Flying into Rome, out of Milan
Some travel plans you just have to make far in advance – it ‘s a long flight to Italy from California and we wanted to use airline award miles to fly business class.
Tip: American Airlines releases award seats 331 days in advance and there aren’t that many! If you get up at midnight you might be able to book the seats you want. Our trip this year was based on our award flights into Rome and out of Milan.
Best things about the trip
It’s Italy! Every day is a walk in history
The special tours were a highlight of the day
Worst things about the trip
The herd mentality of tour groups – stand aside or get trampled
Hard to find anything other than Italian food
Crowded buses on the Amalfi coast
Would I change anything?
Venice was hot and humid when we were there May 22-25. I’d bump the itinerary up to avoid that
Sleep in Italy – Rondanini Apartment, Piazza Rondanini 29, 7 nights in an apartment in the historic center near the Pantheon. This is a fantastic location and having an apartment was a great option for a week versus a hotel room.
Tip: Get the 3 day Roma Pass and save time and money! The first 2 sites are free and other entries at a reduced rate.
Special Tour: Colosseum Underground and Upper Level tour
The upper and lower level tour is a limited entry tour to the hypogeum (underground) and the upper level of the Colosseum and you need a reservation – the tours are limited to 25 people. With our Roma Pass and reservation number in hand we walked right up to the group entrance to the left of the long ticket line, let the guard know we had a tour reservation and the Roma Pass, and were let in without a hitch. Believe me, you see that long ticket line and you know how GREAT that is!
Tip: Call Pierrici directly from the US to get your reservation number, no need to pay the huge markup to go through Ticketitaly.com. Pierrici is the Cultural organization that handles Rome’s museum and monument ticketing – I called after midnight Pacific time and was on hold about 15 minutes. Paid the 9.50€ tour price (each) with my no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card (Capital One) and got our reservation number.
It got better…the upper and lower level tour was great! The underground part is interesting even though you are only in a very small area. Part of the talk described how the system of pulleys and levers worked to raise the cages of the animals to the arena floor. The system was easy to imagine because the holes where the pulley was man-powered were intact – the elevator number still inscribed on the metal facing of the hole.
The way to the restricted upper level passes through the exhibit section of the Colosseum – interesting to explore on your own after the tour. Fantastic views from the upper level made this part of the tour even more rewarding than the underground.
Red columns in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli were one of the entrances to the baths of Diocletian
Friday, Day 2 of the Roma Pass and …oh no – “sciopero” – a general strike
Thought we’d go to the Capitoline Museum instead of the National Museum at Palazzo Massimo, got there and were told the first floor was closed due to a general strike. The ticket agent didn’t know if the National Museum was affected so we walked up there, stopping at the Tourist Info office along the way. The TI guy said the strike would be over at 12:30 and the museums fully open at 1:00. Cool! While waiting for the National Museum to open, we went to the Baths of Diocletian across the street (the site is included in the National Museum Massimo ticket). This was our second “free” site with the Roma Pass.
Around the corner from the baths is the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli which was once part of the baths’ main hall. WOW – those immense columns from the baths are incorporated into the architecture of the church – and this was only a teeny part of the bath complex! Finished there, checked back at the National Museum and, bummer, still closed.
Palazzo Barbarini was our next stop in this area, a few blocks walk downhill and (yay!) was open. Then Capuchin Monk’s fascinating-creepy crypt of artful bones was a few blocks away.
Late afternoon and now what? … the Capitoline museum was open until 8 and with a short bus ride we’re back at the Capitoline. After a bit of explanation about the Roma Pass, the strike, and missing out on the Massimo Museum, the two agents agreed to give us a free entry – after all this day was a special day due to the strike and who would waste a free entry just to go to the Baths of Diocletian?
If you have time for only one museum in Rome, make it the Borghese Gallery. I love the Caravaggio’s but the super standouts here were the Bernini statues. You have to have a reservation – only 360 people are allowed into the gallery at a time in 2 hour timeslots. Checking your purse/bag/backpack is mandatory, so if you want to maximize your time inside get here early for your timeslot before the other 359 people are in the bag check line.
