Trafalgar Tour - Best of Italy

May 12 - 25, 2006

Trafalgar Tours - Optionals - Additional information about the Optional tours.

My wife Christy and I went on the Best of Italy tour that began on May 12, 2006 and concluded on May 25, 2006. Our tour director was Jeff Allen and our driver was Sauro. Both were excellent.

Day 0 (May 11, 2006)

Since our plane tickets were for 7 AM and all airlines request that you check in no later than three hours before your flight, we had to get to the airport by 4 AM. Now, I spent the better part of three months trying to plan everything, reading all the advice about what to pack, when to pack, to pack before and check the weight of the suitcase...

I didn't have a chance to do any of that. After a full day at the office, we came home to give our kids a bath, read them a few stories and put them to bed. Afterwards, at 9 PM, we began to pack for the first time.

Since our kids will be staying home with grandma, Christy insisted that we have a cell phone for any emergencies. So I took my blackberry. My blackberry not only provides cell phone service (at $1.50 a minute in Italy), it also provides unlimited email and internet access. I was able to check on the weather at all cities prior to our arrival. This turned out to be very handy during our trip.

My wife and I have been up for 17 hours.

Day 1 (May 12, 2006)

We finished packing by 2:30 AM. I took a nap for an hour, Christy decided to just stay up until it was time to depart. We hurry to the airport and check in... only to wait for about three hours.

We are finally on our way to Italy! Obligatory picture from the plane... come on, everyone takes one.

After 14 hours, we arrive in Rome. We have been awake for about 40 hours.

Day 2 (May 13, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25 (C), sunshine.

We arrive at 7 AM and quickly go through customs. Didn't even get a stamp on our passport. When we exited Terminal C, we searched and found the Trafalgar rep. Since the transfer to the hotel was not until 9:30 AM, we sat around and waited for the bus. By 10 AM, they had loaded our bags on the bus and we were on our way to our hotel, Jolly Leonardo da Vinci.

We met our tour director at the hotel. My initial impression was a bit disappointing. If you were to see Jeff Allen, he looks like a proper Englishman (not that there is anything wrong with that) but I was expecting an Italian tour director... I later found out that Jeff is a Kiwi (New Zealander) but Jeff was a GREAT TD. He was very knowledgeable, we were checking to see if he had notes when he was explaining the history of a location but we didn't see any notes! There were times on the bus when we would wish that Jeff would let us just enjoy the scenery (without the commentary), but at the same time, without his insight, we wouldn't appreciate what we were viewing!

Since we were the first few to arrive, the hotel staff told us that the rooms were not ready. Jeff was able to talk to the hotel and get us in early. We were tired since I didn't get any sleep on the plane and we have been up for a total of 44 hours, but I found out that the best way to beat jet lag is to stay up until bedtime, which meant staying up another 10 hours or so. So instead of going up to our rooms for a nap, we decided to wander by ourselves until the welcome drink. The hotel was fairly large by Roman standards but not much light and there was lots of street noise. The bathroom was nice, but had to deal with the half shower door. Even though we requested a double bed, we had two twins. Also, very few non-smoking beds (all already booked) so we got the least stinky smoking room we could find. We did not have a view worth mentioning – the alley.

One thing about Italian hotels that is different than the hotels in the US is how the floors are labeled. The ground floor is the 0 'zero' level. The floor above the ground floor is called '1' and so forth. In the US, the ground floor is considered '1' and the level above that is '2'. We were on the 'third' floor.

We grabbed a map from the hotel and headed out. Based on the recommendation from Jeff, we went to Castel Sant' Angelo. Free admission for European Union citizens, everyone else 8 euros each.

We explored the castle for an hour or so and took in some great views from the top.

It was lunchtime and we were getting hungry so we began to look at the many restaurants lining the sidewalks. In the end, we were too scared to try anything and just bought gelato instead – 3 euros each (we later discovered that buying gelato in the middle of Rome is very expensive). We still had a few hours until the welcome drink, so we just walked the neighborhoods.

