Trip Coach: July 17, 2007

Bt Thumbnail DefaultBt Thumbnail Default

Christopher Winner, editor of Italy-based website TheAmericanMag.com, answered your questions on planning a trip to Italy.

Christopher Winner: Christopher Winner here. Greetings to all of you from Rome and thanks so much for your interesting questions. It's hotter than July these days, a beautiful, classic summer in which broiling days yield to tolerably cool nights. Before I start, I want to remind you again about the weak dollar. The euro is now worth about $1.38 and climbing. That means some exchange kiosks (including at major airports) will push it up to $1.45 -- in other words you're getting less than 75 euro cents on your dollar bill. A 100 euro meal is really $140, a $200 euro hotel room nearly $280, and so on. For those who still ask me about how much cash to take, here's a general answer. Get 150 euros per person before you travel. This is to handle any travel emergencies on arrival. The rest you can get through the ubiquitous Bancomat bank machines, now equipped for Visa, Mastercard, Amex, etc. (check into service charges). Ensure you take two cards, keeping one with you and one in reserve. Photocopy the data page of your passport and keep that with you in lieu of lugging your passport around and risk losing it while seeing the sights. Passports can be kept at the hotel, with the front desk if you choose. Pick-pocketing is a summer problem on buses (because people wear little clothing and have so few places to put important documents), so dodge potential mishaps. Remember, it's July and August. While the tourist sites are all open, museums too, some restaurants close for the holidays (particularly between August 10 and 25th). So call ahead or ask your hotel concierge. Now, on to your questions.

_______________________

Payson, Arizona: I just read with interest that there has been no garbage collection in the Naples area and what looks like southwestern Italy for several months. We are planning to be in Caserta October 27-29, after which we plan to head south along the Amalfi coast, stopping in Paestum for 2 nights and then on to Sicily. We will be in Sicily from November 1-7. From Palermo we will either drive back to Rome or take the Ferry Palermo/Naples. There are 3 people in our party. My questions are: If the garbage strike continues that long, will the areas we are visiting be affected? How reliable is the Palermo/Naples Ferry since we will be crossing on November 7th and are catching our homeward flights on November 9th from Rome? Thank you, Leslie

Christopher Winner: Dear Leslie: The truth about the garbage situation is that there's no end in sight. The city and region simply can't keep up with the waste that has already accumulated. It's not so much a strike as it is the lack of anyplace to dispose of the garbage since several waste facilities shut down since 2006. That said, the problem is most dramatic in the outlying sections of Naples. (You can have a look a late night May emergency pickup at youtube.com/watch?v=l7QEDOitTAc). Still, this shouldn't concern you unduly. Your itinerary sounds just fine. The Naples-Palermo ferry is a vital link and very reliable. Beware of weather, however. October and November can kick up rough water. The ferry is storm-sensitive.

_______________________

Apex, NC : We are booked on atransatlantic cruise for April 26, 2008 from Miami to Rome. No airfare was included, nor was it offered. Would we be better off touring on our own and paying over $200/night for a hotel room in each city in Italy, or booking a land tour? What is your opinion as to booking reasonable airfare back to Raleigh, NC? and shouldn't the cruiseline be offering cut rate fares back to the US?

Christopher Winner: I don't know the details of your cruise so I can't make an informed remark. I can say that the Atlantic is a rocky stretch of water in April -- so don't expect a Caribbean lullaby. Honestly, it would seem to me to make more sense to fly to Italy, tour the country, and if you wish to take a cruise take one that leaves from Genoa or Venice and does the Mediterranean. Costa cruises has some interesting itineraries (costacruise.com).

_______________________

Mentone, California: I have arranged a solo trip to Florence and Venice for the first two weeks of November. I plan to spend 1 week in Florence, then train to Venice and back after a week to fly out of Florence. Will I need to make reservations for museums during this off season time? (I am pretty spontaneous...which is why I love traveling alone!) Also, I read somewhere that it is not common for women to dine alone in Italy? And lastly, if you were a tourist making a day trip out of Florence, would you choose Piza or Siena? Thanks for your time, I am packed already (in July!) and anxious to fall in love with your country! Annie

Christopher Winner: Dear Annie: Listen, lots of people ask me about the matter of museum reservations, but the truth is that short of some remarkable exhibit you're in fine shape just showing up. I wouldn't worry on that count. As for dining alone, I answered that question in a previous chat that's posted. Briefly, I don't think it's a problem. You may receive some attention, but if you're civil and clear with your "no," would-be "escorts" will leave you alone. The trick is never seeming flustered or angry. And don't be surprised if you're the only woman dining alone. Just enjoy the meal. As for the day trip I'd chose Siena because it has immense flavor and the whole of the city is a marvel. Pisa offers mostly the tower and the remarkable monuments around it. After that, it's mundane -- at least to me. Siena is layered. You can still get lost in it. And the main piazza (Piazza del Campo) is a wonder of the world.

_______________________

Sarver, PA: We're going to spend 3 days in the CinqueTerre in late Sept.(25,26,27). Should we have an itinerary, or just take walks at whim? Is there a chance the water will be warm enough to swim? Also, we have a quandry about where to stay, so have not yet booked a room (some places I've inquired, don't have twin accommodations for my sister and me). We are seeking an "authentic" experience, with good food, swimming and scenic (but not too strenuous) walks.

Christopher Winner: It depends on your bathing habits. The sea in Liguria near La Spezia is always chilly. Late September can be lovely but it's a borderline line time. And Cinque Terre is north Italy, more subject to the spell of early autumn. The Cinque Terra site is useful cinqueterreedintorni.it/eng/htm/scheletro/index.asp?lang=E and in English. It has a good list of possible accommodations. You don't need an itinerary as such. Find a place to stay and use the train to travel between the rocky towns. If you prefer, you can "walk," but the walks qualify as serious hikes. Regarding your booking, just book a room with two beds, "due letti." It may take you a while to find a place that doesn't insist on offering separate rooms to grab additional revenue.

