Monday, July 04, 2022

Review of Rick Steve's Heart of Italy Tour

 About Us:

At the time we started planning this trip, I had just turned 60 and my husband had just turned 65.  We are in good health.  

I LOVE to travel.  I like going new places and seeing new things.  I'm a history buff and a reader.  Europe has been on my bucket list for some time, but I've had minor kids in the house for the last 29 years and with the ages and personalities of my kids, not to mention the size of my bank account, taking them to Europe has never been in the cards.  However, in May, 2022, my baby turned 18 and shortly thereafter, graduated from high school.  We were DONE with parenting (at least as much as you are ever done with it).  


While I roll with the punches pretty well, my husband hates it when things don't go according to plan. Throw in a language barrier and he was not at all comfortable with do-it-yourself planning.  I decided that if something went wrong, I'd rather he was unhappy with a tour employee than with me.  

Our Tour Choice:

We decided on Rick Steves' Heart of Italy Tour. It starts in Rome and heads to Volterra and Cinque Terra before ending in Florence.  It is called a nine day tour but it is really a little over seven.  Day one started in the late afternoon and day nine ended after breakfast.  

Overall Impression:

We LOVED it.  There is no way we could have seen as much on our own. These people are pros at logistics and timing and have contacts in all these places.  Every penny we spent on this tour was absolutely worth it.  

We enjoyed spending time with our fellow tour members and there were few enough of them that we could remember names.  We also liked the fact that we covered the big "must see" attractions with the tour group but that we also had a nice block of free time in each place to do what we wanted to do, even if that was sleep.  

We had time on our own in Rome before the tour started and we went to Venice when it was over, but while we enjoyed both  we accomplished a lot more on the tour--and when we were with the guide we didn't get lost.


For the two of us, we paid Rick Steves $5500.  During the tour we had to buy all our lunches but one and found that $10 per person was about right.  We bought four dinners during the tour, and they were $50-60 for the two of us, but that's one of those things where you can decide how much you want to spend.  

We paid to ride the boat in Cinque Terra and to visit a museum in Florence but that's it as far as costs not paid by the tour, other than totally optional things like snacks and drinks. 

One thing I wondered is how much all of this would have cost if we tried to do it ourselves and wanted a similar experience. I searched for the costs of things as if I was booking a trip later this summer as far as the hotel rooms and attractions.  If we had a local guide showing us around an attraction, I found a guided tour of that attraction and added it to the list.  I priced the group meals at about $10/course plus $10 for beverages, which is about what we found when we ate out on our own.  I looked up the cost of public transport (either train or bus) between cities.   

In short, it appears that we paid not quite twice what everything would have cost had we purchased it individually, but  by doing so we would have lost the services of our guide and frankly we never could have put together a trip that flowed that well.  We also gained efficiency--when we finished at the Coliseum, it only took the tour bus ten minutes to pick us up and to head to Volterra. If we were doing this on our own, we would have had to get back to the train station or to a rental car place--and deal with either schedules or driving/parking in a foreign land.  We could not have parked near any of the hotels, and if we had chosen places with parking we would have been outside the historical areas.  



In Rome we stayed at the Dharma Style Hotel which is in the Monti area not far from Termine train station.  It was a convenient location.  The people at the hotel were extremely nice and helpful.  The provided breakfast was good, with fruit, pastries, cheese and some meat, and good Italian coffee.     Our bed was comfortable and the room was attractive. Those are the pluses.

The minuses?  The main one was that the air conditioning did not cool to the extent most Americans expect.  For one thing, our room key operated the electricity in the room. Once you used the keycard to enter the room, you would stick it in a slot behind the door and it would turn on the electricity and air conditioning.  It was hot when we were in Rome and it always took a while for our room to cool down.  When we entered it for the first time, the windows were open (we were on the third floor, which Americans would call the fourth floor).  When the maids cleaned they left the windows open too.  


In Volterra we stayed at the Hotel LaLoconda which is where we had the nicest room of the trip--the guide said they tried to alternate who got the best rooms.  We had a jacuzzi tub and a large room that overlooked the main street.  Since Volterra cooled down at night, opening the windows was the solution for air conditioning that wasn't quite as cool as we would like. 


Our Levanto (outside Cinque Terra) hotel was Hotel Primavera.  Our room was spacious; our bathroom was not.  The shower was VERY small.  Again the people running the hotel were great.  The location was terrific--just a couple of blocks from the beach, two blocks from a park and near a bunch of restaurants and shops. The air conditioning worked well.  The train station was about a ten minute walk.  


In Florence we stayed at the Hotel Torre Guelfa.  Our room was very nice, but the bathroom was small. The air conditioning kept us nice and cool.  The location was awesome.  The hotel had a wonderful rooftop terrace that someone at the hotel said was the second highest viewpoint in the city, after the Duomo. 

