Touring Italy with Friends
Great trip over the pond with BA in business, up in the bubble, as we like to call it. Service and seats were fabulous. It’s nice to look around the plane to see familiar faces and not just strangers, which is how it looks when you are traveling with 6 besties.
First Stop: Pisa
It was a fabulous blue-sky day, perfect for photographing the leaning tower of Pisa and its surrounding cathedrals. Short stop, but definitely worthy. Funny note; my girlfriends were shocked they had to pay to go the bathroom. They were very happy I was prepared with Euros.
Second Stop: Florence
Our hotel, Villa Cora, is the most charming boutique hotel in Florence. Located in the (as our driver stated) Beverly Hills of Florence. The staff is second to none, which is no surprise since it under the amazing hands of Simone and Vanessa. Each room has its own perfect charm and the scent of roses everywhere. The rooms are spacious with furniture and decor from the late 1800’s. The rose garden surrounds the entire hotel and just opening the massive windows brings in the sweet smell of fresh roses all day long. The hotel is large villa built in the late 1800’s by Oppenheimer (the Hedge Fund German Banker) and is walkable to the town of Florence. The estate is adjacent to the Boboli Gardens and the Pitti Palace. Walking to Florence is fine, but it’s set on a huge hill, so walking back is not as pleasant. Villa Cora offers transfers all day long at no cost for guests. Since we were such a large group we sometimes needed to call a cab for overflow of the transfer van, which Villa Cora pays for directly.
Villa Cora has a rooftop with full service when needed. They supply a phone on the deck and you just call for any drinks or food you desire. The views of the sunset over Florence is breathtaking from the rooftop. We were able to watch a wedding on the
rooftop the following night from the pool side. Just stunning.
Pool bar service is beyond good. Every staff member is truly funny and delightful. They all seem to love their job and their team of associates. Morning breakfast is just crazy huge and delicious. Service is perfect in every way.
Touring the town of Florence:
I strongly believe all tourist must to go see The David, and the Uffizi Museum while in Florence. Perfetto and our guide were able to get us in the short line, which the other was about ½ mile long. We still waited 20 minutes to get in, but worth the wait. After David (Hubba Hubba), we walked around the town visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and Basilica of Santa Croce with our guide.
We then headed over to the Scuola Del Cuioi (School of Leather), which was a huge hit with my girlfriends. It is some of the best Italian Leather I’ve seen, and they are all so proud of their work and designs. Let’s put it this way, the shopkeepers loved us. Lots of purchases.
Off to lunch, just across the street at Baldovino Bistrot, which was excellent. We were introduced to a new Rose named Alie, worthy – best Rose we had in all of Italy. Food and service were delightful.
Half of the group stayed in Florence and shopped and shopped, while four us returned to Villa Cora to rest before dinner. We decided to have a light dinner and walked to a nearby restaurant just up the hill from Villa Cora. La Terrazza del Principe has an amazing view of the Boboli Gardens. It is quaint, and family owned. Food was great and very local. Service was good, and the prices were great.
Next morning, we met our guide and headed over to the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. We all enjoyed the art and history of the Pitti Palace and tried to wrap our heads around the wealth of such a ginormous palace. It is just incredibly large. The Boboli Gardens are just as impressive as the Palace and art work. So many paths to get lost in and great fountains to make wishes. The rose garden is at the very end with a stairway to the top, which is lovely with amazing views of the Palace and surrounding countryside. It is a large hill with lots of steps and some very uneven paths, so those who have trouble getting around on foot, may want to forgo the garden walk.
Off to tour the Oltrarno and lunch at Trattoria Cammillo. A very busy restaurant with lots of locals. Food was amazing, but the service was so-so. You could tell our server was not keen on tourists but was super friendly with the locals. The food and wine made up for a snooty waiter.
