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Village Italy October 2017 - parts I - IV

I'm using the "old" evaluation form, which RS used to post unabridged on the site - much more helpful than the reviews posted under "Our Tours" these days. (EDIT: I originally had this report as four separate threads, but I'm adopting a great hint from Nigel to post parts II, III and IV as comments to the original report. I also left part III standing as a separate thread because of two very helpful replies from Kim and Jane).

1) most impt factors in choosing tour - we'd heard that the VIT was a good way to experience Italian food and wine. We can handle single cities + day trips via train on our own, but we look to RS whenever we want to explore a collection of more than a few cities and towns.
2) favorite "wow" moment. Toss up between the Piccolomini Library (who knew frescoes could have such brilliant colors) and the floors of the Duomo in Siena and the tour provided by Cecilia (remarkable insight + sense of humor) at Tenuta Le Velette
3) hotels/meals/experiences - any especially good/bad - hotels basic-plus to luxurious, as usual for RS. Best meal was at Ristorante Venus in Lake Orta on our last night. More hotel and food info in Parts II and III. Favorite experience after Cecilia's wine tasting experience was Stefano's fun and informative cooking class, followed closely by visit to the Etruscan museum in Chianciano Terme and the ceramics workshop in Deruta. Big thumbs up to RS for supporting these small outfits!
4) pace? any way to make use of your time more efficient? See "tips in Part II" regarding pace. Loved the days when we had 1.5 hours instead of one between the start of breakfast and departure. We did Civita di Bagnoregio the day of the wine tasting as opposed to the day after advertised on the schedule. I liked the way we did it because it freed up more time the following day.
5) could front ofc have done anything better. As usual, it would really be helpful to know what's the longest stretch between self-service laundromats, which RS never publishes or tells you if you ask.
6) did our advertising mislead u in any way. No problems.
7) rate ur guide: accessible, fair, engaged; clear orientation at ea stop; leadership; speaking and teaching; knowledge of history and art; grasp of contemporary issues. Our guide was excellent in all respects.
8) comment on local guides. All very knowledgeable, friendly and approachable, with excellent command of English - unless our tour director was translating, of course. Appreciated the unique insights of many.
10) comment on driver - RS drivers are the best and ours was no exception. And he was fun to be around and had an excellent singing voice to boot. The fellow who drove the small bus in Carrara was also highly skilled.

Parts II-IV (posted as comments below) contain "tips" - and yes, we would recommend this tour to anyone interested in Italy, especially to those who are less than thrilled by the hustle and bustle of big Italian cities.

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part II - Tips
in no particular order:

Of the 5 tours we have done, I thought this tour was one of the faster-paced and one that required a lot of stamina (even more than the Greece tour), although one could make it easier by cooling one's heels in a cafe somewhere on free half-days early in the trip. Even so, the big tour bus was not allowed close to many of the hotels, so be prepared to haul luggage a fair distance. We left some luggage in "deep storage" on the bus for some parts of the trip. If you have packed more than you want to haul over distance, it'll help to have some kind of container you can put in deep storage in addition to the luggage containing your essentials.

A walking stick in not needed on the VIT if you have no orthopedic/balance issues unless you are planning to hike the Cinque Terre. Then you must be prepared for uneven steep paths and stairs. By the time we got to Cinque Terre many buddies were tired and chose to hang around Levanto; some opined that by this point "all the hill towns start to look alike anyway." That said, I managed the walk in Manarosa (even having forgotten my walking stick, which would have been helpful coming down parts of the trail) - it was about as Rick described and it was easy to find my way even though I had only Rick's print description, but no map. Cinque Terre trains were easy to use - your guide will explain how to read the station arrival/departure signs, but if you remember where your hotel is (probably north of the Cinque Terre) and that the sea is to the west when you are in a station, you can be pretty sure you're on the correct platform.

If you have orthopedic/balance issues, definitely bring a walking stick. There are lots of hills and stairs on the tour and the fun trip to the truffle farm involves navigating through a field on uneven ground. Our guide told us (and I found out numerous times the hard way) that it is necessary to look down as often as up when on tour. There are lots of slippery, poorly-demarcated steps in hotels and churches and even old streets can have shallow steps that are not easy to see but easy to trip over.

As noted above, we hiked to Civita di Bagnoregio the day of the wine tasting. Our tour director explained that the hike often doesn't occur on that day because many buddies don't like to do the hike after the wine. It's about a 20-min walk one way (including 10 min from the bigletteria to the gates of the old town). There isn't actually that much to see in the old town and the views in town aren't that much better than the spectacular views on the bridge. Interestingly, the hike back is slightly more strenuous than the hike out. If you're in reasonable shape, go for it - even if you only hike to the gate of the old town. Or not. Quite a few buddies rested at the meeting point, which also had refreshments and great views .

Italian (and I suspect hotels in other European countries) are on a electricity-saving kick. That means the rooms are dimly lit - sometimes very dimly lit. That makes it hard to find dark items in a darkly-lined suitcase and hard to find misplaced items in general. I used a headlamp to search for my items and I got into the habit of corralling things in a big bag rather than setting them down in random places. Many hotels do not supply kleenex, so pick some up early in the trip. Only a couple hotels had hot pots in the rooms.

Wi-fi on a lot of the tour could be spotty. Our bus (fortunately) had excellent wi-fi, but don't count on your bus having wi-fi. Sometimes hotels have more than one network besides the one they tell you to connect to and oftentimes those other networks have the same password as the one the hotel recommends to guests. It can also help to take your device and wander around looking for a spot with decent signal. We try as much as possible to use a VPN when we access wi-fi on networks whose security we're not confident about. We were able to get our VPN to work in all hotels but one.

