February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy
Tourist Q&A2018-04-01T10:24:39+02:00
When in Rome (and other Italian cities), Uber or a white taxi?2018-03-07T10:27:55+01:00

First things first, Italy remains a fairly regulated market when it comes to transport. Cabs (white and clearly marked) are still the pre-eminent form of non-public transit. They’re numerous, available and charge metered rates (with various supplements). Rome Uber is the new kid on the block, which means it still flies mostly under administrative radar. Uber rates are generally higher than cab rates but there’s wiggle room, depending on driver and route. The Italian app works pretty much like its American counterpart and English is (mostly) spoken. So far, so good.

Realistically speaking, however, cab travel still remains your best bet. It’s quicker, cheaper, and drivers (generally) know what they’re doing and rarely cheat (yes, of course, there are bad apples). A cab is still what you want if you’re stuck someplace in the city and want to get home. They’re still Italy’s chicken soup, so to speak. Most companies now have their own apps, led by 3570, Rome’s largest cab coop.

Cab drivers don’t have the overhead of Uber cars, often upscale, gas-hungry Mercedes. They also don’t pretend to give you a boutique experience. They’re hackers in the old sense.

Deregulation may yet come to Italy, putting Uber rides, rates and availability — more to the point, accountability — on par with cabs, but we’re not there yet. For now, if you’re a stranger in a strange land, take a white cab, whether at the airport of from your hotel.

Let Uber and its ilk flourish in deregulated markets where they’ve all but replaced cabs, in particular the U.S.

As a U.S. citizen, what should I expect when I arrive in Rome when it comes to baggage and customs?2018-03-07T10:27:55+01:00

First the plus side: Rome’s Fiumicino Airport (officially named Leonardo da Vinci) is among Europe’s easiest to clear customs-wise if you’re a U.S. citizen. Remember to get into the NON-E.U. or ALL PASSPORTS line for obvious reasons. Generally speaking it’s not a difficult line to negotiate — unless, that is, a flight from Nigeria or Morocco or some similarly “dubious” destination (in Italian eyes) touched down just before you (or a full flight from Beijing, since Chinese tourism is on the upswing). If that happens you’re in for a long wait in cordoned-off lines that can run 10 rows deep. But Asian and African flights don’t tend to land in the early morning hours, which are the bread and butter of American arrivals.

Customs agents are in numbered booths, much like American entry points, with an agent at the front of the line directing traffic. Since Italy and the U.S. are on cordial terms, you’re unlikely to get the kind of third-degree commonplace when entering the U.S. or the UK. Italy survives on tourism, with American visitors an essential part of the formula.

Baggage claim is very much the minus side. Expect to wait between 30 to 90 minutes. Sometimes the carousel moves but remains empty for an eternity (still showing bags from previous flights). So-called “priority” or business class passengers do not fare much better. However, once you do get your checked bags there’s rarely any further hindrance. Head for the green “nothing to declare” side and you’re on your way.

Some days are worse than other. Customs malfunctions (backups, disorganization, low personnel) and baggage handler snarls (strikes or slowdowns) can be exasperating, and no app will give you the lowdown.

But the lack of vetting that has become the TSA-normal in the U.S. can make some arrivals a breeze. If you have only carry-on, you’re basically home free. Remember that these remarks apply to incoming flights from the U.S., most of which touch down between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Arrivals later in the morning or in the afternoon are another story as lines and waits grow.

What are property taxes like for Italian homeowners?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

For decades, Italy’s first home property taxes were well below the European norm and laughably low compared to rates in big American cities. Under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, first home property taxes were briefly abolished. That changed dramatically with the 2008 financial crisis. Both state and local taxes soared.

Now, annual first home taxes in cities such as Rome and Milan varies between 0.4 and 0.7 percent of the assessed value, depending on size, location, age, and type (apartment, villa, historic venue, etc.) and socio-economic bracket (working class and “refined” are among the categories). Local service fees (including garbage collection) are factored in.

What that means in practice is that a family of four in a 150 square meter owned apartment located in a non-prized area of Rome will usually pay between €200 and €600 annually (there’s June and December installment). Upscale first homes can bump up against the €800-1,000 mark. Rental prices will reflect these costs.

Woe to those who own several urban properties, however. That’s where real estate taxes can bite hard. The owner of prized second home in Rome’s or Milan’s city center may pay as much as €5,000 a year. Though these costs still fall far short of rates in cities such as Paris, New York or London, they’re in constant flux, meaning that all potential buyers need to check with accountants regarding their ongoing tax bills.

Is there really any novel way to see Rome that doesn’t get mentioned.2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

Now that you ask, yes. But it’ll cost you. Rome’s bus company ATAC, using a sub-contractor, rents vintage trams for special occasions. Basically, you can hire a 1940s-era tram and fill it with 28 to 39 people for lunches, dinners, business meetings, even a wedding celebration. You can bring food or get it catered (you expense). The itineraries — there are three to choose from — begin and end at Porta Maggiore (not far from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele), covering much of the city (Coliseum, Trastevere, and so on) in a three-and-half hour excursions. There’s a bathroom, AC (or heat), since the trams have obviously been refurbished expressly for tourist purposes.

Weekends are best, Sunday in particular, and also the most costly — about €885 for a 38-passenger tram (€23 a head) and €740 for the 28-passenger version. Those prices can run as much to a half less on a weekday — and if you start at 8 p.m., say, you’ll eventually get around most traffic. Bear in mind there are only two such trams so you need to book well ahead of time, as in months. Check these two links for rental and catering information.

How much should I pay my private tour guide? Is there an average?2018-03-07T10:27:48+01:00

First things first: there are official rates, but they are, to say the least, Italian, which to say Byzantine: €123 for up to three hours for groups up to €20 (which goes up if the guide has to speak another language or works nights after 8). Cut away the nonsense and you get an average of about €40 an hour — $50/60 — for licensed guides (some can be twice that, depending on experience and expertise). Daily fees also vary, usually between €300 and €450.

Pay attention to the word licensed, since plenty of freelance guides are not licensed and vary their prices downward to increase their volume. Many of the unlicensed are native English-speakers who are trying to make a living by giving guides on the sly, which is fine for you, less fine for them, if they’re caught. Many licensed guides will also give you a daily or weekly rate, usually with discounts, with wiggle room to negotiate, since it’s a buyer’s market. Whatever you might read about a guide online, be sure to speak to him or to her beforehand, so you’re comfortable with their language skills.

If you’re planning an exceptionally long day or a particular kind of excursion, or one is recommended to you, be sure to establish the going rate beforehand. The Italian saying, “Clear understandings make for long friendships…” counts a lot in this tricky business, where the relationship between camaraderie and cash can sometimes produce awkward moments. Most are avoidable if you reach deals up front. That leaves you free to pay more, or to tip generously, if you’re particularly satisfied.

As for so-called unofficial tour guides, the kind you may find lurking outside a monument or tourist venue, three words: use a book (or app).

Can I make my U.S. hair dryer work in Italy?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

Do yourself a favor and under no circumstances bring a U.S.-bought hair dryer (or curler) to Italy. Instead, buy one in an appliance store in your Italian city of arrival. Most run between €30 and €60.

In common with the rest of Europe, Italian wall sockets put out 220 volts, alternating at 50 cycles per second, expressed in Herz. The U.S. runs at 110 volts, alternating at 60 cycles per second.