_______________________

South Milwaukee, WI: Hi Christopher, We plan to visit the southern part of Italy in early October. We'd like to fly to London and take an EasyJet flight over. In order to see the ruins and the "real" culture of Italy (how people really live), what cities do you recommend that we see and stay in? We'd like to include Sicily in our trip too. We'd love to stay in a B&B or someone's home. What city should we fly in and out of? We will have a week to explore. Also, is EasyJet's on-time and cancellation/changes reputation good or bad? Thanks, Wende

Christopher Winner: Dear Wende: Nice idea. Easyjet and Ryanair both have a slew of flights into Rome Ciampino airport (that's where I'd land). Or, if you prefer you can land elsewhere: London to Milan or Pisa., and come to Rome by train or car. Regarding B&B's, see b-b.rm.it and bbitalia.com/html/english.htm -- they offer a good (if primitive) selection of possibilities in the capital. There's also a useful link to other cities and towns. Consider this idea: Fly to Rome; rent a car; drive southeast to Campobasso in Molise, then to Naples, along the Amalfi coast, then head south toward rugged Cosenza, Basilicata (amazing hilltop towns: Melfi, Rivello, Acerenza) finally to Reggio, where you take the ferry to Messina. From Messina, drive west toward Palermo. This idea can also been translated into train travel, but the deeper inland you go (off the tourist route) the more dicey the train connections. An alternative to the route I've mentioned is driving east toward colorful Puglia (Foggia, Bari, Taranto, Lecce) in Italy's heel. Different people will promote different itineraries. But if you want to include Sicily, the heel takes you a little off track. In any event, the distances shouldn't be measured in American terms. Crossing Italy at its narrowest point is only a four-hour drive.

_______________________

Portland, Oregon: We will be staying in a villa outside Orvieto for 2 weeks in September. We would appreciate help with planning day trips using Orvieto as a base, whether by train or car. Our primary interests include architecture, food and wine, interesting walks and hikes, photography, and shopping. Thanks!

Christopher Winner: Oh my! Orvieto puts you in striking distance of just about everything. You have Rome an hour away; Florence (and all of Tuscany) to the north. Have a look at orvietoonline.com -- it's not well organized but has good raw information. Visit Perugia, which is lovely and underrated. You also have Arrezzo, Montalcino, Todi, Bolsena. It's an abundance of riches, really. Since you'll be there for two weeks I'd highly recommend a rental car. The trains simply don't get you efficiently back and forth to and from the smaller towns.

_______________________

Pleasantville, NJ: I am thinking on going to Italy next year. I like to travel doing my own itinerary because I like to experince the "local" flavors in places, but for Italy I was thinking to take a group tour becasue I never been there before. Would I be disappointed by the restriction of the program schedule?

Christopher Winner: Blunt answer: yes. A program schedule can be annoying. However, if you've never been to Italy and want to get a taste of it, a group tour isn't necessarily a bad idea. Otherwise you need to focus on one or two cities and leave it at that. Or, for that matter, stick to Rome or Florence. The answer to your questions depends fundamentally on how adventurous you are and how daunted you might feel, alone, in a place that doesn't speak your language. Good tours take you off the beaten track, to smaller cities. I'd strongly recommend a tour that doesn't focus all its energies on trying to show you all of one city. That can be exasperating. A bus tour, north to south or vice versa, might fit the bill.

_______________________

Atlanta, GA: I'm taking my first trip to Italy in November, and have heard that one of the best ways to get around is by train. Is that true, and is traveling by train expensive?

Christopher Winner: You heard correctly. Train travel is convenient and effective. If there's a caveat it's that some smaller towns (particularly hilltop ones) are not reachable. Gubbio, in Umbria, is absolutely spectacular -- getting there by train is difficult. Same with Assisi. Costs vary. A fast train (Eurostar) from Rome to Florence runs 33 euros one-way, about $42. Commuter trains are cheaper. Bottom line, train travel is fantastic in connecting most major cities and large towns.

_______________________

Rockford, IL: My wife and I are going to Italy the last two weeks of October. We love walking tours and would like to know who you suggest for Venice and Rome.

Christopher Winner: This question is so immense I don't know where to start. Let me just repeat what I've said before in these chats. Find a spot you like in the city, take out a map, and wander. Just wander. Venice is simpler. There are no cars. The insides of the city are circumscribed. Walking goes, literally, with the territory. When you can't walk any more you have to board a vaporetto, the water metro. Rome's another story. I'd head for the Palatine and Aventine hills, into the great greenery in shouting distance of the Colosseum. I'd walk through the Villa Borghese, from Piazza del Popolo to the zoo. All this, truly all of it, you can see on any good map. Plan less, walk more. Get lost!

_______________________

Middleville, MI: Nov. 5 we leave for a trip to Itlay with 2 friends in their late fifties for the second fall in a row. Our iterinary is Rome-Siena-Florence-Venice( where we depart on a cruise to the Greek Islands for 7 days). Our friends have never been to Europe but we will be repeating our stays in these cities. We would like to take day trips from Siena and Florence by bus or train. Do you have any suggestions as where to visit?

