Venice
Italian Holiday
Beyond the Gondola Rides and Ruins.

By PATTY LANOUE STEARNS

Here was the deal: a guided tour for two of Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Verona, Padua and Chianti country. All in eight days. All for about $3,700. I was propelled by visions of fabulous seven-course meals, awesome architecture, conversations with fascinating Italians, a romantic gondola serenade by a Venetian hunk. Reality being the party pooper it is, let's just say the Globus tour was rushed; I'm still panting. The photo opportunities were magnificent--from the bus. The time spent touring the attractions was sweet but short. I mingled with my mostly American tourmates.

What's more, the food wasn't always memorable, and the optional tours, extra meals and gifts brought our total up to $5,000. But, hey, I wanted to see as much as I could with few hassles on my first trip to Italy, and I did. My husband and I can't wait to go back and do it again--alone. Italy is breathtakingly beautiful, and probably no amount of time there would be enough. But it was a marvelous first jab. I even had an experience in the Sistine Chapel that one might be tempted to call divine intervention. So if you're hot to take a tour there--fall and winter are great, uncrowded times--here's how travel brochure promises translate into reality.

DAY 1: Arrival in Rome. Time to rest or start exploring the Eternal City. At 6 p.m. meet your tour director and leave the hotel for a welcome dinner with wine in one of Rome's fine restaurants. Reality: Arrived at the airport at 8:45 a.m., but didn't get to the Hotel Albani--only a 25-minute drive--until 11:30 a.m. after waiting for other tour members. The rooms weren't ready, and our luggage didn't arrive until 3 p.m., so the group nodded out in the lobby. The hotel was just far enough from the center of Rome that reaching anyplace meaningful by foot meant a two-mile hike. At 6 p.m., the 35 or so tour members met, got the sales pitch from our guide and signed up for the next few days of optional tours. Dinner at the Mangrovia--a wood-paneled, walk-down bistro near the train station--if not fine, was very good. After dinner we were free to wander the heart of Rome. The city was electric with lovers, laughter, tourists, Gypsies, fashion plates, militia, squealing cabs and spotlights illuminating the ancient ruins and newly restored fountains and statues. I got my cappuccino fix in an outdoor cafe across from Bernini's gleaming fountain, the Rivers.

DAY 2: Rome. Sightseeing with your local guide starts with vistas of the beautiful Piazza Venezia and the Roman Forum; visit the Colosseum . . . proceed via Circus Maximus and across the Tiber to Janiculum Hill for a sweeping panoramic view. Reality: The 8 a.m. bus tour was early but lovely; allotting only 20 minutes to view the inside of the Colosseum--ancient Rome's most famous ruins and the only one listed that we actually got to see up close--was a travesty. The guide insisted we'd do well to buy the "Rome--Then and Now" books his buddy was hawking. We stood in line like fools for 10 more minutes waiting to pay $10 for the small one, $20 for the large. Then the optional tours: The Catacombs of St. Sebastian took us underground to the early Christians' burial gallery, a fascinating, dimly lit maze of narrow corridors. Later, we saw Moses, our first Michelangelo sculpture, in the church of St. Peter in Chains. After that, our bus rolled down the ancient Appian Way, past the aqueduct ruins, chestnut groves and lush vineyards to the volcanic Lake Albano, just below the Pope's summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. A 30-minute stop at this picturesque mountain lake merely whetted the appetite for a lazy afternoon in the sun. Back on the bus, we headed for Frascati, a mountaintop village famous for its fruity white wine and its penchant for porchetta--herb-stuffed, long-roasted medallions of suckling pig, eaten between slices of crusty bread and sold from stands. For all of Frascati's charm, the dinner at Cantina del Pergolato, the Italian equivalent of a Ponderosa Steak House, was the least appetizing meal of the tour: a plate of greasy porchetta, prosciutto and salami, followed by a plate of greasy pasta with tomato sauce, followed by a plate of greasy pork and potatoes. Dessert: a plastic bowl filled with ice cubes and peaches, which, when examined, were rotten.

