How to Plan a Trip to Italy: Part One

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Siena: Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

Siena: Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

Congratulations!  A trip to Italy is a wonderful and memorable time.  It’s something you’ll never forget and it will forever change you even after you return.  That sounds like a tall order, but it’s absolutely true.  You won’t know until you go.

Planning is an essential part of Your Tour of Italy.  While you can sign up with one of the many tours that are offered, the internet makes it so easy to design your own trip and go on your own.  You may find that there are places and things you would like to see that an organized tour just doesn’t offer.

There are lots of things to consider.

  • Are you traveling with children?
  • Are you going for a specific holiday?
  • What landmarks and cities do you most want to see?
  • How long do you plan to stay?
  • How much money do you have to spend?

When you think of Italy, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?  That’s what you should see.  For some people, it may be “The David” in Florence, or Lake Como at the base of the Alps.  Some people are going to find  their long lost relatives and retrace their own family history.  Some people want to eat and drink their way through the landscape.  Others plan to see museums.  Some people just want to travel to one city and “get the feel of it.”  All of these are honorable and excellent choices.

Be warned.  It can be  overwhelming and very confusing planning a trip to a place you’ve never been.  Once you tell people you’re going, they immediately offer their advice.  You’ll feel your brain spinning with so much unsolicited information. Stay focused!

Greve in Chianti

Greve in Chianti

There is a reason that Rome is called The Eternal City.  My dear cousin, Laura, spoke volumes about it when she stated that, “I have lived here all of my life, and still, there are things I have not seen.”

Keep that in mind when you begin to plan.  I’m sorry.  You can’t see everything.  However, you can prioritize and plan.  No matter what you do, from seeing famous works of art to standing in line for a gelato,  YOU ARE IN ITALY.

 

Here’s a very preliminary step by step to get you started.  Consider this the first of many ways to spend winter evenings as you conspire with your traveling companions.

  1. Put on some classic Italian music and open a bottle of wine.  (Why not start enjoying Italy now?)
  2. Make a list of all the things you want to see.  No cities, no itinerary, just name what’s important to you.
  3. Get out a map of Italy.  Use one that you can write on. (Barnes and Noble has them.)
  4. Mark off where those landmarks are located.
  5. Get a travel journal.  Begin to write down facts, times, and dates.
  6. Look at the map and decide which cities you want to see the most.  (I won’t even tell you what you SHOULD see, only you can answer that.)
  7. Draw lines from the cities that you’ve chosen to see if there are reasonable modes of transportation to get from one to the other.  The Italian train system is vast and efficient, so don’t be afraid.
  8. Use the internet.  Travel websites, blogs, on line magazines and newspapers offer a plethora of information.
  9. Use your basic skeletal map to flesh out where you will actually go.  For example, if you have decided you want to see the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi, begin to  research Assisi.  Trip Advisor offers a lot of honest and solid information.
  10. You may find that your trip will change.  Logistics, distance, time and money are all factors that can’t be ignored.  (Mi dispiace.)

    The Cat Sanctuary, Rome

    The Cat Sanctuary, Rome

If you’ve noticed, there IS a lot of planning and research.  This is really not a chore.  It’s exciting to sit and plan your trip.  The more information you have, the better decisions you can make.  Going to Italy the first time is not a trip that you just hop onto a flight and hope for the best.  You want to be informed and aware.  You’re entering another culture and you’re leaving American soil.  It pays to plan.

So now, go get that map and notebook and start thinking about What Italy Means to You.

Questions?

 

 

Shopping in Rome, Florence, Venice, Italy: Etiquette You Need To Know About European Shops

Shopping in Rome, (well in most of Europe) there are different social norms and customs that patrons are expected to know.  In the United States, people paw the merchandise, carry it around and then usually leave it somewhere it doesn’t belong.

This. Does Not. Happen. In. Italy.

Entering into a shop is like entering into someone’s home.  (While the larger mall like stores are more lax in this custom, for this article, I am addressing the small shops.)  When you enter into someone’s home, you immediately greet them.  This is expected in an Italian shop as well.

