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You Always Remember Your First... Tour Virgins and the Unexpected

Expectations are funny things. They are necessary tools for navigating life. The secret? Making sure they aren't the only things in your tool kit.

Just sit right back

And you'll hear a tale

A tale of a fateful trip.

Not Gilligan's Island but also not the trip we were expecting. This is our story of firsts. First tour. First time in Italy beyond Rome. First time reducing 2400+ pictures to just a few. To take a look, keep on scrollin'... all the way to see how the story ends.

The Beginning. Ciao, Italia

Lake Como

Our first meet and walk with our group in Varenna. Are we sure about this?
Maybe we'll just hang around the hotel,
enjoy the view,
or wander into town.
Then our first agenda arrives.
And we're torn between dawdling over breakfast or...
....grabbing the all day boat pass Molly (our tour guide) hands us and spend the day exploring Lake Como. In the end, we do both.
Wandering and shopping in Bellagio
Hiking up to Villa Balbianello
while pretending we are in a James Bond movie
Making stops on a beautiful autumn afternoon in San Giovanni, Menaggio, and Lenno.

One of the "unexpecteds" on this trip was the different modes of transportation we would master.

The Italian Alps

The bus arrives. We recognize their faces but who are these people? And where are we going?
First stop Verona and the Adige River. First castle. First sighting of a Garibaldi statue - wish we had counted how many we saw. Garibaldi was very important to the formation of modern Italy. Oregon has a coastal town named after him.
And we continue up, up, up into the Dolomites. Dino, our bus driver extraordinaire, received rounds of well-deserved applause.
Another "unexpected". A Cow Parade with protest signs, tyrollean farm maids, and, oh yeah,...Italian men in leather shorts cracking whips while standing on horseback.
Somehow I thought "David" would look different. Another surprise was how fascinated we were with Ötzi the Iceman and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Venice

Venice is supposed to be about glass, art, and fashion. Discovering that most of it is not in a museum was a delight. The ceiling light of our hotel room. Weird helping hands. Do real people wear those Prada ensembles?
And, of course, Venice is about the water. Who knew the magic that would occur at night?
Our "rides" would be everything from romantic or commuter gondolas to "traghetto" ferries.
After a romantic gondola ride and serenade, Molly meets us dockside with prosecco!
We found art everywhere (upper left: 1 of 4 remaining gondola oar and "forcola" woodworkers)
Music inside and outside.
Vistas above and below St. Mark's Basilica.
Rick says "Get lost in Venice". It's not really a suggestion. It is a statement of fact. You will get lost. More than once. The key is to find food, wine, and regale your fellow tour buddies with your escapades.

Florence

We found David where he's supposed to be. And he is spectacular.
But, unexpectedly, we spent more time with "The Prisoners" because they brought to life Michelangelo's approach and concept of carving.
Bottecelli, da Vinci, and Brunelleschi. The wealth and depth of genius which resides in Firenze is staggering.
Beauty and artistry are everywhere.
Equally captivating was watching a living artist demonstrate her artistic style in pieces made for us!

As we left Florence we made two stops. One iconic. One profound.

Pisa. Yes the tower leans. But the real star is the BaptIstery with the amazing acoustics, where a single voice can create a three part chord as the clear beautiful tones hang in the air.
In a beautifully quiet location a sobering reminder of the sacrifice made by many in World War II. The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial.

The Cinque Terre

We're struck first by the color.
Then we learn what they have overcome.
We walk along the vineyard walks,
Ride trains between the 5 (cinque) towns,
And walk up to a Capuchin Monastery and Cemetery passing a statue of St. Francis. Boy... the Italians really know how to do memorial stones.
We vow on the next trip, anytime we are near a beach, to have swimsuits in our daypacks. Not back in the hotel room. The Ligurian Sea is refreshing. The beach is a perfect place to end our stay.

Siena

Best living room ever. Day or night.
It was extraordinary learning about the centuries old districts of Siena (contrade) and their incredible annual horse races (Il Palio). We ate a meal cooked and served by members of the Forest district (della Selva) in their contrada museum. This is a marvelous combination of fandom and community allegiance beyond anything we'd ever experienced. It was charming and fascinating.
The art and historical craftsmanship throughout Siena is amazing
Even better was having a modern day stained glass artist help us understand his art.
The delightful best was designing our own "Contrade Scavenger Hunt." We didn't come close to finding all 17 but it gave us a wonderful discovery walk of the city.
Another meet and walk with our merry band of travelers. But in contrast to our first picture where we stand separated like the strangers we were. Now, we are drinking, eating, and chatting like the friends we've become.

Tuscany - Assisi and Orvieto

Assisi. Elegant and inspiring.
Duomo di Orvieto. The best Duomo because of the knowledgeable and engaging tour given by Molly!
Wandering around Orvieto...because we are experts at that now. Both above and below ground. There is almost as much below ground as there is above.
Our first stay in an "agriturismo" - a vineyard and olive grove. We talk about the vines and, of course, taste the wines.
Morning coffee with a spectacular view as we relax and rest before we dash into Rome.

Rome

Walking in ancient footsteps with our delightful and knowledgeable local guide. The Colosseum to the Forum and on to the Pantheon. Our local guides throughout the trip were a godsend.
One should always walk through Rome at night.
The Vatican Museums are marvelous, monumental and overwhelming. No pictures in the Sistine Chapel. We became so inundated with the depth and breadth of it that we take almost no pictures -- anywhere. Then we stumble out and spot where the Pope must shop for that new killer Easter ensemble :)
We finish with St. Peter's Basilica. Stunned, dazzled, and exhausted.

Food. It's not a stop on the tour but it was very much a star of our trip. From the lemon marmalade for breakfast made from the innkeepers trees in the Cinque Terre to our group dinners that included a flaming Florentine steak!

Pumpkin Pasta, antipasti, and pizza
Digestivo, fresh sole, Pici Arribiata, and Buffalo Mozzarella
And we couldn't forget the AutoGrill ! LIke a truck stop on steroids and good to boot!

The Ending. Arrivederci, Italia

We bid Dino and the bus farewell when we arrive in Rome. Then the final agenda is posted.
One last cappuccino as we linger over breakfast.
What will we remember? Not what we expected. This is what we'll remember. Near weeping at the beauty of an impromptu acapella youth choir performance as we gazed at Michelangelo's Moses in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains. Tears of regret that, once home, we will never eat this well again. Laughing so hard we cried at the crazy white elephant souvenir exchange with our tour buddies. Those are three of the many amazing and unforeseen memories we now treasure.

A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles. - Tim Cahill

Thank you to our stellar tour guide Molly, exceptional bus driver Dino, and all of our wonderful tour buddies.

Credits:

Photos were all taken by Bruce and Debra Duffe

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