Untours Cafe

I wrote this up for a friend and decided that since it was Untours who introduced me face to face with Venice that it belonged here too:

The story of my love affair with Venice:

I think I have always been intrigued by the idea of a city built on water . I knew I would go there someday. But life happened and Venice waited.

Sometime in the late 90’s a friend came to visit her cousin in Seattle and also spent an afternoon with me. Dorothy and I had met in a writing class in Asheville, North Carolina some ten years prior to this visit. We had both moved around a bit, both lost our husbands and kept up a friendship that was once upon a time known as “pen pals”. We had not seen each other since the last night of the writing class. Dorothy often told me I reminded her of her daughter who was about my age.

Anyway as we sat in my apartment eating pumpkin pie and drinking tea Dorothy said she had a secret she had never told me because she didn’t want me to think she was weird. Me! Me, think this charming 90 year old woman was weird? What could it be? She confessed that she had a gift and all of her life she had been able to read palms and that she would like to read mine. I laughed and said of course she could read my palm.

I must say I don’t put much stock in things like horoscopes and palm reading but I thought it would be fun. Among the things that Dorothy saw in my palm that afternoon were that while in my 50’s I would find the love of my life and in my later years I would be diagnosed with a serious illness from which I would completely recover and live a full and rewarding life and be buried far from my home. She said it was the most interesting palm she had ever read. She even wrote it down for me and I’ve kept that little piece of paper all of these years. It was stashed away in a drawer somewhere.

I took my first trip to Italy in 2004. A friend had invited me to the renewal of his wedding vows in Greece. I decided it was a delightful reason to max out a credit card and also checked to see how far it was from Greece to Tuscany. After all I had just read the book “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Well, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Athens was closer to Rome than Seattle is to San Francisco and I began making plans. My friend Linda had been to Italy before and wanted to go again…although she kept talking about Rome and I kept explaining that I was going to Tuscany. We were booked to Antiparos through Athens. Spent three nights on that tiny island. I had a lovely time getting to meet the friends of my friends. Then on to Milan where we took the train to Florence and each of us wandered the city in our own directions. But my favorite time that I was looking forward to was a week in an apartment in the village of Lisciano Niccone…about an hour’s taxi ride from Cortona of Under the Tuscan Sun.
The apartment was perfect and I had several books but Linda was disappointed that she couldn’t find anything in English on TV and there was nothing to do. Monday morning she caught a ride to the nearest major town and said she would meet me back in Florence for our flight home. Fine with me.
The day after she left the sun was out and there was no more rain. The apartment had a huge terrace. I could have hired a band and held a dance! I walked all over, exchanged books with an English couple who were staying there, attempted to make myself understood in the grocery store and the post office. Yes, I was in a village where hardly anyone spoke English but “Buon Giorno” and “Grazie” took me a long way. I had a lovely relaxing time. I had originally planned on being alone anyway.

My week was over, I had my landlady’s daughter call the taxi for me…he had given me his card and I was back at the train station with 10 minutes till the train for Florence. I managed to understand the ticket agent who spoke no English and hopped on board as the train was pulling out of the station.
Back in Florence we had a reservation at the same hotel we had stayed at when we were first there and I got a taxi and was welcomed back like family. When Linda got there I asked if she wanted to do a walking tour that evening and she said no so I went on my own. Only six of us on the tour and the same guide I had for my Uffizi tour….being with Freya was like having Sister Wendy describe the art. Such fun. We stopped at a wine bar for snacks and another couple on the tour insisted on paying for me.

Okay, back to Venice. One of the books I had brought with me was “A Thousand Days in Venice” by Marlena DeBlassi. I had finished reading it while sitting on a bench in the Boboli Gardens in Florence and deciding I just had to get to Venice. But it would have to be another trip as I just didn’t have time on that one.
People who know me know that I plan major trips years in advance and 2005...the year after the Italy trip was already spoken for with an African safari. Venice would have to wait.

