A middle school Summer trip to Italy, God help me. 12 children, 3 parents, 2 teachers. 11 days. EF Tours was the chosen tour company, known for being cheap. (I found this out mid-trip.) They lived up to their reputation. We arrived in Milan on a Monday, after 31 hours of travel beginning at 3:30am at LAX, a long layover in NYC and finally Milan, five movies later. Important Note: From LAX they have nonstop flights to Milan that arrive in 10 hours. The tour booked the flights. Once at the airport, we had to wait 6 hours for other groups to arrive, and our guide. It seems we were the first to arrive of all the other school groups. No one told us we were traveling with other groups. Tiny tidbit. 51 of us piled onto our tour bus that would become our second home for the next 9 days. I’m not a group person. Just putting that out there. I thought it would be fun to go to Italy with my son and other kids from the film and performing arts academies at his middle school. I was also 11-years-old the first time I toured Italy.
Despite the lack of information, long flight, long wait, and a bus filled with mostly strangers, and a few homesick (vomiting) children, my son and I managed to enjoy ourselves, in spite of the exhausting pace, terrible hotel food, and simple lodgings (I’m being nice). I learned day 1 that in order to experience Italy, really experience Italy, we would have to break away from the group. Otherwise my son would think Italy consisted of plain, tasteless pasta, bad American casseroles, and horrible pudding desserts. You see I’d lived in and toured Italy several times in my youth and by day 2 when they told us we only had three hours in Venice, I decided to have a chat with our tour guide. Lucky for us she understood my need to break away and go at our own pace. Even though I’d already sunk $8,000 into this tour (yes you heard that right) I resolved to sink another $2,000 in food and extra taxis to stay as long as possible in each city. You see, there was no way my son wasn’t going to experience Venice at night. That was just the beginning. Luckily, unlike a typical American I was no stranger to Europe. I wasn’t afraid to navigate the cities alone. I had my trusty iPhone and offline maps. Plus, I recruited another mom and her daughter. We made a plan. We’d travel on the bus from city to city, but once the bus pulled up we’d ask the tour guide where and when we could meet the bus, and what hotel we were going to next in case we missed the bus!
I’d like to share with you the highlights of our quest to savor 10 cities in 10 days “the italian way” while keeping up with the ridiculous “fast food” style pace of EF Tours. Perhaps these highlights will help you if you find yourself taking a trip to Italy with your son or daughter next Summer. Our tour began in Milan and then the bus traveled south to Venice, Pisa, Florence, Assisi, Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, Naples and ended in Rome where we left to fly home to Los Angeles. By the way, Dan Brown fans should note, we also managed to visit all the sites in Rome from the book “Angels and Demons.”
- Wandering through the Duomo in Milan after traveling 31 hours – stunning inside and out. No photos are allowed in this church without paying a fee to don a wristband. I decided to skip the interior photos. Who needs more photos of the inside of the Duomo. We could look with our eyes. No need for selfies.
- Staying in a Hotel near Venice and Paying $12 per device, per night to have unusable WIFI in our room. This was the first hotel we stayed in. Keep in mind this was after a 31 hour trip, a brief tour of Milan and then a 3-hour drive to a hotel outside of Venice. My son had his iPad and I had my iPhone. We were both hoping to have a little time to connect with home, with my husband (it was Father’s Day back home). No luck. The internet was unusable. I had hoped technology had improved in Italy since my youth, but alas it had not. Even sitting on the cold floor in the hallway where the reception was better, it still was too slow to attempt a voice call via SKYPE or check Email. I ended up using the pre-purchased data on my phone instead to reach the U.S.A. It was at this point that I knew I wouldn’t be getting any late night work done while my son was sleeping. This is important for any traveler to know. If you plan to attempt to work in Italy you must stay in major cities, in large, chain hotels such as a Holiday Inn, otherwise don’t plan on having usable internet. Remember Viva Italia.
3. Wandering through the streets of Venice late into the night —finding costume stores and masks. Getting great shots of Venice at dusk and then finding our own way back to the hotel. Memorable moments in Venice were the gondola ride, going to the top of the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square. Biggest regret, missing the inside of the St. Mark’s Cathedral. It was closed by the time we came out of the dungeons of Doges Palace (a must see). The rest of the tour left at 4PM. We opted out. We stayed in town, found our own food, and then, with the help of the ferry attendants caught the correct ferry to the mainland, and then hopped in a taxi to our hotel. Our tour guide had written down the name and address of the hotel. It was perfect. What did the other kids do while we traversed the tiny pathways of Venice by night? They swam in the hotel pool in a suburb. Thankfully my son preferred to stay in Venice too and didn’t care that he missed the “pool party.” He doesn’t like crowds either.
