Italy!

Fourteen trains, five flights, and numerous white-knuckle rented car miles later, not to mention 115 miles walked (according to Dianne’s FitBit), we have finally returned from Italy. Now, as promised (or forewarned, depending on your perspective) the blog begins! Rather than boring you immediately with a rundown of sites visited and adventures experienced as is my custom, this blog will start a little differently. As we prepared for this trip and began to tell people about it, with real, actual dates, we realized that there are many people who really want to go there. Some have already been there, some have actual plans underway, some are seriously thinking about it and some have but a far-away look when the subject comes up. So, since the summer is young, and plans can still be made, I decided to begin, rather than end, this blog with our general travel planning process, which, hopefully some of you may find beneficial. If you’ve already been there or have no interest in going, you might want to skip this chapter. The next one will be coming soon, with a lot more pictures and much less blathering.

Why Go?

Well, what do you want in a vacation? Breathtaking scenery? Beautiful cities? Warm and engaging people? Incredible food, wine, etc? Some of the best art ever created? Beautiful beaches? Rich heritage and history? Are you an archeologist? Do you want easy planning? Reasonable prices (generally)? Romance? To throw coins in the Trevi Fountain? Shopping? To climb the Spanish Steps? To be a gladiator (yes, there are schools)? To learn to cook Italian food (yes, there are schools for that, too)? To ride a gondola?  Did I mention wine? Well, it’s all there. And much more. Let me just say that all the good thing you have heard about Italy are true, and often understated. Certainly if you include among your hobbies the study of genitalia, then Italy is the country for you. Specimens carved in stone can be found around virtually every street corner.

Planning

We began to rough out the itinerary for this trip back in 2014, but with uncertainty about the date our new granddaughter would arrive we put it on the shelf. When that date became certain we chose other destinations before, and well after her arrival. Last fall, however, the Italy folder was re-opened and we began to get serious.

For this kind of planning, we rely on two main sources: Rick Steves to lay out and make cases for his itinerary and Trip Advisor to get additional feedback and very up-to-date recommendations. We also watch a ton of videos on You Tube. Here are two other sites I found to be helpful and informative:

10 Best Places to Visit in Italy

Home

The last one has some great videos. There are many, many other helpful sites as well.

So you look all this stuff over, decide what you really want to see and do, and what you can afford in cash and time. Then you simply connect the dots with transportation and lodging. Because the transportation system in Italy is so good, and because there is an abundance of relatively inexpensive and good, clean, highly rated places to stay, planning this trip was in many respects the easiest we have done. Here are some additional considerations:

If we’ve learned one thing it is this: Travel is hard work. Sure, you get to be in some of the best locations on the planet, but to get the most out of them will be simply very physically demanding. For example, according to Dianne’s FitBit, over the four days we spent in Rome we walked more than 39 miles. (I understand there is some reason to doubt FitBit accuracy and I agree it may be somewhat off. To me, that figure seems a little low.) I should add that this is not 39 miles on the WHHS track. This is 39 miles of cobblestones, flagstones, no stones, and sidewalks sometimes all of 18 inches wide, while mostly going up or down hills.

And remember, even though you are traveling light, with small luggage, “light” is still a relative term. By the time day four rolls around and you hoist those things up on the luggage rack. you will think those carry-ons are full of neutron stars.

So, when you plan, give yourself a break! The reason we started out on Lake Como for three days was to simply adjust to the six-hour time difference, something that has always been hard for us. In Italy your day begins at 1 or 2am Eastern Time. At our age, that takes some real getting used to.

Many of our stops were for 3 days, Rome was 4, and we had a some 2 days as well at places in close proximity to our previous location. Every place has so much to offer you can stay very busy without having to pack your bags all the time. Generally, we would much rather visit fewer places and stay longer that a lot of places and be constantly on the move. Unless you just up and decide to live there, you can never see it all.

Here is something else extremely important about visiting Italy: In the summer it can be unbearably hot. Our Colosseum tour guide told us that in the summer he will start with a group of 20 people and end with 2 because of the heat. Many of our friends who have been to Italy have said the same thing. When we went in May the temperature only exceeded 80 one day and was generally mid-60’s to 70’s. Perfect! April and October, they say are generally ideal as well. Need further proof of how important this is:

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Here is a bus in Rome before another 6,000 people got on. It is about 75 degrees and the A/C is already a non factor. Fortunately, everyone is up to globally accepted hygienic standards. Add another 20 degrees, however, and those standards, like your last gasp of oxygen, go straight out the window.

Getting There

Throughout the year, airfares are all over the place. In spite of the plethora of advice on how to get the absolute lowest fare, my personal experience is, it’s a crap shoot. So, instead, I settle on a price I’m willing to pay and when it appears some place, and I have stashed away the funds,  I pull the trigger. On this trip, I got the price I was looking for back in October. Turns out that, had I waited I could have done better, but not much better. I didn’t feel cheated.

One good way to go, if you have the time, is to subscribe to a price-alert from Kayak or Expedia or one of those sites. They will e-mail to you the latest fares for your destination. Still, you will never know till boarding day that you got the best deal.

