tips for Italy, part 2

In October 2002, I had a series of email exchanges with Lori Shodis of Cambell, California, who, after reading my experience in Rome on Rick Steves' Graffiti Wall, decided to write me to get tips for her trip to Italy in November 2002. I thought I'd post my replies here because other travelers may find them useful. Below is my reply to her second email (her comments are in bold italics):

At 11:35 AM -0500 10/21/02, Shodiss, Lori wrote:

We fly to Washington DC from SFO and then from DC to Milan and we arrive in Milan at 7:30 Sunday morning.

Hah hah I bet I know which flight you're taking. United Flight 970, right? I took the same one myself. :) Congressman Gary Condit was on our return flight from D.C. (ugh). Perhaps you'll run into other luminaries from Washington on your way to D.C. and back to SFO.

I am really glad we went with Hotel Aberdeen, actually I met this man on line from Rick's site he is 68 years old and lives in Katy Tx,

It's Charles Luther! We emailed a couple times before I left as well, and he was extremely helpful. Be sure to thank him after you return. I sent him another email after I returned, thanking him for all his tips, and he was very pleased. He said it makes his effort much more worthwhile when he hears back from the folks he's helped.

So yes we fly into Milan on Sunday morning, I talked to Rick Steves Travel line about getting our Kilometric pass etc..

I looked into the Kilo Pass as well, since we took the train from Milan to Florence (4 nights there), Florence to Rome (4 nights), and Rome back up to Milan (3 nights). As it turns out, because we were traveling EuroStar Italia first-class for all three segments, sharing the Kilo Pass between the two of us vs. buying point-to-point tickets separately would've cost around the same, so we just opted to buy point-to-point tickets all the way. Before I left home, I printed out a schedule of the trains I wanted to take (as well as those departing within a four-hour range, in case we decided to leave later). When I arrived at the Milan and Florence ticket counter, I just circled the train I wanted, told the agent politely in Italian, "First class, non-smoking," handed over my credit card, and had no trouble at all. In each case, we were able to get on the train within half an hour of buying our ticket. The lines were very short at the stations. We also used the self-service ticket machines in Rome. It worked very well. You just choose the British flag for English menu, then just follow the instructions to buy your ticket. Very easy. We even helped two Italian nuns to get their ticket from their machine!!!

Also in reading Ricks book I believe the Last Supper is closed on Mondays so our only day to do any sight seeing in Milan will be Sunday when we get there.

The Last Supper is well worth seeing. Rick lists a phone number to call to make reservations, and I recommend you do just that from here, since you only have one day in Milan. Do not wait 'till you get into Milan to make a reservation for the same day; there won't be anything available. I called three days in advance and they only had two spots open. I had originally decided to skip it because I heard the paint was flaking off the fresco, but once we arrived and I saw how grand it was (much bigger than I had expected; it took up an entire wall), I was very glad I went. Because of preservation concerns, they only let 25 people in at a time, so it felt very intimate. I also made the reservation inadvertently for 9:30 a.m., when a guided tour in English is mandatory (21 euros for the two of us; normally admission is 7 or 8 euros each). It was a very informative and I thought the extra money was well spent.

Milan is actually a good starting point for you. Two full days there is good enough. It's not as overwhelming as Rome. Even though I live on the Peninsula and worked in San Francisco for a number of years, Rome was still pretty daunting, esp. because it's in a different country and you have to speak a new language. I don't know if you like shopping, but there's much good shopping to be done in Milan. Walk along Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, right next to the Duomo. There are many boutique shops there. As for big department stores, you'll run into the La Rinascente in both Florence and Milan. It's like a Nordstrom, and has good but reasonably priced merchandise.

If you go visit the Duomo in Milan, be sure to look for the red light high above the altar that Rick mentions in his book. It'll be pretty obvious. It supposedly marks the spot where a nail from Jesus' cross is stored. St. Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother, brought it back from her pilgrimage back in the 4th century. Of course I don't know whether it's REAL or not, but it's stil fun to see the red light way up there near the ceiling. There's also a small white space in the ceiling when you're standing at the back of the church. Rick has another tidbit about it in his book. My friend and I thought it was really neat when we found it. Oh, the Duomo is under restoration right now, so there's construction stuff all around its roof and you won't be able to see its beautiful Gothic form. Guess we'll both have to wait 'till our next trip to see its real face....

