Saturday 30 October 2021

Grand Tour of Italy

Six Italian Cities with Great Rail Journeys

My "iconic blue" passport: in action
at last!
Our first trip abroad for two years

We first booked this tour for May 2020 and were initially disappointed when Great Rail Journeys telephoned to say they had insufficient bookings and they could not run the trip, so they booked us for October instead. That seemed really fortuitous in March when Italy became the epicentre of the new coronavirus Covid-19 ... October seemed far enough into the future then, but, of course it was not to be and finally we were able to take the trip in October 2021, subject to a complex set of conditions. I spent a whole day, one week before the trip, booking Covid tests (for the Italians and the British) and filling in Passenger Locator Forms (for everyone) and sworn statements (for the French). By the time you've done the admin for a trip abroad you need the holiday more than ever!

Our luggage was collected a couple of weeks before departure, when the weather forecast was for hot, sunny weather throughout Italy. I packed shorts and summer shirts. By the time we departed it had all changed and we were expecting warm, wet weather ... 

Eventually the day dawned and we left Stamford for a very rainy London. Great Rail Journeys had booked us First Class tickets to London and back, but on the train from Stamford all the First Class seats were taken so we stood in the vestibule as it was such a short trip before our change of train at Peterborough. once aboard the LNER Azuma we were comfortably seated and were plied with the usual refreshments, although we had brought lunch with us and just accepted the wine and coffee. Soon we were in London and checked in at the Premier Inn, almost exactly opposite St Pancras International station. As usual in these establishments the room was spacious, the bed comfortable and the air-conditioning effective, nothing special but everything perfectly satisfactory. At 6pm we returned to St Pancras for our pre-departure Covid-19 tests. Italy had relaxed its rules for fully-vaccinated people from the UK so that we only needed the rapid antigen test, within 48 hours of arrival in Italy, so it could not have been earlier than this evening but at least we had a swift result, mercifully both negative. We downloaded our certificates to our iPhones ready to show in Italy if asked. We already had our vaccination certificates printed and kept along with our passports ready for the morning.

We had been unable to secure a table at any of the restaurants at the station - staff shortages had made them unable to serve the usual number of customers and this was a Saturday night ... but the Thyme restaurant at our hotel had been able to fit us in at 8.30, very late for us but at least it would help us cope with the expected late breakfast in the morning. The combination of the pandemic and the leaving of the EU meant that things were a long way from normal and we could never be sure what might happen, but I made a mental note always to book dinner in London when overnighting before an international trip in future.

We had a wonderful night's sleep and showered and packed in the morning ready to go. We went to M&S at St Pancras and bought some breakfast things and some lunch things (the change of train - and station - in Paris would be very tight so we were not expecting to have time to buy anything there) and went to the Great Rail Journeys office to meet Julia our tour manager and the rest of the party. That was when we discovered just how much things were not yet normal, for there were only four of us, with another four, from the US, to join us in Rome, a total of eight. Since last year these tours have all been advertised as "small group," meaning up to 25 (rather than the previous 40), but the decision had been taken that all the tours would run because they had to get started somehow. Passing through the ticket barriers and security checks was much as usual except for reduced numbers of passengers for fewer train departures, so fewer gates were open. Passport control included the need to show our vaccination certificates, and, of course, we were now going abroad as non-EU citizens. We wondered how we would feel as foreigners now, and how our travelling companions would feel, too, as well as how we would be viewed by our French and Italian hosts.

Once through all the checks we waited for our train to be announced and at last were able to buy coffee and sit down to enjoy our breakfast. No sooner done than we were called to platform 8 to board the train for Paris, non-stop. In our section of one of the Standard Premier coaches, with 23 seats, there were just the four of our group with our tour manager and one other passenger. I have never seen so sparsely-filled a Eurostar carriage, but it was not difficult to keep our distance! The light meal was soon served: we had expected a late continuation of breakfast, but it turned out to be a rather early lunch, although by French time it was not ever so early. It did call into question whether I might need the very British BLT sandwich I had bought at M&S before boarding, though! In the event I opted to eat it before arrival at Paris: one less thing to carry. Crossing Paris to Gare de Lyon was fun on a Sunday, which is a popular day for national pastime of strikes and demonstrations, but it was fairly straightforward, a small coach speeding us through the city streets with no problem - much more pleasant than the RER. We had just over an hour to make the trip and did it in plenty of time, with our double-deck TGV waiting for us just inside the main entrance to the station.

