Postcards from Italy
THE BLOG OF CIU TRAVEL

Fashionable Florence: Designer Museums

Milan may be considered Italy's fashion capital, but a number of the most famous and historic designers to come out of Italy in the 20th century actually hail from Florence. Indeed, many trace the birth of Italy's haute couture industry to a fashion show held at Florence's Villa Torrigiani in 1951 by entrepeneur Giovanni Battista Giorgini; the collections made such an impression on international buyers that in just a few short years Italian fashion was considered equal to or better than the iconic French houses.

Gucci-Garden-cr-CIU-Travel(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Florence has begun to highlight its design history with a number of fashion museums that have either opened or expanded recently, most notably Gucci Garden. If you are a fashion addict, or simply appreciate the rich history and exacting eye Florentine designers are known for, you can explore a number of museums dedicated to a specific designer or to the history of fashion and design during your visit to the city...in addition to browsing the elegant branded boutiques that dot the city center.
Read More…

The Best Things in Rome are Free

Italy's Minister for Culture, Dario Franceschini, made news this past week by proposing a “moderate” ticket fee to enter one of Rome’s most beloved and visited sights: the Pantheon. Though this stunning Roman monument dates from 120 A.D. it has been a Catholic church for the past 1,000 years and, as such, has been famously free of charge.

pantheon-rome-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Franceschini claimed that the funds from ticket sales would go towards the cost of maintenance and management, but this did nothing to quell the backlash from locals and travelers alike who were less than enthusiastic about the idea of having to purchase a ticket if the minister's proposal is approved over the next twelve months.

In light of the possibility that the Pantheon may soon no longer top lists of free things to do in Rome, here are a couple of other great ideas for things to do in the Eternal City that won't break the bank:

Read More…

Early Flight Out of Rome? Overnight in Fiumicino

One of the biggest logistical conundrums when planning a trip to Italy is how to best handle the arrival and departure days. Arrivals are often an easy case of being picked up by a driver and whisked to your first destination for a relaxing meal and refreshing night of sleep, but departure days can be a bit trickier. Travelers are caught between wanting to take advantage of every minute of their trip, while taking into account morning flights that often require check in hours before the departure time.

fiumicino-departure-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

For those departing from Rome's Fiumicino airport, the options have long been either staying in the center of Rome and having to endure a dawn wake up call, or spending the night at one of the anonymous airport hotels the night before your flight and finishing off a fabulous trip with a whimper not a bang.

Instead, consider staying right in the seaside town of Fiumicino on your last night, which is just minutes from the airport but has enough authentic vibe to make you feel as if you haven't wasted a second in Italy.

Read More…

Acqua Alta in Venice: A Survival Guide

There are a number of advantages to visiting Venice during the winter, most importantly the significantly smaller number of of tourists swarming the streets. In addition, low season prices make the cost of accommodation a bit less steep, the winding canals and tiny back alleys are often shrouded in a romantic mist, and, of course, La Serenissima's opulent Carnevale celebrations bring the city out of its winter slumber for a few weeks each January and February.

San Marco(Photo by Kyle Van Horn via Flickr)

There is one downside to a stay in Venice in late autumn and winter, however: acqua alta. Acqua alta, or “high water” is caused by a combination of tides and winds which force sea water into the Venetian Lagoon, which in turn rises above the level of the city streets, flooding the low-lying areas of this island city. Though locals are used to acqua alta, and the city is quick to set up walkways and alternative routes, this sudden flood of icy, sludgy sea water can cause consternation and inconvenience to visitors. Here's a quick survival guide for a low season/high water visit:
Read More…

What To Do In Italy When It Rains

There's no denying that Italy is most enchanting when the weather is balmy. We especially love the spring and fall, when the air is so crisp that every view looks like a vintage postcard, you can comfortably tour even through the warmest hours of the afternoon, and the days are long enough to explore until evening.

umbrellas at yellow house
(Photo by Steve Hardy via Flickr)

Unfortunately, these are the same months in which the weather can be unpredictable and sudden showers can disrupt your carefully laid plans. One of the keys to a successful trip is being a bit flexible when the weather throws you for a loop, and finding a “Plan B” which will fill those wet hours or days with activities and experiences which keep you engaged...and dry! As Brian observed, “We were in Pienza the other day in the rain and saw a couple getting their bikes OFF their cars and setting out to ride around the countryside in pretty heavy rain. They didn't look very happy. A better idea - park the car and go have a leisurely lunch and a glass of wine.”

