From My Tuscan Window

Travel Tricks
Travel tricks? Why travel tricks, and not travel advice, tips, or hints, like every other travel book? This is our 42nd year of traveling to Europe, and over that period of time we learned a few “tricks” that make travel easier, so I decided to try to remember a few of them in hopes that they might help you on your adventure to visit Gioviano, Lucca, the Garfagnana and points beyond.

1. Travel light. The lighter the load of goodies you bring with you, the easier your life will be. Lugging heavy suitcases into and out of your car, then up and down steps can be a real drag. In addition, if you travel light enough, then you can rent a smaller car which will not only be cheaper to rent but cheaper to drive as well -- plus it will have the advantage of being able to negotiate the tiny mountain roads and squeeze through tight places.

2. Take wash-and-wear undergarments, shirts, blouses, and whatever else you can wash and drip dry. Every morning when I get up I run the water until it gets hot enough for my shower. In the meantime, I wash my underwear from the day before that I slept in that night. I then take my shower and put on the set that I had washed and hung up to dry the previous morning. That way, I have needed only two undershirts and two pair of drawers the whole trip. The same goes for socks and drip-dry shirts. If the next morning an item of clothing that you had washed out the night before is still damp, use your hair dryer to finish drying it.

3. Try to upgrade to business or first class on the flight over. For many years, we have taken the miles earned from using our credit cards to either upgrade or purchase more comfortable seating. We have NEVER paid full fare for a business or first-class seat. Timing is important as well. I was having a hard time obtaining two free business/first seats on Air France one year until riots broke out in Paris. The next day I called, and all of a sudden some free seats were available for 100,000 miles each.

4. Take a doggie bag to the restaurant. If you buy a house or have a long-term rental of a villa or apartment, be sure to take a doggie bag with you when you eat out, especially at lunch, when there is more than you can possibly eat at one sitting. Put what you can’t finish off into a doggie bag, and take it home for supper that night or for lunch the next day. Take it right to the refrigerator-- not on a shopping trip to Florence before chilling it down. My mother always took a Pyrex container with a lid with her when she and my father went out to eat. Italians don’t know what doggie bags are, so that is why you should take your own.

5. Try not to order more than you can possibly eat. Two heaping bowls of pasta followed by two big meat courses are way too much for us at our age. If we had just climbed one of the local Alpine peaks, the story might be different. What we often do is order one pasta dish and one meat dish, and then cut them in half and share. We don’t waste the food, and the cost of the meal is only half of what it would have been. You can only do this at supper when the food is “à la carte.” So, be sure to take the advice of #4 at lunch, although a few restaurants do offer individual dishes such as the Valle Verde and the Osteria i Macelli.
6. Don’t go to Florence on any day but Sunday. Florence can be a nightmare during the week and even on Saturdays when all of the stores are open. If you drive your car into the city, the best day to find a parking place on the street is on Sunday. Some museums are open on Sunday morning but not in the afternoon. If you have to go on a weekday, the best time of day to arrive is during the lunch hour, when there is less chance of too much hustle and bustle. Folks who have gone home for lunch may have left an open parking space. The best way to travel to Florence from Lucca is by train unless you have a problem walking or are accompanied by very young children and need a car in which to store baby items. The stations in both Lucca and Florence are convenient to nearly everything that you will want to see.

7. Shop in the street markets. If Anne’s flight arrives in Pisa on a Sunday, more than likely, regardless of how tired she may be from the flight from Los Angeles, she will want to go straight to Florence to the street market that is open everyday. Many towns and villages near Gioviano have weekly street markets where the clothes may cost only half as much as in the shops.

8. If you are looking for sales, come in July. There are normally very few clothing sales until the beginning of July so don’t expect to get your designer items for half price until then.

9. Forget the so-called outlet malls around Florence. We have visited several of them, and there were no bargains that we saw, just lots of hype and hot air. Il Manichino at Ponte a Moriano half-way between Gioviano and Lucca sells all name brands at half price year round, and you can bargain down the price even more. Even then, a pair of D & G jeans that retails for $1,000.00 is still not a bargain at $500.00 in my book.

10. Forget hotel breakfasts unless they are included in the price of your room. If breakfast is not included in the price, you can wheel and deal with the innkeeper and in many cases it will be thrown into the bargain for the room. Otherwise, why spend $15.00 for a sticky bun and a cup of coffee when you can go down the street and get fresher and better stuff at a bar and pay around $2.00?