Upon our arrival back at Villa Cora, the GM Simone had a surprise dinner set up for us. He whisked us away to Chianti for a very different but really fun dinner. Officina Della Bistecca in Chianti is so upbeat, fun, crazy, and the most delicious beef dinner in Italy. The owner Dario Cecchini aka the Butcher, brings you down to his kitchen where he is serving Chianti by the truck loads, cheeses and meets from his deli and rocking out to AC/DC very loudly while he cuts up the beef we will all consume at dinner. The staff is super fun and engaging. Laughter, hugs and high-fives from the staff make you feel like you just belong there. The dinner table is a one long community table where you eat, drink and be very merry all-night long. They grill the food right there in a giant indoor (but looks like an outdoor) kitchen grill. Before every beef entrée is served, we chant…. To Beef or not to Beef. It is so much fun, but you will not eat beef for the rest of the trip. Thank you, Simone, for an unforgettable dinner.
Third Stop: Pompeii
We explored the remains of this ancient Roman settlement, frozen in time in the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and experience what daily life was like there during the Pax Romana. Discover the magnificent amphitheater, the stately homes of the ancient Roman nobility, the taverns and restaurants, the striking artifacts and works of art, and the wide avenues of a lost world.
We also explored the ancient red-lighted district, with the fresco
paintings of the Kamasutra art detailing which house preformed which act of Kamasutra. It was a port town before the volcano, so lots of sailors shopping for their choice of services, so to speak. All legal and well organized according to the historians. Who knew? And so close to the mighty Roman Catholic society just a few hundred miles away. Fascinating.
We transferred by train to Naples Centrale in first class. Train ride was lovely, but there were no storage areas for our luggage on our car. There were piles of luggage stuffed everywhere from all the travelers on our car. Our car had a washroom, which took up the storage space. We could take our luggage to another car, but no one on the car did. The train carries no ice anywhere and beverages are served warm. You can get a chilled beverage if you go to the dining car, yet again, no ice. Actually, ice was an issue almost everywhere in Italy. It is typical in Europe, and I’m prepared for this, but my non-globetrotting friends were not.
Palazzo Avino and the town of Ravello are one of the most breathtaking views in Amalfi. The hotel hosts spacious rooms, fabulous outdoor space and a one-star Michelin restaurant, Rossellinis. It also has a fabulous pool and small gym (with an amazing view), a spa and its own beach club (about 15 min away with free transfer). The service is
fabulous and the Avino family Mariella and Atillia have made some amazing upgrades which have made this location even more appealing. Although, I love every space in the hotel, the newly decorated rooftop hot tub (very large) are just perfect. Hot tub, view, champagne and some of your best friends after a long day of travel, priceless.
On our first evening, we opted to pass on the Michelin starred restaurant for the Terrazza Belvedere. Seafood and pasta were perfect in every way. The view was perfect, service amazing, great bartender and we stayed very late mingling with other guests from around the world.
First morning in Ravello, we did a walking garden tour of the city. It’s a small town but with huge charm and fabulous history. The Ciambrone Hotel and the Villa Rufolo gardens view are jaw-dropping gorgeous. Our guide showed us great little details of the town and gardens that you would definitely miss if not for the guide. I think the photos can
speak for themselves, better than any description.
The shopping is awesome in Ravello especially for ceramics and linen. Pascal, the owner of Ceramiche d’Arte has lived in Ravello all his life and almost everyone I met said the same. They only leave when season is over and most of them head to Thailand for 4 months. Nice life.
Dinner that evening we walked back into town to a restaurant in the Villa Maria Hotel, named The Restaurant and known as Orsola grandma’s kitchen. Once again, great food, fabulous service and the price was great.
Fifth Stop: Amalfi Coast on the sea
Just 25 minutes below Palazzo Avino we arrived at the Hotel Santa Catarina, located on the famous Amalfi drive and a short walk to the town of Amalfi. Yet, another amazing hotel with sea views as far as you can see. Hotel Santa Catarina is lovingly known as Crescenzo House, the owner. The hotel sits at the summit of an extensive property, which begins along the Amalfi drive and tumbles down to the water in a series of landscaped natural terraces. Two elevators and scenic path transport guests past citrus groves and lush gardens to the seaside level, which includes a sea-water swimming pool, sunbathing decks, gym, café/bar and open-air restaurant.
