This is the first installment in a seven-part series following JohnnyJet.com writer Cynthia Cunniff through her experience of touring Italy with Insight Vacations. Head back to the series home page for the full Italy experience—or jump straight over to specific days of the tour:
My Insight Vacations travel rep was waiting at Rome’s Fumincello airport for me and some of the other U.S. writers and soon had us on a large luxurious bus headed to our hotel in Rome.
The Regina Hotel Baglioni is rated a five-star property—and wow. In the early 1900s Queen Margherita of Savoy used the property as a temporary home. The hotel is in fact palatial, and the elegance of Queen Margherita’s time there remains, but with the added bonus of modern amenities. The grand foyer includes a huge Murano chandelier and a sweeping staircase that would be Scarlet O’Hara-approved. The accommodations are grandiose and beautifully stylish.
Tip: In Italy, the shower and sink faucets are marked “C” and “F” – the “C” stands for caldo, which is translated as hot.
Step Aside Cliff Klaven….
Upon my arrival at the hotel, I met Belinda (cue angelic music here), the goddess guide, the empress of historic Italy, and as I would come to learn a very good olive grower/picker/person as well—our tour guide. I had arrived before most of the group of 29 people, so I had the afternoon in Rome to myself. Belinda set up a meet-and-greet table at the entryway of the hotel and cheerfully let me know how to get to the Villa Borghese Gardens. She also suggested the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church, which was conveniently down the street from our hotel.
I decided to combat jet lag by taking a run through Villa Borghese Gardens. As is typical, November in Rome can be rainy, but I came prepared and found that running gave me a great overview of the gardens and its leaf-lined paths leading to hidden treasures of artwork, fountains, museums, cafés and even tombs.
Travel in the offseason is something I recommend, particularly in Europe. The crowds are smaller, there’s less touristy junk being pandered and if you pack smartly, you will be completely comfortable. The high season can be extremely hot and humid—yet another good reason to show up in November instead of July. For me, the glistening cobblestones, colorful umbrellas and nip in the air added to the magic of Rome.
At Belinda’s suggestion, I checked out the crypts comprised of human skeletons at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. It was macabre, but the type of unusual thing I seek to discover when on the road. No pictures are allowed in the actual crypt and you must purchase a €6 ticket to enter the museum which leads into the crypt area. It was a creepy experience, but I’m sure others would find it interesting. The idea of displays made out of human remains completely grossed me out—and at one point I looked up and a few feet above my head was a chandelier made of human clavicles. Blech, but glad I did it anyway.
Fun Fact: The many fountains of Rome are fed by 2,000-year-old aquaducts and the water is still drinkable. So, help yourself…just no backwashing.
The day was capped off with the official start of the tour. This is where “I” became “we” and the en masse travel began. Not a blue hair in the group, and much to the opposite, high energy, interesting folks from several different countries. Belinda took us for an evening stroll through Palatine Rome dating back to 753 B.C.- a sprawling expanse which was the start of Roman culture. Located within a few city blocks, The Palatine is arguably one of the most condense areas of ancient times in the world. Layers of history were before us; Caeser being stabbed, the vestal virgins protecting the eternal flame, Nero burning Rome, and on and on. The architecture, sculpture and grandeur are overwhelmingly big—the message of “you are merely an itty-bitty little mortal” still resonates.
Tip: The bus has a big stash of Mary Poppins-sized umbrellas, but I found a mini umbrella that fit into my jacket pocket or purse was ideal and less hassle to carry around.
Before I travel, I usually research the history on the area where I’m headed, but this trip was one where that work wasn’t necessary. Belinda’s commentary was so much more than top-line, her sense of history, science, and more importantly, her deep love for Italy was evident in every passionate piece of information. The level of her knowledge was professorial but never delivered in a dry “Buehler, Buehler, Buehler” fashion. She related what we were seeing to historic everyday man, woman and child and gave us a path into the past that was almost tangible.
Something nerdy cool we did on the first night of tour was a dinner at the elegant 4 Colonne near Piazza Navona that included lively operetta right at our table. The singer and pianist were lighthearted and the familiar pieces were kept just short enough to be engaging even for non-opera lovers.
This is the first installment in a seven-part series following JohnnyJet.com writer Cynthia Cunniff through her experience of touring Italy with Insight Vacations.