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Italy trip report (repost) - Sorrento, Rome, Florence & Venice with side trips to the Almafi Coast, Capri, Pompeii, Pisa, Siena and Tuscany

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Italy
A visit to: Sorrento, Rome, Florence & Venice with side trips to the Almafi Coast, Capri, Pompeii, Pisa, Siena and Tuscany.


Sorrento
Sorrento was recommended as a home base from some Italian friends. It is central to the Almafi Coast, Pompeii and the Island of Capri. After much research, we choose the Excelsior Vittoria Grand Hotel Sorrento.

We flew into Naples where we easily found our driver (who was provided at no additional charge by our hotel). The drive to the hotel was 35 minutes through villages, past olive and orange trees on very narrow roads.

The hotel was located in the town center on the cliffs high above the beautiful emerald colored Mediterranean Sea with a view of Mount Vesuvius in the background. The path to the hotel was lined with orange trees and gardens. Outside the main gate was street after street of shops and cafes.

We had our first meal at a local wine bar. The wine was one euro (cheaper than Coke) and incredible. The food was tasty and reasonable. We spent less than 20 euros and had a great feast of antipasto, spaghetti pompadoro and pizza with prosciutto, olives, mushrooms and peppers. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the name of this place but there were plenty of similar places and I don’t think there is bad food anywhere in Italy!!

We wandered the streets visiting various shops, trying gelato and crepes with Nutella. Sorrento is famous for inlaid wood. Many of the music box stores in Sorrento have their own little factories.

Our room was clean and well maintained. The floor and walls were of white marble. It had a small sitting area, a bedroom with a queen size bed, two balconies overlooking the Mediterranean and Mount Vesuvius and a great bathroom with a rain shower and huge tub.

The breakfast buffet (also included) had fruits, breads, OJ, cheeses, granola, yogurt, croissants, jams and Nutella. The English speaking staff was very friendly and made us feel welcome.

Our stay included a complimentary dinner. It was excellent. There was a small bar at the hotel. Here we met a couple from California and a 96-year-old woman, a former actress, whose husband was the first to produce the play Dracula after falling in love with the book.

The Almafi Coast
Don’t try to do this drive yourself. Hire a driver or take a bus tour. The road is quite narrow and gets very crowded during the summer season. Luckily we were there off-season. We hired a driver named Marcello who we found through the talk section at Fodors.com. He came highly recommended by many travelers. He was a bit of a trip and talked a bit too much but he was knowledgeable and gave a terrific tour (338-338-1828, marcellomaresca@tin.it).

Marcello picked us up as scheduled at 8:00 AM in a very well maintained black Mercedes. Our first stop was an old fishing village, Marina de la Lobra, which gave us an idea of what Sorrento used to be like. Marcello stopped frequently to let us out of the car and take pictures. We saw olive trees, nets to catch oranges and lemons, tomatoes hanging in doorways, nativities, a hunter and his dog and incredible views. We stopped in Termini, passed the Bay of Solerno and Bay of Naples, stopped at an outdoor market and tried figs and olive oil (buy a can of olive oil!!). We stopped at a beautiful hotel to use the restroom called Le Sirenuse, it was expensive but a perfect honeymoon spot. We continued along the coast making stops at Parano, Fiordo, Conca di Marini, Vetteca, Almafi, Atrani, Pontone and Scala.

In Pontone we stopped and walked through a typical Italian village. In an old courtyard in front of the church John played a game of soccer with two small Italian boys. We headed on to Ravello where we passed some mules carrying groceries.

Marcello took us to a friend’s restaurant www.ristosangiovanni.com. The owner couldn’t speak a word of English but could she cook!! She served red and white wine and several sample plates: fried cheese, pumpkin in vinegar, beans gazpacho, fuccacia bread, tomato/mozzarella salad, pasta with shrimp, pasta with cheese and zucchini. We finished the meal with shots of lemochello (make sure you try this) and a variety of desserts. The owner then asked (via Marcello) if we would like to see her gardens. We walked along a dirt path past houses and trees for about ½ hour. Seeing the sun set over Almafi was incredible. We picked and ate some grapes from the garden and ran into some wild goats. During our walk back to town John poked his head into a machine shop to look at the tools. The owners, who couldn’t speak a word of English invited him inside for a shot of Grappa (yuck!!). Marcello dropped us off at the hotel at 7:30PM.

