Veni, Vidi, Bici – Luxury Caesar Bike Tour From London to Rome

Ride & Seek’s Caesar bike tour is an epic bicycle tour that will take participants “in Caesar’s footsteps” from London to Rome.

Continue reading Veni, Vidi, Bici – Luxury Caesar Bike Tour From London to Rome

The Colosseum, On High and Down Low

"Are you not entertained?" - I couldn't help but ham it up for this once-in-a-lifetime shot! (Note to self: get your roots done!)

One of the things you need to know about touring Rome (and many other places in Italy) is that if you want to see something really special, then you’ll have to pay extra for it by going on a guided tour. While tours can certainly eat into your travel budget, they can also transform a trip into something extraordinary.

I had always wanted to see the dungeons of the Colosseum, those underground niches where once were housed thousands of roaring, barking, gnashing, lumbering wild animals primed for gladiatorial showcases and death matches. The Colosseum dungeons are a gruesome, if not key, part of the Flavian Amphitheater’s history. And the only way anyone can see them today — meaning, walk down into and around them — is by booking a tour with a private guide. This limits the number of visitors into the bowels of stadium, thereby keeping wear and tear on the nearly 2,000-year-old monument to a minimum.

There are a number of reputable tour companies that can take you down into the dungeons (in groups of 12 or fewer). Last month, I was lucky enough to join The Roman Guy, a small but growing tour guide company, as a guest on its Colosseum-Dungeon tour.

Continue reading The Colosseum, On High and Down Low

A Tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter

Marble tiles in the Jewish Quarter of Rome

 

“It’s impossible to do this tour or any other tour chronologically.”

This was one of the first things Lauren, a guide for the walking tour company Context Travel, told us as we stood in Largo Arenula, our starting point for a historic walk of Rome’s Jewish Quarter and Trastevere. In addition to Lauren, a British scholar who has studied the art, history, and culture of Rome for the better part of two decades, my group consisted of a quiet, young couple and a young, single woman. Context had invited me to be a guest on one of their tours and I chose to take this one as it was an area I knew the least about. I liked the idea of going on the tour as more or less a blank slate. I wanted to learn something.

At this point, I should back up and say that I have studied Rome, its landmarks, art, history, and neighborhoods for more than 15 years. Before that, I worked at an institute for German Studies and interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Even with this specialized knowledge, I’ve always found it difficult to find information about Rome’s Jewish heritage. Most guidebooks give it short shrift, which isn’t surprising; there are too many layers here to cover any one topic in detail. But I would venture to say that the story of the Jewish people in Rome is one of the few threads that weaves together the story of this city in a way that is both historically comprehensive and personal.

Following are just a few of the sites I learned about on the three-hour tour. Continue reading A Tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter

Culinary Tour of Ravenna

Here is a fabulous video from The Guardian, which has been doing a video series called “My City.” This installment, starring cooking school teacher Angela Schiavina, offers an intimate look at her home town of Ravenna, a city in the region Emilia Romagna, the gastronomic heart of Italy. Join this affable host as she takes you on a ten-minute tour of Ravenna’s markets and culinary shops then shows you how to make a typical Romagnole (of the region of Emilia-Romagna) dinner. The Guardian also provides a companion map of Ms. Schiavina’s Ravenna tour.

Scenic Drive on the Amalfi Coast

Positano Amalfi Coast
Italy is full of scenic drives. There are the honey-colored sunsets of Tuscany, sepia-toned ruins of Ostia, and the snow-capped cityscapes of Torino. But if you want a ride with the bluest of blues then the only place to find yourself is along Campania’s La Costiera Amalfitana, The Amalfi Coast. This coastal road links Sorrento with Salerno and is dotted with candy-colored fishing ports and fortified ancient towers. There is so much to see on this magnificent stretch of road that your agenda should include several different itineraries because it is difficult to tackle it in just one day. So, rent a car and explore the road that is sure to take your breath away as you climb the hills out of Sorrento and head toward key stops along the way to Salerno.

