Driving In Italy part 1— Goodbye Dolce Vita

by Mario 02-Feb 2010

The next few installments will cover driving in Italy. We will examine the main rules of the road, provide tips for country, city and highway driving as well as gassing up, parking, tolls, important street signs, avoiding speed traps, dealing with fines and car rental surcharges. Cars are the lifeblood of the villa rental business and 95% of all vacation rentals in Italy require a car. What helped make America great was the car. It gives us independence and freedom to go wherever we want whenever we choose. The same applies to vacationing in Italy. Unless you plan to confine yourself strictly to cities, it is, at best, cumbersome, if not downright impossible to explore the magnificent countryside by any other means.

Italy has gone through many changes over the last decade, none of them appeal to me. I remember driving a fancy Audi V8 from Rome to Naples at 265km per hour — that’s roughly 165 mph — in the rain! It was one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever experienced. The car gripped the road like a tiger and the entire drive took not much more than an hour. Speed limits were more like suggestions back then. Those days — sadly for me — are long gone. Hardly any Italians exceed speed limits anymore. Everyone wears seat belts and maintains daytime running lights.

The roads have become homogenized. Why did this happen? Italy devised a devilishly devious scheme — each driver is given 20 points when they receive a license. Every time Italians are caught breaking the law they lose four or five points depending on the infraction. Lose all your points and it may take up to two years of bureaucratic maneuvers to reapply for drivers education, driving tests, permits and all that’s required to get back on the road. The best part is that they do not even know when it happens. Most infractions are recorded electronically followed by bad news in the mail.

Americans and citizens of non European nations are unaffected for the moment, the most we get is a fine. So, these days the few speeders on Italian highways are most likely foreigners in rental cars. To Italians that’s like rubbing salt in an open wound. It’s actually worse in other places. Some Scandinavians are being fined up to 10% of their annual income for a speeding violation. The EU is giddily looking into this for all its member nations.

However, Italians are an ingenious lot. Since most infractions are caught on hidden cameras and first generation equipment lacked good resolution, crafty Italians resorted to paying elders and nursing home residents to falsely claim they were driving at that particular moment. So what if the seniors lost points? They no longer drove, each senior was good for at least four violations and the extra cash didn’t hurt. That’s over too. I’m not sure if the cameras got sharper or the Italians just ran out of seniors with valid licenses. For awhile, citizens of Naples tried wearing (and selling) t-shirts with a seat belt painted on just to avoid latching up. That ended as well. Big Brother’s iron boot has slammed the brakes on Italy’s daredevil antics. I hope to demonstrate how this translates into good news for you. 

IDL International Drivers License — Part 2: The Follow Up

by Mario 01-Feb 2010

My first post on the subject stirred some debate. I’ll encapsulate that post by restating that possessing an International Driver’s License in Italy is a scarcely enforced law that I deliberately choose to ignore. Having said that, I also promised to check into it a little deeper. Here are the results:

The Law Regarding International Drivers License is written in Italian and confusing at best. Our Italian legal counsel summed it up as follows: “with an American license you can drive, but if you do not have an IDL or an official translation, you risk a fine of 78 up to 311 Euro.” The main issue, it seems is not translating the color of your hair, but understanding what vehicle class you are allowed to drive. In Italy, I don’t drive buses, tractor trailers, heavy construction equipment or motorcycles and thus I am content to be without an IDL in my sedan.

Second, I had our staff in Italy stop, call and speak to members of various law enforcement agencies. Not a single officer was aware of such a law and none of them claimed to have ever demanded seeing an IDL from an American. They look for a valid driver’s license, passport and car rental contract. Granted, our research was completely unscientific. Nonetheless, rarely enforced laws occur all over the world. For instance, men with mustaches in Nebraska cannot kiss a woman. 

Third, in order to pick up their car at the car rental desk, clients must provide their valid driver’s license, passport, credit card and reservation.

Finally, I have yet to see copy of a fine or ticket levied against anyone for failing to comply with this law. So where does that leave us? For myself, I shall continue to spend the extra cash on something useful like getting a shave next time I visit Nebraska. 

Free Fashion Tours of Florence

by Mario 17-Jan 2010

Hurry! Florence has launched a series of guided fashion tours that take visitors behind the scenes of the city’s fashion industry. Each tour lasts about three hours and is absolutely free. Visitors will be guided through shops, artist studios and museums featuring everything fashionable from wedding dress design to shoes to jewelry and contemporary clothing for men, women and children. This experiment in promoting a brand new type of tourism began on January 18, 2010 and ends on June 21, 2010. Each tour is limited to a maximum of 20 persons and while tickets are free, reservations must be made.

http://www.florenceartfashion.com/ 

The site provides phone, fax and email address to make your reservations. The sponsoring organization is Florence Art & Fashion. Once on their site, click on Fashion Itineraries and select Calendar to see what’s going on during your stay. Hurry, as word spreads these tours will fill up quickly.