Christopher Winner: In Tuscany (from Florence or Siena): Lucca, Pienza, Montepulciano, San Gimignano, Cortona (of "Under the Tuscan Sun" fame), Montalcino, Volterra, and Orbetello -- which overlooks Monte Argentario (a rugged promontory that has two chic ports, Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole, interesting even in the autumn.) See: theamericanmag.com/features.php?show_article_id=456&show_column_id=20

_______________________

Brookfield, Wisconsin: My husband and I plan to visit Florence and Venice next May. He would like to show me the area around Aviano, where he was stationed in the Air Force in the 1970s. I think the best way to do this is to hire a driver. How can we find a reliable car and driver for a day? What should we expect to pay? Or, should we rent a car and drive ourselves? (I've seen Italians drive!)

Christopher Winner: I covered Aviano for USA Today in the days of the Kosovo bombings. It has its own site, which you no doubt know: aviano.af.mil A train from Venice (Mestre) to Aviano (changing at Sacile) runs about 90 minutes. There are many daily departures. That will be far cheaper than hiring a driver, which from Venice (Mestre or Pordenone, since there are no automobiles in Venice) will run you at least $200 roundtrip. Don't be afraid of Italian driving. Northern drivers are more sensible than their southern counterparts. Countless U.S. military personnel drive throughout the north.

_______________________

St. Augustine, Florida: We're planning a trip next year 2008, and noticed that there are large differences in price from January to April. Is the weather that cold/bad in the winter months?

Christopher Winner: January and February are tourism's dry gulches. Prices are slashed post-Christmas to try and attract tourists. It's a great time to travel. And no, the weather isn't that bad. Of course you can get rain and cold. But it's winter. You can also get cold and rainy spells in April, only they're more expensive, so to speak. I've always maintained that Rome, Florence, and particularly Venice are best explored in late January and early February. Those pre-carnival weeks are the ones in which you get the bigger cities most to yourself. The temperatures average in the 50s by day in the south, a little colder in the north. Freezing is rare. A foggy Venice day in late January could give you all of Venice's St. Mark's Square to yourself. I've found myself alone at the Pantheon at Midnight on chilly Rome nights in February. I've stood in St. Peter's Square alone in the (rare) snow. These are experiences of a lifetime.

_______________________

Sandy Hook, Kentucky: My wife and I are leaving Cincinnati for Rome, August 31, where we will embark on a 12 day cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean, arriving in Vienna, September 14 to spend 4 days before flying home Sept. 18th. We are 68 and 70, in good health, and want to know the most economical means to transfer from the airport to downtown hotels, with 6 bags, in both Rome and Vienna since we did not sign up for transfer with the cruise line.

Christopher Winner: In Rome and Vienna both I would wholeheartedly advise taking cabs from the airport. They are worth the additional expense. It's all very rational in Vienna, a little less so in Rome. Please see: theamericanmag.com/article.php?show_article_id=670 Though the taxi will run you four times the train, you can't be hauling around six bags alone. It's simply out of the question. Take the cab.

_______________________

Cranford, NJ: Good Morning! My cousin and I (two middle aged women) are taking our 13yr old boy (mine) and 16yr old girl(hers) to Rome, Florence and Venice on Nov. 9th for one week. It will be a "first" for European travel for both kids, so needless to say, we want to make this an EXTREMELY memorable trip! Do you have any specific recommendations for this age group? Most of the guide books I have seen are for younger kids or adults. I have a passion for Italy that I would like to pass on to my son, so anything you can recommend, i.e. books to read prior to going, restaurants, off the beaten path places to see, etc, would REALLY be appreciated! Thanks, Karen

Christopher Winner: Dear Karen: Have a look at our restaurant reviews (theamericanmag.com) under Tuscany and Rome (good food, I fear, isn't Venetian strong point). One week is a short stint. Have a look at travelforkids.com -- not bad. There's also initaly.com/~initaly/regions/kids/kidintro.htm -- basic, but once again useful. "Italy With Kids," by Barbara Pape is available from amazon.com. There's also the "Kids Go Europe" series by Ellen Mouchawar and Marvin Mouchawar. When in Florence, take the kids to Pisa. The Leaning Tower is a great teenaged sight to behold. Its lean makes no sense and inspires awe and questions, which is what you want. Enjoy.

_______________________

Seattle, Washington: Three of us will be visiting Italy in October (we hope)for two weeks. We are trying to finalize an itinerary (Rome, Umbria, Tuscany--maybe basing in Sienna and going to Florence from there, Cinque Terra, Milan) but are struggling with how to be realistic about time needed in each place and how much time it will take to travel from place to place. Two of us are novice travelers, so that increases the trepidation & uncertainty! I guess my specific question is: is it realistic to think we can "see" Umbria and Tuscany without a car? If we didn't have a car and needed to base in one town in Umbria and one in Tuscany--what towns would you recommend? Is it feasible (i.e., economically feasible) to contract with a guide for day trips? A major consideration is not to feel too rushed. Sorry to be so vague, just feeling overwhelmed!

Christopher Winner: No. It is not realistic to "see" Tuscany and Umbria without a car. You CAN see Florence and a few other towns. That yes. There are commuter trains from Florence to nearby gems. So, to answer your question precisely. In Tuscany, stay in Florence. It's not as charming as a town but it makes things easier. You could also select Siena, but you'd need to get past the trepidation. Some of the back roads are narrow. Lighting is poor at night. In Umbria, stay in Perugia or Orvieto (the latter is closer to Rome). If you want to avoid renting a car, you just need to narrow your choices. For example, stay in Florence but pick a few towns in commuter train range, including Siena. If in Perugia or Orvieto, take the train (two switches) to Gubbio. Getting a guide for day-trips is possible (anything's possible): see tours-italy.com/our_tour_guides.htm, for example. Finally, the travel times (train or car) are comparatively short. The fast trains from Rome to Florence, for example, are 90 minutes. Florence-Siena (slower train) is also 90 minutes. Don't let yourself feel overwhelmed. Pick a place, settle in, go from there.

