After a few days on my own in Rome I joined up with my G Adventures group. There were 15 of us: one young married couple, one set of friends traveling together, two single guys and nine single ladies. (Guys, you should really be doing more tours to meet women.)
Our tour guide, Zsofia, was a spitfire from Budapest with way more energy than the rest of us combined. She took us for a group dinner in the trendy Trastevere neighborhood and we all quickly got to know each other while dining on amazing pizza, pasta and fish. You really can’t go hungy in Italy.
Zsofia made sure we always had dessert as well, and for this first night out she led us to one of her favorite gelato places. It didn’t disappoint.
The next morning we were all off, and just in time. A few sprinkles of rain started to fall as we headed to the train station, but luckily they didn’t follow us north.
Our destination was Viareggio, a seaside town that would be our homebase for the next few days, but on the way there we made a stop in Pisa to see that big, leaning tower. It does indeed lean, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed seeing that so much as I enjoyed watching dozens of tourists pose with their hands in the air to push the tower back up.
We arrived in Viareggio hungry for dinner and just in time to see the sunset on the beach. Try to catch this at least once because it’s stunning on a clear night, and it gave me a chance to try all the filters on my camera (toy camera, soft light, vibrant, etc.).
Just across the street from our hotel were some nice beach-side restaurants, but even better was the crepe place we went for dessert, because Zsofia always knows where to find dessert.
Because this was a YOLO style tour, the accommodation was a combination of hostels and budget hotels. So in Rome I shared a small room with three other women, but in Viareggio we were in decent sized rooms of two people each. We even had cable TV and free WiFi in the room, which meant we could take in some Italian MTV while checking our email at the end of the day. The only downside to the hotel was the mile walk to and from the train station, so remember to only pack as much as you can haul that distance. It’s a good rule for any trip.
The next day was an early one as we hopped back on the train to spend the day in Florence. I had many people tell me before I left on this trip that Florence was *so* much better than Rome: prettier, cleaner, smaller and less crowded, and just more quaint in that cozy European way. They were right that I liked Florence better, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s certainly smaller; I think I walked the entire city twice in one day. The crowds weren’t as bad, even around the Uffizi (one of Rome’s most famous and important museums and home to The Birth of Venus).
Maybe it was the river and the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s famous bridge. It’s a beautiful area, even with the dozens of illegal street vendors trying to push sunglasses, knock-off purses, and posters.
This day’s activities weren’t scheduled for us, so we could each wander, shop, eat and see whatever we wanted to. If you’re planning to visit the Uffizi or the Accademia Gallery (to see the statue of David), go to www.weekendafirenze.com to book your tickets in advance. Weeks or months before if you can, since they do sell out during peak tourist season. When you get there you’ll have to get in one line to pick up your ticket, then get into another line to actually get into the museum. It’s a little chaotic, but worth it if you enjoy art. And if the David really is going to crumble someday, you want to be able to say you saw it.
Some people like tours because they’re bad at planning, but I think to make the most of any tour where you have free time to yourself, you need to do a little homework before you go. Your tour guide can give you ideas of what to do, but if you arrive in a city with no inkling of what the place is known for or what you might enjoy, then you might wind up missing out on something you would have really liked. For me, I always look up the best places for chocolate, the best libraries, the best book stores and any special art exhibits going on. Depending on your interests you might want to look up car museums or comic book shops, the best place to get local beer or the best hikes to do. Come up with a few ideas, whatever they are, so that you can make the most of your free time when you have it, and you aren’t that person who looks at the tour guide with a blank stare asking, “What is there to do here?”
I really like having the occasional free day on a tour, because as much as I enjoy getting to know the people in my group, I also like to have the freedom to make my own plan sometimes, and not have to go along with what everyone else wants to do. I’m just a rebel like that.
Zsofia offered us the option of meeting for a picnic dinner at the end of the day, at the top of a hill overlooking the city. She was always willing to put together an activity for us and she knew enough about each place we visited to make sure we saw the highlights. And the best gelato places.