We have 4 days in Rome, then on to Florence for 2 days, and Venice for 4 days and then back to Milan to spend the night before we go home.

Oh, but there's so much more to see in Florence than Venice! I spent two nights in Venice two years ago and felt it was quite enough. We walked around all the islands, visited the Ducale Palace, climbed the Campanile in Piazza S. Marco, poked into the boutique shops everywhere, and looked at the artwork in the Accademia. We also took a gondola ride at night. Although it's more expensive than daytime gondola rides, it's quieter without all the tourists walking around and much more romantic. We could've taken a trip out to one of the bigger islands to see Murano glass being made, but we chose to skip that. Anyway, four days in Venice may be too many.... You might want to ask Charles Luther and see what his opinion is on this one.

Florence, on the other hand, warrants more than just two days. You can go to the Accademia (where Michelangelo's David is), Galleria Uffizi, Bargello, Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, and many other interesting sights. And of course there's good shopping for leather and stationary there. You can even take a day-trip to Pisa from Florence.

From the Malpensa airport we take the Malpensa Express to Cordona where we take a cab to Hotel Gritti (10 minutes) I mapped it out, I think we can even take the Red line metro if we want to....but I will be alert for the tax thieves.

That's a good way to go. We took the Malpensa Express train from Cordona back to Malpensa on our way home, and it worked out very well. By the way, when you buy train tickets, be sure to punch them in the yellow validation machines. On each of the four train rides we took, the conductor came and inspected our tickets, and I was glad to have mine validated, instead of causing a scene like other tourists I've read about on the Graffiti Wall. In most cases, you will not be able to read the numbers the machine prints on the ticket, but as long as the ticket is validated, the conductor will not give you any trouble.

That's great you had a 4 course meal for 67 euro, in converting that it's about 50 some odd dollars right? YIKES you couldn't even come close to getting that here for that price! We will definitely try it yet remember the servizio charge lesson.

If you go to Ristorante Target, I would love to hear whether they stamp the "Gratuity Not Included" on your bill when it already says "Servizio 10%" right next to it. I'd like to know whether they just target specific people, or whether it's a universal thing at that particular restaurant. We ate at many other Italian restaurants, but did not see that anywhere else.

We really want to eat in the "Italian places" peasant-like or not, if we eat at all the places Rick Steves suggest we will be running into Americans all the time which is fine but it would be great to eat at the places the locals eat too as that would really give us the "authentic Italian experience"...

Exactly. There were Americans at most of the places we ate (and it was great to chat with them!), but I also wanted to try some other, non-Rick places. The only place we ate at that had no other Americans present was Ristorante Nabucco in Milan. This was the most expensive meal (119 euros for two 4-course meals with wine), but it was our last night in Italy and we felt we could splurge a little. I'd say it was my second best meal, next to the one at Target. Nabucco is located at Via Fiori Chiari, 10, in the Brera district (15-minute walk NE of the Duomo).

I looked at the picture in the link WOW that's great, are you in the picture by chance? I hope it's that nice there when we go.

No, I wasn't. I was standing way off to the right, off the picture frame, while my friend took the pictures. But it's true that we were very lucky with the weather. It was extremely nice the whole way (except for the rainy last day in Milan).

Just out of curiosity, what other books did you read or bring besides Rick Steves book?

I brought photocopies of the very useful but heavy Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide for Italy. It's not as humorous as Rick's books, but it gives more formal pictures of "exploded", 3D view of many sights, which I like a lot. I bought it from, but decided not to lug it with me everywhere. It's like a brick! I just photocopied pages for Florence, Rome, and Milan, and brought along Rick's Florence and Rome book (and photocopy of the Milan section from his Italy book), and that was enough. I also read the Frommer's Rome guide before I left, but armed with Rick's books, I felt it was enough. Books are the heaviest things in the world when you have to carry suitcases on and off trains every few days.

Did you ship anything home? If so what carrier did you use?

No, I didn't ship anything home, nor did my friend, so I don't have any tips for you on that....

Also did you have to declare/pay taxes when you got back? How did that go?

Ah, very good that you asked. I declared around US$650 worth of goods and was charged nothing by the customs official in D.C. My friend declared around $750 and was charged $12 by the same person! She was miffed. I don't know what the magic cut-off number is. The form we had to fill out on the airplane said it's $400, but like I said, I didn't have to pay anything for $650, so it's probably up to the individual customs officer.

Any other questions?


part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4