Italy is one of my favourite destinations; it may be to do with the three P’s – Pasta, Pizza and Prosecco. On my first visit to Italy, I fell in love with the fantastic food, beautiful scenery and vibrant yet chilled atmosphere that makes Italy so Italian. However, there are things I wish I knew before going. So for the first-time Italy travellers, I have compiled five things you need to know about.
1. Italian Drivers
Who knew Italians were crazy drivers? I sure didn’t! A word of warning, be extra vigilant as Italians will over take you on the hair raising corners and have no fear in doing so. While in cities be careful to watch out for Vespa zipping around everywhere! The Italians have no fear in using their horns, but it’s worth double checking the road is clear before stepping out. If you do decide to rent a car, which is advisable if you’re visiting the more sparsely populated areas like Tuscany, don’t let the crazy drivers put you off. You’d be a fool not to take advantage of those Tuscan hills. Keep driving here there and everywhere; make sure to stop off at those amazing Punto Panoramico (Panoramic Point) – some are only reachable by car. Those postcard pictures are everywhere, and they are truly breathtaking!
2. Afternoon Close Down
After driving around in our new surroundings of Castellini in Chianti (and nearly getting rammed off the road), we’d finally parked up and were ready to shop for the evening meal, only to find out that the local coop store was closed. We had no idea why the shop was shut and feared that we wouldn’t be eating that night… well, I did. Instantly I pulled out trusty google and found out that the Italians like to have an extended lunch break between 1 pm and 4 pm so that they can have lunch with family. The town was practically a ghost town, no one in sight. This Italian custom alone tells me just how much we have our work life balance wrong in the UK. There is no such thing as a 30-minute lunch here in Italy.
3. Local Produce
You are under strict instruction to cook at least one meal for yourself on your visit to Italy. Much like a wild game Huntsman, go on the hunt for a small town as they are most likely to have a local market of sorts, although almost all of the towns and villages we visited had an abundance of fresh, and local produce. The one thing you most certainly need to try is the tomatoes. Fresh, huge, and juicy. They are out of this world good. We cooked a lot during our visit to Italy, and every meal was just as fantastic if I do say so myself. We are however no Michelin trained chefs; It was mostly down to the ingredients. A straightforward, and classic dish would be something like tomato and spaghetti with fresh basil for the aesthetics.
Back here in the UK, I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I will have one now and again for an extra boost of energy. In Italy however, I developed a slight coffee addiction (oops). I found myself wanting a coffee after every meal. Velvety smooth and welcoming; those little cups of espresso became vital to my survival in Italy. All of that walking, talking, eating and drinking needed to be fuelled by something, and an espresso was just the ticket. By the end of our visit to Italy (and still to this day back in the UK) I am banned from coffee after 6 pm reason being, I’m caffeine sensitive and struggle to sleep afterwards.
I think it goes without saying, red wine is excellent with any evening dinner. Drinking red wine in Italy felt different. Almost as though you were truly immersed in the Italian life. It will be of little surprise to know that those vineyards on those stereotypical Tuscan hills are not just for show; they are spectacular. If you’re not much of a red drinker, there are plenty of other wines on offer to try in the homeland of the most flavoursome grapes.
We made the gravest of mistakes by buying wine from a bar on the way home from a meal out. The shop itself looked like an out of use cinema lobby with a few scattered tables and chairs. The locals were chatting and drinking away inside, so we thought we had found a real gem of a shop. The bottles on offer were so cheap we could not believe our luck. You know that saying, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? I guess we should have known by the thick layer of dust in the cabinet. Yuck!
Fortunately, we were staying in a rustic farm house on a vine yard, which you guessed, made its own wine. It was superb. So my final tip would be to either source your wine from a local vineyard or spend a little extra on a bottle from a shop, don’t get caught out by the locals that saw us coming.
Whether you are planning a windy trip through the Tuscan countryside or are going on a remote retreat in the north of Italy, I hope you found these tips helpful, and I hope you fall in love with Italy just as much as I have. Feel free to get in touch if you would like some recommendations for places to eat, sleep or see in Tuscany – I would love to reminisce and help make your trip as beautiful as ours was, for now though, get your wanderlust taste buds going by watching our Tuscany trip.
Jamie Carter | @mrjamiecarter