VENICE, ITALY — Some 47 years ago, in fall 1965 as a junior year abroad college student, I made my first trip to Venice. Last May, I returned. Arriving at the Hotel Serenissima on Calle Goldoni following a late evening Air France flight from Paris, it was difficult not to feel a sense of déjà vu. The next two weeks on my Italy trip were as captivating as that maiden journey.
After traversing the six-mile ride from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, my airport boat dropped me off at a familiar landmark. Walking out onto Saint Mark’s Square, I beheld the Italian Renaissance city’s iconic Basilica, Doge’s Palace and Campanile bell tower.
I had come to Italy with some trepidation about traveling solo, remembering that first Italy trip when I got hopelessly lost on a bus in Florence. Not knowing any Italian back then and thinking I was returning to my hotel, I was surprised when my bus driver headed toward the outskirts of town far from the city center. This time my angst was relieved as I joined a Rick Steves tour group of 28 seasoned travelers from all parts of the country.
They were a diverse group and included a retired high school art teacher and his wife from South Bend, Indiana; two English professors from Middle Tennessee State University; a young couple from Silicon Valley; and a retired engineer and his wife from Sunnyvale, Calif. Unlike my previous Europe Through the Back Door trip to Turkey last summer, this tour, appropriately dubbed “Italy My Way,” was unguided.
Steves’ nationally famous, Edmonds-based travel company heralds the new tour concept—which combines the convenience of prearranged hotel reservations and ground transportation—as a more relaxed and affordable option custom-tailored for European travelers. The tour affords the flexibility to plan their own daily sightseeing itinerary without the stress of overscheduled activities.
Priced at $2,000 less than the standard Rick Steves guided Europe tours, Italy My Way trip was an instant hit with my fellow tour members. Ours was the first group to go in early May. As Steves explained to me recently, the unguided tours offer an enticing alternative for travelers seeking a more individualized and independent way to explore a country — and save money.
“I’ve long wanted to have a way to let independent-minded travelers enjoy the economy and efficiency of a tour (i.e. sharing a bus to save money, enjoying the effortless ride provided by a professional driver and having someone else make all the hotel reservations), but without the herd aspect (25 people following a guide to dinner and through a museum),” Steves said.
Unlike standard tours, the My Way tours can be far less frenetic or structured, and as I found, more leisurely. One of our stops, Verona, en route to Varenna, might have included an information-packed tour of the Duomo, or church, and town square. Instead, I chose to have a latte in a café tucked away in a small side street far from the crowded open-air market. On a guided tour, I would not have had the time to relax, people watch, or simply savor the sights and sounds of Italy.
“We’ve tried several different versions of this ‘tour lite’ over the years,” Steves told me, “and our My Way plan seems to have struck a chord with that market segment and is working fine. Its attractive features are the efficiency and economy of a bus tour as a shell for a free-wheeling, independent adventure with no stress.”
Having traveled on (and led) guided tours in Europe and China before, I found the Italy My Way tour a refreshing change. It was especially rewarding traveling with other tour participants with expertise in Italian art history, music and literature. Two of my tour companions who had once lived in Rome and Florence tutored me on the fine points of classical and Renaissance art. Another couple from Medford, Ore., both retired music teachers, invited me to attend a chamber music concert in Venice. In a more programmed tour, I might have missed those opportunities altogether.
In the ever-expanding and competitive European tour industry, Steves’ My Way idea offers a way for travelers seeking a compromise between fact-laden lectures and go-it-alone touring. Indeed, Steves seems to have discovered a novel way of travel that will only enhance the appeal of his already successful tours. Ever the shrewd marketer, Steves seems fully cognizant of that niche. “Our target market is any free spirit who’d like independent tours,” he explained. Annually, Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door takes 12,000 Americans a year through Europe on 500 tours following about 40 itineraries. Already, staffers I spoke to anticipate more Europe My Way tours in the near future.
My own Italian tour covered such familiar destinations as Venice, Verona, Florence, Assisi, and Rome — and outlying Lake Como towns such as Bellagio and Menaggio, as well as Monterosso and Vernazza in Italy’s Cinque Terre. Robyn Stencil, our capable tour escort—herself fluent in Italian and a former study abroad student in Italy—shepherded us through the maze of hotel and ground travel logistics, and provided daily suggestions on places to visit and dine.
For Doug Croft and his wife, Susan, of San Jose who I accompanied on a cruise to Murano and Burano on my first day, the tour meant not having to worry about finding a hotel or means of ground transportation. “Every time we passed by a ‘follow-me group’ and an umbrella held high, we were thankful that we were not on that type of tour,” Doug Croft said. “We loved having the logistics, driving and lodging taken care of while having the freedom to set our own itinerary in the cities and towns we visited.”
Don Wiley and his wife Rosie, from Nashville, Tennessee, were equally enthusiastic about their Italy experience. For them, and other tour participants, getting to know other tour members, even without being constantly together, was one of the tour’s highlights.
“We were 28 total strangers from across the U.S. with one common interest: a curiosity and appreciation of diverse cultures and their legacy,” he said. “Each one respected their differences and delighted in their commonality, and saddened to separate after 13 very inspiring days.”
If the experience of my own fellow Italy travelers is any accurate measure, then Steves is definitely on to another winning formula for European adventures.
This story originally was published by the International Examiner, a Crosscut partner, and is reprinted with permission.