4. Getting stuck in the tiny elevator at the Bargello Museum in Florence.
Built for six people, we were stuck with three rather large strangers in 100 degree weather, sweat pouring down all of us. It took 3 men, 15 minutes and several resets to get us out of the elevator.
We found out later that another part of our group had been in the same elevator earlier that day. They said it was acting up on them too. My advice – TAKE THE STAIRS at the Bargello – it’s only two stories. And, I highly recommend the Bargello Museum if only for the bronze David by Donatello (circa 1440) predating Michelangelo’s David.
5. Running through the Boboli Gardens in Florence in pouring rain with thunder and lightning. It was empty, thanks to the rain, and quite biblical in Florence with all that hail and rain.
The paths are lined with a type of decomposed granite so it was not muddy at all. A must see for any Dan Brown fan who has read his latest book, Inferno.
6. Shopping for leather then eating at Yellow Bar in Florence. I went crazy for leather bracelets in Florence. From the San Lorenzo market to a tiny shop called Saude – a gem of handmade jewelry that rivals any jewelry found in stores like Barneys. Absolutely exquisite, and not expensive. After shopping, we stopped at the Yellow Bar – an excellent restaurant for kids and grown ups. We had good homemade pasta. We went there for lunch two days in a row. The first day I had the Gnocchi with tomato sauce, the second day I had Pizza. Both incredible. Inexpensive, simple and wonderful and half a block away from the Bargello Museum, very close to the Duomo. This was my third favorite restaurant in Italy.
7. Our 2 hour bus break in Assisi on the three hour drive to Rome. I decided to immediately break away from the group of 51 heading to one restaurant. 10 of us took a different route down a winding tiny path to a real gem, Medio Evo.
This was easily one of my top 3 meals in all of Italy. We all agreed, the food was mouthwateringly good! Thank you Triposo for providing fabulous restaurant recommendations from my iPhone without the need for WIFI! If you are traveling to Italy make sure to download the Triposo App for Italy prior to leaving. Unfortunately, due to the tight schedule, we barely made it into the church at the bottom of the hill, just glancing inside before running to our bus.
8. Crashing a wedding in Rome to view the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria. I will never forget the priest at the altar looking at me with his head shaking as he repeated, “Signora, please” as I squeezed by the groom’s family in my wet plastic parka to view the statue first hand. How could I miss the church so clearly described in Dan Brown’s book as a “… a woman inflamed by passions fire …”? A statue considered pornographic and considered by many to be the most unfit piece of art to be in a church. We had one free day in Rome, and I had to see it. The bride was not there yet. They church had just opened and it was only for a moment. I could tell it was an expensive wedding. The men were dressed in designer suits, the women in beautiful dresses. But I just looked at the priest and said “1 day in Rome, 1 day. Please.” I took photos as quickly as I could. Only one ended up being in focus. We were in and out in a flash. No harm, no foul. And we did not walk down the center aisle.
9. Following the Dan Brown Path of Illumination through Rome from the book “Angels and Demons.” We didn’t get to see everything, but we came close.
Some things to expect if you also want to follow this. a) The West Wind plaque on the ground in St. Peter’s Square is covered by chairs and barricaded 24/7 due to the Pope holding weekly service in the square each Wednesday morning. I managed to get a photo of the Angel’s East Wind blowing west – not the same, but close. b) Raphael’s Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo is under construction so you can’t see the “demon hole in the ground,” where Langdon discovered the first body. If you squeeze into the right, you can get a shot of the Bernini sculpture of the “Habakkuk and the Angel” pointing west. This is a stunning church, so it’s a must see in my book. Remember this is a smaller church off the square and not the largest church facing the center of the square c) Viewing the Ecstasy of St. Theresa was not easy as described above – this church has odd hours and if you are there on a weekend, a wedding could get in your way. Other than that, no problems seeing Piazza Navona where the 4th cardinal was thrown into the fountain, or visiting the Castel St. Angelo. For a great self-guided “Angels and Demons” tour or Rome check out this.
10. My 11 year old son rating the Sistine Chapel an 8 out of 10. We were standing in the Sistine Chapel looking up when he asked me from a scale of 1 to 10 what would I rate the Sistine Chapel. I said 10 of course, and he said 8! “8!” I said. “Really?” My new found friend on the tour, another mom told him that it was all hand painted by one man and he moved his rating up to a 9. She then told him that none of it was 3D, and it was all painted, and he looked a little longer before raising it to 9.5. Hmm. It was very crowded, but it’s still a 10 out of 10 in my book.
11. A barrage of phallic symbols with angel wings of Pompeiian proportions and erotic, movable keychains, specifically three nude people that the saleswoman called a “sandwich.” I bought that one.
I asked a woman working at one of the stands what the deal was with all these penises with wings and she explained the story of the fertility god Priapus. Wow! Who knew there would be erotic art all over Pompeii.