The lowest fare, however, is not the only consideration. It is an 8 hour flight from JFK to Milan. That can either be 8 hours of relaxation, or 8 hours of misery, which will mostly depend on the plane and its seating arrangements as well as your ability to select seats. This is not a minor issue. When you hit the ground at your destination a lot of things will happen very quickly: passport control, baggage claim, train connections and so on. If you are dead tired when you get there, it just may not go too smoothly. At best it will not feel like a vacation.

So, when you book your plane, they will tell you the kind of plane you are flying. If they don’t let you select your seats, or if they charge an unreasonable fee to do it, cancel and look elsewhere.

On this trip, we found the best rate on Emirates Air. This is a modern, relatively new, airline. Recently they have been running ads with Jennifer Aniston talking about missing the shower and lounge areas that she has become accustomed to with Emirates. Well, as it turns out, these things do exist.

Now, understand, we fly economy class only. But with Emirates, that takes on a whole new meaning. The plane they fly is an Airbus 380. It is a huge 4-engine jet with an oval shaped fuselage. The oval shape makes two things possible: It creates room for a second floor. On the second floor you will find Jennifer showering with her very rich friends. But for those of us below it allows standing head room even on the window seat! That means on your 8 hour trip you can stand and stretch as often as you want and disturb no one. And, the seats are wide and comfortable. Not only that, there is a screen built into the seat in front of you that has an entertainment system with hundreds of movies, TV shows, radio, and even video games with a pop-out controller. And, they come around a pass out head phones. Not ear buds, but actual headphones. And, the food service is fabulous. We not only were served a large, very tasty meal, they came around later with very nice snacks. By the time we landed we were stuffed!

Here is another thing that sets Emirates apart from other airlines: The staff. OK, so you’re sitting at the airport waiting for your flight. As you wait there is a smattering of baggy-eyed flight crew people dragging their well-worn luggage behind them on their way to their umpteenth destination. On and on. Then, all of a sudden here comes a team of thirty or more which includes pilots, flight attendants, and others. They are sharply dressed, they move with a purpose and they act like a real team. That’s YOUR flight crew heading for YOUR plane. You feel like you are part of something big. You feel like these people will get you safely across the Atlantic! Hallelujah!

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And that’s exactly how it was. Both coming and going we have never had better flights. It would take some serious price drops from others to make us even think about changing airlines again. I would even consider them for a trip to Australia, something I swore I would never do on a plane without multiple lay-overs.

Where to Stay

The one thing that made Italy stand out compared to other places we’ve been is the availability of clean, low-cost, well-located places to stay. This is the thing, above all others, that makes and extended stay possible. To take full advantage, however, you have to think beyond the traditional hotel room. Apartments and B&B’s are also an important part of the mix. Fortunately, ratings and up-to-date comments are available for all these places, so the probability of unpleasant surprises, although possible, is very low.

Once again, Trip Advisor, guides the way. But any time you Google a place you will find commentary from many sources, including Google itself.

As an example, over half of our vacation we stayed in properties that cost around $100 or less, and, as you will see, they were very nice. In Rome we rented an apartment for $127 per night that was a 10 minute walk from the Colosseum, if you know how to get there. It was beautiful!

Getting Around

Your success in getting around Italy, or anywhere else abroad, for that matter, begins at home. If you are the kind of person who feels that you have to have multiple changes of clothes to look your best and so on, my advice is, stay home. Because what you will experience overseas will not be a vacation. At least not for the poor SOB that has to lug all your stuff around. In one carry-on size piece of luggage you should be able to fit clothes for 10 days, basic hygienic supplies and necessary documents. Rick Steves, among others, tell you how to do it. Follow their advise.

Here was our basic rig for traveling:

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Our basic rig: carry-ons with clothes, my bag (The Right Thing, (thanks, Terry!) with camera gear plus a small computer and other electronics, and Dianne’s bag with her extra stuff, plus room for a few souvenirs.

One carry-on plus one other bag to store under the seat in front of you. (OK we cheated already by checking the luggage and carrying on the bags only.) The reason being, the airlines, with their in-humane checked bag fees, have never provided enough space for carry-ons. We knew, going in, we could not get away with this. Checking the small bags was never a problem.

So, you may ask, since you checked your carry-on luggage, why not bring a bigger bag with more stuff? The simple answer is, what I described above applies to planes. You will probably not be doing much flying once you get overseas. Most of the time you will be taking trains.

Often, in our case, the trains didn’t pull up to the station till a few minutes before boarding. On the high-speed trains, when you buy your ticket you are assigned to seats in a particular car. Some of these trains can be as long as several football fields, so if your track is assigned only minutes before boarding and your car is two or three hundred yards away, you better be movin’ your ass down the line. THEN, when you get to your car, you have to hoist those bags up several steps to even get on board (usually with people crowding behind you, just as desperate). THEN, you have to find a place to store them. On some cars you can’t even fit a purse on the overhead racks, much less your luggage. So, you have to find a place between seats, or, some cars have a small, overwhelmed, luggage area. The problem with that is, luggage has been known do disappear from those areas in a twinkling. I cannot overstate: travel light.