At the welcome drink, we were ushered into a conference room where wine, water and soda were made available. We were told that since today was a Saturday and we would not be able to see the Sistine Chapel on Sunday. Jeff told us not to worry, he was going to make everything happen and he did. We signed up for three options. I40 – Introduction to Rome by night, I11 – Tivoli (without dinner) and I76 – Rome Dinner and Evening Tour.

After everything was said and done, we were off to the bus for our first optional, Introduction to Rome by night.

Sauro, our driver, did an exceedingly wonderful job the entire time. Never once did we have to wait for the bus to be ready. Never did we have to wait while he fueled the bus. How he was able to thread the bus into those tiny (and I do mean tiny) streets without hitting anything was amazing! He was always ready to help the ladies from the bus.

We met our local guide who took us on our walking tour of Rome. Our first stop was the Piazza di Trevi. Christy and I threw coins into the fountain… let's see if the legend of returning to Italy holds true.

We continued on to see the Pantheon.

Finally, we moved onto the Piazza Navona.

After our tour concluded, we had an hour or so to look around and get something to eat. We picked a place recommended by Jeff. It turns out that several of our tourmates did the same. Jeff too – and he sat with us. We found out that he's lived in Florence for the past 5 years. Apparently all Trafalgar TDs must have at least 5 years experience with another company prior to working for Trafalgar – he was with Contiki for 8 years prior to joining Trafalgar.

I can't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was off one of the side streets from the Piazza Navona. We can't forget about gelato! I swear, I think I had more ice cream in the two weeks than I did all last year!

Day 3 (May 14, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25 (C), sunshine.

We rose early for our optional trip to Tivoli. It is a beautiful place, somewhat similar to Versailles in Paris. The fountains and gardens were impressive. The villa itself was incredible. The paintings on the walls and ceilings were a sight to behold.

We returned back to the hotel to pickup everyone else and were off to the Coliseum and the Forum.

Going inside the Coliseum was not something that is offered on this tour, but Jeff asked if anyone wanted to go. There were only five of us who wanted to go so Jeff purchased tickets for us so that we didn't have to wait in line. The others went with the local tour guide to see the ruins of the Roman Forum.

After a quick security check, we were inside the Coliseum. One word – awesome.

Since we were short on time, we ran over to the Forum. The ruins were amazing.

Then we were off to the Vatican. Jeff commented on how empty it was compared to all the other days he's been there. I guess the line to get in the Vatican wraps around the entire plaza but today, it was only a 10-minute wait.

Since it was Sunday, we would only see the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica. The Sistine Chapel would be on Monday. We first went down to the crypt to see where all the popes were interred.

Here is a picture of Pope John Paul II's tomb. There is a 24-hr vigil next to his tomb, and this has been there ever since his death.

We then walked into St. Peter's Basilica. I don't think I have the words to describe this place.

The included portion of the tour was concluded for the day. We were back on the bus, returned to our hotel. After time to change, those who signed up for the optional Dinner and Evening Tour, were back on the bus to be dropped off near the Spanish Steps.

We walked for 10-15 minutes and reached the top of the steps.

As we walked to the lower area, the crowds seemed to increase.

Here is a view from the bottom, looking up.

Some of our tourmates were late due to airline troubles and missed the first optional, so Jeff asked if we wanted to walk a bit further to see the Piazza di Trevi. So we got to see the fountains again.

The optional dinner was great. The food, wine and service were wonderful, the entertainment (live opera) was enjoyable but the company was fantastic. Christy and I really enjoyed meeting our tourmates and getting to know them.

Day 4 (May 15, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25 (C), sunshine.

We had an early wake-up call this morning. After an early breakfast, we were on our way to the Sistine Chapel and then on to Sorrento.

We met our local guide, Donatella. (Awesome guide!) Here she is explaining the great works within the chapel.

Pictures without flash are allowed throughout the Vatican museums but not in the Sistine Chapel. A Japanese TV company paid for the restoration of Michelangelo's works and thus they hold the copyright to the entire chapel. Here is a picture of one of the hallways leading to the chapel and a painting that some of you will recognize.

