Italy for most is a dream destination, so when I was offered the chance to spend 10 days here as part of a Trafalgar guided holiday I jumped at the chance without actually knowing where exactly we were going ... It was Italy, it'll be good! When the itinerary arrived I discovered I had already visited several of the places we were to travel to. To be honest I was relieved, I could revisit several of my favourite places without the stress of having to take in the signature sights ... I could sit back and experience a bit of the la dolce vita.
We travelled on Emirates to one of their newer Italian destinations, Bologna. From Dubai we travelled on one of their new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. I place a lot of emphasis on the entertainment options airlines offer. I love catching up on movies, the selection presented on a beautiful seat back screen were a highlight for me along with the usual quality service, food and wines.
Bologna, much like Dunedin, is a university town. There are monumental medieval buildings, lots of cafes lining the main shopping street, hospitable bar owners, and a general university town ambience with very few tourists. You may have to get use to people smoking in public again. I had forgotten how it is to be immersed in a culture where smoking doesn't really sit in the pantheon of health evils. After checking in to the Una Hotel I headed in to the city's focal point, the Piazza Maggiore for a brief look before settling in to a bar on a street corner with a travelling companion. The bar owner was keen for us to try Italian beers, he found a couple of willing accomplices! Dinner that evening was at the hotel, all fork and spoon serving wizardry. I long ago came to the realisation that Italian food doesn't really challenge the senses, it's more about making the ingredients taste the best they can be. The higher the quality of the ingredients, the more likely the higher the quality of experience. On this occasion we had risotto and pork. The rissoto was perfect and could it be that as Guiness is best consumed in Ireland, Parmiggiano-Reggiano is best consumed in Emilia Romagna? I never quite realised that Italians layer such copious quantities on their meals, this practice will certainly add to the grocery bill when I get home.
The following morning we embarked on a tour of Bologna with the first of our Trafalgar 'Local Specialists'. Bologna was one of the cities I hadn't previously visited so was very much looking forward to this. Anna was fabulous taking in the major monuments, pointing out quirks in the architecture, highlighting Bolognese contributions to our world, and allowing us time to explore the markets, the focal point of many Italians lives. I was a bit fearful that this may have been a church followed by another church etc ... It wasn't, we visited one church which had an amazing sundial.
From Bologna we travelled towards Parma and Laghirano to visit La Perla prosciuttificio to discover how the renowned Parma ham is created starting with the fresh legs of specially raised pigs, through the seasoning and maturing process. Fair to say by the end of the 30 minute tour tasting the stuff was the only thing on my mind. Fortunately the tour was followed by a light lunch with Parma ham as the main ingredient washed down by some local sparkling red wine ... outstanding!
More culinary adventure followed visiting the family owned and operated San Bernardo Parmiggiano Reggiano factory. We were guided through the process from start to finish learning that Parmesan is especially good for all sorts of things including all muscle groups. It was emphasised that this included 'all' muscles! We of course then had the opportunity to once again sample the wares being offered, cheeses matured 12 and 24 months. The difference was quite noticeable with the older cheese having a much sharper tang to it. The cheese was served with balsamic vinegar which makes an ideal combination. During the tasting the extended family and coterie of cats drifted in and out. We were also given the opportunity to visit the family chapel featuring a painting demonstrating how the cheese was originally created centuries before.
We also had a brief look at the centre of Parma before checking into our hotel to prepare for dinner at the Euridice Restaurant. I hadn't done any research into this trip, I just wanted to relax and let things wash over me as they happened so this restaurant was a complete surprise. We arrived in the dark so I had no idea where it was in relation to Parma but those of you familiar with some of the odours that sometimes surround Dunedin airport will recognise the smell that greeted us. The interior of the restaurant reflected its origins as a farmhouse. The subsequent 4 course meal we were presented with was simply fabulous. More ham, flash baked bread pockets, pasta made superb by the Parmiggiano Reggiano and veal in I think a juniper sauce finished off by chocolate cake with berry sauce. Nothing flash but superbly cooked with the finest of ingredients. As a group we were starting to appreciate Italian dinners are not light affairs, there was far too much food but too good to let go!
