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Trip Report Independent travelers take an Italian tour

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DH and I usually travel on our own and I enjoy researching hotels, train schedules and sights for months before a trip. This year however I did not have the time to invest so began looking at possible tours to Italy last fall in order to visit Venice, Florence and Rome. We wanted to find a tour that would handle the details, allow DH and I time on our own and would not have us on a bus for hours on end. We settled on Trafalgar’s “Contrasts of Italy” which offered the balance we were looking for. Transport between the cities would be by high-speed train and the hotels were located near the stations in each city. We added a couple of nights in Rome before the start of the tour and one additional night at the end in Venice. My window to be away from work was limited so we booked the first tour of the season at the end of April to early May.

We worked with an Avoya travel agency that handled bookings for Trafalgar and they were very good to work with. The four star hotels on this tour are a higher level than we usually choose in Europe but we decided to splurge a bit on this trip. We also selected premium economy on our flights with Air France and Delta and all seemed in order.

As we got closer to departure we learned that our first full day in Rome would be the day that John Paul II and John XXIII would be canonized. Uh oh, it was going to be especially crowded in Rome. We had anticipated the May 1 holiday and how it might impact our time in Florence and now had to consider the crowds in Rome.

Our Air France flights to Paris and then Rome were very comfortable. LAX to CDG was on an Airbus A380 which gave us lots of room, bottles of water at our seats, drinks but pretty average meals (I keep hoping Air France's food will improve). My seatback screen did not work but we were not offered two alternate seats together so DH and I swapped while I watched one movie during the flight. Rather disappointing on a new plane.

The Trafalgar transfer was there in Rome to take us to the Grand Palatino Hotel. Located near the Colosseum and Forum on Via Cavour, we discovered there were lots of restaurants in walking distance particularly on the small streets just north of the Via Cavour. We got to the hotel about 6:30 p.m. and by the time we were checked in and a bit settled we decided to have dinner that first night in the hotel restaurant which was pretty good. Then we walked to the Colosseum (part was in scaffolding) and had a gelato on the way back. The free lobby wifi only worked on my phone and I thought in-room wifi should have been included at the price Trafalgar charged. I probably should have sprung for the multi-day wifi charge but actually limited connectivity wasn’t a bad thing.

Sunday April 27—Our first day in Rome and we were able to sleep in a bit which helps with the jet lag. Breakfast at the Grand Palatino was pretty good. We heard an estimated 1 million pilgrims would be in Rome today but we planned to spend our day either outdoors in the Forum or visiting the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in the event of rain. The weather was predicted to be good for most of the day so we headed to the Forum. As we reached the small squares where the Via Cavour meets the Via Dei Fori Imperiali we saw people clustered around big screen TVs and many streets were closed to traffic. There were groups of people together carrying flags of their country or wearing matching Tshirts or kerchiefs. It was lovely to walk and hear the singing even if it was from television. We watched a bit of the ceremony then headed to the Forum looking for the entrance. We walked around the perimeter enjoying the views and taking lots of pictures (new camera which I love). We saw the Mamertine Prison covered in scaffolding and kept walking but could not find the entrance to the Forum. We found what looked like an old entrance and realized that the crowds must have obscured the current entrance and we had passed it. We continued walking and climbed up to the beautiful Capitoline Hill. When the canonization ceremony ended bells all over Rome rang out. That was something special.

We came across a farmers market and though we wished we could take home some honey, balsamic or other good things, we did manage a few cookies. We finally stopped for lunch at Gran Caffe Roma within sight of the Victor Emmanuel monument. The food was pretty good, our waiter Max was fun. After lunch we walked to the Pantheon. The crowds were larger now particularly in the square around the Pantheon but inside was not as crowded as I expected. Stopped in a quality linen shop and bought a gift and something for our kitchen. DH navigated with the map book and a little help from a local gentleman got us back to the hotel just before it started raining.

