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Trip Logs

Italy Cruise: Hidden Treasures from Florence to Venice Trip Log: September 13–25, 2022

Trip Logs

Italy Cruise: Hidden Treasures from Florence to Venice Trip Log: September 13–25, 2022

By Rich Pagen, A&K Expedition Team | September 15, 2022

September 13, 2022 | Florence, Italy

Arriving from the distant reaches of the planet, we converged on the city of Florence to embark on an all-encompassing expedition revealing the culture, history and landscapes of Italy. With land borders only in the north (shared with France, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland), Italy and its extensive coastline is perfectly suited for exploring by ship — and we look forward to doing just that aboard our beautiful luxury expedition cruiser, ‘Le Bougainville.’

We met at The Westin Excelsior, Florence. Situated on Piazza Ognissanti, the hotel also fronts the north bank of the Arno. After settling into our rooms, we wandered bustling streets lined with leather shops and wine bars. Some of us walked further afield to admire the river from Ponte Vecchio. We wandered the shops that line the span of this medieval stone-arched bridge, an architectural arrangement that was once common in the city. The current tenants are jewelers and art dealers, though originally the spaces were occupied by butchers.

In the evening, we gathered at the welcome cocktail party to mingle over Champagne and canapés. Here, we met some of the A&K Expedition Team members who would accompany us throughout our voyage. After Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira went over some logistics, we headed off to watch the sunset and feast on Tuscan delights at one of the many quaint sidewalk cafés. We then retired to bed in anticipation of tomorrow’s exploration of this magnificent city.

September 14, 2022 | Florence and Surrounds

After a relaxing breakfast, we set out on various tours to explore Florence. Some of us drove out into the countryside to go on an expedition with two truffle hunters and their wonderful dogs. We then gathered together for a delicious lunch consisting of everything truffle, including truffle honey, truffle on eggs, truffle pasta, and even an ice cream desert with truffle. The only part of the meal that was without truffle was probably the wine!

Others of us drove up a beautiful hillside overlooking the city of Florence, with all its towers and steeples visible below us. There we visited Church of San Miniato al Monte, often described as one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany. From there, we strolled down to a coffeeshop for delicious pastries. Back in the city, we visited the Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral), the city's most iconic landmark, followed by a delicious lunch and time to explore the city on foot, including Ponte Vecchio and the Oltramo district.

Others of us chose to spend the day immersed in the art of Florence, starting our day at the Uffizi Gallery, home to such classic artworks as Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s only finished panel painting, entitled Doni Tondo. We then visited Galleria dell’Accademia, which was founded in 1563 as the first school established in Europe specifically to teach drawing, painting and sculpture. Best known as the home of Michelangelo's sculpture David, it also houses a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists, mostly from the period 1300–1600.

Whatever we chose to do with our time in Florence, the city provided ample opportunity to learn and explore, eat and wander. In the evening, we strolled the riverside, stopping in a leafy café for an aperol spritz or in a bustling osteria for a wild boar pappardelle pasta.

September 15, 2022 | Florence, Pisa and Lucca

This morning after breakfast, we checked out of our beautiful hotel and broke into three groups for a day of exploration in Tuscany.

Some of us chose to spend the day further exploring the city of Florence, enjoying a picturesque stroll through the city’s historic center. We visited Piazza Strosi, before relaxing at a café over an espresso. We then explored Palazzo Vecchio, a former residence of the Medici family. A symbol of Florence’s former power, Palazzo Vecchio boasts Roman ruins, a Medieval fortress, and awe-inspiring Renaissance chambers and paintings.

Others of us headed off to the charming city of Lucca, famous for its intact Renaissance-era city walls. Initially built as a defensive rampart, the walls now function as a pedestrian and bicycle promenade, also very popular with picnickers. We strolled the narrow cobblestone streets, including Via Fillungo and its mix of shoe stores and food boutiques — the air tinged with the aromas of coffee, truffles and pesto.

