October 8, 2015

Ten Tips for Driving in Tuscany

After a week of driving all over Tuscany this summer, I compiled this list of tips.  (Kudos to my husband who enjoys the challenge of navigating in a foreign country, can drive a stick shift, and is good at parking in very tight spaces.)

  1. Get an international driver’s license – If stopped without it, you can be fined, or even threatened with confiscation of the car. Note that it must be used with a valid driver’s license from your home country, so don’t leave your US license at home.

    Ready to go!
  2. Consider manual transmission – It can be much less expensive than renting an automatic.  But you need to be very comfortable driving a stick shift, because there are lots of hills.  Add car rental coverage to your travel insurance policy, it’s cheaper than buying the rental company’s insurance.  (You are getting a travel insurance policy, aren’t you??)

    The views are worth the climb!
  3. Look for alternate car pick up locations - If you are not picking up a car on the day you fly in, you don’t have to make a trip back to the airport. Consider taking a train to a town near your final hotel or villa and picking up a car there.  But be sure to book early and check the rental location hours.

    Great place to start the trip.
  4. Take a GPS – Unless you have unlimited data, it’ll get very expensive to rely on your phone.   Some car rental companies, like Auto Europe, offer GPS with their rentals.  We also rented a personal wifi hotspot with unlimited data, so we were able to use both while navigating.  The GPS gave us step by step directions, and the maps app gave us an overview of the area when the GPS directions didn’t seem to make sense and we needed to improvise.

    The scenery goes on and on...
  5. Get a good map – It’s likely you’ll get lost at some point, or run into a dead end, even with a GPS.  A map can help you get back on course, and also it’s easier to ask for help from a non-English speaking local with a map to point to.
    Uh, are we sure we're supposed to turn here?
  6. Preload GPS coordinates – These are especially handy for rural destinations.  To find them, right click on the red pin icon in Google Maps, and select “What’s here.”  A screen will pop up with the GPS coordinates.

    Hidden gem!
  7. Plan your strategy- Review the route in advance, and check the GPS (or your map app) against a physical map so you can get your bearings. By in advance, I mean the night before, not 15 min before you leave. 
    Typical Tuscan "highway"
  8. Search for parking garages or other landmarks - This is often more helpful than just entering the name of a city, which will lead you to the center of town.  For example, there are several ways to approach Siena, and it’s confusing to know which highway exit to take.  We looked up the name of a garage that had plenty of parking and an escalator, and the GPS took us right to it. (However in Pisa, we had a hard time finding the public parking lot and basically stumbled across it by accident.  The best laid plans…)

    We could see dirt in-between the stones
    from the Palio Horse Race a week earlier.
  9. Be prepared for roundabouts – They are not difficult, just different if not used to them. They are well marked, you just have to pay attention to which exit you need. The good news is, if you miss it you can just go around again.
    No pics of roundabouts so will have to
    make do with this view.
  10. Plan for the unexpected - Getting lost is inevitable, but that’s half the fun. Allow plenty of time for your outings so an unplanned detour is a fun adventure rather than source of stress!

Is any trip to Tuscany complete
 without a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

September 3, 2015

What Not to Do When Visiting the Amalfi Coast

On our trip to Italy this summer, we did not have enough time in our schedule to spend a few nights on the Amalfi Coast, but we did have time for a day trip from Rome.  It's really easy logistically, a little more than one hour train ride.  But the easy logistics end once you get to the Naples train station.

If you do not hire a car and driver/guide to take care of you from the moment you arrive to the moment you depart, you will likely end up regretting it.  This is one place where you simply cannot "wing it."

A few days before our arrival, construction shut down several roads around the train station, causing gridlock in all directions.  As a result, our driver/guide, Gianluca, had to allow an extra hour of driving time on each end of our visit.  (There went two hours out of our day.  First lesson learned, plan for delays.)  But thanks to his insider knowledge of the streets around the train station, he expertly got us out of the city, though at times I did need to shut my eyes.  

The scenery only gets better from here.
Once out of town, we got to relax and enjoy the views of Vesuvius and the coastline as we headed to Pompeii, where he dropped us off to meet our guide.  I have always heard that  the size of the ruins surprises tourists, and yet I was still surprised.  And very happy to have a guide who expertly led us to specific areas to explain daily life in the ancient city in a way that kept my teens engaged. 

Pompeii is so big, it doesn't appear crowded even
during peak season.  Except if following the
people wearing audio headsets.

Block after block of city streets, and few signs
explaining what you see.
Our guide's visual aids helped bring the ruins to life.
After our tour, Gianluca was waiting to whisk us off to Sorrento, his home town.  Since we were behind schedule due to the chaos in Naples and we would soon have hangry kids, he called ahead to a restaurant so that we would be seated and served immediately.  Within 45 min we had ordered, eaten, received our complimentary limoncello shots (another good reason not to drive), and were back out the door.   For anyone who has eaten in a restaurant in Italy, you know what an amazing feat that is!

How could we not order pizza??
Yes four glasses, drinking age limits are loose.
Kids weren't interested so mom & dad got two each!
The next few hours were spent shopping and sightseeing in Sorrento and Positano. There was absolutely no parking, but Gianluca has connections.  He called ahead to have them hold us a spot right in the center of town then we hopped out, had time to stroll, shop, and get limone granitas.
Beautiful ceramics in Sorrento

One of the few flat areas in Positano
After many stairs, we reached the Positano beach

Afterwards we hopped back in the car and enjoyed the stunning scenery while Gianluca dealt with the jam-packed streets, tour buses backing up to negotiate hairpin turns, and motorbikes and pedestrians who seemed to appear out of nowhere.  (I glanced back to see my son grinning ear to ear with his phone held up to the window recording it all.)
Gianluca didn't slow down!