Positano Amalfi Coast
1.    Positano – There is a lovely little lemonade stand just before reaching Positano.  It affords those postcard views you always see of this famous cliff-side town.  The rest stop itself caters to tour buses but ignore the masses and climb down the steps for some of the best photo ops you can imagine.  Parking is extremely difficult in the heart of Positano and after taking your great shots from the rest stop you would be much better off bypassing the center and heading further south.

Furore Room with a View Amalfi Coast
2.    Furore – is an ancient municipality highlighted by a beach at the bottom of a towering fjord, which then rises some 550 meters to the village of Agerola. Furore is at once majestic in its raw beauty with mountains that reach toward the sky and waves that crash along the fortified towers which dot the coastline. Furore itself is comprised of several smaller villages, one of which is the pretty port of Praiano.

Praiano San Gennaro Amalfi Coast
3.    Praiano – is an ancient fishing borgo. (OK, so all of these villages offer fishing but that’s just how it is when you’re a coastal community!) Again parking is difficult but a stop in Praiano is worth it if you can climb down to the piazza in front of the oft-photographed Church of San Gennaro.  Its dome rises before you as you come around the bend and is even more spectacular when viewed from a boat on the water.  You should also make your way down the steep and winding road which leads you to the beach. It may be small in size but is enormously full of charm and the warmth of the locals who greet everyone as old friends.

amalfi coast
4.    Amalfi –comes upon you as a pleasant surprise, as the road directs you to the port and the bustling area around the marina. It is hard to imagine that this tourist-filled area was once a major maritime powerhouse for over 400 years. A leading trading port in the Mediterranean between 839 and 1200, Amalfi has kept many of its ancient traditions alive in the 21st century and has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Parking here, as in most of the ancient Amalfi Coast villages, is difficult but is best found if you turn right at the central taxi stop and head toward the end of the pier. Then journey up the hill and absorb the view that awaits you in Amalfi’s central Piazza del Duomo. Your first glimpse of St. Andrew’s Cathedral is something not easily conveyed in words or photos.

La Costiera Amalfitana is more than just scenic drive in Italy.  It is a road of dreams and I have but barely scratched its surface.

—-

Lisa Fantino is an award-winning journalist-turned attorney and nearly fanatical vagabond.  Her passport is always at the ready and she is the Italy travel consultant behind Wanderlust Women Travel and the Italy destination wedding site Wanderlust Weddings; she also writes travel features for MNUI Travel Insurance.

Photos © Emilio Labrador, Lisa Fantino (1, 2), nenita_casuga, toastbrot81

Google as Tour Guide

google_city_tours_logoFirst they want to scan my copyrighted books and now Google wants to be a tour guide: has Google gone too far this time? I recently received a Google Wave invitation, so I was browsing Google Labs to see what else was on the backburner. It seems that Google will soon be launching City Tours, putting people like me – travel writers – out of business. Or will it?

Here’s Google’s thinking behind City Tours:

Making holiday planning as easy as searching the web. City Tours helps you identify points of interest and plan multi-day trips to most major cities. You just specify the location of your hotel and the length of your trip and City Tours will map out an itinerary for you.

I thought I’d look up Rome as a test. Google presented me with a three-day itinerary – complete with map, of course. The plan included walking time, distance, and links to the sites included on the tour. The first day had me going to locations such as the Museo del Risorgimento, the Pasta Museum, Les Musées du Capitole (Capitoline Museums – Google’s link was spelled the French way), and about five other place. Fine. Some of these sites, especially the Capitoline Museums, are worthy of a first-day visit even for a first-timer. But the itinerary didn’t tell me, for example, that the Pasta Museum is near the Trevi Fountain (though you can see that fact if you zoom in on the map), or that the Museo delle Cere (the Wax Museum) is totally lame.

I’ll give Google points for being able to add/delete sites from an itinerary and change dates. For example, if I were beginning my trip on a Monday (when many museums are closed), the auto-generated agenda ostensibly should steer me towards sites that are actually open. You can also choose the length of your tour, from 1 to 5 days. Unfortunately, when I chose a one-day tour of Rome, Google came up empty-handed. The program should at least generate a basic tour for one day – ya know, Vatican Museums, Spanish Steps, a handful of churches.

