I will freely admit that all my previous blogs about our 2021 trip to Italy sound idyllic. And why not, it was a wonderful trip. But every travel foray has its misadventures and scary moments, and this one was no exception.
This blog entry is created for three groups of people:
- The skeptics, or “I KNEW it, there had to be a catch” crowd. These are the ones of you out there who want to have an excuse not to do something like this. For you, I offer ready made excuses. If you need reasons not to travel, here they are.
- The cautious realists. Many people would love to travel more, but have a list of worries that stand in the way. This blog offers real-life answers for those of you who think:
- “I don’t speak the language.”
- “How could we get around?’
- “What would we do if something goes wrong?”
- The seasoned travelers. This is the group that appreciates that “life is a journey, not a destination,” and appreciate the fact that travel is not just about the pictures, but the connecting stories. For you, I offer the kind of “local color” that reminds you why you like to travel so much.
- COVID does present challenges
We may as well start with the item that jumps to the top of everyone’s list in today’s travel. It is true that the pandemic adds to the complexities of travel, particularly when crossing country borders. So what was involved for us?
I’ll begin by acknowledging that Ellen and I are vaccinated. For us, a primary driver for getting the shots early was the ability to travel. This helps with navigating the rules of different countries and provides a good measure of peace of mind.
Our trip planning started when Italy opened completely to vaccinated travelers, and we made a conscious decision to limit our trip to a single country just because of the unknown issues that might come up each time you cross a national border. As far as transportation to and from Italy, here are the hoops we had to jump through:
- Fill out a detailed contact tracing form for Italy that detailed who we are, our flights and seat numbers, and where we would be traveling. This gave us a bar code we had to show when boarding the plane in Spokane, along with our COVID shot record, one form of complying with Italian entry requirements.
- Wear masks continuously (except when eating) for the entire 16 hours of plane travel each way.
- Obtain a rapid COVID test in Italy (about $30 and a 15-minute wait in any pharmacy) for acceptance back into the USA.
While in Italy, the rules were like some parts of the USA: masks indoors and on all transit, but no masks outside. Wearing masks is not a political issue, but universally accepted. Our biggest challenge was that we would forget to mask up as we entered stores, causing momentary panic for a number of shopkeepers as they frantically tried to alert us (in Italian) to the problem.
BOTTOM LINE: As long as you know the rules, it was really manageable, just annoying sometimes.
2. Travel WITHIN cities was our greatest challenge
Remember “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles?” Well, in 17 days, we experienced at least 9 different mechanized ways to travel: plane, train, city bus, tour bus, tram, taxi, funicular (cog railway), boat and subway. We didn’t have many troubles on the trip, but most of them involved the logistics of these in some way:
- In Milan, Ellen got caught in “subway jail.” You use automated tickets to enter the subway terminal, and then again to exit. Ellen’s entry machine was not working at some point, so she “tailgated” through the opening into the terminal. But then, when she went to leave at the other end, her ticket would not work, because you can’t “exit” without “entering.” She was where her ticket said she couldn’t be. So she was stuck on the wrong side of the exit gate while I was safely on the right side. With no attendants around, we were finally saved by a helpful Italian who used his pass to free her, and another who helped us get on the right train from there. We now know the secret. A $2.40 touch of your VISA card will free you. But it was pretty worrisome at the time, and we avoided the subway after that.
- In Verona, we elected to take a city bus to our anniversary dinner, for which we had made reservations a month earlier. I found the right number bus and thought I knew where to catch it, but it almost immediately headed the wrong direction. Afraid to get off, I decided to wait until it got to the end of the line and head back toward the center of town. We got increasingly nervous as the bus left the city and traveled to some far off suburb, where it stopped, and the driver announced in Italian that we, his last two passengers, needed to exit, as he was done for the day! What now?
He spoke little English, but I showed him a map of where we were headed. To our amazement, he told us to sit down, then drove like a crazy man through the suburb, catching the bus ahead of us. He honked for the driver, got out of the bus, and in Italian explained to the other driver where we wanted to go. We were VERY grateful. This was just one of a dozen times we were helped with navigation by friendly Italians, often with the benefit of little English. I further complicated the problem by walking the wrong way when we got off the bus, but that is a story for another time. We were an hour late to dinner, but it worked out OK.
- Leaving Verona, we made an increasingly hectic number of attempts to order a taxi. For details on that, and the taxi ride we finally WERE able to schedule in Milan, see the next bullet point. Giving up on that, we decided once again to try the bus, this time with no margin for error. Once again, we were saved by a young person on the street who pointed us to the stop, a driver who confirmed where we were going, and a passenger who agreed to alert us where to get off. Sometimes it takes a village…
BOTTOM LINE: We arranged all of the transportation between cities before we left home, and it worked great. The local transport within towns was the problem, and were mostly our issues, not system problems. Need extra research on this before next time.
3. We ALMOST have phones and Internet figured out. Fourth time is a charm?
On our first trip to Europe in 2015, we brought my iPhone. Near the end of the trip I lost it, along with the all the best pictures of that trip, since that was also my camera. The next time, we brought no phones at all, and struggled with lack of email access and GPS. And most reservations wanted us to provide a phone number.
