Elderhostel | Tuscany, Italy

Posted by on December 28, 2005

For years, I’ve been getting Elderhostel catalogs. They were huge and on thick newsprint stock – and detailed to an almost unfathomable depth, while also beckoning me by the wide range of travel destinations and study options contained therein.

Elderhostel was started 30 years ago by Marty Knowlton and David Bianco, both academics, but very different from each other, but who realized that teachers liked to travel and learn, but didn’t have a lot of extra money. So, in the summer of 1975, five New Hampshire colleges offered the first Elderhostel programs for 220 enthusiastic participants.

Now, a huge international organization, Elderhostel has expanded way beyond the expectations of the founders, (or so they said, enthusiastically, at a dinner we attended in Rome.)

Recently, we took our first Elderhostel trip, and we are totally enthusiastic about this wonderful organization. I would not hesitate to take another of their trips, and in fact, we’re thinking about a trip to Nova Scotia with Elderhostel this summer.

We decided to join two old friends on an Elderhostel study tour of Tuscany and Rome.  It was called “Italy, Land of Genius.”  Despite the cumbersome catalog, (now the catalog is much more user friendly: they are at your fingertips on the Internet www.elderhostel.org – and they send small colorful catalogs arranged by locations and interests) the sign up process was a breeze.  Everyone I talked to was informative and cooperative. Not only that, Elderhostel has a very liberal cancellation policy, the basis of which is that you can simply postpone to another trip anywhere they go, at a later time. (Since their trips seem to cover the known universe, “liberal” is an understatement.)

Little did we know that we would be taking part in one of a very special series of trips planned for the yearlong celebration of the 30th anniversary of Elderhostel.  On our trips were many repeat travelers, some of whom had taken more trips with Elderhostel than I’ve been on in my whole life.

We are not used to traveling with groups, but we’d heard very good accounts from most Elderhostelers. We did not learn until very shortly before we left for Italy that there would be 96 people on our tour.  Shocked beyond belief, I almost cancelled. It’s a good thing we didn’t or we would not have had the great adventure and learning experience that our trip became.

First of all, I hasten to assure you that I have never seen such well-executed organization.  On the few group bus trips we’ve endured in the past, there was always someone who was late and held everyone up.  This did not happen this time.  The group was divided into three sections, and all went remarkably smoothly.

Our first stop was Montecatini Terme, an under known town in Italy.  It is a wonderful town, with a wide main street lined with lovely old turn of the century hotels. This is an Italian spa town, therefore not well known outside of Italy.  Many of the buildings of the various baths are beautifully decorated in turn of the century classic mode, with lovely gardens, and Grecian columns, et cetera.  We were treated to a wine tasting in one of the large mirrored and frescoed bar rooms one evening.

Above Montecatini Terme is Montecatini Alta, which is the older town that can be reached by funicular.  Our hotel was modest, but grew on us day by day, as the family that owned and ran it became familiar to us.  We happened to have a largish room, with a balcony, and though not the Ritz, more than adequate for my (usually very particular) needs.  The food was first rate, and much more than plentiful.

From the base of the Hotel Ambrosiano, we soon got in to a comfortable daily routine of lectures in the morning, and trips in the afternoon.  All of Elderhostel’s trips in Italy are under the direction of Trinity College, Hartford.  On of our first speakers was Borden Painter, former president of Trinity College, and the author of Mussolini’s Rome, (just out and highly recommended) who welcomed us and promised a talk on The Nature of Fascism later in the week, as well as a lecture on Machiavelli.

Our morning lecturers proved to be so compelling that despite a real urge on my part to “cut” a class now and then to go sightseeing or shopping, I could not tear myself away.  They were world class, postgraduate lectures, every one.  We had a Dante expert in Michael Campo, a professor of Modern Languages and Literature, and a lifelong devotee of The Divine Comedy.

We also had Kim Williams, an American Architect living in Italy, who captivated us with her lecture on Leonardo, and then led us on a tour of Vinci, Leonardo’s hometown. Needless to say, the lectures added a great deal of depth to the trip.

Our afternoon tours included Florence (twice), Pisa, Lucca, and Vinci.  Though I had been to Florence three times previously, I saw many things through the very different eyes of our enthusiastic young student guides. And although a couple of the day trips were conducted in the rain, I would not, in retrospect, have missed any one of them. I talked myself in to going to Pisa, even though I had a cold and it was raining, but the tour guide proved to be not only a well-informed Pisan, but also a hysterically funny stand-up comic.

One of the 30th anniversary treats was a fabulous dinner and concert by a Venetian opera singer at the Villa Rospigliosi.  This ever so slightly faded villa, in the Tuscan countryside, designed by Bernini, could be (and probably has been) a movie set.  In flattering candle light, we wined and dined in a superb oval reception hall, and listened to the gorgeous voice of Liesl Odenweller, a graduate of Trinity, who recently made her debut at La Fenice in Venice. Between the concert and the dinner, we watched a breathtaking sunset (like the best of the Hudson Valley) from the terrace.

Much more was to come on this Genius of Italy Trip, and you know you’ll be hearing about it in this column.  You’ll be hearing more about the genius of Elderhostel as well.

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