It was a long flight across the Atlantic, but we arrived in Milan on schedule and with no lost luggage. Once we gathered ourselves and made it through customs, we met our guides and bus and made our way to the center of Milan. Our first stop was Milan’s castle where the rulers of the city used to live. A well-fortified fortress, the building remains intact despite its several-hundred-year-old status. We then had a guide walk us from the castle through the streets and toward the Duomo, the third largest Roman Catholic cathedral in world. Once inside you could see its enormity with huge vaulted ceilings and massive stained-glass windows. Following a brief stop for lunch (McDonalds was a big hit with some) we re-boarded the bus and drove to Como, where we would spend our first night in Italy. Some sightseeing ensued with several taking the tram up to the top of one of the mountains for a scenic view of Como. Our hotel was kind enough to provide a fantastic spread for dinner on our first night which included pasta, vegetables, chicken, steak and more. They even rolled a cake in at the end of the meal to welcome us. Dinner and sleep ruled the evening as we combatted the effects of jetlag.
We didn’t waste any time on day two of the trip as it began with breakfast and a boat ride on Lake Como. Starting less than two blocks from our hotel, we packed into our watercraft and were treated to a guided tour of the various villages along the lake shore. From elaborate villas to famous movie landmarks, we saw all manner of dwellings including one owned by a famous American actor. After about an hour of travel we arrived at our destination, Bellagio. A small village at the tip of a peninsula, Bellagio is famous for its silk and shopping. A short visit to the town included walking the city streets and stairs and then it was back to the boat and Como to prepare for the first game of the trip. One thing that we have all learned since our arrival is that the gelato is excellent and it won’t be long before everyone on the trip has enjoyed a bevy of flavors. A 45-minute bus ride brought us to Palaborsani in Castellanza where we played Selezione Amici del Campetto. A close game early, the Razorbacks brought wave-after-wave of players into the game, defeating the opponents 129-87. Pizza outside the gymnasium ensued and it was back to Como for our final night in the city.
An early departure from Como on day three led to a five-hour bus ride south to Florence, the next stop on our journey. Along the way we made a brief stop in a rest area, which is much different than the United States, where we ate lunch and allowed the bus driver to get his mandatory break (an Italian rule calls for drivers to go no longer than four hours before stopping for an hour break). While the journey was not difficult, it was long and we were able to see the Italian countryside along the way including the Tuscan region, a mainly agricultural area, and the Chianti Vineyards as we approached Florence. Once we arrived at our destination it was straight to the hotel to unpack for an hour before we departed for our second game in as many days. We picked up our second win, this one against a much better team than we played earlier, 95-84. After the contest we stopped at a local restaurant where they fed us pasta, sandwiches, French fries and fruit. It was quite delicious and no one can say we aren’t experiencing the cuisine.
The day began with a walking tour of the city of Florence and if you are interested in the arts or architecture, then this is a city you need to visit. We started at Accademia Galleria where we saw the original “David” by Michelangelo. After our guide gave us loads of information on Michelangelo and his life, we then walked to the Duomo of Florence, a dominating cathedral that is the fourth largest in the world. Following a team picture in front of the Duomo, we then walked over to the Medici castle which is still used as the city hall today. The walking tour continued to a small market area which is the home of Il Porcellino, a strikingly familiar statue to the one on campus and of course when our guys saw that there was a spontaneous Hog Call in the market area. The walking tour concluded at the Ponte Vecchio, the only original bridge left in the city of Florence after World War II. Following the tour the team broke for lunch and back to the hotel to prepare for the third game in three nights and a rematch of last night against Atletas from Lithuania. The Razorbacks were victorious again, 84-67, and now get two days off to travel and sightsee before the final game on the tour.
Day five of our Italian journey brought us to Pisa, which is the home of the leaning bell tower. Not really knowing what to expect, we got off our bus at a central terminal after an hour-long journey and were greeted by numerous street vendors hawking their goods. We then boarded another bus which left us at the Field of Miracles and it was a breathtaking sight once you got past the 20-foot high wall that surrounds the area. Our first stop was the leaning tower and most of the group, minus those who didn’t want to climb the stairs or were afraid of heights, climbed the 400-plus steps up the bell tower to the top, where the view was even better. A round of pictures followed with the Tower as a backdrop and then we entered the cathedral which was as breathtaking on the inside as it is on the outside. On our way back to the buses, several players became accustomed to the street vendors and got great prices on some of their wares, but as always, “you get what you pay for.” We weren’t two minutes into our journey back to Florence when someone’s watch stopped working! The late afternoon and evening gave us time to catch up on any sights we missed and then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
It was another day of travel on day six of the journey as we drove from Florence to Rome, roughly a three-hour tour. We were able to see more of the Tuscan country side leaving Florence and numerous little towns on the way. As a way to get ready for our Rome experience, we watched Angels & Demons with Tom Hanks which more than anything helped kill the time. Once we arrived in Rome, we drove past several of the venues from the 1960 Olympic Games before pulling up to the hotel. It was a quick turnaround as we had the afternoon to see the sights and several groups made their way to places like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. A good dinner and back to the hotel for another day of sightseeing and our final game of the tour on Friday.
An early morning tour of the Colosseum greeted the team on Friday. We piled into our bus and drove to the site of ancient Rome, where the Colosseum stands tall over the area. We toured the site where competitions and theatrics were held long ago. Many of today’s modern stadiums are now designed in the Colosseum’s elliptical shape, which began construction in 72 AD. After the Colosseum, we ventured over to the Forum, which is the ancient city of Rome and includes the temple where Julius Ceasar was cremated. Following the tours, we boarded the bus back to the hotel and awaited our final game of the tour against All Star Italy. A close game through 10 minutes, Arkansas dominated the second quarter, allowing just six points, and won the game, 93-73, to go undefeated in four games.
A tour of Vatican City highlighted our final day in Italy. We started the tour by bypassing the growing line to get into the Papal state (thanks to our tour guide) and went straight to the garden area where our guide explained Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. We walked down ornate corridors lined with statues and tapestries before entering the chapel, which is spectacular. The team was so awestruck, they were speechless. After leaving the chapel, we went straight to St. Peter’s Basilica and had a few moments to walk around and look at the amazing statues, mosaics, and altars. After our journey to Vatican City, we dropped a group of people at the Spanish Steps for sightseeing and shopping while the rest of the contingent went back to the hotel. A team dinner capped the evening and then it was off to the rooms to pack and prepare for a long flight back to Arkansas.