Travel

By Raquel D'Apice

Siena: Beautiful, medieval, geometric

#1. Take the advice of little old Italian men.
Over the course of your trip, several endearing Italian grandfathers who seem like they may or may not have escaped from a mental institution will attempt to give you advice on what to see, what bus to take, where to eat. Often this advice will be in the form of genial yelling. Listen to them. Advice from locals can be priceless, particularly locals who have lived in the area for decades. (Little old Italian men are identifiable by their white hair, taxi driver-style hats and tweed sports coats, as opposed to middle-aged Italian men, who are identifiable by their salt and pepper hair, pastel V-neck sweaters, and navy blue blazers.)

#2. Buy groceries.
Italian food in Italy has fresh ingredients, meaning that even someone whose culinary experience lies mainly in Pop-Tarts and microwaveable spinach dip can enjoy good food on a budget. Find a good local grocery or co-op and buy a loaf of bread, a basket of cherry tomatoes, and some proscuitto and mozzarella. (Hint: Not sure how to find a good grocery? Ask a little old Italian man. They’re there every day arguing with the woman behind the counter over the price of olives.)

#3. Take local and commuter trains.
Do some research on the trains before your trip. Many times a Eurostar ticket between cities will cost $100, while a second class train ticket between the two will cost $40. ‘Non-deluxe’ tickets can be less than 50 percent of the fancier ticket’s price. You may have to stand-up for the first part of the trip and your seat will not be nearly as elegant-looking, but you can save an enormous amount of money if you shop around for train costs – and this is money you can spend on gelato and food.

#4. Don’t spend a full day in Pisa.
There’s a tower. It’s leaning. That pretty much sums up your trip to this beautiful but non-eventful city. My advice is to go to both Florence (with many beautiful non-leaning buildings) and later to Cinque Terre and if you’re taking the local non-fancy train (which, again, is cheaper) it should stop in Pisa. The train station there has a place that will watch your bags. Walk across town, get a good look at the leaning tower. There will be people positioning themselves to take pictures as if they are holding up the tower with one hand. Feel free to take a similar photo, or brainstorm one of your own. Walk back and hop on the next train. You have seen the leaning tower of Pisa.

#5. Spend a full day in Siena.
Sienna is a beautiful medieval city and even if you do nothing all day, it’s worth walking the streets, wandering in and out of churches or sitting in Il Campo – the bathroom sink-shaped town square, sunning yourself while you stare up at the square’s tower and wonder if it’s going to fall on you. Almost everyone I talked to recommended spending a day in Siena. If you go I’d recommend Trattoria La Torre, which is right near the bottom of Il Campo, serving homemade pasta and delicious food including (if you’re so inclined) pigeon.

Enjoy the view from the Cinque Terre. And then spend another 12 days looking at statues

#6. Rent an apartment on the coast.
I spent a week in the Cinque Terre, the five waterfront towns on the west coast of Italy that are connected by trains, coastal hiking paths, and longer, more intricate paths through the mountainous Cinque Terre National Park. Rather than wander into yet another hotel, I located a beautiful, quaint studio apartment with a view of the sea through Arbaspaa (www.arbaspaa.com). For about 60 euros a night, it came complete with kitchenette (to prepare the groceries I purchased), had a beautiful arched brick ceiling, and folding chairs that allowed me to sit on the porch drinking local wine. There, I enjoyed my view of the sea, letting my consciousness loosen its grip on randomly acquired information about the Medici family and Florentine marble.

#7. Eat gelato constantly.
If you’re spending money in Italy, let it be on food. Look up a good gelato artigianale place in your guidebook and sample a few of the flavors. If they have a specialty, try it. I saw everything from rose flavored gelato to chocolate with green bell peppers. In cities like Venice, where the food is generally awful, I would recommend eating gelato for three meals a day. Very few health professionals would recommend that, but hey, you’re on vacation.

#8. Also, drink fresh squeezed orange juice constantly.
Everyone knows to enjoy the wine, but make sure you enjoy the fresh squeezed spremuta, particularly when made from blood oranges. Once you’ve tasted it, drinking Tropicana is like sipping a tall glass of drywall joint compound.

Raquel, pushing away the Baptistry of Pisa

#9. Learn a little of the language.
Even if it’s nothing more than ciao or grazie, it’s helpful and thoughtful to learn a little bit of the language in any place you’re going to visit. Not only will people appreciate your attempts, you’ll be better able to understand the little old Italian men when they suddenly break into a tirade about the 8:30 bus to Sorrento and why anyone who’d take it must be an idiot, since it’s so much more practical to take the 6:30 bus straight to Pompeii.

#10. Take pictures of yourself.
Yes, it’s a beautiful church. All 27 churches you saw that week were beautiful. But if you took 15 pictures of each one, your Flickr slideshow is going to be mind-numbingly boring for anyone who is not an art historian or a Roman time traveler pining for the homeland. The country’s been documented before. Take pictures of your vacation. In 30 years the Roman Forum will look pretty much the same (albeit slightly more ruined) but photographs of your hairstyle, glasses, and skinny jeans will be worth their weight in gold.

Originally published July 2009
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