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Life in Italy

Go to: Guidebooks | Literature: what to read | The Bike | Packing your bike | Your Body: getting ready for the trip | Bike Friendly Hotels

Once again, it's hard to improve on Larry and Heather's advice to their CycleItalia clients.

"Here are a few tips about life in Italy that will help you to enjoy your Cycleltalia adventure.

"Italy is not a 24 hour society like the United States. Businesses are generally open from 8 am to 12 noon; then closed from 12 - 3; and open again from 3 - 7pm. This includes markets and banks so get your picnic supplies and lunch money before noon. Restaurants are generally open from 12 - 3 and 7 - 10 PM. Businesses also close for a weekly giorno di fermatura, which varies from town to town; look for signs.

"The ATM has become a fixture in Italian life. You'll get a great exchange rate and can usually withdraw up to 200 Euros each day (around $250 US) so you'll have plenty of cash. A card accessing your checking account via Cirrus or Plus is the best—you'll of course need a PIN. If you're unable to get a a few Euros from your home bank, make sure you find an ATM in the airport before our transfer to the hotel. Many places wiil accept credit cards, check for emblems on the door or window but it's a good bet to have enough cash—just in case."

[Note from Carol: we've travelled with people who tried to use an ATM card to get cash, and couldn't do it for unknown reasons (the machine just spit the card back out with no explanation). Presumably you will be carrying a credit card, so be sure you know the PIN number for your Visa/Mastercard as well (if you've lost it, you can get a new one from the issuing bank if you don't wait until the day before you leave). You can get a cash advance with a credit card at any ATM, you don't need to find one with a particular 'logo'. You will pay a cash advance fee, but even with that, the exchange rate using ATMs is so superior to other means of getting cash that it won't matter much.]

"Traveler's checks can usually be cashed only in banks (with passport) so are less convenient.

"Guests who call home from their rooms are often in for an expensive surprise. A better option is to buy a phone card at a newsstand and use the orange public phones called SIP that take them. You can call collect or with a calling card from your room by getting an outside line, linea esterna, and dialing the access code to get an English speaking operator.

"Given the time difference and high cost of calling, the best way to communicate is via Fax. Faxes sent to our hotels care of Cycleltalia will usually be waiting for you on arrival. Hotels will fax your reply back home for a nominal fee. Post cards are best mailed directly from the post office early in the trip; even via air mail it can take them over a month to arrive.

[Note from Carol: this was written some years ago, and these days email makes more sense. Virtually all hotels in Italy have computers in the lobby that are available to guests, and wifi if you are carrying your own laptop.]

"Grocery stores include supermarkets like Gransole and MercatoneUno, and mini-markets called alimentari. You will get the best quality if you visit specialty stores like the panificio (bakery), pasticceria (pastry shop), salumeria (meat shop), or formaggieria (cheese shop). Open-air markets are a good bet for fruits and vegetables. When you buy produce at a supermarket, you weigh it yourself on the provided scale which spits out a price tag. You then put the sticker on the bag and proceed to the checkout. At small stores and open air markets, the proprietor generally selects and weighs the produce for you. Bike shops in Italy are usually family-run and are seldom self-service; often, an item is hidden away and must be asked for. For clothing, tell the proprietor your size and he or she will pull out what they have.

"Eating out is an important cultural event for Italians. They take their time and enjoy it. You should expect to spend more time and perhaps more money in an Italian ristorante than at home. Allow between one and two hours for a meal, even at lunch. A quicker option may be a Tavola Calda (literally, hot table) which serves a variety of hot dishes and sandwiches. There are also pizza stands serving slices and cold drinks, but real Pizzerias often don't have their wood fired pizza oven going at lunch. Bars may have sandwiches and pizza, but quality varies. Markets and bakeries offer little pizzas or make sandwiches and usually have a selection of drinks.

"While cycling, choose a restaurant with an outdoor patio so you can keep an eye on your bike. Don't be afraid to try something new under primi piatti—first dishes—which covers pasta, rice, and soups. Salads and vegetables are listed under contorni. The conto (check) will not come until you ask for it. The tip is usually included on the bill as a coperto (cover) charge, or servizio (service). When in doubt, ask. If the service is exceptional, you may leave a little extra.

