||KRISTEN MARANO, Contributor
Italians know how to live. From the caramel-coloured swirl in a morning espresso to a fresh bowl of spaghetti topped with a basil leaf, food is taken seriously. Swimming in the azure Mediterranean Sea surrounded by mountains is a daily activity. Wearing skull earrings and colourful stilettos is typical style. They know how to live.
My father was born in Southern Italy and I’d never visited, until recently in early June. For two weeks a friend and I ate, drank, toured and shopped in Rome and Florence.
Author Kristen Marano in Italy.
When in Rome …
My first day in Rome I paid $7 for a double espresso. Later a local told me espressos are only one euro. Tip: Read your bills carefully, and check the prices on the menu; this especially applies to Naples and Rome. Otherwise, Rome is architecturally stunning. It’s a huge city with beautiful, historic buildings at every turn.
Be a tourist and take the hop-on-hop-off bus. Since Rome is large and busy, take the sightseeing bus as a fun and simple way to see the city in about two hours. The bus will take you to all the major sites from the Colosseum to the Spanish Steps and Pantheon. We also used the bus as transportation around the city.
Pay for tours in Italy, not online or in advance. While it might make you feel more organized or economical, you could be scammed if you book in advance. Find a private tour guide for two people or a group onsite and pay less.
We booked a tour of the Vatican with Viator, which promoted a guided tour with a group of no more than 25 people that would skip the line. We were charged an additional $20 for entrance fees onsite, the group was unorganized (with more than 25 people) and we started late. For no hassle, I recommend going early and waiting in line, or if you’re brave, sneak in with a guided tour — they use a separate line, and no one will notice.
Watching the sunset in Florence, complemented by live music, cheese, bread and wine.
Be a local and eat local. It might be hard to believe, but not all food is great in Italy. Meals can be top-notch if you wander the side streets, or they can be blah if you’re on the main streets. We asked the owner of our apartment and shop cashiers for local restaurant recommendations. Most restaurants charge cover, and tipping is not expected.
Rent an apartment. Popular sites like airbnb.com make it easy to find a nice place for a decent price. We rented an apartment tucked away from the Trevi Fountain — close to the tourist spots but down a small alleyway, making it feel like we were coming and going from our own house. The owner of our apartment also runs a bed and breakfast called Luca’s House.
Italians know how to design. Make sure you shop. They’re edgy, confident and fun with their fashion. From printed pop-culture jersey Ts to skull-accented purses and shoes and beautiful leather bags and belts, their look is desirable. Go to Via Del Corso, a main street in the centre of Rome, and take the side streets to shop well. Some shops provide a tax break; look for a sign or ask, and then submit the form at the airport before you go home. Here are stores in the Via Del Corso area you can’t miss: Kiko Makeup Milan, Klip and Hip Hop Jewels.
The rolling hills of Tuscany, following a local lunch at a Chianti vineyard in San Gimignano.
Getting around is easy. So is getting lost. The taxi meter starts at around three euros, or negotiate a flat rate. To act like we knew what we were doing, we’d ask someone at the train station or a store what the cost to our destination should be before we got in a taxi. Also, the metro only has two lines and is easy to use, clean and efficient. Rather than rent a scooter, try to get a ride on the back of one. Italian men are not shy so ladies, if you’re down, try it out.
Meet Rome’s little cousin, Florence
I like Florence more than Rome. Nearly three million people live in Rome, compared to 370,000 in Florence. A little more charm, a little more relaxed, Florence was like escaping the river and floating into a lake.
Take day tours. Unlike Rome, where you need about four or five days to see everything, Florence is a city you can enjoy in a few days, complemented with day trips. Cinque Terre (picture colourful homes built into the mountains), Tuscany (rolling hills, olive oil farms and wineries), Pisa (the Leaning Tower) and Sienna (famous for its annual horse race) are only a few hours away.
Looking for leather in Florence, doing all the checks: smelling, touching and peaking at the inside of the bag.
While I don’t recommend booking in advance in Rome, we visited Tuscany with Walkabout Tours, a company that’s been in business for about five years — and one a friend highly recommended. Our tour guide Barbara was friendly and enthusiastic, and we visited a family-run farm in San Gimignano for a tour of the olive oil and wine production, followed by lunch and wine tasting. The tour also included a walk through the streets of Sienna, with a last stop in Pisa. It was well worth the 90 euros.
Go the leather market. Florence is known for its leather, and there are two markets — small and large. Belts, bags, wallets and silk scarves hang from vendor stalls. Bring cash for better prices and be ready to bargain. Smell the leather, check the inside of a bag for clean lines, and rub the leather between your fingers to test its authenticity. Even if you don’t know how to spot good leather, do these things and look like you know what you’re doing. There are also several boutiques on the side streets with one-of-a-kind pieces.
Watch the sunset at the top of the city. And bring wine, cheese, bread, salami and olives. Get to the top just after 8 p.m. and find a spot on the steps. Take in the view, snap the perfect shot of pink and blue hues, and enjoy live music. Taxis and buses run from the top.
Take a paddleboat ride along the canal. This is not widely advertised, but available. When you see the beautiful reflection of buildings on the green water, you’ll want to be, well, on the water.
Stopping to take in the picturesque scenes of the waterways in Florence.
• Unlike Canada, tipping is not expected in Italy, much like the rest of Europe. This applies to restaurants and taxis. There are some exceptions — if you want to leave a tip for a tour guide, it’s welcomed.
• Locals eat lunch between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and stores are often closed during this time.
• Always ask for a menu and remember what your drinks and meals cost. Look at your bill carefully before paying and ensure you’re not being overcharged.
• Cover charges are common for tourists in restaurants and often range from one euro to 2.5 euros. There should never be additional service charges. Be watchful for this; restaurants will try to overcharge you where they can and know that not all tourists pay attention.
• Most people speak English, but try to speak Italian. The locals will appreciate it!
• If traveling in Naples or through Naples, be especially careful. Parts of Naples are poor, with fewer English-speaking residents. Don’t wear gold jewelry and keep your items close.
• Download Rick Steves and follow his recommendations.
Kristen’s curiosity about people, things and places makes her a born traveler. With food and fashion always on her mind, Kristen’s take on a good trip often involves doing as the locals do, from wandering side streets to checking out the local markets and discovering a city’s up-and-coming designers. Kristen is a Toronto-based writer who also contributes to TorontoStandard.com.
Date Added: August 30, 2012 | Comments (0)
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