The End to our Italian experience. Part 6

 

We awoke to the hustle and bustle in the Piazza below our window.  I opened the shutters and watched as the vendors set up for the day, the sidewalks were being swept and the restaurants were preparing their patios.  As I reminisced about the last 9 days, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and sadness.  I didn’t want this experience to come to and end.  We walked across the piazza for breakfast with a few others from out group, after which we met our guide and walked to the Colosseum.  As we walked through town a little slower today as we all didn’t want it to end.  We entered he Colosseum walls and you could just feel the history that happened here.  Our guide was great and gave us so much information, as we left the Colosseum we ventured to the Form and strolled around the grounds.  This was a morning filled with culture, history, and stories of the past.

After the tour ended Bert and I left the group and began to wander, we went to Spanish steps, walked by the “wedding cake building”, the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, and slowly lingered through the city.  I felt a little deja vu as some of the neighborhoods brought back feelings of when I walked these streets in 1977.

We met up with the rest of the group and made our way to Trevi Fountain.  My heart skipped a beat as we approached this magnificent fountain.  I stood there felt tears fall down my cheeks.  I really didn’t want this feeling to end. We of course took many pictures and selfies and couldn’t leave without throwing our coins in the fountain with a wish to return to amazing county. A few of us decided to dine together for our last night.  We walked to the Campo de Fiore and sat at an outdoor café. We shared memories over wonderful food and Prosecco, 9 days earlier we were strangers and now we were friends for life. 

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All Roads lead to Rome Part 5

As we leave our amazing little hotel in Cortona, we can’t help but feel melancholy as we know that our Italy adventure only has a few more days.  We board the bus and head to Rome with a wonderful stop in Orvieto.  This jewel of a town gives you hospitality in a medieval setting. It’s  Duomo (church) in the center is just beautiful, we are also given a tour of the Underground a series of cave from the Etruscan era.  It was very interesting to see such intricate cave system under this amazing city. These miles of caves were used for refrigeration, wine and water wells.  After our tour, we stopped and had a bite to eat and do some shopping, the ceramics here were lovely. I stopped in a little shop and after purchasing some gifts, the little old man smiles leaned over grabbed my face and kissed my cheek.  I felt like family.  We wandered through the maze of streets up and down the hills and enjoyed some gelato.  Then we boarded the bus for Rome.

The hillside of Italy is simply stunning we arrived in the hustling streets of Rome and were taken to our hotel.  A location that couldn’t be beat. I opened our window and look directly at the Pantheon. You could look down onto the Piazza. I watched the people wander, the vendor open their carts and the life in Rome go by.  As the sun set, Bert and I wandered the street and ended up in Piazza Navona, we enjoyed a light dinner outside, while listening to a cellist.  We drank prosecco and watched the people enjoy life in Italy.  We strolled back, stopped and had a pastry before we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we visit the Vatican.

We awake to the sounds of the City, we walk across the Piazza for breakfast before we make our way with our group to the Vatican.  We are dropped off in front of Vatican City and meet our incredible tour guide.  She guided us through Saint Peters Basilica, the Vatican museum where we got to see the awesome Pieta. The opulence of it all is overwhelming.  To understand the history, the decisions and magnificence of the treasures within these walls is remarkable, but the most exciting moment of our trip was about to happen, and we didn’t even know it.  We were led into the Sistine Chapel; everyone is quiet as they gaze at the simply exquisite ceiling painted by Michelangelo.  As we stand in the quiet surrounded by many people a priest comes out onto the Alter, he greets us all in his broken English and explains that he will be on the side of the alter for any blessings that someone may want.  I look around and no one has moved.  I look at Bert and we move towards the Alter.  A policeman invites us up on the alter and the priest greets us.  He spoke with us for a few minutes, gave us a marriage blessing and blessed our children and grandchildren.  It was so surreal, as I turn around and walk off the alter, tears are flowing down my face.  The people in our group ask us how we arranged that, and I said I didn’t.  The priest just invited us up. Once everyone realized what was happening the live formed. It was such a wonderful moment it will be etched into my heart forever.

