Cinque Terre Italy is not for the faint of heart! When I heard there are five little fishing villages, clinging to cliffs over the ocean in Italy, and that these villages were only accessible by hiking, train or boat… I knew WE HAD TO GO! I became obsessed with photos of these stunning, colorful little towns on Pinterest and Instagram, showing them to my kids, getting them excited for our day-long adventure into the protected national park, that is Cinque Terre.
We were staying in an AirBnB villa about thirty-minutes west of Pisa Airport, in a tiny Tuscan mountain village, and when I planned our trip from my computer back home in Oregon, it seemed like a reasonable day-trip. But when I plugged it into my phones GPS, I realized it was more than 100 miles away. No problem I thought, I love to drive and it’s a great way to see the countryside.
Did I mention that it was our fist day attempting to drive in Italy, in our tiny gutless Fiat!? If you’ve never driven in Italy, let me just warn you that it’s exactly how I’d imagine it would be to drive with indi-car racers on back roads…as the ONLY inexperienced driver! It’s mildly terrifying. There are no speed limits, no rules, no one uses signals, and no matter how fast you’re driving there is always a Nono, or truck driver, trying to run you off the road. All that to say, that it was NOTHING compared to driving the last few miles into Riomaggiore (the first of these five villages). There are no cars allowed (and no roads even if they were) inside these towns, but you can drive down a ANXIETY-ATTACK inducing narrow one-lane road to park above the towns. As you make your way down this road be sure to hug your steering-wheel with both hands, because on one side there are no guard rails and the drop is about 1,000 feet off the cliff to the ocean. There’s no room for fear here! If you are prone to vertigo or have a fear of heights just know that pushing past those fears (which I definitely had to do) is well worth it.
It’s a little past midnight and I’m lying awake listening to the sounds of Rome buzzing outside my bedroom window. The apartment is dark, except for thin streams of light through the window shutters from street lamps. My kids are asleep, snoring softly but I am far too excited. It’s our first night in Roma and I am filled with its electric energy, a vast contrast to our past week in the quiet hillsides of Tuscany. There, the moon was the only light at midnight streaming through six-foot glass shuttered doors. The only sound, that of the wind occasionally shaking wood against glass.
But Rome is positively alive. Through my open window I hear someone across the courtyard chopping loudly on a cutting board. The knife bang, bangs away, the smell of garlic drifts, they’re humming loudly, unphased that it’s the middle of the night. In the apartment two floors down, a couple is singing at full capacity; “No Women No Cry” in very broken English. He’s all: “Hey little sister, don’t shed no tear.” And she’s all: “No women no CRYYYY!” It sounds like they are drunkenly dancing around each word and one another. A man drops a stack of plates in the café on the bottom floor, sending such a loud cascade of sound up the courtyard that it nearly rattles my windowpane. He follows it with what I can only assume, is a string of Italian curse words. There’s the clinking of wine glasses and rounds of loud laughter drifting up from the streets open air café’s through Kanen’s window across the hall. Then a little transient musical performance makes its way down the middle of the street stopping at tables, the accordion player billowing out classic Italian melodies in hopes of earning a few euros.
Kids plan Italy Adventure! 5 Reasons why I let my three young children plan our trip of a lifetime.
Going to Italy is not just a vacation for me, it’s the realization of a life-long dream, and what some might call a near obsession. Since my teens the allure of discovering Venice; driving the winding roads of Tuscany, and eating pasta in Rome, has pulled at the very core of me. It’s almost a spiritual, attraction I feel, as if it’s the one place I’ll feel most at home in the world.
For this reason I didn’t want to just take my kids to Italy, I wanted them to understand it’s magical spell and help me discover it for the first time; together as a family. But how can I make two nine-year-old’s and a thirteen-year-old, really get it?
My greatest fear is that we’d get there, after them hearing me talk it up all their lives, and they would say; “Everything is so old and yucky!” I feared they wouldn’t get it. And that would kill me.
I wanted to share the 20 things I learned while traveling in Italy, they might help if you’re planning a visit.
These would have been helpful to know before I went!
DON’T turn in your American money at the airport “change” station. If possible don’t arrive with ANY US money that you plan on exchanging. I had $150 US that I’d planned to exchange our first day and did so in the airport, it cost me $50. So for $150 US I got 100 Euros and no it wasn’t the exchange rate (which was 1.16). Their fees are outrageous!
DO use bank or credit union ATM’s and NOT the “change” ATMS that you’ll see in Rome or other major cities. Those ones charge a HUGE fee on top of the exchange rate. Get the max amount out at once to avoid fees each time you pull money out, and then keep what you’re not using that day hidden at your hotel or apartment.
Plan to use “cash” aka Euro’s everywhere and for everything that’s not a major purchase. All restaurants and taxi’s prefer it and some will be bitches about running your card.
Tips are most always included in your restaurant tab though if you ask your waiter, they will tell you that it’s not, that way they get double tipped. You can almost never leave a tip on a charge card slip, so be prepared to leave it in Euro’s if you don’t see gratuity added to your bill.
Double check your restaurant bill. Many restaurants in Rome charged 1 Euro per-person for bread. They bring it automatically then put it on your bill. So if you don’t want it, be sure to refuse it. They will also ALWAYS charge for bottled water and most of the time it’s actual purchased bottled water, but if it’s from a bottle you can see was not one you can buy in the store, push back on them charging for it.
