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Familiar Sites-Fresh Reviews: Just Back from Rome, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice

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Aug 1st, 2003, 07:44 AM
  #21
 
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Lina,
Yours is an excellent, well-written report. Your enthusiasm is infectious, and I am sure you had such a good time because you have a positive attitude.

Having said that, I feel churlish pointing out one tiny error, but perhaps it will help other people. You said: "With a ticket from an agency, we didn't have to validate it at the yellow meter box. " Buying a ticket at an agency or a the train station is the same. You didn't have to stamp the ticket because you took the EuroStar. If you took another kind of train, such as an IC or EC, you would have had to stamp your ticket.

I look forward to the rest of the report. I consider myself energetic, but I can't believe you did the CT walk and drove three hours both ways. Whew.
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Aug 1st, 2003, 10:32 AM
  #22
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Florence:
To avoid driving in downtown Florence, we dropped the car off and took cabs to Hotel Casci. This is a family-run hotel, not a luxury hotel by any stretch. However, it is immaculately clean, efficiently run, has newly remodeled bathrooms and wonderful A/C. The owner, Carla, is an absolute gem. She was so accommodating and kind and her staff is excellent. We loved staying here. It was nice to have free Internet access in the bar area.

Our son's girlfriend's family had also moved on to Florence and had arranged a tour for the 8 of us through their travel agent. We were all a bit disappointed (the guide was not at all like Johnny!) but the tour gave us a good overview of Florence. We visited the Accademia, Duomo, Orsanmichele, Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, and Oltrarno area. By late afternoon, six of us were feeling the effects of hiking the day before and were fading fast. Unfortunately, I also got a cold.

Prior to our trip, we listened to Ross King's book, Brunelleschi's Dome, so the Duomo and Baptistry doors held particular interest for us. The book may be too dry to actually read (too much detail), but the tape was good to listen to with one ear while driving. We learned a lot about the early Renaissance, how the dome was built, and the competition between artists. I also checked out several books from the library and particularly recommend The Key to Renaissance Art by Jose Fernandez Arenas and The Sistine Chapel by Vittorio Giudici. They are both from the Juvenile (not Children's) section. Don't snicker. I use this strategy a lot: in a short amount of time I can get a straightforward overview of a topic, often with lots of illustrations!

Dinner the first night was forgettable at Semidivino. Florence seemed a bit dirtier and grittier than Rome. Motorscooters zoom all the time (past every café during dinner) and there were many beggars in addition to the usual vendors. The crowds here seemed worse too. At night it seemed like only tourists were out and about.

The following day we slept late and spent the entire afternoon at the Uffizi (definitely make reservations directly at 011-39-055294883 to avoid paying a hefty service charge through an agency). It was relaxing and lovely. We had a great dinner at Quattro Leoni (across the Arno on via Vellutini), particularly enjoying the ravioli stuffed with pear in cream sauce. This recipe is available on their website at www.4leoni.com.

By Monday, our travel group changed from 8 to 2 (some people have jobs!). My youngest son and I stayed in Florence for an additional two days before moving on to Venice. During those days, we walked EVERYWHERE, shopping and visiting the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Santa Croce Church, Museo di Storia della Scienza, Fort Belvedere, and Boboli Gardens. The Duomo Museum was wonderful but the science museum was not worthwhile. As a matter of fact, we bought our ticket at 12:15 pm one day and in the first room, the docent told us that the museum would be closing at 1:00 pm. It would have been nice if the ticket seller had told us that! In general we found that entrance fees were pretty steep and, as I mentioned previously, no one gives out brochures or pamphlets with information. We had an excellent lunch at Le Colonnine Pizzaria on via Benci, a short distance from the Santa Croce church. I had the best pizza (there are so many choices) and the calzone my son ordered must have been 15" long! Yummy. We returned there for dinner after failing to find restaurants recommended on the forum (one just didn't exist and the other was closed). My advice: stick to the pizzas and calzones at Le Colonnine. Service was excellent (Cost=17 euros/lunch, 43 euros/dinner for two).

After Venice, we returned to Florence and the Hotel Casci for one night before flying home. We climbed the 400+ steps to the top of the Duomo and ate dinner at Quattro Leoni again. Their Florentine steak was delicious but, sadly, they were out of their special tiramisu.