While a so-called step-down power converter or transformer (which drops 220 to 110) and a plug adapter (for Italian round outlets) solves the problem for small appliances such as mobile phones, computers, alarm clocks, radios, etc., dryers and curling irons are guzzlers. They’re high current devices that tax both voltage and power. Most quickly blow out smaller converters sold in electronics stores in North America. These small converters may work for a few minutes but then overheat fast (you can smell it coming). They’re also first-class fire hazards.

That little transformer your local salesclerks confidently tells you will allow U.S. 60-cycle electronic items to adjust to the European 50-cycle system just won’t deal with hairdryers and their kin (Think Scotty and the Enterprise’s engines on “Star Trek”).

For the stubborn, making powerful appliances work in Italy means lugging along a more costly ($80 and up) and bulky transformer. They work but they’re pointless, at least for a short trip.

If all this annoys you, consider that electricity in Italy is fantastically expensive. People who pay $80 a month in the U.S. can pay four times that much, or more, since Italy imports almost all its power. Better to invest in a locally-manufactured appliance that’s in synch with the local grid than insist on bringing your favorite bathroom appliance and risk destroying it.

Final point: The Italian round wall plugs have different sizes openings. Sockets for major appliances (refrigerators) take larger prongs than those for smaller appliances (lamps). Don’t panic if prongs don’t match up. You can find prong adapters in supermarkets, electronics stores, and hardware stores. Some hotels also have them. Upscale hotels also often have hair dryers in their bathrooms.

Why are there so few clothes dryers in Italy? Can I find one? Should I?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

Estimates suggest that only about three or four percent of Italian households own a dryer. Most those who do are concentrated in northern Italy where the sun tends to show itself less frequently. In the south, nearly everyone puts clothes on an outdoor clothesline or on an indoor rack when the weather itself goes south.

There’s no getting around that Italy imports most of its electricity. Tumble driers are guzzlers, second only to refrigerators in power drain. Few households even consider their existence.

Even the use of washers is a postwar phenomenon, part of the Italian economic miracle of the late 1950s. Most laundry was done by hand until 1960. Running a fridge and a washer — not to mention the rare dishwasher — is already expensive. But add a drier to the mix and the costs become prohibitive. Why not use the generally temperate weather and sunny days to dry clothes? Italians do.

Resistance to the drier isn’t casual. Here are some facts and details:

  • Demand is low, making the machines extremely expensive (usually starting at about €1,000. There are both gas- and electric-powered models). The German manufacture Bosch has several models in the €900-€1,200 range. Italian brands include Miele and Ariston.

  • The Italian word for drier is asciugatrice. If you find machines in the €300-400 range don’t jump for joy; you’re looking at a lavatrice, a washer.

  • Most Italy driers work on the condenser system, using water to make hot air. A heat exchanger then cools the air and condenses the water vapor into either a drainpipe or a collection tank. The process continues on a loop. But using water also means more humidity and longer drying cycles.

  • On the subject of electricity, most households have a supply of three kilowatts. Running a washer and drier at the same time will knock out a circuit breaker in a second. Upping your household supply to six kilowatts sends bimonthly or quarterly bills through the roof. (An Italian household equipped with washer, dryer, dishwasher and AC units — par for the course in the United States — might be facing the equivalent of $5,000 in electric costs annually).

  • Ironing clothes is still a centerpiece of wardrobe life. The cleaning process really has three phases: washing, air drying, ironing. Sure, there are Sta-Prest products, but when it comes to elegance and a sharp look there’s no substitute for a well-ironed shirt. Residual dampness in line-hung clothes is for an iron to exterminate.

  • Italians also have no clothesline bans to contend with. Some 20 percent of American households are located in neighborhoods where bans on laundry lines are in effect. Tell that to an Italian and they’ll scoff. Clothes are hung across terraces, balconies, streets, from the walls of rooms, and even outside windows. The aesthetics of drying are not reviled.
Where do I get child-friendly food in Rome?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

Blogger and food writer Eleonora Baldwin has a great list in her Rome City Guide for Kids. It also lays out parks and playgrounds. Meanwhile, the Delicious Baby blog provides useful (if highly personal) hotel tips. Viator, though less comprehensive, also chips in. Rick Steves has the annoying habit of guide-book ethnocentrism, which includes apologizing for Rome because unlike the States it doesn’t have whole areas dedicated to children. Parks are rare, he writes. Rare? Really? Villa Borghese covers a fifth of the city and begins above the Spanish Steps. There’s Villa Pamphili (above Trastevere) and Villa Ada in north Rome, 20 minutes walk from the center. Meanwhile, on streets, parks and public place, mothers show off their kids; they can stop traffic and transcend language. You don’t need parks or malls for that.

Cash, plastic or traveler’s checks?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

Credit or debit cards are the way to go, assuming you’re not docked with a major surcharge on cash advances by your bank or provider. Those can range from a dollar to $10 or more on some credit card accounts. There are now plenty of ATMs (Bancomat).

Traveler’s Checks are old news. Personal checks are a dead end. Cash exchange outlets are few (unlike London, say) and their surcharges outrageous. Several are located on both sides of Via della Conciliazione, the boulevard that leads to St. Peter’s. You can also change cash in any bank but the waiting in line, documentation and paperwork don’t make it worthwhile.

Swallow the surcharge bullet and use plastic. (While there are still some no-credit card holdouts in shopping and dining, they’re few and far between in urban centers.

Hitting the countryside is another matter. Ensure you travel with necessary but not excessive amounts of cash. Don’t undertake a rural side-trip without each person having at least €100 cash for emergency situations).

Also, with all due respect to American Express, many Italian businesses don’t accept it. Visa’s the name of the game. If you’re dead-set on Amex, call ahead to ensure acceptance.

Should I chance working illegally in Italy?2018-03-07T10:27:49+01:00

Okay. Let’s backtrack. The right to work in Italy depends fundamentally on your citizenship. In the broadest brushstroke terms it can be explained this way.

If you are a citizen of an European Union nation you are eligible to be employed in Italy. Example: You’re an Irish national and visiting Rome; you’re offered a job by an Italian company. You can fill out the paperwork, accept the job, and be legally employed. Example: You’re a visiting U.S. citizen and see the job posted. Problem. You not eligible for it, can’t take it, and even if the company that advertising the job wants you in it and is willing to sponsor and support your work visa application, you will still have to go back to the United States and make an application through the Italian embassy or a consolate.

Sidebar: Even EU citizens (or dual U.S.-EU citizen) still need to register with the police, get a residency permit, register as a worker and obtain a codice fiscale (tax ID number) once they’re settled in Italy. Getting a CF is the simplest of these demands, since it’s much like a U.S. Social Security card and based only on your name and date of birth. See the Italian codice fiscale site. Enter your surname in the cognome field, name in the nome field, giorno means day, anno year. Comune/Prov is for your birthplace. The system can be fickle when it comes to foreign capitals, so try Roma or Milano instead — remember, all you want is the number.

But back to the situation itself. Americans shouldn’t fool themselves. Working in Italy means obtaining the necessary documents before you arrive. Yes, you can fly in without a visa, as a tourist, but that has no bearing on subsequent employment. You cannot get here first and set yourself up later, as was once the case. You’re either set up when you arrive or you’re not.

