Great Italian Cities Sept 2016
When you hear Great Italian Cities, you have to think of Rome, Florence and Venice which I visited on this vacation, but there were a number of smaller towns and sights along the way that really brought the wow factor. The itinerary was laid out with a start in Rome for 3 nights, then moved onto Florence for another 3 nights and finishing in Venice (you guessed it) with 3 nights. By staying 3 nights in each of the city centres, I was able to take in the top attractions at a very relaxed pace, enjoyed ample free time to wander the streets or enjoy a café and take in the atmosphere of the nights which varies drastically from the day. The ability to enjoy the evenings in the cities was just one of the factors that made me decide to travel this way instead of hopping a cruise.
Worry, stress-free travel is a rare thing to come across, but this itinerary delivered it at every step throughout the 10 days. To be honest, after 3 days of just enjoying the sites and travelling companions, I felt as though I had been on vacation for at least 2 weeks. Time really does become your friend when you have a personal travel concierge looking after all the details such as accommodations, transfers, baggage handling (yes right to the door of my room), many meals, recommendations for things to do during free time, explaining the Italian culture/lifestyle as the regions changed, avoiding lines at the top attractions as well as access to private locations such as the Bramante Staircase in the Vatican Museum. Who knew you could actually visit the Vatican Museum and not be stuck in a mob of tourist. Getting around the cities is so much more enjoyable when you have a professional at the wheel so once again all I had to focus on was watching the world go by!
Below is just a brief summary of the entire trip and I hope you enjoy the highlights, but if you want to know more then please reach out to me as I am only too happy to share my experiences on this amazing vacation!
A city that I truly believe everyone needs to experience once in their lifetime. There truly is something for everyone here as you have all the Roman history, outstanding architecture, dining at all levels, shopping at every corner, theatre, sporting events, concerts and of course the Vatican. Built on 7 hills the city invites you to get lost as you wander the streets, but still surprises you around every corner with the views, fountains, cafes, and unique little squares all mixed amongst the top sites. Being a major city, yes you need to be ready to deal with crowds and traffic which is why I choose this vacation. Included was early admission to the Vatican with a local guide that brought the entire area to life. Who knew there was so much art and history in the buildings beside the Sistine Chapel. Later in the afternoon we walked right into the Colosseum, bypassing the tourists that were hoping to get in before closing. A great way to spend the evening is a walking tour through the Piazzas, fountains and squares of this amazing city. One area that did surprise me was the Jewish Quarter, as I sat with my wife enjoying a snack and beverage, we watched as everyone strolling by knew each other. There were hugs and conversations going on with people of all ages, it was great to see the warmth even in a major city centre.
Just over 2 hours south of Rome you can visit one of the most preserved cities from ancient times. Pompeii was “destroyed” by a volcanic eruption in 79AD as approx. 30 feet of ash covered the city. Due to the amount of ash, there are many homes, theatres, streets, baths and more that truly survived. As you stroll the streets, you can actually see the where the chariot wheels carved the stones. This was a thriving port city that had every class of society living here and the way the city was designed will leave you in awe. Sidewalks and cross walks built higher than the street so you didn’t have to walk in the mud when it rained. Irrigation systems to direct the water to wells located in many of the homes. Large squares that were used for gathering places of the city folk as well as various theatres for plays and sporting events. Reading a history book on Pompeii just doesn’t do it justice, you need to visit at least once and allow for 4-6 hours just to stroll around.
The home of St Francis of Assisi and one of the true highlights of this trip. I knew a little of the history on St Francis, but walking through the hilltop town was just breathtaking. A visit to the Basilica of St Francis is a must as there are 2 churches in one. The lower church allows you to see the life of Christ along with the crypt of St Francis and after ascending the stairs, the upper church is dedicated to the life of St Francis. The frescos on the walls and roofs are something you must stop and see. After visiting the Basilica, you have to wander the streets of the active town, meet the locals, stop in their shops and grab some snacks that will have you wanting more. Before heading away from the hilltop town, take moment to enjoy the view of the region as it’s the start of Tuscany.
