The Italians part1: Who are they?

by Mario 29-Apr 2010

The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.

— E. M. Forster 

What draws us to Italy? Is it the food, the art, the history, the wine, the natural beauty or is it more? Millions plan to visit the Great Wall, the Pyramids, the Ganges once in a lifetime. Most, when given a choice, will return to Italy over and over. Italy is such a sweet addiction. Once smitten you never shake it off or get enough. Someone aptly said: each of us is an amalgamation of three different beings: how others see us, how we see ourselves and what we truly are. Can Italy and the Italians be viewed in a similar manner? 

Fatal Attraction What we observe may lie somewhere between two well known quotes: Was in short, ever well to be elsewhere when one might be in Italy? — Edith Wharton and Italy is not technically part of the Third World, but no one has told the Italians. — P. J. O’Rourke. This discordant combination of irresistible charm and warm chaos draws us like moths to a flame. It’s far too easy to envision Italy or the Italians as a kind of suave, bad boy perpetually sweeping dainty damsels off their feet. Actually, we clamor for it. Methinks it is not quite how they appear to us but rather it’s the mesmerizing effect this place and its people have had on mankind ever since Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war, first set foot in Italy. 


In the early nineties Frances Mayes captured our attention and heart by revealing simple day to day encounters with ordinary Italians. By the end of the decade every villa in Tuscany had dozens of copies of Under the Tuscan Sun left behind by guests who had sought and found their holy grail. In the new millennium Linda Dini Jenkins masterfully joined this illustrious cabal of writers enthralled with Italy in her most recent outing: Up at the Villa — Travels with my Husband. Most of her book is dedicated to Italy. Linda went beyond relating encounters, she infused her work with poems, images, recipes, travel tips and ultimately the passion this country and its inhabitants imbued her with. Italians, it seems, have an uncanny ability to strike hidden chords within us that both excite and soothe our spirit. This is how I believe we view them...

The charm of Italy is akin to that of being in love.

— Stendahl 

Stay tuned for part 2: The Italians — Who do they think they are?

Hint: Men of genius do most when they work least” Leonardo da Vinci

Easy Italia — Italy to Offer Nationwide Tourist Assistance Starting in May

by Mario 09-Apr 2010

Michela Vittoria Brambilla, Italy’s Minister of Tourism (above) has announced that starting on May 15, 2010 visitors to Italy in need of assistance will be able to call Easy Italia by dialing 039039 from anywhere in the country for the cost of a local call. This service, apart from the cost of the call, is free and available in six languages: English, Chinese, Russian, French, German and Spanish. Aptly named, Easy Italia promises to be able to help travelers with a number of tourism related issues including emergency services and follow each inquiry until it has been resolved. 

Italian Coffee Break part 2 — Ordering un Caffè in Italy

by Mario 08-Apr 2010

Start by never asking for latte, unless you want a glass of milk. Italians love their coffee and while most of us are familiar with cappuccino and espresso there are at least 30 ways in which Italians individualize their coffee. To preserve our collective sanity, I have cut the list down to the basic variations.

Just CoffeeUn espresso or un caffè normale is the national beverage of Italy. Espresso, meaning quick, is served in a small cup filled to less than half. The crema or coffee foam should be a third of an inch thick and if using sugar, the sugar should slowly seep through the crema without dissipating the foam. Most espresso is drunk standing at the bar and the average cost of a cup in Italy is 1 Euro or less. Sitting at a table costs more. Extravagant exceptions are fancy hotels and famous cafes such as the Florian in St. Mark’s Square in Venice topping the charts at around 5 Euros per cup. Then again, at the Florian you get to sit in Italy’s most renown square, listen to the orchestra play show tunes and watch the world stroll by. Most folks who order a Florian coffee tend to nurse the cup for at least an hour. It may be the best hour of all in Venice and 5 Euros sounds quite fair. 

