TOURING in ITALY
Italy is a tourist's paradise,
especially for those of us who love food and wine. Add to the mix the Italian
culture and you can have a fantastic vacation in this part of the planet.
Here are a few things you should bring with you to Italy:
MARLING MENU MASTER
This is a terrific book to help you decipher the
restaurant menus. It is great, but some really "local" places sometimes
have various items listed in the local dialect. I remember being in a place and
looking up "Finanziera." No luck. The proprietor of the restaurant
indicated he didn't think it would be listed. Since we didn't speak much Italian lo
those many years ago, he pointed to his head and then said "Baaaahhhhh," in the
manner of a sheep. Oh, good! Sheep's brains!
The book is laid out in the fashion of a restaurant menu.
Antipasti first. Then "Primi Piatti" such as
pastas. There's a fish section, a meat section and a side-dishes (contorni) section.
you're renting a car for your trip, you might consider purchasing a map or two before you
depart. Becoming familiar with the roads is not a bad idea. To more
easily "navigate" the roads, look to see what the major towns are
between you and your destination...jotting down the list of these in order will
help you find your way should road signs be in place (they are in Northern
Italia, but good luck in Southern Italy!).
Even so, remember my motto: "Where ever you go, there you
I am also of the opinion that you cannot get lost in Europe.
I like to remind myself of this as I am searching for my destination.
I have also become a fan of the GPS unit. This is especially helpful when
you're by yourself or have a passenger or co-pilot who's unable to multi-task,
reading maps, watching for road signs (indicazione),
One issue with the GPS is it's not perfect, but it will give you a pretty good
idea. I was recently in Italy's Piemonte and found the device to have
difficulty in determining precisely where to "turn." The problem
is so many roads twist and weave through the hills...I'd have gone "off
road" had I followed it precisely.
But one beautiful feature is should you not follow its advice, the device
immediately "recalculates" and will give you instructions again should
you miss a turn or cut-off.
Another thing: some exits are located well before the actual roadway...I
missed exiting at one point, since the ramp was about 300 meters before the
actual road. Still, it's a great device and I suggest having one if you're
planning to drive to unknown territory.
MICHELIN'S Green Guide and Red Guide
If you're on a real vacation and
scenic tour of Italy and you're interested to actually learn something about the history
of places you're visiting, the green guides are a must!
For the casual tourist who likes to play it by ear, I'd
suggest having Michelin's red guide. This will, at the very least, point you towards
decent hotels and the top restaurants. Keep in mind, however, Michelin does have a
slight bias towards things French. They have a difficult time admitting the Italian
style of cooking is as valid as the French. The French really go crazy if you point
out to them that their cuisine was taught to them by Italians.
As a result, the most highly decorated places are
those with some formality commonly found in France. Having major French wines on the
wine list also adds to the ratings.
We dined in a wonderful place which had been recognized for
its elegance and refinement. This cost a small fortune and we dined well.
A few days later we visited a very modest little place run by
a hard-working family out in the middle of no-where. The food was of similar
quality, but not at all fancy in its presentation. The wine list was non-existent.
We dined as well and at a far lower cost. Keep that in mind.
DRIVING IN ITALY
Some suggest having an International Driver's License. I have not
bothered with this for some years, but there is a good reason to have one: If you
"lose" it, you don't have trouble coming back home and driving.
We were stopped by some Carabinieri many years ago. They are sneaky and had a
radar device by the side of the road. We didn't realize, as we were driving over
hill and dale, why so many on-coming cars were flashing their headlights at us in
daylight. This is a subtle warning that they had just passed a speed trap!
The officers flagged us down (pointing Uzi machine guns at us!) and somehow
conveyed we had been going too fast. They asked for Henry's driver's license and
wouldn't return in until we paid them, on the spot, the fine (la multa). We paid and
they immediately returned the license (patente).
I don't ever speak Italian to an officer who's pulled us over. (Not that this
happens regularly....just twice in nearly 20 years.) The last time my traveling
companion was driving and crossed a double line to pass. Not many Italians pay much
attention to the driving laws, but we were motoring along and oblivious to a cop behind
us. My buddy wanted me to explain he didn't understand the double line. I
spoke only English and the officer grew weary of attempting to explain our infraction and
let us off with a mere warning. I am certain had I spoken Italian we'd have been
relieved of many lire!
