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Simply Italy May 22 - June 3 2010 - Incredible!

7 Jun 2010 chris_tina25 said

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I just returned from the May 22-June 3 2010 Simply Italy tour. It was so amazing. You can’t believe how much of Italy you get to see in 13 days. The country is so rugged and beautiful and you get to see 2000 year old history. The trip has been designed to capture the highlights of Italy at a reasonable rate (try doing Italy for 100 euro a day on your own – one hotel night and a meal can easily cost that). We had nearly perfect weather, around 24 C and sunny.

I am writing to share my experience to encourage anyone considering this trip and also to provide tips/ideas. To give some background, I am a 28-year-old Canadian and I went with my husband. Neither of us had traveled outside of North America before except for our honeymoon.

We had a full tour bus of 51 people. I estimate that there were about 16 couples, of the people traveling by themselves or with friends two were guys and the rest were women. Most people were in the 25-35 age category. Over half the group was American, with the rest split between us Canuck, Aussies, Brits, Asian, Malasian. Our tour group was friendly and getting to share this experience with fun people from around the world made for some great memories.

We had Maryangela (Angie) as our tour manager and she was outstanding. She’s an experienced guide especially for the Italian tours as it’s her native country. She got the mix just right in our view of giving us background info on the sights, providing a lot of humour, keeping 51 people on schedule, giving travel tips, etc. She got to know each of us and would do her best to keep everyone included and helped out as needed. At each spot she would give you a “top 5” list of things to do and a map.

This tour is a good mix of coastal areas (Sorrento, Capri, La Spezia) and the cities (Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome).

My husband and I did all the optional activities and found they really gave us the full experience of the tour, and the optional meals all felt like a good value when we compared to the cost of eating a three course meal with wine ourselves at a nice restaurant.

In terms of food (Italian food has always been my favourite kind), between the different restaurants and local specialties on this trip you will have some outstanding food (personal favourites included some of pizza and pasta, homemade foccacia, the gelato, bruchetta, gnocchi, risotto, and the seafood). You will also have some food that is so-so, the included meals are hit and miss as they are working with a small budget to feed 51 people. If you have special dietary needs they will try to accommodate you if possible but don’t expect elaborate changes. The continental breakfasts in the hotels aren’t much as the Italians don’t usually have more than espresso and a croissant, however there is enough to get by. The food at the Autogrill where you stop for breaks and sometimes lunch is fairly basic but they usually had different options. In my travel notes I’ve listed a few of the meals to give an idea.

Here are some notes about each day.

Day 1-2 Travel to Rome
Having a shuttle pass pre-booked from the airport to the hotel saved us from having to get a cab. Day 2 evening in Rome there is a meeting for the group to do some paper work and Angie gave us some information about the tour. We had an included meal in the hotel of pasta, pork kebabs, and a coffee flavored dessert.

Day 3 Rome to Sorrento
Everyone loved Sorrento in southern Italy. It is picture perfect with beautiful coastal views and little cobblestone paths lined with cute shops. The locals were laid back and friendly (except for the drivers, just like any where in Italy you had to be careful crossing the road as Italians can be crazy drivers and are horn happy!).

Today you tour Pompei, the ruins are impressive and everyone took a lot of pictures. You had late afternoon time to walk around Sorrento. Everyone meets up for an appetizer drink, and those of us who had paid for the optional pizza night went off for delicious all you can eat pizza, wine and lemoncello. We all went to a pub after and I had another drink there. I learned that they mix drinks stiffly in Italy!

Day 4 Capri
You take a lovely 20 minute cruise to this island and then most people went on a two hour boat ride around the island. Unfortunately I learned the hard way to keep my drinking to a minimum and wasn’t feeling well enough to go on the boat but everyone said it was fun. The blue grotto had jelly fish so people didn’t get to swim. Capri has all different levels on it, there is a more touristy main area, once you go up top there is actually a shopping area combined with a gorgeous garden and then there is an even higher point you can go to. If you want to walk up the island be prepared as it is STEEP. Some people turned around part way up. Taking the tram up is another option. J The views from the top were the best on the trip in my view.

Day 5 Sorrento to Florence (passing through Tuscany)
This is a 6 hour on the bus day. We went around the bus to introduce ourselves to pass some of the time and this was nice to hear more about people. You stop at a lovely Tuscan winery which is built in an old castle and have a wine tasting. A lot of people bought wine or olive oil (the olive oil in Tuscany is some of the best in the world). We went to the karaoke bar that night as my husband loves to sing. It was fairly basic but has these giant beers and cocktails you can get. Those of us who went made our own fun by doing lots of singing along and dancing.

Day 6 Florence
This day was a lot of walking. Florence was a favourite city for a lot of people. There are good reasons it is so famous. The history in the museums and building here is amazing and there are nice shops and streets to explore. Everyone goes with the local guide in the morning, there is a visit to a leather place with shopping opportunities. In the afternoon quite a few people went to the The Accademia Gallery to see the David (a beautiful sculpture, you really have to see it) and some of us also had booked the Uffizi (a very significant and large museum, packed full of Renaissance art). If you do the Uffizi I recommend reading more about the art in advance, we found we couldn’t absorb that much as unlike the Accademia they didn’t have detailed descriptions with the art. Many of the pieces are religious in nature.

Tonight there is the optional Tuscany dinner and I highly recommend it, it was definitely one of the best nights. You go to this remote restaurant in a beautiful area, it was just our group and another Contiki group and the food was delicious (I won’t spoil the surprise).

Day 7 Florence to La Spezia
After an hour on the bus you go to see the leaning tower of Pisa, there isn’t much else there but we still enjoyed getting a look at it. Later in the day you have a very nice boat ride around Cinque Terre (5 islands) and you can get a foccacia at this place that specializes in them (it was so good, try the pesto version). It is possible to go on a hike on this day for anyone who likes more rugged hikes. You can pay a few euro to go on “The Walk of Love”. It’s this very scenic paved path along a cliff and there are all these locks that couples have left to signify lasting relationships. Sounds cheesy, but all the couples we were with enjoyed going along this path. The dinner that night was included and most people liked it, it was pesto pasta, salad, baked chicken and ice cream. A lot of people stayed in tonight.

Day 8 La Spezia to Milan
You start with a three hour drive into Milan and Angie gave us a nice history lesson. A group of us went for lunch together and everyone had a delicious meal, including risotto which is a specialty of Milan. The Milan cathedral is really gorgeous, try to check it out. Some people had managed to get tickets to see the Last Supper. The afternoon is free time, a few women bought items such as Prada purses but a lot of us didn’t buy much as Milan is the most similar to a big North American city such as New York or Toronto. It is still fun to look around though that’s for sure, can’t beat the window shopping. People also enjoyed the included meal of the night and then a bunch of us went to a local pub and had a good time there.

Day 9 Milan to Venice
We had another nice boat tour on Lake Garda (the largest lake of Italy). Once on land there are pretty gardens to explore and little shops. We were supposed to then to go to Verona but the city was closed due to the international bike race that was happening so we went to our hotel outside Venice and we took the train to spend an evening in Venice. Venice certainly is charming and we enjoyed exploring. A group of 14 of us had a fabulous dinner at a restaurant in Venice with wine and aps (it was pricey but worth it). I had a grilled seafood platter with polenta. Some of us bought some paintings from one of the local artists.

Day 10 Venice
This is a long day but a great day. We took the train and boat to Venice and started with a good guided tour including St. Mark’s square, bridge of Sighs, Doge’s palace, etc. Then there is a glass making demonstration which was impressive and you can shop at that place (pricey but great selection). Next is a lace making demonstration and again shopping opportunity (prices were decent here, support the last remaining Venetian lace school!). Most of us did the gondola ride. Even with two other couples in our gondola we still went all out with the prosecco and kissing under bridges, it’s a fun time. Then there was free time and a lot of us did shopping. We went inside St. Mark’s Basilica and it is all golden and intricate, very impressive. Be careful with the bank machines in Venice. I had to try three before the last one which was located in a bank gave me money (the others gave error messages). Once I got home I saw that one of the first two had actually withdrawn the money even though it didn’t give it to me! So stick with the ones that in a bank when in Venice.

We didn’t have enough people to do the Venice river cruise so some of us did the optional dinner in Venice. You got tons of food at this meal and live music (there was another Contiki group and people were singing and at one point we all did the chicken dance – surprisingly fun!). When the group all met up together for the ride back, Angie played the daily song on her Ipod during our boat ride and people started dancing and everyone was laughing and clapping. It was one of the best spontaneous moments.

Day 11 Venice to Rome
You spend over 5 hours on the bus today to go from north Italy south back to Rome. Angie played some games and we filled out the Contiki evaluation. Once we got to Rome we got a walking tour. There is a lot to see including the Pantheon, Trevi fountain, The Piazza Navona including the fountain of four rivers. You are back to the original Rome hotel and dinner was included.

Day 12 Rome
This is another long day on your feet but amazing sights. The morning is the Vatican museum and Sistine chapel. They are packed with tourists but very worthwhile. We walked to St. Peter’s square and caught the last 10 minutes of the Pope’s weekly Wednesday address (in Latin). The large square was packed. Then we lined up for nearly an hour for the 1pm opening of St. Peter’s Basilica to the public. Again it was worth it. If you are Catholic or even if you are not, the grandeur of this church will move you. It is spectacular.

