Just back from Italy - long highlights

Apr 8th, 2005, 07:45 PM
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Just back from Italy - long highlights

Itís payback time and I am happy to be able to share information about our recent trip to Rome, Florence and Venice. Without all of the helpful advice from Fodorites, Iím sure it would not have been successful

First, a little info about us. I only do this because I like to know from whom the information I am receiving is coming from. This helps to decide if the informant and I are on the same wave lengths.

I am in my early 50s, a social studies teacher and real estate agent in the DC metropolitan area.. I have been to Paris, London and Israel, all within the last 6 years so you can see that my world travel came later in life. DH had been to Asia, Africa and short trips to Europe for business in a previous incarnation. We are not wealthy, but not cheap. Basically like to get the most bang for the buck. We are not backpackers and the only place I wear sneakers is to the gym (ok, maybe to the grocery store). DH wears jeans more than I do but usually with nice shirts, etc.

Food: we generally use Zagatís for Washington, DC and New York restaurants but for Europe found it to be expensive. We like good food and donít mind what it costs (on an occasional basis if we feel it is worth it.) Our expensive meals $150-200) occur about three times a year (not counting restaurants when we are away.) From the advice of Fodorites, I bought Sandra Gustafsonís Great Eats Italy. I ordered it online from Amazon. We used it for almost every meal and without fail, had great, if not fabulous experiences. On occasion, she recommended some restaurants mentioned by Fodorites. Her most expensive meals were what we considered between moderate and expensive. We had decided that one doesnít need to spend a great deal of money to eat well in Italy.

Hotels I used Venere.com for the basic research on the hotels. Venere gave us a good description of the hotel and its location. It also had good reviews. As a back-up I used Trip Advisor for reviews but for some reason didnít trust the reviews as much. All of our hotels were much nicer than we generally stay in. It was a real treat to stay in such luxury but next time we might not be so indulgent. In general, Hampton Inns are where we stay for college visits and short stays and we go a little nicer when we visit large cities. These hotels however were in a class by themselves.
Our hotel in Rome was paid for in AmEx points so we were limited to a choice of three hotels. We chose the one that used the least number of points.
For the others, we booked through Venere or directly with the hotel.

I checked with www.accuweather.com for a 15 day forecast. That made my packing a lot easier knowing what to expect. In addition, the forecasts were pretty accurate.

First a couple of observations, and then on to the cities. For many of you this stuff is elementary but there is always the first time reader that I feel might appreciate the information. Some of it is based on questions others posted before I left.

Many people wear jeans in Italy. I thought it looked fine as long as the top was a nice blouse/shirt and jacket. I think itís the t-shirts and sweatshirts that stand out. I only wore jeans once, and they were black for our day in Tuscany, You can also tell the American women Ė they ware the ones without a scarf tied around their neck. If you donít have one, buy one as soon as you get there! As many people say, you donít need to take as many clothes as you think. Many nights I just redid my hair and make-up, changed my scarf and wore the same clothes to dinner. We never needed to dress for dinner.

As for the meals in Italy, there was only one restaurant where I felt that I needed to order more than one course and that was because Gustafson mentioned it in her book for that restaurant. Unfortunately, I felt that I had to make the most of every meal as if it was my last one. Good thing I brought a pair of loose pants. We ate three real meals a day. Only once or twice did we just grab a sandwich or slice of pizza.

We are both tied to our computers and went back and forth over taking a laptop. In the end we left it home. It probably was easier and less expensive since the hotels tend to charge a great deal for a hook-up. Internet cafes were easy to find in Rome and Florence. In Venice, they were more difficult to find and didnít have as convenient hours as the other two cities. Also, they were more expensive in Venice. It is probably because there are more students in the first two cities.

We also American Express rewards points for our business class flight. We have never flown anything other than coach so this was a wonderful treat. We have almost decided that if the choice comes down to business class and a lesser hotel, it might be worth it.

We flew Alitalia to Milan and then on to Rome and found it to be fine. We returned home from Venice. This was due to a combination of what we were able to use the points for and the dates available. If I were doing it again, I would probably do the changing of planes in the US instead of Italy, but that is a minor point.

Based on many Fodorite suggestions, we used Limoservicerome.com. As with all new experiences, I wasnít sure they would be there but they were right on time, courteous and less expensive than a cab. The drive also explained the sights on the way in.

Our hotel in Rome was the Majestic on the Via Veneto. Very convenient to the metro and nice shops but a bit of a walk to most of the sights. Beautiful hotel with great service from the front desk. They made dinner reservations for us and were anxious to hear about our Gustafson finds.

