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Trip Report UPDATED: 5-Week Trip to Italy

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Apparently I've done a horrible job of posting my trip report and thought it would be easier to create separate posts, but I think this will be a better way to do it and I'll just break it up into parts and "reply" to add multiple sections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    BOLOGNA ACCOMMODATIONS:
    We stayed at Hotel Il Guercino, located within walking distance to the train station for 59 € for a double room. We really liked this hotel. The rooms were small, but adequate and I thought the bathrooms were really nice. We really enjoyed the breakfast and thought that the price of 7 € was a real bargain, particularly since they offered a great variety of meats, cheeses, eggs, pastries, yogurts, fruit, cereal and fresh juices. Most importantly, they had a self-serve espresso machine that made several types of espresso drinks, so I was a happy camper! It might have been nicer to be nearer the city center, but we didn't mind the 15 minute walk from the hotel to one of the main restaurant/shopping districts.

    BOLOGNA DAY 1:
    By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was early afternoon on a Sunday, and we were all in agreement that we would take a "day off" from sightseeing and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a nearby trattoria and a wonderful afternoon "siesta." It was lovely. The hotel had a nice terrace outside, so after we were all refreshed from our siestas, we sat outside and enjoyed the warm breeze and some vino.

    For dinner, we had a delicious dinner at Trattorie il Rosso. Taking a break from pasta, I enjoyed one of their specialty dishes of roasted pork shank and potatoes. It was outstanding, as were the other dishes we tried, including Lasagna, a pasta dish with sausage, and a yummy antipasti plate with various meats and cheeses.

    BOLOGNA DAY 2:
    After checking out of the hotel and storing our luggage at the train station, we wandered around Bologna on one of the tourist "hop on, hop off" open top buses. This gave us a great overview of the city while at the same time was easy my parents’ aching legs and feet. Near the Piazza Maggiore, there were lots of merchants selling the famous wares of the region including Parma ham, prosciutto and tortellini. We purchased some delicious salami and fresh tortellini to take with us to Florence for that evening's dinner (it was delicious). We then headed back to the train station to board our 4:58 PM train from Bologna to Florence. We also purchased these tickets in advance on Trenitalia’s website for 9 € each.

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    FLORENCE ACCOMMODATIONS:
    We rented our apartment on VRBO: http://www.vrbo.com/325526. It was a very spacious 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom villa. The apartment is a short 5-minute walk from the train station and located almost across the street from the Medici Chapels. The location is terrific; located in a lively neighborhood filled with restaurants and shops and a large indoor/outdoor market. It's also located directly across from the neighborhood garbage bins; not a bad thing at 4:00 PM, but come midnight when the nearby restaurants are dropping their glass bottles in the chute and the garbage trucks arrive to empty (which they do several times a day) it can be VERY noisy. We're also in a lively square with lots of merriment going on until the wee hours of the morning. Honestly, the first night, this was kind of bothersome and kept me awake, but we did get used to the noise. I would definitely stay here again as it was very nice, despite not having a well-equipped kitchen (it was a large kitchen, but very sparsely equipped for cooking) and not always great wireless Internet. We paid 950 € for 4 nights. Also, the owner, Cat, couldn’t have been nicer. She met us as the train station and on the day we departed, kindly offered to drive our luggage (and our parents) to the Hertz rental location since the zone-traffic-limited restrictions made it almost impossible for a newcomer to navigate the zones effectively and travel back to our apartment with a vehicle.

    FLORENCE DAY 1:
    We spent the morning touring Florence on one of the “hop on/hop off” tourist buses to get a good overview of Florence and to please my Dad. We hopped off near the Uffizi Gallery as we had a 1:30 reservation. We wandered around the Pallazo della Signoria for a while and grabbed some lunch before our scheduled entry time. The gallery rooms inside the Uffizi were very crowded, so it was difficult to catch even a glimpse of some of the more famous pieces. Naturally my Dad was looking for the gallery with the "cars" and since we only going to be looking at mostly Renaissance-era art, he was pretty much done with the visit in the first 5 minutes. In hindsight, I wish I had hired a guide for this museum. With so much to see and crowds to navigate through, I felt we just walked through a maze and saw some "nice paintings" but I didn't really know WHAT I was looking at. So when I return to Florence on “That’s Another Trip”, I will exercise a "mulligan" and visit the Uffizi with a more knowledgeable guide.

    After our visit, we hopped back on our bus and saw a few more sights of Florence before returning to our apartment. For dinner that evening, we ate at a small Trattoria in our neighborhood called "Trattoria Il Porscopino" and so far, this has been our best meal of the trip .Our server joked around with us the moment we arrived and after a brief discussion of the Seahawks and the Oregon Ducks, he asked us what we wanted to eat and my husband, sister and I all say "Pasta" at about the same time. My husband then adds, "I want Pasta with meat sauce" to which he replied "Meat sauce?! This isn't Olive Garden!" He then suggests that we just close the menu and he will bring all of us the specialties of the house. So we did, and honestly, we were just a bit afraid as we didn't want this "special treatment" to come with a "special price." The food was lovely. We started with some bruschetta and fried zucchini blossoms, which paired nicely with the bottle of Chianti he brought. For our pasta dishes, we had 3 different kinds on our plate: a beautiful large "tortelloni" filled with some kind of cheese (maybe a mixture of Ricotta and something else?) with a light buttery sauce; a penne pasta with a meat/cheese sauce and spinach gnocchi. Dad had a "Florentine" steak which was topped with a cheese sauce. The steak was delicious, as were all of our dishes. Most importantly, the meal was reasonable; including the wine, it was 148 Euros for all of us. I thought that was a pretty good bargain.

    FLORENCE DAY 2:
    Our plan today was to wander over to the Duomo, perhaps do a little retail therapy and then visit the Gallerie Accademia at 1:30. We'd already given Dad and Joan a pass on the museum since they evidently weren’t interested in seeing any art (although in the planning process they gave a “thumbs up” on both the Uffizi and the Accademia) and planned to sell their pre-paid tickets to someone standing in line who didn't make a reservation in advance.

    The weather was just awful; lots of rain and capris and sandals isn’t exactly the attire you want to wear in this kind of weather, so we didn’t spend too much time visiting the Duomo and only wandered a bit into a few shops. After a mediocre lunch of pizza and my daily Aperol Spritz, we left our parents at the apartment while we went to the Gallerie Accademia. Luckily, we didn’t have any problem re-selling the two extra tickets we had. The museum isn't that large, so we were through it pretty quickly. They had a special exhibition of some pretty old musical instruments, including a rather large collection of Stradivarius violins.

    Michelangelo's David is a lot larger than I expected and the detail of the anatomy is amazing (and I'm not talking about David's package). The veins in the hands, the fingernail and toenail detail, the muscle tone on the legs, abdomen and chest; the details are pretty remarkable. It's definitely impressive to see. I thought the unfinished works by Michelangelo called "the Prisoners" were interesting in that you could see the progression from a slab of marble to the outlines of a statue.

    When we left the Accademia, it was still raining pretty steady outside, so we headed back to the apartment to wrap up our day in Florence. Fortunately for my travel partners, they have someone along with them who enjoys cooking, so for dinner, I made Chicken Milanese with pasta, a delicious green salad and some bread. Not bad if I do say so myself and we didn't have to go back outside in the rain.

    FLORENCE DAY 3:
    My husband was returning to Seattle on this day from Pisa, so we all decided to take the train with him to visit the infamous leaning tower. It was a beautiful sunny day and perfect walking weather, so we really enjoyed this little side adventure. We arrived mid-morning, toured the cathedral, took some very touristy photos of each of us “holding up” the leaning tower, had an OK lunch and took a 2:30 PM train back to Florence. We spent the remainder of the afternoon doing a little retail therapy around our apartment and ate dinner “in” that evening and packing up our things for our early AM departure.

