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Common Misperceptions About Travel in Italy

Lisa Byrne

There are many common misperceptions about traveling in Italy. Some of the advice friends, colleagues and family members may offer you is very valid and will help you prepare for your travels. Other bits of common wisdom may be quite antiquated. Here are some of the most common misperceptions we've encountered in our many years of managing vacation rental properties in Italy.

Don't Drink the Water

Unless you see a sign "non potabile", tap water in Italy is fine to drink but changes in water and foods can upset your system requiring a few days to adjust so we prefer to play it safe and drink bottled water. Tap water is fine for cooking, washing fruits and vegetables, brushing your teeth. Buy aqua minerale naturale for drinking. Naturale or lisce means no bubbles or if you prefer bubbly water, select aqua minerale frizzante or gassata.

Everything Will Be Cheaper in Italy

Sadly, not true. Food is a good value and of very high quality; Italians are naturally discerning food shoppers and diners. As for designer products and other typical Italian crafts, evaluate the costs carefully. Of course, shopping for a souvenir item is more about the experience and later appreciation. But if you are thinking you will scoop up a lot of bargains, do your homework before you leave for Italy to learn the price of Italian merchandise where you live. You may find a better price back home on clothing, leather goods, gold jewelry and majolica pottery (that is also heavy, bulky and breakable). The bargain leather goods and fake cashmere items you'll find in some of the open air markets are probably not even made in Italy.

As for the price of vacation rentals, they are higher than in many markets due to the fact that the supply of properties in prime historic locations in Rome, Florence and Venice is limited; that supply is never going to increase. Maintenance costs on 300-year old buildings are significant. These prized locations are in as much demand by locals as by visitors and the price of real estate in these locations is higher than in more recently developed areas. By comparison you can probably rent a larger condo in Hawaii, Florida or on the coast of South Carolina for two weeks for the same price as what you might pay in Rome for one week.

Ask for the "Best Price"

We think this haggling approach harkens back to the tough times in post-war Italy or depictions from old Italian movies that may lead one to think that everything in Italy is negotiable. Italians have perfected the fine art of the polite negotiation, where both parties are satisfied, but Italians are not desperate for business.

The Italian economy is in relatively good shape and Italy is the #1 tourist destination in Europe. Approaching a negotiation by asking immediately for a discount is usually not a very successful bargaining technique. Most merchants will be offended and any flexibility will disappear. Furthermore, the Italian government's onerous tax system has clamped down on merchants and many no longer have the ability to wheel-and deal as freely as in the past. If they say prices are fixed, they probably are. If you pay cash and/or are buying in multiples at a market stall there is likely to be more willingness to negotiate but please be courteous and mindful that he or she has to make a living.

As for vacation rentals, agencies and owners can sometimes provide last-minute discounts or a reduced rate for multiple weeks at a single property. But during April, May, June, September, October and holiday weeks, when demand is strong and properties tend to book up well in advance at full price, your negotiating power will be less than during the low season which is November to mid-December and January to early March.

Italian Men Will Pinch Your Derriere

Italians appreciate beauty in many forms. Italian men are not shy about expressing their admiration towards women but it is unlikely your bottom will be pinched. In most cases, it will be an admiring catcall, such as "che bella!" (how beautiful), "angela" (angel), and is harmless, delivered in a light spirit by a young man who is probably being egged on by his friends. Don't be afraid and don't be rude. As the British say, "keep calm and carry on." Engaging in banter or shouting profanities at these young men will only delight the provokers, make you look bad and will encourage them to continue to taunt and follow you. If you really can't shake them, pop into a store or restaurant and nicely ask for help, the owner will likely take pity on you and send them on their way. On the other hand if someone gets too close on a crowded bus or subway, watch out, they are probably not trying to cop a feel, they are trying to pick your pocket or snatch your purse.

Cooking an Italian Feast

Some guests have a vision that they are going to work their way through an Italian cookbook, going daily to the market to bring back fresh ingredients and ripe produce to make gourmet Italian feasts, or they plan to serve their family traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners while on holiday in Italy. We had a guest who was convinced she needed an oven. She loved to bake and had ambitious plans to prepare homemade lasagna and pizza from scratch during the height of summer. When it is 90 degrees and your kitchen does not have air conditioning, no one, including an Italian mamma, bakes. She wound up renting an apartment without an oven and did not miss it one bit.

