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Don’t let the Italians intimidate you. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are going, someone is going to be riding your butt. I get braver as the trip goes on, but I never go faster than I feel comfortable. Sometimes I pull over if they are making me nervous, but usually they have found a way to pass me before that happens. I have only seen one accident in my travels. Italians seem crazy, but they are great drivers and despite what I am doing they always manage to avoid me.
Get a good map before you go. I always use a Michelin map, purchased at most tour stores (ie AAA, Barnes & Noble…). GPS is becoming more popular and more readily available, although has its short comings in the smaller more rustic areas. Even when using GPS, make sure you know where you are headed and don’t follow it blindly. ViaMichelin is a good site for planning before you go and you can print out routes you create on-line. See my resources page here.
You have to throw away everything you know about directions when driving in Italy.
There are no exit numbers and things are not marked logically (for the typical American). When traveling, you begin by going in the direction of the largest city. You will need to navigate by knowing the names of the towns along the road you need to travel on. Also, look your map and find the three largest cities near or past your destination because many signs post the major city that road is traveling toward and wait to post the smaller cities until you are almost there. As you travel, keep your eyes open for these towns. Eventually, as you get closer to your destination your small town will appear. For example: when traveling to Baschi from Rome, you will head towards Florence first while looking for the exit to Orvieto. After taking that exit you will begin to look for signs for Baschi. You will not see any sign for Baschi until the exit. You must also know the Italian names for all the cities.
Signs are posted everywhere and when you come to a round about, you may need to go around more than once just to make sure you’ve found what you are looking for. It can be more than a little overwhelming! Cities are marked with a blue sign, the arrow is pointing to the road you must take. B&B’s and agriturismos are usually white, historical sites are marked with brown signs, autostradas and major freeways have a green sign. Just remember that keeping up with the flow on the round about is key and don’t be intimidated.
ROADS AND TOLLS
There are several different kinds of roads. The easier, bigger and fastest are the autostradas which are marked by a green sign and an A. The most important thing to remember here is to STAY TO THE RIGHT at all times until you are just ready to pass. While on the autostrada, you will notice small signs in the median marking the distance to major cities and the city of the next exit. This will help you anticipate when you need to exit. These are also pay roads and you will be charged by the distance traveled. Each time before you enter these, you will stop at a booth and take a ticket by pushing a red button or grabbing an existing ticket already waiting for you. When you exit the autostrada, you will get in a line marked ‘Biglietto’ (ticket) to pay your fee. Above each lane is a photo depicting the method available, some will have a picture of a credit card as well as money/change. You can pay with your card in these lanes if you don’t have enough cash. Anyway you choose, the total owed is displayed on a screen for you. Just make sure you DO NOT get into the line for the commuters who have prepaid cards. These are usually the shorter lines and are the blue lanes marked TELEPASS. I always keep my change handy. Some lines have a person who will handle the transaction, other lines require you to insert your ticket and then you pay the machine. The system is similar to the toll bridges in San Francisco.
There are larger but less direct roads that are free and then your typical two lane country roads. Traveling through Tuscany, these will be what you use the most. For those with a weak stomach be warned, it is very easy to get car sick wandering around in the country.
PARKING AND OTHER DETAILS
When parking, most lots have a pay machine that gives vouchers for the amount of time you will be there. Again, I keep lots of change handy. If you are parking somewhere that doesn’t have the spaces clearly marked, make sure you have a way out no matter how the next person decides to park. I have seen some very creative arrangements.
Getting gas is similar to the states, just make sure your tank is full before Sunday or any major holiday as the stations do tend to close at these times. Gas in Italy is expensive; it will make you look forward to coming home and filling up here. The trade off is that distances are shorter.
Before driving away from the office with your rental car you will want to verify whether the car uses diesel or regular fuel and make sure they show you how to open your gas tank. Also, have them actually show you how to open the trunk, release the parking brake, start the car and put it into reverse. You may feel silly at the time, be it’s better than struggling with it while a bar full of men look on. I learned the hard way that the stick shift often needs to be pushed down for reverse. Most brakes are very touchy, after your first day driving you will know why. Once on your way, toss a local Italian paper in the back window and keep all belongings out of site when not in the car.
Train travel is a very easy and low stress way to get around Italy but can initially be overwhelming. Once you get the system down you can relax and enjoy the scenery passing by without worrying about where you are going. Trains are what most Italians use for transportation, so you get a real feeling of being with the people. Connections are usually frequent and to all the large cities. These tips should help you ease into train life and after a few connections you will feel like an old pro.
READING THE SCHEDULE
This is probably the most intimidating of all. The train schedule is posted at every station, usually on the wall. Just like in the airport, there is an arriving and departing schedule. You are looking for the yellow one that says ‘Partenze.’ When looking for your connection, you must know which major city the train is heading to. For example: if your destination is Orvieto, you must first find Firenze (Florence). Under that main connection, each stop that train makes is listed including Orvieto. It’s hard to believe that a worn piece of paper posted on the wall is actually telling the truth, but it is. Many times I’ve chickened out and double checked at the ticket booth, only to receive the same information. Train schedules are listed in military time, so a train leaving at 5pm would say 1700. You will also need to know the Italian names for the cities you will be traveling to.
Each station will have several platforms or ‘binario.’ The posted schedule will have a binario assigned in the last column but this can change. At every station there will be either a TV monitor or electronic sign stating which train is about to depart from which binario. Also, in front (or at the side) of each individual track there will be a sign with the destination posted for that particular train. When in doubt, ask a railway official (they will be in green suits) or the closest Italian. Keep an eye on the reader board as I have missed trains because the track (binario) was changed at the last minute. Announcements will be made prior to the trains arrival and most of the time it is repeated in English.
