Italy, September 2021

Angela recently returned from a long delayed trip to Italy with her mother, Theresa. The travel described herein was originally booked to occur in 2020, which obviously didn’t happen, and just like our post about our Kenyan safari, I’ll only be discussing the final bookings.

Bookings

Given that the flight itineraries were booked separately for each person, I’m going to outline the complete booking by individual. While booking cash fares for business class travel is something Angela and I have done in the past, rarely has it been as much of a no-brainer as it was for this trip when United Airlines and their Star Alliance partners put all of Europe on sale for a few days with almost every origin in the United States being possible.

There were a few constraints that made booking “optimal” flights impossible. First, Angela wanted to spend a couple of days in Illinois helping sort out any last minute details before the trip. That meant leaving for Europe from ORD rather than LAS. Second, it was a strong desire to have Angela and Theresa on the same flights, for the most part. Finally, the cash fares to Europe only allowed a single transfer in Europe which meant that keeping Angela and Theresa on the same flight from FLR-ZRH required booking one more itinerary sandwiched in the middle of the broader trip.

About two weeks ahead of Angela’s trip, I decided that I wanted to surprise her in Zurich during her overnight layover. I booked my award flights at that time, meaning that that availability was very sparse and, because I wanted to make sure Angela and I were on the same flights back to Las Vegas, I opted to ride in economy for the flight from IAD to LAS, which is not something I’d usually do.

  • Angela

    • 430.40USD per person (cash fare, booked with accumulated gift cards)
      • LAS-ORD on AA J
    • 1,528.85USD per person (cash fare, booked with United TravelBank)
      • ORD-MUC on LH J
      • MUC-NAP on LH J
      • ZRH-IAD on UA J
      • IAD-LAS on UA J
    • 283.99EUR per person (cash fare, booked with travel portal)
      • FLR-ZRH on LX J
  • Theresa
    • 1,526.75USD per person (cash fare, booked with United TravelBank)
      • ORD-MUC on LH J
      • MUC-NAP on LH J
      • FLR-ZRH on LX J
      • ZRH-ORD on LX J
  • Nicholas
    • 138,400 United Airlines MileagePlus Miles + 62.25USD per person in taxes and fees
      • LAS-LAX on UA Y
      • LAX-ZRH on LX J
      • ZRH-IAD on UA J
      • IAD-LAS on UA Y

Hotels

The intent was to make this the trip of a lifetime and the hotels we decided on reflect that. While one didn’t exactly live up to its name (looking at you, Hilton Sorrento Palace), others definitely matched our expectations.

At each location, breakfast was included either because of status (the Hilton properties and Guest of Honor bookings) or because the hotel collection (Palazzo Vecchietti belongs to the Small Luxury Hotels of the World) provides breakfast as a standard amenity.

SARS-COV-2 Procedures

With how quickly travel requirements change, it is likely that those we encountered and are outlined in the following few paragraphs may be out of date when you’re reading this. That being said, this is what we encountered and the solutions we chose to ensure everyone could move between countries with a minimum of fuss.

For entry, Italy requires travelers from the United States to be both fully vaccinated and present a negative SARS-COV-2 PCR or antigen result obtained within 72 hours of departure. In addition, all travelers must fill out a passenger locator form prior to arrival. In Italy, mask usage was required on transit and in all indoor spaces except when actively eating or drinking. To dine at restaurants, we opted to provide proof of vaccination; this was enforced consistently in Rome and Florence, but to varying degrees in Sorrento.

For entry, Switzerland requires travelers from the United States to be fully vaccinated. In addition, all travelers must fill out a passenger locator form prior to arrival. In Zurich, where we stayed, mask usage was required on transit and in all indoor spaces except when actively eating or drinking. To dine at restaurants, proof of vaccination was required; this was enforced consistently.

For entry, the USA requires all travelers to present a negative SARS-COV-2 PCR or antigen result obtained within three calendar days of departure.

In preparation for the trip, we purchased a pack of six Abbot BinaxNow proctored home test kits from eMed. Angela brought four of the six tests to Illinois with the intent to use two of them prior to leaving and two of them in Florence prior to coming home.

Unfortunately, that plan fell apart when two tests were effectively ruined during pre-travel procedures. The first test that Theresa opened did not have any liquid reagent in the provided dropper bottle. The proctor instructed Theresa to open another test and retrieve the reagent from that test. Unfortunately, when the test concluded the result was invalid because of a defective test strip, Theresa then had to open the final test kit to get a valid result. As such, Angela and Theresa used all four of the test kits that Angela packed before ever leaving the United States.

Given this situation, we contacted the Palazzo Vecchietti and asked for suggestions on getting tested in Florence. They replied with the location of a pharmacy at which Angela could book an appointment. On October 6, Angela and Theresa made their way to the pharmacy, were directed to a small medical office, and then were tested and certified negative.

Because my trip was so short, I used an Abbot BinaxNow kit while in Las Vegas on October 6 and was able to use this negative result for traveling home from Zurich.

While the situation with the defective tests was not ideal, eMed was very proactive in replacing the invalid tests once I called, immediately sending me another set of six tests kits.

Day 1

Angela and Theresa arrived at ORD four hours before their flight was set to depart and had to wait approximately 45 minutes for check-in to open. The check-in process was interesting as the agent did not check Angela or Theresa’s negative test results or ask to see their EU PLF. He insisted that they would examine both on arrival. In addition, Angela attempted to get the agent to associate her Aegean Airlines frequent flyer number with her itinerary, but he instead associated it with Theresa’s itinerary erroneously.

After clearing security, the pair visited the United Club because the United Polaris Lounge is not yet open at ORD (or anywhere else, currently). Finding the food options unsatisfactory, they opted to dine at a restaurant prior to their flight. The food was standard airport fare.

The long-haul flight was operated by Lufthansa on their newer A359. Angela mentioned that the seat was comfortable but that there was very little room for storage. While she opted to pass on dinner, she reports that the pre-departure champagne was a delight and that the in-flight experience was efficient and friendly. The pair cleared immigration in Munich before transferring to the short intra-Europe flight to Naples.

The short-haul was operated by a plane configured with the standard intra-Europe business class where each row of three seats has the middle seat blocked. Angela ate a small meal on this flight and reports that it was delicious. They arrived in Naples and parked at a remote gate where they were picked up by a bus and driven to the baggage claim. None of the ATMs at NAP were operational and there was no agent on duty at the currency exchange desk.

We arranged a driver via the Russo Agency and he was waiting for them after baggage claim. The Russo Agency was specifically recommended by the Hilton Sorrento Palace during pre-stay communication as they have a desk at the property and staff members who are available to help with typical tourist activities like booking excursions and transport.

It took 90 minutes to drive from Naples Airport to the hotel and they passed through some less affluent areas of Naples before driving along the coast to Sorrento. The views were delightful during the journey.

Check-in was quick but not very friendly and the room was clean, but fairly basic. The highlight of the room was the spacious balcony with a table and chairs overlooking the Bay of Naples. Angela and Theresa had access to the Executive Lounge while staying at the property which had some light bites and drinks with a private pool and good views.

After getting settled, they visited Inn Bufalito for dinner which was good, but nothing extraordinary. After dining, it was off to bed to get a good night’s sleep and properly prepare for the rest of the trip.

Day 2

After sleeping through breakfast, Angela and Theresa paid a visit to Frankie’s Bar & Pizzeria for lunch where they ordered Frankie’s Pizza topped with smoked cheese, red onion, sausage, ‘ndula spicy meat, and arugula. The pizza had a tasty crust and both the flavors and service were good.

Later in the day, the pair were picked up from the hotel and driven to Chez Barone for a cooking class. The class was held in a beautiful villa on a mountain. Rooms in the villa can be rented nightly on a bed and breakfast basis.

Chef Teresa was the class’s instructor and was great to work with. Given there was only a single stovetop with a few burners, most of the class was confined to preparatory work and, as such, it is definitely ok for non-seasoned cooks. As a bonus, there are plenty of drink breaks in between preparatory sessions.

Angela and Theresa helped prepare a variety of dishes including bracciole, pizza fritta, ravioli, limoncello tiramisu, and limoncello. They were also led on a tour of the villa by the owner and got to admire the view of the Bay of Naples. Of course, after all the preparatory work and cooking, the best part was eating all the delicious treats.

After the class and meal, Angela and Theresa were driven back to their hotel.

Day 3

After breakfast, Angela and Theresa walked to the port to catch a ferry to Capri. They purchased tickets at the port, which was quite easy. The ticket agents want you to purchase your return ticket along with your outbound so you should decide ahead of time how long you plan on spending on Capri. The ferry ride is 25 to 30 minutes.

Upon arriving in Capri, you walk out of the port and then immediately take a right to purchase bus tickets to Anacapri for 2EUR one-way or 4EUR round-trip to be taken later. Angela decided ahead of time to purchase an island tour with Laser Capri that included a stop at the Blue Grotto and the pair enjoyed this tour first.

After the boat tour, the pair got in line for the bus to Anacapri. The bus ride was crowded, scenic, and perhaps harrowing for some as the road is very narrow. Upon arriving in Anacapri, the pair purchased tickets for the chair lift up Monte Solaro for 12EUR per person. The views from the lift were quite scenic.

There is a small viewing platform at the top of the mountain with a small area to walk around. After taking in the views, they returned to Anacapri for a bit of perambulation and a visit to the Church of San Michele to see the famous painted tile floor and wooden altars.

Lunch was taken at La Giara where they had Pizza Napoli; it was OK for the price, but nothing special. The whole area is extremely touristy, so good luck finding a standout restaurant.

Catching the ferry back to Sorrento was a little haphazard and Angela recommends returning to the marina a little early as the ferries definitely seem to leave at least five minutes before they’re scheduled to. Being early also allows you to get a good seat for pictures!

The walk from the port back to the hotel has a lot of stairs but there are also a lot of landings so it shouldn’t be too bad of a walk for most people. Dinner was at Ristorante L’Antica Trattoria where some of the dishes had a good flavor, but it definitely didn’t live up to the reviews.

Day 4

The following morning, Angela and Theresa walked to Piazza Tasso to meet their Pompeii and Vesuvius tour group for the day. The tour started at 0830 and lasted until 1715. The tour guide provided information about the surrounding area during the ride to Pompeii and then led a two hour guided tour once they arrived at the ancient city.

After the tour through Pompeii, there was a short break for a 15EUR lunch at a hotel that the tour company has an arrangement with. Lunch consisted of a very light salad, choice of pizza, pork loin, or spaghetti bolognese, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In addition, one drink was provided (no refills). The meal was OK, but the price was good for the quality given the extremely busy area they were in.

After lunch, it was back on the bus for the journey to Mount Vesuvius where everyone was given the opportunity to take a hike of about four kilometers. The hike is somewhat steep in places but Angela saw plenty of older people making the walk with little difficulty (slowly but surely, to be clear).

The trail is all dirt and gravel so white shoes that you want to keep clean are definitely not recommended. Importantly, the trail is wide enough in most places to allow people to pause and rest while others pass by. The trail is an out-and-back route so there are people coming back that pass by you as well.

There is a portion at the very end of the trail that narrows with stairs as well, but that’s halfway around the caldera so you can reach the rim and see inside without going all the way around to see it from other angles.

After the hike, it was back to the bus to be driven back to town. Angela would recommend this tour with the caveat that you should bring water, comfortable shoes, clothes for physical activity, and a hat given that Pompeii is mostly direct sun.

For dinner, they dined at Benvenuti in Casa which served them the best dinner they had in Sorrento. They split the cuttlefish with basil, walnuts, and potato mash to start, chose the scialatelli with cherry tomatoes, rocket, and red prawns for the main, and cod with buffalo ricotta and spinach for the second course. For dessert, Angela had citrus panna cotta and Theresa had the chocolate and almond cake.

The dishes were delicious with locally sourced ingredients that highlight the specialties of the region and its rich soil. The chocolate cake was amazingly light and airy while having a surprisingly rich chocolate flavor.

Day 5 and 6

After two days full of activity immediately after arriving in Italy, it was time for a day off. Angela and Theresa spent the day by the rooftop executive lounge pool before heading to Porta Marina Seafood. Dinner was tasty with large portions, friendly service, and a fair price. It seemed like there were many repeat tourist customers so the restaurant definitely seems to be doing something right.

After dinner, they grabbed some dessert at Gelateria David which was average.

The following day, the pair checked out and were driven, again arranged through Russo Agency, to Napoli Centrale where they took a train to Roma Termini before taking an Uber to the Rome Cavalieri. The train ride was comfortable and vaccination was checked.

The hotel room in Rome was spacious and comfortable with a balcony featuring an incredible view of the eternal city. The hotel is far enough away from everything that a taxi or Uber is definitely required to get back and forth from the main sites.

After eating a bit of charcuterie on the balcony, they took a car into town and checked out the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps.

For dinner, Angela navigated the pair to Al Forno della Soffitta for pizza. They ordered the Burratina and it was even more delicious than Angela remembered from our previous visit to Rome.

Day 7

After breakfast, Angela and Theresa headed to the Vatican where they met Patrizia, a great tour guide booked through LivTours. The most notable thing was that the area was empty compared to our previous visit.

St. Peter’s Basilica was closed for an event, so Angela and Theresa resolved to return the next day. They made their way to Il Ragno d’Oro for a late lunch where they had Jewish artichoke and steak. From there, it was back to the hotel to rest up, relax on the balcony, and prepare for the next day’s adventures.

Day 8

Angela and Theresa got an early start to head to St. Peter’s Basilica given that it was closed on the previous day. They toured the interior and were again struck by how few people were around.

After St. Peter’s, they hopped in a taxi to head to the Colosseum for one of the best tours ever courtesy of Elisa from Roma Experience. Angela and Theresa were able to explore the underground of the Flavian Amphitheatre as well as the first and second floors. Elisa was a font of knowledge as a trained and practicing archaeologist who has worked on Colosseum excavations.

After the tour, the pair did their own walking tour of the Roman Forum (shout-out to Rick Steves audio guide) and some of Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, tickets for timed entry to the Capitoline Museum were sold out as it was the free entry day.

They walked around the Victor Emmanuel II monument before heading across the street to Trajan’s Column and grabbing a taxi back to the hotel where they imbibed drinks at the Tiepolo Lounge. Angela had a delicious Rossini Tiepolo while Theresa had a glass of rose.

For dinner, they stayed on property and ate at Uliveto. It was good but the prices were inflated (par for the course at most hotels). They shared a Caprese salad, carbonara, and the signature tiramisu dessert.

Day 9

The train ride to Florence was uneventful and check-in at the Palazzo Vecchietti was easy after a bit of difficulty finding the entryway. The room was spacious with a kitchenette and rooftop sitting area. There wasn’t much of a view from the roof, but it was nice to hear the sounds of the city in a comfortable outdoor spot. The building is interesting with lots of art lining the staircases.

After check-in, Angela and Theresa headed to Cafe Gilli, a Florentine institution, for coffee and sweets. They walked to the Arno River, saw the Ponte Vecchio, saw the exterior of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, and visited Piazza della Signoria.

Dinner was at Trattoria dall’Oste Chianineria. They enjoyed the ragu on bread, the mushroom tagliatelli with truffle, and bistecca fiorentina chianina (a local breed of cattle). The food was delicious but service was only adequate. You should definitely make a reservation ahead of time.

