Dear Roberta, You may have gathered from the lack of correspondence that out trip to Italy went well, and we enjoyed it immensely. I thought you might find some feedback useful.1. The hotels were all very beautiful, and with one exception, well situated.
a. Hotel Villa Flora was beautiful with an exceptional lakeside situation. It is a little far from the center of Como, but only a 10 Euro cab ride, and the lakeside situation made up for that. The Tavernola boat dock was only a 5 minute walk away.
b. Grand Hotel Verona is on a beautiful avenue only a few minutes walk from Piazza Bra. At the end of a long day walking, we chose to take a cab back to the hotel, but it was also only a 10 Euro cab ride.
c. Hotel Bucintoro is also beautiful, but too far from the centers of activity. We bought 2 day Vaporetto passes online before we left. (I found out how outlandish the water taxi prices are). It wasn't really a problem, just a one stop vaporetto trip every time we went anywhere.
d. Hotel Monna Lisa is exceptionally charming. I do have a safety comment: The surface of their tub was quite slippery, so to avoid a possible fall, I sat down. Then the tub was so deep that I had to call my wife to help me out of the tub without slipping. They need either to furnish a non-skid mat in the tub, or to apply a non-skid surface to the bottom of the tub. Someone could get seriously injured. Aside from that, it was my favorite hotel, and very reasonably situated for the sights. We chose to take cabs downtown, but our feet wore out easily, so we didn't want to wear them our just getting downtown and back.
e. Hotel Punta Mesco was quite convenient to the train station - it was the only place we could walk to the station. The street has only a slight uphill grade (unlike Riomaggiore, where people had to drag their bags up a steep hill to get to their hotels. It was clean, modern, charming and I found that the location in Monterosso was not a disadvantage. After spending a day climbing up and down Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza, it was nice to relax somewhere reasonably flat and not so totally jam-packed with tourists.
f. Hotel Brunelleschi was quite luxurious, but really wasted - After the tour of Milano, we went back, crammed our stuff into our luggage, took inventory of our customs items, and tried to grab a few hours sleep before getting up at 5:00 A.M.
In hindsight, if I had realized how nice 4 star hotels would be, I would have booked all 3 star hotels.
a. The boat ride in lake Como was interesting and relaxing. Villa Carlotta was beautiful and the gardens were extraordinary. We went over to Bellagio where we walked around until it started raining. It rained quite a bit, off and on, that day. But it always seemed to stop when we needed it. There were a few modestly interesting sites in the town of Como, but the lake and the scenery overshadow everything else. The next day, we went to the station to take the train to Verona. After about 45 minutes of delays, they finally announced that the train was cancelled. The station agents finally told everyone (there were a lot of us) to just get on the next train to Milano without trying to change the tickets. We did, and stood all the way to Milano (it was packed). The conductor could not have gotten through to check tickets if he had wanted to. In Milano I went to customer service and the staff vey quickly stamped the ticket and signed it, authorizing us to take the next train. We had not seat assignments, but there were enough seats free to handle us.
b. Verona was a beautiful old city. Our tour guide, Christina Zuegg was particularly knowledgeable about everything related to the sites and history of the city. We enjoyed it a lot. Unfortunately, there was no opera in the arena that night, just a modern dance company, which did not interest us.
c. The second Verona day we took the train to Padua. I had booked tickets at the Scrovegni chapel to view the Giotto frescoes, about 1¼ hours after the train was supposed to arrive in Padua. The train was about 45 minutes late because the train in front of it was having problems. We arrived in Padua with 20 minutes to spare, and took a cab to save time. It is so close to the station that we ordinarily would have walked. The frescoes were stunning. Then we took a cab to meet our guide at the St. Anthony Basilica just on time. Angela, the guide, was very knowledgable, though her English was harder to understand than Christina. She told us that she had not received any instructions about what to show us, though it was listed on our papers. Someone in her company just didn't tell her. Actually, she covered just about everything without the guidance, and added a few things that were not listed. We had time left before the train back to Verona, so we went on our own to the Prato della Valle. It was the former site of the arena that was turned into a piazza and a formal park several centuries ago. We got a tram pass which was good for 70 minutes, and got us to the Prato della Valle and back to the train station. Fortunately, there were no more train issues the rest of the trip. Back in Verona we went back to the Duomo and Piazza del'Erbe, and had dinner on the piazza. We really enjoyed the ambiance of Verona.
