Vacation 2019: Italy

17 October 2019

Synopsis

Notes and impressions from our September 2019 trip to Italy.


Preface

Salve!

Welcome to my introduction and accompanying information for our recent trip to Italy.

I’ve decided for this travelogue, to include supplemental information up front so as not to distract from my discussion on the itinerary and optional experiences.

Since this was our second tour with Trafalgar we pretty much knew what to expect as far as how the tour would be conducted. This time around, we reserved the entire trip through Costco Travel including all flight reservations, tour, pre-paid gratuities, and travel insurance. I highly recommend getting the travel insurance since a member of our group experienced a medical emergency on the first day of our tour in Vatican City.

While I was researching plug adapters for Italy, I became frustrated with the somewhat confusing information provided on most websites until I landed on Martha’s Italy plug adapter page. She cuts through all the BS and gets to the bottom line as to what you need. I carried two type C and two type L adapters but only used the type L during the entire trip.

Our flight from Atlanta to Rome-Fiumicino airport took 9 hours 8 minutes and the flight back to Atlanta took 9 hours 45 minutes, both flights on or ahead of schedule. Gracie Delta!

Rome is known as the “Eternal City.” So, I was truly amazed at all the graffiti seen during our ride from the airport to our hotel. In my way of thinking, graffiti is a sign of disrespect, there is nothing artistic about it—it is vandalism. To be fair, we noticed the same practice during our Low Countries, Germany, and Paris trip.

Besides all the graffiti, Rome felt run down and dirty; cigarette butts were everywhere. The sidewalks and streets were so uneven that you could easily trip and fall if you weren’t paying attention.

I remember being taught in school about the Roman aqueducts how they were considered an engineering marvel for the time yet they were hardly even mentioned once during our tour. On the other hand, I believe we drove under a very small section of one in Rome used as an overpass.

The breakfast buffet in our Rome hotel and at all the other hotels where we stayed were unimpressive compared to our breakfasts in the UK. The buffets consisted of bacon, scrambled eggs, bread and rolls, croissants and the usual beverages. All almost identical except for the occasional addition of hotdog-like sausages. Many in our group were not impressed with the undercooked bacon. Many were also turned-off by the very loose or watery scrambled eggs.

Speaking of food, the Autogrill on the motorways are awesome. These are rest stops that provide every kind of food you could want, including steaks! Try and find that in the U.S. The sandwiches are killer, like the food pictures you see advertised in the U.S. only bigger and better.

Another frequent complaint expressed by Americans when visiting Europe is the small, sometimes very small size of the rooms, especially the bathrooms. We had many seniors in our group and I don’t know how they managed to survive the deep and slippery bathtubs or very narrow shower stalls. European countries are noted for their scarcity but the U.S. is noted for its abundance. As my father, a WWII veteran who was stationed in Italy, used to say “The Europeans are envious of the U.S.”

A few words about photography. Unless there is the threat of a nuclear attack, almost everywhere you go in Italy will be literally overrun with tourists. As a result, many of your photos will have unwanted people in them. Don’t stress out and expect your pictures to look like those taken by the travel companies for their websites, they won’t because, those are highly touched. Another lesson I learned is that being part of a guided tour is not always the way to get that “perfect shot” because you may not have the time to fiddle with your camera’s settings—a scene may only last seconds. I have a philosophy and that is you need to get the shot, then worry about fixing it up post processing. Your immediate concern should be focus. I’ve had some photo elitists ask “What’s your favorite f-stop?” or they claim to only shoot in manual mode. Why buy an expensive digital camera if you don’t trust the software to adjust the settings automatically? Basically, all digital cameras, with few exceptions, are fundamentally the same, the real difference is the glass. That being said, I shoot in Mode P (Programmed Auto) and adjust focus mode and EV (Exposure Value) as needed. I’ll also adjust ISO and shoot in shutter priority mode as conditions dictate. I also follow my own post processing procedure which I won’t divulge. 🙂

The not so perfect ending to a somewhat perfect vacation was going through US Customs. The CBP officers in Atlanta are like glorified traffic cops, yelling at people telling them which line they should be in. Being a U.S. citizen gets you no preferential treatment from the CBP.

The Best of Italy Tour

The Trafalgar Best of Italy tour itinerary can be found on Trafalgar’s website so I won’t elaborate here; however I will provide links to our hotels since they are subject to change.

