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Italy for the Traveler

The mention of Italy conjures up a sensual mix of romance, good taste and crumbling ruins facing shady vineyards – where old rustic farmers serve up local wine with focaccia bread and a cautionary story about crossing the local mafia.

All of these images can be found in Italy but it’s also a fully modern Western country and prices represent that. Most backpackers here will be shuttling around on a Euro Rail pass and getting drunk in crowded hostels or pitching tent to save a few cents. It’s possible to get by in Italy cheaply but you’ll want to be heading south to lose the feel of Northern Europe and find the real soul people.

Part of the challenge of travel in Italy is avoiding the large-scale tourism that supports a good part of the Italian economy. In particular when you get into Tuscany or Rome, there will be thousands upon thousands of squabbling families and couples posing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, debating whether they can afford entrance to the Coliseum or wandering around in bemused groups after a tour guide, doggedly determined to enjoy the lifeless lecture about the history of yet more churches and ruins.

Tourism in Italy is worst of all in August and, Italians being of a fairly collective mind, it’s also when the entire country goes on holiday for 2 weeks, leaving the cities like ghost towns for the tourists to wander about like ants in illogical directions, cursing the maps in their guidebooks. This also makes it harder for the traveler to get an idea of the places he visits so you’re best off visiting Italy the rest of the year.

Despite the annual invasion of pissed off tourists on a trip to see all things cultural, Italians maintain a curiosity and love of all things foreign and that includes you. If you manage to make any Italian friends you’re likely to be taken around and shown off to all their pals. Enjoy your exotic status but don’t necessarily expect much in the way of invitations to come and stay – most Italians live at home and the family house is often something of a hallowed sanctum reserved for the extended clan. That’s something that’s changing with the present young generation, though, much to the concern of their parents.

You’ll eat and drink well in Italy and if you stay for any length of time you’ll more than likely put on weight. Get the feel of Italy by eating out and just try not to embarrass yourself by, say, ordering red wine with pizza. A cheaper option is to buy your own wine and pizza and sit out on one of the grand piazzas, the public squares that make up the heart and soul of any town. On the other hand there’s no concept of the tip in Italy, service already built into the bill.

If you eat with other Italians don’t be surprised when at the end of the meal they divide the bill perfectly between the number of people at the table. So whether you ordered cheap dishes or ate 6 courses, everyone pays the same. If you only took a soup and everyone else ate a full meal they probably won’t let you pay but it can be embarrassing if you stuff yourself and everyone else ends up paying for your gluttony.

The old towns with ambient side streets are so commonplace that you’ll eventually take them for granted and then get shocked the next time you do see a concrete housing estate. Not all towns and villages are as beautiful as those in Tuscany and it generally depends on whether they were bombed to bits in the Allied invasion of Italy in the second world war.

Whilst life in Italian towns is by and large as modern as anywhere else in Europe, stray into the villages and time virtually stands still. The bars are full of old men arguing over the rules of the card games that they play day in, day out and you wonder how they can still be quarrelling after all this time. The arrival of a foreigner in these kind of places is likely to be the event of the week and they’re unlikely to know quite what to make of you.