About this site
This site is primarily about our Rick Steves tours of Paris and Italy but it covers the entire trip, including preparation, and activities before, between and after the tours. A few points to note:
All the photos are mine or Mimi's. There are many stock photos of Europe, but those in this site are our own pics, describing our experience.
This is a "living document" about vacation experiences with Rick Steves tours. We may add more memories in the future. If we go on another Rick Steves tour, we will consider adding more content (possibly changing the site name).
One of the ways I hope to improve the site is by testing it for cellphones. I wasn't able to do that for this first iteration. I may need to sync text and photos and compress pics so they take less time/memory to view.
Planning the trip
Mimi and I started planning about a year before our trip. This would be our first trip to Europe (or anywhere beyond the States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. We planned to go with our ex-sister-in-law, Alice. (We had stayed good friends with her after she and Mimi's brother divorced.)
I was sort of in charge of the research but ran everything by Mimi and Alice. The first decision was whether to just plan our own tour without a professional guide. Fortunately, we decided that would be too onerous: We needed too much advice; there were too many decisions and choices.
We considered river cruises and guided tours. Mimi felt that river cruises would be too constrained, and we wouldn't have enough control of our time. We looked into Go Ahead Tours, Road Scholars, and Rick Steves. Mimi had seen Rick Steves on TV.
I reviewed the Rick Steves site. One thing I was most impressed with was the Tour Forum. I could ask any question and get quite a few answers that same day. That really helped us. I even asked if anyone had been on both Road Scholar and Rick Steves tours, and I got positive, useful feedback on both. That unfiltered honesty was part of what sold me on Rick Steves.
Trip to England
Fish and chips on Brighton pier
Brighton sunset from the pier
It was in Brighton that I had my first incident of forgetfulness. We ate at an unmemorable restaurant on the pier, then took a leisurely walk back to the street. The train station wasn't too far, but since we had just eaten, were a bit tired, we caught a cab. When we got back to the train station, right after we exited the cab, I realized I had left my bag somewhere. This bags had some favorite books, my sketch pencils and pens, sketchpad, and other important things. More on this in "Tour of Laughter and Forgetting..."
England was just a stop on the way to our tours, but we wanted to enjoy every moment of the trip. We spent a night flying from Austin to Gatwick Airport on Norwegian (they had a direct flight). The Gatwick Hilton is a very short walk from the airport, virtually connected to it.
We took a long nap that first day. There's really not much in Gatwick, so we took a brief train ride to Brighton in the evening. The train station is also right next to the airport. Brighton is a beach town and kind of touristy. It's on the south end of England, and we happened to be there on a night when the moon was rising at the same time the sun was setting.
We arrived in Paris a day early, got to enjoy an extra day on our own. We had booked that extra day months ahead at the Hotel Duquesne Eiffel, the one in which we spent the entire Paris Rick Steves tour. It's a very stylish, cozy little hotel near the Eiffel Tower. I have no idea why we were so lucky, but we scored a room on the 3rd floor with a wonderful view of the tower! The hotel and room are very special memories for us.
We enjoyed having morning coffee in front of the hotel.
I walked half way up the Eiffel Tower the day before the tour began (it wasn't included). The architecture and design of the structure is mind-boggling, very ingenious, very artistic. You experience a breath-taking view of the city from that half-way vantage point.
Our Rick Steves tour of Paris
The tour of Paris focused on the history and culture of Paris and the French people. It was a great deal to absorb, covering literally thousands of years.
Find out more about Rick Steves Best of Paris in 7 Days Tour
I've always been especially attracted to modern and contemporary art, but as our tour progressed, I began to appreciate medieval and Renaissance art more and more.
What I most appreciated about both of our tours were the guides. I can't say enough about them. Antoine was a French native and a history buff. He gave us many insights about the history and culture of the country.
On our first or second day out, Antoine explained in detail how to navigate the Paris subway, which covers almost all of the city and is a very efficient way to get around.
