My recent trip to Italy was a great learning experience like every other trip! Different culture, traditions, people, landscape, architecture all of it was grandiose in Italy. The audacious simplicity, the authenticity of the people, the coffee culture, food and some of the amazing facts that I learnt on my trip have now become an indelible part of my life. Here are some of the interesting things you should know before planning your trip to Italy!
Language is "no" barrier!
Located in the remote Countryside of Roccelbegna Village in the Province of Grossetto is this beautiful Casale Fontani, my Airbnb overlooking gorgeous Tuscan Landscape, far away from the chaos. While driving to the Airbnb, the secluded, unkept, dirt road and rocky drive was scary. There were no houses or a soul on the way. Ten minutes into the drive, I reached a dead end or it at least looked like one. I called Luciano, my host and he came to pick me up on his vespa, he removed the chain and let me in. That was the true start of my Tuscan adventure!
Luciano is a farmer born and brought up in Grossetto. He has been living all his life on the farm and often travels to explore the World. He makes wine, owns sheep, cattle, honey bees and two dogs on his remote farm. In short I felt like the man was living the dream! In the outskirts away from the modern society in his little world of contentment and peace.
We went farming in his tractor soon after I got here. We mowed the field for 2 hours where he kept ranting about wild boars "Cinghiale" ruining his field. He isn't fluent in english so our conversations were necessitated by google translator and when tired of technology, we would communicate through sign language. Conversations were sometimes mindless, sometimes funny and sometimes totally struck a chord in a way that made me realise that problems are still the same in every continent. Language was no barrier is what I learnt on my trip.
Villages going through de-population and abandonment!
My Airbnb was near Roccelbegna Village which had a population of around 100 people or less. And where Castle Fontai is located, had only 5 people in the area. This was a revelation for me! This has been happening across the country where around 2500 villages are at a risk of turning into ghost communities as they experience people abandoning or leaving the houses.
People usually leave to go to bigger cities or different country. The only hope for these villages facing depopulation was greater support for rural industries and farming, and encouragement for tourism. However, foreigners flock to the small number of well known areas such Umbria, Sardinia etc while ignoring many other parts of the country.
Some of the villages are pinning their hopes for regeneration on attracting the migrants and refugees from war-torn or poverty-stricken countries in Africa and Asia. It was saddening because as I browsed through every village in Grosseto, all I could think of was tranquility and how every one of them made an effort into making it a small little heaven for themselves. Every village is a story and you need to visit them to truly experience Toscana Lifestyle. You can read more about these villages and things you can do here.
You will be tempted into buying a property here!
When we drove to Castelmola in Sicily, I fell in love. It was love at first for me. It completely fit in my idea of owning a place in a small, scarcely populated yet beautiful village. We were staying there for only a night and I started scouting for properties there. Italy does have a good scope for investment, what they don't have is a Bilateral Investment Treaty with India :/ Which means that if an Italian cannot buy a property in India, we Indians can't either! That was a bummer and for the first time got me frustrated with my Indian Passport!
Italians take their Coffee seriously
Italians love coffee! Coffee has developed its own culture in Italy. A coffee in Italy is simply an espresso. Don't be a weirdo asking for double espresso shot, just visit the cafe often to get your caffeine dose, everyone does that in Italy. You will find a lot of bars (Al Banco) that serve coffee. some of my favorite coffee styles were espresso, cafe shakerato (ice, sugar, coffee) , cafe granita - granita is an ice alternative in Italy and is much better, cafe corretto (espresso witha splash of grappa) and cafe freddo (ice coffee).
As soon as I landed in Catania, at the airport my friend greeted me with coffee cream and that was the beginning of exploring this coffee world that I was unaware of and which changed my idea about a coffee completely!
They love complaining but they mean business!
This is a known fact, they love complaining about everything and to make it worst they don't really do anything to change the situations. There were plenty times when I stumbled upon people complaining of course it was in Italian so I did not understand! However, it was entertaining as hell to see them being super expressive with hand gestures and aggressiveness!