Here are a few ideas for those unforeseen stormy days when your plans of walking tours or countryside bike rides are better postponed:
Read More…

Everything You Need to Know about Venice's Gondolas

It's not often that we recommend indulging in a “touristy” activity; we love the more hidden and authentic side of Italy, and personalized, local experiences that often aren't accessible to mass tourism. There is one important exception to this bias, however: a ride in one of Venice's iconic gondolas.

Gondolas - Venice(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

As we said in our 48 Hours in Venice guide, “You wouldn’t visit Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower. You wouldn’t visit India and neglect the Taj Mahal. So how could you possibly not indulge in the most iconic of activities in Venice?” Part of this recommendation is based on the pure joy of floating down Venice's picturesque canals in your private luxury sedan of the sea, but part of it is also because the gondola may have become primarily a tourist attraction over the past century, but for most of the last millennium, it was a fundamental part of Venice's culture and daily life.
Read More…

Travel Advisory: Rome Fiumicino Airport

One the night of May 6th, a fire due to a short circuit broke out in Rome Fiumcino's international terminal, gutting a shopping area in Terminal 3 and causing dozens of flights to be cancelled or delayed, and of course travel complications for thousands of passengers. Considering that even more people are flying through Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport this year than in past years (up 8% over last year), there is a fair amount of misery in store before and/or after your Italian vacation if you are flying through Rome.

FCO departure gates C(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

More than a month after the fire, the terminal is still not fully functional and travelers can expect some delays and inconvenience. Here's what we found after flying through Fiumicino last week:
Read More…

How to Claim VAT Refunds in Italy

Claiming VAT (sales tax, or IVA in Italian) refunds in Italy is one of those situations which seems like a no-brainer in theory, but in practice the logistics and timing can often be dauntingly complicated. As Brian says, “It's not a slam dunk that is always worth the effort.” That said, if you have spent a significant amount of money on important purchases while traveling in Italy, you may want to dedicate the extra thought and time to pursuing a refund of the 20% EU Value-Added Tax that is applied on all consumer goods—excluding meal and accommodation costs, unless you are traveling for business--in Italy.

NOT only the Devil wears Prada!(Photo by Marcel Van den Berge via Flickr)

Read More…

So, You Want to Honeymoon in Italy...

We customize trips for all sorts of travelers, from those who have been to Italy before but are set on experiencing the truly authentic side of the Bel Paese that we can help provide this time around, to those who are about embark on their very first trip and want every moment perfectly planned; from large, sprawling families of two or three generations, to small groups of friends, happy to be celebrating their “empty nest” with quieter grown-up trips; from new, slightly timid clients, to return adventurers who know exactly what magic we can make.

wedding-car-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

But of all the trips we love to plan and all the clients we love to work with, there is something special about honeymoons and honeymooners. These can be the classic fresh-from-the-wedding honeymoons, the second wow-we’ve-made-it-this-far honeymoons, the pre-moons (yes, we’ve planned proposal trips), the re-moons, and everything in between. Even after dozens of romantic trips planned and taken, we still get just a little starry-eyed when working with our in-love clients. Read More…

Deciphering Your Restaurant Bill in Italy: Coperto, Servizio, and Tipping

Travelers to Italy often scratch their heads when presented with their restaurant bill. Though sales tax is (thankfully) included in the item prices, a number of mystery charges suddenly seem to surface when it is time to settle up. To avoid unpleasant surprises, here’s a quick overview of what these charges mean and when they apply:

Aperitivo(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
Read More…

So You Want to Hike in Italy...

Italy is a country best explored by foot: in its bustling major cities, where just a few cobblestone streets away from the packed tourist sites pretty neighborhood piazzas await discovery; in its sleepy hilltowns, where the winding alleys are too narrow for most cars to navigate; and, most importantly, in its gorgeous countryside, ranging from the rocky Alpine peaks at its northern border to the rolling hills of central Italy and the rugged coastline at its southern shores.