This completed the first day of my Trafalgar journey. I had feared we would be rummaging through Italy at breakneck speed taking in every significant building and monument known to man. Yep, we visited a couple of these in Bologna but they were unique in their own way and equal, if not more emphasis, had been placed on understanding the people and food of the region complimented perfectly by visiting the family run Parma ham and Parmiggiano Reggiano establishments where we were greeted by extremely affable hosts. All finished off in a restaurant utilising those very ingredients. I have to say I was extremely impressed, my only concern was how to cope with another dinner!
Pisa sometimes gets some bad press as a bit of a circus. Sure there are several vendors plying their not overly reliable wares but hey if you are after a cheap token of your visit they service a need. However once you have passed by and entered the Piazza dei Miracoli you are welcomed by a truly magnificent sight and I am not referring to the leaning tower, fabulous as it is. The combination of the Baptistry, Duomo and tower is a compelling vision and while the tower may have determined the reason for your visit the other two buildings are equally worthy of your time and attention. I last climbed the tower in 1987, a lot had happened since then. A major engineering project had stabilised its existence. It costs 18 Euro to walk to the top. It is not too taxing but definitely disconcerting for those who have a slight disposition towards vertigo such as myself.
From Pisa we travelled to San Gimignano, one of my favourite places. It hasn't changed in the 25 years since my initial visit as a backpacker and I was delighted to have another opportunity to visit and experience it with a little bit more cash in the pocket! If you do nothing else grab a world best gelato from the Gelateria Dondoli and take a trip up the Torre Grosso for an outstanding view over San Gimignano and the utterly compelling Tuscan countryside. Our accommodation for the next few days was the Relais Cappuchina. The rooms had their quirks but the location is perfect looking across to the silhouette of San Gimignano. The pool is appealing even in spring. The food was very good but as always on this viaggio I sullenly had to give up some of the offerings as I reached capacity.
A fabulous day followed with more iconic Italian places in Florence guided by Magdalena, our Trafalgar 'Local Specialist'. She really brought the city to life beyond the signature monuments. Everything from tripe sandwiches to how wine was delivered to dwellings in medieval times was covered. Plenty of time to explore independently then right off the beaten track to the Castello del Trebbio for a Trafalgar Be My Guest' exclusive. Located in the hills surrounding Florence we were treated to a typical Tuscan meal washed down by the Castello's award winning wine all in the dining room of a 14th century castle.
Another cracking day ensued starting with a return trip through the always alluring Tuscan countryside to Florence's, San Ambrogio market and our debonnaire host Libero. We were paired off and given the task of buying some essential ingredients for the lunch we were to prepare. In reality preparation is stretching it a bit but the shopping was fun. Produce collected we were treated to hot focaccia and sundried tomatoes to snack on before making our way to Libero's I Tre Pini restaurant. We were greeted warmly and genuinely by Libero's staff before cracking in to making some pasta with a live trio cranking out some Italian classics and a bit of Deep Purple! Perhaps most memorable in the whole experience was the genuinely warm interaction with Libero and his people. Scott and I were given the task of preparing the soups which had already been brewing for several hours. All we had to do was add bread, basil and seasoning. Our token gesture complete we were then treated to some wines of the region before tucking in to the meal we had a small part in preparing. This may sound corny but it was an absolutely fabulous experience, something I would do again. We returned to San Gimignano and spend the rest of the afternoon supping on a 100% Sangiovese Chianti in the main square under the shadow of Torre Grosso.
A return visit to Siena wasn't something I was averse to. The last time I was there AC Milan won the European Cup and the townsfolk just went a little bit bonkers! The central piazza is a compelling sight and scene of one of the fiercest horse races known to man, a territorial reflection of local rivalries from the Middle Ages to this day. Having visited the area before and taken in the sights allowed me to to sup a couple of Cappucinos on a minuscule terrace overlooking the Piazza. Anna had pointed this cafe out to us. It is stuff like this that demonstrates the true value of the tour director. All have knowledge, we can all get that, but places like this which are in no way salubrious are true local gems frequented by locals. If you need a place to have a look at Il Palio from let me know.
