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National Lampoon's Family Vacation in Italy; A crazy family in Italy Part 1

National Lampoon's Family Vacation in Italy; A crazy family in Italy Part 1

Jul 28th, 2011, 09:49 AM
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National Lampoon's Family Vacation in Italy; A crazy family in Italy Part 1

I recently came back from a whirlwind of a trip with my very large and close-knit family. We spent two weeks travelling throughout Italy visiting the three main cities (Rome, Florence, Venice) and paid visit to a few Tuscan/Umbrian towns like Siena and Assisi along with a few days visit to the Amalfi Coast. We had some amazing memories in Italy and also came across a few disappointments. I honestly felt that my family experienced a few Chevy Chase moments a la National Lampoon's European Vacation and the movie ended up being the main topic of conversation throughout the trip because of some crazy things that happened to us. Read on and you will see

First, a little background info on why we decided to go and why we visited the destinations we did. Last year, after my honeymoon, my husband and i expressed interest in planning our one-year wedding anniversary to visit Europe. Since Europe can be expensive we figured if we planned and saved for an entire year ( and pay things little by little) it would be easier on our pockets. Im a travel & tourism major and work for a major cruise company so i know a few insider websites that offer great discounts. The first place i went to was Luxury Link (great company to get amazing deals). I happend to browse their Italy section and found an awesome deal for a 2-bedroom villa at Il Borro for 7 nights. My husband and i were looking forward to spending a week in Tuscany relaxing but since neither of us had been to Italy, i decided to speak with my Sister-in-law who has frequented Italy before, for some guidance before i booked the package. After sharing this with her, she and my brother expressed interest in joining us (after all, it was a 2-bedroom we were looking at) and i didnt mind at all if they joined us. They too would be celebrating their wedding anniversary at that time and splitting the costs with them made it financially easier on me too. So my group of two grew to four and i was happy We booked our package for May 21st through Luxury Link and this is when we hit our first of many mishaps. Luxury Link confirmed us for May 21st and after a few weeks went by, i received an email from Il Borro stating that there was a miscommunication between the hotel and Luxury Link and we were actually booked for May 28th..not May 21st and they couldnt confirm me for May 21st because they were completely booked. Il Borro asked if we wouldnt mind moving our dates and in return they would give us a free upgrade to their 3-bedroom villa at no additional cost. It wasnt a big deal for me to move my vacation back a week so i took their offer and moved my dates back. The fact we had now a 3-bedroom gave room for us to invite my mom and my Mother in law (who are two peas in a pod, ironically enough). Both my mom and MIL are single moms who raised both my husband and i very well and we thought it would be a nice gesture to invite them along....and of course, they agreed. So now our group of 4 turned to 6. Oh boy....now this is when things got difficult. My MIL and Mom started inviting pretty much everyone in my family to join us, i know crazy right? Well, soon enough my other SIL and my Sister herself booked another villa and now my group of 6 turned to 10! What? However, after a few months SIL #2 got pregnant and canceled her trip....then my sister canceled too unexpectedly. So now we were back to 6 but stuck with 2 villas...and hence, more money out of our pockets. Luckily my best friend joined in and her addition helped bring down the cost of the additional villa. So now we were officially 7 in the group

Now that we had our official size, i held a few get-togethers at my house to discuss the trip as a group and ensure everyone had a voice in terms of sightseeing. And everyone pretty much agreed to extend the trip an additional week to allow more time to see Rome and the Amalfi Coast. Luckily, SIL was kind enough to share her Hilton points and we booked 3 nights at the Hilton Sorrento for free-YAY! And we were able to find an affordable hotel in Rome so adding another week to the trip was worth it. We went ahead and booked a minivan for the first week of the trip for Tuscany and then opted to do train rides for the second week of the trip. Booked minivan with Autoeurope and went smoothly and booked train tickets through Rail Europe and went smoothly as well. Now, the airfare is where it got tricky (insert Chevy Chase moment #2)....the original plan was to purchase our airfare in January 2011 and we budgeted about $1,000 per person max. However, if anyone can remember, January, February, March is when the whole Lybia crisis began and oil/gas companies raised prices significantly and therefore so did the airlines....i couldnt find a single flight out of MIA to FCO for less than $1700 in economy! Ridiculous! Luckily though, i did find a flight from NYC to FCO on Aer Lingus for $700 and flights from MIA to NYC were averaging about $250 so although it was a pain in the rear-end, it made economical sense to fly out of NYC. So i booked MIA-NYC-FCO for less then $1000-YAY! To top it off, i had enough Marriott points to book a few rooms in NYC for free so everyone was happy to visit NYC for a few hours.

