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Back Roads Touring - Italy Educational
Jan Alexander
Fred.\ Holidays Team Leader

Read about the highlights of Italy from Verona ro Venice from Fred.\ Holidays team member, Jan Alexander, who visited with Back Roads Touring.Italy Educational 22/03/17 – 29/03/17

Day 1

Departing from London City Airport – very much a business airport , so don’t expect too much from the small variety of shops. Lots of self check in machines around the departure hall, this is where you can print off your own baggage tags.

Met up with the rest of the travel group, headed by Lockie Kerr from Back Roads Touring. Flight with BA from London City to Florence Airport. We received free drinks and food on this flight as they had to change the aircraft type so offered complimentary service.

Florence Airport is extremely small. As you walk off the tarmac, the passport hall is straight in front of you and just behind the two passport booths is the luggage carousel and then a small customs area before you are on the pavement outside the airport, so nobody should go missing here.

This was where we met up with our coach driver and tour guide for the duration. The luxury minibus was very smart, silver on the outside with the Back Roads logo, inside where cream leather seats, with double seating on one side and single seating on the other, this would seat around 20 passengers comfortably. The seats recline and the double seats also move sideways so that you can have a bit more space between you. Small tables like on aircraft in front of you and the usual air conditioning and lights above you, there is also a volume control just in case you want to turn down the music.

From the airport we headed up to the Tuscan hills to the Villa Palagina set amongst their own Chianti vineyards with spectacular views across the rolling countryside. Wild boar and deer roam in the hills. This is a fabulous privately owned villa/hotel, currently undergoing some restoration and getting ready to open up for the guests for this season. The demand is high to stay here, especially as Sting owns the villa next door, and they are currently considering opening all year round, currently they close from November to February/March. A small hotel but with frescos and high ceilings inside, antique furniture and a location for wedding ceremonies. 75% of their guests are international.

The hotel was not ready for guests so we were unable to stay here but it gave us a great flavour of the type of hotels that Back Roads use.

We arrived at the Villa Il Palagio for dinner which we cooked ourselves in the hotels own kitchen, I say this but actually we enjoyed a masterclass in Italian cooking from the head chef together with his staff in “helping” him cut up tomatoes for the tomato soup, we watched as he deftly rolled a loin of pork around spinach and pine nuts and then helped him mixing together the ingredients for biscoti the Italian hard biscuits used for dunking in sweet desert wine. We all had a great time learning about these dishes and the staff made us very welcome and we laughed a lot during our cookery demonstration.

PS Our dinner was lovely.

Day 2

Back onto our minbus at 0830. The front seats are almost given in rotation, there is not a hard and fast rule, however if you have the front seats one day then you give them up the next day for someone else to use. If you fancy a snack of whichever delicacy has taken your fancy you may eat it on the coach with the drivers permission. Bottles of water are included and kept cold throughout the tour in the front of the coach which you can help yourself to at any time.

We head off to La Spezia and the Cinque Terra area. La Spezia is in the cruise calendar and as this is a small area it is overwhelmed when the cruise ships visit. Cinque Terra is very much like the small Cornish fishing hamlets in the south west of England, they were devastated by floods in 2012 and you can still see the marks on the walls where the flood waters lapped, they had to rebuild lots of the buildings for safety and they totally rebuilt the pier area. We used the train between three of the five villages. From the train station you head down small cobbold streets towards the sea, flanked by art galleries, eateries, small gift shops and pasta/pesto shops. Well known for its famous basil, pine nuts and garlic pesto. I can imagine as in Cornwall these tiny hamlets are heaving with tourists during the high season. The cost of rail tickets is around €3 for each hamlet. You can also go between the hamlets by boat but these are not reliable. There are no cars in the hamlets. All around the steep cliffs the farmers farm these areas in steep terraces perched over the sea.

From here we then head on to Santa Margherita, we passed the town on Da Vinci where Leonardo Da Vinci was born and renamed in his sake. If your customers are in to jazz there is a jazz festival held in the town of Pistoia which is also in this area, this is held in the town in the summer amid all of the medieval architecture A beautiful coastal resort, very much like those you would find in the south of France. With yachts, fishing boats and small cruisers all bobbing around in the harbour. We stayed at the Lido Palace which was right on the sea front. You can get a public bus to Portofino for about €5 return which takes 30 minutes.

We arrived to a welcome drink by the manager and some canapes. As we did not have dinner provided here we all decided to meet and use Isabelle and Fabio’s inside knowledge to dine out together.

These tours are not really suitable for anybody with walking difficulties. The nature of the tour is to go out and explore small places in fairly isolated places ie back roads. Visiting Cinque Terra we had to get on and off trains with very high steps, you would probably have to stand during high season, the streets were down a hill but then you had to make your way back to the station which was on a steep incline. So make sure that your customers are fit and healthy and able to walk without aids.

The cost of a standard Italian pasta meal is in the region of €15 for lunch and €30 for an evening meal. Drinks would be in the region of €5 - €10 per glass. Use the local wines as they are extremely good and the prices are reasonable for a bottle.

