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Plumbing in Italy

Coco Pazzo

The early Roman engineers were simply amazing! Many of their bridges and aqueducts still stand in parts of Italy and all across Europe over two thousand years after their construction. Indeed, their handiwork stands atop most tourists' sightseeing lists, including the Coliseum. Their descendents continued this great tradition of design, giving us an incredible network of sewers, wells, and fountains to meet the needs of the public. That said, you have to wonder what happened in later years, for "modern" Italian plumbing is a marvel to marvel at, in wonderment and amazement, as you ask yourself, "What were they thinking?"

The Public Toilet

Something that is hard to find in most cities. In many places (such as along the Autostrade) it will be attended by a matron who sits in a chair near the entrance, glaring at a small saucer filled with coins and a few crumpled lira (remember now, that at 1500 lire to the dollar, Italian coins have a real value about half what those toy coins in your Monopoly set are worth). There is usually a charge of 500 lira for the "privilege" of using these facilities. Unfortunately, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the presence of an attendant and the cleanliness and adequacy of these facilities: if attended, the washroom is less likely to have paper or decent paper; less likely to have a real commode, instead it might have a hole in the floor with a place outlined for you feet. Even at the Vatican, there were nice red geraniums on the washstand, but there was sawdust on the floor beneath the sink to absorb the dripping water!

Prior to our trip, I read an on-line travel journal that mentioned the McDonald's in Rome, adjacent to the Spanish Steps. As a matter of fact, he raved about the cleanliness of the facilities and something he called the McWash. This we wanted
to see. While not normally a denizen of the golden arches, we did check it out while in the area, out of curiosity and through that most jingoist of national spirits, PRIDE IN OUR PLUMBING. And I am happy to report that not far from the Spanish Steps, the Via Condotti, American Express, etc., is a little piece of America, with nice public facilities. You all know the drill: march in like you want to wash up before getting into line. Be forewarned, curiosity may actually get you into line--- they have nice looking salads and pastries.  Balsamic vinegars.  A coffee bar.  Gelato.

In the town of Arezzo, in Tuscany not far from the border of Umbria, we encountered what appeared to be a modern, high-tech public toilet. The International Pictographs of a Man and Woman with the letters "WC" directed us to a door. Once inside, we were confronted with a machine similar to those that dispense subway or train tickets in many cities. Fortunately the text was in several languages, and after a few false starts, I determined that the entry fee was L500. Then a stainless steel
door to my right slid open to permit entry to a private room. There was a plumbing fixture in the corner, and a vast array of little buttons above a trough just above waist height. The floor was a rubberized grid, permitting me to see water flowing down beneath my feet-- supposedly to assure me that the facility had been cleansed between each use.

Intellectual curiosity led me to press each button: First, I discovered the one button that dispensed toilet paper provided a voluminous two sheets per push. Then, I pressed the button beside a downward arrow, and lo and behold, the toilet flushed.
From here I inserted my hands below a picture that appeared to indicate a stream of water-- but nothing happened. I did the same with the next two images as well, one that appeared to dispense soap and then one that seemed to trigger a blast of drying air. But I was unable to cause any effect. Since this was a research field trip, I continued to examine this chamber, and discovered that each user is allocated only five minutes per visit. To avoid permanent embarrassment, a warning light supposedly goes on thirty seconds prior to the automatic opening of the doors! I didn't press my luck!

Once I exited the chamber, I spotted a traditional sink, soap, and pile of paper towels, which seemed to tell me that while some portions of the High Tech Toilet are 20th century, apparently there are still a few bugs in the system.

The Shower

Then there is that common bathroom fixture, the shower (or doccia). In Italian hotels, they commonly come in three varieties:

  • The Phonebooth (or Quiz Show) Model - a sporty little number about 2 foot by two foot, with sliding doors, and virtually guaranteed to lack shelf space. However, it will also have a sloping soap dish to permit any object placed on that surface to slide immediately to the floor when wet. There isn't sufficient room to bend over to pick up any item, and thus one must crouch down very carefully, taking care that the knees or derierre do not bump the doors! During one shower, the soap bar fell three times, and a razor fell twice.

    It is probably reassuring to know that by law, Italian showers now must have an emergency cord that supposedly triggers an alarm somewhere. Don't know about you, but I fear that if I fell in my "phonebooth," I would be so severely wedged into a small spaced that I could never be able to reach up to grab this lifeline!

  • "Oh, A Little Water on the Floor Won't Hurt" Model- An Italian specialty, they simply mount a shower head on one wall and drill a hole in the floor to allow the water to escape. Available with or without shower curtains, this model
    is guaranteed to insure the cleanliness of the entire bathroom (by soaking anything within six feet of the shower-- including all the towels, toilet paper, shaving kit, etc.). It washes the walls, the sink, the lav, all your personal items, your shoes, and anything else in the room, while you clean your body!

  • The Hose- why bother with a full-fledged shower, when a shower head on a hose will do just as well? Simply kneel in the bathtub, sans shower curtain, and have at it.  Almost as good as the model above for simultaneous room cleaning.

Resources

Public toilet map : Map of public toilets in Florence and the surrounding area. The map also provides open hours and dates, restroom features (accessible, changing tables, etc), and price.


Author's notes:

The following essay appeared in a now defunct website: In A Sense, Abroad: A Traveler’s Experiences of Italy that was originally published in 1996.  The site later expanded as a book entitled Piazzas and Pizzas: Adventures of the Clean Plate Club in Italy, with many wry observations about life in Bella Italia.  The lira has given way to the Euro and there have been some advances in plumbing, but many of these citations still ring true.

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