We admired Saint Michael's Church, a Roman Catholic basilica built over an ancient Roman forum, and wandered through Piazza Anfiteatro, an urban square that follows the elliptical foundation of a former Roman amphitheater dating to the second century. At its peak, the theater accommodated some 10,000 spectators in 18 rows of seats. Today, its lined with outdoor cafés spilling out into the piazza.

The rest of us opted to visit the city of Pisa, home to the famous Leaning Tower. We took a trolley to the pedestrianized historic city center, where we visited the Square of Miracles, recognized as an important hub of medieval art and one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. We visited the cathedral, while some of us climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower.

Late in the afternoon, we reconvened at the dock and were warmly greeted aboard ‘Le Bougainville’ by the ship’s crew. After settling in onboard, we gathered in The Theater for a safety briefing. Before dinner, Cruise Director Paul Carter gave us an overview of the ship. The other members of the A&K Expedition Team introduced themselves, sharing their individual passions for this fascinating part of the world.

Following a relaxing dinner on our new home-away-from-home, some of us gathered in the Main Lounge for a cocktail, while others headed off to bed for a good night’s sleep.

September 16, 2022 | Bastia, Corsica and France

After a leisurely breakfast, we watched with excitement as ‘Le Bougainville’ approached the French island of Corsica. As we pulled alongside the pier in Bastia, the impressive mountains of the island’s interior loomed high above the city.

Getting an early start to beat the heat, some of us drove to the top of Bastia’s mountains. From this spectacular vantage, we looked out over the Mediterranean Sea on one side of the island and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other. We hiked through maquis, low Mediterranean scrub dominated by heaths and arbutus, as well as a sprinkling of wild oregano, lavender, and other wonderfully perfumed herbs.

Another group set off on foot to explore Bastia itself, starting in the lower area near the “new port.” In the main square, we admired the surrounding architecture as swifts swarmed back and forth overhead. One of the square’s statues depicted a mother sending her young son off to war, an all-too-common occurrence in the island’s history. Generations of Corsicans were lost over the course of both world wars, upending what was once a largely agricultural society.

We wandered the narrow streets, exploring several beautiful churches along the way. At the central market square, we learned about Corsica's endemic wildflowers and distinctive honey. Then, we strolled amid the restaurants and cafés of the city's “old port", the docks brimming with fishing and pleasure boats.

Walking uphill, we entered the walls of the 15th-century Citadel. In a large church, we took in a magical performance of traditional Corsican polyphonic singing. Chills went down our spines as the beautiful tones reverberated off the church’s towering domed ceiling.

Following the performance, we explored the Citadel's museum before heading off for an al-fresco lunch of small plates paired with local wines. Afterward, many of us sampled the renowned local Cap Corse aperitif at the Mattei shop.

Back aboard, we mingled over Champagne as a spectacular sunset dazzled us at Captain Fabien Roché’s welcome cocktail reception. After we were introduced to some of the ship’s officers, we enjoyed a festive dinner and a nightcap at the bar.

September 17, 2022 | Rome

Early this morning, ‘Le Bougainville’ docked in the port of Civitavecchia, our gateway to Rome and its surrounds. After a hearty breakfast, we boarded coaches for the trip inland with our excellent local guides. Upon arrival, we fanned out to see various aspects of this culture-rich city.

The first group began at the Coliseum, the largest ancient amphitheater ever built. We roamed both inside and out, learning all of the Coliseum’s architectural and historical secrets from our extremely knowledgeable local guide. We then crossed the Tiber River to the Trastevere district, where we strolled through the historic cobblestone streets. After lunch, we visited the spectacular Basilica de Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches in Rome.

Our second group embarked on a walking tour of Rome's iconic squares and fountains. At Piazza Navonna, we admired the Fountain of the Four Rivers’ Egyptian-styled obelisk. We then visited the Pantheon, one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings. We continued on to Trevi Fountain, the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct. Our final stop was Palazzo Colonna, a palatial block of buildings that has belonged to the prominent Colonna family for over twenty generations.

