sung. The pageantry was unlike anything we had seen except on TV documentaries. Six men carried each of the seven statues. Some of the flags had to be 10 feet tall, the weight and size were challenges for some of the carriers. That night, nearing 10pm, the procession returned to the city square, bringing Santa Maria home to the Cathedral of Vieste. The story goes that the statue of Santa Maria di Merino washed up on the shore centuries ago and became the protector of Vieste, resisting looting, earthquakes and fires. Between the two processionals we took a tour boat ride in slightly rough seas to explore the limestone caves around the bay, framed by Gargano National Park. Oh, was I glad for my new best friend –Dramamine.

Day 5 Alberobello and Matera: Our bus took us to Alberobello Puglia region with its trulli houses. This is the one town that both SIL and I wanted to spend more time visiting. Overnight would have been our choice, but that was not in the schedule. Trulli houses are built from stone without mortar topped with domed stone roofs. The landscape on the way in to town is dotted with derelict trulli in the fields. The town’s trulli are restored into shops, restaurants, and hotels. It looks like a white-washed Munchkin Land. Before we were free to explore on our own, we had a wine tasting with lots of snacks. Who knew that Olive Jam would taste so good.

Back aboard the bus, we headed to Matera in Basilicata region and our hotel, Locanda di San Martino, built into the ancient caves of the lower, or Sassi, part of town. Beneath the hotel is an ancient Roman spa. Our hotel room was large, half cave and half stone, and the bathroom was huge with a Jacuzzi-type of tub, just what my aching neck needed. We left a nightlight on because the cave was pitch dark at night. Actually we left a nightlight on in all the hotels so we wouldn’t bump into things in the middle of the night. Our group dinner was a short walk from the hotel. Fortunately the rain held off during our stay in Matera. The large cobblestones would have been very slick if wet.

Day 6 Matera: After breakfast, our local guide took us on a tour of the fascinating but sad history of Matera. The town is ancient, continuously occupied for over 7000 years. Across the ravine next to town, caves dug into the limestone are easily seen. The Sassi, or old part of town, was occupied until the 1960s when the Italian government removed the residents from their cave homes into housing in the upper or new part of town. One cave home was abandoned as is by its residents and is now a museum. The best way to describe it by our modern standards is a hovel where people and animals lived in the same cave. Matera is now an odd mix of very old and new(er), with Salvatore Dali statues in parts of the town. We had the afternoon free to wander and explore. A couple of the tour mates organized a picnic dinner on the patio in front of their hotel room. Over half the group contributed and enjoyed wine, bread, meats and cheeses from the local stores. We couldn’t say it often enough: we had a great tour group.

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Day 7 Paestum and Positano: Back on the tour bus, our first stop of the day was a water buffalo farm where they make mozzarella di bufala. I thought my horse was spoiled but the herd of 200 milking buffalo have massage machines to scratch their bodies and automatic milking machines where the cows walk in, are milked when they want to be milked, then walk back out to eat. After watching how mozzarella cheese is made, we ate a multi-course lunch featuring buffalo mozzarella and buffalo ricotta dishes and buffalo gelato for dessert.

Next stop was Paestum to view its ancient Greek temples and ruins. Amazing. We ran out of time to visit the museum because our next stop was our hotel in Positano.

Much has been said about the curviness of the road on the Amalfi Coast. Believe every word of it. We really appreciated Salvatore’s skill negotiating the hairpin curves and mirror-to-mirror traffic. After touring the waterfront, many from the tour mates met for an impromptu but very enjoyable group dinner at one of the beachfront restaurants.

Day 8 Positano and the Amalfi Coast: Today was a free day to explore the area. We took the standing room only bus from Positano to Amalfi. Unfortunately I didn’t think to pack my best friend Dramamine in my day bag. First stop in Amalfi was Duomo di Sant’Andrea, with its medieval Moorish architecture. There are 77 steps from the palazzo below to the church entry. One of Tommaso’s stories while on the bus was the difference between tourist groups of different nationalities. American’s ask “how many steps?”. From the church, we walked along Via Pietro Capuano, stopping at a few stores to buy lemon soap as souvenir gifts. Near the top of the street is the Paper Museum. Unfortunately they put student tours ahead of tourists and one to two hour wait was too long for us. Back down the hill we caught the open air bus to Ravello. The vistas from the town were amazing. SIL’s hobby is gardening so a visit to Villa Cimbrone’s garden was a must see. The day had been sunny until we waited for the open air bus to go back down the hill. The bus driver handed out plastic rain ponchos to keep us passengers dry. Once down the hill we hurriedly boarded the ferry that was leaving for Positano. Back in Positano we did more tourist shopping, then ran into two tour mates for dinner together.

