We moved to central Italy 12 years ago from Wales in the UK, and we thought that, as part of the EU with similar laws and religious outlook, we’d simply ease into living here with just the language to master. This last part is made more difficult by regional accents and dialects, even the Italians don’t understand each other frequently, but modern technology is helping fill in the gaps these days. Ultimately, living here has been an enjoyable learning experience that, at times, has been frustrating but always rewarding.
Our first encounter with “it’s not the UK anymore” was that shops closed for long lunches, between 12 and 3 in the winter and 1 to 4 in the summer, reopening to close at 7 or 8 in the evening – extremely frustrating if you need a packet of screws or washers to finish a job. That said, on a positive, our ferramenta (hardware shop) sells screws, nails, and rope by the kilo, as it differers in weight according to thickness, materials, and type. We wanted 32 metres and he kindly measured and coiled our choice before weighing and wrapping. We also wanted some tin tacks and, showing him an example, he took a handful, put them in a bag with a seal, and said they were a present as he knew we would be back. We have many times, and the service continues to be 5-star.
Since then, most supermarkets have continuous hours and are even open Sunday mornings, which wasn’t the case when we first moved here.
Shops specialize, so if you want a chair there is a chair maker, matches you buy from a tobacconist, as you can’t get them in the supermarkets where they sell lighters and firelighters. Tobacco is the only item you do not need a receipt for, as the tax has been pre-paid by the shop owner, so remember always collect your receipt as the grey clad figili di finance (customs and excise) can stop and check you have paid and been issued one – it is an offense which can result in the shop being closed down for inspection if they don’t issue them. It is an offense to buy “cloned’ or faked goods, and this will result in a huge fine to the buyer as well as the vendor.
We needed new windows and doors, so we were directed to a specialist who made the windows but not the doors, who led us to the door manufacturer, but neither installed them so we needed our builder to coordinate the two suppliers so he could do the work. We wanted a box spanner to tighten a sink tap so we went to the plumbing supplier and were redirected to the hardware shop. I wanted elastic and a zip, so we went to a shop selling cloth who sent me to a place selling suits and underwear to get what I needed. We have bought from market stall holders, builders, and merchants – and every time have found them helpful and eager to ensure they find what you need.
Chemists sell what we consider prescription goods over the counter. Friends forgot their medication so we went to see what could be done, and there was no problem finding the drugs they needed. We can buy antibiotics without prescription, but prices are fixed by the government here so they can be lower or higher than where you live. We used to buy heart tablets and post them to the UK for friends – and they, in turn, bought antihistamines and paracetamol in return for us, as you can only get medication at a chemists (supermarkets don’t sell them). The chemist can also make doctor appointments and they are generally the 1st stop when we need advice, as they are well qualified.
Restaurants come in many shapes and guises: Drink charges must be in view behind the till, or you should ask before purchasing as prices vary enormously.
Bars – if you order a coffee, meaning espresso short, and stand at the counter it’s usually 1 euro, but sit at a table and there is a cover charge (coperto) to cover cleaning, cutlery, waitress service, etc., usually 1 euro per person. A local house wine will be about 1.50 a glass.
Cafes and Fast Food – take outs (asporto) have similar prices as cafes with a better range of cheap foods.
Fixed Menu places and Transport Places – these have very good value. Look for lots of vehicles outside, as this is where the locals eat. Generally 12 euros for a pasta course including a meat course with 1 vegetable and water – wine tends to be by the jug, and a litre starts at about 6 euros and upwards.
Pizzerias – these are wonderful and the pizzas can start at as little as 4 euros for a margarita, but they usually start at 6 euros for a crispy delight that overlaps the plate and is a struggle for most eaters. They also sell other dishes, all reasonably priced.
