Sunday, August 21, 2016

Italians say, “No, thanks!” to more tourists

While everyone knows how important tourism is for Italy, the steadily growing number of visitors in some of Italy’s most beautiful locations is actually causing serious problems (and plenty of protests from residents). As crowds increase (and people’s behavior worsens), locals are losing patience with mass tourism, which many feel is ruining their cities. Although Italians are quite aware that tourism is the country’s leading service industry, and for many people it pays the bills, they are also concerned that if the trend of exponential growth continues, it will become unsustainable. 

Places like the Cinque Terre, which have become one of the iconic seaside locations on travelers’ bucket lists, receive up to 2.5 million visitors each year. That is an overwhelming number for a place with only 5,000 residents and a geographically restricted surface area - these 5 small towns occupy 43 square kilometres (17 square miles) which are perched on terraced mountain slopes that plunge into the Mediterranean Sea. The result is that the crowds create a human traffic jam, clogging the villages, trains, ferries and even the natural hiking paths.

Venice is no better off, with about 20 million visitors a year and 270,000 residents. Florence definitely feels the crunch as well, with its 350,000 inhabitants hosting approximately 16 million tourists annually. Recent episodes of vandalism and indecent behavior by tourists has added to the discontent. As the crowds increase, it seems that the sophistication of tourists declines. From swimming in the Grand Canal, to urinating in the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio, manifestations of sheer ignorance and disrespect have become all too commonplace, and cases of disorderly conduct, drunkenness and defacing public property (including historical monuments) are on the rise. 

Florence's Piazza dei Giudici becomes a beach... (photo: La Nazione)

How local authorities should handle the situation is not so clear. Some officials have talked about increasing tourist taxes and entrance fees (as well as charging them where up to now it has been free), limiting numbers for access to monuments, etc. While these measures might have some influence, they don’t promise to solve the problem of numbers, especially in those places where tour buses, and even worse, cruise ships, deposit their hordes of “day-tripping” visitors. As Vittorio Alessandro, president of the Cinque Terre National Park, so aptly put it: dealing with cruise ship crowds is like "organising a party at your house with no idea of how many people are going to turn up… Sustainable tourism is something that benefits the area, the host and the visitor. But a tourism that is so quick and frantic leaves nothing to the territory." 

This is also a huge problem in Venice, where there is the additional danger of the damage these huge ships can (and do) cause to the delicate canal structure. Exasperated locals are voicing their discontent more and more, increasing the risk of episodes of intolerance by more extremist groups. 

Unfortunately, efforts to curb the number of cruise ships admitted to the popular destinations continue to fail because local governments seem unable to resist the financial draw of these lucrative vessels. As they greedily fill their coffers, they continue to blindly ignore the critical situation that is building on the shore.

The more astute members of the tourism industry know that it’s better to focus on the quality of the visitors, rather than the quantity. This is not to be interpreted as an elitist attitude, since all socio-economic categories can represent high-quality tourism. The point is to focus on promoting culture, and drawing more respectful visitors. People who visit one of Italy’s monuments with the sole purpose of taking a selfie or, even worse, leaving their signature on one of the artworks to prove they were there, are not the kind of tourists any country needs. 

The devastation made to Bernini's Fountain in Rome by Dutch hooligans.

While it might seem to be a contradiction, large numbers of visitors don’t always mean big profits for local merchants. In fact, one of the negative aspects of mass tourism is that it actually harms businesses. Here in Italy they have coined a term for it: “turismo mordi e fuggi” (literally, bite and run tourism) - while in English it is popularly known as “carbon footprint” tourism. In general, tourists are staying fewer days and spending less and less during their visits - both in terms of shopping and services. Cruise ship visitors are even more likely to “take without giving” - as they don’t seek meals or accommodations, and most of the  services they use do not benefit local providers. 

Traveling on a shoestring is on the rise, so merchants have had to invent strategies to combat the new low cost phenomenon. There is an inflation of panini venues, selling cheap, quick alternatives to a sit down lunch, and shops or stands filled with trivial gadgets (NOT Made in Italy and often counterfeit) which have cropped up like mushrooms.

