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Trip Report Two Busy Weeks in the Veneto: lessons learned

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Those of you who have read my earlier trip reports know that I usually go into lots of detail about where we went and what we ate and how we did it. This report is not like that because we usually go to experience an area or a way of life. This trip was organized around doing certain things and seeing certain things.
Generous friends rented a genuine Palladian villa, the Villa Saraceno, designed and built beginning in the 1540's, and invited a dozen of their architecturally interested friends to stay for a week and visit other villas and sites of artistic interest in the Veneto. We arrived after several days in Firenze and Verona, toured heavily, and departed to Ravenna before catching a train to Rome.
I may write later about our artistic and architectural encounters, but in addition to staying in the Villa Saraceno itself, we were deeply moved by the mosaics in Ravenna, by the Giotto paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, by the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona (already one of our favorite towns), and by seeing the paintings at the Uffizi. But, it was the best of trips and the worst of trips: read on!

Italy 2011 Lessons Learned

1. I would not in season again. It is too hot and too crowded. All our previous trips to Italy were mid-October or later. Our flight from Boston to Rome was made miserable by a group of elderly American tourists on a tour, who stayed up and partied all night while college kids tried to sleep. In several million miles of business travel, I have never had anyone fall in my lap. It happened twice that night. (Note: "elderly" means mostly older than I am. I am 66, and implies "old enough to know better"). Firenze was packed, and acquaintances told us the Vatican was almost immobile. Everyone who deals with tourists is exhausted and justifiably crabby by this time of year.

2. I hate to say it since i am among the more formal dressers, but don't worry about clothes much. Almost all the Italians you see will be tourists themselves. The others will be working and dressed pretty much the same way people in similar jobs at home would be dressed, except Italian men's suits are skinnier and Italian women can ride bicycles in tiny skirts and five inch heels in perfect modesty and apparent safety. If you see a woman doing that, she is 99% sure to be Italian, especially if she is of a certain age and drop-dead gorgeous in a thin, put together way. But you dont have to do likewise.

3. Driving is a nightmare but not for the reasons I expected. Traffic is not terrible but signage is, and it is often difficult to get into and out of towns and cities. You often see six signs leading to a town or historic site, which then disappear when you need them most. Just like Boston. Through streets are often not marked at all, while cross streets are meticulously identified. Again, just like Boston. If you don't know what street you are on, you shouldn't be driving. And I managed to drive through a restricted zone, so I expect the ticket in a year or so. Numbering may be odd. Firenze's streets have been renumbered three times without being rationalized, so 24 may be next to 76. In general, blue numbers are residential and R numbers are not. Both cities and country roads have many bicyclists, not only the racers in stretch suits but grandma on the way to market. They bear watching. Every couple in our group had at least one fight over driving or navigating.

Autostradi are well-marked but often only four lanes, so they seem crowded, and many other highways are only two lanes. Locals are adept at passing quickly in situations that now seem foolish to Americans, though we once did that in the US as well. Tolls are payable in cash, by credit card and by the Italian equivalent of EZ Pass, not usually in the same lane.

Parking may be hard to find, except between 1 and 3, when most of the stores are closed. There are many ways to pay for parking and a number of ways to park for free -- but you have to do it right. One lot photographed our license plate on entry, and we had to enter the license number at the payment machine to find out what to pay before leaving. In other places, you use ticket machines, in some, the little clock dial on your windshield allows a small amount of free parking.

4. Italian trains are not to my mind all they are cracked up to be. Platforms are not level with car floors as they are in the UK and on the RER, so you have to lift everything up at least three steps, the first of which is often a humdinger and not at all easy for the elderly or short. If you can't lift your suitcase onto the train or into the overhead rack, don't expect anyone to do it for you, though some stations have people who roam the trains lifting bags for tips. They are not railroad employees, they are not legal, and they are not there when you need to get off. Because station stops are short, this is often stressful as well as physically taxing. The trains are fast and efficient but often use tunnels to get through the most scenic areas. If you take a local train that has first class cars, go first class. We were on trains which were standing room only in second class. Many really local trains are only second class but not likely to be crowded. The "Leonardo Express" from Fiumicino to Roma Termini is dirty, expensive, and lets you out f-a-a-r from the rest of the station.

