How to Get the Most Out of Your Italy Vacation
Travel to Europe in the summer of 2004 may prove challenging, but with advance planning the rewards are vast and varied and yours to discover, such as walking to the front of the line at the Coliseum in Rome, or finding unique accommodations in a Venetian palace.
When in Rome
Savvy visitors to the Eternal City, want to do as the Romans do, and see some sights and still sample the authentic dolce vita. Visits to St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Coliseum are all a must. If you are careless and unprepared, the heat, the chaos and the pickpockets of Rome could exhaust you and ruin your trip.
Schedule your activities with the help of a good guidebook. Be aware of which days of the week museums and sights are closed. The Coliseum has long lines, sometimes more than two hours long. Instead of waiting to purchase a ticket, buy yours at the Palatine Hill entrances nearby or look for a tour director and pay to join a tour. The tour directors cut the line and buy all the tickets for their group and then the group enters in front of the individuals in line.
There is no doubt: Every tourist to Rome wants to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum. On a rainy day in January, I waited for three hours in a line that snaked around three blocks to enter the museum. Although I read in my guidebook that it was critical to arrive early, I opted for a leisurely breakfast, arrived about 9am– and paid the price. I wasted most of the day and all my energy waiting in the rain in a very slow line. March to October the museum opens at 8:45am. It is hot and crowded. The last entry time is 90 minutes before closing, which, depending upon the day can be as early at 12:20pm. Plan ahead so you aren’t disappointed.
Location, Luxury, Welcoming Service
In Rome, la dolce vita should begin with your hotel, preferably a comfortable, friendly, refuge. I usually stay in the historic center. I love The Hotel Eden, an elegant, five-star Meriden Hotel, located near the Spanish Steps and with views of the Villa Borghese, Via Veneto and St. Peters out the window. At The Hotel Eden, which is more than 100 years old, the rooms are quiet and huge by Roman standards. They have lovely views, and have been restored by skilled craftsmen, using mellow colors, precious fabrics, painting and frescoes. On the top floor, the Michelin one-star restaurant, La Terrazza, has an unrivaled view over the rooftops of Rome to the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s.
When you need a pick-me-up, it’s worth a trip to the top floor, to luxuriate in the panoramic views and muted colors of Rome at sunset, savor the flavors of the Mediterranean, and relax at the piano bar.
Avoid the Tourist Crush in Florence
Home of the Renaissance, Florence’s attractions go well beyond museums to include people-watching, some of Italy’s best gelato, statues, food, fashion and handicrafts.
To avoid spending endless hours in long lines, make a quick and easy telephone booking for reservations well in advance for the Uffizi Gallery (with the best Italian paintings) and Accademia (home of Michelangelo’s David). The easiest and cheapest way is to call Florence: 011 (U.S. international access code) 39 (Italy’s country code) then 055-294-883. The office is open Monday-Friday 8:30am to 6:30pm and 8:30am-noon Saturday, Florence time. You will be connected to an English speaking operator in approximately 2-3 minutes. You can reserve for both museums at this number. I made the reservations, showed up at a special entrance booth, gave the confirmation number and then paid (cash only) the normal entry fee and a 1.60 euro service fee for the reservations. This is much cheaper than the commercial booking services.
Select a hotel in the city center, so you may walk leisurely through Renaissance Florence.
I prefer the moderately priced Sofitel, located within view of the Duomo and in the heart of the historic area. It is an elegant and sophisticated blend of Italian and French culture. Their breakfast buffet is among the very best in Italy, with buttery croissants, pastries, fresh strawberries, kiwis, crème caramel, eggs, meats and three types of fresh-squeezed juices.
If you plan to climb the Duomo Cathedral’s dome, to get a close-up view of Brunelleschi’s masterful construction, arrive early, as the lines stretch longer as the day passes.
Tip: Tuscan Home Cooking in Florence
My favorite small, inexpensive and charming restaurant, Trattoria Za-Za is located on the Piazza off the Central Market. During my latest visit, while waiting for a table, we were served a glass of good Chianti at the bar as we bantered with the waiters and the cheerful owner. Za-Za is also a favorite among locals and students. During the day, outside tables offer a ringside seat for people watching.