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    TUSCANY AND UMBRIA:

    DRIVING TOUR – DAY 1:
    For the next 8 days, we would be driving a car through parts of Tuscany and Umbria, as well as use it while we toured the Amalfi Coast. I purchased an Italy road map for our Garmin GPS device and brought it along for the trip. We rented a Fiat Chroma wagon from Hertz through the third-party consolidator, Kemwel for $352.02, including full-coverage insurance, with a zero-deductible. It was the perfect size for our travel party of 4 adults and luggage. I was the designated driver and my sister was the designator “navigator.” Not entirely trusting our GPS device, we decided also to purchase an actual road map, which we found at a bookstore in Florence, as a tool for “reality checks.” This proved to be a good strategy. We did encounter a few GPS hiccups along the way, but it all worked out OK in the end.

    SAN GIMIGNANO
    Our first destination once we left Florence was San Gimignano. It was a bit exhilarating to be back in a car where we could decide when and where to stop, instead of relying on public transportation. It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach this beautiful walled medieval hill town. I think I only went through the same roundabout twice on the way! Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses, which, with its hilltop setting and encircling walls form "an unforgettable skyline". The town also is known for the white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, produced from the ancient variety of Vernaccia grape which is grown on the sandstone hillsides of the area. We had some of this wine with our lunch and I really liked it. I found it refreshing and not too sweet.

    Like many other walled hill towns (as we find out later), you can't just drive into them and park. As the designated driver of our vehicle, my passengers get red-carpet service to the entry of these historic places and I have to go find parking. There are several parking lots surrounding San Gimignano, however, they are all full of other tourists wanting to take pictures and eat gelato. I finally find a space in the last parking lot near the village. I'm pretty sure I parked in Germany and I had to walk over the Swiss Alps to finally meet up with the rest of my entourage. I seriously earned my gelato that day!

    After walking for about 30 minutes, I finally find my sister and parents in the center square (with the added help of a phone call) and we wander around a bit before sitting at a cafe for a very mediocre lunch (the wine was good!). We let my Dad pick the spot for lunch and he chose the place closest to his feet! Oh well, not all the meals can be fine dining, right?

    During our lunch, we spot this gelato place that had a steady stream of people lined up outside and boasted they were the “Gelato World Champion in 2006-07/2008-09”. Surely their credentials speak for themselves. I had the blackberry lavender gelato and we're all in agreement that this so far was the BEST gelato we had in Italy. Oh so creamy. It was amazing!

    We did a little more sightseeing and it was time to head back to the car. Thankfully, we had discovered that they have a shuttle bus that takes you to all the various parking lots around the village, so we didn't have to walk back to Germany to get back into the car. After our short visit to San Gimignano, we settle back into the car to continue our drive to Siena, a reasonable 50 KM away, where we will spend the next two nights.

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    SIENA ACCOMMODATIONS:
    We stayed at La Colonna, for a rate of 98 € per night (double room), including breakfast. The hotel was located outside the city walls of Siena, but near public transportation. The rooms were adequate and they had a nice outdoor patio with a pool. They also had free on-site parking.

    SIENA DAY 1:
    The drive proved to be pretty uneventful, which is always a good thing. Easy roads, easy drive. I like it!

    Our GPS leads us right to the hotel, which is pretty sweet. We unload our bags and get checked-in. I inquire about where the parking is and the hotel desk clerk gets out a map. His English is limited and we all know just how limited my Italiano is, so together, we come to an agreement on where I need to park the car. Turns out, I have to park the car in Switzerland. So far, being the designated driver and valet parking lot attendant isn't exactly working out for me. While the rest of my fellow travelers settle into their rooms, I'm off on another adventure with the car.

    I find the car park pretty easily, but it's definitely far from the hotel; probably about 1-1/2 miles away. The road in which I must walk back on to the hotel has NO sidewalks nor really any shoulder at all, so I'm pretty much playing a game of avoidance with the steady, oncoming traffic. I need a drink!

    I arrive at the hotel all hot and sweaty and spot a small bottega right next door to our hotel, so I pop in to purchase a cold beverage. I have definitely earned it! And voila! they have a nice cold Corona in their cold case. Sold!

    The hotel has a nice outdoor patio (with a pool!) so we all convene outside to enjoy "cocktail hour". In addition to my Corona, we have some cold white wine (another bottle of the Vernaccia from San Gimignano). My Dad is a happy camper that they have ice (for his cocktail of choice) and they give him his very own bucket of it! (My Dad has not stopped talking about how our apartment in Venice featured a countertop ice maker).

    As we're sitting on the patio, we notice some other hotel guests arriving and they're parking THEIR car in a lot right behind the pool! WHAT? Why did I have to park in Switzerland? I decide to go inquire as to how I can become a member of this special parking club. Turns out, that was exactly where I was supposed to park and the lot next door to Switzerland was where we would park if we wanted to take the outdoor escalator up to the center of Siena. Think of it as their version of "park and ride". So now I understand and I have to now make the trek to retrieve the car and park it where it should be (for free). Somehow I missed this part of his parking explanation earlier that involved a nearby parking lot for hotel parking, and the faraway parking lot for city excursions.

    So I return with the car, once again all hot and sweaty. Soon it was time to pile into the car and set out for our dinner reservation at 7:00 PM. We plug the restaurant information into the GPS and according to the GPS, it should take us about 7 minutes to get to the restaurant.

    Did I mention that Siena is a walled city and that our hotel is outside the city walls? Did I also mention that I had limited knowledge of Italian and that I did absolutely NO research on Italian road signs, etc. before the trip in which I would be driving a car in Italy and seeing NOTHING but foreign road signage?

    It is now dark and I'm trying to follow the GPS map to our restaurant. We make a few wrong "exits" in roundabouts and through a series of errors, finally get ourselves headed in the correct direction. I feel like Chevy Chase in "European Vacation" where it takes them hours to exit out of a roundabout in Paris.

    We are finally "inside" the walls of Siena and continue to follow a windy path designated by the GPS. It looks somewhat like a bowl of spaghetti, the road is so twisty and wind-y (and steep and narrow). This road is taking us UP and DOWN very narrow, cobblestone "roads" that aren't much wider than my hallway at home. We are also dodging pedestrians, scooters and other vehicles. We are also doing hairpin turns where one side is a wall and the other side of the "road" is the cliff. This was not a relaxing drive and we had NO idea when Mr. Toad's Wild Ride would come to a stop.

    At one point during our drive, we come to a "T" in the road where a policeman is standing and he directs us to stop. He comes up to my window and says "Buona sera, or something like that" and says "road is closed" - luckily for us, our GPS was directing us to turn right, in the opposite direction of the closed road, so we continue on. It might have been kind of him to point out at this exact time that we were actually driving in Siena somewhat illegally. In my attempt to keep a close eye on the GPS turns in the road, I hadn't noticed that we were actually driving in a "Zone Limited Traffic" and that you had to have a permit to enter this zone (for residents only) and that it was patrolled by cameras and that I was most likely going to receive at least one (if not multiple) tickets at some point in the future for a steep price of 100 Euros each (I'm not sure exactly how many times we entered/exited the ZTL).

