Italy 08

Hi all,


Thanks for visiting my travel blog. Recently, my husband (jbom), mother (Jean) and friend (Kathleen) traveled to Italy. We began with a cruise with OCEANIA CRUISES on their ship: INSIGNIA. We left from Venice and traveled all the way down the coast, through the Strait of Messina and up the western coast of Italy. We doubled-back and ended with a few days in Rome on our own. It was a wonderful time for all of us!


The blog is set up with posts by date. You will need to scroll down to the bottom in order to begin at the beginning and work your way back up. I hope you enjoy reading about our adventures!





Saturday, June 7th, 2008


Our last day in Rome…and our last day on this beautiful journey…


We checked out of The River Palace Hotel and put our bags back into hotel storage. The guide from Through Eternity Tours would be arriving at 10 a.m., so we needed to have everything ready to go for our driver that would be picking us up at 3 p.m. to take us to the hotel airport for the evening.


One more thing about the hotel worth mentioning… they have a really good continental breakfast. You really can’t say that it is “continental”, because it really had everything… eggs, sausage, bacon, rolls, yogurt, etc. In the end, we would have two really good morning breakfasts to start our day while staying at The River Palace Hotel.


At 10 a.m. our guide, Rob, arrived. Rob is an American that has lived in Rome for over 10 years now. He is one of the owners of Through Eternity Tours, so that was a real treat for us! We took the Metro right to the Forum and we began there. Today would be about The Forum and The Colleseum.


To be honest, I would say from the get-go that although this tour was very good and Rob is very knowledgeable, it was my least favorite of all the days touring. After two weeks of seeing the major highlights of Italy, one is very spoiled. And I’ll admit it, after two weeks as well, one is a little burned out with all of the fabulous history… it now takes a lot to get me excited as this journey has been so amazing from Day One.


With The Forum, you really have to use your imagination. The Colleseum is another story… as it still is very complete. And I was really looking forward to seeing The Colleseum with all of its history – and I’ll admit, thinking back about The Gladiator movie with Russell Crowe. J


We spent most of our time at the Forum, walking amongst the ruins, but as I said, you really have to use your imagination to picture what it was like in Rome at this time. Having been to Pompeii where many of the buildings are complete, you get more of a visual reference there. At The Forum you do not.


Our 11 Euro ticket bought us access to both locations and as they were right next to eachother, we ended at The Colleseum. The Colleseum is a very imposing structure and is still so complete. We took an elevator right to the third floor and Rob discussed how the location was used over the years. He ended with a bit of theatre for us from the slaying of Marc Anthony. It was pretty cool to imagine the time.


From there, we jumped in a taxi and headed back to the hotel. We had time for lunch at our local restaurant and had… pizza and salad… again! It is sooo good. Jbom had a bit of veal that he really enjoyed as well. And we met a man from Chicago that was there with his children for a month or so. They had rented an apartment and were staying in the area. Now that would be a fun thing to do… if you have the time… ugh… jbom and I do not. I have to win the lottery!!!!!


And most of us, except Jean (who was exercising restraint), finished with gelato from the corner shop. So very good… and nothing like we have at home.


So off to the airport… in a bigger vehicle this time. I imagine that our first ROMECABS driver told them to send a bigger vehicle this time for us and all of our luggage!!!! Our driver, who spoke a little English, took us around the to the front of The Vatican to Piazza Pio XII… the view of the Vatican that everyone sees on TV and it is where the Pope delivers his address. What a HUGE place! I am glad that we got the opportunity to see it, eventhough it was just a “drive by”.


We arrived at the Hilton Airport hotel in about 45 minutes… a quick trip. The hotel has a walkway to the terminal and I booked it for that very purpose. Our flight to Amsterdam on Sunday morning would be at 6:15 a.m. – yes, 6:15 a.m. – so we had to be at the airport by 4:15 a.m. What fun! We checked in and then walked over the concourse to locate KLM. It took a bit of looking around, but we found it and then had a look in the shops. Kathleen bought t-shirts for her grandchildren, and I used my broken Italian to help her out (yeah!).


