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Living in Italy with the Military

Amelia from Alaska (Ameliana)

If this is your first overseas assignment, then the demi-gods of pentagon personnel managers have clearly smiled on you. Italy is absolutely the best assignment in the world if you have the right attitude. It is not Ft. Benning, or Lackland AFB, or Virginia Beach, or Paris Island. You get dropped into a whole new world where you can slip into an alternate reality as often as you choose. That alternate reality is the world of little America on base. Too many people spend their whole tour there. They don't learn Italian, they live on base, shop on base, eat out only at the all-ranks club, send their kids to the base schools, and complain about how much they hate Italy. That behavior deserves a life sentence of greasy Anthony's Pizza and cold whoppers. The real Italy is a vibrant mix of modern style and ancient history, spectacular scenery and a rich culture. Italians will bend over backwards to help people who behave as appreciative guests in their country.

Learn the language!

Expect to make mistakes. In my first six months in Italy, I told my landlady that our car's engine was roasted and calmly explained to a stunned gas station clerk that my husband was a eunuch. In fact, the engine was broken and what he lacked was a pen. (I can supply photographs of our children as proof of the latter). In both cases, when my linguistic victim realized what I had said versus what I was trying to say there was a great deal of laughter. For the next two years, the landlord would sometimes leave sprigs of rosemary on the hood of our car to "help with the roasting".

My first, and most useful, complete sentence was "dove posso trovare il bagno per la bambina". That means "Where can I find a bathroom for my daughter?" - critical stuff when traveling with a child who decided that she was too big for diapers the week before moving.

Don't wait to start studying. If you can hit the ground with some basic vocabulary your search for housing and all the attendant details of setting up house will be so much easier. If you are the dependent, get pushy and make sure the military member learns some too. My husband was always stuck on base in the early months and, by the time he got out and about, I already had the language pretty well down. Being the walking pocket translator gets old eventually.

Live off base

If you have the choice, opt for off-base housing. When we were at Aviano, all housing was on the economy but there has been some built and more coming. Try to balance being close enough for a quick commute with being far enough out to be really in a different community.

There are some differences between American and Italian houses. First, there is no drywall. Your interior walls will be real plaster so you can't just pound a nail and hang a picture. The exchange sells the little white plastic 3-pronged picture hangers which will work for small items. Big things have to go on hangers installed with a drill.

When Italians say "unfurnished" they mean a sink, bathroom stuff, and bare wires. The base will furnish you with a "kitchen cabinet unit". This thing is ugly and impractical. Plan on laying out a few thousand dollars for a kitchen (purchase from Ikea or, if in Aviano or Vicenza, from Ovvio). You may get lucky and be able to buy somebody else's cabinets as they leave.

Living on base isolates you from Italians. It is easy but you will find that your life totally revolves around the base. Instead of running to the Coop (Italian supermarket) for some cheese, you'll be buying a variety that ends in -eeta at the shoppette. Life is too short to eat plastic cheese or to miss out on waking to the church bells.

Put your kids in the local school

If your kids are below high-school age, pop them into Italian school. They will get a great education and the permanent advantage of being bilingual. You can balance it with sports or dance on the base. The first four or five months are tough. We got a tutor and pulled our daughter out while her classmates were having English lessons. By the end of the year, she was totally integrated academically and socially. We got to know other parents and made friends and became a part of the community. For her 3rd grade end-of-the-year trip, the class went to Miramare castle in Trieste. There were 17 kids, two teachers, two grandmothers, and 11 mothers on that bus. Four of the mothers were also either aunt or godmother to another of the kids. The whole experience was wonderful for our entire family.

If possible, don't take pets with you

If you can do without them, do. Resist the urge to get that golden retriever puppy to take with you. It is much easier to get out and travel if you don't have to make arrangements for Fido and Fluffy. Fleas were a huge pain the one summer after we got our cat.

The only place that I know for certain has a full-time vet is Vicenza. Aviano had one but there was talk of making it a weekly trip rather than having one posted there. For places like Livorno and Brindisi, veterinary care is likely very spotty. The vet's first responsibility is food safety and commissary inspections - pet clinics are not a high priority. If you do bring a dog, please take the time to go through obedience training. Europeans are more accepting of dogs in public places but their animals are rarely allowed to become as obnoxious as we allow ours to be.