We took the Scavi Tour at the Vatican. After two unsuccessful attempts at emailing them, we asked our hotel (via email) to check on a reservation. They told us that we had a reservation and the information had been sent to us by the Vatican. We figured our spam blocker got it. In any case, it is a fabulous tour and you should definitely try to include it.

Following the Scavi Tour, we walked to Trastevere. Iím not sure what people see in the area but I felt it was a waste of time. We did have a delicious lunch but it was rushed because they were close to closing when we arrived.

Vatican Tour we reserved through the Vatican via fax. It was a very inclusive tour and certainly sufficient for us to learn the important things about the Vatican and St.Peters.

Ancient Rome - I had tried to make reservations online before we left with Rome Odyssey. I never got a confirmation for the reservation so we just decided to do it on our own. We figured we would purchase the combo tickets at Palentine Hill to avoid the lines. When we got there, however, it was too confusing to figure out what to do (unusual for me to admit). I went up to someone who looked like he knew what he was doing and asked where to buy tickets. As luck (?) would have it, he asked if we wanted a tour in English. There was a group forming at that point (about 20 people) so we joined in. It was only a couple of euro more than the admittance ticket and it turned out to be great. The guide was very informative and took us through the Coliseum and afterwards, explained Palantine Hill and the Forum and sent us on our own. It was a good way to avoid the lines and get the information on the sites we wanted. Unfortunately, I couldnít tell you the name of the group because when I asked the guide, she said she just did this each day and it really wasnít a tour company. There was some sort of organization, however because we were given small stickers for identification and there were two or three people organizing the groups.

Borghese Gallery. Wonderful place. The tickets were once again arranged by our hotel when we got to Rome.

Rome Restaurants: Picolo Aranchia (Trevi); Al Fontanona (Trastevere); Osteria al Galetto (Piazza Farnase); LíOrso 80; La Bruschetta (Via Veneto); Giora Mia (Trevi). All great and would go back to any or all of them.

Took the train to Florence. We ordered all of our tickets online before we left but were never able to get any of their special rates. Note: when you reserve a seat, if it shows the seats are next to each other, they arenít, they are across from each other. We went first class and were glad we did. On both trips the trains were crowded even though it wasnít rush hour. Even first class was totally booked.

Hotel in Florence was the Bernini Palace. It was a couple of blocks from the Uffizi and convenient to the leather shops. Although it was perfectly adequate, it was the least desirable of our hotels. Also, the hotel staff was the least helpful with any requests. The hotel is undergoing renovations so you have to walk up two flights of steps to the elevator. They do carry your luggage for you.

Since the museums in Florence are closed on Monday, we took a tour of a vineyard through a company called Accidental Tourist (www.accidentaltourist.com). Great trip and terrific company to work with. We were very lucky. It was only the two of us and one young American studying in Florence. We were picked up, driven to a vineyard where we got a tour and then wine and olive oil tasting. We then went to a home built in 1100 (thatís right Ė no typo) where we made pasta and the lady of the house cooked the rest of our lunch. We sat and ate and talked and looked at the wonderful countryside for 3 hours. Very much worth the 80 euro per person.

Florence Restaurants Ė Pallotino and La Giostra Ė there were others but I canít remember now and the receipts are in a pile. By the way, although DH love La Giostra, it was my least favorite meal. Maybe I ordered the wrong thing or had just reached my limit on food. I thought it was expensive and not worth the hype although the owner and his sons were charming.

Once again we took the train, this time to Venice and although it was a Wednesday at 2:30, the train was packed. We took a vaporetti from the train station to our hotel because the hotel was only one block from the stop. Very easy to do and not at all as intimidating as I thought it would be. Also, our two 25 inch pieces of luggage didnít even cause a blink among the other passengers who also had various pieces of luggage and work gear.

We bought a 3-day vaporetti pass at the train station. It probably saved us money but I figured, even if it didnít, it was certainly worth not having to keep buying them.

We stayed at the Foscari Palace, A beautiful hotel on the grand canal. Although it was probably not in the most convenient location (Canneregio) but because of the close vaporetti stop, it wasnít a problem. It only took us about 20 minutes to get to the Academia stop.

We didnít go to Murano because many people had said it wasnít necessary if you didnít have the time. We went to the Academia and the Guggenheim. I personally liked the Guggenheim better, especially after coming out of the very dark Academia. It was like the skies opened going to the Guggenheim! We also did the secret tour of the Dogues Palace. Very interesting and a good lesson in Italian history. We thought the Ghetto was very interesting and had a lot more to it than the one in Rome

Venice Restaurants Ė Osteria Carla, Tavera San Trovaso and I think Ai Cugnai.