Tip: You can use the Roma Pass for entry to the Borghese Gallery, but you still have to make a reservation. Call from the states and bring your reservation number with you when you pick up your ticket.
The Catacombs and Appian Way
It’s kind of a hassle getting out to the Appian Way and Catacombs, but we didn’t go the last time we were here and it’s all about Ancient Rome, right? After a couple of bus changes we got on bus #118 to one of the biggest catacombs – San Callisto. All the catacombs close between 12 and 2 which gave us time for a relaxing lunch on the shady patio of the Appia Antica Caffè before seeing the San Domitilla catacombs. If you have time for only one Catacomb tour, my vote is for San Domitilla – a much more intimate experience than busy San Callisto.
Tip: Walk back through the San Callisto site and take bus #118 back to town, we didn’t do this and ended up waiting an hour for bus #716 at the Piazza Navigatori stop down the road from San Domitilla.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The line to get into the Basilica looks daunting, but don’t let the people trying to sell tours talk you out of line – it moves very fast and in no time at all you are through the security check and inside St. Peters. We had a free Rick Steve’s MP3 audio tour to guide us around, but there is a tour desk (at the top of the stairs before you enter) if you want to pay 20€ for one of their guided tours.
The Vatican Museums
Highlights: Statue Garden, Rafael Rooms, Sistine Chapel.
Lowlights: Getting run down by huge tour groups with video cams glued to their eyeballs. After all, they go through so fast they HAVE to video everything so they can view at home what they were supposed to be seeing in person!
Tip: We went on Tuesday at 11:15 and there wasn’t much of a line to get in, in fact we had to step OUT of line to finish our “wait-in-line” panini! Make sure you leave enough time for the Sistine Chapel, they start prodding people to leave about 5:10 and close the doors promptly behind you at 5:30. Yes, we were here all day.
In Search of Caravaggio
Bad boy Caravaggio is one of my favorite Renaissance artists and there a lots of Caravaggio’s in Rome. There are 6 (7?) in the Galleria Borghese and others in these galleries – Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Doria Pamphili, Capitoline Museum and the Vatican Museum. See them in the environment they were painted for in the these churches – San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agostino, Santa Maria del Popolo. Can you guess which ones we saw? …Right – ALL of them.
Great Eats: Went to a great pizzeria near our apartment a couple of times – Taverna Le Coppelle. Several places off of Campo Fiori have “Happy Hour” with terrific appetizers for 10€. The best gelato: Gelateria Giolitti, Rome’s oldest Gelateria.
Travel: High speed train from Rome to Naples, with a change to the Circumvesuviana local train to get to Sorrento
The Amalfi Coast
Sorrento, Pompeii, Napoli, Herculaneum, Ravello
Hotel Palazzo Guardati, off of Piazza Tasso, the center of the city.
5 nights on the Amalfi coast with a base in Sorrento
Highlights: Pompeii – (1) Villa dei Misterie; (2) an impromptu behind the scenes tour with a local for the price of a pizza. Naples – The mosaics and frescoes in the National Archeology museum.
Lowlights: Naples – garbage piled high in the streets, the people can’t do anything about it because the mafia controls waste management.
Pompeii, that was the motivation for the Amalfi Coast part of our trip. After 5 1/2 hours we’d hit all the highlights of Pompeii that we could and still had energy for more – when along came a man who appeared to be looking for someone. “Francese?” he asked – no, Inglese. We went our way and ultimately ran into him again. Another brief dialog in Italian ended with “vedere il cavallo?” (do you want to see the horse?) Sì, Sì! – “Andiamo!” And off we went with him on our own little behind the scenes tour!