    Through some miracle, we actually find the restaurant; I ask my sister to go inside and inquire about parking and this is when we learn that we're actually NOT supposed to be arriving by private vehicle (the maitre'd has a look of horror on her face when my sister inquired about parking and then tells her about the cameras). She also told her there was NO parking ANYWHERE. So I leave them all at the restaurant (My Dad wanted to go somewhere else and I yell "NO, WE ARE EATING HERE!".) I told them I would return. Now that I have found the restaurant, avoided cliffs and collisions, I WASN'T LEAVING! So I drive up the street and remember seeing several blue "P" signs for parcheggios and set out to find one.

    So far on this trip, I have made several restaurant reservations based on endless hours of research and recommendations from various travel and food blogger boards that I read. And so far we have eaten at NONE of them (with the exception of the restaurant in Venice, in which we had canceled the dinner reservation, but then ate lunch there somewhat by coincidence).

    Typically, we have canceled our dinner reservations because someone-who-will-remain-nameless in our travel party is usually too tired to want to leave the apartment again for a meal, especially when said travel party includes someone who doesn't mind cooking.

    But I digress. The point here is that I AM NOT LEAVING UNTIL I HAVE EATEN AT THIS DAMN RESTAURANT! I DON'T CARE IF I GET ARRESTED, I AM EATING HERE.

    So I find a parking garage and by some small miracle it's actually fairly close to the restaurant and I find my way back. We are escorted to our table and we have one of the most delicious meals of our trip at La Taverna di San Giuseppe. By the way, this restaurant is rated #1 for Siena restaurants on Trip Advisor. After a lovely dinner, our trip back to the hotel was pretty uneventful and I was very relieved once it was parked safely at the hotel and I was no longer driving.

    SIENA DAY 2:
    After yesterday's fiasco driving in Siena, we decide to just leave the rental car at the hotel and use public transportation to get to the city center. Conveniently, there's a bus stop right in front of the hotel, so after a short wait, we're transported directly to the center.

    We wander the cobblestone streets and admire the shops a bit before heading up to the cathedral for a visit. Unfortunately for us, our turn to enter the cathedral was behind several very large tour groups. It's a Saturday and Siena is definitely filled to capacity with tourists. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in Siena and dealing with this volume of crowds. I'd like to think we're the "nice tourists" and we've definitely seen examples of "not so nice tourists." The cathedral is stunning and I particularly loved the contrast of the two-colored stone used throughout. The inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most ornate of its kind in Italy, covering the whole floor of the cathedral and consists of 56 panels in different sizes. They mostly represent scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. Most are still in their original state. The uncovered floor can only be seen for a period of six to ten weeks each year, generally including the month of September (and we just happened to be there in September!). The rest of the year, they are covered and only a few are on display. They really are pretty spectacular.

    After spending quite a bit of time in the cathedral, we head back to the main square to find a bite (and a cold beverage) for lunch. The walk back to the square was full of stairs and hills, so we took our time. We were standing at the entrance to the square when my Dad thought he saw a vintage car, but he wasn't sure. Then he said "that sounds like an engine from the 30's!" Sure enough, we saw a vintage car appear.

    Let me just say that I have never seen my Dad move so fast! In no time at all, he had pushed his way through all of the tourists and was front and center among a whole bunch of vintage cars. Turns out, we were smack dab in the middle of the GP Nuvolari vintage car race. Cars built between 1919 and 1969 are qualified to enter and there were approximately 280 cars entered. We probably stood there for two hours watching the cars come down the road. Some of them were tourists themselves and it was funny to see them snapping pictures with their cameras and iPads.

    We saw a LOT of vintage Porsches, Fiats, Jaguars, Mercedes, some exotics I've not seen before and a few American cars too. My Dad said that some of the cars in the race were worth millions. Seeing an Austin Healey come around the corner was probably the highlight of Dad's entire trip to Italy! In total, there were 6 or 7 Healey's and a couple of Bugeye Sprites. My Dad restores Austin Healeys and has been an avid collector (and lover) of these British cars for most of his adult life. My Dad took advantage of his captive audience and took this opportunity to hand out his business card to his fellow Healey owners.

    We watched all of the cars come through the square, then found a nice cafe for lunch. After our lunch, we were heading back to the bus stop when we spotted THIS "Guy", Food Network’s Guy Fieri, who was also a tourist in Siena that day. Apparently he was in town to attend a wedding. He graciously allowed my sister and I to pose with him for a photo op.

    We hop aboard the bus and here's where our should-be-just-10-minute-ride turned into TWO HOURS to return to our hotel. We wind down the hill towards the suburban part of Siena and come to a stop across the street from the hotel, but which is across a roundabout and busy two-lane road with some pretty crazy traffic. April asks the bus driver if he was looping around to the bus stop directly in front of the hotel (where we first caught it) and he says "si." So we sit down and prepare to get off in a minute or so.

    This did not happen. We were on the bus for two hours and didn't come back to any of the same bus stops we had been to before (or had driven by) but after about 90 minutes, we noticed that we were going the opposite direction, so we were hopeful that we were actually heading to the right location this time. We think the bus driver was new as he stopped several times to consult a map, change the bus number on the display and waste a BUNCH of our time. If we had known that we would remain on the bus this long, we would have gotten off during the first 10 minutes of the ride and would have been happy to play "dodge the traffic" in the roundabout to return to our hotel much sooner.

    Let's just say that we had a leisurely tour through Siena. I think we entered/exited the walled in city of Siena 4 times. Funny thing is that we never returned again to the bus stop in the walled part of the city in which we first boarded the bus. I suspect our bus driver was just pretty clueless about where his route really was. I think we were all humming the theme song to "Gilligan's Island" for most of the trip.

    And that's a wrap for us in Siena. Next stop, Assisi.

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    ASSISI ACCOMMODATIONS:
    Hotel JFI Hermitage, 69€ for a double room. This small boutique hotel was well located within the city walls. The rooms were small, but adequate. Our only complaint was that the air conditioning didn’t work very well in the rooms and it was almost 90 degrees the day we arrived. They also have very limited breakfast service (only pastries and coffee).

    ASSISI:
    We left Assisi pretty early in the morning since we would have a long travel day as we leave Umbria and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. Conveniently located right off the highway are gas stations with snack bars, complete with espresso bars. Interestingly enough, they also feature full alcohol bar service. The only way to reach these pit stops is from the highway, so we're still trying to figure out why they feature full bar service. Aren't these people DRIVING? We stop at one to stretch our legs and partake in an espresso. It was 90 cents! And delicious!

    We have a nice, uneventful drive to Orvieto, our last stop in beautiful Umbria. Conveniently, they have a funicular that you can take from a FREE parking lot outside the walls of the city. On this Monday, the city was not as crowded with tourists as other cities we'd visited the previous few days. It was kind of a nice change of pace not to have to rub shoulders with tour groups.

    From the funicular station, we took the shuttle bus up into the center to wander around a bit, visit the cathedral and eat lunch. After our visit to the cathedral, it was time for lunch. My sister had found a recommendation for Il Giglio d'Oro in the Fodor's Italy travel guide and it was conveniently located within the same piazza as the cathedral.

    Our lunch proved to contain both a culinary journey to places I love to visit and some much needed humor. At first, we were a bit put off by the "snooty" attitude of both the female maitre'd and the male waiter, but we quickly observed after being seated that they were just sick of tourists treating their fine dining establishment as a snack bar. The outdoor seating was limited, with only about 6 tables and we had a couple of good laughs as they shooed away many different parties of tourists whose intent was just to merely sit at their lovely terrace and enjoy a glass of water, or perhaps a glass of wine. "This is NOT a bar" we heard them bark at them. "You must eat! This is a RESTAURANT, not a snack bar!"