That evening we had dinner at the hotel… big sandwiches and hamburgers that were expensive, but pretty good. No one slept very well as we were up at 3 a.m. and we didn’t want to oversleep and miss the flight. Jbom never slept at all… he just stayed up and watched CNN through the night. By early morning (still really nighttime) we got ourselves together, gathered our luggage, walked the concourse and checked in at KLM at 4 a.m. We were all tired, and ready to come home.


And so in the early morning we said goodbye to Rome and headed home. We arrived home about 1 p.m. after a change of planes to Northwest and a little delay in Amsterdam. During the connection time in Amsterdam, jbom bought a t-shirt with “Germany” on the front of it. I asked him “why?” and he said that he wanted a souvenir of the place that he really wanted to go to in the first place! Ugh… okay one day, Germany!   


We have been home now a few days and John, Jean and I are fully back to work physically, but mentally is another thing. Jbom spent part of the evening last night going through the 08/09 OCEANIA CRUISE brochure looking at options for another trip. I reminded him that it would have to be in 09 as we are mostly out of vacation days for the rest of 08!


I spoke with Jean, my mother, last night and when I asked her where she would like to return to… she immediately said “Rome” – we barely scratched the surface there. And of course, Kotor… it was a simply beautiful place that would be a wonderful for a seaside holiday. Jbom loved Sorrento and so did I… I can see us going back there ourselves in the not to distance future. As for Kathleen, well, Mum hasn’t heard from her yet… she is probably pouring over her pictures and sharing her memories with her children and grandchildren that she’ll have forever.






Friday, June 6th, 2008


Originally, we were due to meet up with Ian again for the Vatican tour. Earlier in the week, the group decided that six, albeit quality, hours in the Vatican would just be too much for us after all of the walking the past two weeks. So earlier in the week, I emailed Through Eternity Tours and they were very understanding. We also had another excursion booked with them for Saturday to see The Forum and The Colleseum, so cancelling wasn’t too much of an issue.


Saturday was, again, a beautiful day… not too hot or cold. Due to a work situation for jbom at The Blue Oval, he decided that he needed to stay back and make phone calls and handle email that was coming in furiously even while he was gone. As mentioned previously, we had our laptop and email access while on the trip… but sometimes issues crop up that require you having to take some time and address the situation first hand. We were all disappointed, but jbom decided it would be best to remain behind from the Vatican tour.


So being the “Rome experts” that we now were with one day in Rome under our belt, we took the Metro and headed to the Vatican. Three stops later we were OTTAVIANO which is the Metro stop for the Vatican. Signs were easy to follow, and we were up and walking towards The Vatican Museum. The evening before, Ian recommended that we sleep in and go about 11:30 a.m. – no sooner. And he was right. After arriving at the entrance, we literally walked in (no line), paid (no line), took the escalator up to the entrance (no line, no wait), bought our ENGLISH audio guide (no line, no wait) and WALKED RIGHT IN. Frankly, after all that I had heard and read about the 2 hour possible wait time… I couldn’t believe it. We came on the right day at the right time!


So the VATICAN MUSEUMS are pretty incredible. Period. I have seen people “ooh” and “aww” at fragments of pottery, statues with missing limbs, etc. at many other museums and special exhibitions.  I have been fortunate to have gone to the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London, on a few occasions. The biggest difference that The Vatican Museum has compared with all the rest for me is how complete that it is.  Complete… whole statues, bowls and ancient artifacts… with no missing parts. Most dramatically are the three halls that house all of the Greek and Roman statues that line the corridors. The halls were built specifically for the statues and are incredibly dramatic.


We made our way through the museum seeing ancient Egypt first and then working our way through the museum towards the Sistine Chapel.  The Vatican is a big place, so there was a good bit of walking… so we focused on getting to the Sistine Chapel and then going back to see what we had passed.


Through a series of corridors and hallways, we ended up taking a small passageway up and down stairs and then came into this naturally lit large room. It took a little while to register, but we were in the Sistine Chapel.  There were many people fighting for a seat along the wall, but we spent most of the time on our feet looking upwards. Our audioguides did a decent job of explaining what we were looking at, but admittedly, it was a little overwhelming. I looked for the signs that DaVinci had put into the ceiling that we’ve all heard about, but I couldn’t find the markings myself. It is a very spiritual place, but was continually overshadowed by an official calling out “silence” to those talking amongst eachother. That was the only part that ruined it for me.


