Though Rome has seen the vernal equinox some 2,750 times, since its legendary founding in 753 B.C., it still seems a triumph of nature when new-green shoots push their way up amid the crumbled ruins of the Roman Forum. Come mid-March, everybody in this ancient land seems ready for another fresh start. Bright, woody asparagus and pasta primaveras abound on restaurant menus in Florence and Tuscany. Locals in the surrounding countryside adorn their windows with flowerboxes. And Sandro Botticcelli's Spring -- mesmerizing any time of year, at the Uffizi -- takes on new relevance once the wisteria and iris, and the fig and olive trees, start flourishing in public gardens.
Most agree that May is the ideal time of year to visit Italy, but March and April, though frequently rainy, also have their advantages. Winter has thawed by then, and the siege of summer tourists and 90-degree days has not yet begun. To sweeten the sauce, a number of operators are slashing prices on air-hotel packages for spring travel.
The cheapest deals -- of the plentiful package promotions available right now -- are last-minute bargains, good only through March. The lowest prices come from Tour Crafters (tel. 800/621-2259; www.tourcrafters.com). Their "Spring Breaks" in Italy, good only for restricted periods of time through March, include roundtrip air and four nights' accommodations, plus car rentals for the length of the trip. (The very lowest packages are the family plans, slightly less expensive than the prices listed here, for families of two adults and two children up to the age of sixteen.)
For individuals traveling as a couple, four nights in Florence at the superior three-star Palazzo Ruspoli are $495, from March 14 through 17, from New York, Chicago, Boston, or Washington. For the same travel period from New York or Boston, Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast is $499 at the three-star Hotel Rivage; Venice is $519, at the three-star Olimpia Hotel, for the same travel period, from New York, Chicago, Boston, or Washington; and from March 14 through 31st, from the same four cities, Rome is $599 at the three-star Accademia.
Plus, for longer stays in the country, six nights on the Amalfi Coast -- including overnights in Naples and Sorrento, and bus transfers between cities -- are $659, from New York or Boston, departing on March 18 and 25. See the Web site for alternate departure cities, at extra cost. Finally, four nights on beautiful Lake Como, in the Italian Alps near Milan, are $739 for four nights at the four-star Hotel Barchetta Excelsior, from March 14 through 31, from New York, Chicago, Boston, or Washington.
All Tour Crafters trips do not include air fees and surcharges. Hotel upgrades and additional departure cities are available for an additional fee.
Donna Franca Tours' "Italy on Sale" promotion (tel. 800/225-6290; www.donnafranca.com) also features inexpensive, three-star hotel packages in March from a wide range of east coast departure cities. Five nights in Rome, at the Hotel Milani, and roundtrip airfare are $599, through March 31. Four nights in Florence, at the Hotel Basilea, are $599 as well, through March 15. Four nights in Venice, at the Hotel Montecarlo, are $629 through March 17; and five nights in Venice, at the Hotel All'Angelo, are $659, also through March 17.
All Donna Franca tours depart on Alitalia from Boston, Chicago, New York, Newark, Miami, Atlanta, and Washington DC. Other departure cities are available at additional cost. Air taxes are not included.
For later spring travel, in April or May, Tour Crafters slightly raises its prices and, in some cases, its hotel quality, for departures from Philadelphia and nine alternate departure cities at additional cost. Four nights at the superior three-star Oxford Hotel in Rome are $799. Five nights in Rome and Florence at three and four-star hotels are $969, including train tickets between cities. Seven nights in three-star hotels in Rome, Florence, and Venice, including train transport, are $1,269 (for four-star lodgings, the price raises only $30, to $1,299).
Two Tour Crafters' fly-drive deals let you explore the countryside, as well, at this most fertile time of year. Six or seven nights in Rome and Tuscany, with three-day economy car rental, are $919 at the three-star Oxford in Rome and the four-star Arco Naturale in Cetona, from April 1 through 14. Five nights in Rome and Umbria are $1,039 at the Oxford and the four-star Relais Ducale in Gubbio, from April 1 through 30. See the Web site for additional departure dates and hotel combinations.
A sample of alternate departure cities and fees for Tour Crafters April-May travel include Detroit ($132), New York ($157), Los Angeles ($187), San Francisco ($187), Seattle ($211), Phoenix ($211), Denver ($229), Tampa ($247), and Houston ($247).
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