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Italian tour: Dave Wood and company go abroad for a two-week excursion

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In May, my wife and I joined friends Jane and Larry Harred and Kermit and Sharon Paulson of River Falls, and Ralph and Grace Sulerud of St. Paul, for a trip to southern Italy and Sicily.

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Ruth and I spent a few days some years ago in southern Italy and Sicily, but lack of time and money precluded our doing the neighborhood justice. So this year, we decided on a comprehensive tour with Globus, the Swiss travel group with which we've traveled before.

We knew from experience that the south is a whole new ball game when compared with Tuscany and northern Italy, so we thought Globus could help us through the difficult ways of doing things in the south.

So how did it turn out?

We saw almost more than we could handle for a price lower than it would have been had we traveled on our own. We had lots of fun kibitzing with our friends from home, which added a special dimension to the impersonality of a guided tour.

Here's a sampling of our itinerary.

We flew from Minneapolis to Rome where we met Ida, our Genovese guide and about 30 other tour members. Ida was a no-nonsense guide ("If you're late to get on the bus in the morning, I will KEEL you. No, just keeding)" who had a puckish sense of humor and who made good use of her long experience as a guide for Italians who tour the U.S.

So began our tour, about which I jotted every evening.

Day 2 and 3

My wife Ruth and I have been in Rome several times, so we skipped the tours to Christian and ancient Rome and headed for the Capitoline Hill, where Ruth toured the museum and I watched in the park overlooking the Roman Forum.

We have a very nice hotel of the Jolly chain on the edge of town and enjoy the relative quiet after the raucous sounds and smells of central Rome, going from there to the edge of town was like leaving River Falls Days and heading for Beldenville.

Day 4

We're on our way to Naples as Ida delivers herself on the state of modern Italy (You think we've got a mess!) as we pass the hill towns of suburban Rome, the pope's summer home, the World War II battle site at Monte Cassino.

The further we get from the city, the more verdant the countryside becomes, awash in vineyards, orange and lemon groves, already amber waves of grain.

One hundred miles into our trip, we stop at Reggio of Casserta and tour the Bourbon Palace that resembles Versailles. Those folks knew how to spend money! Fortunately we don't have to see all 1200 rooms.

Even more fortunately, we have a wonderful guide, an art student who tells us more than we could ever find in a guide book.

And then it's on to Naples, where we tour the National Archaeological Museum, which is crammed with well-preserved artifacts from Pompeii. Another good guide.

After a short tour of the center city and the Posillipo Hill overlooking the magnificent Bay of Naples, we check into another Jolly Hotel. This one is not so jolly, and it's centrally located, which ups all prices.

A trip to the hotel bar where a drink was 6 euros ($9), made us yearn for a Leinie's tap at Emma's.

Day 5

Most of the tour group goes to the Isle of Capri and comes back very enthusiastic about the visit to Capri's Villa San Michele.

Wherever he goes, Ralph Sulerud keeps saying "It's a lot like Halsted, my hometown in the Red River Valley."

We've been on the Isle before so stay in Naples to visit the biggest outdoor market I've ever seen, which sells everything from cigarettes to eggplant to tripe (the cow type, not the National Enquirer), bigger even than our Farmer's Market in high season -- and more dangerous.

We leave the market, hop on a city bus and are attacked by smooth pickpockets who spot me and my cane. I am saved by Ruth, who doubles as my bodyguard and several kind Neapolitans who run interference between me and the creepy guys.

Day 6

It's a busy day. We check out of our not-so jolly Jolly and head for Sorrento where shoppers shop and I sit on a park bench.

Then on to Pompeii, where we have a wonderful guide, Pasquale, who makes the old stones come to life.

And are we in for a surprise! Ida warns us that our overnight cruise to Palermo, Sicily, will not be on a liner, but "just a ferry."

