A Group Tour in Tuscany: What's it like to join an escorted trip?
Escorted tours are a growing trend among Irish holidaymakers. Frank Coughlan goes along for the ride in Italy.
Our guide, Anna Maria, waves her hand and cries, "Follow me!"
And so we do, trailing wheelie cases through Pisa airport's car park like excited children on a school trip. Our holiday has begun. All 51 of us. That's a lot of couples of one sort or another.
And me. On my lonesome.
We're on Travel Department's 'Classic Tuscany' itinerary, a seven-night package based out of Montecatini, less than an hour down the autostrada from the airport and within nudging distance of Florence, Siena and Lucca. I've been harbouring a desire to visit here since forever, and the great city of the Medici in particular. But circumstances conspired to give me two options this year: go alone or not at all.
I hadn't thought it through. Travel Department is an Irish company specialising in escorted holidays, so I reckoned there would be a scattering of other strays, lost sheep and, well, eccentrics. By the time we board the bus, it dawns on me, however - I don't know anyone, and almost everybody else does.
You take that for granted when you're with a partner or family. The moment you step outside that cosy societal norm, being on your own changes everything. A glass wall could very easily slide down between you and everybody else.
If you allow it.
There's a moment when I think this could be the longest, loneliest week of my life. In fact, it turns out to be all too short, speeding up as it goes.
Our base for the week is the Grand Hotel Plaza on Montecatini's beautiful and buzzy Piazza del Popolo. The sounds that drift up to my room during the day - children at play and the gentle gush of the fountain - cannot have changed much in a century. Mood music in itself.
After a day of recalibrating our bodies to the relaxed tempo - the steep funicular to beautiful Montecatini Alto (€7 return) is a fun distraction - we set off on the short road trip to Florence, second only to Rome in Italian visitor footfall.
By now, names and faces are becoming familiar. We sit down at 7.30 every evening at round tables of eight, and the relaxed natter - lubricated for many by the local Chianti and Montepulciano - soon has strangers seeming more like friends.
There is only so much you can see in Florence, and booking tickets in advance for the likes of the vast but easily negotiated Galleria degli Uffizi (€8 online) is simple common sense. I haven't, but by fluke only have to queue in the forgiving shade for 40 minutes (€12.50) before being ushered into the company of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Da Vinci's The Adoration of the Magi, Raphael's Madonna and the Goldfinch, and Michelangelo's Doni Tondi.
But most of this Renaissance city's majestic treasures are free to glory in, not least the breathtaking Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. I also find time to stroll across the Ponte Vecchio - which hasn't changed a jot since 1345. Except, that is, for the tourist hordes and the 40 or so jewellers who now hawk there with a ferocious appetite.
Satisfying your own hunger can be fraught too: so much choice in the tourist old town but some iffy prices too. Casa Toscana on the narrow and cool Via Giovanni da Verrazzano, just off Piazza Santa Croce, is a good-value retreat from the unforgiving sun. We cluster there like weary pilgrims, attempting to translate the menu. But we needn't have bothered. The waiter has impeccable English.
While Florence is most celebrated as the centre of the Renaissance, Tuscan neighbours Pisa, Lucca and Siena owe their glories to the medieval period. Pisa is an unremarkable city but its Campo dei Miracoli justifies its reputation. This is where you'll find the stunning baptistry, cathedral and campanile, the iconic leaning tower. But if it is the seventh wonder, the eighth must surely be how we don't all melt like gelati in the August furnace. A few of us seek shade under a skimpy hedge. It's not lost on the wag among us that this is exactly how we huddle from the rain back home. For free.
Lucca is a perfectly formed, preserved and traffic-free walled town. I was struck by The Ascension of Christ fresco on the Basilica of San Frediano, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my favourite bit was the recovery ice-cream at Pasticceria Momus Café on Piazza San Maria.
The hour-and-a-half it takes us to reach Siena from Montecatini turns out to be almost as engrossing as the old city itself. The drive takes us through gently undulating countryside, adorned with cypress trees, vineyards and villas. Local wags dub it 'Chiantishire' because of the number of rich Brits who have colonised it (including Sting and Tony Blair).
Siena itself is a warren of alleyways and lanes, all of which seem to lead to the spectacular Piazza del Campo, celebrated for its annual Palio horse races. Do visit the Basilica of San Domenico, where the 14th-century skull of the revered Santa Caterina is on display. If you still have an appetite after that, dodge the tourist traps for a bite at Osteria Il Bargello, on Via di Città. Caterina, who fasted for long periods, may not approve. But we can't all be saints.
There are certainly no saints on our bus as we rumble around Tuscany, and few martyrs around the dinner tables either. These days, friends are things you collect like stamps on Facebook. One of the better ways of making real ones is on a holiday like this. As our favourite Grand Hotel Plaza waiter told us: Chi trova un amico trova un tesoro... Who finds a friend finds a treasure.
How to do it
Frank travelled to Tuscany with Travel Department (01 637-1650; traveldepartment.ie). Seven nights including flights, transfers, three coach tours and a room at the four-star Grand Hotel Plaza (hotelplaza.it) starts from €829pp based on two sharing.
Flying solo: Frank's travel tips
Solo travellers are growing in number, and companies like Travel Department have been quick to respond with bespoke options. But travelling solo on a package holiday isn’t without its challenges. Here are my tips:
DON'T be shy. You don’t have to be the first to join every conversation, but don’t be the last either. Make the effort to be open and share. People will reciprocate.
DO join a group at the dinner table or for a night out. If you’re not in...
DON’T judge people on those over-rated first impressions. Everyone deserves a second chance. That said, avoid the attention-seeking loudmouths. Their charms quickly wear thin.
DO buy your round promptly. Everyone can tell a tightwad and nobody ever forgives one.
DON’T be reluctant to compromise. Package holidays are all about give and take.
DO keep time for yourself. Making friends can be hard work, even if it is truly worth it.