_______________________

San Miguel de Allende, Guanauato MEXICO: We are planning to travel to Rome, Sicily, Naples & the Amalfi Coast in October. Should we be concerned about the garbage strike?

Christopher Winner: I want to reiterate what I said before. This is not a strike per se. There are insufficient places to put the refuse, so it piles up. Concerned? No. It's not pleasant but it's been a problem since 2006.

_______________________

Naperville, Illinois: My husband, adult son, and I are planning a 12-14 day trip to Sicily in late December. (We live near Chicago.) We hope to see a decent amount but don't like to rush from town to town, site to site. Could you suggest an itinerary that would allow us to get a good feel for the island without losing our sanity? If possible, we'd like to rely on buses and trains to get us around. Thank you.

Christopher Winner: If you get to Palermo (where the airport is), you can easily take trains to Agrigento (a must; 2 hours) and Messina (3 hours). Catania is a bit harder, a longer haul (5 hours). Taormina, another must, is 4:30. It's hard to give you an itinerary because there are two Sicily's -- the coasts and inland. Inland you get villages so rugged and removed from notions of classic tourism that you might find yourself thinking you're in Asia. The are many towns with spectacular Greek and Roman ruins. Siracusa has an island peninsula, Ortigia, which is breathtaking. You might consider renting a car in Palermo and driving south to Agrigento, then east to Taormina, to Catania, then Messina, and along the coast back to Palermo. You have two weeks. It's perfectly feasible. I think Sicily better lends itself to car than train.

_______________________

Saddle Brook, New Jersey: Hi, Christopher. We would like to know of a villa, apartment or residence in Cefalu, Sicily for rent for a family of four. No date set, probably 2 weeks in July 2008. Two teenagers, two adults. From Newark airport, or jfk. Is it safe online for overseas booking? Thank you, Vince

Christopher Winner: Dear Vince: You probably know of thinksicily.com. There's also vrbo.com and sicilyrentals.com. Also: kefatour.com. My only advice is not to conduct the entire transaction online. Stop and call the owners or managers of those places you might be interested in. If they don't speak English, say "per favore inglese," and get them to find someone who does speak English. Look at previous guest comments. Sent up a direct email link between the renters and you, so you can see inside photos that aren't up on the Web. This is essential. Don't do anything on impulse.

_______________________

Walnut, CA: What is the best way to get from Rome to Civitavecchia?

Christopher Winner: From Rome central station (Termini), 15 departures daily. About 1 hour.

_______________________

Walnut, CA: What is the best way to get from Rome's airport to the center of town?

Christopher Winner: The LeonardoExpress train to Roma Termini main station. Every 20 minutes, 11 euros, about $15. This assumed you are arriving at Fiumicino (or Leonardo da Vinci airport). Ciampino is more complicated and a cab is more appropriate. Re cabs, see theamericanmag.com/article.php?show_article_id=670

_______________________

Centennial, Colorado: How can four hilarious friends, age 60 but in great shape, spend 10 days to two weeks touring Italy? We're not "beach people" but would like to do Venice, Tuscany, Pompeii, etc. We could leave out of Cincinnati in Sept. 2008. Tips please on getting around without a car but using local guides, if necessary. Thanks, Anne

Christopher Winner: Dear Anne: Sure. Fly into Venice, take the train south to Florence, then Rome and Naples. You can see Tuscany in day trips from Florence and Pompeii when in Naples. If you stick to four cities you don't need a car. I'd suggest you don't need a guide. You said it yourself: you're in great shape. Guides would cramp your hilarity.

_______________________

Marathon, FL: My husband and I are planning to spend a month in Italy during June, 2008. If we wanted to take a series of day trips from a fairly central location, what city and booking entity to find a rental home would you recommend?

Christopher Winner: Rome is still the most central place. But if you want a more rustic location, pick Orvieto or Florence, places that are nestled on major train routes. Otherwise you'll find yourself forced to change often or ride slow commuter lines. Regarding rentals see, homeinitaly.com, italyrentals.com, cottagestocastles.com, and slowtrav.com/italy. Shop around, compare, make calls.

_______________________

San Francisco, California: I am traveling to Naples and Salerno by cruiseship next month. What is the best way to experience the Amalfi coast in the short time I have in those two port cities (about six hours in each).

Christopher Winner: Six hours gives you little time to work with. I'm fairly sure your tour operator will offer city visits. That's the norm for short layovers. You might want to take them up on it, because doing it on your own you run the real risk of not making it back to the liner. Salerno's attraction is the port, so that's not difficult. Naples is a bit different, so see if can get an excursion to Ischia or Capri. Again, I strongly suspect the tour operator will have something set up -- probably so you can see Pompeii and Herculaneum. I'd normally suggest more, but south Italy can turn chaotic unexpectedly.

_______________________

Austin, Texas: Last October I went to Italy for the first time, visiting Venice, Florence, Orvieto (only a day), Rome, and Pompeii. I am planning a return trip, and I'd like to know your recommendations for a second trip to Italy. I'd like to see some coastal towns and smaller villages, too. Thanks!

Christopher Winner: Try driving from Pisa along the Tyrannean coast. Livorno to Orbetello (where you'll see the striking Monte Argentario promontory), then inland to Viterbo, southward to Lazio (Rome). Then it's on to the Campania coast that includes Anzio (site of the 1943 landings), Nettuno (where baseball was born in Italy, thanks to GIs playing in a cemetery), Gaeta (a naval base, but a nice town), then Naples and the Amalfi coast. The Adriatic coastal equivileltn (and remember, we're not talking about a California coast highway; it's more rugged) is to drive the eastern lane: Rimini, Pesaro, Ancona, Pescara. These are all small cities with rich, non-touristy attractions. Around them are tiny villages you'll literally bump into or hear of by word of mouth. The only way to successfully escape the tourist drag trip is to pick itineraries that consciously leave them out and discover an Italy that creeps up on you. Italy without a map, so to speak.

