The Autogrill – To Stop or Not to Stop?

autogrillIf you decide to travel through Italy by car you will undoubtedly at some point travel on the Autostrada, the Italian highway system.  While on the Autostrada you will pass by rest areas where you can stop and typically these are similar to the rest areas in the US; you can put gas in the car, get a bite to eat, and use a bathroom.  The usual restaurant/café on the Autostrada is the Autogrill.  Depending on the size of the rest area, these can range from a simple café to a full restaurant with shopping.  I wouldn’t say that the food is gourmet but you can get something decent, in a clean environment, especially at the larger Autogrills.  The food is served but in a cafeteria style and there are several food options available; pastas, meats, salads, desserts, etc.  Also, attached to the Autogrill is a shopping area, again these vary in size.  However, the designer of the Autogrill was very smart because you have to walk through the shopping area to leave the establishment.  In the larger Autogrills you will be amazed by the variety of foods that you can purchase at a rest stop.  While I wouldn’t make my purchases here the items actually like quite appealing, though like all convenience stops you will also pay more.  At the smaller Autogrills you will not have the variety and sometimes they can be a bit dingy.  If you can try and stop at the larger establishments as they tend to be much nicer, however, if you are hungry, or need to use the bathroom don’t be afraid to stop at any of the Autogrills you encounter.

See my article on ordering espresso for more information on how to order.

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The Backwards Way to Order an Espresso

Photo of cup of espresso-italianoYou might find it strange that I am writing an article on how to purchase a café or gelato, as you would think this is an easy process and it is but it is different from the way we purchase similar items in the United States.  When you go to a café or gelato shop, generally you have to pay the cashier for your order and then you present your receipt to the person at the serving counter.  It is a good idea to peruse the items prior to going to the register and know what you would like, especially if it is a busy place.  In the morning, you get the locals who want to get their café and pastry and be on their way, and like we would be at home, you don’t want to have an undecided tourist holding you up.  The same process is also used if you stop at the Autogrill.  Generally, you have to pay then you get the items that you have purchased.  It is ok to go and look at the choices but before you get anything you have to get a receipt.  If the establishment has a seating area and waitress service and you plan on sitting at a table then you do not have to go to the cashier first.  Here you will order in the same manner as you do in the US, with the exception of the Autogrill where it is usually cafeteria style and there is no waitress service.

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Castello Banfi Winery

Photo of castello-di-banfi-brunello-di-montalcino-italySet upon the rolling Tuscan hills is the beautiful Castello Banfi winery.  You will drive along windy roads, through beautiful country side before arriving at the Castello, but you will not be disappointed, whether it is simply for a wine tasting or to relax for a few days.  You may recognize the Banfi name from the wines imported to the U.S. but what you may not know is that you can also rent a room at the Castello Banfi and enjoy the many amenities that they offer.  If you only want to visit for the day, there are several things you can do such as visit the museum, enjoy a wine tasting or enjoy a tasting menu paired with their wines or for those less adventurous pick off the a la carte menu.  If you plan on visiting Montalcino, Banfi is a short ride and you can definitely visit both places in one day.  For a longer stay at Castello Banfi you can book a room at the Il Borgo.  The rooms at Banfi are spacious, with large bedrooms, sitting areas and large bathrooms.  Additionally, there is a pool, spa and cooking classes available.  It is really the ultimate place to go for a few days of relaxation.  In addition to the wines, Banfi produces other items such as olive oils and balsamic vinegar which you cannot purchase in the United States.  Castello Banfi is the perfect way to spend a romantic weekend or even just a few hours.

If you plan on going for lunch or dinner my advice is to make reservations in advance.

The link to the Castello is

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Don’t forget to fill the tank!

Photo of a rental car and the the narrow roads of Italy. Usually, you will get a much better price if you do this and will be assured that a car is available, especially if you want an automatic.  Generally, these days most rental car companies offer automatic as an option but make sure that you ask for because it is not a guaranty; you may be charged extra for the automatic feature.  My suggestion is when renting a car try to get a smaller sized car, a car the size of VW Golf, or a Honda Accord if that will accommodate all your passengers and luggage. There are several reasons to go for a smaller vehicle:  Gas prices in Italy are quite high.  The price you see at the pump in Italy is per liter and you have to multiply that by four.  A gallon of gas will run you about $8 or more.  The second reason you will want a smaller car, is many of the roads are narrow when you get into the smaller towns and you want to be able to navigate these with ease.

When you go to pick up your car do not be surprised if you are given an upgrade to a larger car, Turn it Down!  The rep from the car company will try to convince you that a larger car is better but do not fall for this; make sure you get the car you rented.  If you are automatically given this great upgrade but are unaware of it until you get to the car itself, go back and ask for a smaller vehicle.

Normally, I don’t get insurance when I rent a car in the U.S. but in Italy I do get the extra insurance because not all credit cards will cover insurance in Italy, check with your credit card prior to leaving.  When you return the car, ensure that it has a full tank of gas and get the receipt from the rental car company that the care was returned in good shape with a full tank.    One year my husband and I were in Florence and we had to bring our rental car back to the rental car company because it was low on oil (that is another story for another article) and a large Volvo Wagon was being towed in with the front end completely wrecked.  A woman was running frantically into the garage area yelling that she had filled the tank, that is how important it is to return the tank full.

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The first rule of Italian driving

Photo od Italian DriversI have met many people who are hesitant to drive in Italy.  They have heard that the Italians can be aggressive drivers and the roads are not easy to navigate.  Some of that may be partially true but driving in Italy is a lot like driving in the US; yes some drivers may be aggressive and some areas are more difficult to navigate then others.  In the major cities driving can be a challenge and drivers are not waiting to let lost tourists find their ways, you have to keep going.  Also, unlike many U.S. cities, the Italian cities are not based on a grid, so if you miss a street you may not be able to just make a right, a right and another right to get back to your destination.  One other challenge is that there are areas where a permit is required to drive; for example in Rome close to the embassies is a no traffic zone.  Similarly, in Florence you cannot drive in parts of the historic area without a permit.  However, it is probably not useful to have a car while in any of the cities, as I mentioned in a previous article it is preferable to either rent a car after your stay in a city or before you arrive and then drop it off.  Parking in the city can be expensive anyway and most likely you will not need the car while exploring a city destination.

Once outside the cities, driving is quite easy and actually very enjoyable.  Having a car allows you to visit towns which might not be as easily accessible as taking mass transit.  Also, you can vary your length of stay in any one destination, you can stop along the way when you see something of interest and of course there are always beautiful pictures that you can stop and take during your travels, something you can’t do while on a bus or a train.

The Autostrada (A-1) is the main highway that will take you north-south between Milan and Naples.  Note, that there can be tolls on some of these roads and most except cash, credit cards or the Italian version of an EZ Pass.  Exit signs on the Autostrada, list the towns that you can reach if you take that particular exit.  However, there can be many towns listed on one exit sign so it is preferable to have someone who can navigate and read the signs.  While driving on the Autostrada, if you are in the left lane and you see someone flashing the cars high beams while approaching at a high rate of speed, my advice is move over to the right lane and let the person pass.

Once you leave the Autostrada the main roads tend to be easy to drive though at times they can be windy and in the towns themselves can be narrow but it only requires that you use a little caution.  One time while in Sorrento my husband and I followed another very small car through an alley way only to find that it narrowed about half way through.  Luckily, we were able to pull in the side mirrors and with about a an inch or two on each side of the car made our way through.  Once you arrive in the town you are visiting the navigating may be a little more difficult but don’t let this be a deterrent.  On my first visit to Montepulciano with my mom, we had to call the proprietor of the hotel to come and show us the way.  Stay calm and just think if you have arrived at the town you can’t be that far from your final destination.

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The Piazza Michelangelo

Picture of Piazza MichelangeloUnless you have an extended vacation, when you travel to a new city, it is always difficult to get to see everything; especially when visiting a city for only a couple of days.   Generally, when I try to fit too much in, the vacation becomes a marathon.  However, the opposite can also happen, in an attempt to relax and enjoy the sites I miss something that could have easily been added to the itinerary.  One of those sites is the Piazza Michelangelo.  The Piazza Michelangelo is across the Arno on the same side of the river as the Pitti Palace.  I did not visit Piazza Michelangelo until I had been to Florence several times and I am glad that I took the time to venture.  It is a bit of a walk, up a rather large stairwell unless you are fortunate to have a car.  However, once you get to the top the views of Florence are breathtaking.  If you haven’t had enough stairs, you can venture a little farther up another staircase to the church of San Miniato (  One of the nice things is this is something you can do for free and get a little exercise at the same time (I always look at it as an added desert for dinner or an extra plate of pasta at lunch).  Also, it can be done at any time, though preferably when it is light outside.

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Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) and Giotta’s Tower

clea Picture of Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) and Giotta’s TowerLike most cities, Florence has an abundance of sites to see and things to do but there are often better times to visit a museum or go to a church. One of those places is the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) and Giotta’s Tower (the campanile). The Duomo and Tower are magnificent; the dome itself is enormous and the façade has been beautifully refurbished and cleaned. You can climb both the Duomo and the Tower, but definitely climb at least one of them. No matter when you visit it is a must see but if you can pick the time to visit I would suggest later in the afternoon. I have climbed the tower at various times, including very early in the morning and later in the evening. For me, the best time is in the late afternoon. One year my husband and I went probably about an hour or so before closing and the tower was empty. We encountered one other person on our journey up. It was so nice because we took our time, we took pictures and when we got to the top we had it all to ourselves. We got a little nervous that perhaps we would get locked in it was so quiet.

Be aware that there are a lot of steps to climb to get to the top of the tower, so you want to leave yourself enough time to climb at your speed. There are various levels to stop and take in the view along the way which is helpful if you need to rest on the way to the top. Also, if you find that the climb is too much you return down at any point.