Just walking the paths around the hotel with the scent of sea air and fresh lemon trees makes you want to halt all further travel plans and move in permanently. The rooms are spacious with incredible views and the comfiest bedding I’ve ever slept on. The rooms have great amenities, including a great hand-held steamer!!!! Best amenity every. No ironing boards or irons to bother with and/or no laundry fees. I was able to steam 7 items in 12 minutes.
The spa at Hotel Santa Catarina is small but lovely and the services were remarkable. Only problem, was my service room was right next to the spa check-in, lots of chatter coming and going with new appointments.
Since it rained all day on our first day at Hotel Santa Catarina, our boating day was postponed till the following day, so guess what the girls did? Yep, you got it, they shopped in Amalfi all day long. Let me tell you, these girls can shop.
Dinner that evening was at Restaurant Santa Caterina, hosted by Crescenzo. The salt baked snapper is by far the best fish I’ve eaten thus far. We sat in the open-air restaurant for a lovely, lovely evening with marvelous piano music playing just close enough, but not too close looking over the lighted Amalfi Coast and the starlit sky. Perfect ending for a perfect day.
After a very rainy day the day before, we woke to the clearest blue sky you could only hope for, for a day on a boat. We were upgraded from a 47’ Ferretti to a 54’, happy dance. We board, and the captain is one of the best-looking Italians you could dream up, plus he was very nice and informative too. My friends were in a very happy place. We sailed off to cruise around the Isle of Capri, swim in the Blue Grotto, relax, drink champagne and giggle like little girls.
For lunch we choose Ristorante Conca Del Sogno, only reachable by water. The place was packed as it was the beginning of the season, but we had a great table reserved right on the rail overlooking the cove. The service was quick and fun. Our server was even hand feeding a few of the girls after he deboned the fish. Wine selection is great, and the food even better.
After a full day in the sun, we had an early night in preparation for our big transfer to Puglia.
Sixth Stop: Puglia
We had a nice drive over to Puglia via van, amount of time was around 4.5 hours with two stops for refreshments. Arrived at Borgo Egnazia and waited about 30 minutes before we were greeted by our dedicated local advisor. As we were lead to our Villa our advisor said they had a great Villa for the 6 of us. I let her know the Villa was reserved for 7. She scrambled to have the other bed made as we arrived. We were upgraded to Villa Meravigliosa, which is the exact same layout and size as the Villa Stupenda, but we get a Massaia every morning who cooks us breakfast and assist in laundry if needed. Plus, the gardens are much bigger and more private. My favorite part of the Villa was the rooftop to watch the sunset over the Adriatic Sea.
Wi-fi does come complimentary with the Villa, but you must pay more if you need hi-speed to work or downloading such as Netflix. I did request that we get at least three upgraded Wi-Fi’s since we did have working girls on the trip. They were kind enough to give each of us upgraded Wi-Fi and no cost, sadly the upgraded wi-fi was choppy at best. I would have been upset if I had to pay for it. Also, only two bikes are complementary, in a 4-bedroom Villa, so you must go rent more if you want them. Once again, they gave us four more bikes complementary.
The narrow alleys of the Borgo Village are reproduced according to the traditions of the most characteristic Apulian historical centers with a magic stretch stolen by the most enchanting Arabian landscapes. Borgo Egnazia is a visionary interpretation of a typical Puglian village, a “Nowhere Else” place embodying the true essence of Puglia, set among millennial olive groves beside the shimmering Adriatic.
Borgo has everything you could imagine, restaurants, spa, boutique, kids club, teen club, indoor and outdoor pool, great gym, reading room, game room, bikes, golf and a full beach club. Simply “Nowhere Else” completely describes this location because you really don’t need to go anywhere else to enjoy yourself.
