First of all, let me say that a few years ago this trip would have been called a vacation; in retirement, I prefer the term adventure.

I don't know that guided tours with professional tour packages are any better or worse than those I have planned myself but I can't believe a professional tour could have matched our unguided (sometimes misguided) recent tour of Italy. I planned the trip with the help of my wife's sister and her husband, but they did most of the work. I only chose the locations and cities I thought would make for a pleasant and interesting tour; Carol and Dave did the rest of the work choosing hotels and sights to see in those cities. My wife Janet wisely enjoyed our efforts.

I lobbied for using an auto instead of trains, and insisted on renting a GPS (Global Positioning System) for helping us find our way through the countryside using roads that often were not discernible on the maps. Carol and Dave did the tough work, investigating hotel choices and even learning some of the language. They used Rick Steve's guide book as their bible. Consequently, the trip was more enjoyable, satisfying and rewarding than any of our expectations.

Some vacations unfold as smoothly as toilet paper sometimes runs off the roller when you slap it briskly with your fingers. You may have had that experience, right? You slap the roll and the next thing you know half the roll is on the floor before you can stop it? Other vacations well, they make those Chevy Chase Vacation movies look like well-planned walks in the local park. This trip started out like the toilet paper merrily rolling to the floor and quickly changed into the latter category, and then morphed back into the spinning toilet paper roll.

One of the reasons I prefer touring on my own is that it allows schedules to vary with lots of room for serendipity. Serendipity is good in my book. You know, a little opportunity to explore outside the planned perfection of the original agenda; the likelihood of bumping into a fascinating character in the lobby of the hotel, or the tobacco store where I found Clint Eastwood's favorite brand of cigar. The ones he smoked in those spaghetti Westerns. Okay, you get the idea.

The problems we faced were easily negotiated. For instance, there was not a hotel room to be had in Genoa where we started our tour because a massive boat festival was celebrating Columbus' birthday (Oct.12) so, we drove to Alessandria forty miles toward Milano. No big deal. Choosing the cities was the first step, of course, and I chose Genova, Milano, Sirmione, Venezia(Venice), Firenza(Florence) and La Spezia. We spent one or two nights in each of them except for three nights in Venezia, and four nights in our countryside BB five miles from Firenze. This BB was a new entry into the world of lodging for me. It is part of a system of Agriturista places to stay and we saw many of them in our two weeks driving through the hills and valleys. Ours was a spacious two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, two baths, a swimming pool and orchards to walk through after a day touring Firenza. (Those names plus Buon jurno hello and Avanti comprised my entire Italian vocabulary!)

Limiting ourselves to those few cities kept the trip from seeming rushed, particularly when we followed the meandering roads through the countryside rather than speeding from one city to another on the major autoroutes.

After the problems of not being able to use our frequent flyer miles for free flights, baggage that couldn't seem to keep up with our flights, a five-hour wait in Paris' deGaulle airport at 3am and getting lost in Genova in spite of the GPS, things went swimmingly smooth. Oh yeah, I forgot. I also lost my credit card the first night, but good old Visa took care of that for us. Well, I had to call my sister in North Carolina to actually cancel the card for us, but that's another story. Fact is, we had a back-up Master Card. It seems to me most of my problems traveling occur on the first and last days of a trip when transitions are rife.

We named our GPS helper "Kathy" and gave her English vocabulary a British accent because we thought it made for easier understanding. She would say things like "Go through the roundabout and take the third exit." That was fine until we realized she was counting driveways as exits. It didn't take long to figure out her commands and for the most part, Kathy got us where we wanted to go in fine form. Once in awhile she would get confused when the road had been changed and she hadn't yet been informed. We knew she was confused when we ended up in a dead-end alley and she was insisting we "turn right at the next intersection on Pastafazoola Avenue."

We found ourselves enjoying the freedom of auto touring that first day when, seeing a large church seemingly sitting in the middle of a field, we scooted over there to explore an unusual and grand church (Santuario della Madonna di Caravaggio) in the virtually non-existent village of Caravaggio. The village seemed to consist of a few shops and a caf&

233; in addition to the chiesa. (Chiesa - church another word!).

Several miles farther we stopped in the tiny village of Lomello where a medieval festival was being celebrated. And so it went for the trip. We found ourselves referring to these experiences with the very appropriate phrase, "Very few tourists ever get to see this!"

We also did the usual touristy things such as climbing every tower and Duomo (cathedral I was learning Italian) we came across, such as the famous one in Milan, boasting of being the fourth largest in Europe. We strolled through piazzas in every city and suddenly realized that the USA doesn't have a single city with a piazza! Italy, France, Spain, Russia, China, all have piazzas or the equivalent; the USA has none.

I was enraptured by the musical sound of the luscious language with its rolled rrr's. I stood mesmerized in Da Vinci Park across from La Scala Opera House listening to a group of seven men debating/arguing(?) in a very vociferous, democratic way, their voices rising and falling along with arm gestures emphasizing their argument. I hated to leave. We strolled through railroad stations and along streets lined with shops named Gucci, Prada, Vercace, leaving me shaking my head at the prices and folly of the fashion world.

In Venezia I fell in love with the canals and the gondolas and the gondoliers. I had decided I would sing as we sculled through the narrow water-streets. I have sung in more churches and on more stages than I can remember. It's something I like to do. In churches I sing Panis Angelicus quietly and on stages I sing loudly whatever comes to mind. I simply mount the stage (if empty) as I did in the coliseum in Verona, and so far I've never been challenged. So, I wanted to sing in the gondola. I failed. The gondolier was so charming and informed and anxious to tell us about his city, I forgot. That night, I stood on a small bridge and, as a gondola came floating by with its lit lantern, a romantic couple cuddling in the velvet-lined seat, I burst into the song, "It's a grand night for singing," and was duly rewarded by grateful thanks of applause. I called it my gondola experience.

Cinque Terre was the main reason for my desire to see Italy and I wasn't disappointed. The path along the cliffs leading from one village to the other four was all I could have hoped for. The Towns, built on the cliffs and painted in varying, muted colors of the region gave them a charming Disneyland aura, difficult to describe. I think of Ashland as having a charming aura about it, but I have to say that Monterossa has almost too much charm. I loved it.

Would I suggest to my friends to visit Italy in spite of the lopsided value of the dollar against the Euro? Absolutely. Just make sure you rent a car and use a Kathy to help navigate. And don't worry about the drivers. They're polite speed demons who will always expect you to let them into the lane if they pass on a curve and need to cut in front of you. Oh yes, there's something else; they will NEVER pass on the right, and I never heard a horn blow even once. Sort of like Ashland. Yeah, I loved Italy.