Don't bring your American car

We brought an enormous Ford Taurus wagon. Don't. If your car is American made and new just sell it and buy something when you arrive. We picked up a $2,000 10 year old BMW that got down the road quite nicely from a guy on his way back to the US. Our Taurus, on the other hand, frequently broke. Parts were difficult to get, very expensive, and took forever.

We knew a guy who brought his new Ford Explorer over and had the transmission go out. Ford refused to honor the warranty claiming that Autostrada driving voids the warranty. This is apparently not uncommon.

If you are a new-car sort of person, there are representatives for all the major European brands located near each base (BMW, Volvo, SAAB, Mercedes, etc.). You can buy a brand-new car at about 20% discount, drive it for the length of your tour and, when the tour is over, they ship it home for you included in the price of the car. It will be a US spec vehicle but also one designed for diving in Europe with easy access to warranty work and parts.

Unless you have more than five children, don't bring a suburban or full sized van. The streets are often narrow, parking will be a pain, and you only get 400 liters of gas per month at the discounted prices.

Gas coupons, road tax and your driving license

Americans stationed in Italy get 'gas coupons'. You buy them on the base for the price of gas without the taxes which makes gas almost as cheap as at home. Unless a new provider was contracted, the coupons are valid at all AGIP stations.

You get to register one vehicle exempt from road tax but you will have to pay road tax if you want a second one. Since the tax is based on engine size, you want to exempt the car with the bigger engine and make sure one of your cars is something small and very fuel efficient. Be sure to buy your entire ration of gas coupons each month, even if you don't use them. They will come in handy for trips. Driving in Italy is different but if you can drive in Atlanta or Chicago, you can drive in Italy. Read the SlowTrav Driving Pages and Cristina's Italy web site for more driving information.

You don't have to worry about getting an Italian license. The Provost Marshall's office will put you through a class, make you take a test, and issue your Armed Forces Italy Driving License.

How to dress in Italy

Italians dress better than we do. Please, if you have any hope of blending in, purge your wardrobe of white athletic shoes unless you are certain you have the self-discipline to limit them to PT wear. The gangster look so popular with urban American youth is simply stupid looking there. Put your hat on straight, wear more conservative colors, and don't go to the coop in your sweats. Especially if you are a woman over the age of 20.

Clothes in Italy are more expensive and the stuff in the exchange isn't going to be any better than what you see in the exchange at home. Stock up on quality basics in dark neutral colors. Bring your favorite underwear, bras, and a few good bathing suits. I still own the world's ugliest bathing suit as a souvenir of that tour. It was the only thing in the BX in my size and we were going to the beach. I often wondered if AAFES was employing their clothing buyers through a "Hire the Visually Impaired" program. Plan on using mail order. Read the SlowTrav page on How to Dress in Italy.

Everything is 50% off the week after Christmas.

Small appliances

Read Cristina's appliance page. You will be issued all of your major appliances as well as transformers. You'll be able to buy more transformers by keeping a careful watch on the base thrift shop (also a good place to pick up 220v appliances). When we were there the policy was that dishwashers were only issued to families with four or more children and/or field grade officers. Unless you qualify, plan on washing dishes by hand or buying your own. We lived off base and were issued a European front-loading washer and a dryer that condensed the water vapor rather than being ducted outside. You first electric bill will have you sold on the merits of line-drying your clothes.

I blew two sewing machine motors by using them on large transformers. The dual voltage cheapo Singer I bought at the exchange was total garbage. If you sew seriously, consider making a run to Switzerland and buying a new machine or bring a few 'disposables' from Salvation Army. The AAFES catalog used to have 220 machines for sale. You'll get a regular US size fridge/freezer.

Travel when you get the chance

MAC flights are the military benefit we miss the most. Go to Turkey and buy rugs and gold. Hop up to Germany for the Christmas markets (or drive up to Salzburg - my absolute favorite) or Octoberfest. Go to Spain. And see every bit of Italy you can squeeze in.

The AFRC resorts at Garmisch and Cheimsee are wonderful with lots of kids programs and beautifully organized tours. Kids of all ages love the salt mines tour and the Eagles nest is educational for everyone. Take lots of pictures. We love our Sony Mavica because it takes mini-CD's that you don't have to download. Agriturismos in Italy (farm stays) are a bargain.

