Saturday, May 28, 2016

When To Go; Which Month Will Work For You?

   On our first Italian adventure in June/July 2011, we chose to travel at the end of June into the beginning of July because Debbie was still employed at a local high school. The summer off provided us with the two weeks we wanted to make our trip. Traveling during the peak Summer season has its rewards and drawbacks. Since we were going to be basing our trips in Florence, Tuscany, we were almost guaranteed beautiful and very warm weather. The downside was that the tourists crowds we were joining would be huge. Plane fares, apartment rentals, hotel room rates and just about everything else, would be more pricey than in the late Fall or early Spring. Our second reason for choosing late June was that I wanted to celebrate my 64th birthday there. I couldn't change that date! Our day trip to San Gimignano provided a great back- drop for my big day.
Cinque Terre, 2011.

Piazza San Marco, Venice.

   Fast forward to 2014, when we decided, along with another couple to visit Italy in late September, early October to celebrate another birthday, this time in the Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore. We thought that our plane fares might be cheaper so late in the season, but three years of price increases prevented that, so we ended up still paying more than in 2011. We paid the same price per night for the Casa Iris apartment in Florence that we had rented in 2011 and our one night stay in a the beautiful Appartamento Giovanna in Riomaggiore was less costly than it would have been in July. Still, the exchange rate was a money saver for us that year, as well. Crowds were noticeably smaller, but still large. The weather was nearly perfect - warm and sunny every day!
Florence, cafe near the Duomo.

Florence, the Duomo.

   A little more than a year later, in November of 2015, Debbie and I took another trip to Italy, yes, you guessed it, to celebrate Debbie's 65th birthday in Varenna on Lake Como. Our bargain flights on Aer Lingus, took us to Milan's Linate Airport for the first time. Air fares drop considerably in November and on into the winter months (except around major holidays). Hotel and apartment rental rates were extremely reasonable throughout our stay. Crowds were non-existent. We were aware of other tourists and met quite a few, especially waiting for trains, but the piazzas, restaurants and major sites were uncrowded. This was a pleasant change from other trips.

   One thing to be aware of, however, is the distinct possibility that some hotels and restaurants might close for the winter as early as the first week of November. While we found that to be true at Lake Como, we didn't have any difficulty finding excellent places to eat or have a glass of wine. Also, in places like Lake Como, ferries and water taxis might not run as often as in the peak season. Friends we know in Italy told us that we were fortunate to have such nice weather for our November stay. Usually, the weather would have included more dismal, cool and rainy days. We had just two slightly rainy days out of fourteen, with sunshine and temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees everyday. We couldn't have asked for better weather! To top that off, the exchange rate was by far the lowest we had experienced on our three trips to Italy.

One last note - since we were traveling between cities by train on our last trip and were carrying our luggage, even though the temps were cooler than in summer, we reduced our wardrobe considerably and brought only one medium sized suitcase between the two of us. We brought a few more sweaters (which we were lucky enough not to need most of the time), but less of everything else. Half way into our stay, we used the washing machine in our rental apartment which allowed us to bring less clothes. Just something to think about...
   When to travel to Italy is a personal decision you will need to make based on what time you have, where and when you want to go, your budget and whose birthday you wish to celebrate in Florence, Rome or Venice...

   I'm sure that we'll go in November again, maybe even this year...and just hope for beautiful weather.
Siena, Piazza del Campo.

Florence Piazza della Repubblica

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Check Out This Fall Airfare - Hartford, CT (BDL) to Dublin, Ireland (DUB) to Milan, Italy (LIN)

If you're planning a trip to Italy this Fall, you might want to look at Aer Lingus which will begin flights from Bradley International Airport (BDL) to Dublin, Ireland and beyond. I just checked a flight from BDL to Dublin Airport (DUB) for early October. Economy round trip is $566. Add to that, DUB to Milan's Linate Airport (LIN) for $80 and you get a great price of $646 RT. So, if there are two of traveling, your air fare would be about $1292 total. Be sure to check baggage restrictions and costs. We flew Aer Lingus to Milan last November and were allowed one checked bag each at no charge. You can even work in a couple days in Dublin on the way or on the way back. Might be worth checking this out. I know, we are!