The TGV left Paris on time and took us swiftly and smoothly to an on-time arrival at Lyon Perrache, its terminus, with just one intermediate stop at Lyon Part Dieu. Our hotel was right outside the station and so in spite of the heavy rain we needed no transport to the front door and were soon checked in. Normally when we have these overnight stops on our longer-distance trip we go for a walk and explore the city, but with heavy rain we decided to forego this pleasure in Lyon: it is a place we intend to visit in the future anyway. Our hotel was a superb example of Art Nouveau architecture of a type seldom seen outside France, and seldom bettered anywhere. Dinner was in the hotel bar-restaurant and was excellent, and with such a small group we were able to order à la carte rather than there being a set menu as is usually the case with a group tour. We went to bed fairly early with our luggage as ready as possible for the morning, for it was to be an early start ... 

The hotel staircase seen from our room

The following morning's train into Italy did not leave from Perrache but from Lyon St Exupery, outside the city at the airport and on the high speed line between Paris and the south coast, and although it did not leave until 08:42 we had to take road transport to get to the station and with Lyon's traffic that meant leaving the hotel soon after 07:15, so we were in the breakfast room when it opened at 06:30 in order to be away on time. The drive through suburban Lyon in driving rain was not the most inspiring part of the holiday, but the sight of St Exupery's TGV station soon put it behind us, an excellent example of SNCF's striking modern station architecture. Our train started at St Exupery so it was at the platform in good time and we were soon able to board. We had not been going long when the train manager announced that owing to a "surprise problem" there was no catering aboard - apparently there had been a fire at the catering depot - so having had an unseemly early breakfast we were now facing a five-hour trip before we could eat again, and no coffee. By now it was daylight and although the mountain scenery was partly obscured by mist and cloud we were able to enjoy the ride, winding among the hills and through the Fréjus Tunnel into Italy and after Turin thence to Milan.

In Milan we had a short metro ride between stations before taking the high-speed Frecciarossa train to Rome. We were in Second Class for this stretch of the journey but still had comfortable leather seats and plenty of space for ourselves and for our luggage. It was at Milano that we were asked for the first time for our vaccine certificates, and no time were we ever asked for our Passenger Locator Forms, nor did anyone in France ask to see our signed statements that we were Covid-free. The train to Rome was a little late and then had to wait for a platform at Roma Termini station, being almost half-an-hour late by the time we arrived. It was a short walk to our hotel where we were united with our luggage which had been packed at home a week beforehand and sent ahead. Being late there was little time to prepare for dinner but we did just manage to unpack before making our way down for the evening meal together. Dinner was across the road in a different hotel: this complexity arose from pandemic closure - the meal was in the hotel in which we had expected to stay, but this had not yet reopened following Italy's lockdown although its restaurant had opened. The hotels belonged to the same group, a family hotel business which owned three clustered in one street near the main railway station. Here we met the other four members of our tour who had flown into Rome from Florida the day before and had already settled in. Even with eight of us, we were still under a third of the expected group size for this trip.