OK, so here is the next thing you can do before ever setting foot on Italian soil: Buy your train tickets! Yes people, what an age we live in! Of the fourteen trains we took on this adventure, eleven of them were in Italy. When we touched down in Milan I already had tickets printed for every one of them. That’s right: no standing in ticket lines, no messing around with ticket machines and the all-too-helpful people that show up to “help” figure them out. Not only that, purchasing tickets early often led to huge savings. And, every single train we booked was on time and every single ticket was honored. And, every ticket you print is pre-validated, so you don’t have to fool with that crazy process.  What an incredibly efficient system! And, what this means is, lets say you decide to stay in just one location, say, Florence or Rome. With the train system, virtually the entire country, every destination we visited plus many more, is available to you as day trips typically from 10-30 euro per person, each way. Here is where to get started:

http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en

Since the topic of this chapter is “Getting Around” I should mention the cities. First, be aware that, regardless of what city you are in, the public transportation system will be overwhelmed. The term “crush of humanity” will be more than an abstract phrase by the time you get out of these places. If the vehicle you are riding seems filled beyond capacity, you will find, as we did in every city, that it can always take a few hundred more.

In Venice the streets are canals, so the way to get around is the Vaparetto, or water taxi.

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Does this look crowded? Well, it’s one of the early stops.

In Florence, it’s the bus system. Starts out quiet and soon seats become only a dream. In Rome, well, that is a whole other story, which I will save for later.

All things said, however, this is the easiest country to travel in that we have experienced. Unless, of course, you decide to rent a car. I’ll save that subject for later, too.

Language

The guide books will tell you that Italians appreciate even a feeble attempt to speak their language and you will be even more warmly greeted if you give it a try. So, months before our departure I did my best to memorize a few phrases I considered to be key, the most important by far being: “Questo e’ il treno per (your destination)”? (Is this the train to….). As it turned out, however, the one used the most was “Dov’e’ l'(what you are looking for)” Dov’e’ (pronounced DOH-vay) means “where is”…. , a phrase we used almost constantly.

When we got over there, we found that particularly in the tourist areas, almost everyone spoke tourist English, that is, they can answer in English the questions most tourists ask. Even in non-tourist areas we could always find a way to communicate. Language was almost never a problem. In fact, here is something we did not expect: Many Italians take considerable pride in their English phrases. So, we would saunter into some new place, like, say, a hotel lobby, armed with our poor excuse for an Italian phrase and before I could even open my mouth the person I approached would say, “Good morning!” or some other English phrase. Apparently, neither Dianne nor I will ever be mistaken for Italians. And, if I would say “Buena sera” (good evening) to someone they would reply with “Good evening”.  Sometimes we would compliment someone on their good English and they would get all sad-faced and apologize that their English wasn’t very good. And I’m like, Dude, it’s YOUR country. I’m the one who should be apologizing to YOU! (Which, of course, I couldn’t since I don’t know the words).

One thing that took a little getting used to, language-wise, was, a common exchange is, when someone does something for you, you say “Grazie” and they reply “Prego”, which means “you’re welcome”. But, when we would go into restaurants, the waiter or owner would say “Prego”, which we took to simply mean “Welcome” and we would reply “Grazie”. So, things got a little turned around. No big deal.

Here is one thing, though, that Italians do appear to be sticklers for: place names. If you tell somebody you are going to, say, Florence, they will look at you like you just said Mars. Both at the train stations and in polite conversation know that Venice is Venezia, Florence is Firenze, Tuscany is Tuscano, Rome is Roma and so on.

The point is, you don’t have to delay your trip to bone up on Italian phrases. It’s more fun to live them.

Money

Here is a true confession: We carry cash. I try to figure out how much we are going to need and then go to Huntington and convert dollars to euro. Unless the exchange rate is really bad, in which case we use ATM’s over there. Right now the dollar is fairly strong, so the rate is, at least, tolerable. You will never get the market exchange rate here and you won’t get it over there either unless you are moving huge sums. If you are, you will not relate very well to this blog. Quit reading and go elsewhere.

I should note that since we carry cash we take many extra steps to protect it. Italy is the land of pickpockets and you will be constantly warned. I won’t go into what we do, but it works. One thing, I never carry a wallet. I leave it at home. My back pockets are for train tickets and hotel reservations. Cash for the day I carry in either hidden money pouch or my front pocket, which is usually so full of other crap that even I can’t find the money half the time.

But, if you prefer ATM’s or going to banks, by all means have at it.

All this said, we use cash mostly for incidentals. We run restaurants and hotels through a credit card. Why? Double points so we can afford our next trip. Be mindful, however, that a euro is not the same as a dollar, Right now it is about 12% more, so try to avoid sticker shock when you get home and find the dollar equivalent of those euro on your next statement.

Enough Already!

I agree! Now the tale begins…

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