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We're back! Trip Report: Family of 5 visits 4.5 cities in Italy!

We're back! Trip Report: Family of 5 visits 4.5 cities in Italy!

Aug 13th, 2013, 07:16 PM
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My teenage son's favorite part of Florence was walking (more like hiking) to the Piazzale Michelangelo. From up here, you get a gorgeous view of Florence. One evening, we were trying to find this place, and we got terribly lost. We ended up meeting some young men from Boston (two of whom were Italian Americans) and together we found our way back to the Ponte Veccio Bridge. We actually had a lovely conversation with them. If you guys are out there, it was nice meeting you! One more tangent before I continue. When we were lost (and before we met these Bostonians) my daughters and I were resting on the sidewalk (my son had gone into the grocery store to buy us drinks). We were approached by a group of young Americans who started to ask me for directions. I replied "We're probably more lost than you guys are." They burst out laughing. At that very moment, I realized that we didn't look like tourists. It was actually a really nice feeling. My point is- don't be afraid to just lose the map, put away your camera and enjoy being in a different country. Oh, and if you saw a 16 year old male jogging around the historical area of Florence early in the morning this past July, that was my son. So, another tip for parents with teens: let your teens go about their normal "back home" routines in Italy. Why not? My son kept complaining that he couldn't work out at the gym so I was like, "go jog". He did and now he has a great story to tell his kids-- "Kids, when I went to Florence with my parents, I went jogging every morning. Then, one morning, I got hit by a car. That's when I realized, if a smart car hits you, it isn't too bad." ;-)
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 13th, 2013, 07:33 PM
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Back to our site seeing. I made reservations to get into the Uffizi Museum online. It is easy to do and cost us around 13 Euros each ticket (there was a special exhibit hence the higher cost). These "special exhibits" are really a pain. I just feel like they are fleecing people so they pay the higher admission fee. Anyway, only my husband and I went to see the Uffizi. My kids refused. Did I mention they despise Italian Renaissance Art? They say they love French Impressionist Art. I guess that's a good thing that they can distinguish between the two kinds. At their age, I didn't have a clue what the difference was between Manet (as my daughter says "the guy who drew the naked girl laying down") and Monet. I will admit. I didn't care for the Uffizi at all and neither did my husband. It was nice to see all the paintings but not our kind of art either I guess.

My kids had gone ahead of us to see the Duomo. They told us there was a huge line. They saw it but didn't seem to be impressed by it. They were more interested in where we were going to eat gelato. Tip for parents with teens: give them a chance to make their plans. Let them go off on their own sometimes.

Anyways, we did a day trip to Pisa/Lucca. We had prebooked our tickets to climb the Pisa tower online (at around 11am). We bought our tickets from the train station in Florence the night before. The next morning, we validated our tickets and hopped right on the train. It was very easy to do. We arrived in Pisa and the walk to the tower takes around 40-45 minutes (maybe we were walking a little too slow though b/c we did get there too early). Our kids really loved Pisa. Again, with teens, you've got to focus on the "doing" over the "seeing". We took all our silly pictures, climbed the tower and walked around the area. It was a very hot day and that area in particular is hot, hot, hot. Still, I'd definitely go. Then, a funny thing happened. We actually hadn't planned on going to Lucca. I just kept the option open. We were walking back to the train station when we got into a conversation about Lucca being the capitol of tissue paper. Long story short, we ended up walking back to the Pisa Tower and catching the bus to Lucca. The bus is behind the baptistery (right in front of the Mcdonalds, don't cross the street). You buy your bus tickets at the tabbachi store on the same side of the street. I think it was 3 Euros a ticket (validate on the bus-but really no one comes around to check). The bus ride from Pisa to Lucca is beautiful. It's filled with valleys and hills. It's just very nice.

When we arrived in Lucca, we went straight to the tourist office where we rented bikes. For about 45 minutes, we rode our bikes on Lucca's walls and had one of our nicest experiences in Italy. Lucca is beautiful. It was not crowded at all (like Florence and certainly nothing compared to Venice). The weather is breezy, there are green hills all around you, it's just so pleasant.

