ITALY, 2004

Grand European

Day 1, Tuesday, October 5 USA - Rome
Last minute laundry and packing, than call a taxi at noon to catch 12:30 shuttle to the airport. I've finally found information to show that by now I've accumulated enough flight miles to upgrade the first flight to Business Class. Much nicer - though still "LateHansa". Overnight flight to Rome. (In-Flight meals rather than snacks since I'm in Business Class)

Lufthansa LH 441 Houston - Frankfurt3:50 PM - 8:50 AM10:00

(Darn it, stuck with LateHansa again!)

20 minutes late arrival (as usual) so barely time to make the next flight. Frankfurt airport doesn't have enough 'gates' so they park the planes out in a parking area then we take a bus (3 miles to the wrong terminal of course, meaning a very long - 1 mile or so walk/run to the correct gate) whereupon we take another long bus ride out to our next flight. I've had the same situation every time I've gone through Frankfurt. I "hate" this airport!!!

Day 2, Wednesday, October 6 Arrive Rome

Lufthansa LH 3842Frankfurt - Rome9:55 AM - 11:40 AM1:45

12:50 total flying time. In-Flight Snacks - 4 oz. soda and small package of munchies.

After late (35 minutes) arrival, transfer to the hotel (long slow drive in Rome traffic). This evening a "Welcome Reception" (hope they have something edible - yes, but not much) with the Tour Director - Gloria. None of the close-by ATMs will accept my ATM card (I didn't bring much cash) but Gloria has a friend who comes to the reception and will convert cash. $1US = .78Euro. Mediterraneo Hotel. Decent hotel, passable location … and the only air conditioned hotel on the trip. It's still hot in southern Italy. 7 hour time zone difference between here (and all through Italy) and home.

Day 3, Thursday, October 7 Rome
Off at 7:15 so as to get in line for the Sistine Chapel. A full day in Rome to enjoy this mecca of art and history! Foggy and cloudy until noon - no pictures. This morning experience a very special, privately guided tour of the priceless collection of art and treasures found in the Sistine Chapel (we're jammed in like sardines with the Italian Gestapo yelling "Silencio" at about 3-5 minute intervals) and Vatican Museum. See the beautiful frescoes created by Michelangelo, Perugino and Botticelli and marvel at the unique ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, surely one of Michelangelo's greatest achievements (they finally finished cleaning it so no scaffolding this time).

On the way to the next stop, we go part of the way via a 'moving sidewalk.' Some "idiot" in front of us has someone in a wheel chair - illegal, at least in the US to take on a moving sidewalk. They have 'locked' the wheels on the chair and forget to release them so when they get to the end of the walkway, the wheels won't move. Then everyone behind them start piling up in a chain-reaction crash. Only one person goes down, but there are some injuries - including someone stepping on my right foot. I'm condemned to limping for the next few days.

Visit St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the Christian world, and then continue to the famous Colosseum, site of gladiatorial combats and early Christian martyrdom, and the (drive past without slowing down) Roman Forum. Continue via the Circus Maximus (without stopping) before returning to our hotel for an afternoon at leisure, time to try to get an HRC shirt for K - hot 30 minute walk each way. Rumors that Alitalia Airlines has filed for bankruptcy. Some tour members are booked with them. (BB - decent but in a totally crammed room - definitely not large enough for 3 tour groups, optional excellent dinner) I like Rome much better in the evenings - different "atmosphere" and not as crowded with touristas.

Option: Rome - Fountains and Piazzas of Rome with Dinner. Do as the Romans do this evening on "passagiata" through some of the most famous of the city's romantic sights. We stroll to the Spanish Steps, Via Condotti, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona and of course throw a coin in the Tivoli Fountain, before going on to a local restaurant where a musical surprise (three excellent opera singers - 2 male, 1 female) will accompany a meal of local specialties and unlimited wine (which I don't drink!). Very nice dinner!!

