Sitti's First-timer’s Guide to Italy: The Basics
Joey and I spent eighteen wonderful days stuffing our faces with pizza and pasta and gelato and tapas and raclette and chocolate croissants in Europe late last year. It was our first trip there that was just the two of us and I loved every minute of it. At first I was kinda worried that it might have been too long a vacation for a workaholic like him, but since we already had tickets (unused from his botched Ironman Barcelona race from the previous year), was I just glad that I finally got to visit one of my dream destinations with him - Italy, with side trips to Barcelona, Zurich, and Koblenz.
Being married to Joey for nearly three years, I knew that the only way to get him to go on a long vacation was to include either work or a race in the itinerary (introduce an eye roll here). He just can’t justify leaving the office for his own pleasure. I suppose like any caring CEO he doesn’t feel good relaxing somewhere while his employees continue to work, even if he had earned it, even if everyone keeps telling him to relax and take a break from time to time. That’s just who he is (admittedly though, I am praying to God that He would urge Joey to rest some more, hehe).
And so our #bossaeuropa trip as he cleverly called it, was divided in two parts: the first ten days were for me, i.e., bakasyon engrande, and the next three were for him, i.e., for work and his meetings. Equally divided, right? Hahaha! But then, subsequent meetings were planned with his other principals, and so the three work days became six, plus a day and a half of relaxing before the long-haul flight.
The length was just right. Having arrived in the fall, it was getting increasingly colder by the day, and that prompted Joey and me to just stay indoors on our last two days, which was just as well since we did so much walking in the first half of the trip (we probably averaged 15,000 steps a day!). This also allowed us to finish Season 2 of Stranger Things in one sitting (or should i say lying?), much to Joey’s delight. Being an unplugged couch potato and gorging on bad food is his idea of a vacation, while mine is soaking up the different sights and food and vibe of every foreign place I go to.
Months prior, I researched and scoured through so many blogs, asked for advice from friends and acquaintances who’ve already been, plotted and re-plotted our schedule, booked and re-checked every flight and train ticket. I generally went all-out in my planning OC-ness, and I’m happy to report that it all paid off. I now feel like such an expert that I am posting this as a service to other would be first-timers to Italy, haha! I’ll cover the basics in this entry, and write a succeeding one for the highlights - what to do and see and where to go and eat.
Apologies in advance because this is going to be ONE VERY LONG POST. My thoroughness in planning a trip should be made evident here, haha! But if I do miss out on an aspect or two, please feel free to holler and ask and I’ll do my best to answer :)
FIRST: THE SCHENGEN VISA
As a general rule, you apply for a visa to the Schengen member country in which you will stay the longest. So for Joey and me, even if Barcelona was our port of entry, I still applied for our visas from Italy because that was the bulk of our itinerary.
Applying for a Schengen Visa to Italy in the Philippines is forthright and easy. Their website http://via.ph/italy/ is comprehensive enough to address all inquiries. Everything that is needed for visa application is there: application forms, list of required documents, fees, office hours, etc. And even if you lacked something, in my case, a detailed itinerary of our trip, there is a computer in the centre which you could use. You could also have documents printed and photocopied there (with corresponding fees, of course). Joey and I just walked in a month before our scheduled departure, waited for about two hours, and received our visas in the mail after two weeks.
We are favoured in the Philippines with all these travel fairs and seat sales that happen every so often. I tried lining up at the one in SM MOA one time, but gave up after about two hours. I guess I was just really curious at the turnout, haha. We got our tickets to Barcelona through the BPI Singapore Airlines sale in which they offered it at roundtrip USD850 with 0% instalment for three months. That way it wasn’t as heavy on the pocket. We did meet another Filipino couple in Italy though that got their roundtrip tickets to Rome for USD500! Imagine?? Galing!! I suppose I’ll have to camp out in MOA for the next travel fair to get much cheaper flights, haha!
CLOTHING / WHAT TO BRING
EICMA was slated in Milan on the second weekend of November so I worked our trip around that, leaving pre-Halloween Sunday for a thirteen-day workation excluding the days spent in air travel. Most of the blogs I’ve come across with said to prepare for rainy and cold weather, so here’s a list of what I’ve packed for our two-week trip (to the best of my memory):
2 pairs of jeans (one skinny, one bootleg)
1 pair of black skinny thermal jeggings
1 pair of black leggings
A black leather jacket
A brown fall trench coat
A bubble jacket (that I didn’t get to use that much since it was bright blue and didn’t go well with my other clothes hahaha)
A black beanie (since I wasn’t the hat type although that would’ve looked nice)
2 scarves - red and black
3 pairs of shoes - my salmon pink On running shoes, white sneakers, and black boots
6 long-sleeved tops: white, grey, black, blue
1 long-sleeved black jersey dress (which I could have done away with, but I wanted to bring a dress kahit isa lang, hihi)
1 pair of black thermals - long-sleeved top and leggings
A collapsible umbrella (I got the heavy duty one that costed about P800 - it was worth it!)