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Macelleria Scroccario in Pienza

Photo of Macelleria Scroccario in Pienza, is a butcher shopMacelleria Scroccario in Pienza, is a butcher shop and the aroma from within beckoned.  No, I do not have a strange obsession with meat; it was the pig roast that was being carved that called.  As my husband and I walked by Marcelleria Scroccario we immediately stopped as the scent hit our noses and we looked at each other and knew we had to find out what was producing this scent.  When we entered we were a little surprised to be in a butcher shop but not deterred.  We saw the pig roast and asked for a sandwich which my husband and I shared, just to taste, and I have to say it was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had; nothing but pork and bread, simple.  Well, it turned out that one sandwich was not enough.  We decided that this was going to be lunch.  We ordered two sandwiches and two drinks and we were on our way, however we wanted to relax and really enjoy this Panini.  Walking about a block or so south from Macelleria Scroccario we arrived at a pathway which overlooks the countryside and we spotted a bench where we were able to sit and relax with our lunch.

Photo of Macelleria Scroccario in Pienza, is a butcher shop

Photo of Macelleria Scroccario in Pienza, is a butcher shop

TIP:  While I love to eat out and try new foods, sometimes when travelling eating at restaurants becomes tiringand can be an expensive.  One of the first times I went to Italy with my mom she suggested that we buy some meats, cheeses, bread, fruit, and wine and make a meal instead of going to another restaurant.  To this day I always try to do this at least once during my stay.  It is a great way to shop at the local markets and if the hotel you are staying at offers a terrace or private balcony this can be a particularly relaxing way to enjoy the evening.

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Mercato Centrale (Central Market) Florence

Mercato Centrale (Central Market) may not be the typical tourist site and some may say it is simply a food market but they would be wrong.  The Mercato Centrale is a large market in the middle of the San Lorenzo Market area.  If you are not familiar with Florence, the San Lorenzo Market area is the open air market with stalls selling primarily leather goods but also other souvenirs (i.e. the Venice Carnival Masks, pottery, etc.).  Since most everyone goes to the San Lorenzo Market at some point a quick detour into the Central Market is highly advised.  You will find some of the most appetizing foods (pastas, meats, fish, cheese and the list goes on) for sale; I only wished I lived in Florence so I could purchase my produce here.  Since I am a foodie it was easy for me to get lost in the Market, but even if you are not it is still something to see, if only for a quick walk through.  The sights, the smells all combine to make a true Italian experience.  If you live near a local Italian Market area (i.e. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx or even the upscale Eatly in NYC) you will see how they are designed in the image of an Italian Market.  In Florence, there are other markets throughout the city, but this is the biggest and most impressive.  Like most structure is Italy, there is some history behind this historic market but quite honestly I went simply for the food.  Maybe one of these days I will go with the goal of studying the history…

Within the Market there are several eating establishments where you can grab a quick and cheap lunch.  It is not luxurious and not fine Italian dining but it is an experience and a quick way to get a decent meal.  The Market itself is somewhat difficult to find, but you will see stairs that lead into the various entrances tucked behind some of the leather stalls.  If you can’t find it just ask one of the vendors.  Be aware the Market is only open between 7am and 2pm, my advice is go before you start shopping for your leather goods as the leather stalls are open all day.

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To Go or Not To Go: The Palio Horse Race

A picture of the Palio horse race in Siena Italy.To Go or Not To Go:  The Palio.  If you are not familiar with The Palio, it is a horse race that takes place in Sienna twice during the summer, once in July and once in August.  During this time Sienna is overwrought with tourists who come solely for the Palio, it is a big event by all means.  The city is divided into sections (Contradas) and ten of these Contradas are represented at the Palio, each with its own coat of arms and following of fans.  Obviously, the emotions run high as the winner of the Palio is winning not just for himself but for his turf.  On the plus side, is the emotion and pageantry that encompasses the festivities.  The city is full of life and tension as each region prepares for the race.  During the days leading up to the actual Palio race are the trials which you can read about on the link below.  Though the actual race only last a short time, like any race it is a nail bitter, and if you are like me you will pick a horse to win (though in my case it wasn’t actually a winner).

So what is there to think about, it sounds like an event to see and I would agree as long as you know the downside.  If you are visiting Sienna to leisurely explore the sites and enjoy good food, scheduling this during The Palio is not recommended.  The streets are packed and everything requires a wait.  The food at the restaurants is subpar and you will be rushed through your meal so they can serve as many patrons as possible.  Finally, getting a spot at the track requires either a lot of money or time; in my case it was time.  Like many, or most, I had a spot standing in the middle of the track and this didn’t come easy, it required getting there early and standing for hours (in the sun) waiting for the race to begin.  My promptness paid off as I had a spot right at the rail and could hear the thunder of the horses as they raced by.  It is not for the faint of heart or those with limited time.  My suggestion is go to Sienna during The Palio if the reason for the visit is strictly to see the race, otherwise book your trip before or after.

For more information on The Palio and its history visit:

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