A third group explored the enclave of the Vatican City, an independent city-state surrounded by Rome. Within these walls, we toured St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, craning our necks to admire Michelangelo’s masterful ceiling.

The culinary group took a panoramic drive to the village of Castel Gandolfo, home to the Pope’s summer residence, the Apostolic Palace. Arriving in the Pope’s personal garden, we donned aprons and prepared our own farm-to-table meal of ricotta-filled pasta and tiramisu.

Back on the ship, we reconvened to share stories over cocktails. At recap, Andy Coleman spoke about the photographic power of the iPhone, and Susan Langley shared insights into the history of art and architecture as spoils of conquest.

September 18, 2022 | At Sea, Stromboli and Lipari

We awoke to sunny skies and open ocean. Some of us rose early to admire the Tyrrhenian Sea with coffee in hand, while others took the opportunity to sleep in after our busy day in Rome.

Following a leisurely breakfast, we joined Andy Coleman in The Theater for some helpful tips on photographic storytelling. After some time on deck scanning the sea for birds and other wildlife, we returned to The Theater for Susan Langley’s overview of marine archeology in Italy.

In the afternoon, we gathered on deck for a Champagne toast as we approached the Aeolian Island of Stromboli, home to one of the world's most active volcanoes. We watched white and brown tufts of steam and ash rise from the volcano’s core as ‘Le Bougainville’ passed closely along Stromboli’s flank.

Later, Luca Zavagno gathered us back in The Theater for the final enrichment lecture of the day, a discussion of the Renaissance period’s influence on the Muslim world. Suzana then briefed us about tomorrow's activities.

After an early dinner, we boarded the tenders for a nighttime excursion to Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands. Once ashore, we explored the town’s shops or wandered up toward the beautifully lit citadel. When it was time to return, the lights of ‘Le Bougainville’ greeted us back aboard for a peaceful night at sea.

September 19, 2022 | Palermo, Sicily

This morning we arrived in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, disembarking with great anticipation of the next two days’ explorations. Once ashore, we broke into three groups.

The first group set off into the Sicilian countryside, passing impressive limestone outcrops in the mountains, and olive groves and vineyards in the valleys. We stopped at small café to sip espressos as we looked out over the stunning Tyrhennian coast. Further up the mountain, we visited Erice, a fairytale hilltop town of narrow cobblestone streets, wrought iron balconies, and shops specializing in ceramic tiles and woven rugs. After lunch and some time at leisure, we visited the archaeological site of Segesta, renowned for its magnificent Doric temple dating to 420 BC.

Our second group embarked on a culinary adventure with Duchess Tomasi at her fabulous 18th-century palazzo by the sea. After selecting ingredients in the local market and in the duchess’ own garden, we prepared an authentic Sicilian lunch and savored it in the spectacular setting of her seaside home.

Our third group spent the day exploring the heart of Palermo. We began with a behind-the-scenes look at Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy. After sampling granita at a local café, we visited La Martorana, a grand cathedral that serves the local Albanian community.

Back on the ship, we gathered for recap, and presentations from Luca Zavagno and Rich Pagen.

September 20, 2022 | Catania, Taormina and Mount Etna, Sicily

‘Le Bougainville’ dropped anchor just off the resort town of Giardini Naxos under a perfectly clear blue sky — the spectacular summit of Mount Etna looming in the distance. Once ashore, we split into three groups.

The first group rode 4x4 vehicles up the volcano to a trailhead, continuing on foot to explore a lava flow set down during the 1991 eruption. After a break at a scenic café, we hiked upward through a birch forest that led to a cinder cone affording spectacular views of the sea below and the mountain’s peak above. After lunch in a grove of tall pine trees, we donned helmets and climbed down into an old lava tube, tracing the former flow of a molten trail of magma.

