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Trip Report Romantic European - Insight Vacations

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My wife and I recently returned from Insight Vacations Romantic European tour (September 13-October 5, 2012). The trip was great and exceeded our expectations. There were a few pleasant surprises, many sites to explore, wonderful meals and great company. We ventured through pastures, flat lands, hills, mountains, fields of wind farms or solar panels, views of distant villages and many bridges crossed by vehicles, trains and locals on bicycles. We would highly recommend this tour.

LONDON

We flew from Ottawa to Heathrow airport. The flight itself was fine except for the fact that you are sitting for 6.5 hours. We both managed to sleep for maybe 3 hours. Surprisingly on arrival we didn't feel too worse for wear.

Now I had read horror stories about it taking 1.5 to 3 hours to get through passport control at Heathrow due to staff cutbacks. Lo and behold, when we got there we walked right up to an agent and were done in minutes. I had also heard horror stories of lost luggage. Well, 10 minutes at the carousel and our bags appeared. I think Air Canada should send the Toronto and Ottawa baggage handlers here for a lesson in efficiency.

We found our bus transfer desk quickly, got to our pick up point and were on our way by noon, only 30 minutes after landing. We were amazed. Unfortunately though this bus was not dedicated to Insight clients (as we had experienced in our previous travels with Insight) but was a shuttle transfer that did a milk-run to 7 hotels, ours being last. Rather than being a transfer to the hotel it was a bloody tour (Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Piccadilly Circus, Mayfair) on an abnormally hot day with no air conditioning on the bus. We finally arrived at the Park Plaza Victoria Hotel and checked in at 2:30.

We walked over to Westminster Cathedral (quite impressive) and then we scoped out the food court and such at Victoria Station before heading out for a walk down to the River Thames and then an early dinner at a local pub (fish and chips of course).

We stayed up till 9 pm in an effort to reset our internal clocks as quickly as possible. In previous trips overseas we have found that taking melatonin a few days before travelling and for a few days afterwards helped overcome jet lag. The melatonin must have worked as we both had a great night’s sleep and had no feelings of jet lag the next morning.

After the typical continental, yet expansive, breakfast we headed out on tour to the major sites, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. While I was glad to have seen them I was really not all that impressed. It may have been more pleasing had we been able to enter these sites.

By early afternoon we were at a small restaurant just across from Victoria Station for a wonderful plate of pasta accompanied by calamari. At the Station we picked some baguettes and pasties for an evening snack as well as some croissants for tomorrow’s breakfast. While the hotel does provide a boxed breakfast (due to early morning departure), I'm not big on muesli nor for an English biscuit of some sort, therefore the croissants was a necessity.

We met our travel companions for the first time prior to boarding the bus. Our group of 39 was comprised of 3 other couples from Canada, 2 couples from New Zealand and the rest from Australia (including 3 ladies travelling solo). What a great group. We have always had a wonderful time in the company of Australians (Kiwis too). We seem to share the same values, temperament, wit and enthusiasm for travel. We had many interesting discussions while breaking bread.

Tour Director

Our Tour Director was Tony Donnarumma. This was Tony’s last tour after 38 years leading groups near and far. His experience and vast knowledge truly made this tour special. He knew of little spots just off the road where we could have a more enjoyable coffee/lunch stop than at the usual Auto-grills. Sometimes it was simply taking an alternate exit, other times it was to a little village just a few miles away. There were a few diversions to places other Tour Directors never ventured or to places Tony had not seen in years. After a few days it became apparent to us that this was as much a tour of memories for Tony as it was a tour of discovery for us. We thoroughly enjoyed each and every story he shared; of the good, the bad, and the ugly he had experienced over his career, the travails of travel and of the lengths he would go to ensure we had a grand time.

LONDON TO BRUSSELS

We left at 5:30 in order to be on time for the 8:30 ferry from Dover. Thankfully the North Sea was calm. A short 90 minutes later we were disembarking at Calais and boarding our bus.