On our return from Italy last November.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Buying Train Tickets Before You Leave Home

   So, you're planning your great adventure to Italy! As you Google through countless beautiful photos trying to decide where to go once you get there, you should also be figuring out you're going to get to those places once you are in Italy. Will you rent a car and drive everywhere, will you sign up for a tour or will you venture out into the real country with Italians on a train? Traveling to rural areas and not going by anyone else's schedule might be attractive enough to you to rent a car. If so, here is a site with a lot of good info on driving in Italy. Remember, a car can be fairly useless in the big cities unless you're a resident and, even then, there might be very restricted driving in the city centers and less parking.
Italian train station, Florence.

   Of course, everyone may not be comfortable with driving or arranging their own train travel. Traveling with a group on an escorted tour of Rome, Venice and Florence or other areas may have advantages for people who want a planned itinerary. Here is a site that might help you in your decision about using an escorted tour.

   We have yet to rent a car on our three trips to Tuscany and we feel very positive that train travel has not hindered our ability to see everything we'd like. Still, it's good to know that there are hundreds of day tours you can arrange before you go or after you get there. One very reliable tour reservation provider that we used twice on our 2011 trip was Viator. We took a half day Chianti wine country tour and a full day walking, train, boat tour of Cinque Terre. The wine tour was especially nice because otherwise, without a car, we might not have seen the beautiful Tuscan scenery up close. We totally enjoyed both tours and taking a break from being responsible for planning each day was just great!
Greve in Chianti on 1/2 day wine tour.

A view from the Castello di Querceto Winery, Greve in Chianti.

Cinque Terre view on full day walking, train and boat tour.

   Since, we weren't going to have a car, we needed to plan a few of our train trips before leaving home. Once, we had developed a draft itinerary, we headed to the Trenitalia site for train ticket information. This past year, because we had lodging reservations for three cities and we knew for certain when we had to travel, we bought three important train tickets before we left home: 1) Milan to Bologna- 18 euros ($20) for two, 2) Bologna to Florence - 26 euros ( $29) for two,  and 3) Florence back to Milan for our flight home - 34 euros ($38) for two.  By buying these tickets on the Trenitalia site this way we saved 40-75% on each ticket. All of our tickets were 2nd Class on the fast trains, Frecciargento and Frecciarossa. We were aware that once these tickets were purchased we would have to travel on the days we had selected and there could be no changes or refunds. It is possible for these trains to be sold out if you wait too long, especially for popular routes like Florence-Venice, Florence-Milan and Florence-Rome. On our first trip in 2011, we bought our train tickets for our day trip from Florence to Venice (Venezia S. Lucia station) at Santa Maria Novella train station (Firenze SMN) in Florence a couple days ahead of time. We paid 86 euros ($125) each round trip RT, but in 2014, we purchased our tickets online at least a month before leaving home and paid just $65 each RT. Two advantages we had in 2014 - buying online in advance and a much better exchange rate (please see my earlier post, "How Much Does It Cost." Also in 2014, we took a day trip to Rome from Florence on Italotreno; the tickets cost 36 euros each ($48) RT which was a great deal! Those were advance online purchases, too.

From Rick Steves:
  • "Advance-purchase discounts are available online for reserved, medium-speed and faster trains (but not regional trains), and come in three price levels: "Super Economy" (up to 75 percent off), "Economy," and "Base" (full, unrestricted) fare. Privately owned Italo trains have similar advance-purchase rates between major cities."

   Tickets on regional trains usually can not be purchased more than 7 days in advance, but the trains do not sell out. Tickets can be bought the day of travel, if you like, but still get to the train station early to buy your tickets. There could be long lines at the ticket counter and at the machines. One warning: don't accept ticket help from anyone who isn't an official train station employee, especially at the machines. Also, it's good to remember, in my opinion,  that 2nd Class tickets save you money and there is little difference in ambiance between 2nd and 1st Class travel on Italian trains.

   On our last trip we traveled between three cities on trains with our luggage never out of our sight. The toughest part was lifting our one medium suitcase onto the train, but we managed with only the loss of the newspaper I had just bought to read on the train. Oops!There is a lot to learn about train travel and the best way to do that is to just go to the train station and buy your tickets and go. What's the worst that can happen? You might end up in the wrong town...that might work out perfectly in Italy! We have never really experienced a problem traveling by train in Italy. The train service is a far cry from what is available in the US - there is no comparison. The trains go almost everywhere and they go there often. It is a wonderful and easy way to travel, even with your luggage.
Milano Centrale Train Station.
Some of our validated train tickets...
Don't forget to validate your train tickets before you board the train and avoid a very large fine!