We left the Chapel and our tour ended, Bert and I decided to walk back to the hotel and as we excited Vatican City, we saw the Castle of Angels.  We decided to go through this castle and we both agreed this is a not to be missed site. It was so interesting and is was were it is said Michael the Archangel appeared as a sign to the end of the Plague in 590, this along with many other stories of angel siting lead to it name. It was used by many Popes as a fortress.  The artifacts within these walls are definitely worth seeing.  We left the castle and walked across the bridge of angles on our way back to the hotel.  We stopped in a piazza and ate a great pizza and had some wine.  We returned to the hotel to get ready for our farewell dinner.

We met the group and walked through the Jewish quarter and over a bridge to a small Island, Tiberina, where we entered the private apartment of Chef Fabio Bongianni, he runs a cooking school and has a restaurant called That’s Amore near Trevi Fountain.  As I walked through the door of this fabulous apartment, I felt warmth and hospitality everywhere.  We were met by a wonderful lady named Monica, she poured us Prosecco and introduced us to Chef Paolo, trained by Chef Bongianni, he was the one making this magnificent meal.  We enjoyed the evening and had a nice surprise when Chef Bongianni made an appearance.  The evening was superb and is another extra special event offered by our host with Story Land and Sea.  We returned to our hotel with slight sadness as tomorrow is our last day in Italy.  

Bella Italy – Part 4 Quaint Countryside

 

We awoke early and boarded a small shuttle bus.  We started out into the countryside as the fog was beginning to lift.  After a short time, we made a surprise stop at a remarkable location.  The Florence American Cemetery. A veteran cemetery and memorial in the lovely wooded hills of Chianti. The Italian government gave the land to the United States so that we could bury and honor our lost and missing from WWI and WWII. It was simply a profound experience. We silently walked through the rows of graves, looking at names. As we visited the small chapel and the Memorial at the top of the hill the fog began to rise, and you could see the numerous headstones that stood like solders at attention and the tears fell from our eyes.  This surprise stop was so meaningful to all of us, it touched our hearts and as we silently boarded the bus, it was hard not to reflect on the many things that took place and the men that died so that we can have the freedom to visit this magical countryside.  A wonderful hidden little gem that should not be missed.

The next stop on our trip through the Tuscany countryside was San Gimignano.  We passed many vineyards and were able to see the iconic trees of Tuscany, as we climbed the hillside, we arrived at this Italian hill town surrounded by 13th century walls.  Its medieval tower, a Piazza with a little well in the middle, and anchored by an old church with its stone stairs leading down into the center was exactly was I thought of when I dreamed of walking through a little town in Italy.  The beautiful flowers, the vines hanging off the windows.  As we entered the Piazza there was a group of old Italian men sitting at one end of the Piazza like guards watching over their family.  They smiled and nodded, but you knew you were being inspected. We walked up the stone steps to visit this wonderful little church and as we exited, we watched a groom meet his bride as she stepped out of a black car.  Surrounded by his groomsmen he greeted her and handed her a exquisite boutique. The wedding was going to take place in this amazing setting.  It was a delightful site that made my heart feel so blessed to be witness to.  It showed real Italian life not something you read about in a tourist book.   We shopped in a couple of the small stores and then walked to the outside wall on the top of the hill, for another Story exclusive an Aperitivo to toast our arrival in this quaint town.

We got back on the bus and proceeded to a family owned vineyard, Castello Monterinaldi. We were met my a young lady who gave us a short tour and then were escorted into a building that seamed like at one point is was an old family home, we were served flights of wine and the most delicious sweet olive oil and thickest sweet balsamic that I have every tasted.

