Before I start the tale of my latest travels with my daughter and girlfriends, let me offer some advice: If someone tells you Italy is extremely hot in August, believe it. And when renting a villa in Europe, read the contract carefully.
Now that I’ve saved you some sweat and tears, let’s get going.
Before the girls arrived, I spent five glorious days in Naples, hosted by a longtime friend and former Washington Post colleague, who showed me the beautiful, gritty city on the Mediterranean Sea that captured my heart. After Naples, I joined the first of my traveling sistas. There were five of us: My daughter, Andrea, and her friend Laura from Atlanta; my good friend Gaile, like me, from Charlotte; and my friend Earni from Philadelphia. (Airfare to Italy ran us each $1,300 to $1,600.)
People warned us against traveling to Italy in August when temperatures make city residents escape to seaside towns and close shop. But our schedules wouldn’t allow any other time. Still, be forewarned: It was brutally hot traipsing through ruins and tourist sites, many without air conditioning.
Generally, our travel group picks a destination and Earni arranges the lodging and tours. We save money by pooling our dollars to rent villas instead of paying for hotel rooms. The cost per person for lodging is less and we shop at local markets and cook, saving more by eating breakfast and dinner at “home.”
Earni suggests you have a budget in mind and stick to it.
”I wanted to keep our land cost as much under $2,000 as possible, including lodging, tours, cooking class and cars. We came in about $1,800.”
That $1,800 covered my four nights in a nice, air-conditioned three-bedroom, two bathroom apartment in the artsy Trastevere section of Rome and six nights in a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath country house with a pool about 10 miles from Florence in Tuscany. It also included use of two rental cars for the group, guided tours of the Coliseum, and the Panantine Hill; the Vatican museums, tickets to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world) and a cooking class in Tuscany. Groceries cost us another 90 EUR (Euros).
Earni advises that it’s also cheaper to buy directly from the museums’ and Vatican websites than to purchase tour tickets through travel agents who charge double or triple the price. The good news is booking these tickets ahead online will save you hours of waiting or disappointment (and ignore the insistent jokers outside offering guided tours at a “cheaper” rate).
The bad news is the value of the dollar against the Euro. The going rate is about 1 EUR = 1.30 USD. But be sure to ask the commission rate and fee charged when you exchange your money, as this can vary greatly.
Earni’s advice on finding lodging: Keep with well-known legitimate sites.
“There will be cheap places,” she said. “Know that ‘quaint’ means fixer-upper.”
One of her favorite sites to search for lodging is Ahomeaway.com and on this trip, she found www.rent-a-villa-in-tuscany.com to be helpful. Tripadvisor.com was her third choice. These sites, Earni said, try to police the properties so as a shopper you feel a bit more confidence. Still, it’s a gamble.
“You have to look at comments on the sites and see if there is someone you can talk to,” said Earni. “Be wary of sites that want all the money up front.”
We hit near-perfection in Rome, though the kitchen didn’t have an oven. We settled into a routine of breakfast at “home,” then touring, an afternoon nap and dinner, then returning to the winding streets filled with cafes. No one in Italy eats dinner before 8 p.m., so people are in the streets every night.
We toured The Coliseum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, feasting our eyes on unimaginable beauty. My daughter, her friend Laura and I found a small gift in Trastevere called DeeJay Bar, where Fernando spun a hip hop mix and house music that took me down memory lane. We met a nice group of people, including two black military guys who have been stationed in Europe for years, a waitress from Trinidad and her girlfriend who emigrated from Egypt. My daughter and Laura, both Spelman grads, were happy to run into a Morehouse graduate on vacation from his New York City job and two Delta sisters from South Carolina.
Tuscany was an entirely different vibe. It’s laid back country, picture perfect rolling hills and acres of grapevines and olive gardens. But also our large Tuscany house lacked air conditioning and the promised window screens and ceiling fans. We had to fight off wasps and mosquitoes and sleep with electric fans pointed at our beds. Indeed, most of us were stunned to find no air conditioning, though an ad for the house did not mention any. I imagine we were all too dazzled by the inclusion of a private pool to remember to check for air. Read your contract carefully!
So we were eight hot babes in Tuscany, having been joined by Donni from Atlanta and Romenia and Terri from Tucson.
We rented two, five-passenger cars and learned there is a reason people in Italy drive smaller cars: The roads are narrow, the parking spaces are small, the turnaround spaces are almost non-existent. My advice is to rent small, if you can. It will make navigating much easier. We also rented a GPS, which cost about $20 a day but didn’t always work. People turned instead to their cell phone GPS services. And if you are not comfortable driving a stick shift up winding hills, pay the extra money to rent an automatic. It can save your life, but just know that it will hit your pocket book, costing nearly twice as much.
In Tuscany, some of us climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa while the rest of us just used the strange wonder as a photo op; we admired the incredible sculpture of David at the Galleria dell'Accademia museum in Florence and visited a winery nearly a thousand years old.
Unfortunately, near the end of the trip I was enjoying our private pool when a wasp stung me on my nose and I had a terrible allergic reaction. (Who knew?!) But Italy’s national healthcare plan worked wonderfully. My friends called an ambulance and a doctor treated me without ever asking for an insurance card or payment. The sting and medication left me bed-ridden until we left two days later, though I managed to eat some of the homemade pasta the women made during our scheduled cooking class. (Delizioso!) The teacher came to the house, so I was able to observe part of the lesson, though I was too groggy to participate.
Already, I miss the best gelato, watermelon, cheese and pasta I ever had. I still am inspired by the amazing creations of the Italian artists. But I have to admit that I, a girl who isn’t crazy about air-conditioning, left Italy looking forward to hearing the click of an AC unit as it kicked on, knowing I would have a good night’s sleep in absolute coolness.