Venice is a beautiful city, with incredible culture, art and architecture, a colorful history and a thriving tourism industry with plentiful & eclectic restaurants. Unfortunately, Venice is in some ways a victim of its own success, as the positives are somewhat offset by the sheer number of people that visit daily.
On the day of our arrival there were 4 cruise ships in port, adding more than 10,000 “Barbarians” to the thousands of land-based tourists crowding the already busy bridges and walkways. And I have never seen more selfie sticks in one place in my entire life! St. Mark’s Square is the Center of the Universe in Venice, so that is where everyone heads. And since there are only so many ways to get from one part of the city to another, things could get pretty hectic at times.
Kathy & I arrived the day before our organized tour, so we had almost two full days to explore on our own. We took advantage of that time by getting up and out early, so we could enjoy some of the more popular sites and sights before they became overcrowded. That proved to be a good strategy, then we moved to the less-populated areas during the middle of the day. We spent an enormous amount of time walking and logged many miles!
St. Mark’s Basilica was a highlight of Venice. We knew that we wanted to spend time beyond the limited time we would have on our organized tour, so we attended Mass on Sunday morning in order to sit and enjoy the service in the midst of all that beautiful art and architecture. The mass we attended included music, which not all of them do. It was done in Italian and Latin, and there was a visiting children’s choir that performed, making the whole event one to remember. Photography was not allowed in the church, so we will suffice with our memories of the place.
Photographically, Venice is a treasure trove of little scenes, with leading lines and angles everywhere. I had to take the “cliché” shot of the moving gondolas with the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in the background across the water. But there was much more than the cliché to be found there. The canals and alleyways, especially in the mornings, were great places to explore and photograph. During the day, it was all about the people, so that’s what I photographed – pictures of people taking pictures!
The food in Venice was very good, and we did our best to sample a cross section of the offerings! One has to be a little careful to identify the authentic, locally-owned Italian restaurants s opposed to the “tourist trap” restaurants, but our Tauck tour director did a good job with recommendations and suggestions which helped a lot. With Venice being on the water, there is plenty of seafood and lots of places served very good pizza. Wine was plentiful and very inexpensive, so that even the “house” wines in most places were very good. Kathy discovered the Aperol Spritz, which is a combination of Aperol (an Italian apéritif made of gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, among other ingredients) and Prosecco, a sparkling wine. Our home liquor cabinet is now stocked with Aperol, plus Campari and Vermouth Rosso for making Negronis, my new favorite!
Our hotel in Venice was the Baglioni Hotel Luna, which is situated literally steps from St. Mark’s Square. I could be out the door and into the square in less than 30 seconds, so it turned out to be an excellent location for early morning and evening photographic excursions. Venice turned out to be the only city that I was able to spend much time doing “serious” photography, although my future posts will show that I did quite a lot more photography in other locations as well!
This is the text from a write-up I did for our travel agent and tour company describing our experiences with the tour we did our first week in Italy.
When Kathy & I decided to visit Italy, we elected to use a tour company primarily due to the logistics involved with driving there and because of the need to tour the major sights with some kind of group in order to avoid spending valuable vacation time waiting in lines. We chose to tour with Tauck on the recommendation of our travel agent because of Tauck’s reputation and expertise in Italy. Our travel agent indicated that Tauck provided a good mix of quality accommodations in good locations, a high level of food and service, with knowledgeable and expert local guides and a good mix of organized activities and flexible time. We found all those things to be very much the case.
From the time we stepped out of baggage claim at the airport in Venice, to the time we joined the line for check-in at the Rome airport, we felt like we were traveling with people and a company that cared for us and looked out for us every step of the way to make sure we had an excellent vacation.
Our Tauck Tour Director was Andrea Orri, an Italy native and obviously a seasoned travel professional. Andrea consistently amazed us with his ability to communicate details, answer countless questions and essentially herd 40 distinct personalities around without even a hint of difficulty. All we had to do was show up at the appointed time and everything just “happened” as promised. His descriptions and explanations were communicated accurately, clearly and with a fantastic sense of humor. We learned a number of “Andrea-isms” that we will remember and use for years!
We don’t have a lot of special needs or unusual requests, but I have an occasional problem with claustrophobia, especially in tight spaces. When we mentioned this to Andrea he very quietly and professionally made sure I had a comfortable location on the bus and in the van. It was great and I never had a problem.
Andrea was always available to answer questions or give input. He freely provided ideas and directions for places to visit and restaurants to go for lunch or dinner. He often would make our reservations and provide directions to the places for us. We know that a lot happened behind the scenes, but what we observed was nothing less than amazing. If Andrea is representative of the quality of people who work for Tauck – and we have no reason to expect otherwise – there is no question that we would make Tauck our first choice for future travel of that type.
