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Trip Report Trip for 8 to Rome and Florence: Or 8 Wild and Crazy Women on the Loose in Italy

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Background (OK, this part may be boring to some of you, but to me the pre-trip is part of the fun. Feel free to skip to part two):

My husband has always wanted to go to Italy, so we planned to do so for our 20th anniversary in Feb05. Well, house remodeling happened instead, so we put it off. In the meantime, work also interfered and it seemed we would never be able to go. So when my sister said she was going and would I like to join her, I asked him if he would mind too much if I were to go without him. Do you know, he actually said he wouldn't mind - in fact, he wanted me to go! Sometimes he's pretty cool :)

So I, my sister Karen, another sister Sondra and 5 of Karen's friends and acquaintances all decided to go to Italy. A group of 8, 5 of whom I either barely knew or had never met! What was I thinking?

Dyaisha had traveled to China using Gate 1 Travel for the airfare, hotels and tours and did so again for this trip. We signed up for their "8 days Rome with Florence and Pompeii" package and added 3 days in Florence to the end, flying into Rome and out of Florence. We also upgraded to the "first class" hotel offered, since their standard (Porta Maggiore) was rather undesirable (according to AAA). So we were booked into the Grand Beverly Hills Hotel. (More on that to come) This was not what I would have done, but I was just along for the ride at this point and just happy to be going. As it is, they got us pretty good airfare and we were very pleased with the hotel and the daytrips to Pompeii and Florence that were part of the package.

One of the few complaints about this trip:
Customer service with Gate 1 Travel is truly poor. Just when our travel documents were issued, we were informed that Florence airport was closing and we would have to fly out of Pisa. Even though Gate 1 knew of this well before the end of January, they neglected to tell us until the last minute and were only able to get us on a 7:25am flight out of Pisa. This made it virtually impossible to get there from Florence on that day and meant that we had one of two options: a) leave Florence a day early and spend the night in Pisa, or b) extend our trip one day and spend the last night in Pisa. OK, no-brainer. We took option "b". Without going into too many details, trust me that Gate 1 really handled this whole situation very poorly. None of us would ever use them again.

Departure day finally arrives
Thursday, Feb 16, 2006 is a really good day: We are going to Italy! Delta Airlines is a mess! We received a "seat request" with instructions to get our seat assignment at the gate. I still don't understand that, unless it was because we were a group and not all of our group were checking in at the same time. However, we were not seated together anyway so who knows? Anyway, we landed a half hour early in Atlanta, so they made up for it. Of course, our flight came in a terminal A and international flights depart from terminal E so we hiked this: A --------------------------------------------------------------E.
It took the half hour we were ahead. I'd hate to do this if the connection were tight.

For this flight, we were all in close proximity to each other. I rarely feel blessed to have short legs, but airline flights are one of those times. I was actually comfortable the entire flight and even slept a little. The biggest asset: my FOM travel pillow! Even when I'm not sleeping, it is a comfortable cushion support for my neck so - no headache! Highlight of the air flight: one of the funniest "Frazier" episodes I have ever seen. It would have had me rolling in the aisle if I had had an aisle seat!

Stay tuned: Rome comes next!

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    Bella Roma
    Friday, Feb 17: Arrival at Rome Fumiciano, customs and baggage retrieval were so easy! The worst thing was using la toilette at the airport – no seat on the toilet and no t.p. And of course the travel t.p. and seat covers Karen had given me were in my luggage! (Duh!) From now on I’ll have it in my purse and probably never need it! Anyway, good thing Mom taught me to squat and welcome to Rome!

    As soon as we retrieved our baggage (more on the baggage later) and walked through the exit doors, there was our driver with the “Gate 1” sign. Again – so easy! He loaded up the van and we began the wild ride into town: sharp turns, sudden stops, speed up and then slam on the brakes. Traffic! I have driven in NYC, Boston, DC and even Mexico, but I would never drive in Rome!

    We passed through the outskirts of Rome where we saw the most extensive graffiti we have ever seen. This would not be the last time we would be saddened by what can only be described as a plague. As I told the girls, “graffiti” is an Italian word.

    We finally made it to our hotel: Grand Beverly Hills Hotel. I had been worried about this hotel for two reasons. The first was that it was located “off the map” – the Streetwise Rome map. It was somewhere to the northeast of Villa Borghese and I was concerned that it was too far out to be convenient for walking to the main sites. And it was. However, it was a E10 taxi ride to the Colosseum, and split three ways, that was not bad. The second was that it was named “Grand Beverly Hills Hotel”. In principle, I am always suspicious of English names and American references in names of hotels in other countries. I was not looking for a little bit of Beverly Hills in Rome! However, that concern was also not necessary. It was a very comfortable hotel; the staff was friendly and helpful and the breakfast included was very good. (What exactly to Italians do to scrambled eggs to make them taste that good?) The room and bathroom, while not grandiose (and therefore not Beverly Hills) were comfortable, fresh and clean. And the window opened! Whoo-Yah! Bancomat (ATM) is just about 10 feet outside the front door and, as we will soon find out, there is a wonderful restaurant just around the corner. And the truly amazing thing is that all 8 of us are very happy with the hotel choice!

    Of course, our rooms were not quite ready (we arrived at 10:30am) but the hotel held our luggage and we went for a walk to find something to eat. We found a little hole-in-the wall place that was not really open, but fed us anyway. The only thing available at this ungodly (for lunch in Italy) hour was the house specials: spaghetti w/meatballs, lasagna or ravioli. I had the ravioli which, at the time, I thought was quite good. Little did I know how good ravioli in Italy could be! We also had our first of what in Italy is called table wine and let me just say right now that I did not have a bad glass of table wine. Admittedly I am not a wine connoisseur, but I know what I like and I liked this. Anyway, the meal was very satisfying and the waiter was kind to a bunch of ravenous American women suffering from sleep-deprivation.

    Back to the hotel a little after noon and our rooms were ready. We rested for a little bit (no sleeping!) and all met at 2:00pm to head to Galleria Borghese where we had 3:00 reservations. We walked about 8 blocks to Villa Borghese, picked up our tickets, walked the grounds a bit and then began our tour at 3:00. I’m afraid we really didn’t do the gallery justice because we were just too tired, but the Bernini sculptures were truly magnificent! And we loved the paintings in the Pinoteca. Best of all, we were not rushed. We were able to take out time without being crowded. (Both of which were decidedly not the case at the Vatican Museums - to come later.)

    Gate 1 Travel contracts with a local travel agency, Carrani Travel, to offer some tours and tonight was one which we had decided to take: Illuminated Rome by Night. But before that, we were again ravenous and found what would prove to be our favorite restaurant in Rome: Ristorante Casa Mia (Via Simeto 15). It is just around the corner from our hotel and, therefore, really convenient after a long day of seeing the sights. When we walked in, the first thing we noticed is that all the other customers are Italian – a good sign according to my Fodorite sources! Of course, the restaurant is not crowded because it is way too early for most Italians to eat, but our stomachs are still on California time. I ordered the Pasta y Fagioli and – oh my god! It was white bean soup (Tuscan style). The waiter (we called him “Coach” from the character in “Cheers”) brought olive oil which he added to the soup and ground pepper. It was truly delicious! Then I had my first (but certainly not last) Pizza Margherita. I had them other places, but this was the best! And, of course, table wine. It’s a shame this restaurant is so far from the city center, because I highly recommend it. The soup was E7 and the pizza was E8.

