Running Around in Italy

Excerpt from my newest book

 “Italy: Do More, Spend Less”

A travel essay designed to deliver!

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Rome, Milan and a few other major cities in Italy have a subway service, but I have not found it to be as helpful as in other European cities. In Rome, there are only two subway lines and the stations are quite far apart. But if these happen to coincide with where you want to go, don’t hesitate to use them. The above ground bus and trolley systems are typically far more helpful.

In these ancient cities every time they try to dig a new tunnel for a subway they run into antiquities. Then they have to halt construction and bring in the archaeologists to survey and collect whatever is found. Often, as in Rome, there are mosaic floors and toppled temple columns buried far below street level, relics that are too valuable to be trashed and too delicate or enormous to be easily moved. So the metro line has to be routed around it, or delayed with great expense. I think these obstacles have led modern Romans to leave buried what is buried and focus resources on above ground transportation.

Bus and metro tickets are inexpensive, and passes for multiple days are always a good deal. Between towns I recommend taking trains, but for transportation within a town in Italy, go ahead and get comfortable with the public transportation available. Ask at your hotel for a map.  They usually have a stack of them ready for guests, and will happily take the time to suggest a route. For safety tips, see “Defensive Touring” in chapter 7.

Taxis are also available but are the most expensive choice. I reserve taxi rides for transportation if I have a lot of luggage or there is a special circumstance. (As always, do not get into a car that is not clearly a professional, full time taxi.) Usually you will just be charged the rate on the meter, but the driver may take a circuitous route. Even a direct, quick taxi ride will be the most expensive option. However, if you are exhausted, ill, lost or running out of time, take the taxi. On some of my student group tours I have traveled with people who have limited health and strength, but were hesitant to admit they couldn’t walk the distances we had ahead of us. Don’t be a martyr or a hero. Be smart and take care of yourself. If you find you are unwell, lost or just developing an awful blister on your feet, be willing to step away from the planned activity and get help or rest. You may miss one activity, but you will recover your energy and be able to enjoy the rest of the trip.

The beauty and mystery of Venice holds a charm for me like nowhere else on earth. The most essential features of daily life are altered there, usually in wonderfully surprising ways.  Why should public transportation be any different?  Charmingly called Vaporetti, the savvy traveler can make great use of the water bus service around Venice proper as well as the neighboring islands in the lagoon. You will need to get a Vaporetto map with the route numbers and stops, and fortunately these are easily found online for free from many sources.

Actually, every hotel and most guest houses have free maps of the town, wherever you roam, so you rarely ever need to buy a map. If you want to have one in advance of your trip and are buying a guidebook anyhow, you should be able to find maps of the local public transportation included.

In Venice, find the nearest stop to your hotel or apartment.  The Vaporetto is reliable, but not fast. Once you are in Venice proper, getting around town is easier on foot, and you will have the endless opportunity to enjoy the unique beauty of each narrow lane. I highly recommend Vaporetto route number one, boarding at any stop and riding the full circuit, for a chance to have a leisurely and inexpensive tour of the Grand Canal. The Rialto Bridge and the many glorious mansions will take your breath away and inspire some of your favorite travel photos.

Vaporetto tickets can be purchased from machines at all of the stations. You can also get a card that is good for several days. I recommend this for most visitors, unless you are only in town for one day or less. Your first time on the Vaporetto, watch the other people to see how to board the boats. There will be one area for those who are getting off, and the boat will pull up there first. After they have unloaded, another gate will be pulled open and you can get on. Find a seat inside if you like, or wrap your scarf around your neck and stay on deck to drink in the beauty of Venice.

The Heart of Florence

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Piazza Santo Spirito          

(excerpt from my upcoming book Italy: Do More, Spend Less)

One lovely Florentine evening, as the heat of the day subsided, Russell and I decided to explore more of the Oltrarno side of the city.  Looking through entertainment listings in The Florentine, a local English language newspaper produced for visitors, I discovered that there was a film festival in town that included free outdoor movies projected onto the façade of a church.  I deduced that a movie was to be shown that very evening on Santo Spirito Church, so that’s where we headed.

Strolling along the Arno River was charming in the twilight.  The Ponte Vecchio, imposing in its long and tumultuous history, yet precariously constructed, still cast a medieval spell over me.

Soon we turned away from the river on Via del Santo Martino towards Santo Spirito. As we approached, we fell in behind some English speaking tourists who were looking for a specific restaurant.  A young woman insisted it was the best restaurant in town, based on someone’s recommendation, and she particularly said they had to have the antipasta, which she appeared to think was a specific type of spaghetti.  (I am not making this up.)

Trying not to chuckle, my husband and I slowed down a bit so as to put a distance between ourselves and this group.  In another few moments, Santo Spirito Church rose up on our right with its imposing, and rather austere, pale brick exterior.  A crowded restaurant was straight ahead, and I could see the group looking for antipasta standing wearily outside waiting for a table to become available.

I could also hear the sounds of happy chatter and the clink of glasses coming from the piazza on our right, so we turned that direction to see if other dinner options might be available.  Just around the corner were six or seven more eateries, all with ample seating in the shade of lovely old trees.  We made our way down the row at a leisurely pace, checking out the menus posted on walls or simple wooden pedestals at each place.  The wait staff was cheerful and greeted us in English and Italian, but they were not aggressive like their counterparts on the other side of the river.  Eventually we chose Ricchi Caffé, and settled in for a lovely dinner.  A fountain splashed in the center of the piazza, and a dozen little boys chased a soccer ball all around while their families gathered in trios and pairs to gossip.

A carafe of supertuscan house wine between us, we toasted the moment.  Two older gentlemen passed by us, one wearing a beautiful white linen jacket and the other a pale plaid sportscoat.  They were dressed for the evening passagiata, another wonderful Italian tradition.  It seemed the whole neighborhood was ready to participate.  A leisurely stroll in the cool of the evening, greeting neighbors, stopping for a drink or simply walking, watching each others’ children grow up, and passing the days into years with friends and family all around.  To me, this is the heart of Italy.