Rick Steves’ ‘Heart of Italy’

By Nili Olay
This item appears on page 22 of the December 2020 issue.

My daughter, Maggie Logan, chose Italy as her first European destination and asked me to join her. I recommended taking a Rick Steves tour, as I’d been on two previous tours of his: Scotland (Nov. ’16, pg. 27) and the Adriatic (March ’17, pg. 26).

We found that the Oct. 3-11, 2018, “Heart of Italy” tour would work with her October teaching break and also introduce me to some parts of Italy that would be new to me.

The tour met in Rome, went to Volterra, Lucca and the Cinque Terre and ended in Florence. The cost was $2,695 per person, less my repeat customer’s discount of $100. The price included breakfasts and four dinners, site entry fees and lots of extras, such as a wine tasting.

Maggie and I decided to add a day in Rome before the trip and, at the end of the trip, to take the train from Florence back to Rome at a cost of 19.90 (near $23) per person to spend two more nights there. The extra nights, at 167 per night, were at Hotel Museum Rome (Via Tunisi 8; www.hotelmuseum.it/en), where the tour group would stay.

We had a knowledgeable guide with us the entire tour, but at each location (except Cinque Terre) we also had a local guide. All guides spoke excellent English. We used earbuds with audio, which made it easy to hear the guides in our group of 28. The bus was comfortable and had Wi-Fi and an emergency toilet.

The meals provided by the tour were incredibly good. The last night, we had a 5-course banquet. The hotels were all boutique hotels in central locations.

This was a fully guided tour, but we had free time on most days. For instance, in Rome we saw the Vatican in the morning and had the afternoon free.

I won’t describe the major sites in Rome and Florence because they’re so well known. However, I’d like to highly recommend Rome’s Galleria Borghese (www.galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it [in Italian only]). The two hours allotted to visitors flew by as we admired the sculptures of Bernini and the paintings of Caravaggio.

Tickets (15 each) are a must for the gallery, since it sells out days in advance. I also recommend the audio guide for 10. (And the cafeteria has delicious grilled cheese sandwiches for 5.)

(The Borghese was not included in our Rick Steves tour. I had hired a private guide who was supposed to get us tickets, but a week before the trip she stopped answering my emails, so we arrived in Italy with no tickets for the museum. Luckily, we were returning to Rome, so I was able to get the tickets nine days out.)

Volterra is an ancient Etruscan town built because of its strategic position in the hills. After Rome’s crowds, it was a pleasure to be in this darling little town (10,000 inhabitants) with a beautiful main square (copied by Florence) and the remains of a massive gate from Etruscan days, not to mention its exciting World War II history. During the war, locals successfully kept the Germans from blowing up the Etruscan gate by blocking it with stones.

There also were remains of a Roman theater and baths.

This little town has the largest collection of Etruscan funerary objects in the world. The Etruscan alabaster urns are beautifully preserved. I loved one urn in particular; it had an old couple on top of it in a realistic loving embrace.

Maggie and I had a delicious, inexpensive meal at the Life Bistrot Food Experience (11/19 Via Porta all’Arco, Volterra; www.lifebistrot.com [in Italian only]), which cost under 15 for both of us. The cost of the food was by weight.

Our group stopped in Lucca for four hours on the way to the Cinque Terre. This Tuscan town is charming and so much fun to visit. For opera lovers, there is the Puccini Museum, located in Puccini’s childhood home, where many of his manuscripts are on display. Visiting on our own, Maggie and I each paid the entry cost of 7.

The medieval wall around the town is a 2½-mile park with pathways and trees. There are a couple of bell towers to climb, and we climbed the Guinigi Tower (Torre Guinigi) for 4, adult, and 3, senior.

The remains of the old amphitheater is now an oval of buildings, with mostly restaurants on the ground floor. I definitely recommend Gelateria Anfiteatro 18 (Piazza Anfiteatro 18, Lucca), in the oval. In my opinion, they had the best gelato we tasted on the trip.

The Cinque Terre is, of course, picturesque. Our group stayed in nearby Levanto, a 6-minute train ride from Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the Cinque Terre towns.

Maggie and I hiked from Monte rosso to Vernazza — a rigorous hike that took almost two hours. (Some can do it in 1½ hours, but I’m a slow hiker.) We took a boat back to Monterosso.

Vernazza was extremely crowded, but Monterosso less so. We chose to relax and just people-watch rather than try to visit all five towns. There was a combination ticket for train/trail for 16, but, since we also wanted to take a boat (not included in the combination ticket), we paid separately — 7.50 to hike, 6 for the boat and 4 for the train back to Levanto.

Our guide had a combination ticket that the two of us used while we were with her in order to get to Monterosso in the morning.

On our return to Rome, we ate on two nights at L’Insalata Ricca (Piazza Risorgimento 4; insalataricca.it/restaurants/5?locale=en), near the Vatican wall and a 5-minute walk from Hotel Museum. The pasta (10) was excellent, and the bruschetta with tomato, artichoke and olive pastes (4.50) was exquisite.

This trip was a wonderful experience for both Maggie and me. She had her biggest “wow” moment at the Galleria dell’Accademia in front of Michelangelo’s “David.” I totally enjoyed Volterra and the Etruscan collection. Just as wonderful was spending almost two weeks on a mother/daughter trip.

I highly recommend a tour with Rick Steves’ Europe (Edmonds, WA; 425/771-8303, ricksteves.com). Anyone with questions may email me at niliolay@yahoo.com.

New York, NY