Radar has become much more common in Italy. It's proven to be a good
investment for local governments! Many devices are hidden and take a photo of your
license plate (la targa) with a record of your speed. The European Union has made it
easier for the government to come knock at the door of European residents to ask for
payment for speeding! Your rental car company will bill your credit card for
It's usually a good idea to not be the fastest driver on the road. Though the
speed limit is posting on the autostrada, for example, Italians routinely drive well over
Some GPS units will warn you when you're in the "zone" of a permanent
radar device on a highway...but many little towns have them now. Virtually
every town has a sign indicating they're using a radar machine. Not all
the machines actually work, though.
The photo to the left shows what the typical radar device looks like.
I was surprised when friends drove well over the speed limit past such a
machine. They explained that many of these are not functional, but merely
for "show" in an effort to get people to slow down.
The locals will know which machines are working and which ones are out of
Always stay to the right and get the hell out of their way if they're flashing
their lights at you from behind. Only be in the left lane if you're passing!
And never pass on the right...that can get you a ticket.
Much like many years ago, "banditos" are out there hoping to prey upon
the unsuspecting. Some lady friends were driving together in Italia and got
"bumped" or nudged on the autostrada. The offending vehicle motioned for
them to pull over in a rather deserted, out-of-the-way location so they could
"exchange" information for insurance purposes. NEVER PULL OVER WHERE
YOU'RE NOT VISIBLE! Drive to someplace where there are others around such as a
well-populated rest area or near the next autostrada exit (uscita). This is for your
IN BIG CITIES: BEWARE OF THE ZTL! (Zona Traffico Limitato)
cities now have areas "blocked" off for residents or taxis. The
problem is you won't see a physical barrier or blockade. You are supposed
to know where a ZTL is situated.
I received a citation, six months after driving in one of these areas, oblivious
to the fact it was a restricted area!
On the left is a sign, virtually invisible to foreign drivers who are already
preoccupied with being lost and trying to find the road to the destination.
If your hotel is in a limited zone, you need to immediately ask them to call the
police and register your license plate number so you are not cited for being in
Stop Signs are often only a "Suggestion."
Many Italian drivers, when approaching a stop sign which is placed in a highly
visible area, don't/won't bother
to even slow down if they see open road and no other
vehicles on the pavement.
No "Right On Red."
I am used to driving here in California where we can, in most instances, stop
at a red light and make a right turn during the red light if there's no traffic coming
from the left.
A friend of mine became hysterical when I did this in his little town. They,
apparently, generally obey a red light.
I explained to Luca that in California we have "right-on-red" and since I
was from California, this one time it was okay.
Before Traveling To Your Destination, KNOW WHAT DIRECTION YOU'RE GOING!
Not just north or south, but you'll want to have an idea what villages, towns
or cities lie beyond your destination. This can be most helpful. It would be
like traveling from San Francisco to Burlingame. There are no signs in The City
pointing you towards Burlingame. You'd have to know you were going in the
of San Jose or Los Angeles. Same in Italy. It's helpful to know some of the
places you're heading.
TWO HELPFUL SITES IN PLANNING/MAPPING A TRIP:
I don't know if the directions have been perfected, but at least you can get
some idea of mileage and driving times using this site on Expedia's web site.
Another helpful site that I use to estimate how much time we'll
need in planning an itinerary is the Michelin website.
They also have their hotel and restaurant
suggestions on the site, so you might scope out a place to stay or dine.
Be certain of the name of the place you're going. We got lost once looking
for a place. There were two towns of nearly identical names on the map.
Unfortunately they weren't neighboring villages and we'd been on the road to the wrong
The Italians are famous for having 30 signs posted in a location where cars are
speeding by at 80 MPH. Even graduates of speed reading courses are going to be in
trouble! And I've noticed there's always a truck the size of a small villa
preventing me from seeing the potentially-informative exit signs along the highway!
I noticed some of the parking spaces in larger
towns are white and some are blue.
The white ones are typically for the locals who must have a sticker on their car
indicating they're from the neighborhood.
