our life in TUSCANY
If you are planning your own trip in Italy, the two biggest questions are how you will travel in the country and where you will stay. Oh, and then you should know a little about the different places to eat.
How to travel
Should you rent a car, or take trains and buses? The answer depends largely on where you want to go, who your are traveling with and how much you are willing to spend.
Cars make sense if you want to go to some smaller towns that don’t have train service. And if you are sharing expenses with a few other people, a rented car or taxi could be less expensive than buying many train or bus tickets. Cars also give you greater flexibility to leave at any hour.
Driving in Italy can be frustrating and stressful, especially at first. Once you get used to the road signs and traffic rules, it becomes progressively easier. Driving through the countryside is usually relaxing and features great landscapes and scenic views. Don’t even consider going without GPS, though. Streets in Italy are often not marked, so following printed directions from Google maps won’t work. If your trip will last more than a week or you plan to travel in Italy often, it may make more sense to buy an inexpensive GPS device at an electronics store. The ones provided by auto rental agencies can cost around 15 euros a day, and you can buy a device for 100 euro and use it on every trip. Of course, if you have set up your cell phone to work in Italy, you can use its built-in GPS features.
For more details and advice, read Driving in Italy can be an adventure.
I also absolutely do not recommend driving into the center of large Italian cities. The traffic is frightening and the parking nearly impossible. Even worse, you may end up driving in a dreaded ZTL, a zone limited only to people with special permits (zona traffico limitato). There are automatic cameras in these zones that take photos of your license plate, and then the Italian police will send you a substantial ticket (they get your address from the rental agency). This can be a real nightmare, which you can read more about here: Traffic cameras a common complaint you can easily avoid this risk by parking in a smaller town outside the city center (which often has free parking) and taking a train the rest of the way.
Italian toll highways (the autostrada) are well maintained and much faster than driving on the winding country roads. The payment system is efficient. When entering an autostrada, you collect a little ticket and the bar rises to allow your entry. Keep the ticket handy for when you are ready to exit. When you pull up to pay, look for a symbol that shows you can pay with cash or a credit card. I always use a credit card because its much more convenient (hopefully you have a card that doesn’t have a fee for international transactions, though, because otherwise you’ll be paying extra each time you exit).
To pay, you insert your ticket in the slot, and the computer calculates the charge. You then put your credit card in the exact same slot (or put cash in a nearby slot or drawer). Everything is automatic, and a recorded voice will usually say “Arriverderci” when you finish.
Trains: If you are traveling alone or with just one other person, and the places you are going have train or bus service, I highly recommend the Italian public transportation systems, especially the trains. They are usually efficient, on time and priced reasonably. Stations are normally located in town centers, and if the town you are visiting doesn’t have train service, you can probably take a train to a hub nearby and then find a local or regional bus. I also like trains because I’m a people watcher, and you don’t get the full experience of the nitty gritty of Italian life without riding on trains—especially the small regionali, the regional trains.
I also like the fact that I can check out the train times and purchase tickets easily on either the Trenitalia or ItaliaRail websites. One problem with actually purchasing tickets online is that you are then limited to that particular train and time, so I sometimes write down or print out several different options and then buy at the station, depending on how my schedule actually worked out on a particular day. Cost for tickets varies widely depending on which train and time of day you chose, so its great to see all the possibilities spread out before you before buying. And if you are taking a longer trip from one large city to another, it may be cheaper to take a relatively new competing train system called Italo.
It doesn’t take long to learn how to use the trains, but if you really want the inside scoop and all the tips, you can buy an inexpensive e-book written by Jessica Spiegal called Italy Explained: Italian Trains.
Bus companies are regional in Italy, so there is no one site you can use. I’ve had some problems figuring out bus routes and fares from several of the regional sites, so I find it best to just go to the central station and ask for help. If that’s not possible, ask at the nearest tourist information station or get help from a concierge or clerk at your hotel. Buses are inexpensive and usually reliable, and they are essential for arriving at smaller towns off the train routes for people without cars. They are not used for long trips (except for tour buses) because they only operate within a single region. If you’re trying to travel from one region to another, connecting bus routes when the companies are completely separate can be almost impossible. If you are stuck in a difficult situation, such as a train strike, you can try the directions on Google maps, but I’d only do this as a last resort.
