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Coming Home to Italy...
For the First Time

Posted by Rich Mancini on 9/24/2015
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Europe, Travel, Italy, Venice, Florence, Food and Wine, Rome, Art Travel, Michelangelo, Museums, St Peters Basilica, Vatican, Vatican Museums, history, tradition

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Perhaps because I’m Italian-American (well, half, on my dad’s side) and in the travel field, friends and colleagues have always found it hard to believe that I had never visited Italy, the country that my grandfather Carlo left, on his own, at 17 to make a new life for himself in the United States. But I hadn’t… until just a month or so ago, when I finally got an opportunity to embark on an escorted tour with family members including my daughter and son, and two close friends on Tauck’s A Week In… Venice, Florence & Rome, the homeland that Papa said goodbye to way back in 1905. Imagine… 1905! Our aim was not only to visit these three incredible cities, but also, if possible, discover something of our family’s Italian roots.

Whether you’re ⅛, ¼, ½ Italian or not at all, you’ll still want to check out the detailed itinerary for this trip – which I felt was a perfect one-week introduction to Italy via three of its greatest cities. But I wanted to share just a few highlights as experienced by our wide-eyed little group of family and friends, most of whom were first-timers in Italy themselves.

doges_palaceOur two-night stay in the canal city of Venice – a place unique in the world – captured our imagination right from the start, as we arrived by motorboat into the Venetian waterways en route to our hotel right on the Grand Canal (my daughter’s camera started clicking right then and there, and didn’t stop for more than a week). Over the next few days we visited St. Mark’s Basilica and Square, the Doge’s Palace and other highlights with our top-notch local guides, and explored the city’s labyrinthine canals, bridges and passageways on our own. And, of course, as we sampled its cuisine and its unique vibe, we started falling in love with not only the city, but with the country itself.

gondola_rideOur included (and serenaded) gondola ride along the canals of Venice was an experience that none of us will never forget. After our good friends Mike and Carla invited me to ride with them, we were cruising along when – totally unbeknownst to me – Mike “pops the question” to Carla! And there I was, sitting in the opposite end in the gondola, snapping pictures for posterity! She accepted, of course, and they disembarked to the cheers and applause of our entire group, followed by a congratulatory toast at an open-air café on the Grand Canal at sunset. Only in Venice!

Moving on (by high-speed train) to Florence for a three-night stay, we were immediately immersed in the art, architecture, history, beauty and distinctive character (not to mention the food and wine) of the city that gave birth to the Renaissance – and the adopted home of our Tauck Director, whose deep knowledge of the city and its customs was invaluable, and added so much to our experience. Thanks to her, we not only discovered the joys of the aperitivo – think “happy hour,” but even better – but also eventually got used to the fact that if a Florentine merchant thinks that something you want to buy doesn’t suit you, forget it – he or she will never sell it to you! And with every day and every new discovery, despite only having been there a few days, I was feeling… well… more Italian than I’ve ever felt in my life...

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tuscanyWith Tauck’s local guides, we were immersed in an incredible collection of Florentine art at the Galleria dell’Accademia, and felt pleasantly overwhelmed by all the masterpieces we encountered at the Uffizi. We also enjoyed included dinners at some really fabulous restaurants; travelled out into Tuscany for lunch and a tasting at a wonderful winery surrounding a 900-year-old abbey; and did some exploring on our own… happening upon impromptu concerts in piazzas, history and art (as well as art history) at every turn, and inadvertently (at first) climbing more than 400 steps up to the top of the dome of the Duomo, the 4th largest Catholic church in the world, for spectacular views of Florence. Oh, and throughout all of this, Mike and Carla picked out “the ring” together, and got it sized and on her finger before leaving Firenze… and the romance continues!

colosseumOne more high-speed rail ride brought us to Rome, and a stay right on the fabled Via Veneto; the city that once served as the effective capital of the ancient world has so much to offer, it’s hard to put into words. The afternoon we arrived, our extremely knowledgeable (and extremely funny) local guide led us past hordes of “barbarians” (his affectionate term for anyone who’s not Roman) through the Colosseum, which, well, defies description; you really need to be there. And that goes for St. Peter’s Basilica, too. But there’s nothing like exploring the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel on Tauck’s after-hours visit. With only a few groups in there with you instead of the vast numbers who come through during a typical day, you have time to really drink in Michelangelo’s famous ceiling (as well as the 1800-year old marble floor, “recycled” from ancient Roman structures), and listen to its compelling stories, related by
our guide.

We reveled in Roma, discovering so much more than I can relate here. But during our stay in the city, we ventured a few hours south by car into the Campania region (passing Naples and through poignant Pompeii) to seek out my grandfather’s home village, which at the time (circa 1905) was called Piedimonte d’Alife, but had changed its name over the decades. Because Papa eventually moved his entire immediate family to America more than a century ago, we didn't find any direct relatives in the area; but with the help of our driver (and impromptu interpreter) and some helpful locals, we managed to discover his likely hometown – now called Alife, a small village with centuries-old buildings surrounded by medieval walls. Despite it being something akin to siesta time (things tend to close up in the afternoon), we encountered some friendly folks who confirmed, as we walked the village’s narrow streets and cathedral square, that we were probably in the right place. And then, looking up, we saw a sign above a butcher shop that identified the proprietor as “Mancini, Alfredo.” I felt like I was finally “home”… and I can’t wait to go back!

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