    We on the other hand, ooed and awed over the menu and made it quite clear that our intent was to "dine" and quite leisurely. Our waiter was a cute Italian fellow and really enjoyed our praise of their menu and the excellent service. We were their model dining guests and we glowed under the special attention we received. We took great pleasure in the treatment of those less fortunate who thought to treat this sacred ground as a mere stopping point for their aching feet. I don't remember exactly everything we ate, but one of the excellent starters we had was an eggplant terrine with truffles. We enjoyed a nice bottle of local red wine that they had recommended, and it did not disappoint.

    While we were still waiting for our dessert and espresso to arrive, a party of 6 arrived to dine. They were 3 couples, two from Texas, and one couple from Laguna Beach. After they sat down and were handed the menus, we struck up a conversation with them about Italy travel and the menu. We made several recommendations based on our own, quite delicious lunch. They all perused the menu, and when it was time for them to order, they all asked if they could just have "spaghetti, with a meat sauce." The waiter rolled his eyes, looked over at us and said "help me!" It was pretty funny!

    I could tell that he really had to restrain himself from speaking his mind and instead, tried his best to point out dishes on the menu that would please both their palette and their pocket books. They were hoping for "fine dining" on a snack bar budget! After a delicious end with a dessert we all shared and espresso, it was time for one last look around Orvieto before we hit the road.

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    THE LONG ROAD TO AMALFI:
    We get back to the car and my sister plugs our final destination (Massa Lubrense) into the GPS. For some reason, our Garmin map cannot find the coastal town, so we plug in Sorrento, since we had directions from our villa owners from that point. According to the research I had done previously, the trip from Orvieto to Massa Lubrense should have taken us about 3-1/2 hours. Our estimated arrival time would be about 6:30 PM. Naturally, that didn't happen.

    Most of our drive was on the 6-lane super highway. When we had scoped out the route, we knew that our destination was southwest of Rome, but that we would bypass Rome and kind of go around it. Things started to get kind of messy at about the time we were supposed to be going "around" Rome. The GPS is directing us to exit onto another highway that my sister believes is now pointing us away from the coast. And she was right. Thankfully, we only drive about 20 KM out of our way, but still, this is taking up precious time. We also encounter some pretty awful traffic in the suburbs of Rome as we are hitting the city right around the end of the work day.

    We correct our mistake and finally again, we're going highway speeds. The highway has a few "bumps" we encounter at pretty high speeds (130 KM per hour) and we hear a noise coming from our car that wasn't there before. We're driving a Fiat wagon, but my Dad is continually reminding me that it's not a Fiat, it's a "Fix It Again Tony" car. The car is already kind of in disrepair; the front bumper looks like it’s been glued on at the corners after encountering some damage and the drive train is somewhat noisy and clunky sounding; kind of like the sound a car makes when you are driving on a flat tire (but our tires are fine). Anyway, we come to a toll booth and it's apparent we have an issue and need to find Tony. The car is dragging something. We drive to the right where there is thankfully a gas station with and large "auto supermarket" where they sell everything from food, souvenirs, groceries and alcohol.

    I'm digging out the Hertz rental agreement, convinced that we're going to get stuck there for hours while I contact Hertz to inquire about a replacement vehicle. Meanwhile, Dad is under the car, laying on the ground trying to diagnose. It wasn't hard to spot the problem: most of the plastic "air dam" was hanging off the car and who knows just how long it had been dragging. Half of the hard plastic was shredded. Dad could see that there still remained a couple of screws that connected this large plastic piece (about 3-1/2 feet long by 2 feet wide) to the underside of the engine. Naturally, we didn't have a screwdriver, but I started to walk away to see if I could find/buy one. Dad needed a phillips. Before I had even walked a few feet away, Dad had successfully pulled the entire piece off the car. So we stuck it into the back of the wagon, and off we went. Disaster avoided, thanks to my Dad, who I now may occasionally refer to as "Tony."

    Our next major fork in the road is Naples. We decide to find a grocery store or market here since it was getting so late and we wanted to get some basic supplies for the morning. We take our designated exit off the super highway to the more rural coastal road we would travel on to our final destination. Luckily, we spot a market. However, we almost became roadkill just getting through two intersections to park at said market.

    Let's just say that Naples drivers are bat-shit crazy and don't obey any traffic laws or even common driving courtesies like you would normally encounter at 4-way stops. These drivers (cars, scooters and motorcycles) really don't consider stopping at all. Seriously, these were some frightening intersections! Basically, you just GO and pray. Don't stop, just force your way into the center of the intersection. You had no choice; you couldn't hesitate, you just had to go for it.

    We make it through the cluster of vehicles and motorcycles and successfully navigate ourselves into a spot in front of the market. Dad and April go into the market for supplies while Joan and I sit in the car. We are front and center with a view of the crazy intersection. We see several near-misses. It's amazing there wasn't an accident every 5 minutes. Then some comic relief: a guy on a motorcycle zooms by us and plows through the intersection all while singing Opera at the top of his lungs. It was pretty funny!

    Supplies safely stowed in the back, we push ourselves through again to return to the coastal road. I think I might have driven through the intersection with my eyes closed. We make it to Sorrento and see the sign for "Massa Lubrense." We're relieved. Our relief started to ebb away when we started climbing up steep cliffs and encountering hairpin turns, all the while encountering LOTS of scooters and motorcycles, tour buses and other vehicles seemingly dive-bombing straight for us in the opposite direction. They crazy drivers actually pass me (apparently I'm driving too slow) on blind corners (in the dark!). This was white-knuckle driving at its best. We were all just a little frightened. Originally, we were planning to navigate this treacherous road during daylight, but you know, the best intentions.

    As we continue to dodge ongoing traffic and avoid going over cliffs, we never see another marker for Massa Lubrense. We have NO idea where we are. I'm not sure how we actually find the meeting point near the house, but we do. It's now almost 10:00 PM. We are tired and completely stressed out. It's with much relief that we actually connect with the villa owners in the tiny village of Massa Lubrense.

    We arrive at the house, all of us exhausted. Dad doesn't miss this opportunity to mention he has to walk down 27 steps to the house. He will mention these steps pretty much on a daily basis, but hey, it's the sacrifice you make to be RIGHT on the ocean (the view is lovely). April and I lug our baggage down to the house and we all find our respective bedrooms and call it a night. We're looking forward to the morning so we can truly see WHERE we're at. And yes, it was stunning.

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    AMALFI COAST ACCOMMODATIONS:
    We rented this 3 bedroom/2 bath villa in Massa Lubrense: http://www.vrbo.com/212628 and paid 750€ for 5 nights. The villa had multiple terraces (very large, too), with a sea view and Jacuzzi.

    POSITANO + CAPRI
    After our long day of travel on Monday from Umbria to the Amalfi Coast, we decided to enjoy our beautiful coastal retreat on Tuesday and "stay in". We had work to get caught up on and none of us really felt much like venturing out. We did, however, need some groceries, so after some meal planning, April and I drove into the little village of Massa Lubrense to take care of our grocery shopping and spent the remainder of the day just hanging out enjoying our beautiful ocean view.

    We were up bright and early on Wednesday as we had a boat to catch in Positano at 9:15 AM, about an hour drive from Massa Lubrense. We left the villa about 7:15 and proceeded to journey via Sorrento, using our not-so-trusty GPS as a guide. Somehow, we got off track in Sorrento when the GPS sent us down a dead-end road (narrow too, so turning around was a bit of a challenge). Driving merely by instinct (we knew we had to travel the opposite direction from Massa Lubrense to cross the peninsula and to the other side of the Bay of Naples), we thankfully were able to get back onto a road that actually had signs pointing towards Positano (Amalfitana road).