Some companies will in fact offer non-EU citizens short-term contracts and ignore the law, but if you’re busted you’re cooked. You can be fined or expelled, or both. Many will say, but “How could I have ever known I would be offered that job? Why can’t I just make it work from here?”

The system isn’t set up to suit your good luck. It’s based instead on the principle than citizens of non-EU states are not entitled to work in Italy unless they can prove they are doing sought-after duties that only a non-EU citizen can perform and that an Italian-based (or U.S. based) company wants them in Italy specifically to do.

Newer, stricter laws are also intended to push illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia into regularizing their positions. Italy is a frontier nation for illegal immigration. The political debate on the issue is intense.

The U.S. State Department puts it bluntly: “American citizens who have a job offer in Italy, or wish to work in Italy, either temporarily or permanently, must be provided with a work permit obtained by the prospective employer, and must obtain a work visa from the Italian Consular authorities BEFORE coming to Italy.” See more at Living in Italy.

There’s also a strict quota system for the number of non-EU workers accepted annually by Italy, which means the wait for a work permit can take time, depending on whether the specific national quota (whether the U.S. or Albania) has been filled.

What does that mean for local (non-EU) English-teachers and tour guides? Read our lips. Without a work permit you’re off the books and outside the law. Make no mistake: Many are, and have been for years. You can earn cash, yes, but you’re vulnerable if you get sick, need police assistance, or are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Again, there is no quick fix, no easy solution. You must find a company here willing to state in writing that it will hire you. This opens the door to applying for a freelance work visa (visto per lavoro autonomo), which is what you’d need to teach legally, for example. Emma Bird provides good practical advice at Transitions Abroad.

In any event, even scouting trip for work that yields an full-fledged invitation to work in Italy and a promise of documents to support the offer will still require a return to the United States while the appropriate paperwork is processed.

Students fall in a different category. Enrolling in an study-in-Italy program usually permits you to legally reside in the country for the length of the program (under a study visa arrangement).

What study status does not entitle you to do is be gainfully employed, for the same reasons listed above (no, you can’t legally waitress). Your student status doesn’t automatically waive the work permit protocol. Michael P. Gerace’s Finding a job in Italy is another bit of useful writing on the subject.

If you think you might be eligible for dual citizenship, check out the ICGS site.

Don’t mistake the permesso di soggiorno you can get for a 90-day, non-resident stay for a work document. It is not. The famous permesso is merely a short-term residency permit that confirms your legal right to reside in Italy for three months (or more) as a non-working visitor. Though necessary, it has nothing to do with employment.

How does this affect tourists? It doesn’t. Coming to Italy as a tourist for a seven-week holiday and a pre-planned itinerary is also different from deciding to break the ticket, stay on, live in an apartment and pay rent. Landlords are more demanding than they once were. Most demand proof of your right to be in the country (the permesso) or at least want to see your return flight documentation. Sure, some landlords will put questions aside if you pay three months rent ahead of time, but such situations aren’t commonplace.

The question, “Is working in Italy without the necessary documentation worth the risk?” is destined to always meet different answers. Those who have managed to work beneath or under radar will tell you it’s fully feasible, even desirable (fewer hassles). Those who have found themselves cross-examined by landlords or police will say otherwise. Unlike drunk driving ads in the U.S. that come with the message “You will be caught,” the Italian situation has been an remains more ambiguous. Grey areas abound. What’s not ambiguous, no matter how you choose to look at it, is the law itself.

What’s the status of Wi-Fi availability in Rome?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

Despite what you may have heard, Rome is not necessarily kind to Wi-Fi — which is a paradox since cybercafes are a dying breed. Cutting to the chase, here are your options. RomaWireless is the city’s provider. To register, you need to get to a hot zone (see the map) and have an Italian mobile phone number (stress on Italian; try Roam Simple or Link Em). At hotspots, an authentication/registration page will appear, including a validation number reachable free of change. Once you’re logged on, the first hour is free. When that lapses, you can log in for another hour, and so on. Rome Wireless is Google-service friendly but resistant to Facebook and services with security-conscious log-ins.

Where to go? Sprawling Villa Borghese (outdoors) has a number of sure-thing spots, including the Pincio and Casina Valadier above Piazza del Popolo. Villa Doria Pamphili is listed but the signal is often weak. Same is true with Villa Ada and Villa Torlonia, two smaller parks that are listed but not always reliable.

The Spanish Steps are also covered but the day-and-night madness makes it nearly impossible to find any place to settle down and work. The Rome Auditorium, in the northern part of the city has an outdoor café where the signal seems stable (the 217 bus from Termini takes you close). The Adriana Café (Vicolo Orto di Napoli, 10, corner of Via Del Babuino) is another good work spot but the drink and food prices are steep. RomaWireless keeps promising stable connection to FON network spots, but that’s still no sure thing.

When it comes to Internet cafes, you’ll find a number of hole-in-the-wall spots near the Termini railway station. In San Lorenzo, near Rome’s university, see The Cafe’. Near the Vatican, check out Vi@Rete. In Trastevere, there’s Bibli , which also has free Wi-Fi. Internet Train has a number of spots in the city (under Lazio) as well as elsewhere in Italy, including Florence (Toscana), Milan (Lombardia) and Turin (Piemonte).

I use a spoon with pasta and always have. Can I do this in Italy?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

It’s your euros. Do as you please.

Strictly speaking, pasta is seen the same way as Chinese food once was in North America, namely as food to be enjoyed and eaten sloppily. No one expects you to keep all the sauce in one place. In fact, men once tucked a napkin into their shirt collars to protect from stains. You can still see that old tradition from time to time in trattorias.

Napkins or not, pasta is a fork dish. No spoons. No knives. No cutlery of mass destruction.

Spoon usage is considered a waste, and reasonably so. I mean, why use a “cupping” device (which a spoon is) when you can lift the pasta in the same way you would Chinese food with chopsticks? Why even worry about twirling the pasta around the fork when you’ll eventually get it all? It’s just not embarrassing that the pasta slips off, so “spoon control” is considered freakish (and p-l-e-a-s-e, no knife).

If you’re really ambitious you’ll also ditch cross-over practices (switching between right and left hands) while dining on meat or fish. You’ll use a knife with your right hand, to cut, and a fork with your left, or lifting hand, to eat — assuming you’re right-handed. Try it.

Spoon and knife cross-over methods don’t cut it in Italy (waste of energy and graceless, after all), though no one will ever take you to task for it.

Also, line your knife and fork together and to the side when you’re through. Don’t just leave the utensils lying at odd angles in your spaghetti bowl. Pretty simple, right?

I recently read in a newspaper report about restaurants in Italy that’s it important to get waiters to like you. Is this true?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

You may be referring to a recent report published in The New York Times about Rome trattorias in which the author said she “learned a valuable lesson in Roman dining: Get the waiters to like you.”

The truth is that there is no magic formula in Rome or anywhere else.

In some places, for example, being a repeat customer all but ensures your bill will discounted or rounded out lower (€56 to €50, say) or on a bigger check possibly trimmed by as much as 10 percent. But this only applies if you got to a place a dozen times a month, say. And that you tip well. It’s a discretionary decision.

Waiter relations are a stickier wicket. While it’s true that befriending (mostly male) waiters can make your dining experience infinitely more pleasurable, there’s no forcing it. Some waiters enjoy themselves, enjoy charming and being charmed, others most definitely do not. Some are cordial and reserved. Others are busy. A few really don’t have patience for non-Italians. A few (particularly in bar service) can be openly hostile.

