By Jennifer Dombrowski | Posted to Luxe Adventure Traveler
When it comes to travel, there are pretty much two camps of people: those who love to research and plan every detail and those who want a holiday without any of the hassle of actually planning it. I’m firmly planted in the first camp. I love devouring every blog, book and resource I can get my hands on when researching a trip. But, if the number of emails and comments we get is any indication, the cheese stands alone in that love of trip planning. Even Tim hates trip planning and just wants to show up with all the details taken care of for him. So when Monograms, a hybrid of a travel agent meets tour operator, asked me to be part of their campaign and participate in a hassle free Rome and Venice package trip, I was intrigued enough to give it a try.
The first time I planned a trip to Italy, Facebook only existed for Ivy League college students, the iPhone hadn’t even been invented yet and planning a trip meant a lot of hours tearing through every guide book in the travel section of Barnes & Noble. And in a time when the internet was just barely a teenager, there was no such thing as booking skip the line tickets online.
A few years later, Tim and I moved to Italy and all the quirky things us Americans never deal with in the good ‘ol US of A became just normal, daily life. I mean, I would never think to ask for a receipt for the $2 ice cream cone from the Tasty Freeze. But in Italy, walking away with your gelato but no receipt could turn those two scoops into a very costly treat.
We tend to forget that things in Europe are very different from back home in the US. And that traveling, even in Western Europe, can be stressful or even a bit scary for a lot of people.
Hardly ever ones for organized multi-day tours, with the exception of that time we went to Russia, you might be surprised to now see me advocating for a Rome and Venice package trip with Monograms. But Monograms is not an organized multi-day group tour, and that was the thing that intrigued me.
Monograms handles the details that a lot of people don’t like sorting out: airport transfers, hotels and transfers between cities. Monograms will even handling booking your flights, if you want them to.
Once you get to your destination, a Monograms Local Host is always on site to help with whatever you need. The Local Host is a local, so they know their city inside and out. They’re not a concierge, so you won’t get sent to a restaurant just because the hotel has a partnership with it. And the Local Host can remind you about little things you might not know, like being sure to validate your bus ticket in the machine on the bus or making sure you get that aforementioned receipt for your gelato. They’re like a support system, and even the most independent among us need a little support from time to time.
Monograms also includes a sightseeing tour in each of the destinations on your trip with VIP skip-the-line access to the must-see attractions. Believe me, I’ve stood in that line at the Vatican Museums a decade ago – in pouring rain, no less, only to be turned away once the museum reached capacity – and skip-the-line is the only way to go.
Beyond the included group sightseeing tour, you’re free to spend your time exploring as you like. Monograms offers an assortment of optional excursions that you can book like cooking classes or guided private tours, or you can spend your time wandering the city punctuated by sipping coffee in cafés or wine on terraces. It’s totally up to you.
Monograms makes the experience hassle free by taking care of the details you don’t really care about or want to stress over, so you can focus on having the trip of a lifetime.
3 Nights Rome & 3 Nights Venice with Monograms
My trip was the Monograms 3 Nights Rome & 3 Nights Venice trip. A Monograms representative was waiting for me the minute I stepped in to the baggage area at Fiumicino Airport, and instead of pushing my suitcase through the airport to the Leonardo Express, I could collapse my tired body into a comfortable car for the ride directly to the hotel.
Monograms selects centrally located hotels and the Starhotels Metropole was just a short walk from Santa Maria Maggiore, an area I always enjoy staying in for its close proximity to attractions like the Colosseum and Roman Forum, Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.
My Rome Local Host, Yolanda, reminded our group about the dress code for the included sightseeing tour. This is one of those little things that so many people don’t know. Europe has a strict dress code that shoulders and knees have to be covered when entering churches, and street hawkers take advantage by offering overpriced scarves I’ve seen far too many tourists forced to purchase.
Half-Day Included Sightseeing in Rome
The first full day starts with the included sightseeing. It’s an early day, but worth it with VIP skip-the-line access to the Vatican Museums before the Vatican Museums even open to the public. While there’s still a short wait and even a line to skip-the-line as our guide joked several times, the 15 minute wait to enter was far better than the hour I spent in the pouring rain when I first visited years ago.
With a headset so I could hear our expert guide, I could wander a bit and take photos. It was nice not to need to be glued to our guide’s side in order to hear his stories and information. He pointed out various works of interest as we made our way toward the Vatican Museum’s pièce de résistance: the Sistine Chapel.