Vendors are ready to wait on you.  They want to serve and they are attentive.  When you walk in, say, “buon giorno” and smile.  They will greet you as well and may ask something along the lines of “Che cose’?”  This means loosely, “what would you like?”   It is expected that you do not touch the wares. Italians are very meticulous in their belongings and they frown upon the idea of someone else trying it on and touching it. In fact, if you are choosing to try it on, it is almost an unspoken expectation that you plan to purchase said garment.

Wha?????  How do I know I like it?  How do I know it will fit?  Trust me.  The salesperson will have sized you up correctly the moment you darkened their doorstep.  They will know precisely what size you need.  (An aside here is it may not be the size you want.  Sorry.  Their sizes are different anyway, so it doesn’t matter.)

If you are looking for a particular color, they will be happy to help.  When you walk into a shop, the first thing you may notice is that it is very sparse.  There may be one or two mannequins dressed in an ensemble, but that will be it.  The wall are usually lined with drawers or doors that host the goods.  Italians do not like to be overwhelmed with too much at once.  Much in the way they prefer their meals to be presented in unadorned sequence, they use the same principles for clothing stores.

You may like the scarf or the skirt on the mannequins so you can point to it and say, “Lo mi piace.”  This means “I like it.”  Suddenly, before  your very eyes, there will appear a bevy of this particular skirt or scarf or shirt in an array of colors and patterns and sizes.

If there is a certain color you are looking for, it would be a good idea to learn how to say it in Italian. (Most of the shops are housed with salespeople who can in fact, speak English, but they are so happy and proud of you when you attempt the native language, it’s adorable.)

Once you have decided what you will purchase, you can say something like, “Lo prendo.”  This means, “I’ll take it.”  This is the best part.  The salesperson will whirl you up to the cash register and prepare your new belongings for their journey home.  They use tissue wraps and ribbons and beautiful reusable bags with zippers.  It is a treat in itself to watch them.  The excitement overtakes you as you make your lovely purchase.

Try and maintain your dignity when you leave.  At least go around the corner before you begin squealing in delight.  Once, I purchased a scarf (well I made my husband purchase a scarf for me) on the via Condotti and I was so proud of myself for not tearing the package open and rolling around the streets on my new treasure.  That kind of behavior is an entirely different article.

 

Souvenir Ideas: Books

Book of Tuscan Proverbs

For me, shopping on vacation is part of the fun.  I love looking for little trinkets and mementoes to bring back and squirrel into my little nest.  I think there’s really a physiological benefit.  I can feel my heart soar and my respiration change….pretty shiny objects can do that.  🙂  I love bringing back little presents for those whom I left behind.  I can imagine their joy in receiving a special present from so far away.

A particularly good gift idea is a book.

Book of Tuscan Proverbs

Book of Tuscan Proverbs

The beauty of a book, for a traveler, is that it is easy to slip into a suitcase, it isn’t breakable, and it’s a unique treasure that you can’t just pick up in your own local bookstore.

In Florence, FirenziLibri is a wonderful place to find not only new books, but vintage and out of print volumes as well.  The store is located at Via dei Servi, 52.  It’s  a lovely little side street that has lots of other unique shops.  There is something so special about finding a beloved fairy tale from own childhood written in Italian.  This is where you will find locals and won’t be over run by tourists, such as yourselves.  🙂

In Milan, immediately to the right of the Duomo, there is a huge book store.  In Mondadori Bookstore is  filled with a plethora of books and other little book store trinkets.  This could be your perfect one stop shopping.  This store is akin to the giant bookstores we have here in the states.  In addition to books, there are maps and stuffed animals and mugs….just like home, but Italian.

There’s something magical about a bookstore.   Each volume holds possibility.  To find a lovely edition of a classic, written in Italian, or German or whatever the local language may be is something unique and special.

 

Buying Gold and Silver Jewelry on The Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio Over The Arno River, Florence

The Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

 

One of the lovely shops on the Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio, (or The Old Bridge) is one of the most famous sites in the world to purchase gold and silver jewelry.  Founded hundreds of years ago, this trading post was the centerpiece of Florence, Italy with vendors and customers coming from all over.  Italian gold and silver is the finest in the world, and buying a little trinket, (or two) on a trip to Italy is a wonderful remembrance to bring home.  It’s something you’ll actually use because let’s face it, what do you do with a tiny Leaning Tower of Pisa after you’re home?

