Monday, December 09, 2019

Italian vacation – some salient features of Italy

From the industrial Milan down to the eternal city of Rome, onward to the birth place of Renaissance Florence and then to the island city of Venice. The above sentence sums up our Italy trip this Thanksgiving. While a travel log is in process, I figured I will highlight some of the key takeaways from the trip related to culture and general stuff about Italy.
  • Download the App “Rick Steve's Audio Europe”, it has detailed talks and explanations of a lot of locations in Italy. Listening to the audio before and during the visit to a location helped us immensely with understanding Italy better
  • Lots of public bathrooms but no free bathrooms, usage costs varies from Euro 0.80 to Euro 1.50. Another interesting thing is that there are no urinals per se in the men’s restrooms and only sit down toilets. All the rest rooms were pristine and well maintained. As a tour guide pointed out, you are better off buying a Gelato or a coffee and using the rest-room rather than paying the fee for rest room usage.  
  • Restaurants charge a cover-charge for getting you seated. typically about Euro 2.00 per person. While on the topic of restaurants, unlike USA, there is no free water and they sell water in bottles. Come to think of it, I couldn't understand the fascination of Italians about carbonated water aka sparkling water.
  • If your hotel provides breakfast either included or at a charge (typically euro 3,00-5,00 per person) blindly take it. Keep in mind, kids eat free in most hotels.   
  • One of the great things about Italy is the coffee and cafe's. Cappuccino at an Italian cafe beats the Starbucks coffee any day any time. Here also, if possible just order coffee for drinking at the cafe instead of to go. Unlike America the to-go coffee (if available) costs about 2x the price of in cafe drinking
  • We mostly used public transport in Rome and very little to nothing in Florence. If you are in Rome for 2-3 days and you don't intend to visit all museums I still recommend the Roma Pass. 
  • The high speed trains are amazing and they run on-time, the train platform numbers are assigned 15 minutes before scheduled time. If your budget allows I recommend upgrading to slightly higher level tickets instead of barebones cheapest ticket (just a personal choice).      
  • We climbed up 3 domes while in Italy and it was all well worth it. It is a tough climb but worth the time. 
  • Vatican museums, if you can afford take a guided tour, it is expensive but in our experience we appreciated the museum exhibits and Michael Angelo's work at Sistine Chapel much better thanks to our tour guide. The guide was so good that she managed to keep our 9 year old also engaged throughout the tour 
  • All 3 cities had a flavor of its own, Rome had the big city and the things that comes with big cities. Florence had the small town feel and Venice was Venice.  
  • Again, unlike USA, the default way Pizzas are given uncut and many a times we had to request the restaurant to get it cut. Also, there is no thin and original crusts in Italy, most everything we saw were thin crusts and very few thick or regular crusts
  • There are 2 transport buses from Venice island to Marco-Polo airport, one is ACTV and other is ATVO. ACTV is the company that operates vaporetto (the grand canal public boat) and ATVO only transports to airport. Tickets to ATVO bus can either be bought online or from driver. Both services cost $8 but I recommend using ATVO for it is a non stop bus to airport and only 20 minutes ride.
  • For rest of Italy, kids under 10 have free bus rides and train rides but for Venice where the age drops to 6      
  • Bread in Florence is baked with no salt, the reason being a historic fight more than a few centuries ago with neighboring port city of Pisa, when city of Pisa refused to sell salt to Florence and from then on restaurants in Florence are baking bread without salt. 
  • The only place we encountered where Google Maps were almost useless was Venice, they work in terms of showing the locations but don't trust their driving/walking directions fully. They apparently have come a long way but feel they still have a long way to go. 
  • Read this in Frommer's guide to Italy, apparently you can be fined for buying contraband leather goods. 
  • Talking of leather goods, we found Venice to be a better place to shop for leather than the capital of leather Florence. 
  • Subway system in Rome runs on time, smoothly and granted bit crowded to my desire but it works. I can't say the same for bus system in Rome. Rule of thumb, if a place you intend to visit is 15-20min walk, just take the walk and don't wait on the buses. 
  • Uffizi gallery in Florence is one of the few museums we visited. Recommend to buy tickets at least a day or so in advance that way you can schedule a time to get into the museum. 
  • Talking og Uffizi, they have some strange rules. They will not allow you to carry back packs into the museum and have to be stored in the museum storage area. Next one if you rent audio guides they want to keep your passport as collateral. They check tickets both going in and coming out. So, don't throw your tickets once you are inside the museum.  
  • Don't know if it is specific to Florence or for Italy in general, the milk we bought in the grocery store had an expiry date 2 days from the selling date and there were no gallon sized but liter size. 
  • Breakfast cereals unlike our local HEBs there were only 3 choices or may be 4 :) 
  • I cannot end this without mentioning a word about Gondola's; its not worth the money :)