Mr. & Mrs. Penfire Go to Italy

We trudged off the plane in Rome after a 12-hour flight, a bit disheveled and jet lagged, shuffled dutifully through zigzag lines to get our passports stamped, emerged into the terminal on a walkway lined by faces—drivers holding signs that named the travelers they were there to meet. We searched in vain for our names, but to no avail.

Lesson One: Booking an Airport Shuttle is probably not the best choice for getting from Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumincio to a downtown hotel. We had to wander around searching for the designated meeting point, then wait over 35 minutes for our driver. We should have had our hotel arrange for transport, taken a cab, or even the Leonardo Express train to the Rome Termini Station, and a taxi from there.

We were on our own in Italy having opted out of a 14-day whirlwind packaged tour, deciding instead to visit the same places—Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, Pompeii, Amalfi Coast—but stretching our visit out to 23 days (by the way, tour companies count travel days when they describe the length of a trip, even though most of those days are spent at airports or sitting on a plane!) Now back home, after what’s turned out to be the trip of a lifetime, I’m appalled to look back over that 14-day itinerary and realize all that was not included—all we would have missed. And thrilled to note that for us, flexibility of independent travel was the right choice.

Careful planning helped. In fact, it was a necessity… for mapping out an itinerary, booking hotels, and managing logistics—and expenses. (And by the way, travel is like home improvements; you will always spend more than you thought you would.)

For me, planning began with a library of guidebooks, as well as the guidance of friends who were more experienced travelers. Ever since our first European adventure in 1973, I’ve been a fan of the Michelin Green Guides, which used to rank cities and sights ***Worth a journey, **Worth a detour and *Interesting. Over the years they’ve changed those top two categories to ***Highly Recommended and **Recommended, which for me eliminates the sense of urgency imparted by the original wording (though the rankings are still just as valuable—and valid).

Along the way I acquired a few DK Eyewitness Travel books, irresistible for their enticing graphics, a couple of National Geographic Best of the City Walking Guides and—proving perhaps most helpful of all for practical advice, concisely presented and easy to find: Rick Steves’ Pocket guides for our major cities Rome, Venice, and Florence. Steves, like Michelin, ranks sights: ***Don’t miss, **Try hard to see, and *Worthwhile if you can make it, adding even a fourth (unstarred) category, Worth knowing about.

In addition to the books, of course, the Internet is invaluable for research, too.

As getting to and from Italy would define the parameters of the trip, we booked our flight before doing anything else. After that we created a wish list for each of our stops: the things we wanted to see and do—impossibly lengthy (no surprise considering all that Italy has to offer, including being the repository of about 70 per cent of the World’s art treasures). The list helped us decide how much time to spend in each place.

With travel dates determined, we went to, spent some time clicking around, and quickly realized we were in over our heads. No problem! We dialed the “Contact us” number and soon were talking to a wonderful young woman who patiently explained absolutely everything we needed to know; after figuring out which days and times we wanted to travel, we called her back and she walked us through out first online purchase tickets—Rome to Venice. She advised us to purchase first class tickets whenever possible; as these tickets, though more expensive offer tremendous flexibility (as well as a far more comfortable ride).

Next step: accommodations. My friend, Nancy, who travels to Italy frequently recommended We spent LOTS of time on this site perusing our options, and making comparisons, then zeroing in on final choices. Interestingly, the tour we didn’t take had offered daily breakfast (and one lunch) as being “included.” In fact, breakfast was included in the price of every hotel we booked.

Lesson two: Be skeptical about tour packages. Often you pay less (and do what you want when you want) when you book accommodations directly, yourself. The same holds true for sightseeing. Which brings us to:
Lesson three: Do your homework! This is why it’s in the planning phase that you want to read your guidebooks, especially those that provide details on admission times, prices and (sometimes) required reservations.

As a result of homework, we booked ahead:
• Guided Group Tour of the Colosseum
• Guided Group Tour of the Vatican
• Timed admission to Villa Borghese
• Tickets to “Madama Butterfly” at La Fenice opera house in Venice (our biggest splurge)
• Timed admission to climb to the dome of the Duomo in Forence
• Driver for the day to take us into Tuscany
• Private Guided Tour Pompeii

Also, we knew that once we arrived in Venice we should get:
• Vaporetto Cards for four-days of access to water-borne public transit (once we arrived in Venice)
• Tickets at Museum Correr (which we didn’t go to), where the line is nonexistent for combined admission to the Doges Palace,(which we did); waiting lines there, just to purchase tickets, can be incredibly long.

And we found out that once we arrived in Florence we should purchase:
• Firenze Cards, which would give us unlimited, skip-the- line access to just about every Museum we wanted to visit—especially the Ufuzzi Gallery.

We landed in Rome with manila folders in hand—well not in hand, actually, but in our backpacks. John had assembled printouts, organized chronologically, for every hotel and train reservation, every pre-scheduled tour. My folder contained ridiculously overlong wish lists of things to see. And lots of reading material.

Lesson four: Most valuable items we brought along: National Geographic maps for each city. They enabled us to find our way no matter how far off our intended route we wandered. Major sights are all clearly marked and easy to see. There’s a lot of practical information included—and an index.

Lesson five: Keep the collection of books and papers you carry to a minimum. Paper is heavy! And you’re sure to collect more—much more—along the way. (First off, forget the Italian Phrase Book and Dictionary; you’re not going to get past the few Italian phrases you master before you leave. and be sure to use them! “Buongiorno” “Per favore” “Grazie” Most people you encounter can speak English, or enough to help you out. They don’t expect Americans to know Italian. But they appreciate when you at least try. In addition to the (useless) Phrase Book, I opted to bring along the Rick Steves’ Pocket Rome, Venice, Florence, which did turn out to be useful for checking times, closing days and admission fees. But I always checked them, as needed, and left them behind when we headed out each day. Honestly, I could have made some detailed notes for myself, and left these two pounds of books home along with the other ten.

Which brings me to Lesson six: Think twice about carrying a guidebook around with you. Nearly ever major sight offers audio guides. Most of them are very well done; all are worth the few dollars charged. Because with an audio guide, you can listen while you look. You’re there! Look around. Everything around you is what you came to see. I saw people standing in front of monumental masterpieces with their heads in their guidebooks. They were reading, not looking. Forget it! You’re probably not going to remember that that the “Annunciation” in the Uffuzi gallery was not identified as the work of young Leonard da Vinci and his master Verrochio until 1867 by Baron Liphart using Gustav Waaagen methods. Who cares! Take joy in looking at it! See all you can! Read the details later as you revisit the things you loved best your mind’s eye.

Stay tuned for a rundown of what we did.