The current favorite car for younger drivers is the "Smart Car" made by Mercedes Benz. It's a very short two-seater. We can buy it 'complete' with options, or buy the basic (frame etc.) and purchase individually various options to bolt on to customize it for our own taste. We saw one with four different colors of fenders, etc. See photos.

Day 4, Friday, October 8 Rome - Pompeii - Sorrento
Off at 7:30. Stop at the Abbey of Montecassino (new for me) - it's a steep narrow road to climb up/down, and still a bit foggy, but a nice visit. All the mountainside below the Abbey is burned off - earlier this summer vandals set fire to the olive orchards the monks use as one of their major income sources. Now all they have is a bunch of blackened stumps. Very sad.

After a nice lunch (not included) that Gloria arranged, on to the archaeological treasures of Pompeii (repeat), the Roman city both destroyed and preserved by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius over 2000 years ago. They've closed off much of Pompeii to tours so we don't see nearly as much as on my first trip. Our scenic drive continues to beautiful (? - we don't see much of it) Sorrento (new) where we spend 2 relaxing nights. (BB, D) Conca Park Hotel, Sorrento. Very hot, no a/c. Lousy room location between stairs and elevator. Very noisy outside on the streets as well. It seems that there is an unwritten law in Italy that hotels switch off their a/c on Sept. 15 (regardless of temperature) and don't turn on the heat (not needed right now) until Nov. 1 (whether needed or not).

Option: Neapolitan Musical Theatre. Drive tonight to a splendidly restored theatre to see a colorful display of music and dance in traditional costumes. Neapolitan ballet and tarantella folkloric drama is performed, while familiar local melodies and song contribute to make this a memorable evening out. Drinks included. (yes!!).

Unfortunately the hotel fouled up the dinner time arrangements (8 PM instead of 7) so there's a time conflict and the option is cancelled. #$(*$#*(!!!!!! At least it's a very good dinner that's included.

Day 5, Saturday, October 9 Sorrento
(All new) "Late" start - 7:45. The highlight today is a visit to the legendary and idyllic Isle of Capri, once the summer home of Roman Emperors. We take a large "jet boat" across to the island then first is the optional tour (below). On return from this option, take a local taxi-bus up the "Oh My God!" twisting road to the top town of the Island (Anacapri). From there, it's a chair lift up (and back) to the very cloud-shrouded top of the island (can barely see across the terrace). Chair lift back down to Anacapri. (No clouds at this level). Time to explore this enchanting island with white-washed houses, orange and lemon trees, fashionable shops and restaurants for lunch (not included) in a local restaurant - or a street vendor . Take a funicular down to Capri for lunch then one of those busses down to the port for the jetfoil back to Sorrento. (BB - mediocre)

Option: Highlights of Capri. See this spectacular island with our local guide the relaxing way. First a cruise by private boat to the exclusive Marina Piccolo area shows us the awesome Tiberius' leap (where the Roman Emperor discarded his unwanted lovers!) and the world famous Faraglioni rocks, where we admire the amazing natural rock formations which characterize the island. Then back to land where a fun ride takes us to Anacapri to see the spectacular views from the exquisite gardens of the Villa San Michele, setting of Axel Munthe's "Story of San Michele," the book that did so much to spread the fame of Capri in the nineteenth century. Free time for lunch (not included) in this jet-set paradise completes a wonderful Capri experience. Lots of very nice scenery. We don't go to the famous "Blue Grotto" but do get to see several others, pulling well into a couple of them.

Option: Old Harbor Dinner. Added at the first: a drive out along the Amalfi Road to Positano. Beautiful scenery!! This drive is the best part of the option. In Positano, stop at a local market to sample the fresh fruit, Lemoniello (80 proof), and a chance to purchase packages of the famous Italian seasonings. Then back to the hotel area (after a short stop at a local wood crafts shop) to take more of the local taxi-busses down to the harbour. This evening we wind our way through the narrow streets of Sorrento down to the old harbor district located perched along the Mediterranean coastline. Enjoy a tranquil (would have been tranquil if someone had strangled the non-singer providing the musical "entertainment") setting for dinner in a beautiful local restaurant (only a decent meal). The resort comes to life as the locals take the "passagiata" - evening stroll.

