An Italian Vacation That’s Different and Cheaper

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I’ve dreamed of visiting Italy as long as I can remember, yet my wife and I were overwhelmed trying to decide how to take our first trip there this fall. My wife even asked the critical question, “Why do you want to go to Italy, anyway?”

This summer, the Harris Poll declared Italy is the most desired tourist destination among Americans. But I couldn’t honestly say I had to see Rome, Venice, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, even if we could squeeze them into our one-week trip. Having already seen Roman ruins at countless sites between Egypt and England, I didn’t want to spend another week fighting hordes of tourists at famous sites.

The Italy of my dreams is not the crumbling marble of past civilizations. It’s the essence of a passionate people and their unique creations from the Renaissance until today.

Seven days in heaven

So we’ve decided to bypass the rush of Rome and start our trip at the foot of the Dolomite mountains in Milan. Italy’s second-largest city is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the hometown of Leonardo da Vinci.

The highlight of Milan is the Duomo, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe. It was begun 1386, and some parts were only completed in 1965. Think about that next time you’re wondering how long your local highway widening is taking.

Other essential sites in Milan include the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the La Scala opera house, and the Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of Da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper.

Finding a nice hotel in Milan is easy – so long as you have an unlimited budget. You can enjoy fine hotels like Park Hyatt in the center of the city, with rooms starting at $1,300 a night. Securing affordable accommodations anywhere near the center of the city was a challenge. We looked at a few acceptable hotels outside the city center in the $300-to-$400-per-night range before deciding to use some Starwood Hotel points for two nights at the Sheraton Four Points Milan Center. We redeemed a mere 20,000 StarPoints for two nights in a room in the $400-to-$500 range, a substantial savings.

After two nights in the city, we’ll visit Lake Como, just north of Milan. This mountain lake has been the stunning backdrops for such films as the James Bond remake of Casino Royale, Ocean’s Eleven, and Star Wars: Episode II. While my wife and daughter enjoy the lush gardens surrounding the lake, I’ve arranged to rent a fine Italian bicycle for a day of touring – including a visit to the Italian museum of cycling.

We’ll have two days to enjoy the lake region before proceeding south to the rich agricultural region of Emilia-Romagna. Italy has gone a long way to preserve its culinary heritage by converting many of its family farms to agriturismos – working family farms that double as inns for tourists. Here they can experience home-cooked meals using locally grown products.

During the day, we’ll visit the the nearby city of Parma and see how such delicacies as Prosciutto de Parma and Parmesan cheese are crafted. If you are interested in something more fast-paced than agriculture, there are tours of both the Ferrari and Lamborghini factories nearby.

Finally, we’ll depart Italy through Milan, content to have sampled the spirit of Italy’s finest cities, mountains, and farms – and confident that the ruins of ancient Rome will still be there when we return.

Traveling to Milan

Milan is home to two major airports. Malpensa is the largest gateway, offering transatlantic connections to New York (JFK) on Alitalia, American, and Delta Airlines; to Newark on Continental/United; and to Atlanta with Delta. Alitalia also offers nonstop service to Miami. The airport at Linate is an older facility that’s closer to the city and still offers some service to other European cities.

Accommodations in Northern Italy

As a country in the Euro zone, Americans won’t receive favorable exchange rates, so good deals are hard to find. You can save money by finding a hotel that includes breakfast, but most properties charge an exorbitant amount for Internet service. Outside of the city, there are still some good values to be found in smaller lodges and inns. Italy’s agri-tourism bureau has an English website you can search for accommodations on working farms. Note that many farms and inns don’t take credit cards, so be sure to carry enough Euros.

Getting around

Like many large European cities, Milan discourages driving by imposing large parking charges and congestion fees just for entering the central business district. On the other hand, Italy offers fantastic train services. Plan on utilizing public transportation in Milan, but you might want to rent a car for trips to neighboring regions.

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