    We were winding our way through Sorrento on some pretty narrow and winding roads when we turned a corner and we're pretty much nose-to-nose with a rather large truck (for Italy standards). The problem was that BOTH of us could not fit on that road, as it was too narrow. So with little choice to be had, I was required to drive backwards down a very steep and winding road until I could find a spot that was wide enough to allow the truck to pass. I probably had to drive at least 1/3 of a mile backwards. This was not a fun thing to do given that I couldn't see if traffic would rear-end me around blind corners that I had to navigate down (backwards) and needed to avoid a collision with other objects in the road, like rock walls. This was NOT a good way to start my morning and I hadn't even had a cup of espresso yet!

    I finally was able to back into a driveway (or was it an alley?) and let the truck (and LOTS of traffic behind it) pass. I think I let out an audible breath once that near-fiasco was over. So onwards we went, climbing higher and higher up the steep mountainside. Finally, we were back along the coastal road, with a view of the ocean and perilous cliffs below. It was a beautiful view (or so I was told) as I had to concentrate very carefully on the task at hand, which was to deliver my passengers in ONE piece to Positano.

    Only 15 minutes behind schedule, we arrive in Positano, park the car in the designated parking garage and walk down a few thousand steps to the port. We have just enough time to sit down at a cafe and enjoy a cappuccino and croissant. We had made a reservation with a Capri tour company, L'Uomo e IL Mare, for a "semi-private" boat tour to Capri, a journey that would span 8 hours. Apparently part of our tour included the opportunity to swim in one of the grottoes we would visit, but somehow I had missed that bit of information, so we did not come prepared to swim.

    It took us a little more than an hour to arrive at the island of Capri. We all disembarked and had 4 hours to ourselves to explore the island. We agreed to not explore the Anacapri side of the island and we thought that might be too much walking for our parents. So as the saying goes, “that’s another trip.” Our expectations high, we rode the funicular up to the main part of the island to begin our tour.

    Although the views were stunning, the rest of Capri was a huge disappointment. It was like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" with one trendy, expensive boutique after another, next door to some swanky hotel. And talk about a tourist trap! We were elbow to elbow with hoards of rude, smelly and impatient tourists and shortly after we arrived, we were ready to leave. We had no choice but to wander around a bit until it was time to find a spot for lunch. Yes, they had some beautiful shops, but they were slightly above my budget, so just window shopping had to suffice.

    We tried to find a reasonably priced restaurant with an ocean view for lunch, but you can imagine that NONE of the restaurants in this swanky little town fit those requirements. We either had the snack bar at the Funicular, or the 100 Euro per person lunch option. Down the funicular we went. When we had first arrived to Capri, our boat tour guide had pointed out some restaurants near the marina that would fit our specific budget requirements so we decided to eat our lunch at one of those recommended spots. And it was a great choice. The food and service were good, as was the view. I don’t remember the name of the place, but they had an huge iron swordfish hanging from their entrance.

    We finally had run out the clock on our Capri imprisonment and we were back on the boat. We all decided that it would be more fun to sit in the front of the boat this time. I suspect most of our fellow passengers enjoyed some adult beverages while on Capri as they all seemed just a bit more friendly now. So our tour of the grottoes around the island commenced, and they did not disappoint. This was definitely the best part of the entire trip. There were a total of 4 grottoes we were going to visit, including the famous "blue grotto" but there was a catch. Once we arrived at said grotto, you had to pay a fee of 12 Euros to gentlemen in the little rowboats to actually see the grotto, which was hidden on the other side of the cave. Another tourist trap! Naturally, about 1/2 of the boat took the bait. Their "blue grotto tour" was about 2 minutes long, with about maybe 30 seconds actually spent inside the grotto.

    So onto another grotto we went. This one was the "white grotto" and supposedly if you look real closely into the cave, you can sometimes see Mary and the baby Jesus. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the tour immensely. Capri (the island destination) was a huge disappointment, but I had a great time, nonetheless. We returned to Positano late in the day and all of us were pretty tired. Originally, we had talked about spending some time in Positano after the boat ride, but we all were in agreement that we should just head back to Massa Lubrense.

    Thankfully, we returned without incident (and without getting lost). I was starting to get more comfortable with my Italian-ness and was getting more gutsy with my driving, even passing some slower-moving vehicles ahead of me, but not on blind corners. Not sure I'll ever have the guts to do that!

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    SORRENTO
    For our last hurrah on the Amalfi Coast, we spent a few hours touring Sorrento, a short 15-minute drive from Massa Lubrense. It was a hot and humid 92-degree day; pretty hot considering it was September 28th. In hindsight, perhaps we should have found a beach club in which we could enjoy our last day on the coast, whilst (I'm feeling British) a cute cabana boy served us delicious and cold limoncello drinks and fanned us with palm fronds while we basked in the sun. But back to reality. I suspect hanging out at a beach club probably wasn't at the top of Dad and Joan's "must do" list while in Italy!

    Sorrento isn't a very large town, with only about 16,000 residents. When I was planning our trip to Italy, Sorrento was our desired "home base" for our visit to the Amalfi Coast, but we were unable to find a rental villa there that met our requirements, mostly due to not wanting to climb up/down hundreds of steps to reach the front door.

    Although our villa in Massa Lubrense has worked out fine, I think Sorrento would be more desirable just because of the access to shopping, dining and other amenities like ferries. Originally, we were only going to keep the rental car for our tour through Tuscany and Umbria, but we felt it was pretty much a requirement on the Amalfi Coast since our rental villa wasn't very well situated for use of the somewhat limited public transportation. And I'm glad we had a car; although it was certainly stressful to drive the coastal roads, it was nice to be able to be flexible with our time and not be dependent on public transportation.

    Our agenda for our visit to Sorrento wasn't that well thought out; perhaps do some souvenir shopping, enjoy a nice lunch and see a few of the local sights. After parking the car safely in a local "parcheggio", we walk to the center of town to see what touristy things we can find.

    Given the heat, our first order of business was to find a cool/shady place to sit and enjoy a very cold beverage. It didn't take us long to spot the perfect place. Although we had seen plenty of Limoncello for sale throughout the Amalfi Coast, we hadn't yet tried any, so the time had come. We were expecting to find some kind of cocktail concoction on the drink menu featuring Limoncello, but we didn't see anything. According to our server, it's more common to either drink it straight (sip it) or cut it with a mixer, like Sprite, Club Soda, etc. So that's what we did. Us girls ordered a Limoncello cut with soda and Dad had an Italian beer. Limoncello is pretty potent and tart. I can't imagine just drinking it straight, but I did enjoy it over ice with a Sprite. Perhaps just slightly too sweet, I think it might be better with just club soda (which they didn't have). Joan and April cut theirs with tonic, which was fine. As usual, sitting at the cafe and people watching was pretty good entertainment.

    Refreshed (and perhaps with a slight buzz), we wandered over to the "tourist train we had seen go by earlier. We purchased our tickets for train and waited a few minutes for the next one to arrive. To be honest, it was pretty hokey, but we did see a bit of the city and we could now check off "Sorrento" off our lists of places visited. I did sit next to a lovely British woman on the train (hence my use of a very British word above) and after discussing our Italian travel horror stories, we spent most of the remainder of our short 30-minute tour of Sorrento talking about Paris. As it turns out, she also adores Paris and often takes her granddaughter for long weekends (or is that "mini-break" in British-speak?) to Paris for some fine dining and shopping. What a lucky girl! I hope somebody I can bring my granddaughter(s)? to Paris to do the same. Of course, being able to just jump on the "chunnel" from a London train station is a much more cost-effective mode of travel then let's say American Airlines, but I thought it was a lovely idea.

