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A semi-escorted trip to Italy: half the hassle for half the enjoyment

By Robert RagainiSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1985

The idea was, this time, to be a different kind of traveler. Until now I had done everything myself: researched countless tourist guides to find just the right small hotels, called car rental agencies to compare prices, pored over back issues of Gourmet for special restaurants, booked flights, planned itineraries, everything. There were rewards for this labor. We stayed in charming hotels too small to have United States agents. We visited markets, out of the way chateaus, country villages where we were the only foreigners. We were free to change our minds, to go in new directions, to be accountable to none but ourselves.

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But there were drawbacks. Like coming into a distant airport after flying all night and trying to find a bus to the city. Or wandering helplessly through a vast railroad station, looking vainly for the right gate. Or trying to explain to someone who doesn't speak English that the charges for the car were too high.

So this time we decided to take a tour. To give up some of our freedom in exchange for having the minor details -- baggage handling, transfers to hotels, transportation between cities, taken care of by someone else.

Our destination was Italy, specifically Rome, Florence, and Venice, and several companies offered tours to these cities in winter, the time we wanted to leave.

The packages were similar in price, $1,300 to $1,400 per person for 15 days, including air from New York. They were all what is known as ``semi-escorted,'' which meant that, except for half-day sightseeing trips in each city, we would be on our own once safely ensconced in our hotel.

There were, however, differences to consider. Transportation between cities was by motor coach, except for American Express, which provided first-class train tickets. The number of meals included varied, with Central Holidays offering the most.

After comparing brochures, we chose the ``Highlights of Italy'' tour offered by Alitalia, partly because they promised not to cancel -- no matter how few people signed up. As it happened, we were a contingent of six, my friend and I and a couple from Texas with two young daughters. With our guide, we formed a congenial little band and received much more attention than would have been possible with a larger group.

Due to bad weather, our flight to Milan was changed at the last minute, and we didn't know what to expect when we landed. When we got to the gate, a friendly, blonde woman was there to meet us, lead us to our van, and accompany us to Venice. There she had our luggage put on a vaporetto, a floating bus, and soon we were at our hotel. Never had a trip to a foreign country begun so smoothly.

The Texans were not so fortunate. The weather had forced their flight to land in another airport, and when it did, no one, including Alitalia, knew who they were. They called upon their pioneer instincts and somehow made their way to Venice, but not without considerable wear and tear.

We knew that by taking a tour we would give up the special, smaller hotels that we prefer, and such was the case. Our hotel, the Splendid Suisse, was large, our room comfortable, and devoid of both character or charm.

On the morning of our first day, we met at a specified time for breakfast. Our guide, Federica, who stayed with us throughout the tour, led us to the magnificent Piazza San Marco, which was criss-crossed by raised, wooden walkways, which protected pedestrians from the high winter tides that twice a day spilled into the square. In the Doges' Palace we were introduced to the man who was to take us on our ``half-day walking tour of Venice.'' Heaven knows how often he had covered the same ground, but his enthusiasm was as fresh as if it were the first time. He walked us through the buildings, across the Bridge of Sighs, instructing us with history, entertaining us with stories, bringing us finally to the Byzantine church of St. Mark, with its undulating floors, the victims of centuries of settling foundations.

Then our formal responsibilities were over, and we were free to spend the next three days as we chose, sometimes together, more often not. At night we compared notes about our discoveries, the best restaurants, or museums, or churches, exchanging tips on what to see and what to avoid.