Venice of Palaces and Canals
The islands, bridges, alleys, canals and elegant palaces of Venice attract a horde of visitors each year. Your feet are the best transportation in this car-free, well-preserved tourist town. To enjoy the quiet side of Venice, explore away from the tourist areas of San Marco and Rialto. It is so easy, and such a pleasure, to meander through the narrow alleys and get lost. Getting lost is part of the charm of Venice. The best time to enjoy San Marco square is early morning or late afternoon when the tour groups have left the city to return to their hotels on the mainland.
The best deal, in an expensive town, is the public vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal. For a few euros you can cruise for 45 minutes along the most scenic area of the Grand Canal, past the most lavish palaces and historic mansions. Avoid rush hour when locals pack the boat. My favorite time is twilight, when the grand chandeliers light up the marble halls and elegant dining rooms of the mansions along the waterway.
Most of the restaurants along the Grand Canal and north of Saint Mark’s Square are quite touristy. You’ll know it, when you see the placard menus by the front door, written in English, German, and French. If you’re willing to walk a few minutes outside the central area, you can still find charming little restaurants popular with locals. Il Nuovo Galeon is a small, twelve-table restaurant with wood paneled walls, a bar resembling the prow of a ship and other nautical details which make it look like the inside of a Spanish Galleon. This tiny, reasonably-priced, unpretentious place is much-loved by the locals for its fresh fish and outstanding wines. We were welcomed by the owner with a smile and a complimentary glass of prosecco. Call ahead for reservations and directions. It was a terrific find during one of those times I chose to ‘get lost.’
Europe’s grand hotels were often built by royalty or the aristocracy as an expression of their social standing, power and wealth. There is no mistaking the grandeur of the Venetian palaces and mansions, testimony of Venice’s golden era when it was the world’s richest city.
Why not stay in a Palace? The Hotel Danieli, along the lagoon, is a fusion of palatial architecture and comfort, service and luxury. The Danieli is synonymous with the splendor and romance of Venice. The hotel’s main building is the original 14th century palace of the Doge. You can relive the glory days of Europe’s traveling nobility as you sip tea or a midnight glass of prosecco in the lobby, where Moorish arches and marble floors echo the exotic beauty of a town that grew rich on its trade with the East. The entire hotel is lavishly appointed with pink marble, stained glass, gold leaf columns, Murano glass chandeliers and antiques.
The Hotel Danieli is centrally located on the lagoon and just steps away from the Piazza San Marco, and legendary sites such as the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. The large rooms are sumptuously decorated with frescoed ceilings, antique furniture and chandeliers. The rooftop restaurant is also worth a visit. In warm months, you may dine al fresco on Mediterranean and regional cuisine that beautifully complements the captivating panoramas of the Grand Canal and, on the horizon, the Lido and Adriatic Sea.
The Danieli has been preferred by discerning visitors to Venice for generations and the lobby or rooftop restaurant are prime locations to mingle or enjoy the view along with the European rich, elite and glamorous.
Con artists, gangs of children (who are city savvy thieves), and well-dressed pickpockets ride the busses, subways and hang out at ancient sites and the train stations of Italy. While there is little risk of physical violence, you can be easily pickpocketed when you’re distracted.
What can you do? Don’t carry anything of value in your pockets or your purse. Leave valuables, such as passports and plane tickets in the hotel safe. Wear a money belt under your clothing and carry a small amount of cash in your wallet. In Rome, bus # 64, from the train station to major tourist sites can be uncomfortably crowded, and is known for pickpockets. Florence also has gangs of thieves who prey on green tourists. They hang out near the train station underpass and at major tourist sights.
Beware of thieves on overnight trains. During a short stop at stations, professional thieves have been known to board the train, using an aerosol chloroform preparation to temporarily paralyze sleeping occupants in open compartments. The thieves grab valuables and are off the train as it leaves the station. It is too late for the stunned victims to do anything. Keep your compartment doors locked, regardless of the temperature.