Kerry Jo Richards of Kensington is the inaugural contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to share the dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip can be the next guy's day-maker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near-miss. To file your own trip report -- and win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.
THE TRIP: The Single Girl's First Trip to Italy
WHO WENT: Five single women, mostly in their thirties (four of us work together), plus a grandmother and two college boys.
WHERE: Rome, Florence, Siena
WHEN: May 2005
WHY: Why not? I'd never been to Italy. When two of my girlfriends from work mentioned to me separately that they were considering trips there, I not only jumped on that wagon, I designed, planned and launched it.
HOW LONG: 18 days.
GETTING THERE WAS . . . Miserable, but aren't overnight flights always miserable in coach? The train from Rome to Florence was lovely -- and cheap.
IT MADE IT ALL WORTH IT WHEN . . . I climbed to the rooftop of my villa outside Florence and realized I could see the Duomo and the whole city spread out before me. Any time of the day or evening -- this was the place to watch the skyline.
I GRITTED MY TEETH HARDEST WHEN . . . I was accosted by little old ladies. All over Italy, I was pushed, shoved, elbowed and generally mistreated by packs of senior citizens. I was shoved at the Vatican by a French contingent of blue-hairs. A group of wild women almost ran me over on the way to the loo in Assisi. Forget roving bands of teenagers -- by the end of my trip, I would start twitching whenever I'd see a walker.
I CAN'T BELIEVE I . . . Let the waiter drive me home. Our first night in Florence, we walked down the hill to a little restaurant called La Capponcina in Settingnano. At the end of the night, it was late and we didn't want to walk back to our villa. Our new friend Vito took off his apron, left his customers and drove us up the hill.
BEST/WORST THING ABOUT MY HOTEL: For one week in Florence, we stayed at a villa called Il Verone in the suburb of Settingnano. The best thing: the amazing views and comfortable beds. The worst: climbing the hill up to our house. I was lazy and took cabs home.
FAVORITE MEAL: The famed Cibreo in Florence had gorgeous, rich flavors served by gorgeous, funny waiters. But my favorite meals were at I Ghibellini Ristorante Pizzeria (P. Di S. Pier Maggiore 8, Florence), with a large outdoor seating area, lingering service and the very best thin-crust pizza. I ate there five times.
COOLEST ATTRACTION: The crypt of the Capuchin monks in the Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome. Underneath a normal-looking church are four rooms with a wild array of bones -- hip bones, skulls, legs, feet, fingers -- arranged in fanciful and beautiful displays. Hundreds of skulls lined up along a wall. Thousands of hip bones stacked on top of each other. Lanterns made of arm bones. A child's skeleton on the ceiling, looking at you. And at the end, a small plaque in Latin: Quello che voi siete noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo voi sarete (What you are we used to be; what we are you will be). Feel free to shiver.
THING I COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT: My "walking sandals." Phooey. See "Thing I Wish I'd Brought."
THING I WISH I'D BROUGHT: All that stuff about how Europeans don't wear sneakers? Nonsense. Everyone had the coolest sneakers. Next time I'm bringing my Pumas and my running shoes.
CHEAPEST THRILL: The view from the top of Siena's Duomo museum. For about $12, I got admission to five different sites in Siena, including the Duomo. At the Duomo museum, an unassuming little set of steps ended in a spiral stone staircase. I wound my way up two flights and found myself overlooking the entire city of Siena.
BIGGEST SPLURGE: Three in-depth tours and classes with Scala Reale and Context Rome, two Italy-based trip consultants: a class on fresco-making in Florence, a walk in Florence that covered the major works of Michelangelo and his life, and a tour of the Villa Borghese in Rome with an art historian. Cost ranged from about $40 to $130 each. With fewer than six people on each tour, this was the best money I spent.
BIGGEST RIP-OFF: The restaurant at the Hotel Villa Malpensa near the Milan airport. I had one of my most expensive meals in Italy there -- dinner ran about $70. Fancier than it needed to be, showy service and just okay food.
BIGGEST CULTURE SHOCK: In Rome, I discovered that dodging scooters is not only a sport, but a rite of passage.
MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: After a nice evening out, including a few drinks at a local bar in Siena, one member of our group (okay, it was the grandma) accidentally pressed the doorbell instead of the light switch at our B&B. The next morning, one of the other guests made a tart comment about how she didn't realize that anyone needed more than one drink at dinner to have a good time.
CULTURAL FAUX PAS: I don't think I made any big ones. Maybe I was supposed to let the old people knock me down when I stood in line for museums -- I'm not sure.
FAVORITE SOUVENIR: Other than the fresco I made, I most enjoy the recipe book I took home from my cooking class in Florence with Divina Cucina, a culinary tour operator. We spent the day shopping in the market, tasting Tuscan specialties and cooking fabulous dishes that I would never have imagined I could create. From fried stuffed zucchini flowers to fish stew, I now have a new repertoire of amazing treats to prepare.
ONE THING I'D DO DIFFERENTLY: I would ask the proprietor of our B&B in Siena out for a drink. Massimo was literally tall, dark and handsome. Sadly, it was not until the day I left that I realized there might have been a mutual attraction. After all, I was the only one he kissed on the way out! I'll just have to go back soon.
Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report, along with a photo from the trip, on the last Sunday of the month. To enter, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own; for a complete list, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/24/AR2005062400681.html) and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; fax it to 202-912-3609; or e-mail it to vacationinlights @washpost.com. Entries chosen for publication will receive a Canon PowerShot A-95 digital camera or equivalent. Entries will be chosen on the basis of humor, originality and usefulness; are subject to editing for space and clarity; and become property of The Post, which may edit, publish, distribute or republish them in any form. Employees of The Post and their immediate families are not eligible. No purchase necessary.