My wife and I had a glorious three-week trip to Italy in March-April, 2009. But we also had a great time planning and researching for the trip during the six months prior to our departure.
Our first step in our research was to read up on Italian art, architecture, history and culture to decide where we wanted to spend our 21 days. I also devoured a few works of literature to get into the mood.
I bought a couple of travel guides plus a few books on Michelangelo and Leonardo and began to read profusely around the beginning of September 2008. My sister had visited Italy a few years earlier and she lent me some of her books which included a couple more travel guides, books on Florence and Venice by Mary McCarthy and The Italians by Luigi Barzini. She even lent me an interesting murder mystery that took place in modern Venice.
The two books I enjoyed the most that first month were Michelangelo’s Mountain by Eric Scigliano and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The former was all about how Michelangelo obtained his marble from the Carrara mountains in Tuscany. And the latter helped set the argument for visiting Stresa and Lake Maggiore where most of the events in the book took place.
The various guide books were all helpful. Frommer’s Italy 2008 was quite detailed. The Eyewitness guides to Italy and the Uffizi in Florence were filled with interesting pictures. We liked the style of Rick Steves Italy 2009, however, and we ended up bringing that book along with us.
We next decided to study the air travel situation and it soon became apparent that our 21 days would have to be reduced to 19 in order to allow one-night stop-overs both at the beginning and end of our trip. Then when we decided that Aer Lingus was the best way to go (nonstop service from San Francisco to Dublin; discounted air fare) we also decided to give ourselves a bonus: a few more days of vacation in Ireland! So the plan was to fly from San Francisco to Dublin, stay seven days in Ireland, then fly from Dublin to Milan. On our last day in Rome we would fly back to Dublin, spend the night there, and then fly back to San Francisco the next day. Since we would be flying to Milan in the early morning we decided to spend the night at a Dublin airport hotel which provided shuttle service to the airport.
It was fairly easy to plan our week in Ireland. We decided to spend two days in Sutton on the coast in northwest County Dublin. Then we would spend four days with cousins in Northern Ireland and finally the one night near the Dublin airport.
By November it was pretty clear to us that we wished to spend four days each in Milan, Venice and Florence and our final seven days in Rome. It was not an absolute necessity for us to be in Rome during Easter but we are glad we decided to do so. We also had decided that we would ride the trains to get to everywhere we wanted to go and so we read up on Trenitalia, the Italian railroad system. We were surprised to learn that we could not make a reservation and pay with a foreign credit card unless we were already in Italy. This potential problem disappeared when we then decided to pay cash for our tickets to the next city on our itinerary as soon as we arrived at the railroad station and located the nearest ATM machine. We also planned to travel first class exclusively on Italy’s Eurostar lines because of their reputation for comfort and reliability and there wasn’t much difference in the price between first and second class. You also should be able to keep an eye on your luggage at all times when you are in a first class accommodation.
Rick Steves tends to recommend 1 or 2 star economical hotels but we decided that we would not be comfortable in these types of establishments. None of the other guide books satisfied us, either. So we went on the Internet and read zillions of reviews on TripAdvisor and chose our hotels in Milan, Florence and Rome from those that received the highest TripAdvisor ratings. Another factor in choosing the hotel was the proximity to the central railroad station and to the places in town we wanted to see. The hotels we chose were the Berna in Milan, the Casci in Florence and the La Residenza in Rome. All three hotels had their own websites and we dealt with them directly in booking our rooms.
Our Irish cousins planned to meet us during our stay in Venice and they recommended to us their favorite hotel there. So we all stayed at the Santa Marina, a nice little hotel just a few minutes from the Rialto Bridge in one direction and St. Mark’s Square in another. They also had their own website.
All four of our hotels served full breakfasts at no extra cost. We also booked upgrades to the standard rooms offered in three of the hotels. These rooms were called either superior or deluxe and were larger that the standard rooms. One, in Rome, came with a large balcony.
The Hotel Berna is a couple of blocks from the central railroad station and the entrance to the Metro station is only a block away. Just about everything we wanted to see in Milan was less than 10 minutes away by subway.
The Casci Hotel in central Florence was two or three blocks from all of the sites and we walked to all of them. The railroad station is about eight blocks away.
The La Residenza Hotel in Rome is a couple of blocks from Via Veneto and we had to take a taxi from the railroad station. There is a Metro station three blocks away which we used to go to the Vatican and to the Coliseum. Popular tourist sites such as the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain are a little more than a mile away. We found them to be pleasant walks downhill from our hotel in the mornings but somewhat difficult uphill climbs back to our hotel in the evenings.
We paid cash for nearly everything in Italy and there were ATM machines nearby all of our hotels.
Viewing Leonardo’s Last Supper was Number One on our list for things to do and see in Milan and we did not want to be disappointed in not being able to obtain tickets. So we went online and booked a half-day Milan city tour (http://www.zaniviaggi.it/default_eng.asp) a couple of months before our trip. This city tour guaranteed that we would be able to see The Last Supper.
We did not buy anything in advance for Venice and Rome, which left us free to do anything we wanted on any given day. The Santa Marina hotel in Venice gave us free tickets to a Murano glassware showroom which we used on our last day in Venice.
We were extremely satisfied with the service we received from the Hotel Casci prior to our trip. They made reservations for us for both the Uffizi art museum and the Accademia and because we stayed for more than three days we were given a half-day wine tasting bus tour of Chianti. They also offered for free a full-day bus tour to San Gimignano and Sienna to those who spent at least five days at their hotel. We only stayed four days, though, but we wanted to go on this tour, too. So we paid extra for this tour.
The La Residenza hotel hosted free wine and ors d’ouvres parties in their large lounge twice a week (on Tuesdays and Fridays). We attended both parties when we were there and were impressed with the quality of wine and food. We also met a charming couple from Australia at the first party and we partied again a few days later.
During our six months of planning I spent some time trying to learn Italian. I did not get as far as I had hoped but I managed to learn most of the basic everyday words. The most important thing for us was to be able to read and understand a train ticket. Overall, I think the most important word I learned was “Grazie!”
Our planning was complete by the end of February and on March 18th we flew to Dublin.
Our trip to Europe in 2009 was such a success that our plans and researching methods were very similar for our trip this year to Portugal and Spain. The only major modification this year was to the time of the year. It rained two of the four days in Milan and one day in Venice but the weather was fine in Florence and Rome. Consequently, we decided to travel this year in May. In future years we will probably not travel much earlier than mid April.
Yes, it was a great trip but I have to admit that I enjoyed the planning almost as much as the trip itself!