9 70-something women
3 different countries of residence
1 base budget (including rooms, meals, guides, and land transport)
Do the math.
Hungry minds, zesty appetites, open to adventure
Flexible attitudes, expendable incomes, previous long-distance travel experience
Able-bodied (not including feet, knees, and hips)
Do the match.
At one rehearsal leading up to our high school's golden jubilee celebration, our friend Ching brought an illustrated book about a six-bedroom villa in
So: Google Italy.
As it turned out, everyone in the group who decided to travel appeared to have a special strength. Together, we made one amazing Wonder Woman.
In addition to shared history, we shared knowledge, respected interests and moved at a comfortable common pace. We shopped brilliantly, ate with gusto, and laughed a lot. Pharmacologically, someone always seemed to have a solution–traditional or alternative. (In fact, we devised a game called “Name that Pill!” Short of open-heart surgery, this group was apparently ready for anything!)
At our age, we have experience, education, and savoir-faire. Instead of throwing a tantrum over things that don’t go right, we instinctively default to fix-it mode.
Here is the story of our trip that started at Homecoming.
Gigi Travers suggested we get in touch with the travel agent she had worked with for many years. In March, we found an ad that asked, “Where will our Dreamliner take you?” And indeed, Etihad Airlines offered a sensational promotional business class fare to Rome and back (the three Stateside-mates used their bank of mileage points).
Dinner in the Piazza del Biscione, Roma
Once the travel dates were locked in, our group met every month thereafter. Nana Barcelona and Marissa Macuja were assigned logistics and started comparing drivers they had used on previous European trips. The rates were comparable, but the group eventually chose Gerry Balid and Rey Delan, who proposed using a van and a sedan to pick us up from Rome on Day 6 and ferry us to Tuscany and back to the airport on Day 14.
Campo di Fiori
Breakfast curated from the Campo di Fiori
I started hounding an old friend, Fr. Joe Quilong-Quilong, S.J, who had worked for many years at the Vatican before returning to Manila to become president of the Loyola House of Studies. Initial replies from Vatican City were disappointing. Because of increasing terrorist issues, the Pope was no longer granting private audiences. September was a favored month for one of his grace-giving travels abroad so he might not even be in Rome, we learned.
But prayers must be powerful (especially from this very insistent group of senior supplicants) because, by September, Fr. JQQ told us we got seats to the Wednesday Public Audience, and that he would also help us get a pre-registered group entry into the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Instead of quickly passing by some great painting or sculpture or view, we might probably stay an extra moment or two in appreciation, or amazement or awe. As opposed to seeing things for the first time, we realized that we may be seeing them for the last–and therein lies a whole different perspective.
Agreeing to split up the research assignments, Marissa Macuja suggested stops in Orvieto, Deruta, and Assisi in Umbria on the drive to Tuscany. She gave us printed handouts that formed the basis for our travel files. Gigi honed in on Siena. And Ching Singson focused on San Gimignano, Castel Fiorentino, Montepulciano, and Pienza in Tuscany.
The Borghese Villa and Gardens with Luca Leoni; the Uffizi, Florence with Nicole Acuña
Susan Reyes, a retired Citibank longtimer, accepted the job of devising a matrix of tracked expenses: individual costs vs. the shared costs (like food or taxies or guides) that were to be divided by nine. This proved to be the trickiest but most appreciated skill brought to the table, especially since the currencies of pesos, dollars, and euros had to be computed and reduced to the single currency payable to the bank, i.e., Susan.
Jean Salvador found us Fr. Joshua Manubag, a Redemptorist priest who is in charge of the OFW community of the Redemptorist Curia in Rome. Fr. Joshua offered us the use of his “Philippine Room” at the monastery, where we were able to freshen up for our final day in Rome before our return departure for Manila.
Inside the Vatican Museum
The Vatican Museum ceiling
The Vatican Museum, Vatican City with Salvatore Arnesano
But best tip of all, good friend Ernest Escaler, who has been cited by Italy for his work promoting business between our two countries, suggested that we use a certified guide “to maximize your time in the galleries.” He was so right —there is so much in any gallery and museum in Italy, it pays off to have someone who has made it his or her job to be an authority on antiquity or art history or technique, and to share it with you as you stand in front of the work of art.
He connected us to Nicole Acuña, a lovely Filipina who fell in love with Italy when she was a student, then fell in love with an Italian, who was to be her husband and the father of her two beautiful boys. Nicole is certified to give tours in Italian and English, but she saved her best references for Filipino, which allowed us to understand and love the artwork best.
Shooting the David, by Michaelangelo; The 12°C Tasting Room of the Castello di Oliveto
Nicole also suggested two colleagues, Luca Leoni, who made our tour of the Borghese Villa and Gardens in Rome and the city of Siena a living, lively merge of historic and contemporary references, and Salvatore Arnesano, who took us through the endless lines leading to the jaw-dropping Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, and then into St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Sistine Chapel
Piazza Del Biscione, 91, Roma
Assuming you are beyond backpacking or glamping, you may be ready to take a chance on an alternative to the big brand hotels, where everything is slick and luxe, but also probably more expensive. Time to try one of the many online offers of private properties that have been turned into public guesthouses.
View from Piazza del Biscione 91's terrace
After looking through dozens of photos, we decided to book two apartments in a building adjacent to Campo di Fiori in Rome. The photos showed charming images of rooms with wood beamed ceilings and charming terraces with views of church domes and red-tiled rooftops. Our Roman Holiday fantasy come true!