So now here we were, a few weeks away from our trip, and BOOM! The gas tanks at MIA explode causing the largest fire in MIA history and therefore causing massive cancellations and delays for weeks at MIA (insert Chevy Chase moment #3)....I was very nervous my flight to NYC was going to get canceled but i got lucky and it only got pushed back a few hours. We took off and arrived in NYC well past midnight, and got the shuttle to the JFK Courtyard Marriott. Although rooms were small, its a very comfortable hotel for just spending a night for any layovers. Service was great! We arrived so late and the desk clerk overheard my husband say he was hungry so he invited us to their breakfast area and opened up their kitchen just for us! And as we all munched on some snacks they took our bags to our rooms. It was really a nice and unexpected treat, so we gave him a well deserved tip.

Our next day, we woke up early and headed to JFK. Our flight didnt depart until that evening, so we left our bags in storage and took the subway to manhattan to have lunch and visit WTC for a bit. It was truly a beautiful day, and being able to see the progress of WTC was very touching and moving. My husband is a firefighter so he was really moved to visit their memorial and get a chance to pray for the fallen firefighters. We grabbed a few hot dogs in the street and headed back to JFK with plenty of time to spare before our flight. Check-in for Aer Lingus was very smooth and i must say, their airplane and service was excellent! They served dinner which was pretty tasty and we got free movies so we were happy. Had a funny moment when my mom (who decided to stay up and watch movies while everyone in the plane was sleeping) didnt realize how loud she was due to her headphones-lets just say there was a moment in the movie she saw that scared her and she screamed like a mad woman and woke up everyone in the plane. Embarassing! After a quick layover at DUB (and yummy irish breakfast and a morning guiness) we arrived at FCO.

First impression of FCO was not too great. Aer Lingus staff provided us with our customs paperwork which we filled out onboard. As i approached customs i started pulling out my passport and paperwork to hand to the agent who took one look at me and with a small hand gesture told me to move past him. No questions asked, no passport stamped, no customs paperwork collected. This was a huge shock to me- certainly someone was going to check my passport but nope- not one person even talked to us or stopped us. So much for tight security! We proceeded to baggage claim and boy was it packed! i realize FCO is a high traffic airport, but wow was it chaotic! To top it off- the place was disgusting. I saw plenty of people smoking inside the airport, bathrooms were nasty, and i saw a couple of people arguing next to baggage claim fighting to get their bags. It looked like a madhouse. But we managed to grab our bags and proceeded to AutoEurope to get our car. It was very easy to get to, signage was easy to find. I arrived at the AutoEurope counter to find a not too pleasant young attendant who looked miserable. He seemed upset that i showed up to interrupt his flirty conversation with his co-worker. I handed him my confirmation for my minivan...he tapped his fingers for 1 second on his computer and said "sorry- no minivans". Um....what? (insert Chevy Chase moment #4). I started to get nervous...i had 7 of us and i needed a minivan. He proceeded to tell me that they only have one minivan but the prior driver was 3 hours late on his return time. Which i thought was weird....i told him to please double-check, certainly someone made a mistake. Maybe the driver did return it and an agent forgot to update the system perhaps? After speaking with him for a good 30 minutes, he decides to try my idea and call the downstairs office to see if by any chance the car was indeed returned. Lo and behold...the van was there. Apparently, the previous driver did return it but nobody bothered to check the parking lot. I started to get this feeling that maybe Italians are a little lack in service and maybe a bit lazy? But i decided to ignore that thought and filed it as an isolated incident.

