Trip Coach: July 19, 2005

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Reid Bramblett, who wrote "Secret Hotels of Tuscany" in the July/August issue, answered your questions on Italy

Reid Bramblett: Buon giorno, e benvenuti! Just wanted to welcome everyone to the Italy chat here at Budget Travel Online. So, without further ado: bring on the questions!

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Chicago, IL: My girlfriend and I are travelling to Italy September 12th through the 23rd. We've recently decided to spend a few days it Sicily, then Sorrento and finish our trip in Rome. It seems like not as much is known about Sicily in the way of Rome or the Amalfi Coast. Any suggestions for spending a few days in Sicily? We've heard that it is the "real Italy," so anything close to that we'd enjoy.

Reid Bramblett: As it so happens, I was in Sicily three weeks ago. Every art of Italy is different--part of what makes the country so fascinating and so much fun to tour--so no part is more "real Italy" than another (though you could argue that, since so many Italian-Americans are of Sicilian or other Southern Italian descent and not so many, say, from Milan or the north, that our vision of what "Italy" is more of a Southern Italian one). However, it is true that in Sicily, as in much of the rest of the south, the older lifeways are more widely upheld and certainly visible, so you get more of a sense of the Italy that once was and it proud to remain.

To do Sicily properly, you really need a week--after all, this huge island at the center of the Mediterranean has variously been park of the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman empires, and been ruled by the Spanish Bourbon and French Angevins, and--just in the past 140 years of so, became a part of Italy; to say it is culturally rich is a rather enormous understatement--but I guess in a few days you can manage to get a taste that'll leave you hankering for more.

Not knowing how many "few days" you have, I'd hazard the idea that you skip Palermo--despite the glittering Byzantine mosaics in the Capella Palatina and swathing Monreale Cathedral, and the pink Arab domelets on some of the medieval churches. It's just too far out the island and takes a few days to tackle itself.

Stick instead to the most rewarding few spots of the eastern and southern coasts. Head straight through to Agrigento, which holds in its Valley of the Temple archaeological park along a ridge below town, some of the best preserved 5th century BC Greek Temples in the entire world (remember, Sicily was once part of Magna Graecia, or greater Greece; in fact, the legend of Persephone--you know, being carried off to hell by Hades, eating a bit of pomegranate, then being forced to split her time between earth and the netherworld?--is a Sicilian one that other Greeks adopted).

Then zip over to Siracusa, in the southeastern corner of the island, my favorite Sicilian city. The ancient center is on an island, and its main square centers around a cathedral that's a barely altered ancient Greek temple itself--they just bricked in the walls between the columns, then punched arches through the solid-walled cella in the center to create a nave and aisles and voila: instant church. Nearby, in the Fonte Arethusa well that was formed by a nymph escaping a lascivious river god, grows a stand of bushy-headed reeds that look like something out of Dr. Seuss: the only wild papyrus north of Africa (a gift to Siracusa from one of the Ptolemy's--see, told you it was an old place). On the Siracusan mainland sits the remains of the ancient Greek Theater--still used for concerts and shows in the summertime--and an absolutely brilliant archaeological museum. But sometimes, the best thing to do in Siracusa is just to sit back at a pizzeria on the seaside promenade that wraps around the whole town, enjoy the lapping of the weaves, and take in a Sicilian puppet show of chivalrous medieval knight's tales being performed free of charge.

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Chicago, IL: Is late October/early November too late in the year to enjoy the full beauty of the Tuscan region?

Reid Bramblett: Good lord, not at all! Fall is my favorite time of year to visit central Italy.

This is still, for all the grape vines, a hunter-gatherer culture, and fall is the time for hunting (wild board, thrushes, other small game), for gathering (porcini mushrooms, chestnuts to make the flour that goes into many local dishes, and above all: truffles, both black and white), and for the harvest.
And when I say "harvest" in Tuscany, I'm talking grapes and olives. In late September/early October, they take in the grapes that have been sweetening on the vines all summer and start turning them into wine. After that, in October, they begin harvesting the olives to press the greenest, freshest oil you've ever tasted in your life.

Then November starts that hunting and gathering season, when the menus are filled with truffle-spiked dishes, wild boar sauces and stews, and other earthy delights. Cap it all off with the fact that November 6 is the date on which, by law, they release the vino novello (new wine--like France's famous Beaujolais Nouveau), celebrated in festivals in many towns with gushing wine fountains and all the free novello you can drink.

OK, now I'm jealous. Can I come with?