While on that safari in the fall of 2005 I was thinking what a wonderful present for my 60th birthday…in 2008.…to take myself to Venice. It would probably take me that long to figure out exactly how to do it and to save the money. The 2004 trip to Greece and Italy had been $1000 just for the airfare but the entire trip was still less than my usual week in a condo on Maui. Wish I had discovered that years ago.

So the planning began…reading trip reports on Slow Travel, buying guide books, etc. One morning I saw an interview with the man who created “Untours”. It is a company that sends people on exactly that…an untour. They arrange your airfare, land transportation, an apartment for two weeks and a local contact in case you have questions and you are on your own to live like a local and explore on your own time. It sounded great to me and the people at Untours were so wonderful and helpful. Unfortunately my birthday is in December and although a great time to go to Maui, not so good for northern Italy. And the latest Untours booked was the last week of October and the first week of November so I took that one. If I remember I booked that in the summer of 2007...nearly a year and a half in advance! Now all I had to do was wait. The closer it got the harder the waiting became but before I knew it I was on a plane to Venice via Paris.

As I was flying into Venice and looking out the window I almost burst into tears, just seeing it from the air was so beautiful. I had been sent a picture of Denny who would meet me at the airport so I knew who to look for. She greeted me with a giant hug and we were off to the water taxi.

I have detailed my two weeks in a trip report that is on both the Untours Café:

www.untourscafe.com and on Trip Advisor Venice forum.

I had not asked a question on TA but just before I left I posted how helpful the forum had been to me. I got a PM from Yvonne in Australia wishing me a good trip. About a week after I got back I got another PM asking if I was back and we have become friends and have been emailing ever since. It was Yvonne who tried to get me to go on the first Rome adventure with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarves but since I was just back from Venice I had neither the money nor the vacation time to go…although it was tempting.

They had their adventure and we were all chatting on the “we did it” on TA off topic chatter when about a month later(April 1, 2009) I was diagnosed with uterine cancer….suddenly out of the blue…no history of cancer of any kind in my family. I made all the arrangements for my hysterectomy. My surgeon said it was the easiest form of cancer to cure as they do the hysterectomy and it’s over. Yeah, right. The cancer is gone…so far but the doctor visits continue. The women on that forum were so supportive and caring. I got phone calls from Sheila and Yvonne, care packages and prayers being said in churches all over Italy…let alone Venice. More so than my co-workers who also knew what was going on.

When you hear the “C” word you do go a little crazy. I prepared for my surgery by spending money, the little netbook I’m currently typing on, an HDTV for my bedroom, upgrading my cable TV…after all I was going to be home recovering for six to eight weeks and needed entertainment. I bought a stack of books and friends brought more.

Kathleen even invited me to spend my recovery on the farm where she lives in Donnegal, Ireland. I thanked her immensely but really didn’t see the woman with lifting restrictions schlepping a suitcase through international airports.

The Sisters were planning another meet up in Rome in March 2010 but I was already planning a return to Venice the end of October 2010 with Untours. Then I got email from Untours that they were canceling their 2010 Venice trips. They would be happy to help me with an apartment but I would be doing the rest on my own. Hmmm, was this the hand of God? I started researching apartments in Rome, apartments in Venice, airfare in March. When I found a ticket for $749RT I booked it and then booked an apartment for 5 nights in Venice to be followed by Rome. I was looking at an apartment but hadn’t made a decision yet. Maxine found a hotel near the Pantheon. I had looked at the website for the Senato but they were very expensive and their single room looked like a closet. I was still considering the apartment when I got the email from Max with the link to Albergo Cesari. It looked lovely and was in the right neighborhood. I booked five nights there. Many of the other Sisters also booked there including Kathleen who was meeting me in Venice. Still this was July and it was nearly a year till the trip but I had most of it in place.

Back to Dorothy’s predictions: I started thinking about what she had said about having a major illness. I think/hope this was it. Then I realized that I hadn’t met that man who was to become the love of my life that she said I would meet in my 50’s. Of course Dorothy and I both assumed that it was a man. She never said I would meet the love of my life…she said I would find the love of my life. And I did….her name is Venice.
-Michelle Vaden
Still in Seattle, WA


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