Day 6, Sunday, October 10 Sorrento - Assisi
(All new) Bags out at 6:30, off at 7:45. Today, after a short stop just out of Sorrento to have a chance to purchase cameos, etc., we journey north for a morning stop at the Santa Maria de Angeli church, then on to the mystical city of Assisi, the pink-stoned city ringed by medieval ramparts, set in the heart of the Umbrian hills. The highlight of the day is a visit to the 13th century Basilica of St. Francis, known for its beautiful fresco paintings. Our (very late) afternoon is at leisure to stroll along the cobblestone streets of this historic hilltop village. (BB, D - decent) Subasio Hotel. The hotel is right next to the Piazza for the Basilica. Fascinating area to walk around in, and my favorite hotel (despite no a/c since I can open windows). Unfortunately one of the tour members takes a bad fall on the terrace of the hotel and has to be taken to a hospital in a near-by town. After being patched up (broken wrist, etc.) she (and Gloria) get back to the hotel about 3 AM.

Day 7, Monday, October 11 Assisi - San Marino - Venice
(new) Off at 7:30. We continue north this morning along the sun-drenched (make that fog-drenched) landscapes of the Adriatic coast. Mid-morning stop in Furlo near Furlo Pass (we're taking some beautiful side roads). Next it's on to San Marino. This tiny republic, the smallest in the world, is known for its spectacular hilltop location. San Marino's economy is primarily based on selling beautiful postage stamps (bought a few) and tempting duty-free shopping (they raise the prices to cover the 'duty free'). Very nice stop - it's an interesting place to walk around in. Nice little places to have lunch as well. Afternoon stop gives me a chance to buy some more little furry cat figures to add to the collection (turns out to be the only place on the trip that I see them - unlike on previous trips). Later, we continue on to a relaxing 2-night stay on the romantic (bah! Humbug!) Venetian lagoon. (BB, D) B.W. Hotel Sant'Elena. (extremely cramped area - can't turn around without stubbing my toes on something … easiest way to get in and out of the bed is to crawl over the foot.) Remember the story about Bonaparte being exiled to Santa Helena island. We're exiled on Sant'Elena. It's a residential island with one hotel (no restaurant in the hotel) and as Gloria said, absolutely nothing to see or do on the island. It's a 30 minute water bus/taxi ride across the storm tossed "Grand Lagoon" to get to the main island(s). This is probably what it's like in a no-fences prison. Decent dinner (included) in a small "bar" on the island.

Option: Grand Canal by Night. A magical evening unfolds as we have a private trip along the Grand Canal past the beautiful Palazzos and Rialto Bridge. A drink is included at one of the elegant concert cafes on St. Marks Square in all its floodlit glory. By night, when the crowds have gone, the square is an unforgettable site (crowds will be only half as large since the square is probably under water due to high tides and storms). Decide not to do this one since the weather is so bad - white water on the lagoon, very windy, light rain. (Later reports from others - I made the right choice!)

Day 8, Tuesday, October 12 Venice
(Repeat from here on) Off at 8 for a (some people almost get sea-sick) boat ride. The finest way to absorb Venice's unusual sights, sounds and unique Byzantine atmosphere is on an included (white water) cruise (at least it's better than having to swim to get there) to St. Mark's Square to view the Bridge of Sighs and Doges' Palace. Very long wait in line for a 5-minute rush-through of St. Marks. With the storm and extra high tides, we have to rush through this part of the tour since water is coming up from below to flood the Piazza. It's dry at the start, but the workers are setting up many prepared raised walkways for later in the day. Also featured is a visit to a glass-blowing demonstration (Murano glass) where we watch Venetian craftsmen fashion their delicate objects in an age-old manner and a relaxing (so says the brochure - actually hold on tight so we don't get tossed out) Venetian gondola ride (cut in half since it's dangerous to be in the little gondolas in some areas we would have otherwise gone). The rest of the day is free to wander (wade?) the narrow streets of Venice or perhaps, join an optional tour to Burano, one of the many islands in the Venetian lagoon, and enjoy a memorable (double Pepto-Bismol!) seafood dinner in a local restaurant. Since I don't take the option and the Piazza is now flooded, I take the water bus back to exile. I try for the first bus - too many people waiting; for the second bus 20 minutes later, we're overrun by the "Mongol Hoarde" who shove past all the people waiting and take over that "bus", so wait for the third bus. Despite the larger (than we had this AM) boat, it's a very choppy and bouncy ride. Lunch was snacks from vendors on the (flooded) Piazza; supper was leftover snacks and whatever I had purchased for the purpose. My only chance to check on email. (BB)