Tip: We ended up getting the 3 day Campania Arte Card pass and went to Herculaneum too. The Campania Arte Card pass saves money and hassle if you’re going to Pompeii and the Archeology museum in Naples – it includes transportation on the Circumvesuviana train and the Naples bus and metro. We got ours at the Pompeii site. With just those 2 sites you break even but save the hassle and lines to get site and transportation tickets. If you go to Herculaneum also you save money.
Prepared for a day of lines…Bus to Amalfi and Ravello, ferry back to Sorrento
No problem getting a seat on the 8:30am bus to Amalfi, but it was standing room only as more passengers were picked up along the route. From Amalfi we bought a round-trip local bus ticket to Ravello and had time to kill…and wait for the bus ride up the hill. Barely managed a seat on that bus – the aisle was filled with people standing for the 15-20 minute ride.
Ahh Ravello – it was worth it, lovely and no crowds. Walked around Villa Cimbrone gardens and had a pizza lunch with a gorgeous view on the terrace at Villa Maria nearby. Very relaxing.
Getting back to Amalfi was a different story! We queued up for the 3:05 bus and waited…and waited. Many people formed impromptu liasons and filled the 3 or 4 taxi vans that lined up near the bus stop – conveniently close to the time the bus was supposed to be there. Hmmm, methinks the bus delay is a common occurrence here. Eventually an open air tour bus came by and, being quick to spot an opportunity, I found our 7.20€ “Unico Costiera” ticket gets a ride on this tour bus! Hustled into the last seats on this bus and whew! We made it back to Amalfi in time for the 4:30 ferry back to Sorrento. Thank goodness, we were sick of buses at that point.
Tip:The Amalfi Coast local bus costs 7.20€ for an all day multi use transport ticket “Unico Costiera”, pick it up at the Tabacchi in the train station in Sorrento.
Tip: If you go to Ravello, either plan it for a weekday when more local buses are running (we went on Sunday), or save the ONE ride you get on the open air Amalfi tour bus in case you need it for a trip from Ravello back to Amalfi.
Gelato: Gelateria Primavera, gelato and… canoli! Gelato was good, but not as good as Giolitto in Rome. Canoli was GREAT, but I still like the canoli at Cafe Zucchero in San Diego with the little bit of orange on it.
Italy Driving Tour – Sorrento to Tuscany and on to Venice
Easy drive from Sorrento to Umbria
Travel: Taking the train from Sorrento to Orvieto looked like it would be more of a hassle than renting a car in Sorrento and just driving up. Besides, I wanted to see Hadrian’s villa and the A1 from Sorrento to Orvieto goes right by Tivoli. Our reservation was for a nifty Peugot 206 diesel, picked it up in Sorrento and dropped it off in Venice. Drove about 3 hours to Hadrian’s Villa on the way to the Orvieto.
Tivoli – Hadrian’s Villa
The gardens at Villa d’Este are closed on Mondays so missed that. Just as well, we were at Hadrian’s place for 2.5 hours! It’s a big place and we both enjoyed it a lot. Get the audio guide and follow the numbers on the map.
Hotel Duomo, in the center of the historical area, steps from the famous cathedral. Nice that they will park your car in the hotel’s private garage, 10€ additional.
2 nights in Umbria
Orvieto sits on top of of huge tufa cliff and has a network of underground passages in use from Etruscan times. Orvieto was a great place to visit and we are proof that you can see just about every site in one day.
Tip:The Carte Unica (tourist card) gets you into the main sites and saves lots of money. Recommend going to the Underground Tour first, the interesting history sets the stage for the other sites you’ll see in Orvieto.
Highlights: The Underground tour and the Chapel of San Brizio frescoes by Signorelli.
Great Eats: Trattoria La Pergola – Fantastic! First time we ever had gnocchi – we split the “gnocchi con pancetta, spinaci, salsa di tartufo” (gnocchi with bacon, spinach, truffle sauce). Game night – Steve had “cinghiale allo cacciatora” (wild boar) and I had “petto d’anatra al semi di finocchio selvatico” (duck breast with fennel seeds). All with a nice bottle of Orvieto white. 48€. Yes, this was worth writing down. Should have come back here the second night.