    Now for the Illuminated Rome by Night tour. Of course, this was a bus tour and a great way to get an over-view of the city – as well as see the Colosseum and Forum by night! This is what we had been waiting for – my sisters and I have a fascination with Imperial Rome and we were really looking forward to exploring this area in depth, especially with the information and walking tour provided on this forum by Walter (ParadiseLost). To see it at night just whetted our appetites. The bus tour stopped for us to walk to Trevi Fountain and throw in our coins (good-got that out of the way and therefore would not have to go back) and at Piazza Navona which was very quiet. There had been a light rain and so the lights reflected off the wet pavement making it eerily beautiful. The fountains were amazing!

    OK, this is obviously going to be very long – I’ve only finished day 1 – and I’m warning you right now that there will be a lot of “amazing” “magnificent” “awesome” and the like. Suffice to say that the English vocabulary (at least mine) is just not adequate to describe the city of Rome.

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    I Survived the Vatican Museums Tour
    Saturday, Feb 18 My sisters and I are also avid Michelangelo maniacs and so had long anticipated seeing the Sistine Chapel. Gate 1 offers a Vatican Museums Tour and so we signed on for it. I knew from my research that Saturday is not a good day to visit the Vatican, and I really was not keen on a guided tour, but how bad could it be? We were about to find out.

    Our bus arrives at the Vatican and drives . . . and drives . . . and drives to find the end of the line. It is astonishing how many people are in line. Our tour director has a blue scarf on the end of a cane which she holds high for us to keep her in sight. Unfortunately, other tour directors with scarves of various shades of blue are doing the same so it becomes interesting, but we manage not to get lost - yet. That was the easy part. We then wait in line for 2 hours. That was the fun part. From the time we finally get through security, the crush of humanity is unbearable. So many tour directors giving their spiels, so many people - it's impossible to hear. The fact that there are simply too many people (hugely too many) makes it impossible to truly appreciate anything. Even worse, when we finally go into the Sistine Chapel, the crush of humanity and their impatience and rudeness make it impossible to take the time to really contemplate what is there.

    What a difference from the Borghese where reservations are made and entrance is limited in number. This was a horrible experience, causing us to want a t-shirt saying "I survived the Vatican Museum".

    Can someone explain to me why there is no control over the number of people admitted? Was my experience an aberration? I cannot imagine what it would be like in the heat of summer. And it really is tragic because there was no opportunity to enjoy any of the beautiful artwork surrounding us, much less Michelangelo's artistry on the Pope's ceiling. We are not Catholic, but we felt that it would have been even more disappointing if we were since so many people would make it impossible to express devotion of any kind.

    Sondra, Karen and I needed to get the bad taste of the Vatican out of our mouths so after the bus brought us back to our hotel, we went exploring. We took a taxi to the Colosseum and walked around just enjoying the beauty and magnificence and taking awesome pictures and video. It was dusk/evening of a beautiful day and the sites were closed, but we could walk up towards one of the churches and peek through the fences for a preview of what we would see the next day. We spent a lot of time at each of the forums and took some beautiful pictures.

    We then walked through Piazza Venezia and up Via del Corso, taking a few turns until we joined Rick Steves' "Night Walk Across Rome" just before the Trevi. Karen wanted gelato, but she wanted it on the Spanish Steps. There was gelato galore around the Trevi, but none in sight at the Spanish Steps. We climbed the Steps (it was pretty quiet for Saturday night, probably because it was February and there is construction work going on), then we began the long trek back to our hotel. A slight mis-turn (not the last we will take) took us through the Villa Borghese, which was quiet, peaceful and really beautiful at night. We made it back to our hotel, tired - well, exhausted - but it had been a beautiful, peaceful evening with only a few complaints from my little sisters about walking uphill :)

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    Thanks for the encouragement. This was our first trip to Italy and only my second trip to Europe, so everything was exciting and it is fun for me to re-live it by writing this trip report. Hopefully some of the information will be of benefit to others, as I have benefited from the wealth of information available on this forum.

    Roman Forum and Colosseum – and an encounter with Pickpockets
    Sunday, Feb 19: We learned the previous evening that our hotel us just a little too far to walk it to the Forum area. (Well, too far for us. Others in our group walked it all the time.) But it is also only a E10 or so taxi ride, so four of us shared a taxi. The wonderful thing we found out is that the Via dei Fori Imperiali is closed to traffic on Sunday! That made it so easy to navigate on foot. The taxi dropped us off a block or so away and we walked to the Victor Emmanuel Monument to begin our tour of the Roman Forum. This Monument is just too big and the style just doesn’t seem to fit in with its surroundings. Plus, as the tour guide pointed out on our evening bus tour, the marble is entirely the wrong color and obviously of inferior quality. However, there is a lovely view from the top.

    We first visited the Mamertine Prison, which was solemn and gray. It’s mentioned in the books I’ve been reading (Lindsay Davis’ “Falco” series) and, whether the apostle Paul was ever actually held there or not, it was a real prison and gives a sense of the brutality of the age. Very grim.

    The rest of this Forum is simply beyond my ability to describe. My sisters and I were absolutely blown away! I have to thank Walter (ParadiseLost) for his walking tour and his Forum stories because they made the area come alive. It is truly beautiful and, as Walter says, it becomes a living area, rather than just a lot of ruins, when you imagine what it was like with people on their daily business. The Falco books also helped me do this since they take place in 70-74 AD and these areas are the central markets, government buildings and temples the characters frequent. During our stay in Rome, we seemed to always be drawn back to this area, especially the Roman Forum.

    I have to mention what happened to me here. I was enraptured, taking video inside the Curia Julia. There was a crush of people behind me and I thought that a member of our group was the person sort of leaning on my right side breathing heavily in my ear. That is, until I felt the zipper on my shoulder bag slowly being opened. The rest happened so quickly. Just as I turned to see what was happening, I heard someone shouting in Italian. (I still don’t know if they saw or knew what was happening or were warning the girls to get out of Dodge.) Anyway, the next thing I knew, my purse had a zipper undone and there were two young (teenage?) girls taking off up the back side of the Forum with their long hair swinging down their backs. Well, I got a little excited because I had actually been pickpocketed in Rome, just like all the warnings! However, because of the warnings, my valuables were safely tucked away, inaccessible to any pickpocket, and all the girls got for their efforts was a small cosmetic bag containing a Chapstick, eye drops and an lipstick.

    I was excited and considered this an adventure until we were speaking to someone at Pompeii the next day who had been pickpocketed and lost all her credit cards. Of course, pickpockets are not a joke and can cause harm. I’m just thankful that I didn’t have the attitude “It won’t happen to me” and prepared, as well as insisting that my companions do the same so that this incident is just an amusing anecdote rather than inconvenient at best and tragic at worst.