Some ferry! Every couple gets a more than adequate room with shower, there's both a cafeteria and a sit-down dining room and a very nice barroom, where drinks are half the price of Jolly Hotel bars.

We have fun.

Day 7

The day dawns as we wake up at the harbor in Palermo.

What's this? It's clean and well-maintained and beautiful!

One reason we took the supervised trip was to see Palermo without fears, because we were afraid to go it on our own. With all the bad publicity, the mafia trials, etc., we were curious and expected grunginess at the very least.

Well, Palermo turns out to be a beautiful city.

We visit three beautiful buildings: The cathedral, the Palatine Chapel are eye catchers, but nothing compares to the Norman Cathedral in nearby Monreale, which contains 50,000-square feet of mosaics.

This is more elaborate than St. Bridget's and Ezekiel put together.

I thought I had seen more churches over the years than need be -- until Monreale.

Then it's on to Mondello (no, not Larry Mondello of "Leave it to Beaver"), a quaint little town. Kerm Paulson and Ralph Sulerud discover they were not the first Norwegians to visit. On the wall of a lovely old hotel overlooking the ocean we see a plaque that tells us dramatist "Henrik Ibsen in this building composed his play 'Ghosts' and emerged from obscurity."

Day 8

We visited the Greek temples of southwest Sicily at Agrigento and the acropolis at Selinunte, then turn in to look forward to our trip to Taormina, where we stayed years ago, but not before we toured the long main drag of Palermo.

Beautiful!

Tonight we break our resolve not to subscribe to an extra-cost side trip, at $59 per head, the bread and butter of most tour companies.

We sign on for a big seafood dinner on the Mediterranean. Sorry, but I don't care much for Mediterranean shrimp and lobster. They're mushy and thoughts of oil tanker slick dribble through my mind.

I longed for the tender, firm jumbo shrimps in The West Wind Supper Club's Margarita Shrimp Cocktail. Fortunately, we're saved by a killer risotto with asparagus, great octopus, baby squid and unlimited quantities of wine.

Day 9

We have fun today at Syracuse where Salvatore, our outspoken guide, leads us through the huge Greek theatre, the Garden of Paradise, the Roman amphitheatre and the Ear of Dionysus, which is way more startling than any rock formation at Wisconsin Dells or even the famed stone mound of River Falls.

Salvatore shows his leftist stripes when he said over and over that the Garden of Paradise was "A paradise for the Greeks, maybe; but for the slaves it was Hell!"

And then it's on to our hotel in Taormina, a jewel of a town, inhabited years back by the likes of Goethe and D.H. Lawrence.

Ida warns us that our hotel will not be like the Jollys, but will be "Italian." Turns out that I'll take "Italian" over Jolly any day. The Corallo was roomy, smartly appointed, newly remodeled and the staff was more than helpful.

We unpacked and caught a bus up to the old city and were disappointed to find it crammed with people, worse even than the Shriner's Parade in River Falls.

Back at the hotel, we had the best provided dinner of the tour.

Day 10

It's a free day, so we roamed around Taormina, which was no longer crowded with people, most of whom had re-boarded a 3,000-passenger cruise ship in the harbor. Three thousand extra people makes a mess in a city of only 10,000 (witness Pepper Days in Hudson).

Most of the group took the tour to Mount Etna which I passed on because it's difficult for me and my cane to hobble over rugged terrain. Folks came back very impressed.

Day 11

We leave Taormina and head for Alberobello, via a ferry across the Straits of Messina to the mainland and Calabria. Ida tells us that there are plans to build a bridge across the straits, but she shrugs, "I guess it's up to the Mafia if they want it done or not."

This occasioned some speculation in our group about the proposed new bridge at Stillwater, Minn.

Our destination, Calabria, is a poor region, but you'd never know it from the magnificent vineyards, fruit groves and wheat fields, better even than the Mann Valley during the years it actually rains.

It's a feast for the eyes, especially in early June.

