As an avid volleyball player, I always looked for opportunities to play wherever I went on vacation, but never had the chance to be part of any organized play outside of the US. A few years ago, I decided to see if there were any international volleyball opportunities out there. I didn’t have to search long before I found a tour that sounded like the perfect fit. After a few weeks, I decided to take the plunge and send in my application for my first trip with Goodwill Ambassadors Volleyball Tours! They have adult tours to Italy and to Rio, Brazil (They also have Juniors tours to London/Paris/Barcelona, Italy and Rio) – I opted for Italy because it was always high on my bucket list. My only prior exposure to Europe was on my first solo trip to visit a friend in Dublin, so I was thrilled to be going back. It seemed like forever until July arrived and it was time to embark on my adventure, but the day finally came where we were all to meet up in the Chicago O’Hare airport before we all boarded the same flight to Italy. I had no idea how many people would be in our group or who they were, but we were supposed to wear our Goodwill Ambassadors t-shirts and backpacks so that we could easily spot each other in the airport (the white Italy t-shirt below)
The six of us met up and got to know each other in the airport for a little while before we got on our flight. Everyone was excited to get our adventure started! I liked having a smaller group because we all got to know each other well by the end of the trip. We had one more group member who was from Europe, so she met us in Rome, as did our tour leader, John Littleman.
Our days were structured with sightseeing during the day, and volleyball matches with local teams during the afternoon and evening, followed on some nights with dinner with the teams we just played and some days/nights with free time to explore on our own. In Rome we started our journey with a guided sightseeing tour. We got to visit the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Sistine Chapel, and famous works of Michelangelo. We climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica for the grand view pictured above. Everything in Rome was magnificent – there really is no other word for it. So much history and grandeur in one place….and pizza! The man below was our favorite waiter at the pizza place we enjoyed, aptly named, Super Mario 🙂 Pizza was HUGE but so good. Quattro Formaggi was my favorite.
After a few days in Rome, we boarded the train to the ocean-side town of Marina de Grosseto. This was my favorite of the cities we stayed in because it had such a welcoming small-town vibe and we stayed only a block from the beach, and a block from the gym where we played our volleyball games. We were able to have indoor and beach games with our host club, which was a lot of fun, and tiring for people like me not used to playing in the sand! We worked on our tans in the Tuscan sun and enjoyed getting to compete with the locals, while also learning a new game – Beach tennis! Had not heard of this before going to Italy but it was a lot of fun. My favorite food here: Octopus! So tender and flavorful.
Next up was Florence. We were treated to more glorious architecture there and we maximized our time by taking a Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour. We visited the Uffizi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio, and Pitti Palace, followed by a nice dinner on the Arno River. Of course, we also had to see Michelangelo’s David. We also happened to be there during the filming of The Jersey Shore, so we did what any annoying American tourists would do and asked every local we saw if they could point us in the direction of the pizzeria where filming was taking place. We finally found it and signed our lives away in order to be part of the filming while we ate lunch in the pizzeria (the show’s stars were working there and looked less than thrilled at their assignments). Not a fan of that show, but it was the best pizza we had during our whole trip. Thanks Pizzeria O’Vesuvio!
After enjoying our time in Florence, it was time to leave for our final city (Venice) with a stop in Pisa along the way. To me, Pisa was a cool “check it off the list” thing, but it was so crowded with people that it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to stay for long. Once we got to Venice, we quickly discovered what a unique framework of winding streets it had amidst all the canals. We didn’t take a Gondola ride (I was too cheap for that), but we explored San Marcos Square and Cathedral (pigeons galore), took a boat to Burano, Murano and Torchello (famous for glass blowing and lace) and the Bridge of Sighs. We made some special connections with the local teams here that we competed against. Most of them spoke fairly good English, but they humored us as we tried to practice our broken Italian with them.
As far as the level of competition, I found it to be challenging, but not overly so. The local teams we played seemed pretty on par with our playing skills and we’d mix up the teams when they were not. I wondered how our group would mesh since we all came from different levels of experience, but we ended up working really well together and having a blast. After Venice, we were all sad that our trip had come to an end and that we had to head home. A few years later, several of us met up at another volleyball tournament in Wisconsin (Waupaca Boatride), so that was fun to reconnect and reminisce about Italy. Because of this trip, Terri (the blonde in pink in the dinner picture) and I now travel together regularly, both for volleyball tournaments and for non-athletic international adventures. I hope this inspires you to embrace what you are passionate about and go on some adventures of your own!