Italy was my mother's dream trip.
She really does not know why, but pins it on years of returning friends and relatives' glowing stories of the peninsular country dripping with history and age-old traditions, richly endowed with Roman ruins and Renaissance art and architecture, lively piazzas and grand thick stone-walled villas, internationally applauded cuisine and exceptional, inexpensive local vinos.
She is not alone. A study conducted last year by The Travel Corporation revealed Italy is the No. 1 European destination on Canadian travellers' wish lists.
Despite the ogling and cat-calling abilities of sometimes too-forward Italian males (or perhaps because of it), Italy is popular with females travelling without men -- mothers and daughters, sisters, girlfriends, even solo.
The reasons it's a girls' getaway favourite are plentiful: its Mediterranean climate, a plethora of beaches, the Italian Riviera; delizioso food and wine; the arts, music, and culture; spas and wellness centres; cooking, cycling, walking and other specialty tours; designer fashions, boutiques and markets, and more.
With mom in her 70s, it was time to bring her dream to life while health and wealth still permitted. We decided to avoid the high, hot summer season (especially August, when Italians flee cities en masse for the beach) for the less busy, temperate fall shoulder season.
Last year, mid-September, we departed for a month-long, largely independent trip, covering much of Italy from Venice in the north to the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples.
Although it would be easier and much less planning work, we decided against a fully escorted group tour, as a previous European coach trip was too rushed and regimented.
What did we love? What did we learn? Here are some of the highlights of northern and central Italy.
The Big 3: Rome, Florence and Venice
Rome and Florence were on our "must" list, Venice on the "really like to, but not sure we have time" list.
Flying direct from Toronto to Rome, it made sense to start here. However, we knew this would be the toughest part of the trip due to jet lag, the language barrier, running the airport touts to find transport without getting ripped off, orienteering around Italy's largest city and enduring the infamous lineups for popular sites like the Vatican, while dealing with the logistics of it all.
This, we decided, was where we'd like some of the services and comfort of a tour.
We found the perfect solution in Monograms, the independent travel division of Globus. The nine-night Rome, Florence and Venice pre-packaged vacation included hotel, breakfast, a half-day group tour of each city (with some must-see attractions), optional add-on excursions, train station transfers and first-class train tickets and a local host for information.
It combined the best of group travel with lots of free time, eliminating hassles and stress.
An unanticipated bonus was becoming friends with others on the same itinerary, especially a mother and her two adult daughters.
In Rome, we also booked a 2.5-hour Urban Adventures "Roman Dolce Vita" walking tour. Local guide Roberta not only took us to city highlights like the boutique-lined Via Condotti, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, but also to locals' favourite espresso and gelato shops.
Evening found us adjacent to the sweeping Spanish Steps dining on the terrace of Il Palazzetto Restaurant and Wine Bar, cosily tucked in a recently renovated 16th-century building (a romantic spot if you're with your sweetie).
The five-course tasting menu of "simple" Italian dishes enhanced with Spanish and Mediterranean flavours, paired with wines, was delicious, with female-sized portions.
Il Palazzetto's outdoor rooftop wine bar, with its ringside view of the Spanish Steps, is a perfect place for ladies to have lunch or enjoy a glass of vino (more than 400 to choose from) and people watch.
We let our gender down when it came to shopping, the fashion boutiques in Rome are tempting, as are the markets in Florence, especially booths spilling affordable, supple, rainbow-coloured leather goods.
However, because we were travelling by train (thus lugging and hoisting luggage -- see tips sidebar), we could buy little. Shoppers should best leave Florence for the end.
Venice, although thronged with tourists, was an unexpected delight; most worthy of every gal's "must" list.
"Just wander and let yourself get lost for a day," advised friend Sue Weston, a frequent visitor.
May as well, we soon enough discovered, as disorientation is almost a certainty in the winding, narrow streets of its six sestiere (districts), which are cut by canals and joined by bridges.
Besides on foot, the only other way to get around is by water. We thought we would pass on the overly touristy, pricey gondolas, but Monograms offered an affordable sunset gondola serenade.
Propelled along the canals by strapping, good-looking gondolier Nichola, we and our female boat mates sang heartily along with charming Michele, astride the main gondola in our little flotilla, who belted, with gusto, famous Italian tunes like That's Amore. It was magical. Offered by several companies, this excursion is well worth the money.
Romeo, oh Romeo, is there an Italian name more conjuring of romance (sigh)?
Mom and I exchanged a delighted smile when a modern-day, rather good-looking Romeo arrived on the doorstep of the warm Cannaviello family's Villa Gaia, our blissful three-night home light years from the noisy, chaotic cities. Perched on a hillside a kilometre from Seggiano in rural Tuscany, the classic, restored country villa is nestled in organic olive groves, Sangiovese vineyards and medieval forest.
With a lopsided grin and flick of long bangs, he introduced himself as Romeo Innocenti, guide, chef and sommelier, part of family business Tuscan Way, specializing in small group cooking vacations and wine tours that immerse guests in Tuscan culture.
Whisking us away for a day of decadent, delectable food and wine tasting, our charming, enthusiastic host quickly made us feel like friends. As we drove the sun-dappled, windy country roads of Tuscany, the car became a classroom as he taught us first about olive types and producing olive oil, before digging into the dirt on wine.
Italians produce more varieties of wine than any other nation, we learned. Tuscany is famous for Chianti, Brunellos, Sangiovese and Super Tuscans along with many other varietals, as well as cheeses like Pienza pecorino.