Tour Director: Patrizia Tocco
Driver: Luigi Alaia

◊ Rome ⇔ Hotel Una
◊ Sorrento ⇔ Hotel Johanna Park
◊ Assisi ⇔ Hotel Cenacolo
◊ Venice ⇔ Hotel Viktoria Palace
◊ Lake Maggiore ⇔ Hotel Dino
◊ Florence ⇔ Hotel Mediterraneo
◊ Rome ⇔ Hotel Sheraton

As with all tours, including cruises, there are opportunities for optional excursions or experiences, as Trafalgar calls them. Trafalgar organizes their itineraries so that everyone can participate in all the experiences if that’s what they choose to do.

The remainder of this travelogue is organized according to the major areas we visited.

Rome

Our Trafalgar welcome dinner was at the San Marco pizzeria restaurant’s Via Sardegna location that has a traditional wood fired oven. They served the pizzas almost as quick as we could eat them. Their pizza was the thin crust variety but unlike a wood fired pizza I had in NY’s Little Italy, San Marco’s wasn’t dry and tasteless.

The after-dinner nighttime Rome drive around wasn’t very impressive since nothing was really lit up.

The Vatican was somewhat impressive and disappointing at the same time. The crowds were overwhelming and the only officials that were visible were the Italian military guards; although, we did see some Swiss guards. I was expecting to see maybe a priest or even a bishop. I would even have been satisfied seeing some nuns but all we saw were tourists. The bottom line is that it wasn’t how it’s portrayed in the movies.

The best part of the Vatican Museum was the area where the tapestries and mosaics were displayed. Photos were allowed but not in the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel was packed with tourists like in a sardine can. The atmosphere was not very reverent and you can’t tell me that everyone in there was religious. They don’t allow photos because they want everyone to show respect but what I witnessed resembled a mob scene.

The next stop on our itinerary for the day was the Colosseum. Again, it wasn’t as impressive as I was expecting most likely due to seeing it all too often in movies which takes away your sense of awe. Nevertheless, it is Rome’s iconic landmark and is definitely a must see. That being said, most of the interior was under restoration. Considering how important this building is to Italian history and culture, you would have thought they would have taken better care of it.

Figure 1. Trafalgar Group Photo

Optional Experience, €33/person — Piazzas and Fountains of Rome

This experience is basically a walking tour conducted by a local specialist. The Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon are the highlights of this experience. The walk takes you through some backstreets where a few lesser known fountains are located. The tour winds up at Piazza Navona where they give you free time to get dinner on your own. We ate at Ristorante Tre Scalini. The piazza and the fountain are lit up at night so it’s a nice experience. The bus takes you back to the hotel.

Pompeii

The ruins of Pompeii cover 170 acres and would take at least three full days to explore the area completely. We were only given a few hours to roam through the site. While walking around the area the reality of just how close Mt. Vesuvius is to the city sinks in. It’s not hard to imagine how the entire area was destroyed when it erupted in 79 A.D. Pompeii is in ruins, but Mt. Vesuvius still stands prominently in the distance.

Amalfi Coast / Sorrento / Isle of Capri

In Sorrento, we stayed at the cliffside Hotel Johanna Park which provided impressive views of the Bay of Naples. However, nothing can compare to the spectacular views witnessed during our bus ride to Positano.

Optional Experience, €44/person — Amalfi Coast and Positano

The highlight of this experience was the bus ride from Sorrento to Positano on the Amalfi Coast Drive (Strada Statale 163). This is a seriously narrow, and winding road, some would even say…scary. I don’t know how our bus driver managed to negotiate the hairpin turns while avoiding the oncoming traffic. Trafalgar made sure the bus made photo stops along the way, unlike many other tours that only slow down for photos.

Positano is cliffside so there is a downhill walk to get to the beach. For some reason, the walk back from the beach seemed easier than the one going down. There are all kinds of shops along the way so you have plenty of opportunities to spend some money. The only thing I bought was bottled water.

Our ferry ride to the Isle of Capri was nothing like the Cape May or Staten Island ferry for example, this so-called ferry was more like a speedboat on steroids.

Optional Experience, €42/person — Experience the Isle of Capri

This experience is a boat tour which takes you out to see the Faraglioni rock formations. Along the way, the boat gets up close and personal with the many caves and hidden coves along Capri’s “craggy” coastline. Be forewarned, expect some rough water depending on weather and the time of year you visit, especially before you pass through the Faraglione di Mezzo. I’ve experienced worse in the Caribbean, but it’s good to know just in case.

While on Capri, we took the funicular (cable railway) from Marina Grande on the coast to Capri town. It’s a scenic ride up with a very nice view from the top. We took the round-trip ride early so as to avoid the endless crowds.

