Saturday, July 31, 2010

Italy travel tips: what we learned

After approximately a week and a half in three of Italy's major tourist cities -- Rome, Florence and Venice -- we made quite a few observations and realizations to share with you before moving on to Spain.

Hotels
  • In all three of our Italian hotel rooms there was a cord hanging in the shower. It was only at our Florence hotel that this cord was actually labeled, and it said do not pull unless for an emergency. That's helpful! In both Rome and Venice those cords were not labeled, and there's nothing that might tip you off to the fact that it's for emergencies only, like, say, a giant exclamation mark or bright red paint. So, don't pull the cord.
  • All three hotels required us to keep our hotel key inside a key slot next to the inside of our door while we were in the room. This serves the purpose of 1) turning on the electricity (clever earth-friendly measure, European hotels!) and 2) turning on a little LED outside your room alerting maids to the fact that you're in the room and they therefore shouldn't disturb you. This is a great system, assuming the LED is functioning, and if it's not, your maid might walk in on you. We know this from experience.

Travel
  • Validate your train tickets! When you travel on Tren Italia, as you approach the deck you'll see yellow boxes hanging on the columns. Slide your ticket into one of these to validate it. You need to do this as a "just in case" measure to avoid having to pay a potential fine.
  • There are automated ticket machines in Italian train stations, and in Rome we tried using several of them because they allow you to select among several languages. After selecting English, everything was going great, until the final step where a giant paragraph of writing comes up in Italian. This system is somewhat baffling, causing us to cancel the transaction for fear that we were about to do something we didn't want to do thanks to that giant paragraph of Italian writing. So, we found it was better to stand in line.
  • We also found it easier to buy our train tickets for our next destination when we arrived at each train station. So, we bought our tickets to Florence one day in advance when we were already traveling through the Rome train station on the metro, and we bought our tickets to Venice when we arrived in Florence. With a ticket in hand in advance we felt better and knew we had seats.
  • At the Venice airport, where we ended our time in Italy to fly to Barcelona, we arrived nearly two hours early, which was about one and a half hours too early. We had to wait for our ticket desk to even show up on the board (they change frequently and do not have employees working at them at all times). When we finally saw which ticket booth to go to after we'd been there for well over an hour, we then had to stand in a long line to get our tickets and deposit our luggage. European flights judge carry-on luggage by weight, not by size, so our carry-on luggage (that was our only luggage) that was suitable in America was not suitable in Europe. Only then could we go through security and get a quick lunch while we waited for our slightly delayed flight. I had never flown between two European countries, so this more laid-back system was a little surprising.

Food and drink
  • Remember, there's no free water at restaurants, and you won't get ice, and you won't get free refills of anything.
  • There are, though, lots of always-running public water fountains with potable water. The water is almost always cold and pretty good, so it's a great place to fill up your water bottle.
  • We got into a habit of seeking out Italian grocery stores each day between 2 and 4 p.m. when we were ready for an afternoon recharge. Our eating schedule went something like this: big breakfast, afternoon snack, big dinner. Rather than succumbing to the over-priced food vendors on the street, we could find drinks and snacks for one-third the cost at grocery stores. We especially enjoyed Lemon Soda (that's the official, proper name).
For some reason Matt got an entire loaf of olive bread at a grocery store in Lido, right outside Venice. And, that bottle of San Pelligrino Limonata is quite delicious but also available in America.
Language
Everyone will know you're American, and everyone in Rome, Florence and Venice will speak English to you. So, try as you might with your little Italian phrase book and minimal Italian skills, it won't really matter, but I still think of your attempt as a nice gesture. An alternative to this is to speak Spanish in Italy, as Matt did on a couple occasions, and he was understood. Thank goodness for romance languages!
Now, let's fly to Spain, land in Barcelona and get ready to eat a ton of tapas!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

European stop 3: Venice, Italy

We took a two-hour train ride from Florence and arrived in Venice on Tuesday, July 6. Aside from the fact that the trip set us back 84 Euros (for two tickets) and the fact that we were seated across from the real-life and twice-as-annoying version of Augustus Gloop, we had a pleasant experience and arrived easily in Venice.