IMG_2575(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
Read More…

Ordering at a Restaurant in Italy: Rules and Exceptions

There are many ordinary tasks and common customs that are daunting for a first time traveler to any country, including Italy. Things as simple as friendly greetings (buongiorno before lunch, buona sera after), purchases (money is placed on the counter, not directly in the hand; the same is true for your change), and business hours (ah, the beloved early afternoon riposo closure) require thought and a bit of getting used to...and as soon as you feel you’ve gotten the hang of it, you run into an exception.

Bologna

The same is true for eating at a restaurant in Italy. Italian meals are articulated into a number of portate, or courses, and it helps to have a general idea of what each means and how to organize both your order and your meal. And then, of course, how to make an exception. Read More…

Bringing Food and Wine Souvenirs Back From Italy

You’ve traveled through Italy, enjoying the art and culture, trying out your newly-acquired Italian phrases on the locals, slowing down over a cappuccino or drinks in the piazza, and—most memorably—savoring some of the best meals of your life. It may be hard to recapture the Italian vibe at home, but you can try to recreate some of the Bel Paese’s iconic dishes. The easiest way, of course, would be to bring a sample of Italy’s excellent quality food back to the US with you, but it’s a good idea to be aware of which foods can and can’t be imported to avoid confiscation or hefty fines at the border. Read More…

Italy’s Happiest Hour: L’Aperitivo

It is often said that Italy has a “food culture” rather than a “drink culture”, which is largely true. Most socialization happens around the table--not over a round of cocktails--and any sort of gathering necessarily includes a generous buffet ranging from delicate finger foods to hefty lasagne, accompanied by nothing more elaborate than water and wine. Read More…

The Best Beaches for Daytrips from Rome, Florence, and Venice

Here are suggestions for the best beaches for “daycations” from Rome, Florence, or Venice. These, like most Italian beaches, are well organized for daytrippers as the stabilimenti balneari, or beach establishments, almost always include a café (many serving food), bathrooms, shower and changing rooms, and beach chairs and umbrellas to rent by the day. Just bring a bathing suit and towel and enjoy your vacation...from your vacation! Read More…

Ferragosto: Chiuso per ferie

Of all the confounding holidays—of which Italy has many --perhaps the one that most often trips up the traveler is Ferragosto. Read More…

A Note on Tour Guides in Italy

Our tour guides are not only wonderful local contacts and sources of information for our travelers but they are also our eyes and ears. We can't be everywhere at once, and they keep us in tune with the newest and greatest developments in our favorite cities.

From newly unveiled archeological sites in Rome to a once-in-a-lifetime blanket of snow covering central Florence, they are out there every day discovering the new and re-discovering the ancient.

Image © Concierge in Umbria

Italy's Stringent Tour Guide Requirements


In Italy, being a tour guide is not a seasonal occupation or something one does for a few years before moving on to a "career."

It is a licensed specialty, a lifelong occupation that requires years of study and training. Many guides have advanced degrees in art history, ancient history, and languages – often more than one. And if they are guiding our clients we work with and know them personally.

Guides must be licensed by the city or region they guide in, which not only means that they live in and frequently come from the areas they guide in, but they know their area so well that they've passed rigorous exams on the history of their geographic specialty.

Similar to our own belief that an itinerary should be developed around the traveler's needs and interests, first rate, professional tour guides adapt their knowledge to create tailored tours for each traveler they guide.

If there are children in your group for example, a good guide will include things of special interest to their age group that they wouldn't normally include for adults.

We highly recommend local tour guidesImage © Concierge in Umbria

The Guided Tour Experience


When you visit a church or a ruin or a battlefield, that's what you see – carvings, stones, or grass – unless you know what to look for.

Having a person who not only knows what there is to see, but what of those things you are interested in, how and when best to see them, and the logical order to present them in is what turns sight-seeing into a transformational experience, a confrontation with history and culture that brings you into the experience instead of leaving you outside looking in.

The first time we took a guided tour, we were stunned at the hidden stories, anecdotes, and local legends that our guide showed us. And this was a small town. That we had visited several times. And thought we knew well.

brian maria gabriella signature

Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

So You Want to Go Shopping in Italy

shopping in italy strolling the galleria
Photo by Flickr user Dajan

Besides enjoying the scenery, the food, the arts, and the people, shopping in Italy is one of our favorite activities.

What You Need to Know: The Basics


First and foremost, prepare at home to spend abroad. Call your banks and credit card companies to confirm your travel dates and avoid getting your accounts locked for fraud.