After about 20 minutes of taking it all in, we left and returned to the main hall. There were a series of gift shop areas, so we were able to buy a few “memories” of the Vatican for ourselves and others. Kathleen bought a really nice calendar and I bought a few things for my in-laws being the “good Catholics” that they are. From there, we had a good break and had something to eat at the Vatican Café. It is surprising how good of a meal you can get in a museum café! We had a simple cheese and meat plate and bread and a drink… it was simple and satisfying.


From there, we headed back to the hotel… it was close to 5 p.m. when we returned. Jbom had gotten his work done and was glad he had remained behind. At every turn during the day, I was saying how I had wished he had been able to come along as The Vatican is truly an amazing place.


For dinner, we decided to remain at the hotel. fter all of the gourmet meals onboard INSIGNIA, we all just wanted a simple meal of salad and pasta. The pasta was really excellent. It had been a good day, but tomorrow would be our last in Rome. The time had come and gone so quickly.






Thursday, June 5th, 2008


After disembarking one last time from INSIGNIA, we easily gathered our bags and headed right out the door to the pick-up area. As the disembarkation process was so easy, we ended up waiting for half an hour until our ROMECABS driver arrived to take us to our hotel in Rome. We were early, he was right on time: 8:30 a.m.


When the driver arrived, we all were a little concerned that we couldn’t get all of us and all of our luggage into the Chrysler minivan… but surprise, he got all the bags in the vehicle and we set off for Rome.


The drive was long… almost 2 hours with the morning traffic… so it was a huge relief (in more ways than one) when we arrived at our hotel in Rome: THE RIVER PALACE HOTEL. Guidebooks, websites and other resources all can try to give you a good idea of what a hotel will be like, but until you get there for yourself, one can have reservations about any place. You have to go on faith.


Fortunately, we were in good shape. The hotel was not the Hilton in Venice, but for a European hotel in a major city, it was about 90 percent of what American travelers would expect from a hotel. The location, just off the Piazza del Popolo, couldn’t have been better… just off the Red Line of the METRO and just outside the gate to the Ancient City.


Everything was in order with our reservations, but as expected, our rooms were not ready yet… it was only 10:30 a.m.. The manager directed us to the lounge with comfy, modern furniture. He provided us with a map and tour information about what was in the area and close to the hotel. So we secured our baggage and set off for a walk to the Spanish Steps area, as it wasn’t far from our hotel. Our guide for the evening walk wasn’t coming until 5 p.m., so the timing was good for a walk to the Spanish Steps, grab lunch, and then head back to the hotel to check in.


So we set off… no guide, just us. I had previously read that we were in a “good area” full of shops and good hotels, but we were all coming from a cruise ship with wide open spaces and the sea to a big, big city. The environment was a complete change for all of us. And there was a little rain… but the hotel provided us with umbrellas, so we were all good (and the umbrellas were a nice touch). It took a little while, but we got familiar with our surroundings.


When we got to Piazza del Popolo we noticed that an area was roped off… we surmised that a foreign dignitary was in the area with all of the security as many were in town for the World Food Bank meetings. Later, we would come to find out that none other than Tom Hanks was in town filming a movie… the follow up to The Da Vinci Code: Angels and Demon’s… and a key site from the book was in this area. We got our hopes up, but we never saw Tom Hanks…


On first impression, Rome is a lot smaller than it looks. In no time we passed all of the upscale shops on Via del Babuino and arrived at The Spanish Steps. Mid-day it had many people sitting on the steps… enjoying their lunch. I can see why this is a meeting place for many. We took a few pictures and tried to find the McDonald’s that jbom had been in search of, but not wanting to go too far afield, we turned back towards the hotel.