The OWC bazaars are great shopping opportunities. Aviano, Ramstein and Heidelberg are the biggies. They bring in vendors from all over Europe selling everything from Turkish carpets to antiques to children's clothing to wine.

Religion and politics

The easy one first: avoid discussing politics of any sort with your Italian friends and neighbors, no matter how much a political animal you might be. The language and culture barriers make this a subject just begging for trouble. Religion is also best not discussed with Italians unless they ask directly. This is directed especially at those Christians who take very seriously the admonition to 'make disciples of every nation'. Italy is an historically Catholic country. They have all heard the gospels and the majority have 2000 years of practice at being Christian. There are also Jewish Italians. Just as in America, many people choose not to have their faith be central to their lives. You will not endear yourself to anyone by preaching nor are you likely to convert anybody. Think of Italy as an opportunity for evangelization by example.

If, on the other hand, you are a practicing Catholic, enjoy the opportunity to worship in beautiful and inspiring surroundings and to become part of your local parish. Most denominations can be accommodated by the base chaplains. Some bases have small congregations of Americans formed outside of the chapel environment. Orthodox Christians in Aviano and Vicenza will have to travel to Venice for services. Naples has three Orthodox congregations, Livorno and Pisa are served by an itinerant priest. Jews will find synagogues nearby each base and Vicenza had a Jewish chaplain.

Food

It's generally good everywhere. Coke is more expensive than wine. Water without bubbles is "aqua senza gassata". Wine is often cut with bubbly mineral water. If a place has menus in several languages, avoid it. Especially on the Grand Canal in Venice (our only bad meal in Italy). The world will not come to a screeching halt if you don't order three courses. Most places are happy to fix half portions for children. High chairs are rare but kids are welcome, especially if they are adventurous eaters. My youngest was a calamari fiend and more than one cook came out of the kitchen to watch this little blonde American three year old devour an adult portion of the stuff with a side of grilled raddichio.

Some good Italian cookbooks will help you to understand what you are eating. Plus you will want to know how to make these fabulous dishes. My favorites are Patricia Wells' Trattoria, Lynne Rosetto Casper's The Splendid Table & Italian Country Table and, a must for anyone going to Aviano, Fred Plotkin's La Terra Fortunata which is all about Friulani cooking. Bars are places for the whole family- for a cappuccino & brioche in the morning or a soda and sandwich in the afternoon.

See the SlowTrav pages on Restaurants and Cookbooks for more information.

Alcohol

A special note for parents of teens - if your child is old enough to slide the money across the counter and say "Una birra, per favore" he or she will be served. Public drunkenness is highly frowned upon and your child will probably not be served to the point of toilet hugging in a bar or restaurant but there is nothing to prevent them from going into the coop and buying all the booze they can pay for.

The good news is that kids under 18 can't drive. The bad news is that DUI penalties are much harsher in Europe if your 18 year old gets busted. If you are a young service member, please know that a DUI can and will be reported to the base by the Carabinieri, you will at the least receive an article 15 to accompany the heavy fines to the Italian judicial system and could find yourself with a bad conduct discharge. Compared to that, cab fare is a bargain.

The same applies to older folks. You can drink or you can drive, just don't do both.

Conclusions

These are of course my very opinionated pieces of advice. Things will be slightly different at each base. Enjoy your tour! What we wouldn't give for three years in Italy again!

Our Story

This is the story of our first plunge into life in Italy.

We arrived at Aviano in September. It took us a few weeks to find a house and a few more to move in. It was an old green farmhouse on the edge of a small village/suburb of a medium sized town. The house had shutters, a balcony that begged for geraniums, chestnut trees and an arched hayloft. To the back of the house were beautiful views of the dolomites and the tall cypresses that lined the winding road into Castello d'Aviano. The school was at the other end of our street, across from the village church.