On that note, I'll take a break and pick up tomorrow. Good night!
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 13th, 2013, 11:29 PM
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So enjoying your report and looking forward to more
klondike is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 01:39 AM
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thank you for such a wonderful report.
It is great that you are forthcoming in what you think about some of the museums.
How long did you spend in Pisa, & how long did you spend in Lucca.
I am leaving in 3 days time for Paris & then Italy. We will be driving from Santa Margherita Ligure to Bologna & was thinking of doing a stop in Pisa & then Lucca, but wondering about the time constraint.
millie2112 is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 04:14 AM
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Super report. Oh my yes, if you're going to get hit by a car, a small one would be better! LOL.

One's reactions to places can vary so much. On our first visit to Siena, my husband was enthralled and we planned to return and stay longer. We did so and were disappointed. Who knew. The opposite with Pisa--we based there on a second visit and loved it.

More, please!
TDudette is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 06:07 AM
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Thanks everyone.

Millie- we actually went to Pisa/Lucca on a day trip from Florence. We left early in the morning by train (I think we got there around 10 am) and our reservation to climb the Pisa Tower was at around 11:30am. Walking from the train station down to the Tower, you pass a lot of cafes/shops. There was this one particular gelato place (on your right)called Salza. You must have their pear gelato (or any flavor really). It was delicious! I would say in all we spent 3 hours in Pisa and then about 3 hours in Lucca. It takes you about an hour to ride your bike all around the city's walls. Then, you'll want to go into the city and just explore on foot. Since we didn't have a car, I'm not sure where you'd park it though.

We walked around Lucca, saw the cathedral which is quite beautiful. Lucca was, at least when we visited it in early July, not crowded at all. It just seemed way more authentic than the other places we had visited (Venice, Florence, and even Pisa). It felt like real people lived there. We passed by a four star hotel inside the city walls which looked like it would have been a nice place to stay. We had dinner in Lucca at a pizza place (I apologize for not knowing its name. When picking a place to eat, we look at the menu/prices and the crowd.). The pizza was fine. I also must say that the service in Italy is just blah. The waiters don't seem to feel they need to exchange pleasantries with you or anything like that. To them, it's just a job of getting you your food. It's like you should just be grateful they got your order right. I guess the "service bar" is set very low. Of course, this isn't just in Italy. It happens in a lot of countries. I just somehow expected Italian waiters to be more friendly and outgoing with their customers. Oh well. I got the Margarita Pizza, hubby got the Naples which has anchovies on it and my kids got the 4 cheese pizza (and learned that if it doesn't say anything about tomato sauce it means there ain't gonna be any on your pizza). It was all tasty though.

That evening, when we got back to Florence, we purchased our train tickets to the Cinque Terre. Remember, we were right across the street from the train station in Florence. I got us tickets to La Spezia (one-way) leaving at around 6am (and, no, my kids and my DH were not happy about having to wake up so early but I truly didn't care. They had nearly 3 hours to sleep on the train). Never purchase your route coming back so you can be flexible with your time. It isn't like trains will "run out". These are popular routes (at least they are in the summer).

When I was planning our trip, I really wanted to spend two nights in Monterosso. Unfortunately, all the rooms I checked out were reserved. The village is small (bigger than the others but still small). If I had to do it all over again, I would have started planning earlier to get a room there for two nights. Or, I would have stayed in Genova (only about an hour away). I'm glad we didn't stay in La Spezia though. From the train station, it didn't look appealing at all. Long story short, we made the best out of our situation by day tripping to the Cinque Terre from Florence. For all of you people who are wondering--- a day trip from Florence can be done. It can also be done on your own. You don't need the help of any expensive tour companies either. It surely isn't the ideal way to see Cinque Terre, but don't pass up on it if it is your only choice. Also, the Cinque Terre was (to my pleasant surprise) not as crowded as I had read it would be in July. We didn't come across any noisy or Americans/Australians (and, I have to say, Mr. Steves got on my nerves. His remarks that we Americans have earned some kind of rowdy reputation in this area is unjustified. I didn't see anything resembling what he's talking about).