Some sculptures that seemed to explode out of a relief mode, become animated...
One of my favorite paintings (and stories) was of the Martyrdom of Saint Denis, who, according to legend, picked up his decapitated head and carried it several miles down the street to where he wanted it buried.
The intact heads of tourists at the bottom of the photo give some sense of the size of the work. This painting was one of the "youngest" in the museum: St. Denis lived in the 13th century, but Leon Bonnat painted during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The artwork in the Pantheon spans many centuries. It includes huge marble sculptures and vivid paintings.
The Sainte Chapelle Cathedral
This church was designed with the most enormous, amazing stained glass windows you will ever see. You can read about the construction and other details at this site, http://www.sainte-chapelle.fr/en/, and as always, in the Rick Steves Paris book. The windows depict stories from the Bible.
"Built in seven years, an impressive feat, the Sainte Chapelle was intended to house precious Christian relics, including Christ's crown of thorns, acquired by Saint Louis." The crown was later moved to Notre Dame.
Right: St. Chapelle at entrance to cathedral.
Mimi's comment: "I've got news for you! There will never be a Saint Bill!"
The Louvre was originally a castle, then became a palace for French kings, then morphed into a huge museum. Laid out in a U-shape, with 3 wings and several floors, it displays ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Etruscan works. (Our tour focused on ancient Rome to the Renaissance; the museum has much more to offer, if you have the time.)
There is an intensity to Michelangelo's Prisoners trying to escape from the stone.
This pre-Renaissance piece by Giovanni Tedesco of St. Lawrence is sculptures are interesting, but static.
One of my favorite pre-Renaissance sculptures is St. Paul by Allemagne. It is also rather rigid, compared to Michelangelo's more dynamic style.
There's no requirement that you participate in any part of the tour (unless of course you're traveling to another town and hotel). The agenda on the 5th day was to visit Versailles. Personally, I'd had enough of castles and medieval art. I hadn't seen a Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, or any contemporary art yet. So I decided to visit the Pompidou, which was not on our itinerary, though we had passes. Since we'd been taught to use the subway, I had no trouble getting there.
This modern and contemporary art museum was one of the best I've seen, comparable to MOMA in New York.
A Zen-like solitude made this outdoor water garden with wonderful sculptures a special space.
The term "surreal" is overused these days and seems to have lost its meaning. I've always been intrigued by the Surrealist Movement, partly due to an interest in Jungian psychology. These surrealist works all fascinated me, and I'd like to learn more about Judit Reigl and Simon Hantai.
I'd also like to know more about Bernard Requichot, who appears to be rather obscure
I love this Picasso: Is it unfininished, or does he want the viewer to fill in the colors? Or do the gaps heighten the emphasis on the face?
Unfortunately, I didn't record the artist but hope someone will help me; this piece to the left fascinates me.
The tour group told me Versailles was spectacular, and that I really missed out. But I was glad that I customized my tour just a bit and discovered the Pompidou!
The d'Orsay Museum was definitely one our favorite events. It was a railway station built around 1900 with a high, long arched ceiling.
The local guide led us through the pre-Impressionist, Impressionist, and post-Impressionist periods chronologically. She used the artwork to explain the character and evolution of each period.
Probably my favorite piece was The Floor Scrapers, by Gustave Caillebote. The painting captures an ordinary task in such a unique and artistic way.
I'm certainly not qualified to judge the curators, but don't you think the frame is a bit ornate for the subject matter?
Renoir's Child with Cat is such a pleasing portrait: The girl is meditative; the cat is enraptured.
I don't know anything about Redon but I found the room full of his large paintings stunning.
I had seen reproductions of this Van Gogh many times. It was a real treat to see the original.
Farewell to Paris
This introduction to Paris made us hungry for more. I've read that the city has more art museums than any other in the world. We'd especially like to spend more time in the Montmartre area, where Van Gogh and his brother and many other artists lived.