Once in Italy, you may find that intriguing shop you’ve got your eye on always looks closed. Shops in Italy often close for a long break for lunch at 1 PM. So while you’re often out of luck at 2 PM, late afternoon openings mean you can shop more or less from 4 PM until dinnertime at 8 PM.


shopping in italy specialty food store
Photo by Flickr user Roboppy

In the shop, start off with a “buongiorno” (good day) or a “buonasera” (good evening) if it’s afternoon to the shopkeeper to get things going on the right foot. Shopping in Italy is a rather collaborative experience; often, the customer isn’t even supposed to touch things.

Discuss, point, or otherwise indicate what you are looking for, and your salesperson will take care of you. In the more popular tourist destinations, the shop personnel generally speak English. In smaller towns or off the beaten track destinations, try out your charade skills.

If you’re making a substantial purchase (more than 155 euros in one shop), consider getting a partial refund on your 21% value-added tax (IVA) payment. You’ll need to start the paperwork at the time of purchase and then visit the customs desk at the airport before leaving Italy.

What Should You Shop For?


Everything?

If only there were enough time and luggage space. These are some of our favorite things to bring home:

Clothing


shopping in italy clothes store
Photo by Flickr user Sifu Renka

Look up how your usual size translates into European measurements for both clothing and shoes (Italy is simply the best place for fine leather goods), but don’t be surprised if you need a larger size. Italian clothing is cut slim. Try everything on before purchasing, as returns are often not possible.

Food & Wine


shopping in italy specialty food panforte
Photo by Flickr user Gashwin

Food stores are where the “look but don’t touch” ethos is most paramount. Let the salesperson give you samples and guide you to something special. But be forewarned: anything fresh – and to U.S. Customs that includes cured meats – can’t come home. Enjoy it while you’re there! Aged cheeses can be brought back so if you want to bring a small wheel of Pecorino from Pienza back home, just ask them to vacuum pack it (sotto vuoto in Italian). Olive oil and wine are ok as well. If you do plan to do some food shopping in Italy, be sure to bring a few ziplock bags with you from home - they are great for keeping any breakage during travel under control.

Linens


shopping in italy linens
Photo by Flickr user Bart Hanlon

With access to stunning handmade linens like those at Brozzetti (highlighted earlier this month), it’s impossible to resist bringing one of a kind household linens home. Linens make great gifts - they don’t take up a lot of space and aren’t breakable. Brian’s mother advised us long ago to never leave home without a notebook of all of our table measurements. We pass along her wise words.

Pottery & Glassware


shopping in italy pottery
Photo by Flickr user Andrew Batram

If you love painted pottery, you’ll be in heaven. But before you fall in love, ask about shipping. Some of our favorite shops charge (thankfully) by box size not weight, but usually international shipping rates apply and they aren’t “cheap”. You may also receive a bill from US Customs for duty on shipped ceramic items.

brian maria gabriella signature

Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

When is the Best Time to Visit Italy?

best time to visit italy spring near Perugia
Spring at Terre Margaritelli vineyard near Perugia: © Concierge in Umbria

The first Monday of each month, we examine common questions our clients have about traveling to Italy. This month, we tackle a perennial stickler: when is the best time to visit Italy?

Each Italian season has its own charms. Summer brings music festivals and hiking in the Alps and Dolomites. Fall is for figs, foliage, and foraging for the elusive white truffle. And winter is time for skiing, Christmas holidays, and filling up on the hearty winter fare both require.

But we think spring is the best season of all.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Weather


best time to visit italy spring weater
Gull in Ischia: © Concierge in Umbria

In the summer, Italy is not only hot. In many places it is humid. And crowded. (Two conditions that definitely don’t help each other.) Thanks to its ample Mediterranean coastline, in much of Italy temperatures already creep into the 70s by April. Near the sea and in the tropical pocket around the Lake District, the weather is already nice enough for a bagno (dip in the water) in April or May.

2. Food


best time to visit italy fried artichokes
Fried artichokes: © Concierge in Umbria

Though every season has its own delicacies, spring is blessed with more than most. Delicate stalks of wild asparagus find their way into subtle risottos and spring pasta “alla carbonara”. Fava beans, a snack that is the sign of warmer times on their way, are eaten on their own or sautéed as a side or base for soup or pasta. Edible fresh flowers garnish dishes while their non-edible cousins adorn the table and the yard.

