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Italy Trip Report Part 1 of 7: Preparation

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Apr 13th, 2008, 06:20 PM
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Italy Trip Report Part 1 of 7: Preparation

Introduction
We were four couples in our 60s from Boulder, CO on a North Tuscany package sold by Untours. The package included transatlantic air plus 2 weeks rental car and accommodation in an agriturismo in Calci, outside of Pisa, plus the services of a local resource person. We began our trip with our own three nights in Venice, one night in Bolzano in the Dolomites, and one night in Bellagio in the Lake District. After the Untours program, we and one of the other couples spent a night on our own in Florence.

My husband and I have visited many stately homes and churches and museums in our time, so by now we are more interested in getting a general feel for a place by walking the streets and looking in the shops and watching the local world go by. No one in our group would describe themselves as ‘foodies’, so we would usually prepare a communal meal in our apartment rather than search out a fine restaurant. Cheaper that way, too! But we did make a point of trying a new gelato flavor at least once each day.

GENERAL TRIP PREPARATION:
If you’re in a group traveling together for the first time, have an honest talk about your living and traveling styles. Learn who will object to traveling on autostradas, who gets seasick on winding country roads, who will always want to stop to take pictures, who needs to stop frequently to eat or find a restroom, who loves looking in all the interesting shops, etc., and sort yourselves out accordingly.

Maps
Invest in a large map that shows every country road as well as the major ones. We had a Freytag map of the entire country to guide us from Venice through the Dolomites to the Lake Como area to Pisa. About a month before departure, our tour company sent us a Michelin map of Tuscany and Umbria. This map was more useful than the Freytag because it indicated scenic routes. None of us had a GPS but that would probably be very helpful.

Language
No matter what people tell you, it’s not true that “everybody speaks English”, especially those over 40 and those outside of the major tourist centers who don’t work in tourism-related jobs. So besides learning courtesy phrases, also try to learn “I’m looking for …”; “May I use the toilet”; “Where is …” plus directional words: left, right, up, down, next to, across from, traffic light, go straight for 2 kilometers, etc. Before your trip, look in used bookstores or at your library for language tapes and CDs, especially to play in your car while going about your normal life. This will train your ear to the local lingo and help you understand people’s answers. And when getting directions in the local language, you can slow them down by repeating phrases: “ah, a semaforo, vada a sinistra”, giving you time to comprehend it and write it down.

Italian Etiquette
--As in much of Europe, Italians treat each other more formally than Americans do. When you enter a shop or restaurant, say “buon giorno” and address people as “signore”, “signora”, “signorina”. Learn a few courtesy phrases, such as “scusi” (excuse me); “grazie” (thank you); “parle inglese?” (do you speak English?)
--When you’re part of the tourist crush on the street, spare a thought for the people who have to live and work there. For example, keep to the right on the sidewalk and let the natives pass you by while you gawk at the sites. In Venice, don’t take up more space than necessary on its narrow bridges.
--Americans move through the world more loudly than other people: your voices will tend to echo off the cobblestones and buildings on the narrow byways. (Not to mention in restaurants).
--While you will see people picnicking, it is frowned upon, especially in Venice. Do it discreetly and decorously.
--But do not do it in any manner in St Mark’s square; you could be fined.
--This consideration is especially important on the ferry boats and vaporetti, all of which are very crowded. Don’t worry too much about getting through the crowds in order to get off at your stop; once your boat has moved off from the preceding stop, head for the exit, uttering a firm “permesso” when you need to pass someone.
--Dress decently to enter churches or monuments: covered from collar to knees. Women can cover bare shoulders with scarves.

Driving
“Just go with the flow and realize it’s Italy where life is slower paced – except when you’re on the road.”

Google driving directions often just got us lost because they focus on street names and highway numbers, while the Italian road system focuses on towns located along that road. At the numerous traffic circles you never see street names (even major ones) and often don’t see road numbers. And if you can’t immediately find the name of the town on your map, you won’t know which turn to take.