We LOVED the Cinque Terre. It was indeed the highlight of our trip to Italy. I completely agree that tourists who limit their Italian itinerary to the big three cities of Rome, Florence and Venice and doing themselves (and the country) a disservice. My kids said they'd skip all three cities just to spend more time in the Ligurian Coast. Of course, they loved the hike. Confession: neither my girls nor my DH took me seriously when I told them the hike was going to be very hard. My DH wore his jeans and so did both my daughters. My son, on the other hand, came better dressed in his shorts. Anyways, you can imagine how drenched their jeans were when we were done with the hike from Monterosso to Vernazza. This part of the trail took us perhaps over an hour (I wasn't looking at my watch to be honest, there's way more beautiful scenery to see!). It is tough just like what you read, but there were some people over age 60 who were doing it as well. Narrow cliffs, lots and lots of stairs all make for a strenuous hike. However, the views make it all worthwhile. Like I said before, we didn't encounter a crowd on the actual hike.

Let me back up though. We took the train from Florence to La Spezia. At La Spezia, we purchased our "cinque terre" train tickets (validate and you have to write your name/date on the back). You use those train tickets all day to travel on the train between the Cinque Terre villages, as well as, to La Spezia. When we ended our day and got back to La Spezia, we purchased our train tickets back to Florence. It was easy breezy to do.

Back to the Cinque Terre. When we were approaching Vernazza, there were two Italians playing music. It was such a nice way to end our tough hike. Of course, my son beat us all and was waiting for me and my daughter. It took my other daughter and DH about 20 minutes to catch up to us in Vernazza. After we rested for a few minutes (my legs were shaking) we went to explore. Vernazza is a lovely fishing village too. We walked around exploring it, got some margarita with pesto pizza on focaccia and then gelato (it was in our Rick Steves book, a place right next to the pizza place. It isn't anything to rave about.).

From Vernazza, I really wanted to see Manarola. However, the train we got on zipped right past this village onto Riomaggiore so that's where we got off to explore. The easiest part of the trail was closed (and my kiddos/DH didn't want to hike more). Riomaggiore is small, nice, but I wouldn't say it's a must-see place.

The last day in Florence we spent it resting from our previous hike. We walked around the historical area again and just relaxed back in our hotel. (by the way, when we went to check out of the hotel, they claimed that we hadn't pre-paid with Expedia for one of our rooms. I didn't feel like arguing so we paid it. When I got back and investigated with Expedia, they told me we had indeed prepaid for it. So, I'm disputing that charge now).

After Florence, we took the high speed train down to Naples where we then took the regional circumvesuviana (I probably slaughter the spelling) train to Sorrento. This "train" is more like a metro. We basically went downstairs inside the train station in Naples. We purchased our tickets at the counter and went down to the platform. It was very crowded and very hot. The train itself wasn't airconditioned. It wasn't a pleasant ride to Sorrento but it was what it was.

We arrived in Sorrento, which is a lovely place, and makes a great spot for exploring the Amalfi Coast. It does seem like the city is meant to exist for tourists and yet we also felt there was something very authentic about the place too. The locals are super friendly. We checked into our hotel (stayed at the Hilton which was expensive but we could afford it b/c of points and our previous accommodation costs were relatively low). The Hilton has a very good breakfast buffet that overlooks the mountains and the bay. The hotel has a nice pool (of course my teens loved it). The bad part is that it is up a steep hill and a bit further away from the center of town. So, there aren't any restaurants right next to it. It wasn't a problem for us but could be for older people (anyone with mobility issues shouldn't stay here).