We also visited St. Peter’s Basilica after a short coffee break. Again our guide pointed out various aspects such as Michelangelo’s Pietà, Bernini’s 29 meter-high baldachin over the papal altar and the spot where Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the Pope.
There isn’t time to make the climb up to Michelangelo’s Dome on the guided tour, which I think is one of the highlights of a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. I’ve made the climb up on three previous trips to Rome, but if you haven’t been to Rome before like me, you’ll have to return to St. Peter’s Basilica on your own to visit it. And there, unfortunately, is not any skip-the-line access to St. Peter’s Basilica so be sure to arrive early.
A private bus whisked our group from Vatican City to the Roman Forum, where the guided tour continued with a walk through part of the Forum toward the Colosseum. The Forum is one of my absolute favorite places in Rome and I’ve been there on every single trip I’ve made to the Eternal City. As I could spend a full day exploring the Forum alone, I really appreciated the highlights our guide could point out in our abbreviated time passing through the Roman Forum.
We once again skipped-the-line and were inside the Colosseum in just a few minutes. This was my fifth visit inside the Colosseum, and this is one monument I never tire of seeing.
It’s such an architectural marvel that basically the same design is used for arenas to this very day. It’s truly jaw-dropping to stand in this massive arena feeling small and wondering how on earth such a place was built without modern day machines.
The included guided tour concludes at the Colosseum and you have the option to stay to take photos and walk around a bit more, break off from the group to explore on your own, or return to the hotel on the coach with the group. Since you’re already inside, I highly recommend lingering and wandering around for a bit.
Rome Optional Excursions
Monograms offers a variety of optional excursions you can book either before you even arrive, or through the Local Host on site. I selected several optional excursions to try out, and it’s probably no surprise that they were foodcentric.
I’ve taken a few fresh pasta making classes previously, but the classes were focused on just the fresh pasta. So I was excited to sign up for a Roman pastas cooking experience in which we learned to make fresh pasta from scratch, along with three Roman sauces.
I couldn’t believe how incredibly easy the sauces were to make. I’ve always had to wait for a return trip to Rome to eat cacio e pepe, a Roman sauce with cheese and black pepper, but I have to wait no longer. With the easy recipes the cooking school emailed after my class, I can enjoy these sauces anytime at home.
It turned out that my pizza and gelato making class was at the very same cooking school I had my pasta and sauce class at, and that was perfectly fine with me since I had already had such a great experience there. The pizza making class was just as fun and ended with a meal of our pizzas fresh out of the pizza oven, wine and two flavors of gelato.
While I simply walked off all the Roman pizza, pasta and gelato, some of the other optional excursions offered such as biking would have been another excellent way to work off the carbs and see some other parts of Rome I have yet to explore. I had also really wanted to sign up for the Ostia Antica day trip, but there simply wasn’t enough time because Venice awaited.
Transfer to Venice
True story. One time a friend visiting Italy texted in a panic because she was trying to book train tickets to Florence and thought there weren’t any trains running there.
I asked, “Did you put Firenze in as the destination?”
A text pinged back. “No. What’s Firenze?”
My friend felt dumb when I explained that Firenze is Florence in Italian. Honestly, it is confusing. We change the names of some cities like Roma, Firenze and Venezia but Pisa is Pisa.
I totally get just how confusing the train system can be. The train website, even the English version, isn’t the most intuitive and even in the most touristy of cities like Rome, the agents at the train station don’t always speak English. And they certainly don’t explain that you need to validate the ticket, how to find your seat or any of the other nuances of Italian train travel.
Monograms takes care of booking the train transfer and ensures you travel in first class, which is the only way I will travel long distances by train in Italy. Our Local Host even took us right to the train station, got us to the proper platform and walked us right to our assigned carriage.
And when we arrived in Venice, our Venice Local Host was waiting with a Monograms sign to whisk us right on to a private boat taxi to the hotel. Believe me, one thing you never, ever want to have to do is drag a suitcase up and over even a fraction of Venice’s more than 400 bridges while looking for an address.
In Venice, maps are essentially useless. And Google Maps – if you can even get decent cellular service and data between all those ancient buildings – is even more useless. Dragging a suitcase only to discover a dead end with a canal separating you from where you need to be is one of the most frustrating experiences. We’ve been there.
Half-Day Included Sightseeing in Venice
Just as with Rome, the first full day in the new destination begins with the half-day of included sightseeing. This time we were off to Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica and a Venetian glass-blowing demonstration.