Everyday there are fewer places where you can find good quality, reasonably priced authentic Italian products. Only the high-end designer goods (for which Italy in particular is famous) are holding out - but they have become totally out of reach for the middle-class customer.

The result is a decline in quality travel for everyone; the tourist and the host. This is why it is important to address and promote the idea of sustainable tourism, where the focus of travel is to come away with something more meaningful than a digital photo and another stamp on your passport. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

10 Travel Tips for Italy

While we normally concentrate on creating itineraries and finding accommodations for our clients, there are often practical questions that arise during the planning stages which can be crucial to a successful trip. We thought it would be helpful to provide some essential information and answers to the most common queries we receive.

Important things to know before you travel to Italy:

1. Documents

If you are entering Italy from outside the EU you will need a passport, but make sure it is valid for at least 6 months from your date of departure from the Schengen area. This is a new requirement, implemented in 2016, overriding the previous 3 months’ validity rule. They will turn you away at the airport of origin if this requisite is not met. 

Your passport must have at least 2 blank pages for the entry and exit stamps.

You do not need a visa if staying in Italy for less than 90 days.

Bring a photocopy of your passport to carry with you while sightseeing, so you can leave the original in a safe at the hotel.

If you are planning on renting a car, you will need an International Driver's Permit - it is the law in Italy.  US citizens can get theirs at the AAA before leaving home.  

2. Money and Credit Cards

You cannot enter or exit Italy with more than Euro 10,000 (or its equivalent) in cash.

All Italian cities and most towns have ATM machines with international circuits that allow foreigners to withdraw cash. However, you should check with your bank before you travel about using your ATM debit card or credit card abroad. Find out which method is the most convenient for your transactions, as there are normally fees and daily limits regarding the amount of cash you can withdraw. 

For US citizens, before you depart be sure to inform your credit card company that you will be traveling abroad. Due to fraud prevention, US credit card companies often deny purchase authorization when the holder tries to use a credit card abroad if they have not advised the company beforehand that they will be outside the US. This inconvenience is becoming more commonplace, creating unnecessary stress and aggravation for unaware travelers. 

While Italy still uses more cash than the US and other European countries, it is possible to pay with a major credit card in most restaurants, shops, gas stations, etc. The preferred credit cards are Visa and Mastercard (it is harder to find merchants who accept American Express). In smaller towns and for inexpensive purchases there might still be some difficulty paying by credit card. When you pay with a credit card, specify you’d prefer to pay in Euros, since the dynamic conversion to US dollars at the time of purchase has an additional cost. 

It is advisable to leave home with some Euros in cash (just in case) and always have some on you while traveling. You can get Euros while in Italy from ATMs, banks and also currency exchange kiosks located in the (tourist) cities - but check carefully to see what fees apply and their exchange rates.

3. Electronic devices/Electric appliances

The voltage in Europe is 220V. Electronic devices (laptop computers, ipads, etc.) and cellular phone chargers can handle 110-220V, so you do not need a converter, you will only need to have a plug adapter with the round prongs used in Italian wall sockets.  

4. Tipping in Italy

While it is correct to say that tipping is not necessary in Italy, this doesn’t mean that most Italians won’t be pleased to receive a gratuity. Tipping in Italy is still considered a gesture of gratitude and satisfaction, not an obligation. While the service providers do appreciate a tip, they don’t expect one. 

Something you are likely to discover during your stay is that in Italy it is actually customary for many proprietors to offer their customers a complimentary drink either before or after the meal (a Prosecco, Grappa or Limoncello, etc.) as a sign of their gratitude for your patronage. Also, don’t be surprised, or annoyed, that you will almost certainly have to ask for the check, since in most cases they won’t just bring it to you at the end of your meal. It’s not poor service, but rather a sign of respect, as it is considered rude to rush guests to leave.

