#20 – Renting a car in Italy and other driving tips

cat Baby We though we’d first review a bit about renting a car in Italy. You can of course visit the larger towns in Italy by train. (In fact a car is a hindrance there). However to get to smaller towns and villages by public transportation, you have to take a bus. This does gives a different, equally interesting experience- but does not afford you the opportunity of taking back roads and unplanned stops through the countryside. For this vacation- mostly in rural Italy- the car was perfect for us.

At the urging of some friends, we rented through a car rental broker, despite reading reviews that brokers were sometimes unreliable. Both of us had a positive experience with the broker Auto Europe- we ended up with the car company “Europcar”, and our friends ended up with “Sicily by Car” – both rented at the Milan airport. The total cost for two weeks was $540 for a compact car- which is the third size from the bottom, equivalent to the size of a Ford Focus. We ended up with a Fiat 500L which was very roomy but small enough for European parking. (The Fiat was a hatchback, but had a privacy shield for suitcases). Theft and collision damage waiver are included and required for a rental in Italy. You have to pay this even though many credit cards offer this coverage free as part of their service. Also you save tremendously by renting a manual transmission as we did- but make sure you are experienced at driving a stick shift, or you will be no match for Italian drivers. (You will be no match for them anyway).

A few other car related notes.

Parking- as I remember it there were three levels of parking in northern Italy: blue, paid parking; yellow, specialty parking- bus stops and taxis (so ignore); and white, free parking. Also there were some blue spaces in towns that were marked for residents only. We generally did not have trouble finding both free and reasonable paid parking everywhere we went- on the street or in lots.  This link explains all about parking it Italy. http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/driving/parking.htm.

Highways- the main long distance roads in Italy, the Autostrade, preceded by the letter “A”- i.e. A1 etc.- are well maintained and easy to drive on. There are gas/food/rest-stops along the Autostrade, very like in the United States- kind of what we wanted to get away from-but they are convenient when you are traveling long distances and just need to pull off for gas- with much better food than you would find at similar ones in the USA, and real cappuccino.

Driving- We drove on the largest highways and the smallest back roads, winding up hills with curves that are not for the faint-hearted. More than once we came around a curve on a winding hill to be met with someone coming from the other direction at high-speed. In rural areas you can see the frustration of native drivers having to navigate around tourists who are driving very slow and tentatively. In general, Italian drivers tailgate and drive very fast. That being said- they are very skilled drivers. During the 1500 or so miles we drove, we only saw one minor fender-bender accident.

Toll roads- the Autostrade is a toll road. Be aware that there are lanes called “telepass” lanes similar to the “easypass” lanes in the northeastern US, for which you are preregistered and charged monthly. Unfortunately if you go through one of these lanes by accident- make sure you pull over, walk over to the toll booth, pay, and most importantly- get a letter stating that you have paid. You will need this letter when your rental car company, and apparently the Italian government, charge you fines for going through the wrong lane. (Note: we will let you know how that turns out).


Fiat500L3 copy



#18 – Our Italian Vacation: if you could invite anyone to a wine bar, who would you invite?

cat Baby More on the title later.

Still day 2. Lesson #5: always good to stop at the local tourist office- in Alba they were very helpful and had free wi-fi. (See post #16 for more travel advice for the novice). Below are photos of Alba:


Then on to the village of Barolo, namesake of the famous wine. In June 2014, part of this region was designated a UNESCO heritage site due to the historical and cultural significance of the area- the wine making tradition foremost. According to UNESCO: “vine pollen has been found in the area dating from the 5th century BC, when Piedmont [the region] was a place of contact and trade between the Etruscans and the Celts”.

Now back to our touristing. The main thing to do in Barolo is walk around the village streets and visit an enoteca or a winery. See pics below of the village.

Barola3 Barola4   DPPa_1081    passageway2 Barola1

Walking around of course will increase your appetite, whereupon you will need to immediately seek out food to keep going. Luckily, even the most basic eatery in Italy will have an appealing array of food, even for a small bite. No need to order any fancy wines, as the house wines in Italy far exceed in quality what you would pay for a good wine back in the US. See pic below. However- not sure about the one cured meat that seemed to be a piece of lard (????)


Next we visited the Barolo wine museum, housed in the Castello Falletti, named for the family that owned the castle from the 1500s to the mid 1850s.

Now I have to tell you, this exhibit was not what I expected. I would have loved to see some old tools and implements used in wine making. But since it was billed as a cultural history of wine making, the tools (apparently previously housed in a castle exhibit) were gone.

Ok. But still.

What was left- actually newly created in 2010- was a bizarre series of mostly dark rooms with exhibits and passageways going from one floor of the castle to the next. To better explain- the highlight to me- well….see picture below.


Yes, that appears to be Adam and Eve (lifesized), with grape leaves strategically placed. No fig leafs here.

