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Vacations: This vacation (Permalink):

Tuscany & Amalfi Coast Tour, 2014
From Tuesday, Oct. 28th, 2014 till Friday, Nov. 14th, 2014
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Sep. 7th, 2014, modified Monday, Feb. 2nd, 2015 at 7:15 PM
Link to the tour by Grand Central Travel.
Here are our photos and a video of the trip.
Tuesday, Oct. 28th, 2014 — In the air
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 7th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:22 AM
We've had new planes on every Alitalia flight and this one, a brand new Airbus 330, was no exception. We wondered what they did with the older ones. The plane was so new that there were no scratches or crazing on the porthole windows. There were just two seats in our section, a window and an aisle and no middle seat—so we were both happy.

The big Airbus didn't let any clear air turbulence or other atmospheric defects interfere with a smooth flight.

On the plane: Nick’s dinner was the beef stew and Barbara the mac & cheese. Breakfast was a yucky pop tart. We hope the food is better on the return trip!
Wednesday, Oct. 29th, 2014 — Rome
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 7th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:28 AM
We quickly got through customs and our all our baggage arrived punctually.

We were met at baggage pick-up by a representative of GCT, Antonella, who turned us over to a driver who was a tour guide himself. He gave us a whole run down of Rome as he drove us to the hotel.

He explained that Rome needs more subways, but each time they dig, they discover new priceless artifacts, so digging comes to a halt.

We met Guido Ochner, our tour director, who told us about a section of Rome architected by a Gaudí disciple Quartiere Coppedè. who designed a piazza within walking distance of the hotel.

We checked in and went with another couple in search of an ATM that would take our cards. After several tries we found one in a bank, even though the clerks could not personally help us.

For lunch we found Grué, a fancy patisserie. Barbara had a proscuito mini-sandwich, and Nick, a peanut butter mini-cake and gelato.

After lunch we tried to get into the Borghese Gallery, also near the hotel, but we had no reservation. But the Villa Borghese, a park around around the gallery, was open, so we went there for a stroll. The park was filled with many Italian families enjoying the day.

A nap was followed by dinner at a nice restaurant, Osteria Po. Nick had spaghetti carbonara, Barbara fettucine bolognese.
Thursday, Oct. 30th, 2014 — Chianciano (Rome)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 7th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:30 AM
The next day all of our group of thirty seven had arrived. One of our fellow travelers said to us, "I saw you in the lobby last night, but I assumed you were Italians."

With Guido as leader, we piled into a beautiful Mercedes bus for our trip to Chianciano, which would be our home base for the week in Tuscany.

At lunch time we pulled into a Chef Express rest top on the A-1. The U.S. has a lot to learn about highway rest stops. Here they had real, made-to-order food with pasta and meat courses and concession shops that sold Italian delicacies. They advertise their prosciutto on the rest stop signs.

Barbara had risotto, and Nick had a mozzarella and prosciutto plate.

On many days there was a Learn & Discovery Series group lecture. The fist one was Italian With & Without Words including gestures.

Arriving in Chianciano, we dined at L’Assassino Restaurant. At group dinners there were no menus. Here, we had thick spaghetti w/garlic & tomato sauce and a turkey cutlet for the main course.
Friday, Oct. 31st, 2014 — Chianciano (Radicofani & Cheese Factory)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 16th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:37 AM
Radicofani is small, beautiful Tuscan hill town, in the shadow of a hilltop fortress built in the 10th century. The town is know for Della Robbia terra cotta sculptures.

Guido showed us around the town, including its two churches. We then had some time to explore.

We attempted to climb to the top of the “hill”, but we didn’t quite have enough free time. Besides, we got distracted the along way by the town cemetery, which was adorned with flowers in preparation of All Saints Day, a big deal in Italy. Every grave and crypt was festooned with flowers, many fresh or potted. (See our previous blogs about the how remarkable Italian cemeteries are.)

Climbing back down into town, Guido had arranged a treat for us from a local olive oil store: samples of bread with olive oil and onion foccacia. The town had little ceramic signs all about, with poems or little pictograms.

Still morning, we headed off to the Fattoria Pianporcino cheese farm and factory, operated by 4 young Sardinian brothers, each of whom ran a part of the business. The farm has 1,000 head of sheep, the source of the milk for the cheese.

The tour was conducted by the hilarious and informative brother who ran the cheese making operation. He explained the whole cheese making and aging process.

We had lunch right on the farm. It consisted of samples of the seven of the pecorino cheeses they make there, along with prosciutto and other Italian cold cuts.

The afternoon Learn & Discovery discussion was the Art of the Renaissance.

Dinner was at the hotel and not memorable.
Saturday, Nov. 1st, 2014 — Chianciano (Florence)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 19th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:39 AM
Barbara was looking forward to spending a day in Florence, her favorite city, but a U.T.I. the night before, made the trip impossible for her. Nick went alone with 35 of our fellow travelers.

The tour guide the was excellent. She took us past the Accademia, the cathedral (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), down the Via del Calzaiuoli, past the Pitti Palace on the main Piazza and the Uffizi Museum. Along the way, we passed the home of Dante Alighieri and the museum there.

After the guided tour, just around noon, Nick had a hectic schedule. He grabbed some gelato at Grom, recommended by his ENT doctor, then up the to Accademia to see the David, then down the the Museo Galileo to see medieval scientific instruments (a bit of a disappointment) before the meeting for the bus departure around 3:15 PM. He set a trip record of over 8,000 steps on Barbara's pedometer.

The most exciting part about Florence for Nick was that they now allow photography in the Accademia. He was able to make many images of the David as well the Prisoners, Michaelangelo’s unfinished sculptures emerging from their marble blocks.

On way back, the bus stopped at the WW II Florence American Cemetery that we had both visited in 2009. A guide told stories of soldiers interred there. Nick got to fold the flag at sunset—a moving ceremony. After this, all of the bus travelers were exhausted.

Barbara was feeling much better by the time the group returned. Dinner was at the hotel that night, a farro soup 1st course and a beef main course.
Sunday, Nov. 2nd, 2014 — Chianciano (Pienza & Orcia Valley)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 19th, 2014, modified Wednesday, Nov. 19th, 2014 at 11:27 PM
Pienza is a beautiful Tuscan hill town not too far from Chianciano. Our friends Shelly and Susan asked us to give a wave to Pienza, one of their favorite spots in Italy. Walking through the town gave one a feeling of peace and tranquility.

Pienza is full of arches, has some notable churches and a palace devoted to Pius II of the Piccolomini family. We took a tour of the palace.

Then it was off to a little spa town in the Orcia Valley—Bagno Vignoni. The center of town is dominated by a large pool that was a thermal spring. Barbara and our fellow travelers stuck their feet in the outflow stream. Guido conveniently brought paper towels so they could dry off their feet. A little festival was taking place for the locals with wine, cheese, olive oil, and fresh roasted chestnuts.

Dinner was on our own: wild boar ragu over home made pappardelle for Barbara and a beef cutlet for Nick.
Monday, Nov. 3rd, 2014 — Chianciano (Siena)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 19th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:41 AM
Day 7 was the 93rd birthday of Andy, one of our fellow travelers. We all shared a birthday cake with him at breakfast.

Then it was off to Siena, an optional trip, where a special tour guide took on back streets and showed us much that we hadn't remembered. We saw Siena's spectacular chatherdral and then it was lunch at restaurant behind the campanile, called La Fenestra.

Before lunch we searched out a gelato shop, another Grom, mentioned by Nick's ENT doctor—lemon and hazelnut.

We enjoyed gnocchi with spinach, cream, and mascarpone cheese sauce, one of our most memorable meals. Dessert was another cake for Andy—a mousse cake.

