Kacey and I just returned from our 5 year wedding anniversary trip to Italy (how has it been 5 years already?!?!) and instead of just a recap or picture post, I thought I'd share some practical knowledge I picked up. Some of these may be obvious, but others would have been reeeeeeally helpful to know beforehand. So maybe some of these tips can help others who are planning a trip.
1. Getting to Europe is not as expensive as you think.
The last time I was in Europe was 2007, and even though I've been wanting to go back for years, the steep plane ticket prices made it impractical for us to visit. Tickets for 2 people can easily get into the $1500-2000 range and that just wasn't happening. But then I discovered secretflying.com which gathers inexpensive flights to and from all over the world on their site and links you to the deals. Looking at their site quickly, they currently have deals from Los Angeles to Paris for $400 round trip, Minneapolis to Copenhagen for $444 round trip, and Miami to Belize for $177 round trip. I don't even remember how I found this site, but I started following it on facebook a while back and a deal to Italy popped up. There were a few frantic phone calls to see if we could get off work and we booked it! I'm sure there are other site like that, so if you have patience and a little flexibility with your travel dates, you can take advantage of cheap flight deals.
2. Locals are extremely kind, even if you don't know much Italian.
Since we were exploring Italy ourselves without a tour group, we were really worried about not speaking Italian. We studied up on what we could through apps and podcasts but we barely knew the basics. Turns out most Italians in the larger cities know some English, and those that don't appreciate that you're trying, even if you're just sheepishly smiling at each other as you mime and charade your way through. When we were in Barolo, almost no one spoke any English, but they were some of the nicest people, always trying to help us and make sure we were ok. To be fair, Kacey was way better at picking up the language that I was. Also, Google Translate is the best thing ever. Use it often.
3. That being said, people aren't as smiley or friendly to strangers on the street.
This one didn't really bother me, but it gave Kacey a hard time. Unlike in America, where everyone smiles or nods at practically everyone they pass, Italians just ignore you. Even shop owners or waiters will speak to you in very transactional tones and wording, and there's not a lot of small talk. As an introvert, I personally love this and felt right at home, but Kacey is a friendly extrovert and was convinced that he was offending everyone until we did some research and found out that it was normal. (So....when can I move there?!)
4. You have to ask for the check at restaurants (or go pay at the register).
We really wish we knew this beforehand. Our very first night we went out to eat in Florence, exhausted, jet lagged, and ready for wine and then bed, I think we sat for about 30 minutes after they cleared our plates wondering where the check was. The waiter had come to check on us multiple times, but never brought the check, and we were so confused and annoyed. Finally Kacey had the sense to ask for the check, or we would have been sitting there all night. Turns out it's considered extremely rude for the staff to bring you the check if you haven't asked for it. Unlike America, the waitstaff doesn't work for tips so there's no rush to turn the tables. Bringing you the check would be like telling you they want you to leave. And considering the next point, that would be horribly rude. So if you're ready to leave, just as for the check ("il conto") or in more casual restaurants, you can just go up to the register and pay, they'll know which table you were at and what your bill is. However, we could not for the life of us figure out which restaurants you paid at the table and which you paid at the register, so we just started asking our waiters where to pay the check, they would bring it out to us if needed.
5. Dinners take forever.
Going along with the previous point, dinners usually take 2-3 hours. Every dinner. With the slower service, multiple courses, and relaxed atmosphere, Italians are in no hurry to finish their meals. I believe our longest was 3 hours, and the waitstaff disappeared for a good 20 minutes after we had finished eating but before coffee so there was no way to hurry it up. That was a bit long, but apart from that one time, we really enjoyed the longer, slower dinners. Since the food comes in several courses it gave us time to wind down from the day, relax, and take it slow. And while sometimes we just wanted a quick pizza that we could eat in 20 minutes, overall this was something we quickly got used to and enjoyed.
6. The Slow Food and Slow Travel Movement are awesome for a reason.
No surprise, since the Slow Food Movement was started in Italy as an alternative to fast food by trying to preserve the small scale traditional and regional cuisines of local areas along with their history, preparation, and production. We tried to eat local, regional cuisine as much as possible and all of it was incredible. It's definitely something I want to look into back in the U.S. Similarly, the Slow Travel Movement focuses on staying in one place longer instead of the hectic tours to pack as much in as you can. We didn't slow travel on this trip, and while I'm glad we got to see so much of Italy, we're already making plans that the next trip we take (wherever it may be) will be one area only so we can really relax and explore that area better. The last thing you want is the feeling of needing a vacation after a vacation.
7. Slow down and enjoy doing nothing.
The Italians have perfected "La Dolce Far Niente" or the sweetness of doing nothing. This is something I definitely need to work on, as my default setting is go, go, go! I tend to always be doing something or want to be doing something. The art of just sitting and relaxing, maybe having a coffee or a glass of wine and just enjoying the day or the sunset is something I want to incorporate into my normal life. It's much easier to do that on vacation, but I think cutting out all the noise and just being for a few minutes would do a lot of us some good.
8. Rethink your food choices.
We could not get over how inexpensive the food and wine was in Italy. Good, fresh, healthy food was ridiculously cheap. We marveled that even the breakfast paninis were freshly made and under two Euros when a processed fast food McDonalds breakfast sandwich is somewhere around $5. And you better believe we stuffed our faces with those paninis. (So. Many. Delicious. Paninis.) Even the pastas were different than their American counterparts. Instead of really heavy cream sauces, the true Italian dishes were fresh, vegetable based sauces that were almost more of a glaze than a true sauce. You could almost taste the gardens that the tomatoes came from. The food was just incredible in general and even though we already enjoy cooking, it once again makes me rethink what exactly I'm putting in my body, because even my home cooked food doesn't taste as fresh as theirs.
9. Wander off the beaten path.
The best part of our entire trip was our few days in Barolo in Piedmont. Piedmont isn't really a hotspot for American tourists. It's more difficult to get to, not a lot of people speak English, and it's honestly a bit of a hassle trying to get there involving train rides and rental cars and then an hour or more diving to the tiny town through crazy hills. We debated skipping that part and staying longer in Tuscany, but Kacey was insistent on seeing that part of the country even though it was a headache to get to. But oh was it worth it! It's like stepping into a fairy tale with rolling green hills full of vineyards with 13th and 14th century tiny towns and hamlets dotting the hills and the Alps in the background. It was truly one of the most magical places I've ever seen. And the wine....oh the incredible wine. This is the region of the Barberas, Barolos, and Moscatos. We stayed at a B&B in a tiny town where we were some of the only English speaking tourists. It was a pain to get to, but it was our absolute favorite place.
Later, our last night in Italy we stayed in an airB&B in Venice which was off the main tourist area by a few blocks. We happened to find a little road nearby that faced the west and watched an incredible sunset over what is considered a very romantic city in Europe. The rest of Venice was so crowded you could barely move let alone see most of the tourist attractions, yet surprisingly only about 10 other people were on this dock with us. We spend a lovely 15 minutes watching this amazing natural site while the rest of the tourists bumped and pushed each other to see the next big thing. Not that there's anything wrong with seeing historical sites - they're famous or important for a reason - but getting away from the tourists and following the locals or your curiosity can lead you to even better experiences.
10. Travel more.
There's not much to say about this. Being in Italy, in a country I didn't know, surrounded by a language I didn't know was exhilarating. It made me remember how much I love exploring, seeing new places, meting new people, and learning new things. With our plans for the next few years it seems very unlikely that we'll have the time or finances to leave the country again to travel, but this trip has made me determined to explore more of my own backyard and see more of the southwest. So stay tuned!
Welcome! I'm Sarah and this is my blog about exploring and adventuring while living in the southwest. You'll find a bit of food, DIY, travel, and geekery in these pages. Glad you're here, stay a bit and say hello!