When we were first planning our Voyage, we had a hard time figuring out where we would go first, next, and after that, etc. Although Italy isn't such a large country, it is very long... over 700 miles from one end to the other. We traveled a bit over 1000 miles by train and car just to get from one booking to the next, the one after that, and so on. And if we include our day trips by car, the total traveled would come to over 1800 miles.
It was difficult to come up with a travel agenda that satisfied myself, my wife Lisa and son Lucas. Lisa originally had Venice on her list at the northern end of the country and my southernmost "must do" was to visit Molfetta in Puglia where my Dad was born. Early on we realized the logistics of adding a Venice leg to the Voyage was a bit too ambitious for a three week journey.
Florence, Pisa, Vinci and San Gimignano were on our list for Tuscany. All of us wanted to see the rugged Amalfi Coast, so we included it. But then we had to figure what path to take to get us over to Molfetta. In my roaming around on Google Earth, including a lot of zooming into its Street View, I discovered the rugged peaks of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa for an overnight stopover. Then I learned about the cave homes (and hotels) of Matera, the city of Sassi. OK, so we'd book a stay in a cave. Then of course, it was natural to include a stay in a pointy roofed trullo just outside of Alberobello. That would bring us pretty close to Molfetta. We would leave Rome for last, returning to Rome by train and spending another several days without rental car exploring the ancient city.
So, it was fly into Rome, jump on a train to Chiusi in south-east Tuscany, where we'd pick up our first rental car, then drive to our first agriturismo just outside of Pienza in southern Tuscany. Next, drive to our next agriturismo in the countryside with a view of San Gimignano's towers. A few days later, drop off the car in Florence and take a train to Naples to pick up another car. The rest of our Voyage was driving... until dropping the car in Bari and taking a train back to Rome.
It was a complex plan that took many months to finesse, with changes and last minute glitches that had to be solved. We had to book the flight, arrange for car service, reserve seats on 3 different trains and had two different car rentals. We reserved a private tour of the Vatican Museum. We booked eight different accommodations: 2 agriturismo B&Bs, 2 villas, 2 hotels and 2 apartments.
It was tough, but we did it... and now the Voyage is part of who we are as a family.
As it turned out, driving in Italy was fairly straightforward--they drive on the same side of the road as in the States, but one has to be wary of the ubiquitous Italian driver, who pays little attention to speed limits, lines in the middle of roads, stop lights or stop signs. Florence, Pisa and Naples were the worst, and the Amalfi Coast Road was tense not just because of the pazzo drivers, but because of the narrowness of the road itself. I still consider myself a New Yorker, having lived and worked in Manhattan for many years, and I can shift into "NY Taxi Driver Mode" in a second, but there's nothing like the chaos and anarchy of Italian drivers. And although I wanted to drive a standard shift, the curvy roads and tight streets and occasional bumper to bumper traffic made me appreciate having an automatic transmission for the southern leg of our Voyage, although the Volvo SUV was far to wide for Amalfi.
One more note about Italian roads... For some reason, the "roundabouts" in Italy function perfectly and are used more than other types of intersections. Everyone seems to flow smoothly around these perfectly engineered traffic circles.
As far as train travel goes--it's fantastic. It can be a bit stressful if you arrive too close to departure times (as happened to us once), but it's relaxing, comfortable, amazingly fast on the high speed trains, and even comfortable and efficient on the regional lines, although the cars are showing their age (the toilet emptied directly onto the tracks below). The 158 mph Frecciarossa we took from Florence to Naples was an especially beautiful, high-tech train but we were also very comfy on the slower Frecciargento from Bari back to Rome. Aside from the waiting (often for several hours) for our departures, I'd highly recommend train travel in Italy as long as you aren't traveling outside of the larger cities.
How about our next trip? Well, we now know that we don't like the highly trafficked tourist sites, so we would stay longer in hub locations and spend time living like the locals--going to the market town in the mornings, heading to uncluttered sandy beaches, drinking local wine, maybe taking a few cooking classes, all the while soaking in the local lifestyle... doing our best to simply "be Italian". We also loved the South much more than the North, so the next time we might spend a week or so relaxing and exploring Puglia (with a day trip to Abruzzo) and perhaps another week in Sicily while searching out Lisa's family roots in Corleone. Meanwhile, we keep living the Italian life...