Irene and I consider ourselves fortunate to be able to celebrate each grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah with a trip just for the three of us (no parents). We really look forward to these special times together. Tauck Bridges, the Tauck division that specializes in family vacations, does a remarkable job designing trips that appeal to both adults and children. Four years ago we took Josh on Tauck Bridges to London and Paris. It was fabulous. This past March, Josh’s brother, Andrew celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and we gave him the Tauck Bridges brochure and asked him to pick out his trip. He decided on Italy — Rome, Florence, Orvieto and Venice. How did it go? In Andrew’s words: “It was awesome! When can we do it again?”
April 10 – We flew into Rome where Tauck transferred us to the Westin Excelsior Hotel, right on the Via Veneto. We arrived early in the morning and were lucky to be able to check in immediately and get to our very large room for a short nap before venturing out. We had several days to explore on our own before the Tauck Bridges began. First stop, the Spanish Steps. As always, there were unbelievably crowded. We could hardly walk down to the square below. Once there on Via Condotti, Andrew wanted to shop. He had promised his brother, Josh, a bow tie for his prom. Brioni was the first of many stores we shopped on our mission to find the perfect tie! We walked by Trevi Fountain which was unfortunately under renovation. We strolled to the Pantheon, over 2,000 years old and an architectural marvel to this day.April 11 – We started the day at the Castle St. Angelo, across from St. Peters, a fortified castle with formidable weapons, followed by a photo stop at St. Peter’s Square and a taxi ride to Piazza Navonna, with its famous fountains by Bernini. Lunch time was pizza and pasta every day. Andrew said “the best he ever had!” We ended the day at a little known church on the Via Veneto, right near our hotel, Santa Maria della Concezione, made famous by its crypt with skeleton remains of 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order. A large number of the bones are nailed to the walls in intricate patterns, others piled high. Macabre to say the least! I was sorry that we weren’t allowed to take pictures.
April 12 – We spent the morning in the beautiful Borghese Gardens. We hoped to visit the fabulous Borghese Gallery, but it had been sold out for weeks. The Tauck Bridges tour began in the afternoon, so after a quick lunch, it was back to our hotel to meet our Tauck Director, Marinella, and the other families. Our first tour took us to the Circus Maximus, home of ancient chariot races. At the nearby Colosseum, we were met by a local guide who shared stories of the gladiators and the thousands of spectators who once gathered there for spectacular entertainment, all overseen by the emperor. Dinner was back at the hotel.
April 13 – Today was spectacular! First a detailed visit to St. Peter’s Square and the basilica, crowned by the absolute grandeur with Bernini’s cupula. Another highlight was seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta. During our free afternoon, we visited the oldest and largest Jewish synagogue in Rome followed by lunch in a kosher restaurant on the square. To me, the highlight of the entire ten days was the after-hours visit to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. At exactly 7PM a side door opened to the Vatican and we were all ushered into the Museum: just the 28 of us! The museum was empty except for a few guards and a cleaning crew. What an incredible opportunity, especially visiting Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in utter quiet. Irene and I had been there before, standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of tourists, lots of commotion, and guides shouting over one another. Tonight, we were able to wander at will and hear a wonderful detailed description of the frescoes and learn about the stories of the individuals painted by Michelangelo in the Last Judgment. It was totally unforgettable.
FLORENCEApril 14April 14 – We left Rome by motor coach early in the morning and headed to Orvieto—a hill town in Umbria, on the way to Florence. The most interesting sights in Orvieto are actually below ground; a network of caves and tunnels dug out of the rock on which the town sits, some dating back to Etruscan times. We had a private tour with a local guide. Everybody seemed to enjoy it. The town of Orvieto itself is quite lovely and we enjoyed an al fresco lunch and people-watching. After lunch, we continued to Florence. Before we checked into our hotel, we headed over to the Galleria deli Accademia to see one of Michelangelo’s most famous statue of David, an unbelievably powerful work of art from any angle, especially intriguing his gaze and humungous muscles.
April 15 – Definitely one of the best outings of our trip with Andrew was our visit to Pisa. The Leaning Tower gets most of the attention with the obligatory photo of holding up the tower, but the cathedral and baptistery are great pieces of architecture in their own right. We lunched in a local restaurant in Pisa and then back to Florence for some free time wandering to the Duomo, Piazza Signoria and of course the iconic ancient bridge, the Ponte Vecchio.April 16 – Today a local guide took us to the Uffizi Gallery, where we had an in-depth tour of one of the most famous museums in the world. The guide made it interesting for the adults and children by arranging a scavenger hunt among the great works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and others. We spent the afternoon exploring the area around the Piazza Santa Croce. Irene found a jewelry store, while Andrew went shopping for a leather jacket. After hunting in several shops, he found the one he wanted. We explored the church of Santa Croce where many famous Italians are buried, including Michelangelo, Dante, and Fermi. A special evening of hands-on pizza making and eating concluding with some of the best gelato we ever ate.
April 17 – After breakfast we boarded a high speed train to Venice. Tauck does a terrific job working out all the details of the trip, including transfers, so on arrival, we were whisked by private boat to our hotel, the Westin Europa and Regina, with a great location right on the Grand Canal and only a five-minute walk to St. Marks. We had lunch at the hotel and then walked to St Mark’s Square, where we had a private tour of the very ornate St. Mark’s Basilica as well as the Doge’s Palace, including its prison and its Bridge of Sighs. Unfortunately, it started to rain just as we boarded our private gondola but, we made the best of it with umbrellas and raincoats as we paddled through the city of canals, listening to the songs sung by a local and accompanied by an accordion player.
April 18 – Our last full day in Venice was chock full of great doings. After breakfast we walked to the workshop of a master mask maker, where we watched a demonstration by the master himself on the art of creating paper-maché masks, still worn in Venice during Carnivale. We then walked to another artisan factory and showroom famous for glass-blowing and watched a demonstration there as well. Andrew bought a lovely hand-made vase as a gift for his parents.
We then boarded the Venetian equivalent of a public bus (except this “bus” rode on water — a vaporetto). We took one from St. Mark’s Square, up past the Rialto Bridge to the stop near the Jewish Ghetto. There were lots of great photo ops along the way. We had lunch in the Ghetto. It was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, so the streets were almost deserted, but we wandered around a bit before walking back to our hotel. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought. The map we carried was useless. Andrew suggested using Google Maps on my iphone and, after many twists and turns through tiny alleys and streets and over bridges, we arrived. The day ended with a farewell reception and dinner at our hotel, where we bid a fond farewell to our tour director Marinella and the other Tauck guests.
April 19 – After breakfast, Tauck performed its usual magic and gave us a private water taxi ride to the Marco Polo Airport, where we boarded our non-stop flight back to JFK. It was a perfect ending to a perfect vacation. As Andrew said: “Where are we going next, Grandpa!”