Things No One Tells You About Travelling Italy
A few weeks ago, I decided to take a day trip from Sciacca in Sicily to Palermo. I brought water, was wearing my comfortable leather sandals and had money in my pocket. What could go wrong?
I was dropped off near the famous catacombs of Palermo. Have you heard about these? Normally I’m not interested in going to see churches, but these are famous because of their grotesqueness. They are eerie and give you goose bumps. I decided that I didn’t actually want to see them; the professional pictures taken in the lobby would suffice.
Here are some things that no tells you about when you’re travelling Italy.
#1: You’re allowed to do what you want.
If you don’t want to go into a creepy place with skeletons of dead children, you don’t have to, even if all the guidebooks say they are wonderful.
Instead, I started down the long main street to get to the centre of the city. It was hot.
When you are at home looking up all the beautiful places you will see and how you will spend your time going from one place to another, you don’t consider the weather. Italy is a Mediterranean climate. It gets hot around 11am and stays that way until 6pm. When you’re walking around, just going a few blocks gives you a headache. Your feet swell. You develop blisters on your feet.
You think that everything will be okay, because you see the Italian women in their six-inch heels. If they can do it, I can do it you tell yourself. This isn’t the case. Italian women are genetically designed to wear heels, not sweat, and smell pretty all the time. One of the reasons they are not sweating as profusely as you are is that they are not walking 12 blocks and drinking three gallons of water from their Camel Packs.
#2: If you are obsessed with being hydrated, you will need a place to pee.
I headed down the main street and passed several small cafés that looked straight from the 1970s with chairs and tables that must have been there for at least 50 years. They needed a good wash – and so did the people who were hanging around them leering at me. In Italy, everyone looks at you while you walk by, and all the lookers are usually creepy old men. The other problem is that most places don’t have toilets that you can use. Sure, you might be shown to the “employee” bathroom, which is a hole in the ground in a closet outback.
Trust me, you don’t want to risk it. #3: Bring your own toilet paper
By 12pm, I was exhausted, sweating, dirty and looking for a place to relax and have something to eat. The trouble with doing what you want in a foreign country is that most of the time, these countries have their own schedule. You have to realise that some stores will only open at 1pm and then close at 3pm. There is no such thing as a 4pm snack in Italy. You can have a coffee, sure, but if you miss lunch there is no real meal until the next mealtime at 8pm.
#4: Bring a snack. Most cities have markets open to the public where you can buy veggies and fruits, but they close at around noon so the merchants can have lunch too. I was miles away from a market stall on the other side of the city admiring some beautiful boats. Little did I know there was a man sitting on his boat admiring me. I wasn’t sure if he had his hand down his pants, but let’s just say I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
The thing about the men in this country is that it doesn’t matter if they are 20 or 70: they will try and get with you. Be wary of the older ones, especially those who try to greet you in the “Italian” way, aka try to kiss you. You think, Awww – this old man looks like my granddad and is trying to speak English! What a harmless old man. Guess what? That old man is picturing you naked. And the 60-year-old friendly waiter at your hotel who asks you for English lessons and tells you that he will bring you coffee to your room and wants to know what room you’re in? He does, in fact, want to go over and above for you, service-wise, if you get my drift.
#5: Some people aren’t friendly like in Canada. Instead, they are perverts. After being sufficiently creeped-out for the second time that day, I headed to a restaurant to try and take advantage of the world-famous Sicilian hospitality.
In the south of Italy, you will eat well anywhere you go, and as long as you stay away from the French tourists, you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg for it. Don’t get me wrong: if you want really good quality food, listen for French accents, because then you will find great food. But not all of us want to pay €12 for a plate of pasta. This is where you have to look for hidden gems down side streets.
Make sure you glance at the menu. When you’re on a budget, pizza is always the best option because you get the most for your money. If you want to taste the real local food, just ask the waiter. If he doesn’t speak a word of English, point to your belly and make yummy noises until he understands. If you can speak some Italian, do it, because it will open up the secret menu for you and give you extra portions.
#6: When you’re in Italy, you need to speak Italian. I found a little place in the middle of nowhere hidden under evergreen trees. The front of the restaurant was open to the elements and I choose to sit indoors rather than on the terrace for fear of the looming clouds.
I got the fish special for €10, which included a coffee and a glass of wine. I was expecting a small plate of fish and some vegetables, but instead I was given four courses of appetizers: mussels, fresh white fish, calamari and a delicious tuna and fruit salad. Afterwards came the pasta. I asked the waitress in disbelief if I had just ordered the special for one, and she assured me I had.
When you see old movies featuring food piled high and waiters asking their customers if they’ve eaten enough, they are most certainly set in Italy. The expression Buon Appetito literally means “I hope you eat a lot”. They have a cute add-on to that expression: Piatto Polito. Good appetite, clean plate.
There is a reason why these hot countries have a siesta culture. The big meal of the day served at lunch as well as the afternoon slump urges you to close your eyes for a few minutes in the afternoon. That was exactly what happened to me as I found my head dropping forward and backward as I tried to hold off falling asleep.
You know what would be a great business plan for tourists? A nap café. That’s right, a place where a tourist can park their bags and their butt for a little mid-afternoon siesta. A place where their bags would be safe and they could rest their weary feet without paying an arm and a leg for a “bed and breakfast”.
But no such thing exists (at least in Palermo), so I decided to go for a walk to wake myself up. Just as I was getting up to leave, the sky opened up.
It started to pour.
Where could I go? Certainly not for a walk in this weather! Church. A place that I vowed I wouldn’t go back to after my eye-opening experience that very morning. Suddenly, church seemed so pleasant. I could rest my eyes for a few minutes and no one would steal my bag when I wasn’t looking.
I found a church to hide in. Luckily, in Italy, they are on every corner. It was very plainly decorated and pretty inside. Can anyone tell me why churches always smell like incense? Why don’t they crack a window once in a while or open the doors? Are they afraid that they will let God out?
In any case, I had a walk around and realised that I wasn’t the only one who thought of having a catnap in the Lord’s house. This is a pretty fuzzy photo because I didn’t want be caught, but you get the idea. #7: Find a place where you can get some shut-eye.
The rain let up as quickly as it came, and I headed out of the church to get some fresh air. Palermo is a beautiful city full of statues on each corner. It’s organised in a very efficient way with the main road (Roma) lit up with beautiful fashionable stores. It’s been my experience that the main road in many Italian cities is called Via Roma… maybe that’s where the expression “All roads lead to Rome” comes from, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Via Roma in Palermo was my favourite road because of the many shops and tiny cafés it had on every corner.
I popped into a local bookstore and picked up a book about the massive immigration problem on the Island of Lampedusa and sat down on a bench in the beautiful English garden to relax and people watch.
Because #8: Sometime you just have to give up seeing the sights in order to stop and smell the flowers.