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Trip Report Our 5-Week Italian Adventure (plus a few days in Paris, just because!)

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PART 1: INTRO, TRAVEL DAY AND VENICE
Once again, the information I found on Fodor’s was invaluable for planning our 5-week trip to Italy. This was our first trip to Italy and we were completely overwhelmed with how best to structure our time since there was so much geography to cover, so thank you for all the help I received from my various posts related to this memorable trip.

ABOUT US:
Our traveling party included myself, my husband and sister (all 40-somethings) and my Dad and his wife (early 70’s). My husband was only able to join us for the first 10 days of the trip, while my Dad and his wife were with us for 3-1/2 weeks. My sister and I spent 10 days in Rome by ourselves, plus 4 days in Paris at the end of the trip.

OUR ITINERARY:
9/10/12 – Travel Day - Seattle > Paris (CDG) > Paris (ORLY) > Venice (VCE) for the youngsters and Eugene > Seattle > Reykjavík > Paris (CDG) > Paris (ORLY) > Venice (VCE) for my parents
9/11/12 – Arrival in Venice
9/12/12 – 9/16/2012 - Venice
9/16/12 – 9/17/12 – Bologna
9/17/12 – 9/21/12 – Florence (with day trip to Pisa)
9/21/12 – 9/23/12 – San Gimignano, Siena
9/23/12 – 9/24/12 – Assisi and Orvieto
9/24/12 – 9/29/12 – Amalfi Coast (Massa Lubrense, Positano, Sorrento)
9/29/12 – 10/12/12 – Rome
10/12/12 – 10/16/2012 – Paris

During our trip, I blogged about some of our experiences on http://shertology.blogspot.com, so feel free to read about our trip on my blog. Although we’re back home, I still have a few more blog posts to write as I wanted to talk about our visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum, so I’ll eventually get to those! If you’re interested in viewing some of my pictures, you can view those on my Shutterfly site at http://shertology.shutterfly.com/. We only spent a total of 4 nights in hotels during our trip and the remainder of our time was spent in rental apartments, which is our preferred travel mode.

TRAVEL DAY:
My parents used their miles to acquire business-class seats, which is why our “gateway” city was Paris. My husband, sister and I flew coach on American Airlines from Seattle, so we arrived six hours before my parents. Our grand plan was to stay in a "day hotel" at CDG so we could shower and power nap while we waited for their flight to arrive. After clearing customs and collecting our luggage, we boarded the CDG Shuttle Bus bound for the Ibis hotel adjacent to the airport. About a month prior to our departure, I had sent an inquiry to reserve the day room for us but was told they do not accept reservations and we had to "wait and see" once we arrived if they had rooms available. Unfortunately for us, after trekking around CDG for almost an hour on the shuttle bus, we arrive at the Ibis only to be told that they did not have any rooms. Our dreams of a hot shower and horizontal sleeping surface were smashed to smithereens. So back on the bus we went to Terminal 1 to await my Dad's flight. The good news is that we did waste about 2 hours doing the shuttle bus thing, so we now only had FOUR hours to whittle away.

Finally the time had come for us to meet our parents outside the baggage claim area and without incident they walked through the door, also a bit travel weary. Despite the fact that they flew Business Class on Icelandic Air, they did not have the luxurious fold-down seats that you find on other airlines, but I'm going to assume that THEIR seats were much more comfortable than the tuna-can seating we "enjoyed" on American Airlines.

We took the Air France bus from CDG to Orly and upon arrival, still had more than 3 hours before our flight; so again, we waited. By this time, we're all looking like something out of a Zombie movie. I think I was probably the most functional - all those LONG poker sessions had apparently paid off as I still felt "alert" but was more "achy tired" than sleepy. Are we there yet? Finally, it was time to board our EasyJet flight to Venice. I remember buckling my seatbelt, but that’s about it – I was immediately asleep and didn’t wake up until we were landing. We were FINALLY in Venice! Because of our late PM arrival, we had booked in advance a private water taxi to take us to our villa (thanks Fodorites!) and it was a pretty exhilarating 30-minute boat ride across the water to the dock outside our villa. Door to door, our travel time was almost 32 hours. WHEW, glad that part was over!

VENICE ACCOMMODATIONS:
We rented our Venice apartment on VRBO - http://www.vrbo.com/359466. It was a 3-bedroom, 3-bath villa with multiple balconies and a really nice kitchen. Of all the apartments we rented during the trip, this was by far the best equipped kitchen. My Dad couldn’t stop raving about the ice machine and we loved how nice and modern the kitchen was. We also loved the spacious bathrooms and it was nice that we all had our own bathrooms to use. The owner, Giorgio, met us at the vaporetto stop (which is right outside the apartment building) upon our arrival (at 10:30 PM) and was very helpful with regard to local information. The apartment is located right on the Guidecca canal and we found this a very nice area to stay in. We would definitely stay in this apartment again. We paid a total of 1,550 € for 5 nights.