Here’s a city that will have you wanting more no matter if you are an art lover or not. It’s such a change of pace from Rome, that you get start to feel the slower side of Italy. Yes, there are some crowds at the top sites such as David, The Dumo and Ponte Vecchio Bridge, but that shouldn’t discourage you from visiting. I would suggest getting up early and strolling along the river to enjoy a little quite time as the city as it’s just coming to life. Seeing the David first hand is something I won’t forget and what made it even better was bypassing the all-day standby line to get into the museum. Are you a shopper? Then you need to allow for a few days here as Florence is known for the leather and gold. After a personal demonstration of how the leather is made and fitted, I had another appreciation for Italian leather and my wife truly loves her coat. From Florence, there is so much in the surrounding hills such as a Chianti dinner that had to be the highlight meal located at a private vineyard. The atmosphere was electric and we all walked away with some great laughs, memories and full bellies. Another stop just outside the city was the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial which I would have missed if it wasn’t for our guide. We arrived just before 5pm when the American flag is lowered to Taps and watching that along with 4000 graves really gives you an appreciation for what our veterans have done for us.
Who knew there was more to Pisa than just a leaning tower? The town is quite large and can be reached from Florence as a day trip. The highlight of course is the Field of Miracles where you will find of course the Leaning Tower but also a great Medieval University town. I believe you have to take the standard tourist photos of trying to hold up the tower, but if you want to ascend to the top be prepared for a wait as limited numbers are permitted. There is also a cost of close to 20 Euros per person and seeing the tower is not the highest point in the square, the views can be limited.
Just a short drive from Florence into the Tuscan Hills, you arrive at this hilltop town known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. It seems towers on top of your home in the Middle Ages represented wealth and power which this town had plenty of. Today, there are not as many towers remaining, but it’s still an impressive site as you arrive and wander the streets. This town was truly a highlight of trip as we arrived before sunset to enjoy the picturesque views of the Tuscan Hills, enjoyed sunset and watched the town transform as darkness descended and the lights came on. Another perk of visiting, there is a gelato shop that has won the World’s Best Gelato award 2 times so if you enjoy your gelato, then you need to stop here for a snack.
When you think of Venice, most people imagine the main island, but did you know the lagoon has dozens of islands. To truly appreciate the area, you need to hop a water taxi and head off to the secondary islands like Burano. This island is full of life and color as almost every home is painted in its own vibrant paint. There is a local game you can play where you need to find the home color that matches your shirt. Most people have this accomplished in under 10 mins. The draw to Burano is the hand crafted lace items and seafood meals. Another top site is the glass blowing that is truly a Venetian art so you need to visit Murano. Be prepared to be amazed by their works of art which are all for sale, just have a good wallet with you. On the main island, time is spent wandering the back alleys and crossing bridges as there are no vehicles or bikes here. The only alternative to walking is a gondola, water taxi or water “bus/boat” which can have a price attached. As part of our vacation we did experience a night water taxi of the Grand Canal which offers a unique perspective of this one of a kind city. You almost felt like George Clooney as you cruised the canals. When it came to the gondola ride, I was not expecting much as I always thought it was “tourist” thing to do, but as I sat back with my wife and floated through the canals enjoying our soloist singing, it truly was a moment that will not be forgotten. Oh, did I mention shopping….if that’s what you like, then Venice is the place for you. I can’t recall another city I have visited where everywhere you looked there was a store just calling out to you. I did make my only real purchase on the trip and that was a pair of Italian leather shoes. I have to say it is the best thing I have ever bought as it doesn’t feel like I am even wearing them.
Sitting outside the hotel, facing the Grand Canal, enjoying a glass of wine with friends as we watched the sun set on our final days was really the best way to end this trip. Oh, did I mention this was a guided coach tour? Yes it was, I toured Italy by bus and as I said at the beginning, it was the most stress free, relaxing vacation I have ever been on. I truly call guided vacations, a land cruise because just like a cruise, you have everything at your fingertips, but the highlights are the tour director who becomes your friend by the end of the trip and the others that boarded the coach as strangers are now family!