Until we got here
We arrived at the train station with time to spare, bid a fond farewell to Gianluca, and were back in Rome just in time for dinner.

So no matter how experienced a traveler you are, here is my advice if you are considering exploring the Amalfi Coast on your own:  Don't do it!  Whether you arrive by train, plane, or cruise ship, it pays to hire a local expert so you can have a fun and stress-free experience.   And whether you have 4 hours or 4 days, I can work with my local experts to plan a great itinerary maximizing your time in this beautiful area.

Aaaah-malfi, I can't wait to see you again.

August 19, 2015

When in Rome (With Kids)

We started our Italy adventure in Rome. a five night stay at the Westin Excelsior.  This is a Virtuoso hotel located on the Via Veneto, next to the US Embassy.  So my clients receive complimentary daily breakfast for two, upgrade on arrival if available, and a $100 food and beverage credit.  And if you are a Starwood SPG member, you get a discount on lunch and dinner as well.

Deluxe twin room...
...with plenty of space and great A/C
 Here are my top tips when visiting Rome with kids.

* Hire a driver to pick you up at the airport. You've had a long flight, you're tired and hungry, and it's crowded. It's a relief to see someone waiting for you outside customs, who will whisk you to an air conditioned car for the 30+ min drive into the city.

* Take an umbrella stroller which is easy to collapse and carry. Better yet, use a backpack. Many streets are bumpy and difficult to navigate.

It's not fun to schlep a stroller up the Spanish Steps
* It's hot and humid in summer, so always carry a water bottle.  You can fill them at fountains and water spigots around the city. (Yes, it's safe to drink).  Plan to rest in the afternoon at the hotel when temps are highest, then visit piazzas in the evening when it's cooler and kids will be less cranky.

Kids are happy to have water when it's fun to get
* Use the bathroom before going to train station. They are not centrally located and you have to deposit coins to enter.

* A hop on/off bus tour is a great way to get oriented to the city early in your trip.  But don't purchase tickets in advance. All companies stop at the same places and run the same route.  But if there are service problems on a particular line, you might have long waits between buses, or find that some don't even have seats available.  There are "sales reps" at each stop, so try to find out from them if there are any service issues.  We also got off and walked between two stops, just to have an opportunity to explore some small streets far from our hotel, which turned out to have nice shops and cafes.

* Buy Colosseum tickets for the kids, in advance. Though children get free admission to the Colosseum, you have to show their ID, even with pre-purchased tickets.  If you can skip this step, you will truly have"skip the line" access.  Visiting the Roman Forum first? Make sure you know which exit is closest to the Colosseum and allow plenty of time to meet your guide.

* Always have some cash on hand. Small cafes and street vendors often don't take credit cards.  And coins are handy for public toilets.

* Book a family-friendly guide for the Vatican Museum. It'll make the experience better for the entire family because the crowds can be overwhelming.  Our guide found a pleasant place for us to sit in the courtyard where she could give us some background information and also explain what we'd see in the Sistine Chapel later, since she wouldn't be allowed to talk in there.  

One of the rare places without crowds in the Vatican
* Note that pasta is "first course." If that's all your kids (or you) order, note that it may come out before the other dishes, and the server may not bring any other food until the pastas is finished!  So if you want a pasta dish to arrive at the same time as everyone else's main entree, ask the server to bring it with the second course (or "with the meat"). When someone only orders one course, servers will often ask when to bring it, but if they look puzzled, just explain what you want.

And antipasta is before the first course.
(Thank goodness for all that walking to burn this off!)
* Let kids burn off steam at Pincio Gardens at the top of the Spanish Steps. You can rent pedal cars, Segways, and surrey bikes, there are vendors selling gelato, drinks and snacks, but most importantly, there's lots of shade! It has sweeping views of the city, and it's a great place to watch the sunset.
Great place to hang out on a summer day.
* Add an extra day in Rome to day trip to the Amalfi Coast.  It's just a one hour train ride, and you can hire a driver guide to pick you up for a full day of sightseeing. (Talk to them about your itinerary before booking the train tickets.) A guide is a must at Pompeii, especially with kids, due to the size.  There aren't many signs so the only alternative is audio headsets, and they can run out in peak periods.  And don't you think your kids have headphones on enough already?

Enjoying the view while someone else
hassles with the driving.
Our guide explains why this is
 the "McDonalds" of Pompeii
I would love to design the perfect Italy itinerary for your family.  Just send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

Roman Forum

July 23, 2015

What I'll Miss Most About Italy

I am on Italy withdrawal after our two week family adventure to Rome, Tuscany, and Venice (including a day trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast).  Here is what I am missing already, in no particular order:

* Steamed milk instead of cold cream served with coffee in the morning and fresh squeezed orange juice as the norm

* Watching artisans work in their studios

* Water fountains everywhere (a real treat coming from drought-stricken California)

* Pasta as first course at lunch AND dinner

* Cheese and Tuscan ham as an acceptable appetizer before the pasta (I have never liked cheese but I learned to love pecorino, especially with the right honey)

* The pleasant surprise of stumbling across a beautiful statue or church while strolling narrow cobblestone streets

Yummy unique pizzas

* Stunning art and architecture

* Lounging around a pool with beautiful views of Tuscan hills, and chatting with families from other parts of Europe. (It's interesting to learn how much is the same no matter what part of the world you are from.)

* Amazing limoncello from the biggest lemons I've ever seen

* And the wine!

Ok, most of these are about food but is that really so surprising? 

Stay tuned for more posts about our amazing Italy adventure.