"Italian bars focus on coffee and conversation not alcohol. They are great rest stops during your rides. If you go into a bar to use the bathroom, get your waterbottle filled, or watch the Giro on T.V., you should buy something. Bars in Italy will have sodas, juices (succo), water, even snacks. Bars often charge higher prices for having your drink at a table rather than standing up.

"Tap water in Italy is usually potable. If it comes out of a tap that you can tum on and off, it's prabably safe to drink. Water from fountains and alpine springs may be O.K. for locals, but don't risk it yourself. Avoid this: 'Aqua non potabile'. Bottled water is cheap in Italy so keep some around. Get in the habit of bringing your bicycle waterbottles to your room each night then filling them at the hotel before you start riding in the morning. If you stop at a bar or restaurant, ask them to fill your bottles before you leave.

"Public toilets (WC, gabinetto, or Toiletta) are somewhat rare in Europe. Local customs usually allow men to use 'behind the trees' rest rooms. Women have to look for a good sized bush or line up to use the conventional facilities. Some bathrooms are the 'hole in the floor' variety which has the advantage of not requiring a toilet seat cover and often the disadvantage of not providing toilet paper. It's a good idea to keep a little T.P. or a small pack of Kleenex in your pocket. Restaurants and bars will be happy to allow you to use the facilities as long as you are a paying customer. Buy a coffee or order lunch, then ask. Train stations offer free, but less attractive facilities.

"There are almost no laundromats in Italy so bring along a small bottle of Woolite (the stuff they sell in Italy, BioPresto and the like is great) and a portable clothesline (available at travel and camping stores). You can then wash your cycling clothes and whatever else you need in your sink or bidet, roll them up in a towel to wring out the excess water, and hang them up to dry in your window or balcony, or on the radiator if it's on. If your window faces the front of the hotel, they may not want your laundry adorning the place, however. It's best to do your laundry when we first arrive at a new hotel; that gives it a whole day to dry.

"Italy has wonderful pharmacies but everything from aspirin to zinc-oxide is behind the counter and you have to ask for it. Showing the pharmacist your illness or injury will usually get you an appropriate remedy but it's better to be prepared. Having the medicine to treat common illnesses is good insurance against getting them. Bring any prescription drugs you need and familiar over the counter remedies like Sudafed, Advil, Aspirin, Dramamine, Immodium, even antibiotics. Toothpaste, shave-cream, lotion, shampoo, and feminine items can be found, but you won't be familiar with the brands. Bring a second set of any prescription eyewear you might need and bring the phone number of your doctor since you might want advice when an Italian doctor is hard to find. Finally, if you need special food and drinks for riding like Powerbars, etc. bring it with you, it's tough to find and can be expensive in Italy.

"Before you spend money and aggravation on a converter kit, ask yourself if you really need the appliance in question. CycleItalia trips are very informal, if you still need a hair dryer or electric razor, consider a battery powered unit but remember the extra weight you'll have to carry up the stairs! Bring extra batteries for all your gadgets including cameras, alarm clocks, and bike-computers. Bring film for the camera too as it's much more expensive in Europe. Think twice about things like notebook computers, you probably won't have time to use them anyway. Disposable cameras are a good option for pictures taken during rides.

"The best kind of traveler is a prepared optimist. Expect the best weather but be prepared for the worst. We may be in the areas where the weather can change instantly, so a rain jacket or windbreaker that fits into your jersey pocket (available from us) is essential. Bring a pair of tights and arm warmers, it can be cold on top of the hills, even in brilliant sunshine. The sun can be as big a hazard as the cold, so bring sunscreen and a hat.

"You won't have to worry much about theft except in large cities. It's best to keep your valuables in a fannypak turned to the front, or in the hotel safe. Make a photocopy of your passport/credit cards and keep it in your luggage, NOT your wallet. I usually feel safer in Northern Italy than I do in many parts of the US. Be prepared and you'll have a great trip!"

More travel chapters:

Guidebooks | Literature: what to read | The Bike | Packing your bike | Your Body: getting ready for the trip | Bike Friendly Hotels