Final night and still up for debateÖ We had decided since our plane was originally scheduled to leave at 6:40 am, it would be a waste to stay at our (pricey) Venice hotel and get up at 3:00 to get to the airport and pay a great deal for the ride. We made reservations at The Plaza Hotel in Maestra, just across the street from the train station. For 1 Euro each, we took the 15 minute train ride from Venice. In the end, it made sense. We saved about $150 doing it this way. The hotel called us a cab for the morning and for 30 Euros we got to the airport in about 25 minutes. However, as we were leaving for Maestre, I kept thinking how much I would have liked another night in Venice. The biggest problem was getting our luggage up the stairs at the train station in Maestre. Since the tracks were on the other side from the hotel, we had to climb steps to get to the other side of the road. There may have been an elevator, but we never found it. It really did put a damper on the last night. So was it worth it to leave? It depends on how much money you want to save. Probably next time, I wouldnít do it.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip. Sorry this was so wordy but if you have any specific questions, just ask..
damama is offline  
Apr 8th, 2005, 08:00 PM
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Damama- wonderful information--was a delight to read about your experiences in Italy. I love Venice too and plan to visit it again in 2006. So, I will be sure to "bookmark" your trip report and use it while tweaking my trip plans. Welcome home--are you already thinking of going back?? Bet you are!!

P.S. Great movie set in Venice is "Bread and Tulips" Is in Italian with subs. You will love it!!
travlintoes is offline  
Apr 8th, 2005, 08:08 PM
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I'm very surprised as a Wash/area resident you don't consult www.washingtonian.com for local restaurant reviews, an well established area magazine for years. For dumping good money on good food, if you have tried La Bergerie in Old Town or the Inn at Little Washington you've missed the better food in Washington area.

As for Italy, great you used Venere and Trip Advisor for hotel reviews I do the same, those are your two best resources. For clothing, you're right nothing real dressy but Europeans dress smart. Mixing and matching is great for travel. Stay with basics, things that match all and of course easily laundered.

Sounds like a great trip.
Traveler863 is offline  
Apr 8th, 2005, 08:12 PM
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Traveler 863, I actually do use Washingtonian.com along with Zagat. I just thought Fodorites would be more familiar with that. By the way, we had a fabulous meal at the Inn at Little Washington last year. We ate in the "chef's kitchen". Quite an experience.

By the way, I noticed a lot of pearls on the ears and necks. Guess they will be back in next year here!

Travelintoes, thanks for the movie tip. I did love Venice. Rome was wonderful for the history. Since I am not a high end shopper on this side of the Atlantic, I avoided the "Rodeo Drive of Florence". I think that's why my reaction to Florece is not as high as the other cities. Beautiful and would go back but first to the other two.
damama is offline  
Apr 8th, 2005, 09:21 PM
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Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you had a great trip!
mv_rd is offline  
Apr 8th, 2005, 10:44 PM
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Thanks for the great report, damama! I was very interested to hear your thoughts about the last night in Venice with an early flight, as we face the same dilemma -- a 6:40 flight! When we first booked everything, the flight was at 10:40, otherwise, I probably would have rearranged things a bit. Anyway, I was already thinking we'd probably just suck it up and get up at 3; based on what you said, I'm now sure of it. Thanks again!
Carmen is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 04:41 AM
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By the way, once we had booked the room in Maestre, they changed our flight to 7:40 so the extra hour was a bonus. Finally, you don't need to get to the airport in Venice as early as you do in the US. Things go much quicker there, even with doing the VAT paperwork.
damama is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 07:41 AM
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Very nice trip report. I'm going to check out the Great Eats book for my trip in Sept!

Maybe I missed it, but when did you go? Did you just return? Curious at to what time of year the trains were so crowded.

Dayle is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 07:49 AM
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Good report, D.

Thanx for sharing.

ira is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 08:05 AM
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Damama...great report. I loved that you included info. about yourself and DH (husband??). It is helpful to know something about from whom the "advice" is coming. I am coming to European travel even later than you did as this is my fist trip, and I will be 49 on May 20th!! Better late than never. We are going to London, Rome, Florence and Venice.