Serious Italians and coffee lovers everywhere may ask for un caffè ristretto or un caffè corto (short shot). This potent brew is served in the same small cup and uses the same amount of coffee as does an espresso. The only difference is that less water is employed resulting is a more concentrated, less bitter coffee flavor. Don’t fret over the caffeine content. There is more caffeine in a cup of American style coffee than in an espresso.

If you are fretting over the caffeine content — as in you need more — order un doppio ristretto. This is a double shot of concentrated espresso. With this potion under your belt there is no need to come home by plane, you can fly right from the bar!

If fretting over caffeine content — as in you need less not more — order un caffè decaffinato (decaffeinated) or try the leading decaf brand by requesting un Caffè Hag. A European Sanka wannabe that sounds much like it tastes. If you dislike coffee, and quite a few younger Italians do, ask for a trendy alternative called orzo. Orzo means barley and that is what it’s made from. I have no clue what orzo tastes like and less desire to find out. However, orzo allows non coffee lovers to share in Italy’s favorite pastime — hanging out at the bar — and that can’t be a bad thing.

For those who crave more liquid in the cup request un caffè lungo (long). It is still served in the little cup and made with the same amount of coffee, however, the cup is more than halfway full. The final option is to breakdown and ask for un caffè Americano. A large cup is filled with espresso broth that tastes nothing like American coffee. Dunkin Donuts, found throughout Europe, tried a few locations in Italy. They eventually packed their tent and left, not before leaving a bunch of young Italians hooked on donuts.  

Coffee & Milk — Cappuccino is Italy’s breakfast drink of choice. The word cappuccino means little hood and this coffee is literally an espresso with a frothy, little hood of milk.

Caffelatte, another breakfast drink (coffee and milk), is typically served in this fashion: One large cup, one small pitcher of espresso coffee and a separate pitcher of foamed milk. Mix and and serve yourself.

While it is bad form to order either of the above anytime after noon, it is always the right moment to ask for un caffè macchiato or un marocchino. Caffè Macchiato is an espresso served in a small cup with a dollop of foamy milk. A Marocchino, is a mini cappuccino, with a hint of cocoa, usually served in a small glass.

Coffee Plus — Caffè Corretto means a correct coffee. The only way to correct coffee in Italy is with booze. The choice is yours to ask for un caffè corretto con: whisky, grappa, anice, Fernet Branca. The latter (Fernet) is a horrid, bitter digestive. I’ve seen Italian hunters in countryside bars drink these up at dawn and proceed to run out and shoot at anything that moves.

Italian Coffee Lingo — Now that you know the basics you can mix and match to suit your taste. Don’t worry, Italians do it constantly to stress their individuality. You can order anything in vetro, meaning in a see-through glass. Ask for the milk senza schiuma (without foam) a parte (served on the side) in tazza grande (in a large cup) con latte freddo (with cold milk). So let’s try un caffè doppio ristretto in tazza grande con latte freddo a parte. Got that? 

If you need it and don’t see it ask for either zucchero (sugar) or dolcificante (aspartame).

Italian Coffee Break part 1 — Paying it Forward in Naples

by Mario 07-Apr 2010

Nearly 100 years ago a unique coffee tradition began in the city of Naples. Customers of coffee shops would pay twice for one espresso, instructing the barista to log the paid but untaken beverage in an “in suspense” chart (caffè pagato or a caffè sospeso). The barista would record what the patron paid for, such as an espresso, cappuccino or even a pastry. Paid items would remain in the log book until someone less fortunate would come and inquire if there was anything paid or in suspense. The barista would check the log and say: “Yes, there is a paid cappuccino. May I serve it to you?” The beauty of this form of charity was multifaceted. Donors and recipients remained completely anonymous to one another. The recipient was always treated with dignity. Donors would compete with other donors as to who could leave more paid coffees behind and baristas all over the city took great pride in carefully recording each entry and serving it.

Following Italy’s Dolce Vita boom years of the sixties this genteel Neapolitan tradition became confined to Christmas and nearly disappeared. In the last two years, it has sparked it up again. Perhaps, it’s that global cloud of uncertainty that looms over all of us. Nonetheless, the tradition of the caffè pagato is back in Naples and spreading. In Florence nearly a dozen of that city’s most fashionable cafes are recording paid coffees.

