Monday, February 22, 2016

Ten Helpful Hints for Traveling in Italy

Traveling to other countries can be challenging at times. Learning a few things about the rules and customs of Italy before you go can help a lot. Here are ten hints that can help you enjoy your trip.
Debbie waiting for a train with our luggage.

1. This one bears repeating: always validate your train tickets BEFORE boarding your train. Unless you have a reserved seat ticket printed from your printer, or a saved one on your cell phone. You are liable to pay a very stiff fine of 50 euros and possibly be removed from the train at the next stop!
Train ticket validation machine as found on train station platforms.

2. Always validate your bus tickets on the bus when you board. If you don't, you might face the same fine as above of 50 euros! A couple we were traveling with in Florence were escorted to a bank to withdraw 100 euros to pay their fine on the spot! For the whole story, please see the post "Our Bus Ticket Fiasco in Florence" below.
Bus ticket validation machine as found on a city bus.

3. At restaurants, there is almost always a “pane e coperto” which literally means “ bread and tableware”. Sometimes, it just says, “coperto.” This is a basically service/cover charge that is included on the check for each guest. It can usually be found on the menu. The amount usually ranges from  €1,50 to €2,50 each. You should always receive an itemized bill for your meal, drinks, coperto and servizio (service charge, if there is one). Look for "servizio" and "coperto" on the menu first so you won't be surprised when you get your check.

Sample menu and check with "pane e coperto" charges.

4. When asked in a restaurant if you would like water with your meal, it is usually referring to bottled water that you pay for – either "acqua naturale" (still or plain) or aqua "frizzante" or "gassata" (with bubbles). Most Italians prefer bottled water for the taste even though their tap water is perfectly safe to drink. We often drank tap water in our self-catering apartment rentals.

5. When staying in a hotel in Italy, your key card might also be used to activate the lights in your room.  This is touted as a power saving idea. So, when you enter your room you need to slide your key card into the slot on the reader and leave it there to have power. When you leave, take your key card with you. This could be a problem if you’re hoping to charge a laptop while your gone, but if you have two cards, you could leave one in the reader if you’re comfortable with that. Or, I've seen online that you could try to inserting a business card to see if that works…we didn’t try that yet.
Typical key card electrical activator in a hotel room.

6. In Italian restaurants, don’t expect nice Italian bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping that you might find in restaurants at home. This is not an Italian thing. Bread may be served but generally it is for cleaning up any leftover sauce on your plate by “fare la scarpetta” ("to make a little shoe") to sop up the sauce.

7. You have to ask for the check, “il conto, per favore” (the total/bill , please). Don’t say “il canto” ("the singing") like I did – the waiter broke out into song!

8. Try to speak a bit of Italian. It will be appreciated. Especially, say, “Per favore” ("please") with each question, request or order. Also, remember "Prego," which means "you're welcome," among other things.

9. As mentioned above, it is great to learn some important phrases and words in Italian for your stay. It is Italy, after all.While many people speak English, it is nice to start a conversation with, “Buongiorno, Buona sera or Buona serata” ("good morning, good afternoon or good evening"). Having Google Translate on your iPhone can be a big help.

10. Be aware that many shops close between 1:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon for lunch.

Open/closing hours/days sign.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Planning Your Tuscany Itinerary

   So, you're beginning to plan your trip to Italy and you have chosen to see Tuscany first. This is so exciting! From this point until your departure date, you will probably immerse yourself in everything Italian. That's a good thing. All of the fun research you do will help you to find your way once you arrive at your destination.
   Debbie and I chose Florence to be our home base for our first 16 day stay. Immediately, I began searching the Forums on TripAdvisor for advice, suggestions, warnings and tips on travelling to and staying in that wonderful Renaissance city. So many questions in those helpful forums were from people just like us. People were seeking information and advice on planning their itineraries. A typical question would be, "With Florence as a home base for our four day stay, would it be doable to see Siena, San Gimignano, Cinque Terre, Lucca, Pisa and Venice?" The answers could be very encouraging of such an ambitious itinerary or reasonably advising not to try to see everything in so short a time. We found the answers very helpful in planning our first trip.
   Even a seven day stay in Tuscany will somewhat limit how much you'll get to see. We were fortunate to have 16 days which opened up a lot of opportunities for us. Florence alone could take a week just to touch on some of the high points. Realizing that for many a trip to Italy may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, it would be tempting to say you can do it all, but attempting to do too much could cause a lot of stress. Much depends on whether you're going to rent a car (more on this in another post), or solely use public transportation like we did. Since we had decided not to rent a car, Florence was the perfect place for us, especially because we would travel to several towns by train. As we began to plan what places we would like to see, the Trenitalia web site became a frequent stop for us. Using Italian spellings for city names, it is pretty easy to get the cost and duration of your day-trip train transportation. This also helped us choose an itinerary that would be doable and enjoyable for us.
   We knew that there was a lot to see in Florence (Firenze), so we decided to take day-trips every other day and spend the alternate days discovering what Florence had to offer. This also gave us time to relax, enjoy our apartment, savor staying in a truly Italian neighborhood, shop for groceries and wine and do our laundry. With that in mind, we chose the following towns/places to visit: San Gimignano, Siena, Lucca, Fiesole (take bus #7 in Florence), Greve in Chianti (on a 1/2 day wine tour), Cinque Terre (on a one day tour) and finally, Venice for a day (which was not recommended by many). We were also lucky enough to have our apartment hosts (ora, i nostri amici), Gabriele and Stefania, take us on an adventure one evening to see Monteriggioni and Pienza, both of which were just beautiful.
   We did cover our whole itinerary without feeling too exhausted, though a few of the days, especially going to Cinque Terre and Venice, were very full. We did relax whenever a nice trattoria or caffe beckoned and we weren't averse to having another glass of great wine, lingering while people watching or taking in a spectacular view.  Each day day, we got up early and headed out on another venture.
   Now, that we have been to Florence three times for a total of five weeks, we realize how much more we have to see there. More soon on the sights of that city and on our itineraries from two more trips to Italy.
   If we could do all of this on our own, we're sure that you could, too. Remember, Italy is waiting for you!
Tuscan View
                             Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Cinque Terre View

Barry & Debbie in Corniglia, Cinque Terre

Piazza Dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca

Lucca Cafe