We got back about a day and a half ago and had a great trip. But I did learn a few do's and don'ts that will hopefully help those of you planning your trip to Italy.
First of all, have someone on Fodor review your itinerary BEFORE you book any reservations. I had already made my reservations and the one that took us really out of our way was the only one I couldn't change. As a result, we did a lot of driving. That part really wasn't so bad, but it did take out time we could have been doing something rather than driving.
We arrived at FCO at 12:30 on Monday. People at the airport were very friendly and helpful in directing us. Customs was a breeze. No paperwork to fill out on the flight. We basically just had our passports stamped and picked up our luggage. I had already ordered our RomaPasses so found the booth and picked those up first. Then we headed to the car rental.
We rented from AutoEuro. I had called them to make the reservation because I wanted to make sure we had a car large enough for four people with four suitcases. Well, only two suitcases fit in the trunk so we put one up in the back window and the fourth one between our two girls in the back seat. I wasn't comfortable with this arrangement because you really couldn't see out the back window. Then my husband tried to remove the cigarette lighter so he could put in the GPS we had brought with us, but it wouldn't budge. He finally got a guy who worked there to come over. He really had to work at it but he finally got the lighter out. But, then the GPS wouldn't fit in the lighter! This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because he got us a different car so the GPS would fit and all the luggage fit in the trunk as well so we were happy campers.
Our first stop was Orvieto - recommended by a Fodorite - and off we went. This was one of my favorite places. It's a medieval town that hasn't really been discovered yet. It was small and non-touristy and fascinating. We just stayed the one night so that we didn't have to drive to Florence from the airport, but I would have like to have stayed longer. We stayed in the Duomo Hotel which is run by a daughter and father who were very nice though didn't speak English. They parked our car for us and recommended a nice restaurant for dinner. The accommodations were probably the best in town - especially regarding location - but they weren't anything to get excited about. Later on I would appreciate the nice bathroom they had! The major attraction in town is the Duomo and it is impressive. Frescos inside and out. And the town is really on a cliff and offers beautiful views of the area - just as you would imagine the Italian countryside. Really beautiful.
Got up early and explored the town briefly before heading to Siena and Voterra with the ultimate destination being Florence. The GPS took us right to Siena but here we made a major mistake. Instead of parking outside the old city wall we kept listening to the GPS and drove right in. MAJOR MISTAKE!!! We didn't realize what we had done really until it was too late. The GPS kept telling us to turn in places where there wasn't even a road. So we kept going round and round in circles. Finally, I got out and asked a waiter at an outdoor restaurant how you get out of town. He told me to go right down the road in front of the restaurant, which didn't look like a road at all - more like a walking path. Anyway, we took it and it took us right out. But, by that time nobody wanted to park the car and go into Siena except me so we kept on driving to Voterra which is what the girls wanted to see anyway. If you have teenage girls who like the Twilight series this is a "must see" for you.
Voterra is enjoying it's new found fame with the Twilight books and even offers souvenir necklaces, chess pieces, and copies of the book in Italian. The girls really enjoyed this place, looking at the clock tower, walking around the square, etc. There is a tourist information center just to the right of the clock tower which was extremely helpful. They even offer "Twilight Tours" but only on certain days. We parked in a parking lot just below the town which was underground and very simple to find with stairs leading right into the main part of town. We'd learned our lesson on Siena. We probably spent only two hours there but it was really worth it to the girls and I was glad we'd done it. Next it was on to Florence.
We arrived in Florence just as the sun was going down. We did enter some zones that had the big circle which means you're not supposed to drive into that area so we may be getting a ticket in the future, but eventually we found our B&B. It was Villa La Sosta. I'd found it on trip advisor and it was just like it had been described. We had a quad room which was nice and big. There is a rec room upstairs which the girls really loved. It was a place where they could go and be on their own which made everyone happy! I knew from the comments on trip advisor that the breakfast wasn't anything exciting and they were right! I was hoping by now the owners would have wised up but they haven't. All bakery items are prepackaged. That's the down side. They just aren't fresh. But they did have fresh fruit, yogurt and various cereals. We were here two nights and really enjoyed it. We met people from New Zealand and North Carolina at breakfast and had a nice time comparing notes.
