Friday, January 4, 2013

La Serenissima

a poem by Jodie Hedrick...

I love Venice…I love the way the dappled sunlight shines through its elegant, crumbling walls and falls upon its graceful waters like bright, flowing ribbons.
I love its quiet, narrow alleys that always seem to whisper the stories of thousands of years of lovers and dreamers.
 I love its many moods…the way the light always changes revealing something beautiful.
I love the way my footsteps quietly echo through the darkness. 
I love the way it fills me up and restores my soul.
I love this exquisite jewel that is like no other.

Venice…you have cast your spell on me.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Favorite things: Rome

By Sandy Gregory

All tours lead to Rome. After the slow, relaxed pace of Cortona and Assisi, I’m ready to get back to the big city, and Rome, to me, is the most exciting city in the world. Today’s Rome is a combination of romance and ruins amidst a modern, sprawling, living city. Here, medieval churches sit atop ancient basilicas above Roman palaces, gleaming office buildings incorporate fragments of eroded Roman columns, and roads and piazzas follow the lines of ancient city walls.

Rome’s history began over 2000 years ago, far before the time of Jesus Christ. It was the capital of the Roman Empire, and is still the capital of Italy. This timelessness gives Rome an unmistakable energy, which is why I always toss my coin into the Trevi Fountain to assure my return.

Two of my latest favorite things about Rome are:

1. Trastevere (tras-TEH-veh-reh). The Trastevere neighborhood is located on the opposite side of the Tiber River. The name “Trastevere” actually means “beyond the Tiber.” It’s a place to escape the chaos of Rome and enjoy great restaurants, medieval buildings and a charming atmosphere. While it’s an oasis of tranquility during the day, the area comes alive at night. I recommend eating at a restaurant called La Cisterna, one of the oldest restaurants of Rome. It dates back to the year 1630, and true to Roman archeology, is situated four meters below today's street level, and is home to one of Rome’s original cisterns.  After dinner, ask for a peak of the underground, throw a coin into the cistern and celebrate with a glass of Proscecco to assure, in Roman tradition, your return. On the way to Trastevere, take a short detour to the nearby Jewish Ghetto and sample carciofi all guida (fried artichokes) at Al Pompiere. They look like golden sunflowers, and their leaves have a delicious nutty crunchiness.

2. Bernini, the greatest sculptor-architect of the 17th century.
The breadth of the work of sculptor, painter, and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, throughout Rome, is astounding. From the statues and pulpit of St. Peter’s Cathedral to the Trevi Fountain to the Spanish Steps to the Piazza Navonna, you can really use the body of his life’s work on which to base your tour of Rome. What I admire about this sculptor is that he infused cold, inanimate stone with warmth, movement and life. He captured that “peak of the action” moment that made his sculptures come alive.

Apollo and Daphne

My favorite Bernini sculpture is found in the Borghese Gallery. The chaste nymph Daphne is being turned into a tree to save her from the advances of Apollo, god of light. This life-size marble sculpture was begun by Bernini at the age of twenty-four. Subtle variations in the texture of the marble create the illusion of soft human flesh, translucent leaves, and rough bark.

Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

Featured in the story, Angels and Demons, this fountain represents the major rivers of the four parts of the known world in 1657: the Danube represents Europe; the Rio, the Americas; the Nile, Africa; and the water of the Ganges is symbolic of Asia. It is an artistic and engineering masterpiece.

Bernini’s free-standing bronze structure of twisted columns and hanging towers over the altar beneath Michealangelo’s massive dome is where St. Peter was buried and the Catholic church began. The project was so massive that Bernini was allowed to strip this precious metal from the roof of the Pantheon in order to complete it. Regardless of your spiritual convictions, the alter of St. Peter’s is truly awe-inspiring.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Our Favorite Things

The QLT Tour Captains Reflect on 2010

Dan Diekhaus

I cherish the people I have the privilege of working with. Our city guides, drivers, hotel and restaurant owners and staff, have all become extended family to me. Any time I have the chance to drop by in between tour assignments, I am always met with a handshake, a friendly kiss or a warm smile. It's a great feeling to know that these folks are genuinely glad to see me, and that they are happy we are in their country.

Our associates in-country help make my work a dream come true, and enable me to know we are always welcome. They help make our tours run smoothly and provide the finest services possible. I have found this to be universal, traveling from city to city and country to country.