11. Use your credit card for as many expenses as possible. The exchange rate will be as good as you can get at a bank, you won’t have to stand in line to exchange money, you won’t be gouged at a money change booth or hotel, and you will be building miles to use for an upgrade on your next trip. In addition, don’t forget your credit card PIN number. You can get cash in the local currency nearly everywhere. The only problem is that you will be paying interest on the money unless you have left your credit card company with an advance before leaving for Italy.

12. Avoid San Gimignano during the day. San G. has become so popular in recent years that finding a place to park or even walk in the streets has become a nightmare. Instead, select a little inn in a nearby village, check in, eat an early supper, then drive over to San G. for a stroll through the almost deserted streets. In the evening, the experience will be far cooler and far more delightful. You don’t need to tote home a bunch of souvenirs anyway, so be glad that the shops are closed so you won’t be tempted.
13. Fly into and out of Paris on Sundays. (Same goes for Pisa, Florence, Milan, Rome, Genoa, Zurich and Nice) We especially hate changing planes and airports. Since there are no direct flights to Pisa or Florence from Houston, we almost always fly into Paris. There, we pick up our brand new Peugeot long-term lease car at the airport and head for either a Parisian hotel or pleasant hotel in a nearby town where we can rest up for the journey toward Gioviano the next morning. The traffic on Sundays is nearly devoid of heavy trucks, which makes that initial entrance into the urban environment much less stressful. The same holds true for leaving Paris. There is much less fear of being stalled in a traffic jam on a Sunday on your way to the airport for the flight home. Also, you will arrive back in America on the same Sunday as well when traffic should be lighter.
14. Avoid going to the beach on weekends. Go to Tirrenia, Viareggio, or other seaside resorts on weekdays only, with Mondays being perhaps the least crowded. Otherwise, you will have a hard time parking, and you are liable to be caught in a traffic snarl if you stay until Sunday evening when tens of thousands of people will all start heading for home at the same time.

15. Don’t leave anything in your car in Rome or in any other large city. Since Lucca is much safer than most large Italian cities, we seldom worry about leaving possessions in our locked car. The same cannot be said for Rome and elsewhere. The last time we were in Rome, we parked just outside the Coliseum on a busy street, leaving a couple of suitcases in the car. Fifteen minutes later we returned to find the window smashed in and the suitcases gone. This was not the only time this sort of thing has happened to us in big Italian cities. The reason that day trips from your home or hotel in the Garfagnana are nice is that you don’t have to stress about leaving a load of suitcases and other goodies in your car to tempt some thief who can smell a careless tourist from a mile away.

16. Pack a 220-volt coffee maker in your suitcase. The worst thing in the world in my book is to have to wake up, bathe, dress, and then go downstairs to the hotel dining room or a nearby bar before you can get your first jolt of caffeine in the morning. If you take along a coffee maker, especially if it’s automatic, you can wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee, which is better than back home if you purchase the superior beans that are sold in Italy.

17. When you first arrive in Europe, go to a grocery store, and buy a case of mineral water, beer, wine or whatever you might want to drink in your hotel room at night. If you don’t, you may be VERY sorry. What if you are desperate for a glass of mineral water in the middle of the night? You go over to the minibar and discover that even one swallow costs $5.00! Never, I say NEVER purchase anything from a hotel minibar. Don’t even open the door of the fridge since it may send a signal to the accounts department. In this case, you may get into an argument at checkout time when you try to make the front desk believe that you didn’t take anything out of the fridge. You may be delayed a half-hour while someone goes to your room to conduct an inventory of the contents of the fridge. What if some things were not actually in the fridge, but on the inventory sheet, when you unwisely opened the door to sneak a peek at the gold-encrusted items?

18. Purchase the best maps available. We rely strictly on the Michelin France Atlas Routier et Touristique 1/200,000 when in France and the series of three Touring Club Italiano atlases of the same scale. That way, we have less of a chance of getting lost on small roads. To get the big picture for planning the long hauls, we rely on the Michelin maps of both France and Italy 1/1,000,000 scale. Even the best TCI large scale maps of the area around Gioviano -- and I am sure elsewhere in Italy -- don’t list literally hundreds of the smaller villages, and in fact we have found some of the maps to be in error.

19. Wear the most comfortable walking and climbing shoes available. Ladies! Who are you trying to impress with high heels anyway? If you are a woman the gigolos will sniff you out even if you are wearing old tennis shoes. Gentlemen, if you are lookin’ for love, all you gotta do is hire a good P.R. person who won’t give a tinker’s damn if you are barefoot as long as your wallet is full. Hiking up mountains, up and down long flights of stairs, and on slippery stones worn smooth by two thousand years of wear require comfy non-skid shoes or Mephisto sandals such as mine in which I have even gone mountain climbing.

Updated December 22, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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