As a twenty-something, the idea of a touring holiday was laughable. Hey honey, let’s spend our summer in Europe on an old, smelly tour bus with forty sexagenarians from the American Bible Belt.
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. My partner and I had just quit our jobs. We were taking three months off to travel around Europe. We’d already mapped out most of the trip – where we’d go, how to get there, accommodation, activities, and so on – but there were a few gaps. Italy, for example. It’s not the kind of place you can see piecemeal. You have to do all of it in one hit, a rush of art, history, food and culture. It demands a serious investment of no less than two weeks.
The only problem was that we were exhausted. I had no energy left to investigate more AirBnb pages, look up train connections between Rome and Naples, find a quirky bed and breakfast nestled in the Tuscan hills with bicycle hire and a wi-fi connection or a book a visit to the Sistine Chapel six weeks in advance. Nor did I have the patience to deal with the hordes of tourists (and ironically, tour groups) that I knew we’d encounter once there, even in low season. So I proposed a radical solution: find a touring company whose proposed itinerary matched the tastes of a young professional couple.
Most that I investigated were, to their credit, upfront about the average age of their customers (“old” and “really old”) and the obvious choice – Intrepid – had, according to friends who’d recently returned from a trip abroad, become too snobbish: a two-week tour of Italy staying in mid-range accommodation would set us back twice the amount we had budgeted for. Then, a friend mentioned UK touring company Archers Holidays. I investigated their Italy offering and was surprised to find a solid, packed itinerary with good accommodation options and photos that seemed to suggest not everyone on the tour would be dead within the year. I booked.
Five months later, we sat huddled inside a salmon pink conference room at the Hotel Buenos Aires in Rome. We eyed the forty plus people who’d be our travelling companions for the next two weeks and saw mostly couples, ranging in age from late twenties to early seventies, from the UK, Australia, and the United States. “Look, young people!” I whispered to my partner. We immediately befriended two chatty twenty-something sisters from the UK. I asked them why they had picked to do organised tour instead of backpacking and hostel-hopping their way around Italy like the rest of our generation. “We’ve never been to Italy before, so we wouldn’t have known where to start,” the eldest said. “Why not let someone else do all the hard work and planning for us?” Cheers to that.
We were on the Archers 15-day Italian Showcase, a classic tour stopping in Rome, Venice, Florence, Verona, Capri, Pisa, Assisi and more. It included return flights from London, accommodation, all breakfasts and some dinners, and a tour director who knew exactly what she was doing. Her name was Sabina, a tall brunette who cracked jokes and talked fondly of soccer and Italian opera. She proved her worth on the first day of the tour, in Orvieto, a small Umbrian town set on a high volcanic outcrop with narrow, twisting streets and a stunning 14th century cathedral. (That’s my first and last mention of Italian cathedrals – every village, town and city in Italy has one, and their architecture and art is usually always magnificent.) The crowning achievement of Sabina’s organisational skills was that she understood the concept of balancing group activities with free time. We were informed of our surroundings – a quick history lesson in front of the town hall, a hand-drawn map and directions to the nearest loo – and then left to our own for a few hours before regrouping to embark on a guided tour of the local attractions. Free time was pure joy. You could explore the backstreets of whichever sleepy Italian town you found yourself in that day, eat gelato, play hide-and-seek in an abandoned fort and not have to worry about getting home or making plans for the next day. On out first day, during free time, one lady in the group lost her wallet and another tripped and broke her arm. While the rest of us enjoyed a three-course dinner at our hotel in Tuscany, Sabina filled in police reports and spent the night in a hospital room.
We spent the next four nights in Tuscany, visiting Siena, Florence and Pisa during the day and getting to know each other at night. Most people in the group had a good sense of humour. It didn’t take us long to start sharing jokes and anecdotes – by the end of the first week it felt like travelling with a big, albeit crazy, family. It surprised me how much I enjoyed this aspect of the tour. While I was, admittedly, sometimes wary of the group activities (although these were almost always optional), I found things were very different when we were all sitting down enjoying a meal together. It was satisfying to get to know these people and to hear their stories. It was even more satisfying to gossip and debrief after a long day of sightseeing. While my partner and I certainly would have had a great time on our own, sharing the experience with forty others made it much more enjoyable than I expected, even if some people in the group did get on my nerves (it was bound to happen). In a lot of ways, it was like being back in school.
After a brief stop in Verona, where we paused briefly to admire the hordes of teenage girls lining up to touch the bronze breast of Juliet Capulet’s bronze statue in the courtyard of her house (for luck in love, they said), we finally arrived in Venice, a city as beautiful at it is congested. We began with the touristy stuff: St Mark’s square, gently flooding at high tide; a gondola ride through the canals with our own onboard opera singer; dinner in a Venetian family-owned restaurant; losing our way through the winding alleyways under a big, yellow moon.
On the second day, however, my partner and I skipped the glass-blowing demonstration (we were warned about this by my parents, who have toured Italy before) and bought tickets to the Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious and popular events in the contemporary art world calendar. We spent a good six hours wondering around the pavilions in the eastern end of the city, glad to get away from the crowds and see a side of Venice that so few get to experience. In the afternoon, we returned to our hotel at the height of an unfolding drama: a member of our group was missing. Sabina, usually calm in the face of crisis, was trying hard to keep her cool. She was about to return to the city to look for them when they finally showed up with a rather limp excuse about losing track of time. Sabina retreated to her room with a terse goodnight and a reminder of the next morning’s wake-up call.
The second week was filled with beautiful provincial towns (San Marino, Assisi), busy metropolises (Naples, Rome), and jaw-dropping coastlines (Capri). Naples in particular was an eye-opener: Sabina spent the better part of an hour warning us about everything from pickpockets to careless scooter drivers, so that once we arrived at our hotel – one of the most luxurious of the trip – few of us felt like venturing out. My favourite places were the fortress towns nestled in the sides of hills, which presented the ideal image of Italy: steep, cobblestone streets, stone houses with tiled orange roofs, alfresco café scenes with deep pan pizzas and macchiatos and sleeping dogs warming their backs in the afternoon sun.
And then, just like that, we were back in Rome. We spent our last days braving the crowds at the Roman Forum and Colosseum before a boozed-up farewell dinner full of bittersweet promises to keep in touch. In keeping with the rules of everlasting friendship, we spent the bus ride home singing karaoke.
If You Go
The Archers Holidays Italian Showcase tour is priced from £1137 per person and includes return flights and transfers from London, 14 nights bed and breakfast accommodation, some meals, guided sightseeing and the services of a professional tour director. For more information, visit www.archersdirect.co.uk
About Invisible Cities
Laura Parker is a freelance journalist living in New York. Born in Europe, she moved to Australia when she was seven years old, and, motivated by an early fascination with archaeology and Indiana Jones films, set about becoming a world-renowned adventurer. That hasn't quite happened yet, but she's working on it.