Final thoughts on Florence: We were all thrilled to see the fabulous artworks in the Accademia and the Uffizi (our older son's girlfriend is an art history major), the Duomo, and the Baptistry doors. However, I don't feel any need to return to Florence. If I do, I will probably stay in the Oltarno section (other side of the Arno river), which is quieter. We often took the Santa Trinita bridge to see the views over the Ponte Vecchio but avoid the mass of people on that bridge. If you like to shop, you will probably love the leather shops, jewelry stores, and outdoor market. We only bought a few ceramics, some stationery, and two "Rolex" watches from a vendor. Stores close fairly early, so I missed out on some items I went back for.

To be continued: Venice
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Aug 2nd, 2003, 02:04 PM
  #23
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I forgot to mention that our college students were able to purchase discount tickets to many sites in Italy with a valid student ID, including the Vatican, the Cinque Terre Park, the Duomo, and most churches and museums. The exceptions were the Uffizi and Accademia which only gave discounts to Italian students. A couple of euros in each place adds up!
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Aug 2nd, 2003, 05:29 PM
  #24
 
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Hurry up with Venice...I don't know if I can sleep tonight. Thanks for your report. It is great. Headed to Florence, Venice and Rome and appreciate your diary.
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Aug 2nd, 2003, 07:46 PM
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yes, yes!!keep going!!!!i love your report!
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Aug 3rd, 2003, 01:24 PM
  #26
 
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Excellent report ! Can't wait for the rest of the story!
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Aug 3rd, 2003, 02:29 PM
  #27
 
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Enjoying your trip report, Lina. We just returned ourselves, so it's interesting to hear other's perspectives on things. Keep it up! Can't wait for Venice.
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Aug 3rd, 2003, 04:05 PM
  #28
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My 14-year old daughter, who loves Italy (her grandmother took her two years ago, to much the same places as you) just finished reading your report, Lina. She wailed to me "I neeeed Italy! Why aren't you taking me with you next month!" Thank goodness her passport doesn't expire for a while, because I know a family Italy trip is is in our future! Keep on writing your story--we all are enjoying reading it.
 
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Aug 3rd, 2003, 08:43 PM
  #29
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Venice:
Buying a train ticket at a travel agency was so easy in Rome but we wasted a lot of time trying to find an agency in Florence and then standing in line. However, I wanted to make sure we got on the afternoon Eurostar to Venice. The lady at the American Express office was chatty and nice with the Italians in front of us, but turned into quite a sourpuss when it was our turn. We were polite, greeted her in Italian, and had a simple transaction. Who knows?

Our train was late so we had ample time to people-watch. It cracked us up to see people with dogs and people on bicycles cruising right through the station. We arrived in Venice about 6:00 pm. Thanks to tips from this forum, we knew to go directly out the door and to the right, buy tickets and get on the #1 vaporetto on the far right dock to head down the Grand Canal. Fortunately, all the "traffic" was in the other direction (people heading to the train station and car park) so we got seats in the front of the vaporetto. I was immediately in love with this city. Loved the water, the old buildings (some with painted facades of former/future glory), the people, EVERYTHING! I looked at my son and gave him a thumbs-up sign and was glad to see that he had a big smile on his face. Do you know the feeling you get when you drive hours to a lake or a beach, dump your bags wherever you're staying, and run out to the water for the first time and feel the breeze on your face? That's how we felt. Wow. This is cool.

The Hotel Ala was only steps away from a vaporetto stop. It proved to be in an excellent location: halfway between the Accademia Bridge and San Marco Square. The large lobby and breakfast rooms are lovely, but our "superior" room was very shabby. We had a view over a side canal but the room was dark and musty. If we added up the wattage of all the lamps and light fixtures, it probably would not have equaled 75. The furniture looked worse than what's at Salvation Army. I asked the desk clerk if all the rooms were the same and he told me that we actually had a "very nice" room. Hm. I had gotten a great deal over the Internet and the double room only cost 120 euros/night (this is their "Alice" Special), which was far less than other 3-star hotels in Venice. However, I would NOT stay there again. The staff was polite but not friendly. When I tried to pay our bill with traveler's checks, the desk clerk told me that he would charge a 2 euro fee for each check. I told him that none of the shops or restaurants imposed a fee and he said, "Well, they want your business." Precisely. The Ala didn't seem to want our business. Their website claimed that they had robes and complimentary foreign newspapers, but there were none. The hairdryers were the worst ever (just a hose that put out a meager 700 watts). On the plus side, the Hotel Ala had the best breakfast of any of the places we stayed!

We immediately noticed that people were much more casually dressed in Venice. It is a tourist town, complete with cruise ships and day ferries. Many folks wore shorts and not many dressed up in the evening. It was wonderful not to hear any cars or motorscooters!