How did you arrange the tour of the Douges Palace? I've read many reports on what a great tour it is, but nothing about how to go about booking it. Great report! Grazie.
welove2travel is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 09:09 AM
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Enjoyed your report! My husband and I, and 2 teen-agers are going to Venice, Florence, and Rome in July,2005. What are some major areas for our older teen-agers to enjoy? They think the trip is going to be boring! Also, we will be flying in Venice. What would you do to make it easier to arrive/departure from the airport? We had the same problem in Ireland, all the stairs and lugging the suitcases!! Please let me know. I am glad you enjoyed your trip.
anitabelle is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 11:35 AM
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This is a great trip report Ė thanks for sharing! We took a similar trip last year, but with Cinque Terre instead of Rome. Needless to say, we loved it, even though weather in Florence was not great (read Ė rainy - all 4 days). RomeÖ.another trip, soon I hope. Thanks for all the tips on tours and reservations. How many days did you spend in Rome?
xyz99 is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 12:34 PM
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This is one of the best trip reports that I have read and I think that it was because of the detailed information of the trip and also some insight into the background of the travelers.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share this. I, too, have book-marked this for our future travels. Happy future travels!
Brahmama is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 01:19 PM
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don't have time to answer questions or thanks for the kudos - rushing out to pay for trip! however, the May Bon Appetit is all about the big three in Italy. More later.
damama is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 02:44 PM
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Here are some of the ansers to your questions. We left for Rome on March 15 and got back on the 24th. No one could explain why the crowds on the trains. The only thing I could think of is that it was a vacation week for all the college students studying in Europe and they seemed to be going from one city to the next. The students studying in Florence and Rome were gone but their absence was made up by the students studying in England, France, Spain, etc. etc. etc......

We had absolutely unusually beautiful weather. It was in the 60s/70s in Rome and Florence and only rained one morning in Venice when we were in the museum.

Our hotel made our reserations at the Dogues Palace. We had emailed them in advance to ask them to do it and they replied with our reservation number. I am not sure if this is something they usually do but the hotels didn't seem to mind. Also, as far as making restuaurant reservations for us, it seems that it perfectly normal since they have a preprinted card that they fill in with the reservation information including the address, etc.

Anitabelle, as far as your teenagers, I would think Rome would be the most interesting for them because of the history. I'm sure they would like the Vatican too. Try to make a reservation for the Scavi Tour. It was awsome.

As far as Venice and Florence, since we weren't gearing our trip for teens (left them home)I can't help as much. They probably will think Venice is just plain cool because it is (IMO). Perhaps others can help you with Florence. I know Florence attracts a lot of college students for their semester abroad but I don't know what they do for fun. It also depends a lot on your kids. Mine probably would have been bored with all the museums. Wish I could help more with this question. Maybe you could tell them do do their own research to see what they would like to do. Also, if one is a girl, she might like the shopping in Florence.
damama is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 03:32 PM
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anitabelle, sorry I didn't answer your airport question. Once I decided to do the Maestre thing, I stopped checking into the airport transportation. However, what I did learn was that you could take a water taxi for about 90 Euro or the vaporetti for about 10 E each (22E for 3 days).

Do a search under Venice airport transportation and you should be able to get better answers. Also, I would suggest, if you are arriving late, you may not want to try to get to Venice the first night - sort of the reverse of our plan. I would have hated to try to find our hotel at night. A cab would take you to the hotel in Maestre and the train track side should be in your favor going to Venice.

Where are you staying in Venice?
If you are arriving in the morning, I would just head for Venice.

One thing I forgot. We found the Venetians to be the most friendly and helpful. Whenever we stood looking at our map, someone would come over to ask if we needed help. Never happened in Florence (they couldn't even tell us where something was) and occassionally happened in Rome.
damama is offline  
Apr 9th, 2005, 06:05 PM
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sorry to keep coming back but I keep remembering things. I know there has been a lot of talk about pickpockets, gypsies, fake babies, etc. We never saw any of these. I was actually hoping someone would try to throw a baby at me! Anyway, I was careful but not paranoid. I think the people who are targeted are the ones who forget where they are and are just obviously not paying attention.
damama is offline  
Apr 10th, 2005, 08:28 AM
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Well done! We were in the same cities at about the same time and stayed at the Foscari, too. Dave
dcd is offline  
Apr 10th, 2005, 08:42 AM
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Can you provide some details about the Vatican Tour? I haven't heard of it before. What did you see? How did you book it? What was the cost and duration?
mdtravel is offline  
Apr 10th, 2005, 09:46 AM
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md travel - here is the website for the Vatican Tour:

The entrance for the tour is at the back of the Vatican - about a 5 block walk so make sure you leave plenty of time. Not the kind of thing you can get to the front of the building at the last minute.

We made the reservation by fax and they confirmed by fax. After we got our time, however, it turned out to conflict with our Scavi Tour. As soon as we got to Rome, we asked our hotel to see if they could make the change for our Vatican Tour and they did with no problem. Have a wonderful trip.

DCD- how did you like the Foscari Palace? We were there on March 23 and 24.
damama is offline  

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