Bella Italia 2008: A Dream Fulfilled
by Nina Corbett
Bella Italia 2008 was the third annual, all female tour of Italy. This "whirlwind" tour is PACKED with tours, local culture and parties. Leading up to each trip, Bella Italia creator, Ms Fleace Weaver hosts fun, monthly mixers in L.A. for local Bellas to meet one another. Bellas also receive great, weekly emails about Italian culture, language, food, sightseeing and clothing. Many of us teased, that her wardrobe notes were a bit, um, "stressful". Repeated reminders that elegant Italians were a "critical" bunch that could spot "synthetic fabric" a mile away, led a few (me) to frantic tag checks. "No shorts, sweats, baggy clothes, low budget jeans, loud colors or anything near polyester!" Sneakers and unsightly footwear could illicit jeers and sneers. Basically, if we dressed in stylish dresses and cute heels we wouldn't get a ticket from the Italian fashion police. And...we were supposed to pack everything for the 10 days in one suitcase and a tiny carry-on. Hello, anxiety attack! But who was I to argue with (or tackle) the well-traveled host, right? So let's roll!
Thirty-eight women representing cities in California, New York, Georgia, and Texas, to name a few, departed the USA for an incredible 10-day tour of Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. New friends, old friends, sisters, cousins, a book club, even a mother-daughter pair were part of this annual traveling sisterhood. Armed with an itinerary that boasted culture, shopping and nightlife, the Bellas hit the ground running for their fast paced whirlwind tour. First stop, Rome!
ROME -- ROMA
Excitement and giddiness filled the air as we finally landed in Rome. In the baggage area, Fleace asked everyone to join hands to give thanks to God for our arrival in Italy. "To God goes the glory!" she exclaimed. As the group boarded our private Mercedes Benz motor coach headed to the hotel, even the day's rain couldn't put a damper on our enthusiasm as we caught our first glimpses of this beautiful, ancient city. The city of Rome looked like a huge museum with magnificent statues and spectacular architecture at almost every turn.
After hotel check-in and a quick wardrobe change, the ladies gathered for Bella Italia's signature tour activity, the male escorted Vespa ride! Thirty-eight women walked outside the hotel to find thirty-eight, welcoming Italian men waiting on Vespas to take us on a scenic tour of Rome. Can you say heaven? After putting on colorful slickers to shield us from the rain, Bellas hopped on the back of the Vespas for a wild ride through the city's narrow streets. And a wild ride it was! Let's just say Italian drivers put a New York cab driver to shame, any day. Words can't express how remarkable it was to be on a Vespa, riding down the streets of Rome, catching a breathtaking view of the legendary Coliseum.
Italian pedestrians waved, smiled and gawked in amazement as the Bellas flew down their streets in a colorful parade. The Vespa ride was a wonderful way to get our first introductions to this amazing city, with the tour making stops at several scenic and historical locations for viewings and group photos.
Later that evening, Bellas were dressed to impress (you better believe it) when they hit Club Beige. This beautifully decorated bar/lounge was a great location for our first night in Italy. Brazilian and R&B music permeated the bar, as hot Italian men quickly made friends with Bellas and jumped in for group pictures. A reserved space mix-up, between our all girl group and an Italian male group, eventually turned into the perfect party introduction as the sexy Italians joined our beautiful Bellas for mingling and flirting.
Although we'd been up for almost 24 hours, we couldn't let a little jet lag and lack of sleep stop us...we were in Rome! Do as they do! At 1am, a group of Bellas headed to the next hot spot, Club Alibi, a two-level club with techno on the lower level and hip-hop on top. You can guess which one the Bellas chose. As the DJ spun the latest beats, Bellas grooved the night away until 3:30am as cute Italian men vied for our attention.
6:45am, we're up, bleary eyed and on the move. "This is not your grandmother's tour!" our Bella leader jokingly reminded us. Our Rome tour guide started the day off with a quick lesson on how to use the Metro system. Lessons that helped us navigate around town like locals. For a few brave Bellas, the train and bus rides even led to unplanned adventures. As an Atlanta Bella claimed, "getting lost in the city was the best thing ever" after her experience led to new Italian friendships and references for some of the best restaurants in the city.
Bellas spent most of the morning at the Vatican Museums viewing room after room of amazing works of art and intricately detailed paintings adorning the walls and ceilings. Other amazing sights were Michelangelo's renowned Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica, an enormous church so breathtaking it moved one Bella to tears.