All aboard! Well, no one says that...

Other train (or bus) trips in 2014 and 2015 with prices from Florence (Firenze):
Riomaggiore via La Spezia (Cinque Terre) RT -  $78 each
Lucca RT - $25 each
San Gimignano (bus) RT - $19 ea.
Siena (bus) RT - $18 ea.
Pisa (and Livorno) RT - $24 ea.
San Miniato-Fuceccio RT - $12 ea.

Milan to Varenna-Esino (via Lecco) RT $15 ea.
Bologna to Parma (via Modena) RT $16 ea.

Here are two photos from our excursion to the  fantastic San Miniato White Truffle Festival last November:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Visit Fiesole from Florence on Bus #7...

Please take a look at my Facebook page for "Italy Is Waiting For You - Get Going."

Fiesole Bistro Caffe al N5 in November. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Self-catering Apartments - Are They Right For You? Part 4: Bologna Flat w/ Green Courtyard

   Whether to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment are a couple of choices you will have for lodging when taking a trip to Italy. If you prefer to be able to make some of your own meals and live in an Italian neighborhood, renting a self-catering apartment could be for you. Each time we have gone to Italy since 2011, we have rented an apartment. I have described the apartments in Florence and Riomaggiore in previous posts.

   Preparing for our trip in November 2015, I searched Flipkey for an apartment in Bologna. After reading the reviews, viewing photos and checking the location, we picked the "Bologna flat with green courtyard." Debbie and I were both happy that I did. The apartment (also now on airbnb UK with great photos) turned out to be perfect for us. While the apartment is a one bedroom, there is a sofa bed in the living room that would be perfect for children. Being somewhere outside the city center in an Italian family neighborhood was important to us and this apartment fit the bill.
My photo of a Bologna portico on Saragozza with dog waiting.

Debbie relaxing at the apartment in Bologna.

   Here is my Tripadvisor amended review:

"This was  perfect and cozy apartment for our first visit to Bologna. The owner, Michelle, met us at the door with a warm welcome and a big smile. She spoke English very well to counter our beginner's Italian. Michelle had stocked the kitchen with all the essentials for breakfast: yogurt, butter, jam, bread, orange juice, milk, bottled water, coffee and a delicious pastry tart. The spotlessly clean flat was perfect for the two of us. We loved it the minute we walked in. We are in our mid to late 60s and don't mind walking, and chose the location outside the city center for that reason. Our walk to Piazza Maggiore in the city center, almost all under beautiful Bologna porticos, took 15 to 20 minutes. Since we were there in mid-November, we did a bit of walking to the city center and back after dark and always felt very safe. If walking isn't for you (and you don't have a car) there is a bus stop just steps from the apartment door. There is a supermarket, IN'S Mercato Spa about 3/10 of a mile down the street (Saragozza) - very convenient for all grocery needs, including wine. We loved staying in a truly Italian neighborhood. Michelle has prepared an extensive guide to Bologna suggesting sights to see, restaurants and just about anything else you might need to know to make your stay a great one. She also arranged for our taxi to the train station for out train to Florence. Debbie and I highly recommend "Casa Corsica," the Bologna flat with green courtyard."

Kitchen (owner's photo)
Living room and bedroom to the left (owner's photo).

Courtyard and entrance (owner's photo).
Kitchen (owner's photo)
Bathroom (owner's photo)
Patio (owner's photo)

Michelle's description of her apartment on airbnb:
"A charming self-contained flat, which has been recently renovated, situated in a typical bolognaise building of the late nineteen century. It is at the end of a private street, four hundred meters from Porta Saragozza and twenty minutes walk from Piazza Maggiore. 
The flat is on the first floor and is composed of a double-bedroom, a sitting room with a sofa-bed (king-size bed or 2 single beds)), an equipped kitchen and a bath with a shower.
There is free internet and wifi connection, fans on the ceiling and italian tv.
We live in the apartment above.
The flat is near grocery stores, restaurants, public gardens and bus-stops.
During the summer you can relax or have a drink in the charming internal court yard after having visited the town."

Up coming posts will include tips on buying train tickets before you leave home,  traveling by train, sights to see and how to react to panhandlers (beggars) you might encounter.