Dinner was at a rustic restaurant just out of Chianciano. Another cake for Andy who gave each of us all gifts of wine and olive oil.
Tuesday, Nov. 4th, 2014 — Chianciano (Assisi)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 23rd, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:42 AM
Assisi's 13th century basilica, famous for its frescos, is devoted to Saint Francis. We had visited it before in 2009, but this time we got to see a guided tour of the interior without great throngs of summer tourists and summer heat.

We met a group of our fellow travelers in front of Savoia, an assigned restaurant. We ate lasagna, a roast quarter chicken, fries, salad, and a cream puff for desert.

On the way home we stopped at a town on Lago Trasimeno, the largest fresh water lake in Tuscany. We had the obligatory gelato stop after taking some pictures.

Another stop was a Guido special—an Italian super market complex, where we learned the subtleties of their do-it-yourself vegetable selection.

That night we swore we wouldn't be hungry for dinner, but when dinnertime arrived, we were famished. We found Square, a pizza restaurant in Chianciano, where we both had pasta.
Wednesday, Nov. 5th, 2014 — Chianciano (Cortona)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 23rd, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:45 AM
Our first stop was Chianciano's Etruscan Museum. We were fascinated by the artifacts that preceded the Romans.

Then we were back on the bus to see Cortona, a lovely Tuscan hillside village. We explored it in the rain.

After reaching the end of the road and getting blasted by the rain, we retreated into town were we met Joe and Maureen in a little restaurant-bar. We headed in, and joined them for lunch—Barbara sharing their pizza and Nick eating pasta and cream sauce. We noticed another couple, Joanne and Jeff, walking in the rain and invited them to join us for dessert and coffee.

That evening was the farewell dinner to our Tuscan adventures at the Patria Hotel. No pasta! Roast pork was the main course, followed by a little party and dancing.
Thursday, Nov. 6th, 2014 — Sorrento (Orvieto)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 23rd, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:49 AM
Today was mostly a travel day, to get down to our next base in Sorrento. But along the way we stopped in Orvieto. Orvieto was a mountaintop village, reachable by funicular, the first one our trip.

It was a very rainy day. After a ride up followed by a bus to the cathedral, we were greeted by a very quiet town, known for its pottery. We looked for an elusive rooster to match a blown glass chicken and chicks we bought from a previous trip.

We had lunch at an Auto Grill. Nick had pasta with cream sauce and Barbara had manicotti.

We arrived in Sorrento at rush hour so the bus crept into town. We ate in the hotel.
Friday, Nov. 7th, 2014 — Sorrento
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 25th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:52 AM
After breakfast, Guido led us on a walking tour of Sorrento. We walked through the old town seeing our evening restaurant choices, the Piazza Sant'Antonino and the main square, Piazza Tasso.

In the course of our walk, we visited Santa Maria della Pietà School which is supported by the Grand Circle Foundation. All of the children learn English there. The students made a presentation to us, answered questions, and sang their national anthem, after which we sang God Bless America. It was very inspiring.

We lunched at Fauno Bar in Piazza Tasso. We shared ravioli with creamed walnut sauce and dessert. After the meal we were served complementary limoncello. As it was too strong for Nick's taste, so Barbara was forced to enjoy both glasses.

During the afternoon there was an optional visit to a farm—making pizza, which we skipped. Instead we went out for dinner on our own. We ordered from the menu at Tasso, and it proved to be the best meal of the trip. We shared a grilled seafood platter that included clams, mussels, salmon, calamari, octopus, and white fish. For dessert we shared a chocolate soufflé—chocolate already melted!
Saturday, Nov. 8th, 2014 — Sorrento (Herculaneum & Naples)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 26th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:54 AM
Herculaneum and Naples were an optional tour for the day and well worth the trip.

Everyone knows about Pompeii, having been buried in 79 A.D, but not everyone knows that two other towns, Herculaneum and Stabia,were also buried and were rediscovered in the 1700’s.

We had an excellent guide of Herculaneum, who also guided us at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. While Pompeii was 160 acres, Herculaneum was only 1/10 the size, so it gave us a much more compact view of life in Roman times.