Total time in Venice: 2.5 days, 3 nights

Money-saving tip: 
If you are 29 or under, purchase a Rolling Venice pass as soon as you arrive in Venice, and definitely before you buy any public transportation or sightseeing tickets. When you exit the train station, you'll see booths reading "Hello Venezia." You won't see the Rolling Venice pass advertised, but ask for it, and you'll save big bucks. Our Lonely Planet Italy book told us our passes would cost 2 Euros each, but we wound up paying 2 Euros total for two passes. What did these passes get us? For starters, we bought 72-hour vaporetto (water bus) tickets that would have cost 33 Euros each, but with our Rolling Venice pass we only paid 18 Euros each. And, at the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) we only paid 7 Euros each, compared to 13 Euros each. So, by spending 2 Euros we saved 42 Euros.

Hotel:

Albergo Basilea Hotel Venice
S. Croce-Rio Marin, 817
Price we paid per night: $142
Location: A good location is just about all this hotel has going for it. Located right on the Rio Marin, this hotel is situated away from the bustle of the Grand Canal and San Marco. But, the location offers the best of both worlds because it's only a five-minute walk to the Grand Canal and the train station and bus station.
The Rio Marin and its pretty, quiet ambiance is the best thing this hotel has to offer.
The hotel is a five-minute walk to the Ponte Scalzi, one of the three bridges that crosses the Grand Canal, and the train station is right on the other side of the bridge.
The view of the Grand Canal from the Ponte Scalzi


Room: Ugly decor, wallpaper peeling off walls...general yuck. The size of the room was better than that of the Rome hotel, and the bathroom size was actually similar to that of the Florence hotel. Still, despite not being in cramped quarters, the room's aesthetics and dirty floor took away from our enjoyment of the hotel. How do I know the floor was dirty? Matt called me Mary Magdalene throughout our trip because I got into a habit of washing my feet each afternoon when we came home for a siesta. At this hotel, though, right after I washed my feet and walked back into the bedroom, my feet would immediately be dirty again.
Blah blah blah...decor decor decor.
The bathroom, though, is decent.
Breakfast included? Funny story. We couldn't remember if breakfast was included with our room or not, but when we check in the receptionist gets out a Venice map and starts writing information on it, including the fact that breakfast is from 8-9:30 and that breakfast is, in fact, served in the breakfast room (there are also several signs throughout the hotel alerting you to the fact that breakfast is served in the breakfast room, very helpful indeed). So, our first morning we wake up and head to breakfast, only to be met by a waitress who asks our room number, gets confused, sends us to the receptionist -- the same man from the day before -- who tells us that we do not have breakfast with our room. This is awkward because we'd already filled our plates and started chowing down. Annoyed, we go to the cafe next door and have 4 Euros worth of croissants and coffee. For what it's worth, this hotel had the worst breakfast buffet of all the hotels we stayed in, so, no biggie, just mild annoyance at the poor service.
TV: Crappy little TV from 1984 with zero English-language stations and horrible reception for all the Italian stations.
Internet: You can pay to use one of two computers in the lobby. The price is reasonable and the connection speed is good.
Overall assessment: Of all the eight hotels we stayed in during our trip, this is the only one I would recommend no one book. Not only was the room uninspired and the breakfast situation frustrating, but perhaps most importantly there was loud construction going on outside our bedroom window. This construction began with intense drilling at 8 a.m. I understand that hotels must perform maintenance at times, and I don't expect it to be dead silent, but there was no attempt to do anything to compensate us for this fact...like, say, give us free breakfast, or, better yet, move us to another room.

Food:
Our food experiences in Venice were not as awesome as the ones we had in Rome and Florence, perhaps because food in Venice seems more expensive than Rome or Florence, or perhaps because I caught a 24-hour bug while in Venice and therefore enjoyed everything a little less. (I'm going to blame my brief illness on our crappy hotel, but it's more likely that my quick bug was the result of lots of adjusting to all the germs on lots of public transportation and sightseeing ventures.)