After feeling like a sardine in the cram-packed Sistine Chapel (seriously it was wall-to-wall people all craning their heads toward the ceiling), we exited out the building through this:

Technically, we were supposed to head off to Pompeii but Jeff didn't want us to walk around in the afternoon heat and scheduled it for a later day. Instead we went directly to Sorrento. We went to an inlay wood pressing demonstration and bought some beautiful music boxes as belated mother’s day gifts for our moms. We then walked to the town's square and had some leisure time to ourselves. It was in Sorrento we first discovered local markets and how cheap bottled water is there.

On the way there, we saw this ruin.

I'm sure that someone has the story behind it. Just not me!

We checked into the Johanna Park Hotel. Our room was on level '0', the ground floor, behind the front desk. The view that we had was of a wall. Some of our other tourmates were lucky and had rooms with views of the ocean. Compared to most European rooms, this one was very large. Technically, we had three twin beds in our room. Two of them were pushed together and arranged as a matrimonial bed. That is what they call it when two twins are pushed together and fitted with a king sized bed sheet. We used the third bed to store our luggage. All in all, I thought that this was a nice hotel. The bathroom was very big! There was a huge tub with a full shower curtain.

Day 5 (May 16, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25 (C), sunshine.

We had an early morning wake up for our next optional, I72 – The Amalfi Drive. It was spectacular. Christy was afraid she would get motion sickness, but thankfully did not. The sheer cliff leaves very little room, if any, for beaches. The roads were cut into the mountainside and at times, it seemed the bus was going over the ledge!

We stopped at Positano and enjoyed a great view of the area.

We tried the fruit and it was delicious (pre-arranged and paid for by Jeff).

Afterwards we returned to the hotel to pick everyone up and we were off to the Isle of Capri. Since our regular bus is too big to get down to the pier, we took minibuses. We got used to Sauro driving in a slow and calm manner… we were in for a shock with the minibus drivers. I don't believe that they used the brake the entire time driving down to the water…

Well, we all made it down to the water's edge and waited for the ferry to take us to Capri.

After less then an hour on the ferry, we arrived at Capri. Thankfully, no sea sickness on Christy’s part. Less than half our group decided to take the next optional, I41 – Isle of Capri. Cruise and lunch. It was a beautiful day for a cruise.

The wind and erosion left some unusual looking rock formations. Here is one that looks like either an elephant or a seahorse.

Another thing to do was to kiss your loved one when going through this tunnel. Hey… when in Rome… er, Capri!

After the cruise, we took minibuses to the top of Capri and had a few minutes to explore all the expensive shops. Basically it's like a Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. We were then taken to see the Giardini Augusto. It was a beautiful garden, but I didn't see too much of the plant life. I was more interested in scenes like this:

We had lunch at the Best Western. Now, some of you might have preconceived notions as to what a Best Western looks like, but this was the nicest Best Western I have ever seen. Marble was everywhere with beautiful tile work. Lunch was very good too. By this time Christy and I were dedicated to trying to sit with new people everyday so we could get to know more of our tourmates.

We had an hour or so of free time. Christy was busy shopping. I went looking for more gelato. We met the group at the appointed time for the ride down the Funicolare. This is essentially a big box that rides along a track going up and down the mountainside.

After riding the Funicolare, we returned to Sorrento on the ferry. We had to wait a bit to get minibuses to take us back to our hotel so we could get ready for dinner. Jeff told us that there would be two buses to take us back. The only problem is that the first bus would take 15 minutes to get to us. The second bus would be here 10 minutes after.

We were broken into two groups. The 'stressed group' that needed to get back to the hotel quickly and the 'non-stressed group' that could wait to take the second bus. When the first bus showed up, more than three quarters of the group piled into the bus and took off. We waited for the second bus and were able to ride comfortably back to the hotel on the empty bus. When we arrived at the hotel, we learned that the groups were labeled appropriately. The first bus was almost in a head-on collision! We were told that during a particular intersection, someone was not paying attention and ran the stop sign. Luckily, no one was hurt and the accident was avoided by inches! I guess they received the lion's share of the stress!