Not all Italians are yet aware of this fad and Italians generally hate not being at the forefront of any trend. So, if you happen to remember to leave a caffè pagato or caffè sospeso the next time you are in Italy, just watching the reactions may be worth the price and some interesting conversations might ensue. Say: Vorrei lasciare un caffè pagato. You can also say caffè sospeso. The former translates into a paid coffee the latter a suspended coffee — as suspended in thin air. Both mean the same thing.

Now if only we could start something similar over here, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds immediately come to mind. Perhaps we could get even more creative and leave a paid prescription behind at the pharmacy or grocery items at the supermarket.

Next we shall explore the myriad ways you can order and enjoy a coffee in Italy.

PS. While a paid espresso is always good, most Neapolitans discovered it was better to leave a paid cappuccino as the foamed milk provided the recipient with a bit of nutrition as well. 

Driving in Italy part 11 — Parking

by Mario 08-Mar 2010

Now that you’ve endured our crash course (no pun intended) on safe motoring in Italy (see the previous posts on Driving in Italy), you must be eager to get behind the wheel of that spiffy Italian number. I’ll wager that navigating from highways to cities, towns and countryside, you’ll have gassed up, followed signs, avoided speed traps, snacked all along the route and gotten lost merely once. It’s time to consider parking that tiger, stretching your legs and enjoying some of the sights on foot. 

Parking spaces in Italy are color coded. White spaces are free, blue are paid, yellow spaces are reserved for handicapped permits, taxis or official vehicles and pink spaces are the domain of expectant moms or moms traveling with infants. 

White Spaces — While free, white spaces may come with restrictions. If there are restrictions, such as days or times, these should be posted and fairly obvious. However, one of these restrictions can be a bit baffling at first.

When a street sign shows the above icon it means disco parking. No, you are not required to perform a sidewalk Macarena, although locals may find it amusing and even earn you a coin or two. Disco parking refers to a thumbwheel timer disc that all Italian cars have. It is either pasted on your windshield or somewhere in the glove compartment.

If the street sign says dalle 8.00 alle 12.30 it means you may disco park here from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm. Set the thumbwheel to the current time, leave it on the dash, if not already permanently affixed to the windshield, and be back by 12:30. Disco parking operates on the honor system and works remarkably well. 

Blue Spaces — Paid public parking comes in two flavors of blue. There’s the attendant that asks how long you intend to stay, charges you and places a stub on your dash. You always take your keys.

The most common form nowadays are area parking meters. Park between the blue stripes and seek out a machine usually within 50 yards or less. Use coins or in some cases credit cards, select the time you wish to stay and pay. Return to your car and place the stub on your dashboard before locking up and going along your merry way. Remember that the time stamped on your stub is the last possible minute to get back to your car without risking a fine, or ending up like Cinderella to find a pumpkin in place of your chariot. 

Be careful not to confuse vending machines. The one you use should have a large, blue-colored letter P. Street vending machines are quite common in Italy and we have had clients who mistakenly went to the machine selling Preservativi and ended up being bewildered by placing a package of condoms on their dashboard. P.S. For those whose diets require food prepared without preservatives, say: senza conservanti, since preservativi as mentioned above means something entirely different. 

Pink Spaces — These spaces are free and reserved for expectant mothers and moms with infants. While there is no law that fines anyone for abusing this courtesy, nor is any proof or certificate required, it is expected that everyone respect pink spaces for drivers with the most important job in the world. 

Yellow Spaces — Unlike the seemingly clever scofflaws above who will soon be towed and fined, nothing you will be driving allows parking in yellow spots, so simply forget about them. 

Garage Parking — You will often find these by following blue P signs around an area. Depending on whether the garage is public, semi-private or private expect rates to be anywhere from moderately overpriced to exorbitant. Large parking garages require that you go to a cashier with your ticket before returning to your car. In many cases the cashiers are automated and do accept credit cards. Small garages lack automation and may require leaving your keys with an attendant and possibly prepaying as well. Always check and double check closure times, especially in small garages, as larger ones tend to be open 24/7, others may not. Visit this Italian parking location guide for most major cities, airports, train stations and ports. 

