Tauck's Bellissima Northern Italy: The Review

Now that I'm back from my travels this summer and have had some time to sort through hundreds of photos, I wanted to give you a quick review of my most recent trip with Tauck.  If you've followed me at all, you know I'm a fan of Tauck, and I'm even a newly minted Certified Tauck Specialist, but let me be clear that this was not a sponsored trip and I'm not in any way on their payroll, so these are my honest opinions.  In an effort to be brief I'll break the review down into three main parts (which really determine the quality of a tour):  The Itinerary.  The Hotel selection.  The Guide.

So, to start with, the itinerary is what draws you to a trip.  My mother and I were no different, and the fact that this trip went to several places neither of us had visited before was really attractive to us.  Most trips to Italy focus on the more famous destinations - Florence & Tuscany, and/or Rome and the Amalfi Coast, for example.  This one traces a meandering path in the north from Milan to Venice, and though we weren't excited about seeing Venice again, the other places like Bologna and especially the lake district were the biggest draws for us.  It really turned out to be a trip full of surprises.  It had a great rhythm, with two night stays in each location.  That meant that each day was different - one would include a walking tour in the morning and then free time in the afternoon, the next would be a "bus" day where we stopped in several different places before arriving at our hotel with plenty of time for initial exploration of our neighborhood before dinner.  We elected to have a pre-night in Milan, but sadly I missed that due to some troubles getting there (another reason why planning to arrive a day early is wise).  But still, I saw most of the biggies -the Sforza castle (one of the only "old" things left in modern Milan), the masterpiece of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" (timed so there was no wait, as usual for Tauck), the La Scala opera house (which you need to go in to appreciate), the Galleria, and of course the Duomo.  The problem for me was that there was a festival or parade on that day, which meant that this whole central area was mega crowded, so even though we had the afternoon free, it was nearly impossible to visit the cathedral.  :(  I tried to run back down there before our dinner but JUST missed the closing of the ticket office.  SIGH. That just gives me an excuse to go back - one full day was not enough of a taste of this surprisingly cool city (which I really think has a bad rap ... it's modern, but not without charm!).  Here are a few shots from Milan:

Next up we headed to the Lakes, and initially I was upset that we weren't spending the two nights on Lake Como, but that didn't last (Tauck knows what they're doing, y'all!).  The first day we pretty much spent the entire time on Lake Como - first a visit to the Villa Carlotta (just to prove that, yes, living in one of these would be pretty fantastic), then lunch and SHOPPING time in the adorable little town of Bellagio (at least that's how we used our free time there), and then we got back on our private boat for a lovely cruise all the way down the lake (and a little light Clooney stalking, of course!).  The next day was spent enjoying the delights of Lake Maggiore.  Maybe not quite as dramatic or fancy-pants as Como, but our visit to the Borromeo family's estate on Isola Bella was really a highlight for me.  WHITE PEACOCKS!  Baroque gardens in full bloom!  Just amazing. Warning - I cut as many pictures as possible, but it's JUST SO PRETTY. (Remember to click the photo to see the next one.) 

We left the lakes and headed to the "great unknown" - aka, the part of the trip where we really didn't know what to expect.  It was also our first big "bus" day, but we never were in the bus for more than two hours I don't think... We were surprised and delighted by the adorable old hill town of Bergamo (which makes you think you're in Tuscany, with the towers and the views and everything), enjoyed a little wine-tasting with lunch at an agritourismo (which was only disappointing because it was nestled in hills rather than in large swaths of vines), and then arrived at the other great surprise city: Verona. I cannot tell you how much we all just fell in love with this charming little city.  Forget the silly "Romeo & Juliet" connection (which is sadly hugely popular), instead marvel at the Roman ruins and the stupidly adorable old squares.  It is going to require its own post, for sure.  Here are A FEW highlights:

After a full day running around (the VERY hot) adorableness of Verona, it was back on the bus - but again, it was one of the most fun days of the trip!  First we stopped for an incredibly fascinating visit to a Reggiano Parmigiano factory (I've never thought about eating hunks of this delicious cheese, for which I now realize I have been remiss), and later we had another super interesting and tasty visit to an authentic, family-run balsamic vinegar producer in Modena.  Guys- that stuff we buy in the grocery store that says "Balsamico Modena" is all fake (for the most part).  It's SO much thicker and delicious - and takes a minimum of 12 YEARS to be certified. Seriously - my new favorite appetizer is reggiano with balsamic (or honey) drizzled over it.  YUM.  Stuck between those delicious visits was my least favorite visit - but it is one you just have to do in the area.  That was the Ferrari house museum, where we learned all about Enzo Ferrari and saw all sorts of cool historic cars.  (Just not my cup of tea... but something for everyone!)