We had dinner at a restaurant called La Stalla. The owner was the father of our local tour guide on Capri. The food was great and the owner was entertaining. After dinner, we walked around the grounds (he had many fruit trees in his backyard) and saw a HUGE rabbit and a wall that was over 1000 years old. It was getting dark and I wasn't able to get a good shot of it.

Day 6 (May 17, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25 (C), sunshine.

Another early wake up call and after breakfast, we were off to Pompeii. For some reason, we had the pre-conceived notion that this was a very small town. But in actuality it was fairly large – during its heyday it was a major city for travelers and had lots of merchants and businessmen. Some pictures to view.

We can't skip the red light district symbol of Pompeii. Certain people of Pompeii would offer their "carnal services" and identified their houses by placing this symbol outside. You don't have to look too closely to see what this symbol represents… it should be pretty obvious.

Leaving Pompeii, we were off to Assisi. Now, I would have to say that Assisi was my favorite of the entire trip. I am not sure I can say why I enjoyed this city the best… but something about it really spoke to me. It is truly a medieval town in terms of its atmosphere. Very quiet and soothing, no rushing about like the major cities such as Rome.

This is the entrance to the church. No pictures were allowed within the church.

Random street shot.

One feature to note is the rose-colored stones that were used on the buildings. At first glance you really can't tell the color, but if you look closely, you can almost tell that all the buildings in Assisi are built with this colored stone.

We checked into the Hotel Giotto. I would have to say that this has been the smallest room since the beginning of our trip. This is a picture of our room. Not much more than what you see in the picture. We did have a small bathroom, but it had a shower stall with a full door. The bed was two twins made into a matrimonial bed.

Not much to look at… until you opened the window. This is the view that greeted us. Straight out of a postcard…breathtaking and unbelievable!

Night shot from our hotel room.

Dawn shot from our hotel room.

Prior to the dawn shot, the night before we walked around the town after dinner. It was beautiful.

I thought that it was a real shame that we only spent one night in Assisi. I could have spent a few days just wandering around the city.

Day 7 (May 18, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25.5 (C), sunshine/overcast in Venice.

We were up and ready to continue our adventure. We are off to Ravenna (Sauro's hometown) and then to Venice! We stopped to see the Byzantine architecture of the Church of St. Apollinaris.

Afterwards we had lunch at a restaurant next to the church. My blackberry was forecasting rain so I bought a tiny umbrella for 3 euros. It wasn't until Switzerland and Florence I needed to use it, but when it was raining, the umbrellas were going for 10-15 euros! More on that later.

We arrive in Venice! The first thing we do is the optional I19 – Venice Gondola Serenade. I think it was worth the extra money for this optional for two reasons. One, you have to ride the gondola at least once. Second, we were lucky and had the musician and singer on our gondola so we had a great show. Very touristy, we know, but we had a great time and the weather was so perfect!

Some images we saw on our ride.

After the optional, we all jumped back on the bus and headed towards our hotel, Hotel Laguna Palace. We got a handicapped room so it was spacious. We had two twin beds and the room was a bit small, but the bathroom was very nice. The hotel is away from Venice and the only way to get to the heart of the city is to take a taxi or the train.

After getting unpacked, we were off to our next optional. I49 – Venice by night. Jeff took us from the bus to water taxi which dropped us off close to St. Marks Square. As Jeff was showing us around the city, he got us lost trying to get to the square… twice! We jokingly gave him a hard time, but soon we were in the square enjoying our drinks! There is nothing quite like having a glass of champagne at nighttime in Venice while live bands play music to "The Sound of Music" (Christy's favorite movie). To make up for getting us lost, Jeff bought all the ladies a rose from one of the vendors in the square. I swear, he's trying to make us look bad!

The nighttime cruise along the Grand Canal was very enjoyable for Christy (lovely to see Venice with all major buildings lit up in all their nighttime glory), but not so much for me since I was exposed to the exhaust fumes from the water taxi in front of us and my allergies were acting up. Overall, drinks on the square was much nicer but the cruise was alright. No pictures were possible (at least with my camera).

