Sunday, May 6, 2012

The joys of Italy with Trafalgar Tours

Travelife’s Angelica Bayona recently braved subfreezing temperatures to bask in Italy's la dolce vita with Trafalgar Tours and Cathay Pacific. She flew from Manila to Rome via Hong Kong.

Walking around the streets of Italy is like being in a movie full of majestic sights and the remnants of a rich civilization’s colorful history. But at the same time, the highlights of a trip also lie in the simple pleasures associated with real Italian life.

I’ve been all over the world with Travelife Magazine, the leading travel and lifestyle publication, but Italy has always been on my mind as a dream destination. 

This year, I decided it was time to experience the joys of sitting in an Italian piazza with an espresso, and having real al dente pasta and Chianti wine in an authentic trattoria, for myself.

I didn’t have much time, however, as we’re eternally busy and always traveling at Travelife; so I decided to go for the practical option and book a package tour from Manila that would take care of every detail – thus leaving me free to truly enjoy the sights and sounds of Italy without hassles. 


There are pros and cons to joining a tour, of course, but for a value-conscious tourist like myself who is short on time to plan and to travel, a package tour is the most convenient way to maximize a trip.

I researched my options as there are dozens of Italy tours being offered in Manila, and most of them offer the same basic tour but at different prices. 

How was I to choose? Of course I wanted reasonable prices, good hotels and comprehensive tours that would cover the best each city had to offer.

My tour checklist:
* Reasonable prices
* Good hotels
* Comprehensive tours that include everything important
* Great tour guides
* Delicious and filling breakfasts


Eventually, I decided to go for Trafalgar Tours, the tour operators who know Europe like the back of their hands and who offer quality tours at affordable prices and convenient connections from Manila to Rome via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific

Trafalgar Tours is not the cheapest in the business, but I got a fully guided, hassle-free holiday with very comfortable four-star hotels and nice restaurants.

Meanwhile, my flight to Rome via Hong Kong was painless in terms of time and very comfortable. I had a convenient connection in Hong Kong and time passed very quickly as I downloaded emails and had a bowl of delicious dan dan noodles in the Cathay Pacific business lounge at Hong Kong's airport.


In Rome, I stayed at a Sheraton hotel with spacious rooms and a great buffet breakfast. The general manager even hosted cocktails for my companions and I upon arrival, literally giving us a taste of delicious things to come. 

In Florence, home was the four-star Grand Hotel Mediterraneo right in the center of town. In Assisi, Trafalgar booked us at the Giotto Hotel, a 19th century nobleman’s house only 200 meters away from the St. Francis Basilica.

Meanwhile, we had many delicious meals on the trip, but one of my most memorable culinary experiences was eating at a famous pizzeria in Florence where we were given the chance to bake our own pizzas; then a local opera singer surprised us with a medley of songs while we feasted on our own creations. How many tourists can say they baked their own pizza in a  famous Florentine pizzeria?


I had only a few days in Rome but my tour enabled me to visit all the major sights.

When visiting Rome, one of the world’s most celebrated cities, a trip to see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City is a must. I was in high spirits after seeing Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and the classic masterpieces of Bernini and Raphael, wondering how these great artists created such amazing works of art. St. Peter’s Basilica is both a historical and spiritual sanctuary.

The Colosseum, venue of one of the deadliest spectator shows in history, was built in 80 AD. It is a symbol of power, ambition and struggle during the time of emperors and slaves, and its grandeur is evident from its 76 public entrances and 55,000 seats. I felt I was living out a scene from the movie Gladiator.

Seeing the Trevi Fountain also made an impact on me. Legend says that throwing coins into the fountain guarantees a trip back to Rome in the future. I certainly made sure to throw in a couple for good measure.


From Rome, we drove towards Tuscany, stopping by the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa. This wasn't really meant to have a tilted position, but the soil on which it is situated is so soft that the tower began to lean. 

Located just behind the Cathedral, the Leaning Tower of Pisa comes third after the Cathedral and the Baptistry as the oldest structures in Pisa's Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo). 

Because of its extraordinary architectural designs, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of Italy’s most famous tourist spots; and it’s now a well-loved tradition for tourists to pose for photographs as if they’re preventing the tower from falling. 


We also visited the town of Assisi to see St. Francis' Basilica and to admire the breathtaking landscapes of the Italian plains from the town’s ridges. Assisi is one of the most important places for Christianity because it is where St. Francis lived and died, so most tours catering to Filipino groups will include a stop here on the way to Florence from Rome.

St. Francis Basilica has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It’s where St. Francis is buried. Constructed in 1228, it has two churches: the Gothic-style upper church and the lower church. Both Churches have frescoes painted by medieval Roman and Tuscan artists, showing the development of Italian art during this period. 


Tuscany, on the other hand, is famous for its wines so I couldn’t leave this region without going to some of Chianti's most famous wine-growing estates. Wine tasting and a country drive is a must, and happily, my Trafalgar tour provided these opportunities. 

If you love shopping, the Space outlet store in the nondescript town of Montevarchi sells the cheapest Prada items on the planet. Meanwhile, The Mall outlet nearby sells heavily discounted goods from luxury brands like Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Armani.


Perhaps the most interesting experience on my enjoyable Trafalgar tour was the “Be My Guest Experience.” This was really unique and personable -- and I don't think many tours of other companies actually offer a program like this.

Trafalgar brought me to the Fattoria di Maiano, the family home and working olive grove estate of Count Francesco Miari Fulcis in the outskirts of Florence. His wife served us her home-made specialties while we sipped local wine from a nearby vineyard. Enjoying a moveable feast of steamed chicken and ravioli prepared fresh from the family’s garden was the perfect way to end my trip. I felt I was already home.



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