d. The train to Venice was right as scheduled. I had bought the vaporetto tickets online, and just had to trade the sheet I printed out online for the actual passes. Several online sites warned that there was a strict 1 bag limit on the vaporetto, but no one ever checked baggage. Most of the people on each boat had no luggage at all, so it just wasn't a problem for the boat. It took about 45 minutes to work its way to the Bucintero - slower than the water taxi, but 2 vaporetto passes cost the same as 1 water taxi ride. We took the vaporetto back to St. Mark's Square and walked from there to the Rialto Bridge, which was a lot shorter than the boat because of the big bend in the Grand Canal. The tour guide, I think her name was Marina, was extremely good. We love all of the historical details, and she knew them all. A small string orchestra called the Virtuoso's of Venice played a concert of Vivaldi music that evening in a former church next to St. Mark's, and was both entertaining and not particularly expensive. The restaurants near St. Mark's were ridiculously expensive, but we knew that coming in.
e. The next day we had the tour of St. Mark's and the Doge's palace with Mose'. I think he was our favorite guide. He had some cynical opinions of the early Venetian politics, but nothing that was not richly deserved. After the tour (and gondola ride) was over, we had some time left before the scheduled evening performance. The desk clerk at the Bucintoro offered us free transportation to Murano to visit a glass factory. Obviously, the idea was to get us to buy glass, but we knew that. The ride over was terrific - it was basically our own private water taxi. We more than justified the cost of the trip with our purchases. The factory was called the New Murano Gallery. The glass factory was pretty much the same as any other glass factory I have ever visited, but they had a gallery full of a spectacular array of artistic works by their staff and by a number of well known artists. We had our purchases shipped back to avoid carrying them, and to avoid going over our customs limit. We deliberately had dinner near the Rialto Mercato, where the prices are half of the St. Mark's square prices. The performance in the evening was interesting, but not quite what I expected. The performance took place in a couple of rooms in the old palace, rather than in a formal theater. I expected that it would be more comedic, with interaction between the performers and the audience, but it was pretty much a straight performance of operatic love duets. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it.
f. After some early morning souvenir shopping, the vaporetto got us to the train station in plenty of time. The entire time in Venice, no one ever checked for tickets or passes on the vaporetto, but they did toward the end of the last trip to the station. No problem for us, but I wonder if they caught anyone. They checked so seldom that it would have been a real temptation for people to try to skip buying tickets.
g. The trip to Florence was uneventful. The express trains were all very smooth and comfortable. Cab to hotel. We walked to Santa Croce church, where we saw all of the tombs/monuments to Michaelangelo, Galileo, Rossini. Several famous personalities (Dante, Machiavelli) had monuments but are not buried there. We didn't actually visit the crypt. There is a leather-working school attached to the church and cloister, so of course we visited and bought leather. There is a small square about 2 blocks south of the hotel, where there are numerous reasonably priced restaurants. We ate at one called "I Ghibellini ", which was recommended by the hotel. The hotel has a sitting room where the wall decorations are various tongue-in-cheek variations on the Mona Lisa. The next day we took a cab to the Ponte Vecchio to save the wear and tear on our feet. The tour guide was a Dutch woman called Helma. Everyone got a headset so they could hear the guide even if she wasn't that close. It worked well. The tour was good, but I was surprised that they did not go into the Duomo. The Accademia was wonderful. There really is a difference between the real David and the several copies around town. Even without the David the Accademia would still be a major gallery. After the Accademia, we had intended to go into the Duomo, but we sidetracked to the San Lorenzo Church (the Medici's church). They give you an I-pad with headphones, so you just touch a spot on the plan of the church, and it plays a recording explaining what you are looking at. Then you walk around to the back of the church to the Medici chapel. It's attached to San Lorenzo, but there is a separate entrance (and fee.) A few years back they had some of the spectacular marble fall off the inside wall, so much of the interior is covered with scaffolding for the restoration. The interior is all multi-colored marble, mostly the darker reds and grays. There are numerous Medici tombs. It reminded me in a way of the Pantheon in Rome. There was no time to visit other sites, so we went back to the hotel by way of the Piazza del Duomo. We could have used another day, but I am still glad we cut the one day to get us back a day early.
h. The next day our tour guide on the day trip was another Hollander named John. He was primarily a driver, but he did give us a lot of information. First he stopped at Michelangelo Square for the usual scenic view of Florence. Then we drove to Siena, which we found fascinating. We were dropped off at the San Domenico church, dedicated to Santa Catharina. We took 2 hours to see Siena, and met John back at the start. Il Campo is one of the more remarkable piazza's we have seen in any country. We had intended to go into the Duomo, but by the time we got there, the ticket line was so long that we really didn't have time to wait. We got back to the car at exactly the appointed time. Then we drove to San Gimignano. We were supposed to eat at a winery, but they told John that they had a crown of 200 visitors at the time. We ate at a small restaurant in San Gimignano, where we also bought some of the local wine. Then a walking tour of the small city with something like 17 towers. Then back to Florence where we at dinner at Alfredo's, in a balcony hanging over the River, across the river from the Uffizi. We noticed a big difference in price on the south side of the river.
