Monday, November 4, 2019

Italy - Part 1 - A First Timer's Perspective & Observations

My wife Kris and I recently visited Italy for the first time. This post reflects a first timer's experience, so hopefully you're reading this in that spirit. Perhaps you've never been either, want to visit Italy and are interested in what it was like for a first timer. Perhaps you've already visited Italy and are interested in how our experience compares to yours...and perhaps you'll appreciate the first timer's perspective.

(links to Parts 2-5 at bottom of this post)

For as long as I can remember, Kris and I have been wanting to visit Italy. And we always thought that when we finally got there, we would eat our way across the country. And that's basically what we did...along with some sightseeing. The trip exceeded our expectations. 

Italy is a small country almost the size of California, as it is long. Normally I would have liked to have at least 2 weeks to see all the different regions of the country but circumstances only allowed us about 7-8 days for this trip. So we decided to focus on one particular region and hopefully we'll be able to visit the other regions another time. I have a particular interest in seeing the northern Italy region with the Italian Alps for hiking and mountain biking and grand mountainous lakes such as Lake Garda, which happens to be a popular windsurfing and paddling location. We traveled with another couple, our dear friends Greg and Charmaine, who also had not visited Italy before. Greg is quite the wine connoisseur and very good in the kitchen. Kris and I like to eat great food and drink wine now and then, so we collectively decided the Tuscany region would be the focus and a great way to introduce ourselves to Italy, along with a side trip to the famous Cinque Terre coastline along the edge of the Tuscany region, and include quick introduction visits in the famous cities of Rome and Florence. Kris found a great deal on a roundtrip flight to Rome back in early February (for about the price of roundtrip airfare to California), so we began the planning then.

I enjoy the trip planning and research almost as much as the trip itself. Thanks to recommendations from friends and research we did on our own, we put together our own itinerary that was a good combination of some days being free for impromptu and impulsive jaunts and some days with scheduled tours, etc. Again, this was really an introduction to central Italy. You could spend a whole week in one of the towns or cities and still not really get to everything.

The Itinerary - We had an overnight flight to Rome, landed in the morning, got our rental car, and drove straight to Siena. Siena is a beautiful city that isn't too big and was a good choice for a central Tuscany location where we could do day trips from there. We stayed in an AirBnb apartment just outside the Siena city central walls for 3 nights. From there, we could easily walk into central Siena. We also visited San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, Florence, and 2 wineries (a very small winery Azlenda Agricola La Lastra near Siena and a medium size winery Castello di Nipozzano just outside Florence). In Florence, we had a scheduled 3 hr private walking tour, which was a lot of fun. Then we drove on to the Cinque Terre area, stopping in the town of Lucca on the way. Lucca is known for its medieval walls that still encircle the old town that had a colony as far back as 180 BC. We stayed in Cinque Terre for 2 nights at the wonderful and highly recommended Manuels Guesthouse in the town of Monterrosso and visited all 5 seaside villages via train and walking. Then we drove on to stay for 1 night at one of the largest wineries in Italy, Castello di Banfi, making a very quick stop in Pisa along the way just to glance at the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then we drove on to Rome for 1 night at a nice B&B on a nice street near the Colosseum capping it off with a very fun 4 hour eBike tour of Rome, then flying home the next morning.

Here are my personal observations and perspectives (see the other Parts linked posts below for many more photos and commentary):

Italy is old. Very old. And beautiful - but actually is surprisingly young for Europe in terms of it being an actual country (unified in mid to late 1800s). But the towns and cities - super old (ancient Rome was founded 753 BC as an example). It was very fascinating to me how the people of Italy live and work amidst all the old structures and architecture. It is a beautiful country both inside and outside the cities.

The architecture and the details - all I can say is wow. The interior and exterior details of the buildings were absolutely mind blowing, particularly when you take into account how long ago they were built. I don't know a lot about great and beautiful architecture but I do know I like to look at it.

Rome surpassed my expectations - I didn't have high expectations for Rome. I thought it would be a chaotic city with lots of tall buildings, lots of traffic and people. While there are a lot of people, the city didn't feel overwhelming and there aren't any tall buildings or skyscrapers. Its probably the most beautiful city I've ever visited. So many old ruins and beautiful buildings/architecture. It was stunning and exceeded my expectations. Florence was a close second but felt a little more overwhelming for some reason. We only spent a limited amount of time in Rome and I'm not a big city guy or an Old World history buff but I could go back and spend more time there.

Driving in Italy is an adventure - the Italian police are probably still looking for us since we violated several traffic and parking laws in our first few days, while trying to figure out the highway tolls and parking meters. We finally figured out the tolls (not that hard actually) but the pay parking machines still stumped us even at the end of our visit. And the drivers are interesting. It seems there are either very slow drivers or very fast drivers and not much in between. So its an adventure being that in between driver navigating around all that. Some people will say don't bother driving in Italy - use the tour buses or public transportation. Without having your own vehicle, you'll miss a lot of the countryside and small towns, which were the highlights of our trip. Don't forget to first get your international drivers license at home if you plan to drive anywhere in Europe (got mine through AAA).

Tiny streets, tiny cars - Everyone drives small cars in Italy. Except for one Range Rover that I saw, I didn't see any large SUVs or pickup trucks. No F-150s in Italy, and no Fords, Dodge, or Chevys for that matter. The only large vehicles were commercial vehicles such as sprinter vans and the large transport trucks didn't have the long hood front ends, only the cockpit drop down hoods. So...why all the small cars? I can only surmise that its because the towns and cities in Italy are so old, where the streets were built very narrow quite a long time ago, that having a small car is the easiest and most efficient way to get around.