Since the subject of gratuities is not all that straightforward, and many of our American clients are often concerned about how they should address the matter, we have put together a whole post on the topic. If you’d like to find out more, feel free to read some general guidelines here.

5. Dress codes

Everyone knows that Italy is considered one of the most stylish countries in the world. While this doesn’t mean you have to be stylish too, there are a few places where not knowing how to dress might be a problem. One of them (which most tourists will visit) is a church. To avoid being denied entry, it is best to observe the following rules: no shorts, bare shoulders, mini-skirts or any attire that leaves too little to the imagination. If it is summer, and you have a sleeveless top, carry a scarf in your bag that can become a quick shawl to cover up for the visit. 

In general, Italians dress casual. However, this doesn’t mean sloppy. So when it comes to dining out, unless you are going to a very high-end restaurant, you don’t need to wear formal attire, but do remember that casual dress can be (and in Italy it usually is) elegant.  

6. Dinner/Lunch time 

If you are one of those people who eats dinner before 7:00pm, make sure you plan on an afternoon snack to tide you over while in Italy! Most restaurants don’t begin dinner service before 7:30pm (and in the south of Italy this is probably still too early). The places that do offer early dinner are almost all tourist traps, since they will be the only people looking to eat before 8:00pm. So rather than being forced to eat a sub-par meal, choose to enjoy an authentic treat in the late afternoon (even a generous gelato can fit the bill) and hold out so you can eat well, with the Italians.
Also, in most cases restaurants have set hours for lunch - the norm is 12:30-2:30pm - so don’t expect to find too many places that have continuous kitchen hours. In the larger cities, this has become less of an issue since there are so many other options for dining. However, in small towns (especially those not full of tourists) they will still follow this schedule, and close between 3:30 and 7:30pm.  

7. Taxis

If you are looking to get a taxi in the city, don’t plan on hailing it down! They won’t stop for you, since in Italy they are radio taxis, which means they are dispatched from a call center, except for those at the taxi stand of a train station or airport. If you are not comfortable making the call yourself, you can ask the hotel, restaurant, or shop to help you out. The service is normally quite punctual, with cabs arriving within minutes of the call.

8. Cell phones and Wi-Fi

Using your phone while in Italy can be easy, but you need to decide how to go about it. Most accommodations will provide free Wi-Fi, which means you can access internet and free calling services (like FaceTime, WhatsApp and Viber). However, if you don’t set up a plan for international service with your own phone company at home you need to be careful about data roaming and calls, as they will certainly cost you a fortune. If you own your mobile phone you can also opt to unlock it and purchase a SIM card in Italy which will allow you to make local calls and use 4G at a convenient price. 

9. Safety

Most of Italy is quite safe, even the big cities. However, if you are not a city dweller, you should keep in mind that being aware of your surroundings and not trusting just anyone is a good rule of thumb. Like in all cities throughout the world, tourists are often the target of petty crime. They are easy prey, since most are distracted by the sights or trying to navigate unknown streets. So, keep an eye on your belongings at all times (leave valuables in the hotel safe when possible and avoid keeping all your cash, credit cards and documents together). Be vigilant and don’t talk to gypsies or anyone trying to sell you things or solicit something. A good way to avoid getting hassled is to show confidence by acting sure of yourself, that way you’ll look less like an inexperienced tourist and more like a seasoned traveler. 

After having worried about all of the above and cross-checked all your lists, take a deep breath and RELAX. The best is yet to come, so make sure you arrive ready to enjoy yourself. Here are a few final suggestions:

  • Don’t over-schedule - remember, you are in Italy, the land of the Dolce Vita, where taking it slow is an art. Leave yourself time to wander and get lost intentionally, without having every minute of your day mapped out. Improvise and allow a few unexpected experiences to surprise you. 
  • Don’t try to see it all - this follows along the same lines as the advice above. Italy is SO full of amazing things to see and do that you cannot expect to tackle the whole country in one visit. Even trying to see one of the major cities in only a few days does not do it justice. It’s much better to focus on a smaller area and spend more quality time there than it is to go to 3 cities and 6 towns across 4 regions in only 10 days. You will end up overwhelmed and feeling like you were only given a nibble of each dish served at the world’s best restaurant - not even remembering exactly what you ate, but knowing you wanted more. 
  • Immerse yourself in the local culture - take advantage of opportunities to meet and interact with Italians, they are generally very warm and welcoming people. Don’t look for the familiar comforts of home, try new things and embrace the differences you will find in a foreign land, even those that might annoy you, so you can experience something unique and authentic. There will surely be things you’ll love about Italy, but you will most probably find a few shortcomings as well. Don’t let the little things get on your nerves and try to accept them together with the good. Going with the flow will make everything more pleasant. 
  • Remember that Italy is a modern country - so don’t panic if you forgot to bring something, chances are you’ll be able to find it in Italy too. It’s probably even a good thing to pack light, since you’ll surely be tempted to shop during your stay! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Traveling to Tuscany with Kids: part 2

photo: Mus.e
Every parent’s nightmare when they are on vacation is to hear a whining voice say, “I am bored! When can we leave?!!” The idea of having to cater to your kids on a European vacation might be enough to stop you in your tracks, long before booking your trip. But the good news is that you don’t have to pass up a fantastic trip to Italy just because you’ll have your kids with you! 

We work with a lot of families, so that means lots of kids, too! That’s why we know how important it is to create itineraries that can keep the younger generation engaged. For adults, Tuscany is a sort of Disneyland: beautiful scenery, great food, extraordinary wine, art, history, etc… But if you are traveling with your children it might put a damper on your enjoyment - unless they have fun too! 

Our first recommendation for families is to rent a villa, since this is the best way to have loads of extra space for the kids (indoors and out) without having to compromise on the beauty and luxury of your accommodation. Next, you need to plan an itinerary that is FUN. That’s why we have a slew of family activities which will keep the kids busy and happy, but will also be interesting for the parents. In fact, some might already be on the adults’ bucket list! 

Here are a few suggestions we know work well (because we arrange them for our clients and have seen plenty of happy kids enjoy them!):

Take a Fresco Making Class 

Florence is full of churches and monuments whose walls and ceilings are decorated with stunning frescos. After seeing some of the impressive originals fist hand, you will go to an artisan’s workshop to learn how frescos are made and try your hand at producing your own using the same technique as the Renaissance masters. This is an activity for all ages, where families can work together to create their personalized souvenir to take back home.

Take a Cooking Class or a Pizza Making Lesson

Kids love to get their hands “dirty” - which means kneading dough is right up their ally! You’d be amazed at how much children enjoy cooking classes. Whether they are making pizza and foccaccia, homemade tagliatelle pasta or a tiramisù, you’ll see smiling faces as they do their best to prepare some of Italy’s signature dishes. With the right teacher, and the appropriate setting, a day in the kitchen can turn out to be one of the most memorable experiences of a family vacation. 

Visit a Working Farm 

In Tuscany, most farms are actually vineyards or olive estates. But there are some that also have animals. Besides the typical barn animals like sheep, goats, pigs and chickens you will also be able to see some of the local breeds: Chianina cattle (white cows!), wild boar and  Cinta Senese pigs, to name a few. You can visit the farm, taste the wine and enjoy an organic, home-grown, traditional Tuscan lunch in a beautiful setting - so it’s another fun day for the whole family!

Go on a Treasure Hunt

Children love playing this game, so why not do it in the historical center of the Renaissance capital?! The whole family can participate (and if you are a large group, you can split up into 2 teams to make it more of a challenge). It’s a great way to learn some history, explore the city and have fun with the kids. You will be given a list of clues to help you locate and identify some of the secret treasures in Florence. See who can find the most before your time expires!

Go on a Castle Wine Tour 

Just about all adult visitors want to go to at least one winery while they are in Tuscany. But if you are traveling with younger children you might think that it’s not such a great idea. Well, here is where being in Tuscany really lends a hand. Don’t visit just any winery, choose a castle! Kids will find an ancient castle wine cellar fascinating, especially since it’s the real thing (not an amusement park replica). Then, during the wine tasting that follows the cellar tour, the under-age crowd can run around in the gardens while you sit and sip your Chianti! Once again, everyone’s happy! 

Take a Guided Tour 

Whether it’s visiting a museum, a city or a hill town, don’t underestimate the benefits of taking a guided tour. When you have children in tow this is even more useful, because a good guide knows how to involve the kids, telling them stories and pointing out interesting things that will entertain them and rouse their curiosity. It’s a wonderful way for the whole family to have an enriching experience together. 

If you still need a few more ideas, you can refer to our previous posts on the topic: Traveling to Tuscany with Kids and 10 Great Things to Do in Florence with Kids.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tipping in Italy

A very frequent question we are asked is, “What are the guidelines for tipping in Italy?” It’s a particularly confusing topic for Americans, who are accustomed to leaving a tip for a wide variety of services but have also heard that in Italy it doesn’t quite work the same way. 

While over time the presence of North American tourists has made receiving gratuities more common, the reality of the matter is that tipping in Italy is still considered a gesture of gratitude and satisfaction, not an obligation. While the service providers do appreciate a tip, they don’t expect one, as the majority of Italians do not tip. The small percentage that does will only do so if they are particularly pleased with the service provided - and they will normally never leave more than 10%. In general, the most common practice is really just rounding up - for example in a restaurant if the bill is Euro 76, they’d leave 80.

Another curiosity you are likely to discover when dining out in Italy is that it’s actually customary for many proprietors to offer their customers a complimentary drink either before or after the meal (a Prosecco or Grappa, Limoncello, etc.) as a sign of their gratitude for your patronage.  

There are a few things worth mentioning to assist you in understanding how and who to tip if you would like to do so. First of all, it is important to mention that in an Italian restaurant, servers receive a salary and do not depend on tips for their wages. Another important thing to know is that if you are paying by credit card you will not find the possibility to add on the tip. This is because the restaurant does not give gratuities to the staff from credit card payments. The only way to make sure the server gets the tip is to leave it in cash. 

When you examine the bill from the restaurant you will see that there is something called a “coperto” - basically a seating cover charge. This is considered the cost for your bread and the table setting. The amount can vary depending on the level of the restaurant, but it is usually between 2 and 4 Euros per person. In most cases this is applicable even if you sit down for a cup of coffee. If you do not want to pay it, have your espresso standing at the counter (like most Italians). 

Sometimes you will find a service charge, called “servizio” - which should always be specified on the menu. Normally it is about 10-12% and is more common for larger groups (8+ guests). This is the same as a tip - so don’t add anything else. 

Unfortunately, some restaurants in popular tourist cities have adopted the bad habit of encouraging foreigners to leave a tip by asking if “you need change” or returning with lots of small change after you have paid the bill (to make you feel like you should leave them some of it). In Italy this is actually considered very rude (and they’d never dare try it on an Italian customer!) So, in that case, take your change - all of it - and leave. This compares to when the waiters stand on the street and solicit customers (a clear sign that it’s not where you want to eat!)

For tour guides and private drivers (especially those who accompany you on full day excursions), if you are happy with their service, they do appreciate the gesture. A tip of about 10% is appropriate. 

Taxi fares are usually rounded off to avoid any small coins - so for Euro 9.50, paying 10 Euro is easiest. 

Hopefully you’ll find these guidelines helpful. But it’s important to remember that the most positive thing about tipping in Italy is that you don’t have to feel obliged to do so. There is no stress involved. In fact, Italians are often overwhelmed by the tipping culture in the US. To them it seems alien, almost like a service charge on everything, which creates anxiety as you try to figure out how much you “owe” and constantly worry about having your change handy at all times. 