Restaurants/Bistros/anything Sit-Down with a linen tablecloth – check prices first! Antipasto (soups, local meats and cheeses, nibbles), pasta, meats, fish, vegetables, desserts, drinks. No one expects you to eat a 5-course meal these days, thankfully, but don’t be afraid to ask to share (per diviso) a platter between you or to ask for a half portion if you don’t think you will manage a full one – most places are happy to oblige and charge accordingly. Here, pasta will cost anything from 6-12 euros a plate, meats 6 euros and up, and some steaks and fish are charged by weight (per etto, by 100 grams). Vegetables are not included and a portion varies between 3-5 euros. Wines by the jug are cheapest and usually from a very good local vineyard, ask to taste to be sure (posso io provo?). Wine starts at 6 euros – bottled wines are more expensive and beers cost as much. Table charges vary, and 2.50 per person is average, but check before you order – it will be stated on the menu.
There are Michelin-starred restaurants and places that do fine foods with prices that will set you back 100 euros for two easily, but frankly, we have been usually unimpressed and tend to eat where the locals do. Most open between 12pm and 3pm for lunch and 7.30pm till 12.30am – and they won’t hurry you away, the table is yours for as long as you need generally. Tipping isn’t normal, and locals will leave their change but if you feel you ought to, 10% is considered fair. In the recent past, they were slightly offended as they pride themselves on doing a good job as part of the service. We have never been faced with an included service charge, only the cover, so don’t be duped. Large cities may have different ideas and Venice is well known for its prices and hugely expensive charges. Sitting in St Mark’s square and tourist spots are more expensive, so check prices before sitting and ordering.
Trains, Planes and Automobiles.
Trains are very cheap and usually run on time, but the high-speed ones tend to have more delays than regional in our experience. Tickets can be bought online from Trenitalia and Italo (who specialize in city-to-city trains from Naples to Milan/Venice). The sites are also in many languages and these do not need to be validated, as they are set for a particular day and 6-hour window of use for regional trains and precise day, time, train, and seats for others which are not changeable. High-speed tickets bought weeks in advance offer special prices, from 9.90 to 29.90 euros each one-way for long journeys, like Florence to Venice for example. Tickets bought at the station or from Edils (newspaper booths in towns) need to be date and time validated using the green pods in the station and on some platforms (binario). Trains run north to south with ease, east/west are more complicated. Train stations are not necessarily in town, e.g. the main line at Chiusi is known as Chiusi-Chianciano Terme, but the thermal center is 15 kilometres away. Most towns are situated on top of hills and the rail lines at the level plane, so plan to hire a car, taxi, or find a bus if need be.
Airplanes – look also at smaller airports, e.g Florence, Perugia, and Pisa as options to the larger busier ones like Rome. Depending on where you are aiming for, you will clear customs much faster and start your journey possibly less stressed.
To own a car, you must be a resident. To hire a car, do so online from outside Italy – it’s a lot cheaper and, remember, the offices will probably close for lunch so plan accordingly. Motorways (Autostrada) are charged for; collect a ticket at the barrier and push into the slot at the other end for your costs. TAG aisles are for those who have automatic billing only. Superstrada (SS) are ring roads and faster sections, Strada Provincia (SP) are local roads, and for all of these you need to keep your lights on at all times by law – smaller roads and white roads are generally less well cared for. Take note, if you are here between late October and November, you will need snow chains on the vehicle or snow tyres as part of the kit by law. If you are stopped, don’t panic, the chances are it’s just a routine check. The police will want to see your ID, license, and the car documents which you must always carry by law. Roads have 3 identities – for example, A1 autostrada is the strada del sole and the E35, so don’t worry about the confusing signage. Blue is for a road or street, Green is motorways, Brown is places of interest or hotels, and White is businesses.
Finally, hospitals are well-equipped and efficient. The food is indifferent, but the care is 1st class. Have your ID, insurance paperwork, and health card handy, but all emergencies are treated for free, and prescriptions are paid at the chemists.
Remember, Italy is the birthplace of the slow food movement and quiet life, so don’t be surprised when it is. Go with the flow and enjoy the ride.