Capri
The hotel has an elevator that takes guests down the ten stories to the beach. The boat to Capri can be caught directly behind the hotel. The boats do seem to arrive and depart on time (we missed the first one). We heard that Capri is very busy in the summer and almost not worth it. Our goal was to see the Blue Grotto. It is an incredible cave with blue water, you take a small boat over – unfortunately it was closed due to rough seas. Our second choice, the Funuclar, a tram up to the top of the island was closed as well.

We decided on a hike and followed one of the ones that we had printed out from Fodors.com. We were rewarded with incredible views. It was very easy to get lost in Capri. The roads are narrow and maze like. We eventually made it down to the three famous rocks. It was a tough hike back out (lots of steps) but it was worth the visit. We stopped for a pizza at Villa Verdi. Most of the shops were closed as it was off-season.

We decided to take a bus over to Annacapri to Seggiovia Monte Solaro. Here we headed up to another high point via a chair lift. It took about 15 minutes. We sailed over backyard gardens and small homes. At the top, we were rewarded with incredible views. We hiked back down to the base of AnnaCapri (about ½ hour) and caught a cab (for 20 euros) back to the boat dock.

Pompeii
From Sorrento (less than a 10 minute walk from the hotel) we took the Circumvessa 14 stops to Pompeii. It was about ½ hour ride. We rented the audio guide, which reenacted in detail the day that the volcano erupted. There were so many things still intact. Most impressive were the elaborate mosaic tile designs and the casts of the people who died that day; you can even see the wrinkles in their clothes.

We headed back to Sorrento. The train ride wasn’t all that exciting, lots of run down apartment buildings. There are two Sorrento stops make sure that you get off at the last stop.

Rome
We could have taken a bus to Rome but it only leaves Sorrento once a day and we would have missed seeing Pompeii so we instead opted for the train from Naples. We made one small mistake here. A man who looked like a railroad employee rushed forward, grabbed our bags, helped us find our rail car and seat and loaded our bags on for us. I proceeded to tip him five euros; he shook his head violently and said no, no, it costs 10. Like an idiot I gave him 10 euros. He was not an employee.

The trip took a few hours. Upon arriving in Rome we took the Metro train A (not fun with luggage during rush hour) to the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Unfortunately our hotel was at the top of the Spanish Steps. Not realizing that there was an elevator we proceeded to carry our luggage up 75 steps to our hotel the Hassler Roma.

We had room 407. It was beautiful, a very modern room with a flat screen TV, white crown molding, desk area, big bed, great bathroom with a towel warmer and overall pretty décor. Our view was of the Spanish Steps. Again everyone spoke English and was very friendly. There is a romantic restaurant on the top floor however since John “forgot” his sports coat, tie and shoes we were unable to eat there. We were able to gain entrance the next morning when we had breakfast (similar to the Sorrento breakfast). The views were incredible, all the way over to the Vatican.

We wandered around the shops near the Spanish steps and ended up at a wine bar called Shaki for drinks and snacks. The food was great. Our favorite was the pasta, pumpkin, cheese dish that had at least 10,000 calories a bite.

Scavi Tour at the Vatican
We easily found the Vatican using the Metro A train. You need to book the Scavi tour a month or so in advance but it is well worth it. We found the Swiss guards and headed by them to the excavation office. We joined a small group of fifteen and started our tour. We viewed Saint Peter’s tomb and remains, saw various crypts and walked on actual sidewalks from ancient times. Our tour guide was incredible. Read the book “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown (the author of the DaVinci Code) before the Scavi Tour.

Rome Walking Tour
We booked a 3 ½ hour walking tour with Bianca Galipo at Through Eternity (www.througheternity.com). She is originally from Australia and is a great storyteller. We visited the Trevi Fountain and tossed in a coin to ensure our return to Rome. We next stopped at the Panthenon where Raphael is buried. The marble and brass door was incredible. The open dome is the largest in Europe. We next visited the Roman Forum where we heard the stories of Romulus and Remus; Julius Caesar and Brutus and the vestal virgins. Last we stopped at the Coliseum where we heard stories of tigers, elephants, giraffes, gladiators and secret doors. I felt as though I was reeducated with everything that we should have recalled from school day history lessons.

