Italy is an extraordinary country to visit, blessed with amazing beauty, art and history. It has provided me with many great memories and has been the inspiration for several of my restaurants including Trattoria Toscano in The Oaks at Lakeway.
If you only go once or have only a few days, there are many preplanned tours that will typically show you the major sites in Rome, Florence, and Venice. But if you have more time or go again, I would encourage you to rent a car and experience the real Italy, the beautiful countryside and the Italian way of life. Some thoughts and tips:
International flights usually land in Rome or Milan, where the airports are located well away from the crowded cities. Car rental is easy and you have immediate access to the autostrada, toll roads much like our interstates. Carry a Michelin map in large scale for general planning and the autostrada. The autostradas are numbered A1, A4, and A11 etc and often join concurrently. Travel is fast and efficient with regular service plazas.
In the countryside, roads and streets are not always numbered. But there are always well-marked signs at each intersection marking the way to the next town and larger cities. Have a detailed map or atlas of the area you plan to visit and “connect the dots” as you travel from town to town to reach your destination. Modern GPS makes this even easier. Also, follow the round blue signs with a white arrow that mark the correct way in certain areas. An excellent guidebook is the “Eyewitness Travel Guide to Italy,” available in local bookstores.
If you are driving into a city (avoid driving in Rome) look for signs with a black and white “bulls eye” denoting Centro, the historical central district. Know the name of the major train station, (stazione) where you will find parking and services. Typically, except for residents, the heart of the old city does not allow cars. Follow signs and stroll and explore your way to the prominent major church or duomo. Smaller towns generally have designated parking areas on the perimeter.
Rather than trying to see the whole country, spend time on one region and absorb the way of life. For accommodations, rent a home and hire a chef (VRBO, Home Away). Or stay at an agriturismo, a working farmhouse much like a bed and breakfast and enjoy local day trips. Shop in small neighborhood markets with colorful storefronts of meats (macelleria), bread and sweets (panetteria or pasticerria) and wine and cheese (entoteca) and enjoy a daily picnic on the walls of an old hill town. Italians are very warm and social and participate in an evening walk (passeggiata) often arm in arm with friends and family. Take part in this ritual, pausing here and there for espresso, snacks, a glass of wine and always gelato!
The varied landscape, hills and mountains divide Italy into many geographic and political regions and future articles will focus on suggested visits to specific regioni. Meanwhile, if you are planning a trip to Italy or have been before, I would love to share thoughts and memories. Please ask for Stan at Trattoria Toscano.
Caio e Buona Fortuna!