Two water canisters (which Joey and I filled with free water every chance we got dahil mahal ang tubig sa Europe!)
Joey brought a cabin-sized luggage while I chose to bring a medium-sized one. We were to make a lot of train travel in between cities so we had to pack light, not to mention that we had to take a domestic flight from Barcelona to Naples - baggage allowance was standard 23kg even if we were allowed 30kg for our international Manila - Barcelona flight. It would be wise not to push the limits. We both had large backpacks too, and I just brought along a handy satchel for sightseeing.
(And since we were going to Florence, the city of leather shopping, Joey got a nice overnight bag where we stuffed all the pasalubong, hihi.)
Beware that traveling in Europe will put your luggages to the test. All those cobbled stones can injure them, as what happened to mine, haha. I remember praying that my cheap China-bought maleta will make it till the end, and it did! But as soon as we got home, I gave it away. Its resilience was admirable but after that trip, it made sense to me to purchase the more expensive but longer-lasting ones.
YOU CAN SEND UNNEEDED THINGS HOME AHEAD OF YOU
Having done our shopping in Florence, we were quite saddled in Venice and when we reached Milan, our final stop in Italy, Joey and I decided to send home our laundry and some other items that we didn’t need anymore. This was towards the end of our trip already. Luckily, there was an LBC in Milan. It cost us P3,040 to fill up a balikbayan box, sea-freight, and we received our parcel about a month and a half after sending it home. We were quite happy with this decision as we travelled light again to Zurich then to Koblenz.
TRAIN / BUS TRAVEL
The cheapest way to travel through Europe is by bus. It will take about 50% longer than if you traveled by train, but costs about 50% cheaper. We took the bus from Zurich to Koblenz and booked through flixbus.com. 8 hours of a comfortable ride, there was free wifi though capped, and a comfort room inside the bus. There was a slight delay in our departure, but terminals and stops were easy to find and their timetables are published on their website. And anyway you can’t complain because it was waaaay cheaper than traveling by train.
In Italy though, we chose the more efficient train to travel in between cities. Naples to Rome was the cheapest at P620 each, while Florence to Venice was the priciest at P1,850 per head. Do know that prices depend on which train you book, with regional ones being cheaper. Early / late departures also tend to cost lesser than midday trips. I booked our tickets months in advance to be able to get good seats, and so that when we reached Italy, I can relax and not have to buy our tickets then and there.
Make sure to book through trainline.eu as sometimes they offer bundles on their prices, and to know the Italian names for all the stations you are buying for (e.g., Florence Main Station is Firenze Santa Maria Novella).
Sometimes though, traveling by plane can be a lot cheaper than via train, as with our Barcelona to Naples trip. There are a lot of budget airlines in Europe; I got our Vueling airline tickets through skyscanner.net. It cost us P3,500/head.
I pored through booking.com, Agoda, and Airbnb for our trip. In my experience, booking.com offered the best deals while Agoda would carry more or less the same hotels / B&Bs but at a higher price. Airbnb could be a bit more expensive than the other two but you get to stay in well-loved units, though at times communication with hosts can be a challenge, especially with their thick accents and somewhat limited English. It also works if you don’t mind sharing bathrooms with your host / other tourists.
Europe offers quite a lot of options in terms of accommodations. They have hostels, bed and breakfasts, and apartments to add to your usual slew of hotels. We were on a strict budget and tried not to go over P3,000 / night for a double bed. We lucked upon our Florence hotel, Hotel Fiorita: it set us back P2,500 / night with free snacks all day. Best part is, it was only about a 3 minute walk from the main station.
Those were my three main considerations in booking our stay: proximity to train stations, budget, and free meals. Oh, and I also pored over customer reviews. If I find a comment of thin walls or noisy streets, I immediately snuff that option out.
Barcelona and Venice were the more expensive cities in terms of accommodation. Also, do note that Barcelona and Italian cities all charge additional city taxes which you pay upon checking in. Rome was the most expensive at €3.5 / pax / night.
Barcelona is a heavily connected and small city, so we relied on the free wifi from our B&B, public parks, and restaurants. In Italy though, there are a lot of alleys and side streets and one can get lost easily, so I decided to rent a pocket wifi for eleven days. We paid expressowifi.com P337/day for unlimited wifi connection and were quite pleased with their service and connectivity. Pickup and drop-off points were straightforward and customer service was superb. They even gave us a free day when we abruptly extended our stay.
