Sunday, June 24, 2012


I have now been home from Italy for exactly one month.  It has been hard to hold onto the Italy state of mind while dealing with all the problems that accumulated during a two month absence, but Italy did make a permanent mark on me.  Here are some of the notable results of my visit to Italy:

  • I finally kicked the soda habit.  Soda was too expensive to drink in Italy, but fizzy water was everywhere and I got used to drinking that instead.
  • I am eating more fruits and vegetables.
  • I am eating a lot fewer sweets.
  • My blood pressure and blood sugar are way down, even though I ran out of blood pressure medication a month into my trip.
  • While my weight was exactly the same at the end of my trip as it was at the beginning, I have lost 8 pounds since I returned.
  • All the walking, stair climbing and luggage carrying I did in Italy inspired me to take up Crossfit when I returned.
  • I joined an Italian conversation group at home and made new friends.
  • I am much more likely to just say, "Piano, piano," (take it easy or little by little) when something is hard, rather than getting frustrated with myself and the world.  (This is probably part of why my blood pressure is lower.)
The negative results are few, although I am broke and having a very hard time speaking Spanish these days.  I hope these are both temporary conditions.

At least two people are planning trips to Italy as the result of this blog.  I hope their trips will be as fruitful as mine was.  If you haven't been to Italy, go as soon as possible.  You'll want to go back again and again, so get started as soon as possible.  It doesn't matter where in Italy you go.  It's all wonderful.  If foreign places scare you, stay in the north where it will seem more familiar.  If you like exotic travel, stick to the south.  Be sure to spend some time at the beach.  There is a reason that Italians rarely go anywhere but their own seaside for vacations.  Pack light enough to carry your bag up steep hills and lots of stairs or heft it overhead on trains.  Be prepared to stow your own bags under buses and be aware that the baggage access may be on the driver's side.  If you drive, be aware that you may have to park outside of town and take a bus or cab to your hotel.  Car traffic is prohibited or limited to locals in most historic centers and the city of Venice.  Almost all streets are uneven stone and sidewalks are few and very narrow and rough.  Don't bother with heels or shoes with thin or slippery soles.  You will definitely twist an ankle if you try to wear platforms. (I fell off my Dansko clogs three times.) Thick rubbery soles work best.

Try to eat (and drink) like the Italians do.  It's a good rule of thumb to drink a glass of water for every glass of wine you consume.  Be sure to drink at least one sgroppino and sample a glass of Brunello even though it's expensive.  It's worth it.  Rosso di Montepulciano isn't expensive and is usually good wine.  Proseco is nice on a warm day.  Don't skimp on the gelato, even if it means skipping lunch.  Breakfast will almost always be some variation of toast or a croissant and coffee.  Fancy places might also have meat, cheese and fruit, but don't expect an American breakfast.  Italians never drink cappuccino after noon.  If you order a latte, you'll get milk.  Latte drinkers are out of luck.  Caffe means espresso. Caffe americano is the closest you'll get to American coffee.  In many places, you'll pay more to sit at a table than if you stand at the bar.  In fancy or touristy places, it can be a lot more, so be careful.  Some caffeterias (coffee bars) will want you to pay first and show your receipt to the barista.  Others operate on the honor system and expect you to pay at the counter on the way out.  Restaurant servers will never bring you a check unless you ask for it.  (Il conto per favore.) They consider it rude to rush you to pay and leave.  Embrace the cultural differences, be patient and polite to service people and the locals will go out of their way to be helpful.

Rick Steves has some wonderful podcasts for free on his website that you can download and use in place of paying for expensive audioguides at many attractions.  He also offers podcasts of walking tours that are a good way to get your bearings and take in public sights in major cities like Florence, Rome and Venice.  Tourist offices are a good source of maps and a good place to buy bus or train tickets without paying a commission.  The lines at train stations can be very long.  I found the Eurail pass to be a waste of money.  I bought a first class pass, but many trains only offered second class.  There were often special fares that would have saved me hundreds of dollars.  I still had to stand in line and pay extra for reservations for intercity trains.  Use the vending machines to buy train tickets.  You can select English as an option.  They are also a good way to check schedules.  Local bus tickets are sold at newsstands and tobacco shops or cafes in the train stations.  Bus tickets must be validated by getting them stamped by the (usually) yellow box near the driver.  Train tickets must be validated before boarding the train.  Fines are steep if you forget and they catch you.

Internet access can be unpredictable.  I found the internet in small B&Bs to be the best.  Hotels often charged as much as 6 Euros per hour, whereas B&Bs offered unlimited access for free.  There are not a lot of internet cafes and the available ones were also expensive.  Those with smartphones or iPads can take advantage of public hotspots in some cities.  Just because hotel literature says that there is a charge, don't assume there really is one.  Always ask and look shocked if they try to charge you.  There is a lot of pressure to offer internet and many places have recently started including it in their prices.

Agritourismos (farms with tourist accommodations) are a great place to stay if you travel by car, since they are outside of town and have ample parking.  They vary from campgrounds to luxurious villas, so there are options for every budget.  Many are associated with wineries, cheese factories, etc. and offer tasting opportunities.  I'd love to spend a week or two camping and eating around Tuscany.  Friends of mine have also had good experiences with  I found great cheap B&Bs on and the Eurail website.  If you stay in nothing but posh hotels, you'll miss out on much of what makes Italy special.  Consider alternating luxury with other alternatives and also alternating big cities with more relaxing locations.  It would be a shame to come back without any adventures to relate.  Buon viaggio!