Day 9 Pompeii and Sorrento: Salvatore negotiated the twisty turny jam-packed road to Sorrento. After dropping off our luggage at Hotel Mignon, Tommaso took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood and down to the harbor. On our way to the train station for our afternoon tour of Pompeii we stopped at David’s Gelato shop for a gelato making demonstration and lunch. We boarded the Circumvesuvius train for Pompeii. Our local guide Gaetano is a third generation Pompeii guide, very knowledgeable who made Pompeii city life and people come alive. For those of us who lived in the Pacific Northwest when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted, we could somewhat visualize the eruption and pyroclastic flow, but not the tremendous force and intensity of Vesuvius’ eruption that buried Pompeii. Although Tommaso gave us instructions how to return to Sorrento on our own if we wanted to stay in Pompeii longer, we all let him herd us onto the train and watch over our safety. Again a group of us met for dinner. I can’t stress enough how inclusive our tour group was. No invitations for these dinners, just a chance to dine with new friends.

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Day 10 Sorrento: Today was another free day. We woke up to a cloudy, drizzly morning. My one goal was to go to Bismonte, a handmade cameo jewelry store, to buy a cameo ring. Afterwards SIL and I thought we’d go Capri, but because the weather was dreary we ended up spending the day in Sorrento, shopping and being a tourist. The Duoma dei San Filippo e Giacoma was amazing with its marquetry door panels, large nativity diorama and painted ceiling. From the outside the church looked small and plain; it just proves that looks can be deceiving. It started to rain when we headed to our group dinner with hosts Theresa and Gigino. The whole family stepped in to help cook, serve and clean-up the multi-course dinner typical of the Sorrento area. Gigino’s homemade wine and limoncello were a treat. Their nine-year-old granddaughter provided entertainment when she joined the group toast, us with glasses of limoncello and her with her glass of whipped cream. A huge thunderstorm passed through while we ate dinner, pouring rain with lightening and thunder. Tommaso kindly arranged for our buses to pick us up at the door instead of walking in the rain to our meeting place.

Day 11 Naples: After driving to Naples we toured the Museo Capodimonte build as a royal Bourbon hunting lodge. The collection is not just the Baroque and Renaissance paintings and statues from the Farnese Collection but also the royal apartments with their elaborate décor, but stripped of most furniture. Since I prefer objects over paintings, I especially liked the elaborate sedan chairs and chandeliers. From there we dropped our luggage off at the hotel, then went on a walking tour along Via Toledo to Spaccanopoli. S Gregorio Armeno street is filled with shops selling nativity presepio (nativity scene) and figurines. I wanted to find more figurines to match the paper mache set my parents bought in the 1950s. None of the figurines were paper mache and many were coarsely made from clay. After we wandered back to Grand Hotel Oriente we met up with some of the tour members and headed to Pizzeria Brandi for dinner. On the way we saw lots of poliza, carabinieri and armed army guards. Turns out there was a large anti-government protest at Piazza del Plebiscito. We walked down a small alley-like road past armed police in riot gear to get to the restaurant. Fortunately the crowds were gone by the time when we finished dinner. On a lighter side, a strolling minstrel serenaded us during dinner’s antipasto course.

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Day 12 Naples: Our day started with a walk to the Cappello Sansevero. It’s still a privately owned chapel, originally built in the 1600s but expanded in the mid-1700s. It is famous for its marble sculptures, specifically the life-like Veiled Christ. My favorite was Disinchantment, with its draped and knotted fishing net covering a life-size man. It is worked from a singular chunk of marble. Carved into the statues and painted into the ceiling are masonic symbols. Next stop on our walking tour was the Naples National Archeological Museum. Our local guide explained the Pompeii artifacts and the lifestyle of the people. Amazingly 2000 years ago, the people of Pompeii had glass bowls and glasses; the rich had silver bowls, plates and eating utensils. We just don’t think that their civilization had advanced past pottery and bronze. Frescoes, micro mosaics and statues were rescued from the ruins and now live in the museum. After our tour we were on our own to explore Naples. Six of us set off following the Rick Steve Audio Europe Naples City Walk (also in the Italy guide book). Lunch was at a vegetarian restaurant, not that we planned for vegetarian but it was a nice change from pizza and pasta. After our walk we headed to the Convent of Santa Chiara. We had heard there were Majolica tiles, but were unprepared for the tile columns and walkways lined scenic tile benches in the courtyard. A small museum showed the bomb devastation during World War Two. There is currently excavation of a Greek bath next to the museum. Then it was time to back to the hotel to get ready for our final tour group dinner. It was sad to end the tour and leave our new friends.

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Public transportation is out of my realm of experience. It’s almost
non-existent in Phoenix and inconvenient when it is.

Just curious if you ever gave it a try (https://www.visitphoenix.com/learn-plan/getting-around/public-transportation/). Phoenix has a nice light rail system and it goes to Sky Harbor airport, which is more than the system in our nation's capital does for two major airports which are only accessible by bus or a commuter rail (and on a worse schedule than your system). The Phoenix light rail schedule and headways look normal to me, I wouldn't hesitate to try it before writing it off. People say the same thing about Los Angeles even though it has a very decent metro system including light rail and buses. Even if you're not close to the line, there are park and ride lots that provide access. I used to live in LA myself, and it was automatically assumed that only a car could get you anywhere, which is unfortunate (it's true for some places, but not everywhere). Since you mention your love for horses, do you live in the outskirts or perhaps some unincorporated part of Phoenix?