During the day we took the bus down the hill and into town to see the "David" as well as the Ufizzi Galleria. People on Fodor had advised against seeing these two sights on the same day but that was all we had so we did it. It was tiring but worth it. The bridge right next to the Ufizzi was fun to shop at as well. The big downer here was the number of tourist. They were everywhere! I was in Florence 30 years ago and didn't see nearly the number of people we saw. It was really crowded, not only in the buildings but the outdoor squares as well. You had to work your way around tour groups just to get from point A to point B and it wasn't easy. If I ever go to Florence again it will be in the "off" season.
For dinner our first night we had gone to a restaurant the B&B owner recommended and it was delicious. This night we were so tired we just decided to pick up some sandwiches on the way back to the B&B because we knew we'd be too tired to go out later. That was a good plan and worked out well. One item worth mentioning was the french fired pizza. We didn't buy any but I did take a picture. I just couldn't believe it. It was a cheese pizza with french fries cooked into the cheese showing in the window of this pizza place. Guess they make pizza out of just about anything these days
This was our big travel day and I would have changed it if I could without taking a $225 loss. We were driving from Florence to Sorrento. By the way, I made this reservation through Venere and I will never reserve through them again. I tried and tried to contact them to see what I could do about this reservation but they never responded to me. If I'd made the reservation directly with the hotel I would not have had this problem. But, we had the reservation so we went. If I could have changed it, I would have spent one more day in Florence and one more day in Rome and not gone to Sorrento. Not that I didn't like it, I really did, but we just didn't have enough time to do all the things we wanted to do.
I had printed all our driving days out on the Michelin map which was nice in that it told you how much the road toll is and where you have to pay it, as well as how much the gas costs and how long it will take to drive. However, on that point they were very wrong. The map said it would take 5:17 to drive from Florence to Sorrento. It took us over 7 hours! We knew the drive would be hair raising and we took a few wrong turns with the GPS but by the time we got to the hotel our legs were shaking and I don't think any of us wanted to drive any more that night so we ate at the hotel.
This Hotel La Vue d'Or was my husband's favorite. We had a beautiful room overlooking the ocean and a small balcony. The lobby was also very nice and breakfast was included. Because it is up above Sorrento, they have a free shuttle that goes into town several times a day. The people at the hotel were very friendly and spoke several different languages including English. The room was nice and clean and it had a nice clean bathroom. The only real downside is that it is somewhat isolated. If you don't want to take the shuttle into town the only place to eat is at the hotel and it is expensive and not that great. We had dinner the night we got there. They have a set menu, 19 euros for a main course and dessert or 25 euros for a starter, maine course and dessert. Frankly, the best part was dessert.
Originally on this day we had planned to either explore Sorrento or go over to Capri and then tour Pompeii the next day on our way to Rome but, when I put up my itinerary on Fodor many suggested that it would not be safe to park our car in Pompeii with all our luggage in it. As a result we ended up using this day to take the local train to Pompeii. Taking the train was easy, inexpensive and an adventure. Since it is a local train many people are taking it to work or wherever. Anyway, you see a lot of local people and that was fun. Pompeii was impressive but did require a lot of walking. If you've never seen it, it definitely worth the trip. I had been here 30 years ago as a college student and noticed that they are not reconstructing a lot of the area. We spent the morning there and then took the train back in to Pompeii.