My touring family has grown so much over the past three years, and I am blessed to have been able to meet and befriend so many warm and caring people from all over the world.

Sandy Gregory

A QueensLander Tour is a trip of a lifetime. Many of our guests join us to celebrate milestones. There are family reunions, groups of friends, anniversaries and cancer survivors. Children, graduates, newlyweds and retirees. As their Tour Captain, I’m happy to be able to help create new memories for them. When I started this job, I was excited about the adventure, culture, cuisine and travel. What I didn’t expect, was what a privilege it would be to get to know so many wonderful people I now call my friends. I am honored to be able to share their milestones. 

My favorite place is Florence. Florence is like an open–air museum. Over 50% of the worlds art is located in lovely city. As you wind around the streets, the architecture, art and culture of the Renaissance surrounds you. I lived in Florence when I was in college so it holds a special place for me. The favorite part of my tour is showing my guests the Florence I love. Sure, the Uffizi and Accadamia have prime spots on my itinerary, but what I most love are the all the churches, galleries, museums, shops and osterias tucked around the winding streets. I can’t really tell my guests where the cultural art or shopping district is in Florence, because it’s everywhere.
 Caron Guillo

Every day in Tuscany is special, but one in particular couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was literally breathtaking—perfect blue skies, sunshine, ideal temperature—and the guests were absolutely swept away. To hear their voices crack with emotion as they exclaimed over San Gimignano, Castella della Paneretta, and Cortona brought me great joy. I love that they love QueensLander and all the personal touches built into this tour.
Janette Tepas

I get a real thrill when I’m able to share the experiences that are truly unique to Italy, especially when my guests see something for the first time. When we come into Venice, it opens our eyes and hearts to a whole new way of life. It’s impossible to understand until you’re actually on the boat winding through the canals for the very first time. All those paintings and photographs don’t do it justice … these streets really are all water, and there are no cars. It is never quite understood until we are there in person, pulling up to our hotel door.

It’s the same in Florence, when we emerge into the piazza, suddenly staring at the size and majesty of the ornate Duomo. It almost jumps out at us, as it comes up so suddenly at the corner of the piazza. And it goes on throughout our trip. Looking out at the Tuscan landscapes, we never really need to even aim a camera for an incredible view. In Rome, our "neighborhood" is at the Pantheon’s doorstep. As we walk inside the Coloseum, my guests of gasp in awe when the see the first example of such architecture, and continue to be amazed as they step through the very same stone blocks that Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. We get to explore the very place that the civilized world actually began. And then we continue on to the next place, almost as time travelers, because the list goes on and on!  
 David Douglas

Taking the guests to Piazza Michelangelo right before sunset and dinner is an amazing experience. You see the Arno River with all of Florence in the background. Watching the sunset and the changing colors of the rooftops is breathtaking. Then having dinner right behind the piazza you have this opportunity to watch Florence's night lights come alive and experience the beauty of all the sights with a mood lighting.  Having a glass of prosecco and just enjoying the view is a time where you feel like you’re a local just taking in Florence. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Il Gusto d’Italia

AT QueensLander Tours, our travel experience focuses on discovering local traditions and regional cuisine paired with the perfect wine and an insight into the authentic Italian way of life. Part of the fun of eating in Italy is discovering dishes that are la specialità della casa. Buon appetito!

Tuscan cuisine is famous for giving new life to leftovers. Ribollita actually means ‘re-boiled’ in Italian.  It’s an industrious way to use yesterday’s minestrone soup. Slow cooking is the secret.

At our favorite restaurant in Cortona, we can count on Paula and Franco to serve traditional Tuscan dishes with enthusiasm and flair. After a long day of enjoying the Tuscan countryside, her steaming bowls of Ribollita are the perfect Primi.


2 cups white beans
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
4 carrots, sliced into half-inch rounds
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 leek, white part only, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/2 tsp. dried hot chili pepper
2 peeled plum tomatoes, ripe or canned
1/4 head cabbage, shredded and chopped.
1 small bunch spinach, shredded and chopped
4 zucchini, sliced into half-inch rounds
1/2 tsp each dried rosemary and oregano, 1 bay leaf
3 cups chicken stock
1 (3-inch) piece Parmesan rind. This adds a nice,
salty flavor to any soup or sauce; rinds can be kept
in the freezer until you need them, no need to thaw,
just drop it in.
1 pound stale Italian bread, sliced
extra virgin olive oil

SOAK the beans in plenty of water for 8 hours. Drain and rinse.

