One adventurous Australian finds the hidden treasures of Italy can actually be discovered on a modern bus tour.
Published Selector Autumn 2011
Arriving in Rome the first thing that hits you is the traffic chaos. Cars weaving in and out of seemingly nonexistent spaces with scant regard for the lines. Then there’s the scooters whose drivers, some as young as 14, completely ignore traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. It was therefore a relief to be sitting comfortably in a coach, aptly driven by an Italian with the expertise to navigate the hazards of this hectic city.
Leaving my backpack at home I’d embarked on an itinerary of carefully planned journeys, destinations and experiences. But forget your traditional ideas of a bus tour; I’d been promised a ‘guided holiday’.
My host was Trafalgar tours, who are hoping to change the face of touring: a significant shift in focus for a company that’s been following the same road for over 60 years.
Since the first Trafalgar coach left the terminal in 1947, full of passengers who’d never left their home country and had little knowledge of other cultures, we’ve become, as travellers, much more independent. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips, making it easy to plan overseas adventures.
What’s more, for an increasing number of travellers there’s now a stigma attached to following the crowd and many people leave home wanting to tread their own path. The result is that the old-fashioned bus tour is on the verge of obsolescence.
Keeping the wheels turning
To avert extinction, Trafalgar realised the need to take heed and slow the pace, while giving passengers the sense of discovery that’s usually associated with independent travel.
The result is their new ‘At Leisure’ trips that offer plenty of time to absorb the local sights, culture and cuisine.
For this traveller, however, this new concept offered another all-important opportunity: escape from the group. Because no matter how good the ‘guided holiday’, no-one can control your travel companions and there are always some who wear thin after a while.
The people Trafalgar do have control over are the tour leader and city guides. The company has positioned themselves as ‘insiders’ with the means to reveal what they call ‘Hidden Treasures’ and the leaders and guides are key to their revelation. ‘Hidden Treasures’ come in the form of actual locations as well as historical, cultural or anecdotal tidbits that bring life to a destination.
The guiding voice on my trip was Roberto: a fountain of information with endless enthusiasm for all things Italian (well, except the public education system and the crowds at Pisa). From day one Roberto took great pride in uncovering little gems.
The first revelation was in Rome during an evening stroll over the beautiful Bridge of Angels to the Vatican. As we stood taking in the opulence of the world’s smallest sovereign state, Roberto drew our attention to two upper-floor windows. Here, apparently, the Pope has his lodgings and the light on meant he was home. Unfortunately we didn’t get a peek from behind the curtains, but it was interesting to ponder the pontiff tucked up in his papal pyjamas.
The following day we returned to take in St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. For these Roberto gave the mic to local guide Paulo, who was equally adept at conveying unique facts missing from your average guidebook.
One of the features he drew our attention to was the measurements on the floor of the cathedral. These show the length of different Catholic cathedrals throughout the world and emphasise that St Peter’s (of course) is the longest.
Then in the Sistine Chapel Paulo pointed out that Michelangelo painted a tortured image of his own face as Jeremiah in the Last Judgement as his way of flipping the bird to the Pope who took him away from his beloved sculpting work.
As we headed off for lunch, Paulo also mentioned that if you bought some religious paraphernalia from the local shop, the assistants would send it up to the Vatican to be blessed then have it delivered back to the hotel.
Obviously, all this information is available from other sources if you’re prepared to seek it out, but I have to admit it was so easy to have the guides take the lead and let it roll off their well-informed tongues.
Another of these passionate locals was introduced to us in Florence. Her name was Madeleine and she had an intense fascination with Michelangelo, claiming that her single status was due to the fact that no man could possibly live up to the beauty of David.
In the Galleria dell’Accademia it’s so tempting to rush past all the other works to stare in awe at David’s incredible form. However, with Madeleine explaining the talents of Michelangelo via the other sculptures, I held back and was better able to appreciate the genius of this incredible artist. I learnt, for example, that Michelangelo saw every piece of marble as housing a figure waiting to get out, that he subverted the beliefs of the time and studied anatomy rather than use models and never did a practice run using plaster.
Madeleine spent half a day with the group, winding through the streets of Florence and culminating with a tour of the Santa Croce Basilica.
After this we were given our first experience of the ‘At Leisure’ concept and had the afternoon to explore the city by ourselves. As predicted, by this stage, i.e., day four of a week-long trip, I was ready for some time out. To have the opportunity to take in the wonders of the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza Signoria and, of course, the many fine leather shops, without the rest of the group was welcomed with relish.
However, when it came to getting back to the hotel, my independent traveller smugness was dealt a blow. Having struggled with the ticket machine at the station there were mere minutes left to jump on the train. Once on board it was impossible to see the station names in the dark. Thankfully an English-speaking passenger assured me she would point out my station. But she made a mistake and I ended up on the wrong station with the choice of waiting an hour for the next train or spending 50 euro on a taxi. With midnight approaching I would have given anything to have the tour leader guide me out of this mess.
A sense of exclusivity
To create a sense of a holiday rather than a tour, another crucial factor is accommodation and Trafalgar is carefully honing its options. One of their new venues to be introduced in 2011 is Villa il Poggiale. This restored 1700s family-owned villa is 17 kilometres from Florence in Chianti Classico and visitors will spend four nights there, enjoying day trips to Florence and Tuscany.
The villa is divided into beautifully appointed suites and features a small wellness area and a pool. Unlike the very mainstream hotel with its dining room full of tour groups that I stayed in, this place has an intimate atmosphere that makes you feel like an individual guest rather than part of a herd of tourists.
When it comes to exclusivity, one of the dilemmas Trafalgar faces on their Italian itineraries is the inclusion of Pisa. For first-time visitors this is a must-see destination and the Square of Miracles is certainly impressive. However, with the masses all fighting for their prime ‘propping up the tower’ photo, the sneaky pickpockets and endless souvenirs stalls, it can be a bit of a nightmare.
As an alternative, they’re taking more groups to nearby Lucca. Having avoided the bombs of WWII, this beautiful city is encircled by a 12m high wall, which was built in the 16th and 17th centuries and is accessible by foot, bike or rollerblades, providing a 4km-long vantage point from which to see the city.
Without the throngs of happy snappers and endless souvenir stands, Lucca is a breath of fresh air. The summer months also afford the opportunity to sit out in the Piazza Antiteatro and imagine being back in the ancient amphitheatre on which this medieval plaza was built.
One of the last destinations on the tour was Cinque Terre, an incredible spot to farewell Italy. A popular stroll along this spectacular coastline is the lovers’ walk where soulmates attach padlocks, engraved with their initials, onto rails and throw the keys into the sea below, forever locking their hearts together. Although I was far from sharing the moment with a soulmate, it was the perfect location to reflect on the week. While group travel will never be for everyone, when there are passionate locals to uncover things you might otherwise miss, enough free time to make your own discoveries and some new friends to share a laugh with, there’s definitely a place in modern travel for ‘guided holidays’.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.
Jackie Macdonald travelled courtesy of Trafalgar tours and flew very comfortably with Emirates airlines.