St Peter's Basilica
St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
When reality met fantasy, however, everything fell apart like concrete construction held together with scotch tape. The condition of the apartments was less than clean, the furniture had been allowed to become shabby, the bathrooms had leaky tanks and clogged shower drains, the promised WiFi was broken and the washing machine was stuffed...with someone else’s wash. Light bulbs, even entire lamps, were broken or non-existent. Also, the "two-flight walk up" turned out to be a snaking climb up a narrow concrete and an unlit staircase that was not suitable for us, no matter how amazing we were.
There was so much more, but these are details I will take up directly with the agency that supposedly manages over 70 properties in Rome. From beginning to end, the interaction was awful. They simply don’t belong in the world of hospitality.
Apollo and Daphne by Gian Bernini; The Cathedral of Orvieto, Umbria
As for us—the experience simply brought out our group’s collective sense of humor and practiced flexibility. We set aside time to clean the apartments and let them breathe, and left us wishing they were simply ours to manage. Because one thing was certain: We did not regret the excellent location in Central Rome. We may return to Campo di Fiori, but not to Piazza del Biscione, 91!
Fresh produce, Campo de Fiori; Large basket of fresh truffles, San Gimignano
Castello di Cabbiavoli, Tuscany
When we arrived at our villa in Tuscany, it was as if the mirror had been spun around 180 degrees. From beginning to end of our weeklong stay, the live-in housekeeper/cook and the houseman/butler were welcoming and helpful. The grounds were immaculate and inviting on arrival, as were the rooms inside. The formal dining room, the morning breakfast room, the beautifully appointed living room, the private chapel, the swimming pool, the herb garden, the vineyards of the 40-acre estate were extraordinary!
Approaching the entrance to Castello de Cabbiavoli; From my window with the estate vineyard in background
At the end of a stay at the Castello, every guest received a souvenir book of the villa that one actually felt privileged to stay in. Our photos may not do it justice, but the nicest thing we can say is "thank you" to Cesare Puccioni and his family, who appointed this home with so many beautiful things and luxurious touches that all we could do was rise to the occasion and treat the villa as it demanded–with care and appreciation.
Clockwise from the top: The private chapel of Castello Cabbiavoli; Cesare Puccioni, estate owner; In the kitchen of Castello di Cabbiavoli with Angelito “JR” Cala and Signora Simona
Collected Tips for Senior Travelers
Finally, the group sat down for a final review of our trip. Yes, we ate like queens, and shopped like drunks, laughed like children, chattered like teenagers, and toured like first-timers, but we deconstructed this trip and share a few travel tips with fellow seniors:
1. Do travel. And do it now before you can no longer manage the long hours in a plane or the change in time zones or standing in endless lines or whatever. The blessings outweigh the inconveniences.
2. Do budget for a car (two if you can afford it) with drivers who can speak the local language as well as your own, and transport you 24/7, safely and knowledgeably! This was our biggest and best investment. This allowed us to take off when we wanted, and go together to the same or to separate destinations, and arrive in relatively relaxed dispositions.
3. Do check out your non-hotel stays. Website photos tend to show the best face forward, but do not necessarily stay current. We should have used Trip Advisor better because the TA contributors are honest and experienced and generally want you to have a good or better time than they did.
4. Do have a travel plan. Prioritize what you want to do, see, accomplish. Book guides. And hot table reservations. Then build in lots of free time for yourself or others in the group to reboot when batteries run down.
5. Book Business Class or better. Treat yourself, seniors! What a difference—to depart and arrive feeling rested and well-nourished. You get extra legroom and can sleep flat or watch lots of movies—a real bonus on flights over eight hours long.
–Plug adaptors. They vary so much everywhere, and you may spend a lot of down time not just off-line but off-the-grid.
–A few cheap plastic/wire hangers. There are never enough. And you may need them to hang up laundry in the shower.
–Your meds. Enough to last your trip, if possible. Otherwise, check with your doctors about filling prescriptions overseas.
–Slippers or flip-flops. Those cold marble bathroom floors can be icy or slippery when wet.
–Skin moisturizer. The planes are dry, dry, dry. And when you travel, so is your skin.
–Travel iron and hairdryer. If you are OCD about this, better be prepared.
–Eye-opener must-haves. Like instant coffee, or tea bags, sugar packs or powdered milk.
–Sachets of powdered laundry soap. You will always want to wash something by hand.
–Down vests. Tuck one in your bag. You may never need it, but it sure is nice when you do.
–Common over-the-counter meds for eyes, tummy, food allergies, headaches…
–A reserve bottle of water. Stay well hydrated while traveling.
–A camera. You will want to remember or share a memory.
Las Titas di Manila
When we said our arrivedercis to Nicole, she looked fondly at our motley crew and said she thought she should specialize in the tita market. I think that is one of the smartest insights she may ever have.
Left to right: Marissa Macuja, Laura Lopez, Susan Reyes, Gigi Travers, Jean Salvador, and Cristina Tabora
The Titas of Manila are in a class of their own.
It may be too late to climb on the back of a Vespa driven by Gregory Peck, but we threw coins in the Fontana de Trevi and drank vast amounts of Chianti. Enough to plan our next trip.
“Las Titas di Manila”
From left to right (seated): Jean Salvador, Diana Barcelona, Cristina Tabora, Gigi Travers, Laura Lopez; From left to right (standing): Susan Reyes, Ching Singson, Elsie Floro and Marissa Macuja.
At our age, we have experience, education, and savoir-faire. Instead of throwing a tantrum over things that don’t go right, we instinctively default to fix-it mode. Instead of quickly passing by some great painting or sculpture or view, we might probably stay an extra moment or two in appreciation, or amazement or awe. As opposed to seeing things for the first time, we realized that we may be seeing them for the last–and therein lies a whole different perspective.