IDL – The International Drivers License Dilemma

by Mario 15-Jan 2010

I’ll be pilloried for saying this but someone better. Forking over cash money for an IDL to use in much of Western Europe, Italy included is a complete waste of time and money. Every armchair traveler is now doubling over in their recliner at such blasphemy. Laws will be rattled off with penalties ranging from severe fines to life imprisonment. But, before you hand over the cash equivalent of a good bottle of wine please hear me out. I have personally driven over a quarter of a million miles in Europe, 80% of them in Italy alone. I have been stopped on occasion by carabinieri, polizia and guardia di finanza (basically, everyone except the army) and have never been asked to produce an IDL. At the start of my travels, I fell prey to this scam and was fortunately stopped by Italian police officers early on. I immediately produced my IDL. They had no idea what an IDL was and demanded to see my real license and passport. Since then, no law enforcement person has ever asked me for one, nor has any car rental desk, gas station or parking lot attendant demand that I produce one either. Why should you?

It is an easy $15 to $50 bucks to peel off of folks prior to departure by: a) claiming laws the local police do not even claim to know exist and b) guaranteeing piece of mind to the uninformed. The IDL is simply a translation of your actual license. You most definitely need it when visiting countries that use a completely different alphabet such as Greece, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and anywhere else the ABCs of our alphabet appears as squiggles in the eyes of the beholder. Italy, France, England, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, South America and a host of other countries use the very same alphabet and can easily figure out your name, address, height, hair color and license number.

So, I choose to save a few bucks and carry around one less meaningless piece of paper. While driving in Italy, I make sure that I always wear seat belts, pass only from the left and never hold a cell phone while driving — ignoring these laws will get one into real trouble.

 

Easy Guide to Supermarket Shopping in Italy Part2

by Mario 14-Jan 2010

Fruits and Veggies — Produce sections offer a vast variety at low prices. The trick is knowing that you need to bag, weigh and tag the items yourself. Picture coded electronic scales are located in the produce area. Press the image on the scale that matches your selection and simply affix the sticker that pops out on the bag.

Deli Counter — The cold cuts, cheeses and other delicacies defy description. Start by taking a number and closely watching the monitor so as not to get skipped over if you are not familiar with every Italian number from 1 to 100. When it does come up you may want to say eccomi (here I am) to get the person's attention. Cold cuts are sliced wafer thin and individually placed on waxed paper sheets so they don’t stick to each other. Italians use the metric system so the word to learn is Etto, which means a tenth of a kilo. A kilo is 2.2 pounds. Un etto is just shy of a quarter of a pound. To get closer to half a pound ask for due etti. If it's an abundant pound you want, just say mezzo kilo (half a kilo). When asking for a wedge of cheese, say una fetta di... taleggio, fontina, gorgonzola or point at whatever you can’t pronounce and say quello. Typically, the person will demonstrate the size of the wedge they are planning to cut. By nodding yes or by spreading or closing your thumb and forefinger you can signify the amount.

Prosciutto — The word literally means ham. In the US, we use this word to denote the cured version. If you want to order this type of ham in Italy, then ask for crudo. If you want it less salty say: dolce or sweet. Otherwise, simply point and say: quello (that one). There are dozens of varieties including nostrano which is the local version of whatever is being sold. Lovers of boiled ham should ask for cotto. Indicate the one you like or say quello in offerta which means: give me the one that is on sale.

Olives & Appetizers — Point at the item and ask for un vasetto meaning small container. The counterperson will show you a plastic container. Indicate again with your fingers or hands if you want it larger or smaller.

E poi? — This question means: what else? When you are done say basta cosi, grazie (that’s enough, thanks). The person will usually wrap all of your items into one package and affix the label.

Dairy Section — Sliced cheese only exists in prepackaged versions in the dairy chest. You can also find pre-packaged cold cuts here but the deli stuff tastes better. Let’s not kid each other, all of the prepackaged items at the dairy counter taste 100 times better than anything bought outside of Italy. Fresh milk called latte fresco is at dairy chest; however, most Italians drink UHT (ultra heat treated) milk which only requires refrigeration once opened. You can find it in the aisles. Latte Scremato is skimmed milk, Latte Parzialmente Scremato is low fat milk, Latte Intero is whole milk and Panna is heavy whipping cream.

Water — Italians drink plenty of acqua minerale (mineral water) often sold in six- or 12-packs. Look for the word Naturale if you want still water or the word Frizzante if you want it sparkling.

Bread — If you want sliced bread for toasting, the supermarket is where to find it. Some supermarkets have great bakeries. The aroma and number of people lining up to buy loaves and pastries are good indicators as to whether you should pick some up here or move on to a proper bakery. Un kilo di pane is just over two pounds. Mezzo kilo is closer to a pound.

Butter — Those who speak Spanish should not be afraid to buy some burro. It means butter in Italian and there is no connection to donkeys.

Basta cosi, grazie!  

 

Easy Guide to Supermarket Shopping in Italy Part1

by Mario 14-Jan 2010

Wherever I travel, visiting the local supermarket is among the first order of business. Supermarkets are a measure of a population’s culinary sophistication revealing the level of cuisine diners may expect when eating out. When it comes to food, Italy is at the pinnacle worldwide and so are its markets. Foreign shoppers marvel at the variety, freshness and very low prices found in Italy’s supermarkets. In future segments, I delve into the nuances of outdoor markets, bakers, butchers and specialty food shops. Can you tell this is one of my favorite topics?

Supermercato — The major supermarket chains are: Coop, pronounced more like cop, Conad, CRAI, Esselunga, Pam, Standa, Carrefour and Auchan. A supermarket may be part of a shopping center known as a Centro Commerciale.

Hours — Italian supermarkets open most days from morning until evening or 8 pm. Many are open on Sundays even if only until noon. If you happen to find a market closed on Sunday, it’s very likely that the market in the next town over is open.

Variety — The word iper in front of the name denotes huge, such as IperCoop, and in these colossi, you may find anything ranging from electric fans to lawn mowers. Passable wine and spirits are commonly sold in markets but do not expect to find prized vintages here. Serious wine lovers need to find an enoteca (wine shop) for the best variety or trek to their winery of choice.

The Cart (carrello)  An adventure to the Italian supermercato begins in the parking lot. Shopping carts are chained together so they don’t mysteriously wander off to Germany or ding parked cars. To unlock one, place a 1 Euro coin in the slot of the mechanism located on the handlebar of the cart. Push the coin in until it releases the chain latch attached to the other carts. When you return the cart, push the prong at the end of the short chain into the next cart in line, and your coin will automatically pop out. If you are fortunate someone may approach you with a coin in hand as you are loading up your car. This is not because they sense you are a tourist and are taking pity on you. They simply wish to exchange your cart for a coin. This unspoken reciprocity saves both parties a trip to the shopping cart chain gang.

Checkout — Bring your own bags or you must purchase them at the register. Plain plastic bags may cost up to 50¢ each and you must estimate how many you will need as your cashier begins. There are no baggers. Shoppers bag their own groceries, and it’s best to start immediately and move very quickly to avoid infuriating those in line behind you. Paying by credit card is the norm, yet cash is always welcome. If the checkout person offers you some bonus stamps for the store’s frequent shopping promo, just pass them to the person behind you in an effort to partially quell their annoyance at your dreadfully slow bagging technique. 

The Fascinating Faces of Italian Wine

by Mario 14-Jan 2010

The next time you go to Piedmont (Piemonte) take a look at the average Piemontese winemaker. Chances are he is tall, muscular and somewhat tight-lipped. Now look at his wine. The wines of Piedmont, such as Barolo, Italy’s king of wines are big in stature, powerful and unapproachable — that is until you uncork them and let them breathe for quite a while. Typically, the Piemontesi show the same characteristics until given time to get to know you. Like their wine, once they open up you will have an unforgettable friend for life.

Tuscany is a bit different. Tuscans are the marketeers of Italy. For instance, everyone raves about Tuscan olive oil; however most of what is “packed in Lucca” originates in Puglia, Abruzzo and a host of other places. The Tuscans are salesmen. They are handsome and charming. Now look at Chianti, Tuscany’s most popular wine. It is a happy, engaging and popular beverage. However, a typical Chianti may have as many as six or seven different varietals in each bottle. No one ever knows what’s truly in the bottle except the vintner. The same may be said for those alert and engaging Tuscan eyes — while smitten, you may never fully understand what’s behind them either.

Sicilian wines, like their makers are small in stature and nowhere near as popular as their neighbors to the north, yet, when you taste a Sicilian Marsala it is sweet and fiery, just like the people. Sicilians are filled with passion and their eyes openly reveal the intensity that burns within. A good Marsala burns going down and makes you glow from within.

Luigi Minnucci (center) presenting wine tasting awards

The credit for these interesting observations go to Luigi Minnucci, a world class sommelier and very dear friend who passed away last year in his native Abruzzo. Help me honor Luigi by adding more popular wines and the resemblance of their makers to this list.