We had dinner at Ristaurant da Raffaele our first night, which is located on a side canal. It was lovely and the food was good, although pricey. We tried the spider crab appetizer which was served in the crabshell, about 6" in diameter. (We saw these giant crustaceans later in fish markets; they live in the Adriatic Sea.) Cigar smoke from another patron started to bother us, so we didn't linger after dinner. In general, smoking is allowed in all restaurants and we tried to eat outdoors as much as possible. This restaurant was recommended by the hotel (they even gave us a discount coupon) and Rick Steves. He rates it as one of the most romantic places to eat in Venice. (Cost=95 euros/2)

We followed signs to San Marco and entered the plaza from the back, opposite the Basilica. The view was absolutely enchanting. It was dark by now but all of the buildings surrounding the plaza, the Basilica, and the campanile were illuminated. Two orchestras were playing on stages on either side of the plaza. People were dancing or just listening to the music. It was so pretty and so different from the other places we had been.

The following day we headed to the Guggenheim Museum in the Dorsudoro section. The modern art was a nice change from what we had seen in Rome and Florence. The sculpture garden provided a shady respite from the heat, too. We wandered all around Dorsudoro, spent an hour in a bar during a thunderstorm, toured the Ca'Rezzonico museum (Venetian history) and ended up on the Giudecca canal for a late lunch. The shops were nice and we enjoyed stopping in many art galleries. Venice is a great walking town but you can't be in a hurry (we weren't). Your destination might be in sight, but getting there is another matter. Around every corner are several paths to choose from and only some of them get you over the next canal (think of it as a giant maze!). We finally found our way to the La Salute Church on the peninsula.

We hoped to discover a nice restaurant on our own, so after a rest, shower, and change, we headed out again. After going up in the campanile for pictures (no line, 6 euros/ticket), we hopped on the vaporetto and headed to the Rialto bridge. This area, however, turned out to be very busy and crowded, so we walked back to San Marco and headed to the Castello district. On the way, we were looked at restaurant menus and ultimately stopped at Do Leoni near the Bridge of Sighs. Their terrace was surrounded by beautiful potted plants and it looked very classy. We didn't really notice until we were seated that this was a VERY upscale place and probably catered mostly to Americans. I would call the menu nouvelle cuisine. Big plates, beautiful presentation, expensive, but hardly any food. (Cost=111 euros/2).

Rain in the morning gave us a good excuse to sleep in. We had made reservations for the Doge's Palace Secret Tour and arrived at 11:15 am. The tour was interesting but too long and claustrophobic. We breezed through the rest of the palace and out. I would recommend touring the palace on your own before the tour or skipping the tour entirely. The lines weren't long to get in. The tour cost 12 euros. We spent a bit more time at San Marco and watched the pigeons. Thousands of them. We toured the basilica and then rode the vaporetto around for fun, this time through the Giudecca canal so we could see the sites we walked the day before. For dinner, we headed to Taverna San Trovasa, which had been recommended on this forum and which we saw on our walk the previous day. Fortunately, this restaurant has a non-smoking section. It is also very efficiently run and the food was outstanding. My noodles with mushrooms and tomato cream sauce was wonderful and was so large, it could have served a family of four. The osso bucco melted in my mouth. My son had an equally delicious spaghetti with shrimp in tomato cream sauce but didn't care for the veal in lemon sauce. Even with wine and dessert, our bill was only 45 euros, so we decided to return here the following night!

On our walk home, a young woman was singing opera in a plaza (for tips). She had a wonderful voice and this type of street entertainment suited Venice so well.

We spent our last full day enjoying Murano and Burano. While on the way to catch the vaporetto from San Marco, we were invited to visit a glass factory by one of the salesmen on the plaza. After making sure there was no obligation to buy, we agreed to go and he escorted us to a private water taxi (a beautiful mahogany speedboat) and we were off. I didn't have a silk chiffon scarf with me, but I tried to look the part of a jet setter as we sped past the vaporettos and old clunker boats. The glass-blowing demonstration was nice and we endured the sales pitches of several Dale Carnegie types, but were soon on our own. Murano is quieter and smaller than Venice and mostly designed for shopping and tourists. We did enjoy the Glass Museum very much. We decided to eat lunch in Burano and took the vaporetto to the next island (had to ride with the riffraff again?haha). We quickly found a place recommended, Bruschetteria al Vecio Pipa, even though the name on the outdoor umbrellas was different. We sat next to the canal and enjoyed a pasta and a bruschetta the size of a dinner plate. I ordered bruschetta with tonna (tuna), tomatoes, mozzarella, and something else. The something else turned out to be anchovies but it was actually delicious and a great compliment to the tuna.

Burano is such a quaint, picturesque island. Many of the homes are painted vivid colors. Bright purple, lemon yellow, turquoise blue. The awnings and window shades were brightly striped. Many had freshly poured concrete stoops as if some community refurbishing was going on. Everyone had beautiful flower boxes and some homes had wrought iron work. Very cute. My son took a ton of pictures. The shops were full of lace but it all looked like imported stuff from China. Some was probably made locally. We bought some gifts and jewelry and now regret not buying more. Once we got back to Venice, we realized that prices were much higher. However, we were so happy to look around and enjoy our surroundings that shopping wasn't a priority at the time.

Returning to Venice, we took the northern route through the Cannaregio Canal and again down the Grand Canal. I loved being on the water and highly recommend getting a multi-day pass. The attendants do not ask for tickets very often, but if you are caught riding without one, the fine is 30 euros.

We got quite lost in Dorsudoro while walking around before dinner but discovered some new plazas. I went into the Pensione Accademia to see what it was like since I had tried to get a reservation there but they were booked. There are two courtyards, one in front of the hotel and one in the middle, which is particularly lovely. I talked with an American family staying there (they go every year!) and they gave the place rave reviews. Though I didn't go in, I also saw Pensione La Calcina and Hotel American from the outside and they looked nice.

Dinner at Taverna San Trovaso was excellent again. The fish soup was overflowing with shrimp, mussels, chunks of fish, and crayfish. My son had it for an appetizer and liked it so much, I cancelled my entrée and ordered the fish soup for my main course. This restaurant seemed to have a lot of local patrons. (Cost=50 euros/2)

After a bit of shopping the next morning, we had to head back to Florence and prepare to leave for home. We felt so lucky that the chronology of our trip worked out the way it did. We had busy days in Rome and Tuscany, hiked the Cinque Terre, had a very urban experience in Florence, and then came to Venice. Therefore, we thoroughly enjoyed the slower pace and sheer beauty of the city and surrounding islands. On the train back to Florence we overheard a woman saying that her 4 day stay in Venice was 3 1/2 days too long. She was just starting her journey and perhaps was eager for something more exciting (I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt here). Even my 18-year old son loved Venice.

I can't end my Venice report without mentioning the lunch fare available on the Eurostar to Florence: only one type of sandwich = roasted zucchini and cheese on a hard roll.

To be continued: Final thoughts on Italy (the last installment, I promise!)
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Aug 4th, 2003, 03:52 AM
  #30
 
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Lina,

I agree with you that Venice is more relaxing and slower paced, so it's a good ending for an Italian tour, versus beginning with Venice.

Looking forward to more.
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Aug 4th, 2003, 08:15 AM
  #31
 
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yikes! we have reservations for Ala in Oct. at a higher rate.(i liked the location and no bridges to cross with luggage)...should i keep looking? it was recommended on this talk forum...tried accademia, calcina and they were full...ideas???
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Aug 4th, 2003, 08:34 AM
  #32
 
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How about an apartment? That's what we recently did. Venice Rentals was great.
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Aug 4th, 2003, 08:40 AM
  #33
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to wondering: As I mentioned, the Ala is in a convenient location and the breakfast is great. We never saw the roof terrace (obviously not advertised) and the Internet was down during our stay (they charge 5 euros/30 min). Even though we had a great rate, the room was truly awful. We saw a room (at the top of the first flight of stairs) that overlooked the plaza instead of the canal. It had a huge window that let in a lot of light and parquet floor (instead of OLD carpet). Otherwise, all the rooms on our hall were like ours (nothing like the pics on the website). Possibly there were new rooms to the right of the lobby because I saw some people go in that direction. I would at least email them with your concerns and maybe they will promise you a nicer room. The staff isn't friendly but you can probably put up with that. The Hotel American looked nice from the outside and is supposedly about the same price. Good luck!
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Aug 4th, 2003, 12:11 PM
  #34
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I'm finally finished with my report!

This was one of our best vacations! We will always cherish the time spent with our kids and friends. Their recent studies of history, art, and engineering enriched our experiences and we enjoyed their company so much. It was the first European vacation I planned from start to finish (previously we've gone with tours). Though it was very time consuming, I definitely got more out of it due to all the research and being familiar with sites. This forum was invaluable. Thank you again! My family enjoyed the trip just as much as I did and appreciated not having to be on a rigid schedule.

