Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Traveling to Italy? Don't be an Ugly American!





   You've probably heard stories about Americans being loud and obnoxious while traveling abroad. We've witnessed that type of behavior first hand more than once while traveling in Italy. Debbie and I are fairly quiet people, so this is not a problem for us, but we do try to be excellent ambassadors for the US while we travel. While our Italian skills are very limited, we rarely start our conversations in an osteria or a shop with "Do you speak English?" We've taken a couple of night school courses like "Italian For Tourists" and have language apps on our phones which really come in handy. It's always fun to make an effort to speak the language, and most of the time it is appreciated. Don't be surprised if the server corrects your Italian a bit, usually with a laugh or a smile. How else will you learn?

   A few other quick notes on how not to be an Ugly American: Don't ask everyone for the price in dollars; know the exchange rate and try to figure it out yourself. Try to be respectful in the way you dress. Saying things like "That's not how we do it in the States," gets fairly tiresome to hear.  Most of what happens in Italy won't be how you do it at home, so the best thing to do is get out of your comfort zone and enjoy the wonderful culture. And, there are so many great coffee bars in Italy, that there is no reason to go to McDonald's or Starbucks. Come on, you're in Italy, after all.

Photos below are mostly places you'll miss if you only seek out familiar restaurants...

If you get a chance, check out Smarter Travel's blog for a lot of useful advice and information.


La Stella Ristorante in San Gimignano.

Lucca dining al fresco.

On the Rialto Bridge in Venice.

At the Duomo in Florence.

Off the beaten path in Florence.

Off the beaten path in Florence 2.

Having snacks and a glass of wine in Cinque Terre.

Lucca lunch.

At Cane e Gatto for lunch in Siena.

Aperitivi and cocktails in Milan.

Lunch in Bergamo.

Wine and snacks in Bergamo waiting for the funicolare.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Opening Doors in Modena!



    Not only is traveling an adventure, a vacation and a respite from everyday routine, it can also be an enjoyable learning experience. On each of our four recent trips to Italy, we had lessons that were humorous, painful and/or valuable. The first lesson (which we knew before we left home): Italy is not the United States. For some, that’s a tough one to grasp, but for us it is a big reason why we travel. While people around the world do have a lot in common, it is often the differences that provide the biggest gift.
    On our most recent visit in November, more than once, we were the unwitting students to the lessons of everyday Italian life. Here we were on a misty, dismal day getting off the train in Modena for the first time after a short trip from Bologna. It was a while before we realized that we were not walking towards the center of the city where we wanted to be. We had looked at the map posted outside of the train station, but still tried to rely on our directional instincts to find what we were looking for. Those instincts had us following a crowd from the station for a while, until we were certainly a little lost. But, alas, we did get to see the Maserati headquarters building as we wandered down the wrong streets.


     We finally decided to find a bar for coffee and directions. We were off the beaten tourist track, but we were lucky to find a small neighborhood bar. Unfortunately, even though it seemed fairly busy inside, the door was not opening when we tried it. The young woman behind the counter inside appeared to laugh, along with some of her customers, as they all signaled to us “to push" the door open.  As we entered, she was saying “spingere” which happens to mean “push” in English. The sticker with those instructions was on the door! Of course, we were trying to pull (tirare) the door open.


     For us, luckily, laughing in Italian is the same as in English. We all had a quick laugh as we ordered our Caffe Americano and brioche. And, we were actually not too far from the city center and easily followed the directions (the pointing helped) to our destination. Even though it was now kind of a drizzling day, we still found a very nice restaurant for an excellent lunch, where we were able to have another laugh at ourselves. Beyond learning the meaning of "spingere" and "tirare," we once again discovered the treasure of spontaneity  and its rewards of laughter and learning. We have found that by visiting places with the anticipation of wonder and discovery, we are rarely disappointed. By minimizing our expectations we often receive a surprising gift. Our advice would be to enjoy the little things as well as the fantastic art, architecture, history and sights. Most of the time, just being there is enough. Even on a rainy day. Italy is waiting for you!
Modena shop.