Waiters can also respond to tourists and foreign expats in a different way. Expats usually have a decent command of Italian, which helps lubricate personal relationships, usually bringing them into contact with the owner (eventually).

Most tourists don’t, and that makes the task of trying win over waiters taxing on the waiters, and on you. Both sides can end up frustrated.

One thing a personal relationship can help with is the famous half-portion. Half-portions (mezza porzione), once a staple, have all but disappeared. Now, even the cheaper places don’t want to skimp, which would imply lowering the menu price. Knowing waiters and owners can help with that in a major way. You can have your meals tailored to your capacity, or simply say you’re not very hungry.

Bottom line, it’s one thing to read quaint reviews of quaint places, it’s another to fully transform the reviewer’s mood to making yourself fully at home in those places. Unlike North America, where reviewers usually operate anonymously, expat reviewers in Italy are often known to the staff and very often receive preferential treatment in small ways, from presentation, waiter mood, to the bill. There’s an unspoken Tammany Hall system; both sides happily scratch the other’s back. No harm, no foul.

So, should you work to woo waiters? If you live in Italy, by all means, and throw in the owner while you’re at it. If you’re passing through, smile, order, maybe use the Italian you know, but don’t insist on Latin love. Smile, eat, drink, leave.

If you’re a pretty woman, or in a group of pretty women, ignore all of the above. The joker’s wild.

Should I have 3 or 6 kilowatts of electrical power in my apartment?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

Good question, and not always easy to answer. In theory, 3Ks (the norm in most apartments) should be sufficient to handle the needs of a “standard” household, with husband, wife and a child as a baseline. It’s the most common and least expensive output. With a fridge, washer, washing machine and one AC unit, you should be fine.

But should is the key word — as it often is in Italy. Depending on the wiring and the age of the appliances, 3Ks could also blow out, particularly if you run the appliances at once (hair dryers and space heaters can be lethal). In a larger apartment with several AC units, washer, dishwasher, electrical equipment (oven, heater, etc.), 3Ks is like Scotty to Kirk: “Captain, she cann’a take any more ‘a this…”

If 3K is giving you trouble, you have the option of moving up to 4.5K or 6K, which the latter giving you free range to have everything on at once.

But both 4.5K and especially 6K come with a steep surcharge, anywhere between 40 and 100 percent higher than 3K (billing is bimestrale, or once every two months). If you like keeping your AC units on high and regularly use your washer, dishwasher you could face a few thousand euros when the bill drifts in.

Get an electrician in to have a look at your fuse box (both in the apartment and the condo one, if it has one). Tell him what appliances you expect to be running and how frequently. His answer won’t be foolproof but at the very least he can tell you if 3K is asking for trouble. Italian families generally run appliances less often than North American ones, who run a lot at once without a problem. Most don’t have driers. Energy prices are lower.

Little appliances can wreak havoc. In addition to hair dryers and space heaters (stuffe), that means toasters, and microwaves. Power converters can also cause surges that bring your apartment to a standstill.

ENEL has a comprehensive site that includes an English option. You do need to register first. The area clienti or customer service pages provide pricing information. You can also call them at 800.130.330. The same holds true for the other two giants, ENI and ACEA. Smaller providers include Edison. Their toll free number is 800.141.414

If you’re living on a farm, more is power required. Again, it all starts with a visit from a qualified electrician who knows his stuff, as well as the area, and can identify your power sources and their age… the older the appliances, the more they drain.

I am looking for short rentals on craigslist. There are hundreds. Can I trust these listings in general?2018-03-07T10:27:54+01:00

An old “X-Files” answer is appropriate: Trust no one. Seriously, if you’re trying to find lodging in Italy (particularly in big cities) from North America and the UK, you should remember that Italy is newer to Internet sales and therefore a bit too eager to please. While in North America you can usually make a quick call to verify aspects of the place you’re interested in, or send an email, the whole process is fraught with pitfalls when there’s an ocean in between.

Language can create confusion, with Italians tending to use superlatives about their places because those are the words, “beautiful,” “great,” “excellent,” etc. that they know. Bottom line, the vigilance you apply to choices you make in North America have to be doubled when you’re going for accommodation you won’t see until you’ve arrived.

Some tips: ask for images; get references (names/email addresses) of people in the same place before, ensure there’s someone who speaks English or can at least act as a go-between, never wire money unless someone you know and trust has seen the place and vouched for it.

Plenty of people may tell you that they don’t know how to attach a photo to an email or have only one shot of the room or apartment in question. If so, ask them to ask a friend. If that doesn’t work, don’t chance it. Either you get several shots (particularly kitchen and bathroom) or no deal.

A lot of this is common sense caution, but sense and caution tend to fall by the wayside when someone offers you a cheap room and says it’s “next door” to the Vatican. Next door could be three kilometers. Get a specific street address and Google it. Also watch out for those who say their place in “center.” That’s a killer word that can have wickedly loose definition among would-be landlords.

The best situations are always those that a previous tenant can vouch for. And most good owners, if they’re serious, will give you that contact information.

I’ve heard about staying in a convent or monastery while in Rome. Is that feasible?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

In Rome, have a look at the Santa Susanna church website (English-language) for a list. A specific booking site exists at monasterystays.com.

Buyer beware: These deals should be verified by phone calls to the convent. Bear in mind that since the arrangement is informal (by hotel standards, that is), things can change unexpectedly. Forget about amenities such as AC, for example. Also, the low prices mean many places are booked many months in advance. Of course, give it a shot. Some convents can get you a room for €50. Just don’t ever think of something you can do last-minute.

Will a restaurant a split a bill if I’m paying by credit card?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

Most will, particularly if it’s a large group. But if you’re eating in four, say, and it’s a busy night, you may not make the all-star team by handing a waiter two (or more) credit cards. It’s considered a time-waster, largely because plastic wasn’t systematically introduced into restaurants until the late 1980s. Lots of Italians still pay cash — in part because big bills are fun to show off.

How much should I tip at restaurants?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

People will tell you (accurately) that most Italian restaurants include a service charge (15 percent) and a coperte (or place-setting) charge, usually €2-€4. That said, the service charge is often never seen by the waiter. Good owners divvy up the spoils, frugal ones don’t. That’s why you can’t add your tip to a credit card bill — no one knows where those funds really ends up.

Since there’s so much going on between the lines it’s a good idea to look at it in North American terms, which is to say 15 to 20 percent on top of the bill. Italians will think you’re crazy, but generally they’re cheap (some leave one percent or less, or nothing). If you’ve been treated well, give back.

No one’s going to grouse at you if you don’t — not to your face, at least — and if you’re on a tight budget you can choose to leave little. But do leave something. And don’t sit around with pen and calculator trying to figure it out. Not kosher.

I’ve heard nightmare stories gas buying and prices. Are they true?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

No, the gas pumps don’t eat human flesh, but they will drain your credit card. The first issue, however, is finding gas stations that are open (and knowing where they are, at least in urban centers).

Some perspective: Italian cities and towns are often cramped and naturally ancient. The North American “mall” island doesn’t exist, except in highway rest-stops. That leaves you with often tiny strips off on major strips or on piazzas, often with cars parked all around. Full-service is rare. More often you’ll find automated pumps that allow you to slip in €5, €10, and €20 euro bills. Wise to keep some “ironed” if your on a trip. Crumpled bills annoy the system and can lead to anxiety. Some automated pumps take plastic, but not all. Don’t hit the road without some bills handy.