So we got our minivan- it was a Mercedes Vito and in excellent condition. I was a little nervous that the trunk space was going to be small so i had prepared for that and instructed everyone to bring only one 22" bag as their only luggage to the trip. Much to my suprise, the trunk was HUGE! I was able to fit all 7 bags plus each person's small carry-on bookbags with plenty of room to spare! Everyone was happy and boarded our minivan (which we later named the bus) and headed for our two hour drive to our villa in Tuscany. The drive was beautiful! So many hills and natural beauty. Seeing the towns perched up on the hills was amazing! The two hour drive was certainly not long enough we thought, as we wanted to continue on and see more beauty. We had our GPS with us and it directed us to get off the HWY and onto a small town named Montevarchi. Our villa was just outside of Montevarchi so we drove through it and as we approached the mountains, our GPS went hay-wire. Insert Chevy Chase moment #5.....our GPS started directing us into these weird alleyways and streets and for whatever reason it instructed us to make a left into a very narrow street. My husband, who was driving, insisted that the GPS must be wrong because this "street" looked more like a sidewalk. But i pushed him to move forward, because at that point i trusted the GPS completely. Boy was i wrong! As we continued driving into this alley we realized that it WAS a sidewalk! and here we were with this bus- stuck between two brick walls- and not able to reverse because it was a winding downhill sidewalk. My SIL volunteered to "squeeze" out of the van (cause she was the skinniest) and to assess the situation. She helped guide my husband out of the tight alley and onto a u-turn that seemed all too impossible. As what seemed like a 3-point turn turned into a 66-point turn- my husband's excellent driving skills managed to get us out of the sidewalk and onto a real street...all the while drawing a crowd of locals who pointed at us and laughed...and we laughed too with them cause what else are you going to do, right?

After that debacle, we finally pulled up to Il Borro and it was stunning! The property is owned by the Salvatore Ferragamo family and upon our arrival we were advised that the Ferragamo family was hosting a wedding! It was exciting to see our first of many weddings in Italy. We were driven to our Villa in the Medieval Village. i stayed in the Aviatore, which was a 3-story 3 bedroom villa perched on top of the hill where the village is located. My mom and MIL stayed in the Ciapi villa which was around the corner from me. Their villa was charming but a bit dark as it was located underneath a bridge. The Aviatore was really the best one. We had amazing views of the valley below us, huge bedrooms, huge bathrooms, and an amazing backyard! It also came with a resident cat which we named Toscana and she lived in the lower level of the house where the kitchen and family room where located. She even had her own little "doggie door" so she can go in and out of the house as she pleased. We spent that evening drinking Il Borro wine (they gave us a free case of wine- a plus!) sitting in the backyard and also exploring the medieval village which was charming. It had its own little church, a toy shop, a meat shop, a shoe cobbler, and a little piazza with a fountain. I truly felt like i was in a movie

Tomorrow...off to Assisi and a pit stop at Cortona. More to come in Part 2!
LGarabito is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 10:06 AM
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Great beginning. Waiting to hear more of this adventure!
ellenem is online now  
Jul 28th, 2011, 10:44 AM
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Lots of crazy events! Sounds like you turned it all into fun and lots of good memories/stories. Looking forward to more.
elnap29 is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 11:46 AM
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This is a riot! You do sound like the Griswalds.
JeanneB is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 11:50 AM
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ekc
 
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Great start - keep it coming!
ekc is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 11:52 AM
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I haven't read your report but I'm doing it. I just wanted to tell you that Rome,Florence and Venice may be the "three main cities" from a tourist's point of view but, from all the other points of views modern Italy's main cities are
Rome
Milan (Rome is at the first place because it's the capital and is the largest city even though Milan's metropolitan area is larger,but Milan is first in everything else:business, industry,hospital,university,research, foreign trade)
Turin (3rd place)
Sorry for my off -the -topic -comment.
Now I'll read your report !
feda is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 11:58 AM
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ttt for later!
annhig is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 12:35 PM
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What great fun! I can't wait to hear what happens next.

My dear hub's and my first big trip together began with his parents, my best friend and her mother and they all dropped out at the last minute. He and I didn't even know if we would get along on a trip but it worked out fine as yours certain has so far.
TDudette is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 12:41 PM
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LOL! "European Vacation" moments! Mine was getting stuck in a roundabout, going around...and around...and around. Did you knock on any doors of relatives that weren't yours?
I mUST rent that mvoie again, but 'til then, i have your trip report for fun experiences! Looking forward to more of your adventures!
CaliNurse is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 01:34 PM
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Fun report - I had a similar experience with a minivan and sidewalk! We had missed a turn and thought we could "go around the block", we kept making right hand turns when we could and ended up stuck. It was also a 65-point turn, mostly in reverse to get out of there! Those are the times when I sense of humor is helpful.
cls2paris is offline  
Jul 28th, 2011, 01:58 PM
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LG, you are a hoot!

As a comment on your villa, I am severely allergic to cats and a cat in residence at a rented villa would be a real problem for me. I hope this isn't a usual practice. I didn't think to inquire about pet's in a rental apartment when I made my reservations for this October.