Final word on parking — Would you leave your camera, pocketbook, suitcases, GPS and other valuables exposed in a car on a New York, Boston or Philadelphia street? I didn’t think so. Italy is a safe country but never tempt fate by leaving goodies or tell tale signs of being a traveler such as maps and guide books laying about. If you intend to stash items in your trunk, pull over and do so well before reaching your parking destination. Otherwise, all you have done is some inadvertent advertising. 

Driving in Italy part 10 — Italian Road Signs

by Mario 03-Mar 2010

While Italian kids learn to drive early, they must wait until they are 18 years old to be licensed to drive a car.

O Means NO. Whenever you come across a red circle while driving in Italy do not enter. If a symbol is inside the red circle, such as a bugle it means no honking the horn. A bike symbol means no bicycles allowed and a number such as 40 means don’t go over that speed. Simply visualize an N in front of any O sign and it’s just plain NO. Occasionally, you will see a red circle with a fractional number, ignore it. It does not mean that the speed limit is two and a third kilometers per hour. What it means is that vehicles of a certain height or width are not allowed. Nothing you will be driving is affected. 

A solid red circle with a horizontal white bar means you are about to enter a one way street from the wrong direction. 

Look for a friendly solid blue circle to point the right way to proceed. If a blue circle has a white number on it such as 30, it means that 30 kilometers per hour is the minimum speed.  

A red circle with a red slash on a blue background means no parking. A red circle with a red X on a blue background means no parking, no stopping, no nothing, just keep moving. Ultimately, round signs will either forbid an action if trimmed in red, or permit an action when all blue and white.

Triangular signs are warning signs. A symbol inside a red triangle such as children, trains, bikes or a curve advise you what to watch for. 

Square and rectangular signs generally provide information. As shown above, they can point to parking, hospitals, police, train stations, city centers and a host of other destinations. Traffic lights operate the same as they do here. Occasionally traffic lights will display arrows in red or green enabling traffic in specific directions. This Road Sign link leads to an Italian Web site, but by clicking on each of the four icons along the bottom of the page you can familiarize yourself with signs and their meanings. 

You can even expect to find some signs on Strade Bianche (white roads). These are unpaved roads that lead to private homes, country B&Bs, farming estates and some of Italy’s most spectacular vistas. As you can see by the image above, unpaved roads are either gravel or dirt and typically not hard to navigate. They may get bumpy, especially after a good rain fall, but just take it easy and enjoy the view. Unpaved roads may display signs denoting distances to properties, villages or intersections with a numbered route and cautions for animal crossings. They may also be equipped with reflectors to aid in night time driving and a strategically placed mirror now and then, useful for peeking around a curve at any oncoming cars. When approaching a tight curve it is advisable to give a very short honk of the horn to alert anyone coming from the opposite way. 

Driving in Italy part 9 – Basic Italian Road Signs — Stop & Yield

by Mario 03-Mar 2010

Before stepping on an Italian gas pedal it may be useful to know when to stop and yield. In addition to the universal stop sign — also used in Italy— is a simple, solid white line cutting across your lane. 

This white stripe indicates that you must stop and yield. Often the word STOP is painted on the pavement, but the white line alone is enough to signal a mandatory stop. The lack of one signals that you have the right of way. 

The upside down triangle is the official YIELD sign of Italy. You can also expect to see inverted triangles painted on the pavement in front of you. In the case of the photo above this individual is being informed by the sign that it will be required to yield in approximately 150 meters.