After a good night's sleep we were ready for our first day in Rome, which began with a guided tour, partly by coach but mostly on foot. Our enthusiastic guide Giuseppe introduced us in just a couple of hours to the long history of this ancient city which is now the capital of a fairly young country as well as the centre of western Christianity. Interspersed among all the paraphernalia of a modern capital city, including a metro line under construction, plundered over the centuries for building materials, and disturbed by the attempts of a Fascist dictator to create city to show off his power, were the remains of one of the world's ancient civilisations. Aware of its history the modern civic authority uses the "SPQR" badge on public facilities throughout Rome, even on boring things like inspection chamber covers! The rain which had dogged us in London and Lyon continued in Rome (not good for photography) but this tailed off and stopped towards the end of our guided tour and we even had some sunshine.  We were shown the Colosseum, the Pantheon and an overview of the Forum, as well as the Trevi Fountain with a lot of history and statues in between - I am glad there was no test afterwards because it was hard to take it all in!

The tour had included a coffee stop at the Capitol museum and ended in the Piazza Navona at lunch time. We sought out the gelateria Giolitti for our first Italian ice cream of the tour - if it is good enough for the Obamas it is probably good enough for us - and that was all we needed for lunch! In the morning before setting off on the guided tour we had booked online for a visit to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, and we thought we would spend the afternoon exploring the city and would head towards St Peter's Basilica to check out how to arrange to visit that. After a pleasant walk westwards from our gelato stop we soon found ourselves in St Peter's Square and discovered that entry was (a) free of charge and (b) quick and simple, with just a modest queue for the requisite security check - no more arduous than queuing for Eurostar. We soon realised how fortunate we were to be visiting Rome this year, for there were so few people there. Everywhere was busy enough to have atmosphere but nowhere was overcrowded. We had a chance to look at everything properly without being jostled by crowds. So we did not hesitate to join the security-check queue and made our visit to St Peter's right then.

First and foremost, of course, this is a cathedral, and it is a shrine to the chief apostle who was buried here, but it is also a monument to past popes and it was particularly moving to stand before the burial site of Pope John XXIII who did so much to modernise the Roman Catholic Church and to advance the cause of Christian unity, and heartening to see how many people were praying there. I am not a huge fan of baroque architecture but even so the size of this building is extremely impressive and I could not help the naughty thought that St Paul's Cathedral in London was a deliberate attempt to copy the spectacle of St Peter's in Rome.

From St Peter's we took a long walk alongside the River Tiber, which was disappointing in terms of maintenance. I am not sure if this was a pandemic-related issue or if they never maintain the sides of the river, but there were substantial clumps of weeds and saplings and a lot of graffiti along the lower-level roadways on both side of the river, in great contrast to the Seine and the Thames. After a while we crossed the river and visited what remains of the Jewish Ghetto which still has a huge Jewish character with kosher Italian restaurants and pizzerias. It was a bit early for dinner or we might have given it a try. On the other hand it was also too late to visit the museum in the Synagogue, so that will have to wait for a future visit to Rome. The population of the Jewish quarter suffered immensely in the second world war, of course, under the Fascist government, although it was interesting to see a war memorial showing that prior to that there had been several who had served the nation and died for it in other conflicts.

We strolled back into the city centre and had our dinner at the street corner Ristorante Abruzzi as darkness was falling. We were greeted enthusiastically (as everywhere else - this city needs tourists!) and sat outside. The reserved table next to ours was soon taken by a group of three priests of different nationalities conversing in English ... a constant probability in Rome! We didn't order bread and mineral water but it came anyway, and we were billed for it anyway, but that is apparently how it is in Italy, or in Rome anyway, and when in Rome you have no choice, really, but to live as Romans do. And yes, they do still call themselves Romans. Back at our hotel after a walk via the Spanish Steps our iPhones revealed we had walked a little short of 30,000 steps that day and we were soon well asleep.

The second day in Rome was almost completely spoken-for, beginning with a "hidden Rome" tour, new this year (although it would have been last year if last year had happened) to Great Rail Journeys, ending with an included lunch, and followed by the Vatican tour we had booked ourselves for the free afternoon. The hidden Rome tour was simply a look at some of the interesting buildings which are not famous, and began with a coach to the north side of the inner city, to a small area of large villas and apartments designed by the architect Gino Coppedè of Florence and known as the Quartiere Coppedè. It is a gorgeous pastiche of many styles of building, most of them flamboyant and full of meaning as well as style, and all expensive when built and still expensive now, although rather cluttered with parked cars these days. From there our coach took us to a very unusual church, still in use and in popular demand for weddings, apparently, San Stefano Rotondo: it is circular in plan (with the Altar in the centre, like a smaller and far older version of Liverpool Metropolitan (RC) Cathedral, and dedicated to St Stephen the first martyr, and all around the walls are depictions of the deaths of many Christian martyrs. It is the unofficial church of Hungarians in Rome. Our third and last port of call on the hidden Rome tour was a restaurant in the Trastavere district ("across the Tiber") where we had a lunch included as part of the tour, local Italian food with wine. 

Our four American companions left the restaurant promptly by taxi for the Vatican where they had booked a guided tour. We left soon after the on foot for a self-guided visit starting half an hour later than theirs ... and we certainly walked off our lunch striding it out to arrive at our stated ticket time! With only one short afternoon it was pointless to try to se much of the extensive Vatican Museums so we made it our aim to see the Sistine Chapel and such other things as we might chance upon on our way around. We were so very fortunate to have been visiting in such a strange year when many foreign visitors were absent and we were able to spend time looking in some depth at the décor of the chapel: very few of the millions of people who have squeezed their way through this historic and sacred site will have the opportunity we had to look at every painting and even to go back for a second look to check some missed detail! Among all the suffering and devatsation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, we felt very blessed to have visited some of Italy's most important and popular sites and seen them without the pressure of the crowds. After refreshments we visited the Papal collection of horse-drawn and horseless carriages, all of great interest. Photography was not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but no-one stopped us photographing the collection of popemobiles!

That night we packed our large suitcase for porterage and on the Thursday morning after breakfast we left together for the station for our train to Florence, Firenze in Italian, travelling in 2nd Class again in another high-speed Frecciarossa. This was the first rail journey our American companions had undertaken on the tour, and as they were due to fly home to Florida from Venice they would not have the joy of travelling in First Class because the trips within Italy are all 2nd. We departed Rome on time and must have made good progress because we had to wait five minutes for a platform at Florence but still arrived on time! We made our way on foot to the Michaelangelo hotel where we spent the next three nights, but first we simply left our hand luggage there and had some free time before a guided walking tour of Florence at 14:30.

On the guided tour we were shown the Ponte Vecchio, of course, the Duomo (Florence's cathedral) and the 

On the first evening in Florence there was an evening meal included at a restaurant local to our hotel, where we were were served the traditional local Florentine beef (bistecca alla fiorentina) with a superb red wine. This was accompanied by meat balls and peas and preceded by a starter of various cold meats and cheeses, so it probably gave us all the protein we needed for the week but not a lot of carbohydrate or fibre ... 

The first full day in Florence was completely free and we opted to spend it walking around and enjoying the city itself. We began by crossing the River Arno with a view to climbing the hill that overlooks the city. Along the way we stopped for coffee at a traditional bar where we stood at the bar for our espresso, and then we also enjoyed a gelato from the shop recommended by our guide during our tour the previous day. So fortified we climbed up to the Rose Garden,  and thence onwards and upwards to the Piazzale Michelangelo and then the abbey at the very top of the hill with stupendous views over Florence to the hills beyond. We walked slowly back down via the city centre.

After all this exertion we returned to our hotel room for a hot bath to recover from the walking before crossing the street to a local pizzeria for dinner. This did not look much from the outside but was fantastic inside and did a very good pizza for a decent price.