That evening we ended up in Bologna, which may have been my only disappointment of the trip... and let me explain why.  Bologna is known for its food, right?  Well, we had both of our dinners included in town, unlike most of the other cities on the trip where at least one of our dinners were free.  Both of the meals were FINE (even quite good), but I might have liked to go off on my own to find some extra special gastronomical experience.  BUT, again- a reason to go back because I LOVED that city!  It was again miserably hot there, so I didn't climb the high tower in the middle of town (instead, I chose the bell tower of the cathedral across the street from our hotel), but we did have a great walking tour through all of the covered porticos around town and I was really charmed.  It is also a city where you can really tell how politics can affect the prosperity of a place.  Bologna was the sh*t during the early part of the Renaissance, but then they sided with their closer neighbor of Venice instead of the Pope down south and boom.  The money dried up, and nothing much major happened there, despite a thriving university, all the way through until the unification of Italy.  (You can also tell because the biggest church in town is NOT the catholic one and was never fully completed!) Super interesting place, and completely worth the stop when you're heading from anywhere south up to Venice. (And yes- the last pic is of Bologna.  Like Venice, and even at one time Milan, they had a network of canals through the city - the one that still exists there was right near our hotel!)

After Bologna, it was time for our longest bus ride yet (mostly because we didn't have any stops on the way) over to Venice - but the ride couldn't have been that long because we arrived in time for a delicious lunch.  SO: what I loved about our time in Venice was that Tauck gave us SO many choices and so much freedom.  They know many people on this trip had been there before, so they planned for an alternate walking tour for some, while the first timers could have the guided visit of the Doges Palace.  BUT, the piece de resistance was the completely private, after-hours visit for all of us to St. Mark's basilica.  UNREAL, and so so special.  If you know anything about Venice, you know how horribly crowded it can be, so not having to wait in line or deal with ANYONE ELSE in that gorgeous piece of art was just amazing.  We even got to go down into the crypt, and up behind the altar to see the super special rotating altar piece, covered with jewels, apparently taken from returning crusaders (because they hadn't paid their ship-bill in full!).  Let me remind you that was back in the 12th century!!!!  The last day in Venice was left almost completely free for our exploration, which we took for some shopping, exploring the far side of the Grand Canal (again, away from crowds!) before meeting up with everyone for the obligatory gondola ride.  Yes, it's horribly touristy, but it just has to be done!  The moments you're in a quiet canal, listening to a nearby musician singing something lovey, and peeking into open doors make it worthwhile. Venice will be getting it's own post later as well - here are a FEW pictures of this incredibly photogenic place!

SO- I hope that gave you a good idea of what we did and saw - now let's talk about where Tauck houses you for this trip.  Can you say luxury???  I mean, these were some of the nicest hotels I've had the pleasure of staying in.  In Milan we were just down the street from La Scala, making it easy walking distance to just about anything you want to see in the city.  The hotel itself is incredibly elegant and old-world styled, and was the first of several hotels from the "Leading Hotels of the World" collection.  Sadly, it was the only hotel that received negative comments from fellow travelers, and our room was a bit cramped with three people stuffed in - but it was convenient and we even had a bit of a view from our top-floor patio (yup- even the tippy-top of the Duomo!).  

Nothing can really compare to our absolutely over the top hotel on Lake Maggiore.  The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées is everything you expect from some fabulous hotel aristocrats would have visited during their "Grand Tour" back in the 19th century.  Over-decorated to the hilt, but the VIEWS!  Tauck surprised us all with lake view rooms and OMG, it almost outshone the gorgeous rooms (which were HUGE - the third bed had its own alcove!).   The grounds are also lovely, and we very much enjoyed a glass or two of wine out on the terrace one evening. The hotel is about a 10 minute walk from the main town of Stresa, which was slightly unpleasant for my older fellow travelers, but it really wasn't bad - especially since the walk was along the lake shore which was just covered with gorgeous flowers and such.