Day 8 (May 19, 2006)

Weather was around 78 (F)/25 (C), sunshine.

We were up early for the glass blowing demonstration. It wasn't until after I took this picture, I saw the sign that says No Photo! However, the employees didn’t seem to mind, they were standing next to us when a bunch of us took pictures.

Inside, we watch the master glass blower perform his demonstration. Can you believe it, as he was making a glass bottle, he dropped it! Jeff later told us that this has never happened before, in his experience. The glass blower was able to salvage the dropped bottle into an elegant pitcher.

Here is a picture of our tour director, Jeff Allen and Christy. I don’t know about the rest of the women in our tour, but Christy kept mentioning something about ‘eye candy’ in regards to Jeff.

After the sales pitch, we had free time to walk around by ourselves. We weren't too far from the Rialto Bridge so we ran over for a quick photo shoot.

We headed back to the main square for our next optional, I71 – A guided tour of St. Mark's Basilica and the Doges' Palace. Doges Palace is the former residence of the elected Doge (kind of like the lifetime mayor, but only really elderly men were ever elected) of Venice. The Church was moderately impressive but the Doges Palace, oh my goodness! Literally gold-coated paintings on the walls and ceilings. Those who did not go on this excursion had additional free time in the city. The church does not allow oversized bags inside so we went to a place around the corner that will hold your bags for free. You drop off your bags and they give you a receipt. I was a bit worried about dropping off my bag but there was nothing to worry about.

Photos were not allowed inside the church, but one item of note was how uneven the floor was. The local guide explained that due to the nature of Venice (a floating city), the floor will move up and down. Apparently it's quite a common occurrence in Venice. I wanted to go up to the balcony, but the guide said that we were on a tight schedule and we didn't have time to go…

From there, we moved onto the Doges' Palace. Here is a picture from the inside courtyard of the palace.

Photography was not allowed inside the palace, but I leaned out of a window was able to get this shot of the Bridge of Sighs.

We are off to the island of Burano for our next optional, I18 – Lagoon Cruise with Lunch. We took a water taxi to the island of Burano for lunch and sightseeing/shopping. This was hands down the best lunch we had in Italy – there was so much food we were stuffed and it all tasted wonderful.

Since this is a fisherman village, almost all the dishes had some sort of seafood. Not only that, the wine/soda/water was included. After a very fulfilling lunch, we had free time to explore the island. Christy went shopping for lace (the local specialty), I went to take pictures.

After a long day, we returned to Venice to pick up the people who did not do the optional in Burano and returned to the hotel. Christy and I, along with another couple (Pippa and Lachlan from Melbourne, Australia) wanted to explore the city by ourselves and got off the water taxi in Venice. As the rest of our tourmates returned to the hotel, we were left to fend for ourselves.

We chose a leisurely pace and had a light dinner at a restaurant right next to the Rialto Bridge. You have to try the Proseco, a very light white wine/champagne! From there, we walked through the city enjoying the sites. One thing to note was that almost everything closes after 7-8 PM. We did find a great gelato place that gave us huge scoops! Since Jeff gave us directions, we weren't worried about getting lost. The only problem we might have was that the water taxi drivers were going on strike for the weekend and we might have a problem getting a regular taxi out of the city. We had contingency plans. If we weren't able to get a taxi, we could take the train back to our hotel.

In the end, we didn't have a problem. We queued for a taxi and were able to get one in about 15 minutes. That was a harrowing experience, going over 140 KPH, only inches from the car in front of us. We made sure we were wearing our seatbelts! Overall, a very memorable night in Venice.

Day 9 (May 20, 2006)

Weather was around 72 (F)/22 (C), overcast/rain.

We had another early morning wakeup call. We were off to Verona to see Juliet's balcony.