_______________________

Carmichael, CA: What's the best time of year to visit the Puglia region of Italy?

Christopher Winner: September into October; alternatively March before Easter. If you're doing back roads Puglia off-season is best, above all because of the summer heat and the number of establishments that shut down from July to the first week of September.

_______________________

Spencerport. NY: I will be arriving in Florence in late afternoon on a Monday this September (when many of the museums are closed). I will have all day Tuesday but then fly out on Wednesday morning. How should I organize my time to see the highlights?? Should I purchase tickets online before leaving to ensure getting into the museums without waiting on long lines and is there a better site for tickets?

Christopher Winner: Have a look at these three: weekendafirenze.com/bigphp/mus.php?skin=fi&mus=uffizi, florence-museum.com, and florenceart.it.
I'm not a devotee of such services -- I've always taken the "wing-and-prayer" approach --but if your time is limited you don't want to miss the chance to miss the Uffizi and the David. So try. At the same time, don't become obsessed with reserving. Many ask me about the Vatican Museum. While it's true that there can be long waits, few have actually been unable to enter because they failed to arrive early. I repeat my old mantra: Travel for pleasure, circulate for the joy of absorbing another culture. Don't apply North American time and efficiency standards to a country that doesn't play by those rules. If you do, you'll quickly become exasperated.

_______________________

Rochester, NY: I will be in Venice Sept 1-8 but then plan to rent a car and drive to the Dolomites for two days. I will then return to Venice to take the train to Florence. I hope to stay in the Castelrotto area northeast of Bolzano. Do you think this is a good base for touring the area? Also, when I leave and need to get back to Venice more quickly what is the better route - back to Cortina or west to Bolzano and the A22?

Christopher Winner: Castelrotto is lovely. It's very much Austrian Italy and is as good a small place as any to use as a base (see the town site castelrotto.org). You also get a more Teutonic version of Italy, which many miss because they focus on the center and south, omitting the great tufts of land that were once controlled by the Hapsburgs. The best directions (for your Venice return) are those furnished by locals, not me. The road through Cortina is probably a better choice than the A22, though not as direct. Remember, though, that there's no such thing as "driving" to Venice; instead, all car travel begins in Mestre.

_______________________

Minneapolis MN: We will be in the Pisa area for 2 weeks in mid-September. We enjoy hiking - are there particular places you'd suggest for day hikes in the area? And are there any "not in the guide books" things you'd suggest we see/do in Pisa or Lucca?

Christopher Winner: The state park near Pisa (Parco di Migliarino, San Rossore, Massaciuccoli) is a strange, sandy, tree-filled marvel on the coast near Pisa. Composer Giacomo Puccini lived there. It's in the guidebooks, yes, but it's still in the raw. There's the Massaciuccoli lake and the forest around it. It's great hiking terrain and has herons -- a rare Italian sight (parks.it/parco.migliarino.san.rossore/Eiti.html). People marvel about Tuscany but rarely consider that a part of Tuscany is on the sea. It's Italy's narrowness that's not imagined. Nearby are Massa and Carrara, of marble fame.

_______________________

El Paso, Texas.: Is it possible for people with special needs to go on trips to the non touristic Italy--this in order to live and understand the local culture, people, gastronomy, etc? What would you suggest?

Christopher Winner: This is a tough question. There are hundreds of culinary tours to suit different palates and curiosity. I recommend you get in touch with an American, Wendy Holloway, who runs a B&B near Rome (slowtrav.com/cl/detail.asp?l=2796 or flavorofitaly.com/home.php. She's well-informed regarding these kinds of possibilities and of course is American, from Pittsburgh. There's no substitute for finding a personal contact and getting one insider's view. Wendy may in turn give you other suggestions. But she's a good place to start, since she's a fine cook. You'll never get an interesting personal food itinerary from a guide book. As generous as they are with information, they end up confusing you. Find a real soul to correspond with via email or by phone.

_______________________

Lambertville, New Jersey : My husband and I travel to Europe for 2.5 weeks next month (August) with our active teenage sons, arriving in Italy for seven nights, split between Monterosso in Cinque Terre for hiking and the sea and Rome for the classic sights. We want to pack lightly and blend in as much as possible. Are teens in Europe wearing polo shirts or T-shirts? Are shorts to-the-knee okay for entrance to most churches? Do they need long pants? We've traveled extensively on this side of the Atlantic, but it's a first trip for the boys to Europe. Any tips for teens are appreciated.

Christopher Winner: Teens in Italy look to me like teens in the States. No worries there. Italian pop culture borrows heavily from American trends. I'm old-school so I don't think shorts are appropriate in church. But I've seen others wear them. The churches once frowned on this but see that the times they are a changin' and have backed off. Have them bring at least a pair of long pants for any "formal" occasion that might come up. Also, bear in mind that while Italian teens (and young women) may seem ultra-casual, there are still more old fashioned cultural barriers behind the cool look. I wear a Lacoste shirt or something similar in summer and get away with it. Italians will never pressure you about what you wear but they're always pleasantly surprised by well-dressed Americans. It's your call.

_______________________

Watertown, MA: I am a 34-year old single woman from Boston who just bought a ticket to go to to Italy, first time, and my first time out of the country! I will be there October 9-17 and staying with friends who are living in Rome. But also want to go to Venice and Florence. Is this enough time? On a budget?! I have no idea about the trains, I've looked up some info and am a bit overwhelmed. Ok, a lot overwhelmed. My friends are going to Venice for two days while I'm there, but it's $1000 for 2 nights!!! That's more than my plane ticket. Or should I jsut spend all my time around Rome?