5. Despite what you may have read on this forum, some of it written by me, portions in Italian restaurants are generally vast, except, oddly enough, for pasta, where serving are sometimes much smaller than in US restaurants. No one minds you splitting but you can't take the leftovers with you.

There is no pressure except at real tourist traps to eat a full three courses plus dessert, but you wouldn't be inconsiderate enough to go into an expensive restaurant and occupy a table just to eat a plate of pasta and drink a glass of sparkling water. Osterias, trattorias, and restaurants serve reasonably priced courses of good food, often local specialties like donkey sugo and horse steaks in Verona! These kinds of places will not open for dinner before 7:30 or stay open for lunch after 2. If you need to eat earlier or later, you will wind up at a cafe, preferably outdoors on a nice piazza, and will have a bewildering variety of sandwiches, substantial salads, a few hot dishes, and often pizza to choose from.

Pizza is far more available in northern Italy than 20 years ago, and we found it delicious, but then we like thin-crust pizza. If you want Chicago style or double stuffed or quadruple meat, you are in trouble. I would avoid like the plague the pizza you see in takeout windows, ready for the microwave.

6. Drink. The water in Firenze is safe but nasty tasting. The water in Verona is delicious. Everything else is in between. It was hot, and we drank a ton of bottled water, some from the supermarket at 50 eurocents a half liter, some from vendors at a euro a half liter, and some at restaurants and cafes at a wild variety of markups, some of the fancier places having the lowest markup. Naturally, you pay for a view.

Wine in restaurants is cheap by my standards, with lots of bottles in the 18-21 euro range. I didn't know a lot of these wines, but our waiters gave unfailingly good advice. My wife and I had cocktails one evening at a spiffy sidewalk cafe for E14, and they came with a nice little plate of assorted snacks. Draft beer is not so cheap and comes in 40cl glasses, which isn't enough if you are used to a pint, even a US pint. Moreover, most of it is fizzy and blonde, and I prefer ales, so I didn't drink much beer.

7. Elimination. We encountered everything from the most glamorous and high tech modern toilets through seatless toilets to squat floorplate toilets. Toilet facilities are generally more separate than in France. Men and women may all wash and use the mirrors in the same place, but on this trip we did not see men and women use side-by-side stalls, nor were urinals in view of common areas as they often are in France.

8. In a town the size of Verona or Vicenza and even in a larger city like Firenze, everything commercial pretty much closes from 1 to 4ish, including some of the historic or artistic sites you want to see. Some of the itineraries people post here very much fail to take that into account. In our part of Italy, most grocery stores except Big Boxes were closed on Wednesday afternoon, and even the Big Boxes were closed on Sundays. Other big retail establishments seemed to close early on Saturdays, and butchers had shut down by noon most days. Luxury shops in town centers seemed to reopen from 4-7, even on Sundays. Markets in most towns were more like WalMart on Wheels than, say, the market in Aix en Provence or even the markets in Tuscany. No one we saw in the Veneto was serving porchetta from a truck, and we looked hard!

9. The small cities of the Veneto are usually charming, once you get into their centers. The surrounding urban sprawl is like Route 9 in Framingham, MA or whatever the road is that passes Paramus Mall in NJ. The countryside is heavily industrialized with small factories set among working farms, sensible industrial policy since it brings jobs to people rather than making them travel, but it is often ugly. A lot of the land is planted in tobacco, and you smell both lots of industrial fertilizers and lots of freshly spread manure. If you have been to the Mississippi or Arkansas delta, the Plain of the Po will look very familiar to you. There are lots of solar farms but apparently no hybrid cars -- no Priuses or anything like them. By the way, American farm equipment, especially John Deere is very popular, and I wish I had brought some "gimme caps" to hand out. There is nothing charming about the rural Veneto, but it is home to some of the greatest art and architecture in the world so the cost benefit ratio of going there remains high despite the frustrations and annoyances.

10. Prepare mentally for what you will do if you get sick. I became ill on day 12 and spent the last two days of the trip in a hotel room in Fiumicino, where my wife joined me in my upper respiratory problems, both of us too sick to go to Ostia Antica as we planned, much less Rome itself. Fortunately the hotel was comfortable and had good air conditioning to cope with the 90 degree heat, not the case everywhere we stayed.

I will be happy to answer questions and may add more as I recover from jet lag.

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