We headed to dinner at Ristorante 34, Via Mario de Fiori 34. The food was great. Our waiter spoke very good English. We were given a free after dinner drink of Lemoncello.

Vatican Museum
We booked a tour with John Boyden (an American working for contextrome.com) to see the Vatican. On the way we stopped in Saint Peter’s to watch the Pope addressing the crowd (he does this every Wednesday morning). John Boyden was terrific. He is a theology student in his mid to late thirties. He described everything in detail and was also a great storyteller. The highlights were the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Dome (with a great view of the Vatican city).

The highlight of my husband’s day was a stop at the Ferrari store on the walk back to the hotel. He bought a baseball hat and took lots of pictures. I had to drag him away!!

John did a 7AM running tour with contextrome.com. He said it was a great run through the streets of Rome before all the tourists were up and about.

Florence
From the train station in Rome we headed to Florence (Firenze). The ride was about 1 ½ hours. We discovered here that you need to stamp your ticket in the yellow machine before boarding otherwise you may have to pay a fine of double the ticket. The cab driver had warned us to watch our bags but we didn’t have any trouble.

In Florence we had to wait in a very long cab line. We were going to attempt to walk but it appeared that we were in a bad area.

The hotel is great, we had room 352 at Helvetia and Bristol. Everyone speaks English. Classical music and a rose welcomed us into a room of marble, a sitting room and furniture in the style of European country. We had dinner in the hotel. It was excellent.

Our only complaint is that they initially told us that breakfast was included. After eating a very light breakfast one morning we were presented with a check for the equivalent of 80 dollars. Very expensive for a bagel, fruit and coffee!! We tried to fight it but they denied ever saying that breakfast was included. They told us that the woman who was at the front desk of the hotel doesn’t speak English very well so we must have misunderstood her.

Florence Tours (www.artviva.com)
We signed up for four back to back walking tours. It was a hectic day but well worth it. We found the tour office easily; it was about a block from the hotel. Note that most museums are closed on Mondays.

The first was a 3 ½ hour Florence city walking tour. “Explore the most famous sights of Florence's ancient center. Tread in the tantalizing footsteps of over 2000 years of tumultuous history. Find out who was buried alive near the Duomo. Why Michelangelo never forgave Leonardo da Vinci. How the 'Bill Gates of Florence' used famous artists to amaze everyone with their extravagance during the Renaissance. Discover why Florence became one of the greatest art centers the world has ever seen. See fabulous masterpieces. Hear about astounding events that shocked the Florentines. Immerse yourself in history and listen to medieval stories with a three-hour stroll around Florence's essential sights. If you only have time for one tour in Florence this is it! We see famous sculptures, frescoes & paintings in the Duomo, Santa Trinita, Orsanmichele. We also see the Baptistery, Bell Tower, Gates of Paradise, Brunelleschi's Dome, Vasari's Corridor, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio, Medieval towers, Ponte Vecchio, Renaissance Palaces, famous shopping streets & other sights.”

Before the second tour we climbed the Dome in the city’s cathedral for an incredible view (and a little cardio workout). We stopped at a small sandwich shop (not sure what they are called) and got a snack of Prosciutto wrapped in Melon (try this, it’s so much better than the US) and latte.

We next went on the one hour David tour (Gallery de Accademia) which was great and then on the two hour Uffizi Gallery tour. Our tour guide was Sylvia from Australia for both of these, she was an excellent guide.