    We met the rest of our group at Trajan’s Column and went for lunch. OK, true confessions time and this is what makes me wonder whether I will ever truly be a Fodorite: Even though I had lists of recommendations from this Forum (and others) we mostly ate on the fly and I did not end up using one of them. (Here I am blushing with shame.) But I have a good excuse! Because we were such a large group, most everybody was “just hungry” and did not feel like adventuring off to find a specific restaurant. So I acquiesced and we found a lovely one just up the street. (At least I did try not to eat right at the tourist areas. Can I be forgiven?) It was a good meal with excellent wine (a bottle of Chianti Classico this time) and the group was happy.

    We then went to the Colosseum, having purchased our tickets at the Palatine Hill so we didn’t have to wait in the long line. (This was neither the first nor the last time I was a heroine to my group thanks to Fodors and Rick Steves.) Again, it’s difficult to describe what the Colosseum is really like. It does seem much larger from the street outside than it does walking around it on the inside, but it is fascinating and awe-inspiring.

    After a long day, most of us just wanted an easy dinner close to home, so we went again to Casa Mia. This time, the staff welcomed us as though we were long-lost relatives. The dinner was crazy! Our waiter, Vincent, (Enzo to his friends), put on a comedy routine that had us in stitches. When we requested a bowl of gelato with six spoons, he went through the roof! He pulled Dyaisha from the table (she was the one who asked), put an apron on her and put her to work helping him clear another group’s table. When she returned from the kitchen, she was carrying a bowl of gelato and six spoons and laughing hysterically. It was so much fun and really made us feel at home in fun-loving Italy!

    Tomorrow: Pompeii

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    Great report. I'm heading to Rome in 10 days to meet up with my mother and sister (who have not yet been to Italy), so your comments are coming in handy. Looking forward to more. :)

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    I took some time today to watch a portion of the 4-1/2 hours of video I took on this trip. I'm so happy I did! Projected on my big screen TV, it felt like I was there again.


    Pompeii
    Monday Feb 20: The day dawned cool and rainy. So far the weather had been perfect (high 60’s F) so we really couldn’t complain. However, we were a bit leery of this day trip because of how badly the Vatican tour was, since this trip to Pompeii was arranged by the same tour company. It turned out our fears were needless, thank goodness.

    The daytrip consisted of a bus ride to Naples, a bus tour of the city with a glimpse of Capri across the bay, lunch in modern Pompeii and then a tour of the “real” Pompeii.
    It was rainy all the way to Naples and throughout the city tour and that was making me very dozy. We stopped at one point on the bay to see a hazy Capri off in the distance. I can’t even give an impression of Naples, since it is difficult to really feel the city from a bus. However, we were here to see Pompeii. Naples will have to be for another trip.

    After lunch, the sun came out (Yeah!). Our tour director, Eduardo, was wonderful: full of passion and appreciation of what we were seeing and it affected us deeply. Pompeii takes less imagination because of how intact it is, so it’s easy to detach emotionally and just see it as a museum. But it really is a memorial, a vibrant, living memorial to those who perished there. We especially felt this when we saw the figures of those who had lost their lives. Eduardo pointed out that the position of the pregnant woman shows her covering her mouth and turning away from Vesuvius. And the young boy has his hands over his mouth as well. It was chilling and deeply moving.

    Vesuvius remained behind clouds, but the sun did shine on us and it was memorable and emotional in a way that one has to experience for oneself. I am sure, though, that part of what made it so was that there were no crowds! It really pays to travel in the off-season and I think I’m spoiled now. I regret that the tour did not include the museum in Naples, but for the city of Pompeii, it was very thorough and we were given plenty of time on our own after the guided tour.

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    LC-- your report makes me laugh, although I know how serious the pickpocketing can be.

    I was getting on a train this Christmas in Rome. I had one of my children in on hand and felt them lean in. I also was pickpocketed, and they made off with both my maps and my small packet of tissue.

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    Our package had been “8 Days Rome with Florence and Pompeii” so, even though we had extended our trip for an extra 3 days in Florence, we also had a daytrip to Florence available to us. We debated about this. I really hated to cut anything from Rome since I was enjoying it so much, but I also knew that there was not going to be enough time in Florence, especially since we had scheduled an Accidental Tourist Cooking Class for one of the days. It’s the age-old dilemma: Never enough time.
    We decided to go to Florence for the daytrip to get acquainted with the city and to see David so our schedule there would not be so rushed. The one thing we were learning is that it’s no fun rushing from one place to another. Italy demands that you take your time and just enjoy.

    Tuesday, Feb 21: Bright and early, we pile into our bus for the trip to Florence. It was a rainy (off and on) day, but the countryside was still beautiful. We could see some hill towns as we drove past and the rolling hills and farmland were beautiful – and this was winter!

    Our bus took us to Piazzale Michelangelo for our first view of Florence – how beautiful! It was like a picture and, not for the first time on this trip, I got that weird feeling of “Am I actually seeing this?” We then went to our drop-off point so that we could walk to the Accademia.

    What a different place Florence is from Rome! Its beauty is so different from Rome, yet both are amazing! The Accademia looks like a hole-in-the-wall place but what treasures it holds!

    Again, words fail to describe Michelangelo’s David. You know you’ll appreciate the artistry, the beauty from a technical standpoint. (After all, Michelangelo was a really good sculptor. :) ) But the way it moves you cannot be anticipated. You just turn the corner and . . . there he is! He draws your attention and you can’t keep your eyes off him. There are other beauties in the corridor leading to him, (the Prisoners, the Pieta), but they fade into the background and you only have eyes for David. His face is beautiful and the expression so like a young man with a task before him that, from an adult perspective is insurmountable, but with the assurance of youth (and the power of God), David knows he can do it! (If you have ever had a teenage son, you’ll understand what I mean. They view themselves as almost immortal and feel they can accomplish anything! David’s face reminded me of my son.) I fell in love.

    I forced myself to give attention to the Prisoners and found I was captivated by their body language. Even though they are technically “unfinished”, since they were commissioned for the never-completed tomb of Julius II, you can see how they demonstrate Michelangelo’s feeling that God had already put the figures in the marble and his job was simply to chip it away to reveal what was there. These powerful men are struggling to free themselves and symbolic of struggles we all feel at times.

    Also, the unfinished Pieta. Our tour guide (and, I’m sorry, I did not get her name) pointed out that it is the only Michelangelo Pieta in which the attention is on the dead Christ – all the others focus on the sorrow of Mary and those around her. She noted the contrast between David’s vibrant, living body and Christ’s dead one: the same human form but one full of vigor and the other absolutely lifeless. Also, in his face, one can see the love of Christ.

    We had lunch in Florence, arranged by the tour, and it was very good. We then went to the Piazza della Signoria and Santa Croce , did some shopping, and took the bus back to Rome. Florence was wonderful and we look forward to returning, but tomorrow is our last day in Rome. :(

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    I'm happy to read that you brought your video recorder. Many people on this forum are afraid to do that for one reason or another. A video is absolutely the best way to record a trip.