By late day, the group stopped for a break at the famous Spanish Stairs. A beautiful, extensive staircase filled with crowds sunbathing, picture taking and people watching. The gorgeous location was also the chosen spot for a beautiful sister and her Italian (and very handsome) husband to take their wedding photos. Ah, Amore! I'm told one Bella actually climbed the seemingly endless, "Rocky-type" stairs, while the rest of us, with swollen ankles and nothing to prove, sat with the majority of crowds just a few steps up.
That evening, Bellas enjoyed a group outing at Red, a restaurant/lounge where we dined on Italian delicacies and continued to bond with our new Bella friends through laughter, drinks and conversation. Later, before hitting the club scene, we made a stop at the famed Trevi Fountain, a massive fountain set against the backdrop of spectacular statutes and sculptures that is stunningly illuminated at night.
Gilda's Night Club is where Fleace arranged to celebrate the birthday Bellas with cake and champagne. Here's where "Bella High Style" named for her enviable sense of fashion, met a cute Italian male. Although there was a significant language barrier between them, their flirtations weren't lost in translation. After accepting his offer to take her on a private tour the following day, "Bella High Style", invited a girlfriend along as a precaution. Turns out, both ladies were in safe hands as they discovered their hot guide was a police officer with full access to major sites in Rome!
It's 8:00 a.m. on the fourth day, Bellas were up, packed and ready to roll as we boarded our private motor coach headed to Florence. The ride along the lush Tuscany countryside was interspersed with hilarious conversations and needed naps since many of the Bellas were up until the wee hours of the morning sharing vino and fun stories. On our way to Florence, Bella Fleace scheduled a few choice stops along the way.
First up, the charming, medieval village of San Gimignano that had a wonderful shopping area filled with quaint shops and boutiques containing beautiful bags, jewelry, trinkets and everything else you can imagine. Here's where many, including yours truly, had our first taste of authentic gelato and real Italian Pizza. With only an hour and half to shop, many of us (mainly me) were dragged kicking and screaming from the charming, little village. Our next stop was a local winery that revved up an already spirited bunch as we sampled superb selections from their 200-plus collection. Laughter, chatter and tipsy giggles filled the winery, as we kept the re-fill staff hopping. Fleace rounded up her boisterous Bellas for the final stop on our way to Florence, a leather factory outlet, where Bellas were treated to a personal demonstration of how designer bags were made for high-end designers like Gucci, Fendi and Donna Karan. Afterwards, we gladly indulged in a private shopping excursion.
FLORENCE -- FIRENZA
A Bella fave, this beautiful compact city was filled with great art, amazing architecture and lively nightlife. Although we arrived at our Florence hotel late that evening, after a full day of travel, shopping and wine tasting, most luggage was quickly tossed into the hotel rooms before groups of women hit the streets in search of their next adventure.
While a few of us were gathered at a nearby restaurant, with amazing melt in your mouth lasagna, one of Fleace's friends, a beautiful sister from the states and her Italian boyfriend, stopped by to join us. As the handsome couple cuddled, the young lady told us about her boyfriend's invitation for her to leave the states and move to Florence. As her attentive and romantic beau tenderly rubbed her head and displayed other signs of affection, many in the group pined (an peered around) for an Italian gentleman of their own.
Club YAB aptly named, "You Are Beautiful" was the perfect spot for our next outing. The large, popular club was packed with a hip, international crowd. Bellas met individuals from Australia, China and a host of other countries. One of our Bellas revved up the party even more when she accepted a dance challenge by an attractive Italian gent. An excited crowd circled the pair and cheered them on during their lively, impromptu showdown. The male challenger eventually acknowledged defeat and playfully bowed at our Bella's feet, in a gesture of respect for her great dance moves. Socializing and free styling continued until almost 3:00 in the morning.
8:30 am...cobblestones here we come! The next morning, my sore and puffy feet were stuffed into heeled shoes for our two-hour Florence walking tour. As I powered through my pain (and daydreamed of soft tennis shoes), I knew that killer calves were in my future! Our private guide led us to great, area highlights such as the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori), a spectacular and colorful Gothic cathedral and the striking bronze Bapistry Doors. The city's oldest bridge, Ponte Vecchio, was a particularly beautiful sight that day, as the bridge, water and sun seemed to unite in a way that was absolutely postcard perfect. Later, many visited Michelangelo's David, a colossal and spectacular sculpture to behold up close, while others took a day trip to the legendary Leaning Tower of Pisa.
A great pit stop that our guide recommended was an expansive, outdoor marketplace filled with vendors selling gorgeous (and high quality) Italian leather jackets, shoes, boots, bags and more. Those odd shaped, multi-colored Euros went flying out of Bellas hands as we took advantage of the great bargains and discounts. Later that day, a few Bellas happened upon the biggest bargain spot of them all, "NineTNine", the local 99-cent store. Even in Italy...who would've guessed it?! That evening, Bellas convened in the hotel lobby, sporting new clothes, hot leather jackets, and to-die-for boots, before departing for an evening of dinner and dancing.