Bus Driver

Our driver was Antonio. He was the epitome of what you would expect from seasoned driver. He and Tony worked really well together. Before taking one of Tony’s suggested diversions they would consult to ensure Antonio would not breach the regulations regarding driving times and required rest breaks. Other times they would collude before presenting us another alternative to the itinerary. I say collude because often it would mean the group would have to agree to give up some time at our next coffee break or lunch stop in order to keep within the driving regulations. The group never had a problem agreeing as we thoroughly enjoyed these sidesteps. I think Antonio wanted Tony to enjoy his last trip as much as we did and I believe he too thoroughly enjoyed the changes to an itinerary he had probably travelled many time before.

We were soon on our way to Brussels, Belgium. I don’t recall much of the drive from Calais to our lunch stop in Bruge as we were too busy getting acquainted with our fellow travellers. I do remember vast pastures, lots of cattle and the odd pillbox or other remnants of fortifications from World War II.

By noon we were in Bruge. As today was ‘car free’ day Antonio couldn’t drop us off at the normal central location as roads were closed. After a 30 minute walk from the coach park we arrived in the main square. We listened to a local bar band playing some old standards (quite good) while munching away on a Belgian sausage and french fries the way they should be made. Now I didn’t experiment with the ‘mayonnaise with your fries’ thing (gives me shivers just to think about it) but could envision poutine (fries, covered in cheese curds and then smothered with beef gravy sometimes made from a secret family recipe) becoming an attraction.

After a long walk back to the coach we were heading to Brussels. When we arrived many streets were closed as it was ‘car free day’ here as well. Tony and Antonio found an alternate route to the hotel. Along the way we went to see the Atomium built for the 1958 World Fair. However we were unable to park the coach so we could get out and walk around as a result of the car-free day and the pedestrian crowds so had to suffice with a close view of this striking structure. Antonio was able to manoeuvre us close to the Marriott but we could not enter the street the hotel was on as there was a market and stage set up outside the hotel. Consequently we had to haul our suitcase a block through the hoard. We were soon out for our visit to the Grand Palace and the Mannekin Pis statue. I will no longer get confused between the story behind this statue and the story of the Dutch boy blocking the dyke. It is clear to me now who stuck what where.

BRUSSELS TO AMSTERDAM

We left Brussels early the next morning. We passed through Antwerp and Rotterdam. Along the way we stopped for a cheese making and clog carving demonstration. It was an interesting diversion and a welcome stretch after our first few hours on the bus. We stopped for a quick photo of a windmill before heading off to Volendam, a nice quaint village catering to tourists. After a quick lunch of falafel and frites we were off to shop.

Soon afterwards we arrived in Amsterdam for a diamond cutting show and then off to the Movenpick Hotel located just outside the centre of town. I’d have preferred skipping the diamond show so we could have had more time to explore the city.

Optional: Dinner in a Historic Dutch Restaurant and Canal Cruise

At 5:00 we headed out on our canal cruise. For those unfamiliar with Amsterdam it was a great way to be introduced to the city. I was surprised how clean (well not stagnant) the water was and learned that the canals are flushed out up to 5 times a week (if I recall correctly). Dinner that night was in an old stone convent that in later years had been separated by a road through the center of the building. It was an interesting building and a very satisfying meal.

Afterwards we crossed Dam Square and continued along the pedestrian mall to the red light district (shocking to some, an education to others). It seemed rather tame in comparison to my last visit here in 1976 when the district was alive with the night owls and the wild side was much more evident. Along the way we passed a number of ‘brown cafes’ where people can legally smoke cannabis and hashish. Now the aromas flowing from the open side walk windows varied from skunk to patchouli oil. Even though we had just enjoyed a filling dinner, at the end of one long block I began to have cravings for potato chips or dark chocolate. It didn’t matter which I just wanted it now and plenty of it.

AMSTERDAM TO WURZBURG, GERMANY

At 7:15 the next morning we were on our way to Wurzburg, Germany. This was the first of three long days on the bus. We passed through Arnhem before crossing the border into Germany. As we continued we passed by Dusseldorf, Cologne, and Maine before finally reaching the village of Boppard. After a light lunch at a sidewalk café and a walk-about we boarded our boat for the Rhine River cruise along with at least one other tour group. There were many houses perched on the side of the hills (don’t know how the residents got there as there were no visible roadways), mansions now converted to museums or even a hostel and a number of castle-like structures. It was quite relaxing and a nice break in the day. Back on the bus we headed through Frankfurt and finally arrived in Wurzburg around 7:00. After a wonderful veal dinner we headed for bed.

