AARP Member and Grand European Travel Guest Tom T. and his wife share highlights from their recent Grand Italia Guided Vacation including dancing in the hills of Sorrento and a special visit to Assisi.
A well-deserved retirement is definitely something to celebrate. And though we often discussed where we would go after my wife’s upcoming retirement as a Massachusetts high school guidance counselor, we could never resolve the when, where, or how. Finally, we decided it was time to search in earnest for the perfect trip and realized it had always been to our #1 dream destination — Italy.
Since neither of us had the opportunity to experience international travel, we felt that an escorted tour would be exactly the right option for us. Selecting Grand European Travel’s Grand Italia itinerary ensured they would handle all the travel logistics and enable us to totally enjoy the experience. Their association with AARP provided us with a high level of confidence and their itinerary covered much of what we wanted to see and experience in Italy, at a relaxed and easy pace.
We had never been on a tour like this and admit we were a bit nervous but Grand European helped ease our trepidation. Prior to departure for Italy, Grand European sent us a list of our co-travelers, who hailed from various states, coast to coast. We flew on a non-stop Alitalia flight to Rome that Grand European arranged from our home airport in Boston. As first glimpses of the Roman Aqueduct and ancient ruins came into view as we left the Rome airport and our knowledgeable tour director, Riccardo, explained their proud history, we found our apprehension quickly disappearing. It wasn’t long after we came together in our hotel, the Dei Borgia, as a group with Riccardo, that we felt a bond with our 24 other travelers.
After a pleasant dinner at the hotel, we had a quick evening tour of some of Rome’s stunning highlights. Riccardo enthusiastically pointed out architecture and statuary, while offering tips on money exchange and touring. His best piece of advice was take time to enjoy the sights, focus on the rich history, enjoy yourselves and each other. He urged us not to worry about getting the perfect photo of the Circus Maximus; rather take in the experience of standing before ancient remnants of the first Rome. We listened with fascination to the story of Romulus and Remus, wondering still if it was fact or myth. I admit we were also envious when we heard that the Rolling Stones recently held a concert, attended by 200,000 people, just below where we were standing!
The next day we were off to Vatican City and thanks to our tour, were able to skirt the already massive admission lines. A local tour guide walked us through the Sistine Chapel, and through the Vatican museum. We marveled at the amazing Pantheon, pagan temple of Emperor Hadrian. The fact that they still close the 40-foot high solid brass doors every night is testament to the endurance of the Roman empire and the treasures they left behind. We were awe- struck and fascinated by it all.
Bidding Rome ‘arrivederci’, we headed to Pompeii on our way to Sorrento. Getting a glimpse into life in Pompeii 2000 years ago, so well preserved, was remarkable. Our lodging in Sorrento was directly on the Bay of Naples with a view of Mount Vesuvius. We found the city of Sorrento to be one of alleyways and byways, but the best part of the city were the experiences with the locals. We especially enjoyed dinner in San Agata at a small family owned establishment Micco’s. Along with fabulous entertainment, I was able to dance with my wife high in the Sorrento hills – a memory I will never forget.
During our stay in Sorrento, we opted for two different excursions which we highly recommend, the first being the isle of Capri. Clear, aqua waters sparkled as we glided on a boat tour around the island. As we passed through the rock formation made famous by a James Bond movie, I felt like a movie star just being in this fantastic location. The funicular, a tram that transports people back and forth, brought us to the top of Capri where we meandered through beautiful shops and gardens. We savored a refreshing Capri lemon granita, in a town known for its lemons and limoncello.
The Amalfi Coast’s truly breathtaking vertical drop seemed almost impossible to negotiate. In fact, its immensity was so awe-inspiring we still had thoughts of it as we returned to Sorrento that evening for dinner with a local family. Like our host, Pasquale, his entire family lives and works on his land, and the heavenly dinner they served was a true garden to table experience atop the hills of Sorrento! Had we not been on such a well-planned escorted tour, I think this remarkable experience would have passed us by.
As an animal lover, the next stop on our travel itinerary was one I had looked forward to for a very long time, since St. Francis of Assisi holds a special place in my heart and life. An exquisitely beautiful location set upon a hill, our tour group, and I were able to attend Mass and visit St. Francis’ tomb. Departing Assisi through the Appenine Mountains, we traveled into the flatlands of The Po Valley where it seems most pastas originated. Continuing toward Venice, our day’s destination, we had lunch in Bologna, lovingly dubbed the cuisine capital of Italy.
Our two days in Venice were stuffed with adventure; getting lost in the Rialto, the Doges Palace, San Marco Square and of course, a romantic gondola ride.
Next stop was Lake Maggiore but there was so much we had the opportunity to see on the way! In Verona we visited the house of Capulet, standing beneath Juliet’s balcony. We walked the beautiful streets, barely noticing a light rain as we took in the sights. Heading to lunch across from the Colosseum, we noticed it was preparing to host an opera. In fact, the Colosseum, continues to be utilized as a venue for many outdoor musical events.
Arriving at the foot of the Alps in the Lago area, we toured Isola Bella, a summer residence of the Borromeo family, by boat. The rooms and gardens were exquisite, made even more interesting by the stories shared by our knowledgeable local tour guide. Spending two nights in a lovely hotel in the small town of Baveno, 15 miles from the Swiss border, my wife and I were inspired to try an excursion to the city of Milan. Totally worth dragging ourselves away from comfortable Baveno, we marveled at this city of beauty, politics and culture.
When we arrived in Florence, the magnificence of the city was immediately apparent. The incandescent colors and stately domes indicated that we were in for an extraordinary experience. An early evening walk with our tour director, Riccardo, brought us through parts of the city where Michaelangelo is buried, and the house in which Leonardo DaVinci may have painted the Mona Lisa. We meandered to the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest covered bridge with its many shops, street performers and gold merchants and along the Arno River, always abuzz with activity.
A local guide showed us through the Academy Museum, which holds Michaelangelo’s famous David. I did not expect that I could be overwhelmed with one more piece of art — but I was wrong. David’s beauty brought tears to my eyes.
We boarded a boat for LaSpezia early the next day which would bring us to the Cinque Terre. Mesmerized by the beauty of the steep rugged coast, we stopped along the way for lunch while enjoying views of the beautiful beaches. Taking the train back to LaSpezia, we praised Riccardo for his excellent planning and attention to detail, having worked diligently to provide us with every possible Italian experience. “The man with the yellow hat” as Riccardo became known to by our group, handled all the logistics seamlessly as we moved from location to location. Satiated by our splendid day, we returned to Florence for our last night in this region before heading back to Rome.
Making a quick detour in Sienna, we had one last order of gelato and cappuccino — and they never tasted so good! Our final Roman dinner was a wonderful 7-course meal and it came complete with the beautiful operatic voice of a young woman who serenaded us. We toasted Riccardo and our driver Archangelo — as well as each other — in a bittersweet farewell. The fact that this group of 26 travelers came together so seamlessly and completely for the experience of a lifetime is a testament to Grand European Travel. This trip exceeded all of our expectations. My wife and I are hooked. The only dilemma now is where to go next – Spain, France? I’m sure Grand European will help us sort it out.
This article first appeared in AARP’s Great Deal and Destination magazine and has been republished here with their permission.