Back From Italy Tips

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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:08 PM
  #1
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Back From Italy Tips

Part 1

In appreciation of all the people who have helped me make our just completed trip to Italy such a success, I?d like to offer these tips that I learned from my three weeks of travel. You won?t learn about favorite places, restaurants, etc. (unless you ask) since there are thousands of posts that cover those topics in much better detail than I. What I will try to give are practical tips that hopefully other will expand upon, refute, whatever. So here goes . . .

The setup: Two families; four adults, one 15 yr old boy, two 13 yr old girls, and one six yr old boy; eight total.

The itinerary: July 22-Aug 8; Flew from San Francisco, connected in Frankfurt, landed in Venice. From Venice rented two cars and drove to Gaiole in Chianti (Tuscany). Drove from Tuscany to La Spezia, dropped off the cars and took the train to Cinque Terra. From Cinque Terra got back on the train to La Spezia and took another train to Rome. Flew home from Rome.

Stopover in Frankfurt
Thought that I could pick up some Euros in the airport but there are no banks/ATMs in the secure ?waiting area/gates?. I could?ve gone out of the secure area to ATMs in other parts of the airport but would have to go back through security again. Nevermind.
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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:09 PM
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Part 2

Arriving in Venice

After getting our bags, I went to straight to the ATM (make a right out of Arrivals area) to pick up some Euros. To the left there is a large booth area and at the end there is a booth that has a lot of people waiting to buy tickets or get information about taking the water bus to Venice. Beyond that booth there is another booth that deals with water taxis. For the eight of us, the guy behind the booth says it?ll be 122 euros. He says (and I have no reason to doubt him) the water bus would be 80 euros (10 each). We?re tired and anxious so we take the water taxi. We pay at the booth. Now I know that this is not the procedure that others on this board have described, but this is what happened. The guy behind the booth gives us a receipt and tells us to follow this guy. We follow this guy to a very nice air-conditioned shuttle bus. This guy then proceeds to drive us to the dock area. Now I had thought that the dock area was directly connected to the main airport, but it definitely wasn?t. The teenager in our party had gone on a school trip to Venice the year before and remembers landing in the airport and walking across the street to the docks. All I know is that while we probably could?ve walked, it would?ve taken a lot longer and have been much more frustrating. We get to the dock area, and the driver tells us to go to this one taxi guy to present our receipt. This guy takes us to his boat and off we go. Now at the dock, all the taxis were there, and I suppose we could?ve made our way to the dock area and have negotiated directly with the driver. I don?t really know if we got ripped off or not. All I know was that it was easy, and the ride into Venice (directly to our hotel, the San Moise) was spectacular. Even though it was122 euros (not including tip), we thought it was worth it.
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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:09 PM
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Part 3

Hotel San Moise, Venice

Location is excellent! Rooms are very nice, clean with very modern wiring, fixtures and plumbing. Room 21: Double room, King bed, on the small side, faced courtyard. Had a ridiculously large 3? x 6? shower stall/room connecting to the bedroom itself. Room 12: Double room, 2 Twin beds, pretty small, faced street/wall. Room 25: Triple room, King/Queen bed with a separate couch that turned into another bed, large room faced street/wall. Best breakfast/buffet we had Italy: Scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, cereal, toast, etc.

Cell Phone

Since our party was so large, we were meeting up with other friends in Italy, etc. I decided to get a cell phone. In Venice I got the following from a place called Stereoauto, near San Marco square, 4275 Fuseri. Alcatel phone with service provided by Wind. Price for the phone was 79 euros. The phone is ?unlocked?, which means that if I wanted to use the phone in the UK or France, all I would have to is buy a chip to activate service in those respective countries. I also had to buy 30 euros worth of calls that came in the form of a phone card. All the card is a piece of plastic that has a serial number on it under one of those scratch off boxes. You scratch the box for the number and dial 4242, a recorded voice (make sure you enable the English language mode before you try this) prompts you through entering the serial number and voila, you have 30 euros worth of calls on you phone and a worthless piece of plastic. Well almost 30 euros anyway. To my irritation when you buy these cards (in denominations of 10, 20, 40, etc at any tobacco shop, newsstand, grocery store, etc.) there is an activation fee! So for a 10 euro Wind card you really only get 8 euros worth of calls because the activation fee is 2 euros!!! For a 20 euro Wind card the fee is 3 euros. What a scam! Anyway, after getting over my outrage I found the phone to be invaluable for making reservations, coordinating meetings with friends, calling the States, etc. FYI, a three minute call to the States costs about 1.5 euros worth of credits. Supposedly you can also get more credits by going to a Wind store (I never saw any) or over the internet (if you can read Italian).
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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:10 PM
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Part 4

Driving a Rental Car in Italy

For our week at a villa in Tuscany we rented two automatic drive cars. For some reason renting the cars fell through the planning cracks and by the time we got around to it there were no automatic drive cars to be found on the internet. Luckily, we had a travel agent (Andavo Travel of Marin, 415-945-6200) look for us and they found two cars through Europcar. Score one for Travel Agents ;-) From Venice we took a water taxi to the dock that connects Venice to the mainland. We got our luggage off the boat and then two of us went to look for the rental office while the others stayed behind with the luggage. To get to the Europcar rental office you walk through the parking lot away from the dock and cross the street towards a big building. Make a right and around the building you?ll find the Europcar rental office.

The only thing we needed to rent the car was our California drivers license. No passport or temporary European driver?s license.

