Great stories and memories are made from surprise, emotion and dumb luck. My first trip to Italy is definitely one of my cherished travel stories – it involves a bus full of pensioners (senior citizens) and so many surprises!
I had recently graduated college and wanted to go on my first trip to Italy but in the world before the internet and smartphones, traveling solo wasn’t something a young girl did unless she was married (thank goodness the world has changed for the most part). My aunt recommended her local church group tour but neglected to tell me that it was a bus full of pensioners (senior citizens) and I was the age of their grandchildren. Her hope was that I would hit it off with the other young solo female traveler (we didn’t quite have enough in common for me to agree to share space on the trip so this was my entrée into the world of the dreaded single supplement). No matter, I still wanted to go and would soon be off on the bus to JFK with the group keeping to myself for the most part.
My First Trip to Italy
We were on a Italy ten day bus tour with Globus Journeys – there would be long days on the bus but we hit all of the highlights on the trip. Staring in Rome (I tossed a few lira into the Trevi Fountain hoping to return), we visited the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, Pisa, Florence, Milan, Venice, stopped in Verona for the Romeo & Juliet balcony, Assisi, San Marino and the Amalfi Coast (including Capri) before returning to Rome. It was a busy trip during September, a lovely time of year to visit Italy.
I quickly learned not to judge a book by its cover – sure, there were the loud women yelling for “American coffee” at one of our first Italian roadstops (note that the highway road stop was pretty nice and the food awesome back then) but then there was Ray and his ladies. After two meals on my own, Ray invited me to join his group (his wife Dolly, her two sisters and a friend) for meals. I was happy to join them and have someone other than the tour director to sit with. When I said “no” to the appetizer, Ray said “I’ll take that” and I quickly realized he invited me to join them for the food. He noticed me passing on many courses and realized he could have extra portions! I quickly forgave him for loving the Italian food as he and his girls were so lovely. They quickly made me rethink “old folks”, in fact, when we were in San Marino after breakfast doing Amaretto shots at 10 a.m., I realized that they were more fun than my college friends back then!
The Amalfi Coast Surprise
When the hotel was oversold in Sorrento we were rerouted to the Amalfi coast where the bus had to navigate all the twists and turns of the road. We had a woman afraid of heights in the back of the bus, unfortunately looking out the window down to the water and screaming in terror for most of the ride. The reward for enduring the noise was a fancy 5 star cliffside hotel in Positano, called Le Agravi (I still remember the name twenty years later). My room, reached by the funicular as the hotel was built into the mountain cliffs, had a balcony with a sea view. It was just fabulous as were the warm apricot croissants for breakfast in the white table cloth dining room (many steps up from our daily continental breakfast routine in our 3 star hotels). The hotel today starts at €320 + a night – not quite the bus tour hotel.
Surprise in Rome – Do Research!
When our hotel (really it was like an apartment building not a hotel back then) in Rome was beyond gross (think iron stains on the carpet) and we wanted to sleep in the bus, the group made the best of it with many bottles of wine to forget (that one hotel has changed how I travel and the research that I do).
My Italy Return Itinerary
Stories and wonderful memories are made from real moments like these. Those ten+ days in Italy were magic for me and flew by! It was my first trip to Italy and the first time I traveled semi-solo and loved every minute. I’d love to revisit the cities from that first bus trip (update: I did revisit most of the cities on my recent Travel Sabbatical):
- Milan for the Last Supper, Navigli Entertainment District and the Duomo
- Florence to check in on David, the art, and the beauty of Tuscany.
- Venice because it is my first travel love (memories of the stars as we approached St. Mark’s at night, getting lost in the streets away from the crowds and finding local gems to practice my Catholic school Italian skills). I enjoy the quiet stillness at night after the crowds have gone.
- Rome to check in on the Vatican and Pope Francis before his visit later in the year to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. I probably have a better chance of seeing him at the Vatican than in Philly with over two million plus expected here for the celebration of mass.
- The Amalfi Coast and Capri because one can never have enough beauty in life
I’ve now traveled solo to over forty countries and have learned to appreciate food and wine over the years (sadly I drank only Coca Cola on that first visit) so a do-over is necessary. I have returned to Rome and the Amalfi Coast as part of a cruise but those day trips were not enough to satisfy me. My Venice visits were more satisfying as I stayed a few days but sadly the city that I fell in love with twenty years ago has vastly changed so I work harder to recapture that initial infatuation.
So I want to plan a longer Italian road trip soon to recreate some (or all) of those wonderful stops we made on the bus or maybe just do the Eat part of “Eat, Pray, Love”. Rent a flat, stay awhile, and immerse myself in all things Italian, no Italy bus tour for me. While I sadly don’t have my pensioner friends around anymore, I know that they will be there in spirit telling me to eat that appetizer or find someone to share it with!
What is your favorite first trip to Italy memory? or second trip? or third? Italy is full of great food, wine, history and fun memories – what are yours?