Italy: our first non-camping package tour was a revelation

#9 on our 15 favourite trips list.

I grew up in the burgeoning NY suburbs of the 50s, out on Long Island.  It wouldn’t have mattered what your ancestral culture might have been, in that part of the world at that time you became partly Italian by association.  Most of us had friends with grandmothers living with them who wore heavy black clothing and only spoke Italian; we learned to understand the exchanges, which were a mixture of words and animated hand and arm actions.  Our school cafeteria leaned heavily towards Italian fare, including meatless ravioli on Fridays, regardless of religion or lack thereof.  So, for me, Italy had the added allure of attachment to my childhood on top of the obvious: the history, the splendid landscapes, the art and architecture, and the food.  When, yearning for an overseas trip after 14 years back on North American soil, and deciding our 10 and 13 year-old boys were old enough to leave home (don’t worry, not alone), my husband and I opted for a two week trip on our own … to Italy.  Although we had both been to parts of Italy before we knew each other, we were eager to return and explore it together.

In our family, once we’ve settled on a destination my husband commences an intensive research project, poring over where to go, what to see, how to get there, and where to stay, eventually producing a detailed plan.  This time he came to the surprising and, for us at the time, somewhat unsettling discovery that a package tour would be cheaper and possibly better than something we could arrange on our own.  This was disturbing to a couple who had always been fairly adventurous in their travel; we prided ourselves on doing things on our own.  Granted, the main reason we were adventurous was because of cost, but still, package tours were for old people!  However, we looked at it several times and there was no getting away from the fact that this travel package went everywhere we wanted to go and far more, stayed in hotels we couldn’t possibly afford on our own, and took care of all transportation while there, sparing us having to think about any of those logistics.  We swallowed our pride and signed up.

ItalyMap1I should mention that this was nearly 30 years ago.  I should mention as well that I wasn’t wrong about the demographics.  On our coach of 40 people there was a couple on their honeymoon, a couple from Staten Island celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary (which was a gift from their kids so they could visit the “homeland”, in case any of you are looking for ideas for anniversary presents for your parents!), us, and 34 people the age we are now or older!!  But, as I learned then and now know with certainty, older people are very pleasant and interesting travelling companions! 🙂

The virtual tour I share below is built on pictures from our trip in 1984, but the treasures of Italy are timeless.

Coliseum1We started and ended in Rome.  There is no describing the beauty and impact of visiting The Eternal City.  You need to go experience it for yourself.  (That’s a much younger version of me at the Coliseum.)

Vatican

Venice2Venice.  For me, Venice is one of those places that exceeds its expectations.  I know it can be flooded – and can smell less than ideal from time to time – but it is so romantic and other-worldly.  Without the tour we would not have thought to go to the Murano Glass Factory.  We have never tired of the glass sculpture of a bull we bought there.

Venice1

Verona, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of those pleasant surprises, a place we wouldn’t have thought to stop at ourselves.  It was Shakespeare’s setting for Romeo and Juliet, and the building with Juliet’s balcony still stands, as does a remarkable Roman amphitheatre thought to have been built in A.D. 30.  Astounding architecture abounds.

MilanMilan is an impressive industrial, cultural, and fashion powerhouse.  From the imposing cathedral (shown here) to the marvelous Opera House to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Milan had more to offer than we ever imagined. And the hill towns dotting the countryside throughout the north offer their own timeless charm.

ItalyHillTown

LacMaggioreThe Italian Lakes.  My, oh, my, what a divine part of the world.  We stayed in Stresa on Lake Maggiore, with visits to Lake Lugano, Lake Como, and the charming town of Lugano in Switzerland.

Leaving the Lake District, we took in: Genoa, the beautiful coastal port and hometown of Christopher Columbus; Pisa, with its dramatically tilting tower; and then Florence (Firenze), a simply spectacular city in the heart of the stunning scenery of Tuscany.

Florence2Florence has it all: the history, the art and architecture, the culture, and the food.  Although we couldn’t hold a candle to some of the “professional shoppers” on our tour, we have an oil painting we purchased in a little shop in Florence that reminds us every day of the beauty of the Tuscany countryside.

Florence1

Monte Cassino is another treasure we would not have discovered had we been driving on our own.  A historic hillside abbey and chapel had overlooked the town of Cassino since A.D. 529, until the Allied Forces bombed it during WW II to deter the Germans in the fight for control of Rome.  Along with learning about the sad WW II history of this region, a wonderful surprise was viewing the abbey, completely rebuilt from plans of the original building, including recently finished ceiling and wall frescos based on the originals but with fresh paint in vibrant colours.  It was an unexpected and truly moving experience.

PompeiPompeii was another amazing experience, and my understanding is that there is far more uncovered now than there was when we were there.  You need to go.  A remarkable society was overtaken by a rapidly flowing river of lava and the preservation of the day is unique.

Sorrento and Capri (shown below) were a little bit of magic, as were our final few days back in Rome.

Capri

 

 

 

 

 

We learned from this trip that there can be several advantages with package tours:

  1. You can find itineraries that include places you just wouldn’t know to check out.
  2. You don’t have to worry about finding and reserving any hotels.
  3. You don’t have to worry about finding your hotel each night, either from a rail station or by rented car.
  4. You don’t have to drive, period.
  5. You don’t even need to carry your own suitcases!!
  6. Usually tour companies can secure hotel rooms at a lower rate than is possible by individuals.
  7. You meet new people.

But, you are on their schedule and you have to just accept that.

We learned a lot about Italy over and above the well-known attractions.  We learned that any group of workers could be on strike on any given day, but that daily life went on around these inconveniences.  We learned that regardless of what town we entered, there was likely to be an important football (soccer) game being celebrated or a cycling race in progress.  We learned that traffic and parking in the big cities like Rome and Naples was crazy, even then.  We learned that the snow-capped mountains we saw in the distance between Genoa and Pisa were really the Carrara marble quarries used by Michelangelo and others for their sculptures; it was marble quarries cut out of the hillsides showing, not snow!  We learned that pretty well everything served in a restaurant in Italy was good, just as is the case in France.  As with all travelling, we learned and we enjoyed.  And we continue to savour memories of this trip.

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8 Responses to Italy: our first non-camping package tour was a revelation

  1. jon says:

    We holidayed in Italy last year and went to pretty much all the places you did. Such a wonderful holiday and one we will never forget. I’m glad to see you enjoyed it as much as we did. Florence in particular stole our hearts, we didn’t want to leave and this is how I found this page. I was searching for paintings of Florence viewed from Piazzale Michelangelo and found the picture of the beautiful oil painting you have. I don’t suppose you have any details of the shop or the artist do you? I’m trying to track something similar down and that’s perfect.
    Many thanks.
    Jon.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Jon. It’s hard not to fall in love with Italy, isn’t it? And if your itinerary was similar to ours, it is hard to beat. I’m afraid that picture is just a photo I took way back then. The painting we bought hanging in our living room shows the countryside in that area, but doesn’t show Florence itself. Hopefully you can find something good on the Internet. That part of the world is definitely worth a reminder on the wall. Good luck with finding the perfect piece!

      • jon says:

        Ha! That’ll teach me not to look at things on a small screen, I thought it was such a good painting. 😉 Thanks for your quick reply. I’ll keep looking.

  2. Pingback: Our 15 favourite trips, for now at least | Robby Robin's Journey

  3. jane tims says:

    Hi. I occasionally consider going on a package tour. Convincing my husband is another thing entirely. I like your list of learnings! Jane

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Jane. I know several couples where one would be happy to travel and the other not. In our case we started our marriage by moving to London and when not at work we explored the UK and beyond. It’s in our blood!

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    I always feel I’ve been on your journeys without the bother of actually going there Jane. I spent a grand total of two hours in Italy, circa 1967, on a day trip from Austria via the Brenner Pass. That was a scary ride, even more so the return trip after the bus driver had spent the two hours in a bar 😦

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Roy. I’m glad I can make it easy for you, especially since you consider ‘getting there’ as a ‘bother’! 🙂 Happily for you, in either Jersey or Ireland you’re in a pretty special place.

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