The hotel told us the shuttle would not be running from 1-3 pm because of a bicycle race and when we got back into town there was a real excitement in the air. They had set up panels and blockades in preparation for the race. We walked a while and then decided we'd just get something to eat and watch the parade and race. We seemed to be right in the middle of things, had great food and great seats for the race. Prior to the race various companies were parading up and down the street giving away free hats and pom poms. After about an hour the first bicyclist came down the road and eventually a whole heard of them came. Then there was one lone bicyclist that came and everyone clapped for him. And then it was over - at least from where we sat. As we walked through the town, all the stores had their TV sets on watching the race. Apparently this was a really big deal! Even when we got back to the hotel, the TV in the lobby had its set turned on to the race. From what I could tell it started in Milan and ended at Mt. Vesuvius. Everything was in Italian so not really sure. But we saw a newspaper (in Italian) that had a picture of Lance Armstrong in the race so guess it was a big deal. But he didn't win. That night we didn't eat dinner because we'd had a really big lunch and weren't really hungry and didn't want a three course dinner. But by 9 pm the girls were getting hungry and wanted something to eat. Dinner seating was closed and there was nowhere to go. We got them a gelato at the hotel bar and that was the best we could do for them.
Today we headed to Rome. Something you should know if you're driving a car in Italy is that in a lot of places, as you enter the freeway you have to take a ticket at an entrance that looks like a toll booth. What we figured out is that you take this ticket and then when you exit you insert the ticket and that tells the toll booth how much you need to pay based on how far you have driven. Well, when we got into Rome, the toll booth kept spitting out our ticket. It wouldn't take it. So we had to go over to another booth and that one wouldn't take it either. Eventually, a voice came on and asked where we were coming from and then charged us accordingly. One nice thing is that all the toll booths accepted our Chase One Master Card. You just insert it after inserting the toll card and it charges your card. Very convenient.
So now we're in Rome! After driving in Sorrento, Rome was a breeze. The drive took about four hours, two more than the map said it would. We planned on returning the car in Rome since we wouldn't need it there. So we drove to the rental place by the Spanish steps and dropped it off. Not very difficult. The only problem is that when we got back to the US we noticed a charge for the car that shouldn't have been there. My husband called to find out what it was and they said it was to fill up the car with gas. Well, we had filled up the car before returning it and my DH had even had the guy at the car rental place come and look at the gas gage when we turned it in. Anyway, today we faxed them a copy of the receipt for gas and hopefully they will refund it. So SAVE YOUR RECEIPTS!
Once we returned the car we took a taxi to the apartment we had rented through Sleep In Italy. We learned a few lessons here too. Our car rental was due by 1:30 PM so we had called to arrange for someone to meet us at the apartment at 2:30 PM not knowing how long it would take us to get to the apartment. We got to the apartment at 2:10 PM so called Sleep in Italy to see if anyone could come any sooner. They said they'd call the owner. Well, there we are, four of us standing by our suitcases for nearly an hour and a half before someone comes to let us in. Apparently the owner does not speak English and there had been some miscommunication. But, he was very nice and showed us around the apartment and then pulled out a piece of paper with English on it and read it to us. He introduced himself and told us a little bit about himself. He was actually from the Ukraine and not Italian at all! He offered to drive us to the airport when we would be heading back to the US but after the problem of waiting for him to come the first time we didn't dare. Besides, we had already made arrangements for a driving service to pick us up and take us to the airport.
So there we are in our apartment. We were in a very nice historic area just across the bridge from St. Peter's square. The apartment was listed as "delux" Vicolo Orbitelli 15 Int. 6, and had a five star rating out of five stars. The main reason we had chosen this apartment is because it came with a computer. And that was extremely nice. It was on two levels and had a kitchen and dinning area and was generally very nice. HOWEVER, the water didn't seem to run very well in the sink so I moved the wooden board to the other side of the sink and found about 2 inches of water in it. Fortunately, my DH is a very handy man and got in there and fixed it. Then as I scrubbed the sink I realized that what I thought was color was actually stain. So I scrubbed and scrubbed but didn't make much progress. The next day I bought some cleaner similar to Ajax and it started to come off. Each day more and more came off, but it never came truly clean in the five days we were there. The other complaint would be the shower curtain. If I could have found a new one I would have replaced it. It was white, but brown on the bottom (and it wasn't supposed to be brown!). So if that's a five start delux apartment, which is their highest rating, I think Sleep In Italy needs at adjust their standards. These things seemed to bother me more than anyone else and the girls loved the apartment.
