“Why would you travel through Italy on an organised trip Jane? Europe is EASY”, several friends decried. “We can tell you some great places to go, and you are an experienced traveller.” Well, yes there is truth in that. But I booked on to Intrepid’s “Best of Italy” small group adventure regardless.
The solo vs. group travel debate is always fierce. And whilst I appreciate arguments on both sides, this particular trip alerted me to some undeniable benefits of travelling on an organised group tour, even in “easy” destinations, that I don’t think can be contested.
1. Insider knowledge
As there is just so much to see and do in Italy and I could have easily have spent a week in each of our destinations, choosing a couple of ‘personal challenge’ themes to shape my days helped me narrow down the choices. I went with seeking the best vantage points, and the best gelato in the country; and found that neither are necessarily the most obvious. Our group leader gave us some great insider knowledge on which ‘duomo’ or cathedral tower to go up for the best view, and how to beat the crowds – especially useful in Rome, Venice, Florence and Milan. It left me feeling a little smug when I later walked past the queues for the ‘regular’ attraction high points.
Then there was the gelato challenge. With a gelato store seemingly in almost every precinct, having a connoisseur to guide me was invaluable. Our group leader told us the best in each town in ‘his’ experience, not the guide books’, thereby beating the tourist crowds and not having my self-imposed one-a-day gelato allowance, heaven forbid, wasted on second rate gelato!
2. Shared experiences, independent mindset
I always chuckle at first night group meetings, when at least a couple of people open their introduction with a slightly defensive line, saying they’re an independent traveller, but on this occasion for whatever reason, have made some concession to joining a group. Quietly, they know there are lots of good reasons, but still want to maintain that badge of honour that declares they have the wherewithal to get out in the world and do it themselves.
Our Italy group was made up of mostly experienced travellers and the trip gave us our preferred happy medium: some freedom of choice as to how our time is spent, combined with some great programmed activities. By the end of the trip, after a good balance of time doing our own thing and fabulous shared experiences, connections were forged. I made some lovely new friends that, despite living on opposite sides of the world, I’m confident I’ll see again.
3. Easy-access street smarts
“She’s taken my wallet!” bellows a middle-aged American man, as we board a late afternoon train out of Santa Margherita. There ensues a flurry of movement through the train carriages, just as my fellow passengers and I had found seats and were arranging luggage. “Licorice” says our group leader, Kent, as he nods in the direction of several passengers who have quickly taken seats amongst us. We had learned of this code word from our group leader on our first of several train journeys. It was a discreet way of alerting us that these ‘all sorts’ could be up to no good.
A young lady sits opposite me, and hastily draws the curtain, hiding her face from the people on the platform. Another deftly changes her T-shirt and appearance, and sits amongst my friends. I clutch my shoulder bag more tightly on my lap. Kent speaks with the conductor, and after a half hour plus delay, these suspect fellow passengers leave the train, and our journey is underway. It was reassuring having Kent’s experience to help prevent any of us becoming victims of theft, and to have a discrete way of looking out for each other, without risk of falsely accusing or stirring up trouble along the way. *This was not THE code word … you’ll have to travel in Italy with Kent to find it out!
4. Off-the-beaten-track gems
I think it was unanimous. Our group of 12 all thought the most special day of our adventure was our journey to the small village of Castagnole Monferrato in the wine growing area of Piedmont. After a wander alongside misty rolling vineyards, we walked around the sleepy, historic village, with its Baroque churches, to the 15th century cellars of a castle, where we met our most hospitable winemaking hosts: Luigi Ferrari and his wife.
A tour of the historic cellars was followed by a relaxing hour (or two) in their lounge room, tasting their specialties. Wine from the Ruchè grapes was a pleaser, with its aromatic bouquet and crisp palate. The mood was set for the delicious meal that followed – a three course feast of local specialties served at a nearby home in their ‘agriturismo’ dining room. A heavenly treat of a day, off the beaten path, that had stimulated and sated all of our senses.
And not something I likely wouldn’t have found, or enjoyed nearly as much, by myself.
Feature image c/o The Common Wanderer