I've just returned from three weeks in France and Italy. Since I've written about France here before ("," " ") I'll focus on Italy today. This column is for those of you who just dream about Italy, those who may be going there for the first time soon, as well as those veteran travelers who go to Italy whenever they get a taste for pasta with wild boar sauce.
When seeing the famous sights in Rome, one can't help but be staggered by their age. The Colosseum and other buildings are 2,000 years old. And you'll see ruins that are even older than that. It gives you a sense of permanence and of a continuity of humanity. This was especially so for me, because I live in a city where I'm likely to see signs that proudly declare, "Established: 2003."
One of the first things a visitor to Rome notices is that there are elderly, somewhat stooped-over men and women standing on almost every street corner. These are not Italian grandmothers and grandfathers. These are tourists who have been standing there for 30 years, waiting for a car to let them cross the street. Things like this give birth to:
Travel Myth No. 1: Italians Are Crazy Drivers
Mistaking Italians for bad drivers is an understandable error. The reality is that they are fantastic drivers. If there is an empty space of a centimeter or two (I have to speak metric if I'm talking about Italy), they'll find a way to drive through it. If you see a parking spot that looks too small for any car except one that might be lowered from a crane, the expert Italian driver will pull right in. Italian drivers are fearless, which is why pedestrians should be fearful.
Best Law In Italy
There is no smoking in restaurants, stores, and other public places. However, smoking outside seems to be required.
Travel Tip No. 2: Beware Of The Plumbing
Public toilets often require a contortionist's skill. And I was never able to figure out how to use the shower in our hotel room without flooding the bathroom. Also, I have a feeling that the little basin next to our toilet was not really meant for washing out my socks.
Travel Myth No. 2: Small Portions
We've all heard this one: the reason Europeans can eat so many courses and not be as fat as Americans is because the portions are small. Not in Italy. The smallest portions I saw would even be a challenge for a teenage boy who wasn't paying for them.
Travel Tip No. 3: Learn Some Italian
At least learn a few phrases. Sure, people speak English at all the tourist spots and you'll usually find somebody who speaks English elsewhere. But you're in their country, why not at least try to speak their language? Don't be the kind of tourist who thinks that you can translate English into Italian just by adding an "o" to every word.
Florence is beautiful, and less crowded than Rome. The food there is different from Rome, but equally delicious. It's heavier, and more of it is fried. Their specialty is a steak, the minimum size of which is usually one kilogram (2.2 pounds). See Travel Myth No. Two.
We rented a car and drove around Tuscany for a few days. (In case you were in Italy at the time, I was the guy driving the Fiat who wasn't used to a standard shift.) This was the most relaxing part of the trip and everywhere we looked, we saw beautiful, colorful rolling hills. We also saw some charming, medieval towns, and were always surprised that so many other tourists were visiting them, too. I guess if I read about a place in a guidebook, a few other people probably have, too. We also visited Pisa where more people were busy posing for that "clever" photo in which the person looks like he or she is holding up the leaning tower than were actually looking at the tower.
I almost forgot Travel Tip No. 4 – Back To Rome
If you want to go the Vatican museums to see, among other things, the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's ceiling, you won't be able to use your credit card. The Vatican only accepts cash for these visits. And when you think about it, that's pretty consistent with the history of the place. I don't think Michelangelo took MasterCard, either.
It's nice to be home.
Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for SportsLine.com. He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them travel guides.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2006 CBS. All rights reserved.