DAY 3: Optional tour of the Sistine Chapel; St. Peter's Square and Basilica. Follow the Aurelian Way along the Tyrrhenian coast to Pisa. Then on to Florence, the splendid capital of Tuscany. Reality: Board the bus at 7:45 a.m., then stand in line outside the Vatican with 10,000 other tourists. Once inside, strain to see and hear tour guide. Amazing grace: In the seconds that our group stood in the packed entryway waiting to climb the stairs to the museums and the Sistine Chapel, we looked across the room and saw my parents, who were on a seven-country tour (see accompanying story). "We were praying we'd see you," my mom yelled. We embraced, then bolted to catch up with our tour groups, which were disappearing in opposite directions. In the museum, our tour guide just happened to have a guy on hand who was hawking $20 books. Wiser now, we spent our time ogling the tapestries on the walls, then sped upstairs to the Sistine Chapel for Michelangelo's ceiling. Outside, we saw the Pope--a small, pink dot in a cloth-draped balcony high above St. Peter's Square. "Italians love the Pope," said our guide, "but they disagree with everything he says." Back on the bus for the 277-mile trip to Florence, through the rich, grapevine- and olive tree-laden hills of Tuscany, past charming trattorias along the Tyrrhenian coast, we finally pulled into a gas station-snack bar for lunch. Our guide announced we had one hour, one choice, and it was more pork: ham and cheese sandwiches. By this time, several other tour members were grumbling about the food. I complained bitterly. Our guide grudgingly went into the kitchen, then returned with, "Yes, they can do sit-down service. But remember--you only have one hour." At that gas station, I wolfed down the best spaghetti alla Bolognese in memory. In Pisa there was time only for obligatory photos of each of us leaning in the opposite direction of the tower, a dollop of gelato, a slurp of cappuccino. We hit the Hotel Sheraton Firenze, a first-class hotel requiring a $10 cab ride to any point of interest. Dinner, part of the package, was acceptable, but instead of the regular hotel dining room, we supped in a loud, charmless, brightly lit breakfast room.

DAY 4: Guided sightseeing in Florence. The afternoon is free. Reality: A fascinating walk through the cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, past pricey shops, into the Gallery of Fine Arts to admire Michelangelo's David, then on to the Piazza Duomo's green-and-white marble-faced Bapistery. The 15th- Century sculpted bronze doors depict stories of the Old Testament, the interior domed ceiling is a multicolored marvel of gilded frescoes. The Piazza Signorio's Fountain of Neptune and other dramatic sculptures had our heads spinning. In a tour of a leather shop, we observed the fine art of Florentine leather making, we got a fine sales message--and we obliged. We wandered with another couple to find sustenance. We dove into thin-crusted pizza on the Caffe Il David's outdoor patio, then browsed on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest bridge (1345), which spans the Arno River and features gold and diamond shops on both sides. A trip to the Uffizi Gallery, with its da Vincis, Michelangelos and Botticellis, was mind-blowing.

DAY 5: Florence-Venice. North through the fertile Lombardian plains to Verona, medieval setting of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." See Juliet's balcony and stroll around the market square. In the afternoon, visit the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. Reality: A 176-mile bus trip. The countryside was lovely; Juliet's balcony, in a vine-covered courtyard, was interesting, but it cost $12 to ascend the steep stairs to get up there. On to Padua, a pit stop, and another basilica. But then we arrived in Venice, and our karma improved. Though our room in the Hotel Principe, on the main waterway, looked into someone's bathroom, we didn't plan to spend time there anyway; this rhapsody of waterways, shops, statues, ruins and Veneto-Byzantine architecture was way too exciting. Our romantic gondola ride featured a serenade by a Jack Warden look-alike with a Pavarotti voice. Later we ate a gourmet meal on the terrace at the hotel, then strolled the streets.

DAY 6: Sightseeing by private boat and walking tour . . . Also watch Venetian glass blowers fashion delicate objects in their age-old tradition. Afterward, enjoy Venice at your own pace. Reality: Fascinating--from the elaborate, golden mosaics and Escher-like, geometrically patterned floors of the circa- 1094 basilica, to the Gothic Doges' Palace with its gilt- framed paintings on every ceiling, to the centuries-old prison next to the Bridge of Sighs, to the glass-blowing demo. Afterward, the old sales pitch: Buy this gaudy red glass- and-24-karat gold vase for only $62,000; we'll ship it to the United States at no extra charge. On our own, we climbed to the roof of the basilica, then took an elevator to the Bell Tower across the street for a breathtaking panorama of the Venetian islands--San Giorgio Maggiore, Murano, Burano and Torcello. We joined some of our group at Trattoria Alla Scala for a superb four-course feast.

DAY 7: Venice-Rome. Through the lush plains of the mighty Po, across the Etruscan Appenine Mountain Range. An exciting detour then takes you into the Tuscan Hills, which are the home of Chianti wines. After a lunch break, speed south along the Highway of the Sun. Reality: Great scenery and one helluva bus ride -- 359 miles. Back in Rome that evening, we tossed our three coins in Trevi fountain, wandered into Trattoria Tritone, and had the best dinner of the trip--tortellini a la vodka, chicken in roasted red pepper sauce, fresh baby greens and cherry tomatoes, espresso and tiramisu--as a guitarist strummed softly. A magic moment in the Eternal City.

DAY 8: Your homebound transatlantic flight arrives the same day. Reality: At Kennedy Airport, after a nine-hour flight, our plane to Detroit left nearly two hours later than our Globus documents showed. We waited at a snack bar, drinking bad coffee and eating hot dogs, for three hours. Arrivederci, Roma.

Copyright: Detroit Free Press

Caption: The Grand Canal in a gondola, the only way to travel in Venice.




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