My wife and I just returned from 10 incredible days in Italy (March 16-26). We are nearing 50 at an alarming rate and decided to take one of those trips of a lifetime. And it was. Absolutely fabulous time exploring a beautiful and historic country. Our first 4 nights were spent in Rome. We then toured Umbria and southern Tuscany for a day with a private guide/driver, ending up in Siena. After a morning exploring Siena on our own, our guide picked us up and drove us to more of those charming hill top towns before arriving in Florence late in the day. We spent a second night in Florence after a full day of sightseeing and shopping. Then off to Venice via Eurostar train for our final 2 nights. I hadn't been to Italy in 20 years and my wife had never been. We hope to be back soon.
2. Trip planning
As the trip planner, I can't begin to express my gratitude to all the posters on this board. This trip came off without a hitch only because I was so well prepared by all the thoughtful people here. Thank you, thank you, thank you. There is no way I could have done this trip without you.
I will try to add a few planning tidbits.
First, this site is addictive...
Second, www.everdial.com (a Primus company)offers a 10 10 dial around telephone service which makes calling Italy (or anywhere else) very cheap. They offer several plans. If like me you don't do a lot of international calling, their 10 10 555 plan ("everdial around") is great because there are no monthly fees, no minimums, and the rate is something like 8 cents a minute 24/7. You will have to register online but it's pretty painless. Just make sure you're signing up for the right plan. You can go to www.10-10phonerates.com to check out a comparison of all the international calling plans to see which best suits your needs. I used the everdial plan to book and confirm hotels and advance book some museum reservations. Gave me a lot of peace of mind.
Third, bring a very detailed map of Rome and Venice. The streets there are charmingly chaotic but maddenly frustrating to navigate/find. Fortunately, the Italins were very helpful on the few ocassions we were truly lost. AAA has a good waterproof and tear resistant map with good size print for the heart of Rome. For Venice, I had an invaluable "popout" map which can be found at www.popoutmaps.com. Very compact and very informative (had the vaporetto sytem too).
Fourth, books. Everyone has their favorites. For Rome, I found the National Geographic Traveler book very helpful. The bulk of it is devoted to the sights with great pictures. There are good walking itineraries with maps and points of interest highlighted and discussed. Very little on hotels, restaurants, etc which I didn't need after using this site. For Umbria/Tuscany, the Thomas Cook Signpost Guides "Tuscany and Umbria: Your guide to great drives" (2003) was excellant for describing all the various towns and regions and their ppoints of interest along with good road maps, good pictures and a concise rating of the town's scenery, art, food, museums, shopping, kids stuff, wineries, architecture, etc. For Venice, the Fodor's City Pack "Venice's Best" was excellant. Great map and very good walking tours with descriptions of the highlights. I had bought an english to italian eating and drinking translation book but didn't end up using it. Many of the restaurants had menus in both languages and those that didn't had friendly, bilingual waiters who translated.
Fifth, for the camera buffs, you should know that flashes and tripods (even the small ones) are not allowed in most churches. Also, some churches do not allow any pictures. In those churches where you can take pictures, I had great luck using a cable release. I would find a chair, the floor, a railing, a baptismal font, or some other sturdy place to set the camera and use the release.
Sixth, money. We brought $200 as a backup/emergency fund which we never had to use. No traveller's checks. Credit cards and ATMs are the way to go. ATM machines are plentiful. We had 2 ATM cards in case one wasn't accepted, got eaten, etc. We brought 75 euros with us to cover our taxi from the airport (50 E) plus any incidentals. If you get euros in the states, the exchange rate is lousy so get just the minimum.
Seventh, we brought Melatonin to help us ease the jet lag. It seemed to help. We took it on the way over to facilitate sleep and then on the first night there at bed time.
We tried to "pack light". We each brought a 24 inch suitcase (the "Pathfinder" brand, model Presidential 3LT, which is lighter weight and smaller than most we looked at), which we checked, and a day pack with carry on essentials (food, books, etc.) plus one day of clothing, etc. in case our luggage didn't make it (it did).
The Rick Steves website has a really good packing check list. Everything fit comfortable in our suitcases. My wife was pleasantly surprised at how well she adapted to using mix and match clothes instead of separate outfits for each day. Quite a change for her but it worked well. I think she had 4 such sets plus her travel clothes. We each favor the nylon zip off style pants. Ex officio and REI sell them. LLBean also has a lightweight cotton pair. They have many zipper pockets which is a great comfort in cities reknown for pickpockets and the nylon ones will keep you dry in rainy weather.
If you plan to travel by train, the 24 inch suitcases may or may not fit in the space above the seats. On some trains, I thought they would, on others I wasn't so sure. But they will fit, as will any size, on the luggage racks at the end of each car. However, space there is limited so get on board early.
The Rick Steves silk money belts were good and a lot cheaper ($9.00) than all others I looked at.
I brought binoculars for the church ceilings but wouldn't do that again. They were great for the Sistine Chapel but not much else.
We left St. Louis on 3/16 via American Airlines at 12:20pm and, after changing planes in O'Hare, arrived in Rome (FCO) at 8:45 am on 3/17, about 30 minutes late. We each got some sleep en route which was a huge help that first day. We departed from Venice on 3/26 at 10:45am and after stops in Frankfort and Chicago, arrived home on time and with luggage at 9:00 pm in St. Louis.
Next installment: Rome
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Trip Report: Rome, Florence/Tuscany and Venice -- we can't wait to go back!!