“On the Highlights of the Uffizi Gallery Tour we see:
Cimabue-Maesta of Santa Trinita
Giotto-Maesta (Ognissanti Madonna)
Lorenzo Monaco-Coronation of the Virgin
Gentile da Fabriano-Adoration of the Magi
Paolo Uccello-Battle of San Romano
Piero della Franceso-Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino
Filippo Lippi-Coronation of the Virgin
Madonna and Child with two angels
Sandro Botticelli-Birth of Venus-Primavera
Leonardo da Vinci-Adoration of the Magi
Leonardo da Vinci and Verocchio-Baptism of Christ
Michelangelo-Doni Tondo
Raphael-Portrait of Pope Leo X and Two Cardinals
Raphael-Portrait of Pope Julius II
Titian-Venus of Urbino
Titian-Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere
Parmagianino-Madonna of the Long Neck”


Our last tour of the day (also with Sylvia) was across the Ponte Vecchio bridge to see the quieter residential side of Florence and the Pitti Palace. It was 1 ½ hours with another family of five. The tour concluded at a cute outdoor wine bar. It turns out that the guy on the tour was a buyer for the product that my husband’s company sells. They had been on the same con calls together and recognized each other’s names. Small world!!

Pisa
We rented a smart car (about 1/8 of the size of an American car). It wasn’t easy getting out of Florence. There were lots of motor scooters, one way signs are a suggestion and rotaries had 10 or more exits. By the time we reached Pisa we weren’t speaking and I was planning to walk home. We found a parking space, got a 35 euro parking ticket while we were viewing the leaning tower. It’s one of those things that I guess you need to see, and it was cool but it was a bit overrated. If I had to do it over, I’d skip it. We made up as we left Pisa and headed on to Siena.

Siena
This is a quaint town with lots of great architecture. We browsed through shops, ate lunch, had some really chocolaty hot chocolate. We then proceeded to drive back to Florence via some Tuscan towns. We wish we had more time in Tuscany. Each little town was cuter than the next, there were cute shops, small wineries, great views and photo opportunities. It was getting dark quickly so we didn’t get to see as much as we would have liked. We hope to get back someday and do a week long bike tour through this area. We had also hoped to fit in Cinque Terre (this is 5 coastal towns, artviva.com does a 1 day tour or you can stay over).

Venice (Venezia)
We headed to Venice via train. It took about 4 hours. Upon arrival we found the water bus (vaporetto) pretty easily (five euros). The city is so cute – no cars just boats and canals. We found the hotel easily, it was a five minute walk from Saint Mark’s square. The hospitality was the best yet. We stayed at a smaller hotel – almost like a B&B called Locanda Orseolo. The owners – Barbara, Bruno and Mateo – were like family by the time we left. We watched everyone who was checking out hugging, kissing and promising to return, some were even in tears. It was also the cheapest. The room was clean and roomy. It wasn’t as elaborate as the other hotels but it was nicely decorated, large and clean.

The breakfast here (included) was the best yet. Mateo made homemade items to order. I had a chocolate crepe and John had an omelet. Mateo chatted with us about the floods and how they set up platforms for people to walk through Venice.

In the evening we headed to a Vilvaldi concert recommended by Barbara and went on a romantic Gondola ride.

The next morning we toured Dodges Palace and the Bridge of Sighs (the audio guide was monotone and boring). I wish we had booked a tour guide for this but we had done so many tours I thought we needed a break. We didn’t learn as much here.

Our next stop was to Murano to watch the glassblowers (we took a short trip on a water taxi to get there). We bought a chandelier and had it shipped home. We could have watched the glassblowers all day it was truly amazing. Most of the glass blowing places are closed on Sunday. While in Murano we had lunch at Trattoria Busa Alla Torre. It was a family run small restaurant. The owner made us feel very welcome and the food was great.

Back in Venice we headed to Saint Marks. We watch the pigeons attacking people and then toured the church. Keep an eye on the times – they are only open 2-4 on Sundays and no backpacks are allowed. We took turns holding the backpack while the other toured St. Marks alone (very quickly) since we arrived at 3:30.

We strolled to the Rialto bridge stopping at shops along the way. There are lots of illegal street vendors selling knock off pocketbooks. We took a ride on the traghetto (a 1-minute gondola ride across the canal for 40 cents, you have to stand up). It was fun (but took us awhile to find it). We found a wine bar where you stand, drink cheap great wine and pick out appetizers under a glass bar. Here we met some locals who helped us choose.

Early on our last morning a smaller water taxi picked us up at the hotel and took us to the airport. It took about 20 minutes. I guess if it’s foggy the smaller water taxi doesn’t run and a regular taxi would take about 70 minutes.

Other
Italy train schedules can be found at www.raileurope.com

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