Random thoughts:
We will never forget the historical sites, awesome art and architecture, and charming towns we saw in Italy. Some of our fondest memories will be the plazas full of people at night, the cypress trees and groves of Tuscany, flower boxes of red geraniums everywhere, and awesome views over the Mediterranean. Oh, and the food. Portions were enormous, the homemade pastas and sauces were fantastic, and the meat was very tender (perhaps they don't starve their cattle in Europe). Only the bread was consistently awful. They don't serve it with any butter or even olive oil. A few times we asked for olive oil and small plates but wondered if the practice of eating bread this way is an American-Italian invention. We will always laugh about the public toilets and the attendants that care for them. The animals will be hard to forget: the dog that lives at the Colosseum amidst dozens of cats, the river rats in the Arno, the pigeons in Venice, and the wild boar in Tuscany (no, we didn't really see a live one!). We will also never forget the crazy drivers, crooked and narrow roads, and tiny Smart Cars. Why there are not mass casualties on Italian roads every day will continue to be a mystery.

Most tourists were respectful visitors. We enjoyed meeting other travelers and exchanging stories. We had the misfortune of overhearing one woman in a shop holler, "How much is THAT? And THAT? Oh, my GAWD! SOLD! Wrap it up, HONEY." No offense, but she had to be from New York. Well, maybe New Jersey.

Lesson learned: Incredible heat is preferable to incredible rain. We were lucky.

Girl talk: most Italian women are so thin! Stylish, too. We didn't see any Mama Leoni types (like in spaghetti sauce commercials!). I am a size 4-6 and was flatly told in stores that I am a "medium" in Italy. Huh. We saw lots of bare midriffs. Plus, Italian women must have amazing feet because everyone, young and old, wears sandals. The small children we saw in strollers and in restaurants were very well behaved.

Practical advice: I would not recommend taking traveler's checks because not everyone accepts them. Most ATM's had a 250 euro withdrawal limit per transaction. My husband and sons kept their wallets in pouches inside their clothes and I carried a regular purse (zipped up) or backpack (sometimes in the front). We never detected any attempts by pickpockets. We were so glad that we packed light and only had to maneuver one suitcase onto trains. We brought an empty duffel bag that my husband brought back with souvenirs and dirty laundry after week 1. I did a bit of essential laundry in the bathtub during week 2. Make sure you take your own hair conditioner and washcloths, if you use them. There were none in any of our hotels.

My favorite city maps were the pop-out type that fold automatically, made by The Map Group/Compass Maps.

Thank you for your kind comments on this report. I apologize for the length but I couldn't leave anything out. As you can probably tell, I'm writing just as much for my own pleasure of reminiscing as for your information! I wish you all happy travels and highly recommend Italy as a destination. Now that you "know" me and my family, where do you think we should we go next?
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Aug 4th, 2003, 12:56 PM
  #35
 
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Great report, Lina. I certainly enjoyed it. I'll look forward to seeing where you decide to go next.
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Aug 4th, 2003, 01:00 PM
  #36
 
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to Wondering:
We just recently returned from Venice and stayed at the Hotel American. I was very pleased with the room (good A/C), bathroom, and nice balcony overlooking a quiet canal. The staff was also always pleasant and helpful with any reservations I needed. Breakfast was also good.
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Aug 4th, 2003, 06:28 PM
  #37
 
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thanks for the feedback again, everyone. hotel american is $100USD more so i guess i will stick with ala...Lina- i think you should post your question again about your next destination under a new thread and i will bet you receive hundreds of suggestions!! some ideas i can think of are the czech republic, austria, germany, or the lake country of italy and switzerland...a great family trip is vancouver, bc. with victoria.... alas...so many great destinations and so little time!!! thnaks again for your reports!
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Aug 4th, 2003, 06:43 PM
  #38
 
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Lina- Can you please give me the website for your tour excursion with Johnny. I will be traveling to Italy in October (Mediterranean cruise) and are looking for a good tour guide. Thanks, Jeanne
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Aug 5th, 2003, 09:08 AM
  #39
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NYJMK: Our Rome tour was with Through Eternity (www.througheternity.com). We had a private tour but Johnny does group tours as well. Your best bet is to email them and see what fits into your schedule. The company manager was very good about offering advice and returning emails promptly. Good luck!
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Aug 5th, 2003, 09:45 AM
  #40
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Great report, Lina.

Thanks for sharing.
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