As first timers traveling with a tour group, my new fiancé and I did not know what to expect. We’ve always heard that most tour groups give you second hand accommodations and there is no time for yourself, other than the allotted time the tour has given you. As we looked around for various tour agencies, Trafalgar really caught our eye with its itinerary and options within it.
Trafalgar’s Best of Italy itinerary was comprehensive and really focused on the individual’s choice. The wonders of being able to stay for two days in each main city: Rome, Sorrento, one day in Assisi, Venice, Lake Maggiore (Baveno), and Florence couldn’t be more perfect. In addition to staying within those cities, the ability to see the various sites within close proximity, including The Vatican, Capri, St.Francis’ Basilica, Murano Island, Lake Como, Lugano, Siena, etc. made the itinerary more wondrous. Some of these sites were optional excursions, but that was money well spent with no regrets.
Being from the North Shore of Boston, there are many ‘Little Italy’ communities around us. I’ve met many families who are first or second generation Italians. This gave me a sense that I knew what to expect while experiencing the country of Italy… boy, was I wrong.
The most memorable experiences we had while in Italy included great food and great wine.
My fiancé and I usually eat out at restaurants once or twice a week, in and around Boston. We typically look for Italian restaurants with a good wine list. ‘Italian’ foods in the States have copious amounts of sauces and herbs. When we would find the rare Italian restaurants that claimed ‘real’, Neapolitan or Venetian cooking, we never quite understood the difference. We’ve always thought Italian was Italian. To really understand this concept is to visit Italy. On the Best of Italy tour, we had the chance to experience the difference between the Roman, Neapolitan, Venetian, Florentine, and Tuscan styles of cooking. And we discovered that the major difference between ‘real’ Italian cooking vs. Americanized Italian cooking is that less is more.
The main concept I brought home, because I love cooking, is that you should be able to taste what you are eating. If you are going to eat salmon, you should be able to taste the salmon. Overpowering food with garlic is a sin. A good cook, in Italy, should let you taste each ingredient without one or the other fighting for your attention. Each region differs on what is locally available to them as far as ingredients, from the spices and herbs, to what you are about to eat. For example; the main fish you will eat in northern Italy is a white fish called plaice. Florence specializes in their Florentine steaks and the north love their risottos. I tend to love the Southern Italian style of cooking with their various amounts of available fish and endless amounts of pastas.
I know what you are about to say, what about the drinks? I don’t know what else to say about Italy and their wine. You can buy wine, red or white, at gas stations or the food stands; literally everywhere and the wine will be good. As the saying goes, in Italy, ‘wine is cheaper than water’. I love their half bottles that you can buy for between one and three euros. Eating a nice lunch with a half bottle is a good break from life. On the subject of drinking, drunk and belligerent behavior is abhorred in Italy. I will never understand the concept of drinking to get drunk, but I digress.
The aperitif of choice in Southern Italy is usually limoncello, why? If you take this trip, you will find many olive farms and lemon farms around the Amalfi coast. The Be My Guest dinner in Sorrento, at a lemon farmer’s home, was an incredible experience. Home cooking with homemade wine and limoncello, AMAZING! Northern Italy aperitifs were usually prosecco with Campari or aperol. The Tuscan Be My Guest Dinner, 30 minutes outside of Florence, also amazing, had a blue prosecco aperitif.
If you end up around San Gimignano, try their Vernaccia wine. There are many types of Vernaccia, but Vernaccia Di San Gimignano is in a league of its own. I am usually a red wine drinker, mainly because it’s really hard to mess up red wine! I’ve tried many new whites with different names, but I usually can find a similar taste comparable to the better known ones like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. With Vernaccia Di San Gimignano, it was a taste of its own; a rare occasion.
Talking about Italy, especially your experiences, is quite difficult. I could have talked about the romance of Italy, since I did propose to my fiancé in Verona, under Juliet’s Balcony. I could have talked about the arts and the magnificent architecture of Rome, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, and the Borromeo castle on Isola Bella. But to understand Italy is to taste Italy. Learning from our Travel Director that Italy wasn’t a unified country until the 19th Century made sense from the preparation of the dishes. From the different cities you will visit as well as the southern vs. northern areas of Italy, to the small hill towns of Tuscany; to experience Italy is through a nice bottle of wine, and a plate of good, local food knowing that you are surrounded by history.
Best of Italy indeed.
John Simbajon, Boston, USA