By early November, our furniture had arrived, our children were mostly happily ensconced in the village school. Throughout the moving-in process, our new landlords had been especially helpful and considerate. The house was owned by two brothers and their families. One month it was Piero's responsibility and the next would be Bruno's. We communicated largely by pantomime, phrase book, and my grammatically brutal baby Italian. I knew that they were going above and beyond and wanted to show my appreciation, so I invited their entire family to a traditional American Thanksgiving through one of the ladies at the housing office. She explained the holiday to them and that we would like to have them over. They accepted. With the two brothers, their sister, nonna, wives, children & spouses, and one precious but very spoiled grandchild we had just invited 15 people. To that, we added some single guys from my husband's unit. Suddenly, I was cooking for 25 people.

The base delivered my appliances a few weeks before but the oven didn't work. Two days before Thanksgiving, they brought me a replacement. It was, mercifully, large enough to roast a turkey. I began prepping the dishes that could be made in advance. First on the list was the pumpkin cheesecake. I had that safely tucked into the oven by 10 AM on Wednesday and was feeling very efficient. At about 10:30, Bruno rang the bell to hand me a good dozen bottles of his own wine and three bottles of grappa. Homemade grappa. I'm thinking- hey, this is great. Now I don't have to go to the store for grappa for the Tiramisu. We chat, I thank him as effusively as I can manage. He leaves about 11:10, after showing me the rosemary and salvia bushes. I go back into the house to a distinctively smoky smell. The workman had forgotten to remove some plastic brace thingy from the brand-new stove and my pumpkin cheesecake had just become "smoked Pumpkin Cheesecake". Smoke alarms are going off, I'm using words that would make a longshoreman blush, and the lady next door is hard pressed to choose between staring at the crazy American throwing smoking food out the window and hanging her laundry.

Naturally, my husband is out flying and I can't figure out how to get the now-melted brace out. I call the appliance repair section and the young airman in charge of scheduling doesn't seem moved by my story of impending Italian guests and a plastic flavored cheesecake. I suppose if I were eating at the mess hall, I would have been low on sympathy too. He tells me next week at the earliest. Since I need new cheesecake ingredients, I hop in the car and head for the base. As I'm passing the flight line, I spot a small sign that reads "Appliance Warehouse". After a highly illegal U-turn, I whip into the warehouse parking lot and run into the office. The man at the desk also initially gives me the party line- make an appointment, we'll be out next week. I launch into my story of landlord's coming, in Italian. At this point, I was entirely prepared to cry if needed. I don't know if he was moved by my story and the imminent danger of smoked plasticized food or he couldn't stand to listen to me mangle his language anymore, but he made a phone call and told me to be at home at 4:30 and someone would be out to fix the stove.

A quick drive by the commissary parking lot convinced me that the shopette was a much better choice. Two cans of pumpkin and some cream cheese and I'm back in the car & heading home to wait for Signor Savior, the appliance guy. By 4:30 of course the kids are home from school and asilo (nursery school) so Signor has an audience and I have 'help'. By midnight, I have produced a pumpkin cheesecake (sans toxic fumes), a chocolate cake, apple pie, pecan pie, and a tiramisu made with Bruno's grappa from the recipe in Trattoria. I had made all of these recipes before and, as the tiramisu was the last produced & I had taste-tested my way through the evening, I didn't even try it.

Thursday morning dawned warm and sunny. Thank God Italian schools are open on American holidays. I had the girls at school when the doors opened and was off to the market for fresh veggies. By nine, I am home from the market and yelling at Dan to 'get up and clean something'. I get all the side dishes assembled and some pre-baked. The turkey is in the oven at noon and I'm frantically peeling potatoes for 25 & wondering what on earth I was thinking. Guests are scheduled for 6:30. My wonderful husband has cleaned the bathroom and put away laundry. Unfortunately, he gets sidetracked by the federal disaster area that masquerades as our oldest child's bedroom. At 4, I send him to collect children and he comes in an hour later with a three year old bearing tell-tale gelato smears.

At this point, I lose it. The floors still need doing and I am wearing some of nearly every dish, the soup isn't together, and our one bilingual guest has phoned to say she is sick and can't come. The man has been married to me long enough to know danger when he sees it. He shuffles me off to the shower and sends the girls out to play in the yard while he- bless him- mops the floors and, unasked, irons the table clothes. By 6:30 everything is ready and on schedule. The turkey is out and covered in foil and two bath towels, the side dishes are all in warming, appetizers ready, salads done, and homemade cream of mushroom soup simmering next to the mashed potatoes.