Aperto 24 means 24/7 until the pump runs out of gas, which can happen on long weekends.

Word to the wise, always fill up, and if you drop to half-a-tank, pull over and fill up when you find an open station. Don’t play the red-light waiting game at the risk of running dry. Don’t expect to find rural stations open at lunch hour, 2-4:30 p.m. — in fact, plenty of city stations also shut down at lunch. Not, repeat not, a smart idea to decide you want to gas up at 2 p.m. on a Sunday. Good luck, even in Rome.

Depending on the time of year and demand, gas sells at about €1.7-€1.9 per liter (diesel runs about €1.6), and a liter is a little more than a quarter of a gallon. The math isn’t pretty. Fifteen gallons is about 56 liters — about $110, about double most prices in the United States.

Don’t go shopping for cheaper gas. Prices are mostly locked in. Also, if you’re in the sticks, make sure you’re pumping unleaded (senza piombo), which is the EU passenger car norm, but things can occasionally get dicey.

I may need meds refills while in Rome. I’ve been told it’s not that hard.2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

Someone told you wrong. Once upon a time, getting prescription medication over the counter was fairly easy (depending on the the pharmacist). No longer. European Union rules and a new generation of “fiscal” pharmacists — those who actually pay attention and stick to rules — now reign in much of Italy. If you don’t have an Italian Rx, good luck.

If you’re in a hotel, it means getting the concierge to get a doctor (in higher end places) or relying on an outsider at a high price called in by a pensione or friends of the pensione owner. Bottom line, you can of course visit an emergency room (pronto soccorso, but that’s really not advisable unless there’s a real emergency.

Sure, you can always beg. Pharmacists, if they understand the problem, do have dispensing power. Rome has an international pharmacy (Piazza Barberini) that will at least take a look at your North American Rx.

The best advice is to come equipped with what you need. If the bottom falls out, medico is the word for doctor and emergency in English has an international ring. If that gets nowhere, turn to an English-language doctors. They usually have their mobile phones handy. Be advised your “emergency” Rx won’t come cheaply. If a doctor is actually dispatched you’re talking a minimum of $150-200 (€100+). There’s really no such thing as a doctor calling in a prescription in Italy, since they’re all still done by hand and pharmacies don’t have computer databases.

Another tidbit to remember is that prescriptions for anti-depressants, sleeping pills and their ilk last only 30 days from the date written down by the physician. After that, the Rx is worthless.

Here are a useful few numbers for Rome: International Medical Center, tel. 06.488.2371; 24/7 service (English spoken); MEDI-CALL, tel. 06.884.0113; Rome American Hospital, tel. 06.22551; MD on duty 24 hours; Salvator Mundi International Hospital, tel. 06.588961.

Regarding dentists, the U.S. Embassy recommends you call G. Eastman Dental Hospital – tel. 06.844.831, with 24-hour service. The International Medical Center (see above) also offers 24/7 dental service.

Final note: Are these numbers foolproof and 24-hour medical/dental service always assured? No. But Italy is fast catching up to European norms.

Can we do Rome-Sorrento by bus?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

Yes, but the final destination is Amalfi. The bus leaves from Rome Tiburtina Station on the Via Ostiense (not Stazione Termini) and is run by the Marozzi company. The trip lasts about five hours (longer if you continue to Amalfi). It leaves at 7 a.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. on Sunday and holidays. In summer, there are two departures — morning and evening — on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. You can get one-way or roundtrip tickets at the station. Here’s the timetable.

For those of you who have early-arriving flights to Fiumicino, the morning bus is out of the question unless you clear customs by 6 a.m. and few flights, even with tailwinds, ever arrive that early from North America.

How can I get a fiscal code (codice fiscale) number?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

Follow this link codice fiscale. It requires your full name, date of birth, sex and country of birth. It can be generated automatically. You need the number itself, not physical proof of the number, as in a card.

While the CF is essential for payment, most companies want you to have a partita IVA, but that’s a separate and more complicated matter.

I’d like to see a soccer game in Italy? Do I need season tickets?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

No. In the bigger cities, Milan, Rome, Turin, Naples, big stadiums are usually half-full or less (unless you happen upon the so-called “derby,” in which a team is playing its cross-town rival — Milan vs. Inter, for example). In general you can take a hike to the stadium and buy cheap seats for €20 to €40. Beware of hawkers, abundant near all the major stadiums.

If your Italian is weak, just wait in line. Avoid the “curve,” or bleachers, since the hard-core fans sit there — unless you want a hefty taste of fan participation. Tickets for teams that play in the lower leagues, Serie B and below, have smaller stadiums and cheaper prices. But the smaller the stadium, the more the chance it’ll be full. It’s fair to say that unlike American football or other sports, you won’t find a sold-out game. Soccer relies more on TV revenue and merchandising than fan income.

The Serie A, or top league, runs from September through May (with breaks at Christmas and Easter and for national games). The lower leagues usually begin around Sept. 1 and run into early June.

I want to rent in Rome. Something like a studio. Maybe in the center. Can you give me tips?2018-03-07T10:27:53+01:00

There are plenty of short and long-term rental agencies. We have some in our classifieds listings. That said, be aware that rental property in the center of Rome, Florence and Milan runs between €6,000 and 10,000 per square meter.

In a nutshell, a one-bedroom apartment can easily run you €1,800 to €2,000, or $2,500 and up. You may see deals for a third that much, but buyer beware: Some are in awful condition or on the fringes of the neighborhood mentioned, which may mean on the fringes of town. Since Italian cities are cramped, apartments are usually small, some of them subdivisions of what were once larger one-family flats.

Not a pretty picture, but that’s 21st century urban Italy. There’s lots of demand and far less supply.

Can I expect the €-$ exchange to reach parity?2018-04-04T13:14:42+02:00

No. It’s been a wild ride over the years, with the euro as strong as 1.40 before the financial meltdown to 1.04 in 2015. Brokers and currency exchange stores will still inflate the figure for a profit. Amazon still pegs it higher for local online purchases. Markups are all around.

Nothing suggests massive changes in the (official) 1.20 to 1.25+ range, which has been steady (give or take) since 2017.

Does one Rome guidebook stand out?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

First, a word of caution: Beware too much information. Browsing for guidebooks can lead to overload and overload to confusion. Proliferation of choice, when it comes to travel, can work against you. Remember that your trip comes ahead of the book that’s supposed to help it. Remember that a book is just an aid. You can actually travel without one and have good time. Or you can pick one, eyes closed, and get by just fine.

That said, “Time Out” Rome, “The Rough Guide to Rome,” and “Rick Steves’ Rome” are all worthy. Guidebooks are a bit like cookbooks. It’s a matter of taste and method. Time Out is unquestionably the best-written of the bunch. That’s their British tradition, keen wit, scalding insight. For example, an essay on “Art in Rome” the current book is subtitled, ” So many virgins, so little time…” A recent short essay on Vatican museums was called “Blame Dan Brown” and cited “a purgatory of endless queues.” Typical “Time Out.” At the same time, “Time Out” is strong on night life and alternative lifestyles. If you’re twenty-something or a reader, “Time Out” is the way to go.