Day 10

Breakfast at the Palazzo Vecchietti was tasty with many of the items served buffet style and eggs cooked to order. Coffees are also made to order and the cappuccinos were delicious. After breakfast, it was off to see the David, Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens.

Angela notes that the tourist attractions aren’t empty, but there are notably less people than when we went a few years ago. It seems like there are many fewer EU and US travelers whereas intra-Italy tourism still seems strong. This means there is much less jostling as you attempt to view great works of art, specifically Botticelli’s works.

Dinner was at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco. They enjoyed pappardelle with boar ragu, trippa alla Fiorentina, and cantucci e Vin Santo (a traditional post-dinner treat). Everything was delicious and Angela recommends this restaurant.

Day 11

After breakfast, Angela and Theresa made their way to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore complex. Their first stop was the campanile where Angela says there only four other people at 0900. It was pretty incredible to have the place almost entirely to themselves on such a beautifully clear morning.

After the campanile, they were off to the associated museum before heading inside the cathedral itself. They are strictly limiting the number of people in the church for some reason so the pair had to wait 45 minutes before being allowed to enter.

They ate some complimentary snacks and Prosecco on their rooftop terrace before setting off for Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel. The Pazzi Chapel had a Dante Alighieri video playing on all four walls so the chapel was hidden from view, unfortunately. Santa Croce has an amazing painted altar with painted niches and is the burial place of Michelangelo and Machiavelli. In addition, there are a variety of other cenotaphs for noted Italians, including Dante, and there are some statues attributed to Donatello.

Dinner was taken at Coquinarius where an extremely friendly sommelier helped Angela and Theresa pick some wine to accompany their meal. He was able to make recommendations after asking them what their favorite flavors were and allowing them to sample a few different options. Angela ended up choosing the Pantaleone Onirocep. The pair chose a salad with chicken breast, bacon, tomato, and balsamic along with a crostini variety featuring:

  1. Cod
  2. Sardine
  3. Pepper
  4. Chicken pate
  5. Cannellini bean mash
  6. Sausage
  7. Fig, mint, and cheese

The pasta course was raviolini with pear and cheese. The main course was slow roasted beef cheeks with caramelized onions and cannellini beans. Dessert was an extremely richly flavored chocolate cake. Angela recommends this restaurant to travelers to Florence.

Day 12

On their final day in Florence, the pair needed to leave the hotel early to meet a tour group for a full day Tuscany tour. The hotel courteously provided a boxed breakfast for them to enjoy given that the full breakfast option was not yet available. It included juices, yogurt, fresh fruit, bananas, some packaged sweet biscuits, and an assortment of pastries. They met their tour group of 30-40 people outside the train station and walked to the coach that would be their transportation for the day.

The first stop for the day was Siena where they saw the oldest working bank in Europe, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. At the time, it seemed likely that it would be acquired in a few days given the ill effects of financial mismanagement forcing a buyout, but the deal fell apart.

Staying in Siena, they saw where the Palio horse races occur, learned that the she-wolf statues scattered around town were a marketing trick given Siena isn’t actually an ancient Roman city, and visited the Siena Cathedral. Inside the cathedral are etched marble floors that depict various scenes, not necessarily religious in nature, and viewed a room with all original, and still vibrant, frescoes. This is only possible because candles were never burned in this room.

Next, they stopped at Fattoria Poggio Alloro for a quick tour of the grounds including the regionally important Chianina cows. Lunch was served here and consisted of bruschetta, pasta with meat ragu, prosciutto, fennel salami, and both a younger and aged pecorino. Dessert was cantucci e Vin Santo.

The next stop was San Gimignano, a medieval town where the pair was given an hour to explore on their own. Angela decided to go to a viewpoint for some pictures and walk around the main squares. She saw a medieval cistern and fountain and opted for a snack at Gelato World Champion Gelateria Dondoli. Angela had rose-lychee gelato while Theresa opted for tiramisu flavor. It was tasty and they had both traditional and unique flavors.