A lot of motorcycles and scooters - the "hill towns" particularly had a lot of scooter drivers as thats the only way you can park at your residence if you live inside the walls of a "hill town". Otherwise, you have to park your car outside the walls of the hill town. More on the hill towns below. And those motorcycles and scooters have different driving laws apparently. They will drive along the center line between the two lanes of opposing traffic. They will ride your bumper, then pass around you in the path of oncoming traffic just to keep going ahead of you, then ahead of the next car, and so on. I can't believe we didn't see one motorcycle or scooter accident...they're crazy drivers.

Hill towns - the highlight of the trip in my opinion. These beautiful small towns were built in the Middle Ages atop a hill or small mountain for defensive purposes, where the enemy could always be seen approaching and there was only one way to attack - from below. Each of these towns had big thick defensive walls surrounding them and were usually atop steep cliffs and embankments. It was amazing to me that they are still inhabited today and used for regular commerce and general living. We visited Siena, San Gimignano, and Monteriggioni. There are so many more unique ones to visit in all regions of Italy.

Bell towers - it seemed all the towns we visited had bell towers and would ring at the top and bottom of each hour. It was pretty cool, including one such occasion as we were hiking from Vernazza to Corniglia in the Cinque Terre area, and as we were coming down the hill approaching Corniglia, the town's bell tower rang out greeting us on our way in. 

Everyone is on their phones there too - its true. Italians are just as infatuated and heads down with their smartphones as we are. 

Not much of a language barrier - we didn't have too much difficulty with their language (except for the freagin' pay parking machines) as most everyone spoke pretty good English. There were a couple of folks who had super strong Italian accents and were difficult to understand with their English. And we learned a few key Italian words that helped us out during the week. Most of the menus also had English translations and the few that didn't, we got good explanations in English from the waiters.

The art of eating and drinking and conversation - the way it should be. Italians drink their wine and eat their food as a way of having conversations and socializing. In a way, Americans do that too. But it seems Italians do it for every meal, all the time. And they take their time with it. It was inspiring in a way that makes me want to 1) get better at cooking and learn more slow cooking methods as well, and 2) take more time with friends and family over great meals and great wine (& great beer).

Italian wine doesn't give me a headache - I read up on this when I got back. I can't find definitive explanations but the popular theory seems to be that Italian wines have less sulfites than American wine. All wines have sulfites as its natural in the wine making process, but the US appears to force its winemakers to add more sulfites for preservation reasons. Italy has a more volcanic soil that provides a more natural preservation method, hence allowing them not to have to add more sulfites. That theory sounds good to me. All I know is that both my wife and I didn't get any headaches after a few glasses of Italian wine, as opposed to only a couple glasses of US wine giving us headaches (even with food and spacing it out).

Smoking - Italians still like to smoke. We only saw it outside. Except in a couple of cases, the second hand smoke wasn't annoying.

Tipping is not expected - this is apparently fairly consistent throughout Europe but it can be confusing as the norms for this may be changing due to American tourist influence. Its not an expectation for a restaurant wait staff to receive tips there but if you receive excellent service, its apparently ok to to insist in tipping. They like to refuse and are being polite. We did however, tip our private tour guides in Florence and Rome. This was a good reminder for me to check tip etiquette ahead of time for any country we visit in the future.

No dryers - judging from all the laundry hanging on clothes lines outside windows, it seems not one person in Italy has a clothes dryer and maybe not a washing machine either.

Piazzas - every town had at least one piazza (town square or plaza) where people congregated. It seemed to be the center of social activity everywhere in Italy and were great people watching spots. Most had shops and/or restaurants/bars on the edges and there were different piazza shapes...the one in Lucca where we ate lunch was round.

Italians love their dogs too - we saw a lot of dog owners walking their dogs and humorously behaving just like Americans who walk their dogs. Saw a lot of retrievers.

Old ladies and old men get around - Italy has one of the longest average life expectancies in the world. The older Italians know how to get around and keep moving. I saw many Italian senior citizens, both men and women, riding bikes and walking. I also saw many Italian senior citizens living in upstairs apartments, many of which I'm pretty sure didn't have elevators. Contrast that with many Americans who decide at a certain age they want to live in a single level home so they don't have to walk up and down the stairs. Its any wonder why we have so many unfit older Americans because at some point they decide not to keep moving. Use it or lose it!

Food was awesome and wasn't expensive - We ate out every meal. Most of the restaurants we ate at weren't planned in advance. We would just walk up to one, look at the menu, and sit down without a reservation. And the food was excellent at every single restaurant. Except for a couple of higher end restaurants we ate at, the cost of the food (along with no tipping at most places, and a favorable euro to dollar rate) was less expensive than most US restaurants of similar quality.

Cost is same or less than a trip to California - the euro to dollar rate is favorable at the moment compared to 10 years ago. This might change in the near future (who really knows). If you're patient in finding the right airfare deal, use Airbnb or other lodging deals, the cost of a trip to Italy can be the same or less than a trip to California (and certainly less than Hawaii).

eBikes - funny how I had to go to Italy to finally experience an eBike. I get it now. We had eBikes as part of our stay at the Costello di Banfi Winery & Hotel. And we did a private guided 4 hour tour of Rome on eBikes (which was a great way to be introduced to Rome, I highly recommend doing it that way). When you're in a group of mixed experienced cyclists that includes beginners and you want to ride together and see the same things together, eBikes are definitely the way to go. Although I don't plan on getting one until I'm much older, my wife having one will allow us to ride long distances and sightsee together.


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