We then proceeded to Cortona, known as “the Grandmother of Rome,” were we would stop for a couple of nights.  Another quaint little Tuscan town, where the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” was filmed.  This little family run boutique hotel with a little courtyard and charming dining room. As the rest of the group gathered for their group dinner, Bert and I walked up the hill and found a charming place for dinner, after dinner we wondered around, listened to people in the Piazza, it was a wonderful day.  We awoke early and had the best breakfast buffet so far, with delectable Lemon Ricotta Cake, the owner was so proud of this creation she brought a piece to each of us. We decided to attend mass with another couple, at Santa Margherita, a Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church on the very top of the hill. With it being Sunday there were no cabs and we weren’t going to have time to walk to the top of hill. This is where you get to hear, not only about the wonderful service, we received but the helpful, friendliness of the Italian people. The owner of the hotel told us to wait one minute and then pulled up in front of the hotel was a car driven by a young gentleman who worked in the kitchen. He was so nice; he drove us to the top of the hill and dropped us off in front of the church.   We generously thanked him and walked into this wonderful little church.  You could tell it was a beloved local church, because as we walked in the elders of the church, turned to see who we were, as were outsiders.  We sat in the back and prepared for this amazing experience. Sitting there hearing mass in the beautiful Italian language, sitting next to the locals from this remarkable little town brought tears to my eyes. After mass everyone walked to the front and passed by the actual remains of St Margherita. This was very special to see the people honor this patron saint of the church.  We walked leisurely down the hill back to the piazza. Sat in the Piazza with friends and incredible pastries and coffee.  A few of the other people on the tour visited Sienna, went to a cooking class or walked down to see the house from the movie.  Staying in this little town gave you many options. We spent the afternoon, wandering around the Etruscan Museum and visiting the little shops, enjoyed some wonderful gelato and a cocktail.  We found a restaurant that advertised American Hamburgers, we knew there were a couple of people in the group, that even though we were surrounded by all this amazing food, wanted a hamburger and a beer. So, we returned to the hotel and made arraignments to dine with the group.  Before dinner we gathered for happy hour with delicious appetizers and wonderful glass of wine in the courtyard.  As we sat and discussed everyone’s day, the friendships grew.

Tomorrow we leave for Rome with a stop in Orvieto.

Bella Italy: Part 3 Classic Florence

Imagine you awake and your bags have already been picked up, you wander down and have your last breakfast in Venice, although you are sad that you are leaving this amazing city you know that you are going to experience another Italian classic, the city of Florence.  We board a train for a short ride to the Tuscan town of Florence.  We get step off the train and you can immediately feel the difference, the laid-back quiet town of Venice is gone and you hear traffic and horns honk and feel the hustle and bustle of the city. There is a short walk to our hotel. Garibaldi Blu, in Santa Maria Novella piazza.  Where there are musician playing in the square.  We are greeted warmly by the hotel staff.  The hotel was wonderful, you walk into the lobby where Palm trees stand and, in the back, a small little bar with an amazing bartender.   We are shown to our room where our luggage is brought to us.  I never realized that extra step of portage makes everything so easy.  It is definitely the way to travel in Europe.  We meet the group for a short leisurely tour of the area and of course an Aperitivo.  Bert and I chose not to dine with the group and enjoyed the evening, strolling through the city, we walked to a nearby restaurant and had a lovely dinner.  Then visited with the bartender while he introduced us to some valuable wine information.

The next morning, we awoke had a great breakfast and joined the group for a day sightseeing. We met our local guide and followed him through the streets of Florence.  We visited the magnificent architecture of the Duomo and learned much about the formidable Medici family.  We also went into the Galleria Dell Accademia, to see the breathtaking “David”.  It was so amazing, pictures could not do it justice.  We visited a couple different Piazzas where you really experience the heart of Florence. The leather works there was incredible, you can see the pride in each by the craftmanship and heart put into it.

After the morning of touring a few of us went to the Uffizi gallery.  The numerous paintings and collection of ancient statuary was so impressive.  We spent 3 hours in the amazing building and still didn’t see everything.  You really need an entire day to experience every room in this very large building.  I would also suggest that you purchase your tickets in advance to avoid the long lines.

After leaving the Uffizi we strolled into the Piazza, sat at an outdoor café and had a wonderful pizza and wine, as we reminisced about what we were blessed to see, take in the atmosphere and enjoy the sights and sounds of Florence.

The evening was magical as we met back up with the group and walked over the Ponte Vecchio, again the sights, sounds and smells of Florence were everywhere.  People were singing, shopping and of course taking numerous selfies. We were headed to Piazzale Michelangelo, where we overlooked the entire city, we enjoy a cocktail some appetizers and a musician playing while the sun went down over this spectacular town.  I am sure this is not a regular stop for most tourists, but this hidden gem made visiting this town even more memorable.  As we walked back to town we left the group to find a little restaurant and a friend had suggested just over the bridge, but away from the tourists, Ristorante Santa Felicita, was a local spot with good food, great wine and you could tell by the friendliness of the staff a neighborhood favorite.  After dinner we leisurely walked back to the hotel as we anticipated another great day in Tuscany tomorrow.