So, it's our first day at our apartment in Rome. Mr. Rosti ( the owner) told us there was a supermarket just around the corner. We found it without any problem and decided to have our first home cooked meal in a week so bought steaks, and all the trimmings then went home to cook. So we had the air conditioner going, and the washing machine washing, and cooking dinner and then the power went out! It wasn't totally dark outside yet so we weren't too worried. There were some candles on the dinning table but they were pretty well used up. We ate dinner and waited for the power to come back on. But it didn't. So DH and I went out to see if we could buy some candles or a flashlight or something until the power came back on. Well, when we went outside we noticed that the apartment next to ours had its lights on. In fact, everyone had their lights on except us. So, we bought a souvenir candle with a picture of the pope on it because that's all we could find at that hour, came home and called Sleep In Italy since Mr. Rosti doesn't speak any English. They said someone would call us soon. No one ever called. Fortunately, my DH is really handy and this time went searching for a power box in the stair well. He finally found something and fixed the power (Don't know what I'd do without him!). No one ever did call and we never spoke with anyone from Sleep in Italy again. So, that was our first day in Rome. Not quite what I had imagined, but it was definitely an experience we'll all remember.
Today was Sunday. We have friends who are missionaries in Rome for the LDS Church so went to church with them and spent the afternoon at their home and had a wonderful dinner. We had taken a taxi to get to their place and they offered to drive us back to our apartment which was very nice. But we live in the historic district where only taxis and residences can drive, but they told us on Sunday anyone can drive in these areas. Didn't know that!
Vatican day. We had already bought our tickets to the museum but some had suggested taking a tour so we hooked up with a tour group and it was very informative but even our guide told us we had only seen about an eighth of the museum and we could go back and look at more rooms if we wanted but the girls and DH were done so we went over to St Peters and then home as it was raining. Later we went to Piazza Navona which was very nice. Bought a few keep sakes and then headed back home.
This was our last full day in Rome and was to be a day to do whatever the girls wanted. We had the Roma Passes and hadn't even used them. We had used the bus pass that came with them but hadn't used the museum part. Everyone wanted to go to the Colosseum so we headed over there bright and early. Well, it was a national holiday and there was a huge parade going on. The parade itself, was extremely interesting with marching nuns, military might, and horses and riders that looked like they'd just come out of the 1500s. Unfortunately, because of the parade, we couldn't go into the Colosseum, but we didn't see it from the outside.
One place many people had suggested was the Villa Borgese so I had made reservations there for 1pm so we headed over that way via bus. The villa is surrounded by a beautiful park and we all loved that. We ran into a couple who gave us directions to the villa. They were sitting on a park bench because they didn't have reservations and didn't know you had to have them to get into the museum. That made me glad I'd made the reservations. The villa was beautiful and we all enjoyed it but I think the girls had had enough of museums so we didn't spend a lot of time there. But, it is really nice that they limit the number of people in the villa. It was so much nicer than the Vatican. I thought I was going to suffocate in there. You are literally shoulder to should with people.
After the villa we went to lunch and then a little nap at the apartment. The girls were really worn out. They had wanted to go to St Peter's and climb up the dome but by the tie they were ready to go the dome was closes so we decided to go to Castle St. Anglo as my travel book said they were open until 8 PM. It was now 6:30 PM and it was closed.
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10 days in Italy - Oh the lessons we learned!
We got back about a day and a half ago and had a great trip. But I did learn a few do's and don'ts that will hopefully help those of you planning your trip to Italy.