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Italian adventure: Tips for group travel

Published Oct. 19, 2012

Planning a vacation with another family poses opportunities and challenges. Organizing a trip to a foreign country that you have visited and they haven’t makes it even more interesting. Our friendship was decades old and able to withstand anything — we hoped.

Umbria is known as the green heart of Italy.

They picked the country, Italy. We picked the part, Umbria in the province of Perugia. That was all the discussion we had about location before booking. Umbria, north of Rome and south of the better-known Tuscany, was a place to explore the back roads where we hadn’t visited; for our friends it was a place they had never heard of, in a country they had never visited.

• Tip 1: Be clear who is going to decide what, and what level of consultation is needed before money is paid.

The apartment in lower Bazzano, a converted convent clinging to the hillside.

When we called from the Rome airport they told us “you’ll never find the apartments.” I should have guessed my choice of lodging was too far off the beaten track. We rented two apartments in an old convent in the very small — microscopic even — village of Lower Bazzano, near Spoleto. Recommended by British friends, the Internet description and pictures displayed a place that was both charming and cheap ($750 per week). Reality matched. With a spectacular private garden, outfitted with four hammocks, it was heaven when we finally found the place. I was content to send out for food and never leave again.

• Tip 2: If the budget allows, get two of everything: two rooms, two rental cars. Families can do their own thing and no one waits around for anyone else.

Our friends, filled with the zeal of first-time visitors, wanted to see Florence, Venice, and the entire country it seemed. Unfortunately, I had chosen a location that was far from everywhere.

Undaunted, they began to plan their overnight to Florence and possible side trip to Venice, while I napped in the hammock. My plan was to travel the least distance I could in seven days.

• Tip 3: Have a thorough discussion before you start planning about each family’s expectations for the vacation. That way the café coffee drinkers won’t be competing with the visit-every-museum types.

Winding streets in one of Umbria’s medieval walled cities, Spoleto.

Spoleteo was a wonderful medieval hill town, known for its world famous music event, Festival dei Due Mondi. We rode an outside escalator up to the castle, traveling 15 minutes up the huge hill to the fortress. The majestic La Rocca Albornoziana, built in the 14th century, was a prison until late in the 20th century. It still had the stark prison vibe the afternoon we visited.

• Tip 4: Doing things separately is a good thing, not a signal your friendship has ended.

We walked up the pedestrian street to a charming small restaurant 9 Cento, where the very helpful owner spoke flawless English and had a large selection of Italian wine you could drink in or take home. Wine was one theme of the trip, including the white Orvieto and the lesser-known red Sagrantino di Montefalco. We spent an afternoon in Montefalco, a small walled city and the hub of the wine-growing region.

Chocolate was the other. We ate as much as Perugia chocolate as we could, known worldwide for its crunchy hazelnut flavor.

• Tip 5: Make sure you do have things you want to do together as a whole group. Otherwise, plan your own trip.

What could be a better vacation? Wine, chocolate and good friends who didn’t have to spend every minute together.

I relaxed in the sun, soaking up the green heart of Italy, and they went off to see the rest.

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