Italy Trip March 1-9, 2011

After a long international flight into Milan (cheaper airfare, longer trip) and ground transport to our first hotel in Lucca, Italy, we can finally rest after 27 hours of travel.  My travel partner and cohort in the travel  biz, Paula, has accompanied me on my second adventure in Italy.  My first trip to Italy, 7 years ago, I guided a group of woman around Florence and Rome.  I’d never quite forgiven myself for not going to Venice and over the years my desire to visit this dream-like city has never subsided.  Now, here I am, back in Italy with my close friend and our end target is the beautiful Venice.

Pisa in the Rain

A visit to the iconic leaning tower will not be hindered by a little rain… or even a lot!  Note to future self: climbing leaning towers is difficult dry and slightly alarming when wet.  It is definitely a little tricky climbing slippery, slanted stairs, but it is totally worth experiencing this historic bell tower and surrounding buildings.

The Five Lands

Cinque Terre; five sleepy picturesque villages built into the hillsides overlooking the sea.  Paula and I marvel at these old world villages that are connected by ferry, train, or on foot.  Cinque Terre cannot be reached by car, its quaint authenticity is stunning.  The colorful buildings climb vertically up the hillside, it is a feat of engineering and a spectacle for the imagination.

When in Roma

This is my second time in the ancient city of Rome.  Can you blog one paragraph about Rome?  No.  Rome’s treasures are endless; historic architecture, fountains, museums, monuments, ruins, frescos, and home to one of the wonders of the world, the Colosseum.  While the city is large, it is highly walk-able (with good shoes) and relatively easy to maneuver between the subway, bus, and taxis.  The food here is excellent, but I was surprised to find that according to the Italians you need to leave Rome to experience real Italian cuisine.  We are fortunate to have been invited to dinner by Paula’s friend who lives outside Rome.  We are taken to a restaurant in her local neighborhood and LOVED the experience!  Tables upon tables of extended families from grandparents to young children talking loudly (and with their hands); fresh pasta; vino; and waiters who don’t speak a lick of English.  We are fortunate to experience the authenticity of Italy outside the tourist areas.

Venice: La Dolce Vita  “The beautiful life”

We arrive in Venice by train and encounter the city via water taxi as we head down the Grand Canal.  This experience is just so hard to articulate.  It is stunning; building after building in beautiful colors and magnificent Gothic architecture.  We are floating in a dream world and I am in awe.  This place is pure magic, an outdoor museum.  The idyllic gondoliers in their striped shirts seem to have stepped right out of a fairy tale and I am reminded of how impossible this city is.  The buildings are constructed over wood pilings that have petrified, the city slowly sinks into watery decay and the eerie beauty gives me the chills.  It is easy to get lost in Venice, both figuratively and literally.  It seems the map’s streets and canals don’t match up to the actuality and we are constantly lost.

A random note: there is little grass on Venice Island.  This might seem obvious, since the city is built on sand and water, but its absence is so strange especially after seeing so much of Italy’s beautiful countryside.

A place to skip: A friend of mine told me I had to go to Harry’s Bar while in Venice.  Paula and I were underwhelmed by the bar, but ordered the signature drink, the Bellini, just as we were advised.  As we looked around the bar we noted that every person was carrying a guide book.  Uh oh.  The Bellini was lovely, but after receiving the $50 bill for 2 drinks, we congratulated each other for falling right into this tourist trap.  Yep, even the travel agents get suckered every once in awhile.

Ways to travel Italy

Prepackaged: These escorted (guided) tours are prearranged with hotel, some meals, and excursions.  Just pick your itinerary and dates.  This is the easiest way to travel if you don’t like thinking about the details.

Custom: A privately guided custom itinerary made just for you.  This is the most expensive, but has the highest satisfaction.

Wing it: I wouldn’t recommend this to folks who aren’t travel savvy and adventurous, but if you’re the type who likes a guide book and a backpack over your shoulder, this is an exciting way to go.

Combination: Take a short guided trip followed by a few days on your own.  Anything is possible.

Note on train travel: This is a great way to get around Italy but you are responsible for getting your luggage on and off the train.  Often this is done with other people trying to do the same or impatient Italians pushing past you.  Some trains require a reservation, some don’t.  They can run late, especially the local trains.  Once on board you can relax, enjoy the scenery or take a nap.

Euro Kidding Me!

When you travel in Italy, plan to either exchange your dollars for Euros or use a credit card, accepted almost everywhere, but beware of credit card companies that charge exchange fees for foreign currency.  Italy can be quite expensive if you are looking for luxury.  While 3-star hotels range from $140 to $250 a night, 5-stars are $800 and up.  I have learned some strategies to make Italy more economical, like choosing a hotel with breakfast included, sharing meals, and having lunch at a deli rather than sit down service.  I have planned Italy itinerary from frugal to luxurious and in between.

*Remember: Pack light, bring good shoes, and include some time in your itinerary to enjoy “la dolce vita.”