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

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.

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.

We left Venice reluctantly, this time by limousine, and had our first real indication of the drawbacks of organized travel. Seating space was insufficient, even for our small group, but there was nothing to be done. We were the captives of someone else's plan.

We arrived in Florence in the evening and were established in the Grand Hotel Baglioni, a great barn of a place, that was undergoing a face-lift. Our rooms were large, with beamed ceilings, but tired, as were we. We had begun to experience the fatigue of trying to see too much in too little time.

Next morning, another fine tour, and then several days on our own, days of crowded streets, wonderful garden walks, frantic sightseeing, delicious food, and a very special unescorted excursion to Pisa.

By now we six had become a cohesive unit. It was good to have others to share experiences with, congenial people to be with if we chose, and who weren't offended when we didn't.

Even on our free days, it was expected, although not required, that we all would meet at breakfast with Federica. Preferring a minimum of structure, my friend and I often missed the morning briefing.

The difference in native languages between Federica and the group was something of a barrier. Although her English was good, it was not colloquial, and her inability to understand our humor and idioms gave her a serious demeanor. We were amazed, one afternoon, when she was lunching with friends, to see a laughing, animated woman. In Italian, she was another person.

Just as we were getting used to Florence, it was time to leave for Rome. On our way, we stopped briefly at Siena where we were provided with another excellent tour by a young student. Halfway through, we were irresistibly drawn by the temptations in a pastry shop window, and soon we were all inside being treated to samples by the proprietor. We bought bags of cookies aptly called brutti ma buoni, ``ugly but good,'' and then walked to the famous medieval race track skirting the odd, concave square.

Much too soon we were being summoned back to the car. Once again an invisible force was directing us, letting us know it was time to leave when we knew it wasn't.

We stopped for lunch at Orvieto, an ancient hill town with a magnificent cathedral whose faade shone with golden mosaics. We could easily have spent a day or two exploring the cluster of medieval buildings and the rolling countryside far below. But Orvieto had been allotted only a couple of hours, and so we raced through the winding streets, trying to take in as much as possible.

In Rome we were assigned to the Hotel Cardinale, situated in a dreary part of the city, in a room with stained and torn wallpaper -- definitely not a hotel we would have chosen.

In the morning, after a breakfast served by harried waiters, we joined a multinational mob of tourists and were directed to one of a dozen busses. We spent two hours in heavy traffic getting fleeting glimpses of famous monuments before being dropped off at a gift shop in St. Peter's Square where we were expected to spend time and lire. We declined.

The ordeal over, we were let loose on the eternal city, a city that delights and frustrates, exhilarates and infuriates. Among other typical tourist stops, we made the obligatory visit to the Forum, rather expecting to be disappointed, and were overwhelmed by the vast remains of ancient Rome. We stayed for several magical hours before plunging back into the chaos of the modern city.

On our last day, we said goodbye to our friends from Texas and to Federica, who was already preparing for her next assignment, and were taken by private car to the airport, a nice way to end a vacation.

In the days that followed, we tried to evaluate our experience to determine if the semi-escorted tour had become our preferred type of traveling. Certainly we had succeeded in liberating ourselves from the more tiresome aspects of vacationing, but, for us, it wasn't worth the price.

And yet, to be met in a foreign country and be transported effortlessly to a good hotel is a great luxury, one that I would not want to give up in the future. And prepaying certain expenses eliminates much of the confusion that can turn a pleasure trip into an arduous journey.

Is there a way to retain these worthwhile features of an escorted tour without losing the spontaneity of independent travel, to have your cake and eat it, too? I don't know, but I intend to find out.

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