On Saturday the whole party (less two who had done the tour before and used the day for something else) took the tram one stop from the hotel to the station and boarded a regional train for Pisa. After a slight delay owing to trespassers on the line (a problem not unique to Britain) we arrived in Pisa and took a local bus to the famous cathedral - well, its bell tower is famous, or infamous, anyway. As you walk through the crowded market place, valuables kept securely against the hordes of pickpockets, and through the gate into the cathedral precincts, the sight of the gleaming white buildings is quite breathtaking. Like Florence, Pisa cathedral has a separate baptistry opposite the front entrance, but its bell tower is at the far end and famously leans at about 5 degrees from vertical owing to inadequate foundations on the shifting soil of the river delta on which the city is built. Centuries of corrective, restorative and strengthening work have ensured the survival of the tower but its bells cannot be rung for fear of bringing the tower down and bell sounds for services are provided by electronic means. The cathedral is just as interesting inside, with much history on display as well as fine depictions of the gospel narrative in painting and sculpture.

Departure from Pisa was from a station much nearer the cathedral, so no bus ride was needed for this leg of the journey and we soon boarded another regional train for the city of Lucca which is a fascinating medieval town which still has its city walls intact and its Roman ampitheatre in use as a continuous crescent of residential and commercial premises, notably restaurants. We had lunch here, outdoors at at street corner trattoria and walked around the city taking in its remarkable history and architecture.

Outside the ampitheatre at Lucca

A third regional train took us "home" to Florence for our last night there and we revisited the same pizzeria as the previous evening, at our "usual" table with our "usual" house red wine. Then back to pack for the next move ...

A small part of the view of Venice from the station
On Sunday morning we had a little time before our next train, so after checking out we had a final stroll around our end of Florence and bought some take-away salad from a little shop near the hotel and then made our way to the station to meet the others and board the Frecciarossa to Venice Santa Lucia. It has to be said that the Italian high speed lines do seem to have a lot of tunnel and so the view from the windows is often not all it could be, but when we could see scenery it was worth seeing! It was also exciting to be gliding smoothly past everything on the adjacent motorway ... Julia our tour manager primed us to be ready for our first sight of Venice when we were off the train and heading towards the exit from the station, so I had my camera ready and as we walked through the doorway we were met with a sight of incredible beauty and excitement: the famous Grand Canal runs right past the station forecourt, there are no road vehicles at all, and the buildings are a stunning collection, many of them with a distinct eastern influence. 

We were taken by boat to collect our luggage which had gone before us and then to check in at our hotel on the Venetian district of Murano. Murano consists of seven islands linked by bridges and that afternoon we explored Murano and made sure we set foot on all of its islands. Two were of no real interest to us and we did not spend any worthwhile time there, and the others we explored more or less throughly. An essential part of our exploration was identify the waterbus stop at Colonna and the south side of Murano because on the following day there was to be a one-day public transport strike and only a few essential waterbus services would operate, including a shuttle between Colonna and the nearest stop on the main island of Venice. As we wandered around I could not help thinking that the big way in which Venice as a city was superior to any other I have visited was the absolute lack of motor transport on its streets. It was so quiet in the side streets and housing estates and children were playing outside their houses, all goods being delivered by trolley from boats on the canals. In Murano most canals had footways on both sides like an ordinary city street but boat movements were far fewer than car movements in an ordinary town. Most streets, though, do not have a canal and are simply peaceful. All towns should be like this, perhaps, with just a few roads. There is no need to access ones home with ones own vehicle - most Venetians do not expect to get right to their homes by boat. 

Sunday evening's restaurant

After unpacking and getting ourselves ready we were taken as a group to dinner an a local hotel a couple of streets and a couple of bridges away. Like all the included meals this one was really, really good  and was enjoyed by all. A starter (antipasto), first course (primo), main course (secondo) and dessert (dolce) were served, followed by coffee (espresso) and accompanied by wine (vino).

The Monday was to have included our guided walking tour of Venice city centre but because the public transport strike may have made travel timing difficult, this was moved to the Tuesday and we had the Monday completely free to make our own arrangements. This was a pity as we have generally found that having the guided tour first helps us to decide what we shall do in the free time, both sparking ideas about what to do and enabling us to avoid things that the guided tour will include anyway. There is so much to see and do in Venice, though, that we were not too concerned about this, and we knew not to visit St Mark's Cathedral as this was included in the guided tour.