Tim and I lived quite close to Venice for seven years and had never visited Doge’s Palace. Why? Because the line is always so long and that one time standing in it just to visit St. Mark’s Basilica was more than enough. This particular morning, however, we breezed right past the line that had already formed with our Monograms guide.
The seat of La Serenissima for nearly 700 years, Doge’s Palace is one of the top attractions in Venice.
The Doge, or ruler of the Venetian Republic, resided in the lavish complex. It was also home to law courts, administrative offices, a torture chamber, a prison and other of Venice’s most famous attractions: the Bridge of Sighs. Famous Venetian painters such as Tintoretto contributed to the elaborately decorated rooms.
We hadn’t been inside of St. Mark’s Basilica since we first moved to Italy in 2009, but unlike that visit, we once again sashayed right past the line. I’d forgotten how beautiful all of the mosaic is inside since photos aren’t allowed in the Basilica. Did you know that there’s enough mosaic inside the church that it could cover 1.5 football fields?
Our very funny and entertaining guide pointed out some of the other surprising features, like that the massive church has more than 500 columns inside it. And that the golden Byzantine altar screen is studded with thousands of gems – so many that it puts the collection of Crown Jewels to shame.
Our half day of sightseeing ended at Vecchia Murano, the only glass-making factory that opens its furnaces to tourists left on the island of Venice.
The glass makers were forced to move to Murano in 1291 because of the fear of risk of fire from the furnaces to Venice’s wooden structures. But the Venetian government banned the glass makers for another reasons; they wanted to imprison the artisans and prevent them from sharing their glass making secrets as glass making was a major source of wealth for the Venetian Republic.
Our small Monograms group was invited in to one of the furnaces for a short demonstration of how Murano glass is made. The glass maker made two different pieces for us, though if he were making pieces to be sold in the shop it would actually be a much longer process.
Understand that in Venice and Murano, the glass factories have no desire to explain the glass making process to tourists and really don’t have the staff to be able to run these demonstrations. So anytime you attend one, be prepared for a sales pitch. And while we did get one after the demonstration at Vecchia Murano, we didn’t feel pressured in to be buying anything.
Venice Optional Excursions
Another Venetian experience we’d never done was to attend a Vivaldi concert. Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice and considered one of the greatest Baroque composers. His compositions are celebrated by musicians in period costumes and the concerts are set in some of the most beautiful churches and schools in Venice.
Never having made it to a concert while we lived so close to Venice for all of those years, it was one of the experiences we had to have on this trip back to Venice. With Monograms, the front of house tickets are reserved. There aren’t assigned seats, but we still ended up in the very front row.
We also opted for a full day trip to Verona and Amarone wine tasting. Though we’d been to Verona many times over our years living in Italy, it was always for a specific purpose like going to the opera or visiting the Christmas markets. We’d never actually toured Verona and this day trip gave us the chance.
And we never pass up the chance to visit wine country, especially Amarone. It’s one of our favorite Italian wines and the full day tour actually took us to a small family winery we were quite familiar with. No complaints in our book, because Fratelli Vogadori is one of our favorites to visit.
The timing was perfect too, as the grapes were just being harvested and starting the drying process to eventually become Amarone wine. Of course, the best part of a winery visit is always the tasting and Fratelli Vogadori has a range of delicious wines to enjoy from their absolutely stunning tasting room looking out over the sloping vineyards.
Our full day tour also included lunch, which just happened to be at one of our favorite restaurants. Trattoria alla Porchetta is named for, as you might guess, their delicious pork. Our multi-course lunch began with a charcuterie platter and we selected a black truffle pasta for our main dish, before finishing off the delicious meal with something sweet. It was all, of course, paired with Fratelli Vogadori wine.
We arrived back in Venice just in time to catch sunset from the fairly new Fondaco dei Tedeschi rooftop with the ultimate views over Venice.
Transfer to Venice Marco Polo
With our trip over, Monograms sent us off in style. Our Local Host accompanied us by private water taxi, which whisked us straight from the hotel to Venice Marco Polo Airport. The transfer that can take well over an hour by bus takes a mere 20 minutes by water taxi.
I drank in the last views as we sailed under the Rialto, past the striking hands symbolically supporting the Ca’Sagredo Hotel and out across the lagoon toward to the airport we knew so well. Even though I checked in at Marco Polo for my 78th time since I’ve used Four Square, our Local Host made sure we got checked in and hugged us goodbye as we parted ways at the security line.
Monograms had truly made my return to Italy hassle free.