i. For our trip to Conque Terre, John was our driver again. First we stopped at Lucca, where we spent 2 hours walking the town. It is a level town, so we didn't have to strain to climb hills. Here, we saw the Piazza de'Amfiteatro, built on the site of the original Roman arena. One of the "family towers" the Torre Guinigi, has a roof garden, with oak trees growing on top. I climbed this tower for a wonderful view of the surroundings. We then walked to the Duomo, which was open (for free). Then a brief stop in the Piazza Napoleone (which is less interesting because it is typical 19th century. Then a short walk to the Piazza San Michele. The church was closed up tighter than a drum, but the exterior and the rest of the square were impressive. The we walked down the main shopping street back to the Piazza del'Amfiteatro, where we had lunch. We had a few minutes before we were to meet John. so we visited on more church (San Frediano) and bought some pottery at the shop where they were made. Finally a brief stop on the city walls, which are intact, with a continuous (non-vehicular) roadway all around the city.
j. Now we drove to Pisa, where we saw the tower and Duomo. We didn't have tickets to the tower, but I didn't have the energy to climb another tower right away. Finally we drove to Monterosso. John said something about one of the roads being closed, so we went all the way to Levanto (the town after Monterosso) and then drove back up and down the mountain to get to Monterosso. Monterosso was easier to get around than the other towns because the streets were not so steep. There is a rocky promontary between old town Monterosso and the new town of Fengina. The road goes through a tunnel between them, and there is a church and cemetery on top of the rock. The cemetery was all above ground (mausoleums), apparently because it is just too difficult to dig graves in the rocky terrain. It's sort of weird but fascinating.
k. The next morning we bought a Cinque Terre Pass for 2 days. They told us that the trails from Riomaggiore to Manarola and from Manarola to Corniglia were still closed due to the mud slides of several years ago, which we later learned was not quite 100% true. We took the train to Corneglia, where there is a local bus that takes people from the station to the top of the hill. People walking the trail could also use this bus to avoid climbing the 300+ steps to get to the town. The town is perched on the razorback edge of the ridge, with just one narrow pedestrian street running the length of the town. It's very charming, and has fewer of the tourist traps that sort of spoil the other towns. We took the bus back down and rode the train to Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore has a steep main street, and we saw numerous visitors struggling to drag their bags up the hill to their hotels. This made us appreciate Monterosso. There is a sort of building right across the main street near the harbor, which we learned was a sort of camouflage for the railway passing through town. The station itself is in a side valley so it doesn't detract from the charm of the main village, and you walk through a tunnel to get to the village. We got the boat at Riomaggiore and took it all the way back to Monterosso. Two villages is about all you can do in a day. The boat ride is stunning, but it's not a very practical way to get around. The boats don't run often enough.
l. The next day we did the other 2 villages. We took the train to Manarola, which was my favorite town. Again, you walk through a tunnel to get from the station to the town. It looked like you could walk out on the trail to Corniglia for a distance, so we did, and got some nice pictures of the town. When we got to the barricade, the gate was open, and people were walking the trail all the way to Corniglia. Apparently the trail isn't actually blocked. They just closed it becaue of the possibility of slides. People were apparently willing to take the chance. Every so often there are steps down to the rocks. People climb down and sunbathe or fish from the rocks. In some places they dive off the rocks and swim. We are not risk takers, so we turned back and took the train to Vernazza. At the station they have a big picture of the how the town looked after the floods and mudslides of 2011. The townspeople have the town all cleaned up, but the government still hasn't found the money to fix the trails. Late in the day we took the train back to Monterosso and had dinner there.
m. We took the train in the morning to Milano. The tour of the city was more interesting than I had expected. We spent quite some time in the Duomo, which is so totally different from any other church we saw. We saw the interior and the museum at La Scala, perhaps because they were not able to get tickets for the Last Supper. The Sforza Castle was the only true castle we saw on the whole trip. We even walked over to the Last Supper, just in case. Not a minute before we got there, someone gave or sold some tickets to another couple, but we weren't so fortunate.
n. The trip home was totally uneventful, the best kind of flight there is.
All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and we thank you for doing all the arrangements on such short notice.