A tour for people who don’t like tours
I love Intrepid Travel, they’re like the tour company for people who don’t like tours! They tick all the boxes for me – local guides, the best tips of where to eat and drink and what to do, and plenty of free time to do your own exploring. Each year Intrepid send 100,000 people around the globe on 800 different itineraries across Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, the Middle East, the Arctic and Antarctica – and I’ve been lucky enough to try out six of their itineraries. They call themselves ‘the world’s largest small-group adventure tour company’ – instead of travelling like a tourist you get to experience the ‘real Italy’; getting around like the locals on buses and trains and eating in hard-to-find cafes. In Lucca, in the Tuscany region, we stayed in cool apartments within the ancient walled city (with no wifi!) and all cooking a communal dinner together, and at the Italian Lakes we had a home-cooked five-course meal on a local farm, then got to meet all the local animals, including the farm’s cat sleeping in a hammock!
Our 15-day ‘Best of Italy’ tour began in bustling Rome, with its awe-inspiring mix of ancient ruins and modern life. We had 12 people in our tour group – and a real mix of ages, couples, friends and singles. I took my husband-to-be with me on this trip, but I’ve done plenty of Intrepid trips as a single person – it’s a great way to meet people and unlike other tour companies you can twin share at no extra cost. Rome is amazing, and it’s so easy to get around. Depending on what time of the year it is (remember it’s hot in August!) most of the city is accessible by foot – it took us about 30 minutes to get from the main train station to the Coliseum, the great gladiatorial arena in the middle of the city built in AD 80. Don’t forget to pre-book, there was a 20-minute queue to get in! As well as the sights, we had plenty of time to sip espresso at tiny streetside cafes, and sample some of the amazing gelato! Our Intrepid guide was fantastic – instead of five-star restaurants, but pointed out all the hard-to-find cafes and bars you’d never find on your own – and even offered to make dinner reservations for us!
We left Rome by train and arrived in Florence, a beautiful city, with stunning architecture, museums and galleries galore. Florence is known as the cultural heart of Tuscany, full of renaissance masterpieces and religious treasures. At one time it was said that a third of Europe’s most important artists lived there – think Medicis, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael to name a few. In Florence the group stayed in apartments, which were great – it made us feel like travellers and not tourists! After we checked in we had a lot of free time to explore the city, especially the food! Everything is walkable in Florence - so wear good shoes because getting around on foot is about the only way! Remember to pre-book galleries and museums at least a couple of months in advance at www.weekendafirenze.com. Our second day in Florence was a free day – it impossible to see everything but is was nice to be able to take our time to enjoy things. A highlight was Michelangelo's famous statue of David at the Galleria dell’Accademia – an image everyone has seen so often in books but is great to see for real, and also the Uffizi, one of the world’s oldest art galleries and a work of art in itself. That evening the group climbed uphill to Piazzale Michelangel for a picnic and sunset views across the rooftops of Florence.
On day 4 we took a two-hour train ride to charming Lucca, on the Serchio River in the Tuscany region. It’s a charming medieval town with narrow lanes, charming piazzas and centuries old buildings . We hired bikes to explore the old city, which was a great way to get around. Lucca is known as one of the most loved cities in Tuscany – it sits on a plain at the foot of the Apuan Alps and is less than half an hour from the coast of Versilia. Because its not a hilltop village its easy for anyone with mobility issues or anyone who is keen to get a break from climbing. A tip! Don’t use a bag with wheels – it is far too hard on the cobblestones! We stayed in local apartments within the medieval walled city – no wifi, no lobby, no mini bar – and no lifts to get to the second floor! That afternoon we went to the local produce markets and bought stuff for a shared dinner – as well as the pizza and bruschetta, the region is famous for cantucci, a famous almost biscotti, with are often served with a very potent digestive liqueur, and also cinghiale, a wild boar meat which is served with panini and antipasto.
Who doesn’t love the romantic floating city of Venice? It’s one of my favourite cities in the world, but it can get crowded so I always try and explore Venice outside the normal tourist times. The big cruise ships come in at 9am, so I always love getting up early and wandering the streets to find somewhere for coffee and breakfast. The city is quiet again after 4pm, so that’s a good time to look for somewhere off the tourist trail for a glass of vino! Remember, there’s only two ways to get around Venice – by foot or by boat! Our local guide was invaluable in Venice – he knew the streets like the back of his hand! The street signs are a confusing mix of Italian and Venetian dialect – but our guide gave us handy hints like, “look out for the sign saying Rialto; if you keep it on your left it means you’re heading towards the bridge and can’t get lost’. As well as the sights – The Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge, Doges Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, The Guggenheim Museum and of course the Grand Canal by Venetian gondola, we were given a full day of free time to explore. We found a great café where no one spoke English and the entire menu was in Italian so we had no idea what we were ordering - and to this day I still don’t know what we ate, but it was all delicious!
Yvette’s tips for travelling in Italy
• Take a backpack – easier to get on and off trains – and you may be walking up a few flights of stairs because many of the old apartments don’t have lifts!
• Remember Italy in August is HOT! It averages 25-35 degrees but any area with marble floors add another 5 degrees.
• Venice is hard to get around without a good local guide – a map doesn’t necessarily help! To get to the main train station follow the yellow signs – Alla Ferrovia – and to get to St Marks Square or Rialto follow the signs Per Rialto or E S Marco.
• You can drink the tap water everywhere in Italy – and refill at water fountains, which are everywhere.
• ATM’s are pretty rare, so when you see them, use them.
• Ditto for public toilets!
• Take a Swiss army knife with you everywhere, ours was invaluable for bread, cheese and wine! Just don’t have it in your bag when you’re in Milan cathedral if you want to go climb the Domo they will take it off you.
• Eat lots of gelato, but don’t buy from the shops that have it piled high over the container’s lip – it changes the flavour and tastes weird.
• August is the busiest month in Italy because that’s when the locals go on holiday. If you do travel then, many of the small shops open and close at their own pace – so if you spot something you want to buy, get it then (the shop may be closed the next day!).
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