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part III

With a couple of exceptions tour food was decent rather than outstanding - although we were provided excellent info about how food is made and how it fits in with the Italian way of life. Except for a few foods, tour breakfasts were like hotel breakfasts all over the world - I skimped on breakfast so that I'd have room for "real" food later in the day, but at least one of our tour buddies liked breakfast best and the price was certainly right. A dependable food high point was Italian coffee, but do NOT, I repeat, absolutely do NOT get your coffee from pots on a burner - turns out the Italians cannot make coffee that way any better than any American hotel (so it could be absolutely terrible). All the hotels had coffee machines (which were great) and/or a coffee bar from which you could order breakfast coffee. Get your coffee from one of those two sources.

To find good food on our off days we did what we usually do on RS tours - look at TripAdvisor (and sometimes Yelp) in the language of the country we're traveling in. You don't even need to read the language (although Google Translate can help). Just look at the ratings (look at food and service in particular) and pictures (got the picture hint from a professional food writer) and see if the restaurant is somewhere you might like to eat. We ate at quite a few excellent restaurants this way (almost none mentioned in Rick's book). The reverse is also true. Most RS-recommended restaurants were not among the highly-ranked TripAdvisor.it choices. If you are traveling to a big city (e.g. Rome), look at the recommendations of American foodie expats who blog about food or if you have time, go on a food tour recommended on TripAdvisor, which can really help orient you to the food of the country you're in. To figure out if a restaurant is close to your hotel and to get to the restaurant itself, learn how to use Google Maps (including the offline map option). Google Maps will often work on your smartphone even if you don't have a data plan - it uses the GPS function of your phone and can find you and show you where you're walking even when your cellular data is turned off. Google Maps can be a lifesaver when navigating European cities in general. To practice using Google Maps without a data plan at home, turn off your cellular functions and test it out in your hometown. While it's not absolutely necessary to download offline maps, those can be helpful when you want to look up points of interest, including restaurants. We generally download maps before traveling to a new city and to save space on the device, delete the ones we no longer need.

Our guide warned us that we could not bring our own wine to public places (e.g. the lobby) if the establishment (e.g. hotel-ristorante combo) sold wine. But some places were fine with us drinking our own wine outside our room - if in doubt, ask the staff before buying your own wine.

I strongly recommend packing over-the-counter remedies for common conditions (colds, traveler's diarrhea, mosquito bites, motion sickness and the like). Despite liberal use of hand sanitizer, we got colds (Dave got two) and pretty soon everyone on the bus had a cold. It isn't necessarily easy to find what you need in a foreign pharmacy and some items which are OTC in the US require prescriptions in foreign countries; however, if you know the generic name of what you want, the pharmacist can usually help you out. A new issue I encountered this time is that an Italian and Spanish OTC remedy for a common condition turned out to have contained a substance so toxic it's banned in California - found that out after I googled the ingredients back in the states (and had used the product in Italy). Depending on the situation and availability of the internet, I will consider googling for information about unfamiliar ingredients in country in the future.

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part IV

There is about a six-day stretch (first self-service laundry after Padova is Lucca) on the VIT where no self-service laundry is available. The hotel in Orvieto will do your laundry for a very steep price. Plan on doing some washing in the sink. Our tour guide said hotels are fine with washing in sinks as long as guests are reasonably courteous and don't hang dripping laundry where it will do damage or is easily visible from public areas. Washing in the sink is for the birds - way more time-consuming than using a laundromat and gets your bath towels super wet. I packed a flat rubber sink stopper (hotel sinks leak), a camping clothesline (secure with a round turn and two half hitches) and camping soap. I recommend checking at home to see if an item will dry using whatever technique you plan to use in country. On night one of a two-night stay, we washed quick-drying clothes in the sink and wrung them out with towels. Since the bath towel heaters weren't on, it was necessary to do a little turning of the laundry on the morning of day 2, but everything dried by night 2. While there is a laundromat in Levanto, our guide recommended against trying to do laundry along with a full day of touring the Cinque Terre - one could certainly do laundry in Levanto if you limit your touring of the other Cinque Terre towns. Laundromats we encountered had detergent and disinfectant included (apparently disinfectant is required by law - I wondered why there was no slot for laundry products.) I asked what one would do if one were sensitive to laundry products and our guide said "wash in the sink." To find out how long we're going to have to go between self-service laundromats, we usually write to all the tour hotels asking about the availability of laundry services and look at trip reports and the schedule to determine if it'll be feasible to do laundry in a particular town.

Bring binoculars or a monocular that you can use to view church wall and ceiling frescoes (8x is good, 10x is a little too strong - if in doubt, test in a cathedral-sized building at home). Even better, get binoculars that also allow "up close" viewing - they're great for viewing the intricate details of things like Etruscan metalwork - again, testing in dim museum lighting at home might be a good idea. In addition to viewing Giotto fresco closeups, we also used our binoculars to view the relic of St. Catherine's head in Siena - Halloween spooky!

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2018 posts

Nicely done, David and C. I was on this tour a couple of years ago. I think you have set forth some good advice and recommendations, as well as valuable information about this particular tour. I do miss the old, more comprehensive and informative tour evals so thank you for taking the time to post this. Well done! I am glad you enjoyed the tour. It's still one of my favorites!

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** copied and pasted reply from when these were in separate threads**

HERE maps also works without a WIFI connection as GPS. I find it enormously useful - I use it the same way - download the map for where I'm going to my phone, work on my laptop while still back at home to populate it with sights/restaurants I want to see (and my hotel), sync to my phone, and then I have it when I'm in country. (you can also update the map while you're there of course). Provides great walking maps and driving maps too.

Sounds like this was a great trip. Like Jane, I like your savvy tip about looking at TripAdvisor in the local language.