Option: Lagoon Cruise and Lunch. No thanks - did this last time. Not worth it. Not all that much to see, and the meal offered (then) was, for me, one of the poorest on that trip.

I had hoped to do much as I had done before in Venice (early morning / late evening strolls in the area) from a hotel on the main island(s), but sadly there's no chance this time. Venice turns out to be the big disappointment of the trip. At least most of the rest of the trip turns out well.

Day 9, Wednesday, October 13 Venice - Verona - Italian Lakes
Up at 5:30, bags out at 6. Breakfast and off at 6:30. 4oC this morning. This morning we drive first to the cypress-clad hills of Verona to admire (as we drive by) the Roman Arena that is still in use today, and Juliet's balcony from Shakespeare's famous Romeo & Juliet. Time to stroll through the picturesque market square and have lunch before heading across the plains of Lombardy to a relaxing 2-night stay in the spectacular Italian Lake District. (this Lake part is new) (BB, D) Splendid Hotel Baveno. Oops, that hotel just closed for the season so we're sent on to the "Grand Hotel Dino". Nice! However, not much to see or do in town and it's so cloudy/foggy that we can't really tell that there are mountains around, or see much across the lake.

Day 10, Thursday, October 14 Italian Lakes
Late start today: 8:15. Today's excursion takes us along the shores of Lake Maggiore, crossing over the border into Switzerland to the fashionable lakeside resort of Lugano. Here, we have time for shopping along Via Nassa, an espresso on the flower-festooned Piazza Riforma or a walk in the shade (? - how, with all the fog and clouds) of Parco Ciani's magnificent old trees. We drive down the other side of the lake, then cut across to return to our hotel by ferry across Lake Maggiore viewing (somewhere off in the clouds) the splendor of the Swiss Alps that surround (??) us! (BB, D)

I've mentioned the "Smart Car" before - in Lugano, we saw a 'smarter car' - combination of electrical and pedal power. Gasoline here can be as high as 1.20 Euros per litre - making it 4.56 Euros per (US) gallon or at current exchange rates, $5.87 per gallon. No wonder 90% of the cars in Italy are sub-compacts.

Option: Baveno - Lake Maggiore Islands. A private boat whisks us to the most spectacular island of the Italian Lake district which is still the summer residence of Prince Borremeo. A palace guide will take us on a fascinating tour of the baroque halls and uniquely decorated and cool grottoes before having time to explore the immaculate terraces of one of the most striking gardens in Europe, complete with a family of white peacocks. (doubtful, in fact no thanks - just another over-decorated palace)

Day 11, Friday, October 15 Italian Lakes - Pisa - Florence
Off at 7:30. Traveling via Milan, we cross the Apennine Mountains en route to Genoa, birthplace of Christopher Columbus (no stops in either city). Then, we head south along the Mediterranean coast to Pisa to view the extraordinary Leaning Tower, 180 feet high and no less than 16 feet out of the perpendicular! The piazza area surrounding the Tower, Church, and Baptistry is totally ringed by souvenir stalls. There are also a very large number of African 'immigrants' selling very cheap rip-off imitations of watches, purses, etc. Some of the watches might even run (for a day or two). Cloudy most of the day.