So we back tracked and passed The Hotel de Russie… one of our hotel options through Northwest World Vacations. It had a very nice courtyard that we could see from the street… and more pricey than our current hotel. This would be a nice place to stay another time we come to Rome… one day soon I hope J


Time for lunch. Luckily there was a restaurant right near our hotel that looked busy. It was very much a “neighborhood-kind of place” that felt right. There was one table for 4 left, and we grabbed it. Lunch was very good… simple salad and pizza. We all had a good lunch and it wasn’t too expensive… even for the Euro and it being Rome. Jbom and I both thought the pizza was much better than what we had in San Gimignano. We were off to a good start!


Back at the hotel, we were taken to our rooms with all of our luggage. We were right down the hallway from eachother (Rooms 106 and 109), and right off of the courtyard. We had upgraded the rooms to a bit larger than the standard… and the A/C was good… Jbom was a happy man.


At 5 p.m. our guide, Ian, from THROUGH ETERNITY TOURS arrived. I had booked tours for us each day we were in Rome… the guide would pick us up at our hotel and take us on a walking tour of a different part of Rome. Tonight we took the Piazzas and Fountains by Twilight Tour. It would also give us an introduction to Rome and how to maneuver in this big city.


The tour was really wonderful. Ian, from Scotland and an archeologist from Oxford was our guide. He spends about 5 weeks a year on the Pompeii dig and then does the write-up the rest of the year in between giving Rome tours. He was a great guide and I would recommend him to anyone. Ian mapped out for us what we would see in our 3 hours. He adjusted our plan based on how much walking we could all handle. And then we headed off.


We went into the Metro at Flaminio, the station right near our hotel. Ian showed us how to buy tickets for the Metro and we were off. Being rush hour, it was a bit of a crush, but we made it keeping an eye on our bags the entire time. We started at the Spanish Steps (Spagna stop on the Metro) and began there. Along the way Ian discussed architecture, the influence of the Pope’s and how they changed the face of Rome, etc. The walking tour was just amazing… and if it hadn’t been for the tour, we would have walked right by major points of interest without even knowing it.


Specifically, Ian took us into a nondescript church on the outside, but inside, was the most magnificent church I’ve ever seen. The church housed two statues that Bernini sculpted that were added after the church was constructed. I need to email Ian and ask him the name of the church… I have to go back there next time I am in Rome. Kind of breathtaking to be honest…


On our three-hour tour that went by in a flash, we saw The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon, The Monuments a Vittorio Emanuele II and then ended at The Forum with the Colleseum in the background. And there were many, many other points of interest along the way, including the killer gelato that we had at Ian’s favorite spot!


The tour was just perfect and we learned so much about Rome and it’s history… and we walked all around the Ancient City… feeling it was so accessible to us. And then it was getting dark.. so we were done for the evening. We thanked Ian and he put us in a cab and off we went back to the hotel. It was a fabulous first day and evening in Rome!




Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008


Cruising the Riviera of Italy…


The girls were off again on an excursion in the morning… this time to Genoa for the day. As we were coming to the end of the cruise, Jean and Kathleen admittedly felt a little “excursioned-out”. In every stop they had one kind of excursion planned, either with John and I, or on their own with the ship. So as we neared the end of the cruise, every down minute was spent on Deck 9 taking in the sun and just hanging on the ship relaxing with a book and a glass of wine.


And again, it was another beautiful day in Italy! Portofino is a picture-postcard town and John and I took the tender off the ship to have a bit of a look around. As mentioned previously, they have all been exquisitely beautiful little towns. And it has been a joy to wake up every morning to see where our ship has brought us… adding another to our list of favorites. Portofino was no exception. This little town (and you can walk from one end of it to the other in about 10 minutes), is more of a club for the rich and famous.


The yachts that dock or anchor in the small harbor are beautiful and pristine as their crews wash and take loving care of them for their owners. The shopkeepers… or should I say “boutique” owners… ranging from Gucci to Prada to Louis Vuitton to, well, it seems everyone in this caliber are represented on the square. And of course, there are stalls of souvenirs providing memories for the less well-heeled.


John and I enjoyed our favorite trip past time – gelato – of course, before we headed back to the ship to enjoy the rest of the day by the pool. Limiting the number of excursions – especially at the end of the cruise – has been the right thing for us. We’ve enjoyed getting off of the ship while in port, but we also wanted to RELAX and just take it easy from time to time.