In reality, once you are in Italy you'll probably quickly abandon big cooking plans when you realize that eating out is a great pleasure while on vacation and you really don't want to spend the better part of the day grocery shopping and cooped up in the kitchen. Chances are you will not be able to locate a turkey and all the trimmings in a typical Italian grocery store. If your vacation rental doesn’t have a drip coffee maker, a whisk, a fully outfitted five-burner range, gas oven or food processor, don't let it ruin your vacation. Instead think of it as a cultural opportunity and adapt your plans. No drip coffee maker or can't find any paper coffee filters? Try Italian espresso made with the little stove top espresso pot that you'll find in the kitchen. By scaling back your cooking plans, simplifying your meal planning and grocery shopping you will free up valuable time that might otherwise be spent trying to find fresh cranberries or a turkey baster. Consider that the art of Italian cooking is performed by millions of mammas turning out wonderful meals in tiny, cramped, minimally outfitted kitchens with two- burner stoves, no ovens, that are typical of most Italian homes even today.

Going to the Gym

If you plan to use your vacation to stick with, or get back on, a fitness regime, we hate to break it to you but chances are "it ain't gonna happen." Despite your best intentions, chances are very slim you'll make it to the gym or a yoga class. We provide our clients with fitness center information if they request it, but keep an open mind on this topic and be realistic about how much you can accomplish on vacation. Remember that you will spend the better part of your day walking to the sites, plenty of energy expended there.

Talk Louder to be Understood

In many circumstances you will be delighted to find that the people in the service industries catering to tourists, such a museum employees, transportation workers, foreign exchange services and restaurant staff speak adequate or even excellent English. But you may find yourself needing to pantomime at the market, or when asking for driving directions or other information. By raising your voice you'll only transfer some of your own stress to the person trying to help you. A friendly smile, warm greeting, gentle pantomime and an effusive thanks is usually the best way to obtain help and make yourself understood, talking loudly is not. Also remember, in crowded restaurants most people around you understand English quite well, so anything you say in a voice that others can hear will probably be understood, too.

I Speak Italian!

You may have learned Italian at your grandmother's knee or on the streets in your neighborhood, but it may not be too useful when you are a tourist in Italy. First, be careful that some of the expressions you may have used freely at home could be considered quite rude in Italy. Also consider that "nonna" may have spoken a dialect from a region different from where you are so, as fluent as you are in that dialect, it will be almost a foreign language to city Italians or it may just sound quaint, old-fashioned or uneducated. I always have to parse things out with my Italo-American mother-in-law; two generations removed from Genoa, who says "pistu" for pesto, "tuccu" for ragu and "fogassa" for focaccia. If she used those expressions in Italy she would probably be greeted by a blank stare. Perhaps best to take an Italian class to get the basics down.

Italy is Dirty

It is true that after hiking the streets of Rome, Florence or Venice all day your shoes are going to be coated with dust, true for any major city anywhere in the world. Remember that and remove street shoes at the door of your apartment or room and enclose them when putting them in your suitcase. And it's true that parks and green spaces in Italy generally suffer from a benign neglect that you won't find in Paris or London. A professional landscaper friend recounted visiting the Royal Palace at Caserta near Naples. It's massive formal gardens looked a bit neglected. Chatting with an elderly man who was tending the gardens, she asked him how many gardeners worked there. He told her to guess. "Forty?" she asked. His answer: "Four."

You'll see lots of graffiti on buildings and subway cars and, after a busy weekend, overflowing public trash cans. The graffiti is common throughout Italy and is an expression of underemployed Italian youth and not related to gangs and violence at all. Italy's trash system is fraught with efficiency problems and silly complexities that require residents to sort and put out trash during restrictive times not practical for most working people, along the lines of "Monday you may not set out your trash before 7am or after 9am. On Wednesday you may set out your glass and bottles after 8pm but not after 10pm, on Thursday's paper and cardboard disposal is permitted between the hours of...


If you keep an open mind and are prepared to adapt to the many cultural differences, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the ease with which you can embrace and enjoy a different way of life. Some aspects of Italian culture will meet your expectations and others will provide interesting and memorable surprises!

Lisa Byrne is the founder of www.ItalyPerfect.com, which specializes in apartment and villa rentals in Italy. She was born and raised in Italy and now travels there frequently for both business and pleasure.

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