In sort, the hotels were what Rick Steves advertises that his tours use:  Charming buildings located in the center of things which are not the cookie cutter chain hotels to which most Americans are accustomed.  All were clean, all were comfortable (well, I don't think I'd stay at the Dharma Style in the hot part of the summer) but many had steps up and down within the rooms.  All had elevators.  All had private (but often small) baths. 


The tour provided us with breakfast every morning and with one dinner in each location.  The breakfasts in all the hotels were similar, and good.  If you are looking for eggs, bacon and pancakes you might be disappointed as the meals did not feature them, but there was always a big variety and all the breakfasts were far superior to a cheap US chain "free" breakfast.  I'd even rate them above most mid-range us hotel breakfasts.

The group dinners were always multi-course productions and were were offered wine with each.  I don't remember exactly what we ate where, but it was all good.  We were not offered a choice, except that people who turned in dietary preferences prior to the trip were accommodated (we had a vegan couple on the tour). 

We also got one lunch at a farm that made wine and olive oil.  I liked it too. 

The main  criticism I have of the food is that it was all "safe"; there was no encouragement to go outside the comfort zone of the average American. For example, I've heard that tripe is a big thing in Florence and that truffles were big in Tuscany.  It would have been nice to have been offered an appetizer-sized bite of a few foods like that--not enough that I'd go hungry if I passed, or if I took a bite and didn't like it, but enough to get a taste, so I could decide to seek it out on my own time.  

The other is that for all I read and heard about Italians eating lots of fruits and vegetables, our meals were light in that department.  



Our tour started on Sunday afternoon with a meeting at our hotel where we had to present our covid vaccine card and a negative covid test.  We introduced ourselves and some questions were answered.  Then we headed out for a walk past several fountains on our way to the restaurant.  We also stopped at the Pantheon.  After dinner we saw St. Ignatius church, which the guide said was "never" open, and which was on our list of things we wanted to see.  We also saw more fountains and piazzas.  


On Monday we headed to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.  We had a local guide who led us through it.  We got their via the Metro.  The place was packed and our plan to get there early to beat the crowd failed because someone who got there before us got sick, so they closed down to clean up.  

Honestly what I remember most is the crowds and feeling like I was being herded through.  Our guide was good and showed us photos of the Sistine Chapel before we entered because she was not allowed to give tours in the Chapel but when we got in there it was crowded and the ceiling was so high that I really couldn't see all the stuff that had been pointed out.  While the building was air conditioned, given the crowds, it was still warmer than was comfortable, and since N-95 masks were required, the heat seemed worse than what it was. 

Before we left in the morning the guide gave everyone three metro tickets--one to get to the Vatican, one to use to explore and one to get back to the hotel.  

After the tour of the Sistine Chapel we were turned loose for lunch and whatever we wanted to do thereafter.  We visited St. Peter's Basilica, which was awesome!  

Then we got some lunch and then headed back to the hotel to rest.  After a nap we went to the Monument of Italian Unification were some guy sold me a bottle of water with ICE in it.  Made my day.  We also walked by some ruins. 


One Tuesday morning we boarded our tour bus to head for the Coliseum area, where we met our local guide who taught us about the Coliseum and the nearby Forum and temple ruins.   Our Coliseum tickets got us on the floor, which evidently most do not.  It was neat being down there and looking up at the seats.  We also climbed up to the top.  Every day of the trip I logged close to eight miles.  

I have to honestly say that having the guide there to explain what everything was added a LOT to the experience.  If we had just bought tickets we would have walked in there, said this is cool, spent a few minutes looking around, and then left without really realizing what we were seeing.  Our guide was terrific and I know now that paying for one is not a waste of money.  

Our bus then picked us up and we headed to Volterra in the Tuscan hills.  Most of the drive was on the auto strada which is like the Interstate.  One difference I noted between Italy and the US is that in the US if you see a hill from the interstate, it is covered in trees; the town is in the valley.  In Tuscany, the towns were at the top of the hills. 


We got to Volterra about five and headed our hotel, which was on a street that reminded us of Diagon Alley.  We had dinner with the group and after dinner headed for a scenic overlook to take sunset photos.  We walked through town looking in shop windows and then headed for our hotel.   


Wednesday was our day to tour Volterra. We met a guide in the morning and she gave us the history of the town as she showed us the sights.  At the end of the morning we went to an alabaster shop and watched the craftsman make a bowl.  Our final pre-lunch stop was the Etruscan museum.  Our guide then passed out Volterra passes that gave us entrance into some other attractions and turned us loose for the day.  We saw the Etruscan museum, the Alabaser Museum, the local art museum and a few other things.  

In the late afternoon we gathered at a wine shop for a wine tasting.  I'll admit I'm no connoisseur of fine wine, and I prefer white wine to red.  We tasted three reds and a white and I liked the white and the cheap red. 