BE PREPARED TO SPEND ON TOURS
This, my friend, is actually what you will spend on the most when you go to Italy. Since it is a country steeped in history, entering the sights such as the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum with a guided tour would enrich your experience and knowledge so much more than heading there without it. And because there are so many tourists, purchasing skip-the-line guided tours ahead of time will save you so much time and effort. I promise you - it’s pricey, but it’s worth it. I remember our local guide’s quip as we entered thru the Gladiator’s Gate at the Colosseum: “There’s the line (indicating on-the-day buyers), there’s skip-the-line (tourists lined up at another gate, and there’s skip-skip-the-line (us breezily walking past them! Haha!). However, if you’re only interested in taking pictures of the historic sites, and nothing wrong with that, there is no need for you to join a local-led tour. I would still recommend booking entrance tickets in advance though if you want to go inside the sights. I wanted to check out the Veiled Christ in Capella San Severo in Naples but gave up because it would have been a two-hour wait (I didn’t buy in advance because I didn’t think there would be that many tourists in Napoli - boy, was I wrong).
A cheaper option would also be downloading Rick Steves’ Audio Europe App. This we used for our museum visits in Florence. He had a highlights of Uffizi and Galleria del ‘Accademia Tour which I found to be very good in covering the basics with a bonus of his snarky humor. The only downside is not being able to ask him follow-up questions (obviously) but it’s free and sufficient for non-art majors like me.
But also, be prepared NOT to spend on WALKING TOURS as there are free ones offered in major cities. We joined one in Barcelona and enjoyed it immensely. It was led by a dynamic group of yuppies who passionately shared about their city. Leaving a gratuity at the end of the tour, and how much, is entirely up to you. We highly recommend Craft Tours BCN - freewalkingtoursbarcelona.com. The free Medici tour we joined in Florence was less than satisfactory, though - we barely understood a word that our guide said. But the upside to it was, we got to see the city on our first day, which was extremely helpful when we went about on our own on our third day.
Are you still with me? Haha, just checking..
BE PREPARED TO SPEND ON FOOD
My goodness, food in Europe is generally expensive! You will most likely spend about €15-20 per person per meal, plus coperto (sitting fee) of about €2. You can get by on pizzas (€4-6 in Napoli) and paninis (€4 in Florence). But nothing beats a sit-down lunch or dinner at a family-run trattoria. You are in pizza and pasta country after all, and there is nowhere else in the world where these two dishes will taste as wonderfully as they do there. I remember there was one particular truffle pasta that Joey and I had at Mercato Centrale which cost €20 - about P1,200 - but it was so good we had to have it again the following night. No regrets. We didn’t splurge on accommodation and weren’t big on shopping, but we treated ourselves to a nice meal per city.
I’ve read about aperitivo buffets in which you pay about €8 for drinks with an eat-all-you-can buffet of small sandwiches, but never got to try them since Joey preferred eating at the traditional restaurants. (He also didn’t want to go all the way somewhere just to spend less on food, preferring to eat in trattorias along the way to or close to where we were staying.)
DO NOT EAT IN RESTAURANTS IN THE PIAZZAS. Guaranteed they will be more expensive and the food will not be that good. If you are faced with on-the-spot decisions on where to eat, go for the hole-in-the-wall trattorias that do not display pictures of their food. Satisfaction guaranteed.
BE PREPARED TO WALK A LOT
Italian cities are quite small and easily explorable by foot. Joey and I were actually surprised at how small Rome is; indeed, Quezon City is bigger! Goes the same for Florence, Venice, Barcelona - Napoli is like the size of SM Mall of Asia! Koblenz was like Bonifacio High Street! I’m bad at estimating spaces but that was how it seemed to me, haha! But seriously, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Joey and I probably averaged 15,000 steps a day from all the walking and touring and going from the hotel to the train stations to the sights and vice versa. Number one, it’s cheaper. Number two, all the sights are so near each other it makes no sense at all to hail a cab or board a bus (unless you’re tired and cranky). And number three, going around by foot is the best way to immerse one’s self in a foreign place, at least for me.
And lastly, POCKET MONEY.
The first advice my friends gave me when I told them of our upcoming trip was to not bring a lot of cash as Europe was apparently swarming with pickpockets. We followed that and just paid with our credit cards whenever we can. (Note of caution - pay in the local currency as banks charge an additional 3% if you request to pay in peso.)
I prayed everyday for our safety, and am quite thankful that nothing untoward happened to Joey and me during our stay. This Europe trip was one for the books, and if I can save up for it again, I would love to go back to Italy, particularly to Florence.
More on my recommendations on where to go and what to see in another entry :)
Thanks so much for reading! I hope I’ve been helpful in your planning,