The Rough Guide to Rome” has some nice touches. There’s a “Contexts” section that includes some excerpts of writing about the city and some astute book recommendations. Its listings sections, including eating, drinking, and nightlife is less sassy and more approachable than TO’s. It’s also got a useful kids department (good day trip recommendations). Rome, says the guide, is an “overgrown village.” That’s so true of Rome because it’s still so deeply provincial. It’s a fax culture when most of the EU has moved on to the web. That’s just one example.

Rick Steves‘ Rome guide, updated annually, reads more like a long monologue. It relies on some keen observations here and there. What it lacks in maps (there are none to speak of) by keeping it real. The Sistine Chapel entry “(“Understanding What You’re Standing Under”) begins “The ceiling shows the history of the world before the birth of Jesus.” In fact, the whole religious/Vatican section is strong.

Frommer’s and Fodor’s have a book, so do Cadogan and National Geographic Traveler. There’s Michelin Green Guide Bruce Murphy & Alessandra de Rosa “Rome for Dummies” and last but not at all least Georgina Masson’s “The Companion Guide to Rome,” which lists excellent walks.

The upside of books is that they help, the downside is that you have you nose buried so deep that you’re not smelling the roses. Try reading up ahead of time but leaving the book itself in the hotel room. Do that once. You owe it to yourself to appreciate awe without having all of it qualified and quantified.

I hear people exclaim what sounds like “manager” or “management” when they’re agitated. What’s the meaning?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

That someone’s not happy. Mannaggia is a “polite” vulgarity, an interjection that qualifies as a vivid kind of “dammit.” The word has southern roots (it was included in the country’s famous Neapolitan-Italian dictionary of 1887) and derives from “male ne abbia,” basically “plenty bad.” Its literary background stems from another, now outdated interjection, malannaggia, as in “abbia il malanno,” or, “May you be damned…” (“Malannaggia l’anima tua!” wrote 19th-century Sicilian author Giovanni Verga, “Damn your soul…”)

Mannaggia a me, for example, literally means, “Damn me!” which can cover anything from forgetfulness (there a lot of that around) to rage over missing a plane. Mannaggia a te is what you’ll hear people murmur if they’re annoyed with you but don’t want it to go much further.

The expression can also help defuse a situation when one person’s in the wrong and doesn’t want to admit it. Better to curse yourself than suffer the imprecations of others.

My son has food allergies, mostly to soy products. Do Italian restaurants use soybean oil?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

Italians usually cook with olive oil. Just make sure to tell the waiter about the allergy. Since the word for allergy in Italian is allergia, pronounced ah-ler-JEE-ah, there should be no problem in communication. Soy is pronounced SO-ya. Soy usually a non-issue in non-specialized, non-fusion restaurants. But best to ask.

I’m Canadian baseball fan. I’ll be Rome in the fall, without my laptop. Any chance to see the action from far away?2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

Short answer: No. Italy has a baseball at a (very) minor league level, but it plays mostly in spring. MLB isn’t available except on computers (though Sky TV, the cable outlet, does carry NASN, the North American Sports Network; it does cover the playoffs and the World Series). Sports bars are no answer. Baseball here is like soccer in much of North America, an afterthought or less. Nice legends persist, including the one about Joe DiMaggio visiting Nettuno, Italy’s baseball capital, a decade after his retirement and, on a dare, taking pitches and swatting one 500 feet into the Mediterranean Sea. Old-timers swear it happened.

What’s the story with radio cabs? I got one from a restaurant that arrived in 10 minutes but had €10 on the meter.2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

It’s all about integrity. In theory, radio cabs should hit the meter the second they take a call. That means a cab arriving in three minutes (write down the “sigla,” or ID no., as in “Palermo 53”) should get to you three minutes from when he took the call and started the meter. Same with five, eight, 10, and so on. The longer the wait, the higher the price on the meter because it assumes a longer trip to come and fetch you. Traffic is a wild card. A cab coming in three can sometimes take 10. That’s life. It’s also annoying and upsetting, particularly when he or she arrives with €15 on the meter. You can refuse so long as you instruct your hotel or restaurant to explain your refusal. Walking away is both impolite and reckless. Have the hotel concierge, the cashier at the restaurant, or even the driver call the “centrale,” the dispatch, to explain your concern. In general, cab drivers are honest. The meter is hard to “fix” or manipulate. A rule of thumb is to assume three minutes will be five, and so on. Another one is to expect a radio cab will arrive with at least €4/5 on the meter, so you can consider your fare from that baseline.

What’s the story on the name of the Rome airport? Fiumicino, right? What’s with Leonardo da Vinci?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

Fiumicino is the name of the nearest coastal town and it also carries the official label for routing, namely FCO. But the airport’s real name is Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a bit like Washington, D.C. Old-timers say “National,” others are more comfortable with “Reagan,” some say both.

I heard cab fares went up in Rome. True?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Yes. Starting in 2008 the drop rate is €2.70, or about $4.25. You can expect an “average” ride, from the Vatican to the center of town, to run you €10 (16). There’s really no such thing as an under-€10 cab ride any more. Considering the same ride cost less than 10,000 lire, or 5 a decade ago, you get a sense of inflation.

The other issue that’s come time and again concerns radio taxi services. When your hotel calls for a cab (or you do), the drop occurs the second the driver takes the call — this true throughout Italy. A three-minute taxi (the infamous 3 minuti) means that in theory the cab that has been called for you — you received the sigala, or call sign, such as “Toro 30” — will reach your destination in three minutes. But these are estimates depending on traffic and the driver’s own evaluation of the situation. If his arrival takes 10 mintes, it’s your problem, and your bill.

This can lead to 3-minute cabs arriving with €5/6 on the meter, which is unacceptable (€5/6 is normal for 5 minutes and just fine for 8 minutes). If you’re in a hurry, your options are limited. But if a hotel made the call, you can question the rate to the hotel concierge. It may not help, but it might help avoid collusion.

Bottom line, you’re on your own. It’s is a buyer’s market, particularly on rainy days. Milan is more organized than Rome when it comes to cabs and cab practices, and many companies in Italy are reputable and fair. Unfortunately, for every 10 honest drivers (who were in fact caught in traffic, hence the inflated meter) there’s one who double-dips. The cheaters are waning, though, since the longer it takes with one customer, the longer before the next fare.

My husband-to-be (he’s a professional dancer and I’m a teacher) and I will be honeymooning in Venice in early fall before and after a cruise. With just a few days in Venice, what would you recommend we do?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

No one answer is possible, so here are thoughts. First, 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. Even random “vaporetto” rides are great fun. But if you want something that (ironically) celebrates life, visit the San Michele cemetery. Apart from seeming like parts of New Orleans for its beauty, lushness, and hail-fellow-well-met approach to death, you’ll find the tombs of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Pound. It’s deeply moving.

For a Sicilian trip, what’s best, venturing out or signing up for a tour? Also, what’s the prudent time to avoid heat or heavy rains?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

First off, remember that these remarks are subjective and hardly definitive: Sicily is beautiful, confusing, and challenging for travelers of all ages. It has its own peculiar rhythm in which time seems to slow down. The coasts, for example, are remarkable, but rarely visited comprehensively because they’re a bit often the beaten track (with the exception of few famous resorts, Taormina, for example). Probably the best way to see it, honestly, is with a rental car and time on your hands — allowing for misadventures. But if you want a more realistic approach, I think your best bet is either spending some time in Palermo and Catania, and moving out from to nearby local towns, or taking a tour. If you do plan a tour, get is straight before you leave. You don’t want to find yourself in Sicily making it up as you go along, unless you’re extremely adventurous. As for time of year, avoid the high season. Shoot for October, even November. The climate is temperate. Sicily is always about 5 to 10 degrees warmer than Rome. Another option is March, before Easter, or May, just after. June through September are the hottest months.