Since we weren’t leaving for Prague till 9:30 we took the opportunity to explore and observe residents readying themselves for their work day. A short distance from the hotel was the Bridge of Saints (over the Main River) with its’ many statues. Now it was not as interesting as the statues on the bridge at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome but it was still quite impressive.

WURZBURG TO PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

We stopped for lunch in the marketplace and town square in Nuremburg. There was a myriad of wares on offer and quite a number of food venders. As we waited for the striking of the noon bell at the Church of Our Lady we munched on a ‘nuremburger’ or two (3 breakfast sized beef sausages on a soft bun). As the bells tolled we watched the "Männleinlaufen" (a mechanical clock showing seven Electors paying homage to Emperor Karl IV).

Before leaving Nuremburg Tony wanted to bring us to a site few Tour Directors ventured, fewer tourists ever found and even fewer Nuremburg residents would ever mention, the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. The site was massive covering about 11 square kilometers and had its’ own railway to transport troops for the gatherings. The stadium and Hitler’s podium were still standing. We could remember the black and white newsreels events here often seen on TV and we could almost hear the echo of the goose-stepping troops and frantic crowds. While we all appreciated this historical sidestep, none would want to attribute an adjective to any description of what was on view for fear of being insensitive or appearing too admiring. Suffice to say that this site will likely forever be engraved on the psyche of the nation and world history.

We arrived in Prague around 5:00 and enjoyed a wonderful meal at the hotel which looked down upon the city rooftops.

Optional: Romantic Prague by Night

Unfortunately it was raining during our walking tour and during the train ride through the city quarters. After our walk through the old Jewish quarter we returned to the hotel around 10:00.

The next morning we started our 3 hour walking tour with a local guide. Thankfully it was downhill. Along the way to entered the Prague Castle and a number of ancient churches. We ended up at the Old Town Square (with the astronomical clock) chock-a-block with tourists and a number of entertaining street buskers. We had lunch at a local café before heading out along the various walking malls for the requisite shopping. Before we knew it we were back at Wenceslas Square a short distance from the clock tower. When back at the Old Town Square we headed up to the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Prince. Our vantage point looked down on the square but also provided a wonderful view of the city scape. We returned to the hotel around 4:00. While many of the group went to the Folklore night optional excursion we chose to go to a local restaurant around the corner for a light dinner.

We were unprepared for the architecture and spires and palaces of Prague. The city really is magical and we would certainly return for a prolonged stay.

PRAGUE TO BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

We left Prague at 8:00 the next morning stopping in Bratislava, Slovakia for lunch. Now this was a nice place that I would love to explore more. We walked through the pedestrian mall to the city center and were able to locate 3 of the 4 interesting statues that Tony challenged us to find (the man climbing out of the sewer, Napoleon leaning over a bench, the man with the top-hot welcoming visitors - we never did find the paparazzi).

Optional: Danube Cruise Dinner & Drinks

Shortly after arriving we headed out for the cruise on the Danube River, this time our group was the only one on the boat which was great. During the cruise we passed many interesting buildings including the Parliament buildings we were to visit the next morning. It was wonderful to see the city alit. The accompanying buffet meal (fish, cabbage rolls, various meats, salad and deserts) was great. The wine and beer flowed freely.

Optionals: Parliament and the Excursion to Szentendre Including Lunch

The Parliament buildings were quite interesting and least 3 times the size of Canadian Parliament buildings here in Ottawa. The legislature itself was arranged in a horseshoe with intricately carved walls and pillars of golden oak (I think). There was a public and media gallery (above the main electors sitting area) where the plebes could observe the daily business of the government.

The town Szentendre (St. Andrews) is a short distance from Budapest. On our way up the cobblestone street to the restaurant there were a wide variety of kiosks and stores offering all sorts of items some of which were handcrafted by local artisans. The meal was quite good. I had always thought that goulash was like stew but it is really more of a soup. We were also offered salad and chicken or turkey (can’t remember which), desert and of course wine or beer to wash it all down.

The next day we walked through the castle district and then on to the Citadel where there is a panoramic view of the city, the Danube and its eight bridges. We also visited the Fisherman’s Bastion situated on the Buda bank of the Danube on the Castel Hill near the Mathias Church. There were 2 gentleman dressed in historical garb offering tourists the opportunity to handle a huge falcon. Well for 6 Euro I (and a few others) jumped at the chance. They placed a leather sleeve over my arm and then placed the bird. This falcon must have stood 3 feet tall and weigh 15-20 pounds. Believe me I never took my eyes off it in case it thought I’d make a great snack.

Budapest was a pleasant surprise and I would love to return here too for a more prolonged stay.

BUDAPEST TO VIENNA, AUSTRIA

It took no more than 4 hours to reach Vienna. After checking in at the hotel we took a short walk in the immediate area before getting ready to the optional dinner.

Optional: Dinner in a Country Mansion

That evening’s dinner was at a 100 year old restaurant situated about a 45 minute drive away. The restaurant itself was part of the attraction. There was a maze of hallways and separate rooms we had to traverse before arriving at our reserved tables. On each wall or in/on every available spot there was something hanging or displayed. There were odd knickknacks, or antiques or pictures. Very few areas were left uncovered. The display on the walls of the men’s washroom became such a subject of discussion that at one point in the evening 4 women from another group knocked on the door while I was in there to see if it was OK for them to view the items on display. As we sat down to dinner we were treated to glass of snaps and some delicious sesame/sunflower buns. There was extensive choice of main dishes followed by deserts and coffee. Once again the beer and wine flowed freely. It was great. Following the meal we did an ‘illumination’ tour of the city before arriving back at the hotel around 9:00.

The next morning we had a guided tour of the Schonbrunn Palace (the Habsburg summer residence) and its extensive gardens. We were then off for our tour of the Habsburg crypt below the Capuchin Church. The tombs varied from quite simple to much more elaborate. I am providing a link as I could not possibly do justice describing this place.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Crypt

Optional: Elegant Vienna

We next embarked on our carriage ride through the city center from/to St. Stephen’s church. We passed the Habsburg Winter Palace, theatres, opera houses and many museums. It was really quite enjoyable and a timely respite after a long morning of walking.

As the rest of the afternoon was at our leisure, we decided to have a nice light lunch at a nearby restaurant before heading back to the hotel. Not knowing exactly where we were when we left the restaurant we decided to follow the ‘einbahn’ sign remembering we had seen this sign outside our hotel. We thought it was identifying a city site or major area of the city. Well after taking 2 left hand turns and then seeing the same sign across the way but pointing in a different direction we figured something was wrong and soon realized that the sign meant ‘one way street’. We laughed till we almost cried. Talk about rubes.

VIENNA TO VENICE

This was the second of three long days on the bus. We left Vienna at 7:30 and didn’t arrive in Venice till 4:15. Along the way we saw many interesting villages and such. However being such a long drive many of us caught up on some sleep.

As my wife and I had been on the Italian Escapade tour in the 2010 we had already been to Venice, Rome and Florence. Having already been to the sites outlined in this tours itinerary and having taken most of the optionals on offer at these locals, we had developed our own plans for these places but did repeat a few of the optional excursions as we had quite enjoyed them last time.

Our room at the Cavalletto E Doge Orseolo Hotel in Venice was very small. When you opened the door there was only inches to spare between the door and the bed. I’d say the room was no more than 12’X15’. The shower was a chore for someone my size…6’3”, fully framed. I couldn’t lift my leg to wash my feet without my knee hitting the wall. If you had to bend over to pick up anything you may have dropped you could get wedged with your head stuck on one wall and your butt on the other.

The hotel is ideally located just a small bridge and short walk through an arched alleyway from St. Mark’s Square. In fact its’ location rendered the Magical Venice optional somewhat redundant. Tony offered to arrange reservations for us to sit at a square-side restaurant so we could listen to the 2 competing orchestras while having a coffee or such (10 Euro) but all declined as it was just as enjoyable standing among the crowds in the square or simply walking around while the bands played.