    My sister had found a place on Trip Advisor for lunch and I have to say, I think my fellow travelers steered us wrong. Although it was very highly rated (and recommended), the food was pretty mediocre, not that well-priced, and the service was awful. And have I mentioned that I'm getting REALLY TIRED OF PIZZA AND PASTA? After our lackluster lunch, we wandered the streets to do a little souvenir shopping.

    With some souvenirs in hand, we return somewhat wearily to the car and head back to Massa Lubrense. I think it was the heat, but even though it was maybe just 4:30 PM, we were all exhausted! We enjoyed another uneventful, disaster-free drive back to the villa. It's these small victories that I can smile about now. It's another beautiful evening at the villa and we enjoy what's left of our stay staring out into that big, beautiful Bay of Naples.

    We spend a somewhat leisurely evening at the villa, but also begin to pack up our things and clean up. We're heading to Rome the next day and we'll be up bright and early since we have to first train from Sorrento to Naples, then switch trains in Naples for our scheduled train to Rome.

    So here are my reflections on the Amalfi Coast. It's breathtakingly beautiful. I loved being so close to the sea, but I think it would have been nice to be closer to a beach club or pool? I also think staying somewhere a bit larger (like Sorrento) might be nice for the added amenities a larger town provides; we were a bit remote in Massa Lubrense, but once we learned the roads, Sorrento wasn't really that far, so perhaps we could have done more evening activities in Sorrento. The other trade off was that we had a beautiful villa overlooking the sea for a really inexpensive price; we paid only 750 Euros for 5 nights in a 3-bedroom/2-bath villa with multiple terraces. That worked out to be something like 37 Euros per night, per person. Not bad! Villa rentals in Sorrento and Positano were much more expensive.

    Should I ever return to this area, I would love to spend more time in Positano to just wander around. It's very charming and definitely worth a second look. There are also other towns along the coast that I would have liked to visit as well, including the town of Amalfi. But as our new-found travel motto goes "that's another trip."

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    ROME ACCOMMODATIONS:
    We rented this 3-bedroom/1 bathroom apartment near the Vatican (the actual neighborhood was Balduina: http://www.vrbo.com/19643 for 1,360€ for 13 nights. The apartment was adequate, but the location wasn’t ideal. It was still a 20-minute walk to get to the Vatican and we always had to rely on public transportation to go anywhere, so we would have preferred a more central (historic center) neighborhood. However, we waited too long to secure our Rome accommodations and we just couldn’t find much availability in our budget.

    ROME DAY 1:
    On Saturday (September 29th), we left the sea (and hopefully the mosquitoes) and the rental car behind and boarded a train for Rome. We took a regional train from Sorrento to Naples, then switched to the national rail system there for our train to Rome (we purchased our tickets in advance online on Trenitalia’s website for 9€ each.

    Although we certainly don't go out of our way to look like tourists (maybe it was my Dad's white socks and sneakers?), we kind of got scammed in the Naples train station. We were walking rather quickly on the platform towards our designated car when an older gentleman ran up to us and started telling us we had to hurry and began grabbing our bags. When he first grabbed my suitcase, I said "no, I don't need any help" and then I looked to see if he was an employee of the railroad. He grabbed my train ticket and examined it in an "official-looking way" and said "no, it's OK" like he worked there. So we let him escort us and our baggage (him doing the baggage escorting part) to our reserved seats. Interestingly enough, this train's second class seats were all in little compartments of 6-seats each, with baggage stowage above the seats.

    He first gets my parents situated as they were in the "cabin" in front of ours, then gets our luggage stowed in our cabin, then as I suspected, demanded payment. Damn it, I knew I was getting scammed! So standing there like a stupid American who should know better, I dig out some money for him. This "gentleman" and I agree on a price (20 Euros for the 4 suitcases he hauled) and he tried to increase this price even more when he didn't want to give me change from my 50€ note. He finally gave me my 30€ change, but rather reluctantly. I just knew I should have been more insistent on the train platform and instead, I just conceded.

    The trip to Rome was just a little more than two hours. The train was hot and sticky with no real air conditioning and little air coming through the windows. It was a rather miserable ride. We all were kind of spoiled by our first train trip from Venice to Bologna, which was on one of Trenitalia's "Eurostar" trains (same price of 9€ per ticket), but this train (and others before it) was on what I suspect is an older train.

    When we arrived at Rome's Termini station, the other three ladies sharing our compartment didn't disembark and instead of perhaps MOVING so we could easily grab our bags from the storage above, they just simply sat there and stared at us while we tried to quickly get our bags and get off the train (the train was bound for Milan). This was proving a bit difficult as we were like salmon swimming upstream against a tide of new passengers boarding the train. You would think common courtesy would occur and NEW passengers would have stepped aside so we could get off that damn train! But no, why would they do that?

    We had already agreed to take a taxi from the station to our Rome apartment as we didn't have an easy and direct route using public transportation. It was probably the best 20€ we ever spent. It was actually much cheaper than we were expecting, so I gave our very nice driver a 10€ tip for his help with our luggage. Within a couple of minutes of our arrival, Paolo, the owner of the apartment had arrived.

    Situated in a 1950's era apartment building, our apartment is a 3-bedroom, 1 bath apartment with multiple balconies on the first floor (second floor for us Americans). My parents were happy there was an elevator! After a brief tour of the apartment and exchange of monies, Paolo offered to take my sister and I on a driving tour of the neighborhood to show us important points of interest (like supermarkets, best gelato stores, bus stops, etc.). That was very nice of him and we appreciated the nice introduction to our new neighborhood that we would call home for the next 13 days.

    We all get our things settled, Dad gets his ice cube tray filled (thinking ahead to cocktail hour) and my sister and I do some meal planning so we can head off to the supermarket. We were looking forward to doing some grocery shopping as the market was actually quite large, especially compared to the markets we had been shopping at the previous 3 weeks. I was really craving Mexican food and I was hopeful that I might find somewhat of an "ethnic" aisle there.

    The supermarket was marvelous. Funny to be so excited about a supermarket. I almost cried when I found flour tortillas. I was hoping for corn tortillas, but flour would do! I also found salsa and fresh jalapenos! Oh joy!!!! Together with some ground beef, red chile pepper seasoning, onions and garlic, I was able to pass off a pretty decent soft taco for our dinner that evening. It was a wonderful change of pace from our steady diet of Italian food.

    After our day of travel, a belly full of soft tacos, we all just wanted to sit around and be lazy, so we did. We'll start our exploration of Rome in the morning.

    ROME DAY 2
    We were going to spend most of the day on one of those hop-on/hop-off buses so we could get an overview of Rome and reduce the amount of walking for parents, but the weather outside was threatening rain. By the time we got off the Metro, it had started to rain outside. We were hoping that the bus would have available seating "down below" but that didn't happen. So we were forced to sit in the open top part, where the seats all featured nice puddles. I had no choice but to use my map as my seat cushion, but I still got wet and probably looked like I had peed my pants!

    Our plan was to do a "lap" on the bus, then decide where we wanted to get off to do some exploration. Unfortunately, the weather never cleared up, only rained harder, so that wasn't going to happen today.
    By the time we had finished the bus loop, it was really pouring, so we got off the bus and found a nice, indoor trattoria for lunch. As a nice change of pace, their daily special was roasted chicken with potatoes, which we all ordered and it was delicious! And that was pretty much all we did that day.