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    Hi hopscotch -
    I am so happy I took my video recorder. It is very small so was easy to use and carry around, and it captures the sounds as well as the sights. My sister took stills with her digital, so, between the two, we have a wonderful record of our trip.

    Perhaps some don't like to take video because it makes you "look like a tourist", but since we were 8 lively and very excited Californian women in Rome, we were going to look like tourists no matter what we did. So we just decided to relax and be who we were.

    But rest assured that we did not do anything too outrageous!

    I'll post more later today.
    Linda

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    Wednesday, Feb 22: Our last day in Rome and there is so much we have not yet seen! We decide to begin at the Pantheon and take a taxi there. The Pantheon is amazingly beautiful. I especially like it from the outside, although the dome and the oculus are awesome. It’s fascinating to me that the Pantheon is lower than its surrounding area. It reminded me of the Cathedral in Mexico City which is sinking, having been built on land-fill. But of course, the Pantheon is not sinking. The buildings around it are built upon the remains of centuries and one can only imagine what lies beneath them.

    Thinking of that, (and after a stop for gelato – yes it’s only 10:30, but when the urge hits, it must be satisfied) we walk the couple of blocks to the Area Sacra (Largo Argentina) temple ruins which were discovered when construction was going on in the 20’s. The ruins in themselves are fascinating, but add to that the location of the actual murder of Julius Caesar and – wow! Thanks again to Walter for all the information he provided regarding the exact location. My sisters and I were enthralled – and the cats were cute too! (Just be careful! The traffic is quite hectic around this area and [as usual], Pedestrians: watch out!)

    We then went in search of the Theater of Marcellus and the Temple of Apollo. We got a little lost, of course, with the result that we took a walking tour of part of the Jewish Ghetto, which we wanted to see anyway. We ended up coming upon the Theater from the backside, from the direction of the apartment building built right on top and incorporated into the archeological excavation of this ancient site. Here again was modern Rome build upon centuries of it’s past. Of course this happens in other places, but it continually amazed me that the past is so real in Rome! It’s not just preserved on a hill somewhere on the outskirts of town, but right there in the middle of traffic and busy modern Roman lives.

    After exploring this area, we crossed the busy Via Teatro di Marcello towards Capitoline Hill with the intention of seeing the Capitol Hill Museum. Now, I usually have a good sense of direction, but Rome really beat me! I even had a compass, but it was too much (Florence is just as bad). However, there are worse places to get lost. Everywhere we turned it was beautiful and there was a little café or enoteca where we could rest and get our bearings. So this is what we did. We had lunch and pondered the map to find out how to “get there from here”.

    When we finally climbed the hill to the Capitol Hill Museum, the views of the Roman Forum were absolutely breathtaking! The sun was shining brightly and the clouds were cotton balls. This museum is a really good one and the view from the Tabularium really gives perspective to the Forum. I would definitely go back to give more attention to this museum.

    But we had one piece of unfinished business: Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s. This is a must see for the three of us, so we went down the majestic steps of Michelangelo’s square and grabbed a taxi to Vatican City.

    The rest of our group had gone that morning for the traditional Wednesday morning audience with the Pope. What a surprise when we arrived at St. Peter’s and found them still there at 4:00 in the afternoon! Seems they had missed (on purpose?) the bus and decided to climb the stairs of the dome. They all remarked that they had been very moved by the papal audience and, although it was long, they were very happy that they had done it. My sisters and I spent some time with the Pieta and wandered around St. Peter’s. It is designed to impress and it does that.

    We left Vatican City, walking over the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuelle II bridge, which gave us great views of Castel Sant’Angleo. Taxi back to the hotel and our last dinner at Casa Mia. How sad to leave this wonderful city, just as we were really beginning to feel at home here!

    Thoughts of Rome: Too much to see and do and never enough time! And yet, you simply must stop and just enjoy the feel of the city. We really had only four full days in Rome (and the first day was our arrival) and that simply is not enough. I love Rome and very much look forward to taking my husband there.

    Tomorrow, we leave for Florence.

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    Thursday, Feb 23: Florence or Please Don¡¦t Throw Linda From the Train

    Well, it all started because I saw on the Trenitalia website that they offer group discounts to groups of 6 or more persons. The snag was, you cannot purchase them online. You must purchase them through a travel agency in Italy. ¡§No problem,¡¨ Ira said. ¡§Any travel agency in Rome will be able to sell you the tickets.¡¨ ¡§No problem,¡¨ ellenem said. ¡§Ask your hotel for the nearest travel agency. Any will do.¡¨ ¡§No problem,¡¨ tuscanlifedit said. ¡§Just look for the Trenitalia logo.¡¨ Well . . .

    There happened to be a travel agency just across the street from our hotel. The hotel recommended them; they had the Trenitalia logo in their window. ¡§No problem¡¨, right? Well . . . There is no national boundary for inept customer service.

    I purchased the tickets on Wednesday and I should have known when the woman at the travel agency seemed like she really did not want to issue my tickets. I had everything, date and time preferred, written down and, between her English and my sister¡¦s Italian, managed to convey that we were looking for 1st class EuroStar with the group discount. The crux of the problem was that the woman was not really paying attention to us; she was conversing with other men behind the desk while she was doing our tickets and so . . . There was just one ticket for the three of us: 1st class to Florence at 9:30 and the seat assignments were all listed. From Pisa to Florence, we would be on a local train, so no seat assignments and the ticket was a blanket one for 8 adults for travel anytime until April. OK. I had the concierge at the hotel look at the tickets before we left for the train station Thursday morning. He said they were fine.

    The second problem was, I tried to pack light ¡V really I did! And so did everyone else. The problem is that winter clothing is much bulkier than summer. Plus, we had to do some shopping!

    Anyway, we arrive at the train station in plenty of time and look for the track assignment for our destination. No problem. We see it (through to Milan) on the big board and go to the track. No problem. The train comes in and we are lined up at car 4, per our tickets. No problem. We haul our heavy, bulky, and lots of luggage onto the train. Still really no problem. We look for our seats and ¡V Uh Oh! Problem. There are people sitting in our seats! Not just one, but every one of our seats has someone else sitting in them. They check their tickets, we check ours, everyone has duplicate seat assignments! All this and us with our luggage still blocking the aisle and causing general confusion. What¡¦s the problem? Finally a Very Kind Italian Woman looked at our ticket and . . . Uh Oh . . . it is for yesterday! The woman at the travel agency had issued the ticket for the same day I was purchasing it, even though I had written the date down for her (European style: day/month/year) and even though I was making my purchase at 9:15am for a 9:30 departure and would never have been able to make the train even if I had wanted it for the same day!

    Well, the VKIW said ¡§No problem¡¨ just find an empty seat and let the conductor straighten it out, because by now the train is leaving the station. (BTW, the train waits quite a while at the station so there is no rush, assuming you are on the right one and on the correct day.) We work our way to the luggage storage compartment and fill it with our luggage and try to find an empty seat. Of course, there are none, at least not in this car. However, here comes the conductor (conductress, actually) who looks at our ticket and speaks to the VKIW on our behalf. All I can think of is the movie and just pray that neither the conductor nor my group decides to ¡§Throw Linda From the Train¡¨.