Onward to Roma and Alessandro earning his wages. We were staying at the Gran Tiberio Hotel in one of the posher districts of Rome on the Vatican side of the Tiber. It is nestled in a residential area in an area of narrow streets. Awash with Italian drivers and possibly more alarming, Italian parking, Alessandro somehow twisted the bus, sorry did I say bus, Alessandro somehow twisted the coach into the hotel carpark. This was the best of the hotels we have stayed in thus far, everything worked! Vespers and other assorted giants of Italian scooter motoring lined the lobby.
En route to dinner that evening Anna and Alessandro provided a night drive of some of the highlights of Rome. Given events of the previous evening in Paris the main piazzas were heavily populated and everything appeared to be as normal. Dinner was at the Terme de Colosseo located underneath the Colosseum. It all looked very promising, the restaurant had ambience, the starter was ok then out of nowhere 3 opera singers appear knocking out a tune. No doubt they are talented but when the 3rd mega tour group arrived any pretense to a special experience was gone - this is what I thought the whole tour may have been like. Fortunately it was limited to this experience and it wasn't altogether awful.
A passiagata of Rome with Marco followed. I wasn't altogether engaged this morning, thoughts of Paris were playing on my mind. Funny how age and responsibilities affect you. Twenty or thirty years ago I would have, and did, charge on no matter the circumstances. Nowadays thoughts turn to wife and family. Marco was another quality local specialist but as I said I wasn't too engaged until we arrived at the Colosseum. Everything you hear about tour companies being able to beat the queues is true. I have visited the Colosseum on several occasions but Marco pointed out things that I had never noticed before including fountains, remnants of decoration, angles of steps etc ... Anna then added in a visit to Eataly, a high brow Roman food court and supermarket. This was an absolutely superb sidetrip, the food and beer (Reale) were exceptional and a great place to find those hard to get Italian ingredients and kitchen equipment. Again Anna had read us as a group superbly and added this in.
Another day another local specialist called Marco to take us around the Vatican. Again the museums and Vatican were bought to life by a hugely knowledgeable guide. Again we circumvented the queues and were in fact the first in to the museum. Tour complete Alessandro took us out of Rome and through some remarkable Umbrian scenery replete with hilltop towns defined by their tower houses to Assisi.
The gentile Giuseppe greeted us to conduct us on a truly engaging tour of the Basilica of St Francis including an uncomfortable opportunity to visit the corpse of St Francis himself. Again Trafalgar's local specialist added much, much more than any guidebook could ever hope to achieve pointing out facts beyond the obvious historical and artistic importance of the church. For example the lower reaches of several of the frescoes look as though the blue has washed out. Giuseppe pointed out that for centuries people have been scratching at it to to try and extract small reserves of Lapis Lazuli for the decoration of jewellery. A stroll through the truly engrossing alleys of Assisi followed before relaxing over a beer in one of the piazzas in the company of a converted Roman temple.
Our final stop on this Italian escapade was Venice. There is only one area to stay in Venice and that is on the main island. You will save substantial quantities of cash staying on the mainland but in the years to come when the actual cost of the holiday is a distant memory the opportunity to stay amidst one of the most truly magnificent cities on the planet will remain with you for perpetuity. Mind you getting there is no easy task. However, you guessed it, Anna had it sorted so it was in fact a very simple exercise. We arrived, our bags were taken from the coach, we boarded a water taxi and traveled to a dock near our hotel, our bags were there waiting for us, no stress at all.
Venice was our final stop and departure point back to New Zealand. The tour was immeasurably better than I had hoped for made possible in no small part to our driver Alessandro and tour director Anna. Alessandro was professional throughout, his driving as immaculate as his dress sense. I'm no expert but the ladies on tour were compiling pictures to use as screen savers. You probably get the picture, oh look there's one here!
Anna, the Sicilian pocket rocket was outstanding from start to finish. I have led several tours and there are days when you get a little bit frazzled. Not with Anna, not once did she appear in any way stressed or short with us. The routine was clearly established from the beginning. Her commentaries while travelling around Italy were illuminating covering everything from her own life in Sicily to the mental faculties of the Carabanieri. A professional through and through but with a character that made you feel comfortable from the outset. Her best piece of advice was "don't eat the bread", you will be wasting precious space for the culinary highlights to come. I will never forget her signature "my people" and the timeless "the toilets are not shiggy, shiggy, poshy, poshy", you had to be there!