Cabs will take credit cards even when they tell you they don’t.
Make sure you have your pin number set for ALL cards, they use personal machines all over Italy which require a pin on every transaction.
When you order water they will ask; “Gas or No Gas?” Which means sparkling or regular water.
Tours leave ON TIME, so if you’re even five minutes late you can miss the tour and not be refunded. -This happened to us at the Vatican because of traffic getting to our meeting point. We were five minutes late and they had left. Thank God the tour agreed to re-book us for the next day, which came with a re-booking fee of 75 Euros! So don’t be late!
Try not to eat within a block of a main attraction. The food won’t be as good and the prices will be double or even quadruple compared to restaurants located just a block or two away. We learned this the hard way when we ordered: a coffee, 4 croissants, bottle of water and two yogurt cups for 110 Euros across from the Vatican! #Robbed.
If you are near the Colosseum in Rome walk two blocks to Trattoria Luzzi it was hands down the best meal we had on our entire trip and was across the street from our AirBnB apartment!
Which reminds me, forget hotels! We used AirBnB for our apartment in Venice, our villa in Tuscany and our stunning Rome apartment and only paid between $129-$160 a night! I never would have been able to take this trip if it wasn’t for AirBnB. The places were exactly as described, hosts were very helpful and it was awesome to have a home and live like a local.
There are no dryers in Italy! Every place we stayed there was a washing machine but no dryer. People still hang their clothes to dry on a line or a drying rack, so just be prepared.
We loved our tours. I booked our Vatican and Colosseum tours through Viator and City Wonders conducted both. The kids loved them, the trip would not have been the same otherwise.
Truck stops are gourmet stores/restaurants! This was our biggest surprise, to find that an average “auto stop” aka truck stop, was a cross between Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble! The food was delicious and cheep.
Lufthansa is badass! This was our first time flying with Lufthansa and our economy ticket got us what would be considered first class service in the US. Including: two full five-course meals, hot towel service, entertainment centers to rival the best loaded TV back home, after dinner drink service, wine with dinner service, coffee and tea service and bottomless anything you want to drink at any time! Go Lufthansa!
Italian drivers are nuts! I was most afraid of driving in Italy, hearing all the stories of the “autobahn.” And let me tell you they are all true! There are no speed limits on Italian highways (which I came to understand and loved by the end of our trip) but in the beginning it’s terrifying. You’ll be going 90 MPH and be run off the road by a grandpa or a truck doing 110 who’s flashing their lights and INSIDE your bumper! It’s madness! There are no rules, so passing a line of cars in a blind corner with no shoulder and a two-lane road is normal. Be prepared to come to play ball! It’s all about the offense in Italian driving, there is NO defense.
If you can figure it out on your own, it’s better not to ask. I found that for the most part Italian’s had no patience for “stupido American’s” so look around, if you can figure out the answer without asking, you’ll be glad you did.
Save on data. One way to do this is to set up your directions in either Google maps or the iPhone map option, hit “go” and then turn your phone onto airplane mode, your navigation will still work in real time but you won’t be charged for all that roaming data. Use WIFI. Most cafe’s and even markets offer free wifi, so whenever possible always ask if they do, and use it instead of your roaming data minutes.
Learn a little Italian before you go. The kids and I all downloaded the language app Duolingo before our trip and learned quite a bit of basic Italian which came in handy. I also used Google Translate a lot to save common phrases such as: “Where’s the bathroom?” (p.s. they call it a toilet). I could pull these up even when I was off line, and use them in a clutch situation. Italian’s really appreciated when they saw me or my kids speaking Italian.
These are just a few of the things I learned that once I did improved our trip, and maybe they can help improve yours too. Have you ever been to Italy? Have any favorite tips to share? Leave them in the comments below or tweet me.
*Entry from my actual travel journal on my way to Italy, dated Oct 3rd 2016
I’m on a plane high above the ocean. Its dark and we’ve just had dinner; little petite trays with mini servings of salad, grilled chicken pasta, bread with cold butter, and a brownie. I’m sitting across the aisle from the kids, and keep craning my neck around to see their faces light up as they coo over how “darling” the servings are.
Every now and again Kanen gives me that excited look; the one where his whole body gets caught up, and he’ll mouth; ‘Mama we are going to wake up in VENICE!’
I return the look and my body covers in little goosebumps and tears beg to blur my vision. I push them back and smile at my three children. They are filled with a joy I’ve rarely seen in them. An excitement that is contagious and it feels like most of the passengers in our wing of the plane, have begun to keep their eyes on us as we get closer to our destination. Maybe it’s because mine are the only kids besides a baby on this flight, or maybe because everyone is seeing in them the joy they must feel deep down at the prospect of waking up in VENICE!
I can’t believe it. Like I don’t think it’s set in yet that in just a few hours I’ll be watching the sunrise as we descend over a city I’ve longed to meet, like no other on earth.
I think it will hit me in the water taxi (I’ve arranged for a private one), and I see the grandeur of Venice for the first time from the water. I imagine it as if embracing a long lost love. Continue reading “On My Way to Italy”…