    You know what the conductor said? ¡§No problem!¡¨ Just find an empty seat. So, we did, in the dining car! Now, I have not traveled much on US trains, but I just don¡¦t think this is the way it would have been handled here. I love Italians!

    The good thing about the dining car is we could eat and drink so my sister Sondra proceeds to order wine. Of course, it is only 10:15am, but the waiter does not even blink an eye and that became the joke for the rest of our trip: ¡§It¡¦s 10:15 somewhere!¡¨

    We actually had a very comfortable and enjoyable train ride to Florence. Shortly before arrival, we made our way back to the luggage storage area and made plans for unloading: assembly line. A couple of us on the ground and each of us along the way passing the luggage to one another. No problem. It worked perfectly!

    May I just say here that traveling in a group of 8 persons is fraught with possibilities, most of them negative. Just as an example, I am really the one with all the extra luggage (and will have even more after Florence ļ ) yet everyone worked together to help one another and with a really good attitude. This is typical of the entire trip. We did not attempt to do everything together, but when we did, for the most part there was mutual respect and understanding and a great deal of laughing.

    Our hotel in Florence is Croce di Malta, just three or four block from Santa Maria Novella train station and just across the street from Santa Maria Novella Plaza. Of course, with the amount of heavy luggage we had, one block would be far! But we walked it, found our hotel and they kindly held our baggage until our rooms were ready. We set out to explore and immediately were struck with the amount of really good shopping there is in Florence! Wow! We saw some of it when we came on our day trip, but these beautiful stores with lovely merchandise are everywhere! So, we stopped into a few stores and at the last one asked the shopkeeper for a recommendation for lunch. She recommended Il Latini, which was close by and has been mentioned on this Forum and at slowtrav.com. What a wonderful introduction to Tuscan dining! Family style with soup and pasta, lots of wine and a dessert wine for E10/person! The food was delicious, the restaurant was lively and our waiter was lots of fun ¡V perfect!

    My sisters (Karen and Sondra) and I took a Walking Tour of Florence that evening. The brochure was in the hotel lobby. (We later found it listed in Rick Steves¡¦ book ¡V but after-the-fact.) Our tour guide was Sylvia and our tour took us for the most part to the Oltrarno side of Florence. We were so happy it did because, since there is so much to see and do in Florence, we may have missed this truly delightful section of Florence. Our tour ended with a glass of wine at a little wine bar (we had cheese, too. Pecorino is the food of the gods!) and it was a perfect ending to a hectic, stressful, but ultimately delightful day.

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    I apologize for the funny squiggles in the above post but Fodors wouldn't take my quotation marks when I transfered from a Word doc and then wouldn't take my editing. (It usually does, just not this time.) Anyway, I hope it's understandable.

    Linda

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    Linda,

    I'm enjoying your report. Interesting to learn that the Theater of Marcellus (like so many places in the US) has benn converted into condos! I wonder if the plumbing is over 2000 years old?

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    Bardo, I heard a bit about the history of the Theatre of Marcellus while on a walking tour. It was used as a home base by the medieval Pierleoni family, whose history is too involved for a short post. Then at a later date, they disappeared from history, and another family took up residence there, adding to the building (as I think the Pierleonis did as well). If I recall correctly, the family that took up residence in the Renaissance period still owns part of the complex.

    I'm pretty sure the plumbing is up to date :).

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    LC...I must admit, my friend and I also, after a very long day on our feet, eat very simply and whatever is convenient. We have eaten just plain baguette sandwiches at 8pm in Paris just because we are too darn tired to shower and go back out! But even a baguette sandwich dinner in Paris beats steak in our hometown anyday!!!!

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    dmkujat -
    That is so true! I remember visiting the Louvre and Orsay a few years ago and being ecstatic over the pre-packaged chicken and bacon sandwiches in the museum cafe. This trip I had a ham and cheese baguette sandwich at CDG airport during our layover and it was wonderful!

    We never had a bad meal (or a bad glass of wine) during our entire trip and yet we ate very simply and quite cheaply. We actually intended to go more upscale for dinner a few times, but, either due to a long day or because our lunch was so satisfying we were not hungry, we never did. Oh well, next time!

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    Friday, Feb 24: Accidental Tourist Cooking Class

    We had all eagerly anticipated this tour. Majla at Accidental Tourist was very cordial in the emails we sent back and forth arranging it. We walked to the pick-up site where we had delicious cappuccino at Zoe’s café while we waited for another group of eight persons. This second group were students in Florence and were doing the winery/wine tasting part of the tour with us. We met Steve (originally from Philadephia but now in Florence for his music and his Italian wife) and Susanna (born in Florence but living in West Hollywood for the past 17 years, she only returned to Florence in December.) Susanna drove the van with our group of 8 and kept us laughing (not hard to do) with her comparisons of Italians vs Americans.

    We drove for about 40 minutes through beautiful countryside and villages. It was quite cold and overcast and yet the scenery was so beautiful – and this was winter! We arrived at the estate where they make wine and olive oil: Steve explained the olive oil process and Majla gave us the winery tour. Both were delightful, informative and entertaining. Then came the best part: the wine tasting. Well, we tasted olive oil, too and it was delicious but the wine was superb! Four wines – each one better than the previous. Well, at least the first three. The last was Vino Sancti – Holy Wine. I did not care for it. I purchased olive oil and wine, as did others. We said goodbye to the students and to Majla (who told us to be sure Steve sang for us) and then the 8 of us continued to the Cooking Class.

    We were going to learn to make pasta. I already know how to make pasta because my husband learned how from watching his Italian grandmother and I learned from him. But the others in the group had never done it so we were all looking forward to the class. Steve drove us to the 12th century farmhouse of Christiana and Gianni. Gianni had been a paratrooper, then a race car driver, and then many other things before he and Christiana settled down into this lovely home filled with antiques, family pictures and the smell of good food.

    We began downstairs around a large, oilcloth covered table with five pasta machines. Steve gave us the lesson, demonstrating and explaining and letting us taste the ingredients as we went along. And of course, there was wine! You simply cannot make good pasta without wine! Plus, Steve did sing opera for us and he has a beautiful voice. I felt like I was in a movie. This was so much fun – even my non-cooking sister made pasta! We made ravioli and fettuccini (although it’s not called “fettuccini” in Tuscany. I can’t remember what it is called, but it started with a “t”.) We then took it all upstairs to Christiana. She had prepared the first courses of our lunch: Sausage and cheese crostini, egg, potato and onion frittata and then our pasta served in a very light garlic and olive oil sauce. The fettuccini also had porcini mushrooms. And of course more wine! We ate around Christiana’s large kitchen table. Everything was delicious, the room was cozy and warm, and the companionship among us was wonderful. Steve made us coffee and Christiana had prepared Zuppa Inglese for dessert, a fabulous trifle-like concoction with chocolate, custard and lady-fingers. It had some sort of liquore that is an old Tuscan recipe and used to be colored by ladybug wings. Now, of course, they use food coloring. (This liquore is sold at Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy.)