While I’ve got your eyes glued to the pavement, remember to never cross solid lines running parallel to your car. Italian driving school students are taught to envision solid lines as impenetrable walls. The reason is that many two way roads and streets lack center barriers. The barrier is the solid white line. So when driving on a two lane country road expect to find solid lines where no one is allowed to pass. Intermittent lines, dashes if you will, do allow you to cross over into the oncoming lane to pass a slower vehicle. The dashes must appear on your side of the solid line in order to pass, provided all is clear ahead. Yellow lines indicate a lane is reserved for public transit and taxis. One last word about pavements, occasionally, exit names will also be painted on the pavement, this is more common on highways than on regular streets.

Now we know the secret of why Italians are such formidable drivers. A number of driving parks for children dot the land. The one above is in the Cilento National Park south of Salerno. Another Parco Scuola is in Rome. Look for one near your location when bringing the kids to Italy, they are sure to get a kick out of it.

Driving in Italy part 8 — Fines: Avoiding long distance pen-pals in fancy uniforms

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

Tutor: This common English word is perfect doublespeak for these Orwellian times. When the sign says you are entering a Tutor zone, slow down. What Tutor does is calculate your average speed from the warning point to an end point. Should you reach the end point earlier than the speed limit would have allowed, guess what? You just got tagged. 

AutoVelox: This warning announces hidden cameras along the next few miles. You may be tempted to follow some local driver speeding and crawling at inexplicable intervals, assuming they know where the clocking cameras are. He doesn't. Camera positions are changed often and the car you are following just has engine trouble. Keep it safe. If you don't exceed the speed limit by more than 10 kms per hour the camera should let you slide by. These cameras are well disguised to look like birdhouses, utility boxes, a bunch of bolts, signs and street lights. Concentrate on the speedometer and don't even try to guess their whereabouts.

ZTL: This is the worst and most common infraction committed by foreigners. ZTL means limited traffic zone. Replace the word limited with restricted and you begin to get the picture. ZTLs are present in most historical city centers throughout Italy. Unlike the highways where everything is clearly marked, you have to look for ZTL signs. The sign is a red letter O on a white background, much like a do not enter sign. They are usually small and placed at intersections above or near traffic lights where you may turn in another direction to avoid crossing that ZTL checkpoint.

Once have you crossed it, even for a second, it’s too late. Your picture was automatically taken. Your license plate was crosschecked against a database of sanctioned vehicles and you will be fined. ZTL cameras are only aimed at those entering restricted zones. At this point you might as well fully enjoy your crime and cruise around the restricted zone for the rest of your vacation. Just be careful not to unintentionally go back out and in again. 

ZTL signs in some cities also display the days and hours when restrictions apply. For instance, you may be able to drive within ZTL areas at night or during certain hours on Sundays. The purpose of the ZTL was to cut down on congestion and pollution so ancient city centers could breathe a bit of fresh air in the hope of surviving a few more centuries. Today, cars allowed within a ZTL include residents, businesses, businesses doing business with businesses, public transit, taxis, municipal employees, utility companies, politicians, diplomats and people with pull. Gee, that seems like everybody. No wonder you got tagged. You thought you were just following a long traffic jam. Could someone please pass the David an oxygen mask?

If your hotel happens to be in a ZTL you may be in luck. Provided you inform the hotel ahead of time. If they are in a ZTL they may issue you a permit for your temporary stay. This allows you to go in and out of the ZTL at leisure. Contact the hotel well ahead of your stay. Some hotels have only a limited amount of passes. Each city has its own rules on how hotels may apply for their guests. So be sure check ahead.

For the rest of us who are not sleeping by the Trevi Fountain and do not have a cousin in the mayor's office, don’t despair. This nifty ZTL site gives some information on restricted areas in most Italian cities. Again, the site is in Italian. City names are on the right hand side and in the case of Rome, Perugia and a few others it does display an actual google map with the various checkpoints. Finally, municipalities are not completely insane. You can reach most areas of any city in Italy such as stadiums, train stations, designated parking areas and major thoroughfares without danger. The next episodes of Fines will continue with Parking & Avoiding Parking Tickets in Italy...