We are in our early 70s and healthy but we’ll be arriving in Rome with lots of luggage. Train or cab?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Cabs. With six bags it’s worth the expense. Even if it’s smooth to the train station (Termini), you then have to get to your hotel or final destination. Cabs to the center run €40, but even if it’s more with the bags or if you’re not in the circumscribed “center” area, don’t put yourselves out at the start of a trip. It’s bad karma.

Can you help me with the warnings on Italian buses about tickets and fines.2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

First, some advice. See the Atac website (click on the British flag). It has some useful — albeit creatively phrased — explanations. As for the warnings, it’s pretty simple. Once upon a time (until around 1980), urban buses and trams had ticket-sellers on board. When that ended, the country went to system of pre-purchasing. You buy, put it through he machine on the bus, and show it to an inspector if he/she boards (which is more frequent these days). The problem is where to get the tickets. The answer: Local tobacco shops (big “T”) and some, not all, newspaper kiosks. If you’re staying in a city for a week, best to buy 20 or fork out the money for a monthly pass (tessera). If the machine doesn’t work, Ok. Don’t fret. Hold the ticket and show the inspector. They know the drill with malfunctioning machines. They also know you can’t stamp the ticket if the bus is packed. Obviously, if someone wants to hassle you, they will, but that’s a personal choice and not a reflection of some big bad system. Again, bottom line, buy a bunch of tickets (usually at €1 each) the first chance you get, so you dodge the issue. Fines run between €100 and €500.

Is there such a thing as a “poor district” or neighborhood in Rome, a bad-side-of-the-tracks?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

Not really. Despite a precarious economy, Italians are never far from being modestly well off. Well off naturally means different things in different cultures, but the hunger and destitution are thankfully not easy to come by in an urban setting. Not any more. Sure, the area near the train station is seedy — but seedy isn’t a synonym for poor. Down-on-your luck, yes. Criminal even. But not destitute. There are nomad camps and immigrant populations struggling to make ends meet, that for sure. But the poverty that was evident in Italian neorealist films has vanished from the city, which has no North American “inner” side. Again, this is a relative subject. Some might beg to differ.

We’re want to come to Italy in winter 2008-2009. Price seem a little lower. How the January-to-April weather?2018-03-07T10:27:52+01:00

January and February are tourism’s dry gulches. Prices drop post-Christmas, not much but enough. Overall the weather isn’t that bad. You can get rain and cold, particularly in the north (for that matter you can cold and rainy spells in April, only they’re more expensive, so to speak). Rome, Florence, and particularly Venice (coldest of the three) are in fact best explored in late January and early February. Pre-carnival you get an available Venice. A foggy Venice day in late January could give you all of Venice’s St. Mark’s Square to yourself. Romans dislike the cold and that also means getting more of the city to yourself on cold days (try the Pantheon at Midnight on chilly February night). Even St. Peter’s Square empties out. A word on Florence: It’s can sometimes be a bit like Denver, with tremendous temperature gaps. It’s the hardest of the big three to nail down.

I’m traveling solo to Rome for two days, and would like to know how I can make the best of the nightlife?2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

Campo de’ Fiori in Rome has itself become a giant wine bar, much to the chagrin of many. Editorializing aside, Rome is hopping, now more than ever. Have a look at our “Rome by Night” section under “Where to Eat.” Otherwise, the Rome Time Out guide has an excellent nightlife section.

What is Eurostar?2018-04-04T13:07:39+02:00

Basic pointers. Eurostar mostly covers big stops: Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Milan, and a few others. Not Pisa. Eurostar does Rome to Florence, then Bologna to Milan. It’s mostly a north-south line because it crosses the border into other European nations. You can use it from Rome to Milan, and vice verse. From Milan you can catch a trains west to Venice. Or, you could take the famous Rome-Venice train, the Freccia della Laguna, about six hours. Italian train travel is fundamental. Don’t worry about finding tickets on the travel day. Assuming no strikes, you will. First class, while pleasant, is merely an assurance you’ll sit. In second class, it’s closer to “all aboard.” Assigned seats are fewer. But don’t get upset by the website. You can buy your tickets in Italy at a travel agency or at the station. Do remember to validate the ticket before you board. You’ll see yellow machines (Ok, some may not work, but find one that does). Fail to do that and there’s an outside chance you’ll pay full fare and a fine

What’s the story with gay kissing and holding hands in Rome? Is it OK?2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

The story is that despite all the rumbling to the contrary, suggesting open-mindedness, it’s not cool. We’ll stay away from a political-sexual manifesto. Suffice to say same-sex handholding may not go over well in parts of Italy. Cities are easier, but not always. It’s still testosterone driven. Being judgmental can be seen as quaint. Your best bet is to keep your intimacy to yourself. If you don’t wish to, that’s fine too. But we can’t vouchsafe disinterested understanding, much as we’d like to.

I drink only bottled water in the U.S. Are there any special “better” brands?2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

Calcium-rich Rome water was once the pride of Europe. Since the marketing craze that put bottled water atop the pyramid of eternal health and life, Rome’s, faucet and founatin water has taken a hit.

It’s absurd since Italian tap water is “tasty,” clean, and entirely satisfying. Why spend €2.50 for a small plastic bottle (which messes up the environment anyway, since recycling here is dysfunctional)? That’s nearly $4 when you have thousands of fountains, particularly in Rome. Drink four little bottles and you’ve killed yourself financially for a day (Okay, you can go to the supermarket and stock up more cheaply…)

But whatever you do, don’t think for a second that you can’t drink the water. If you’re wedded to paying for bottled water, you’ll find tens of varities, including Panna, Levissima, San Benedetto… it’s a long, long list. Naturale means flat; frizzante or gassata indicates bubbly, fizzy or sparkling.

Is there university lodging in Italy?2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

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. Your plan, while intriguing, doesn’t lend itself to simple 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. Opting for a pensione might be wiser.

I’m a thirty-something Boston woman visiting Italy for the first time in early fall. My budget is tight and I’m a little overwhelmed. Ok, a lot. The trains scare me. The friends I’m staying with are going to Venice for two days, but it’s $1,000 for two nights! Should I stay in Rome? Help!2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

Stay calm. Your friends will help you. Second, the trains are simple. The $1,000 two-night bill your friends are running up is exorbitant (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 $90 (and stay the day). But 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 — at least not until the euro reaches 2-1 against the dollar. Try to get into the habit of thinking in terms of euro and not dollars. Think of your dollar being worth about 60 cents. Or, more painfully, that a €10 tab is $16, and up.

We’ll be in Pisa 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 in Pisa or Lucca?2018-03-07T10:27:51+01:00

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. (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.

I’m scared off by the summer months. What’s the best time of year to visit the Puglia region of Italy?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

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 (duly noted) and the number of establishments that shut down from July to the first week of September.

Last year we did Venice, Florence, Orvieto (only a day), Rome, and Pompeii. Second trip coming up. We’d like to see some coastal towns and smaller villages. Ideas.2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Try driving south from Pisa along the 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.