One day to go… can’t believe that it has gone so quickly… ugh!!!!


Before I sign off, a couple of observations worth noting…

*you’ll see in some of the pictures how beautiful the facade of the buildings are… almost gleeming right back at you in the sun. The interesting thing is that while some of the buildings are indeed of the old style, the newer buildings are painted… in the trompe o’leil style – meant literally “to fool the eye”. Almost Disney-esque.

*and for such a small town, they sure are good with the signs… one sign when you enter the harbor area with all of the directions as noted… all consolidated neatly onto one post instead of strewn about the town.




Monday, June 2nd, 2008



La Spezia is the port, Cinque Terre is the attraction. Cinque Terre is a UNESCO-protected area that for most of its existence was cut off from civilization. Cinque means “five” in Italian and Terre refers to “towns” in this vernacular. Cinque Terre consists of five towns that are small villages that literally cling to the cliff side… much like the Almafi-Positano area, only more dramatic.


This is harsh terrain… only accessible by train or boat. There is one way in and one way out and it used to only be accessible via a six hour hike on foot. Today there is a train that provides service up and down the Cinque Terre via tunnels dug into the side of the cliff.


The land is terraced and the original residents “farmed” the area as it is lush in vegetation… the original reason the area was inhabited all those years ago. Original settlers lived in caves that were dug into the hillside and it was so remote that it protected them from their enemies. In most areas you cannot even approach one of the villages from boat unless the weather conditions are favorable. Fortunately, the weather gods were with us again today.


Being Italy’s Independence Day today, it was busy on the ship and busy in the town. All of the Italians from the north decided to come to Cinque Terre today!


We all took the day-trip boat from La Spezia and had a beautiful coastline journey seeing four of the five towns. The weather was a bit overcast, but it only added to the drama of the area. Once we landed in MANAROLA, we quickly disembarked off of the ship and were given a quick tour of the area. The town is small and evenmoreso than Positano, wasn’t much to behold past the harbor and a few quaint shops that lined the main “road”.


Quickly the town filled with tourists, and it was a bit of a crush to be honest. After several days in towns similar to this, we headed back to the harbor to wait for the local ship to return. The highlight was definitely the journey and not the destination.





LIVORNO – Florence, Pisa and Tuscany!

Sunday, June 1st, 2008


Jean and Kathleen set out, once again, early in the morning. Today on their agenda was Florence and Pisa. We all set out from the Port of Livorno, a very, very large port the size of any major port in the USA (Newark and Long Beach, for example). It is a stopping point, not a destination by any means. The girls had a long day ahead of them as the coach ride to Florence as it was a good hour and a half drive to get there. Their excursion plan was to go directly to Florence and them head back west towards Pisa to see The Leaning Tower, and then head back to the ship.


John and I chose our own route again and had rented a car for a day trip in Tuscany. After our “experience” in Sicily, we had a definite plan in place… we were to drive directly to San Gimignano, near Siena, have a look around and then take the “scenic” route back to Livorno… essentially going in one big circle throughout the northern part of Tuscan region.


In each stop on the cruise, OCEANIA had provided a local guide that would come onto the ship early in the morning and provide onboard guests with local area information for those “going at it on their own”. On many occasions the local guide would give us great suggestions and sometimes provide us with even better maps than we had gotten on our own. They saved us a lot of time and headaches. The guide in Livorno was no exception… as she provided us with a quicker, more efficient route to get us to San Gimignano and it paid off in the end.


Months before while doing my research, I came across a car rental agency at the Port of Livorno called MAXIRENT. A car rental agency I had never heard off… but I had read a posting online where someone had rented a car from them in this location and they had opened the office on a Sunday for them. I went ahead and emailed back and forth with Claudio at the office and he assured me that someone would be there. I never got that kind of commitment from Hertz or Avis, so we crossed our fingers and hoped someone from the office would be there. And, true to his word, Claudio was there waiting for us on Sunday morning when we arrived at the car rental office. Thank you Claudio!


