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    by mkataoka Fodor's Editor | Posted on Nov 28, 16 at 01:31 PM
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Trip Report Mom's Retirement Trip (of a Lifetime)

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When my mom retired from her job a year and a half ago, my husband and I gifted her with her choice (mostly!) of a trip. (Travel History: We'd traveled together before to France and Iceland/Scandinavia.) Since Mom had been suffering from some ailments -- and since she herself admits that she prefers to "dabble" at travel and not dig into any one location for too long -- we opted for a cruise from Venice to Dubrovik, Athens, Kusadasi, Split, and back to Venice. (Full cruise trip report on Cruise Critic.) But due to the challenges of booking reward flights, we ended up having to extend the one-week cruise by another week and a half (oh, the hardship!). We flew into Rome, spent four nights in Rome, a night in Venice, two nights in Florence, and a final night in Rome. Yeah, a LOT of travel over a two and a half week trip! Here we go...

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    Packing: Due to some, ah-hem, overpacking (by mom) during a previous trip to Scandinavia, we laid down the law and restricted all of us to one piece of carry-on luggage and a purse/camera bag. I'll admit that it was a stretch to pull it off, but every time we relocated -- and there was so much travel -- we were really happy to be traveling as light as we were. (Note: We specifically selected an apartment in Rome with a washer and each brought a few pieces of clothing that dried quickly. One thing I recommend is wool, yup, wool, clothing from Ibex. We each had wool shirts and underwear. They dried very quickly, looked nicer than the average t-shirt, and were pretty stink resistant.) Speaking of clothing, every few vacations my husband and I think, oh, why don't we try out this travel clothing? This time I tried the Eddie Bauer travel stuff. Ugh. It wasn't cool, or all that comfortable, and, worse yet, I just looked dorky in big cities like Rome. I don't know why I think I would wear it. I left most of the specialty travel clothes behind and continued to wear my normal clothes. That said, my husband liked his Eddie Bauer travel polo shirts and continues to wear them at home. Another wardrobe stretcher was sharing clothes with mom -- me, not the hubby. ;)

    Flight: We flew Alitalia's business class on points from Boston to Rome. (I'm a reluctant flyer and prefer a single flight.) The flight boarded around 10:00 at night, so once we were in the air, I reclined and slept. I awoke at breakfast time feeling refreshed and ready for a new day. DM and DH said that dinner was very good. I prefer unconsciousness over food when flying...

    Luggage on Alitalia: They didn't weigh or measure our handbags, but I did see other passengers removing items and having to check oversized carry-ons. I wouldn't push the limits with this airline. At least not in Boston.

    Up next... Rome!

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    Rome! (May 4th)

    We love Rome. DH and I first visited in 2005 (our first European trip) and again for a few days in 2010. We joke that we'll return every five years for the rest of our lives... or maybe not.

    We had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport (about 50E) and bring us to our apartment on Via della Croce, just northwest of the Spanish Steps. It was nice to have such a large apartment with comfortable beds, a washer, two bathrooms, and a full kitchen. Even better, since it was in the 90s that week, well functioning A/C units in each room! We really enjoyed having the apartment. I can't recommend it highly enough.

    http://mymagicrome.com/via-della-croce-i.html

    After quickly freshening up, we headed out to find some lunch. For this vacation, I resolved to stop searching for the perfect meal and to start taking chances, so we popped into a place on a side street leading to Popolo. I started off my vacation so healthy with a meal of grilled vegetables and a large salad. Why? For the past 15 years I've been grain intolerant. (I only actually figured it out a couple of years ago.) I must avoid flour and go easy on other types of grains or suffer the consequences. (I won't go into details, but it isn't pretty.)

    After lunch and a fortifying glass of wine, we took in the historic city center and walked as far as Piazza Navona before turning around again. The crowds were unbelievable in the afternoon and my mom was feeling overwhelmed. We stopped at the grocery store and the salumeria near our apartment and stocked up on the basics. God, what I would do to live directly over a salumeria!

    The crowds! The street vendors! Holy cow. Rome was insane. The selfie-stick vendors were everywhere. Next next morning our mission was to convince my mother that we weren't crazy for bringing her to Rome...