I'm not sure if you can see in the picture, but if you want good luck in love, you are supposed to, ahem, 'cup' the statue's right breast. Everyone participated, including the women in our group. Some of the gentlemen complained it was the first breast they had been in contact with in Italy – due to the lack of matrimonial beds at most of the hotels! (Ha, ha!) Here is a picture of Christy, posing.

We had less than an hour to explore on our own, so we decided to sit at a café and enjoy some coffee. Then, we were on the bus and off to Milan. When we arrived in Milan, we were dropped off near the gothic Duomo. We were able to see the top of the church.

As we walked closer, we saw this:

We went inside and received a quick tour of the church. I wasn't able to get any good pictures. This was what it looked like inside. I wish we had more time to explore the church, but once again, we were on a tight schedule.

Afterwards, Jeff took us through the Galleria with all its shops until we got to the square with Leonardo da Vinci’s statue.

Christy insisted that we have lunch at McDonald's inside the Galleria. I had two McDonald's hamburgers for 1 euro each (a bit pricey I thought since you can purchase one in the states for 1/3 the price).

After lunch, Jeff wanted us to hurry back to the bus because he wanted to change the included excursion to Lugano. Since it was Saturday afternoon, and Lugano was scheduled for Sunday morning, he felt that we won't enjoy it as much because all the shops would be closed. So instead, we were off to Lugano for sightseeing and shopping today.

After a quick introduction, we had about 2 hours to ourselves to explore the area. We spent most of the time shopping, so not much to show you. Bought some nice Swiss Army watches for our dads. However, it was a beautiful city by the lake. As we were leaving, it started to rain. Otherwise, we had a great time.

We return to Italy and check into our hotel, Hotel Splendid Baveno. Jeff told us that there was a problem with the hotel and we would be moved to an adjacent hotel that just barely opened. It wasn't until we entered our rooms that we discovered that we were in apartments. Our room had two bedrooms, a living room and a HUGE bathroom with a shower and a separate tub. I think we were on level '4'.

Here is a view from our wraparound balcony:

Day 10 (May 21, 2006)

Weather was around 72 (F)/22 (C), overcast in the morning with sunshine in the afternoon.

We woke up late this morning. Originally, we were scheduled for optional I6 – Borromean Islands but we decided that we needed to sleep. This excursion was scheduled for an 8 AM departure, to return by 10 AM. After sleeping in a little and a leisurely breakfast, we met the group for our next optional, I42 – Villas of Lake Como.

We took the bus as it took us to Lake Como. The roads were so narrow that at times, traffic could flow in one direction only. The cars and buses had to stop and pull over to let us through. We took a private launch to Bellagio. There we shopped and explored. We had lunch at a café and watched the people walk by… all in all, a very nice experience. We then boarded our boat for a cruise past the villas – it was awesome! Total cruise about 45 minutes with perfect weather and great views.

Anyone recognize this villa? This was used in Star Wars, Episode 2:

Here are some of the villas we saw on this cruise:

Another Funicolare going up the hill.

We returned back to the hotel after a wonderful time. Dinner at the hotel was very 'ordinary'. We learned this term from an Australian couple (our new friends Pippa and Lachlan – remember them from Venice?). I believe that we had two choices, chicken or fish. I had the chicken and I thought that it was just ok. Christy had the fish and it was very, very bad. Jeff came by and asked us about dinner and the Australian couple said that dinner was quite 'ordinary'. Christy and I told Jeff that the fish was very bad. Later, we learned that when Australians call something 'ordinary', it means bad. Something new we learned that day.

All in all, I thought that this hotel was very nice. The hotel staff was the most attentive and friendly of all the hotels we stayed in. They always greeted you when they saw you and were very accommodating when we made any request. Other than the food, I thought that this would be a fine place to stay. Christy asked how long the apartment portion of the hotel had been opened (since it was still under construction) and they told us that it's been opened for less than a month. We were one of the first people to use those rooms! Actually, I think we were the first since the blanket on the bed still had the price tag on it.

Day 11 (May 22, 2006)

Weather was around 86 (F)/30 (C), sunshine the entire day.