The trip to San Gimignano was a piece of cake there and back… our only trouble was getting out of the Port of Livorno. The GPS system that Claudio gave us for our LANCIA was a bit difficult to set up, but it did track our progress so we knew that we were on the correct road the entire time. The Lancia, on the other hand, was nothing like the Alfa Romero that we had in Sicily. It was not the greatest car, but well, it worked and I managed to only stall once the entire day… so mission accomplished!


Most importantly, the ride through Tuscany was again, such a picture postcard. The weather was ideal, again, and the roads were dry and well marked. Once off of the main highway: LI-PI-FI (Livorno to Pisa to Firenze – aka Florence) we had a beautiful drive. The 2-lane roads were flanked on each side of the road by tall trees…some naturally growing and others planned many years ago. On several occasions we passed several peloton of cyclists out for their Sunday ride… or prepping for the upcoming Tour of Italy.


Much of the area reminded me of the Napa Valley… as the road began to lazily wind up the hillside as we climbed towards San Gimignano. We came across vineyard after vineyard with beautiful villas setback from the road – their entrances marked much as they are in Napa and Sonoma with grand stone porticos with custom signage in natural materials.


We arrived at the outskirts of San Gimignano around Noon… you could see the approach to the city with the tall towers that dotted the landscape. Back in the Renaissance, competing noble families would build towers proclaiming their wealth and high standing… each trying to outdo each other by building the higher tower. Only 14 towers remain in the city today, but at one time I read that there were about 65.


San Gimignano is also a walled city… so no driving in the city. We drove around for a while and ended up coming back to a parking lot that we passed while coming into town. Due to the time of day the parking was scarce… so remembering what we went through in Taormina, we dived into a parking area and made our own spot. Jbom and I were both confident that we would not get towed… fingers crossed.


So the city itself is vastly different to what we have seen previously. The entire place is built of stone… in a brownish-red color. It is very monochromatic. The only color is from the shopkeepers signs, but they are in the shop windows and nothing juts out into the “street”. There is one cathedral in San Gimignano, the Collegiate Cathedral… so we went in and had a look. BUT, I was wearing shorts… ugh… they gave me what amounted to surgical draping that I had to put around my waist to cover my knees. I had forgotten the covered knees, covered shoulders policy!


The cathedral was pretty incredible (again, yes, getting boring… there are no ugly churches in Italy!)… the walls were completely covered in frescos depicting the main stories in the bible. They were militant about taking pictures… so sorry that I don’t have any to share. We did buy a book when we first got into town to get a map of the area and it has some really good images of the frescos in the cathedral. In retrospect, the church reminded me a lot of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.


Lunch was a quick pizza and frankly, killer gelato. We hadn’t had gelato yet… and this was really, really good. Jbom and I both had a combo of strawberry and chocolate… not something that I would choose, but the two together was worth all the wait!


So, after a bit of a further mooch around town, we climbed back in the car and continued on. We took the scenic route back passing Cole Val d’Elsa and VOLTERRA. We didn’t stop… but the day was getting on and we needed to get back to the Port of Livorno comfortably by 5 p.m. We were not under the gun driving-wise, but we figured, better safe than sorry. We arrived back to the car rental agency just as planned. It was a lot of driving, but well worth the experience… and we didn’t get lost! Yeah!


Okay, there was one corny thing that I have to report regarding OCEANIA. Mid-cruise I guess that it is custom for members of the crew to welcome back guests at the end of the day. There were a number of busses that did the Florence excursion so when they came back, guests were welcomed back to the ship with a red carpet, the jazz band and the crew clapping them in. Drinks were passed out as they got off the busses. Mum and Kathleen loved it… at first they didn’t know what was going on, but admitted later that they thought it was a nice touch.


Speaking of the girls, well they had a long day in Florence. They saw The Duomo,
The Cathedral, and all the major monuments. Jean wasn’t too impressed with Pisa and they stayed near the motorcoach instead of getting closer to it for a look. They did a tremendous amount of walking that day and they were “pooped” when we saw them later in the evening. They had a really nice time, but it was 11 hours long overall… a very long day for them.



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