After almost 300 miles, we arrive in Alberobello, a hot new tourist spot for what reason I cannot fathom.

The town is famous for its trulli, old whitewashed stone circular houses with pinnacled, conical roofs -- almost Disney-like. These sites are crowded with Italian tourists, an uncommon occurrence on this trip.

At night our contingent of eight skipped the extra-cost Apulian dinner with folk dancing and found our own restaurant, Locanda di Don Antonio: Very trendy for a small town, but great food--like baby lamb chops and thick veal chops served dramatically on square plates, very "stilo."

Style is very big in this country. The advantage of this little town is that our meals cost less than half of what it might have in a large city.

Day 12

I lounge around our hotel, the cheapest of the lot at 86 euros and one of the nicest, read whatever Italian magazines I can manage in the lobby, have a coffee down the street at a café.

Most went on to an excursion of the Caves of Castellana, but having already been at Crystal Cave in Spring Valley, I pass for a chance to get out of the tourist groove and into town.

This last town, though charming in a modest way, has been disappointing. It would have been much better to return to Rome and have an extra night there, but that would have meant a 600-mile bus ride -- and a higher tariff.

The Alberobello excursion is like heading for Madison, but stopping instead at the cheesy new log cabin development at Warrens.

Trullis? Cranberries? Who cares?

Day 13

A long trip back to Rome, where we had a fine bus tour of fancy residences and the Via Veneto, threw some coins in a very busy fountain called Trevi, then repaired to a lively restaurant where the group had its own dining room, with strolling musicians. (Why do they always have to sing "That's Amore?")

Day 14

Most of our friends head back for the United States, Australia and Canada. Jane and Larry Harred and Ruth and I stay on for a different adventure.

And so there you have it.

Was it a good deal, economically?

I think so. With hotel and food prices burgeoning around the world, we got our money's worth. Nowadays, New York City has slipped to 50th in the race to be the world's most expensive town even though the average price for a middle-range hotel room like a Sheraton or a Radisson there is $500 per night.

Between Naples and Alberobello?

The posted prices on our rooms ranged from 375 euro (about $450) to 86 euro ( with most falling into the earlier category.)

We were fed magnificent breakfasts, both continental and American style.

We had excellent guides at each site.

All of our admission fees were paid as part of the package.

Outfits like Globus can offer this because they purchase rooms and meals in bulk. Had we gone on our own, the cost would have been $8,835, according to posted prices.

The Globus trip cost $7,500 -- tips included -- less by almost $1,500 and we avoided the hassle of driving 1,500 miles, negotiating hotels, lugging heavy suitcases, finding the sites to see and trying to figure out what was going on in this most exotic of European locales.

Have a question?

Just ask Ida, who was very straightforward in her opinions about the direction Italy was taking, the Mafia, the economy.

If you're interested, it's customary to contact a travel agent to make your purchase.

Be warned there are drawbacks to taking a bus tour. To make it work, regimentation is a must. We arose early every morning for breakfast and were on our way by 8 a.m., so we could get to the crowded sites before the rush.

The tour companies, in their efforts to beat out the competition, offer too many sites in a day and some of them not very interesting, which nevertheless keeps you from getting back to your hotel until just before dinner, with little time for rest -- and, on the other hand, with little time to get robbed or mugged.

The six evening meals offered in the 13 days tended to the mundane, like rigatoni with tomato sauce, rather than the flavorful Italo-Arab cuisine the region is known for.

And if I were to pick a hotel chain, I would stay away from Jolly, which ranged from very nice (Rome) to somewhat shabby (Naples).

On previous Globus tours to Turkey and central Europe and Portugal, our hotels were unfailingly topnotch, so the inconsistency in this summer's trip was somewhat disappointing. But I wasn't doing the picking and Globus was and that, in general, was the weakness of leaving the driving to it.

After returning to Rome, we chose a less regimented method of touring for our final week in our favorite country. (See "Woodworking," page A5).

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