Bella Italy, Part 2 of our Venice adventure, Gems of Venice, Gelato, and Gondola’s

We awaken with excitement of what today may bring, I open our window and as I look out to see water taxis going by, I hear the sounds of the city, I take in a deep breath and remind myself how blessed I am to be in this amazing city and tell myself to appreciate every site and sound. We join the group for a traditional breakfast.  Croissants, fresh bread, sweet rolls, eggs, prosciutto, cheese fresh fruit and yogurt, as well as strong coffee, this is the kind of breakfast the will greet us every morning for the next 8 days.  We meet our guide and will get to experience the Gem’s of Venice, The Basilica San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and the Prisons of Venice. There have been many days of flooding over the past few weeks as we get to the Piazza San Marco it is dry, but you can see that they are expecting more water as the raised walk ways are beginning to be put up.  We enter the Basilica also known as St Mark’s Basilica.  To think that this church was supposed to be only for the Doge family is unbelievable. The artwork, mosaic and architecture are a thing of beauty. We moved through the Doge Palace, in amazement as it was so grandiose.  The bridge of Sighs and the prison gave us such a solemn feeling thinking of how many people last act was to walk across this bridge and that this would be the last time they would see the magical site of Venice, before they entered their imprisonment. By the time we exited the Piazza was flooded the many people were now walking on the walkways although there were the young at heart that kicked off their shoes and walked through the water, as you could see they were thoroughly enjoying the experience of this land called Venice.  We then we boarded a water taxi that took us across the canal to the island of Murano, to visit the Murano Glass factory. We were treated to a sample of how these precious items are made. The craftsmanship is perfection. We got a tour of the showroom where we were able to see these works of art up close. We returned on the water taxi, where we were on our own until we met for the Gondola ride.  A few of us found a quaint little restaurant and had lunch outside enjoying a wonderful glass of wine and gnocchi that were little pillows of heaven, as well as good company. After lunch we found a gelato shop that was amazing. It was Bert’s first taste of gelato in Italy, although I told him how wonderful it was 30 years earlier he never realized how good it could be.  You just don’t understand the difference in the taste of gelato in Italy, until you actually experience it. Bert and I used some of this free time to wander in and out of the stores, and just soak in the atmosphere. We rejoined the group for a traditional gondola ride. It was exactly what I imagined. The music that drifted around us, the friendly gondolier that chatted with us. We floated out into the grand canal to see the sunset, it was an experience that I will never forget.  We had an Aperitivo with the group and then walked to the Rialto bridge. The view was enchanting, we left the group for a wonderful walk and an amazing dinner for two. We found a great little restaurant write on the Grand Canal, we sat outside and made friends with a wonderful waiter.  I stepped out of my box and tried a cuttlefish pasta paired with a couple bottles of Moscato dinner was perfect.  We strolled back to the hotel to get ready to experience Florence tomorrow.

Bella Italy, A land of beautiful people, amazing culture and remarkable scenery

 

Venice, part 1

Imagine, you step off you train with wide eyed anticipation and you see the Grand Canal, your first stop of this Italy adventure, the ancient city of Venice.  Your greeted by a lady with a the Italian accent you dreamed of hearing and she leads you to your private water taxi.  The young man helps you aboard his vessel and off you go up the Grand Canal. You are awe struck that you are actually in the land of your ancestors, a dream you never though would come true. After a short ride you stop in front of a quaint hotel and as you leave the boat you enter a hotel lobby with old world charm.  You are greeted like family, given your key and escorted to your room.  You enter your room and open the shutters on the window to hear the sound of a gondolier singing and people clapping along as it passes under a bridge.  You are filled with excitement.  You go down to lobby to meet your group and your tour captain.  A bright bubbly woman who even though you know she’s been there before, is displaying all the excitement that you are feeling.  You are also greeted by 7 couples and there is an immediate connection, because you are all waiting to experience this picturesque land together.

You set off for a short tour with your tour captain to give you lay of the land, you have so many thoughts going through your mind you can’t even take in all the info, except were to she points out to get the best Gelato.  You stroll through Piazza San Marco as you listen to the sound of the music coming from Caffe Florian. Your tour ends at a little café that looks out onto the Grand Canal and as the sun sets you enjoy and learn what an Aperitivo is, early evening appetizers and a toast with wonderful sparkling prosecco that will become your favorite drink.  You slowly walk back through the cobble stone street taking in all the sights and sounds to the hotel, so you can dress for dinner.

