As our sojourn in Italy is over, we present these observations about travel there:
Guidebooks say Italians will look at you funny if you order cappuccino after 11 a.m. I suppose this may be true some places, particularly ones without a good number of tourists, but don’t let it dissuade you. The cappuccino in Italy is to die for (mostly) and you should drink it often, without worrying about what a local is thinking. This is your vacation! Forget Starbucks in the United States and enjoy the Italian coffee… and savor every sip.
Speaking of Starbucks, which, to be fair, is one of my (Ellen’s) favorite U.S. places … there are NONE in Italy. NONE. Not. One. This is because almost all the Italian coffee is fantastic. And because they take it seriously. There are no vanilla lattes there. No frozen frappaccinno concoctions. Well, hardly any. What’s there is amazing espresso, lovely cappuccino, and very nice other coffee drinks. Try it all out, and don’t miss any of them!
When in Sicily, try the granita with brioche. It sounds awful, I know. Basically the idea is that you order granita – a shaved-ice-plus-flavoring dessert, often found in the same kinds of stores that sell gelato – with whipped cream. You eat enough of the granita that you can mix in the whipped cream, then break small pieces of the brioche off the roll, and dip them into the granita/whipped cream mix … HEAVEN. I especially loved it with the coffee or espresso granita. It was amazing. I had this the first time in Castlemola, the tiny town perched over Taormina, and I had it repeatedly afterwards, including in Bam Bar, arguably the best in Taormina.
Eat gelato. Eat. It. Everyday. It’s amazing. Enough said. In Taormina, the best is to be had at Gelatomania. In Rome, I really thought the best was at La Strega Nocciola near Piazza di Spagna. But there are many good places, all over Italy. Just don’t settle for the cheap imitation, highly colored junk. We found it was best to find a place that does gelato and very little else (certainly not other, unrelated food), and that attempted to make “artisanal” gelato. The people in the store are always proud to note they make their gelato by hand on-site. And they’re happy to talk about how they do it, so ask.
Do the touristy things, but don’t be afraid to wander off. Sometimes the best fun you’ll have is getting lost in the side streets. We had an amazing time on the steep pathway from Castlemola to Taormina, and part of that was just being away from the tourist areas and seeing how people live. We passed schools and driveways, pools and pergolas. It was interesting and fun. We’ve done this many times in Venice, too, and enjoyed it tremendously.
Don’t pass up a major attraction that you really want to see for a stupid reason. I was grateful for this trip – especially to Rome – because it let me correct my silly refusal to go into Castel Sant’Angelo when we were in Rome for two weeks in 2011. At that time, we had left it to the last day, and it was hot. I was tired, and facing packing up all our junk (we had stayed in the same lovely tiny hotel for the whole time so it was a harder packing than some). The entrance fee was about 10 euros at the time (as I recall) and I just wasn’t feeling it. I refused. Since that time, every time Angels and Demons comes on the television – which is a lot – Pete reminds me of my silliness. This trip, we went to the castle, which is both Hadrian’s burial place and a fascinating fortification in its own right, and I loved it. Yes, Pete, you were right, and I was wrong. It was a wonderful place to visit.
Own walking across the street. The streets in Italy, especially in Rome, are scary. Cars and motorbikes zoom past, seemingly without paying any attention to the droves trying to cross. Try to spot gaps, and then do it. Just do it. Step out, preferably with many others, maintain a steady speed (one tour guide told us this was the clue – so that the cars can anticipate where you’ll be, when) and briskly walk to the next safe spot. Disclaimer: Use your own judgment! We’re not responsible for your safe passage, but rather just present this as a general rule of thumb for crossing traffic in Italy.
One disappointment was the large number of street vendors. They were everywhere. Not only did it seem there were many, many more than on previous trips, but they were a bit more pushy. I was surprised that the large police and military presence didn’t discourage them. Ask yourself: Is it worth buying a bottle of water from someone you don't know? The answer is obvious.
Don't let the previously mentioned police and military presence scare you. Yes, members of both organizations are everywhere and they are very visible, but that is a good thing. With the possibility of terrorist attacks ever present, their presence, I think, greatly reduces your chances of being a victim of one. Of course, you still need to take all the appropriate safety precautions, but you can feel somewhat safe in the major tourist areas.
At some point you’re going to need a toilet. Be prepared to pay one Euro or to buy something in a restaurant or café. Also be prepared for there to not be a seat. I thought it was just in the men’s toilets (understandable), but it’s in women’s, too.