Debbie having lunch in Modena at Ristorante Uva D' Oro.

Lunch in Modena at Ristorante Uva D' Oro..

Monday, March 27, 2017

Florence, Sorrento and Bologna Trip Photos

Four months has passed since my last post. Our November 18 day stay in Italy is in the memory book now. What a trip it was! While the weather was a bit more seasonal last year than in 2015, we were still able to be faithful to our itinerary with two exceptions. More on that in an upcoming post.

I thought I'd begin this series of posts on our 2016 adventure that took us to Milan, Florence, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Bologna, Modena and Ravenna, with some photos that highlight our experience. These  photos are from our first few days in Florence and as we arrived in Sorrento. Hopefully, you can glean some inspiration to start planning your trip to Italy. It's waiting for you - get going!

Florence. The white-haired gentleman is the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, on the 50th anniversary of the Flood of 1966.



Pitti Palace.

Security at the Duomo in Florence due to the visit of the president.

High waters of the Arno River as it passes through Florence in November 2016.

Debbie at the anniversary of the Flood of 1966 in Florence.

Debbie at the Milano Centrale train station.

Debbie with friends Gabriele, Alessandra and Stefania...visiting Certaldo.

Inside The Abbey of Passignano.

Inside The Abbey of Passignano.

Sorrento.

Mt. Vesuvius.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fantastic Lodging For Our November Trip To Italy


   Now that we have finalized our major train trip plans, I would like to share our lodging choices. Since our flight to Italy takes us to Milan's Linate Airport, we'll be staying in Milan (Milano) for the first night of our 15 days in Italy; next, we'll take the Trenitalia Frecciarossa (fast train) to Florence (Firenze) for a 3 day visit; then, we'll board the Italotreno, another fast train, bound for Naples (Napoli). on our way to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast where we'll be for 5 days; and, finally, before returning to Milan for our final night, we'll take the Italotreno train north to Bologna for a 5 day visit. It might seem like a lot of moving around, but really, we'll have lots of time to relax and take day trips from each location without being too stressed or trying to do too much. However, we will be traveling more with our luggage than we did last year so we're going to try to pack lighter than ever. We will have a washing machine in each of the apartments we've rented which should reduce the need for extra clothes. Hopefully, packing for 7 days instead of 15 will lighten our load considerably.

  Choosing our lodging mainly involved viewing properties and reading reviews on Booking.com and Tripadvisor. The average per night price for our hotel and apartments is about $101(with a high of $140 and a low of $82) which we think is pretty reasonable. Last year we stayed in Milan at the Hotel Mythos for a total of 4 nights and found that it was economical, clean, quiet and close to the Milano Centrale train station, which was ideal for us. So, it was a logical choice for us this time at €83, or about $93 at today's exchange rate. The main reason we'll be in Milan is that our Aer Lingus airfare was much cheaper than flying into Florence. We do favor Swiss Air when flying into Florence, though. There are still things you can do in Milan even if you're there for only a 1/2 day and night. If you plan a couple months ahead, you should be able to get tickets to see DaVinci's Last Supper (we did this last year on our last day with tickets from Selectitaly). And, if you walk to the Last Supper which is about 2 1/2 miles from the hotel, you can see Milan's impressive Cathedral ( Duomo di Milano), the La Scala Opera House and The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II mall on the way!

Hotel Mythos in Milano.

Our room at Hotel Mythos.

After our one hour and thirty-nine minute train ride to Florence, we have about a 15 minute walk to our Design Apartments on Via Venezia that we booked through Booking.com. We were disappointed that the apartments we stayed in on our previous 3 trips to Florence were not available, leaving us to find someplace new to stay. The prices seemed a bit more expensive for a decent apartment in Florence, but choosing this apartment was not difficult at all after reading the great reviews, seeing the perfect location and viewing the photos. Our price for this one bedroom apartment for 3 nights was €375 or about $420. The apartment is close, within 15 minutes walking, to the Piazza San Marco (5 minutes), the Accademia Gallery (8 minutes), the Uffizi Gallery (15 minutes) the Ponte Vecchio (15 minutes), Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station 15-20 minutes) and the city center with all its sights.