We were then driven into Naples, an experience in itself—a busy crowded working class 21st century city. It reminded us of Palermo, which we visited in 2005. The archaeological museum preserved many of the mosaics and sculptures that were excavated from the buried towns. That reminded us of the unpublicized, but fantastic, archaeology museum in Istanbul.

After the museum we headed further into Naples to eat lunch at a typical Napoli Pizza Joint, an appetizer of mozzarella and prosciutto, a simple pasta, and baba au rhum for dessert.

Grand Circle provided us with three meal vouchers which we could redeem for dinner at a variety of restaurants. Several from our tour choose the same contemporary restaurant with an extensive menu that evening. Barbara had vegetable lasagna and pappardelle and Nick had sea bass.
Sunday, Nov. 9th, 2014 — Sorrento (Amalfi)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 28th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 11:57 AM
Nick awoke at 3 A.M. in pain, with a very swollen and painful ankle. In the morning, it was worse. Since today's trip was mostly on the bus, Nick decided to go along.

The plan was to drive along the shore from Sorrento to Positano—a UNESCO world heritage site, considered Italy's most beautiful coast line. Alas, a storm earlier in week had collapsed part of the road, so we had to skip Positano and take a steep route through the mountains in the day's rain and fog.

So we went to Almalfi and took a boat trip along the coast. We stopped for lunch at a hillside restaurant. As we were getting a little tired of pasta, we were glad lunch consisted of an organic green salad, swordfish, and tiramisu. Nick ate both desserts.

Then we stopped in Ravello, also a steep hillside town, famous for its international summer classical music festival. Nick limped along to the town square and bought a cane to help him back to the bus stop. By the time we were back in Sorrento, one of us was very green from the bus ride and the other couldn't walk.

That night was Festa Della Pasta. Guido demonstrated how to make many different pastas and their sauces. For dinner we ate pasta fagioli, pasta with pesto sauce, and cannelloni at the hotel. We realized that the pesto was seasoned as Barbara makes it, but all the other pasta sauces along the trip had almost no garlic.

We told Guido about Nick's sore ankle and he called a local doctor who came right to our hotel room to look at the problem. She prescribed three prescriptions including a powerful NSAID, which we picked up at the only open pharmacy. Nick woke up during the night, still in pain, but by morning the pain was gone and the swelling greatly reduced. We were relieved.
Monday, Nov. 10th, 2014 — Sorrento (Capri)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 28th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 12:00 PM
Another early morning, for we had a long day ahead of us. We took mini-busses in the rain to the port of Sorrento to catch the jet boat to the Isle of Capri, about 7 miles off the coast. We were escorted by a colorful tourguide, Francesco—"call me Frankie Baby". All of Capri, with it hills, cliffs, olive groves, vineyards and garden terraces overlooking the Amalfi coast, were "fantistico" to Francesco (and to us). Don't forget the chic shops, the gardens of Augustus, and celebrity homes overlooking Marina Piccola.

The we hopped on mini-busses that took us up to Anacapri, another 1,000 feet up from Capri itself, with a beautiful view of Mount Vesuvius. The light lunch was caprese salad with not quite ripe tomatoes for Nick and pizza for Barbara. We then were driven all the way down to the marina for a boat ride around the island. Though the tide was not right to see the famous Blue Grotto, we got to see other grottos, steep cliffs and the Faraglioni rocks, the symbol of Capri. This was a highlight of the entire trip for both of us.

The jet boat, filled with daily "rush hour" commuters, took us back to Sorrento. For dinner, we used another voucher to go La Basilica Restaurant, for pasta bolognese for Barbara and ravioli with cream sauce for Nick—some of the best pasta on the trip.
Tuesday, Nov. 11th, 2014 — Sorrento (Pompeii)
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 29th, 2014, modified Sunday, Feb. 1st, 2015 at 2:46 PM
Pompeii was much larger and more impressive than we ever imagined. We would have enjoyed spending more time there poking around. But our excellent tour guide did show us the forum, the stadium, an arena, the gladiators' quarters, businesses, residences, brothels, and temples to the gods, some of the more impressive sites.