Day 3

0830 start, we are off to Piedmont and Cherasco. If you have never tried truffle then this is the place to be. We visited a local family in Piedmont who have truffle dogs, they hunt the truffle in local woodlands and sell them on, the white truffle being the most expensive, the black truffle being the most common. The family had other jobs as well as they can’t make a living from truffles. This was only suitable for small groups as it is family run but they made us very welcome, they were very informative and we were able to sample all of their truffle products and meet Willy their truffle hound.

We stopped off in Barola for lunch. The town had cobbold streets, narrow passage ways and a castle overlooking the vineyards. We then headed on the Grinzane Cavour Castle for a self guided tour with audio’s. Once we had completed the tour and knew more about the family and the vineyards we were then able to sample some of the wines here.

We then headed on to the Hotel Somaschi where we had a slow cooked dinner. The hotel was once a monastery and was beautiful inside and out.

Day 4

We had time in the morning to look around the town of Carusa. There is a very ornate church right next to the monastery , the town is elevated so gives great views over the vineyards. For those of you who read the vampire books or saw the films of the Twilight Saga we head towards Volterra which was featured in the books and films. We saw it from a distance but in this condensed tour we were not able to visit, the same with Lucca which is a beautiful town.

We visited a distillery in Asti owned by a family who are really passionate about their products. They offer grappa made from the grape skins, regional liquors (limincello), chocolate and hand made nougat, of course we had to sample most of their wares, grappa is not to my taste but if you don’t try it you can’t say whether you like it or not.

From here we headed through lots of plant nurseries and vineyards to Lake Orta with snow covered mountains back dropping the sparkling lake. This is a little known lake used by local tourists. Very quiet. This is a rice growing region. We had a lunch of rice in Verceli where we found out that the owner of the restaurant who served us also owned the castle next door, so he offered to show us around, he doesn’t live in the castle as it is too expensive to heat but his uncle lives there and they keep it almost like a museum with all the books and clothes that his ancestors used in their day to day lives. Weddings are also held here.

We stayed at the Hotel Dino (similar to a Las Vegas type of casino hotel) on the opposite side of Lake Maggiore to where the Back Road tours would normally stay, the Hotel Grand Majestic was not yet open for the season but they opened it up for us to view. It is as the name says very majestic in an old world way, right on the lake in a stunning position with Mother Island right in front.

Day 5 – Non driving day

We took a taxi boat from the hotel to the Mother Island and viewed the villa and gardens, these islands are used by royalty for their own families weddings as they are very private. We then took another boat to Borromea Island, named after the Borromea family, we used the audio tour to learn about the villa and its history, beautiful gardens, peacocks and pheasants strut around the gardens impressing the guests.

Then another boat to Fisherman Islands for a fish lunch. Only about 35 people live on this island and they are all fisherman and their families are all related.

Day 6

A beautiful drive from Lake Maggiore to Verona. The whole of the route was breathtaking views of mountains, lakes and tiny villages. We arrived in Verona at the Hotel Italia for dinner.

Day 7

Time to walk around Verona, visiting the balcony of Juliette, the Arena where they host the opera’s, this is a roman amphitheatre, not much inside apart from the seating and the staging and costs €10 for entrance but it must be fantastic when they have an opera or concert. The city is a mixture of old and new, lots of designer shops, eateries and historical sights.

From Verona we head up into the hills and visit a family owned vineyard with spectacular views. It is called the Tenuta Santa Maria Valverde estate in the Valpolicella region where some of the best wines are made. They also hire out very chunky mountain bikes which are electric assisted for guests to use. Once we have sampled the wines and home made salami we head towards Venice our final destination. We leave the minibus in Mestre and get on a water taxi to take us directly to our hotel which is situated on the Grand Canal, Hotel Principe. Back Roads normally us the Hotel Carlton and we have time to visit it for a hotel tour. This is in a lovely position on the Grand Canal, right opposite the train station and bus station, beautiful marble inside and it also has rooms around an inner courtyard that can be requested.

We made our way to a lovely restaurant about 30 minutes from the hotel and had a very cheery final dinner.

Day 8 – Last day

Venice in the sunshine, there is nothing better. We had time to ourselves in the morning to visit Venice highlights, a 30 minute walk from the hotel will find you in St Marks Square, Rialto Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs. March is a great time to visit Venice as it is not so crowded. Our flight home departed from Venice so we were able to get a water taxi from the hotel directly to the airport. The taxi drops you right at the terminal so no walking long distances here.

British Airways from Venice to Gatwick. No complimentary food or drinks on this flight.

Summary

Back Roads Touring Company is a fantastic product, the guide Isabell and Fabio our driver were excellent.

They drip feed information to you and repeat it in such a way that you remember a lot of what is said. The driving was fantastic, with lots of hair pin bends and high vista views. The weather wasn’t the best but was better at the end but this did not detract from everything that we saw and did.

I like the way they support local companies and family run businesses in the locations, this felt very special.

Personally I wouldn’t choose a coach tour but because this is done in such a personal way it didn’t feel like a coach tour but more like a personal guide and I think that they have got this right. The hotels that they use are very private so you feel more of a personal guest and the locations are excellent for walking into towns, you are not isolated. The product is probably higher priced than others you might find but you are paying for the quality of the transport, the driver, the guide and the fantastic hotels that they offer. Nothing is too much if you want to get it right and enjoy the precious few days that you have on holiday.

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