Even if buses aren’t going to be your primary mode of transportation, however, you may find that they make up a part of a journey here and there. That adorable remote town where you’re spending a few restful days may not have a train station. You may need to take a train to the nearest hub and then take a bus from there. Or you may find that even if two towns both have train stations, the bus trip between them is actually faster (not to mention cheaper). Yes, I’m a train advocate – and if both points on a trip are within one region, it still makes sense to see whether taking the bus is the better choice.
Where to stay: What do those different lodging terms mean?
Some of the words will be familiar English terms, but others are purely Italian. A fellow blogger, Jessica Spiegel, has provided a great explanation of accommodation terms you might see, and she has given me permission to reprint it:
Yep, it’s just what you think it is. The word “hotel” in Italy is pronounced without the H, so essentially it’s OH|tel. There’s a star system for hotels in Italy, but it doesn’t correspond to the star ratings you might know from elsewhere. In Italy, the amenities a hotel has can vary considerably, just like anywhere else. Some may have swimming pools, gyms, free breakfast, and an in-house bar – others may not even have an elevator. It depends a bit on the star rating as well as the age of the building the hotel is in. If things like air conditioning and an elevator are imperative for you to enjoy your stay, be sure to read the details of any hotel description (either on their own website or on a booking site).
This is the Italian word for hotel, pronounced al|BER|go. The same goes for an albergo as for a hotel in Italy.
Hostels of decades past were strictly dorm-style bunks and only for young people. Most hostels around the world (including in Italy) have done away with age restrictions, and many not only have smaller rooms but also private rooms with en suite bath options. Sure, those private rooms in hostels cost more than a bed in a 10-person dorm, but they usually cost quite a bit less than a hotel room. Keep in mind that in Italy, they can be a bit fuzzy about terminology – some hostels are advertised using the word “hotel” or “guesthouse,” but if the prices are dirt cheap or they have any dorm-style rooms available, it’s most likely a hostel or a seriously budget hotel.
This is the Italian word for hostel, pronounced aw|STEL|oh. The same goes for an ostello as for a hostel in Italy.
The English translations for agriturismo– “farm holiday” being the most common – don’t quite capture the meaning, in my opinion. An agriturismo is typically like a bed and breakfast on what is often a working farm, but you’re not required to do any farm work as part of your stay. (Somehow, “farm holiday” suggests to me that you’re expected to milk a cow or something in exchange for your room.) In any case, the agriturismo is increasingly popular in Italy. The experience varies quite a bit based on what the farm has available, but can include outdoor activities or cooking classes. Most of the time, at least one meal per day is included in your stay, and sometimes more than one. These places are, by default, not in cities, so reaching them can be difficult (or impossible) without a car. Also note that sometimes you’ll find agriturismi (that’s the plural) mixed in with hostel listings, either because they’re more rustic or they’re relatively inexpensive.
Despite the fact that “bed and breakfast” translated into Italian would constitute completely different letters, you sometimes see “B&B” options in Italy. It means roughly the same thing, although since Italians are not generally a breakfast culture, they’re not exactly splashing out a big breakfast spread. You may find a fridge in your room stocked with fruit, yogurt, and the makings for coffee, and that’s the “breakfast” portion. You may book a B&B and then find it’s really just a budget hotel that provides a simple buffet breakfast.
If you’re staying in one place for more than a couple days, choosing a vacation rental can be a really great idea (especially if you’re with a family or other group). In Italy, you’ll find them advertised as vacation rentals, apartment rentals, and – sometimes – villa rentals. Unless you see photographs of some country estate worthy of the images of a “villa” you’re conjuring up in your head, however, don’t expect your vacation rental to come with butlers and a limo.
Convents and monasteries have a long history of serving as hostels for traveling pilgrims, and the tradition continues today – albeit slightly modified to include all manner of travelers. Not all convents and monasteries welcome tourists as guests, but those that do usually make for a very inexpensive bed. You may face a curfew after which the exterior doors are locked, separate sleeping quarters for men and women (regardless of marriage), and even sometimes required attendance at services. Check out the details before you book, but don’t rule out convents and monasteries as accommodation – if you’re not planning to be out all night anyway, or you’re traveling alone, they can be safe and quiet places to stay.