In a large casserole or cast iron or cast aluminum pot, with a cover and a thick bottom, heat the olive on medium heat. Saute the pancetta for just a minute then add the chopped onion, carrot, celery, leek, garlic and chili pepper, stirring often until the onion has turned translucent in color.

ADD the tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, zucchini, rosemary, oregano, bay leaf and beans, a dash of olive oil, and stir well to mix the ingredients.

ADD the chicken stock to cover the ingredients by about 1/4 inch. Add the Parmesan rind.

BRING to a very slow simmer and cook, covered, for about 1 1/2 hours or until the beans start to soften. Add stock as necessary to keep the ingredients just covered. (for a ‘soupier’ soup, keep the liquid level a bit higher). Longer cooking softens the ingredients and intensifies the taste. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover, cool and refrigerate the soup overnight.

The next day, layer the soup in a deep baking dish with small chunks of the stale bread and bake until bubbling. Serve in crocks and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of Parmesan cheese.

Venice...Day 2 of Your Trip

by Tour Captain Dan Dieckhaus, CITM

This day can be challenging for you as you have just completed hours upon hours of very demanding travel to get here. Now that you are settled into your room, take time to relax, and rest assured that everything is in place and that for the entire duration of your time with QueensLander Tours, everything has been organized and prepared.

Your health is imperative to your enjoyment of your time in Europe. Drinking plenty of water will not only help you stay hydrated, but will even help ward off the jet lag that you may be experiencing. Although you will see bottled water served at every meal, the tap water in Italy is safe, and I drink it all the time. Venice's water comes from the area of San Benedetto, the same area from where the bottled water comes. Remember that both caffeine and alcohol tend to dehydrate you, and since we may be sampling a bit of both of these wonderful Italian temptations, just remember to balance it with your water intake.

A power nap is certainly not out of the question and can be very helpful as well…….Buona Notte! We will reconvene on the 4th floor terrace of the Hotel Saturnia at 7:15 pm, for welcome drinks and an opportunity to meet our fellow travel partners. Our first night welcome dinner will follow this reception, and is a brief three- minute walk from the front door of the hotel. If the weather is on our side, we will be seated outside next to the canal. You might consider a light jacket or wrap if you think you have a tendency to get chilly. Remember to bring your wonderful sense of humor, your charming personality, and above all, a hearty appetite.

Here is a thought to ponder as you settle into your magical surroundings of Venice. There are tourists, and there are travelers, and there is a difference! “The traveler is active, going inquisitively in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects things to happen to him. He goes sight-seeing.”

I want to welcome you to Italy, to Venice, and to your adventure. I invite you to join me as a traveler, opening you heart and your mind to this fascinating and intriguing country. Welcome to what I believe will be a journey that you will treasure for the rest of your life.

Venice……..Day 3 of your trip

Thought for the day;
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is Unaware.”

Venice is full of twists and turns, with a seeming endless array of alleys, canals, bridges, churches, and squares. Secret Destinations are at every turn, and so are opportunities to experience this floating city in elegant decay. Don't be as concerned where you as much as you are about what is going on around you. What may have gone on here before?  Stop at times and look up, look down, and realize that you are walking in the very places that people like Casanova, Verdi, Vivaldi, and Marco Polo most likely walked hundreds of years ago.

This afternoon is for time on-your-own, to do as you would like to do. Shop, eat, walk, relax - it's up to you. Let me know if you have questions, and I will be happy to help you. Remember to follow the signs that say: PER RIALTO, SAN MARCO or ACCEDEMIA, and know you are on the right path. You are on an Island (actually over 117 islands), and you can‟t really get lost for long.

Tonight at 6:30 we meet in the lobby for a short walk to find our Gondolier for a wonderful float through side canals, accompanied by some great traditional music and song. Don't forget the camera, and maybe place the wrist strap on while getting into the boat.  You are on your own for dinner this night, but as on any such non inclusive night, you are welcome to join me at one of my favorite haunts. I will have a reservation for 8:oo, so I will meet you in the lobby of the Saturnia at 7:45 if you're interested. If you want to venture off on your own and need a suggestion for a romantic spot or just a pizza, let me know.