Then, it's on to a pleasant 3-night stay in Florence (HOORAY!), capital of Tuscany and home of the Renaissance. (BB, D) Sheraton Firenze Hotel. (At least it's not the Hotel Michaelangelo with its faulty elevators!) This is the best / nicest / hotel of the trip. Super! Very nice buffet dinner as well.

Side note: I think it was someone in the Trafalgar Tours (Grand European is owned by TT) who entered an incorrect credit card number for one of their clients - MY credit card number. Probably happened when they were also entering the charges for the optionals I/we took on the trip. The result was an invalid charge on my credit card account - which I saw as soon as it was posted, and managed to get deleted (had to write a letter) but then a problem that the credit card company wanted to call it fraud and cancel my then current card and issue a new one so I have to go through the hassle of notifying various utilities (pay bills) and vendors (mostly eBay and PayPal) of the new card number. Bah, humbug!

Day 12, Saturday, October 16 Florence
Off "late" at 7:45. Gloria has made a schedule change. First are demonstrations / displays in the gold shop (Gold Corner - bought a replica of the first 1582 gold Florin) and leather shop (Peruzzi - bought a leather jacket). Then we have (10:30) a walking tour through town to see Signoria Square, Santa Croce Basilica, the Baptistry and Piazza Michelangelo are all included visits on our panoramic sightseeing tour of the historic Italian city. Enjoy a highlight visit (scheduled at 12:15) to the Accademia to view Michelangelo's magnificent statue of David. Later relax in one of the elegant sidewalk cafes on the Piazza della Republica for lunch … or take the optional trip to the Uffize Gallery. I skip that option (been there on the other trip) and have the afternoon free (until 4:15) to wander around and see things. Even time to walk down to the Punto Vechio and check out the very overprices souvenirs there. Since the hotel is out on the "ring road", it's very, very good that we have an entire day to be in town. Light dinner of Tuscan vegetable soup and Spaghetti/sauce in the hotel (not included but not too expensive). Time to do 'paperwork' to 'balance the books' and check to see how much I've (over-)spent.

My favorite day on the entire trip!!!!!!! The jacket, Florin, and "cats" purchased earlier are my souvenirs on this trip - plus all the postcards, of course. (BB)

Option: Jewels of the Renaissance. Delve into the cultural riches of the city of the Renaissance and see one of the greatest collections of Italian paintings, the Uffize Gallery. Our guide reveals the meaning of what's considered the most complete survey of Italian art in any one building on earth. Art History 101 in < 2 hours. (no thanks).

Option: Dinner at Restaurant Il Mulinacchio aka Dinner under the Tuscan Sky. A short drive takes us out of Florence to this characteristic Tuscan countryside restaurant situated in an old water-mill. Cocktails and antipasti before sitting down to dinner make this a very relaxing social occasion, and chef Carlo and family are happy to share such recipes as stuffed olives and ricotta ravioli in walnut sauce with us. (no - did last time and servings were *tiny* - way overpriced).

Day 13, Sunday, October 17 Florence
A relaxing day today. Enjoy a visit to the Chianti Castle of Vicchiomaggio for a wine lecture and tasting as part of our EXPLORE&DISCOVER series. (Ho, Hum! - wine tasting at 9AM????) then to the medieval village of San Gimignano (Yea!). It's still, in my opinion, the most interesting old city on the trip. Fabulous place to walk around in. Lunch in one of the café/bars. Really nice. We make a brief stop at the American (World Wars) Cemetery just outside Florence as we make our way back to town. (BB)

Option: Palazzo Borghese Dinner. Tucked in the narrow streets of Florence's historic center, the magnificent Palazzo Borghese comes as a surprise. Once the home of Napoleon's sister, Pauline Bonaparte, it is now the setting for unique banquets. This is our opportunity to dine in what were Pauline's apartments to the accompaniment of medieval and renaissance music and entertainment. (Last time our pre-dinner intro was "crashed" by a hoarde of Japanese tourists!) (Yes!)

Oops, cancelled due to lack of interest. Another #$(#$*#)*!!!!! Doesn't anyone like the old music / entertainment any more. Bah, humbug!!!

Day 14, Monday, October 18 Florence - Siena - Rome
This morning we enjoy a pastoral drive through south Tuscany to Siena. Once a powerful republic, this city is renowned for the Palio horse race which takes place in the main square every summer. Time to enjoy this hilltop (nice, but to me, not as great as San G.) town before continuing south to Rome for the last night of our memorable tour where we enjoy as a highlight a fairly nice Farewell Dinner. Final stop is a late visit to a floodlight St. Peter's Square. (BB, D) Crowne Plaza St. Peter Hotel. Beautiful hotel, and the (bed)room has all the amenities … except a decent bed. It's one of those 'sofa beds' that fold out … cross bar support, collapsing "mattress" holes, etc. No way can I sleep on this - in fact it's downright painful to like on. I spend much of the (very short) night sitting up in a chair.

Day 15, Tuesday, October 19 Rome - USA
Wake-up (get out of the chair) call at 3:45 as arranged. Car arranged at 4:45 to the airport (I'm the only one leaving this early). Bid farewell to Italy. (no BB due to early departure, In-Flight Meals, er, snacks)

(Much-)Late(r)hansa 3853Rome - Frankfurt7:00 AM - 9:00 AM2:00

This flight is 35 minutes late taking off and even later getting into Frankfurt. Barely have time to run (it's another park way out, take bus, etc. routine) to catch the next flight.

Lufthansa 440Frankfurt - Houston10:05 AM - 2:05 PM11:0014:05

It's going to be another VERY LONG "day." It's an even longer 'day' for my luggage. It didn't make the connection in Frankfurt to the flight to Houston. When I get to Houston I'm told that it should hopefully made tomorrows flight and will eventually be delivered to the house. (It does make the flight, but takes from the 2:00PM arrival time until 8:15PM to be delivered.)

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

AIRLINES: (Damn Latehansa flight to Frankfurt AGAIN
1Latehansa LH 441Houston - Frankfurt3:50 PM - 8:50 AM10:001:05
2Latehansa LH 3842Frankfurt - Rome9:55 AM - 11:40 AM1:4512:50
3Latehansa LH 3853Rome - Frankfurt7:00 AM - 9:20 AM2:200:40
4Lufthansa LH 440Frankfurt - Houston10:05 AM - 2:05 PM11:0014:05

Travel time notes:
Houston-Frankfurt, 5000+ miles, Me: 10 hours (500 mph), Luggage: 34 hours (147 mph)
Houston airport - house, 30 miles, Me: 1.5 hours including Customs, etc. (20 mph), Luggage: 6.25 hours (4.8 mph)
Totals: Frankfurt - Home, Me: 11.5 hours (437.4 mph), Luggage: 40.25 hours (124.9 mph)
Comparisons: Tortoise vs hare; LATEhansa vs USPS-SnailMail

Day 3 Fountains and Piazzas of Rome w/ Dinner Yes
Day 4 Neapolitan Musical Theatre Yes (cancelled)
Day 5 Highlights of Capri Yes
Amalfi Drive & Old Harbour Dinner in Sorrento Yes
Day 7 Grand Canal (Venice) by Night No (weather)
Day 8 Lagoon Cruise and Lunch No (repeat)
Day 10 Baveno - Lake Maggiore Islands No (just another palace)
Day 12 Florence - Jewels of the Renaissance (Uffizi) No (repeat)
Dinner at Restaurant Il Mulinacchio No (repeat)
Day 13 Palazzo Borghese Dinner Yes (not run - no interest)
(At least I didn't end up spending lots of money on optional side trips.)

Oct 6-7 Mediterraneo Hotel Roma, Ranking: 3
Oct 8-9 Conca Park, Sorrento Ranking: 5
Oct 10 Subasio Hotel, Assisi Ranking: 2
Oct 11-12 Hotel Sant'Elena, Venezia Ranking: 107
Oct 13-14 Grand Hotel Dino, Baveno Ranking: 4
Oct 15-17 Sheraton Firenze Ranking: 1
Oct 18 Crowne Plaza Roma Randing: 6