So Google City Tours is still in the Labs stage. And, in my opinion, has a long way to go to get it right. Thankfully, I think this tool, like an online translator, is helpful and pretty cool. But, in a field as subjective as travel, nothing beats the human touch.

Am I right?

Photo from Google

Ecotourism in the Cinque Terre


The Cinque Terre, already a favorite destination for travelers to Italy, is one place where sustainable initiatives are taking root. Protect Cinque Terre operates out of Vernazza, one of the five “terre” (lands) and offers participants the opportunity to work with locals in landscape preservation such as “rebuilding the stone walls that support terraced agriculture, cleaning trails used by thousand of tourists every month, and harvesting some of the agricultural bounty grown on the hillsides around the town.”

For sure, this is a challenging working holiday. But it can also be fulfilling. Danielle Machotka, who volunteered for the program and wrote about it for Transitions Abroad, had this to say:

Over the course of the three days, we learned about the impact that tourism has on a small town like Vernazza. The population of 800 doubles on a typical summer day. Some tourists stay for a couple of hours, buy gelato and postcards, and t-shirts, and leave for the next town. Some stay for a night or two. Some return every year.

All create waste. Sanitary sewer lines and water treatment plants are at capacity. Nature-loving hikers increase the potential for erosion with every footstep. None of this is immediately fatal to the well-being of Vernazza, but it is eating away at the town’s surroundings and resources. Tourism and agriculture are the primary industries; neither creates great financial surpluses. Alessandro and Olga hope that the working holiday program will be the first step towards solving the problem by raising awareness.

Protect Cinque Terre has three programs in 2009, including a Wine Harvest Program in September. The price for three days/four nights, including lodging, all meals, guided tours, entrance fees, transportation during scheduled excursions, and tools required during the program is €445 per person.

[mappress]

Photo by Protect Cinque Terre

Do You Know the Way to Pompeii?

About a year ago, I posted some information about going to Pompeii from Rome on a day trip. Just a few days ago, I was alerted of a new way to get there. When in Rome Tours has private and semi-private minibus tours to Pompeii. They’ll pick you up in Rome, drive to Pompeii via Cassino (site of the Montecassino Abbey) and Naples, take you to lunch, provide you with a Pompeii guide, and get you back to the Eternal City all within the same day (about 13 hours). They also provide walking tours of Rome and smallish bus tours of the Rome environs (no giant motorcoaches here!). So if you’re trying to put together a little jaunt down to Pompeii while visiting Rome, consider checking out When in Rome Tours. Thanks for the tip, Marie!

Photo by Paul Vlaar

Wine Routes in Tuscany

Sharing a carafe of Chianti while the autumnal Tuscan air swirls around you is one of life’s great pleasures. Of course, there’s more to Tuscan wine than the everyday Chianti, and fall is the perfect time to explore the region and its many vineyards.

Did you know that there are 14 wine routes in Tuscany, also known as Le Strade del Vino? By clicking on the image to the left, you can visit the Tuscan Wine Trails website, where, ostensibly, you can devise your own vineyard driving tour. (A note to technically-minded Italophiles: on my wishlist is a Google Maps mashup of these trails.)

The 14 wine routes are as follows. Thanks to waytuscany.net for sorting these out by province.

Province of Arezzo: Strada del Vino Terre di Arezzo
Province of Florence: Strada del Vino Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Strada del Vino di Montespertoli, Strada dei Vini Chianti Rufina e Pomino
Province of Grosseto: Strada del Vino Monteregio di Massa Marittima, Strada del Vino Colli di Maremma, Strada del Vino di Montecucco
Province of Livorno: Strada del Vino Costa degli Etruschi
Province of Lucca: Strada del Vino Colline Lucchesi e Montecarlo
Province of  Massa Carrara: Strada del Vino Colli di Candia e di Lunigiana
Province of Prato: Strada Medicea dei Vini di Carmignano
Province of Pisa: Strada del Vino delle Colline Pisane
Province of Siena: Strada del Vino Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Strada del Vino di Montepulciano

Happy sipping!

Photo © N1ck P Harris

The Ultimate Italian Driving Adventure

If you’re the type of traveler who likes to go it alone and doesn’t mind injecting a little technological know-how into your trip, then a GPS-driven self-guided tour may be the ticket.