12. Skipping rocks at night near the harbor of Sorrento. After another mediocre dinner at another mediocre hotel, we hiked down a zigzag hill, the likes of which you might see in a James Bond movie to see the beach at night. About 6 of us ventured down. I wished I had brought my swimsuit, but I wasn’t about to hike back up to get it so we just hung out and waded in the water instead. Overall I LOVED Sorrento for the 2 hours I got to spend in town. I wanted more time, but there was just no time on this tour to relax. Sorrento is definitely a place to return. There was a lot to buy and see and very inexpensive prices. I purchased beautiful scarves for my daughter and myself for only 3 Euros each, a cool bag for her, and a few caps. The gelato here was incredible too. It was just along the main shopping streets. It had entrances from both sides, accessible from the two main shopping streets.
13. Capri. On our final day of the tour, I decided that today my son and I wouldn’t even attempt to see one single tour with the group. (He completely agreed with me.) Instead, we decided that today would be the day that we would enjoy great food, relax and enjoy a quiet day on our own. Even if it meant missing the funicular to the top, the walking tour through gardens or the boat tour around the island. Nope, we wanted NONE of it.
We jumped off the boat upon arrival in Capri, said so long to our group and headed toward one of the quintessential Italian cafes lining the harbor. I ordered a cappuccino, my son ordered a hot chocolate, and we both ate fluffy, warm omelettes, yum, while we watched our group get rained on in the harbor at the start of their harbor tour. We tried not to laugh. Straight after breakfast, we meandered through the shops along the water to buy a couple of gifts for my younger children who did not join us on this trip. After, we headed to the Marina Grande beach. I had read the Marina Piccola was the best, but I wanted to keep it simple after 9 days with this group. We found a perfect spot on the beach and relaxed, watching the Italian women and children play in the water. My son set up his iPad to record a Time Lapse Video of our time on the beach. I love the way it turned out. I’m one of the many women in a black bikini, and he is the only child with American swim trunks. My son climbed on the rocks, and then we both swam and floated. The Mediterranean was so salty we hardly needed to move. Our bodies just floated to the top. We were so thrilled to have a relaxing day at the beach! Finally! Better late than never. If the tour had planned for more than 4 hours on Capri, we would have gone up to the top, but with this tour there just was never enough time. OH! Don’t let me forget. After laying at the beach for three hours, we had a brilliant lunch at “Lo Smeraldo” right on the Marina at the water’s edge. The restaurant was to die for. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this restaurant. Thank you this time to Yelp for rating this #6 out of all restaurants on Capri. Everything is great at this restaurant and the home made gelato was incredible. By the way, I had Spaghetti Puttanesca and my son had a pomodoro sauce with pasta. We both loved it.
Take a look at this time-lapse video my son shot of our couple hours at the beach.
14. Last Dinner in Rome with Giuseppe. We drove back to Rome that day at 2:30pm. From Capri to Naples by boat, onto the bus and straight to Rome. Our hotel, Holiday Inn. The best hotel of the entire trip and the only real breakfast we had. The other breakfasts were continental and some were even leftover cake from the dessert the night before! Anyway the dinner. Well, we were taken yet again to a dinner to feed 51 people. Not a small feat. They sat down the Primi Piatti of pasta. I took one taste and said Nope. It was tasteless. I don’t know how it’s possible, but it tasted like plain pasta boiled without salt, even though it had a sauce! I politely got up and let the coordinator know that my son and I would be heading across the courtyard for a dinner on our own. I had the pleasure of meeting Guiseppe, and dining at his (I think it was his) incredible restaurant, Trattoria da Luigi. My new friend, the mom and her daughter joined us 5 minutes later and we had the 2nd best dinner of our entire trip. I had the special Tagliolini with swordfish and tomatoes. She had Spaghetti Vongole. My son had lasagne (incredible) and her daughter had a Fettucine al Fredo. All superb. Thank you Giuseppe. If you visit this restaurant say hello to Giuseppe for me. Remind him that we were a group of 4 who defected from our group of 51 and love red wine, especially Tignanello.
15. Making a new friend. Through all of the disasters including hail and pouring rain for half of the trip, getting trapped in an elevator, getting lost, waiting hour upon hour for our large group to go the bathroom or get money out of ATMs, eating terrible food at hotels and restaurants where we were always led to the basement. Staying in subpar hotels that I would never stay in on my own, going to demonstrations designed only as an intro to purchase their goods, eating leftover cake that they called breakfast, having air conditioner condensation leak onto my head on the bus, and hoping for WIFI decent enough to Facetime my younger children and husband at home. Through all of that, I had a great time because I met a mom just like me. We sat together for every meal, hung out together in our free time, with our children, and had a lot of fun on our own exploring Italy in spite of the fast-paced tour. We have vowed to return to Florence, Rome, and Sorrento without a tour, on our own. We will start at Trattoria da Luigi and eat our way through Italy!