One more tip I’d like to add to Jessica’s list concerns Italian bathrooms. Many Americans have asked over the years about the purpose of the strings hanging from the sides of Italian hotel showers. I also get some questions about that extra thingy in the bathroom that looks like a cross between a toilet and a sink, the bidet. You can read all about these puzzling items on my blog: Tackling Italian bathroom mysteries.
Where to eat in Italy
Since there are so many incredibly good food establishments in Italy, this may seem like an obvious topic with obvious answers, but there are some Italian terms that can be baffling to the uninitiated. It took us a while to figure all of this out, but you can save some time and learn from our experiences.
First, though, an explanation of Italian meals: Formal lunches or dinners served on special occasions in Italy can include many courses, including the antipasto (pre-meal appetizers and drinks), the primo piatto (first course, which is usually a pasta dish or soup), the secondo piatto (second course, usually meat or fish) and then a contorno (vegetables) with insalata mista (mixed green salad). The dolce (dessert) can either be fresh fruit or a sweet pastry. Then comes the caffè, usually an Italian espresso, but you can request your favorite variety. Some restaurants also offer a sweet wine, grappa or limoncello to help digest your meal.
Having explained all this, a meal like the one above is the exception, not the rule. Feel free to order whatever you want from the menu. As a couple, we often order one plate for two people (dividiamo in due). That way we can sample many items without getting too stuffed to finish. Or we may just order a single antipasto to share and then each order a primo, or each order a primo and then split one secondo. It’s your meal, and you can do what you want.
On to the definitions:
Ristorante: Of course, this is the word for restaurant. Make an effort to pronounce it correctly: REES/tohr/ahnt/teh, not REST/tohr/ahnt/tee. You can expect full service, with someone to seat you, an experienced and polished waiter who knows the food and wine well. The menu will be printed with fixed prices for all the courses, and the variety will be wide.
Trattoria (Trah/tohr/EE/ah): Basically the same as a ristorante, but the different word indicates that it is family owned with a more casual or rustic environment that might be found in a small neighborhood. The menu may be smaller. However, now some trattorie (plural of trattoria) are essentially the same as ristoranti, so you may not notice any difference.
Osteria: These are wine bars that have lately evolved to serve simple but full meals. They may have no menu and offer few or no choices for each course. The offering changes daily, according to the market, and two or three courses are offered for a fixed price, including wine.
Bar or caffè (sometimes caffetteria): You probably think you know what these are because we also have them in America, but they’re not at all the same thing in Italy. They are places to get coffee and a pastry in the morning. Some also serve panini (sandwiches) at lunch. Others will also have wine and cocktails starting in the afternoons (happy hour), with potato chips or nuts on the counter.
Enoteca: The word literally means “wine repository,” but these have also evolved. Historically, an enoteca gave visitors the possibility to taste local wines at a reasonable fee and possibly to buy them. Snacks could also have been served, and in recent times the snacks have become more varied and plentiful, also showing off local specialties.
Rosticceria: If the place where you live has a kitchen, this is a great way to dine on authentic cuisine for an excellent price. Food here can be compared to “fast food” because it is ready to take away and eat, but it has been prepared with traditional slow methods. At a good rosticceria, the food is restaurant quality. Wine is often sold too, so you can save money and bring home a complete meal. Some rosticcerie go by the label tavola calda.
-eria or -ria: Some eating establishments are self-explanatory. A gelateria sells gelato. A pizzeria sells pizza. A birreria is a beer-focused bar. An ending can be added to almost any food to show the specialty of the establishment.
A few final words about paying at the end of your meal. Many establishments will not bring your bill until you ask for it. You can say, “Il conto, per favore.” Tips are not expected and are not normal practice. Many meals will include a cover charge (coperto) that includes bread and service (although some add separate coperto and servizio charges). If you want to show extra appreciation, you can leave one or two euros on the table, but again, it’s not usual.