We were taken to the Coliseum and the ruins outside it and had a thorough two and a half hour tour there. Two trains and a bus later we were back to our hotel getting ready for the Rome farewell dinner.

32 people from our group did the farewell dinner. The food was good and there were opera singers for part. We got our picture taken with a Gladiator at the front for 6 euro J. This was a nice night for group pictures and to say good bye to those who weren’t going dancing. For dancing we went to a place that changes 20 euro but it’s all you can drink. We danced up a storm and had a really fun time even though it wasn’t late for most of us due to the flights the next day. This night helped with closure to say goodbye properly. You do get pretty attached to your tour mates as you’ve had such a great experience together.


Tips/ideas

There are a ton of photo ops (one couple took 2500 pics, we took 500) so bring your memory cards and backup batteries

We were asked to pay for all our optional activities early in the trip (as we were doing them all it was about 225 euro each). Our travel agent had recommended we bring 500 euro to start and that was good advice.

Recommend a money belt for men and for women to get a travel bag. It’s good if they can be worn crosswise over the body and have built in security features (mine had a wire in the strap so it couldn’t be cut, you could clip the zippers shut so they couldn’t be opened quickly). I could comfortably carry my water bottle, sunscreen, etc.

Women, bring more capris or skirts that are a bit longer if you want to go in the churches, or be prepared to carry a wrap to cover your knees. There are a lot of cathedrals on this trip and they are really beautiful to see so you don’t want to miss out.

Wear supportive shoes (not flip flops). The cobblestone streets are hard on the feet and can trip you up. You are walking all day on a lot of the days so cushioning is key. Something like Sketchers or Puma shoes can still look nice.

There are not a lot of bathrooms in Italy in general, so you have to be patient with the lines and a few charge a small amount to use them. My husband spent a lot of time waiting for me so guys be prepared! Usually there was toilet paper but often no toilet seats J

Do try to pack light unless your husband is like mine and will carry your 38 lb bag for you! I did use everything I packed but that was a heavy bag to cart in and out of the hotels. My husband was helping some of the women with their bags as well.

Spring and fall are good times to do this trip as the weather is likely to be warm but not too hot and the tourist crowds while still heavy will not be as packed as summer.

Take a night off here and there from drinking if you want to avoid the Contiki cough. The 7 am wakeup calls, walking all day, and drinking late at night will catch up to you!

You don’t get as much time for shopping as you think. You don’t get time to really search for the perfect items for everyone you want to buy for so pick things up when you find them. We bought most of our stuff for other people in Venice. In Milan a lot of the items could be found in North America and didn’t seem as unique as the leather/lace/glassware in Venice. I ran out of time to buy for everyone I wanted to.

Keep a travel journal and update it at least every other day. It’s impossible to remember everything otherwise.

Don’t wait for the Contiki info pack to arrive to book The Accademia Gallery or the Uffizi in Florence or the Last Supper in Milan. By the time a lot of us got the information package these were booked up. The information said to book the Accademia and/or Uffizi on your full day in Florence after 1pm but no later than 330 pm. www.firenzemusei.it
Milan – Entry to Santa Maria delle Grazie featuring the Last Supper can be booked on the La Spezia to Milan day 8 after 1:30 but no later than 4pm. cenacolovinciano.org

Get the group picture. It turns out really well and you won’t have another chance to get all your Contiki friends in one shot.

Get to know people. Some of people who came by themselves didn’t try to connect with others and I don’t know if they had as much fun as was possible.

Be prepared for crowds!! Florence, Rome, and various other areas can have heavy crowds.

If anyone has any q’s feel free to post them and I’ll do my best.

Just do this trip if you can!! It’s a trip of a lifetime.
  • 7 Jun 2010 ptooma said

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    nice summary …

    - Vic

  • 7 Jul 2010 Explorer1194444 said

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    This is excellent, thanks for posting

  • 24 Jul 2010 leah_the_singer said

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    hey!
    thanks so much for posting this. this is just what i needed haha.

    how much money do you think that one would need per day? how much money should i bring for the trip altogether?

    what were the hotels like?

  • 24 Jul 2010 chris_tina25 said

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    Hi, happy you found the post useful. We used about 750 euros each for spending money on the trip, equal to about 50 euro per day. That allowed for paying for the Contiki optional activities, a meal each day (for example often you have to buy your own lunch), some souvenirs/gifts, and some money for the night activities such as drinks. People who are planning to eat out at nicer restaurants more often or do more personal shopping will go through more. Debit cards can cost you an international user fee. Credit cards can be used at restaurants and stores without a fee. Our tour manager said that in general Italians prefer cash and they don’t like people using debit for small purchases under 10 euro.