Travel: An hour from Orvieto to Montepulciano
Garmin Nuvie 1370T, we love you!
Unexpected surprise – it took less time than the ViaMichelin estimates on all of our drives! We loved having the Nuvi gps navigate for us, didn’t use the map at all.
Albergo il Marzocco, 2 nights in Montepulciano inside the gate in the historical area. Nice that parking is included – reserved spaces outside the hotel or in their small garden parking space. Finding the right way to drive to the hotel took a little advance reconnaissance on foot.
Montepulciano is a nice place to visit for an afternoon, it’s also the steepest hill town we walked – all uphill from the hotel to the Duomo! We really enjoyed Albergo il Marzocco as a base for the short time we were in the area.
From Montepulciano it’s a short drive to the La Foce garden for the 4:00 tour. This interesting tour describes how Iris and Antonio Origo created the estate and farm starting in 1924. It’s all about the garden and views from this famous estate.
Tip: Try a later tour, there were so many people for 4:00 they split the group into 2 and we missed out on a full hour.
Driving tour around Val d’Orcia, a Unesco World Heritage Site
Val d’Orcia is truly a beautiful place. Our drive was paced around the stop at The Abbey of Sant’Antimo for their 12:45 service with Gregorian Chanting. If you miss the service, don’t worry – a recording of chanting is played continuously through their excellent sound system. We spent some time enjoying the minimalist Benedictine abbey and drove on, stopping at lots of towns along the way to enjoy the views, and finally Pienza for a tour of the Piccolomini Palace.
Drive – Montepulciano – San Quirico d’Orcia – St. Antimo – Rocca d’Orcia – Bagno Vignoni – Montichiello – Pienza – Montepulciano
Great Eats: The sign above the door says Cucina Tipica Toscana, but the name of this restaurant is Trattoria il Marzocco. First time we had “Pici” – now we are converts, Pici with duck sauce for the primi, for secondi, Chinghiale with wine sauce and cervo with something great. Centini 2010 Toscana white. We ate here both nights in Montepulciano. Il Marzocco is the name of the lion on the huge column inside the Porto de Prato entrance to Montepulciano. Symbol of the Medici’s, it faces toward Florence.
Travel: 2 hours from Montepulciano to San Gimignano
(san jee mee NYAH noh)
B&B Palazzo al Torrione, the hotel is inside the city walls, parking is in lot #1 “Guibileo” for 6€ per day.
1 night in San Gimignano
Pretty Tuscan hill town
The reputation of San Gimignano as Italy’s “best-preserved medieval city” and seeing for myself the fantastical landscape of those 15 medieval towers really made me want to visit – despite it’s other reputation of being overrun by tourists. I didn’t know how we were going to squeeze it in but ultimately decided it was a good idea to stop here overnight instead of doing a day trip all the way from Montepulciano.
San Gimignano was GREAT! We really enjoyed it, a very pretty place.
Great Eats: La Taverna del Granducato. Three words – Truffle Olive Oil. Sprinkle liberally over Gnocchetti Tartufati. Gotta get some at home.
Travel: 1.5 hours from San Gimignano to Pisa
Building on marshy clay – What were they thinking?
We found it took so little time to drive anywhere that we decided to make a stop in Pisa on the way to Lucca. Great idea! It really was something to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. All the buildings are leaning a little bit, but that bell tower is quite a sight. It’s a beautiful structure, pictures don’t do it justice. Didn’t go up the tower, did kick around the Duomo and Baptistry for awhile.
Travel: Half hour from Pisa to Lucca
Albergo Diana, just inside the city walls, private parking near the hotel for 5€/day
1 night in Lucca
Pleasant afternoon on the walls
Lucca was another city I really wanted to see. The wall fortifications are tree lined paths where people ride their bicycles and enjoy the view. In fact, bikes are everywhere inside the walls instead of cars. The streets of Lucca were packed with people on Saturday, then at night – where did they all go?
