Transcript: Italy

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Associate Editor Reid Bramblett answered your questions on traveling to Italy

Reid answered your questions about Apulia and the rest of Italy on Tuesday, August 24, at noon EST.

Associate Editor Reid Bramblett learned Italian on the playground of a Roman parochial school when he was 12, explored Italy with his parents for two years in a hippie-orange VW campervan, and spent a year studying there during a break from the anthropology department at Cornell. He has explored every province of every region (except Sardegna, a fact which continues to haunt him), mostly in the course of writing seven Italy guidebooks--from Frommer's Florence Tuscany & Umbria to Eyewitness Top 10: Milan & the Lakes--plus a whole passel of Italy articles for Budget Travel and elsewhere. He just returned from Tuscany on Thursday, so his Italy intel should be as fresh as good mozzarella.


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Reid Bramblett: Buongiorno e benvenuti! As a travel writer, everybody always asks me where my favorite place in the world is, and though I hem and haw and try to explain how every place is unique and different, and therefore "favorite place" depends on what kind of trip I'm in the mood for, or what time of year it is, deep down inside me something is always screaming "It's Italy, you fool! It's always been Italy." I love the place to death, and spent many years there, and I'm excited to spend the next hour sharing some of my favorite bits with you.

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Boston, MA: What are some options for good day trips from Venice? Is Florence too far by train?

Reid Bramblett: Lord, yes. Florence is 3-4 hours away from Venice. That means, to do it in a daytrip, you're spending 6-8 hours just riding a train--that's' the whole day! My advice is to take a daytrip not away from Venice itself, but away from the tourist crush of Venice. Discover the calm, beautiful, magical side of this over-packed with, the one that earned it the nickname "La Serenissima" (The Most Serene).
Venice's maze of narrow streets frustrate the navigational skills of the best of us---enetians assure me that even they get lost repeatedly if they venture out of their own little neighborhood. To help tourists on a tight schedule, quick routes between the key spots---an Marco, Accamedia, Rialto, Ferrovia (train station)---ave been established and the walls at every intersection along them are peppered with little yellow signs that point sightseers in the right direction.
To escape the crush of Venice-in-a-daytrippers, just turn right when the sign points left and within a minute you'll find yourself in a Venice where kids kick a soccer ball around a deserted campo (square), older women shelling peas sit in their doorways and conduct conversations with their neighbors across the way, locals duck into a bacaro (wine bar) to "prendere un'ombra," which translates as "take a little shade" but means "drink a glass of wine," and munch in chicchetti ($1 hors d'ouevres).
After you dutifully tour the great cathedral of San Marco the tourist way, making your way up onto the roof to admire the ancient bronze chariot horses, come back to it on a Sunday evening for mass at 6:45. Mass? Yep. While the priest at the altar drones in singsong Latin, incense swirling around him from a saying censor, you can sit in silence for an hour getting a crick in your neck-th-- 40,000 square feet of glittering mosaics that were inlaid over every single inch of the cathedral's interior from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries, which appear smoke-stained and shadowy by day, are illuminated to their full glittering glory only during this evening mass.
Finally, and perhaps best of all, take a day to take a boat ride out to the outlying islands in the Venetian lagoon. All it'll cost you is a handful of regular vaporetto tickets (the vaporetto is the ferry, Venice's equivalent to a public bus system). Leave early in the morning so you can spend an hours or two on each of three main islands. Start in Murano, sort of a Venice in miniature, and the place where the famous craft industry of "Venetian" glassware was actually born (lots of glass factories and shops to tour, in between strolling the broad canals and visiting the pretty little churches). Next up: tiny Burano, where the fishing houses are each painted a different super-saturated color and ladies still hand-tatt lace the old fashioned way. finally, nearby lies nearly-abandoned Torcello, in the swampy gloom of which Hemingway was once fond of tromping around its millennium-old cathedral that glows inside with golden mosaics. If you time things just right, you'll be chugging back to Venice in the late evening, with the dying sun lighting the waters of the lagoon on fire and a sunset silhouette of La Serenissima filling the panorama before you.

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Haddonfield, NJ: My husband & I visit Italy twice a year because we both have families in either Rome, Abruzzo, or Genova. We would like to go south to Calabria, Puglia, Lecce (been to Sicilia), but we always hear about the crime in the South so we are afraid to go there. I do speak Italian, but not perfectly. Any hints about driving and staying there for a few days or a week? On another trip, besides seeing family, we would like to go to Trieste and then Croazia. Any hints for the far Northeast?

Reid Bramblett: I have lived in Italy for three years, and spent roughly another three years there traveling around, researching and writing guidebooks. I been the victim of crime precisely once: the back window of my rental car was smashed while parked on a street in Rome about four years ago (car was empty, so nothing got stolen). The myth of a crime-ridden south is nothing more than thinly-veiled "racism" (regionalism, really) of Northern Italians who paint everyone south of Rome with the same brush, imagining the old mafia lifestyle. Sure, pickpockets about in and outside of the train station in Naples--they do in most big cities--but petty crime is no worse in the south than elsewhere in Italy, really.
As for driving/traveling hints, there's nothing special about Puglia or Calabria that you haven't already encountered in Rome, the Abruzzi, or Genova. I'' definitely take a week for either region.
The Trieste/Croatia idea is a fine one as well. I've done that before, and it works pretty smoothly (only, when looking for the road signs to lead you back to Italy after your Slovenian/Croatian jaunt-t-- get from Italy to Croatia you actually drive across a narrow strip of Slovenia-r--member that folks on that side of the border have some kind of aversion to vowels, and they spell Trieste like this: "Trst.") Without knowing how long you have at your disposal, I'll only recommend that you can get a lot out of Croatia's Istrian Peninsula, a string of lovely old fishing towns topped by medieval forts, peppered with mosaic churches and ancient ruins, and serving up huge portions of inexpensive, ultra-fresh seafood. It's a bit like Italy used to be before it became a tourism Mecca.

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Alexandria, VA: My wife and I rented a car the last time we went to Rome, and I thought it was a nightmare. What do you recommend for places to stay and getting to and from all the beautiful sites?

Reid Bramblett: Walking, buses, and the Metro (subway), in that order. Most parts of Rome are ideal for walking, as more and more roads in the historic center have been closed to traffic over the past few years. Plus, much of the city's charm lies on the cobblestone sidestreets and back alleys that lie in between Big Museum of Art A and famous Ancient Ruins B. Spend time enjoying the funky little shops, sipping espresso at a local's bar, licking a cone of gelato while sitting on the steps of a tiny church on a hug piazza, and strolling with the entire population when it turns out for the pre-dinner see-and-be-seen passeggiata up and down the Via del Corso from about 5 to 8pm.
When you do have to make a long haul across town, or time is tight, hop on the bus. Rome has an excellent and extensive (if often crowded) bus system. You can pick up a map of the city that shows all the bus routes for about $7 at any newsstand, which is also where you can buy bus tickets (also available from tabacchi, or tobbaconists--shops marked by a white-on-dark-brown "T" sig---and from some bars.)
Rome's sad little Metro (subway) only has two lines (they cross at Termini, the main train station), and is designed mainly for commuters coming in from the 'burbs. However, it does has some useful stops for tourists, including ones near the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, St. Peter's, and the Vatican Museums. You can transfer between buses and the metro on the same ticket for up to 90 minutes.
A note about driving in the city. Rome traffic is, indeed, some of the craziest in Western Europe, beat out really only by Naples (like Rome traffic squared) and the Etoile (that 8-lane free-for-all demolition derby which surrounds the Arc de Triomphe in Paris). In fact, there is no major city (or minor city, or small town) in Europe where it is a joy to drive. Which brings me to European Rental Car Tip #2: Never, ever rent a car just for a city. Ever. (Rule #1, by the way, is always arrange a rental from the US before you leave home; it's far cheaper.)
The only time to rent a car in Europe is if you want to visit lots of small towns and explore the countryside between point A and B say-- the hilltowns, castles, and vineyards of Tuscany on a leisurely 2 or 3 day drive from Rome to Florence. But don't pick up the car until your last day in Rome, and drop it off the instant you arrive in Florence. In other words, spend your 3 or 4 days puttering around Rome, then pick up your car for the 3-day drive through Tuscany. After dropping off your luggage at your hotel in Florence, your very first stop should be the local rental office to drop off the vehicle. Then you can go ahead and spend your 2-3 days in the city of Dante and Michelangelo.
This way, not only do you avoid the aggravation of driving in the cities, but you've saved yourself a ton of money-we'r-- talking hundreds of dollars here-on t--ree counts: (1) Five to seven days of paying for a rental car you don't need: 3-4 in Rome, 2-3 in Florence; (2) the cost (about $20 to $30 per night) of parking your car overnight in a garage for those city days; and (3) the rental company's absurd and unavoidable fees for picking up and dropping off at the airport.

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Chester Springs, PA: I will be traveling to Venice and Florence in October and would like to experience a "real home cooked" dinner like I remember my Grandmother preparing during the holidays (maybe some stuffed calamari tied in string). Can you recommend a place that is safe for two women traveling together and moderately priced which also serves local wines?? Also, is it still necessary to bring outlet converters for cell phone chargers, camera battery chargers, etc.???

Reid Bramblett: That depends on whether Grandma was from Venice or Florence. Since I don't know, here are some recommendations for both (as for "safe for two women," everywhere is safe; sure, you'll get a ton of attentions, cat-calls, exuberantly friendly would-be Romeos courting you at every turn, but it's perfectly safe).
In Venice: Ai Tre Spiedi (Salizzada San Cazian 5906 in Cannaregio; great, homey trattoria with a good vibe); Trattoria Ai Cugnai (Calle Nuova Sant'Agnese 857 in Dorsoduro; run by three sisters, all of them surrogate Italian grandmas, plus one son---hich one's son I have never been able to figure out---erving up home cooking halfway between the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim galleries).
In Florence: Il Latini (Via Palchetti 6r; massive, all-you-can-eat-and-drink feast at communal tables for around $35 per person), Trattoria Sostanza (Via Porcellana 25r; locally referred to as la Troia, "the trough," for how heartily folks chow down on traditional Florentine dishes), and I' Che C'e C'e (Via Magalotti 11r; awesome home-cooking, served communal style at lunch)
Outlet converters: you will need to bring the little plastic adapters that turn the two flat prongs of our plugs into two round pins so as to fit Italian outlets, but shouldn't need to worry about converting the current, as practically all travel-worthy products like cellphones and digital cameras (and laptops and travel hairdryers) as all dual-voltage these days and do the conversion for you. (Important exception: in the infinite corporate lack of wisdom of its manufacturer, the charging/synching cradle that comes packaged with a Palm does NOT work overseas. You'll burn it out in 3 seconds if you try to plug it in. I found that one out the hard way on a trip to Ireland. You have to shell out extra for a special 'travel charger" which, on the plus side, is much, much smaller than the cradle unit.)

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Alexandria, VA: What a job you have! Question: my wife and I are planning a trip (our 3rd) to Italy. We are hitting Venice for 2 days and plan to go through Emilia-Romagna on the way to Florence. We are particularly interested in Parma & Modena. Can you give us some pointers on some hidden gems in either of the 2 cities? Anything in that general area that is a cannot miss? We can't find much written about the area. Thanks much.

Reid Bramblett: Yes, Emilia-Romagna does tend to get lost in the guidebook shuffle; it's north of ever-popular Tuscany & Umbria, about which there are countless books, and guides titles "Northern Italy" tend to stop short of E-R. (Trust me; I've written guides to both those areas, and editors never seem to want to tack E-R on to either--though Modena and Parma do get their own sections in my Frommer's Italy from $70 A Day.) But hey, that just means you're touring a corner of Italy that won't be inundated but the same kinds of crowds as the most popular, heavily-covered regions.
First of all, go on a diet. Right now. You need this preemptive strike because you're going to be hitting Italy's Culinary Belt, a land where the pasta is stuffed to bursting with cheeses and then draped in curtains of meat sauce. Parma is, of course, world-renowned for producing the best parmigiano cheese and some of the finest prosciutto in all of Italy. Modena is as famous for its balsamic vinegars and fizzy Lambrusco wines as it is for its less edible products, like Ferraris (you can visit the factory, about 10 minutes south of town, and drool over the displays in theirs museum; and no, they don't give out free samples after the tour; ferrari.it). Hey, think about how, um, ample the famed tenor Pavorotti is. Yeah: he's from Modena.
You also won't want for some primo sightseeing. This is the land of the Estes (who moved from Ferrara to Modena) and the Farneses (lords of Parma), Renaissance ducal families who left their cities littered with palaces and glorious churches and fine art. among the "don't'misses": Modena's Galleria Estene (stuffed with works by Velazquez, Bernini, Tintoretto, Guido Reni, El Greco, and others), and in Parma the relief-studded Romanesque Baptistery and tons of works by 16th century great Correggio, including frescoes in the Camera di San Paolo, San Giovanni Evangelista, and especially in the Duomo (Cathedral).

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Missouri City, TX: How difficult are the hiking trails in Cinque Terre?

Reid Bramblett: Depends on what you mean by "difficult." Luckily, there's a good formula for finding out. The Cinque Terre is a string of five small towns along the southern Ligurian coast, and a series of trails connects them all together (so does a train, for those uninclined to exercise). Those trails get progressively steeper, rockier, and more difficult as you move north, so the best idea is you're unsure is to start at the southernmost one, Riomaggiore, and stroll the flat, wide, easy path (the "Via dell'Amore") north to Manarola. If that was a snap for you, continue on to Corniglia, also a fairly level path that takes about 45 minutes and passes a pretty decent beach (though the last bit is a seemingly endless switch-back staircase up to Corniglia, which unlike the other towns sits up on the cliff, not down by the water). From Corniglia to Vernazza, the trail gets a lot more demanding, riding and falling through forests and along cliffs, but alot a whole heck of a lot prettier (it's my favorite stretch). it'll take 90 minutes to two hours. The final leg, Vernazza to Monterosso, is one long climb up, then a rocky, difficult scramble down again--the most arduous, but also lovely if you can handle it, and another 90-120 minutes. Remember, you can always throw in the towel at any town along the way, stop in a bar for a shot of sciacchetra (the local sweet wine), and hop a train onwards to the next town or back to wherever your hotel is.

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Sarasota, FL: My wife & I need a car for 29 days beginning mid-September in the Milan area. Rates quoted for renting/leasing are all over the place! Can you make some sense out of this confusion and tell us what insurance we must have and which might better be covered under our credit card? Thanks.

Reid Bramblett: Since you're going for nearly a month, forget the rental. What you want is a short-term lease--which is almost always the cheapest, easiest, and best-insured option for rental periods longer than 17 days. What you get is:

  • A brand-new car direct from the factory (seriously; sometimes those bits of protective plastic wrap are still clinging to the side mirrors)
  • FULL insurance automatically (none of that messy mucking about with CDW or TP or LDW or any other acronym the rental companies throw at you to pump up the cost)
  • A far, far, far, cheaper rate than on a rental for a similar period of time (actually, you're buying the car under an automatic buy-back agreement with the company, so you get excellent terms)
  • That new-car smell
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    Warren, OH: Do you need a special driving permit to rent a Vespa and tour Italy?

    Reid Bramblett: No special permit, but you aren't going to get very far "touring Italy" on a Vespa. For one thing, the noisy little scooters aren't allowed on the highways, so getting from point A to point B is going to be a problem. Also, the engines are pretty tiny. Traditionally they were only 50cc, though admittedly the latest models come in 125cc and even 200cc--but even then you're looking at a top speed around 70mph, and that's going downhill with the wind at your back! However they aren't know for being all that sturdy, let alone safe, at that kind of speed, so it's best to keep it in the 30-40mph range, tops. Vespas are really meant for puttering around towns and islands, not for long trips down the open road.

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    Minneapolis, MN: What towns in Italy will host Olympic events? Also, how will Olympic development plans negatively affect an "authentic" experience of Italy?

    Reid Bramblett: The 2006 games will be hosted in the Northern Italian city of Torino, so most of the Olympic effect will be centralized up there. It shouldn't alter the maker-up or experience of the joint all that much, as Turin is already a large and modernized city (though a lovely and highly underrated one, I might add, full of pedestrian squares and free nibbles at the bars each evening, a lively cultural scene, and virtually no tourists). For more details, visit torino2006.org.

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    Cleveland, OH: My fiance and I will be in Italy from mid to end of October. We are looking for a hotel in the 100-150 Euro range that is quaint by the Pantheon, but we are having trouble finding some. Can you make some suggestions?

    Reid Bramblett: The little Hotel Mimosa: family-run, a bit threadbare, but friendly, comfy, and not three blocks from the Pantheon on a fairly quiet street (via Canta Chiara 61). Current rates are around 68 to 85 euros for a double with a shared bathroom, 85 to 118 euros for a rooms with a private bathroom. http://www.hotelmimosa.net/.

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    Reid Bramblett: Thanks for all the great questions; sorry I couldn't get to them all. To everyone planning a trip to Italy: buon viaggio!

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