VENICE DAY 1:
After a lovely night of sleep (5 hours for me), we began our first day in Venice. We had a reservation at 9:55 AM for the Doge's Palace Secret Itineraries tour, so I awoke the troops at 7:30 so we had time to shower and navigate ourselves to San Marco in plenty of time. My sister set off to the nearby grocery store to acquire the essential supplies for breakfast (coffee) but the market didn't open until 8:30, so no coffee for us yet.

Our initial plan was to board the Vaporetto for the short ride to San Marco. As we're standing in front of the dock waiting for the boat to arrive, a local informed us that the Vaporetto's were "on strike" from 9:00 - 1:00 that day. Seriously? I find it kind of funny that the strike doesn't entail some "ultimatum" like we're striking until "X" is resolved. Instead, it was for 4 hours. Scheduled strikes. Interesting, right? Apparently this is quite common. So we shall walk to San Marco. We have a map, it shouldn't be a problem. But first order of business is COFFEE.

Our first "tourist" mistake of the day is sitting down at an outdoor cafe along our walking route outside a "pensione" and after ordering, being told that you can only eat there if you were guests of the hotel. What? They make an exception and allow us to stay (after they had already delivered our cappuccinos) but then we're told that it would be 16 € per person four our "continental" breakfast. Ouch. Welcome to Europe. My husband was the only smart one of us and ordered two cappuccino's at the same time. At least I had some coffee and enjoyed my very expensive yogurt, but hey, there's really NO price on a great cappuccino, right? I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to ANY OF US to inquire as to what a coffee and croissant would cost . . . stupid tourists!

Looking at our Venice map, the walk across the Accademia bridge towards San Marco was fairly straightforward. We could not have been more mistaken. We were trying to walk a fairly brisk pace, but my parents couldn't sustain that pace, so we had to slow down. Even though Venice is quite flat, there are a LOT of canal bridges with stairs to traverse. After about 30 minutes, it's clear that we're quite lost. We make the realization that there's NO WAY we're going to make our tour, so we decide to stop where we're at (a Piazza) and separate. My husband and I are going to find the Palace and see about exchanging our tickets for a different day/time. My sister was going back to the apartment to get my Dad some medication for his aching leg and back. So after sitting my parents on a bench, we all promise to return as soon as we can. This is where we lose them for almost 3 hours. My sister got lost getting to and from the apartment and we got terribly lost getting to and from San Marco. We left two 70-something adults sitting on a bench with NO phone, NO address of the villa and NO Italian. Not our finest moment.

After walking in the direction WE THOUGHT was San Marco, my husband and I stopped to ask for help and discovered that we had wandered NOT towards San Marco, but instead, towards the most opposite side of Venice – we were actually in the Cannaregio district! We finally find the palace, but unfortunately all of the “Secret Itineraries” tours are booked for the rest of the time we’re in Venice, so we’re unable to rebook, but can use our existing tickets to visit the Palace during open hours.

After acquiring a much better map of Venice, we see just where we ran off course and assumed it would be simple to return back to the Piazza where we left our parents. It was not. Do you know how many Piazza's look exactly the same in Venice? Because I am a stupid tourist, I didn’t think to snap a picture of a landmark or even find out the name of anything in that square because I thought we were right near the Accademia bridge, and we could easily navigate ourselves back to that spot. We weren't even CLOSE to the Accademia bridge. After I had a mini-meltdown and was practically screaming in public at my husband (we were in disagreement about exactly WHERE and HOW we would find my Dad), it was my husband who helped us find our way back. I have never been so happy to see my Dad in my life. Thankfully, my sister also found her way back about 10 minutes after we did, so all was well again. So after that near-disaster, we established some ground rules: 1) Snap a picture of a landmark, etc. 2) Carry our phones (we international calling enabled) and 3) try and map out our route IN ADVANCE.

In the same Piazza, we locate a nice outdoor cafe and enjoy some much needed nourishment; we have our first "Aperol Spritz" and some delicious pizza. Thankfully, the vaporetto strike is over now, so we can more easily get ourselves to San Marco to visit St. Mark's Basilica where we have a 1:45 reservation. Although the mosaics on the ceiling were amazing, it was very dark inside and honestly, not a lot to see. Maybe it's the jet lag talking, but it did not hold much interest for me. I think part of the problem is that we just didn't know what we were looking at. I hadn't really researched the history in advance, so we spent maybe a total of 10 minutes inside.

We all agreed that we were ready to return to the apartment. We were exhausted and it was very hot and muggy as a storm was rolling in. We make a couple of vaporetto-route errors and eventually found ourselves back at the apartment. Leaving my parents behind, my husband, sister and I set off to the market for some much-needed supplies for the apartment (coffee), including groceries for dinner as we all agreed to just "eat in" and enjoyed a nice and relaxing dinner at the apartment in the lovely cool air conditioning. Now that we can look back and laugh about our first day in Venice, it’s fun to remember that we were NOT the only people consulting maps and looking lost! Nor were we the only tourists having meltdowns about WHICH direction we should be going. Oh the joys of travel!

VENICE DAY 2:
We spent a leisurely morning wandering through the Santa Croce and San Polo districts in the morning, stopping to visit the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.. After a nice lunch of pizza and prosecco, we hopped on a vaporetto towards the Castello district to visit the Naval Museum. Unfortunately, the museum had closed at 1:30, so we were unable to visit. I had somehow missed that bit of information in my planning, so “my bad.”