Christopher Winner: Ha! Stay absolutely calm. First, your friends will help you. Second, the trains are simple. The $1,000 two-night bill your friends are running up seems exorbitant to me (of course, there are hotels where you spend that for ONE night). You can get to Florence and back from Rome by Eurostar (fast train) for $80 (and stay the day). But here I go again: why not spend one lovely week in Rome (and add Florence) instead of hopping to Venice and getting yourself instantly travel-weary? Rome's worth a week. Add Florence (two nights in a small hotel should run you about $180/200, or less) and you have a nice stay. If you absolutely want to go to Venice, fine: It's a six-hour ride. You can probably find a cheaper hotel in Padua and get into the city from there. Whatever you do, don't panic. People are usually out to help, not undermine. Italians (though unpredictable) like to help and like women -- or the men do. Bottom line, you CAN do Rome, Florence, and Venice on a budget. A grand isn't necessary UNLESS the euro continues clobbering the dollar, something you need to check into as your dollar gets close to being valued at .50 euro cents.

_______________________

Alexandria, VA: I traveling solo to Rome for two days, and would like to know how I can make the best of the nightlife in this magnificent city? Are there any kind of restaurants, bars, etc where groups of people are known to strike up conversations with everyone around them? Thank you for your help.

Christopher Winner: If you look at the very bottom of our restaurant list theamericanmag.com/article.php?show_article_id=601 you'll find a section on "aperitivos" -- and I think the wine bars listed by Nicole Arriaga are an excellent place to meet and be met. Campo de' Fiori in Rome has itself become a giant wine bar, much to the chagrin of many. But you'll find wine bars, crowds, open-air restaurants... it's all there.

_______________________

Brooklyn, New York: What is the best way to travel from Venice to Rome? There are 3 couples and were will be traveling on 11/19/2007

Christopher Winner: Eurostar train. Six hours. Efficient and comfortable.

_______________________

Boston, Mass: I am having trouble finding suggestions for inexpensive decent restaurants in Venice. We would like to find places where dinner would not cost more than about 25 euro per person. All the suggestions seem to be for ciccheti or pizza. Please help.

Christopher Winner: The New York Times recently did a flattering piece (travel.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/travel/01Choice.html), but I can't say I agree with much that's in it. Good food is not a Venice strong suit, nor is inexpensive food. I've mostly given up and confine myself to pizzerias with wood-burning ovens ("forno a legno"). At least that minimizes the damage. So, my answer is catch-as-catch-can.

_______________________

Encinitas, CA: My husband and I are visiting Venice, Italy, for just a few nights in August 2007 before and after a RCI cruise. (August 18 and 19) With just a few days in Venice, what would you recommend we do?

Christopher Winner: Venice has an uncanny ability to tell you what to do. The space is so limited that you could easily spend two days wondering around the "calle" near St. Mark's and Rialto. I never miss taking the "vaporetto" to the island of San Michele. There, you'll find the cemetery where Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Pound are buried. It's deeply moving.

_______________________

Houston, Texas: I keep reading about the International Driver's License...it is needed; it is not needed. I have been traveling to Italy twice a year for almost 10 years and each time have rented a car. I have only been stopped once and had only my Texas license. Nothing was said to me at that time. Do we really need an international license? (Which I understand is not actually a license at all.) Grazie, Kyra

Christopher Winner: Dear Kyra: I could launch into a speech about this, but I won't. With a rental, your American license will get you through the day. The International License, while a silly piece of paper, nonetheless recognizes the validity of your U.S. license. If anything untoward happens, having one is helpful. Since you've been stopped and gotten away with flashing Texas, there's little I can tell you. Sometimes (as in all nations) it depends on the mood of those who stop you. The International License is a good-faith gesture that keeps you on the more honest side of things, though honesty isn't necessarily the lay of this land.

_______________________

Honolulu, HI: Can you steer me in the right direction in locating an Italian language school in Italy. Preferably in a medium sized city in Italy. I am looking for a school that has classes up to a month in length. The time of year is not as important. Perhaps you know a school with a good reputation, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Thanks

Christopher Winner: In Rome, the Dante Alighieri (clidante.it/inglese/default.htm). I would look into Perugia, in Umbria, which has an excellent university and some good language schools (comitatolinguistico.com). In fact, I'd advise you to learn Italian outside Rome. Cost, of course, depends on your pocket book. Once again, the weakness of the U.S. dollar works against you.

_______________________

Lake Forest, Illinois: My husband and I, along with another couple, will be traveling in Sicily from September 29-October 8. I am interested in locating safe areas away from traffic where we can rent bikes. Are there any bike paths suitable for "weekend warrior" cyclists?

Christopher Winner: See biketravel.net/english/sicily/estarts.shtml, 4real.co.uk/trips/Cycling-In-Sicily.html, hookedoncycling.co.uk/Italy/West%20Sicily/west%20sicily.html. Please research this carefully, since Sicily is not particularly bike-friendly. Most of what I've sent you ate tours. Why? Most people prefer to bike in groups.

_______________________

Broomes Island, MD: Hi. We travel to Italy often as my husband has family living in Trento and San Remo. My question is what would you say would be the best agency or airline to book a trip with since we normally look for great airfare on the internet? We have two small children under 4 who travel with us as well. Are there any tour operators that may have a child's discount? Thank You. Floraisa P.S.-We may be traveling in October from the Washington, D. C. area.

Christopher Winner: Dear Floraisa: There is no one best agency. You'll have to do the requisite trawling. But you can fly into Venice, which puts you I striking distance of Trento.

