Simply Italy May 22 - June 3 2010 - Incredible!
7 Jun 2010
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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>This tour is a good mix of coastal areas (Sorrento, Capri, La Spezia) and the cities (Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome). <BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>Here are some notes about each day.<BR><BR>Day 1-2 Travel to Rome<BR>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. <BR><BR>Day 3 Rome to Sorrento<BR>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!).<BR><BR>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!<BR><BR>Day 4 Capri<BR>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. <BR><BR>Day 5 Sorrento to Florence (passing through Tuscany)<BR>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.<BR><BR>Day 6 Florence<BR>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.<BR><BR>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).<BR><BR>Day 7 Florence to La Spezia<BR>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.<BR><BR>Day 8 La Spezia to Milan<BR>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.<BR><BR>Day 9 Milan to Venice<BR>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.<BR><BR>Day 10 Venice<BR>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. <BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>Day 11 Venice to Rome<BR>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.<BR><BR>Day 12 Rome<BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR><BR>Tips/ideas<BR><BR>There are a ton of photo ops (one couple took 2500 pics, we took 500) so bring your memory cards and backup batteries<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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!<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>Keep a travel journal and update it at least every other day. It’s impossible to remember everything otherwise.<BR><BR>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. <a href="http://www.firenzemusei.it" target="_blank">www.firenzemusei.it</a><BR>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<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>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.<BR><BR>Be prepared for crowds!! Florence, Rome, and various other areas can have heavy crowds.<BR><BR>If anyone has any q’s feel free to post them and I’ll do my best. <BR><BR>Just do this trip if you can!! It’s a trip of a lifetime.