Instead, tipping in Italy is like most of the things that make up the local culture: it’s more laid back, and considered a spontaneous gesture when you feel you have been given the kind of service you hoped for. This way, both parties have a greater sense of satisfaction. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Villa Vacations in Tuscany

Why should you consider a villa vacation in Tuscany? Obviously we think there are TONS of reasons! If you are tempted, but not sure it’s the right solution for you, read on. You’ll probably be surprised by the number of options you have.

Perhaps not everyone knows that villas come in all sizes, configurations and price ranges. This means you don’t have to travel with a huge group nor do you have to be rich to enjoy this type of accommodation. While renting a large independent house is the perfect solution for a big family or group of friends, a couple can have the same experience of staying at a villa while only renting an apartment for two. This is because many large estates partition their houses to create smaller units, usually ranging from 1-3 bedrooms. Guests share the swimming pool and grounds while enjoying a private terrace or garden area and an independent entrance to their apartment.

A stunning property with several 1-3 bedroom apartments
Another concern might be self-catering and housekeeping. For some a vacation means being pampered and not having to attend to daily chores. Well, no worries, a villa vacation can include staffed services so you can have all the help you need. Many offer basic daily housekeeping included in the rental price, but all of them can arrange for it if requested. Meal services can be a local’s home cooking or a chef’s innovative cuisine - once again, you decide. If you are concerned about being too isolated or alone on the property, there are many houses with on-site caretakers - this means a discreet presence in a separate dwelling on the estate 24/7 in case you need something. 

What about driving in a foreign country? If you are staying at a villa and don’t want to drive, how do you do it? We have the solution for you. Our drivers are experts and can take you wherever you need to go. You’ll find them at the airport waiting for you and they will drop you off there when your vacation is over. Everything in between can be arranged, from excursions to food shopping runs.

Is a villa convenient if you want to see the cities or specific sites? Certainly! There are villas throughout the region. Some are more remote and others are more centrally located - even in the hills around Florence (technically still considered part of the city!) So how do you decide on location? When you are not familiar with an area, knowing where to base yourself is not easy. Having an expert guide you erases this dilemma. When we work with our clients, we help them select the perfect house for their needs. By having us assist you with your itinerary, we understand what would be the best location for your accommodation. 

What about price? Many people associate a villa rental with luxury. While this can definitely be the case, if that’s what you are seeking, it is by no means the rule. There are many options available that can be considered budget friendly selections. While we only work with properties of a high standard, this does not mean that they are all expensive. Often the quality/cost ratio is excellent (and more convenient than a hotel of the same category - especially if you consider how much more space you have). 

Finally, the question arises: why should I use an intermediary if I can book directly? While finding a villa yourself might seem more economical, this is not always the case. First you need to consider the hours you will spend searching for the right property. If your time is valuable, here is your first “cost” of doing it alone. When we work with our clients, we speak to them first to understand what they have in mind in order to show them the most appropriate villas. Normally they only need to view a handful of selected properties before finding a house they love. 

Selecting a place you have never seen, except in photos, is daunting. If you go it alone, unless you have someone who can personally recommend a house, you will have to take the plunge and see what happens when you get here. Having us help you means getting firsthand feedback and answers to your questions from someone who knows the property. We are based here in Tuscany, which means we will be here when you arrive - not in some agency office far away. This also means we take extra care in making sure we pair the client with the right house.

Most villas, like hotels, work with agencies. This means that there are fixed prices no matter who you book through. Although we never do, some agencies might mark up even higher but a villa can’t undercut the agencies that feature their house, so you won’t save by booking directly with the owners. Also, the service we provide goes beyond just helping you to rent a villa. We will assist you in arranging your itinerary and any of the services you require. We are available for you during the planning stages and while you are here on vacation. This is the personal touch that makes us unique. Happily, positive feedback and a high number of returning clients confirm that we do our job well.  

Hopefully, we have managed to convince you that staying at a villa in Tuscany is a great choice! Please feel free to visit our website and view some of our properties.