Do not underestimate Sicilian Heat
It was too much for even myself and I come from the country with roughest weather! I have been to Ghana, Belize and India surviving the weather, who would have known it was going to be Sicily taking me down! It was also partly my fault where I didn't really take good care of my body. We were commuting from Catania to Taromina to Castelmola and back to Catania to Syracuse and back to Catania in public transport. Even though the transport was good, the journey was hectic, long and hot. It is not normal to find AC in the apartments here nor do people need it! So the only way out was keeping yourself hydrated and cool.
Parking in Tuscany is not easy!
Parking is something I should have researched about before even getting here. But I had to experience it myself or else it wouldn't have been so much fun! Siena, Florence and Rome have something called as ZTL (Zone traffic limitation) where you cannot drive without a proper permit, I wasn't aware of any of it. So I kept driving in the ZTL realising it was such a big mistake because the streets were super narrow and people were all over the place!
Soon I find myself in the piazza with everyone staring and cussing with the hand gestures. In the process I lost the right mirror of my car which when I went to pick up was crushed by the truck behind me. After I was in the middle of the square I panicked and decided to make a U, which was another horrendous idea because I was making a U in the middle of the square where people stopped and started staring at me finding joy in my embarrassment. I successfully made a U without hurting anyone. However, I still didn't know how to get out of the area, I spotted a vespa and started following it and soon got to the main street and to my Airbnb.
After I got to my Airbnb I started reading about parking in Siena and stumbled upon a very helpful website which explains the exact location and how to park there. I found a parking in San fransesco which is only five escalators away from the Piazza. It is a spacious parking, you pay after you get back, at the machine downstairs. It cost me only 4 euros!
Florence is pretty much the same. However, they have a new parking lot constructed in Villa Costanza where you will find ample of parking space, park your car and take the tram to Florence. The tram drops you right in the middle of the Piazza. The tram runs 24*7!
Self-service Gas stations, how to use them!
Italy has very convenient gas stops. Some of them self-service and some of them have people around to help you. Since I was on the country side, my first encounter with filling gas was with a self-service gas station. As people don't work from 1:30PM-3:00PM her. You basically, use cash on these stations and put the not (bankanote) in the machine, select the pump number you are going to use, start pumping after it prompts you to. Do not make the mistake of putting the pump before paying, it won't work and you'll loose the money like I did ????
Get ready to taste some horse meat and pasta with wild boar "Cinghiale"
The first time I saw a wild board in Italy was when it was getting slaughtered by my host in the Airbnb. That's when I learn people love boar meat in Italy. And if you are an adventure foodie, you are sure going to love it! Look for dishes that read Cinghiale, that's what the boar is called in Italian.
Apart from boar, people here also love horse meat. In Catania, there are ample of street food options and you have to try them out in a panineria. A Panineria is a kebab shop, thin-sliced horse meat is flash-grilled, while chicken or veal involtini and horse burgers are cooked more slowly. You'll see a cart on the streets, choose your meat, bread, salad etc with mayonnaise or ketchup. It's pure deliciousness! I had some fries with my sandwich topped with mayonnaise and ketchup, which was the most satisfying thing I found after pasta and pizza!
Cycling culture in Tuscany is a huge thing!
I had no idea that cycling culture was so huge in Italy. I got to see it first in Tuscany while driving to Province of Grosseto. I was shocked to see the enthusiasm and love for biking uphill in the beautiful landscape of Tuscany, whereas I was struggling with driving on the dirt roads. The roads were unkept, covered with gravels and uphill for the most part but that did not stop the bikers. The painful uphill ride looked dreading but the interest with which people rode was new! I even got to see a cycle race in Montalcino. Maremma is for sure a perfect destination for bikers and be ready to see tons of them on your way.
Northern Italy is very different from Southern Italy!
This was the biggest difference I noticed from my trip to Tuscany and Sicily. While Southern Italy is more traditional, you won't find that many people speaking english, food is much better, coffee is sharper, Tuscany is laid back, more people speak english, countryside has a lot to offer, stunning scenery throughout. North is more pleasant in comparison to the south weather wise!
Italy was a breath of fresh air and huge learning experience. I am glad I had nothing planned for my trip to Italy because it was the best way to enjoy it truly. Hope you enjoy the country as much as I did and this helps in planning your trip to Italy. You can read about my road trip to Tuscany here and how to stay safe and avoid disasters in Naples here.