I recently returned from a trip to Italy. Tuscany, to be exact. I am not a well-traveled person but when I do travel, I like to be somewhat immersed. Meaning, no tour buses, please, and a place to stay that allows for interactions in cities and towns. Although, tour buses do have their advantages… Everything must go so smoothly as you glide from one pre-determined location to another.
After a week back at home, I’ve decided to put together a collection of my thoughts and travel tips. Keep in mind that these are the result of one trip to Italy and no, I don’t speak Italian. So, authority? No way. But hopefully still interesting, especially if you’ve never been to Italy and are considering making a trip.
1. Do you watch the Amazing Race? Wonder why teammates start yelling at each other and trying to claw out each others’ eyes with spoons? It’s because of the flying. Yes, India is disorienting and hot. Yes, it’s frustrating when you can’t make bundles of sticks fast enough to pile onto your donkey that then must be led up a winding path to an ancient bonfire site. But what really wears the contestants down must be the flying.
All the sitting. Being told when to eat, when to drink, when to move freely about the cabin and when to run back to your seat to buckle up. The feeling of uselessness as you enter your fifth hour of watching sitcoms like Scrubs on the TV screens or reading a Tom Clancy novel. Being told when it’s “Night Time” and when to keep your window shade shut. It’s the guy in front of you who weighs 350 pounds and can’t keep his seat in the upright position to save his life. The mother/daughter duo down the row who cackle together and apply make-up before the flight takes off. All of this is tremendously wearing.
My only tips for weathering the flights are to get your own bottles of water before you board the plane – don’t rely on the small cups of water they dole out once an hour or so or your mouth will turn to dust and your lips will feel like Post-Its – an put your toothbrush and toothpaste in your carry-on bag so you can have access to them. Breathe. Bring along something to do that requires hours of time. Like, maybe the checkbook you haven’t balanced in over a year.
2. Do whatever you can to avoid flying into the Pisa airport. The Pisa airport is a hell hole. But, even more importantly, do not rent a car from a car rental company called Maggiore. I repeat, DO NOT RENT A CAR FROM MAGGIORE! This is my biggest (real) travel tip. If you’re American and you try to rent a car, you might get hooked up with an organization called Europe By Car, which may then lead you to Maggiore, which also seems to have some connection to Alamo. You don’t want to do business with these people. We are currently in a dispute with them over $1200 they charged to our credit card, without explanation, after we left their counter after returning the car. No explanation, no bill, nothing. We paid for the car rental before we arrived, so it’s not for the use of the car. There are plenty of other car rental companies available to you, should you be so inclined to drive in Italy (not for the weak). I believe I saw counters for Budget, Hertz, etc. etc. Go with them.
3. And now MORE reasons NOT TO RENT FROM MAGGIORE: their staff is completely unsympathetic to customer needs. They are doing YOU a favor by sitting behind the counter looking bored. Our rental agent colluded with a crooked cab driver who shook us down for more money than he was owed. The cab driver had to give us a ride back to the Pisa airport on the day we arrived after the first Maggiore car we rented broke down within an hour with a broken clutch (no apologies from Maggiore on that front). Then he had the nerve to show up on the day of our departure (one week later!) to say we never paid him for the cab ride (we absolutely did and, anyway, who has ever been allowed to exit a cab without paying and the cab driver drives away, as he insisted he did?).
The two of them worked us over and threatened to call the police. We ended up paying the cab driver again just to escape them – we were afraid to miss our flight and get stranded at the Pisa airport and then miss our connection in New York… plus we had no idea if we could find a police officer who spoke English. We didn’t have time to figure all that out.
The counter guy’s name was Alberto. I asked for his last name and he refused to give it to me. Alberto who works at the Maggiore desk at the car rental center at the Pisa airport is a crook and a liar.
4. Tuscany is absolutely beautiful. Everything everyone tells you about its beauty and old-world charm is true. And there are helpful Italians who will put up with hand gesturing, smiles, pointing and a few scattered words of Italian. There are Italians who will help you figure out how to buy train tickets from confusing machines and translate menus for you. But don’t expect it from everyone. Don’t expect it from about 90% of them.