    The hotels varied, the Rome one was the smallest and we liked the one we got in Sorrento the best (nice bathroom and balcony, had a more tropical feel). Only two of our rooms had a tub, the rest had shower stalls, there was no trouble with water temp or pressure. While fairly small, overall the rooms were better than I was expecting and they did the job quite nicely and they were all clean. Even within the same hotel the rooms can vary so some people would get rooms that were better than others. You are quite tired at the end of the day so even if one of the double beds was a bit hard it didn’t make a difference! Feel free to post any other questions that I can answer. Have a great time!

  • 28 Jul 2010 Rebecca_Leboe said

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    Hey – Awesome Review – thanks so much!! Just wondering – on the tour of Rome, do they actually take you into the Colosseum or should we plan on doing that on our own, as we def want to get INSIDE and take a look around…

  • 28 Jul 2010 leah_the_singer said

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    ditto.

  • 28 Jul 2010 chris_tina25 said

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    On our trip we went to the Vatican in the morning and then for our optional tour (worth the money) of the Roman Forum and Colosseum in the afternoon. We received extensive information (over an hour) with our guide in the Forum and outside the Colosseum and then we got to go explore inside on our own for as long as we wanted. Our group didn’t spend a lot of time inside as our feet were so tired at that point!

  • 28 Jul 2010 leah_the_singer said

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    how much time is spent in Milan?

  • 28 Jul 2010 chris_tina25 said

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    We had a whole afternoon. Because we went for a lunch at a nice place with our tour manager that took about an hour and then we had about three hours left there.

  • 13 Aug 2010 leah_the_singer said

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    did you see a longchamp store there? they sell bags. haha, i am on a mission to buy one there hahah

    also, what were the people like on the trip?

    what was the rome airport like?

    Are there internet cafes in italy?

    what are the ATM fees in Italy? or does it vary?

    Did you ever have a problem with pickpocketers?

    Sorry for all the questions haha

  • 13 Aug 2010 leah_the_singer said

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    were there any issues of bed bugs in any of the hotels?

    were there safety deposit boxes?

  • 18 Sep 2010 GirlfromIpanema said

    GirlfromIpanema

    chris_tina25,

    I enjoyed reading your travelogue. I was wondering if you could tell me the name of the winery that you visited in Tuscany. I’m a “google before I go” girl out of habit and would love to see pics. Thanks!

  • 20 Sep 2010 chris_tina25 said

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    Hi, the winery was called Castello Il Palagio
    http://www.castelloilpalagio.it/main_e.html
    You can see some pictures on their website. If your tour stops here as well you likely will enjoy it. We are still enjoying the wonderful olive oil we purchased there.

  • 27 Jan 2011 Explorer1229677 said

    Explorer1229677

    Thanks for all the info!

  • 27 Jan 2011 Explorer SF7 said

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    Thanks so much for all the info! That’s a great review. Exactly what I’ve been looking to read.
    I’m going this year at the exact same time you went last year so I’m glad you posted this!
    You mentioned your group was unable to go to Verona, so that’s definitely something I’ll have to double check, since I’m assuming we might have the same issue.

    Did it rain at all, in any of the cities while you were there? I’m debating whether or not to take a raincoat of some sort or even an umbrella. I’ve been checking weather reports and apparently in May in does rain a little bit in some areas.

  • 27 Jan 2011 chris_tina25 said

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    Hi, there was very little rain which was great. We had heavy rain one night going to dinner and I did use the little travel umbrella I had brought then. There was light rain one other time but we were on the bus. So I would recommend bringing a tiny light umbrella if you are going to be carrying a bag or pack with you that you can put it in.

  • 3 Feb 2012 Reka803 said

    Reka803

    This tour was so amazing that I did it twice July 2011 and November 2011 ( was there during my last day in rome on my b-day:)

  • 6 May 2012 Heather said

    Heather

    thanks for the advice about the last supper in milan, do you need to book tickets to see the statue of david? about what time do you get into milan as i am looking at booking a ticket ot see the last supper before i leave and need an idea of times.

    Thanks

    From Heather

  • 17 Jun 2012 HN610 said

    HN610

    im going july 24th 2012. do u think its okay if i wear dresses the whole time for touring? i was thinking shorts and a tank in the beginning but i want to look nice so i don’t look out of place. i heard the women there dress really nice. im worry there may be times where one would have to climb to get to a tourist attraction or do something other then walking and my dress will flip up or something. that would not be good lol. so is the tour more rough in that way or is it more so just walking and sigh seeing? thank you in advice.

  • 22 Apr 2013 Lee said

    Lee

    Brilliant summary. I’m very close to booking my first tour going on the Simply Italy one and your insight has proved invaluable! I hope I’ll have as just a good time as you did! :)

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