Travel tips for Italy Al Hague
Driving in Italy!!!.. Requires practice, fearlessness and very good insurance…
Having been several times to Italy I can tell you driving there is not like in the USA. Not even close. To be successful at getting around in both the cities and the countryside you must understand not only the written rules of the road but the unwritten, which many times are much more important. For example when driving on the Auto Strada ( our version of a major freeway) always stay to the far right unless passing and when and if you do pass, be sure to return to the right as quickly as possible because you can be sure there is another car right behind you and he or she will be flashing their lights in your mirror day or night and will be also tailgating you until you do move over.
It has been said that the posted speed limits are only suggestions but since I was once the recipient of a speeding ticket perhaps that is not quite accurate.It is important to know that you don’t have to get a ticket from a police officer as mine was done by email after being recorded by a camera and it was not cheap. I was renting a car of course and the first fee was from the rental company for simply handling the ticket process. The additional fees came from the local Policia.
Everywhere in Italy drivers seem to play a game of one-upmanship when in traffic. The rule of first come first served is very predominant so if you are first at the intersection you keep going and if you don’t , well you could be in for a wait. Close quarters in the city is the rule. Close not only to other vehicles, bicycles, motor scooters, trucks you name it. Streets are very narrow and you can expect to pass oncoming vehicles with in inches of your side mirrors. Potholes take their toll as well in big cities and lights are tricky. Perhaps the most difficult task is looking for signs and direction of travel.
Using a GPS is certainly the best way to travel but you should have a co-pilot as taking your eyes off the road for even a moment is certainly hazardous to your very existence. Finding and reading street signs can be a bit tricky but once you understand the color codes it gets easier. Of course some basic Italian language knowledge is helpful such as Nord means North and Sud means South.
When renting a car consider a car that is comfortable but not larger than you need to simplify parking, driving and cost of fuel. Diesels are predominant and for good reason. If you can handle a manual shift that will also save you money. If you are not sure about the driving thing, then look to the trains in Italy, as there are reliable and comfortable and if you plan your vacation well they are very easy to travel on. In the cities taxi’s are reliable but somewhat expensive, however they are a timesaver unless you know where you are going.
For me I enjoy driving there as I know the opposing drivers know what they are doing and no matter how crazy it seems I was impressed at how few accidents you see.
If driving is not for you your agent at Travel 4 All Seasons can build you an itinerary that will keep you from behind the wheel…and that just may be your best decision.
Contrary to what you might hear, if your driver’s license is from the US (or other countries outside the EU) you should carry an International Driving Permit along with your local license. You’ll need to show it if you get stopped by the police for any reason including if you’re in an accident. It’s not a license, requires no test, and is basically a translation of your driver’s license.
Do not drive in an area with a sign that says Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL) or Area Pedonale, limited traffic or pedestrian zones. Most cities ( Florence) have these zones and even in small towns you may find them in the historic center, the centro storico. A special permit is needed to drive in a limited traffic zone (which your hotel can usually provide if it’s within one). There is usually a camera that takes a photo of your license plate as you enter and you may get a fine in the mail even if you don’t get stopped right away. Look for a parking lot outside the center – you’ll often find one within walking distance or with a shuttle to take you to the center.
Italy has two main devices for catching speeders, Autovelox and Sistema Tutor. Always be on the lookout for autovelox which can be found on the autostrada, regular highways, and even in some towns. The autovelox looks like a big box with a sign but inside is a camera that takes a photo of your license plate. You can receive a ticket as much as a year later. (note that if you have a rental car, they have your credit card information). You should also see a warning sign in advance that says Polizia Stradale, controllo electronico della velocita’.
Sistema Tutor is a new system used on some stretches of the autostrada. An overhead camera takes a photo of your license plate as you pass under it. When you pass under the next camera, your speed is averaged between the two points and the average should not exceed 130 kilometers per hour (or 110 if raining). As above, you may receive a ticket in the mail or through your rental car company.
Driving on the Autostrada or Toll Road
The autostrada is Italy’s system of toll roads. Autostrada highways are designated with an A in front of a number (such as A1, the major autostrada that connects Milan and Rome) and signs pointing toward them are green.
The maximum speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour but on some parts of the autostrada the maximum speed is 110, and may be as low as 60 on some curvy stretches, so watch for posted speed limit signs. When you exit the autostrada, you will pay a toll (take a ticket as you enter). US credit cards do not always work at the toll booth so be sure you have cash with you. The trick for travelers is to be in the correct land for toll collection. You’ll need to follow signs with a stick-figure driver paying an attendant. These usually direct you to the right. Signs with money usually indicate a coin-collection toll booth. These are tricky in that sometimes you don’t know how many coins you’ll need until you pull up to the booth.
If you don’t like paying the tolls on the autostrada, you can usually find a road labeled “ss” on your map, paralleling the autostrada.
Those are “strade statali” or state roads. The speed limit is 70-110 km per hour when it’s clear for a stretch, and 30-50 near towns. They are twistier and usually far more scenic but they can be very slow.