    ROME DAY 3 – VATICAN
    Having read about the crowds at the Vatican Museum, we had purchased our tickets in advance and reserved a 1:00 PM entrance time. Although the line to enter (without a reservation) was almost non-existent, every single room of the museum was filled almost to capacity. It was so crowded you could only be herded through like cows, barely taking a moment to snap a picture. Forget about reading the placards about the art or statues you see. A good percentage of the crowds inside were comprised of tour groups. Large groups with very pushy leaders, often carrying a flag or some other annoying distinguishing beacon for their worshipers to follow. Did I mention that these people were pushy? We were actually pushed aside when admiring some piece of art or statue, so that they could place themselves front and center and then address their followers. This really pissed me off.

    I try to be a considerate tourist. This isn't my home, often these are not my customs, but I try my best to blend in, not stand out, and mostly, I try very hard to be nice to people. I wish the other 3.9 million people visiting the Vatican that day felt the same. Seriously people - have some respect and consideration!

    The Vatican Museums broke attendance records in 2011 with just over 5 million people. I'm pretty sure 2012 will also break records, if this Monday afternoon in October was any indication. While I'm bitching, I have to mention that it's become a regular practice for almost all of the museums we visit to not offer any type of map. You must purchase a book on the museum in order to understand WHAT you're looking at, or which room you're in. It's very frustrating for me and my greatest regret about this particular scheduled visit is that we should have spent the money on a private tour. There are several companies/individuals whereby you can pay for a tour in which your tour has access to the museum an hour before it is open to the general public. Imagine viewing the Sistine Chapel with only a dozen people inside instead of 1,000? But we didn't want to spend the money and felt it wasn't a good use of our budget. Boy, were we wrong. So, I guess that's another trip!

    The Gallery of Maps was one of my favorite rooms on our visit. It features 40 panels that map the entirety of the Italian peninsula in large-scale frescoes, each depicting a region as well as a perspective view of its most prominent city and the most magnificent ceiling. Finally, it was time to see the “piece de resistance”, the Sistine Chapel. "Seeing" the chapel isn't exactly the correct word. There were hundreds of people in the chapel. It was impossible to stand in one place as the crowd was continually pushing us towards the back of the chapel (and exit). It was astonishing how many people had a complete disregard for the rules of the chapel, which included NO TALKING and NO PHOTOGRAPHY. Even the "tour guides" were talking into their little mini microphones to describe Michelangelo's work. We really didn't see the chapel at all, which was a huge disappointment. So I've had to rely on Google to see what I missed.

    There was so much to see and learn about in the Vatican, it was almost overwhelming. It's one of those places, similar to the Louvre in Paris where you really need multiple visits in which to absorb everything. After doing some research on the Vatican Museums, it seems that many of the rooms were not currently open, such as some rooms featuring Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts, jewelry, statuary and art. I would have been interested in seeing those items. So as the saying goes, "that's another trip." And on that second trip, I fully intend to include in my budget a tour guide, in a small group, before normal opening hours, if possible.

    ROME DAY 4
    Even though it's now almost mid-October, the city is still crammed full of tourists, which has been somewhat of a frustration for us. But it's unrealistic for me to expect that we're going to have Rome (and it's beautiful monuments, churches and statues) all to ourselves. But it would be nice to have a few pictures WITHOUT a bunch of people standing around them. My parents decided to stay back at the apartment and my sister and I spent the day exploring several of the sights of Rome. I wish I had brought my pedometer as we were really logging some serious miles on foot. We saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Trajan’s Column, Piazza Navonna, the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church, the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (including the changing of the guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), and the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. I highly recommend taking the elevator (7€) up to the viewing platform at the Victor Emmanuel II monument as the views from there are quite stunning. We ended our last day with our parents enjoying a leisurely dinner at a local restaurant recommended by our landlords.

    ROME DAY 5 – 13
    You might say that our Italian Adventure truly began after our parents departed for home. Although it was fantastic to have such quality time with them, we were just as ready for them to leave as they were to get home. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but our last 10 days in Rome were pretty busy. We visited the Borghese Gallery (purchased tickets online in advance), the Pantheon, The Coliseum, The Doria Pamphilj Gallery, took the Scavi Tour at the Vatican, which was absolutely fantastic! and toured St. Peter’s. We also did a lot of wandering around Rome, checking out various neighborhoods, enjoying the culture and soaking up the lovely weather while sitting at café’s. We also enjoyed a couple of cooking-related activities. Our very kind Roman landlords invited us over for dinner and a cooking lesson where we would make Pasta Carbonara and Tiramisu. They picked us up at the apartment on a Friday morning and we went to the Trionfale Market, where our landlady has shopped for more than 30 years, to purchase our supplies for dinner and dessert. I wished we had learned about this market sooner as we would have loved to shop here instead of our local Carrefour market. We had a lovely time that evening with Adriana and Paolo, who are the most gracious hosts.

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    DAY TRIP TO TOFFIA
    Our second food-related activity was a day trip to Toffia, a small walled village in the Sabina region to take a cooking course with Convivio Rome. Our daylong adventure in Toffia is probably one of my favorite things we did/experience on our entire trip. To quote Liz Lemon, "I want to go there."

    Toffia is a small hilltop village with a current population of about 350 people, although their population swells closer to 900 people during the warmer months as many Romans like to keep summer homes there. Located in the ancient Sabina region, the area is an agricultural-rich area with primarily olive oil and wine production. My sister and I were joined by two more cooking "guests", a mother and daughter from Canada, so it was a nice small group. Convivio Rome is ran by a sweet couple, Guido (8th generation Roman) and Sally (Australian who fell in love with Guido while visiting Rome) who live in Toffia. We were all picked up at the Fara Sabina train station, about 45 minutes outside of Rome, and driven to Toffia, about 20 minutes away. Sally met us at the entrance to the city and as we walked towards their home, gave us a bit of a tour along the way.

    During our walk into the center of the village, one of the local "wine growers" passed us several times with his bounty of just-picked grapes. All of the wine produced by the villagers is for "local-use" only, meaning that all of the residents basically bring their bottles and containers to be filled up after the harvest. They do a similar thing with the olive oil production with residents basically acquiring their year-long needs shortly after the harvest and production. I think that they actually pay for the wine and olive oil, but the amount is quite minimal.

    Toffia features a community garden and we stopped there to pick some fresh herbs to use during our cooking lesson. We arrive at Sally and Guido's home and after a brief introduction to Guido, our lesson begins. I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed our day so much here is that Sally and Guido were instantly like old friends. And the food we prepared was amazing! I loved that we were kind of thrown back into an era where you actually knew all of the people that produced your food; they personally know (and are friends with) the butcher, the guy who grows the vegetables, the cheesemaker, the olive maker and the wine maker. I suspect they also acquired the flour from someone they know who mills it.

    First up, we learn to make tagliatelle pasta (your basic egg noodle). My sister and I have made pasta many times, but this recipe varies slightly in that the ratio of eggs was a bit higher, and instead of using just all-purpose flour, it was a mixture of 50% all-purpose flour (European 00 flour) and 50% semolina flour. This was the first time we had learned to make pasta entirely by hand, meaning that we didn't use a sheet roller to create the thin pasta sheets. After the pasta was completed, it was time to start the Ragu (a basic meat sauce). This is a basic staple sauce in most Italian kitchens and Guido told us that on Sundays, you can smell various wafts of Ragu from most kitchens in the village.

    The sauce begins with a basic mire poix of celery, onions, carrots, then flavored with pieces of pork cheek (kind of like pancetta, but the cut of pork comes from the pig cheek) and fresh bay leaf. There was also a generous amount of olive oil. After this mixture was cooked down for a few minutes, we added some ground beef and wine. Finally, the Italian version of tomato sauce, as well as a can of "San Marzano" tomatoes were added to the mixture and set aside to simmer while we prepared the rest of the dishes.

