Even though neither Larry or myself speak Italian, and not withstanding the fact that we left our Lonely Planet Italian phrase book behind in Milan our first day in Italy, we had very little trouble communicating in Italy. Most Italians either know English very well or they know enough to where they can understand what you are asking of them.
Airlines and lost luggage:
We arrived in Milan on time via British Midland, but our luggage apparently got left behind in London (make sure when you leave your original departure city that the airline agent attaches a "rapid transit" tag to your luggage if any of your layovers are short in duration). We did get our luggage the next morning.
We used Expedia.com to rent a car but Larry ended up leaving the documentation information at home. We had a real hassle once we got to the airport in Milan as a result. The rental car business from where he believed he had rented the car had a computer "problem" and could not look up our name to find out if we had a car reserved with them. It took us about an hour but we finally got the information that we needed from Expedia...and then we got the car in a flash.
When you buy a train ticket at the railway station, they automatically sell you a 2nd class ticket unless you ask for a 1st class ticket. Riding 2nd class was just fine for us since we were just traveling short distances in the Cinque Terre. However, the first time that we rode the train (from Levanto to Monterosso), we didn't realize that there were different class cars and ended up on a 1st class car although I suppose we should have known since all the cars had large "l's" and "2's" painted on their sides (we just hadn't noticed them in our haste to find an available seat). Anyway, we didn't find out that we were on a 1st class car until the conductor asked us for our tickets-the train had not yet left the station. He told us that we could stay where we were (we were only traveling up the way a couple of miles) but he did tell us that we had to have our tickets validated with a stamp. Outside all the ticket offices, there are these little yellow boxes sitting atop poles. You slide your ticket in it and it stamps the date and the station on it (we learned fast). Apparently, if a conductor stops you and you don't have the appropriate stamp, you will be charged as though you don't have a ticket. Regarding conductors, even though we rode the trains some 5 or 6 times while in the Cinque Terre, we were never asked again to show a conductor our tickets.
Tourists in Italy:
Americans and Germans numbered the most. In the Cinque Terre, Germans outnumbered Americans. We came across the most American tourists in Venice.
I was amazed by the high quality of the small country roads in both the Cinque Terre region and in Tuscany. Although they were very narrow in some places, they were very well marked and in very good condition.
Although they seemed a little confusing initially,
we finally got the hang of finding the city that we were looking for on the
road signs. (see picture below for a typical road sign)
Larry did all the driving, thank goodness. At least on the Autostradas (the large highways), Italian drivers definitely lived up to their international reputations as speed demons. They drove extremely fast--at least 100 miles per hour in the "fast" lanes.
In my entire life, I have had only one bout with motion sickness...at least prior to going to Italy. I don't know if it was me, the winding roads and sharp curves, Larry's driving (he didn't drive too fast but he did try to avoid having too many cars get backed up behind us), or a combination of all three, but I began to feel motion sick while driving in Tuscany. I finally bought an Italian form of Dramamine which took care of the problem.
Parking and Toll Roads:
Be sure and keep a supply of Italian coins to "feed" the parking ticket machines and the toll booths. In order to park in many areas, you are required to purchase a parking ticket that you place inside your windshield (so as to avoid getting your car towed).
I think that we only had one major problem trying to find a place to park and that was in Florence. Once we found a spot, we discovered it was in an area that required you to pay an attendant. I can't remember exactly how expensive it was, but I think it cost us at least $20.00 to park for 6 or 7 hours. Of course you could do what many Italians do when they can't find a parking space, park on the sidewalk.
Very expensive..... it cost approximately $30.00 to fill a 10 gallon tank.
They are everywhere! When walking, you have to be ready to get out of their way. When driving, you have to be prepared for them to get in your way. I understand their necessity with gasoline as expensive as it is there, but they were a real nuisance--and very noisy!
Restaurants, tips, food and
Most of the restaurants that we ate in were more expensive than what I would have liked. It helped that we could go to a small market and purchase food that we could eat on the run (cheese, bread, fruit, etc.). Keep in mind that after 6:00pm, you are not likely to find a market open.
Although tipping is not required, by custom people leave behind some change for the waiters and waitresses. Be careful and examine your bill because often they will charge both a service and cover charge (which is why there is no need to leave a tip).
Just as our Lonely Planet guide book had warned, Italians do not eat on the same schedule as Americans. After a long day of hiking or just wandering through the cities, we would get hungry at our usual time....6:30pm or so. Since most restaurants close between 1:00pm and 7:30pm (and sometimes even later), on a few occasions, we found ourselves scrambling to find somewhere or something to eat.
If you make a trip to Italy, keep in mind that many restaurants, particularly the smaller ones, don't have menus written in English. And, even when they do, there might be some differences in the translation. For example, at this perfectly nice restaurant in Levanto that did have an English menu I ordered something called "prawns with pasta." I thought I would get a dish of fettucine and shrimp in some kind of sauce. I did get the fettucine and the sauce, but the prawns turned out to be large crayfish in their shells along with their bulging eyes and long antenna.
I think of all the cities that we visited, Venice seemed to have the most expensive restaurants and cafes. I suppose it is understandable because of all the tourists. However, there are foods stands there that you can buy food to carry away (slices of pizza, etc.), and there is always McDonald's. Their 5000 lire hamburger was a real bargain (about $2.50).
What can I say? I hope that I am not sounding like an "Ugly American" here, but Italy seems very backward when it comes to providing adequate restroom facilities for tourists to use. In the Cinque Terre region, I encountered the biggest surprise of my life when I opened the door to the restroom at a restaurant-bar that we were in.....and there before me was.....a "squat" toilet (see picture below that I got from another internet site). Had Larry not described this phenomena to me when he told me about his hiking trip in Nepal some years back, I probably would have reasoned that the toilet fixture had been removed to make repairs. I wish I could say that this was the last time I encountered one of these toilets. It wasn't. Pretty soon, I realized that they were the standard type of facility in public restrooms in the region. Having spent over a week hiking backcountry trails in the Grand Canyon miles from any restroom facilities, I got used to "roughing it." I'm not sure what the distinction is, but in my mind, there is a difference.
In Tuscany, public restrooms were not much better.
Most of the time they were designed to be used by both men and women. That wouldn't
have been too distressful had it not been for the fact that most did not have
any toilet seats. You can well imagine how disgustingly dirty they would become.
Of course, the nicer restaurants would have adequate and sometimes very nice
toilets. But who wants to have to get a table and place an order just to have
the privledge of using a decent restroom? In Venice and in Pisa (at the tower),
there were pay toilets that were fairly nice. After my ordeal in the Cinque
Terre, I didn't mind paying 1000 lire to use a clean restroom with a "regular"
Cameras that we used:
Larry used his new Fuji Fine Pix F1 Pro
digital camera with a 1 gigabyte memory card to take most of the pictures displayed
in this site. He could take up to 800 high-resolution pictures before downloading
them to his laptop computer, which was very convenient since when photographing
panoramas, he takes at least 24 pictures (8 around on 3 different levels) per
site. He ended up taking some 2000 pictures on the trip. I used our Nikon
Cool Pix digital camera to take the 80 or so pictures that I took on the
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