Twelve days, six countries, no complaints ... Kevin Kearney embraces the group tour on the road from London to Rome.
If you're an "organised-tour snob" you can overcome it, especially when a tour is as well conceived and executed as the 12-day Road to Rome journey my partner and I recently undertook from London. It's a little more to pay if you take all the extras on offer, but no one among our group of 31 has complaints when we reluctantly go our separate ways in Rome.
We travel in a Mercedes coach that can seat 44, enjoying a roomy ride. Our host is tour director Ruth Ridgway, a mainstay of the Insight Vacations company. Our Italian driver, Gino, is a likeable local.
We have two weeks of holiday time available, so for us the tour is a quick trip organised on the fly and which allows us to taste six countries, cultures and landscapes that, apart from Paris, are new to us. The itinerary allows for two-night stays in Paris, Lucerne, Venice, Florence and Rome, and that suits us.
Unusually for us, the journey begins with an early start, leaving London at 5am bound for Dover and the ferry to Calais.
On board the coach and en route to Paris, we stop at Vimy, a World War I memorial dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force members. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, a military engagement fought as part of the Battle of Arras, may not be well known to many Australians, but it's part of Canadian history in much the same way as Gallipoli is part of Australia's, and the presence of North Americans on the coach makes it all the more poignant for the rest of us.
Our Paris hotel is several steps up from some of the places we've stayed at during previous travels: Le Meridien Etoile is a few minutes' walk from the Champs-Elysees, has smart interiors and attractive rooms, and is deliciously handy to cafes and bars.
After booking in, the tour agenda includes taking a cruise on the Seine river, followed by a complimentary dinner, which in turn means we have the chance to meet a small group that has opted to join our tour in Paris.
My partner and I had been thinking of making our own way about in Paris the next day, but check the tour itinerary first in case something better is available. Just as well we do check - the city excursion on the tour itinerary we opt to take ends up being so agreeable, we stay with it to revisit the Louvre.
It's a tough customer who doesn't enjoy spending two nights in Paris, but I find a renewed joy comes when we leave the city for the French countryside. Watching the Tour de France cycling race each year on television has left me with the impression the countryside is impossibly beautiful and I want to be among that. With Tom Waits's All the World Is Green on my iPod, and a great view from every window of Gino's Mercedes, I coast along, responding to the fascinating challenge of capturing views courtesy of my humble camera.
We motor through the Burgundy wine region, pass the Jura Mountains and cross into Switzerland, all chocolate-box charm dotted with punk-like modernism that is a real highlight. In Lucerne, we cruise on its mineral water-like lake, the weather sensational.
Later, we opt for an excursion to Mount Pilatus, an area that had been closed by snow and reopened again just days before we arrive. We make a glorious ascent by cogwheel train and descend by cable car.
The following day is equally fascinating, but creepy, too, as we drive into the mountains above Berchtesgaden: Hitler's Eagle's Nest is surrounded by sublime landscapes and the building is itself owned by a charitable trust.
Then it is on through equally splendid landscapes to Salzburg via Lichtenstein. The birth place of Mozart, Salzburg is also the backdrop for the classic film The Sound of Music. The film is screened on a loop in the hotel we stay at. This virtual element inspires us to go outdoors and into it, but we take a stroll through Salzburg's old town and wonder where the time went.
Then we board our coach and roll on, past the Carinthian Lake District to the border with Italy and to Venice, where the photo ops are plentiful. Our accommodation is at the Cavalletto & Doge Orseolo, alongside St Mark's Square. The Grand Canal is just beyond our hotel door and adjacent to St Mark's Square, so we are in a perfect place to enjoy Venice - especially at night - without the crowds. By day, we're busy exploring the lagoon islands of Burano and Murano, the latter renowned for its artisan glass vases and jewellery.
Back on dry land and it's time to head through the Apennines and the landscapes of Tuscany to arrive in Florence to see Michelangelo's David and brush past the queues so as to enjoy the statue from all angles.
On our second day in Florence, we're offered a side trip to the 12th-century town of San Gimignano, a World Heritage-listed town with a wealth of artistic history: its People's Palace, full of 14th- and 15th-century artworks; and the archaeological museum, featuring the town's Etruscan, Roman and mediaeval history. That night we dine in a vineyard.
Rome seems a surprisingly small city, to my mind. We arrive via the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto and check in at Rome's Crowne Plaza, a few kilometres from the Vatican City. After breakfast the next day, we explore the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel in the company of a local expert.
Photography is curtailed by papal decree, but I did manage to take a discreet image of a floor. Our guide then accompanies us to the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain and on through a maze of gorgeous Roman streetscapes.
For a quick trip from London, it was worth every euro and Swiss franc we spent. Our best to all aboard the Merc.
A 12-day Road to Rome tour from London on selected dates next year is priced from $3799 a person, twin share. See insightvacations.com.