Friday, March 9, 2012

Italy - good to know (in my opinion)


During my trip to Europe, both R and I agreed that our favourite country was Italy, even though we only visited Rome and Venice. Although I loved both cities, I think Venice has the upper hand, because it's so unique.
(I call the white tower: the leaning tower of Venice :P)
Despite the rainy weather, Venice was still beautiful. We loved every moment we were there. As I mentioned, the only way to travel around Venice was either by foot or some sort of water transportation (no cars at all). We walked to most of the attractions, and took the water bus to the rest. A one day pass costed 16. If you wish to ride the gondola, be prepare to spent about 80-100 for just 45 minutes.
We had a really short amount of time in Rome before our cruise, and I was really keen on going to Venice, so that's when I started to research on my options. Rome to Venice on a regular train take 7+ hours, but on a Eurostar, it was only 3.5 hours. I debated whether I should stay over night or just make a day trip, in the end because of our time crunch, we did the day trip. (if you have time, please stay at least 2 days, there are just so much to see and do).
Eurostar tickets weren't cheap, regular price was at 76/person for one way. With that kind of price, you can actually take a plane ride from Rome to Venice, but the downside to that is the airport was pretty far from the city center, and you will have to be back at the airport early for check in. On the other hand, the train station was right in the city near the canal. So after I made the decision to go by Eurostar, I did my homework and found out about several discounted fares. After checking on a few, I realized my best option was something called Mini Fare, these can be discounted up to 70% off. For the Rome to Venice line, the best they had was at 29/person one way. Since I purchased my ticket on Trenitalia several month in advance, I was able to get 32/ticket for going to Venice, and return ticket at 29.  All I can say is it pays to buy early and definitely check your options.

Also, don't buy your tickets through other websites, it was pretty easy to navigate the Trenitalia site. The ticket was issue in the form of a email with a confirmation code. All you need to do is copy down that code and show it to ticket attendant when they come around to check.
Rome was a totally different city from Venice. When you are in Rome, you feel like you are living in a modern city that is situated in the past. Every corner, very street seemed to have some sort of historical site or building. I mean both the Roman Forum and the Colosseum was literally right smacked in the middle of the city. No one in the world would miss the Colosseum when visiting Rome, but you can definitely miss the line up if you follow this tip: go get tickets at the Roman forum, this way you can skip the ticket line when entering the Colosseum.
Now we are on the topic of line ups, here is a summary.
Vatican Museum: line up in the mornings, but almost none in the afternoon. You can purchase ticket on line ahead of time with an added fee, but it's not really necessary unless you go on a Monday or in the early mornings.

Borghese Gallery: you must purchase ticket for a specific day and time. Therefore if you don't have lots of time to spend in Rome, buy you tickets on line first, and plan your days around it.

Scavi tour (tour of St. Peter's tomb under the Basilica): must book directly with the Excavation office way ahead of time. It's 12/person and totally worth the money. Remember don't bring bulky bags, because you won't be allowed to take it with you. If you book this tour, then visit the basilica afterwards, because this way you can skip the line up (very long), as the tour ends inside the basilica.
I don't know why graffiti is so popular in Rome, it's literally everywhere. Their subway car was covered with graffiti, and no one seems to care or want to clean it up. I guess it's part of their culture now. Their subway was pretty old and noisy. One of the days, R and I caught a rush hour train, and the experience was totally different than expected. People did not wait for you to get off, they just piled in the minute the doors open. I guess everyone was in a rush and did not want to be left behind, because they literally pushed and pushed until we were packed like sardines. I didn't even had to hold on to stand still.