The solution is not easy. International plans are expensive ($10/day minimum, with potential high data costs in addition). Wifi is “often” available, but hit and miss, and not secure. Phones are easily lost and a target of pickpockets. There are pitfalls with any choice you make.
Our solution this time was to bring ONE phone (Ellen’s), set up for international use if we needed it for hotels, taxis, or an emergency call to the USA. We used it that way exactly one time. For security, we attached a wristband and bought a high visibility case. But our secret weapon was a Skyroam hotspot style device, looking like a hockey puck and able to fit in a pocket, with a 30-day unlimited data plan. So we put her phone on airplane mode, but with WIFI turned on. Thus wherever we were, we had free secure Internet GPS, email, and messaging capability on either the phone or our iPad. The 30-day plan was $100, well worth the money.
Most of the time this system worked great. We could put in our destination into Google maps and either walk or ride to our destination, knowing all along if we were going in the right direction. It let us know when to get off the train, where to turn at street corners, etc. We had email 24/7, access to Internet searches, etc. This was all a vast improvement.
But this system let us down twice. First, we were using my credit card for most transactions. All worked well, except for the two times I attempted to purchase tickets on-line. The card has 2-step verification, so asked for me to enter the verification code it sent to my phone. Not so good when the phone was home in Spokane. Oops.
The second issue was when we tried to book the taxi on short notice in Verona. Having never done an international call, we did not understand how to do it, and failed, abandoning the effort and resorting to plan B. We came close to missing a train as a result.
BOTTOM LINE: Next time we will make sure we know how to effectively make calls, ensure our new Italy Taxi app is set to go, and will get our credit cards synced up with our phones.
4. I have a love/hate relationship with my camera
I have a nice, lower end Nikon “mirrorless” camera, the supposedly improved replacement for my beloved digital SLR. As you can see from the blog, it is capable of taking beautiful pictures. But it is definitely NOT a point-and-shoot. And I am definitely NOT practiced at making the adjustments quickly that I need to make. For some reason, we have not become friends.
Before we left on the trip, I spent a couple of hours reviewing settings and making sure I had all the lenses (3, at least 1 too many) that I thought I would need. And with all that I wound up with several pictures that had a sky full of dots that looked like the measles, or so underexposed it looked like it was taken at midnight. Some I was able to recover using a video editor, but many were unusable.
So while Ellen was happily snapping away with her cell phone, I was hauling my camera into a specialty shop in Milan to get it professionally cleaned (measles issue), or struggling to figure out how to get pictures that didn’t look like they were the background for a horror movie.
It wouldn’t be so bad, but the camera is bulky, expensive and capable of so much more than I get out of it. By the time I arrived home, I was so annoyed that I did the research and was ready to junk my new camera for a nice, simple pocket camera. Then, just before I hit “buy,” I checked out one more website to review my settings one more time. A new setting that I had missed showed up, and the camera won a reprieve.
BOTTOM LINE: OK, one more trip. But you’re on notice, Nikon. You better outperform that cell phone or you are TOAST.
5. Where are the Americans?
For anyone who has never been to a foreign country, the thought of not being able to communicate is the greatest fear. But in almost all of Europe, it is relatively easy to travel, because English is almost always a second language to the native speakers. And on previous trips, we would routinely run into Americans or Brits who could help us.
In general, the use of English in Italy was what we expected. Hotel staff and shopkeepers all had a functional understanding, or could find call upon someone else in the place to help. Bus, train, and taxi drivers knew enough to help get from point A to point B. People on the street often did not understand, but were generally willing to play charades and try to do what they could to help us. You would be surprised how well that works.
But what caught us off guard on this trip were the lack of other native English-speakers. Off the top of my head I can remember two pairs of Americans as the only native English speakers we met in 17 days. We attribute this to the fact that most Americans have not yet geared up to travel to Europe. Brits, Canadians, and Aussies are still restricted from much travel at all. Three vignettes will serve to illustrate how this played out.
While we were in Ortisei, in the Dolomites, we stayed in a hotel that housed perhaps 200 guests. Each evening, perhaps 100 or more would dine in their restaurant. We heard Italian, German, and other languages, but no English. So I approached the front desk and asked how many people in the hotel were native English speakers. With a smile, they replied, “Two. You and your wife.”
Later, we were on a tram coming down the mountain, riding with a family of 4 Italians from Milan, all of whom had been to the USA and spoke excellent English. We had a fantastic conversation, during which they remarked how few Americans they have seen in the last year and a half. As we parted, their last words were, “We love Americans. Come back. Bring friends.”
Finally, we were on a bus and boat tour to Lake Como. This particular tour, which had 14 guests, was given exclusively in English, so we expected it to be mostly Americans. At the start of the tour, the guide asked where people were from. Answers surprised us: Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, even some Italians. There was one other American couple. The tour guide, whose business recently restarted, went out of his way to thank us “brave Americans” for venturing back.
BOTTOM LINE: The lack of English speakers turned out to be no real problem at all. A couple of uses of Google Translate, a handful of Italian words we learned, and a lot of hand gestures and map pointing were rewarded by responses from dozens of helpful Italians happy to meet us and fill in the gaps.
