The following are some basic common sense tips for travellers. Most of the information is based on our knowledge of this part of the world. You may find something useful even if you have been here before. We also welcome any additional tips or bits of information that any of you have the time to email us - we will add them to this page. Information from one traveller to another is often the most useful thing there is.
Do not rent your car from a company in Italy unless you are absolutely forced to. The rates are generally 15% higher than what you can get in your own country through the large rental companies such as Hertz, Avis and Europcar.
If you are coming to Tuscany or Umbria, your best bet is to arrive in Rome if you are flying intercontinental. If you are flying in from Europe, you can get a flight to either Florence or Bologna and save several hours of driving. Try not to fly into Milano. To get from Milano to Florence takes at least 4 hours by car. Not really worth it.
Italy is a shopper's paradise. If you are not from the Common Market, make sure that when you purchase something, you ask for the special sales form that entitles you not to pay Italian taxes. This applies to staple items that you will be taking back with you and it helps when you go through the customs of your own country.
Italy is riddled with supermarkets. The most common are the COOP stores which sell a bit of everything, with food prevailing. There are very few Malls in Italy - somehow they never really caught on. The larger supermarkets are open all week with the exclusion of Sunday. Opening hours in the smaller ones and in most shops are from 8-8.30 to 13.00, and then from 16.30-17.00 to 20.00. Food quality is generally excellent.
Every town in Italy has an open air market in the course of the week. The fresh vegetable stalls and the vendors who sell pork products, cheeses, roast chickens, etc. are very good - the local authorities check them often and levy heavy fines if quality of ingredients is not up to standard. Don't expect to make incredible deals with the clothing and leather goods. If something is offered with a trademark on it such as "GUCCI", rest assured it is a fake. Watch your handbags and wallets - open air markets are the most targeted areas by petty thieves.
We have seen too many vacations ruined by thieves. Do not carry all your money with you and do not have one person carry all the credit cards or checks. If that one person is robbed, then everyone in the party is in trouble. Don't believe your credit card companies when they tell you that you will receive a substitute card within 48 hours. The best we have seen are credit card replacements arriving 6 working days after notification of theft. Our advice is to leave a major credit card at your rental house or hotel, preferably hidden somewhere only you know the whereabouts of. When you leave your holiday home, make sure you lock the door and shut the windows. If you have been robbed, go immediately to the police or to the carabinieri. You will need the copy of the statement they have you sign in order to get your replacement documents. If you are a client of ours, please make sure you notify us so we can help you get everything sorted out.
This is a difficult topic. You always tip the baggage boy in a hotel. If you rent a house and it provides maid service and you like the maid, then do leave her a tip. What we usually suggest is to tip at the beginning of your holiday. That puts the maid in a great mood and usually provides an incredible amount of extra care and service to you and your party. You only leave tips in restaurants if the service is especially good. And you always tip the waiter, never the restaurant owner - even if it is the owner himself who serves you. For a restaurant owner, the best tip is if you return to his establishment - this is a sign that you appreciated his efforts. You usually tip taxi drivers, same as in the rest of the world.
If you are going to dinner at a restaurant on Saturday, Sunday or during high season, make sure you reserve a table. In other periods it is usually not necessary, unless it is a very high-class restaurant with only a few selected tables.
The different regions of Italy offer an incredible variety of
dishes. Italy was once a series of city-states that later
developed into regions with their own very distinctive cooking
traditions. Tuscan cooking is fairly simple. It is based very
fresh products, on mixed grills of meat and poultry, excellent
pasta dishes and not very clever desserts. The best known Tuscan
meat is the large T-bone steak carved from the large white
Chianina ox. It is called "Bistecca alla Fiorentina", and is
wonderful. This large steak is cooked quickly on an open grill
and needs to be crunchy on the outside and bloody on the inside.
Shy from it if you like your meat well-done. The taste is ruined
by too much cooking.
Pasta dishes based on wild boar, porcini mushrooms and truffles are fantastic. These are common to both Tuscany and Umbria. Be advised, however, that wild boar hunting season is from November to February. This means that a plate of pasta with wild boar sauce in August has to be made from a frozen piece of meat. Mushrooms are in abundance from September to November. Truffles are available in late October, November and early December. In other seasons, the truffles you get come out of jars.
Both Tuscany and Umbria are famous for their pork products: prosciutto, salami of all kinds, the famous "Finocchiona" that is made with fennel seeds, capicollo, etc.. These are usually served at the beginning of a meal as "antipasti" - appetizers. Another two well-known appetizers are "Crostini" - bread with a delightful patè, and "Fettunta" - basically, a roasted slice of bread, rubbed with garlic and with fresh extravirgin olive oil poured on it. In summer, diced up tomato and basil are added to it.
Wines in Tuscany are excellent and incredibly varied, running from a normal Chianti to a finer Chianti Classico, to a noble Brunello di Montalcino. They are not cheap, but they are wonderful. Wines and extravirgin first pressed olive oil are the main products of the region. Umbrian wines are fewer and often heavier, with a few delightful exceptions. Taste everything - go for it - have a ball!