    The trick to surviving Rome --especially now with the immense crowds -- is to wake up early. We were up and out of the apartment each morning around 7:00. We used taxis to quickly bring us to the area we wanted to explore while most of the tourists were still in bed. (Taxis ran 7-15E, depending on distance, crowds, and, well, directness. Nonetheless, it sure beat walking in 90+ degree weather!)

    Instead of going through day by day, here are some highlights:

    Scavi Tour: Ok, so this wasn't a highlight this time. We took this tour beneath St. Peter's 10 years ago and thought my mom would enjoy it. I think the guide really makes or breaks the tour. Our guide was pretty hard to hear and the tour was slow.

    Early Entrance to the Sistine Chapel: We purchased a Sistine Chapel Express tour for early entrance to the Vatican Museums. It was well worth the money to get in (and out) early.

    Trastevere: We walked to Trastevere from the Vatican Museum and were ready for lunch! Instead of stressing about choosing the right place, we popped into the first place that caught our eye.

    Da Massi: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187791-d2083186-Reviews-Ristorante_Da_Massi-Rome_Lazio.html

    The restaurant was great! The house wine was cheap (10E/liter) and drinkable. We enjoyed it so much that we came back for our final dinner of the vacation. My mom (a T1 diabetic) stuck with vegetables and fish (delicious!) and DH and I indulged in pasta and meal dishes. (Try the beef filet with the truffle sauce. OMG.) Oh, yeah... about that pesky intolerance to grains. You know, the one that causes me to feel like death after I eat pasta or bread or corn chips here in the States. I slowly fell off the wagon in Italy and after discovering that I could eat grains without repercussions, I went in whole hog -- literally. Every day I ate corneti for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and pasta for dinner. All without a single problem. (I read through a bunch of posts from other travelers who describe similar experiences. My guess is that it has to do with the chemicals we spray on our grains before harvest.)

    Pizza Florida right at Largo di Torre Argentina: Our favorite pizza place. 10E will buy enough pizza and drinks for three people. We brought home pizza to reheat one night, too.

    St. Peter's Basilica in the morning: We taxied it to St. Peter's first thing in the morning to arrive a little before 7:00. Smartest move ever. There were only a few dozen people waiting in line to go through the security checkpoint. Just to compare, five years ago we did the same thing and arrived at 7:00 and the place was practically empty. There were probably 20 times the number of people in the basilica this time. (The early morning trick is spreading!)

    We lined up early for the walk up to the cupola and were pleasantly surprised to be let up early. (We opted for the elevator option!) Mom was a real trooper and walked up to the top with only a few breaks. (If you think you'll need rest breaks, go first thing in the morning while the traffic is light.) I was very impressed considering that health problems, including knee pain, almost prompted her to cancel the trip a few months earlier. We were leaving the basilica by 8:15. (The security lines were already getting long at that point!)

    I'm sad to say that this was probably our last visit to Rome for a while. The crowds were very heavy (yeah, I know we contributed to them!) and the street vendors were, honestly, too much.

    Next up... Venice!

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    We visited Venice ten years ago, so we weren't disappointed to only spend one night in the city. (As mentioned earlier, Mom likes to see the highlights of a city, enjoy a good meal, and move along.) The first time we visited we stayed outside the city at a chain hotel (for free with points -- we were point-rich and money-poor). This time we vowed to stay the night in Venice. We booked two rooms at the Palazzina Veneziana in Cannaregio district, thinking that it wouldn't be too long of a walk from the train station.

    http://www.lapalazzinaveneziana.it

    The B&B was a great choice! The photos make it look dated or over-the-top, but in person it looks very nice. The "wall paper" is really a nice quality fabric and everything was quite classy. Even the firm beds were really comfortable. I highly recommend this establishment.

    Train from Rome to Venice: We did a lot of vacation planning during the brutal NH winter. We decided to purchase tickets from Italo mainly because we could purchase them more than three months in advance. Because of mom's health issues at the time, we chose to purchase tickets in the first class car in a private cabin. (We tried to take advantage of a buy three and get four seats, but couldn't manage to buy the tickets that way. So we did wonder if a fourth person would be put in our little cabin, but no one did.) By the way, when you purchase tickets from Italo, you just have to print off the paper receipt, which includes the train information, seat number, etc. and have it handy for the attendant to view after you are seated. We traveled each leg with Italo and had no problems or complaints. We would use this company again.