Autostrade are marked by signs with an “A” followed by the autostrada number on a green background, other roads are marked with road numbers on a blue background (as you can see on the photo). Depending on which autostrada you are on you may find many tunnels and they are well lit. The lights are auto dimmed so you do not need to remove sunglasses. ~WORTH REPEATING~ Stay to the right at a comfortable speed as there will always be someone going faster. If you don’t stay to your right they will come up on you fast and flash their lights to tell you to move over. Stay on the right unless passing and then move quickly back to the right lane.
Driving on Sunday
Sunday is a good day for long distance driving on the autostrada, because trucks are prohibited on Sundays. Be aware that in summer, coast roads become very congested, especially on Sundays. Roads around the northern lakes are often congested on weekends, too.
Over Planning and Over Scheduling
Italy does not run like clockwork so don’t expect everything to go smoothly, especially if you’ve made yourself a tight schedule. Leave some time for hanging out in a piazza or bar or going to a festival or special event you may run across. People often tell me that the most memorable part of their trip was something they didn’t plan and the biggest mistake we hear about is trying to jam in too many places into a short vacation. Moving to a new city and new hotel every day is exhausting and eats up a lot of time that could be spent enjoying a place for several days and really getting to know it.
Boarding a Regional Train without Validating the Ticket
Tickets for regional trains, or any ticket that doesn’t have a specific time and assigned seat, needs to be validated. Regional train tickets can generally be used on any train in a two month period, so validate your ticket before boarding. We have seen a number of tourists get fined for not validating their tickets before boarding so make sure you do it.
Being the Victim of a Theft
As in any big city, you should take precautions against having your money or passport stolen. Rome and Florence are the places that tourists most often report having their purse, camera, or passports and money stolen. Keep a close eye on your belongings, don’t carry valuables in a pack on your back, and avoid wearing expensive jewelry. Carry your passport in a place that’s difficult for a pick-pocket to access and don’t carry more cash in your purse or main wallet than you’ll need for the day.
Relying Only on Credit Cards or Bringing Traveler’s Checks
In Italy there are many places that still do not take credit cards and if you’re traveling with American Express you’ll find even fewer places to use it. Many small family-run restaurants and shops, bed and breakfast inns, and outdoor markets require cash payments. If you’re traveling outside the main tourist areas this will be even more likely. Your credit card may not work in machines such as the autostrada toll booth. It’s a good idea to have two credit cards so you can use one as back up and be sure to call your bank before you leave to tell them the dates you’ll be in Italy (also for your ATM card).
Traveler’s checks are rarely used for getting cash in Italy and if you do find a place to change them, you are likely to pay a big fee. The best way to get cash is with your ATM card.
Ordering a Latte
Latte is the Italian word for milk and if you order a latte, especially outside tourist areas, you may end up with a glass of milk. If you want a coffee, head to a bar, but keep in mind that in many places you will pay extra for table service so if you just want a quick coffee, do as the Italians do and stand at the bar. In restaurants coffee (usually espresso) is normally served only after the meal (including dessert) is finished. Italians don’t drink coffee with their meal and they generally don’t drink cappuccino after noon, although you can still ask for one. Speaking of drinks, you won’t get free refills on your soda or ice tea and usually your cold drinks won’t be served over ice. You can ask for ice but don’t expect more than a couple of cubes. Ice machines require energy use and it is simply not a necessity as far as they are concerned.
Wearing Shorts When Visiting a Church
Italian cathedrals and churches are often interesting to visit and many hold important art works. Many also have signs posted asking visitors not to enter wearing shorts or with bare shoulders. Women can carry around a scarf that can be used to cover bare shoulders when wearing sleeveless tops. Some places, like the Vatican, will not admit people wearing shorts so plan your dress to go with your sight-seeing.
Boarding your Train
Once you have a ticket, you can head out to your train. In Italian, the tracks are called binari (track numbers are listed under bin on the departure board). In smaller stations where the trains go through the station you’ll have to go underground using the sottopassagio or under passage to get to a track that isn’t Binario uno or track number one. In larger stations like Milano Centrale, where the trains pull into the station rather than passing through, you’ll see the trains head-on, with signs on each track indicating the next expected train and its departure time.
But before you go to your train–validate that train ticket! If you have a regional train ticket or ticket for one of the small private lines (or any ticket without a specific train number, date, and time), just before you board your train, find the green and white machine (or in some cases the old-style yellow machines) and insert the end of your ticket. This prints the time and date of the first use of your ticket, and makes it valid for the journey. There are stiff fines for not validating your ticket. Validation applies to regional train tickets or any ticket that does not have a specific date, time, and seat number on it.
Once you find your train, just board it. You will probably have to show your ticket to a conductor once during your journey so keep it where you can get to it. Usually there are racks above the seats for luggage. Sometimes there are dedicated shelves near the ends of each coach for your larger baggage. Note that you will not find porters in the station or waiting by the track to help you with your luggage, you will need to get your luggage onto the train yourself.