Travel: 3 hour drive to Piazzale Roma in Venice to return the car before the office closes at 1:00 pm. → The rental return was unbelievably easy – drove to the top of the parking structure, elevator down to the office, signed return document, handed the keys to the agent and walked away.
Palazzo Guardi Venice, Dorsoduro area, near Museo dell’Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim Collection
4 nights in Venice
Special Tour: Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries
The Secret Itineraries tour of Doge’s palace was a fun behind the scenes tour – you need a reservation, the tour is limited to 25 people. You can buy the ticket online and skip all the lines. Pick up an audioguide before the tour so you don’t have to come back downstairs for it after the tour.
Tip: I bought the ticket online at the 12€ reduced rate for people who have the St. Mark’s museum pass, and bought the museum pass when at the Correr museum. Interesting, the ticket agents at the Doge’s Palace weren’t interested in seeing or validating the museum pass we presented – they just wanted the Secret Itineraries receipt. Looks like I could have skipped buying the museum pass and skipped the Correr museum, which wasn’t too memorable anyway. The Secret Itineraries ticket gets you the tour plus you can wander around the Doge’s Palace on your own before and after the tour. If you want to go to the Correr and Archeology Museum then you DO need the museum pass.
On our last day in Venice we gave our museum passes to a couple from Boston we met in line at the Campanile – the Doge’s Palace entry wasn’t used – they were happy to see the Doge’s Palace for free!
Special Tour: Basilica tour led by a Docent (free)
Basilica di San Marco – pre-book an entry time online and skip that long line (1 Euro service charge each person). Meet inside the entrance door at 11:00 for a free guided tour of the Basilica. This hour long tour was great! Our docent, Laura, was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. There were only about 10-12 people in the group and we got to step inside the roped off areas, away from the continuous line of people and tour groups.
• Hanging out watching the traffic in the Grand Canal near the Fish Market – and a men’s choral group starting signing! Warming up to their reception they moved into the great acoustics of the Pescheria space and entertained with a few traditional songs before heading off wherever they were going.
• Touring the Frari church we were treated to a classical concert rehearsal filling this awesome space with music – voice, string, organ and oboe. Wonderful!
Allegories of vices and virtures carved in wood by Francesco Pianta in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Last day in Venice and we decided to go to the Accademia – walked up to the ticket booth and found that they were closing between 12 and 3:00 for a meeting! That would have given us only an hour in the museum. Instead of the Accademia we went to the Campanile and then over to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The Scuola is referred to as Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel – two floors with more than 50 paintings on walls and ceilings – but the stunning carved wood sculptures by Francesco Pianta turned out to be the highlight for us.
Venice to Milan for our last night in Italy
Travel: 2 hours, 35 minutes on the high speed train from Venice to Milan Centrale, 50 minutes on a bus to get out to Malpensa airport.
Lessons learned from our last night in Milan in 2000 was “always have an exit strategy”. Our flight back to the States was at 10:30 the next morning – and we’d spent time in Milan before – so we booked a night at First Hotel 1 km from the airport with a shuttle service to pick us up and get us back to the airport. It wasn’t the cheapest place near the airport but the idea was to have a good night’s sleep before the long trip home. The king size bed jiggled like jello so it turned out the best thing about the stay was the great food at the trattoria next door.
Great Eats: La Quercia – next door to the hotel, closes at 10:00pm. REAL tiramisu!
Tools, Toys, Technology and Gadgets
- Quad band cell phones
- Extra batteries
- chargers and car charger
- One of our phone chargers stopped working, we had backup!
- Tip: T-Mobile – if you have T-Mobile you can get great discounted rates on international calls made from your mobile phone from the U.S. – $5 monthly fee
- Garmin Nuvi 1370T GPS – this one has Europe maps included – LOVE IT!