Information about Zephyr Self-Guided Adventures through Italy just crossed our desks over the weekend. The company offers walks, biking, and driving tours through Tuscany, Umbria, and parts of Lazio, all of which are powered by GPS navigation. According to a press release:

The GPS Navigation systems have pre-loaded waypoints along the driving routes and are designed to accompany written turn-by-turn directions. With simple touch commands travelers can easily get from one destination to another. These portable systems not only allow for a comfortable traveling pace, but are also a cheaper alternative to the typical guided vacation.

In addition to the GPS Navigation systems, these driving tours come with a “virtual tour guide” in the form of a Portable Media Player loaded with short videos. In these videos, Zephyr Adventures President Allan Wright gives a daily route talk summarizing what to expect for each day while certified Italian guide (and Zephyr in-country support representative) Giovanni Ramaccioni gives entertaining cultural and historical presentations about sights on the route. The cultural videos were filmed at the exact spots the travelers pass through.

The combination of these two technologies allows for the ultimate driving adventure.

While Zephyr may have touched on a rather novel concept, we also like the fact that they have worked in the price of hotels and rental cars, so you don’t have to do any extra legwork (unless, of course, you choose to walk or bike your way through central Italy). Rates start at $1,250 per person, not including airfare.

Kid-Friendly Tours of Florence

Florence may feel like a fairy tale city for adults, but kids aren’t always impressed. That’s mostly because they’ve yet to study or appreciate the art, architecture, and history that have made the Tuscan town one of the world’s most favored destinations for generations.

Enter Context Travel. The walking tour company, which I have mentioned in The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy, has just announced a “robust kid-friendly program” that includes family tours such as Symbols and Legends of Florence, a 2-hour family treasure hunt, and Arte Firenze for Families, a guided tour through the Uffizi Gallery.

Some other Context Travel tours of Florence and Tuscany that your family (and teens) may enjoy are Florence Food Experiences, Fresco Workshop, and (one we’d LOVE to try) Tuscan Truffle Hunt. You can also find Context Travel tours and services in Rome, Naples, and Venice.

Of course, you can’t expect some of the most knowledgeable guides in the business to charge a pittance for their services. These group walks, excursions, and daytrips start at around €200 per group. But, you’ll definitely return from your trip to Italy with more interesting captions for your photos. And your kids will be able to impress their teachers with loads of Tuscan trivia.

Photo by Context Travel

The Pontines, Perhaps

Unlike Greece, Italy isn’t a land of islands. Sure, there’s Sicily, Capri, and the Tuscan Archipelago, which includes Elba. But there is also a small set of islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples that, according to Guy Dinmore of The Financial Times, “offer a safer and saner way to travel” for those who want a “sedate alternative to dashing around packed piazzas.”

In “Escape to ‘Alcatraz’,” Dinmore explores the Pontine Islands, which were once used as prison islands by the likes of Emperor Augustus and Mussolini. You can still take a tour of Santa Stefano, the main prison island, which is today uninhabited, or stay on Ventotene to visit its subterranean dwellings and Roman cisterns or go snorkeling. Dinmore also touches on Ponza, the most popular of the Pontines, and Ischia, which is not exactly a Pontine island but typically grouped with Capri and Procida.

Ponza, apparently, is having its day in the sun lately, as German In Style magazine included it among its round-up of party islands. In Style suggests the following Ponza haunts:

Need more convincing? Check out these spectacular photos from the Pontine Islands on Flickr.

Photo by RonnyBas

Touring the Venice Lagoon by Pénichette

While browsing the web recently, I happened upon Emmanuelle Jary’s excellent primer on touring the Venice Lagoon on ViaMichelin (full disclosure: I have written for Michelin Travel Guides). But what, I wondered, was a pénichette? Turns out that it is a small barge-like houseboat – just the perfect type of transportation for getting around the city of canals on a mini-tour.

The word “pénichette” is a registered trademark, perhaps owned by the company Locaboat, whose photos are used throughout the Michelin article and which runs several tours of the Venice Lagoon. You can choose one- to two-week excursions, and travel from the base at Chioggia to points such as Treviso, Padova, and the Venetian islands. According to Locaboat, pénichettes are ideal for family or group travel and those “which bear the ‘R’ label are boats which have been updated with the latest low-pollution, high performance equipment.” So, your trip to Venice can be eco-friendly, too.

