Pssst… I might be passing through Italy on the Ultimate Train Challenge. How exciting is that? I’m told a must-do experience is buying a bottle of Italian wine for 4 Euros and washing that back with bread and cheese. It’s a fitting analogy for Natalie Vartanian’s first ever Contiki tour. Frugal, with an uexpected punch. Please lap up today’s Summer Chick Tale.
It was fall of 2008, I had broken up with my boyfriend of two and a half years, moved in with a friend of mine who had a spare room and was coaching a Leadership program that was half-way done. Sounds like a sad state of affairs, yet the break up was long overdue and everything else in my life was acting as a catalyst for change toward the life I had always envisioned for myself. I saw it as the beginning of my freedom. One day my girlfriend, Laura, and I (who I was living with and coaching with at the time) were lounging at home and talking about traveling. When she mentioned she had never travelled internationally I nearly fell off the couch!
“What? You’ve never been abroad?! That’s it, we’re going somewhere together!” I felt like a mama bird that wanted to put her under my wing, whisk her off to a far away destination and let her soar towards her next life changing experience.
Besides that, I had not been out of the country in over two years thanks to being tied down in my relationship. Okay, we went to Hawaii, but that doesn’t count … it’s technically still the U.S.! I was itching to go somewhere, anywhere and bad!
Hence started the research of where to go once we finished with our Leadership program. Since Laura had never done anything like this, and she’s a controller by nature, she started the literal research right away. Honestly I was glad for that since my first two trips I was the one planning, organizing, making it happen, etc. It was a nice break to have someone else taking charge. So when Laura brought up the idea of doing a Contiki tour, that fit in perfectly with my mood of not doing shit but showing up and being carted around the country. My version of royalty, I know! Plus the idea of being with other people our own age from all over the world in another country during the holidays (i.e. Christmas hoopla), sounded pretty sweet. We picked a winter tour of Italy, paid for our package soon after and were set to head for Rome the day after Christmas.
Venice gondolas (Natalie and Laura)
As luck would have it, or maybe it was the cosmos saying we needed even more adventure, we missed our connecting flight to Rome (I swear we didn’t even hear them calling our names over the PA system) and had to take the next flight, which took off the following morning. We paid for a hotel in Atlanta and made the best of the situation. Since we did not arrive to Rome on the originally scheduled day, we also missed the Contiki group’s bus ride to Venice, the destination where the trip officially started. In order to catch up with them we paid for a train ride from Rome to Venice for the day we arrived and organized meeting up with the group at the hotel. Not only was the train ride gorgeous since we saw snow falling and rolling landscapes, but we got there just in time for dinner at a nearby restaurant. This should have been a foreshadowing of some of the shenanigans to come the rest of the trip.
Our tour took us to Venice for a day, a brief visit to Pisa, Florence for two days and ended back in Rome for two days. Like the bunch of tourists we were, we snapped pictures like crazy but also soaked in the culture and beauty that is Italy. Our tour guide, Cristian, was amazing. He was real, funny, knowledgeable and over all a little entertainer. Before long we were singing classic Italian songs during the bus rides and acting all sorts of silly. You really do bond with the people you are traveling with, not all but definitely a core group. We had between 30 and 35 people on our tour and I still keep in touch with at least seven or eight of those people today. It was a shorter trip, eight nights and nine days, and a chunk of it was transportation time going from city to city.