Almost 10 years ago I traveled to France and Italy with my ex-husband and Andrew & Catherine–long-time friends who have traveled with me many times to many places over the years. Andrew has severe Crohn’s Disease. Catherine has moderate to severe asthma. This was my last big trip before I got sick myself. (Wow. I’d never really thought about that before.)
France was great. We did Paris for a week, then Nice for the weekend. We ate great food, drank cheap wine, gaped in awe at Gothic cathedrals and strolled sandy beaches bordering the glorious azure sea.
Then we boarded the train for Italy. It all went south from there. (Ha ha.)
I got us the top two floors of the renovated medieval castle tower in the Tuscan countryside, in the “village” of Stigliano. As a bunch of medieval history nuts, we were utterly thrilled by the idea of staying in a genuine 14th century tower. And it was great! Except that just like in medieval times, the tower had no elevator–only steep stairs up to the 3rd and 4th floors. Also apropos of a medieval town, Stigliano had no grocery stores. It had a restaurant…which shut down permanently about 4 days before we arrived. And unlike a medieval town, Stigliano had no pubs, no taverns, and no market days with food sold in the town square. Over the five days I spent in Tuscany, I lost five pounds. We did manage to take in some sights, to tour in Florence and to explore the slightly bigger neighboring town of Rosia. But the next time I travel to Italy, I’m doing pretty much everything differently.
Using the zillion mistakes I made as the Official Trip Planner as a base, here’s what I’ll do next time I venture into Italia:
* Work with a disability-friendly Italian tour company
Look what I found when I was researching for this post:
Neat! Drool-worthy resort hotel-spas with hydrotherapy pools and super-suites. Expensive as all get-out, but if I ever gather up the money I am *so* staying at some of these places. I expect that they’ll do all they can not just to minimize my pain during the trip, but to help me with long-term wellness.
* Check the Italian bank holiday calendar when planning the trip
Almost everything in Italy grinds to a halt on national holidays–public transit, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.
This gets somewhat less true the bigger the Italian town you’re staying in. In the biggest cities you’ll probably be able to find a place to grab a bite, and the subways will have limited service. But even if you’re planning to be in Milano or Roma for Italian Independence Day, you’d be wise to know in advance that the holiday is coming. Stock up on food and coffee for that day, and make plans that don’t require public transportation.
* Stick to the major cities of Italy
But I want to eat and to get around. That means I need to stick with the big cities, and Italy’s got plenty of gorgeous metropolises to choose from. Florence, Venice, Milan, Bologna, Pisa, Rome, and Naples all have cosmopolitan services, including restaurants open late and reliable public transit (well, sort of). You’ll also find reasonable access to transportation and services in good-sized towns like Siena, Parma, Verona, Pescaro, and Brindisi.
If you want to spend serious time out in the picturesque Italian countryside…take a bus tour, or find a travel companion who will drive a rental car. Period.
* Research food options and availability
In the big cities of Italy, food availability isn’t a major big deal. Restaurants stay open late at night and plenty of trattorias serve on Sundays and holidays. Hotels serve breakfast to guests as part of the room rate.
Though corner markets aren’t as prolific in Italian cities as they are in France, enough of them exist to make shopping for snacks a doable deal–so long as you don’t need it during the afternoon siesta, on Monday mornings, on Thursday evenings, on Sundays, or on bank holidays.
But in the tiny little towns, it’s worse than that. There may be only one restaurant, only one multi-function shop selling any food, or nothing at all. That one eatery in the village will probably have limited hours; the grocery store will probably be closed every afternoon for siesta as well as shut tight all day Sunday. Nothing remotely resembling a 24-hour supermarket exists anywhere in rural Italy.
Think through your food needs thoroughly before you get on the plane or the train. If necessary, bring packaged food with you so that you’ll have emergency backup supplies. On our first night in Stigliano, we made do with powdered Ensure, applesauce, and tasteless crackers. Plus a bottle of Limoncello donated by a group of Australian travelers we’d met in town. It wasn’t much, it wasn’t tasty, but it got us through the night.
* Rent or buy a cell phone
This Rick Steves article does a good job of describing the different options for cell (mobile) phones in EU countries, including Italy.
My major point of difference from Rick’s advice: DO get a cell phone that functions in Italy, even if you’ll only be there for a couple of days. Traveling with pain isn’t the same as traveling healthy–relying on pay phones and hotel phones doesn’t work well at all for travelers with pain or disability. When I need a phone, I need a phone. I don’t need to spend spoons buying a phone card, then hunting up a pay phone that works, or getting back to my hotel to use my room phone (which may not exist if I’m staying in a budget hotel).
* Preload the cell phone with the phone numbers of cab companies that cover every place you plan to visit
A taxi is a quick, easy way to bail out of any number of pain-inducing situations. They’re not cheap, but they’ve saved me from intense pain (and collapsing on the sidewalk in a foreign country) more times than I can count.
* Learn a few useful phrases in Italian
Things like: “Where is the nearest bathroom?” “Do you sell bottled water here?” and “Can you please call me an ambulance?” You know, the usual stuff. This little chart includes useful phrases.
In fact, the more I know of the language of the country I’m visiting, the easier it is for me to deal with my pain. It’s also more fun when I can eavesdrop on conversations on public transit and read signs in museums. Rick Steves sells a full-fledged Italian phrase book, if you want to get further into the language.
* Avoid arriving or departing Italy on Sunday
We purchased tickets (in France) for a Sunday trip from Nice to Siena. The times on the tickets flat-out lied to us, and we found ourselves sitting for hours on a drafty platform while the train’s engineer had a smoke break, a newspaper break, then shut down the locomotive and walked away. His explanation? “It’s Sunday.”
Italy is a Roman Catholic country. (Har har.) That means that public transit service on Sundays is minimal at best, nonexistent at worst, incomprehensibly off-schedule always.
* Know that you cannot depend on public bus service
My early research claimed that a bus line ran past our little mountain town, serving other local villages and running on into the more cosmopolitan Siena on a daily basis. I made the tragic mistake of believing this to be true.
I never saw a single bus on the road past Stigliano. When we walked 4 km into the tabac in Rosia to buy bus tickets, the sales clerks had never even heard of the bus route we were talking about. They started searching under counters for literature to try to figure out what I was talking about. I gave up.
* Italian breakfast breads taste terrible
Even though we had nothing to eat for breakfast but the packaged breads, we couldn’t manage to choke ’em down. Which pretty much left us with the espresso. Zippy!
* When hiking, remember that in Europe the topographical maps use meters, not feet
Not one of the four people in our party realized this before we embarked on a hike with a 1000 elevation change. 1000 meters, that is. We figured this out at the summit of the mountain, while gasping for breath and rationing sips from our single 1-litre bottle of water.
By that point in our trip, we were all giddy from lack of food. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Have you been to Italy with your pain? If so, what tips would you give to a first-time visitor to Italia that I haven’t thought of? If you want to go to Italy, what else do you think you need information about before you go?