We booked an Airbnb apartment in Rome for a few days between the Paris and Italy tours. We mainly used the time just to recuperate, wash clothes.
I had booked an inner city wine tour in the Trastevere area of Rome through Tripadvisor. Trastevere has a kind of earthy, decadent feel to it. The event was fun: We were able to drink a lot of decent wine with some good appetizers. The tour guide was not bad; he was from easter Europe and had been in Rome a few years as a student. However, he was definitely not of the quality of any of the Rick Steves guides. This helped me realize that we had made the right choice in not trying to organize our own trip.
The square where we started and finished the wine tour was the Campo de' Fiori. A statue of Giordano Bruno, a famous intellectual who was burned at the stake for heretical views in 1600, sits in the middle to emphasize the rather anti-establishment bent of this neighborhood.
In a perfect ending to this mini-tour, a duo was playing a good version of a Pink Floyd song, adding to the off-the-grid feel of the place.
Music in the square
One stop on our wine tour
Our Rick Steves tour of Italy
We began the Rick Steves tour of Italy tour in the Hotel Museum right next to the Vatican in Rome.
Find out more about Rick Steves Heart of Italy in 9 Days Tour.
The Vatican was my least favorite part of the trip. It was extremely crowded on the day we went, and we did not have a tour guide. Our main guide, Colleen, said they have tried it both ways, so this varies from tour to tour. Some tour groups were very pushy. I include no pictures of it. I was looking forward to seeing Michelangelo's Creation of Adam but found it difficult to look straight up at the ceiling when we were packed into the room like sardines.
This might have been just a personal reaction due to my aversion to large crowds. I'm sure others have had (and will have) an amazing experience there. I have plenty of other great memories, so this was no sacrifice for me. It had no impact on my appreciation for the entire Italy tour.
I generally avoid long tours of ruins. I get bored; maybe I don't have the right imagination to envision the original site. However, the day we visited the Coloseum, we had one of our two favorite local guides, Hilaria (more about her under The Tour Guides). She made the event quite interesting, describing the construction, the seating arrangement of various classes, the "bathroom arrangements" (a big problem, with all the drinking) in the original building, the current renovation and excavation of some areas. She said she liked the movie Gladiator and discussed what was accurate and what was exaggerated. Hilaria was able to bring the Coloseum to life!
The Cerasi Chapel
For me, the small Cerasi Chapel was of the most memorable experiences I had in Rome. I'd been reading Carravagio, by Francine Prose, which I recommend: It gave me a deep appreciation for this artist's work. I was hoping to see his paintings in a relaxed setting where I could study the lighting and details. Cerasi was a small, beautiful chapel with few visitors at the time. Two of Carravagio's great works, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter rose up about 16 feet in a secluded angular area.
The pictures on this site capture the paintings better than I could: https://caravaggio.org/
On the third day of our Italy tour, we took a bus trip to Volterra. I couldn't imagine how the driver navigated the narrow winding roads, with small vineyards around every curve, to get to this unique, scenic village on the top of a hill.
This was a pleasant, relaxing break from the intensity and crowds of Paris and Rome.
I must give credit to another Rick Steves traveller, Martha Reiff, who so eloquently said this about Prague: "I found Prague so beautiful, with many art nouveau building and typical labyrinthian medieval alleys, walkways and streets. There were surprises and delights around every corner!"
Sorry for the plagiarism, Martha, but Volterra has many of those alleys that date back to the Rennaisance, and to the right is an art nouveau lady who surprise me at the end of one.
I loved the ancient streets of this sleepy, secluded town that was steeped in Italian history, dating back thousands of years. People of Etruscan heritage (whose culture dates back at least to 900 BC) still live there and still despised the Florentines: The Medici family invaded the town during the Renaissance era. Walking the streets, I truly felt like I had traveled in time to the Middle Age.