Unlike the UK, I found driving in Italy very easy even with the fairly large cars we had. I had a Mercedes Benz station wagon. The small, two lane roads around Tuscany are incredibly well paved and though people drive fast, I found Italian drivers very skillful. On the Autostrada (which is basically a toll freeway) you can expect to go about 75-80 MPH in the fast lane and 65-75 in the slow lane. The one thing that caught me totally unprepared was the incredibly bad signage that exists in Italy. That is if you can find a sign to begin with.

1) When looking for an exit on the Autostrada (or anywhere else for that matter) don?t bother looking for the town which is your destination (unless its Florence, Rome, Bologna, etc.). Look for the first town in that direction! For instance if you are driving to Cortona and looking for the exit from the Autostrada, don?t look any signs that might have Cortona on it. Look for the first town off the Autostrada ON THE WAY to Cortona. AFTER you get off the Autostrada, THEN you?ll see a sign for Cortona . . . go figure. Our mistake was that we were always looking for the major towns and expecting signs for those towns.
2) Get maps! Maps of the larger towns/cities you will be visiting are essential! Where can we park our car? Where is the train station? We spent an hour trying to find the road back to our villa getting out of Siena at 10PM. All the Italians we ran into tried their hardest to give directions, and a couple of incredibly nice people even led the way in their cars to help us find our way! But a lot of hassle could have been avoided if we had map for them to point to or for us to look at. Sometimes maps are posted in the widows at gas stations. Sometimes the best maps are in the phone books. We kept the phone book from our villa in our car just in case. If you are really desperate for a map but can?t carry a phone book with you, take a digital photo of it and use the zoom/playback function on your camera for a crude map. Better yet, just download/print/buy a map before you go.
3) Don?t be afraid to go slow. One of the great things about a country that has very few rules when it comes to driving is that anything goes when you are lost or are trying to find the miniscule sign that points you in the right direction. Pull over on the roundabout, pull over to side almost anywhere within reason and drivers will just go around you.
4) One trick if you decide to park in the cities. Free spaces are marked with white paint, while pay or metered spaces are marked with blue paint. When we drove into Florence one day, the parking lot that Rick Steves recommended was full and luckily they had parking along the outer wall which ended up to be free for the day.
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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:11 PM
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Part 5

Stocking your Villa

If you are driving to the villa for the first time, be on the lookout for the COOP chain of supermarkets. Usually they are in the larger towns (in our case Montevarchi and Poggibonsi). We had the romantic notion of buying our groceries, toilet paper, wine, etc. from the local town, but unfortunately the smaller towns? didn?t have much in way of variety and were never open when we were ready to shop. COOP supermarkets exist in smaller towns also, but are also much smaller in size. We wanted to get all our shopping done at one time and so we did it at the huge COOP in Poggibonsi just off the Autostrada. There is also another large supermarket in Poggibonsi called Superga (I think??) that is on the roundabout on your way to San Gimignano. Also make sure to take advantage of the Outdoor Markets for fresh produce, fruits and meats and prepared foods. Here is a schedule for the markets that happen once a week in different towns:

Tuesday: Forence and Poggibonsi
Wednesday: Siena
Thursday: Montevaarchi and Montepulciano
Friday: Colle Val D?Elsa
Saturday: Castellina in Chianti
Sunday: Panzano

The reason to plan ahead is that for instance, our villa was 30-40 minutes away from either Montivarchi or Poggibonsi. Picking things up as we passed through Montivarchi would?ve been a lot easier than getting to our villa and then realizing that we needed groceries.
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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:11 PM
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Part 6

Trains

While the train system itself is outstanding, the information regarding the system is about the worst I have ever encountered in my travels. No printed train schedules except for posters at the train station. The train schedule doesn?t show which stations it will be stopping at. My suggestion is before you leave for Italy download the train schedule of the town(s) you will be using as train stations. In our case it was Montevarchi and we should?ve downloaded the Montevarchi-Florence schedule. A tip for parking at the Montevarchi station: there is a large free lot across the tracks, you?ll have to go past the station, drive under the tracks and then take a hard right at the roundabout to find the road that leads to the lot. From there the station is accessible via underground walkway.

We decided not to buy tickets or make seat reservations for the train from La Spezia to Rome. Big mistake. Although we were able to get a ticket without a difficulty, finding a seat was a huge problem. And this was in First Class! Luckily our party was able to find seats in different compartments (unfortunately, my wife and six year old were stuck in a smoking compartment with one of the passengers insisting on keeping the compartment door closed while smoking). Some even had to stand for the whole four hour trip!

Santa Chiara Hotel, Rome

Great location! Excellent, very spacious rooms, bathrooms with large bathtubs (the first bathtubs we?ve had in Italy). Room 224: Triple room, two twin beds that are pushed together to make a queen, alcove living room with a chair that turns in to a single bed, huge (really huge!) not-very-private terra cotta patio deck overlooking the courtyard. Room 222: Double room, two twin beds, facing courtyard. Room 324: exactly the same as 224 except for the patio.

Clothing

Okay, let?s get down to the nitty gritty. It was hot in Italy. 90 degrees and up. No way was I going to wear long pants if I didn?t have to. Here are the places that I got in with no problem wearing shorts: Siena Domo, Florence Domo, Vatican Museum. At St.Peters / Vatican the no shorts rule is strictly enforced. Capri style men?s pants are fine. Longer shorts that covered the knees seemed to be fine also.
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Aug 21st, 2003, 12:29 PM
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Thanks for the helpful report, Roboron! Lots of good tips. Sounds like you had a great time.
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Aug 21st, 2003, 02:13 PM
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Thanks Statia,

Except for the heat wave, we had a great time!

? R
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Aug 21st, 2003, 02:19 PM
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So glad you had such a good time... italy is truly a beautiful country and one of my favorite places to visit...

Very useful tips and it's soo good to hear you had such a good time bc traveling in a group like that can get stressful.

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