While you’re out and about, consider following Jary and Michelin’s suggestions for dining out or ordering in (listed at the bottom of the article) from some of the great restaurants in Venice. I’m salivating for the potato risotto and cuttlefish polenta from Do Farai right now…

Photo © Via Michelin

Walking Via Giulia

Via Giulia, Rome

Rome’s famous Renaissance street, Via Giulia, is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year. And, the New York Times‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal provides the history and descriptions of the streets’ sites in her article A Stroll in Rome With a Papal Pedigree.

Usually an unharried street, Via Giulia is set to be quite busy this year with classical music concerts and open houses. For more information on the events and Via Giulia’s many churches and palazzi, visit viagiulia500.net (in Italian only at the time of this post).

‘Angels and Demons’ Tourism

The book – and now movie – Angels and Demons isn’t too kind to the Catholic Church, with murders taking place at some of Rome’s famous and not-yet-famous churches and squares, including Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. But, city officials don’t think that will deter tourists from wanting to take an Angels-and-Demons-based tour, as this article from the New York Times suggests.

In fact, Dark Rome Tours and Walks has been taking tourists on the “official” Angels and Demons tour since 2004. Group and private tours are available, and start at €56 per person and last for four hours. The tour visits Santa Maria del Popolo, St. Peter’s Square, Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the outside of “Il Passetto,” the Vatican Corridor. Of course, you can visit all of these sites on your own for way less than €56 – indeed, among all the sites listed above, only Castel Sant’Angelo charges a fee (approx. €5) – so you may want to tote the book along and create your own tour.

Walk Off the Pasta Pounds

We all know that a vacation – especially one to Italy – is a good excuse to eat with abandon. But it’s also a great chance to get in shape, what with all the great walks you can do.

Here’s a fantastic new (new to me, anyhow) website where you can learn about various walking routes in Italian towns and elsewhere. The site mapmywalk.com has at this moment 21 user-submitted walks around the city of Rome and 6 for Florence. Users have also submitted walks for Naples, Milan, Venice, Bologna, and the Amalfi Coast for a total of 105 Italy walks so far. Very cool!

Mapmywalk.com also lets you submit a walk, bike ride, or run of your own. So, if you have found an especially pleasant touring trek – and have the wherewithall to write it down – you, too, can share it with others. If you’re keeping a blog of your travels for the folks back home, you can embed your walk in your blog. The site also provides a link to Google Earth so you can see the walk in 3D. (My only problem with the tool that I can see right now is that the names of the walks are not very intuitive, so you have to click “view” on several to find one you may like.)

So, now you have no excuses for getting fit while on vacation or for forgetting that lovely evening stroll through the streets of Rome.

Photo by Tawmas

Pompeii By Night

Pompeii By Night
Pompeii At Dusk

Question: What’s eerier than surveying the ruins of Pompeii? Answer: Visiting them at night.

According to the ansa.it news service, Pompeii will once again offer its popular “Sound-and-Light” tour, a one-hour look at the ancient Roman city complete with ambient music, flood-lit ruins, and a video simulation of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the city in 79 AD. The tour will be available in English, Italian, and Japanese.

Sognopompei, as it is called in Italian, promises to be an unforgettable night and will show the “poetic side” of the must-see tourist trap:

The tour kicks off at the Terme Suburbane, a once-neglected district that has become a big draw for its frescoes graphically depicting a variety of sex acts – presumed to be an illustration of the services on offer at the local brothel.

It then winds its way up the main road, pointing out the curious cart ruts, craftsmen’s shops and famous villas.

The grand finale comes in the heart of the old city, the forum, when four giant projectors beam a special- effects-laden video reconstruction of the wrath of the volcano Vesuvius, which smothered the city and its lesser-known but equally fascinating neighbour Herculaneum in ash and cinders.

Sognopompei tours will run this summer, Fridays through Sundays, through November 13. Prices start at €20 per person, with discounts for Campania Artecard holders and families with children under 16. Reservations are required.

