A private tour of Italy — Touring Lazio and Campania

This article appears on page 6 of the January 2009 issue.
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The Vatican’s Piazza San Pietro as seen from St. Peter’s Basilica.

by Beth Habian, Features Editor

Ask tour guide Marie Rizziello to sum up Italy in a few words and you’re bound to hear, “It’s the center of the universe.”

While you may or may not agree with her (not that Marie particularly cares, as she states this as fact, not opinion), it is this absolute passion for the country she now calls home that makes traveling with her such an interesting experience.

I first traveled with Marie to northern Italy for my birthday in 1999, and I was captivated by her casual, traveling-with-a-friend style of touring. So I was thrilled when I was invited to be a guest of Treasures of Italy — the company she and her husband, Bill Horn, run from their home in Asti — for a September ’08 tour of the Lazio and Campania regions.

Beginning in Rome

While this was my fourth trip to Italy, I had never before made it to Rome. As we drove into the city at night in the pouring rain, I was jet-lagged and half asleep when I glimpsed a beautiful marble sculpture of a hulking Roman god dramatically lit from underneath. Then there was another and another.

I love the expressive face of Bernini’s elephant, which bears the obelisk of Santa Maria sopra Minerva on its back.

It seemed everywhere I looked there was a colossal statue, a sky-soaring column, an ornately carved façade — all accented by raindrops glittering in the city lights. I was now wide awake.

Our hotel for the first four nights was less monumental in scale, its discreet entrance blending in with the shops and restaurants lining the Via del Corso, but the location of Hotel Regno (www.hotelregno.com) was fantastic.

We would spend our time in Rome without the Mercedes van that would serve as our means of transportation on the rest of the tour, having parked it at the hotel’s sister property a bit outside of the center of the city. The Regno’s proximity to the major sites — less than a 5-minute walk in one direction to the Pantheon and, in the other direction, the Trevi Fountain — made it easy to explore the city on foot.

My room was pleasant, with plenty of storage, but the highlight was its terrace. It was wonderful, after a full day of sightseeing, to sit outside and drink in the incredible view of the rooftops of Rome.

The staff there was another huge plus. They realize that their boutique hotel might not compare to some of the more lavish (and expensive) properties in the city, but they pride themselves on the personal attention they give to their guests. Staying there felt more like staying with friends.

City sights

Rome is chock-full of marvels and masterpieces, and our schedule successfully included most of the highlights. Our group was small (just Marie, myself and the husband and wife for whom this tour was designed), so the itinerary was somewhat flexible, but we packed in as much as was comfortable to make the most of our time there.

Rome’s Pantheon was built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian on the site of the original Pantheon, which was destroyed by fire in AD 80.

What I found fascinating about this ancient city was the sheer number of things there are to see. History rears its head in every street and alleyway.

Exiting the hotel and rounding the corner, one of the first things we stumbled upon was an amazing colonnade, the remains of the second-century Temple of Hadrian, now part of the building that houses the Stock Exchange and the Chamber of Commerce.

Continuing down a side street, we came to the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola and its brilliantly colorful Baroque ceiling, the painted figures seeming to tumble from the sky. A few blocks more and — Bang! — the Pantheon.

If that weren’t enough to make my art-history-loving heart burst, we continued up the next block to behold Bernini’s “Pulcino della Minerva,” a striking sculpture of an elephant supporting one of the 11 Egyptian obelisks that dot the city.

We’d been out for less than a half hour and I could have stopped there and been fulfilled, but there was so much more to see.

After three full days in Rome, I felt like I’d completed an entire 2-week tour. Three hundred photos later, I made a final visit to the Trevi Fountain. Standing with my back to the water, right hand over left shoulder, I threw in the coin that I hope will bring me back one day to this remarkable place.

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Before leaving Oregon for Italy, I talked with a woman in the airport who had recently returned from an extended stay. When she found out I was going to be visiting Pompeii, she suggested I skip it if I could, describing it as “just a pile of rubble.” I’m glad I stuck to the schedule.