Muro
Location: San Polo (don't focus too much on addresses in Venice...just wander and hope that you find it)
Genre: Modern full-service Italian restaurant
How we found it: Wandering while looking for another restaurant, we stumbled upon this one
What we ate: Shared an appetizer of fried, so-good vegetables (healthy?) and a litre of house red wine. Steph: potato gnocchi in a cheese sauce with spinach and bacon; Matt: pizza with no cheese (which was majorly confusing for the waitress and no doubt the cook as well, but so goes it for the lactose intolerant).
Fried appetizer!
So much gnocchi!
Someone can't finish all her gnocchi...
Total cost: $56
Overall assessment: I was thrilled to see potato gnocchi on the menu, because I was surprised at how few restaurants in Italy served gnocchi. The next morning I felt a little ill, but I'm not going to blame my bug on this food that was quite delicious. This restaurant's decor stands out -- it's modern and looks more like an American restaurant than any place we visited in Italy.

Another spot to look for good food: Campo Santa Margherita. We stumbled upon this plaza not once but twice. On our second night in Venice, when I wasn't feeling too hot, we were looking for a place to eat some light food and watch the World Cup semi-finals match between Spain and Germany, and we found this large plaza that caters to a young crowd. The following night we returned somewhat unintentionally to this plaza and ate an antipasti platter and drank prosecco.
We don't know it yet, but we're almost to Campo Santa Margherita for the second night in a row.
Matt gets cute and artistic before our antipasti platter arrives.

Sightseeing:
Venice is unlike any other city in the world, so some of the best sightseeing is simply walking around and exploring. We did a lot of this, and we also did some more formal sightseeing activities as well. Three days is plenty of time to see a lot of Venice.

A long vaporetto ride from Piazzale Roma to Lido along the Grand Canal
Price: 18 Euros for a 72-hour unlimited ride pass using the Rolling Venice pass, or 33 Euros for a full-price 72-hour ticket
This was probably my favorite sightseeing activity. It involves sitting on a boat and seeing pretty things, so it's likely to be on your top-things-to-do list, too.
Tip 1: Take the number 1 vaporetto from Piazzale Roma (the bus station) to Lido (a large island away from the main section of Venice). This vaporetto will stop at each place along the Grand Canal, but if you're a nerd like me you'll take advantage of this by reading about all the sights in your Lonely Planet guide and take a ton of photos. Each leg of the trip is about one hour.
Tip 2: Although you can board this line anywhere along the Grand Canal, by starting at Piazzale Roma you get your pick of seats, and we chose to sit outside at the front of the boat (most of the seats are inside, and a lot of people wind up standing outside as well).
Tip 3: Yes, gondolas are the iconic symbol of romantic Venice waterways, but they're also really expensive and don't take you very far. If you have the money and prefer the romance of gondolas, go for it, or you can just hold your special someone's hand on the vaporetto and still have a pretty special experience...I mean, you're in Venice, after all.
The big boat is a vaporetto, aka my ride of choice.
Some views from the vaporetto, line number 1.

Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace)
Price: 7 Euros with Rolling Venice pass, 13 Euros full-price adult ticket
What is a doge? It's a duke, and these are the guys who used to have the big authority in Venice. Their palace is pretty impressive but also contains a complicated history that I was not at all familiar with before our trip.
Tip 1: Do a little comparison shopping between the line to get into the Palazzo Ducale and the line for the Basilica di San Marco. They're right next to each other, and when we were there the basilica line was really long while the Palazzo Ducale had no line at all, although I hear at certain times the Palazzo Ducale can have quite a long line.
Tip 2: Invest in an audio guide, but don't feel the need to listen to every last detail. The guide is helpful because there are basically no signs within the palace, but the audio guide goes into too much detail regarding a lot of the art hanging throughout the palace. I don't recommend this audio guide for children simply because it would bore them.
Fun fact: Inside the courtyard there is a stone lion's mouth. Citizens could write anonymous tips on pieces of paper and feed them through the lion's mouth where they were then gathered in a wooden box.
Inside the doge's courtyard, with the roof of the basilica peeking out from above

Basilica di San Marco
Price: Free
The inside of this church is unlike any I've ever seen. The ceiling is almost entirely composed of mosaics, many of which include gold leaf tiles. The church really is a testament to Venice's maritime power and all the plunder the city took from places such as Alexandria.
Tip 1: As always in Italy, cover your shoulders and don't wear a short skirt when you enter the church.
Tip 2: You can go up the basilica's campanile (bell tower), but we opted for another bell tower across the water from San Marco so we could have better views looking into the city (more on that next...)
St. Mark the lion overlooks the entrance to Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco is expansive but also exceptionally crowded most of the time, so we did not spend much time there.

Isla di San Giorgio Maggiore and the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore
Price: Free
This island is directly across the water from San Marco, but there is no easy, fast way to get there via vaporetto. So, we sat back and took a long ride around Venice, this time through the Canale della Guidecca instead of through the Grand Canal. We had a great boat ride and saw lots of different sights, including cruise ships, and then we walked around this pretty church and took the elevator to the top of its bell tower for some outstanding views.
Tip: When you're inside the bell tower, be prepared for the bells to chime...we were not, and someone got a little jumpy.
The island, church and bell tower from the vaporetto
Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore

A view of San Marco from the island
Views from the bell tower

Next up in our European travels...our parting thoughts from Italy before we venture to Spain!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

European stop 2: Florence, Italy

Continuing on our European journey, from Rome we took a train to Florence. We opted for the cheaper ticket, at 56 Euros, which got us there in almost exactly three hours. Buy these tickets in advance. This is the line that connects Rome and Venice, so it's a busy train. Check your ticket to see that you have a seat (carrozza = car number, posti = seat number). There were two American college boys in our seats, and we had to boot them out. Turns out their tickets did not have seat numbers, so they were confused, but they had to sit in make-shift seats in the aisle, which was no doubt not pleasant for their six-hour trip to Venice.

Total time in Florence: 2.5 days, 3 nights

Time-saving tip: 
If you plan to go to the Uffizi Gallery, book your tickets in advance. The ticket office closes at 12:30 on Saturdays, and we arrived in Florence on Saturday, July 3, so we missed the window for booking our tickets in advance. We worked around this by getting an early start Sunday and heading straight to the Uffizi, so we didn't have to wait long, but it would have been nice to simply walk right in as an advance ticket holder.

Hotel:
Hotel River
Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia, 18 - 50122 Firenze
Price we paid per night: $100
Location: Of the eight hotels we stayed in during our trip, this one was the most out of the way, but this hotel faces stiff competition because all our hotels in Italy and Spain were in perfect locations. This hotel, as the name suggests, is located right on the Arno River, directly across the water from the Piazzale Michelangelo, and in between two bridges -- Ponte alle Grazie and Ponte San Niccolo. We just wish the hotel had been about five minutes walking distance closer to the main attractions.

View of the Arno River and the Piazzale Michelangelo (at the top of the hill) from the hotel patio

Room: Nicely decorated and big. We had not only a large bed but also a full-size couch and desk in addition to the wardrobe and bedside tables. The bathroom was spacious, easily three times the size of the bathroom in Rome.
Breakfast included?: Yes. Our buffet breakfast was nearly identical to the one we had in Rome.
Service: Knowledgeable about local restaurants and attractions. Extra willing to help.
TV: We were pleasantly surprised to find a moderate-sized flat-screen TV with BBC News and CNN International.
Internet: Free Wifi in the common areas. The lobby space is beautiful and smells awesome, so it was a nice excuse to hang out there a little.
Overall assessment: Our travel agent Cindy booked this hotel for us, and from this strong start we knew she did a great job with her selections. This place is a great value, and it was much nicer than I would have expected. We only wish the hotel had been a little bit closer to the main attractions, but in the end we have no complaints.

Food:
La Canova di Gustavino
Via della Condotta 29r
Genre: Casual, full-service cafe nextdoor to its fancier sibling, Gustavino
How we found it: Lonely Planet Italy book
What we ate: We shared three plates -- salad, bruscetta with mozzarella and caramelized tomatoes, cold cut platter -- and a bottle of Toscano
Total cost: $41
Overall assessment: The bruscetta here stole the show. Drizzled in olive oil with just the right amount of salt and pepper, it was quite memorable. The cold cuts were not as memorable as antipasti dishes we had elsewhere, but it was still a pleasant dining experience. The dining room has a nice Italian ambiance -- you're surrounded by wooden shelves filled with bottles of wine.