Via Venezia, Florence.

Design Apartment's bedroom.


Design Apartment's kitchen.

After 3 wonderful days in Florence, we once again head to the SMN train station to catch our 11:33 AM train to Naples. 2:55 later we should be in the Napoli Centrale train station looking for our Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. The apartment we have reserved through Booking.com is the Appartamento Corso Italia 269 which is situated on the main street through Sorrento. Our rental rate for this one bedroom unit was €365 or about $410 for 5 nights. We have never been to Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast so this will be an exciting new adventure for us. From here we hope to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Positano, Amalfi and the isle of Capri. That will be a lot to do in 5 days but we'll still have time to see Sorrento and to relax.
Bedroom in Appartamento Corso Italia 269 in Sorrento.








Dining area...

Kitchen...
   After spending five days and nights in Sorrento, it's back to Napoli Centrale train station for our 12:55 Italotreno ride to Bologna. After arriving at Bologna Centrale train station about 3 1/2 hours later, the apartment owner will pick us up and take us to his Palazzo Pannolini apartment in the center of town. Last year, when we visited this beautiful porticoed city, we rented a very nice apartment further from the center, so this time we decided to be much closer to restaurants, stores and historical sites. We were immediately attracted to this apartment on Tripadvisor because of the photos showing a cozy, well-appointed and beautiful one bedroom apartment that was built into the portico of the 16th century building. Our rental rate for 5 nights was €446 or about $495. From our apartment we can easily walk to everything! We are also planning day trips to Ravenna and Modena. Our last train trip will be back to Milan for our final stay at Hotel Mythos. So far, we have no plans for our last day in Milan...

Living room at Palazzo Pannolini apartment.

Entrance at Palazzo Pannolini apartment.

Bedroom at Palazzo Pannolini apartment.

Palazzo Pannolini.


   Well, that's the nuts and bolts of our lodging for 15 days traveling in our favorite country - Italy. Finding a great place to stay that suits your budget is not difficult. The easiest to use site for me has been Booking.com. There you can, more often than not, reserve an apartment or a hotel room without a deposit, pay when you get there and cancel for free within a week or two of your reserved date. You can also communicate directly with the hotel or apartment owner to tweak your plans with them if you need an early check-in or late check-out time or for any other special requests. Tripadvisor's site also worked well, but you might have to pay a big deposit upfront. We had to pay a 60% deposit for the Bologna apartment. Still, on Tripadvisor, you'll be able to get a complete refund if you meet the "date by" requirements.

   I hope this information will be helpful to you as you plan your big Italian adventure. Remember, Italy is waiting for you!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Trenitalia or Italotreno - Buying Your Train Tickets Online


Milano Centrale Train Station.
   Once you've pretty much finalized your itinerary and made your lodging reservations, you can begin to firm up your transportation between cities you'll be visiting. If you're renting a car, this would be a good time to find the best routes to your destinations. If you're going with a tour group, you'll be able leave the driving and planning to someone else. But, if you're planning to travel around Italy by train, you can start purchasing train tickets before you leave home and save quite a bit of money in the process. Trenitalia has a great "how-to page" for doing just that. Just click here to get started. And, here
for how to buy your tickets online. You should also check fares between major cities on Italotreno. Often, Italotreno fares are cheaper than Trenitalia's. You may even be able to snag First Class (Prima) seats for less than Second Class (Smart) if you start earlier enough. Just remember, that those less expensive seats usually won't allow changes or refunds. Also, I did experience some difficulties completing ticket purchases on Italotreno's site. First of all, the page where you choose your departure and destination cities is in English, but when you click continue after choosing times and the number of passengers, the next page where you choose which train/ticket displays only in Italian. The first two tickets I bought went through without a hitch. After that, I couldn't complete a purchase. In the end I bought our last two tickets on Trenitalia. On Trenitalia, be sure to check the box to proceed "without log-in." Another thing to look for is the "Choose the seat" button which appears over the "Continue" button. Otherwise your seats will be assigned without your input. Just take your time.