After the wine tasting we were turned loose for dinner on our own.  We ended up on one of the main piazzas and had a really nice meal.  About halfway through another American couple sat down next to us.  We chatted with them, which was fun.  They have a second home in the area.  Nice to know we picked a place that people who know what they are doing pick.  

We did a little more walking after dinner and then called it a night. 


Thursday we got in the bus and headed for a farm where they grew olives and grapes and made wine and olive oil in an old castle.  After a tour we had an olive oil tasting (despite being married to an Italian I prefer my oil to have less taste, and I don't like olives) and lunch, which was yummy. 

As we were heading toward Levanto, we passed some white-topped mountains.  This was another occasion where the guide added value.  She pointed out that it was not snow on the mountains but Carrara marble.  

We  arrived in Levanto about  4 pm.  We headed out to a laundromat and while our clothes washed, we watched some kids play in the park.  We had a group dinner that night at the hotel--a seafood buffet and it included calamari and octopus in small amounts.  I'm not a calamari fan and the octopus was in a yummy soup.  After dinner we walked down the beach to watch the sunset and take pictures.  At dinner the guide handed out Cinque Terra passes which gave us a full day of access to the trains and hiking trails between the towns and Levanto.  


On Friday we were on our own.  We visited Monterroso and from there, took a boat (which we paid for) to Vernazza where we took a trail that headed up into the hills a little ways and then took some photos before heading back down.  After wandering around a little, we took the train to Riomaggiore and wandered a bit and got gelato before heading back to Levanto. It was hot and we wanted to go to the beach.  

The beach water was cold and the sand was rocky so we only stayed an hour or so.  After cleaning up we walked around town and then joined the group for a happy hour at the hotel. 

Later we headed to dinner by ourselves.  We were outside at a restaurant on the main drag.  I ordered a spritz because I hadn't had one and heard that you should.  They brought it out in a large glass that was full of ice, American style.  One thing about Italy is that ice in a drink is not normal.  I was thrilled and said something to my husband about it.  Some guys at the next table were not speaking English but when they got their drinks, one guy said in English "too much ice".  Well, I was happy.  


On Saturday morning we headed for Florence.  On the way we stopped at the American WWII Cemetery and a staff person gave us a brief tour.  I suspect one reason for this was to give our hotel time to get our rooms ready, but it was a great stop, and one that was not on the itenerary.  

We got to Florence about lunch time and after dropping off our bags, our tour guide said she'd lead us to the Central Market if that's where we wanted to have lunch, but we were on our own.  We followed her and ended up with pizza.  As would be expected on a Saturday, the place was packed.  

We had free time until about 3 when our local guide gave us a walking tour of town ending at the Uffizi Gallery where we got to see David.  One thing that was really neat is there was a parade in town that day and she interrupted the tour to let us watch, and she explained why the were having the parade (historical football game) and told us about the game.  After seeing the Uffizi we were on our own for the rest of the evening.  

We were tired so we just headed out to find someplace close to the hotel.  We found a cute little place but they told us to come back in thirty minutes.  We wandered down the street and found a beautiful church and outside it, a statue of Cosmo Medici.  

After dinner we headed up to the roof where we visited with other tour members.  The view was awesome. 


On Sunday we met out guide again and headed for the Academia Gallery and as we toured the gallery they told us about development of Renaissance art.   After the tour we were free until dinner.  

We had planned to go to Mass at the Duomo (Cathedral) but when we got there they said the noon Mass was cancelled. We asked if they knew of a nearby Mass.  They pointed us in a direction but we couldn't find it in time and decided to get lunch instead.  

Shortly thereafter we found the church and paid to see it and the museum attached.  There was an old convent attached that had frescos on the walls of the cloisters so it was neat being able to see them up close.  I also liked the church because it had stained glass, which I noted most churches in the area did not.  

Sunday afternoon we walked over the bridge to the Alto Arno and walked to the Piti Palace but decided not to go in.  We headed back to the hotel and then had our final group dinner, and not surprisingly most people ended up on the roof that night.  

The tour ended after breakfast on Monday and we went to Venice on our own.


If you are on a tight budget then you can probably do an independent trip for a lot less than this tour.  However, you will trade time for money.  Instead of a tour bus being there when you are ready to move, you'll have to get to the train/bus station and go on their schedule.  You will have to purchase attraction tickets, and in today's world that means either pre-purchasing a timed ticket or waiting in long lines for the major things. 

If listening to a tour guide talking about Italian history, Renaissance Art or the ancient Romans/Etruscans sounds like torture, this is probably not the trip for you.  If your ideal Italian vacation involves sleeping late, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and lots of shopping, this tour is not for you.  You aren't in control of most of your schedule, so if that's important to you, group travel may not be for you.  

On the other hand, if you want to see a variety of places in Italy and to engage in a variety of activities from hiking to museums and from beaches to churches, and want someone there who can put things in historical perspective, I think you'd enjoy this trip as much as I did.  

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