    This day was another perfect day – definitely a highlight of our entire trip. I was again the heroine of our group since I had found out about this class and suggested it to them. (Of course, I found out about it on Fodors.) We were a very relaxed and “happy” group as Steve returned us to Florence. Some of our group went later to a performance of madrigals by the vocal group he teaches, which they thoroughly enjoyed. I, however, was in that numb, completely satisfied, la-la-land where all I wanted was my bed – and maybe another glass of wine!

    Yes, I love Rome. The problem is, I also love Florence!

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    OK, I’ll try to finish this up today. I apologize that it’s taking so long and I know I provide way more that anyone is interested in, but it’s been a nice way for me to remember.

    Saturday, Feb 25: Florence

    There are so many museums to see in Florence, but we didn’t want to spend all of our precious few days in museums. The entire city is “art” and needs to be felt as well as seen. We had reservations at the Uffizi for 11:00am and so we made arrangements to meet our group there and just took off to explore Florence, taking pictures and stopping in shops along the way.

    The Uffizi is a truly beautiful gallery, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. My personal favorite is the Michelangelo’s “Holy Family” because it really looks like sculpture with a paintbrush, as Rick Steves describes it in his guidebook. It was just amazing to stand right in front of it, one of the few paintings Michelangelo did, instead of craning my neck to look up at it, as with the Sistine Chapel ceiling. :) Of course, Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” was truly lovely, as were so many of the paintings in this fantastic gallery. I’m so glad we did not miss it.

    We then explored the city and did some shopping, ending at the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, which happened to be right across the street from our hotel. We had fun trying fragrances and deciding what we wanted. Probably because it was not crowded, the woman waiting on us was very patient and accommodating and we purchased several goodies.

    I have not yet written about our hotel, Croce di Malta, but that is not because we did not enjoy our stay there. We were very pleased with this hotel, which is on Via Scala, just over from the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. This Piazza is not particularly beautiful. (There was restoration being done on a huge building on the Piazza, which very much detracted from its aesthetics. As our tour guide, Sylvia, had told us, there is always restoration going on several places throughout Florence.) Croce di Malta is an obviously old building, but the interior and the rooms have been restored and maintained. The rooms have traditional high ceilings and our room had a small balcony which overlooked a beautiful courtyard. And the windows opened, so we could hear the birds singing along with a musician in one of the local cafes. It was quite cold in Florence, so we did not spend any time in the courtyard, but it was a lovely view. Via Scala is not a very busy street, traffic wise, and the Farmacia di SMN is just across and down the street, so that was very convenient. The included breakfast was not particularly good and the hotel caters to tour groups (mostly German and Asian). However, the staff were very friendly and helpful. I would definitely stay there again.

    Sunday, Feb 26: Our last morning in Florence

    We only had the morning and then were looking forward to another train experience to Pisa. The night before we had purchased a duffle bag because our stuff seemed to be expanding – another piece of baggage!

    For the morning, we decided we had to see the Duomo Museum, mostly because I really wanted to see the original panels for the Baptistery doors by Ghiberti. This museum is a must-see as far as I am concerned (and my sisters agreed with me). The Baptistery door panels are under glass, but at eye level so you can really appreciate them. Magnificent! And so many other wonderful things: Donatello sculptures (including “Mary Magdalene” carved of white poplar and very modern-looking), beautiful cantoria by della Robbia and Donatello, and another “Pieta” by Michelangelo, this one with himself as the model for Nicodemus. The museum is not large but is filled with the most beautiful pieces!

    On the way back to our hotel, we took a slight “detour” (OK we got lost) and saw a lot more of Florence, including a flea market. So many beautiful things and so little room in the luggage! Darn!

    Because of the luggage, we decided to take a taxi to the train station, even though it was only about four blocks (long blocks) away. I was a little apprehensive about the train ride to Pisa because of our previous experience and because it was to be a local train with no reserved seats (and we with so much baggage). We waited for our track assignment, enjoying a snack of a McD’s hamburger. (Yes, it was tasty.)

    When we trudged to track 1, our train was already there and waiting for us, so we began to board the front car (which of course ends as the last car when we leave the station). Jennifer noticed that immediately when we entered, there was a section for bicycles that also had two benches. Perfect! We stored all our luggage and sat on the benches beside it.

    A few minutes after the train pulled away from the station, I remembered that I had not validated the ticket! Yikes! We planned to pull the “dumb American tourist” act (which really was not an act) but did not need to worry because no one came to check on us. The train was making stops along the way so we expected it to take a while, but an hour and 10 minutes later the station sign said “Pisa Centrale” and we were there. We did our “assembly line” unloading of the baggage and walked to the taxi stand for taxis to the Royal Victoria Hotel.

    Final segment to come: Pisa (where Linda finally falls off her rocker – I mean, chair)

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    Hi LCBoniti, I am so enjoying your trip report, every little detail!! I am sorry that it is almost coming to an end. I agree, the two big frustrations in Italy is that there is never enough time to see everything you want to and due to luggage restrictions there is no way one can purchase everything lovely thing they want.

    Sooo, now about falling off the chair in Pisa..continue please!!

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    Do not apologize, you are not providing too much information. There are plenty of us who enjoy hearing every detail! How nice to travel with a large group who all get along so well and where there isn't even one who is a pain in the neck! Lovely.

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    Thank you all for the kind comments. This is my first trip report and rather than be nervous about it, I just decided to go for it!

    TexasAggie: You can check the website at www.accidentaltourist.com. Their usual price is E80/person, although we got a E5/person group discount. I truly don't see how they can do this for such a reasonable price! It is well worth much more than that (just don't tell them!)

    Accidental Tourist is also mentioned in several trip reports on this forum, which is where I found out about it in the first place. I have not seen anything negative about them. They offer several tours and I look forward to taking more in the future.

    I promise to finish this later today. I'm already planning a trip to Venice and Florence in October to finally take my hubbie. (Yes, I'm hooked on Italy!) He really got a kick out of it when I told him several persons commented on my Italian last name. He's very proud of his Italian heritage, even though he's never been to Italy. This will be wonderful for us both.

    Linda

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    Linda, your report is wonderful and it's great to hear about a group of women who travelled so well together! BTW, I believe the pasta you were cooking were Tagliatelle.

    We were in Rome during some of your trip (our 2nd visit) and now I'm trying to juggle our 2007 trips to include a week in Umbria w/a couple of days in Rome (too many places--to little time).

    I'm glad that you will get to experience the magic of Venice w/your husband!

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    Hi LCBoniti ~ I too, am greatly enjoying your report. What a wonderful adventure, and the cooking class sounded delightful, but made me hungry, ha!

    I was happy to read that you and your DH will be traveling to Italy together this fall.

    Thanks again, Tiff

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    Pisa ¡V where Linda imitates the Leaning Tower, with one difference!

    Pisa is a quaint, very pretty city along both sides of the Arno River. The Royal Victoria Hotel is on the street (very busy) that runs along the Tower side of the Arno. Our rooms all had views of the Arno. The building is very old and is furnished with Victoriana and decorated appropriate to that era (but not overdone). Again, the staff was wonderful even preparing coffee for us when we had to leave very early the next morning, the rooms and bathrooms were very good sized and the location is about a 10 minute walk from the Field of Miracles.