The strike affected all the waterbus ("vaporetto") lines in Venice but essential ferry services like those between Murano and Venice city centre were operating on simplified routes at reduced frequencies, so straight after breakfast we made our way to the only vaporetto stop in Murano, which was not as crowded as feared and we were able to board the next boat to Venice. Our Great Rail Journeys holiday included a two-day transport pass for Venice and although we would not get much value from it on the Monday we used it as much as we could on the Tuesday when full services were operating. From the terminal on the north side of the main island we made or way on foot, appreciating the tranquility of this boat-and-pedestrian city, to the Jewish quarter, once the ghetto, of this city. There was much twentieth-century tragedy about Jewish life in Italian cities, of course, and much oppression for centuries before that, but life in his quarter is much more settled now and there is an interesting museum (currently being restored, so only a smaller temporary museum is now available), and many Jewish business premises. As in Rome, kosher Italian food is available as well as traditional Jewish ritual items.

From there we went to the Grand Canal at the railway station where our visit to Venice had begun. We came across a couple of gondoliers waiting for customers and as we had intended to take a gondola ride at some point (You have to, don't you? You can't do it anywhere else, after all!) this seemed as good a time as any. For €80 per gondola a tour takes in a short stretch of the Grand Canal and some of the smaller canals, returning to the same berth about 45 minutes later. Longer tours are available but that seemed about right for us. Gondolas are an interesting design: they are all black and a similar size and shape but their furnishing and decoration varies considerably except that almost all of them have the distinctive front end design which symbolises the city of Venice and its districts. They are asymmetric and lean slightly sideways, apparently to assist passage under the low bridges. Propelling and steering them is something of an art, and we left that to our professional gondolier.

Back at the canalside we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It had a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal and was probably the nearest restaurant to the station but although this may not have made it the best bargain in town it was the one that suited us, with an unbeatable place to sit, a menu that fitted our needs and it was there when we wanted it, with the sun shining warmly on the terrace! Once more we felt fortunate to be travelling this year when so few foreign tourists were there; we felt sure that any other year it would have been difficult to find a table for lunch. After lunch we navigated our way on foot (ever thankful for our iPhones!) to St Mark's Square for a quick look around and a photo opportunity and then set off back to Murano by way of a long walk through the fascinating and often stunningly beautiful streets and a quick, efficient boat ride. Murano is world-famous for decorative glass and there are many shops selling glass ornaments priced from two or three Euros to many thousands, some of them shops of large factories, many of them workshops of individual craftspeople. Our hotel was construction in a former glass factory and its presence in Murano must have transformed the economy of this part of Venice, a city which has lost about a third of its population over the last twenty years or so and has many derelict buildings outside the city centre. After our extensive lunch no dinner was necessary that evening, a gelato sufficing ...

The following day we left from the vaporetto stop right outside the hotel and were taken around the eastern end of the city’s main islands to a stop near to St Mark’s Square for our guided walking tour. We visited some smaller squares where we learned about the fascinating and unique history of this unique city and about the design and function of its many palaces. We finished at St Mark’s cathedral which is not simply dedicated to the evangelist but also is the burial place of his relics. Quite awesome to stand near the mortal remains of my namesake saint! 

After the guided tour we set off to the vaporetto stop and started making the most of our passes, travelling in both directions along the Grand Canal and then taking the journey "home" to Murano via the west end of the city and so seeing the parts we had missed on the morning's outward trip. The homeward trip took us past the cruise liner terminal (empty: no passenger ships at all) and then past the rail station and out towards Murano, dropping us back at our hotel. The passes work much like Oyster cards on London buses: simply tap in to open the barrier onto the pontoon at which the water bus docks; no need to tap out. It was then time to get ready for the dinner out at the Palazzo Pisani: after showering and changing we took a vaporetto to the rail station and changed there for another along the Grand Canal which dropped us near the Palazzo, now a hotel with a restaurant in which we were to enjoy our dinner as part of the included activities of the tour. We would never have booked this ourselves or even known it was available. It is always good to have a special meal together towards the end of a tour when you have come to know the other members of the party and everyone tried to make it just that bit more special than the other dinners we had shared. As a bonus we had watched the sun set over the Venetian Lagoon on the water bus ride from Murano to the city centre! Fabulous. We were taken back to Murano by a water taxi through an interesting route which the larger vaporetti would not have been able to use, and then to bed for an early start in the morning.