   I'm going to include some photos here of some of the Trenitalia pages you will be using to buy your tickets. Be sure to use the Italian spelling for the cities/towns you're visiting. It's also good to know beforehand if a city has more than one train station and which station you want. Many times, you'll want the station with "Centrale" in its name. Usually, that's the main train station near the city center, but your lodging may be nearer to another station. Check that out with your hotel or apartment rental office.  Tripadvisor and/or other travel sites can also help you to determine which station you need. As you do this, you can also learn directions for entering/exiting a train station you'll be using. It's pretty easy asking a question or finding an answer in a Tripadvisor forum for the city/area you'll be visiting.

So, here are some of the photos from my online ticket buying for our upcoming trip to Italy:

Start here at the Trenitalia English (EN) page.

Choose "One Way" or  "Return" for round trip; your departure station and your destination station, your dates, the approximate hours you'd like to leave and the number of tickets (adult & children). Then click "Search." Since we're flying into Linate Airport in Milan (Milano),  and taking the train the next day for Florence (Firenze), I've chosen Milano Centrale station which is close to our Hotel Mythos and Firenze Santa Maria Novella station (SMN) which is close to the city center in Florence.

On the next page, you make your choice (solution) for which train to take. For our purposes, we will choose the Super Economy Frecciarossa option for 69,80 euro for two adults. (I waited a few days to book this ticket and the Super Economy fares were sold out for the time we wanted, so our price went up by 10 euros. However, other departures were still available for 59,80 euros later in the day). Hover your cursor near the price and the "choose" option pops up for you to click. If your getting a "return" (round trip) ticket, you'll have to "continue" to choose your return trip details. You can see that the trip will take 1 hour and 39 minutes - in our experience, the fast trains in Italy like the Frecciarossa are almost always on time to the minute.
 We try to time our departures when going to another city so that we'll be able to check into our lodging right after we arrive. Sometimes there is more flexibility on check-in times with self-catering apartments than with hotels. Hotel Mythos in Milan was very accommodating when we requested in advance for an earlier check-in time. They also were willing to hold our luggage in a safe place if the room was not yet available. Either way, no worries.

So far, this is what our "Cart" looks like.

Choose your seat and click continue...

We have heard that there really is little difference here, so we choose the "I continue without change" option.

Choose your payment option here and click "Accept." And, on the next screen choose "purchase without registering," and fill out all of your information with the same email for all passengers. After you hit the "Confirm" button for payment, you'll receive an email immediately or very shortly thereafter with your ticket and all the information. I just completed my first ticket purchase for this trip and the process was easier than previously so you should have no problems. One thing that I missed on this one, though, was the option of picking our seats, but the ones we were assigned look fine.
So, we're all set for the second leg of our journey. We have our plane tickets and our hotel reservation for our first night in Milan. On our second day, we'll check out of the Hotel Mythos, grab a coffee and a brioche at the station and board the Frecciarossa for bound for Firenze.

Special Note: After (not before!) making my purchase, I looked at my notes for train fares I had researched to find a notation about the Italotreno fare between Milan and Florence. The price for two just 39 euros! As I have said in a previous post, these Economy fares often don't allow changes or refunds. Since the price I already paid is more than double, I put in a call to my credit card company just to see if I could cancel payment on the ticket, explaining that it was really my mistake. The charge had yet to be posted, so I'm waiting to see what happens. Meanwhile, I called Trenitalia and I'm waiting for a call-back now. I imagine we'll just have to live with the higher priced ticket and it's no major  problem, but I share this as a cautionary tale to take your time when buying tickets or making reservations. I had done the research, but neglected use it.
Special Note Update: I decided not to pursue the cancellation of our Trenitalia ticket. The mistake was mine and I had accepted the Trenitalia ticket restrictions. So, I just moved on from there this week to buy our three remaining tickets online: Florence to Naples, Naples to Bologna and Bologna to Milan. In the end, two of our tickets are on Trenitalia and two are on Italotreno.

Once you're traveling on the train, look for signs like the ones in the above photo in case you don't hear the announcement for your stop.