Darn- I must start work now. Will finish later.
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 08:21 AM
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In Sorrento, we explored the town. I found it to be quite pleasant, surprisingly not crowded relative to Florence/Venice (and as I would soon discover, Rome). We loved the scenery. What a gorgeous part of Italy (though very comparable to the Ligurian Coast up North in our opinion). We spent 4 nights in Sorrento and by the 4th night we were ready to leave. It was hard scavenging for food. We had two very lovely dinners here. One was at the Inn Buffalito (recommended by Rick Steves). It has everything buffalo, but we had the fish specials and pasta. It was very easy on our family's budget so that's why we remember it fondly. The waiter's service was just blah but the atmosphere in the restaurant was pleasant. The next night we had dinner at another restaurant recommended by our Fodor's guidebook and I cannot believe I've forgotten its name. It is located in the center of town. I gave my guidebook to my sister in law who is visiting Italy this month but I'll make sure to come back and report its name to you all. It was also very budget friendly and tasty! The atmosphere is lovely but again the waiter's service was more than just blah. He forgot to give us the appetizer we ordered (and we didn't bother reminding him for a third time). They serve you an alcoholic drink when you first come in, but we don't drink alcohol so we turned it down. In our culture, it's rude to turn down such hospitality so my husband said jokingly, "but if you have juice or soda we'll gladly accept". The waiter did not look amused and we didn't get a replacement. Oh well. The food was tasty. We ordered the lasagna, oven baked pizzas, chicken with potatoes. All of it was very good. We capped off our dinner with gelato from some place in Sorrento recommended by Rick but honestly I didn't find it special. My recommendation for eating gelato in Italy: just hit the nearest gelato place you see that's crowded with people. It's mostly all good.

Of course, we took a day to do the famous Amalfi Coast drive. We enjoyed it of course but it wasn't as "thrilling" as we thought it was going to be. In fact, we didn't find it scary at all. Ok, I'll admit. We have had our share of amusement parks, did the Route 1 in California drive, did a very similar drive in Turkey even, did the very scary ride down the King's highway in Jordan... you get my point. We've been on scary rides before. If you haven't, you'll be scared then. We weren't. It was just a beautiful ride.

The bus starts at the Sorrento train station. Buy your Sita bus tickets from the booth outside and then walk across the street to wait for the bus). I think it was maybe 6 Euros for each ticket? Anyways, make sure you sit on the opposite side of the bus driver (NOT in the row behind the bus driver). By some stroke of luck, we got our seats in the very front on the opposite side of the driver. Excellent! You'll avoid nausea and physical pain the most that way and you'll get some of the best views. How lucky were we that on the way back from Amalfi to Sorrento, we also got front seats behind the driver!

I'm sure you've seen some of the Youtube videos on the drive with the buses honking their horns and the views. DON'T WATCH THOSE VIDEOS. I did. I was sorry that I had. It will take away from your actual experience. Maybe that's why I was left with the impression that the ride was overrated. My husband enjoyed it more than I did and so did my kids (though, again, none of us were scared). The driver was dancing practically to the song "Get Lucky" and honestly that was entertaining. The driver back kept answering his cell phone and that was what made the ride back a tad scary for me.

We took the bus all the way down to Amalfi, got off and started exploring. I really liked Amalfi. Of course, it was way more crowded (I felt) than Sorrento but it was still lovely to walk around. There's a hike up to see some old paper mills but the nicest part is soaking up the scenery.

While we were in Sorrento, we also took a day trip to Pompeii. It's very easy to do too. Just get your tickets on the same day, hope on the circum whatever it's called and wait for the Pompeii stop. Get off and buy your tickets for the site. We got the audio guide which was confusing to follow (so was the map they give you after you purchase your tickets). We had read about it previously and watched a documentary so I didn't feel like having my face stuck to a guidebook during our visit. It was very crowded (as expected) which was actually a good thing since you'd get to eaves drop on what the tour guides were saying. I didn't feel like we needed a guide. A lot of them kept talking about the irrigation system of the Romans and water this and water that. Ok, I get it. Everything else we had already read about and just connected our own dots. I would recommend seeing Pompeii though bring lots of water, sunglasses and hats. It's hot.

When our 4 nights were over in Sorrento, we took the Circum train to Naples train station and then took our high speed train to Rome. Now, for Rome. I had really, really, really thought Rome would be amazing. I had really, really, really thought it would compare to Paris (or maybe London). It disappointed me actually. We spent 5 nights in Rome and by the fourth night,we wanted to escape.

Rome is hot, super crowded, expensive (I felt like it was more expensive than Venice even), it is so easy to end up eating mediocre food (everything is crowded with tourists and Mr. Rick Steves gave us two awful recommendations) and I don't know where the natives have all gone. Anyways, if I had to do it all over again, I'd recommend 3 nights at most in Rome.