Photo by Pirate Alice

Day Trip to Pompeii from Rome

My friend Tom recently asked me if I knew of any good day trips to Pompeii from Rome. When I last visited Pompeii, I did it myself: taking the morning train to Naples then Pompeii and doing the reverse in the evening. My tour of Pompeii was solo and without a guide; quite frankly, being alone added an extra eerie element to the ruins around me.

Nevertheless, I know that there’s a better way to “do” Pompeii because I am sure that I missed a lot in my quest to be self-sufficient.

Tom’s question put me in research mode. Unfortunately, what I found were fairly expensive tours, the lowest of which started at $173 for a one-day trip or €115 (about $176) for a guided tour of Naples and Pompeii. The In Italy website had trips starting at a ridiculous €728 for a two-person tour. I’m sure that their guide is quite knowledgeable, but their trip still has travelers riding the same train that they could book for themselves.

I took a look to see what it costs today to ride the train from Rome to Pompeii. Currently, a train trip to Pompeii (transferring at Napoli Centrale) on the Ferrovie dello Stato costs €37.90 (or about $58) each way. The earliest trains depart from Rome’s Termini station to Napoli Centrale is 6:45 a.m.; total travel time is about 2 1/2 hours.

Once in Pompeii, travelers will no doubt come upon authorized and non-authorized Pompeii tour guides, whose expertise could cost about €50 for a two-hour tour of the archeological site. Alternatively, once inside the entrance, visitors can purchase an audioguide for €6.50 and pick up free maps of the excavations from the Information Point. To ask about additional services offered by the Pompeii Archeological Site, send an e-mail to [email protected].

In sum, a self-guided trip to Pompeii – taking the train, €11 admission, and using an audioguide – will cost a traveler about $142.50 a day, not including breakfast, lunch, and other knick-knacks. Add in those extras, and you may as well book one of the above trips. That, or find a friendly Italian guide who can drive you there and give you a tour for less. Good luck with that one.

So, Tom, I hope that this little bit of research comes in handy for your travel planning. I wish I could have found a better deal for you. Perhaps someone else has a tip? If so, please comment below!

One other idea that I write about in the Unofficial Guide (and that I was reminded of when reading about In Italy’s Pompeii tour) is to consider a daytrip to Ostia Antica. Located about 30 minutes by local train outside of Rome, this ancient ruined city is Pompeii in miniature. Sure, Ostia Antica didn’t die the dramatic death that Pompeii did (the silting up of its outlet to the sea and rampant malaria drove its populace out), it is still a beautiful, awe-inspiring, tour-worthy site.

Photo © Paul Vlaar

Gastronomic Tour of Emilia Romagna

Tamburini Prosciutti

You can eat well just about anywhere in Italy. But Italians know that Italy’s culinary heart lies in Emilia Romagna. Ragú alla Bolognese, premium balsamic vinegar from Modena, Parma ham, parmigiano cheese, mortadella – all of these scrumptious items come from Emilia Romagna. That’s why epicures who want to get the most out of an Italian tour may be interested in Tour de Forks’ Emilia Romagna Tour. This week-long tour, which takes place October 21-27, travels around Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Ravenna, giving guests a chance to sample the best of the region. We’re licking our lips at the thought of it…

Walk for a Cause in Italy

As I was preparing to post information about the Italy Breast Cancer Walk 2008, which will take place in September, I learned that registration for the event had closed. At any rate, what a wonderful way to see Italy and raise money for a worthy cause.

This year’s walk will be through the region of Le Marche (the Marches), starting in San Severino and finishing up in Tolentino. During the week-long trek, participants will “walk more than 60 miles, with the longest day being 18 miles and reaching an elevation of 3,000 feet. Walkers will stay in small family-run inns and eat home-cooked meals and fresh pastas.”

Although registration to this year’s Italy walk is closed, Ride for a Cause, the nonprofit that organizes the tour, has other walk/ride events in Ireland and Spain this year. This is the third year that RFAC and their partner, Girosole Walking Tours, have planned a Breast Cancer/AIDS walk in Italy, so you may want to get in touch with either group to see what’s in store for 2009.