By SUSAN HUDSPATH-MAY/For The News-Gazette
I have always loved to travel, but most of my traveling has consisted of driving to my destination and camping.
I have always dreamed of traveling to Italy to see those things we have all heard of: the Coliseum, the canals of Venice, the statue of David, etc. Then I read "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown, and it made me even more eager to go.
After many years of trying to find someone to go with me, my friend Jean Gross agreed to go and was very excited to do so. I consider myself an adventurer, but going to a non-English-speaking country made me a little nervous.
We decided to go with a tour from the Gate 1 Company. All the hotels, entrance to the "attractions," most of the meals and all the travel arrangements were included. A tour manager was with us the whole trip to answer questions or help us with problems. This came in very handy for one lady when her purse and passport were stolen on the first night.
Our tour began in Venice, and it was just wonderful and interesting. Instead of roads, they have canals. You can walk almost everywhere; they have a lot of bridges over the canals. We toured the Murano Glass Factory, viewed St. Mark's Basilica, Doges Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. We made sure we had a map and could find our hotel before we headed out on our own. When we had free time, we wandered down the sidewalks and explored; you couldn't get too lost because it is an island.
Our next stop was Pisa. It was a lovely day, and the area around the leaning tower, called the Field of Miracles, was just beautiful. Of course, I took my picture "holding up" the tower.
That evening, we arrived in the bustling city of Florence. The next morning, we were up early to start the tours of Florence. We went to see Michelangelo's "David," the Cathedral of Santa Marie del Fiore and then climbed the 500 steps to the top. That was a great view; we didn't want to come down! Florence had many piazzas with interesting statues. We wandered around with our trusty map and didn't get lost.
In Italy, the piazzas are parks in the city — without grass. They have fountains and places for people to sit.
Italian cities also have bridges with shops on them. When they ran out of real estate, they built on the bridges.
Our next adventure took us to Assisi. We toured the basilica, and the frescoes were fantastic. This is the only day we had rain and we were on the bus, so we were very lucky on this trip.
Rome was the next stop on our trip. We arrived at dusk, and our hotel was three blocks from the Coliseum. We had just enough time to see it lit up; what a sight to see.
The next day we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. We viewed the "Pieta" by Michelangelo and marveled at the size of the basilica. You can fit two football fields in the sanctuary. I've never been in a church that big before.
That afternoon, we toured the piazzas and the fountains in Rome. I got to see the fountain from the movie made about "Angels and Demons." Of course, we threw coins in the Trevi fountain (this is a ritual to ensure you will return to Rome someday).
We saw the Spanish Steps and toured the Coliseum, the Forum and the Pantheon. We also went to St. Peter in Chains Basilica; this holds the chains that were used to keep the apostle Peter in prison. When we had time, we went to the Crypt of the Capuchin Friars. It contained the bones of 4,000 friars. They were arranged in intricate patterns and some were stacked on top of each other. Since Jean and I are both X-ray technologists, we enjoyed trying to figure out which bones were in each design. It was a bit macabre.
Back on the bus again to head to our next destination: Sorrento. On the way, we stopped at Pompeii. This is the place that was buried under 13 to 20 feet of ash after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. I enjoyed seeing what life was like back then. When they were excavating here, they found pockets in the lava and they discovered the empty spaces were the decomposed bodies of the victims of the eruption. They filled them with plaster, and you can view some of them today in Pompeii.
After a few hours, we got back on the bus and headed to Sorrento. This was a really nice place to end our tour. It was a lot quieter and not as many people here. There was a balcony off our room, and we were able to relax and enjoy the view.
On our last day, we got adventurous and took a public bus to Amalfi. The road is carved out of the side of coastal cliffs and was originally built by the Romans. The bus ride was very interesting. The bus zipped past rocky outcroppings and hairpin turns. What a ride it was, but it was beautiful. We spent the day shopping and sightseeing. The weather was just beautiful when we were there; we were able to have lunch at a restaurant on the beach overlooking the ocean.
That evening was our farewell dinner, and we said goodbye to our new friends and went back to pack our bags to head home. We were exhausted. Jean and I had a mantra for the trip: "We will rest when we get home."
These trips are very fast-paced (you really need to be in good shape to do a tour like this), and you only get to see the highlights of the places you tour. But you don't have to wait in line for hours at the sights you go to; you enter with your group at a different entrance and zip right in.
You also get a tour guide at each attraction, and we wore a small radio to hear what they were saying and didn't have to strain to hear above the crowds.
Most meals were included, but we did have some free time to explore and eat at a place of your choice. One evening, we went to a grocery and bought fruit, cheese and crackers for a meal. It also was very nice to be with a group.
We got to know each other a bit, and when we were out and about and we ran into one of our tour mates, they might tell us a great place to eat and we might tell them a great spot to see something out of the ordinary.
One negative was that it was very crowded everywhere we went. We planned the tour in October thinking that it wouldn't be as busy — we were wrong. I would hate to see what it is like in the summer.
But this was a trip of a lifetime. We wanted to see as much as we could because the chances of us going back again are pretty slim. If you want to take a trip like this, I recommend that you save your money and do it. You only live once.
Susan Hudspath-May is a Rantoul resident.