    The afternoon in Pisa was beautiful: sunny and warmer than Florence. We purposely scheduled only a few hours in Pisa, so immediately after dropping luggage off in our rooms, we headed for the Field of Miracles and the Leaning Tower. Since it was Sunday, many of the shops and restaurants were closed. And, since it was off-season, although there were crowds, it was not nearly as bad as I¡¦m sure it can be. Yet there were plenty of people. The buildings are beautiful ¡V different from anything we had yet seen. There was a two hour wait to climb the Tower (even in off-season) and a cost of E15, so we did not do it. I¡¦m sure we would have been more impressed with Pisa if we had.

    There was another thread on this forum asking whether Pisa is worth a visit. My opinion is, if you have the time, sure. However, I would not take any time away for Florence to make a special trip. I was really happy that we timed our trip to leave us the morning in Florence.

    After taking pictures of all the areas of the Field of Miracles, (the Tower is only one of three buildings), we stopped into a trattoria for lunch. The mood was a little melancholic, since we would be flying home tomorrow. I certainly did not want to leave Italy! So, the wine was flowing. We had pecorino and pears and ¡V OH MY GOODNESS! We¡¦d had pecorino before, of course, but with the pears it was to die for! My last (for this trip) Pizza Margherita (plus olives). More wine. Then it was time to pay the check. I neglected to zip my bag closed after paying and spilled some of its contents on the floor. No problem. However, as I was leaning over to pick my things up off the floor, I leaned a little too far and ¡V suddenly I found myself on the floor, flat on my derriere! I¡¦m not sure quite how it happened, although I swore to everyone that it was the metal chair on the tiled floor that caused the fall! It had nothing to do with my leaning too far or the amount of wine that I had imbibed! Anyway, everyone, including our waiter, had a good laugh and it revived our spirits. (I¡¦ll do anything for the morale of the group!).

    Believe it or not, we still needed to purchase a few souvenirs for folks back home, and Pisa is the perfect place to do it. We found bottles of grappa in leaning towers (very cute!), leaning tower mugs (which actually lean), other leaning tower items and then some really good (aged 20 years) balsamic vinegar.

    Back at the hotel, several of us wanted to go out for a last toast to Italy. Just at the corner we found a bar full of college kids. We ordered a bottle of Prosecco and the waitress brought us plates of complimentary hors d¡¦oeuvres and we re-hashed some of the highlights of our trip. There were lowlights, too, of course. We were, after all, 8 persons from very diverse background, age and ethnicity. But, all in all, we handled our differences without allowing them to deteriorate into major ones, and I would not hesitate to go on another trip with these same 7 other persons. So, we toasted Italy, several times! ƒº

    Monday, Feb 27: Up at 5:00am to catch our flight (which was at 7:25am). Again, everything went smoothly and, before we knew it, we were at Charles de Gaulle airport for a three-hour layover. Unfortunately, we did not get bumped or delayed. Both legs of the return flight were Air France and everything went smoothly. The flight from Paris to LAX was really long, but, again, thanks for short legs (plus I had the front seat in my compartment so even more leg room!)

    Thoughts of Italy:
    I over-planned and over-prepared. Some of this was good, but Italy is very easy to navigate. All one really needs is a good attitude and then to just relax and enjoy, not go-go-go! You¡¦ll never be able to do everything, so save some for the next trip! The Italian people (and even fellow-travelers from other countries) are gracious and hospitable and very willing to help when they are able (and offer suggestions when they are not).

    I was amazed at just the AGE of everything! Here in the States, if something is two hundred years old, we treasure and preserve it. In Italy, if something is two hundred years old, it is modern!

    The smartest thing I did: Took the recommendations on this forum for the Accidental Tourist Cooking Class, which really gave us a glimpse into Tuscany and whetted our appetite for more.

    Second smartest thing I did: Printed out everything Walter (ParadiseLost) has posted regarding the Forum, Julius Caesar and Pompeii. His research and insight made these areas really live for us. Thank you, Walter!

    Dumbest thing I did: Well, I did a lot of dumb things, but nothing that was earth-shattering or ruined our trip. I learned a lot from this trip (including how to read a train ticket) and have absolutely no regrets.

    So, now to planning the next trip! Thanks, Fodorites!

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    "Of course, our flight came in a terminal A and international flights depart from terminal E so we hiked this: A --------------------------------------------------------------E.
    It took the half hour we were ahead. I'd hate to do this if the connection were tight."

    FYI, your hike (you did, I hope, at least use the moving sidewalks) from Terminal A to Terminal E was entirely avoidable: you walked right by the train (several times, in fact, as there's a stop at each terminal) that would have taken you from A to E and anywhere in between in a couple of minutes.

    Didn't it strike you as odd that so many other people were waiting for the train? And I'm guessing that the issue with seat assignment by Delta had something to do with Gate 1 Travel.

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    Therese -
    We did use the moving "sidewalks" and yes, we did see the train. We were tired of sitting and decided to walk, not realizing how far it was. Seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

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    The "transportation mall" that connects the terminals is about a mile long, so even if you're only going between two adjacent terminals it's generally worth taking the train.

    One of the reasons that Hartsfield-Jackson airport is so efficient (and believe me, it is) is the fact that the terminals are large enough to accomodate virtually all of the arriving and departing flights: you never have to board or deplane onto the tarmac, you never have to be transported via bus to a remote gate, etc. Once you've arrived at a gate the plane is there, ready to board, and once you've deplaned you're in the airport proper, ready to transfer to your connecting flight or head for ground transportation.

    The large terminals translate to large distances between them, and the train's the best and fastest way to deal with it.

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    What a wonderful trip report, thank you so much.
    My sister, a friend and myself are leaving this coming Friday to "do" Rome, Florence, Venice and this has given us so much wonderful information.
    We also have done much planning, information from Fodor's, etc etc.
    and we are quite sure we will have as wonderful a time as you.
    Thanks again.

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    Thank you samsmom and marigross for bookmarking my trip report. Please let me know if you have any questions.

    I hope this means you are both planning trips to Italy of your own!

    Linda

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    LCBoniti, DD is wanting a trip to Italy for her 15th B'day...we might be compelled to oblige...but its still two years away....maybe we do it for her 14th...I WANT TO GO NOW!!!!!

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    While livng in Italy two years ago, I met up with 11 other women from around the world (UK: London and Edinburgh,Canada:Newfoundland, Quebec, BC, USA:California, New Jersey and Colorado) for a Rome-Tuscan 10 holiday. No one knew everyone, but all of us knew at least 2 others of the group.

    I had been very iffy about this idea before joining up (as I was the only one who spoke Italian and didn't want to be the resident tour guide at all hours).

    I needn't have worrried...our trip gelled like yours did. Much camaraderie, laughter and adventure/ middle-aged, female style. Thank you, Linda, for the original post- a real gem and also to those who "topped" it. I am keen to get on board with our gang again who are planning to conquer Portugal for our next jaunt! I love travelling with my husband but there is something delightful about this version of touring, too.