--Driving and navigating are each full time jobs!
--If you’re in a traffic circle but aren’t sure which exit to take, keep driving around the circle until your navigator makes a decision. It’s far better to do this than take the wrong exit. We discovered what seemed like an immutable rule of the universe: when you make a wrong turn in Italy the road immediately narrows and has no exit for miles and miles.
--Request a diesel car, to save money on fuel.
--Don’t run too low on fuel; many stations close during the extended lunch ‘hour’, and/or on Sundays.
--Be careful when refueling—the color coding is different than in the US. Putting the wrong fuel in the tank can be catastrophic.
--The autostradas are fast and well-maintained roads. Stay out of the left lane unless you’re in the immediate act of passing another car. When other drivers are passing you, they will come up very close behind you and then cut back in much more closely than Americans are generally accustomed to. Another caution: the autostradas have very high guardrails which, at these speeds and when you’re tired, can induce a slightly hypnotic kind of tunnel vision.

You have to develop quick eyes when navigating Italian roads. Towns are shown on blue signs; white seems to be for important municipal locations such as police, and brown signs are for commercial establishments.

Useful things to pack (especially when staying in self-catering place)
--plastic clips to close bags of food
--music or audiobook CD for driving (we never found a decent radio station)
--small flashlight
--zip top bags of all sizes
--disposable/collapsible food storage boxes (besides food storage, they can hold either fragile items or leaky items in your suitcase)
--purse- or pocket-sized notebook
--nightlight and converter and adaptor plug (I carefully packed a nightlight, completely forgetting about the electrical differences)
--sunblock (it’s expensive and not easy to find outside of ski and beach locations)
--highlighter pen for marking maps, maybe a dry erase pen for marking laminated maps
--Sharpie pen for marking your initials on water bottles, if traveling with others
--packing tape and bubble wrap for getting your purchases home safely
--mosquito repellant pads if staying in Venice
--a cell phone that will work in your country
--small lightweight plastic coffee cup for take out coffee while driving (Roadside bars in Italy offer alcoholic drinks but not coffee-to-go. While you need
both hands on the wheel to drive safely there, passengers might want to be able to transfer a coffee drink at the roadside bar into something to take into the car. Some gas stations have coffee dispensing machines.)
--GPS: Avis in Venice did not have these. Knowing where to turn, or which turn to take, was a constant difficulty.

cdaslick is offline  
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Apr 13th, 2008, 06:50 PM
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cdaslick-

Wonderful report so far! Thank you so much for the details, as they will benefit a first-time abroad traveler like myself.
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Apr 13th, 2008, 07:04 PM
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It is a very nice report, unfortunately many won't bother reading all the parts. You have posted all 7 parts of your trip report as separate threads. That usually turns out to be a big pain since folks have to keep hunting for the other bits. Sure - they can click on your name - but why make everyone go through that extra work when it is totally unnecessary. (just because you posted them one after the other - they won't stay in the same order)

It is much better to post each installment as additions to the original thread . . . .
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Apr 13th, 2008, 07:36 PM
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Thanks cdaslick for a great post. DH and I will be driving for the first time in Italy this summer and your specific advice will be very helpful.

Also good to know the etiquette tips, as having been to Italy 3 times previously I've seen how important it is to them to follow their customs...but haven't always known in advance just what those customs were!

I'll be looking forward to part 2..
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Apr 13th, 2008, 07:43 PM
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cybertraveler: "I'll be looking forward to part 2.." Part 2 - and all five other parts - have already been posted . . . . . .
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Apr 13th, 2008, 11:36 PM
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Thanks for helpful tips , a great help and I look forward to reading more!
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Apr 15th, 2008, 11:33 AM
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Thanks cdaslick for sharing with us your trip report. It is especially helpful when you discuss the Italian Etiquette in the report. Oh, and bring mosquitoe repellent pads to Venice! Many thanks.
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Apr 18th, 2008, 09:31 AM
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great tips! thank you!
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Apr 18th, 2008, 04:17 PM
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To find all the parts of this great report, just click on cdaslick at the top of this thread.
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Apr 20th, 2008, 03:52 AM
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cdaslick,
Interesting report, what was the name of the agriturismo you stayed at in? And what did you make of the actual village of Calci, does it have a few cafes/bars & shops? The reason for my interest is because we are also staying at an agriturismo in Calci at the beginning of June.
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Apr 20th, 2008, 06:15 AM
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Great practical advice, thanks.
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Apr 21st, 2008, 10:12 AM
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Thank you for all the detail!
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