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Arlington, VA: My husband and I will be travelling to the city of Genova and the countryside of Genova and Imperia provinces this October. This will be our fifth trip to Italy, and I'm a bit embarrassed to say that there is one significant detail that we have yet to sort out -- adding gratuity to a restaurant bill. This is the sequence we typically encounter: we receive the bill, we give our credit card, we receive the credit card receipt back, but without a line for adding the tip. In these cases there may be "pane e coperto" added, but no line item for gratuity itself was built in. We have taken to bringing cash and leaving cash on the table with the receipt, but this is cumbersome. What are we missing in this transaction?

Reid Bramblett: First of all, pane e coperto has nothing to do with a gratuity or tip. It's just the "cover charge" you have to pay in nearly all Italian restaurants just for the privilege of sitting down to a tablecloth and a basket of bread.
In many Italian restaurants, the tip--called in Europe a "service charge"--if often built into the prices. Look at the bottom of the menu pages to see if the phrases "servizio incluso" or something similar appears. If not, or if you are still unsure, just as the waiter when you ask for the bill" "E incluso il servizio?" (Is the tip included?)

If so, no need to worry about that missing line on the credit card slip (which takes a lot longer to explain and has to do with the time-honored Italian tradition of income tax evasion). If not, tip 10 to 15 percent as usual. For particularly stellar service, it is customary, even if service is already included, to leave a little something extra, just to show you noticed and appreciated the waiter's skill. Anywhere from 50 Euro-cents to 1 Euro per person, rounded up, is appropriate.

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Patterson, NY: Please recommend some small wineries in Tuscany that we can tour and purchase wine.

Reid Bramblett: Someone in Chicago had the exact same question, so let's give a nicely detailed answer.
First of all, as a general rule you'll want to call ahead at least a day or two before heading out to any winery. Some of the slicker commercial operations allow you just to drop by and get on a tour, but many require you to book a tour in advance, often a day or two (sometimes a week). However, almost all of them have tasting rooms and direct sales outlets that are open to all comers, though often only during business hours on weekdays.
The most concentrated wine-producing regions are in the famed hills of the Chianti between Florence and Siena, and in the hilltowns just west and south of Siena--places like Montepulciano with is Vino Nobile, and Montalcino producing one of Italy's mightiest reds, Brunello.

In the Chianti, some of the most visitor friendly wineries include the 12th-century Castello di Verrazzano (tel. 055-854-243 or 055-290-684; verrazzano.com), the hilltop castle where Giovanni da Verrazzano was born in 1485 (later to sail out of the Chianti and discover New York harbor, which is why we named that big old bridge after him). Hour-long tours of the gardens and cellars run Monday through Friday from 11am to 3pm); book ahead at least a day in advance.

The monks who live in the postcard-perfect thousand-year-old Badia a Passignano (tel. 055-807-1622), a castle-like monastery wrapped in a cypress grove atop vine-stripped hills and olive groves, no longer tend to the wine-making; that's in the hands of the massive Antinori wine empire. Monday to Friday you can visit its osteria (tel. 055-807-1278) to tour the cellars and buy the wines produced here. (Tours of the monastery are only given Sundays around 3pm)

The Russet-orange villa surrounded by cypress and elegant gardens called Villa Vignamaggio (tel. 055-854-661; vignamaggio.com) will look oddly familiar to Kenneth Branagh fans. This is where he filmed Much Ado About Nothing--but the 14th-century villa's fame goes back much further; this was, after all, the childhood home of a young girl who would grow up to pose for a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and become known as the Mona Lisa. Now the joint's owned by a Milanese former banker, who has revived the wine making (and turned most of the out buildings in a rather chic agriturismo, or farm stay operation). Book ahead at least a week ahead to tour the cellar and those ornate gardens, on Tuesdays and Thursdays only.

My favorite Chianti is that produced by Dr. Laura Bianchi on her family's Monsanto estate (tel. 055-805-9000), one of the first two switch over to producing a fully Sangiovese Chianti (actually, they started doing it back in 1974, waaaay before it was legal to deviate from the official grape formulas). They also do a mean Chardonnay. The cellars are also pretty evocative, modeled after an Etruscan tomb found on the premises, and including a hall of niches covered by iron grates--and hovering between being Cask of Amtillado--creepy and aw-isn't-that-sweet cute--where bottles are set aside for each family member when they are born, to age and be ready for them to celebrate a wedding or some other major life event in the future. Reserve a tour at least a few days ahead of time.

The Castello di Volpaia (tel. 0577-738-066; volpaia.com) is another looker, a medieval stone borgo (village) around a crenellated tower , and the winery is actually installed in the series of houses and buildings of the village itself (all connecting pipes, tubes, and electrical wires have been seamlessly hidden underground and within walls, so the exterior effect is as medieval as it gets). Tours are run every day but Saturday, but call ahead (and shoot for doing so a week in advance).

OK, enough Chianti. Let's take a brief look at the tourable cellars around Montalcino--which itself has an enoteca wine-tasting shop installed in its giant crag-top castle.

Again, if we're going for personal faves, I'd have to say Poggio Antico (tel. 0577-848-044; poggioantico.com), consistently ranking amongst the top 100 wines in the world. Book a tour of the cantina at least a day in advance.
For sort of the opposite in wine experience, visit the slickest operation around run (natch) by an American exporting empire at the Castello di Banfi (tel. 0577-816-001 or 0577-840-111; castellobanfi.com), which even has set up a little wine museum. Tours run weekdays at 4pm, but call a week ahead of time to book.

Finally, the Fattoria dei Barbi (tel. 0577-841-111; fattoriadeibarbi.it) is perhaps the easiest just to show up at and enjoy; they run tours Monday to Friday at 11am, noon and 3, 4, and 5pm--and they have a great taverna on-site for fantastic lunches accompanied by their exquisite wines and cheeses.

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Clermont, FL: For a Ciivitavecchia port daytrip on November 21 from 7AM to 7PM we are looking for a wine tour near Orvieto and Civita di Bagnoregio. We also can't find a rental vehicle in Civitavecchia to carry 6 people. Any recommendations? Thanks.

Reid Bramblett: Yeah. That's because Civitavecchia is held in thrall to the cruise ship industry, and the biggest way the cruise lines make money is by making sure you are hostage to their own organized port excursions (for swollen fees, naturally). Still, you can escape and do it on your own.
There are two ways. You can train it from Civitavecchia to Orvieot; the trip would take about 2-1/2 hours total, and tooth-gnashingly, you'll have to go south to Rome first, change trains, then head back north to Orvieto.

A better plan would be to hop a bus to Viterbo, a lovely town with a spiffy cathedral (this is where the Miracle of Bolsena took place) on a circular volcanic lake just south of Orvieto (and very near Civita di Bagnoreggio--which, just so you know, is not all Rick Steves cracks it up to be). Arraneg to have a rental car there, and you can do your winery tour, then drop the car back in Viterbo, and zip back to Civitavecchia and the big boat.

To make things easy on you, here is the bus schedule for that route (departure times only). A * means you have to change at Tarquinia:

CIVITAVECCHIA to VITERBO: 06.25 - 07.50 - 08. 45 - 09.15 -12.00 - 14.00* -15.30 -16.45- (Sundays: 09.15 - 17.10)

VITERBO to CIVITAVECCHIA: 07.05 - 08.55* - 09.30* - 10.00* - 12.35* -13.50 -16.35 -17.25*-18.30 -19.10 (Sundays: 07.10 - 16.35)

Incidentally, in Civitavecchia to get from the cruise port to the train station/bus depot, it's a 10-15 minute walk down Via Garibaldi--though that might not be fun with luggage--or quick taxi ride for ¬9 to ¬13, depending on how many people/bags there are (the taxi stand's phone number is 011-39-0766-26121). There are sometimes shuttle buses, but those are usually timed to coincide with local ferries to Sardegna, not cruises.

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Seymour, CT: My wife and I will be "exploring" Tuscany from November 3 through November 12. She would like to stay in Siena at Piccolo Hotel Etruria and use that as our base of operations (she wants to be able to stroll through the city at the end of each day.) I think it is more practical, in as much as we will have a car, to stay at a hotel with free convenient parking on the outskirts of town. Any thoughts?

Reid Bramblett: The benefits to being in the thick of things far outweigh the inconvenience of a short hike to your car. Stay in the center of town. Italy is not a culture where you drive right up to your house, and from there to a parking lot at work or one at the shopping mall. It is a place where people get in their cars only if they have to connect two dots that aren't easily connected by foot, bus, or train.

Just consider the short walk (no more than 20 minutes) to and from your hotel and one of the city's many large, municipal parking garages to be part of you morning constitutional and your evening passeggiata. The closest lot to that hotel is the "Il Campo" one, just inside Porta Tufi (though ask at the hotel if they have a deal with any particular lot)

Stuck in a hotel outside the walls may be more convenient to your car, but you'll find yourselves cut off from the very liveliness and fun of the Italian daily rhythms. Do yourselves a favor and stay in the center of town. Besides, you'll need to work off those vast Italian meals and fine wines somehow!

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Clyde, NY: One of the travel books I've been reading suggests staying in a convent in Rome as an alternative to a hotel. Is this a good idea? We don't expect luxury of course.

Reid Bramblett: And you won't get it! No, seriously, shacking up in a convent is a perfectly acceptable (and far cheaper) alternative to staying in a proper hotel, and ranks as one of Rome's great travel bargains. You don't even have to be Catholic to do it--though you do often have to be willing to sleep in separate twin beds (like sit-coms before the Brady Bunch) and accept a room décor that begins and ends with the giant Crucifix nailed to the wall. Also, many convents impose a curfew at night, ranging from 10pm to midnight--and considering that most Italian don't even sit down to their famously marathon, 3-hour dinners until 9pm, that might cramp your nightlife style.

Still, at prices. Way back in yesteryear (2002, I believe) the magazine printed an article of mine about cheap Roman lodgings that included a couple of convents. You can access our back archives on the website (BudgetTravelOnline.com), but to make things easier, I'll just paste the text of those two convents here--though keep in mind the prices will have changed.
Fraterna Domus Via Monte Brianzo 62. Tel. 06-6880-2727. Fax 06-683-2691. domusrm@tin.it. 18 rooms. Double E78; students E30 per person. Breakfast included.

If you don't mind monastic simplicity, tiny bathrooms with curtainless showers, and a decor that begins and ends with the small Crucifix nailed above the bed, this hospice just north of Piazza Navona run by a lay sisterhood may be the ticket. The beds are firm, the tile floors kept next-to-godliness clean. The bad news: an 11pm curfew, but one sister confided that you might get a front door key if you stay a week. They also offer excellent full meals for a paltry ¬12. Suore di S. Elisabetta Via dell'Olmata 9. Tel. 06-488-8371. Fax 06-488-4066. ist.it.s.elisabetta@libero.it. 35 rooms, 25 with bath. Double E51 without bath, ¬66 with bath. Breakfast included.
Kindly Polish nuns have welcomed guests to their convent just south of Santa Maria Maggiore for over 100 years. The rooms are spare and simple, but comfy, with a painting or two in addition to the requisite Crucifix, and terraces off a few. Like a prudish 1950s sitcom, the narrow twin beds are kept strictly separated in all rooms. Baths are old, but well cared-for. Guests can wander the panoramic roof terrace and the peaceful palm-shaded garden of orange trees, roses, and kiwi-vine arbors. Kids under 12 stay at a discount. The big drawback: an 11pm curfew. Book well in advance.

For more resources on staying in convents and monasteries, as well as two dozen other lodging alternatives beyond hotels (most of them cheaper), you can visit beyondhotels.net (which is really just a subsection of my own reidsguides.com website).

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Bellingham, WA: We are planning a family trip to the Cinque Terra area of Italy and would appreciate any advice that you can provide on a place to stay. We would like accommodations with some cooking ability, near public transportation, and with 2 or 3 bedrooms. We will be renting for at least one week in late September, early October 2006. Thanks for any help you can give!

Reid Bramblett: So many locals abandoned these five fishing villages in the decades between the middle 20th century, when he mass exodus to the cities began all across Italy, and the mid 1990s, when Rick Steves really put the Cinque Terre on the map, that most of the towns are half-abandoned.
A few local entrepreneurs leaped on that, snapped up dozens of buildings and apartments in their hometowns, and are now renting them out for much less than the local hotels charge (anywhere from 20 to 60 Euro per person per night)--and usually that gets you a full apartment, with a kitchen and everything. It's your best bet for finding a 2 or 3 bedroom joint for a week-long stay.

Incidentally, you're going at a great time of year--well after the crushing crowds of summer have vanished. You'll see miniature elevated monorails carting grapes off the terraced vineyards to make in the local excellent white wine, and nets stretched under the olive groves to cushion the fall of any fruits (bruised olives make for acidic oil, and affects the "virginity" level the bottle can claim).

In popular Vernazza, the centermost of the five villages, ring up the Trattoria Gianni Franzi (0187-821-003 or fax 0187-812-228) to arrange a room. In the more bustling town of Riomaggiore, anchoring the south end of the Cinque Terre, you'll have even more luck, for there are two stellar agencies with lots of properties scattered all across the village. From their pink-striped awning, brothers Luciano and Roberto Fazioli, Via Colombo 94 (tel. 0187-920-822; fax 0187-920-904) rent about two dozen rooms and apartments, many with stellar sea views. Down near the docks, Mario Franceschetti runs a rental room business called Mar Mar (tel. and fax 0187-920-932; marmar.5terre.com), handling eight apartments that sleep 2 to 6 people, as well as a B&B (and a laundry with Internet access and kayak rentals). You might also find resources at cinqueterrenet.com and aptcinqueterre.sp.it.

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Reid Bramblett: Alright. Well, that's it for my hour. Sorry I couldn't get to all the questions, but you know we do this every week on a different destination, so tune back in. I hope everyone out there headed to Italy (and to Maine, Poland, Vegas, Zurich, Madrid, Reno, and any of the other places highlighted in the current issue of Budget Travel magazine) has a fantastic time. For anyone who's interested, I'll also have some posts from the road of my recent adventures in Sicily available at reidsguides.com in the coming week--just can't get enough of that Italy. Arriverderci!

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