Back in March, my friend Nikki and I spent a week in Tuscany for our spring break. (We’re teachers, not students. But thanks for asking!)
Nikki was a fantastic travel partner and we had such a great time together. I’ve got a few different posts in the works that will cover our time in Italy, so definitely check back for those if you’re interested in planning a trip to Tuscany. But today, I wanted to share ten things I learned during the week we spent driving around the northern part of the region.
1. English is not as common as you might expect.
We Americans have this obnoxious tendency of assuming that no matter where we go, it will be okay if we don’t speak the language because everyone else in the world learns English. When I was in both Spain and the Dominican Republic, the locals indulged me while I practiced my Spanish, but they all spoke to me in English. And when I was in Iceland, I never once had an issue communicating in English. (I honestly tried to learn some Icelandic, but I just could not make my mouth makes those sounds, you guys.) But in the small towns and the bars along the backroads of Tuscany, we encountered many people who did not speak English and most menus we were presented with were in Italian only. Thankfully, Nikki had spent the better part of the year before our trip learning some Italian, so she got us through in those times.
2. Yes, you will pay to use the toilet at some point.
This is not specific to Tuscany and is actually something you’ll encounter throughout Europe. But in Tuscany, it happened several times and it was my first experience with it. If you’re exploring older touristy spots in Tuscany or walking around the bigger cities (like Florence), take advantage of any free toilets you can find (always go in the restaurants!) and carry around some coins with you, in case you do need to pay for one.
3. Leave the snacks at home. (Really, trust me on this one.)
I thought I was being frugal and savvy by packing a ziploc bag of Larabars, Kind bars, and random nuts, but they ultimately just wasted the space they took up in my suitcase. Because the food in Tuscany? It’s damn good. It’s also super filling. So, while you might have every intention of trying to save money and eating your own snacks while you’re on the road between towns or out on a little hike around Cinque Terre, you’re going to be too full from the plate full of pasta or pizza you ate hours ago to even want them. (Or, you’re going to want gelato. Because, gelato.)
And speaking of food…
4. You can tell yourself you’re not going to eat pizza and pasta every day, but you still will.
Going into our Tuscany trip, I told myself that I would try to eat things other than pizza and pasta every day. But here’s the thing – that’s what you’re going to find on the menu of nearly every restaurant you visit (unless you’re visiting specific Ethnic restaurants). And here’s the other thing – the pizzas and pastas they make in Tuscany are REALLY good and they are often the cheapest things on the menus. Basically, the sooner you accept that you’re going to eat all the carbs and all the cheese during your trip, the happier you’ll be.
5. If you’re renting a car, it will probably be a Fiat.
A Fiat Panda, to be exact. And it will most definitely be a manual (unless you splurge for an automatic, which we did not since Nikki drives a manual here at home in the states). Oh, and don’t expect it to have Sirius radio or even an auxiliary jack. I loaded up my iPod and phone with playlists and podcasts and brought along an auxiliary cable for our drives through Tuscany only to find out that there was no where to plug the cable into the car. And since we couldn’t figure out the bluetooth, we were left with two options – the Italian radio stations (which are surprisingly full of American music, if you’re willing to get very friendly with the “Scan” button), or the CD player. (We actually got so tired of scanning through the Italian radio stations that Nikki bought two CDs in a music store in Lucca early on in our trip.)
6. When driving along the autostrade, make time for stops at the Autogrill.
Oh, the Autogrill. Let me tell you something – Italy does rest stops RIGHT, man. We went to so many Autogrills during our drives along the autostrade and we were never disappointed. The bathrooms were always clean, they had freshly squeezed orange juice and delicious espresso, and the the food options were awesome. They also served as our official Kinder Egg supply stops and we totally bought more of them than we probably should have (because we’re Americans and they’re stupidly illegal in our country).
7. Drink the house wine.
In all the restaurants you go to in Tuscany, you’ll likely be presented with a somewhat extensive wine list. If you’re trying not to kill your cash supply with every meal, do yourself a favor and just ask for a bottle of the house wine. A lot of them are family recipes and they are made special just for that restaurant, so you’ll get to taste a variety of styles as you travel throughout the region. Nikki and I shared many bottles with our meals and we never paid more than 12 euros for a bottle. (If you don’t want to buy an entire bottle, most restaurants also sell other sizes – from single glasses to individual carafes – and they were all reasonably priced!)
8. If you want water with your meal, be prepared to pay for it.
Again, this might be a thing that happens throughout Europe, but tap water was just not a thing we could get easily in most of the places we ate. I think over the course of our entire trip, we were given free tap water twice when we asked for water with our meal. Every other time, we were given bottled water and charged for it. My advice to others? Either do as the Italians do and just drink wine with all of your meals (we did this, but also wanted water) or bring your own water bottle and fill it up at your hotel each morning and at any water fountains you stumble upon each day.
9. Remember to validate your train tickets!
Train travel in Italy is easy and efficient, but make sure you validate your ticket before you get on the train or you’ll be charged a fine. After you buy your tickets, head to the platform and look for the validation machines either right before you walk out onto the platform, or along the platform itself. It’s a quick and simple step, but it can be an expensive mistake if you forget it!
10. Some of the best times you’ll have will be in the least expected places. (So don’t be afraid to get off the autostrade and go exploring!)
One night, we drove into a small town called Prato and went to a live theater/music performance in honor of Freddy Mercury at a textile museum.
Another night, we were driving back from La Spezia (where we parked and took the train into Cinque Terre) and stopped in Pisa again after all of the crowds were gone. We found a tiny little restaurant full of locals and ended up having the best meal of our entire trip.
And on the last full day of our trip, we took a detour off the autostrade on the way back to Milan and went to Cremona. Cremona was amazing for me, because it’s the home of the greatest violin makers – Stradavari, Guarneri, and the Amati family – and because I was able to go to the violin museum. But it was also Easter Sunday and the locals were out everywhere and the city was so alive. Kids were playing soccer in the squares, older couples were strolling around, and families and friends were sitting outside of all of the bars. It was there in Cremona where we enjoyed our first proper Apertivo and the few hours we spent there were some of my favorite of the entire trip.
Have you ever been to Tuscany? What advice would you give others traveling to the area?