Later in the afternoon after the bus ride back our hotel in Sorrento, we opted for the Farmhouse Dinner experience.

Optional Experience, €49/person — Sorrento Farmhouse Dinner

This experience takes you on a 20-minute bus ride to the Agriturismo La Sorgente farmhouse that seemed to be located right on the edge of a small town. The farm is situated on 4 acres but they still manage to raise lemon trees and olives, and are able make their own wine. Before dinner they put on a mozzarella and pizza making demonstration. A few members of our group were chosen to help with the pizza making which included a “racy” apron shtick. The home cooked dinner consisting of locally grown or sourced produce, cheese, and of course wine.

Assisi

Since the driving time from Sorrento to Assisi was almost 5 hours, we made a few stops along the way. One stop was at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Cassino.

For this leg of our journey, we went directly to the Basilica of St. Francis for our tour instead of checking into our hotel first.

That night in Assisi we had dinner at our hotel’s Ristorante Il Cenacolo by Assapora. Everyone at our table agreed that we were served the best penne pasta we’ve ever had that evening. So good that I’m reproducing the menu in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Assapora Menu

Verona

If you’ve ever seen the movie Letters to Juliet, you obviously know something about Verona, namely Juliet’s House where people leave notes on the iconic wall. To be perfectly honest, the notes (post-its) on the wall were gross, stuck mostly with chewing gum, nothing like what was portrayed in the movie.

As cheesy and awkward as it may seem, many visitors still couldn’t resist getting their photo taken with their hand on the statue’s right breast. It’s only a statue after all, but not to “woke” activists who consider the act to be sexist. Maybe they’ll put a statue of Romeo next to Juliet’s in order to achieve gender equality.

Everyone knows Verona is famous for the story of Romeo and Juliet but how many know of the Arena di Verona which is older than the Colosseum in Rome and still in use?

Venice

Venice is a place that should be on everyone’s bucket list—hands down the highlight of our trip. Our hotel was on Lido of Venice an island situated between the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian Lagoon. Cruise ships arriving and departing seemed to pass right outside our hotel room’s window…literally!

Optional Experience, €70/person — Gondolas and the Grand Canal

This experience is pricey but well worth the money for the water taxi ride through the Grand Canal that affords excellent photo opportunities you can’t get from the street. The included gondola ride may seem a bit cliché but what the heck, where else can you ride in genuine gondolas at the place where they originated.

Figure 3. Gondola Ride

Our second day in Venice started off with a tour and glass making demonstration at the Original Murano Glass (OMG®) factory. After the demonstration we were given a very aggressive sales pitch by one of the staff (senior, maybe manager) on the quality and durability of their glassware. I was convinced but their prices were exorbitant. Nevertheless, a few in our group purchased glassware sets that were marked down to around €600—packing and shipping, insurance, and guarantee included.

What could be better after a full day of walking around seeing the sites in Venice than having some spritz time.

Figure 4. Spritz Time in Venice (P. Tocco)

Optional Experience, €72/person — Lagoon Cruise to Burano with Food and Drinks

The quaint fishing village of Burano is most noted for its brightly colored houses. Again, not to sound too negative, but the colors weren’t as intense as you might see on some travel sites. Also, many of the houses were not in as good a shape as you might expect. On the plus side, many shops sell samples of the village’s famous lace production.

Milan

The crowds keep us from touring the inside of the Duomo di Milano. So, we tried to view the cathedral from the adjacent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall but without success. Besides, it was a hot day and everyone was getting tired. I could have skipped Milan altogether and gone instead to Turin or Modena although they aren’t as close as Milan. The Ferrari Museum in Modena would have been more interesting for me.

Lake Maggiore

Hotel Dino on Lake Maggiore was the most impressive hotel of the trip. From the large ornate lobby to the many dining rooms and expansive bar, it was impressive. The view of the lake from the outdoor seating area was spectacular.

Optional Experience, €43/person — ITALIAN LAKES Discover the Borromean Islands

This experience included a cruise on a private launch to the Palazzo Borromeo on the Borromean island Isola Bella. The trip included a guided tour of the house and entrance to the gardens. Considering the fact that the palace is still lived in by members of the Borromeo family, they allowed photos of all areas open to tourists. While the palace furnishings have been described as “excessive” I would describe them as “gaudy.” The local specialist who conducted our tour of the palace went out of his way to impress upon us the Borromeo’s wealth and importance. However, he became noticeably agitated when asked questions that were “off-script.” On the other hand, the gardens alone were worth the price of admission.