The blue ones are for visitors. Yellow is usually a handicapped space.
Some towns have free parking for a particular
time frame. It's sort of on the honor system and most rental cars come
with a card on the windshield by the rear-view mirror on the windshield.
You're supposed to 'set' this to indicate your arrival time. This allows
parking control officers to see if you're within the allowable time frame for
Other towns will have a machine such as the one depicted to the left.
You're expected to buy a parking space, essentially. Drop in a coin and
you'll see the "time" change on the screen, indicating to the minute
when you have to leave. Say you arrive at noon and know you'll be
someplace until 4. Drop in sufficient coins until it reads 4:00 or,
When you're done, there's usually a button to print or stampa the
ticket. Place the ticket, face up, on your dashboard inside the car.
Since Italy goes to lunch around 12:30 or 1 until 2:30 or 3, most of the
machines are programmed to NOT charge for "lunch time"
Some "old fashioned" places have a sort of
"honor system" and will give you a limited amount of time.
Your rental car probably has one of those "disco orario"
gizmos in it.
You adjust it to show the time of your arrival...a parking enforcement officer
might pass by and see if you've over-stayed the time offered.
Having a car in Rome is not a good idea. Most of the streets do not allow
cars, so only rent a car on the day you're leaving Rome to visit other
Florence DOES allow autos in most of the town, though I usually stay in smaller,
more safe places outside big cities. No cars in Venice, of course.
Naples is total chaos...(they have street lights but often don't want to pay for
electricity to illuminate them!)
Most recently, I've rented cars
through Kemwel...they seem to get great rates and they deal with major
Their sister company is AutoEurope.
Scout through their web pages
carefully. In 2015 I needed to rent a car in Italy...$300 for the rental
with a bit of insurance ($1000 deductible).
On the same web page, way below, was the same car for $392. Except this
package included a free "one size" upgrade and the deductible was
$0. The insurance from the rental company is typically $15-$20 a day, so
this was a bargain for an eleven day rental!
Diesel fuel is slightly less costly in
Europe, so you might consider asking for a diesel-powered vehicle.
I've made my reservations using their telephone service...for some reason, this
seems to be about ten bucks cheaper than on-line reservations.
ON THE AUTOSTRADA
1. Please stay to the right. Pass on the left.
2. Drive defensively.
3. Turn on your headlights...it makes you easier to see. I believe
this is now required as a matter of the law.
Keep track of the Autostrada ticket (biglietto)! (I usually slide
it into the visor for safe-keeping.) If you lose the ticket, they will
probably ask you to pay for the toll cost as though you entered that autostrada
from its furthest point!
Be in the correct lane to pay when you exit the autostrada. There is
typically a toll booth with a live human being in it. But I've been able
to easily navigate the "self service" lanes with an American Express
card or a Visa card.
Don't exit in the Telepass lane or Viacard lane unless you have those gizmos in
There's a curious machine on some Autostrade...Sistema
Tutor. It supposedly records your license plate at one point and then,
at the next one, averages the time it took you from Point A to Point B. If
you are too fast, you may get a citation.
But the odd thing is there are rest stops along the road, so I am unsure how
they can accurately record your speed.
Most towns post signs of a 50km/hour speed limit. That's about 30
Many roads "out of town" have a 90 to 110km/hour speed limit.
The Autostrada usually has a limit of 130km/hour. Sometimes there's
signage indicating the Autostrada Speed Limit is reduced to 110km/hour if it's
And the speed limit routinely changes if there is road construction.
Though I suggest driving, since you have more freedom and flexibility, here's a link to
information about the Italian railway system.
When buying tickets, you may have the option of 1st class (prima classe) which is more
costly and less crowded.
The train station person may ask you "andare" and "ritorna?" which means
"round trip?" If you're going one way, simply answer "andare,
They will usually presume you want the cheaper, more common 2nd class seating, so
if you are going to splurge, speak up!
Sometimes there's a curious "surcharge," even when you've paid for your tickets.
The conductor will inform you of this when he or she checks your tickets.
Though Italians often don't plan ahead, buying your tickets in advance is a good
idea...sometimes the seats are "sold out," so reserving before is
Oh! They periodically go on strike. You may wish to ask if there is a
"sciopero" planned during your visit.