Tomorrow morning I'll need your bags just outside your door at 6:45 am so we can get them to the lobby for identification before we head out. Breakfast promptly at 7:00, and we meet our Private water taxi at 7:30 for our transfer to the train station. We have a Eurostar to catch, as we make our way to Florence, the Birthplace of the Renaissance.


Day 4……….Venice to Florence

“The Creator made Italy from designs by Michelangelo”

Mark Twain said that from his observations of Italy during one of his many journeys abroad in the 19th century. He also said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

The Renaissance came about as a result of forward-thinking men, no longer content with living in the fear of the dark ages. Ancient knowledge that had been lost at the time of the Roman Empire was rediscovered in the Middle East, and was being studied by the wealthy merchants of the Florence area. The Renaissance artists saw themselves as an extension of this knowledge and had the perfect medium by which to express it.

The Renaissance was expressed in many forms, including Literature, Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Science. Today, as we meander the narrow medieval lanes and the busily traveled avenues of Florence, we will encounter a multitude of the most magnificent works of that time. Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Da Vinci, Dante, Machiavelli, and Brunelleschi have all left their mark on Florence, as well as influencing the world for generations.

This afternoon, following our group walking orientation, lunch, and our check-in to the 5 star Hellvetia-Bristol Hotel, you once again have the opportunity to take time to experience this storied city at your own pace. You might like to take in the sights along the Arno River, or shop for Gold and Silver Jewelry on the gorgeous Ponte Vecchio. You may wish to head towards Santa Croce to see why Florence is revered for it's fine leather crafting, or you may want to sit at one of the many sidewalk cafés and enjoy a fine glass of Chianti.  I know that whatever you chose to do, Florence will work her magic on you as she has on me.

This evening finds us meeting in the hotel lobby at 7:45 for a short walk to one of the finest culinary experiences of our trip. We indulge our taste buds and have our first encounter with the fabled Tuscan Cuisine at Baroncelli's. Tonight's dinner is inclusive, wine and all!

Buon Appetito!

Welcome to QueensLander Tours and to our family of travelers.

Tour Captain: Dan Dieckhaus +39 347-605-8217 (cell phone)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Confessions of an Italian Shoe Lover

by Sandy Gregory, CITM

This story is about a subject that has, only recently, become close to my heart ... and feet.

Italian shoes.

For a long time, I thought the obsession with elegant shoes was the indulgence of a select class of actresses and socialites picking around in spike heals with grimaces of pain on their faces in the name of fashion. I was a Colorado girl, who of course valued hearty “sensible togs” to get me up the hill. My fashionable sister-in-law, strolling around in her size-5 heels, would wince at my Uggs, my Tevas and especially my MBTs (Massai Barefoot Technology! Note that if you wear them, you will soon have the body of a tall, emaciated aborigine.) She didn’t understand that my feet should be comfortable. Period. Fancy shoes: I didn’t see the value; didn’t see the reason. That is, however, until I happened into the Nero Giardini shoe store in Rome …

I needed a pair of dress shoes for the dinners on my tour, so I popped in to take a look. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a neutral-colored suede sandal with a platform heel and a flower pattern on the toe. “These would do, probably match everything I had,” I quipped. When I put them on, however, they did more than just “do.” A change began to come over me. I started to feel a slight tingle in my toes. I felt taller, longer, leaner. Within minutes, I transformed from a jock with an athletic lumber to a swan gliding above the ground. I wasn’t just walking, I was flowing. I felt beautiful and sexy. Strong and powerful. And wow, these shoes were comfortable. I was literally swept off my feet. It was a Cinderella moment.

You cannot deny the power of the shoe.

Soon I was tapping into my inner Carrie Bradshaw. I began dreaming about shoes. Beautiful shoes. Sexy shoes. Gorgeous Italian shoes made of lush, luxurious fabrics and leathers. Shoes that combined fashion and style with comfort and durability. How did they do that?

Soon people began to notice. My guests asked me where I shopped. I eagerly took them and vicariously lived their thrill. I stalked unknowing Italian women, studying their choices and learning their skill. I began scouring the stores looking for my next find: genuine snake skin sandals ... hand-made and perfect. Red heels ... so simple, so very right. I horded my tips and counted my Euros. Could it be done? Yes, next week. Who needs to eat! Besides, I can find the deals. I just need more time!

Ti amo! Ho bisogno di te! Io voglio te! (I love you! I need you! I want you!)

Who could say if this addiction was manageable, controllable, or even understandable?

Then came the intervention.

One day, as I was saying goodbye to my guests, one gentlemen held out his hand with an envelope. (Tips: never expected, always appreciated). He kindly wished me the best and good fortune to my two boys in college. At that moment reality set in: Oh yea, tuition. Kinda forgot about that. I quickly realized I needed to get myself together and vowed to manage my addiction. One day at a time.

It’s ok. I’m fine now. I know that shoes will always be there for me, just like a good friend. They will never judge me or let me down, and will always lift my spirits. But right now, Italian shoes are an extravagance that should be left to the fashionistas. I need to focus my efforts on the more practical.
... scarves.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Follow Me: The Adventures of the QueensLander Tour Captains

Tour Captain Journal Entry ~ Dateline Venice, Italy
By Sandy Gregory, QueensLander Tour Captain, CITM

My Favorite Things - Venice
Venice oozes history. The city has a unique mystique that one encounters nowhere else in the world. I’m not talking about the Venice filled with thousands of day-trippers, gondola traffic jams and hawking merchants selling carnival masks, but rather the city itself. Venice is a work of art, comprised of 117 tiny islands connected by 400 bridges over 150 canals. The buildings are an eclectic match of Renaissance arches, Gothic points and Byzantine filigree hanging on to each other for dear life, their skin peeling and foundations slowly collapsing. Venice makes you feel as though you have stepped onto a movie set, looking almost exactly as it has for a thousand years. So to me, tenacity is the art of Venice. The city is sinking and the sea is rising. But for centuries it has defied time by standing still.  It’s a city that should not exist, yet still does. Who knows whether technology and/or human behavior will save Venice?  Until it finally sinks into the Adriatic, it will be much more to me than just a postcard snapshot.

The Water and the Light: The first thing my guests do when they walk out of the Venice airport is climb into a boat. The half-hour water taxi into Venice is a visual sensation.  As the morning fog lifts, the sun glitters and dances on the water. Along the Grand Canal, the water reflects brightly colored facades and their tumbling flower boxes. As we move through the maze of twisting canals, we hear the sound of water lapping at the walls to the rhythm of the gondoliers’ accordions. When my guests step out of the water taxi and into the gold-gilded foyer of our hotel, I always know we’re off to a good start.  Because as far as first impressions go, the water and light of Venice always do my job for me.

Getting Lost: I always begin my tour of Venice by taking away my guests’ maps and telling them to get lost. Venice is a busy maze of twisting streets, narrow alleys, and dark green mysterious canals where maps are useless and just no fun. You can’t really get too lost because you’re on an island after all. My advice to them is to just keep walking. Caught in a crowd? Go the other way. A dark alley? Go down it. You’ll never know what you might find on those quiet back streets where the real Venetians live and work. When I get myself lost (which probably happens more often than it really should), I often stop and wonder what’s behind those groaning doors on huge iron hinges. Or I visit with a 95-year old haberdasher while she sews the plumes onto her magnificent hats. Or I join a small crowd standing below the window of an opera singer and listen in awe as she warms up for her performance at the Finece. I find trinkets, treasures and off-the-beaten-path trattorias that would not have been discovered and enjoyed if I just didn’t get lost.

Venice at night
Venice at night is very romantic. The lights twinkle and cut through the fog, creating the ambiance of a spooky mystery novel. I feel very safe, however, strolling alone in the late evening, because the locals come out to mingle, and dark alleys open up onto to lively piazzas. A few weeks ago, the sound of music lured me to Piazza San Sebastian and into a small church, where a group of tuxedoed musicians were playing Vivaldi. It was magical. I also enjoy the dueling café orchestras in the Piazza San Marco. Piano, violins, and accordions play waltzes and classical music, each orchestra deferring to the next, while people sit and drink, dance in the square, or enjoy a gelato. But what I most love about Venice at night is the silence. The cruise ships have left and the crowds aren’t drowning out the natural buzz of the city. After a long day of attending to people, Venice at night allows me to relax, be in my own thoughts, and get ready for another busy day.

When not leading tours, Sandy Gregory is a freelance graphic designer and copywriter (, and an e-mail marketing specialist at Hanna Design in Greenwood Village, CO. (