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    LJ -
    I agree with you absolutely. I love traveling with my husband, but there is something so special about traveling with other women. Most of these girls were younger in age than I and I enjoyed that as well.

    I am currently planning a trip to Venice and Florence with my husband and another to Great Britain with most of these same girls!

    Marigross -
    Do not delay if you can help it! I know Italy will always be there, but it is a shame to put off travel too long. I really wish I had begun to travel earlier in life. Then I would already have many experiences under my belt! Fortunately all of my children have the bug and the experiences they have had are invaluable. Check out the thread for "Travelgirl's Trip of a Lifetime" to see what I mean.

    It pleases me greatly that you both enjoyed my trip report!
    Happy travels!
    Linda

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    Linda,

    I am travelling to Rome and Florence in February with my daughter, who will be 14 y.o. by then. I notice that you do not mention the weather much. I take that as a good sign, indicating that it was not a problem! When planning the trip, I realized that we would not have the glorious flowers and greenery summer travelers experience, but that hopefully we would also not have the crowds.

    I loved reading your report...your humor and open nature must make you a pleasure to travel with! My daughter and I will refer to this often as we get ready for our trip.

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    Hi samsmom!

    How wonderful to be traveling with your daughter! You will make beautiful memories to share.

    I did not mention the weather too much because, you are right, it was not a problem. I confess I obsessed about it before hand because we live in So Cal and are not used to cold weather. However, if you dress for winter, you will not have a problem. I took shirts and sweaters I could layer, a full-length raincoat with a hood and zip out liner, wool socks, boots and shoes that had soles with traction and gloves. I purchased scarves in Italy. I also took a small umbrella which I seldom used, finding the hooded coat sufficient.

    It was in the mid to high 60's (F) in Rome and cooler in Florence - high 50's to low 60's. But I expected that. I also expected some rain, but it usually rained at night and so never interfered with anything we planned to do. The coldest day was the day we spent with Accidental Tourist - so that worked out wonderfully since we were indoors for the most part. I know there can be snow, but it does not usually last because it does not stay cold enough during the day. Just check the weather on the internet - although it will not necessarily be accurate. Our forecasts were for rain every day and that did not happen!

    The scenery in summer must be awesome because it is truly beautiful in winter! And the lack of crowds not only makes sightseeing easier, it also makes the shopkeepers and restaurant workers more relaxed and friendly. (We still made reservations for the museums/art galleries where we could.) I would not hesitate to go again at that time of year.

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm sure you will have a wonderful trip!

    Linda

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    LCBonili, Wonderful trip report! While I love traveling with my hubby, who is my best friend, I have to say that traveling with women is also a unique experience as well. Your trip sounded like such a good time. I hear you on the graffiti in Rome, we were shocked that is just was everywhere. We were "scammed" by a tour guide at the Vatican who lead us to believe we could get in ahead of everyone and do the museum in the limited time we had. Oh well, live and learn. We look forward to returning to Rome. Our travel motto is that it is cocktail hour somewhere, so let's have our wine! We leave for Italy in a mere 5 days (Lakes region, Dolomites and Venice) for a glorious 16 days! Your report has heightened my mood, great job, thank you. Shirley PS Our trip report on Rome, Tuscany & Cinque Terre is at http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34699548

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    LC

    What a fresh, down-to-earth report!

    First, although you had your disappointments with Gate1, were you pleased in general with the idea of a company handling some details? I ask because getting 8 people to agree, especially when some of you didn't know each other well to start, could have been difficult.

    Regarding the Vatican museums: I am sorry your experience was such a downer. I suspect the day of the week might have been to blame, and perhaps the time of day. We arrived before the place so much had opened on a Thursday morning in early April (before Easter that year). There was a line already, but manageable: I think it took us all of 15-20 mins to get in once the doors opened.

    It is true that the place was crowded, i.e. you couldn't see Raphael's paintings without people passing in front, but as you know the canvases (canvasses??) are large so it didn't bother us. That said, we were selective about what we saw, and walked quickly between selections, so as to try to stay ahead of what seemed like even busier crowds behind. Possibly this is one place where going in a group, even a small one, is a hindrance since you are less free to cast about for a good spot. (We had audioguides which were excellent, if memory serves one just pressed the button for a commentary on the piece with the corresponding number.)

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    I missed this report the first time around, so I am really glad it was brought up again. Great report, sounds like a wonderful trip.

    So, are you going in the fall with your husband as you had hoped?

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    Loved your report! Sounds like you and your companions/sisters all had such a great attitude and approach to the trip!So many great ideas! Were your day trips all through the same tour company? Sounds like they were pretty good... Another question, you mentioned meeting up with a Rick Steve's walking tour one night in Rome, was this just happenstance that you bumped into a tour group, or did you actually join a tour? ( Is there such a thing as a Rick Steve's walking tour if you're not on one of their trips?) Finally, what exactly was your strategy to thwart the pickpockets...money belt in pants vs pouch around the neck? Hidden pockets inside clothing? Just curious, if you don't mind sharing what you thought worked the best.

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    I'm so happy that you have found and enjoyed my trip report! I learned so much from other trip reports before we went and I love that I can answer questions for others now. So, here goes:

    LuvToRoam/Shirley: I love your motto! Have a wonderful trip. I am going to check out your trip report and look forward to a new one when you return!

    Sue_xx_yy: Re Gate 1, my attitude has mellowed. It was very convenient for the airfare and hotel to be totally taken care of by them. I am not an experienced traveler, and worrying about finding the cheapest airfare is a little intimidating to me. Plus, you are right about getting the 8 of us to agree, as well as not having one person responsible for the choice of hotel. The other advantage, which I neglected to mention, is that we made our reservation with a nominal deposit and did not have to pay for the whole trip until 6 weeks before departure. That was really great since, if we had made our own airline reservations, we would have had to pay for the airfare up front. Plus, there is a discount for cash payment rather than credit card.

    As for the Vatican, maybe some day I'll try it again. There is too much beauty there to pass it up because of one bad experience. I will, however, definitely not go on a group tour. I'm sure that and the day of the week were our downfall.

    Nikki: Unfortunately, my husband and I have had to postpone our trip until Fall of 2007, but we will get there! At least I have gotten him a passport so that we can take advantage of any last-minute deals/opportunities that may come up before then.

    BPR: The tours we took were through Gate 1. They use a local tour service to arrange everything. We enjoyed them all, with the exception of the Vatican Museums. (See above)

    As for Rick Steves' walking tour, we did not meet with a group but took the self-guided walking tour he describes in his book on Rome. Sorry for the confusion.

    Re pickpockets, I used a waist money belt most of the time. I did have a small video camera with me and so purchased a purse/travel bag from Fossil which had a large compartment that was perfect for it. It also had several other compartments which were not easily accessible. In one of these I kept a very small wallet for my ATM card and the day's cash. The one compartment that was more easily accessed, I only used for things I would not miss if they were taken. And, sure enough, that is the compartment the pickpocket targeted.

    By the way, I have the entire "pickpocketing episode" on camera and even got a picture of the young woman who did it! Great souvenir!

    Thanks for your interest and kind comments! Happy traveling,
    Linda

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