There is plenty of debate as to whether or not you are getting the best deal or if the jewelry is overpriced on the bridge.

This is something you have to decide for yourself.  Perhaps you pay a bit more.  Maybe it is a bit less.  Either way, all of the shops on the bridge are accredited vendors, so you know you have genuine materials.  Remember, you’ll also be paying for the experience.  Believe me when I tell you that in itself, that makes it worth the price.  You’ll remember it forever.

Italian gold is made as 18kt.  It will say 750 on it instead.  True Italian gold will also have a tiny stamp on it with usually a star and some small letters or numbers.  These are the identification numbers of the area in Italy in which the jewelry was made.  Each region has its own stamps and numbers.  When you are shopping for gold in Italy, look for this marking to insure you are getting Italian gold made in Italy.

When you shop in Italy, is is different than here in the States.  As I’ve mentioned before, there are some unspoken rules that are followed.  When you are on the Ponte Vecchio, you are truly marked as a tourist. (Or at least as someone with cash or credit cards to spend.)  You want to be alert and aware of your surroundings, so your adventure on the bridge is pleasurable.

One thing to know when you are on the bridge is that vendors are everywhere.  They aren’t selling jewelry, but they have scarves and wooden Pinocchio dolls and such.  They will attempt to distract you, so be prepared and keep walking.  Keep your hand on your purse.  If you need to, say, “Va Via!”  (This means, “Go Away!”)  While they won’t suddenly think you’re a native, they will at least know you’ve done your homework and will move on.

Shopping on the bridge, everything is there for your perusal.  When you spot something that’s caught your eyes, you knock on the door of the shop.  They only allow one party in at a time.  The vendor comes out and you can literally point to something in the window, or you can say, “posso?”  This means, “Can I?” to have entrance to the shop.  They will escort you in and lock the door behind you.  For real.  Be ready.

They are very gracious and it’s intimate.  Once you make the purchase, you will need to give information for customs as there are forms you will need to return when you arrive at the airport heading home.  You’ll receive your papers from the vendor and your purchase will be wrapped like the precious trinket that it is, in velvet bags and tissue wrap.

Honestly, the safest place for jewelry is on your person.  Wearing a gold chain or a bracelet will not make you a target, and you will be infinitely more secure than if you tuck the bag into your purse. Thieves and pickpockets will be watching to see who comes out of a store with some tiny bag in ribbons.  The important thing, again,  is to be aware and alert.   If you decide to wear the jewelry out of the store, (even if it isn’t for you, remember safety) tell them.  They will assist you and they’ll still give you all the lovely wrappings and bags.

They are used to tourists and they are so accommodating and gracious.  Every time you look at your beautiful piece of jewelry it will make you smile to know you bought it at the most famous jewelry location on the planet.

Florence and The Negroni

Ponte Vecchio Over The Arno River, Florence

Image 1Italians have mastered the delicate balance of Just Enough.  They are able to push right to the line that blurs gaudy and good taste.  (This is why they are among the most fashionable humans on the planet, yes?)  The Negroni is no different.  It is, as is much Italian fashion, bold, yet somehow simplistic, colorful yet classic,  clean and vibrant at once.

Yes.  The Negroni is an Italian original through and through.  One of the best parts about this drink it that is truly is a triumvirate of taste.  Each one of the three components is played off the others.  Made with equal parts of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, the Negroni takes three liquors that can stand well enough on their own, and somehow make them…..better.  Elevated.

The legend of the Negroni originates in Florence.  She is one of the city’s greatest contributions to the world.  The story goes that Fosco Scarselli, the bartender at the Caffe’ Casoni, obliged the Count Camillo Negroni when he asked him to add more of a punch to his cocktail, the Americano.  (Don’t you think they should call it the Scarselli?  He was gipped!)  Scarselli changed out the soda water and instead, substituted it with gin, creating the first Negroni.  Garnished with a bit of orange it becomes a metaphor for the Arno River at sunset.  It is dark with color.  It has shimmers of light and it is rich and deep.   In fact, sunset is the best time to enjoy a Negroni.  It is a true Italian Aperitivo, designed to open the palate to prepare you for the dinner that will follow.  Don’t go to Florence, (or any part of Italy for that matter) without having a Negroni.  Once you’ve had one there, each time you enjoy that unique flavor anywhere else in the world, you will be in Italy again.