We decided to eat out for dinner instead of cooking at the apartment and found a really lovely restaurant in the same district as our apartment. Now that we had finally figured out the nuances of the Vaporetto schedules, we were on our way downstairs to board the 7:40 PM Vaporetto to our restaurant when Sean spotted the boat and basically asked them to hold the boat until we could all run aboard. Unfortunately, it was the WRONG boat (how do you say "My Bad in Italian?"). So instead of taking a short ride to the restaurant, we instead took a 30-minute boat cruise across the Guidecca canal towards the island of Lido. Nevertheless, it was a lovely evening for a cruise and Venice at night is truly breathtaking. We now all understand the necessity of verifying the Vaporetto number before climbing aboard. Oh well, no harm, no foul.

Although fellow travelers on Trip Advisor only gave our restaurant "Ristorante Da Gianni" 3-1/2 stars, we thought it deserved 4 stars. Service was excellent, as was the food and the prices were reasonable. All in all, we were all completely satisfied with our meal. April and Joan both had their baked lasagna and it was the best lasagna any of us had the entire trip. It's much different than the “American” version of lasagna and featured more of a meat and béchamel sauce, with extra-thin layers of pasta -- it was almost "fluffy" in texture and quite delicious.

VENICE DAY 3:
We spent the entire day visiting Murano and Burano. We didn’t spend too much time in Murano and only visited one glass factory and shop before boarding another vaporetto for Burano. Although I enjoyed our visit to Murano, I fell in love with Burano. I know it's kind of touristy, filled with lots of "sourvenir" shops, but I loved the charm of it. I can see how artists love Burano. Although I wouldn't consider myself a true artist, I could envision painting many of the scenes I saw here. Today was one of those days where I wished I knew how to take really awesome photographs. We had a great time just wandering down all of the side canals taking photos, enjoying a nice, relaxing lunch and doing some souvenir shopping.

It was late afternoon by the time we left Burano. Thanks to my sister, we took the "scenic" route back to our apartment (meaning she didn’t quite read the map correctly). I'm pretty sure we cruised to Spain and back by the time we arrived. To end the day, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from our villa and I prepared a delicious dinner of Pasta Pomodoro with Shrimp, some fresh-baked bread (not by me, but by the Italians) and a bottle of Chianti. Perfecto!

VENICE DAY 4:
We began our last day in Venice somewhat leisurely and not getting out the door until almost noon. The only two things on our agenda for the day was to tour the Doge's Palace and do some retail therapy in the Rialto area. Although quite by accident, we enjoyed a lovely lunch not far from San Marco at Ristorante Da Raffaele, which coincidentally was on my restaurant list and one of the places I had made a dinner reservation for on a previous night and had to cancel.
I will digress a bit here to share that as a “foodie” I had done extensive research prior to our trip to seek out highly-rated restaurants and make reservations for a few dinners in all of the various locations during our trip. And much to my displeasure, almost ALL of said reservations were cancelled because my Dad was usually too tired, or too comfortable in our apartments (especially with his daughter-the-excellent-cook-in-residence along) for him to have any motivation to actually “dine” out on this trip. So, by accident, I actually got to EAT at one of the restaurants on the list!

And while I’m on the subject of my dear Dad, it became quite clear early into the trip that this trip was going to be a lot different than the trips we take WITHOUT my Dad. Overall, I think the trip was a bit over ambitious for my parents in that they completely under-estimated the amount of walking they would be required to do. I was careful to not “overbook” or “over schedule” our itinerary, but most of the things we had planned to do/see on our trip just didn’t happen. As this was also our first trip to Italy, instead of dwelling on my disappointment regarding the things we didn’t/couldn’t do, we simply said to each other “That’s another trip.” It’s funny, I’ve re-read my blog posts about Venice and now that we’ve completed the entire trip, I think that my initial impressions about Venice were clouded by my disappointment on how our first days went (I claimed I didn’t really LOVE Venice). The reality is that I only got to experience a partial view of Venice and now that I’ve had time to reflect, I really enjoyed Venice a LOT and it is most definitely a place I would love to visit again. I just needed to re-set my expectations for this trip.

Anyway, we enjoyed our visit to the Doge’s Palace. I really liked their collection of more than 2,000 suits of armor and weapons they had on display. After our visit, we spent a couple of hours in the nearby Rialto area for some retail therapy. We headed back to the apartment to wrap up our day and begin packing for our departure early the next morning. Next stop, Bologna.

We purchased our one-way tickets from Venice to Bologna on Trenitalia for 9 € each in advance. Originally, we were going to Bologna with the intent of visiting the Ferrari museum/factory in nearby Maranello. However, AFTER we had secured all of our accommodations, we learned that the museum was just so, so and you couldn't tour the factory unless you OWNED a Ferrari. You actually have to provide the VIN number of your vehicle to secure your reservation and last time I checked, nobody in my family owned one. So much for that idea. So we had some time to kill in Bologna before we took the train to Florence on Monday afternoon.

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