Eating is an experience of it own and with Story’s small group tour the food is endless at their welcome dinner as well as their other dinners.   Together we walked to a small little restaurant where, the smell was amazing and we sat for at least 2 and half hours, course after course. It began with plates of fresh prosciutto and melon, delicious cheeses, grilled vegetables, stuffed artichoke blossoms, a delicate appetizer stuffed with fresh ricotta and deep fried. The food kept coming with homemade pastas, veggies, steak and fish and it was topped off by frozen fruit sorbets served in the original fruit.  The amazing dinner along with the many bottles of wine, the laughter and the stories, we stopped being a small group and became friends.  It was a night to remember.  Following me on my next blog as the adventure continues and friendships grow a true testament to traveling with a small group

Group travel can be exciting and fun but can also cause stress and anxiety.  Group Cruise part 2

Group travel can be exciting and fun but can also cause stress and anxiety.  That is why I suggest a cruise or one of my small group vendors.  These types of options allow you to have that personal experience along the memories made by being together with friend, or family.

On this cruise, there were lots of expectations.  It was our first time aboard the Freedom of the Sea ship, there were plenty of activities to explore and many exciting excursions in some amazing destinations.

Our ship was beautiful, filled with plenty of things to do and places to eat. We didn’t get to them all. We relaxed along side of the great pool and watched all the entertainment on the pool deck, there were dance contests, exercise classes, and fun games. A perfect place to get involved or just people watch. There was a plenty for the sports enthusiast, a putt put course, jogging track, ping pong tables, ice skating, basketball court, gym, great pools, hot tubs and a water slide and arcade, something for everyone.  Having this many choice of activities is a nice thing for a group as you can all do your own activity.  There were some great classes offered from cooking to wellness in the amazing spa. We enjoyed the live nightly entertainment, a Broadway style show of Saturday night Fever, an Ice-skating show, piano bar, Movies at night on the deck, casino, and the club after hours where we danced the night away to a great DJ.

One thing that really worked well as a group is, one of friends gave us a magnetic dry erase board to put on the outside of our door, so instead of waiting on everyone, we could leave notes, saying we went to lunch or were out by the pool, or went to the club. This really worked well. A great tip for traveling as a group.  Being in a group whether it is 8 or 80 can cause anxiety because there are so many opinions and you can spend a lot of time trying to organize everyone.  This little magnetic board really eliminated that.  We all met for dinner in the evening and I must say food on the Royal Caribbean ship was exceptional.

A lot of people don’t understand why you are charged for tips either in advance or on your ship board account, but after receiving the great service I can see why. Everyone on board whether is be your cabin person, the reception/information desk attendant, the bartenders, or the wait staff, everyone gives 100%.  Now you can leave that little bit extra if you think someone went over and above.  So, it is wise if you have a favorite, to get their name, so that you can leave them an envelope when you depart.

There are also plenty of things to do in each port, whether you want to something exciting and adventurous, relax in town or on the beach or shop in the numerous little shops.  Each cruise line has their own excursions. A lot of passengers take these excursions while other, like us, utilized one of my vendors the run smaller more intimate excursions.  We Zip-lined and cave tubed in Belize, we took an underwater glass bottom boat and visited a jade museum in Roatan and road an ATV in Cozumel.  All without the crowds and big bus excursions.  Our private drivers were informative and even stopped for us if something along the way caught our eye.  All while guaranteeing, we get back to the ship on time. A great tip if you want to avoid the crowds.

Having all these choices made it easy for a group to do there own thing in port, regroup back on ship and share our experiences over a great drink, and if you didn’t want to leave the ship you could do that to and experience the ship with very few people on board.   Like I have said numerous times, something for everyone.

I hope this blog post helps you start thinking about getting your own group together, whether it be a couple of friends, a family reunion, some old classmates, a social group or a work or church group.  Traveling as a group can create some wonderful memories, that will last a lifetime.  My next blog will give you insight and some tips to a small group trip to Italy.  Remember travelling opens the heart and mind to new experiences in a big world that is there for you to explore.