FINDING A SEAT
Once you find the correct binario or track and your train, you will need to make sure that you get on the right car. Cars are divided by first and second class. The first few cars will have a big number 1 by the door which designates them as first class, followed by cars marked with a 2 for second class. I always travel 2nd class because there is little difference between the two except the price. Each car will also have a number and the seats inside that car will be numbered. This only matters when you have purchased a ticket that requires a reservation, similar to an airplane. Connections between Florence and Venice for example are reserved seating. Just look at your ticket. If you have a car number ‘carozza’ and seat number listed then that is where you must sit. Otherwise it is first come first serve and can get a little crazy. If you hit rush hour, you may have a hard time finding a seat. My trick…walk to the end of the train, hop on and move forward to find a seat. Many times the first few cars will be packed while the last few are wide open because everyone has tried to get on the train at the front of the station. Don’t panic if you can’t find a seat or find ones together. Places will open up as people get off at their stops, just keep your eyes open.
Ladies: You can’t pick who is in your family, but you can choose who you sit by. If you are traveling alone, find a seat next to a nun or cute old lady, otherwise you may find yourself sharing a seat with a dirty old man. NEVER pick an empty compartment or row of seats. It is always better to choose your seat mates than have them choose you.
If you are getting nervous that the train will leave without you, you can always hop on and move through the cars from inside. The train can’t physically leave while a car door is open, so you won’t have to worry about leaving a travel companion on the platform. Rarely a smaller train will require a ‘reservation’ that wasn’t listed. Don’t worry, they won’t kick you off. Just smile and play dumb, they will just ask you to pay the difference on the spot and can even take credit cards. Large luggage will not always fit above or under your seat and must be stored near the front of the car (storage space and racks are normally provided). I have never had a problem with theft, but I do make sure I keep my eye on the suitcase at all stops and keep any valuables with me in my day pack. If you are traveling in Southern Italy or on a night train keep your bags with you at all times and when you are ready to sleep attach a strap from your luggage to the rack. Italian thieves do not want to work too hard and this is just enough to encourage them to move on.
You can buy your tickets several ways. Tickets can be purchased at the station at any time; you do not have to wait until the day you are ready to travel. At the large stations, the lines can be irritatingly long so plan ahead. A time saver would be to buy all your tickets at one stop from a local travel agent or to purchase them at a smaller station or during less busy times. Write down the connections and dates that you need on a piece of paper to hand to the person; this makes the process much easier. Most stations also have automated ticket machines, which work like an ATM. You scroll through a long list until you find your destination. This is a simple, easy and quick way to get your tickets yet they stand alone almost unused by most Italians. Don’t be afraid, they work well but Italians just don’t trust them because they are electronic. When asked ‘Fidelity Card?’ you must say no.
Your ticket must be validated before you board. There are yellow boxes posted all around the station, simply put your ticket in all the way to receive the time and date stamp. If you forget, you run the risk of high penalties from the train conductors who are not always the happiest people on earth.
TRAIN TRICKS AND MANNERS
Trains in Italy are not as timely as in other areas of Europe. I find that the later in the day you get, the later the train. If you want to be somewhere, try to get the earliest train that you can handle. Strikes are also very common throughout Italy; the only nice thing about them is that they are planned ahead of time so you can too. Strikes only last one day at a time and not over holidays or in August.
Opening the train door may sound simple but not always easy to do. Most trains have a button on the side which will open the doors, similar to an elevator button. This is the same when walking inside the train between the cars. Older trains tend to have handles or levers. Try rocking the handle clockwise (or counter clockwise if that didn’t work) or rotating it up and down.
The toilets empty out on the tracks and it is considered impolite to use the restroom while at a station or stop. I know because I was an offender.
Most trains have a snack car where you can purchase over priced sodas, beer/wine or snacks. I prefer to pack a lunch from the local market and eat that on the train. This is very acceptable and a fun way to get to know the people you are traveling with.
NOT MISSING YOUR STOP
Each stop has several signs with the name marked in white on a large blue background and you are given enough time to grab your things and exit. Watch for towns along the way that are before your stop so that you are ready to go just in case. The schedule at the station will have the approximate arrival time at each stop which gives you an idea of when to be ready.
If you are getting off in a major city like Rome or Florence, make sure you don’t leave the train too early. Most of the major hubs have stations that are dead ends and hard to miss. If for some reason you exited too soon just grab the next train coming through.
In Italy, the food is an experience. Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal. When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night. A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states. The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals). Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude. When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm. Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill. You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom. If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home). I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do. Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal. Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house. An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40. Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.
Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night. If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open. Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians. Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each. For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend. Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat. I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal. While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations! I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials. Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients. I will often go with their suggestions as well. Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’
A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:
Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.
If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it. It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.
By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce. This is considered a great compliment to the chef.
End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).
Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!
I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.
It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle. For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven. It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy. Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe. You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee. Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand. Watch the locals. They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go. This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go. I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am. Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite. If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy. It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server. You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar. The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching. The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.
Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one. I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record: 6 double scoops in one day! Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed. Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.
There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria. Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’ This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for. A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato. If you see more Italians than tourists, even better. Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait. If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality. The final check is in the gelato itself. If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away. Banana will be your gold standard. If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there. Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color. Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs. While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.
No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty. Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat. Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee. Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter. Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn. You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket. If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front. Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.
GROCERIES AND MARKETS
You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities. In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables. Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot. All you do is point to what you want. More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale. There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies. Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!). Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.
Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily. Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies. Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats. If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!
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Copyright 2012 Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel