After three weeks of touring Italy, I decided to jot some notes down on the things I learned. Some of these are tips, some are surprises. I’ve broken it down into daily life, transport, food/dining, and comments about the U.S. that we heard from Italian friends and co-workers.

Daily Life

  • How many things can the word “prego” mean? It’s so much more than just “you’re welcome.”
  • The acceptance that daily Italian life will have its hiccups (like a train strike). You should just go with the flow.
  • Air conditioning: What’s that? Italy is a very energy-conscious country. And many Italians just don’t like air conditioning. Many smaller hotels will not have A/C and it’s actually against the law to use the A/C outside of peak summer. Same goes for heating in the winter. Either dress light or bundle up (depending on time of year)!
  • No screens in windows. Open them up and let the fresh air (and bugs!) in. Which brings me to my next point…
  • Vape: No, not like smoking. It’s pronounced with the accent on the e at the end: va-PAY. It’s kind of like a Glade plug-in freshener that has a scent to repel mosquitos and bugs when you have the windows open. Works some or most of the time.
  • How Italians perceive each of the regions. Sort of like how we make stereotypes in the U.S. of people from California, Texas, etc. Florentines are stuck up. No one knows how to run anything in Rome. The Milanese are only concerned about money. These are some of the things I heard (or overheard!).
  • Public restrooms: Sometimes there is no lid on the toilet seat. The first time it happened I was in Boboli Gardens and I thought it was a one-off. But then again at the the train station, a museum, even a restaurant or two.
  • Clothing/Fashion: Everyone dresses up. Even in 90 Fahrenheit summer heat in Florence, there were guys in business suits pacing the streets and women dressed to the nines riding their bicycles.
  • Italians want to help you. They are friendly. But YOU need to make an effort to use some Italian words. Respect their culture.
  • Yes, everyone says “allora” (used as a filler during coversation, like the word well) just like on Master of None.
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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Transport

  • Trains usually do run on time (that was one of Mussolini’s things). There are occasional train strikes, but they are always published ahead of time and you can usually catch a train headed in the direction you need to go.
  • I love the fast trains! Florence to Milan in 2 hrs at 186mph (300km/h). Yes, please! Imagine if we had hi-speed rail between Milwaukee and Chicago.
  • Touring Tuscan hillside wineries? Venturing into the Dolomites? OK, rent a car. In a city center? Ditch the car…it’s a hassle. Walk!
  • It’s not other pedestrians you have to watch out for. It’s dodging scooters and bicycles that can be dangerous. Look all ways before crossing the street as direction of the traffic often changes.
  • Traffic lights merely seem to be a suggestion.
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Ponte Vecchio, Arno River, and Vasari Corridor

Food/Dining

  • Gelato: Avoid places where you see the gelato from the store front window. Especially if the gelato is molded into a mountain-like form. Although eye-appealing, it’s usually old. Go to place where you have to step inside to see the gelato. My favorite flavor? I love frutti di bosco (literally “fruit of the forest”)—it’s mixed berry.
  • Spaghetti with meatballs doesn’t exist. If it’s on a menu, it’s to appeal to American tastes. Avoid.
  • Alfredo sauce doesn’t exist. Don’t ask for it. One of the American students asked about it and one of the Italian educators had no idea what the student was talking about.
  • Spaghetti Bolognese: Nope. There is a Bolognese sauce – ragu alla Bolognese – it would never be served with spaghetti, but a broader paste like tagliatelle or pappardelle.
  • Breadsticks on every table? Nope. In Florence, I wasn’t served breadsticks even once. You will however, be served fresh Italian bread which you can drizzle with olive oil and/or balsalmic.
  • Menus will often be divided into “primi” (pasta, gnochi, risotto) and “secondi” (main meat dishes). You don’t have to order both. You can pick one. I often did so I could save room for gelato.
  • Granita: Everyone talks about gelato, but since it was above 90F almost every day while I was in Italy, I preferred a granita—it’s kind of like an Italian slushie.
  • Coperto: Often added to a bill when you sit at a table at a restaurant. It’s a cover charge.
  • Slow service in restaurants. It’s the Italian way. You should be conversing with your friends and family.
  • No tipping. Yeah!
  • Wait staff in restaurants – my experience only: A few nice service workers, but mostly indifferent.
  • When you are ready to leave the restaurant, just say “il conto, per favore” (the bill, please) and you can settle. Otherwise you will wait…and wait…and wait.
  • Each region will have its favorite pasta shapes. Ask the staff what they would eat!
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Rialto Bridge, Venice

About the U.S.

  • Comment from an Italian we were working with: “Why do Americans drink so much?
  • Why do you work so much?
  • They think everyone in the U.S. owns guns.
  • They were hesitant to ask about Trump because they knew we would bring up their  man Berlusconi (Trump Italian-style).
  • For some reason, Italian TV channels seem to carry nothing bus NCIS, Rizzoli & Isles, The Bold and the Beautiful, and CSI…all dubbed into Italian!

 

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Beautiful Siena

We had some great day trips from Florence with Venice and Chianti country being two of the best.

But how could I neglect Siena? I need to add it to the top of my list of favorite places. Its lovely traffic-free center is filled with quaint shops, good restaurants, stunning architecture, and friendly folks.

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Siena

Just over an hour by car from Florence, it makes a nice day trip. Our shuttle bus dropped us off in a car park and we walked into the historic center. First we stopped at Basilica of San Domenico which houses relics of Saint Catherine of Siena, including her head!

Then we walked into the pedestrian zone of central Siena–a nice welcome change from dodging cars and scooters in Florence! Feeling a bit hungry, we stopped in the Nannini cafe for some pastries.

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Nannini cafe, Siena

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Piazza del Campo

After that, we took a walking tour. First, to the historic Piazza del Campo and then to the Siena Duomo.

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Siena Duomo

The Siena Duomo is beautiful both inside and out. We also had skyline views of Siena and the surrounding Tuscan countryside from Panorama del Facciatone.

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View from Panorama dal Facciatone

Now it was lunchtime. Being is Siena, we opted for a local dish: thick pici-pasta with cinghiale (wild boar).

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Siena

Following lunch, we had time to explore independently. I wandered the narrow alleyways and winding streets, taking it all in. As with most day trips, it was too short! I could have stayed in Siena for hours.

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Palazzo Pubblico

Here are some pics from Siena:

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Bologna Day Trip

A short 35 minute train ride from Florence and we were in Bologna. I think tourists are just starting to discover the charms of Bologna. Of all the well-known places we visited, this was the most low-key and we liked it. No tour guides with their flags leading hordes of tourists. Just every day Italians going to work or university.

In Piazza Maggiore, we met up with a local actress dressed as a classic Bologna housewife from back in the day. She led us on a walking tour to get a flavor of Bologna.

Unfortunately, the famous Neptune fountain was under renovation, so we “acted out” the fountain instead!

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Re-enacting the Neptune fountain

We walked past the Bologna Cathedral with its (mostly) unfinished facade (guess they ran out of money?). Then it was over to Palazzo d’Accursio, the former city hall.

Today I was in for a special treat: This librarian got to visit two libraries. First we went to Biblioteca Salaborsa, housed in the former stock exchange, that is a busy town library. After that, we went to the Archiginassio, once home to the University of Bologna. It hosts another library full of rare books, along with a fascinating Anatomical Theatre that was used for medical training.

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Archiginnasio of Bologna

Following our tour, we had the rest of the time at leisure. I scouted out some good places to eat and then took a walk in a park before boarding the train back to Florence.

Here are a few pics from Bologna:

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

OK, maybe the title of this post is a bit over the top, but it fully encapsulates my view on Pisa.

I had a free afternoon in Florence, so I decided to take the 50 minute train ride over to Pisa to explore. Hopping off the train at Pisa Centrale, I followed the tourist markers to the torre.

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Leaning Tower of Pisa and Pisa Cathedral

And there they were, loads of tourists trying to get that classic holding-up-the-leaning-tower pose. The place was packed. Perhaps a cruise ship had docked at Livorno?

I walked around the Leaning Tower of Pisa – which is the campanile – the bell tower for Pisa Cathedral, and Piazza dei Miracoli. Having had my fill, I bought a souvenir magnet, walked back to the train station, and took the next train back to Florence.

Maybe in my mind Pisa was made to be something more than it was? I checked it off my list, but don’t consider it a must-do. I would recommend spending more time in Florence or Cinque Terre instead.

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Pisa street scene

Here are a few pics from Pisa:

 

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Milan

To me, Milan is a bit like the Chicago of Italy. It has the skyscrapers, wide streets, and industry. It’s underrated, or maybe understated? I dunno.

Sometimes in Florence I felt hemmed in by the buildings and the medieval alleyways–and of course, the hordes of tourists. In Milan, I had space and it was welcomed change.

Milan can be done as a day trip, although overnight would be OK too. We had a free Saturday so several of the students and I took the fast train from Florence up to Milan.

The major goal was to see the Milan Cathedral and walk on its famous roof. We had wanted to see the Last Supper, but you need to reserve tickets months in advance or book an expensive combo tour. Basically, we decided to do Milan on the cheap.

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Milano Centrale railway station

After arriving at the imposing Milano Centrale railway station, we decided to walk towards the cathedral. It takes around 35 minutes.

Along the way, we stopped by La Scala, the famous opera house, and the opulent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – the world’s oldest shopping mall, hosting Prada, Versace, and Louis Vuitton.

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La Scala opera house

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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

After walking through the mall, we entered the Piazza del Duomo, gawking at the cathedral. We had the reserved “Duomo Pass by Stairs” tickets – entry to the main floor, and then up to the roof (terraces) by stairs. You can pay extra to take the lift (elevator), but the stairs are a classic Milan Cathedral experience.

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Milan Cathedral

Absolutely massive, the cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world. Surprisingly, for a Sunday morning in June, the line to enter the cathedral floor moved fairly quickly. We were in no rush, admiring the Gothic exterior.

Inside, people shuffled around in hushed tones admiring the architecture and beautiful stained glass.

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Milan Cathedral

The popularity of the Milan Duomo is no doubt tied to the fact that you can walk on its roof.

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Milan Cathedral

The roof (or, excuse me, the terraces) is simply a marvel with its postcard perfect pics of Milan. You have great views of the skyscrapers and the Alps off in the distance. In terms of architecture, I liked the stone saints perched on each of the spires. Breathtaking!

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Milan Cathedral

Well, we had to come down from a high…literally. But we weren’t done with Milan just yet.

We ventured past the Borsa Italiana (stock exchange) where there’s a big statue of a middle finger. The finger is pointing out from the stock exchange, not at it. So we’re thinking the artistic meaning is that the bankers are giving a big F-U to the average Italian. Their actions may wreck the economy and the middle class, but they don’t care. There are no repercussions for them.

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Middle finger at stock exchange

Following that brief side trip, we headed down Via Dante – a large boulevard – to Sforza Castle. This was a surprising find for us!

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Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle is a large citadel built in the 1400s. Today you can tour it. It a series of city museums dedicated to art and culture. The museums hosts Michelangelo’s last sculpture, unfinished due to his death.

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Michelangelo’s last work

After getting our fill of Milan, we headed back to the train station to take the fast train back to Florence.

If you’re considering spending a chunk of time in Italy, perhaps fly into Milan and spend a day. From there, you have easy access by train to Venice and Florence.

Here are some pics from Milan:

 

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

You can’t go to Italy without sampling some wine, right?

On our second day trip from Florence, we boarded a tour bus to escort us to up to the hills of Chianti country. Our destination: Castello del Trebbio, about a 40 minute drive from Florence.

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Castello del Trebbio

Here we toured a beautiful old castle – home to the wealthy Pazzi family during Renaissance Florence times. The Pazzi family were rivals to the well-known Medici family and hatched a plot with the Pope to assassinate them. The Medicis were tipped off…and things did not go so well for the Pazzi family!

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Castello del Trebbio

Today, Castello del Trebbio is a successful vineyard, winery, and farm.

We toured the cellars and had a beautiful lunch and wine tasting, sampling three wines:

  • Lastricato Chianti Rufina
  • Chianti Superiore
  • Vin Santo, a dessert wine

Castello del Trebbio also makes its own olive oil too. I easily shipped back 4 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of olive oil..all arrived safe and sound!

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Castello del Trebbio

After 90 Fahrenheit days in the hustle and bustle of Florence, it was nice to escape for a bit to a calmer and cooler place, learn about winemaking, and Tuscan history.