_______________________

Beaufort, North Carolina: Christopher, I'm an American university professor, and with my husband I will be in Europe from Oct. 1 - Dec. 18. (I work online - nice!) We'll be in Italy from Oct. 31 - Nov. 23. We plan 3-4 days in Cinque Terre, 4-5 in Florence and Rome each, 2-3 days in Bologna, and 8-10 days in a rural area close to medieval towns. We'll use a car only for the rural part.

--- For Florence, Bologna, and Rome, I'd like to find lodging at a university. Suggestions please.

--- Also, for All Saints' Day on Nov. 1, what kinds of closings and/or restrictions on travel, restaurants, etc. might we encounter? Thanks, Kay

Christopher Winner: Dear Kay: University lodging isn't as simple as it might sound. Bologna is feasible. The university there sprawls and has housing. But in Florence and Rome students attend day and night courses and live at home. There are no dorms. I'm honestly not sure that your plan, while intriguing, has easily accomplished solutions. The overall dilemma in Italy is housing -- not enough of it -- which is why hotel costs are so high. The demand is there. You could stay in religious spots. Those exist. But I'd still opt for a pensione. All Saints falls on Thursday, Nov. 1, which means it'll carry to Friday. But it's a religious holiday in a now secular, consumer-driven state. You'll find no major disruptions. Consider it a Sunday.

_______________________

Honolulu, HI: I am half Italian and would like to find out how I can go about getting information on purchasing a house in Italy. I am a US citizen. Ideally, I would like to focus on the Molise region of Italy. Do you know of an agency that assists US citizens in what I have been told is a complicated process of purchasing property. I really do not know details about how to start, and perhaps you can assist me. Thanks

Christopher Winner: It IS complicated. Have a look at these sites keyitaly.com/article/how-to-buy-in-italy) and le-marche.com/Marche/html/property.htm. They'll give you a sense of what you face. There are also books. See: amazon.co.uk/Complete-Guide-Buying-Property-Italy/dp/0749441518/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_b/203-0305619-4948702. Finally, here's a cautionary tale from novelist Linda Lappin: theamericanmag.com/article.php?show_article_id=607. I don't think this is something you can seriously undertake without living in Italy first -- even if it's only an extended visit.

_______________________

Leesburg, Virginia: Hi, my husband and I are planning our third trip to Italy. This time we've rented and apartment on the seafront in Castiglione Della Pescaia. On our last trip we spent one day in CDP and loved it. Our last trip was in the area south of Siena. We spent 2 days at the hot springs San Giovanni Rapolano Terme-such a nice facility and very new. Can you reccomend a terme near CDP? I know about Saturnia but it is 2 hours away--do you know something closer and similar to Rapolano Terme? One more thing--my husband wants to go out on a fishing boat but all the websites are in Italian--any suggestions? I do speak a bit of Spanish and that helps us a lot as we enjoy getting off the "tourist path". Really excited about exploring the Etruscan sites. Thank you, Jane

Christopher Winner: Dear Jane: For fun, see Chianciano and Montecatini. I have a quiet favorite in Bagno Vignoni (ctnet.it/vignoni/uk-index.htm). Also see, enit.it/terme.asp?lang=UK. The fishing boat rental has me stumped. There are plenty of luxury rentals, but the offhand journey your husband seeks you can only negotiation in close quarters in a port -- preferably with an Italian middleman who's on your side.

_______________________

Santa Monica, Calif.: We will be staying in Lucca for 2 weeks (end of Sept). Do you have any suggestions for day trips and/or any suggestions for Lucca?

Christopher Winner: Lucca gives you the opportunity to get to the Pisa and the Etruscan coast. You can also head to Florence and all the adjoining medieval towns. Honestly, it's an abundance of riches. Lucca itself is worth several days, with its perfect walls and pristine center.

_______________________

Sacramento, California: We're going to Italy next May for about 3-1/2 weeks and trying to do everything by train (and a bus or 2). Is it reasonable to go to Lake Como for a couple of nights on the trip from Venice to Milan (to depart Milan back to U.S)? Or is there someplace more interesting for a first time visitor between those 2 cities? Also, are public tennis courts readily available in Rome/Florence/Tuscany and can one rent or borrow (or buy inexpensively) racquets/shoes/etc if there are courts available?

Christopher Winner: Getting camping and leisure equipment on the fly is MUCH MORE DIFFICULT in Italy than the States. Camping is not as traditional. Also, renting articles of clothing is uncommon. Italy was poor until 50 years ago. Clothes are private. They belong to you alone. As for your trip, you have the country to yourself in 25 days. Any itinerary works. Como is pleasant, so are all the other lake towns (Garda and Maggiore are also very worthwhile, Maggiore for its green-thumb sprawl). You might want to cross the border into Switzerland to see Lugano.

_______________________

Portland, Maine: Hi! My sister is graduating college in May 2008 and for years we have said we were going to visit Tuscany. For a graduation present I am paying for her trip with me to Tuscany in the summer of 2008. I was hoping you would have some suggestions on great places off the beaten track to visit and perhaps some budget accommodations or suggestions on the best time to visit (I know summer is the most expensive, but it will probably be the most convenient for both of us). She will be 22 and I will be 25 so we would love to explore some fun nightlife as well as the beautiful countryside. Thanks so much for any help or guidance you can offer!

Christopher Winner: If you're traveling in the summer, try late June. No later. Florence night life is easier to find because of the high student population. You'll find less of that in the smaller towns and cities (Siena, for example). Tuscany is half the size of Maine so you really can't go wrong choosing a jump-off point. I'm a little taken aback when I hear "off the beaten track" because these regions are so dense -- small towns within 10 miles of one another -- that I don't sense anything forbidden or unvisited. Unless you head to Sardinia, the deep south, or Sicily. Get a map of Tuscany out, close your, eyes, let your finger fall on a spot. Then, hang out in that town, or the nearest one.