The ruins of Pompeii’s Forum, with Mt. Vesuvius clearly visible in the background.

Yes, most of the buildings open to visitors are in ruins. There are a few, like the town brothel, that have been reconstructed, but it was the site as a whole that impressed me most.

The streets, paved with the original cobbles that still bear the indentations of wear from chariot wheels, are lined with the remains of building after building, all coming together to form the suggestion of a city that was much larger than I had expected. Our excellent local guide, Enrico, helped to stimulate the imagination, providing a picture of day-to-day life in Pompeii.

Nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano) was an interesting contrast. While Pompeii was covered in ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, most of the ancient city of Herculaneum was buried by volcanic mud, which effectively provided an airtight seal over the city. Thus this site, while much smaller than Pompeii, is better preserved, not to mention much less crowded with visitors.

In the modern city of Pompei, we spent the night at Hotel Amleto (www.hotelamleto.it), another nice choice of accommodation, located in the town center. My room, a junior suite, was absolutely lovely, and the hotel’s rooftop terrace looked like a wonderful place to spend a summer evening. (By the time of our visit, it was closed for the season.)

The town itself was charming and quiet, with a number of shops — many carrying quality coral and cameo pieces for which the area is known — plus bakeries featuring display cases filled with delectable sweets.

The Amalfi Coast

Our view of Taverna del Capitano as we departed by private boat for the island of Capri.

Often associated with the rich and famous, our next stop, the Amalfi Coast, was another surprising experience. I found visits to Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano and the island of Capri to be enjoyable, albeit full of tourists and shopping venues, but I absolutely fell in love with what would be our home for the next three nights, the small fishing village of Marina del Cantone.

It is the kind of place where everyone knows or is related to everyone else. It’s a laid-back beach town where the tiny local shop sells colorful towels, flip-flops and leather sandals made to order. It also happens to be home to a first-class restaurant and hotel, Taverna del Capitano (www.tavernadelcapitano.it).

This beautiful hotel on the bay is family run, with sister Mariella serving as host and adviser and brother Alfonso as the talented and innovative chef. Following a meal that is spectacularly presented and prepared, often with a bit of whimsy (be careful when ordering “the small”; it’s not!), what could be better than falling asleep to the soothing sound of water lapping the shore just outside the balcony? I did not want to leave.

The lake

Marie had told me that she saved our last destination, Lago Bracciano, for the end of the tour, as all her guests swoon over the accommodation there.

The beautiful grounds and pool at Villa Clementina.

While, much of the time, a hotel is simply a hotel, a place to store your bags and rest your head at night, some properties are destinations in themselves. In this regard, Villa Clem­entina (www.hotelvillaclementina.it) did not disappoint.

A secluded residence, again family owned, this was a delightful place that reminded me of the vine-covered cottages of California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. With only seven rooms, it had more of a guest house feel. But I think the reason so many fall in love with it is not because of the property, while lovely, but the proprietors.

Clementina, after whom the villa is named, is the epitome of classic Italian elegance, and her husband, Fausto, is a force of nature! Absolutely animated, charming and casually fluent in several languages, he’d whisk into a room — filling it with life — attend to each of his guests, put some John Lee Hooker on the CD player and float back out.

We were lucky enough to have Fausto accompany us on a tour of the nearby Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri. Fascinated with the Etruscan civilization, Fausto has done much research on the history of the people and was able to bring this city of the dead to life through his impassioned elucidation. Quite a memorable way to end our tour!

The company

Treasures of Italy offers private tours for up to eight passengers. Each is led by Marie, who has been running tours there since 1983. She and Bill relocated from California to the Piemonte region in 1995 and have established solid relationships with their vendors. Everywhere we went, she was greeted like family rather than a tour guide, which translates to more personal service for her guests.