In Verona, we again had a lovely, elegant member of the "Leading Hotels of the World" collection - the Hotel Due Torri.  The room was more compact than before, but still plenty spacious with our third bed.  Once again- exceptional location right next to one of the largest cathedrals in town, easy walking distance to anywhere you want to see in town.  It's also about a block or so off the river, making riverside dining super easy, but one of the nicest aspects of the hotel is its rooftop bar (accessed by one of the lacking aspects- a teeny, hot, and SLOW elevator - but, you can't have it all!).  Both nights we enjoyed an "aperitivo" up there, and, despite the heat, watching the sun set over this lovely town was pretty spectacular.

Bolonga brought us to the sister hotel to the Due Torri and our third "Leading Hotels of the World" hotel - the Grand Majestic. It was large, stately and elegant, and incredibly well-located.  (Are you seeing a theme?)  Our room was, again, giant and lovely, and the restaurant/bar area was covered with photos of old Hollywood visitors.  The location was maybe a block or two down the street from the main square in the center of town, on a street that is closed to traffic on weekends (when we were there).  We also had a cooking demonstration by the hotel's chef, which happened to coincide with the Gay pride parade that went directly down our street!  I may have preferred going to the parade and taking an actual hands-on class personally, but I'm maybe not the typical Tauck guest. :)

And finally - our most special treat was in Venice, where we had the pleasure and great fortune to stay at the Gritti Palace.  Starwood now owns this historic palazzo, and Tauck is the only tour operator that currently has permission to place groups here (another exclusive!). It's located right on the Grand Canal, just one (or two) vaporetto stops down from St. Mark's square - or a 10 minute walk.  The location is spectacular, because you're far enough away from the crowds, but close enough to pretty much anything (the Accademia is only about 10 minutes away too).  The decor is just sumptuous, with just enough modern touches (a separate shower & bath!) for excellent convenience.  The bar/breakfast/dining space is ridiculous - with a huge, unbelievable terrace right on the canal.  NOTHING beats that for an aperitivo (but beware- my Bellini was 20 euro!).  I did a little video tour of the hotel on Facebook LIVE if you want to see more, but here are a few shots to give you an idea:

To wrap up this review, which has gotten super long by accident (but it was a GREAT trip!), I have to say a few words about our guide.  Now, all of Tauck's guides are amazing.  First of all - they are actual employees of the company, not just seasonal contracts, and secondly - they all stay for FOREVER.  Our guide, Tina del Campo, a tiny dynamo of a person, has been a Tauck employee guiding tours in Italy for over 16 years.  To say she knows what she's doing is an understatement.  Everyone always knew what we were doing and were we were supposed to meet and when, but on top of that - she gave us hand outs for each destination with things like restaurant recommendations, or things to see during free time.  Gelato is a science to her, so we always knew where to find the best (and she educated us on how to know if a shop is worth trying or not - very important information, people!!) She kept us entertained on the bus with fun stories about the region and Italy's history - and I'm not talking about boring historical lectures.  Informative, yes- but often quite funny too.  I actually understand so much more about Italy, and how it went from multiple different kingdoms and city-states to a unified country thanks to her. Plus, she lives in Milan full time and is married to an Italian, so she also brought insights about living in modern Italy to light for us.  It really was like traveling with a super knowledgeable friend who helped you get into the best and coolest parts of the destinations.  I mean - she helped design the awesome day through Parma for Tauck, and she also got us into the underground part of our restaurant in Verona to see the Roman wall right next to a medieval tower foundation.  In Venice, she knew lots of people were interested in a glass blowing demonstration, but cautioned us against the all-day-long, tourist-trap excursion out to Murano. Instead, she organized a private demonstration for some of us at an amazing glass shop just beyond St. Marks (I shared a video of that on my Facebook page as well).  She was just fantastic, but again - that is really something you can depend on with Tauck.  Here are a few pics of the moments Tina made possible (and maybe one or two of her!):

SO- voila.  I hope you've enjoyed a look into my latest Tauck trip, but clearly not my last.  If you'd like to know more, just give me a call! :)