    Next up was the dessert, Ricotta cake. I loved how everything we did was made entirely by hand; no blenders, food processors, or mixers. Even the pastry dough for the cake was done on the board by hand. Spread on the bottom of the cake was a locally-made (naturally!) cherry preserve that was more similar to a currant (the cherries are tart) then our sweet bing cherries. The ricotta filling was simply sheep's milk ricotta, sugar, eggs, chopped chocolate (which was also made locally) and some fresh lemon zest. And voila! In a matter of a few minutes, it's ready to bake and you have a very simple, but delicious dessert.

    Next, we learn to make Veal Saltimbocca. It's amazing how something so simple to make can be so delicious. I definitely think it's the olive oil! Paper-thin slices of veal are layered with a slice of prosciutto and skewered together with a fresh sage leaf. That's it! No salt, no pepper. It's then quickly sautéed (fairly high heat) with some olive oil (but of course!).

    Paired with a simple arugula salad and an orange reduction sauce (which we also made), it was very delicious. Guido told us a funny story about how he tried out his idea of the "orange sauce" to pair with the Saltimbocca on his Roman friends. Their basic response when tasting his version was "it's not like Nona makes." Apparently you can't teach a dog new tricks and they only want to eat something that's exactly what they're used to, and in this case, whatever their beloved grandmother's made. Hopefully my grandchildren will feel that way about my cooking!

    It was now time to eat, so we all retired to their "taverna" which is kind of "cave-like" and very cool. What a great place to entertain! Sally told us that they're often asked by fellow villagers if they can host a party in their taverna! It's the perfect spot for a party.

    Our meal, complete with a generous amount of local wine was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy. The day was perfect! It was warm and sunny, the class was fun and engaging and I am completely in love with Toffia. Remember the movie "Under the Tuscan sun" where Diane Lane's character is on vacation in Tuscany and she falls in love with the village and buys a villa there? I can see that happening! Seriously, this place is fantastic! But obviously, not very realistic for me, but one can dream!

    It's now getting to be late afternoon and sadly it's time for us to go. Sally and our cute Italian driver accompany us to another nearby village of Farfa for a quick tour before we drive back to the train station. Along the way, we had some amazing views of Toffia. The Farfa Abbey is one of the most famous abbeys in Europe. Farfa Abbey played an important role in the history of the Sabina area, having controlled, during its "golden age", nearly all the nearby towns and villages. The monks of Farfa owned 683 churches or convents; two towns, Civitavecchia and Alatri; 132 castles; 16 strongholds; 7 seaports; 8 salt mines; 14 villages; 82 mills; and 315 hamlets. They even had their own army and navy. It's hard to imagine this fairly small abbey run by monks to have risen to that level of power.

    Farfa also became a focal point for trade with an important weekly market. After the reconstruction of the monastery by the Orsinis during the Renaissance, new shops were built around the monastery to accommodate the merchants, giving birth to a twice yearly fair lasting 15 days. These shops and the urban structure of which they are part can still be seen today and the street names reflect the original uses of each street, for example "via di droghe e cere" (street of medicines and waxes), "via di panni e sete" (street of cloths and silks) and so on. You can still see the characteristic stone slabs at the entrance to each shop which were used as counters by the merchants. The signage in the village is really lovely too; of course I loved the sign outside the bakery. While we were visiting the church, a wedding was start about ready to start. We've actually seen quite a few brides during our travels in Italy.

    It was an idyllic day. In addition to their one-day classes, Convivio offers 3 and 5-day courses, combined with accommodations in Toffia, either in a shared environment (room of local villager) or sometimes they rent out entire dwellings for the class participants. I'm pretty sure one of these options (3 or 5 days) will be worked into the planning process for a future trip to Italy.

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    PARIS ACCOMMODATIONS
    We rented this 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment in the 5th Arrondisement from Homelidays: http://www.homelidays.co.uk/paris-05/apartment-flat-346326en1.htm for 510€ for 4 nights. The apartment was nice and located across the street from Gare d’Austerlitz. At first, we were concerned about the train noise, but honestly, it didn’t bother us at all and we loved being so close to the Metro. I will definitely rent this apartment again.

    PARIS
    We didn’t really have much of an agenda in Paris except to just eat and shop. I was pretty burnt out on Italian food so I was looking forward to eating at some of my favorite places in Paris. We enjoyed meals at Les Pâtes Vivantes (amazing hand-pulled Chinese noodles) and La Rotunde. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t too great while we were there; LOTS of rain and we looked absolutely ridiculous in our capris and sandals. First order of business was to shop for some more appropriate attire. But in our defense, we’d been traveling now for almost 6 weeks in very hot and sunny weather, so fitting Fall-appropriate clothing into our suitcase wasn’t on the top of our list of priorities. Besides eating and shopping, the only other thing on my wish list for Paris was a visit to my favorite gallery, the Museé D’Orsay. Unfortunately, my motivation to stand in the very long line (3:00 PM on a Sunday) was squashed by the steady rain. So, I guess “that’s another trip.” As always, Paris was wonderful and I am always reminded when I visit how much I truly love Paris. It was great to be back after our great trip in September 2011 and I look forward to planning a longer visit soon.

    By this time in our trip, I am pretty homesick and although the trip home will be long, I’m ready to go. I think this trip was just a tad too long for me. I think we had a great overview of Italy and I know there will be future trips, so I will look forward to re-visiting some of the places we only had time enough for a glimpse. I’m not sure how to overcome to issue of the crowds though – perhaps going more “off-season” is the answer, but I sure enjoyed the sunshine. We’ve been back in rainy Seattle now for two weeks and my tan is fading! It’s kind of weird to leave while it’s still Summer and return home to a different season. Just writing this trip report has been fun as I’m reliving some of the highlights of our trip, so I hope I wasn’t too long-winded for you.

    I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, so please let me know if I can be of any help. Once again, thank you SO much all you great Fodorites! I’ve enjoyed reading these forums now for almost 15 years and would never ever think of planning any trip without first checking in with all of you for your much-needed expertise.

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    Yes, much better. It was hard to keep track of the other threads and find the proper order.

    >>>I'm not sure exactly how many times we entered/exited the ZTL<<<

    I hope you don't get many tickets. It will show up first on the credit card you rented the car with as the rental companies charge a fee for providing your info to the police (30-50€). The ticket comes separately in the mail. They have a year from the time they get your info to issue the tickets and Italy contracts with an outside company.

    >>>Interestingly enough, this train's second class seats were all in little compartments of 6-seats each, with baggage stowage above the seats. <<<

    You booked an IC train instead of one of the faster AV or ES trains. 1st and 2nd class on IC trains are compartments.

    >>>After doing some research on the Vatican Museums, it seems that many of the rooms were not currently open, such as some rooms featuring Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts, jewelry, statuary and art.<<<<

    Was there a sign saying this was closed or you just didn't see the entrance to these rooms? There are many rooms that aren't on the path to the Sistine Chapel, but you do have to veer off to see them. Some are through closed doors, but you can still visit. You can click on the various museums areas.
    http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/z-Info/MV_Info_Settori.html

    >>>Imagine viewing the Sistine Chapel with only a dozen people inside instead of 1,000? But we didn't want to spend the money and felt it wasn't a good use of our budget. <<<

    The Vatican has provided you with a free visit of the Sistine Chapel without tourists (link takes a few seconds to load). Use your arrow keys to move around the room or look at the ceiling. Use the + and - in the left corner to zoom.
    http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html

    This site is not an official site, but has a lot of good maps and details. I'm not sure the person that made the website still updates it.
    http://www.saintpetersbasilica.org/

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