And now back to the title of this entry. Remember when someone asked you, at least one time in your life, if you could invite anyone throughout history to a dinner party, who would you invite? So this part of the exhibit seems to be a take on this idea, with figures from various religions hanging out at the wine bar- i.e. Jesus next to Ganesh–all having fun, drinking wine (with Aphrodite at the far left).


In case you wanted a close up:


So. You can walk out of here annoyed that you spent 9 (approx.) euros to see this. Or you can look at it like we did: the whole Italian economy is struggling to survive, and tourism is what keeps it afloat. So a donation towards that cause- and the lovely town of Barolo- seems to us worth it.

Also, there is a terrace you can access from the castle. Here is the view.


A link to information about Barolo wine: http://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-barolo.


#17 – Our Italian Vacation- Day 2- B & B in Alba

cat Baby Wow! What a time we had getting here last night (see previous blog entry #16). So this morning breakfast was waiting for us, whenever we were ready, in the chapel. The chapel? So it seems that landowners with substantial properties a distance from town built chapels for their own use and probably for that of their employees. The original statues were still in place, and it was a beautiful and peaceful environment to sit and relax before beginning our day. Lots of food, including meats, cheeses, croissants, chocolate cake, fruits, and of course great coffee.

Here is the outside of the chapel.


And the interior…


the food…(note: those are hazelnuts, a local product- not chickpeas).


The statues…


Artwork on the walls ranged from old family photos to pages of a graphic novel.



Sweeping views of vineyards from the outside.




Even though this B & B was a former 18th century mansion, it was oddly constructed with farm buildings connected to the main house. A second group of rooms were next to the chapel, and connected to a private house. So there is no grand entrance to the main house, and most of the rooms seemed to be off the courtyard area.


Nevertheless it was a wonderful place to stay for the time we were there! And the farm outbuildings were lovely with texture.



I can’t seem to get beyond breakfast today- but after all, we are on vacation.

Link to the B & B above:






#16 – Our Italian Vacation

cat Cat here- so Baby and I just got back from our vacation in Italy, and we can’t wait to tell you about it and show you some of our photos (which we are still organizing)! Though we had a wonderful time, we did not get off to a good start!!!! Our plane was 15 minutes late in landing, and we had to take a bus and a train and walk what seemed like a mile to the terminal for our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Milan- which we missed it. Oh well. So four hours later than planned, we landed in Milan, picked up a rental car, and were back on track to begin our vacation.

On the road now, exhausted but happy to be driving to our first destination- a bed and breakfast in Alba, in the Piedmont wine region of northern Italy- we got our first lesson for what to do better next time (well, aside from not missing our connecting flight).

Lesson #1: When you book that wonderful authentic bed and breakfast way up on a hill in a rural area with vineyards everywhere- know that the address of that little dirt road leading to the B & B may not be found by your GPS. May not? I mean you will not be able to find it by their address. So you need to get the geographic (latitude and longitude) coordinates (sometimes called GPS coordinates).

Yes, our first quaint little B & B turned out to be one of those places that our GPS couldn’t find. Now if it was daytime and we weren’t tired, it would have been ok. But it now dark, and after a few attempts to ask directions, we found a restaurant whose owners tried to help us map out how to get there (to no avail)- and who even called our B & B- (no answer).

Lesson #2: Small family run B & Bs with only a few rooms do not have a front desk, and do not have someone available 24 hours. Often it is a side business or a second business to their day job.

Lesson #3: Don’t try to get by without a phone. Just pay the extra for overseas calls, and only make them when you have to. Then at least you can call when it it convenient for you, and you do not have to rely on someone else to call, or on spotty wi-fi service.  (Note: I know you seasoned travelers know all this. But we did not).

On we went, thinking we were probably going to have to sleep in the car. But we decided to give it one more try. Now nearing 11:30 pm, we found another restaurant a few blocks off the highway. Fortunately for us the manager spoke english because we were too frazzled and tired to speak with our limited knowledge of Italian (though we had been studying it!)

“You will never find it” he said, and graciously offered for one of his employees to drive and have us follow to our location (it was near closing time).

How lucky that there are people like this in the world! Because I will tell you- we never would have found the B & B, three miles as it was up a winding hill, through open fields and vineyards, with no lights. So we finally get there and think- what do we do now? No one answered the phone 2 hours ago, and all is dark except a small light in the courtyard parking lot. Then our guide walks up to the lighted door that has a note stuck on it, next to a key in the keyhole. “Are your names Cat and Baby?” he says to us as he hands us the note which read “Benvenuto Cat and Baby”.

Lesson #4: There are generous, good-hearted people everywhere.

So began our Italian vacation.

P.S. We are giving you the name of this restaurant because they were so willing to help us. We did not get a chance to eat there, but it looked like a very fine gourmet experience, and how could you go wrong with good food and good people?

La Mucca Pazza Brasserie. Address: C.so Canale, 28 in Alba, Italy Tel./Fax 0173.441977 Cell.334.7087200.  (Note- they also have a restaurant in Cuneo).

Here is a link to their website: http://www.lamuccapazzabrasserie.it/alba.html

mucca cow