After leaving San Gimignano, the coach drove an hour and a half through the Tuscan countryside to Pisa where they were again given an hour to explore. Because of the early morning and all the other stops, the pair decided to take it easy and grabbed some pictures of the famous leaning tower and the outside of the cathedral before buying an overpriced but tasty espresso right in front of the tower and eagerly awaiting the return trip to Florence.

This is not the kind of tour that Angela would usually opt for, but decided on it to maximize the number of things seen in a single day and ensure that Theresa got her fill of Italy. She is grateful to have seen the Tuscan landscape and would recommend a full day tour of Tuscany to those looking to mark a couple of cities off their list without exploring them more deeply.

When Angela arrived back at the hotel at almost 2100, the staff knew they had an early departing flight the next morning and allowed her to settle the bill ahead of time. They also offered another round of boxed breakfasts which they declined.

Day 12 – Part 2

Unbeknownst to Angela, while she was touring Tuscany, I was on a plane to Zurich to surprise her the next day. I flew from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and then hustled through the airport to secure the last throne seat available on my Swiss business class flight. My journey was great; the service was amiable, the food was delicious, and the seat was comfortable and spacious. I was able to arrive in Zurich feeling refreshed.

After clearing immigration and customs, I spent the night at the Hyatt Regency Zurich Airport The Circle where I was upgraded to a suite thanks to my friend Noah making me a Guest of Honor booking. I was also given access to the Regency Lounge. It was a great hotel with excellent service. The lounge was a very nice place to work and I got my fill of espresso before logging off and calling it a night in anticipation of greeting Angela the next day.

Day 13

The trip home started early with a taxi ride to Florence, a brief stop at the business class lounge, and a short flight to Zurich. There, Angela and Theresa parted ways with Theresa continuing on to Chicago on Swiss business class and Angela picking up her luggage for her overnight layover in Zurich.

Meanwhile, I partook of a limited but tasty breakfast at the hotel before heading over to Zurich Airport to patiently wait for Angela to walk through the arrival doors. She appeared about 25 minutes after her plane landed and was surprised (but not too surprised because I’m “crazy”, apparently) to see me. I had been informed that our room was ready at the Park Hyatt Zurich so we took the train into the city and then walked a few blocks to the hotel where we checked in and dropped our bags. We were both a bit peckish and Angela had scoped out some options ahead of time, so off we went to Restaurant Zeughauskeller.

When we arrived, we presented our vaccination proof and were escorted to a shared table and told we could take our masks off while inside. We had some delicious sausages and vegetables, Angela enjoyed a beer, and we opted for apple strudel for dessert. Everything was delicious and the price wasn’t half bad. While the restaurant is popular with tourists, it isn’t solely occupied by foreigners and it was nice to hear German being spoken at the tables around us to make us feel like Angela definitely made the right choice.

We spent some time walking around Zurich, bought some chocolate, saw a dachshund guarding a shop, and then admired Lake Zurich for a few minutes before returning to the hotel to do a bit of relaxation before dinner at Parkhuus, the Park Hyatt Zurich’s in-house restaurant. The meal was an experience and, while we opted to order a la carte rather than partake of the fixed menu, we were still served a variety of chef-provided dishes between courses. I would highly recommend Parkhuus and can say that, while it was expensive, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as it could have been.

Day 14

The next day we retraced our route to the airport where we checked in and were guided to the Swiss Business Class lounge right next to our gate. I absolutely loved this lounge because it featured an outdoor terrace where we could do a bit of plane spotting with our masks off given we were outside.

We went to our gate at the prescribed boarding time and enjoyed the flight back to the United States on United Airline’s newer Polaris product. The hard product was great whereas the soft product was severely lacking. I’ll definitely fly the product again, but I’ll make sure to eat my fill in the lounge prior to departure and plan on working or sleeping throughout the flight.

After landing in Washington, D.C. we had a three and a half hour layover before continuing home with Angela up front and me stuffed in economy. Luckily, the flight passed without incident and we were home before we knew it.

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