Behind the hotel is a parking area for the gondolas. After checking in to the hotel we embarked on our half-hour gondola ride through a different area of Venice then we had last seen. It was fun and something everyone should enjoy while there. Afterwards we headed off through the various alley ways for dinner.

By 8:00 the next morning the group were leaving on the Hidden Venice optional while we headed out to find the Rialto Bridge. It was a good thing I relied on the concierge’s directions as the map app on my IPAD would have had me walking on water. There were signs posted on the side of buildings to guide you. After walking over a number of small bridges, passing through a few alleyways and arched passages there we were. We had the place pretty much to ourselves. While there were many boats already busy delivering goods to businesses and restaurants, there were only a few vendors setting up and very few tourists. It was great to be able to get some good pictures without the masses.

To get back to St. Mark’s Square we simply retraced our steps and followed the signs but at one point decided to head in a different direction. I mean how lost can you really get. We came out on the far side of the square near the clock tower.

The research I had done stated that the tower and Basilica didn’t open till 9:30 and that we should get there early due to the long line ups. Of course this being Italy the tower actually opened at 9:00 a few minutes after we arrived. The entrance fee was 9 Euro. Given that there were only 8 of us on the first lift of the day we had plenty of time to take pictures of the wonderful views of Venice and the outlying islands before the onslaught of other tourists. When we descended we noticed that there were already 50 people in line for entrance to the Basilica. Rather than stand in line for who knows how long we decided to go for a relaxing coffee and simply watch the day unfold across the square.

We had taken the Hidden Venice optional tour the last time we were in Venice and quite enjoyed it. However after having now wandered our way through Venice on our own without much difficulty I would suggest skipping this optional and just explore on your own. Much of the information provided by the tour guide you could discover by doing a little research beforehand.

Optional: Burano Excursion & Lunch

Even though we had previously taken this optional we decided to take it again as we had had such a wonderful time. Rather than Tony leading us directly to the restaurant on our arrival in Burano (as most Tour Directors do) he took us on a walk through the back streets, past the fisherman’s quarter and then on to the main square. The meal was unbelievable. We had risotto, spaghetti, salad, sea bream (a white fish aka dorade), and a fruit plate washed down with amaretto. I highly recommend this optional tour.

VENICE TO ROME

We left the hotel at 7:45 this morning. After a quick walk across St. Mark’s Square we arrived at what I call the coral. There must have been 40 gondolas, many water taxis and larger mahogany boats ready for that days tours. For some reason our taxis were late so it took at least 1 hour cruising down the main canal before we reached the bus. Italy is like that, not a place for the impatient.

We arrived at the Hotel Veneto in Rome around 4:15.

We had identified a number of places we wanted to see in Rome. Following my research on opening/closing hours and the location of the sites we had developed our own itinerary for the following day. The plan was to go to the nearby Capuchin Crypt first and then take a taxi to the farthest site and walk back to the hotel.

However once we had arrived at the hotel we thought we may as well go for a walk and locate the Basilica de Santa Maria Della Concezione (the Capuchin Crypt is below the Basilica). A short 15 minute walk and we arrived at the crypt (6 Euro fee) and noticed that it was open even though all previously read information indicated that it would not be open today, Thursday. The entrance to the crypt is to the right as you get to the top of the staircase. The entrance to the Basilica is further up to the left. Being late in the day there were only 8 others in the crypt. We took the time to read the various postings on the history of the crypt, viewed many relics, artifacts and belongings of long dead monks (the personal whips for self-flagellation, the cilice to induce discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement). We then descended to the actual crypt and its unusual display of bones. While it was ‘creepy’ it was not as shocking as the Capuchin Crypt we had previously visited in Palermo, Sicily.

http://www3.sympatico.ca/tapholov/pages/bones.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YD-wbJB1Q9Q

Afterwards we walked across to the Piazza Barberini to see its’ centerpiece, four fish holding an open clam upon which a Triton sits blowing water from its’ horn. From there we made our way to a restaurant for a light meal before going back to the hotel.

The four highest-ranking Catholic churches in Rome are known as the major (or papal) basilicas whereas the others are referred to as minor basilicas. The major basilicas are: St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Arch-Basilica of St. John Lateran and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The first two we had visited previously. While we hoped to see the others we knew that St. Paul’s would be too far away for us to include in our planned walking tour.

