5 Rules You Should Always Break When Traveling in Italy

5. Never Drive in Italy

Contrary to popular opinion, driving in Italy is not an extreme sport. Italy has an excellent network of motorways and if you are comfortable driving in the States, exercise common sense and be aware of your limitations based on language skills and itinerary you should be fine. Like all road trips you need to be flexible and have a sense of adventure. Expect to get lost even with a good GPS (mandatory). If you want to get off the tourist flow, travel like an Italian and see the country from the ground up, consider driving. Just remember do not park in a space marked Divieto di Sosta (No Parking) and follow a few helpful tips that I have learned driving in Italy.     ciao

4. Don’t Bother Visiting Milan

At first glance Milan can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have the historical familiarity of Rome, the Renaissance art of Florence or the landscape setting of the Tuscan hill towns and for this reason many tourists tend to avoid spending time there. But that would be a pity because Milan has a style all its own, a style worth taking the time to see and get to know. Here is a list of must do’s for first time travelers to Milan. Sights and sounds they need to take the time to see and savor. I call it the M-List.

3. If You’ve Seen One Church in Italy You’ve Seen Them All

Each church in Italy is a time capsule of the art and history. Hidden meanings and messages that reveal themselves to those who take the time to explore them. Not only the great churches in the guidebooks but the small churches and chapels in the towns and villages contain works of art that are the envy of the greatest museums in the world. Each church has a architectural backstory and a sacred personality.

2. You Don’t Need to Know Italian

Of course, many Italians do speak English but if you will be traveling to little known places in Italy, outside of the tourist “comfort zone” you will need to understand and speak some Italian. That way you can experience all that Italy has to offer. Take some time before your travels to learn some basic Italian including verb conjugations. Phrase book Italian is confining and is a little like speaking from a script. Learning vocabulary is good but limited. Commit to a program that builds on more than rout sayings and idioms to carry on a conversation or you may end up like this.

1. Thinking That Traveling in Italy is Like Traveling in the States

You will be happier and more satisfied with your travels in Italy if you remember that you are traveling in Italy, a European country with a different monetary system, mindset and culture. Italians in Italy are not Italian-Americans. They are not stereotypical caricatures of the American media or even the same as our Italian-American relatives. They eat Italian food not Italian-American food. They don’t put Parmesan cheese or even call it Parmesan on seafood pasta or cut their spaghetti with a knife. They live in a political-economic system with different social mores and although there are more similarities than differences between us, respect and embrace the differences and you will have a more enjoyable time.

Engage in a mindful travel experience; actively attentive, aware (never order a cappuccino after 12 o’clock) open to the possibilities. Deliberately keeping in mind that you are a guest in their country and an ambassador of ours.

Road Trip

What is the fatal charm of Italy, that can be found nowhere else”? – Erica Jong It all started in the Fall of 1999. The “fatal charm” of Italy began to unfold through the window of a Renault on a road trip through Tuscany with my Italian cousins. Fresh from reading Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun, with visions of vineyards and olive orchards dancing in my head, I jumped at my cousin Lidia’s suggestion that we travel by car from Milano through Chianti on our way to Siena stopping to visit Monteriggioni where my cousin’s husband Roberto was born.

Lidia and Roberto
Lidia and Roberto

Many more road trips followed. Some with family and friends, some alone and now with other like-minded taste travelers desiring to see and savor Italy on more than a “show and tell” tour. Yet that trip was and will always be the singular most perfect experience of Italy. Not because everything went right. It didn’t. We got lost repeatedly (yes Italians often get lost in their own country). I fell down in a vineyard and got car sick a few times (the roads of Chianti are winding). The experience was so memorable because this is where I discovered the heart and soul of Italy and began to see that Italy was far more than I ever imagined.  Now after 15 years  and 15,000 + miles traveling, shopping, cooking and eating in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria I’ve come to regard Italy as a faraway friend that I look forward to visiting every year. Italy still continues to engage me in new and different ways.

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Road trips are an adventure in the making. Described by some as a transformative sort of travel experience a road trip will take you from point A to point B but with a playlist of possibilities you have yet to discover. Your itinerary is set by the lifestyle of a country not by a travel brochure. You see the iconic sites of Italy a little differently, traveling like an Italian, on the road, with a personal connection to a landscape that unfolds as you drive the autostrada and Italy’s roads less traveled tasting regional food and wine at tables where centuries of culinary traditions are still part of eating Italian. You learn about how Italians live and work, how they think and what they like to do and along the way you’ll find a perspective and clarity about where you are in your own life.  And don’t be surprised if you get lost once in a while – all Italians do. PS: Don’t be afraid to drive in Italy. Read why Contrary to Popular Opinion Driving in Italy is Not an Extreme Sport


Don’t Get Caught in Area C

parking_discThis was not my first traffic ticket in Italy but it was one that definitely screamed I should have known better. Most of my previous tickets had been for parking violations. Either I let the time on my parking disc expire or decided to tempt fate by parking in a restricted area. Not an area that was clearly posted as divieto parcheggio or divieto di sosta (Italian for no parking) but a less conspicuous blue lined area which in Italy is a no parking space.

