Italy is blessed with fabulous food, stunning scenery, a rich history and culture as well as friendly locals. But not everything in Italy is like in the movies (as I have discovered over the last three years in the country I now call home). Here are a few tips that I've learnt the hard way, so you don't have to...
1) When to go
Italy boasts a number of different climates, from the colder north with its snow capped mountains and lakes to the sandy beaches and sweltering heat of the south. This diversity means you can visit the country at any time of year, depending on what you’re after.
Many Italians do not travel abroad, preferring to holiday in their own country in large groups or extended families in a typically Italian (i.e. noisy) manner. So if you want to visit a popular holiday spot (like beaches or ski resorts) and are looking for some peace and quiet make sure you avoid these times. The month of August (in particular the middle two weeks around the Italian holiday of Ferragosto) is a definite no-no. Other busy periods are dictated by the school holidays.
An Italian beach after a busy day, source: Flickr/Andreas Lehner
2) Getting around
When foreigners think of Italy they visualise ultra chic locals zipping around on Vespa's shouting 'Ciao!' to anyone they pass. This stereotype may be partially true, but scooters don't get you very far, and trust me you don't want to end up on one on a motorway by accident (that was a journey I'll always remember).
For travelling longer distances Italy’s train system is comprehensive, reliable and value for money. Car hire is also easy, with large companies in all cities and major tourist spots. Four wheels let you reach places that are more off the beaten track but take care when sharing the road with Italian drivers. They are not known for their patience or ability to follow the rules of the road. Which leads me on to...
The level of trust in the state and public systems is low in Italy. This is perhaps unsurprising after years of corruption and ongoing economic challenges. In contrast family is everything to Italians. This means many systemic laws (like speed limits, parking, queuing, and paying certain taxes eg. the TV tax) are ignored, whereas rules set by the family (mostly related to food and holidays, or calling 'Mamma' several times a day) are adhered to as if under pain of death.
This can be baffling and infuriating for foreigners. I’ve learnt (after a few painful lessons) that to avoid stress you should try to follow 'most' of the rules, but try not to get too angry when others don’t.
Cinquecento and 'No Parking' sign in Rome, source: Flickr/Alan L
4) Opening hours
Travelling around Italy can feel like stepping back in time with shops closed on Sundays and lunchtimes. Most shops away from the tourist trail or city centres shut for lunch from around 1pm and reopen again at 3/4pm then stay open until around 7/8pm.
5) Learn some Italian
In the major tourist spots and large city centres you’ll be hard pushed to find a waiter who doesn't speak English. But the further off the beaten track you go the further the level of English will decline. It's a good idea to learn some conversational language before you go. Here are some basics that should get you through any eating experience in Italy…
Prendo (I'll have) tre birre, un caffè, una pizza etc.
Per favore, Grazie (please, thankyou)
Un tavolo per due (a table for two)
Il conto per favore (the bill please)
Most foreigner’s ideas of aperitivo come from the French aperitif which is a pre-dinner drink served on its own to stimulate the appetite. Aperitivo in Italy is a totally different affair...
If you buy a drink in most bars between the hours of 6-9pm you will be charged an ‘aperitivo price’ (a couple euros more than usual) and are then given licence to eat as much bar food as you like. This ranges from miserly nuts and crisps, to full-buffets packed with freshly prepared, local goodness.
Coffee in Rome, source: Flickr/Yann Gar
Nowhere does coffee like Italy. Making a good caffè here is an art in itself and the Italians know how to serve and consume it with style. The Italians are busy people and the surcharge imposed upon sitters means they drink small espressos standing up at the bar. Please note: order a caffè and you'll get a simple espresso; all other types of coffee need to be distinguished as such.
8) Cash is king
It’s a good idea to keep cash on you when in Italy. Small independently run cafes, restaurants and shops, of which there are many, often have minimum card expenditures.
Italy has years of mistrust in banking systems and merchants pay huge card bills. It may seem backward, but it’s better to just carry cash than to argue with a bar tender because he won’t let you put a €1 coffee on your travel money card.
Ristorante Osteria delle Erbe, Mantua, source: Flickr/alessandra elle
9) The waiter isn't being rude when he leaves you alone to eat
This phenomenon isn't unique to Italy, but it's worth mentioning because it catches so visitors many off-guard. Italian food rituals command that food (and people) take their time, so it's up to you to wave a cameriere (waiter) down and ask to order and also for the bill. The same relaxed attitude also applies to tipping for meals, which is rarely done in Italy.
Italian man, source: Flickr/Mario Mancuso
10) Just nod and smile
Italy is still a new country, (unification didn't occur until 1847) and for this reason many people identify themselves with their region first and their country second. With this heightened sense of local identity comes certain stereotypes. For example...the southerners see the northerners (in particular the Milanese) as cold and money-driven whereas those from the north see the southerners as hot blooded lazy, tax-evading outlaws.
Like all stereotypes these views can be debated. As a foreigner its best to avoid making any generalisations. Instead let the locals do all the talking and nod politely where appropriate. Italians love nothing more than a good rant, so if you show interest and a willingness to listen you’ll be their friend forever.