Our last morning in Venice started very early because not only did we have a train to catch, but we had to pack our portered suitcase and have it ready for collection before we left. Our tour party was alone in the breakfast room at the hotel and then we left for the station. The four British members of the party bade farewell to our American friends who were making their own way to Venice airport that morning to fly home. We were taken to the station by the same boat that brought us to Murano and this time we were taken around the eastern side of the city and watched the sun rise over the lagoon just as we had seen it set the evening before. The Doge's Palace and St Mark's looked stunning in the low morning sunlight as we hurried on past them to catch our train to Turin, the last city in our Grand Tour of Italy. 

We boarded the Frecciarossa and were whisked across northern Italy to Turin, arriving at the central station Torino Porta Nuova and walked the short distance to the Hotel Concord where would spend our last night in Italy. It was still morning and we had almost the whole day to explore the city; no guided tour this time and we set off to see Turin on our own. We found a small cafe to enjoy a cup of the local hot chocolate speciality, bicerin, which I thoroughly recommend, and a little later a great little place for lunch with pizza served by the slice and a selection of local craft beers. I photographed the architecture and the trams and, just as in Florence, we climbed a high hill overlooking the city. On a clear day, apparently, the Alps form a scenic backdrop to the plain on which Turin stands, but when we were there only the very faintest outline of the lowest parts of the mountains could be seen, and then only if you were looking for it. The view of the city remained stunning, however. Returning to the hotel we bought some supplies at a local supermarket for the following day as we could not be sure that we would be able to buy lunch on the train; our room had a refrigerator, so all we had to do was remember to take it with us in the morning ... which we did! I have to say that dinner at the hotel that evening and breakfast in the morning were a bit of a disappointment after all we had enjoyed elsewhere: it was as if the hotel was not really fully open yet and they had taken on catering for our group without having the resources to do it properly.

On our final morning we left Turin early, with a coach taking us across the city centre to the station Torino Porta Susa, a new station served by the French TGV which was to take us, in First Class now, direct to Paris on our way home. It left on time and the buffet bar was open but serving a very reduced offering, so it was as well that we had brought our lunch with us. The bar did supply the wine and coffee to accompany it, though. And now I could speak in French which, although I am certainly not fluent, I speak a lot better than Italian. The Italian classes we had taken over the previous year or two had helped enormously, though, with the enjoyment of the holiday. Being able to converse at a basic level and to understand signs and information boards was hugely beneficial, and since returning we have begun polishing up our German ready for our next international trip! I found that reverting to French was a bit of a struggle because I kept lapsing into Italian - I could ask for things but found myself saying, "please" in the wrong language.

Taken across Paris to the Gare du Nord by coach we were soon showing our Covid vaccination passes, tickets and passports at the Eurostar terminal, having filled in our Passenger Locator Forms the evening before (never to be seen again ...) and were soon on the Eurostar non-stop to Londres St Pancras International where our "Day 2" PCR test appointment awaited. Having been tested we made our way across the road to Kings Cross and boarded the next LNER train for Peterborough where we changed for Stamford and were soon home. Most of our luggage, of course, was still in transit with the porterage service, so there was only minimal unpacking and washing to do, most of it happening a few days later when the suitcase appeared with a driver from DHL.

The Grand Tour was indeed a grand tour and we are already planning to return to Italy, hopefully next year, pandemic permitting, with a different Great Rail Journeys tour that will take us back to Rome and further south to visit Pompeii and other places we have not yet seen.