We stayed at the Piazza Del Popolo in another apartment we rented through Sleep in Italy. It was very close to the Borghese Gardens. The apartment itself was lovely. Again, looks nicer in pictures, but this time everything worked in it. It also came with wifi so yay my teens were happy. The mosquitos were back and this time the bathroom had plenty of ants in it. We got some spray from the local market and we never saw either of them again. The location was superb. I loved walking past the Piazza Del Popolo every day. It's a lovely area. I did not enjoy all those people trying to force roses into your hands (so you end up having to buy them). That is so annoying but I guess people have to make a living somehow right?

Of course in Rome we made a point of visiting every obelisk and many many piazzas (including Piazza Navona of course). We visited the Pantheon (yay, something for free and the line wasn't too bad either). We did the entire Rome walk thing to see all the ancient sites and then we went back another day to visit the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill. Again, I'm not sure why I was not blown away by those ancient sites. I really thought I would be. We had done our homework ahead of time so we knew what we were seeing. It's just that after seeing Roman ruins in Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Egypt even, the ruins in Rome don't compare. Sorry, my opinion. Yes, none of those places have the Colosseum but still. The Colosseum was super, duper crowded.

We kept debating whether or not to visit the Vatican but one day we decided to walk over there to at least see it from the outside. Wowzers how HUGE the line is. It is amazing to me that people still don't reserve ahead of time and instead choose to stand in such a huge line in the darn heat of July! Don't be stupid people. If you are Catholic or really, really want to see it, reserve online. I always say that if we were Christian, we'd probably be Protestants. I have major issues with a house of worship being so opulent. Jesus was a poor carpenter. I'm not saying the pope must be poor, but the opulence of that place, I have my issues with. Anyways, I can keep my opinions to myself, but my hubby (whom I suspect leans on the socialist side) and my son (who is even worse) had a hard time swallowing it all in Spain so I couldn't imagine how they'd react in the Vatican. So, it was a good thing we didn't go inside ;-). We walked around Vatican City which was really hot (lots of tacky souvenirs-- question: who would purchase a picture of the pope as a souvenir? I guess plenty of people b/c they sure do offer a lot of his posters for sale).

One day we also walked through the Borghese Gardens which, again, was close to our apartment. We had also planned on visiting the Borghese Art Gallery but I changed my mind. At this point, I was just so exhausted and wanted to just relax so instead we went window shopping (hehehe, I don't know what I was thinking but I did end up buying some Nespresso pods for my sister. It was cheaper in Rome.).

Oh and we got to the Rome airport by taking a bus. It was very cheap. The stop was in the Vatican City. Kybourbon on this forum actually told me about it (thank you!):

The most economical transport is the Sit Bus Shuttle which departs from behind Castel Sant'Angelo (not far from Piazza del Popolo). 5€. You select Via Crescenzio for that location (Piazza Cavour - walkable from Piazza del Popolo).

layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 08:36 AM
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oops, I didn't preview the above so I do see that I made some typing mistakes, oh well.

I just wanted to add a few final remarks:

1- Remember, Italy is a country where normal people live. Yes, it has some beautiful natural scenery with an amazing history and architecture. However, try not to get your expectations way too high. I think that was part of our problem. Italy is going through some challenging economic times these days and you really feel the local people's struggles. I hope things get better for them.

2- It struck us how similar Mediterranean people's cultures can be. It was particularly interesting to see how Italians and Arabs have certainly "borrowed" from each other not only with their food and architecture, but also their culture in general. What I'm trying to say is that when I was "speaking in a very loud voice" at my kids in Arabic, I didn't feel out of place in Italy.

3- Please don't even think about taking your teens to Tuscany just to relax, drink, eat. They will get bored very quickly. Kids want to be active as much as possible at this age. Hence, keep them happy with gelato and pizza. Make sure you reserve plenty of activities like bike riding, hiking, swimming, walking, etc. Get them involved in your site seeing.

