Going through Italy on a tour bus? I didn’t think that was my kind of travel, but I’d like to think that I will try everything once, and I found the benefits of this luxury coach trip surprising.

I actually enjoyed riding on the bus, which was quite comfortable. It was new and spacious and had a bathroom aboard. Our tour director, Roberto, was knowledgeable and organized, and kept our wayward group of 35 journalists from around the world on schedule, for the most part!

The bus driver, Francesco, was polite and competent. It was great not having to stress out about which way to go or understanding Italian traffic signs. In the case of long road trips (4 hours), he would always pull over at a bathroom stop, which also sold gourmet Italian food products and cappuccinos!

The number of destinations we covered in a small amount of time was both a positive and a negative. (Check out the “At Leisure” Trafalgar tour, which is designed to have more free time than the excursion I went on.) Free time is always important for me, because there is so much I want to discover on my own. There is the history, art, architecture, culture, and people, and let’s not forget the Italian fashion and gourmet items. I found pepperoncini grinders, Italian chocolate, espresso coffee, Lemon Giallo liqueur, and fine leather items like gloves and handbags from Florence.

Our first stop was Rome, where I landed in Leonardo da Vinci Airport on Alitalia Airlines. I flew on the A330, which was comfortable even in coach and new and clean. I watched wonderful Italian movies on both flights. Although the main course was good, the snacks were not great. (If they offer a pasta dish, it is your best bet.) The wine flows freely on Alitalia. I found the flight attendants stylish and courteous, but not all that friendly. Alitalia does not charge you to check one bag–yet–but they take forever to get them out on the carousel. I waited for more than an hour in Rome and the same on my return trip back to JFK. Rome and Tuscany were wet in November, but the temperatures never made it below 60 degrees, and (note to self) I really only needed one carry-on bag.

My hotel in Rome was the Aleph Hotel near the Piazza Barberini in the heart of Rome, walking distance to the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. The hotel is lively and modern with an Africa-meets-Italy theme. I enjoyed the vibrant red library. The breakfasts were amazing: great coffees, cappuccinos, cakes, pastries, cheeses, yogurt, and fruits. The best thing was that the room was ready when we arrived around 10 a.m., and we all had a much-needed nap. My room had soundproof walls, and steps to go up to the mosaic tiled bathroom with a large tub and shower, a bidet (of course), and excellent Etro bath products. Although the room was small, the bed was comfortable, with fine white Italian linens, and the large windows had blackout shades. Everything I needed for a good night’s (or day’s) rest.

The Aleph Hotel is on Via di San Basilio, which meets up with the famed Via Veneto. When I awoke, I walked around the corner to a café for a cappuccino (1 euro), and then to the Church of the Immaculate on Via Veneto, which houses the Crypt of the Cappuccini Monks –very interesting and creepy. The drink cappuccino was named after these very same monks because their robes are brown and they wear a tall white cap, resembling the frothy espresso beverage. The crypt contains over 4,000 of the monk’s skeletons, the bones arranged in weird diorama-type rooms. One room has shoulder blades all glued together, another has hip bones, and some bones are even made into chandeliers! You really aren’t supposed to take pictures, so you will have to check it out yourself. After my Day of the Dead adventure in Mexico (see Archives), I think I have just about had enough of skeletons!

The first night, our group walked to the Vatican to see the Bridge of Angels all lit up just like in the movie Angels and Demons. Our guide, Roberto, pointed out the rooms where the Pope himself resides. Roberto told us he could tell the Pope was “in” since his two windows were illuminated. Trafalgar is big on their “hidden treasures,” and this was one of them. Then we walked the wet cobblestones (it was raining and I was happy I did not have on heels) to the Opera restaurant for dinner. Our group was escorted down the narrow steps into a private room where we enjoyed two kinds of pasta, red and white wine, and a veal dish. For dessert we had a rich Napoleon type of pastry–and thus began the tradition of the rich dinners we would consume for the next seven days with pasta, bread, wine, and sumptuous desserts. If I were to do it again, I would say I was a vegetarian, because the vegetarians seemed to get salads and fresh vegetables and were spared the veal and salami! There was also live music during dinner all three nights in Rome. On this night, a man was playing an accordion and a woman was singing–opera music, of course! After dinner we went back to our cozy hotel.

The next morning we boarded the bus for a ride to the Coliseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican Museum. The guides that Trafalgar uses are all top notch, very knowledgeable and passionate. In Rome we had Carlo, who deciphered a mosaic at the coliseum that told us that a female gladiator had won victory over a tiger. She had a “V” over her and the tiger had a circle with a cross, meaning death. It was devastating to hear that in times of celebration, like when a new emperor took power, over 100 gladiators and exotic animals could be killed per day, sometimes for 100 days. I know I am related to them, but the Romans were horrible barbarians with a voracious taste for blood and violence. The contrast of the serene and heavenly Vatican Museum, and its incredible ceiling by Michelangelo, was severe.

The off season, like November, is an excellent time to go to Italy, as there are very few crowds and short–if any–lines, making everything so accessible. The sounds of the guards shushing everyone every five minutes will always remain in my memory as well as the colorful anecdotes that Carlo, told us, revealing secrets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I have been before, but when there are few people and you have a guide, it is a totally different experience. Carlo told us that the reason Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the ceiling is a “skin” of himself is because he felt the pope “skinned” him alive by making him paint the great ceiling for so many years! He hated to paint but loved to sculpt. Join me next week as I find out why, when I witness close-up Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture of David in Florence. Ciao.

If you can’t wait, check out Trafalgar’s new Family Experiences blog, written by veteran travel writer Luisa Frey.

NOTE: This trip was sponsored in part by Trafalgar Tours.

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