The doorbell rings and the landlord's family descends en masse, followed quickly by the American contingent. I'm having palpitations worrying about the turkey and Italian reactions to such thoroughly American fare. The prosecco is flowing and my huge house suddenly seems kind of tight. I am the only one of the Americans with any Italian and Piero's son is the only Italian with any English. The two of us spend the evening trying to translate for everyone else. The food is remarkably well received, especially the cranberry relish. This leads to a long attempt to explain what a cranberry IS and an eventual consultation of the encyclopedia for pictures. They were a little puzzled by the corn pudding. Piero gushed over Turkey legs and made jokes about what a shame that there were only two on each bird.

Throughout the main meal, the wine has been liberally consumed. Everyone from Nonna down to the 14 year old is flushed and very relaxed. As usual, the more I drink, the better my Italian gets. We clear the dishes and set out dessert buffet style. A few people have gotten very quiet. I go through the line last and the first bite off my plate is the tiramisu. Without thought a loud "Ewwww!" comes out of my mouth. It is revolting. The ladies know immediately what has happened and anxiously comfort me. You see, Bruno's grappa could double as paint thinner. It bears no resemblance to the refined high quality grappas written up in Saveur or Gourmet. This stuff was the Italian equivalent to rot-gut moonshine. So the men, naturally, finished off the rest of it. Spontaneous acapella renditions of Beatles tunes (a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine...) led my husband to introduce our new friends to Jimmy Buffett. A week later I hear a little voice singing "why don't we get drunk and.." from her car seat as I'm driving by the church with 'the dead guy under glass' and resolve to ban grappa forever. Yeah, right.

Around midnight our Italian guests leave, wives and daughters supporting their still-singing fathers and brothers to their homes down the street. Mangled strains of "Margaritaville" drift through the night air for a few minutes and then silence. The Americans who have stayed are sprawled out on sofas, armchairs and army surplus cots. One takes a sleeping bag and climbs into the back of our station wagon to be awakened early by the neighbor lady who mistakes him for a vagrant and is telling him off with amazing but unintelligible speed and fluency. Dan awakes declaring himself entirely too old to be that hung over and spends the rest of the day in a hammock while I clean up.

I hear by way of one of my older daughter's classmate's mom that my cooking has been enthusiastically approved of. I also hear that my next-door neighbor thinks we are crazy and that the teachers are concerned because my daughter refuses to eat salad but they now know for certain that I do serve it. I try to explain that she only eats white and brown foods except for spaghetti sauce ( to this day!) so I get her vitamins in by fruits and by pureeing veggies in the sauce. They are of course horrified but I can't ever figure out if it is because I don't force feed her green things or because such a picky child exists.

And thus ends the story of Thanksgiving and begins the story of Epiphany.

Ok, so now I have recovered from Thanksgiving and am venturing forth on more Italian culinary adventures. My British friend who works at housing makes some calls for me to the culinary school up the hill. They are really more of a high school and all instruction is in Italian but they will let me attend some classes and demonstrations if I will let their students practice English on me. Sounds like a good deal to me.

One morning I am headed out to a class and Piero is coming to take out the tractor and do whatever agricultural thing it is he does with the tractor, nattily dressed in blue coveralls and a sport coat. He asks where I'm off to and I explain about classes. That evening his son (home for Christmas holidays) appears with a huge bag of kiwis and says that his mother thinks it is wonderful that I want to learn to cook Italian & would like to invite me to cook with her on the 6th of January. He asks if there is anything in particular I want to learn to make and my response is immediate: Gnocchi! Va bene. Come around 9 am on the 6th, bring an apron. Plan to have supper there that night with my family.

Katerina is clearly approves of my choice. When I arrive she is plunking whole potatoes into a huge pot & Piero walks in with a freshly plucked pair of ducks. As the potatoes boil, Katerina leads me through making a rich sauce of roasted duck and porcini. Her sisters in law pop in from time to time with some tidbit or another to try. All day, we cook. The gnocchi is assembled, pasta is made by hand, a cheese sauce, a paste of chicken livers, onions, pork, and more mushrooms. Eels are cleaned. Piero appears with tastes of his salami and a load of bread from the bakery. At around five, Katerina sends me home to rest and change. She was so very patient with me and let me get my hands into everything so I would know the texture.

At seven thirty, we rang their bell. Knowing that Piero had a fondness for good Scotch, we went that route instead of the traditional wine. Flowers for Katerina. Instead of going into the dining room, we were lead downstairs to a huge 'party room' I had wrongly assumed that this was just a regular dinner and that all the food earlier was like one of my grandmother's canning sessions.

The table was set for about 20. The four of us, a friend of theirs who spoke excellent English, and their whole family. The friend, Danielo, had a list of questions for us ranging from thanksgiving traditions to our families to what I was learning at the cooking school. The last was dismissed as silliness, which it was. That week had been a demonstration of a pastry decorating medium that handled like modeling clay. The instructors called it chocolate plastic & it tasted very much like plastic but made lovely roses and leaves.

Soon the food started. First there were some crostini with the liver paste, caramelized onions, and gorgonzola slightly melted and a platter of bresaola, Arugula, Parmesano, olive oil, and lemon juice as well as a platter of Piero's salamis and Proscuitto di San Daniele. Next came a salad of little pink shrimps in the homemade mayonnaise we had done earlier with a few capers. At that point, we were so enthralled by the shrimp that we ate the portions the girls didn't touch. That was followed by what was called 'Insalata Russa'. Katerina's sister-in-law made that and it was heavenly. I bought some at the coop in hopes of the same thing and it was gross- sort of like succotash in miracle whip. I never did learn the secret of that. The Insalata russa was followed by a light green salad, then our gnocchi with the cheese sauce. Next came the pasta - little agnelli with a very friulano filling of sclopit and ricotta with the duck/porcini ragu. A poached fish in a creamy sauce with white wine appeared as soon as the pasta was done. After the fish came eel with some veggies. By this time we are thinking dessert is definitely next.

Wrong! Another salad. Then enormous platters of grigliata misti. There was duck, more of Piero's sausages, pork, and lamb all grilled with fresh rosemary and sage, rubbed in garlic and olive oil. Along with the meat came potatoes also roasted with rosemary and my first taste of properly cooked spinach. I was back in Katerina's kitchen a few weeks later learning to make that spinach. At this point, we were eating for God & country. The girls had fallen asleep and been carried to a sofa bank near the fire along with Katerina's grandson.

When the meat was demolished, dessert began to appear. One of the women was in a side mini-kitchen frying frittelli and these came to the table piping hot with powdered sugar along with more of Bruno's now infamous Grappa. Platters of fruit and cheese were carried down from the main kitchen along with a fancy cake from the pasticerria. I kept turning down grappa so Bruno disappears and comes back with a glass of brown liquid that he then sets on fire. It turned out to be a sweet coffee tasting drink with a mule's kick. Finally, limoncello was brought out and the food mercifully stopped.

By this time everyone over twelve is once again three sheets to the wind. There are toasts, more toasts, and more singing. Danielo is sticking to my husband so instead of translating I am just chatting up a storm. I'm not even thinking. The Italian is rolling out of my mouth, my brain is all warm and fuzzy- I'm even cracking jokes. People are laughing, presumably at my jokes but more likely at my grammar. Everyone is getting up and I'm thinking it's midnight, party over time for bed.

Wrong again. We're going outside to set things on fire and drink some more! The men have gathered all of their kiwi vine prunings, crispy Christmas trees, and various other flammable things into a big pile in a fallow field across the street from the house. Bruno fixes me another of those coffee things while Piero and his son light the fire. Katerina is explaining about the bonfires- we can see at least four more. They are to light the way for the three wise men. Then she launches into an explanation about the difference between Befana and Strega Nonna & I'm actually getting it. This leads into more Friulano folklore while the men sing yet another round of old Beatles tunes. At about 2 AM one of the girls wakes up and we go through the whole parting and thank-you ritual. It's a short but chilly stumble home, the stars bright and other fires lighting our way.

Piero & Katerina, Bruno and his wife, and the rest of their family continued to look after us, teach us, and feed us. They became our friends and welcomed us always as family. That Epiphany dinner ranks as one of the two best meals we have ever eaten. After seven years away from Italy, seeing them again is one of the things we are most looking forward to.

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