4- Forget the tired "must-see" 3 cities in Italy itinerary. I'm so serious about this. Ok, fine. See Venice for 2 nights, 1 night in Florence (2 if you must) and 3 in Rome, but then get away from these three cities and see other stuff too!

Anyways, we are already planning another trip to the country but this time to either Sicily or just to the Lakes in the North (followed by more time on the Ligurian Coast). Can't wait to see where we end up next summer (and whether or not my kids join us for the ride b/c they were way too annoying this time. My son: "Italy is overrated." and from my girls, "Where are the beaches?"). Being a parent of teens is turning our hair grey very quickly... Chao!
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 11:39 AM
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ttt to read later at my leisure.
annhig is offline  
Aug 14th, 2013, 10:03 PM
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Great trip report i really enjoyed to read.
robertharris is offline  
Aug 15th, 2013, 01:01 AM
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ttt, good report, I think you might have found the trip a little more pleasant out of high season, the top cities tend to get filled up with tourists and waiting staff get burnt out a bit.

Generally (and I mean generally) European waiting staff don't meet and greet as you may be used to. It is a difference in the culture
bilboburgler is offline  
Aug 15th, 2013, 01:27 AM
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What a nice report! My brother and his wife took the circumvesuviana train in May and it was hot and crowded, however when we caught it a few years ago it was practically deserted, go figure!

Next time, and I'm hopeful there will be one. Type your report into a word doc and cut and paste it into Fodor's. it's much less stressful!
cathies is online now  
Aug 15th, 2013, 04:16 AM
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Thank you for your TR, layanluvstotravel. Late husband and I usually travelled in March and avoided many of the tourist crowds and vendors.

Where to next??
TDudette is offline  
Aug 15th, 2013, 09:14 AM
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Thanks everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed my report.

TDudette- not sure where we'll head off to next summer. I'm leaning toward Sicily, but we shall see

Cathies-good tip, I shall obey!

Bilbo- I totally agree! My husband commented in Venice that he thought the shopkeepers were rude because when they responded to his questions "Where's the Rialto Bridge?" or "Where's San Marco Square?" they'd look at him, roll their eyes and just point. I had to point out to him that they probably get those same questions a hundred times each day.
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 15th, 2013, 12:53 PM
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I had to point out to him that they probably get those same questions a hundred times each day.>>

not only that, but directions to major sights are written in huge letters on the corner of every building.
annhig is offline  
Aug 15th, 2013, 01:05 PM
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annhig- he's not very observant ;-)
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 16th, 2013, 01:59 AM
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Hi layanluvs I think it was your report I started reading that mentioned something about a cab/van service you reserved ahead of time in Rome I believe because you mentioned the driver making a turn and seeing the Colosseum and it being breathtaking However I can not find that particular entry If I am right and it was this trip report can you give me a pointer as to where that entry might lie? Or a link to the service would do the trick as well if indeed it was the best way to sight see
I will only have a day because it Florence and Naples are all ports of call on the cruise I am taking I am very much interested in being able to sight see whilst skipping the costly offshore excursions they want you to take o;
Thanks for the informative and entertaining report btw
R2daO2daZ is offline  
Aug 16th, 2013, 05:00 AM
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R2daO2daZ - it may have been my trip report -

Here's the link:


It's still in progress - I have one more day left!

...we used Rome Cabs to take us from the airport to our hotel and used their VIP service. Instead of a direct ride from the airport to the hotel, it included a 2 hour intro tour. It was early and we knew the hotel rooms wouldn't be ready. We stopped in front of several landmarks, one was the Colosseum. This part would be pretty close to the beginning.
ShellD is offline  
Aug 16th, 2013, 04:39 PM
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R2Da-- looks like you got your answer
layanluvstotravel is offline  
Aug 16th, 2013, 06:27 PM
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Wonderful report! Thanks so much for all of the time and effort that went into writing it. I appreicate your honesty about the things you did and didn't like. While your teens may have been a pain to travel with, when they get older they will appreciate that they have seen so much of the world.

I don't think you mentioned the apartment in which you stayed in Rome. We are planning our trip to Italy and hope to stay in apartments, so if you could post a link or at least give the name, it would be appreciated.
drchris is offline  

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