Milan, the fashion capital, was definitely the most metropolitan of the cities we'd visited. Tall buildings, designer shops and the usual hustle and bustle of a fast-paced city reminded many of us of a busy New York street, but on a grander scale.
Arriving during fashion week, made this iconic city even more electric. Home of the very first Armani store and countless top Italian designers; Bellas eyes were definitely checking out the natives' gear while we were touring this chic city. Signs of the special week included lines of limos outside popular clubs, crowded streets and a live TV event that boomed on a Digitron in front of the masses at the famed Piazza del Duomo and the well-known symbol of central Milan, the extraordinary Duomo Cathedral.
This city is where Bella "Two Left Feet" earned her nickname. After searching and trying on boots all day, our Bella finally found her ultimate pair. Elated, she hurriedly made her purchase only to later discover she'd bought two left pairs of the same boot! I'm sure passerby's thought there was a fire nearby, the way "Bella TLF" raced back to the store for the correct boot before closing time. Milan's glamorous city kept Bellas on the go all day, as we took in high fashion and great art. As always, later that night we partied like rock stars until 2:00 a.m. at the hip spot, Gioia 69. Thankfully, our Milan hotel was a beautiful facility with soft beds and great amenities. This last minute upgrade was a relished treat for the busy Bellas.
VENICE -- VENIZIA
6:30 am the next day (yep...you read it right, only 4 hours of sleep), we boarded the metro liner for a two-hour ride to Venice. This city on water was as beautiful we all imagined. Quaint shops, café's, gondolas and historical culture along the lovely Grand Canal.
This time, our two-hour city walking could be likened to a grand maze, as our tour guide navigated us through winding, narrow alleyways. Admittedly, some of the guide’s history lessons fell on deaf ears as Bellas were captivated by the infinite number of great shops, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques and restaurants along the way.
St Marks Square, a famous tourist attraction in central Venice, known for popular cafes, shops and most notably, the massive amount of pigeons that gather there. This Bella who is slightly (deathly) afraid of pigeons approached the area with severe trepidation, yet enjoyed the spectacle and escaped unscathed. That wasn't the case for one Bella, when an excited pigeon left a sizeable, "good luck" parting token, right on her head. We laughed as other Bellas helped remove her departing gift.
After our walking tour, Bellas headed en masse toward the Grand Canal for group Gondola rides. This beautiful and peaceful ride through the river embodied everything you ever fantasized about Venice. It was definitely one of the highlights of the day. Beautiful and surprisingly, "tricked out", gondolas added to the intrigue of the experience. As our friendly Italian gondolier steered us down the canal, the ladies took pictures and waved at nearby Bellas as we relished our ride down the famous waterway. Bellas spent the remainder of the afternoon racing through the narrow maze of streets for last minute souvenirs, while others took in the serene beauty of this car-free city at nearby cafes.
Trying to take in every moment of this beautiful city, later led to a hectic pace back to the station to catch the last train out. It was so close to departure time that our large group hopped on a train without even knowing if we were in the right cars! Thankfully, we were and our group settled in. But seconds before it departed the last couple of Bellas came running through the train. Breathless, they told us had they'd been on a waterbus headed in the wrong direction. Lesson learned: not all water vehicles are the same. Thankfully, our entire group was on board as we left this enchanting city. On our train back to Milan, our car was filled with laughter as the Bellas told stories of their escapades in the city with the "streets of water". Back at the hotel, Fleace and many of the other Bellas hung-out in the hotel lounge until 1:00 a.m., drinking apple martinis and savoring the last night of our Italian sojourn. Wow...where did they find the energy!
It's 7:00 a.m. and departure day for the Bella group. Our last morning together was marked by an exchange of phone numbers, emails, hugs and tons of picture taking. New bonds were made and incredible experiences were shared among this amazing group of women.
This Bella's first group trip, and first trip abroad, was a wonderful journey of fun and friendship with great memories that will last a lifetime. For those of you concerned, the day after I arrived home, my feet finally returned to normal human size (smile).
To view video and pictures from Bella Italia 2008 visit: www.blackgirltravel.com/photopages/italy2008
For information on Bella Italia 2009 email Travel@BlackGirlTravel.com
Bella Nina Corbett
About Nina Corbett
Nina Corbett is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles, California. She is also the author of the romantic-comedy novel, Standing in the Shadows of Love from BET Books.
For more about Nina and to check out her latest newsletter, click on the following link, www.ninacorbett.com/FallNewsletter.html