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13 Days in Heaven (or, How I Spent My Spring Vacation)

First, I sincerely want to thank Great Tours Of Italy, Simoné Martini (owner and tour director) and Giuseppe (our fearless driver) for the best vacation of my life.

You see, I’ve always loved to travel, visit the sights I’ve only read about, discover and experience other cultures. But, with no travel partner at the moment, I’d put those dreams on hold. How could someone who’d spent her life under a cloak of invisibility find the self-security to leave her cocoon and venture out into the world alone?

Well, let me tell you. All it took was yet another birthday at home to spark the realization that I’d be locked in my dreams forever if I didn’t pluck up and go. But so many aspects needed consideration.

With my backpacking days long over, transportation, hotels and wrangling suitcases was a big one. Plus, call me paranoid, but a woman traveling alone seemed an easy target. So, a guided tour struck me as the most practical approach. I could leave the logistics to an expert who’d ensure my safety and deepen my understanding of the culture and history of the region I wanted to visit.

Italy has long been on my bucket list. The ancient ruins, the art, architecture, and scenic beauty of the country–and let’s not forget the food and wine–have beckoned and stimulated my imagination since childhood. It was the perfect jumping off point.

After a few weeks of research on travel and review sites, I

found a tour company that covered all my parameters. Great Tours of Italy (GTI) provides small group excursions (maximum of sixteen passengers) to Northern, Central and Southern Italy. I chose their Bella Italia route because it included my three main points of interest—Rome, Venice, and Pompeii—with stops in several other towns and villages. And the best part was that their price included every tour (no optional surprises), two meals a day, hotels, transportation, and baggage handling. I only had to show up, and they’d do the rest. Booyah!

When I arrived in Rome after a very long flight from California, my nagging insecurity of blending in with a bunch of strangers, and being the outsider without a partner, was put to rest by eight of the most amiable, and welcoming fellow travelers one could meet. Our group consisted of one married couple and seven women, each of us looking forward to thirteen days of exploration, enlightenment, and shopping. Yes (fist pump)!

Massimo was the knowledgeable local guide in Rome who narrated our visit to the Coliseum, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps through headsets provided by the tour company. Pointing out the main sights, his fascinating historical lectures provided a deeper understanding of how early Romans lived, worked and worshiped in the Eternal City.

Of course, one can’t go to Rome and not see the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. The day we went, the queue wound around the ancient wall for blocks. It was longer than any Disneyland ride I’d ever seen and would’ve taken hours to negotiate. But, because our tour company had made

reservations, our guide ushered us to the front of the line and we walked right in like VIPs. Thanks to GTI, our group enjoyed a narrated, leisurely visit to one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth.

Dinner that night was at the “Ristorante La Tavernetta”, a mom and pop local “cucina” along the Appian Way. Several antipasto dishes followed by Mama’s special lasagna and several glasses of wine fully satisfied our appetites.

Three days in Florence gave us plenty of time for a narrated tour of the Academy Museum to view Michelangelo’s Statue of David and shop for the best values in leather goods.

Our tour director, Simoné Martini, shared his insider’s knowledge of the shops and set us free to explore and spend, spend, spend. Four handbag purchases later, I teamed up with Diane and Donna (the Jersey girls) for an Amazing Race type adventure through the streets of Florence to find our assigned meeting point. Ha! They actually trusted me with the map!

Just outside Florence, Simoné had arranged a private tour for us at a Tuscan winery (check out their Facebook page here: (Vini Di Toscana). Our host, Andrea, escorted us through the picturesque grounds of the vineyard and instructed us on their wine making process. An extravagant multi-course lunch with wine tastings topped off the afternoon.

San Gimignano, Volterra and Pisa followed on day six with dinner at a Tuscan farm (Agriturismo) for a belly busting barbecue with more free-flowing wine.

Something to note here: coffee shops are called "bars" in Italy for a reason. Instead of a venti frappe anything, the common service is a tiny cup of espresso that you drink while standing at "the bar." It isn't a hangout, you rarely see chairs, you just get your caffeine fix and leave. It was a definite adjustment for me.

Moving on, we navigated the Venetian waterways for two days. Day one, on the island of Burano with its unique multicolored houses, we shopped for the finest handmade lace. One little boutique gave special discounts to tourists with GTI. A gondola ride and drink at Harry’s Bar ($23 for a shot of Bailey’s?) finished day two.

In the quaint village of Assisi, Daniela Moretti guided us through the Basilica di S. Chiara and gave us time for still more shopping. When I purchased handbag number five from a local merchant, he hugged and kissed me. Seriously, more people need to shop here!

The previous week had flown by and day nine brought us to the Amalfi Coast. Our driver, Giuseppe, fearlessly (and with only a few swear words) negotiated the traffic on the narrow, winding road facing the blue Mediterranean. Because of his expertise, we were rewarded with breathtaking sights reminiscent of the views from the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California. And each of our rooms in the cliff-side Hotel La Lucertola had a panoramic view of the Bay of Sorrento. Our three night stay here was pure bliss.

Limoncello liqueur and ceramics were the main shopping attraction in this region and we were taken directly to the factories for the best values. During an easy stroll through the village of Vietri, we discovered the lemons here grew to the size of grapefruits!

While some of our group spent a day in Capri, me and the Jersey girls opted to relax and soak in the sunshine at this beautiful spot.

Our last tour, and the one I’d been anxiously awaiting, took us to the ruins of Pompeii. There, another local guide, Mena, explained the historical significance of the city and gave us insights as to the daily lives of its inhabitants. In its day, Pompeii was a bustling port town with crowded storefronts, villas, and venues for entertainment. Most fascinating to me was their use of ancient technologies to provide water and heat for the public baths and homes of the wealthy.

During our thirteen days in Italy, our group traipsed fifty miles up and down hills and steps, across numerous bridges and through countless museums and churches. We’d shopped for fine lace, leather, liqueurs, ceramics, fun souvenirs, and extra suitcases to carry it home. Our diets forgotten, we’d indulged in calzones the size of ten-inch plates, a plentitude of pizza, nightly multi-course dinners and became Italian wine connoisseurs. Best of all, I made eight new friends who I’ll never forget: Judy George, Diane Gormley and Donna Long (the Jersey girls), Pam and Dave Lamm, Joanie and Kristin Newton, and Arletta Salko.

Now that I’m a seasoned solo traveler, where should I go next?

Care to share your travel experiences?

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