Italy: Advice to the Traveler

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Ligurian Marina

 

 

I have just returned from a trip to Italy and a friend will be traveling there soon.  This was my fourth trip to southern Europe in five years.  While I recognize there are many variations from region to region, I offer this advice to someone who is traveling to Italy for the first time.  These are things that I have observed, read, and learned.  While most of my time is Italy has been spent on hiking and photography, I hope this advice will help the casual traveler.

 

 

 

 

EUROS (€)

  • How many Euros will you need?  Try to calculate, before you leave, whether or not you would need to spend a large sum of cash.  My husband and I prefer to stay in Bed and Breakfast Inns, and many require us to pay in cash.  If you know that you need several hundred Euros in cash, order it before you leave.  We found the best rate from Wells Fargo.  You order it online; they deliver it to your door.  If you just need a few hundred Euros for incidentals, try getting them from your bank.  They may not have it on hand, but they can order it for you.  AVOID exchanging money at the airport!  On my most recent trip, we rented a car and knew we needed small change for the toll road.  My husband exchanged some money at the airport.  The rate was terrible!  They pile on so many fees.  On that day, the exchange rate for €1 was $1.32.  Once all the service fees were added, it cost us closer to $1.76.
  • In Europe, the use of decimal points and commas in numbers is different.  $1.76 would be written $1,76.
  • When using a credit card, select a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.  Those fees can add 2 – 3 % to the cost of each transaction, which adds up quickly!  I have an American Express that charges no foreign transaction fees, but it is not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard.
  • It is always worth asking the waiter if they accept your credit card when you arrive.  In Greece, time and time again restaurants had “credit cards accepted” signs in their windows, but then would claim that “the machine is broken”.  It happened SOOO OFTEN, that we concluded that they were lying.  They wanted cash.

 

The road a car must take to exit Montepulciano

CARS AND DRIVING

  • When renting a car, we always purchase the extra insurance.  I can not imagine a faster way to ruin a vacation than to get into a car accident and have to navigate a foreign insurance claim.   When we returned our rental car, I overheard two other couples saying that they were returning their cars fairly dinged up. They were shrugging their shoulders and hoping everything would be okay.
  • Speaking of cars, mind that speed limit!  If you are caught speeding, Italian police can fine you on the spot!
  • Driving in Italy is not for the faint-hearted.  In Naples, it is “everyman for himself”.  There were lots of traffic lights, but none of them appeared to be working.  My husband finds driving in Italy to be exhilarating!
  • You are not going to believe how tiny some of those roads are!  What we might believe to be a mere pedestrian pathway may actually be a two-lane road.  Well, maybe not “two-lane”, but “two-way”, and you pray and pray that you don’t meet a truck.

LANGUAGE

  • I took a year of Italian in college, which enables me to decipher most signs.  Many menus will also be written in English, but mind you, it will be British English.  I marvel how many Americans don’t know the British equivalents!  Here a few that are often encountered:  melanzane – aubergine – eggplant, zucchine – courgettes – zucchini, zucca – marrow – squash, patatine – crisps – potato chips
  • I recommend taking an Italian phrase book.
  • If you get lost, ask a German.  They usually speak flawless English, and always seem to know where they are going.

 

A perfect lunch

DINING

  • When seated at a restaurant, the water will ask you about what kind of water you want every time. The first thing he may say to you upon seating you is, “With gas?” and you may be startled by this inquiry.  He wants to know whether or not you want your water carbonated.  If  you don’t want it carbonated, say “no gas”, or “sensa gas”,  “still”, or “flat”.  Amusing, but you get used to sitting down and immediately saying, “No gas!”
  • Most restaurants will charge you a cover charge (coperto).  I have seen these range from € 1,50 to as much as  € 6, and that is charged per person!  A service charge (from 10 – 18%) may also be charged and included in the bill.  If there is a service charge, you don’t need to tip.  Otherwise, tipping 10% is customary.
  • In many towns, restaurant hours are short.  In Montepulciano, restaurants did not open until 7 or 7:30 PM and only seated until 9:30.  Ask your innkeeper about local hours, because if you are starving, you may want to grab a panini before the snack shops close.
  • A “bar” is not the same thing as it is in America.  A bar is more like a “snack bar”, where you may purchase all sorts of coffee drinks, sandwiches, and train tickets.  They will also serve alcohol, but if you are looking for an aperitif before dinner, look for an enoteca, which is a wine bar.
  • Bibite are soft drinks, and Italians never, ever, ever drink them directly from the can.  They will offer you a glass or a straw.
  • The menu will start with antipasto, which is an appetizer. Primo, the first course, is pasta, soup, or risotto. Secondo, the main course, is meat or fish.  Salad follows the main course and is served before dessert.  However, waiters will recognize that you are American, and will ask if you want your salad “before”.  That is fine.  They do not seem to be the least bothered by serving the salad “before” the main course.  You do not have to order all of the courses!  Any combination is fine!
  • The waiters do not care if you plan to share a dish.  Some will bring two plates and split it for you.  Others may bring one plate and two forks!
  • If you like wine, educate yourself on the local offerings  of the region you are visiting before you arrive.  If you try to sample every wine that the sommelier recommends to you, they will have to cart you home in a wheelbarrow.  One night we had the undivided attention of a waiter for 45 minutes.  He explained everything you ever wanted to know about the wine grapes of Tuscany, and summed it up with the explanation that in Tuscany, wine is the first religion, beef is the second, and Catholicism is third.
  • You will have to ask the waiter to bring you the bill.  He will never bring it to you unless you ask for it, and he will not do anything at all to hurry you on your way.
  • Italian bread is unsalted, so it tastes stale immediately after it is cut.  Skip the bread and save the calories for gelato!
  • Salad is always served with olive oil and vinegar (usually balsamic).  On the airplane I watched a movie which mocked an American couple (from Texas, supposedly) in Provence ordering “fat-free Ranch” for their salad Niçoise.  No one would really do that, would they? (Don’t remember name of movie.  It was forgettable.)
  • Liguria, where Cinque Terre is, is known for its focaccia.  Best focaccia I have ever tasted!
  • Tuscany is the land of wine, beef, and truffles.
  • Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, offers great pizza, seafood, and limoncello.
  • If you drink a lot of coffee in America, you will not find anything like drip coffee, but Italian coffee drinks are worth sampling.  Caffe Americano is a delicious coffee drink.  It is a serving of espresso which you thin with hot water.  It is so smooth, I find that it does not require milk at all.  A serving of coffee in Europe is 4 ounces, not 8 – 12 ounces.

Portovenere

WHAT TO PACK

  • Always pack a jacket or sweater! Hot days may still have cool evenings.
  • If you intend to do site-seeing in cities, do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts if you intend to visit any churches.  I have seen women turned away from church doors for bare arms.
  • Weigh your suitcases and pack carefully! Air Dolomiti seems to delight is requiring passengers to repack their luggage right there at the check in line. I think every single person in line was asked to step aside and lighten their carryon.  They wanted to charge me €60 because my carryon bag was overweight.  So all I had to do was unpack my camera so that my bag was the right weight, put my camera in my handbag to carry it through security, then put it back in my carryon before I boarded the plane. Go figure. Made for a nightmarish line at 5 a.m.

Tuscany

Italy really is all those wonderful things you have ever heard.  The climate is terrific, the landscapes are breathtaking, the towns are charming, the food is delicious, and the people are warm-hearted. Lord willing, I will be back!

 

 

Comments (1) May 24 2012