If you’re going to be based in Florence for a few days, consider a wine tasting day trip. Castello del Trebbio is hard to beat for a relaxing, scenic, and informative experience.

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Castello del Trebbio

Here are some pics from Castello del Trebbio:

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Venice

On our first day trip from Florence, we ventured off to enchanting Venice.

Chaperoning students can be a bit like herding cats, but by hook or by crook we all made it to the Firenze S.M.N. station in time to catch our train. And this is one of the (many) things I loved about Italy: high-speed train service. We were whisked away from Florence to Venice, going around 200km/hr. Travel time is around two hours.

Dropped off at Venice’s Santa Lucia train station, we walked along the Grand Canal and met up with our tour guide. He escorted us through the winding pedestrian streets and alleyways of Venice, stopping to tell stories of Venetian history.

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Rialto Bridge, Venice

After making our way to the Rialto Bridge, we headed to Piazza San Marco. Here we toured St. Mark’s Basilica with it famous gold mosaics.

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Piazza San Marco, Venice

Following the tour we had time to explore Venice independently. Even with a paper map and Google Maps on my phone, I kept getting lost…and I’m usually someone who is good with navigation. But I didn’t care. I was in Venice, and every corner I turned had something to see.

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Venice

Feeling hungry, I ended up at the Grand Canal. After crossing the Rialto Bridge, I picked a restaurant. The food was OK–I had cuttlefish with squid ink spaghetti–but the view was marvelous and I knew that was really what I was paying for. I just sat for awhile taking it all in.

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Grand Canal, Venice

After lunch, I explored (and got lost) in Venice some more, before making it back to the train station. All students accounted for, we boarded our train and made our way back to Florence.

Here are some pics from Venice:

 

For more Venice and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

So for all of June, Florence was hot…usually 90 Fahrenheit or above. Abundant sunshine and blue skies every day. And dry. Not a drop of rain…until my second to last night there.

Rain moved in during the afternoon and all of the sudden the tourists were nowhere to be seen. It was weird. After three weeks of battling the streets and sidewalks of tourists and tour groups, they had disappeared.

Piazza del Duomo? Practically empty. It was a nice change. It was comical to see how all the street vendors rapidly switched from selling sunglasses and hats to umbrellas!

For one night I had Florence to myself. I loved the reflection of the rain water on the cobblestones. After a dusty and dry three weeks, it was a nice change.

 

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

In Florence, my home base was near Santa Maria Novella, one of the many historic churches. This basilica seems like an underrated tourist site to me. Its close proximity to the samely-named train station means thousands of tourists must pass by it each day. It’s definitely worth stopping in and taking a look.

The first weekend I was in Florence, it was one of the meeting points for a large and colorful parade celebrating calcio storico – a sport that is the precursor to football (soccer, here in the U.S.).

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Santa Maria Novella

Inside the church you’ll find a large crucifix  by Brunelleschi – architect of the Florence Duomo dome, several nice artworks, and ornate chapels.

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Santa Maria Novella

Not far from the church, on Via della Scala, is the Santa Maria Novella perfumery. Definitely worth a visit, this perfumery has been in business since the 14th century. Inside, the ornate architecture, compliments that high-qualty perfumes, colognes, and soaps. Great place for an authentic Florence product.

In an hour and a half, you can easily accomplish a tour of the church and some shopping at the perfumery. It’s a perfect stop either to/from the Santa Maria Novella train station.

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Palazzo Vecchio (“old palace”) is the heart of Renaissance Florentine politics. Actually, it still functions as the heart of politics in Florence as the town hall.

Located on Piazza della Signoria, the famous statue of Michelangelo’s David greets you at the entrance. However, don’t be fooled! It’s a replica. The original stands in the Accademia.

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Palazzo Vecchio

Inside Palazzo Vecchio, it’s part art gallery, part history lesson, and part political intrigue as the seat of the Medici family. My favorite room is the Salone dei Cinquecento – a large chamber where Grand Duke Cosimo would hold court.

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Palazzo Vecchio

If you’re interested in Renaissance Florence, I recommend setting aside a few hours for a a guided tour to get the full experience. Check out the Mus.e site for ideas.

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.