Trattoria Angiolino
Via di Santo Spirito 36r
Genre: Full-service Italian, known for its Florentine steak
How we found it: Lonely Planet Italy book
What we ate: A lot of food! We shared a salad, appetizer platter of jamon, 1 kilo of biscetta alla fiorentina (Florentine steak) and a large side of roasted potatoes, and of course a litre of red house wine
Total cost: $81
Overall assessment: This was one of our two "splurge" meals of our trip (the other was our last night of the trip in Madrid), but of all the things we could splurge on, this was worth it. Florentine steak is charred on the outside and fairly rare on the inside. The potatoes were perhaps even better -- perfectly crispy, with great seasoning. I'm glad we had a taste of this special dish while in Florence.

Trattoria La Casalinga
Via de Michelozzi 9r, right off the Piazza Santo Spirito
Genre: Full-service Italian restaurant
How we found it: Lonely Planet Italy book
What we ate: Shared an antipasti de la casa platter, which was actually two platters in one with lots of meat and bruscetta of different varieties, and a litre of house red wine. Entrees: Stephanie: tortellini in a cheese sauce with a cucumber salad on the side; Matt: spaghetti with an arugula salad on the side.
Total cost: $42
Overall assessment: This place offers great value. We ate a ton of food. The antipasti platter stands out the most because of its sheer size. This restaurant was a good experience, nothing overly memorable, but definitely enjoyable.

Sightseeing:
Florence is a beautiful city that offers good sightseeing variety without feeling overwhelming.

Bardini and Boboli Gardens
Price: 7 Euros (adult ticket)
We did this as our first sightseeing activity during our time in Florence, and it was a great place to start because it offers excellent views of the city (both gardens are located next to each other on the oltrarno, or other side of the river from the main Florence attractions).
Tip: The Bardini Gardens offer better views, have better landscaping, and are less crowded than the Boboli Gardens. If you only have time for one, opt for the Bardini, but your ticket grants you admission to both.
Bardini Gardens
View from the Bardini Gardens
Boboli Gardens

Uffizi Gallery
Price: 10 Euros (adult ticket)
I already mentioned this at the start of this post, but if you don't have advance tickets, be sure to get there first thing in the morning. We arrived at 8:30 and were inside the building by 9:30. Not a horrible wait, but still the longest we had to wait for any attraction in Italy or Spain.
Tip 1: This museum is not well marked at all, so invest in an audio guide, or, better yet, invest in an iPhone app. Before our trip we did not realize that there are audio guide iPhone apps for famous museums and historic sites, but it was at the Uffizi that we saw people listening to their guides on their iPods. Because we brought our iPod Touch with us on our trip we were able to take advantage of this later on during our trip.
Tip 2: Move through the museum in chronological order. It's fascinating to see how the art changes, how one period influences another, and how art can teach us so much about changing views of science, religion, history and morality.
On the patio at the Uffizi
Duomo
Price: Free
This cathedral is breath-taking from the outside and fairly unimpressive from the inside.
Tip 1: Just like at all cathedrals in Italy, be sure you are dressed modestly, and make sure you cover your shoulders inside the church.
Tip 2: Scale the 463 stone steps to the top of the dome. It's not nearly as tight a squeeze as the walk up the dome at St. Peter's Basillica at the Vatican, and the views overlooking Florence are way better than those overlooking Rome.
I was pretty excited to see the famous baptistry doors I had to write about on an exam in Art History 102 in college...

Piazzale Michelangelo
Price: Free
This is on the oltrarno, and it is an excellent, festive place from which to watch the sunset. (We especially enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations of American college students "studying" abroad.) We actually did this two nights in a row, and both nights we bought an 8 Euro bottle of prosecco from a vendor at the plaza and waited an hour or so for the sun to set while we enjoyed our delicious beverages. It is an uphill climb to get here, but it is not at all strenuous.
Tip: If you don't make it to see the original David at the Galleria dell'Academia, as we did not, you can see a copy of the David at this spot.

Mercato San Lorenzo
Price: Free
Not too far from the Duomo, this open-air market is full of souvenirs, some good-quality items, some low-quality items. I bought a majorly inexpensive dress and a ceramic plaque of the Florence skyline.
Tip: Walk around the entire market once before buying anything. The market is large but not overwhelming, so you can easily comparison shop for goods and prices. (You can also bargain with the merchants if you're not horribly bad at it like I am.)

All in all, Florence was one of our favorite cities on our trip.

Next up...our time in Venice!