Pizza, Pasta & More With An Insight Italy Tour

20 February 2015

There’s much to be said for a guided coach tour through Italy. With accommodation, sightseeing and activities organised in advance, you’ll have plenty of stress-free time to enjoy the dolce vita.

And on Insight Vacations' nine-day ‘Country Roads of Umbria and Tuscany’ tour, you even get the chance to meet entertaining locals and discover hidden highlights away from the tourist crowds.

The gorgeous Italian countryside that scrolls past your coach windows is a highlight on this tour: olive groves and sunflower fields, hilltop towns and medieval villages.

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When In Rome

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But you could hardly start in a better place than Rome, whose piazzas have been designed by the likes of Michelangelo, palaces are home to popes and princes, and you might have a sense of déjà vu thanks to the movies.

A visit is more than just a wander through a glorious past and world-class art, however. Modern Rome is dynamic, chic and full of fashion boutiques, lively cafés and gelato bars.

Arrive early for the start of your holiday if you can, because there’s a lot to see.

 A tour group on the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice (Brian Johnston)

You could start at the Colosseum, but the whole city is dotted with aqueducts, ruined temples and triumphal arches from its ancient heyday; the Forum and Palatine Hill are other highlights. Don’t miss the huge dome of the second-century Pantheon, final resting place of many famed Italians, where light filters on to the coloured marble floors below.

The Pantheon faces baroque-era Piazza Navona, a fashionable café hangout overlooked by a magnificent fountain by Bernini.

Your first official Insight Vacations event is an evening get-together in a restaurant just off the piazza, where you can meet fellow travellers while being serenaded by an opera singer.

If you aren’t too jetlagged, go for an evening walk afterwards. The surrounding quarter is one of Rome’s loveliest, and its illuminated Renaissance buildings and statue-studded squares are magical – and still lively – at night.

 The spiral staircase by Bramante (Brian Johnston)

In the morning, your tour group is off to the Vatican Museums, which hold a vast collection of some of Europe’s best art. Some 20,000 visitors arrive every day, but you avoid the snaking, two-hour queue with special-access passes.

Rooms are crammed with wonderful Etruscan pottery, Greek statues and flamboyant canvasses depicting battles and Biblical scenes. You’re given privileged access to a corkscrewing staircase designed by pioneering Renaissance architect Bramante, which provides sweeping views over the rooftops of Rome.

The highlight, though, is surely the Sistine Chapel, so luminously beautiful that even the tourist crowds fall silent.


Find out about Venice. Incredibly Beautiful Venice

Some Top Facts About Rome Some Fun Trivia About Rome


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Country Roads

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By late morning, you’re heading out of Rome on a roomy coach. A countryside of olive groves and yellow villas arrives quickly.

An hour and a half later, Orvieto looms on a rocky crag. You take a lift and pop out on the sunny ramparts of this medieval old town, renowned for its improbable zebra-striped cathedral, whose façade erupts in pink marble and statues of saints and imps.

Lunch is at Zeppelin Restaurant with local chef Lorenzo Polegri, a bald, bearded Led Zeppelin fan with a great line in patter. He gives a quick pasta-making demonstration – a kilo of flour, 13 eggs and a pinch of salt ‘for wisdom’ – and invites his guests to try local porchetta. ‘A bite of prochetta in the morning will transform your day,’ he says of the crunchy-skinned pork that tastes of wild fennel and pepper.

‘You have to be prepared to put on weight, it’s one of the side effects of travelling in Italy,’ Lorenzo might warn as he waves you off towards Perugia. It’s another lovely hilltop town, where a guide takes you though medieval streets.

 Lorenzo Polegri works his magic (Brian Johnston)

Gothic Palazzo dei Priori, built in 1297, is fabulous, studded with heraldic crests and elaborate woodwork.

Later, you’ll discover that the university town has good jazz bars and restaurants. Not all meals are included in the itinerary, which means that, on nights like this, you can set forth at your own pace and discover a neighbourhood pizzeria or street-corner café from which to stickybeak on the passing locals.

Across the valley, Assisi is the region’s most famous town, where many pilgrims come to pray at the tomb of St Francis.

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Papal Fortress

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The town dates back to Roman times and is crowned by a whopping papal fortress. Nearby, the tour stops at the family-run olive farm of Manuele Rigani, who tends 5,000 trees bearing three types of olive.

As you learn about the oil-making process, Manuele’s mother flips bread on an open fire, serving it up dripping with the freshest olive oil you’re likely to taste.

This Insight tour is good at blending famous sights with free time and such personal, signature experiences.

Over the next few days you’ll explore famous Tuscan towns such as Siena and Florence on informative guided tours, but also stop off at wine cellars and villages to wander about, shop and encounter locals.

In San Gimignano, you’ll meet world-champion gelato maker Sergio Dondoli – and try his creations, such as sour cherry and Amaretto ice cream.

 Sergio Dondoli knows all there is to know about gelato (Brian Johnston)

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Afloat In Venice

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Venice is the final stop on the tour. With so much to admire, you’re straight into a guided tour of the highlights of the floating city from the moment you arrive.

St Mark’s Square is filled with cafés where pianos tinkle, while St Mark’s basilica and the doge’s palace wink with golden mosaics.

The city is a fabulous concoction of church domes, ornate palaces and Gothic towers, knitted together by humpbacked bridges. Views up and down the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge are brilliant, but you’ll give your camera a workout wherever you look.

 St Mark's Square (Brian Johnston)

In the afternoon, the tour group clambers into gondolas for a float down secluded canals overlooked by pastel-coloured palaces, smart hotels and apartment blocks where washing flaps at windows.

As the gondoliers burst into song, it’s every stereotype of Venice come to life, but it’s hard not to be seduced. Onlookers lean over bridge parapets in envy as the gondolas float along under Canaletto skies.

Gorgeous buildings crumble, seagulls drift, and you’ll know this is a moment to remember.

Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.