First morning in Puglia we chose to go the Lecce (one hour south) to tour the city, eat and shop. Lecce is a charming town with amazing history located at the tip of the heel (stiletto) of the Italian boot surrounded by the Adriatic and Ionian coasts. Piazza Sant’Oronzo narrates the city’s entire history. The Roman period is visible in the ruins of the Amphitheatre that becomes the exceptional stage for theatrical performances in summertime, and in part by the high Column – on which stands a bronze of St. Orontius (currently being restored, so no pictures to share), depicted in the act of blessing – erected in the 17th Century utilizing some of the Roman columns positioned on the Ancient Appian Way. Symbol of the Renaissance is Palazzo del Seggio, known as the “Seat,” which today hosts important art exhibitions, and the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, with its interesting frescoes and works sculpted in wood.
It’s also possible to take a papier-mâché class in several artisan studios and learn the elaborate but satisfactory process of creating papier-mâché handmade works, but the girls preferred to shop instead.
Indigenous Tours made a huge error in our planning. As stated above, we were scheduled for a walking tour to start, then lunch, and then shop. Well, unbeknownst to us, the stores all close at 2pm and reopen at 5pm for siesta. This is common in Italy for long siestas, but unlike Florence (very touristy and busy) who keep all shops open in high season, but in Lecce, it did not apply. We were disappointed our local knowledge never told us to change our schedule to shop first and end with a tour. Our guide work with us as much as possible to correct the situation, but our tickets to view some of the cathedrals were only for the morning.
This evening we ventured into the small town just outside of Borgo Egnazia named Savelletri where we ate at a local pizzeria and had a wonderful time. Borgo charges €30.00 each way to town, but it is an easy bike ride during the day. The owners of the pizzeria where super friendly and even drove everyone back to our Villa.
Next morning, we started our tour to Alberobello driving classic Italian cars to meet our guide Mimmo. Once again Indigenous Tours messed up and we did not have any convertible cars, which was highly requested, for at least one convertible, if not two. Plus, they hired us all drivers, which I made clear that we had 4 ladies who could drive stick and wanted to drive. The car company felt so bad about the mess up, they said they received no direction and what cars to bring, just classic cars and 4 drivers. Although, the cars we all very nice and our drivers all sat in the back while we drove to Alberobello, with a few stops on the way to take in the country side of Puglia.
Alberobello was one of our favorite excursions on the trip. The town, the Trulli’s, the amazing history and our fabulous guide Mimmo was just a perfect day. “Trullo” architecture is unique to Puglia and few people actually know why a Trullo has such a weird structure and why they are typical of this area. This story I will leave for you to hear and see for yourselves. We were able to visit a Trulli Museum (just one Trulli is the museum), which is very uncommon since Trulli’s always have a private owner and it is rare to have an inside visit. We also saw a modern Trulli, which was Mimmo’s friend. Super cool town and really friendly people. So friendly, in fact, the local policeman, Giuseppe, stopped to great us and take pictures with us. Before our return home in our vintage cars, we stopped by a local bar with Mimmo to task the wine and have some light bites. Just a charming little space with wonderful servers.
Our last evening, we all decided to stay in our Villa and hire a Massaia for a true Italian home cooked meal. Our Massaia showed up at 11am and started our dinner!!! She cooked everything from scratch, from the focaccia, pasta, sauces and her great grandmother’s dessert which was all so amazing. We sat around the dinner table from six in the evening till ten. We were all stuffed and in love with Italy. We were all sad we hired her on our last night since there was so much food left over. We should have hired a Massaia the very first night, so we could eat it for the next four days.
Early morning departure to Bari. Only two people working the check-in at Alitalia which resulted in an hour line, ugh. While going through security we could hear all our names being called over the load speaker with last call to board. I flew through security and ask them to hold the plane and they did. Wow, that would never happen in the US.
Flight to Rome was pleasant but lines for immigration where long and we all were put in different lines, some went fast and others didn’t, but we had plenty of time, so we just waited till everyone was through to board and our trip on AA to ORD was perfect.
Truly amazing trip with lots of great food, memories and laughter to hold us till our next girls trip. Watch out Greece, here we come.