 

Italy Goes Wi-Fi — Cyber Surfing in Villa Borghese

by Mario 12-Jan 2010

Rome — In an effort to attract today’s modern travelers, Italy is going high tech in a big way. On January 7th, 2010 Nicola ZingarettiPresident of the Province of Roma, stood in front of Trajan’s Column to officially launch 200 free Wi-Fi access points across the entire Rome metro area. Rome intends to add 300 more points by the end of the year and plans on staking its claim as the largest, free Wi-Fi zone on the planet. Imagine sipping cappucino across from the Pantheon while attending to business back home or making online reservations for dinner.

All Italian cities, towns and provinces including Tuscany are following Rome’s lead and emerging daily with dozens of free zones of their own. At the moment, there are over 10,000 such spots throughout the country. The number is likely to double during the course of 2010 alone. For a country immersed in history, everyday Italians have consistently embraced modern technology faster than any other population I’m aware of. To link in to the Rome system, users need only to open their device in a designated area and complete the free registration form that pops up on their screen.

While free Wi-Fi access is clearly meant to spark tourism, most of the official sites are presently only in Italian. I did find these sites in English: Roma Wireless & Jiwire

The following links are written in Italian but are relatively easy to figure out. Rome’s constantly updated Wi-Fi map and a comprehensive Italy wide Wi-Fi search tool. For those that do not speak Italian here are some simple instructions on using the last link:

  1. Go to the top box called RICERCA 
  2. Enter the location next to the words CITTA' o PROVINCIA using the Italian spelling for cities: Roma, Firenze, Milano, etc.
  3. Next to the word TIPOLOGIA click the button marked FREE
  4. Click on the search button labeled CERCA
  5. Clicking on each of the results in the NOME column shows a Google map with the address of each location.

As more multi-language links emerge please pass them along.

Padova: The miracle of the Bassett Hounds — Part 2

by Mario 11-Jan 2010

The meal was indescribably delicious, the service was impeccable, the wines were sublimely matched. The soft elegant setting adorned with fresh flowers and classical music was one where we could have stayed forever. Stefania, the attractive and attentive owner of Ristorante Belle Parti was floored when I told her how we found her. “Do you know who the woman with the basset hounds is?” “Not a clue” I replied. Rabarama is Italy’s most famous living artist. Her sculptures and paintings sell for as much as $400,000. It was she who sent you here”. I promised Stefania that I would tell all our friends and readers how I came to experience some of the best Italian food ever in one of my favorite cities to boot. 

Later that evening when we joined the rest of our gang, I shared the day’s events with my friend Stephanie Oswald, CNN Travel reporter and the editor of Travel Girl Magazine. The next day Steph led her own small group to Saint Anthony’s and for lunch at Belle Parti. It turned out to be the highlight of everyone's Italy trip. It would be wonderfully self serving if I could tell you that Parker Villas has villas and apartments in Padova. Not yet. You will have to get there without my direct intercession for now. However, if you stop by Saint Anthony’s, something wonderful may happen to you as well.

Padova: The miracle of the Bassett Hounds — Part 1

by Mario 10-Jan 2010

Every time I set foot in Padova - Padua in English - something truly wonderful happens, and it always begins with a visit to Saint Anthony's Basilica. St. Anthony is a miracle maker and champion of lost causes. I can attest to the former and often think I’m the latter. Throughout the years I've visited the basilica with family, devout Jews, protestants, agnostics and the occasional atheist. The result is always the same. Everyone is somehow transformed. There is a palpable force there that transcends religion and touches everyone.

After guiding my companions through the rite of touching Anthony’s “warm” marble tomb, obtaining a blessing from a friar in a tiny alcove halfway up the right hand side (a friar is always there) and depositing a petitioner’s candle in the altar bin for use during services, we stepped out into the pleasant November sun and strolled a few blocks into the pedestrian heart of this ancient university town. Shops, cafes, artisan studios, lots of Italians and countless students populate narrow lanes that open into gorgeous piazzas. By 1 pm, we were famished and craving a special kind of lunch, one where service, food and ambiance ruled, and then it happened...

The day before, I had spotted two stout basset hounds while sipping thick, creamy delicious hot chocolate at Caffe Pedrocchi and now, they were shuffling by once again. I beckoned my companions to wait and ran after these somewhat obvious denizens of Padova and their master. My question was simple: “Hello. I’m sorry to disturb you. I’m an American here with friends. I noticed your hounds yesterday and figured you might be a local. I was hoping you could suggest a restaurant filled with wonderful food and ambiance?” At the other end of the leash, beneath a wide brimmed hat stood a classic Italian beauty draped in a plaid mantle and partially hidden behind sunglasses larger than espresso saucers. She regarded me for a second and in a soft, velvet tone asked: “Do you really seek excellent food and a perfect atmosphere?” “Yes” I pleaded. She gave me explicit instructions on fulfilling our quest. Her final words were: “You will know you are there by the young blond woman that greets you, I’m sure it will be to your liking.”

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Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....

 

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