Unquestionably Rome exudes history: from its Catacombs that entombed early Christians, to the Colosseum where gladiators battled to the death and on up to the Palatine Hill, the traditional site of Rome’s founding. It is also home to the Vatican City, the home of the Pope, and St Peter's Basilica The city is enthralling, with perhaps more to see than any other place in the world. Eating in Italy is deeply embedded in the country’s culture, and dining in Rome can seem to last forever and consist of many courses. The city offers a vibrant cafe culture and nightlife, as well as the many iconic sights. Please note that if you wish to visit popular museums such as the Vatican Museums (Sistine Chapel) and Villa Borghese in Rome, to avoid waiting in line for a long time it is advisable to reserve tickets in advance. Tickets can be reserved online at www.vatican.va and www.tickititaly.com. Please make your reservations for the afternoon of Day 2. As your fellow travellers are arriving throughout the day, there are no planned activities until your Group Meeting this evening, so check-in to the hotel (check-in time is approx 3pm) and enjoy the city. Check the notice boards or ask at reception for the exact time and location of the group meeting. After the meeting, you can head out for a meal at a local restaurant with the group (optional). Please make every effort to arrive on time for this important welcome meeting. If you are delayed and will arrive late, please inform us - contact numbers are provided in these notes. Your Tour Leader will then leave you a message at the front desk informing you of where and when to meet up.
We travel by comfortable long-distance coach to Siena and our twelfth-century hotel inside the medieval city walls. Built on three hills and surrounded by well-preserved medieval walls, Siena is filled to the brim with fine examples of Gothic architecture. It has one of the world's most unique central plazas – the Piazza del Campo. This shell-shaped "square" houses the Palazzo Pubblico, the Torre del Mangia, and many other architectural treasures. It is also world-renowned for hosting the Palio, the famous horse race, which is an important part of Sienese identity, history and culture. Siena's cathedral, the duomo, begun in the twelfth century, is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque architecture. Its main façade, completed in 1380, campanile and baptistery make a fine group. Inside is the famous Gothic octagonal pulpit by Nicola Pisano supported on lions, and the labyrinth inlaid in the flooring, traditionally traversed by penitents on their knees. Within the Sacristy are some perfectly preserved renaissance frescos by Ghirlandaio. Beneath the duomo, in the baptistery is the marvelous baptismal font with bas reliefs by Donatello, Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia and other 15th Century sculptors. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo contains Duccio's famous Maestà and various other works by Sienese masters. More Sienese paintings are to be found in the Pinacoteca. The Palazzo Pubblico, itself a great work of architecture, houses yet another important art museum. In between all this culture, take a rest at a local café and enjoy some real Tuscan gastronomic delights. Estimated Travel Time: 3.5 hours
Travelling on a mid-afternoon local bus, we head northwest to the capital of the region, the inimitable Firenze (or Florence as we know it). Florence personifies all that is beautiful in Italian civilization. It is the capital of the Tuscany region with a population of approximately half a million people. The fathers of Italian painting, Cimabue and Giotto lived here, along with many other prominent artists. It is the birthplace of the Italian language (Dante Alighieri) and Europe’s richest cultural period, The Italian Renaissance. Florence’s cultural and historical impact attracts thousands of international travellers each year. Fill your free day with a visit to the marvellous multi-coloured Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the medieval Ponte Vecchio or the Medici Chapels. Take a break at Piazza della Signoria with a gelato or an espresso before hitting the vivacious Piazza San Lorenzo to bargain for discounted woollen and leather goods. Florence has much to offer. Tuscany is also famous for its food and wine, and there are many regional specialities to tempt you in Florence. The world-famous Chianti wine comes from this area and matches the local steak excellently. Or you could try the excellent and very filling Tuscan vegetable and bean soup. One one of the evenings in Florence, we will walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset for the famous view over the River Arno and the city. Estimated Travel Time: 1.5 hours
Today we travel by local train to delightful unspoilt Umbria. While we are here, we visit Assisi and the famous Basilica of San Francesco. This lovely town is where the use of the "nativity scene" to depict the Christmas story originates. We also include a tasting of the exceptionally good local wines - these receive less attention than the Tuscan vintages but are most certainly their equal. We also visit the medieval stone town of Gubbio, with its "Fountain of the Crazy People" (run round it three times while a local splashes you with water from the fountain to claim your Patent of Madness). Gubbio's other claim to fame is the "Biggest Christmas Tree in the World" - not a real tree, but a huge set of lights trailing up the hill behind the town in the shape of a Christmas tree, topped by a giant illuminated star at the top of the hill. Estimated Travel Time: 3 hours
We head by train to Ravenna on Christmas Eve. This lovely town is famous for the Byzantine mosaics, dating back as far as the sixth century, which we visit on arrival. If you wish to soak in the Italian Christmas atmosphere you could also attend midnight Mass in one of the town's historic churches. Ravenna, along with the rest of the province of Emilia-Romagna, is also renowned for the food - so is an excellent choice for Christmas day. Specialities of the region include pumpkin ravioli, delicious with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Estimated Travel Time: 5 hours
A final train ride north brings us to captivating Venice, one of the few cities in the world that can be truly described as unique. Over an extraordinarily long period, this "floating" city of water has been embellished with monuments of rare splendour that today make it a tourist attraction like none other in the world. Wonderful museums such as the Accademia or the Scuola di San Rocco give us the opportunity to enjoy great painters of the renaissance like Jacoppo Tintoretto, Vittore Carpacio or Tiziano. For a more contemporary take, why not visit the fabulous Peggy Guggenheim gallery, located inside her former home, right on the Grand Canal itself. While in the "city of canals", you can't miss out on a vaporetto (water-bus) ride along the Grand Canal. This is the best (and cheapest!) way to enjoy unparalleled views of the majestic palaces lining the water, the old-world shops of the Rialto Bridge, the Palace of the Doge (ruler of Venice), the Piazza and Basilica of San Marco and the romantic Bridge of Sighs. There will be plenty of time for you to wander the narrow, cobblestone streets and wide piazzas, crossing the hundreds of tiny bridges and of course, getting lost in Venice's labyrinth - by far the best way to discover this city's captivating magic! Estimated Travel Time: 4-5 hours
Depart Venice at any time.