The one piece of advise I can leave is beware of your bag/wallet at all time. Although R and I did not encounter any thieves, but people on our cruise did. Their wallet was mostly stolen on the subway.
As many people already know, wine is about the same price as water in restaurants. Therefore most people tend to just order wine with their meal.  Each glass was about 3-4 only. If you want just water, then they will give you either carbonated or non carbonated mineral water, which often cost the same amount as wine.
Although water in restaurants are expensive, the store prices are actually not bad. For the tourist area, we've bought water for 1-2, and at super market we've gotten water for only 0.33/500ml. If you really want free water, just get a bottle and fill it up at many of the fountains(above) through out Rome. At first I was skeptical, but apparently it's complete safe (says the local who were actually drinking it). I am happy to report, we did drink one bottle filled with this fountain water, and I am still alive. XD
Gelato in Italian is just ice cream. I've actually tried a few places, and was never disappointed. This one I got at the Borghese villa from a street vendor, and it was really delicious. I think you really can't go wrong with ice cream in Italy, because from my experience their stuff was made with real quality ingredients, and does not have lots of fillers.
Everyone knows Italy is the place for coffee, so we had to try it. We walked into a local shop that had no English on the menu or anyone who spoke English. I ended up ordering purely base on pictures they had, and that turned out to be a horrible idea. As pretty as it may look, this above drink was a mixture of espresso and a full shot of whiskey. Needless to say, I passed this on to R, and he was bright red by the time we finished. Therefore try to look for a shop that has English menu or read this to familiar yourself with their terminology.
Just for the record, Italy do have McDonald, but no Starbucks. Apparently they do offer free Wi-Fi as well, but I didn't actually try. According to many sources on line, Italy have a anti-terrorism rule that states anyone using Wi-Fi must be registered. I mean there was free Wi-Fi in Rome, but you do need a code to log on. This code is only provided to you via Text Message to a local number. So it seems if you really want Wi-Fi, you will need a local number first.

I am not sure if this is common for all of Europe, but reading a map and actually finding the road is more difficult than reasoning with toddlers. Unlike the road sign we see here, their road signs are carved into stone plaque that is plaster to the walls of a building like this. However finding these plaques are like finding needles in a haystack. Therefore, I suggest you just ask people if you get lost, no point reading the map, because it's a nightmare. Also another thing worth mentioning is that don't use our map sense to read their tourist map, things are lot closer than you think. For reference, we did our own Rome walking tour for the day, and pretty much made it to all the important sites. We were dead tired at the end, and that was the only reason we skipped the Colosseum on that day even though we still had time.

Meet Ricardo, a local man who stopped and offered us help when he saw us looking lost. He was very nice and patient, but the only problem was that we don't speak Italian, and he couldn't speak English. Despite this language barrier, we talked for at least 10 minutes by using hand gesture, sound effect, and writing it down on paper. In the end, we had somewhat of a coherent conversation, we know he is 73, and his name is Ricardo. We also know we were standing in front of a building that had something to do with Mussolini. He also kept saying 'attenzione money', at first we were perplexed as he started to reach for R's stomach, after a few second, we realized he was telling us to be careful with our money and that we should get a hidden pouch for under our cloth. Here is what I think he got from us: we were Canadian, our age, and that we were Chinese. All, I can say is this was a very interesting experience that I enjoyed a lot. It's nice to know there are still people out there who will stop and help those in need, despite the barriers.  :)

Here are a few more things:
1. Chinese food in Rome is actually cheaper than Vancouver, but they do tack on a service charge. Therefore it you don't want the service charge, get take out.

2. Eurostar was clean, fast, and very comfortable, but expensive. Local train are slow, not as clean, but cheap. Beware of anyone offering to help with your bags, they do expect a tip and will openly argue with you until they get what they want. (You just have to be firm on what you are willing to pay, and they will eventually  leave you alone)

3. Never keep anything of importance in your back pockets or backpacks.

4. This is purely for the cruisers, when you purchase train ticket from Rome to Civitavecchia, there is no assign seating nor a time on it. Basically it's a ticket that states its from Rome to Civitavecchia. Before you board the train, please make sure you validated at one of the yellow validation box. The train station in Civitavecchia is actually pretty far from the cruise port, we walked for at least 15 minutes. If the weather is nice, it's actually quite a enjoyable walk along the gorgeous shoreline.

I think that is all I can think of at the moment. If you have any question, feel free to email me at I will try my best to answer what I can. Have a good trip to anyone who is heading that way. :)


Vincent Ng June 3, 2012 at 1:46 PM

I really enjoyed Rome a lot, though it was massively filled with tourists. One of the interesting things that shocked me was when servers asked if I wanted gas or no gas in my water. It took me a good half a second to figure out what they meant. But it's pretty funny when they asked.

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