Our heads abuzz with too many terms, we feared we were among Romeo's dimmest students. We were, however, gung-ho to give our new knowledge a taste test.
Pulling into the farmyard of small, family-owned La Fornace Winery (www.agricola-lafornace.it), we were greeted by happily wagging dog Nina and the Giannetti family -- father Franco, mother Germana, son Fabio and daughter Laura.
After a tour of the flower bedecked 4.5-hectare Sangiovese vineyards and vegetable garden, the cellar tasting room beckoned, dominated by a massive wooden dining table.
La Fornace red wines -- including the region's specialty, Brunello di Montalcino -- and grappa were lined up and ready for tasting.
Born here, third-generation winemaker Fabio explained he learned from his father.
"It was a game and then it became a job."
With a toast, we sat down to a typical Tuscan country luncheon, "la cucina povera Toscana," prepared by mama with fresh, local ingredients: frittata, white Tuscan cannellini beans, grilled eggplant, bruschetta, bresaola (white cow of Tuscany), salami and prosciutto, topped by the farm's own extra virgin olive oil. Akin to the welcoming embrace one feels dining in a friend's home, we immensely enjoyed both wine and food.
Best of all was the authentic slice of Italian life back in the vineyards watching the Giannettis harvesting grapes. For a short while, we were part of an Italian family, not tourists.
After another day of stuffing ourselves, our groaning waistlines desperately cried, "Cease!"
The Adler Thermae Spa Resort in the tiny medieval hamlet of Bagno Vignoni was the ideal place for a health and wellness fix.
Grazie mile Michele, Romeo, the Cannaviellos, the Giannettis and scores of others for making mom's Italia dream perfecto!
-- Postmedia News
Travel tips for women visiting Italy
* Do not drive in Rome or the Amalfi Coast's cliffside road. Hire a driver, take a taxi or bus.
* The Naples train station is a zoo and downtown traffic is crazy. A driver, arranged in advance through our hotel in Positano, was a godsend.
* Trains: We found train travel challenging. Pack one light bag. There is not a luggage rack just inside the doors. You have to hoist it to a rack high over your seat. Also, some stations have stairs.
Train stations in cities, such as Rome, are chaotic. The departure boards indicate on which track your train will arrive. Each car is numbered. If you reserved a seat, the car and seat number will be on your ticket. Sometimes the cars are numbered sequentially front to back, sometimes back to front, which makes getting to the correct car a challenge in the few minutes the train is stopped.
Train stations are not announced except on the Eurostar high-speed train. Read the platform sign as you pull in. Some towns have two stations with the destination name, except one will be followed with "centrali" (central). This is likely the one you want.
If you buy a multi-day pass, read the fine print. You must write the date each time you use it in the tiny boxes on the front, even with a validation stamp and a seat reservation. I forgot once and was fined 50 euros.
Money and security
* Do not buy traveller's cheques, even in euros. Most hotels (even four or five stars) will not cash them. Even a bank refused. Money changers charge a hefty commission. You're better off to use your ATM card. Ensure it can be used internationally with a PIN that is a maximum of four numbers.
* The biggest problem for women is theft. Try not to carry a purse. Use a money belt or put money and credit card in a pocket that's not packable.
* If a bag is a must, do not put it under or on the back of your chair in restaurants. Three women I know had their purses opened and wallets and cameras stolen.
* In cities, choose a centrally located hotel, especially if you or your travel companion is older.
It's nice to return for an afternoon rest and then go back out for the evening. The centre is usually busy at night and safe.
If You Go
Air Canada has a direct Toronto to Rome flight www.aircanada.com
A valid passport is necessary.
Overnight in Toronto: to break up a long trip from the west, the Sheraton Gateway is conveniently connected to Terminal 3. This full-service hotel is a comfortable, quiet haven with a fitness centre and lobby Internet lounge. Click on hotel offers. www.sheraton.com/torontoairport
With frequent departures, Monograms, the independent travel division of Globus, offers independent vacations on six continents, including several Italy itineraries. In addition to package inclusions, flights, airport transfers, insurance and extra nights can be added to personalize each guest's vacation. www.monogramstravel.ca
Urban Adventures, a sister company to Intrepid Travel, offers short day tours in more than 100 cities worldwide, most under $50. Roman Dolce Vita is $53.52. www. urbanadventures.com
Tuscan Way offers multi-day, small group cooking vacations and wine tours, as well as fitness and wellness programs. www.tuscanway.com
Where to eat
Il Palazzetto Restaurant and Wine Bar -- Alessandro Stefoni is the new executive chef. The menus change seasonally. www.ilpalazzettoroma.com
Ristorante Ambasciata di Capri is a friendly, family-run eatery serving Italian home cooking. Near Palazzo di Giustizia. www.ambasciatadicapri.com
Scansano, Grossetto, Tuscany:
Lunch at La Cantina (on our Tuscan Way tour) was the best meal of our entire month in Italy. The pasta literally melted in our mouths. Phone: 0564-507605.
Where to stay
Il Palazzetto Hotel houses four boutique guest rooms, three with a view of the Spanish Steps. www.ilpalazzettoroma.com
Hotel Hassler Roma (same ownership as Il Palazzetto) is a gorgeous, classy five-star hotel atop the Spanish Steps. www.hotelhasslerroma.com
Italian Tourism: www.italia.it