6. All HOHO busses are not created equal
Major cities in both America and Europe operate HOHO (hop on, hop off) tour busses. A good HOHO route will take about an hour to complete a tour of major tourist locations in a city, usually with about 15 stops. If the city is large enough (like London), they will have 2 or 3 color-coded routes. For about $30 or so, you can buy a 24-hour pass and ride the bus as much as you like. They usually have headphones that narrate the sights you are seeing in any of a dozen or more languages.
The easiest way to understand a city is to hop on one of these busses and ride the entire route, getting a quick overview of the city. Then on the second time around, you can get off at any interesting sites, explore a bit, and hop back on. A good system will have 4-6 busses on any route, so you never have to wait more than 10-15 minutes to get back on the bus.
The problems generally center around earphones that don’t work, or not enough busses to work a route. In general, the 7 or 8 that we have taken have varied from good (San Antonio) to great (London). But it was not until we arrived in Verona that the concept collapsed altogether. It is a perfect storm of issues. The city is spread out enough that they created 2 bus lines to keep the trips around an hour each. But there are so few tourists (especially now) that each line only runs ONE bus. This means that if you get off the bus, you need to wait an hour to hop back on. Oh, wait, because of COVID, they have capacity limits on the bus. So if it is full when it comes by again, you will have to wait ANOTHER hour.
This means, effectively, that the HOHO bus simply becomes a one-use only HO bus. Wary from this experience, we decided to check out the reviews in Milan before testing out their system. Ratings were terrible. We chose to pass and did most of our Milan sightseeing on foot.
BOTTOM LINE: Be wary of Italian HOHO buses. Italians and their cities are not a good match for this service. Find other ways to see the sights.
7. Um, should we be worried about this neighborhood?
In 17 days, we stayed in 5 different places: 2 hotels and 3 Airbnb’s. We thought we had vetted all the neighborhoods sufficiently well, but the last one, an Airbnb in Milan, gave us a definite pause. We had seen the inside of the unit online, and read dozens of positive reviews. It all looked good. Imagine our surprise to show up and find the outside door of the condo building looked like this!
The neighborhood was busy at night, and the crowd seemed young but relatively tame. Yet it was also unnerving to have thee police cars choose to park about 50 yards from our door every night, and simply wait by their cars for most of the evening. We did not know WHY they were there, but it certainly made us uneasy.
We stayed close to home most evenings in Milan. Between us and the police cars was a nice pizza place, and we chose to either eat there, or walk down the street to a more open and totally civilized looking area (i.e., across the street from McDonalds, and with a restaurant on the other corner playing live Frank Sinatra music). We never felt unsafe, but we were very guarded.
BOTTOM LINE: Next time, we’ll opt for a hotel in the big city, and do a Google Earth peek at the outside before we book it.
8. Overhyped and underwhelming sites
Like any other place in the world, Italy has its share of tourist traps. In my opinion, the Duomo, Galleria, Verona Arena, and the lakes and mountains were all fantastic and worth the money to tour. The Last Supper exhibit and Juliet’s balcony are overhyped and not worth it.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s tough to beat Italian nature, architecture and food. Be careful of other tourist traps.
9. We were disappointed with gelato
What??? Part of the problem here is expectations: we love gelato, and anticipated Italy to be overflowing with the best gelato we have ever tasted. The overflowing part is correct. In the course of our walks, I’ll bet we passed 40 or 50 places that served gelato, usually a “gelateria” offering exclusively this. Prize location for a food truck is next to the Duomo. What do they serve? Gelato. And we sampled it at least half a dozen times in multiple locations. All were good.
So what was the problem? None were “wow.” And that is what we expected. Now this does not mean that we will stop looking. I’m sure that “wow” gelato place is still waiting for us…
BOTTOM LINE: Breakfast, lunch and dinner virtually every day exceeded my expectations. Gelato didn’t. Three out of four’s still not bad.
10. What about all those other things people worry about?
Cost: Lodging was similar to USA in cost, food was generally cheaper, airfare over was a little high, trains and busses are cheap. Most of the stuff you see takes little money. In all, we came in under budget.
Tips: This was an actual conversation after one meal. Ken: I want to use a credit card. How do I indicate a tip? Waiter: What is a tip? Ken: A cash thank you for good service. Waiter (obviously stunned): Hey, Mario, come talk to this American. (Apparently no one else in the restaurant had ever handled a tip.)
Jet lag: The 9-hour time difference seemed to be no problem going east. We were OK in a day or so. Coming home, we were out of sorts for more than a week. Age probably contributes.
Weight: We ate whatever we wanted for 2.5 weeks, on a diet high in fat (croissants every day, gelato, several other desserts) and carbs (pasta every day). What did the scales say when we came home? Amazingly, Ellen came home the same weight as when she left, and I actually lost a couple of pounds. How could that possibly be true? Well, we walked about 5-6 miles a day, had only coffee and a croissant for breakfast, generally ate a light lunch, and rarely snacked.
BOTTOM LINE: Most travel worries are manageable…but they’ll be problems if you let them be.