I was very inspired by this town. Though I'm a novice with watercolor, I was motivated to try and depict these scenes when I returned home: I wanted to memorialize the deep effect the experience had on me.
I would never have experienced many of these extraordinary places had it not been for the tour.
Colleen Murphy, our Italy guide, rushing through Volterra alley
Volterra townscape from a vantagepoint near our hotel
My recent watercolors of Volterra: on the right, the townscape (I imposed a fall tree, since I was also working on those); and below, of Colleen in the alley.
Narrow, winding roads in and around Volterra
Recently, in a Democratic debate for the 2020 election, Pete Butigieg was criticized for having a meeting with millionaires in a "wine cave." Some candidates commented that they'd never been to a wine cave. Mimi and I looked at each other knowingly: We'd been to a wine cave in Volterra!
The wine tasting was a very special event: We learned to experience the beverage with all our senses. I have since found that the Sangiovese grapes are usually just right for me, between sweet and dry, not too much tannins. The Tuscan Brunello, the finest of the wines we tasted, was exquisite. Mimi gave me a bottle for Christmas. The event was both relaxing and educational.
wine expert lecturing on savoring all senses
we experienced the wine with various fine cheeses, prosciutto & carpaccio
We left Volterra to head to Cinque Terre on the west coast of Italy. On the way, we stopped in the town of Lucca for a tour and lunch. This was another town whose Etruscan origins reach back to before the Roman Empire. There were many reminders that the town had a renowned music school.
We passed this street musician and were so impressed, we at lunch across the street so we could enjoy her impressive concert. I captured her in a video playing the keyboard, but large the file might make this Web site cumbersome. Here she is, in Instagram.
We stayed coastal town of Levanto, just north of the Cinque Terre province. You can take the tram from Levanto to most of towns in Cinque Terre that are on the Ligurean Sea.
Since we were near ocean views and beachtowns, this part of the trip was very enjoyable. We walked a lot, but as with Volterra, it was a relief to be out of the crowds. We had some fabulous meals on that were part of the tour. One day, when we were on our own, we looked in the Rick Steves book for restaurants recommended in Levanto. We chose Restorante la Loggia a few blocks from our hotel. It was definitely one of the most delicious meals on our trip. The seafood was so fresh and well-prepared.
Right: Bill's pasta and seafood dish
Left: The aftermath, Bill, happy as a clam
Mimi in Cinque Terre town of Vernazza on a stormy day
Our last stop on the Italy tour was Florence, a beautiful and dramatic finale. This really brought the atmosphere of the Renaissance home. I mentioned in Planning for the trip that I was reading The Agony and the Ecstacy, Irving Stone's biography of Michelangelo. I was anxious to see more of the master's works, as well as those of his teachers and contemporaries.
In route to Florence, we were able to see the marble mines where Michelangelo worked as a boy, and from which he often picked his own stones. These mountains have been a source of marble for hundreds of years.
We spent several days in Florence, and it was not enough. It's a beautiful city, rich with history, colorful cathedrals, amazing architecture, and wonderful cuisine. Our hotel, the Hotel Torre Guelfa was in the center of it all. Any direction you walked was an adventure.
In fact, we also enjoyed the luxury resting in our spacious room in the hotel.
Even the warning signs in Florence are works of art.
The Florence Cathedral, often referred to as the Duomo, is a major landmark and is visible from many points in and around the city. The cathedral was built in the 15th century. Filippo Brunelleschi, a contemporary of Michelangelo's, was the architect.
I was inspired both by the duomo and by street artists who were painting miniatures. I had to try (after I returned home). This is a 3.5" x 3.5" watercolor.
One of the biggest surprises on the trip was the Bargello Museum. It looks like, and used to be, a prison (in the 1500s). But it holds some of the most magnificent sculptures of the Renaissance.
Michelangelo's Bacchus was flawless and beautiful!
