Apse of Bramante's Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)By Paulus Van Henderson
Since Italy hosts over half of the world's great art treasures, any lover of art and history is assured of a richly rewarding experience, which will be all the more rewarding and less frustrating if you know a few things first. As with any country, there are local customs, traditions and ways of doing things that can seem a little strange to the unwary visitor. But importantly, as visitors, it is our responsibility to know as much as possible beforehand so that we don't risk causing offence unnecessarily.
Pay To Sit - You're Kidding Right!
One of the first things I noticed once we'd arrived in Milan and went into a cafe wishing to eat and drink, was that the vast bulk of the patrons were casually standing at the cafe counter consuming their toast or biscuit and coffee. Without even thinking, we assumed they were just in a hurry or something. But over the week, as a pattern seemed to be emerging, it became clear that they were standing for some other reason. But what? A sign in another less used cafe cleared it up for us. The sign read "No charge for sitting" - in English. A little more investigation confirmed what we thought. Your coffee will be 1Euro if you stand, or E1.50 if you sit.
Pay For A Guide - Seriously
For many people, paying for a guide seems an unnecessary expense. But if I may suggest, I would seriously encourage you to ALWAYS pay for a guide in the language of your choice at an attraction in Italy, or anywhere else. When visiting the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Catacombs and countless other places, the information and stories the guides shared with us was enormous, and we would have missed out on so much fascinating detail had we not had a guide.
The things these guides know would take you months to research, and is far too valuable to miss out on for the sake of a few measly bucks or euros. I have been seriously impressed by all the guides I've ever had, and I've never once felt it was wasteful in any way. But another huge benefit of employing a guide is that usually, YOU SKIP THE QUEUE. This will save you hours of standing around in the rain/heat/fog.
Closed For Business - Every Monday
Whilst in Italy, plan to do something other than visit a museum on Monday. This one day each week, all year round, museums are closed to allow the staff to clean, tidy and renovate. It was brought home to me on my first trip to Milan. I just had one day there and the family wanted to go shopping - again. I talked them into coming to see Da Vinci's Last Supper with me. I knew museums were closed on Mondays, and today was a Monday, but the Last Supper was housed in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Or so I thought! It kind of is, - but isn't. It's actually in a little room just adjacent to the church, and this one roomed building is known as a 'museum'. So it was closed. And the girls didn't go shopping, and I'm still hearing about it now.
Beggars and Vagabonds
I'd read about the antics of some of these types. And they are there, so it pays to be wary. They seem to be mostly eastern European immigrants and they will ask you for money. They usually position themselves in places where what they do is not blatant outright begging - more of a swap of services. Let me explain. We were in the metro train station in Milan having a heck of a job figuring out how to use the ticket machines. When all of a sudden along comes a young lady beggar and shows us in moments how to do it. Easy! So we gave her a couple of euros for which she was extremely grateful, and so were we for the assistance.
So be aware, there are beggars and they don't always have something to exchange like this one did. In fact you'll hear all manner of stories about them dumping babies in your arms whilst asking for help. Then while you're left literally holding the baby, their guys are rummaging around your pockets or camera. Beggars attempted this on my next door neighbour when he holidayed there, but he knew how they work and was onto it immediately.
Lured Into Restaurants - But Then No Service
This was such a frustratingly regular ritual each evening that it became plain annoying after the first two or three times. The restaurant owners or their staff stand outside the restaurant every evening and their mission is to put bums on seats. This means that each person will hassle you to get you to use their bar or cafe. If you have a street full of eateries, this can get very tedious. But if that weren't bad enough, once you go inside to eat, the service pretty much gets forgotten about and they've lost interest. I've had to ask repeatedly to get things moving. And frankly I found this one single thing the most annoying for me. Unfortunately, it was the most consistent too.
Brollies - Or Sunnies
These guys are amazing. If it's raining, they have a whole bunch of umbrellas to sell you. But if the rain stops and the sun comes out, then the brollies disappear magically and out come the RayBan look-alikes. The thing is, I never saw a single one of them actually doing the change-around of goods. They just seemed to 'happen' magically. But anyway, they ask politely without necessarily hassling you. And all it takes is a polite 'no thanks' and they quit asking.
So there you have it, - a few tips and pointers to prepare you for your trip to Italy. It is a wonderful place, so whatever you do, don't be put off by these things. That is definitely not my aim. Buon Viaggio
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