We were the first ones to enter Pompeii and by time we left is was quite crowded. We couldn't imagine what it was like during the height of the tourist season.

In the afternoon we had our home hosted visit—a Grand Circle highlight. We were divided into groups, and our group was picked by Antonella, our hostess. Antonella is a high school science teacher and the mother of two high schoolers herself. They live on a beautiful farm and agriturismo (L'Olivara, Sorrento) built by her great-grandfather that overlooks the city of Naples and the bay.

Her children came home from school and we all ate lunch together. The meal consisted of a first course of homemade gemelli pasta, followed by main course of a cutlet, a vegetable, and a salad followed by homemade hazelnut cake. Almost all the ingredients for lunch came right from their farm. We drank their own wine as well. The kids talked about their high school lives. Each high school is specialized. One attended a science and technology school, the other a language school.

We sought out a pizza restaurant on the list, but it was closed for the season. We headed back to the Fauno Bar. Nick had salmon, and Barbara had their crisp pizza. Others had the same experience and followed us into the Fauno Bar. And Barbara was again forced to enjoy both glasses of limoncello, while Nick had cake.
Wednesday, Nov. 12th, 2014 — Sorrento
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 29th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 12:07 PM
This was a lay day. We decided to join Joe & Maureen, Larry & Helen, and Rich—Marge was sick—for a walk down to the Marina Grande, down, down, down from the main part of town. Almost all the restaurants were closed for the season, or because it was Wednesday. Just one called Zi'Ntonio Mare was open, which was fine. We shared spaghetti and clams. It was delicious. It was fun being the only group there, eating outside, enjoying each others company and overlooking the sleepy harbor.

That night was our farewell dinner to Sorrento at Restaurant Tasso. We were serenaded by a mandolin and a guitar playing duo, who sang and played songs familiar to Italian Americans.
Thursday, Nov. 13th, 2014 — Rome
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 30th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 2:51 AM
We were now on our way to Rome.

The first stop along the way was the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino. Set atop a rocky hill, this monastery was established by St. Benedict in 529 AD and is one of the last remaining functional abbeys of the Catholic Church.

We thought it was going to be just one more church, but it far exceeded our expectations. It has been built up quite a bit since 529, now being the grandest and richest monastery we've ever seen. The grounds and buildings were all marble and views of the valley below and the hills in the distance were spectacular. The crypt under the cathedral was richly decorated with mosaics. On top of that, the monastery had been rebuilt from rubble, since the allies bombed and destroyed it in World War II thinking Germans were encamped there.

Rather than stopping at an Auto Grill we had lunch in a hotel bar on our way north. It wasn't one of our favorite lunches.

When we got to Rome, we experience a panoramic orientation tour of the city with commentary by Guido. This was not something we would ever do on our own and it was fun, easy and enjoyable. We saw catacombs, the Coliseum, St. Peter's, the Pantheon, and many of the city's green parks and piazzas.

We had our farewell dinner in the hotel. We all gave Guido many thanks for providing a fantastic experience.
Friday, Nov. 14th, 2014 — NYC
Comment by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on Nov. 30th, 2014, modified Sunday, Nov. 30th, 2014 at 12:09 PM
We had concerns about our return flight because Alitalia employees were calling for a strike from noon to 4 PM, the time our flight was to take off. Fortunately the government intervened and the strike was canceled.

We gave fond farewells and hugs to the many friends we had made during our trip.

We had few hours left in Rome so we made our own little walking tour. We navigated along streets and boulevards getting as far as the Piazza della Repubblica, which as abuzz with gathering protesters in lieu of the canceled strikes. We hiked back to the hotel in time for last minute packing and saying our final good-bye to Guido.

At the airport, we had our last gelato at a shop called Venchi. It was delicious, in contrast to the in-flight meals that followed. Our flight was smooth and we got through customs with efficiency, but experienced an inexplicable hour delay waiting for our luggage.

Our trip was over, but we'll experience fond memories of it for years to come.