Our second group skirted the base of Mount Etna en route to the handsome city of Catania. Here, we strolled amid wide boulevards and Sicilian baroque architecture, including a cathedral dedicated to Catania’s patron saint, Agatha. After sampling granitas and pastries at a café in the cathedral square, we drove out beyond the city for lunch at a local farm and villa. We capped off our visit with a stroll amid the palms of the farmstead’s lush gardens.

The third group visited Taormina. Perched high above Giardini Naxos, this scenic enclave boasts more than two millennia of history. We took in the mesmerizing beauty of Mount Etna from the marble seats of Taormina’s Greco-Roman theater. Retracing the footsteps of civilizations past, we admired Byzantine icons, Norman palaces and Aragonese churches.

In the evening, we gathered back aboard for an entertaining recap and a festive dinner.

September 21, 2022 | At Sea, en route to Manfredonia

‘Le Bougainville’ maneuvered around Italy’s “heel” as morning dawned on our day at sea. Some of us woke early to stretch our legs on deck and take in the majesty of the Ionian Sea around us.

After breakfast, we joined Susan Langley in The Theater for “Mediterranean Beekeeping, Past and Present,” an exploration of the region’s earliest apiculture, the various medicinal uses of hive products and the current threats to global bee populations.

Following a break for some tea and fresh air, we joined Luca Zavagno for his presentation, “The sign of Three: Sicily Between the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Normans.” In his usual clever fashion, Luca gave a brief overview of Sicily’s architectural and artistic heritage.

After a leisurely lunch, we relaxed on deck with a good book or took a dip in the pool, savoring our passage along Italy’s east coast. In the late afternoon, Andy Coleman shared “Photographing People and Cultures,” a presentation that taught us to look for the unexpected and employ a narrow depth of field for more impactful images.

Recap featured Luca Zavagno’s overview of human movement and migration in the Mediterranean, and Rich Pagen’s discussion on creatures of the open ocean. After dinner, we competed in several lively rounds of trivia in the lounge, followed by nightcaps in the bar. Then, it was time to rest up for our first stop on Italy's east coast tomorrow.

September 22, 2022 | Manfredonia

The ship docked in the port city of Manfredonia this morning. We disembarked and split into three groups to explore southern Italy.

Our first group visited the beautiful Sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo, an important pilgrimage site since the early Middle Ages. After a scenic drive through the olive groves of the countryside, we arrived in the hilltop town of Monte Sant'Angelo. A short walk through the white-washed town brought us to the oldest shrine in Western Europe. At the sanctuary, we witnessed a short mass celebrated in a mountainside grotto. After our walking tour, we enjoyed some time at leisure, with some of us shopping for local almonds or dried pasta.

The second group headed up the mountainside into Gargano National Park. Setting out from the Abbey of Santa Maria di Pulsano, we hiked along a wide track affording spectacular views down into the eroded valley below. We dipped into a cool ravine dotted with ivy-draped oaks, circling back to pause for an espresso and explore the abbey further.

The foodie group ventured through freshly tilled winter wheat fields and silver-leafed olive groves en route to the Masseria Calderoso, a fortified baronial residence dating to the 18th century. Here, we were treated to mozzarella-making demonstration, as well as a tasting of cow, buffalo and goat cheeses.

Back on the ship, we enjoyed a relaxing lunch while the Captain brought the ship in close to the distinctive limestone cliffs north of Manfredonia. Uplifted by geologic forces and subsequently eroded away by rain and sea, the whitish-grey cliffs contrasted beautifully with the greens of the clinging shrubby vegetation.

We then joined Luca Zavagno in The Theater for "The Crusade That Never Was," a compelling story of a medieval painting that was commissioned as propaganda to rally the western Christian powers against the Ottoman Muslim Turks.

At the evening recap, Susan Langley spoke on the history of mustard gas and cancer treatment discoveries, while Andy Coleman shared post-production photo tips for elevating our smartphone images. We told stories over dinner, with those of us eating outside enjoying the cool, fresh air.