- Sansa Clip MP3 players
- Creative EP-630 Noise Isolation earphones
- Italy audio tours – free mp3 downloads from Italy Guides and Rick Steves
- Italy plug adapters
Handy Resource List
- Phone Resources
- Calls from the US to Italy – 011-39-area code + phone number
- If you have T-Mobile, for $5.00 monthly fee you get GREAT discounted rates for international calls. My call to Pierrici in Rome to make reservations for the upper and lower level Colosseum tour cost $1.47 for 21 minutes, to the Borghese Gallery for a reservation was $.28 for 4 minutes, and Sleep-in-Italy to confirm was $.14 for 2 minutes. Easy.
- Uno Mobile Italy – Italy SIM card – CellularAbroad.com via Amazon
- Didn’t have any problems with this SIM card, didn’t use the voicemail, had enough minutes – didn’t have to refill account
- Calls from the US to Italy – 011-39-area code + phone number
- Transportation Resources
- ROME – Rome metro and city railway routes (PDF)
- ROME – Rome metro and bus interactive route planner – single use ticket is good for 75 minues after validation and can be used for unlimited bus transfers, only 1 metro transfer
- DRIVING – viamichelin.com – Michelan maps, route planner, route finder UK and Europe
- CAR RENTAL – kemwel.com – Car rental, used this one, zero insurance deductible is always included, it is a sister-company of AutoEurope and a little less expensive (“No insurance excess” means no deductible)
- Tip: If you rent for 5, 6 or 7 days days it’s still the weekly rate
- TRAIN – trenitalia.com Italy’s national train system
- TRAIN – vesuviana.it The “Circumvesuviana” (Amalfi Coast local train)
- BUS – sitabus.it The Amalfi coast bus schedule
- Tip: You WILL want to know what F, H, G, S, and N means when standing on that corner looking at the bus schedule!
- FERRY – Amalfi Coast ferry from Amalfi to Sorrento (alicost.it – GESCAB)
- Tip: Finding accurate ferry info online for our May trip was impossible, I could not determine if there was a ferry running between Amalfi and Sorrento in May. BUT, while in Sorrento we heard there was a ferry service between Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento. The Tourist Info (TI) office in Sorrento inside the Foreigners Club has a current schedule. Their opening hours are limited, but they left a current bus and ferry schedule handout outside their info window. The ferry times were limited in May, the last ferry from Amalfi to Sorrento was at 4:30 pm. You can buy the 14€ ticket at their ticket booth on the main pier in Amalfi (same area all the buses operate out of)
- Culture Resources
- Rome, Lazio, and Campania museum, tickets and other info on the official site – www.pierreci.it
- Colosseo – phone number to call for tickets for the Upper and Lower level tour
- Roma Pass – 3 day pass activated at the time of the first entry to a museum, expires midnight of the 3rd day. First 2 sites are free (included in pass) and you get to skip the lines. After the first 2 free sites, museum tickets are discounted and you have to go to the ticket office. Remember most museums are closed Monday.
- Vatican museum and Sistine chapel advance tickets – We did NOT get advance tickets for the Vatican Museums. Went on Tuesday at 11:15 am and the line was very short. Brought a panini to eat while waiting in line and at the door had to let others by so we could finish it!
- Rome, Lazio, and Campania museum, tickets and other info on the official site – www.pierreci.it
- Accomodation Resources
- SleepInItaly.com Used them for booking the Rondanini 29 (Rome) apartment
- The booking was super easy on their website! Called the Rondanini manager from the airport to give him an idea when we would be at the apartment, and called again when outside the apartment. In minutes he met us there and the apartment was ours for the week. Loved our stay here.
- Booking.com – used them for booking all accommodations except for Rome, Montepulciano and Venice. Easy cancellation if plans change
Travel, Education, and History
Travel has a great bonus – an education. Learning the history of a people and a place turns a trip into more than a photo album at the end.
- SleepInItaly.com Used them for booking the Rondanini 29 (Rome) apartment