Ammannati's style was similar to Michelangelo's
It was a thrill to be introduced to some sculptors I was not familiar with, like Rustici
One of our most inspiring and passionate local guides led us through the many centuries of Roman history and the Renaissance, as represented by art in the Uffizi. It was a crash course in Italian history. It has inspired me to begin The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and also look for great literature on the Renaissance.
The Uffizi also offered a special exhibit of the works of Caravaggio and others influenced by his passionate, innovative style.
No one could represent the horrors of Medusa like Caravaggio, who fled Rome under a murder charge, had various legal and financial problems, was despised by many traditional artists of his time, and spent much of his life on the run.
Caravaggio loved gambling, drinking, prostitutes and sentient pleasures; so Bacchus was also an irresistible subject.
I had anticipated seeing Michelangelo's David from the beginning of the trip. We went to the Accademia the first full day, and that statue met every expectation. The hands of David are exquisite, larger than life, slightly out of proportion, for greater emphasis. Michelangelo may have wanted to capture the skill and precision of David, and by extension, the sculptor, in the hands.
Rick Steves tour guides
The tour guides are the biggest reason I'd recommend Rick Steves tours. On both our tours, they were outstanding. The "main" tour guides, who manage the entire tour, were both very knowledgeable and had a broad range of skills: They had to provide daily agendas, coordinate with local guides, and manage the everyday needs of the group. For example, they ensure everyone had their earphones to hear the lectures in crowded spaces, had museum passes, subway passes, etc. They also had to manage the group meals, gather information on meal options and get the info to the restaurant, since for this size group, chefs needed to prepare ahead. They trained everyone about the "buddy system," so no one got lost. And they handled crisis situations (I'll describe one below). In addition, they need to enjoy being around many types of people and make the tour fun for them, as well as informative.
On our Italy tour, I left my cell phone on the bus that took us up the narrow, winding roads to Volterra. I realized my mistake as we were walking to the hotel. I ran back, but the bus had left. So I ran to the hotel and informed Colleen, our Italy guide. She showed no hesitation, no aggravation: She immediately called the driver. He somehow pulled over, found the cellphone. It was impossible to turn around, so he got it to me via the bus that
The local tour guides are "specialists": They are well vetted, have an abundance of knowledge, and they are usually passionate about their topic. One tour guide mentioned (in a conversation not part of her lecture) that she had tried for 10 years to be approved by Rick Steves tours.
One insight I had that was reinforced throughout the trip was just how comparatively brief our American history is, and how most of us don't develop a deep appreciation of history at a young age. Some cities and towns here are a few hundred years old, but none of us is surrounded by cathedrals, narrow alleys, statues, and gargoyles that date back to the Middle Ages.
I suggest allowing some time for exploration before or after your tour, especially if it's a city tour or if you end up in an area with many sites to visit, like Florence. Paris has such a rich history, so many museums, so much culture. The tour is designed to cover certain parts of the city and certain museums and sites and cover those thoroughly, often with guides who specialize in them. But each of us has our own preferences, and the Rick Steves guidebook will reveal museums or sites with a special appeal to you. And in all the cities, you are given passes to all the museums, not just the ones you visit on the tour.
I would highly recommend a Rick Steves tour, especially for your first visit to any country or major city listed on the Rick Steves Web site. You don't have organize the trip, find good hotels, stand in long lines for museum passes, or figure out how to navigate on your own. And you will learn more than you can absorb; at 72, as a result of the trip, I have a longer list of books and topics to explore than I have years left.
Another advantage is the size of the group: Small enough that you can navigate well together, but large enough that you'll meet people who you want to spend time with. I'm not the most social person; on psychological tests, if it asks whether I'd rather go to a party, read a book, or create artwork, the party comes in last (though I try to not be a grump). But I met people who had similar interests and were fun to be around.
We developed a real bond with some people on our Italy tour
Here is Alice with Diane, one of the special friends we made on the tour