Detail from one of the sculptures that adorns the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, a huge, white marble monument that stands between Rome's Piazza Venezia and Capitoline Hill.

While Marie has a well-rounded comprehension of the areas visited, tours with Treasures of Italy are not necessarily laden with historical dates and facts. The real benefit of this type of tour is the ability to see what you want, when you want, in an unrushed fashion and with a huge dollop of local insight.

Herself a chef, Marie takes food seriously, and I found the restaurants on this trip to be well selected, with special attention paid to the foods typical for each region. One meal, at La Situla in Pompei, featured dishes of pasta, fish and shellfish bathed in delicately seasoned sauces that went beyond being mere food. The multiple-course meal was, to borrow a phrase from Marie, “a gift from God.”

For Italians, food is an integral part of the culture, and Marie is familiar with the dos and don’ts of dining etiquette there. She tries hard to educate those unfamiliar with the customs to keep them from possibly embarrassing themselves or unwittingly insulting their hosts.

(For example, dipping your bread in olive oil poured onto a plate may be a signature of upscale restaurants in the US, but in Italy it is a sign of poor manners. On the other hand, sopping up the wonderful sauce left on your plate is perfectly acceptable if not encouraged.)

If you arrive with an open mind and a willingness to learn, you will be well rewarded. However, if you hold fast to Americanized stereotypes, be prepared for what might be a rude awakening.

Tour prices vary depending on the number of passengers and the destinations selected. The all-inclusive land price for this 11-day itinerary, based on four passengers, is €7,750 ($9,761) per couple. (Returning customers receive a 5% discount.) Per-person prices for singles may be slightly higher to account for higher room rates.

The price includes Marie’s personalized service, available 24 hours a day; airport transfers; accommodation; all ground transportation; all admissions to sites; local guides; all breakfasts; one lunch, with wine, and nine dinners, with wine.

For more information, contact Treasures of Italy (Via M. Prandone 24, 14100 Asti, Italia; phone [toll-free from the US] 800/409-4103, http://treasuresofitaly.com).

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
The Vatican’s Piazza San Pietro as seen from St. Peter’s Basilica.

by Beth Habian, Features Editor

Ask tour guide Marie Rizziello to sum up Italy in a few words and you’re bound to hear, “It’s the center of the universe.”

While you may or may not agree with her (not that Marie particularly cares, as she states this as fact, not opinion), it is this absolute passion for the country she now calls home that makes traveling with her such an interesting experience.

I first traveled with Marie to northern Italy for my birthday in 1999, and I was captivated by her casual, traveling-with-a-friend style of touring. So I was thrilled when I was invited to be a guest of Treasures of Italy — the company she and her husband, Bill Horn, run from their home in Asti — for a September ’08 tour of the Lazio and Campania regions.

Beginning in Rome

While this was my fourth trip to Italy, I had never before made it to Rome. As we drove into the city at night in the pouring rain, I was jet-lagged and half asleep when I glimpsed a beautiful marble sculpture of a hulking Roman god dramatically lit from underneath. Then there was another and another.

I love the expressive face of Bernini’s elephant, which bears the obelisk of Santa Maria sopra Minerva on its back.

It seemed everywhere I looked there was a colossal statue, a sky-soaring column, an ornately carved façade — all accented by raindrops glittering in the city lights. I was now wide awake.

Our hotel for the first four nights was less monumental in scale, its discreet entrance blending in with the shops and restaurants lining the Via del Corso, but the location of Hotel Regno (www.hotelregno.com) was fantastic.

We would spend our time in Rome without the Mercedes van that would serve as our means of transportation on the rest of the tour, having parked it at the hotel’s sister property a bit outside of the center of the city. The Regno’s proximity to the major sites — less than a 5-minute walk in one direction to the Pantheon and, in the other direction, the Trevi Fountain — made it easy to explore the city on foot.