My previous tickets all involved immediate feedback; a notice on the window of my rental car and a follow-up trip to the local post office. Unlike the US, Italy’s poste italiane is not just for sending packages. Most Italians are there to pay bills; electric bills, phone bills but you can also take care of your traffic tickets at the post office. My Italian cousins took me there and showed me how to pay my fine (about 35 EU at the time) to the amusement of the Italians standing in line watching gli americani struggle with Italian bureaucracy.

The traffic citation I am writing about today arrived  at my home address 7 months after the fact in an official looking envelope from the Commune di Milano. Written on stationary with the colored seal of the city of Milan it was presented with an impressive security stamp and signed Resp. Del. Proc. Dott. Tullio Mastrangelo.  It eloquently began with “Dear Madam, Dear Sir and ended with we hereby inform you that a fine has been imposed  . . . in violation of the Italian Highway Code”. Not for parking, not for speeding but for driving in the infamous Area C, a restricted or limited traffic zone (ZTL – Zona a Traffico Limitato) in the center of the city designed to reduce pollution by limiting traffic and promoting “sustainable mobility and public  transport”.

I’m all for that but let the driver beware, traffic ticketing in Italy is at an all time high. In 2009  an article in the Florentine stated that “every 40 seconds, a motorist in Florence receives a traffic violation with police issuing approximately 90 tickets every minute”. That translates to 1,253 tickets a day making Florence one of Italy’s most heaviest fined cities.  Huge volumes of vehicular traffic in cities like Milan, Florence, Pisa and other Italian cities have ZTL and pedestrian-only areas in the historical and hotel district where only cars with special permits may enter. These areas are posted but can be easily overlooked especially by tourists. Some navigational systems like Garmin have created digital maps of Area C zones to alert motorists of current restrictions.

Contrary to popular opinion driving in Italy is not an extreme sport. Motorways are good and Italian motorists do not all drive Ferrari’s but driving in Italy can be extremely expensive if you don’t pay attention to driving restrictions. Like our Area 51 Italian Area C zones are off limits and crossing the border without proper authorization can get you in trouble.

Driving ticket 2

Contrary to Popular Opinion . . . driving in Italy is not an extreme sport!

Although Italy has an excellent network of motorways (Autostrade), Americans generally find driving in Italy somewhat intimidating. They would rather be lulled into the complacency of a motorbus tour or buy a pass on the Eurostar. Both have their place and for some may be the best way to travel but don’t be overly concerned about driving in Italy.

Here are 5 things you must do before you drive in Italy

  1. Have a well-planned itinerary and thoroughly familiarize yourself with it before you go. Don’t be too ambitious. Pick a route and follow it and know where you’re going. This is no time to improvise. Calculate your daily driving distance and remember that although the distance between Castellina  in Chianti and Siena is only 10-12 miles (16.4km) because of the winding  roads (Via Chiantigiana Road Highway Strada Regionale SR222 / Strada Statale SS222) it may take at least a half hour to get  there.
  1. Have a GPS, a good road atlas and regional touring books. They are mandatory. I have driven  in Italy for over 14 years and although my Michelin Tourist and Motoring  Atlas and TCI maps are dog eared and falling apart I would not leave home without them. I’ve heard the shrill “recalculating” on my GPS too  many times to rely on only one set of directions.
  1. Understand that everyone gets lost in Italy, even Italians! So be prepared with some common Italian phrases and vocabulary to get help.  Sono perso (I am lost). Aiutami! (pronounced ay-yoo-tateh-mee) (Help me) and Ho bisogno di indicazioni (I need directions) and two more things semaforo is stoplight in Italian and girare is to turn ovest (west), est (east), sud (south) and nord (north).
  1. Rent a car before you go so that terms and arrangements for pick up will be in place before you leave and you will understand what you will be getting and ask for one that is small. There is a reason Italians drive small cars and it isn’t just because of the price of fuel. Think of where you will be driving and more importantly where you will be parking. For all practical purposes there is no parking in Italy. Your choice of car is pivotal to a pleasurable driving experience inItaly. I have driven a Fiat, Lancia, Peugeot, Opal, PT Cruiser and Jaguar in Italy. You want to have enough trunk space but you want the car to be small enough to  negotiate the narrow streets of the towns and villages you want to visit, make a quick exit off the autostrada, get out of a roundabout and get on or off the tangenziale/bypass (beltway around the city). All terms and arrangements for pick up will be in place before you leave and you will  understand what you will be getting.
  1. Understand how Italian’s drive. Italian’s are confident drivers who feel they know what needs to be done in order to get from one place to  another. They may follow too close (but then again they have a different  system of measurement than we do), they are opportunistic and want to fill  in the space between each car length (but then again their country is smaller than ours) and they drive faster than we do ((I call the left lane, the  passing lane on the Autostrada, the Ferrari lane). But they are not foolhardy and contrary to popular opinion they do obey travel signals. They are very courteous drivers on the Autostrada, using the passing lane only to pass.