...and what you should probably take with a pinch of salt.
I read SO many articles and blog posts about the dos and donts of travelling in Italy, I was almost scared to go. It seemed like you would be breaking etiquette at every turn and at the very least you were likely to get ravaged by a group of feral gypsies. In reality, my experience was VERY different. I loved Italy. The people were extremely welcoming, the scenery beautiful and it felt like everything I had read in advance was actually complete codswallop. In the interests of sharing lessons-learned, here are my favourite myths debunked.
Don't expect people to speak English, because they won't
Whilst I don't expect everyone to speak English wherever I go, I speak hardly any Italian so I was a little apprehensive about this. Turns out, every single Italian person I came across on public transport and in hotels, restaurants and shops could at the very least understand and communicate basic English phrases.
Italians eat at least four courses at dinner
No they don't. Not every time. And certainly if you choose to only order a primo or secondo without having any antipasto or dolce either side, nobody is going to look at you strangely.
Don't wear shorts to dinner, or short shorts in the cities, or flip-flops (or any other clothes that might keep you cool)
It's true, Italians are slightly more stylish than a lot of Brits, and yes wearing shorts and sandals may earmark you as a tourist but hey, guess what? You ARE a tourist! And in a hot country I couldn't really give two hoots, I'm wearing shorts if I want to. I read that Italian girls generally wear more clothes and so you may attract unwanted attention from men but let me tell you, there were plenty of people around in skimpy vests, hot-pants, crop tops and the like - Italian and otherwise and I didn't see one instance of caterwauling from salivating Italian men.
Dog poo is everywhere - don't look up in Italy, look down
After visiting four Italian cities, hand on heart I can say I saw dog poo on the pavements TWICE. Yes, twice in one week. Hardly the poop-stridden mess I had believed it to be. The Côte d'Azur was far worse in the dog mess stakes.
Gypsies, tramps and thieves are everywhere
The biggest thing that scared me about travelling to Italy was the dreaded pickpockets. I read up on this intensively and we even bought a money belt. Did we use the money belt? No. Apart from one group of gypsies on the train (which were swiftly dealt with) our paths didn't cross with any more until Florence where I was approached by the grand sum of three individual gypsies brandishing a cup who walked away quietly when I said no. No feral kids pinning me against the wall, no hands slipping into my pockets in crowded places and I didn't once feel threatened or at risk. Certainly no more than say being in London. Perhaps we were lucky but the experience was very different from the scaremongering picture painted.
The gelato is amazing, the best in the world
Okay, so it's the home of gelato, I get that. I will admit, the gelato was pretty good and we went to some top notch places but was it the best ice-cream I've ever had? Probably not. I can't say I felt it was any different to ice-cream I've had here or in the US in the past. It was nice but, meh, you know, I could live without it.
Everything is shut in August, it's a bad time to go
It's true a lot of shops, restaurants and hotels are closed in August whilst the Italians go on holiday (can you imagine that happening here?!) however there are an equal amount still open for business. I didn't go to shop so shutters down didn't bother me one iota. Attractions and museums were open and some cities were more active than others. Florence was pretty much business as usual whilst Bologna, being a bit University town was most like a ghost-town. Personally? I don't think there's ever a bad time to go sightseeing in Italy!
Other myths I heard...wi-fi is expensive in hotels (not in my experience, I stayed in four hotels and each time it was free and worked well), air-conditioning is practically unheard of (not at all!), don't order a cappuccino after dinner (they won't look at you like you have two heads believe it or not), nobody eats pizza at lunchtime (again, untrue, plenty of pizza to be had).
The things I found that were true?
- You do need cash for many restaurants, not everywhere takes cards.
- Italy is expensive. Everything felt very overpriced. This could be down to the dreadful exchange rate but for instance a trip into the Disney Store (I know, not very Italian but as an example) found that items like stuffed toys were nearly £10 dearer than in England. Food and drink was expensive, fuel was extortionate and the cost of alcohol with dinner in some places was prohibitive.
- Your shoulders will need to be covered to enter a place or worship so take a light scarf to wrap around. The signs also say no shorts but I never witnessed that being a problem.
- There's a big graffiti problem - not so noticeable in places like Florence or Parma but Bologna, well it was difficult to see a patch that wasn't covered in graffiti. It's not even good graffiti.
- Bikes are everywhere. You can't drive in most of the city centres are they are "Area Pedonale" however that means people cycle everywhere. A nice way of getting around but I can't count how many times I was nearly mown down by a silent bike attack. Like gnats.
The most important thing to know about travelling in Italy? The Italians are lovely. Gracious, kind, friendly people who go out of there way to help you. My experience was good in every way and every single person I met from train passengers, hotel staff, waiters, shop assistants, museum attendants, even a stranger in the street who came over to tell a gypsy to leave us alone - were polite and welcoming and a pleasure to talk to.
I guess my experience won't be the same for everyone and of course, this is a tourist view of Italy but I really needn't have worried about it so much at all!
Have you been to Italy? I'd love to hear your thoughts.