PS. Great report, by the way! I've been to some of these places on an independent trip.

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Thanks for your report on the South Italy tour, it is on my list. Hope to go in 2021 or 2022. I like to plan far in advance!
I have been to Rome and Naples previously and loved both. It would be great to revisit them.

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Most excellent RST SOI reporting, horsewoofie and thank you very much! Your informative details really paint a complete picture of your experiences and it triggered (!) many happy memories of my time mid May 2015 on this same tour. Hope you found Naples' exuberant grittiness as fascinating (even charming) as I did. Every single stop on this tour is a top-notch winner in bringing bella Italia's amazing diversity to light.

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515 posts

Thank you for this detailed account. As someone considering this tour, I'd love to hear from you which aspects of the tour you enjoyed the most (clearly your guide and tour group, but what else?) and which you enjoyed the least and/or were most frustrated with. It sounds like you wish you had had more time at some of the stops. Can you elaborate on that and what you would have preferred -- if you were asked to tweak the tour itinerary?
Thanks!!

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4978 posts

Woofie, this is great. We're probably going to take this tour next year, so I love the detail you give. I was disappointed to hear so little time was spent in Paestum, though. DH and I have been to about half the places you visited (including Paestum), and have wanted to return with more time for years. When we went we took the bus from Positano, and by the time we figured out the bus system, and how to find the bus stop in Paestum town, we only had about an hour at the ruins.

But I am more determined than ever to take this tour.

I do want to echo Agnes' comment about the light rail system in Phoenix. We've only used it to go to and from the airport from my sister's place on North Central, but it was just what we needed.

Thanks for a great trip report. So, where are you going next?

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9675 posts

So very happy you had fun on your tour! THIS is what a tour is supposed to be like! There are always some pluses and minuses but overall it sounds like you really enjoyed yourself. I think it's always hilarious on a tour because yes, you DO run in to others when you are out and about!

I'm not a horse person but I LOVE that statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. It was amazing!

Thanks for the details - I love it!

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1760 posts

And I'm also chiming in about the light rail in Phoenix. We love it! We've flown to Phoenix on vacations and done everything on the light rail. What I'd like to know is whether you enjoyed your independent travel or your tour more?

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2388 posts

Thanks for posting a great trip report. Your comment about preferring objects to paintings resonated with me. I like both, but I have a limited capacity for madonnas and martyrdom; but I can always look at more "stuff".

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Thanks everyone for your kind words. This is follow-up #2 to answer your questions. See more follow-up comments on Parts 1 and 3.

1) Light rail is a bust for most of us in Phoenix. Don't trip over my soapbox. To take it anywhere, I'd have to drive eight miles south to the north end of their line. Park and ride leaves my car in not-so-safe areas. Last time I went downtown Phoenix was two years ago to pick my cousin up from her hotel for a visit. Yes LR goes to the airport, but driving another six miles puts me in front of the terminals in less time. Light rail doesn't go to Westworld or Fashion Square in Scottsdale. It really is a waste for most valley residents. Too bad their design did not incorporate light rail and park & ride into the newer freeway structure, then maybe it would be usable. People don't realize how spread out the Phoenix area is, over 100 miles east to west and 75 miles north to south. To visit my cousin in the far east valley from my central Phoenix home is an 1 1/2 hour drive on freeways.

2) What did I like most on the tour? Matera and Sorrento. What did I like least? Nothing, but without the religious festival Vieste would have been very boring. Positano just didn't click with me either, too touristy and it didn't help that I got car sick heading to Amalfi. Rumor is that next year the tour will change because the hotel in Positano is not catering to tour groups. I would like more time in Alberobello. Sorrento needs at least another day to see both Sorrento and Capri so you don't have to choose. Tommaso mentioned Lecce as a good stop for the tour.

3) Tour vs independent travel? Both are great and the mix was perfect. I would do both again depending where I want to go and who I am traveling with.

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365 posts

We have our eye on this tour so I heartily thank you for this trip report! Love all 3 parts, your thoroughness is much appreciated.

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4978 posts

Thanks for the clarification on the LR system. I do know how huge the Phoenix area is; I did not know how limited the LR coverage is.

I am interested in the possible changes to the itinerary. Having been to Positano, I was surprised that the tour stayed there.

Thanks for following up.

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4978 posts

And a thought on the groups... It's funny, some groups really work, and some don't. We just came off two RS France tours, the Heart of France, and Best of Eastern France. On the HOF tour, the people were all great, everyone liked everyone, but we just didn't "click." On the Eastern France tour, on the other hand, we bonded as a group almost immediately. On the first tour we were pretty much 11 or 12 couples and three singles, all enjoying the tour. On the Eastern France, we were family. Including the singles.

We've noticed this before - some groups gel, some don't. One of our guides this time, Daniela on the Eastern France tour, said she can make some correlations based on occupations of the group members, but DH and I were able to counter her examples from our own experiences.

Interesting. Maybe the personalities have to mesh? Or the stars have to align...