We found the hotel accommodations to be outstanding. The hotels themselves are centrally located with good amenities, we could not have asked for better. Our hotel in Venice was literally steps from St. Mark’s Square. In Florence, we were an easy walk from the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo and other sights. We could have used taxis but decided to enjoy the walking. Our hotel in Rome was centrally located, with a number of sights, restaurants and shopping within easy walking distance. Because of the sheer size of Rome, we used buses a lot more there than anywhere else.
We knew going in that this was a “hit the highlights” tour, and that there would be a lot of things we would skim over or simply miss. It’s just not possible to see “all” of the things in any one city in an entire lifetime, but we saw all of the “important” things with ample free time for the things that we wanted to see on our own. In Venice, I wanted to get out early and photograph the canals before the tourists arrived. In Florence we wanted to visit the Galileo Museum, and in Rome we wanted to walk to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. We did all of those things and more during the plenty of flexible time we had.
The after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel was itself worth the price of taking the Tauck tour. To be able to spend 30+ minutes in that space with a group of only 100 people, fully narrated by our guides, was truly a special experience. To my knowledge Tauck is the only company with that kind of access, and knowing how the usual tours are herded through quickly and without any narration, I would not have wanted to do it any other way. To have that amazing visit capped off with a dinner on the grounds of The Vatican, the evening could not have been more special.
Overall, we felt that the pace of the tour was just right. It would have been nice to have more time in the places we visited, but by missing all the lines we actually had more time in each of the places we did visit than most people would have had. The only thing we really weren’t prepared for was the amount of walking we would do, and we thought we had prepared! There were just a lot of things to do and places to see. It was no problem to exceed 10,000 steps per day on a regular basis!
Every tour group has a guide, and most of them are good. But we were especially impressed with the local guides that Tauck used in each city. They weren’t just locals who speak English, but were degreed art professionals who knew and could explain in intricate detail the history and importance of the places and pieces we visited. Being able to learn about those things was an added detail that we hadn’t expected but were happy to have been able to experience.
I mentioned earlier that things “just happened.” We never had to wonder about where to go, what to bring or what we were doing. On transfer days our luggage “disappeared” then “reappeared” at our destination. Transportation was always on time, restaurants were always ready for us and things were just right. I can’t imagine a more flawless experience.
Most of our fellow travelers were similar in age and demographics to us – 50’s to 70’s, with a few older and some teen and 20-year old kids and grandkids. It was a group of seasoned travelers with an appreciation for the food, culture and experience. We were surprised at the number of first timers – both to Italy as well as with Tauck. As an introductory tour to both that was understandable.
The perception of value is a very individual thing. Our Tauck tour appeared to be quite expensive, and it was, and many people would question whether it was worth the price. But when we consider all the things that were included, plus all of the advantages we gained in terms of time, access and experience, I personally would not have wanted to give up all of the positives to save a few dollars. I will say that the Tauck tour was an excellent product and that the quality lives up to the promise. Sometimes we pay more than we’d like for the experience we want. The “worth-it” decision is a personal one but one that we feel was appropriate for this vacation.
While this tour is not billed as “all-inclusive” it does include a lot. But it is important to be aware of and understand the cost of things that are not included. All of that free time and meals “on your own” come with a cost, and while each traveler has a certain amount of control over their spending, these are not inexpensive cities and everyone should plan, and budget, accordingly. And that doesn’t take into account the SHOPPING!
It is possible to do A LOT of walking, with a lot of steps, bridges and cobblestone streets. Be sure you know what you are getting into before you book.
In summary, we had a fantastic week and look forward to an opportunity to tour with Tauck again!
Kathy & I are currently in Pienza, Italy the midst of a week long photo workshop with Jeff Curto (search for PhotographItaly.com or the Camera Position blog). Centered in the Val d’Orcia.
If I can attempt to draw a metaphor, being here is a little like online dating but nothing like online dating. I fell in love with the country from photographs but the area is even more beautiful than I expected. We have an off morning today, which is fortunate because we are experiencing a well-timed rain shower. We’re off to Montepulciano this afternoon to taste some Pecorino cheese and sample some Brunello wines and are hoping for clearing skies.
First postcard from our current adventure to Italy. We arrived in Venice on Saturday, explored on our own until Sunday evening then joined our tour group. Lovely city but very crowded. I have a feeling that Florence and Rome may be more so, but we’ll see!