Yahoo! maintains a web page with announcements of who's going on strike and
COFFEE IN ITALIA
The Italians drink a lot of coffee, but it's quite different from the coffee
down the road at "Il Piccolo Cafe" here on Broadway or Peet's.
Aside from the road stops along the autostrada, you'll want to get a coffee in what's
called a "bar." This has quite a different connotation here in the U.S.
Over there, however, coffee is consumed, standing up, in a modest bar. They
are typically equipped with a large espresso machine.
Prices are usually listed somewhere on an official government chart on the wall.
Keep in mind that if you have the guy making your coffee bring it to you at a table five
feet from the bar, this may increase the price of that steaming hot cup.
In many busy, chaotic places, there's a cashier (casse) from whom you pay for your coffee, etc.
Frequently this is required first, before placing your order. The cashier gives you
a receipt (scontrino) which you hand to the person making the coffees, etc. In
other, smaller places, you pay afterwards.
They'll have a number of different options for you. A friend, some years ago,
decided to try something "different," having had a Cappuccino, Espresso, etc.
She ordered a "Caffe Corretto." Much to her horror, this is a shot
of espresso "fortified" with your choice of grappa!
Cappuccino is something Italians drink ONLY in the morning. Order one of these after
noon and they've got you pegged as a tourist (or worse). I have sensed the thoughts
of servers in various places when a traveling companion has ordered a cappuccino after
lunch (or if you really want to freak them out, dinner!). I can almost see their
thoughts printed out on their foreheads: "Imbecille! Idiota!!
Many places have a small display of rolls and croissants. Typically a croissant in
Italia is called a "brioche." If you'd like a juice, see if they're
squeezing fresh oranges...you'll want to ask for a "spremuta."
phones are going out of style, much as they are here in the U.S.
Few of these even accept coins, so I'd suggest bringing a cell phone. Some
of the US companies have cell phone systems which will work in Europe, though
you may pay a premium for having to, essentially, call from the US to a number
down the street...it's a major long distance call.
On the other hand, you can buy a new "sim card" for your very own cell
phone. You may need to purchase, also, a device to re-charge your phone
which will plug into a European electrical socket. Virtually any cell phone store can sell you one of
I can't say the Europeans have completely figured out cell phone service,
though. I had a cell phone in Italy with an Italian number (of
course). The "carrier" changed every time we crossed a border,
for example. But I found that buying time in France for my Italian number
was not easy. In fact, I was told I needed a new "sim card" in
France and so I purchased a new 'chip' and about 50 Euros' worth of phone
time. Why you can't recharge your existing number in each venue is not
sensible! (I've used the Italian company "Wind" and am told it
is the least reliable.)
The pre-paid cards are usually sold in news-stands,
When you're dialing in Italy, most of the time you'll need to use the prefix along with
the phone number. It used to be that if the prefix was "055" and you were
dialing from within Italy, you didn't need to dial the "0." Now you need
Italians answer the phone with "Pronto!" This means, literally,
"Chi parla?" (key pahr-lah) is the question asking you "Who's
To ask for someone, you'd say "C' Luigi?" (chay Luigi). If they respond
with "Aspetta," that means "Wait."
To dial back home to the US, dial 0-0-1, then the area code and number. 0-0 gets you
out of the country, with "1" being the country code for the United States.
ITALIAN TELEPHONE DIRECTORY (Elenco) On-LINE (White Pages)
Copy the above line and paste it in your
address 'bar' to access phone listings.
You will need to know, at least, the correct spelling of the last name and the
town or province.
ON TOURING IN PIEMONTE
Travels in Venice (Updated periodically)
A Delightful Stop in
OFF THE BEATEN
PATH IN BASILICATA
of My Nephew's 2005 Euro-Adventure with His Uncle
(mostly Italy, but elsewhere, too)
An interesting website by a wine &
food writer based in Tuscany:
There's a firm that has rentals
in Italy and their "Travel Journal" is illuminating.
ITALY IS DIFFERENT
here to see a 5 minute
program which will explain to you in simple terms how Italy differs from the
rest of Europe.