_______________________

Orlando, FL: We will be in Italy on our honeymoon from Ocotber 8th - 22nd. So far our itinerary is fly into Venice stay for a couple of days and then go to Cinque Terre, Florence and then Rome. Would you recommend trying to fit anything else in the itinerary or is that enought for that many days? I hear the Lake Como is amazing but I think it may be too cold in October and I am not sure Cinque Terre is the best option either in terms of weather - would Capri or Portofino be a better option? Could you also give one affordable restaurant recommendation for each city we have on our itinerary? thank you for any feedback you can give!

Christopher Winner: Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, and Rome are MORE THAN ENOUGH for 13 days. Trust me. In fact, since Cinque Terre is Liguria, I'd do Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, and the Amalfi coast, including Capri. Cinque Terre demands you move across the widest part of the country, east to west.

_______________________

Clinton Township, Michigan: What is the best way to find an apartment to rent in the Amalfi coast area for a month?

Christopher Winner: See amalficoastrental.com/eng/default.php, amalfirentals.com, altracostiera.com, villas-in-amalfi.villeinitalia.com. There are others, of course. My only practical suggesting is to make a direct connection via phone. Do NOT trust the Internet implicitly. Chat with the company or the owner.

_______________________

Wareham, Massachusetts: Travelling to Tuscany May 2, 2008 for one week and spending the next week in Positano. 4 women in their 40's and 50's. I would like a suggestion for a special winery/luncheon tour around the Poggibonsi area. Also, it is a 50 year birthday celebration vacation for one of us (not me). Something unforgettable in the Positano area please. Thanks, Lynne

Christopher Winner: Dear Lynn: See divinacucina.com/code/poggibonsi.html. Call them. Get to the source.

_______________________

Clay New York: We are going to Sicily in late September. Any suggestions on "don't miss" items. We have a car and a house in Nota Marina and would like to see as much as possible in 18 days. Should we try to ferry over to Northern Africa?

Christopher Winner: Obviously, Taormina and Agrigento. Also, the Aolian Islands, in particular Stromboli with its muscular volcano. Erice. Etna (another tough volcanic customer). I like Siracusa for its ancient history (port) connection. And no, I do not advise North Africa. That's for another time. It's another cultural tripwire. Stick to one. Sicily is not Italy. It's different, unique, and deserves your full attention.

_______________________

Port Murray, New Jersey: I would like to schedule some daily tours while in Milan (July 21 - July 27) and Rome (July 28 - Aug 2). I am unsure if the tours that I have come across online are reputable tour companies. The two I am currently looking at i Viator and Zani Viggi Daily Tours. How do I know if they are reputable tours? Can you suggest others that would be? This is our first time abroad and most of the time in Milan my husband has to work and I am on my own, in Rome we will both be touring. Thank you, Deb

Christopher Winner: Dear Deb: It's unfair of me to judge that which I don't know, and I don't know these two companies. Alpitour is strong alpitour.it/vacanze/italia_mare/index.asp. SlowTravel is also reputable: slowtrav.com/italy/planning/group_tours.asp -- in terms of information. Also see: trafalgartours.com/USA/Destinations/travel_italy.asp. How do you know if they're reputable? Well, being large and established helps. But there's no substitute for personal experience, so send messages to friends all around asking them to chip in with their experience.

_______________________

Livermore, CA: My husband and I are visiting Italy in late September for one week. We would prefer not to go to Rome or Florence, but instead focus on Tuscany. We are flying into Pisa, and we will have a car. Please give us your recommendations for leisurely touring and enjoying the countryside. Should we include Cinque Terra? Any accommodations or dining that you could suggest would be appreciated also. Thank you! Brenda and Steve

Christopher Winner: Dear Brenda and Steve: Cinque Terre takes you off the beaten track, north from Pisa toward Liguria and Genoa. I'd avoid that and bury yourself in Tuscany and Umbria. You only have a week. Drive, drive, drive. It's not difficult to find town lodging if you get lost. Just remember to avoid driving at night, since Tuscany turns very dark, very fast, with lighting only on major arteries.

_______________________

Denver, CO: Can you buy the tickets to the vatican and other attractions ahead of time to avoid long lines?

Christopher Winner: In Rome, the answer is mostly no. You have to wait your turn at the Vatican. As for the rest of the city, the lines are never impossible.

_______________________

Christopher Winner: Thanks so much for all your questions. I wish I could answer them in the detail they deserve, but time simply doesn't permit. The Internet is a great tool. Increasingly, small Italian towns are starting bilingual sites. Don't be daunted by not speaking Italian because some recommendations are obvious in any language. Bear in mind that Web trawling is no substitute for direct contact. Since phoning Italy from the North American is more inexpensive than ever, don't ever hesitate to call the "pensione" or hotel where you've booked a room. Or if you're considering hiring an interpreter you've found on the Web (or are contracting for any service, for that matter), call them first. Don't ever be afraid to ask questions. Italians enjoy trying to speak English -- it's taught in all schools. You may well be doing people a professional favor by making an effort to communicate with them. Remember not to apply American standards of instant satisfaction and customer service to Italy. You'll be disappointed. Cultures are different. Italy is more approximate in the promises made to consumers. So keep that in mind. Enjoy a beautiful country without insisting on your back-home standards. It helps with the experience. Don't be exasperated if a strike throws your best laid plans off a bit. You'll still have a good time. One of the joys of Italy well-lived is that it can help with lowering your stress levels. Try to go with the flow (so long as you don't wear old T-Shirts to nice restaurants). I recommend you read our site from time to time because it's written by Americans who live here (theamericanmag.com). Their views can be helpful. Good luck to all of you.

Related Content