The following morning we took a taxi (12 Euro) to the far side of the Coliseum to Arch-Basilica St. John Lateran. It is the oldest and ranks first among the four Papal Basilica, having the cathedra (or seat) of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). While it was quite impressive it was not as opulent as St. Peter’s. Later I realized that we had forgotten to go to see the ‘Scala Sancta’ (Holy Stairs) legend claims were brought from Jerusalem about 326AD by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_San_Giovanni_in_Laterano

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scala_Sancta

After a short walk we arrived at the Basilica of San Clemente second in our priority of things to see. This is an amazing structure. The present day church is built upon the ruins of a 4th century church which was built upon the remnants of a 1st century home. For 5 Euro each we were able to descend through the various excavations to the earliest Christian place of worship. As we entered the second level we could hear water running within the walls and below the floor. When we reached the bottom level we could see the spring (as it had existed so many years ago) that was the source of the water. This site should not be overlooked.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_San_Clemente

Another short walk on the road above the Coliseum and we were at the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains housing the relics of the chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. It was quite plain when compared to the major basilicas.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pietro_in_Vincoli

Another 10 minute walk and we arrived at the Basilica of Santa Prassede which has a portion of the ‘scourging pillar’ on display. While we had been here previously it had been late in the day so we were unable to have as clear a view as we did this day.

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-santa-prassede

It was now noon hour. Exhausted from the heat we decided to sit in the shade at a nearby restaurant for a wonderful plate of pasta with tasty bruschetta. After a rejuvenating coffee we were off across the street to our last destination, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. While we had been to this basilica before too it was much better in the full light of day.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_Santa_Maria_Maggiore

Having accomplished all that we had set out do we decided to take a leisurely stroll back to the hotel. We passed a number of open food markets and vendor stalls offering all manner of goods. We took a few minutes to study each of the four fountains at the Piazza delle Quattro Fontane and then continued on to the Piazza Barberini.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quattro_Fontane

We arrived on the opposite side of the piazza from the Capuchin Crypt. We retreated to a sidewalk restaurant for a rewarding fresh fruit gelato and decided to call it a day as it was now far too hot to head over to revisit the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps.

Later in the day we found out that the tour group had been unable to enter the Coliseum due to a strike by the ticket agents. While the group was extremely disappointed Tony quickly arranged an alternative outing to the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian which most seemed to enjoy however a few had to first overcome the feeling of claustrophobia.

ROME TO FLORENCE

After a short 4 hour drive we arrived in Florence. While the group was dropped off downtown for the leather demonstration, lunch and the walking tour, we stayed on the bus and arrived at the hotel by 12:30. After checking in (nice room with a balcony) we headed out for a quick bite before walking over to the far side of the Basilica de Santa Maria Novella (3 Euro entrance fee). This was a very interesting basilica with numerous paintings, statues and tombs of former patrons. Most interesting though was Masaccio’s painting ‘The Holy Trinity’ (one of the first paintings with true perspective) and Giotto’s ‘hanging’ crucifix.

On the hotel side of the church was the entrance (3 Euro) to the museum (formerly the convent) with many, many frescoes, statues and tombs of nuns and former patrons.

http://www.visitflorence.com/florence-churches/santa-maria-novella.html

The following morning we found our way through the narrow streets to the Ponte alla Carraia, a five-arched bridge spanning the River Arno. A short distance away was the Ponte Vecchio pictured in just about every photo you will see of Florence. There were already many tourists on the bridge going in and out of the stores lining both sides of the bridge. As we walked through the narrow courtyard at the Uffizi Gallery we noted that there were at least 100 people already lined up for entrance to the museum. We continued on through the Piazza de Republica to the Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and then onward through the Piazza di San Giovanni to the Basilica di San Lorenzo situated in the center of Florence’s main market district. We looked through many kiosks and leather shops for that perfect Christmas gift but I ended up buying a soft leather man-bag (or murse, however named by ‘real’ men).