Monday April 28—We set out for the Galleria Colonna only to find out it has limited hours and we should have made a reservation to visit on a day other than Saturday. Need to read the guide book more carefully. So we walked to the Trevi Fountain—now this was crowded. A far cry from 30 years ago when there was actually so much space between people that you could take a photo without neighboring strangers showing up in the pictures. While walking we had passed a nice looking restaurant with outdoor seating. We were finding that many restaurants, in addition to multi-lingual menus, had hosts who chatted up passersby to encourage them to eat there. This one looked quiet and pleasant and the host was appealing so after the Trevi Fountain we walked back there and enjoyed lunch. There was a small street market to explore nearby and a shop where I bought a Murano glass necklace. I was planning to make this purchase in Venice but really liked the one I saw in Rome by Antica Murrina. I later saw the brand all over Venice including an airport shop.

Monday evening was time to join the tour group for an orientation drive. Nice bus for 48 people but that is a large group. When we returned from the drive there was dinner at the hotel and we heard about the plans for the coming 2 weeks. Yikes—the dinner was Saltimbocca—veal! I ate some of the sides but was glad we had granola bars in the room. The tour director is named Muris and the first impression was good. Tomorrow morning we will be taking our Vatican tour with our local guide.

Tuesday April 29—We were up early for the included tour to the Vatican and Colosseum. The tour offered early entry and skipping the line. This was one factor in choosing to do a tour on this trip. We were able to ascend the step-less spiral staircase designed by architect Donato Bramante then moved through the uncrowded Etruscan rooms of the Vatican Museum. As we made our way through other rooms of the museum to get to the Sistine Chapel it was packed and we did not get to enjoy more of the museum. The Sistine Chapel was beautiful but again crowded. Finally we visited St. Peter's Basilica to see Michelangelo’s famous Pietá and Bernini’s huge carved altar piece. We had a short time for lunch and hit a shop just outside the Vatican before going on to the Colosseum. Had I to do it over again I think I would have looked into staying longer in the Vatican Museums and seeing the Colosseum on our own since it was so close to our hotel.

We had much needed naps when we returned to the hotel. Feeling refreshed we went out walking in search of dinner. We looked first on the Via Urbana, the street behind our hotel, then walked a little further and chose Chicco di Grano. We had salads, Fantasia pizza with tomato, corn and arugula on top, wine and tiramisu. We ordered coffee “decafenato” and received tiny cups of espresso. Heard someone else order cappuccino and realized that’s what we should have requested “decafenato”. Tomorrow we take the optional tour to the Villa d’Este and hope to see the Spanish steps and Piazza Navona in the afternoon.

Wednesday April 30—The bus left the hotel at 9:00 a.m. for Tivoli on the outskirts of Rome. A lot of the group chose this optional tour to the Villa d’Este. I had great memories of visiting in 1982 and wanted to go back. This was a beautiful day to enjoy the gardens. Our local guide Elaria was fun and knowledgeable. We went through a few rooms of the villa before entering the gardens. Elaria toured us through a few areas and talked about the fountains and the system to bring water to the gardens to operate the fountains. Then we had time on our own. It was as beautiful as I remembered. The bulb flowers were in bloom and in a few weeks the camellias will be beautiful. We would have liked another hour there to spend more time in the gardens or stroll the main street of Tivoli and enjoy a bit of lunch.

After returning to Rome and our hotel we found our room being cleaned so DH could not have his customary power nap (he’s very good at these cat naps). Instead we had tea and coffee in the hotel bar which was served with some cookies. This was the first decent cup of tea at the hotel (why can’t they make it like this at breakfast?). Then we waited for a taxi in front of the hotel to the Spanish Steps to save time that we would usually spend walking. The Spanish Steps were packed with people. After a few photos we began walking through streets of expensive shops toward the Piazza Navona. The Piazza Navona was less crowded and more enjoyable, still my favorite spot in Rome. We window shopped, had a gelato on a bench in the piazza and took lots of photos. Next we walked to the Piazza di Fiori window shopping along the way and buying a gift for one of our sisters. I had difficulty navigating in Rome which is unusual and frustrating, fortunately DH was able to navigate for us well.

This evening we went back to Chicco di Grano for dinner and enjoyed it as much as the first time. Someone complained in an online review that the tables are close together but this allowed us to make the acquaintance of some German tourists. Finally we had to go back to the hotel to pack. We would be leaving for Florence in the morning.

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