September 23, 2022 | Ancona

We lingered at the ship's railing with a cup of coffee as ‘Le Bougainville’ approached the Adriatic coast and the dock in Ancona. Once ashore, we split into here groups to explore further.

Our first group embarked on a pleasant drive up the coast to the magnificent 15th-century Villa Imperiale, home to a series of frescoes by Raphael’s students. The 100-acre estate also boasts two hidden gardens and breathtaking views over the hilly countryside of Le Marche.

The second group headed inland to Urbino, a medieval walled city perched on a sloping hilltop. After an elevator ride up to the top of the city walls, we strolled toward the central square, Piazza della Repubblica, a great place to nurse an aperitivo or coffee and feel the town's pulse. From there we walked up to Palazzo Ducale, a living monument to Renaissance art and architecture. We admired such works as Portrait of a Young Woman by Raphael and the Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca, much admired for its early use of linear perspective. We then explored the city’s lanes and shops, stopping at a café to sample crescia (a flakey flatbread), washed down with a glass of the local sparkling wine.

Our third group ventured to the enclave of Jesi to take in a street festival celebrating the town’s patron saint. We continued to the estate of Antica Cantina Sant’Amico, home to the region’s oldest winery. After touring the vines and vats, we sat in a picturesque garden, tasting wines paired with local olive oils, cheeses, jams and charcuterie. Most of us found some wine or olive oil to bring back to the ship.

Back aboard, we enjoyed lunch on deck as ‘Le Bougainville’ departed for Venice. Later in the afternoon, we joined Luca Zavagno for the final enrichment lecture of the trip, "Venice and The Fourth Crusade.” In this fascinating talk, Luca examined the political, social and cultural consequences of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Then, Suzana briefed on our plans for tomorrow's arrival in Venice.

In the evening, we all donned our best attire for Captain Fabien Roché’s farewell cocktail party, where we were introduced to many of the ship’s crew that had been working so hard behind the scenes during our time on ‘Le Bougainville.’

September 24, 2022 | Venice

This morning, we watched from the railing as ‘Le Bougainville’ slowly cruised past Venice’s Piazza San Marco. The pink sunrise brightened the horizon, with the Campanile, the landmark bell tower of Saint Mark's Basilica, soaring over the rest of the city. After making our final preparations for the day, we set out to explore this magical city and the surrounding area, some of us on foot, others by boat.

Those of us interested in gaining the street-view perspective spent the day strolling the quaint lanes and off-the-beaten-track alleyways of Venice. We stopped in at the Frari Church, with its two iconic altarpieces by Titian, the Assumption of the Virgin and the Pesaro Madonna. At Scuola Grande di San Rocco, we admired some of the finest works by Tintoretto. After lunch, we strolled St. Mark's Basilica, home to more than 85,000 square-feet of mosaics. We then visited the Doge's Palace, where we admired Tintoretto's Paradise, the world's largest oil painting.

A second group cruised Venice by private water taxi, pausing to take in Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal. We debarked at Piazza San Marco, the heart of the city.

Some of us ventured across the lagoon by private boat, our guide pointing out Venice’s iconic sites along the way. Landing at the Orto Winery, we were immediately charmed by the winery’s inspiring story, as well as its limited-edition bottlings. We reboarded our vessel for a glassblowing demonstration in Murano. After a fresh seafood lunch in a small square, another boat whisked us off to Burano, famous for its colorful buildings and handmade lace.

Back on the ship, we all watched a wonderful retrospective slide show of our journey by Andy Coleman — his photos brining our newfound memories to life.

September 25, 2022 | Venice

This morning, we awoke quietly alongside the dock in Venice. After breakfast, we disembarked ‘Le Bougainville,’ the vessel that had served as our luxurious home for the past 10 days. Some of us were scheduled to spend a few more days here in Venice, while others headed off to the airport for flights home. We had reached the end of our exploration of Italy with A&K. As we parted, we reflected on our experiences and celebrated the new friendship forged during this wonderful adventure.

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