3. Experiences


best time to visit italy Easter lunch
Easter lunch: © Concierge in Umbria

One of the best spring experiences is actually food related. Foraging has remained an everyday practice in Italy, and spring is the best time to uncover nature's hidden treasures. But spring in Italy offers many other reasons to get outside. Many towns schedule their Palio in May, such as our favorite, the 900-year-old Festa dei Ceri (Festival of the Candles) in Gubbio. And if you can time your trip for Easter, Holy Week, and the Monday national holiday Pasquetta, you'll see a whole new side of Italian culture.

Spring is the ideal time to get out of Italy’s storied cities and experience the delights of its countryside and smaller towns. If you’re looking for ideas for your own spring Italian vacation, we’re happy to help.

brian maria gabriella signature

Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Condé Nast Traveler: Video Tips from a Specialist



CIU’s Maria Gabriella was featured in a video on Condé Nast Traveler’s Perrin Post this week. The video was taken during the Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialists Summit held at the Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman at the beginning of January.

Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Traveling Between Rome, Florence and Venice: Stopovers to Round Out Your Trip

Whether it’s your first trip to Italy or you’ve traveled the Bel Paese so often that you can almost call it your second home, some cities just never get old. As many times as you might visit the cultural capitals of Rome, Florence, and Venice – with all their history, art, and unmistakable Italian vibe – you are bound to discover something new on each trip. That said, though these three cities are among Italy’s most popular destinations, we’ve got a secret.

There’s a lot of Italy left to explore in between. Read More…

Want To Rent A Car In Italy: A Few Things To Consider

Image: © Concierge in Umbria
UPDATE: Please see our more recent post on Driving in Italy

Visitors often inquire about driving themselves in Italy.

While this may be an option for some travelers, driving in Italy isn't for everyone, there are some important things (beyond the initial shock that you’ll pay three times as much for an automatic and gas costs around $9 a gallon) to keep in mind if you’re contemplating driving in Italy.

Five Crucial Facts About Driving in Italy


Image: © Concierge in Umbria


(1) Driving in Italy is as aggressive as the stands at the Roma vs. Lazio derby

The Italian Auto Club has even recently launched a program to keep foreigners driving in Italy safe, as 13.5% of foreigners who drive in Italy (compared to only 6.4% of Italian drivers) are involved in accidents each year. A private guide with whom we work in Umbria has a very simple but accurate way of describing successful driving in Italy – “drive where there is space.” If there is space on the road, it is up to you or one of your fellow competitive drivers to fill it. On the Italian roadway your one and only job is to not hit what is in front of you.

(2) You can incur hundreds of euros in fines . . . without being pulled over

If you accidentally drive in a pedestrian-only zone (Florence is full of them), you’ll get a fine for every time you pass a traffic camera. But you can also be pulled over at a roadblock for no apparent reason by police looking for insurance and registration violations. In a rental car, these shouldn't be a problem, but having an International Driving Permit (a translated version of your license available at any AAA) will help things go more smoothly.

Image: © Concierge in Umbria


(3) Country roads aren’t quite roads . . .

Italy is full of “white roads,” so named for the light-colored gravel that takes the place of pavement. Think of them more like long driveways. Though they are often so poorly labeled, you’ll be lucky to find them in the first place. FYI: most villas, country hotels and other places worth visiting in the countryside are located at the end of such roads.

(4) DUI limits are incredibly low

In line with European standards, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.05. For many people that is just one glass of wine. If you are going on a wine tasting excursion, we strongly encourage you to use a driver.

Image: © Concierge in Umbria


(5) Parking is labeled . . . but that doesn’t make it any less confusing

Some parking spots demand that you find the nearest tabaccheria to get your parking ticket, while others require you to place a “parking disk” (like a shop’s “we’ll be back soon” sign) to show when you arrived.

How We Can Help


We book cars for our clients through AutoEurope, the best way to compare rates and get the best price on European car rentals.

But beyond helping you book a car and providing you with a GPS navigator, we can usually have your car dropped off at and picked up from your countryside villa or hotel so there are no worries about getting lost on the way or dealing with the car rental counter after your overnight flight.

We’ll also hook you up with a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about driving in Italy, from an easy trick to paying less for gas and a guide to navigating Italy’s toll system.

Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy