You know you’ve visited somewhere special when you promise yourself “someday, we MUST go back!” For us, that place was Italy. In September 1998, Lianne and I… still kinda-sorta newlyweds, made our first big trip to Europe and it was fantastic.
We hit all of the hotspots: the Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Tuscany, Rome, The Vatican, Positano, Pompeii, Venice, Varenna on Lake Como and Milan. The people, the sights and sounds, the history, the FOOD… it all beckoned us to someday make a return trip. So, earlier this year we decided it was time for a sequel, but this time we would have two more passengers in tow – our teenaged kids.
Could we recapture the magic of 1998? Would Italy still be as awesome as we remembered? Would the grown-ups still have a wonderful time saddled with edgy teens at every turn? Would the kids even appreciate it? The collective answer is: YES. Yes to all of it.
We wanted to avoid the heat and the crowds of the summer, so we thought Spring Break in Italy would be the perfect getaway. Twenty years ago, my wife Lianne planned a fabulous vacation itinerary and because we enjoyed the first go-around so much, all of the stops on our 2018 Tour were repeat performances.
But, how would they all compare to our first taste of Italy? Well, just like Italia’s fine wines; they keep getting better with age.
We landed in Milan, but we did not stay long… just enough to see a few late afternoon sights and share a lovely 15th birthday dinner with our daughter Abby. The real vacation would start the next day when we hopped on the train to Venice! Our two days in the city of canals were a lot of fun. Right off the bat, the kids seemed especially impressed with this city surrounded by water! What? ALL OF THE STREETS are water? Much like 1998, we visited St. Mark’s, the Campanile, Doge’s Palace and Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The one thing we DIDN’T do twenty years ago was probably the most touristy thing you CAN DO in Venice, and that’s take a gondola ride. Back in 1998, we were much more thrifty, and couldn’t justify the exorbitant cost. Fast forward to 2018, and bringing along two more humans cut the “per person” cost in half! Let’s do this! The ride was lovely.
Advantage: 2018 Venice visit.
We bid Venice a fond farewell and trained it to beautiful Florence, where we once again gazed upon Michelangelo’s David, then saw all of the sites the Duomo has to offer… including climbing the dome for spectacular city views and then visiting the church, baptistery and museum.
Advantage: Um… I can’t decide. It’s actually a tie between 1998 Florence 1998 and 2018 Florence! A TIE!
The next day, we left the hustle and bustle of Florence behind to take a guided day trip to the hills of Tuscany. We stopped in Siena where the highlight was a visit to the stunning cathedral. Then we toured the Poggio Amorelli winery, tasted several great Chiantis and were treated to a delicious lunch. Our final stop was the small town of San Gimignano, which dates back to the 14th century, but is famous for having the world’s best gelato. We tried it, but could not confirm or deny it was indeed the finest on the planet.
Advantage: 2018 Tuscany visit. We got to visit a winery this time. Wine always wins.
After bidding a fond farewell to Florence, we hopped on the train and ended up in Pisa, where we took in the many attractions of the Square of Miracles, including a climb to the top of the leaning tower and visits to the Cathedral, Baptistry and cemetery. After that, we walked the busy Pisa streets and had even more Italian food for dinner. In 1998, the tower was actually leaning TOO MUCH, so it was closed. The base had to be reinforced and the tower itself was “straightened” slightly… from 5.5 to 5 degrees. This time, we made it to the tippy-top!
Advantage: 2018 Pisa visit.
We bid a warm Arrivederci to Pisa and rode the rails to Roma! Our first order of bidness was to secure our reserved tickets to Easter Mass at the Vatican, so off we went to St. Peter’s Square. After wandering the streets of this bustling city, we then paid a visit to the fabulous and ancient Pantheon, which is right next door to our hotel. Day two in Rome found us up bright and early to take a guided tour of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The crowds were crushing, as it was Easter weekend, but the sights did not disappoint.
In the afternoon, our luck with the weather finally ran out! The skies opened up on our afternoon tour of the Coliseum and the Roman ruins of Palatine Hills, but that didn’t slow us down. It totally soaked us, but it didn’t slow us down. In 1998, Lianne and I didn’t tour the Coliseum when we visited Rome, but we didn’t make the same mistake in 2018. It was actually one of the highlights of the trip. Day three in Rome found us smack dab in the middle of a sea of humanity… along with 50,000 faithful to celebrate Easter mass with the Pope. Sure, Papa Francesco looked VERY small from our vantage point, but the experience was still very rewarding and well worth arriving almost two hours early! Fortunately, we did get a closer look when Francis hopped into the Popemobile to take a spin around St. Peter’s Square after the mass ended.
After Easter Mass at the Vatican ended, we took to the streets for a self-guided tour (courtesy of Lianne) visiting the Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish steps, the column of the Immaculate conception, the Trevi fountain, Piazza Colonna, Piazza di Montecitorio, Piazza Navona, and Campo de’Fiori.
Advantage: 2018 Rome visit. Come on! We saw the POPE people!
The next day, we escaped the massive crowds of Rome only to find everyone LEAVES Rome the day after Easter for the “Bank Holiday”. The massive crowds found us! Our first stop of the day was Mount Vesuvius, famous for erupting in 79 A.D. and burying Pompeii under seven metres of volcanic ash. When Lianne and I toured Italy in 1998, the ancient but incredibly preserved city of Pompeii was our favourite stop, and while our afternoon visit in 2018 was still enjoyable, we were part of a tour group and found we were kind of rushed through the ruins. In 1998, we spent a lot more time exploring on our own and found we enjoyed the site that much more. For that reason…
Advantage: 1998 Pompeii visit.
The next morning we were once again riding the rails, back to where we began our Italian family vacation… wonderful Milan. The day’s highlights included visits to the Castle of Milan, the spectacular rooftop of the Duomo and a very special viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper.
Advantage: 2018 Milan visit. Seeing the Last Supper in person gives it the edge.
And, there you have it. While our 2018 tour of Italy was a few days shorter than 1998, and we visited fewer areas and attractions, it was definitely a great vacation. You must be asking… which trip had the overall advantage? A quick check of the score shows 2018 has the edge in 5 of our stops, while 1998 took the honors only once and of course, Florence was a tie. Does that mean our second time around automatically wins the day?
Does the 2018 Italy tour take the cake?
The numbers scream YES, but you have to understand that our 1998 Italy tour was our very first big trip as a young married couple, and that will always make it feel extra special. Sometimes you have to go with your heart over your head. So, let’s go with 1998. Sorry to lead you on this way.
Would Lianne and I go back to Italy a third time? Absolutely. Would we take the kids? Um… I think we’re good. They can find their own special place… a place that impresses them so much it makes them promise themselves that someday they MUST go back.
Oh, and before I let you go… here’s one more picture from wonderful Milan.