How can four friends, age 60 and over but in great shape, spend 10 days to two weeks touring Italy?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

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.

Is it realistic to think one can “see” Umbria and Tuscany without a car? If “no,” what a good Umbria and Tuscany “base” and which are can’t miss towns?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

No. It is not realistic to “see” Tuscany and Umbria without a car, or a friend’s 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. 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.

I hear that train travel is still the way to go in Italy. Is that right?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Yes. 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 €34 one-way. Commuter trains are cheaper. Bottom line, train travel is fantastic in connecting most major cities and large towns.

Are reservations needed for museums off-season? Can a woman alone? Would you choose Pisa or Siena for a day-trip from Florence?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Unless you’re hitting some remarkable exhibit you can show up for most museums and be just fine. As for dining alone, sure, 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. choose 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. Siena is layered. You can still get lost in it. And the main piazza (Piazza del Campo) is a wonder of the world.

How concerned should I be about the garbage crisis in Naples and environs?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Depends on your personal anxiety levels. The situation certainly has never been pleasant, though it’s a lot better in 2012 than it was in 2008, say. At the same time, Naples has never been the country’s hygiene saint. So, noble task forces and political posturing aside there’s no end in sight. The city and region simply can’t keep up with the waste that’s already accumulated and citizens are reluctant to allow incinerators in their back yard. Waste disposal shutdowns backed up garbage starting in 2006, and though some has since been shunted off to Holland, a lot of refuse remains. Moreover, the Campania region (Naples is the capital) has been illegally accepting refuse from elsewhere in Italy for decades (at an underworld profit, of course). It’ll take years to sort out. Meantime, doctors have expressed concern about the increase in the rat, roach, and mosquito presence, particularly in summer.

The other side of the coin is that Naples has been living with variations on this theme for a long time. It’s worsened, yes, but it hasn’t come out of the blue. And (in general) it’s restricted to certain areas of town. Touristy areas have been cleaned out for obvious PR reasons.

So, don’t worry, be happy (unless you’re a die-hard ecologist, in which case stay away). Vibrant Naples is well worth visiting, so is the Amalfi Coast. Put the media hype in context and plan your trip.

We’re planning Milan, Rome, Florence, and Venice in October. We’d prefer to stay in hotels that cater more to Italians than tourists. Any suggestions?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Since you know what you want — contact with Italians — it’s not a matter of the hotel but your open-mindedness. You’ll meet plenty of people without regard to where you stay. It’s hard to indicate non-tourist hotels, as such. Pick what’s in your budget and appealing and serendipity will do the rest.

International Driver’s License: Yes, no, maybe?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

With a rental, your American license will get you through the day, the week, and maybe the month (remember that most rentals are stick shifts). That said, an International License from the AAA supports the validity of your U.S. license. If anything untoward happens, having one is helpful. Sometimes (as in all nations) it depends on the mood of those who stop you. The International License is a good faith, law-abiding gesture that keeps you on the more honest side of things, though honesty isn’t necessarily the lay of this land.

If you intend to stay in Italy for a longer period, you may have to err on the side of caution and apply for an Italian permit, which requires a test and a learner’s permit. It’s an arduous procedure that most people tackle by attending a driving school.

Bottom line, driving in Italy on a North American permit only is illegal. Will police arrest you? Unlikely. But the letter of the law is a local permit supported by an International License or an Italian permit. Assuming your U.S. license will get you out of trouble or that playing dumb is a foolproof option can cost you dearly.

What’s the best time to visit and what’s unmissable on a first trip with just a week?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

March, April, September, October. Capri and Venice: those you just can’t not see. One because it’s a jewel, the other because it is unique in the literal sense of the word. No place on earth is Venice.

What’s the best Italian city to fly into and what are possible driving itineraries?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Easyjet and Ryanair have dozens of no-frills flights into Rome Ciampino airport. Or, if you prefer you can land elsewhere: London to Milan or Pisa., and come to Rome by train or car. Here’s a thought: 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 is driving east toward colorful Puglia (Foggia, Bari, Taranto, Lecce) in Italy’s heel.

Yes or no to group tours on a first trip to Italy, particularly if you’re retired?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

A program schedule can be annoying because of it’s restrictions. But if you’ve never been to Italy and want to get a taste of it without worrying about details, a group package isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

The answer also depends on how adventurous you are as opposed to how daunted you might feel facing the day-to-day in a place that doesn’t speak your language. The best tours take you off the beaten track, to smaller cities. So if you do choose a tour, find one that doesn’t focus all its energies on trying to show you all of one city. A bus tour, north to south or vice versa, might fit the bill.

Otherwise it’s best to focus on one or two cities — Rome and Florence, say — and leave it at that, at least for a first trip.

We want to sail, not a cruise, from Venice to Rome, or vice versa, in September or October. My husband, 15-year-old daughter and I. Is a sailing vessel experience worth the money? Good idea, or rethink this?2018-03-07T10:27:50+01:00

Fascinating but impractical. Rome is on the Tyrrhenian, Venice on the Adriatic. You’d need to play seafarers (unless you plan to build a canal). Anything’s possible, but honestly the idea is time-consuming and not really an effective way of “living” Italy. You’d be mostly on water, with only the Rome-coast inland trip. If you want to sail, stick to one side of the country. But bottom line, rethink.

In summer Rome, what are the must sees aside from Vatican museums and Roman ruins? Can lines be avoided?2018-03-07T10:27:49+01:00

Forget avoiding lines. Rome is beloved by tourists in summer. But don’t worry about this. Walk! The great French writer Stendhal was so charmed by walking through Rome that he wrote three volumes of memoirs titled: “Promenades in Rome” — all about his walking tours, bumping through backstreets. Take walking tours through the center, map in hand, and let yourself stumble onto things. Go to Trastevere, the neighborhood nearest the Vatican, and walk up to the Garibaldi stature on Monte Mario. Explore behind the Coliseum, and walk the tiny green streets around the Aventine Hill (Aventino on a map). There is a beautiful park, the Celimontana, behind the Coliseum, but few go there. Don’t make too grand a list, because you’ll find there’s simply too much to see and think yourselves disappointed and having missed out. Remember, there’s no such thing as missing out on a city when you’re in it.

If hiking with teens, are shorts to-the-knee okay for entering churches?2018-03-07T10:27:49+01:00

Teens in Italy mostly look like teens in the States (maybe a bit more formal, but not always). Italian pop culture borrows heavily from American trends. Still, shorts are not appropriate in church. No one will stop you but it’s a matter of propriety and respect. Churches once intervened but the times they are a changin’. Have teens 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 old-fashioned cultural barriers behind the cool look. Italians will never pressure you about what you wear but they’re always pleasantly surprised by well-dressed Americans. It’s your call.

My husband, adult son, and I want to come to Sicily from Chicago in December. Could you suggest an itinerary? If possible, we’d like to rely on buses and trains to get us around.2018-03-07T10:27:49+01:00

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.

We have a fall trip to Lake Como in mind. Camping is important. Also, are public tennis courts readily available in Rome/Florence/Tuscany? Can we rent or borrow (or cheap-buy) racquets/shoes/etc.?2018-03-07T10:27:49+01:00

Getting camping and leisure equipment on the fly is far harder in Italy than the States. Casual camping isn’t as common. 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’ll have the country to yourself if it’s a 20-day trip. 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.