Optional Experience, €39/person — Discover Lake Como

This experience included a cruise on a private launch around lake Como to admire all the homes of the “rich and famous.” I decided to sit outside in the back of the boat to facilitate taking photos. However, for some reason it was very hard to hear the local specialist on the Trafalgar headset.

Pisa

I suppose the Leaning Tower of Pisa is on everyone’s must see list for Italy along with Pompeii since we’ve all heard about those places since childhood. We endured another long bus ride to get to Pisa but this time much of it was through the Apennines.

For some reason, Pisa didn’t seem as crowded with tourists as other areas we visited. We were also given plenty of time to explore the area on our own.

Florence

The hotel that Trafalgar picked for our stay in Florence (Firenze) was very nice but located in a fringe area, that is, nothing around really close. Since we were on our own for our first evening, we decided to try and find an Asian restaurant to have dinner. That wasn’t a good idea. In fact, there was a “fancy” Chinese restaurant a block or so from the hotel but it was closed. We asked some locals for information but were led on a wild goose chase. We must have walked up and down the streets, more like back alleys, in a loop from our hotel for about an hour and all we saw were trash dumpsters.

While we were making our way back to the hotel, we ran into our daughter Jennifer who was with two other members of our group on their way to a restaurant so we decided to join them. Even though Jennifer was getting directions on her iPhone, at times we seemed to be lost. After walking for at least a mile or more, we arrived at the Trattoria Il Barrino restaurant. The layout seemed tight inside but we were all seated comfortably and the service and food were excellent. I was particularly impressed with their Tuscan Bread and Tomato soup.

Our tour with the local specialist took us to The Gold Corner jewelry store and Peruzzi leather shop. After visiting and spending some money at The Gold Corner, we decided to skip the leather shop since we weren’t really interested in buying any leather clothing as we live in Florida. However, one of the guys on our tour bought a dark green leather jacket that they tailored and delivered to the hotel, same day! Even though we opted out of visiting the leather store, Patrizia gifted Putae and Jennifer with leather baskets and I received a handmade leather journal book as gratitude for being return Trafalgar travelers. Very nice!

The tour concluded at the famous Piazza Della Signoria. After we checked out everything and after taking all the photos we wanted, we decided to find a place for lunch. Jennifer located a Korean restaurant on her iPhone that was within walking distance, Ristorante Coreano Gangnam. So, we had a taste of Korea in Florence, Italy.

Optional Experience, €65/person — Dinner, Wine and Music in The Tuscan Hills

The dinner, wine, and music in the Tuscan Hills experience was held at the Ristorante I Tre Pini. The evening started out with a sparkling wine reception followed by an antipasti buffet. Before the main course of prime rib was served, we were entertained by vocalists, guitar and saxophone players. Needless to say, there was plenty of wine at the table.

Figure 5. Tuscan Hills Dinner Reception (P. Tocco)

As we departed Florence, our bus stopped at Piazzale Michelangelo, a hilltop observation area which afforded some excellent views of the city.

San Gimignano

The last full day of our 13-day Best of Italy tour concluded with a stop at the Tuscan hill-town of San Gimignano. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on you point of view, this quaint town is now on the tourists’ radar which means much of the local color is being marred with snack bars and souvenir shops. Even so, the traditional street market seemed to be thriving on the day we were there. The fruits and vegetables were so fresh, you could almost detect the aroma of every produce item from a distance. They also sold all types of fresh meat and seafood. This is really what it’s all about!

Rome (Pre-departure)

Our farewell dinner was held at the Locanda dei Massimi restaurant a few minutes’ drive from our hotel. I think we caught the waitstaff on a bad night since our one and only waitress was noticeably flustered the entire time. Later during the seating, another staff member stepped in to help. Our service that night was terrible to say the least. Good thing there was enough wine on the table to keep everyone pacified. I liked their pasta course but many at our table didn’t even touch it.

Our last night in Rome was spent at the Hotel Sheraton, about a 15-minute taxi ride to Leonardo Da Vinci airport. Since our flight was scheduled to leave at 9:45 a.m. we decided to take a cab instead of the Trafalgar airport shuttle leaving the hotel at 7:00 a.m. As it turned out, we met a couple from our group waiting at the gate with us who took the 7:00 a.m. shuttle.

Arrivederci…for now.

Addendum

Figure 6. Patrizia’s Lasagna Recipe
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Copyright 2019 Gerard Sczepura