My room was pleasant, with plenty of storage, but the highlight was its terrace. It was wonderful, after a full day of sightseeing, to sit outside and drink in the incredible view of the rooftops of Rome.

The staff there was another huge plus. They realize that their boutique hotel might not compare to some of the more lavish (and expensive) properties in the city, but they pride themselves on the personal attention they give to their guests. Staying there felt more like staying with friends.

City sights

Rome is chock-full of marvels and masterpieces, and our schedule successfully included most of the highlights. Our group was small (just Marie, myself and the husband and wife for whom this tour was designed), so the itinerary was somewhat flexible, but we packed in as much as was comfortable to make the most of our time there.

Rome’s Pantheon was built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian on the site of the original Pantheon, which was destroyed by fire in AD 80.

What I found fascinating about this ancient city was the sheer number of things there are to see. History rears its head in every street and alleyway.

Exiting the hotel and rounding the corner, one of the first things we stumbled upon was an amazing colonnade, the remains of the second-century Temple of Hadrian, now part of the building that houses the Stock Exchange and the Chamber of Commerce.

Continuing down a side street, we came to the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola and its brilliantly colorful Baroque ceiling, the painted figures seeming to tumble from the sky. A few blocks more and — Bang! — the Pantheon.

If that weren’t enough to make my art-history-loving heart burst, we continued up the next block to behold Bernini’s “Pulcino della Minerva,” a striking sculpture of an elephant supporting one of the 11 Egyptian obelisks that dot the city.

We’d been out for less than a half hour and I could have stopped there and been fulfilled, but there was so much more to see.

After three full days in Rome, I felt like I’d completed an entire 2-week tour. Three hundred photos later, I made a final visit to the Trevi Fountain. Standing with my back to the water, right hand over left shoulder, I threw in the coin that I hope will bring me back one day to this remarkable place.

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Before leaving Oregon for Italy, I talked with a woman in the airport who had recently returned from an extended stay. When she found out I was going to be visiting Pompeii, she suggested I skip it if I could, describing it as “just a pile of rubble.” I’m glad I stuck to the schedule.

The ruins of Pompeii’s Forum, with Mt. Vesuvius clearly visible in the background.

Yes, most of the buildings open to visitors are in ruins. There are a few, like the town brothel, that have been reconstructed, but it was the site as a whole that impressed me most.

The streets, paved with the original cobbles that still bear the indentations of wear from chariot wheels, are lined with the remains of building after building, all coming together to form the suggestion of a city that was much larger than I had expected. Our excellent local guide, Enrico, helped to stimulate the imagination, providing a picture of day-to-day life in Pompeii.

Nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano) was an interesting contrast. While Pompeii was covered in ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, most of the ancient city of Herculaneum was buried by volcanic mud, which effectively provided an airtight seal over the city. Thus this site, while much smaller than Pompeii, is better preserved, not to mention much less crowded with visitors.

In the modern city of Pompei, we spent the night at Hotel Amleto (www.hotelamleto.it), another nice choice of accommodation, located in the town center. My room, a junior suite, was absolutely lovely, and the hotel’s rooftop terrace looked like a wonderful place to spend a summer evening. (By the time of our visit, it was closed for the season.)

The town itself was charming and quiet, with a number of shops — many carrying quality coral and cameo pieces for which the area is known — plus bakeries featuring display cases filled with delectable sweets.

The Amalfi Coast

Our view of Taverna del Capitano as we departed by private boat for the island of Capri.

Often associated with the rich and famous, our next stop, the Amalfi Coast, was another surprising experience. I found visits to Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano and the island of Capri to be enjoyable, albeit full of tourists and shopping venues, but I absolutely fell in love with what would be our home for the next three nights, the small fishing village of Marina del Cantone.

It is the kind of place where everyone knows or is related to everyone else. It’s a laid-back beach town where the tiny local shop sells colorful towels, flip-flops and leather sandals made to order. It also happens to be home to a first-class restaurant and hotel, Taverna del Capitano (www.tavernadelcapitano.it).

This beautiful hotel on the bay is family run, with sister Mariella serving as host and adviser and brother Alfonso as the talented and innovative chef. Following a meal that is spectacularly presented and prepared, often with a bit of whimsy (be careful when ordering “the small”; it’s not!), what could be better than falling asleep to the soothing sound of water lapping the shore just outside the balcony? I did not want to leave.

The lake

Marie had told me that she saved our last destination, Lago Bracciano, for the end of the tour, as all her guests swoon over the accommodation there.

The beautiful grounds and pool at Villa Clementina.

While, much of the time, a hotel is simply a hotel, a place to store your bags and rest your head at night, some properties are destinations in themselves. In this regard, Villa Clem­entina (www.hotelvillaclementina.it) did not disappoint.

A secluded residence, again family owned, this was a delightful place that reminded me of the vine-covered cottages of California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. With only seven rooms, it had more of a guest house feel. But I think the reason so many fall in love with it is not because of the property, while lovely, but the proprietors.

Clementina, after whom the villa is named, is the epitome of classic Italian elegance, and her husband, Fausto, is a force of nature! Absolutely animated, charming and casually fluent in several languages, he’d whisk into a room — filling it with life — attend to each of his guests, put some John Lee Hooker on the CD player and float back out.

We were lucky enough to have Fausto accompany us on a tour of the nearby Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri. Fascinated with the Etruscan civilization, Fausto has done much research on the history of the people and was able to bring this city of the dead to life through his impassioned elucidation. Quite a memorable way to end our tour!

The company

Treasures of Italy offers private tours for up to eight passengers. Each is led by Marie, who has been running tours there since 1983. She and Bill relocated from California to the Piemonte region in 1995 and have established solid relationships with their vendors. Everywhere we went, she was greeted like family rather than a tour guide, which translates to more personal service for her guests.

Detail from one of the sculptures that adorns the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, a huge, white marble monument that stands between Rome's Piazza Venezia and Capitoline Hill.

While Marie has a well-rounded comprehension of the areas visited, tours with Treasures of Italy are not necessarily laden with historical dates and facts. The real benefit of this type of tour is the ability to see what you want, when you want, in an unrushed fashion and with a huge dollop of local insight.

Herself a chef, Marie takes food seriously, and I found the restaurants on this trip to be well selected, with special attention paid to the foods typical for each region. One meal, at La Situla in Pompei, featured dishes of pasta, fish and shellfish bathed in delicately seasoned sauces that went beyond being mere food. The multiple-course meal was, to borrow a phrase from Marie, “a gift from God.”

For Italians, food is an integral part of the culture, and Marie is familiar with the dos and don’ts of dining etiquette there. She tries hard to educate those unfamiliar with the customs to keep them from possibly embarrassing themselves or unwittingly insulting their hosts.

(For example, dipping your bread in olive oil poured onto a plate may be a signature of upscale restaurants in the US, but in Italy it is a sign of poor manners. On the other hand, sopping up the wonderful sauce left on your plate is perfectly acceptable if not encouraged.)

If you arrive with an open mind and a willingness to learn, you will be well rewarded. However, if you hold fast to Americanized stereotypes, be prepared for what might be a rude awakening.

Tour prices vary depending on the number of passengers and the destinations selected. The all-inclusive land price for this 11-day itinerary, based on four passengers, is €7,750 ($9,761) per couple. (Returning customers receive a 5% discount.) Per-person prices for singles may be slightly higher to account for higher room rates.

The price includes Marie’s personalized service, available 24 hours a day; airport transfers; accommodation; all ground transportation; all admissions to sites; local guides; all breakfasts; one lunch, with wine, and nine dinners, with wine.

For more information, contact Treasures of Italy (Via M. Prandone 24, 14100 Asti, Italia; phone [toll-free from the US] 800/409-4103, http://treasuresofitaly.com).