Optional: Dinner in the Tuscan Hills

We had done this optional the last time we were in Florence but had enjoyed it so much we decided to go again. Unfortunately a deluge started just as we left the hotel. Consequently we had to eat inside the restaurant rather than sit in the outside garden looking down upon Florence. However the meal more than made up for any disappointment. We were first served pasta in a white sauce, then pasta in a tomato sauce. This was followed by a lovely roast beef main with roasted potatoes and of course desert.

FLORENCE TO LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND

We let Florence at 7:30 arriving at the hotel around 5:30. We stopped once for a ‘comfort break’ before leaving Italy. We then started to rise in the Alps with absolutely stunning scenery. Rather than stopping at another roadside auto-grill in Italy Tony suggested we wait 30 minutes until we were in Switzerland so he could take us on a short diversion up a side road to a restaurant he knew offered us the opportunity breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys. It was fantastic.

Optional: Lake Lucerne Happy Hour Cruise

We arrived at the near side of Lake Lucerne by 3:30. Tony had arranged for the private boat to pick us up there for our Happy Hour cruise rather than us continuing on to Lucerne for the ‘half hour out and half our back’ cruise normally taken. This was greatly appreciated. The beer, wine and such flowed freely while we took in the mountains, castles and lake-side mansions. Some of the mountain peaks were lost in clouds, some enveloped by clouds with only the peaks visible, some caused clouds to roll down a valley to the lake and some were bare.

Upon disembarking we headed into Lucerne. One stop was to pick up our Swiss army knives. Five or six days earlier Tony had passed around a brochure on the various knives available for us to purchase. If we were interested in purchasing one, Tony could phone in an order ahead of time and arrange for our names to be engraved on the knives. Sure enough the store had our knives ready. I chose to purchase the ‘Ranger’ with 34 functions. What a great souvenir.

Shortly after arriving at the hotel we headed out across the Reuss River on the Chapel Bridge (a long wooden covered bridge originally built in 1333) to the restaurant district for a light dinner. We got turned around on our way back to the hotel and realized that we didn’t even know the name of the hotel we were staying at. No problem I thought. I looked at our room key but it did not have the hotel name on it. After a short period of confusion we finally located the hotel much to our relief.

We left early the next morning for Mount Pilatus (named after Pontius Pilate). We went up by the cog wheel train and down by cable car. The ride up was amazing. You start rising at a slight angle but at one point signs indicate you are rising at 47 degrees. At first pasture lands and forested areas are alongside the track but at some points there is nothing but valley on one side and a sheer rock face on the other. You eventually go through a series of short tunnels that were carved through an outcropping on the face of the mountain. It was quite exhilarating. Unfortunately it was cloudy at the mount. While we could see down to the lake and valley below quite clearly you had a difficult time discerning the neighbouring peaks. Going down you first took a 40 person cable car then switched to smaller 4 person cable cars. Once again the views were grand.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytWXhtPyJ8Q

Optional: Carriages and Countryside

From Mount Pilatus we drove to a small bucolic hamlet not far from Lucerne. Once we were all aboard the horse-drawn carriages we took a leisurely ride through the area passing pastures, with the sound of cowbells (known as trychell) echoing across the fields, apple and pear trees with low hanging fruit ready for harvest, small log homes some offering local wares (cider, fresh bread, fruit) from there back sheds and an old quaint church still retaining the original pews, choir loft, altar and ornate tabernacle. We were then taken to one of the local farmer’s homestead for a wonderful lunch on the patio in back of one of the outbuildings. We gorged ourselves on his wife’s homemade fare: bread, sausage, ham, croissants stuffed with cheese and desert (baked pears in a multi-layered delicious pastry). This was accompanied by their apple cider and wine as well as coffee. It was absolutely wonderful and a highly recommended outing.

That night was the included ‘dine-around’ dinner back across the river. You were given the option of 3 different restaurants with varied menus. The meal we chose was well received.

LUCERNE TO PARIS

This day was the third long day on the bus. We left Lucerne at 7:30 and didn’t arrive at the hotel till 4:30. The hotel was perfectly located within a short 10 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower.

We quickly washed up and rejoined our group for dinner in the ‘cavern’ of a city center restaurant. It was a wonderful atmosphere and great food.