    Ok, so back to Venice. As we'd come to expect, Venice was a madhouse in the afternoon. We pushed through the crowds to the Rialto bridge before calling it quits and returning the the hotel to freshen up for our cicchetti tour. We took the Wine and Appetizer Tour in the Jewish Ghetto walk and it was a nice experience. Our guide brought us through the lesser walked streets and talked about what life would have been like during the earlier days of the city. We stopped for wine and cicchetti along the way. It was a nice way to spend the evening.

    The next morning we were up and out before 7:00 to walk to San Marco to get some photos. It was a much more peaceful walk this time! We took the #1 boat back up the Grand Canal. We arrived back to our B&B in time for a late breakfast (terrific, especially for such a small facility). We checked out and headed to our ship, walking to the People Mover and to the check-in.

    The cruise stops in a nutshell: (A slightly more detailed report was filed on Cruise Critic.)

    Dubrovnik: Wow! We want to return! The entire Croatian coastline was spectacular. Walking the city walls and seeing the old town were highlights of our trip.

    Athens: I'm glad we went, but I'm also glad this was just a daylong stop on a cruise ship. (Sorry for everyone who loves Athens!) We booked a taxi in advance for the Acropolis. Due to mom's health issues, we didn't book any excursions or tours, since we didn't know if she'd be able to participate. We explored the Acropolis and made our way down to the Acropolis Museum. We needed a break so we headed to the cafe. Wow! The view of the Parthenon and the delicious food made this the highlight of Athens. (Definitely try the doughnuts!)

    Kusadasi: Again, we booked a taxi to meet us. We traveled to Ephesus and he waited for two hours and met us as the lower (downhill) entrance to bring us back to the port. (50E) Ephesus was remarkable. Don't miss the Terrace Houses. We had done some of our own research and were comfortable walking around on our own. We enjoyed a delicious fish lunch at a restaurant on the harbor. This part of Turkey really was lush, green, and beautiful.

    Split: This was an easy city to enjoy. We strolled around, drank Croatian beer in outdoor cafes, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Again, I'd love to return to Croatia.

    Back to Venice and then off to Florence...

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    nice report, bibliotecaria - what a lovely present for your mum.

    I hadn't appreciated that it was so hot in Rome this May - rather glad I wasn't there!

    looking forward to more of your report....

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    I sadly agree with you about Rome. I love Rome. Last year we were there at the end of Sept. and the crowds were overwhelming, plus the vendors. The beautiful St. Angelo bridge was hard to see and forget the Trevi Fountain. the streets were crowed making difficult to enjoy all Rome has to offer. I am so grateful that I have been there 5 times and I can now let it go and explore other fabulous places.

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    BTW, I have a friend who is gluten intolerant, but had no problems with breads in Europe. She thinks it has to do with GMO foods. The EU forbids GMO foods.

    It sounds like a great trip!

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    Kathie - You're probably right. The GMO factor plays a role in chemical spraying. (Without a modified plant, the chemical would kill it along with the weeds...) I'm thinking about purchasing some imported 00 flour to see if I have similar results at home.

    On to Florence...

    We arrived in Florence on Saturday afternoon to, no surprise, huge crowds of people. We'd purchased tickets online for the Accademia in advance for that afternoon, so after checking into the Hotel Continentale near the Ponte Vecchio we walked up to to see the man. Note: 10 years ago we simply walked to the front of the line with our voucher. This time we had to exchange our printed receipt for the tickets and then wait in the shorter of the two lines to gain entrance. (Exchange your tickets at an office across the street.) Whatever you do, buy your tickets/reservation in advance and plan to arrive a little early for morning appointments and 30 minutes early for afternoon reservations. We thought we'd be too early with 30 minutes to spare, but it turned out we needed that time.

    For dinner, we walked off the beaten path and chose a restaurant randomly -- and lucked out again! The cheeses, grilled veggies, and pizzas were superb. We enjoyed the restaurant so much that we went back again the next night. The Chianti Classico by the glass was great, too.

    http://www.leantichecarrozze.it

    After dinner we crossed the Ponte Vecchio and hung out on the bridge for a few minutes enjoying some great music. (Between the good vibes, great music, and beautiful sunset, man, what a perfect experience....) We kept walking and stumbled on a wine bar on Borgo S. Jacobo. The bar had a large common table and we were soon joined by two young women from the midwest on their first European vacation. We drank (too much) wine and enjoyed sharing travel tips and chatting with fellow Americans. Some of our best memories from the trip are meeting and talking with other travelers. At dinner our second night in Florence, we had some great conversations with travelers from Israel, Mexico, and Canada. (The outside tables are really close together and it was easy to converse.) My advice to my fellow travelers: Take a chance and say "hi" to your neighbor. If they don't want to talk, you'll know. ;) But everyone we talked to -- usually during after-dinner drinks -- was eager to talk about their trip.

    http://www.obsequium.it/Home-eng/

    We had purchased tickets/reservation for the Ufizzi for Sunday morning. Again, plan to arrive a few minutes early to exchange your printed voucher for the tickets and then line up in the shorter line to go through security.

    After the early morning visit to the gallery, we walked to the Hertz rental to pick up our (previously reserved) rental car. It was a great decision to get out of the busy city for the day! Since we'd previously visited Sienna and San G., we headed to Pisa to see the tower. We were completely unprepared for Pisa and made the rookie mistake of following the GPS. Oops. I wonder if we'll get a ticket mailed to us for entering a Limited Traffic Zone. (We quickly got out, did some research online, and took the highway to a parking lot just past the train station.) We didn't do Pisa justice and simply parked, walked to the tower, got some pictures and left. (In our defense, it was 90+ degrees and we wanted to keep traveling.)

    From Pisa we drove to Lucca and parked outside of the city walls at a metered parking lot. (Parking was plentiful on a Sunday afternoon.) Again, we randomly selected a restaurant based on the amount of shade provided. Since we'd been walking 5-7 miles per day and we wanted to give mom a recovery day -- but still see the city walls -- we rented one of those four-person bike contraptions. Hint: They are more work than they appear and harder to maneuver than you'd imagine. For us, it was a bit of a necessity, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you have people in your group that aren't able to ride a regular bike.

    We made it back to Florence and dropped the car back off without incident. But we probably won't know for months if we got tickets... Nonetheless, it was a fun day outside of the city!

    Next up... Our final night in Rome.

    Hotel Continentale: Great location, very modern, and clean -- and very comfortable beds and pillows. (DM has autoimmune issues and is very sensitive to mold, dust, etc. We did a lot of research to make sure that the apartment/hotels wouldn't aggravate her asthma/allergies.)

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    And to finish off the trip...

    We took the Italo train back to Rome (Tiburtina Station) and check into our hotel for the final night. On my to-do list was a trip to the leather shop where I'd purchased another bag previously (and still love it 5 years later!): T-Nobile. (I'm not much of a shopper, but I do love that place.)
    http://www.yelp.com/biz/t-nobile-roma

    We walked back to and up the Spanish Steps to our hotel, stopping along the way for gelato. Huh. I wish one of my companions had mentioned to me that my mouth was ringed in chocolate for a half-mile or so. No longer why the concierge gave me such a nice smile.

    Tip: Assume that the chocolate gelato has covered the lower half of your face and that your travel companions will be too "tired" or "distracted" to notice.

    We went back to Trastevere for dinner (Da Massi) and strolled around for a little bit after dinner.

    The next morning we caught a taxi at 6:30 for St. Peter's Basilica. We were determined to show my mom how beautiful it was without throngs of people. We lined up in the security line shortly before 7:00 and there were already a few dozen people ahead of us. At around 7:30 will wandered to the line for the Cupola. To my surprise, they let us up early! (It's worth trying!) We were down and leaving the Vatican by 8:15 and the lines were really adding up.

    We walked back to the hotel, stopping for coffee and corneti along the way, and packed up for our flight home.

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    Can I put in my two cents about clothes? We saw everything, but the most prevalent item of clothing was jeans. There were skinny jeans, wide-legged jeans, colorful jeans -- you name it. My advice: Wear what you look good in and is comfortable enough to wear all day. Happy Travels! :)

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