Because of the ‘ordinary’ dinner last night, Jeff expressed our dissatisfaction to the hotel and they offered us cookies as an apology for the morning bus ride to Pisa. I have to say, Jeff was always looking out for us. We weren't expecting anything from the hotel, but Jeff surprised us.

We arrive in Pisa to see the Piazza del Duomo.

After two hours, we had lunch and then onto the bus. We were off to Florence. At Florence, we met our local guide who walked us through the Duomo. Here is an exterior picture:

Some of the details on the outside of the church, here you can see Mary and the baby Jesus, along with two of the apostles.

Inside, pictures of the dome.

Next we walked to Piazza Della Signoria. We saw a copy of Michelangelo's David along with a few other sculptures including Rape of the Sabines.

Finally, we walked to the Piazza Di Santa Croce. This square is named after the boyhood church of Michelangelo. He, along with Galileo and Machiavelli, is buried in this church. More on this later. We also had a chance to view the boyhood home of Michelangelo, now a condo owned by a lucky person in Italy. The only thing that commemorates this is a small plaque on the outside of the building – but no museum or statue. We later learn that the home of Galileo is currently being renovated into a museum just outside Florence.

Afterwards, we checked into our hotel, Grand Hotel Mediterraneo. The hotel is situated on a busy intersection. I was worried that we would have lots of street noise. When we were given out room assignments, I was more worried. We were on level '1'. When we made it up to our room, I was pleasantly surprised to find that even though we were only one level above the lobby, we were in an inside room. We were not facing the street so it was very quiet. We had a view of the roof of the restaurant. This was by far, the smallest room we had in Italy. We had a shower stall that was so small, you couldn't turn around without bumping into the glass shower walls. However, I later appreciated the location of this hotel. It was close to nearly everything we wanted to see.

After getting settled in, we were off to our next optional, I29 – Medici Evening and Sumptuous Banquet in a Renaissance Palace. We were met at the palace by a guardsman.

Dinner was wonderful. There was lots of wine, pasta and a choice of beef or fish. The best part of the evening was the entertainment. At first, they played music and danced for us. It started getting really entertaining when they began to ask for audience participation. They played games, skits and dressed up in period costumes. One of the funniest times was when they selected two guys to dress up as knights and rescue maidens. The maidens were locked in chains and the key was given to two female audience members. The knights had to kiss the hands of each lady to see if she was holding the key. Once the key was found, they unlocked the maiden and rode off on their horse.

Here are the knights:

Kissing the hands to discover the keys:

Unlocking the maiden:

Riding off into the sunset with your fair maiden?

All in all, it was a great optional to take.

Day 12 (May 23, 2006)

Weather was a bit muggy, in the low 80 (F)/27 (C). Overcast and a little bit of rain.

We were up early for our next optional, I75 – Visit to San Gimignano. The bus took us to the Tuscany countryside to visit "Italy's best preserved medieval city".

Here is a picture, looking back into the entrance to the town.

The main street was lined with shops, selling wine, boar sausages, plates, and all sorts of knick-knacks.

We kept walking towards the town’s square. As we were walking, we could see the towers in the main square.

Here is shot of the Tuscan hills.

On the way back, we stopped to see the American war memorial. This place is maintained by Americans for the American GIs laid to rest. Very impressive.

We returned to the city and had some free time for lunch and shopping before our next optional. We went to a restaurant called "Gas Station" (Jeff told us to try this place) and had some great sandwiches. Afterwards, Christy needed to shop for some jewelry. Gold/silver is very well-known in Florence.

Christy wrote:
Also popular with our entire tour group was the so-called sterling silver Nomination or Zoppini bracelet, to which you can add various charms such as initials and flags and other symbols. Jake, never a jewelry man before, purchased one for himself and we also bought one for his sister.

After that was completed, we headed off to Santa Croce to see the tombs of Dante, Galileo and Michelangelo. Technically, Dante is buried in Ravenna, but the others are really buried there.




We were off to our next optional, I25 – Jewels of the Renaissance. We met our local guide and were taken to see the Accademia where we saw Michelangelo's David. David was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. One thing that everyone commented on was the fact that David's hands seemed out of proportion to the rest of the sculpture. The local guide said that no one really knows why that is the case, but it is speculated that since David was to be displayed in a large square, if seen from a distance, the hands would look proportional. Another interesting fact – Michelangelo ran out of marble and thus there is an obvious divot in the right shoulder blade area on this statue. Michelangelo studied anatomy by dissecting cadavers, and you can definitely tell he knew his human anatomy as well as gravity. Christy was impressed at the physical detail on the statue (she’s in the medical field).

After the Accademia, we decided to skip the included hotel dinner. Based on the recommendation from Jeff, we went to a restaurant called the Golden View, with a great view of the Ponte Vecchio, next to the Arno river. We weren't able to get a table by the window, but we still had a great view with wonderful company and fine food.

Day 13 (May 23, 2006)

Weather was overcast and some rain, in the low 70s (F)/21 (C).

As we checked out of Florence, we stopped to get shots of the city. Because it was raining, not too many people elected to exit the bus. I did manage to get this shot.

We were off to Siena. Another medieval town that is famous for the Palio horse race. I wasn't able to get a picture of the entire square, but the entire area would be covered in sand for their horse racing.

After less than an hour to explore on our own, we were back on the bus to visit the castle of Serre di Rapolano. Originally, we were scheduled to have lunch there, but Jeff accommodated another tour director who didn't plan properly. We gave up our lunch spot to another tour group and instead had lunch at an Autogrill. The Autogrill is basically the equivalent of a truck stop here in the U.S. However, all are owned by United Colors of Benetton and provide a mini-market as well as a variety of food service options including a sandwich bar and a cafeteria-style place as well. Prices are a bit pricey but food is actually good. We ate at a few Autogrills during this entire trip.

We returned to Rome and checked into our hotel, Sheraton Golf Hotel. Nice hotel, but the AC didn't work too well and the location is a bit far from the center of Rome. After settling in, we got ready for our last optional, Goodbye Dinner – Pizza Party.

Almost everyone decided to go on this optional. The food and wine were great. Again, tons of food and we couldn’t finish it all. And again, live opera entertainment. One of the 4 singers that night was the same as during our first opera dinner in Rome at the beginning of the tour with some of the same songs/act but still enjoyable to watch! During the pizza demonstration, Christy was selected to help make one of the pizzas.

Here she is:

After dinner we said our goodbyes to our tourmates. Some of us had an early morning bus to catch. We were in the group that had to be on the bus at 6:30 PM. Breakfast was to open at 7 AM, so Jeff arranged to have breakfast boxes so we could eat at the airport. As we were packing, Jeff called a few times to adjust our schedule. In the end, Jeff was able to get the hotel to open breakfast at 6:45 AM and we were to be on the bus at 7 AM. This gave us time to grab something to eat. As I said before, our Tour Director Jeff Allen really looked out for us.

Day 14 (May 24, 2006)

Once again, we were up early, had bags packed and in the hallway for the final bus ride to the airport. We headed down at 6:30 AM and checked out and waited for the breakfast to open. As we got there, the staff waved us in and we were able to have a nice breakfast, without feeling rushed to get on the bus by 7 AM. Afterwards, we got onto the bus and said our farewells to Jeff and Sauro. This was an excellent trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

The only problem I had was a personal one. I have seasonal allergies and even though I brought my allergy medication, it wasn't up to the task. Last year, my sister visited Italy and she suffered the same problem.

Overall, we had a wonderful time on our Italian vacation. It was stressful to be away from the kids at first, but in the end it really helped us to come back relaxed and refreshed to get back to our normal lives. We will definitely take another Trafalgar trip again in the future. And we highly recommend Best of Italy to anyone interested in having a great time and meeting new friends while seeing some of the world's most beautiful sights.

Below, I posted the same information on Trafalgar's Forums. You can also read comments regarding this post.

Best of Italy - Part 1

Best of Italy - Part 2

Best of Italy - Part 3

Best of Italy - Part 4, Final