It’s customary to greet fellow passengers when you sit down. A simple buon giorno will do nicely. If you want to know if a seat is vacant, simply say Occupato? or E libero?.
At Your Destination
Train stations are bustling places, especially in large cities. Be careful about your baggage and wallet. Don’t let anyone offer to help you with your luggage once you are off the train or offer you transportation. If you’re looking for a taxi, head outside the station to the taxi stand.
Most train stations are centrally located and surrounded by hotels. It’s easy to adapt a carefree approach to traveling, especially in the off season.
On fast trains like the Frecce trains, where a reservation is required, tickets don’t normally require validation since they specify the train’s exact date and time on the ticket.
Eating in Italy:
Eating a leisurely Italian meal is one of the pleasures of traveling in Italy! Italians take food very seriously. Each region, and sometimes even a city, will have regional specialties that they are very proud of. Your experience might be enhanced by telling your waiter that you want to try the specialties. Understanding how Italians traditionally eat will help you get the most out of your travel experience.
Traditional Italian menus have five sections. A full meal usually consists of an appetizer, first course and a second course with a side dish. It’s not necessary to order from every course, but usually people order at least two courses. Traditional meals may last one or two hours or even longer. Italians often go out for a long Sunday lunch with their families and restaurants will be lively. It’s a good chance to experience Italian culture.
One choice will usually be a plate of the local cold cuts and there will probably be some regional specialties. Sometimes you can order an antipasto misto and get a variety of dishes. This is usually fun and can be more food than you’d expect for the price! In the south, there are some restaurants that have an antipasto buffet where you can select your own appetizers.
The First Course – Primo:
The first course is pasta, soup, or risotto (rice dishes, especially found in the north). Usually there are several pasta choices. Italian pasta dishes may have less sauce than Americans are usually used to. In Italy, the type of pasta is often more important than the sauce. Some risotto dishes may say minimum of 2 persons.
The Second or Main Course – Secondo:
The second course is usually meat, poultry, or fish. It doesn’t usually include any potato or vegetable. There are sometimes one or two vegetarian offerings, although if they are not on the menu you can usually ask for a vegetarian dish.
The Side Dishes – Contorni:
Usually you will want to order a side dish with your main course. This could be a vegetable (verdura), potato, or insalata (salad). We sometimes order only a salad instead of the meat course.
The Dessert – Dolce:
At the end of your meal, you will be offered dolce. Sometimes there may be a choice of fruit (often whole fruit served in a bowl for you to select what you want) or cheese. After dessert, you will be offered caffe or a digestivo (after dinner drink).
Most Italians drink wine, vino, and mineral water, acqua minerale, with their meal. Often the waiter will take the drink order before your food order. There may be a house wine that can be ordered by the quarter, half, or full liter and will not cost much. Coffee is not served until after the meal and iced tea is rarely served either. If you do have ice tea or soda, there will not be free refills.
Getting the Bill in an Italian Restaurant:
The waiter will almost never bring the bill until you ask for it. You may be the last people in the restaurant but the bill still doesn’t come. When you are ready for the bill, simply ask for il conto. The bill will include a small bread and cover charge but the prices listed on the menu include tax and usually service. You may leave a small tip (a few coins) if you want to. Not all restaurants accept credit cards so be prepared with cash.
Where to Dine in Italy:
If you just want a sandwich, you can go to a bar. A bar in Italy is not just a place for drinking alcohol and there are no age restrictions. People go to the bar for their morning coffee and pastry, to grab a sandwich, and even to buy ice cream. Some bars also serve a few pasta or salad selections so if you just want one course, that’s a good choice. A tavola calda serves already prepared food. These will be fairly fast.
More formal dining establishments include:
osteria – this used to be a very casual eating place but now there are some more formal ones.
trattoria – also a more casual eating place but may be the same as a restaurant.
ristorante – restaurant
Italian Meal Times:
In the summer, Italians usually eat fairly late meals. Lunch will not start before 1:00 and dinner not before 8:00. In the north and in winter, meal times may be half an hour earlier while in the far south in summer you may eat even later. Restaurants close between lunch and dinner. In large tourist areas, you may find restaurants open all afternoon. Nearly all shops in Italy are closed in the afternoon for three or four hours, so if you want to buy a picnic lunch be sure to do it in the morning!
This trip, if it is your first, may be life changing if you allow it to be. You will experience and learn an amazing and wonderful culture. We have never had a bad meal or a bad glass of wine anywhere in Italy. The pride in all things by the Italian culture is very real and should be appreciated. When possible try to use some local language especially for greetings and saying thank you. (Prego) here welcome (Grazie) thank you. Good afternoon (buongiorno)
late afternoon is (buona sera) The response when you try their common words is wonderful. Perhaps the most important word when inquiring as to a toilet location is (toiletta ) for toilet or (dovay)Dove il bagno or dove il toilette (where is the bathroom) Per favore (please) and then where to buy tickets would be Biglietti (tickets).
There is much more to be aware of to have a wonderful trip but this collection of tips is a good start.
Travel smart…travel well
Al and Diane Hague