CindyP.
Cpelk is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 07:35 AM
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@Cpelk: I understand your concern as i too am severly allergic to cats- but it didnt affect me at all. She was living in the bottom floor and never went up the stairs. Plus, the doors/windows were always open allowing fresh air in and i think that helped with my allergies. Also, when i checked in they mentioned this to me and i had the option of locking her out of the house if i wanted but i told them not too. At the end of the day, it was the cat's house not mine so who was i to kick her out?

Now more for Part 2 of my trip....

We woke up the next morning and had our complimentary breakfast served at Il Borro and it was delicious! Nothing but fresh prosciutto, slices of cheese, fruits, pastries, juice and CAPPUCINO! Yum! My mom and MIL (being the single ladies that they are) decided to spend the morning flirting with the server which they named "Marcelo". Which is not his real name- just a pet name they created for him because that was name of the hot guy in "Under the Tuscan Sun"...

Off we went to Assisi, and the drive there was spectacular. We stopped from time to time to take photos of the beautiful scenery. Upon arriving to Assisi, i could see the town perched up on the hill...but the main road that the GPS was instructing us to take was closed for construction! Ugh! We spent about 30 minutes driving around the bottom of the hill figuring out how to drive up to the town. We managed to find our way and found ample parking in a garage. So off we went up the stairs to Assisi and WOW! It truly was the most beautiful town i saw on my entire trip. We headed on to the Basilica di San Francesco, it was Sunday so we hoped to go to mass. And we lucked out! The Basilica was celebrating its 500 year anniversary and the mass was being conducted by an official bishop from the Vatican! So obviously, it was packed! But well worth the struggle to find a seat. After mass, we were hungry so off we went to grab lunch.

We found a charming restaurant with stellar views but they were closing for siesta and hesitant to sit us. After begging them to please let us in, they agreed and sat us to our table and the waiter was nice enough to take pictures for us with our view. Now, another chevy chase moment, and i must admit this was completely my fault and in no way the fault of the restaurant, but once everyone settled in their seats and opened the menu there was a sudden dead silence in the table. This restaurant was EXPENSIVE!!!! Holy lord! we couldnt believe how expensive it was! At this point, everyone just stared at each other not knowing what to say or do. Do we deal with it and stab our wallets to death? or do we walk out of here indiscreetly and embarrased? We really didnt know what to do...but somehow we all agreed to save the money and screw the embarrasment- we developed a plan to individually walk out hoping the owner wouldnt see us. I know, i know...that's messed up right? I still feel horrible about doing this but honestly, i was not ready to shell out so much money for lunch this early in the trip. So we all snuck out but not before leaving a tip to our waitress for being nice enough to take pictures since we felt guilty. we tried to go unoticed but the owner caught on and cursed us out as we were walking out. Hard lesson learned: Read the Menu BEFORE you sit down!

So we took off and stumbled upon a pizzeria and we read the menu BEFORE we sat down (and we did so moving forward with the rest of the trip). The pizzeria was cute,the owner was a young woman and her little brother was working as her server. We all ordered Pizza and as we waited for our food i started paying attention to the owner's brother and noticed he was a bit of a space cadet. He kept giving us the wrong drinks, spilt water from the pitcher as he walked around, bumped into a chair- very clumsy guy. Side note, Spanish is my first language and therefore i spent the entire trip communicating with the Italians in Spanish because we understood each other better that way (Italian/Spanish is pretty much the same language with the exception of a few words). So i overheard the owner cursing out her brother and understood every single word she said to him. I felt bad for the guy. Anyhow, he walks out and serves my brother the first pizza of the table. My brother was happy, picked up his plate, took pictures with his pizza, sniffed it with such delight and just as he picked up his fork and knife to cut into his first Italian pizza....the clumsy brother/server storms out of the kitchen and snatches the pizza from my brother as he was about to cut into it. Then he runs back into the kitchen with the pizza, takes a few seconds, and walks out casually with the SAME pizza and serves it to our table next to us. All the while, my brother was stuck in pause- still trying to gather what just happened. It turns out, that our table next to us ordered the same pizza my brother ordered and the clumsy server gave it to my brother instead. He realized his mistake and came running back for the pizza. Everyone in my table just started laughing in amazement...and i felt so bad for the server that i didnt want to rat on him to his mean sister so we let it slide. So we finally got our pizza (no snatching this time) and it was yummy!

After lunch, it was time to start driving back in the direction of our villa and made a few stops along the way. We saw a wedding taking place in a small town and we decided to stop by and participate in the rice throwing..it was neat. Cortona was on the way towards our villa and we just HAD to stop there cause my Mom and MIL had an ultimate obsession with "Under the Tuscan Sun". So we climbed up the hill to the town and parked just outside the walls. We noticed a flea market going on so we hung out in the piazza for a bit while my mother started to search for the famous fountain from the movie (the scene where the crazy lady jumps into the fountain). My mother was on a mission to find this fountain just so she could take a picture with it (the things that tourists do...). She started asking the locals in Spanish "Donde esta la fuente" and the locals looked at her like she was crazy. So she started asking in Italian "Dove la fontana" and they still looked at her like she was crazy. So after spending a few hours going from piazza to piazza in Cortona and asking locals who continued to look at us like we were crazy...i walked into a hotel and thought i would ask the concierge where this damn fountain was cause my mom was about to have a heart attack. In which he tells me "fountain? what fountain? the one from the movie is fake- it was a prop"...oh no! I couldnt believe we spent the entire time in Cortona looking for this fountain that doesnt exist! no wonder the locals looked at us strangely! So i walked out and broke the news to my mom who just started crying and was sooo disappointed! i felt bad for her so i bought her some sweets at the local bakery and we all left Cortona, disappointed as well. ( i was more upset that i wasted my time looking for a fake fountain instead of focusing on the beauty of Cortona).

Oh well, we got to the villa with plenty of time to spare and cooked a nice pasta dish in our kitchen using the groceries we bought at the various markets we attended that day. And my mom and MIL sat in misery as they drank their wine- as they realized that Hollywood is sooooo misleading!

Tomorrow, we go off to Chianti! and you dont want to miss hearing about my crazy family getting lost in the mountains of Chianti!
LGarabito is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 08:09 AM
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i hope the clumsy waiter didn't get a tip from you!

great report - and shame about the fountain. BTW - why ask in Spanish first if she knew the italian? though I know that they are pretty interchangeable - we sat next to a mexican couple in a restaurant in Rome, and they just shouted at the staff in spanish. it worked most of the time!
annhig is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 08:11 AM
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Wow, that was really an awful thing you pulled on the restaurant that you "begged to let you in". I would have sucked it up and eaten there - you could have made up for the over-budget meal eating more economically later on in your trip.
hazel1 is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 08:21 AM
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I am enjoying your report so much and can't wait to read more.
KTtravel is online now  
Jul 29th, 2011, 08:39 AM
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@annhig: we didnt know any Italian, we had a phrasebook and looked up the translation because we realized that people weren't understanding us in Spanish and figured it was because of the language barrier- not because the fountain didnt exist. We realized later that they did understand us-but were confused because they didnt know what fountain we were talking about.

@hazel- i know it was messed up. I mentioned it already in my post. But it was so expensive that there was no way i was able to make it up. Trust me, im not too happy that we did that and felt ashamed. I just couldnt justify spending that much on lunch. I have a crazy family, what else can i say?
LGarabito is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 08:57 AM
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LG, not sure what I would have done in the expensive restaurant circumstance.....would it be worse to just order the cheapest thing on the menu and share it 4 ways or to just leave?

You shouldn't have to toss your budget out the window because you made a mistake. I think I would vote for getting up and leaving, but not trying to sneak out, just put down the menu and say non grazie (is that how you would say no thank you?) and leave.

Even though you begged to be let in, you really only took up a few minutes of the waiter's time and you were courteous enough to leave him a tip, I don't think that qualifies you for ugly tourist status.

It's a shame you spent time looking for a non-existent fountain, your M & MIL should have done a little more homework on Cortona up front.

Great report! Keep it up please.

CindyP
Cpelk is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 09:31 AM
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Thanks cpelk! We did ponder the idea of sharing, but the menu stated in bold big letters that each person had to order at least 2 plates and sharing was not allowed. That was the deal-breaker for us so we decided to leave.
LGarabito is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 10:39 AM
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This is a fun report - showing us once again the very human and humorous side of travel!!
taconictraveler is offline  
Jul 29th, 2011, 02:25 PM
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but the menu stated in bold big letters that each person had to order at least 2 plates and sharing was not allowed.>>

my recent experience in italy is that such stipulations are most unusual. everywhere i ate, either with a group or by myself, people were sharing dishes all the time. and a place that has such a rule must be used to people walking out when they realise how high the prices are.
annhig is offline  

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