Italians have perfected The Stone Face – the stony stare that seems impenetrable. You don’t know what’s going on in their heads until it’s too late and you’re dismissed. I’m not going to fault them for it. Americans get their ideas of what Italians are like from TV and movies. We think they are either going to run out of their kitchens, wiping flour from their hands before embracing us, or they are going to gun us down as we eat a plate of spaghetti. My tip is to expect an attitude that straddles indifference and hostility. Be ready. Be ready for them to hang up on you if you call them and can’t speak Italian to make a reservation to tour their winery. Expect to feel shabbily dressed even if you’re wearing some of your best clothing. It’s just the way it is. Roll with it and don’t take anything personally. Not even if an old man sitting on a stone wall yells at you as you drive by and you are fairly certain he is cursing you and your entire family. You are a nameless American and probably some other Americans ruined things for you long before you arrived.
5. If you go to Tuscany, make sure you go to a fattoria, or farm, where they produce wine and (hopefully) olive oil and will give you a tour. We had an excellent tasting at Fattoria di Fubbiano. A word on Tuscan olive oil: it is so delicious that just the smell of it on a plate brings our cat and dog running. Who knew?
6. Depending on where you stay in Tuscany (we rented a house in the village of Petrognano), it’s worth it to go see Cinque Terre (on the Italian Rivieria), La Spezia and Florence (obviously). In our experience, the city of Prato (near Florence) was something of a nightmare – very difficult to navigate and nothing that great to see although we did, at the end of our day, finally locate an outlet for Italian knitwear. One of our favorite cities was Lucca – definitely worth a day or two just to enjoy the ancient city walls, the shops, rent a bike, etc. If we were to return, I would want to stay there.
7. One of the things I enjoyed most was a trip to an Italian grocery store. It was a glimpse into everyday life and it was fascinating to me to see how they did things as compared to in the U.S. We rented a house so we had access to a kitchen and the grocery stores offered an inexpensive way to enjoy some Italian food. You can buy relatively fresh pasta and pesto, etc. In Lucca we found an Italian food shop that sold us amazing fresh ravioli and a chocolate torte that we took home for a feast.
This is not to say that restaurant food is disappointing. Obviously, everyone flocks to Italy to do some serious eating. I had two or three memorable dishes in restaurants – a bread and vegetable soup, a dish of penne and crab, a pesto dish made with a pancake-like pasta I’d never seen before.
8. Florence – we took the train to Florence, which worked well – you get out right in the city and start exploring. Honestly, spending the day walking around is amazing and the people-watching is excellent – even if you don’t visit any of the landmarks. My regret is that I didn’t get to climb to the top of the Duomo. We did go to the Uffizi Gallery but it left me underwhelmed, mostly because I don’t enjoy medieval painting or really any religious painting. There are some portraits and some paintings of Venus but really you’re looking at a lot of Madonna and Child. I mean, a lot. I enjoyed the busts and sculptures more. Everyone says you can’t go to Florence and not see the Uffizi but, if time and money are an issue for you, you have my permission to skip it. Interesting story: A friend of my husband’s got carbon monoxide poisoning from walking around Florence. I’m just saying.
9. When driving up or down a mountain or foothill using a one-lane road, do not be afraid to use your horn. If you do meet a car head-on and its too late to do anything, opt to crash into an olive grove and hope the trees break your fall.
10. Every American in Italy has their nose in a Rick Steve’s guidebook (btw, am I the only one who sees the joke in the title “Europe Through the Back Door??). That’s fine but don’t think Ricky provide the final word on where to go and where to eat. In Cinque Terre, we entered a restaurant with a little “Rick Steve’s Recommends” posting on the window only to have another American who was just finishing lunch there wave us off before the host could greet us. She shook her head to say, “Don’t waste your money; this place is no good.” Sometimes “on the fly” trumps “guidebook.”
11. Italians love cats and seem to tolerate dogs. Except in Florence, where dogs seem to enjoy a higher status than in the countryside, especially if they are tiny.
12. Don’t rent a car from Maggiore!!
He’s no Italian cat but he was pretty happy anyway!