Optional: Seine Cruise & Illuminations Tour

Immediately after dinner we were off for the 90 minute cruise down the Seine River. We saw many wonderful sights, buildings, statues, etc. Unfortunately it was raining heavily so we had to stay inside the boat rather than sit up top for the full view. From there we were back on the bus for the Illumination tour. We drove down the Champ d’Elysees, through the Concord Plaza, past opera houses, many expensive stores and the numerous statues (Washington, Charles de Gaulle, Joan of Arc, a miniature Liberty, and Les Invalides (where Napoleon is buried) situated at various spots throughout the city of lights. We arrived at the Eiffel Tower just as the white lights exploded upon the tower, racing up and down the entire structure.

We didn’t get back to the hotel till 11:00. We were bushed, it had been an extremely long day.

The next morning we headed over to the Eiffel Tower. We had reservations for 9:30 and were quickly on the elevator to the second level. Since there was still very few tourists there we had a wonderful view and given that it was a clear day, you could see all the way to the horizon.

We then toured the city, repeating many of the sites we had seen the previous evening. It was actually much better on a bright sunny day.

The tour of the Louvre was fantastic. Our tour guide was great. She was quite knowledgeable and almost theatrical in her story telling.

The drive around the Arch de Triomphe was an interesting experience. There are 12 roads leading into the 5 lane circle. Some drivers are trying to get to the inside lane while others are trying to get to the outer lanes so they can exit where needed. It is absolute chaos.

Back at the hotel by 3:00 we started rearranging our luggage for the trip home while many of the other group members were readying themselves for the Moulin Rouge optional. After that exercise we found a quiet little ‘boite’ (restaurant) where we enjoyed a relaxing meal amidst a milieu of animated conversation. It was a perfect way to end our sojourn.

This was our 6th tour within Insight. While each was treasured for its’ own reasons, this tour was special because we got to be part of Tony’s Farewell Tour.

I have started looking into our next Insight tour but can’t decide between the Spain, Portugal and Morocco itinerary and an itinerary that would include Turkey especially one that includes Cappadocia.

General Information

Free Wifi was available at all hotels (except in Vienna where it cost 9 Euro for 24 hours) but sometimes only in the lobby.

It has long been our practice to only use bottled water for drinking and brushing our teeth in order to avoid stomach problems. We did so this time too but had no concern in Lucerne given that it draws its’ water from the lake continually fed fresh water from the mountains.

You will need a different electrical adapter for London than the adapter you will use on the Continent. However my adapter kit did not include the one needed in Switzerland. No problem. The hotel will loan you one for a 10 franc deposit that is returned upon handing it in when you check out.

Notwithstanding what we had read about having ‘proof of travel insurance’ available for presentation when entering the Czech Republic, we were never asked for such documentation.

It is preferable to have UK pounds with you as the Euro is not readily exchanged in London businesses. The Euro is used everywhere else except the Czech Republic (the Koruna), Hungary (the Forint) and Switzerland (the Franc). In CR and Hungary they will readily accept the Euro but you will receive local currency as change. These local currencies are not usable outside of their borders. In Switzerland you will get Euros if they have it available but not at smaller businesses. So judge yourself accordingly.

Observations

I’d much prefer a dedicated transfer for Insight clients in London than the one presently provided.

Depending on where you hotel is located in Venice, the Hidden Venice and Magical Venice optionals may not be worthwhile.

It may be preferable to have a 3rd night in Paris. After a long drive from Lucerne you are simply too tired to immediately proceed with a celebration dinner followed then by both the Siene River cruise and the Illumination tour. Yes you should see the ‘city of lights’ at night but you could have the cruise during the day time following the Louvre outing. However that would not permit much downtime for those then heading out for the Moulin Rouge optional that night. So I would have the Moulin Rouge excursion on the 3rd night in Paris.

The diamond cutting, leather and glass blowing demonstrations should be eliminated from the itinerary. Rather than a diamond cutting demonstration in Amsterdam I’d have preferred more leisure time or an outing to the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum or the Rijkmuseum. Rather than a leather demonstration in Florence perhaps an outing to the Uffizi Gallery would be more interesting. Rather than a glass blowing exhibition I’d have preferred more free time in Burano to explore.

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