 

The author and a Florentine Negroni

The author and a Florentine Negroni

 Negroni Recipe

  • 2 ounces of Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 ounces of gin
  • 2 ounces of Campari, (or any type of bitters)
  • orange wedge

Combine the liquor into a shaker filled with ice.  Shake well.  Serve immediately over ice with the orange garnish. 

 

The David: What You Need To Know Before You Get To Florence

The beautiful reproduction of Michelangelo's David.

Florence, or Firenze, as it is called in Italy, is an ancient city filled with some of the world’s most beautiful art.  It was the stomping grounds of, to name a few, Michelangelo Buonarroti and  Dante Alighieri (though after they banished Dante, they had the nerve to be angry when Ravenna claimed his body for their Famous Dead Person.)  It is also hot, crowded, loud and dusty.  When you disembark from the Santa Maria Novella Train Station, (The SMN,) you will feel as if THIS was Alighieri’s inspiration for a Circle of Hell.  However, don’t plan a trip to Italy without stopping here.  The home turf of the Medici family, their mark is evident throughout the city.  Their faces grace the arch in the doorway in the front hall of the Uffizi.  In fact, the Uffizi, was their family offices.  Outside, The David stands guard.  Wait for it……

The beautiful reproduction of Michelangelo's David.

The beautiful reproduction of Michelangelo’s David.

IT IS THE FAKE DAVID.  This is one of the first things you need to know.  It breaks my heart every time when people tell me how they posed in front of it, and blah blah blah.  Oh dear.  It puts me at an emotional crux.  Do I tell them?  So, listen up people, I’m telling you now.

The real David, the one that Michelangelo created, really DID used to stand in this space.  He was moved in 1873 and  now, he is the main attraction at the Accademia Museum on the other side of town.  Traveling to Italy is a lot of time and money and you want to do it right.  It’s like when someone has food on their teeth….do you tell them or do you let them go on their merry way with spinach on an incisor?    It’s the same thing with David.  Once you tell them you’ve forever destroyed their belief that they saw The Real One.   (It also doesn’t help that  they kind of think you’re a meanie for telling them.)

The author being totally disrespectful to the Pseudo David

The author being totally disrespectful to the Pseudo David

Make sure you see the real one.  I mean it when I say he will literally take your breath away.  It is an entirely unexpected, holy experience.  The fact that he’s a 17 foot naked man has nothing to do with it.  Really.  It is an unforgettable moment.  This leads me to my second thing to know.  DO NOT TAKE HIS PICTURE.  Even if you are a shameless hussy and are not embarrassed by the security guards screaming, “Va via!  Ferma!” (Go away!  Stop!) the wall of humanity surrounding you will be mortified.  Please people.  Follow the rules.  His picture is for sale in the gift shop.  Buy one there.

In Florence, the two main museums are the Academia, and the Uffizi.  Please, please take heed of all the tourist advice and book your tickets ahead of time You will save yourself hours of time and when you see those lines, your heart will sink.  I don’t want you to have to compromise on what you’re willing to wait for to see.  The David is right on the other side of that wall, but if you do not have reservations, it could take all day to meet him.  I mean it.  Book your tickets ahead of time.  Yet, here’s another thing you need to know.  If you call them, be prepared for the phone bill when it arrives.  To me, it’s worth the $30.00 phone call.

On another aside, go and see the reproduction in the Piazza della Signoria.  It was placed there in 1910 and it gives you a true feeling for what this city was like when this biblical underdog was positioned to glare in the direction of the Goliath of Rome.

Time is precious, especially when you are in Italy.  Let’s face it, we may never come back this way again.  I want you to have memories stored up in your heart and mind that will make you smile, and not wince at an honest planning mistake.  Florence is overwhelming on a good day.  Trying to organize your thoughts amid the heat and the people is almost impossible.  The more planning you do ahead of time, the better the experience will be.