ITALIAN ESCAPADE
INSIGHT VACATIONS

Italian Escapade is a 13 day tour of Italy. I also had an extra day in Rome at the start to get over any jetlag and five extra days at the end to do some independent travel.

ITALY - TRAVEL LOG

Saturday
Apr 30
I landed in Rome after a long flight on the 30th April and took the "Leonardo Express" train to the Central Termini Station in Central Rome (14 Euro from platform 2). To use the Trains or Buses in Italy you must first buy a ticket at a tobacconist which is valid for a period of time. You then must have it validated at one of the yellow ticket machines before you get on (or on the bus). Evidently they see it as bad form for the drivers to handle money - the same principles apply when buying food at an autogrill. You must first queue to select and pay for your food before queuing again to receive it.

I found my hotel (The Montecarlo) easily near the train station and checked in. The rooms were small but comfortable with padded walls (insulation on the outside along with wiring as it was an old building). That night I had a prosciutto panini for tea from a street vendor (must use cash as they don't have credit cards facilities).
Sunday
May 1st
This day was the first day of the Insight tour set aside so people can get in and meet the tour director.

That morning I started with breakfast at the hotel before booking out and proceeded to find the Una Hotel - the Hotel used by the insight tour. Despite being 10 minutes walking distance from the Montecarlo, it took me 1.5 hours to find the Una! It was very stylish and the signage was not easily decipherable - a better map would have been handy. After leaving my luggage, I set off on foot to explore Rome starting with the Forum. I walked from 10:15am until 4:30pm covering the length and breadth of the city visiting all the sights I hoped to see plus more and taking 239 photos! It was Pope John Paul II's Beatification and much of the city was closed to traffic, which made walking easy.

I meet the rest of the Insight tour for welcome drinks at 4:45pm. After the drinks we proceeded to have dinner at a local restaurant. They tormented their patrons with live music in the hope they could sell their CD.
Monday
May 2nd
The plan for the day was to visit the Vatican and Colosseum.

We set off in the morning and visited the Vatican museum with the Sistine chapel. The Pope had closed St. Peter's and the square was crowded with pilgrims, so we rescheduled our visit to St Peters until the end of our tour, when we were to return to Rome.

We then visited the Colosseum, having some free time inside. That afternoon I continued to explore the city on foot and doing some shopping. That evening we had a walking tour of Rome starting with the Trevi fountain and continuing on to the Pantheon and finishing off at the Piazza Navona. A group of five Katerine, Natasha, Carolyn, Cheryl and myself found a restaurant and ordered dinner. I had pasta with truffles in sauce (Fettuccine Tarfate) which was a meal I was keen to have. Later we had 'Tartufa' (a kind of thick chocolate biscuit/cake crushed and served with cream and a wafer) a Roman specialty desert.
Tuesday
May 3rd
The tour left Rome and headed up north up Tuscany toward Florence.

This morning we had breakfast and boarded the bus for Siena. The bus was luxurious with plenty of leg room and large clean windows. We arrived at Siena and walked into the old town inside the city walls. I purchased some panforte (the local specialty cake) and some Gelato before it rained! When I was in Siena with my family, we had panforte. It rained then too!

We then headed on to Florence where we were skillfully dropped off in a no-stopping area and snuck through to Santa Croce Square to first see a jewellers shop. We had free time to explore, so I made my way past Signoria Square through to the Duomo.

That evening we had dinner at a Tuscan winery restaurant. Another gaggle of 'Italy has got talent' hopefuls tried their hand at singing, with the obligatory offering their CD as an end. Evidently the catering business in Italy is seen as a natural progression to a career in the music industry.... singing classes are a less popular alternative. The theme was continued on the bus to the dismay of anyone left sober.
Wednesday
May 4th
Florence continued, with San Gimignano excursion.

Today we visited the Academy Gallery which houses the real David. We continued on through the back streets of Florence from the Duomo to Santa Croce Square to see leather work. I opted out so to visit the Ponte Vecchio and revisit Signoria Square. It rained again!

We meet up at 1pm to take the bus to San Gimignano, a small Tuscan hill top town. It was an awesome sight. Narrow medieval streets with towers and fortifications giving way to spectacular views of the region. The towers originally had stables at their ground level and front doors were high off the ground to prevent attackers gaining entry. Living high up in their towers the family could defend itself as only one attacker at a time could fit up the tower staircase. Tonight dinner was at the hotel.
Thursday
May 5th
We left Florence and visited Pisa before continued North to Baveno on Lake Maggiore.

An early start as we left Florence and visited Pisa. We were taken by a shuttle cart (cunningly disguised as a train, although I wasn't fooled so easily) to the leaning tower and all the dozens of stalls that lined the route.

Leaving Pisa we headed north passed the marble quarries at Carrara and out of Tuscany. We had planned to stop at Milan enroute, but to save time we visited Lugano in Switzerland. My camera battery was really low at this stage and I went looking for a spare, but without success. I did however discover a confectionery shop that made its own chocolates.

We continued on to Baveno to the narrow rooms of the hotel Dino, where I immediately proceeded to lock myself out on my balcony. I felt like I was starring in an episode of Mr Bean. Dinner was in the hotel which had spectacular views of Lake Maggiore.
Friday
May 6th
On Lake Maggiore with an excursion to the Borromean island of Isola Bella.

This morning saw a boat ride to the island of Isola Bella to visit the palace and gardens. The guide was very entertaining and his wit and banter stole the show from the palace he was showing.

The rest of the day was free for relaxing. I located a supermarket for some much needed supplies and package up some unused clothing to send home, but found the post office closed for siesta. Being a Friday it didn't manage to reopen! That evening was a dine around opportunity where we selected a restaurant to dine at (again great food, great wine, great company, and with luck on our side... no singing).
Saturday
May 7th
Leaving the Italian Lake district we headed south to Milan and east to Verona enroute to our destination of Venice.

We visited Milan where we saw the cathedral, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping centre, opera house and statue of Galileo. We passed the Castello Sforzesco enroute and during our free time, I attempted to find it again on foot, but turned back as I was running low on time.

The tour continued on to Verona where we visited Juliet's balcony and on down to the Piazza Bra with the Roman arena and city walls.

Following Verona we passed by Soave, home of Scaligero castle. The castle being made famous by the local winery. We continued on to Venice where we stayed on Venice itself. My previous visit we stayed on the mainland and traveled to Venice during the day. On arriving I immediately was locked out of my room when a porter pushed past the narrow corridor (Mr Bean's adventure strikes again). Before dinner we had a tour of the Grand Canal, sampling peach champagne (Bolini) as part of the somewhat edited "Magical Venice" excursion, immediately followed by a gondola ride. It was all very rushed as these rides were scheduled for the following day, but the authorities had closed much of Venice in preparation of the Pope's visit. That evening after dinner, I went walking to see how far I could go before the police turned me back. I walked without a map over the Rialto bridge and on to St Marks Square. I was not stopped at all, although I did see a large police presence. I returned to my hotel across from the train station at about 11:30pm.
Sunday
May 8th
Venice at leisure. Unfortunately the trip varied from the itinerary here because of the Popes visit had close the cafes and restaurants in St Marks square.

After breakfast I had an hour before our first excursion, so I went for a walk back to the Rialto bridge. On my return I took a wrong turn and just got back in time to slip in with the tour before it left for Murano. We visited the island of Murano to witness glass blowing and had the opportunity to purchase some beautiful items. They were very expensive and some pieces alone cost more than the tour. We visited the island because the Pope was planning to visit St Marks square around lunch time and thus the Murano shop behind St Marks square was closed.

That afternoon was free to explore. I left St Marks square before the Pope arrived, as it was getting crowded and the police were checking everyone who entered. I spent my time shopping between the square and the Rialto bridge instead. The Magical Venice excursion was to have been scheduled for the evening and would have given us an opportunity to eat at a cafe in St Marks square, but we had had to compromise. Those on the Borano excursion had dinner there whilst I had take-aways from a street vender (very nice though). I felt I nearly got away with my pigeon italian, but resorted to some english and hand signals instead. The street vendor had an impromptu amature street entertainer miming and mispronouncing every second word. He may have seen better in his day, but he stuck with it to get his hard earned money and fend me off with a hot sandwhich.
Monday
May 9th
Leaving Venice we head south to Ravenna before continuing on to Assisi.

Leaving Venice we drove down to Ravenna to visit the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo and sample the Raviolli from the local restaurateur.

We continued on to the medieval Umbrian hill top town of Assisi. The town is dominated by the castle Rocca Maggiore on top of the hill and the two Basilicas (Saint Frances and Saint Mary of the Angels) in the town. Like the hill towns of Tuscany, Assisi is a picture postcard location with stunning architecture and hill top views of the surrounding countryside. The use of local pink stone gives Assisi its own flavour. In the piazza was the town's sole Roman temple - the temple of Minerva which has since been converted into a church.

In Umbria a building can have a smaller door beside the main entrance, called the 'door of the dead'. This was where deceased people would be passed out and the door would then be blocked over. In Tuscany a similar entrance was used by the father of the bride when passing his newly wed daughter into the house. It too, was bricked over after use, so that the bride could not be returned.
Tuesday
May 10th
We set fourth from Assisi and head on down to Sorrento.

This was our longest leg on the road. We arrived in Sorrento and immediately set off on two smaller buses along the Amalfi coast drive to Positano. Spectacular views of shear cliffs suspended over the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Our scenically located hotel had spectacular views of the cliffs dropping to the sea and beyond to Mount Vesuvius. I went exploring the area and located a supermarket.
Wednesday
May 11th
Sorrento and the Island of Capri.

I skipped Capri, instead taking the train to Herculaneum and Pompeii. I took the train where after some hunting around I found the scavi (ruins) where I spent 2.5 hours exploring. There were various school groups there and people keen to practice their italian on my English. I carried on to Pompeii where I spent a further 4 hours investigating in the cobbled streets. Pompeii was more spread out than Herculaneum and it took longer getting around with greater distance between sights. Visiting the site independantly meant I was given a map and guide book for self guiding. I took the train back to Sorrento (had to head back a few stops and get on the train heading the other direction) and the toilets at the train stations are in worse repair than the excavations.

I again tried to post my parcel of clothing home, but was informed that I would need to take it to the post office in the town some 40 minutes walk from our scenically located hotel. I opted to take it with me to Rome instead.
Thursday
May 12th
Leaving Sorrento head north to visit Pompeii and up past the Allied war cemetery at Monticasino and on to Rome.

The tour visited Pompeii for 1.5 hours and concentrated on the south west corner of the site where the greatest concentration of public buildings are. Going by tour group meant they guided you to the sights and we were not given the maps or self guide books I had received the previous day. After Pompeii we visited the cemetery at Monticasino before continuing on to Rome.

We got in to Rome and proceeded to the Vatican to see St Peters Basilica for a very rushed visit (as it was closed when we were originally scheduled to see it). It was a hot 29 degrees, just as it was when I first visited the Vatican on our family trip.

Our Rome hotel was the Sheraton, where a number from our tour had their room bookings messed up. We all went for our final dinner at yet another restaurant featuring musicians who aspired to be catering staff. Our driver Mario could only be out certain number of hours per day, so we were hurried back to the hotel for a drink and chat.
Friday
May 13th
Our group of five had breakfast for the last time and we said goodbye to Katherine and Natasha. Carolyn, Cheryl and myself were going to the train station so we decided to share a cab. I again attempted to post my parcel of clothes I had been carrying since May 6th in Braveno. This time after 45 minutes of delaying, measuring weighing and getting me to write the contents value etc on 7 pieces of paper the staff at the hotel informed me that it is illegal to post goods of a personal nature to New Zealand. Once at the train station Carolyn helped me post it from there.

I took the train to Grosseto where I had 2.5 hours to wait for the bus to Sorano. That bus actually turned into three buses as I had to change twice to get to my destination. I finally arrived in Sorano, being dropped at the centre of town at 7:30pm. I stayed at Orsini Castle at the Hotel Della Fortezza which was back up the hill (carrying your own bags is one of the down sides to independent travel). The castle had no restaurant, so I went exploring and found a place in the town. The town is very small and there may have only been three or four eating establishments!
Saturday
May 14th
There was no hot water for a shour! I checked out after breakfast and made my way to the bus stop. There were 8 buses servicing the town per day, but I was there on a weekend and three of them departed around 7:30am, so I had to wait until lunch time for the next bus. Sorano is to small to have taxi's or tourist information (I was getting worried). The bus took me to Pitignano another picturesque medieval hill top town. I had an hour and a half there to explore before the adjoining bus would come for Grosseto, so I lugged my bags around for a photo shot or two.

I Finally arrived at Grosseto and requested a train to Volterra. I needed to change to a bus when I got to Cecina which was okay but the details on the ticket (Campiget_m) did not match the train (Pisa) nor did the train match the bin (track number). After guessing that the train to Pisa could be the right one I jumped on and after 30 minutes was happy to see I was in deed heading in the right direction. Finding a route map on the train, I found I was just one stop from Cecina. Once there I left the station and found a bus for Volterra - luckily it was the right one and my ticket was valid. I had to change buses at Salina and arrived in Volterra.

Volterra is another medieval hill top town bigger than Sorano, but not big enough to have its own taxi service. It is currently riding a waive of popularity due to the 'New Moon' film being filmed there. I hauled my bags a few kms down hill and finally found the hotel. It was big modern rooms, friendly english speaking staff, free maps and free internet. I set fourth to find food and start exploring!
Sunday
May 15th
After breakfast I set out for more exploration photographing the sights I saw at night, this time in daylight. The weather changed and rained which lead to more dramatic photography featuring dark clouds over castles and churches.
Monday
May 16th
Another day, another train ride. I hauled my bags up hill again to the bus stop and headed back to Cecina for my train to Rome. After a few hours we pulled up in Rome's central termini train station. I found my hotel easily and checked in. I went out to photograph the sights that I had missed the first time I was here. Grabbing a quick feed from the station I then retired for the night.
Tuesday
May 17th
I intended visiting Ostia Antica but this required a metro ride and a train ride, so spent my time revisiting Rome at an easier pace.

I then ventured to the Spanish steps to see Ed and Tanya from last years Egypt trip. We had a quick dinner and I took them to the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castle Saint Angleo and Saint Peters at night. I returned to my hotel via some of the sights for some night time photography. This was my last opportunity to see them.
Wednesday
May 18th
My last day in Italy. I had to check out by 10am so made my way to the train station and back to the airport via the Leonardo Express (platform 27) which is a long walk from the main terminal! I arrived at the airport to find the check-in desk being used by another airline! I was _that_ early!!! After two hours I was able to check my bags in. There was a very pushy rude Greek family before me, to my dismay I was to sit next to them in the plane! (continued on the Greece travel log page...)

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