Driving in Italy part 7 — Fines: Pay or Avoid

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

Pay: Unlike the US where far too often law enforcement skulk in wait like jungle cats trapping unsuspecting wildebeest, traffic enforcement in Italy is built on deterrence. Italy actually warns you ahead of time. Ignore the warnings and the fines are stiff. Nowadays, most Italian roadway fines are generated electronically. You break the rule, your photo is taken, the locality traces the plate to the car rental company who then passes on the information both ways. How dare they? By renting a car with any company worldwide, you agree to their spilling the beans on you. For selling you out the car rental company automatically charges your credit card an administrative handling fee — yes, you agreed to this too. The administrative handling fee can be as high as 60 Euro, plus tax. The best part comes much later, sometimes six months to a year later, when you get notified by the authorities of the actual fine. The letter typically says the fine is doubled if paid 60 days beyond the due date. Wait, that was a year ago. The letter is usually back dated too. What to do?

  1. You are not a EU citizen at the mercy of their laws.
  2. Italy has no means of matching up infractions with your entry into the country — the day will come when the customs officer stamping your passport will also take a credit card to settle your past violations before letting you in. It’s just a matter of installing some software.
  3. The car rental company could care less. Actually, every time there’s a late notice sent to them they get to charge the administrative fee all over again and for as long as you possess a valid driver’s license and credit card they will rent to you again and again.

What to do? Some people just throw the notices away. Others will attempt to pay by converting dollars to Euros and wiring the amounts to the necessary coordinates. Others will pay only if the dunning authority makes an effort to understand that they are dealing with foreigners, explains the matter in English and allows violators to pay fines online through a credit card. My advice is to pay the piper. Sooner or later he will catch up with you. Depending on how strapped and interlocked our global economy gets they may even reach across the pond someday to strike you retroactively in the comfort of your own home. The best advice is to avoid getting fined in the first place. 

Driving in Italy part 6 — Gassing Up

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

It is difficult to find a gas station in Italy that does not accept Visa, MasterCard or AmEx. For a better exchange rate try using your ATM card as a credit card provided it bears the Visa/MC logos. Leave your gasoline cards at home, even if the same companies operate in Italy, they won’t honor them. Also ditch your Discover card and Bob’s Big Men’s Store card as they are not accepted in Italy. I prefer to gas up where a live attendant is stationed. I stay away from Fai da Te (self service) and look for Servito (full service) as I’m often in a quandary as to how, where and when to insert money or cards. Having left anonymous donations for subsequent drivers I prefer to have a human being gas me up. Say the words: il pieno per piacere (fill’er up please). If the attendant is courteous enough to clean your windshields it is not uncommon to tip them 50¢ to 1 Euro.

Fuel in Italy is sold in liters. Four liters are just over one U.S. gallon. All fuel in Italy is quite expensive by U.S. standards, figure around $7.50 a gallon. Don’t fret over the cost. Italian cars are very fuel efficient and the cost overshadows the time wasted schlepping bags through crowds sneezing and shoving on less than clean public conveyances that all too often go on strike.

Gasoline powered rental cars will require unleaded gasoline (senza piombo) or verde which simply means green. Occasionally you will get a diesel powered car. Ask for diesel or gasolio. Avoid using high octane unleaded or eco-diesel to save some cash. You can also save by figuring out the automated self service pumps: Fai da Te. Your teenager will instinctively know how. Fuggedabout trying to reserve a less expensive, more efficient diesel car ahead of time. No company will guarantee or deliver on that guarantee. It's the luck of the draw at the time of pick up. However, when you arrive at the rental counter try to request one.

To view current fuel prices in Italy go to the top of the right hand column of the site to see the national average. It's on a black background. As you scroll down, the prices for each type of gas sold by each company operating in Italy are revealed. The site is in Italian but numbers and company logos are all you need.  

Chiuso means closed. Aperto means open. Aperto 24 Ore means it’s open 24 hours but most likely automated. But wait, there’s a person there with a cap on. Wow! He takes your money or card, runs the machine, fills you up, cleans your windshield and lo and behold he does not work there at all. Give him a Euro and wish him well. He or she is likely an immigrant with the dignity to provide a service rather than panhandling.  

About this blog

Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....


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