Some very relaxing news for visitors to Central and Eastern Europe: a new international project has united the best spa towns in Central and Eastern Europe in an effort to earn UNESCO recognition. The Great Spas of Europe project is the result of eight years of collaboration between the Czech Republic, the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Belgium. They hope to receive UNESCO-listed status because they have remained traditional spa towns, offering mineral water treatments, and beautifully preserved from modernization.
Up until the early 20th century, spa towns throughout Europe treated ailments using local mineral waters and other traditional techniques. Typically, each spa town focused on one specific type of ailment, depending on the properties of the water in the natural springs in that area. In some countries, including the Czech Republic, spa stays are still covered by health insurance. But there are very few spa towns in Europe that continue to exist as they did in the past. This is the key to this new international project.
This got us thinking about some of the best spa towns in Central and Eastern and farther afield, destinations that aren’t necessarily part of the Great Spas of Europe project but are still well worth a visit. So let’s take a closer look at the tradition of ritual relaxation and the beautiful towns where you can still enjoy it.
Baden bei Wien: Close to Vienna, this spa town has been famous for its suphurous mineral springs for centuries. The water in the springs here can reach 36 degrees Celsius, and soaking has long been a favored treatment for Austrians seeking relief from a variety of illnesses.
Photo courtesy of http://www.badenonline.at
But you can do much more than soak and bathe here. The spas in Baden bei Wien offer a variety of both traditional and modern therapies, including mud packs and massages as well as holistic diet plans. One of the main attractions is the Baden thermal beach, the largest seashore in Austria. You’ll find a beautiful Art Deco building as well as a pool that will be fun for the whole family.
The Czech Republic
Františkovy Lázně: On the border with Germany, Františkovy Lázně has been known as a restorative spa town since the late 14th century. Back then, the spring water here was bottled and consumed for its healthy effects. The first inn in Františkovy Lázně goes back to about 1705, at which time the waters here were famous throughout Europe.
Photo courtesy of http://www.franzensbad.cz
The spring water in Františkovy Lázně is high in dissolved carbon dioxide, which is said to improve cardiovascular function and lower blood pressure and inflammation. These days there are 12 springs in operation, along with several health centers where you can enjoy a variety of treatments.
This is a charming, peaceful town, the perfect destination for a relaxing overnight trip during your holiday in Central Europe.
Karlovy Vary: Known as Carlsbad in German, Karlovy Vary is the largest and most renowned spa town in the Czech Republic. Located in a lush valley on the Tepla River near the German border, Karlovy Vary is about two hours by car from Prague. According to legend, Charles IV (the same Charles that Prague’s iconic bridge is named after) discovered the hot springs in Karlovy Vary while hunting in the forest. People have come to Karlovy Vary for hundreds of years to enjoy the natural springs and the peaceful atmosphere. Visitors to Karlovy Vary can treat themselves to relaxing massages, whirlpool baths, warm wraps and other treatments in the many luxury hotel spas. More austere spa treatments are also available. A week at the spa is a frequent cure prescribed by Czech doctors.
Mariánské Lázně: The second-largest spa town in the Czech Republic after Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázně is full of parks, colonnades, pavilions and much more.
During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mariánské Lázně was the spa playground for the rich and famous. Some of the most famous figures of European culture used to visit, including Goethe, Wagner, Chopin and many others. Today there are a number of springs here, and the entire atmosphere of the town is gorgeous and very relaxing. The classic infrastructure remains and you can easily see why so many important people used to spend time here.
In German, Mariánské Lázně is Marienbad. You might have heard of the famous French film Last Year at Marienbad, released in 1961. It is required viewing for anyone who comes to visit!
Bad Ems: A small town in the Rheinland, Bad Ems is located on the river Lahn and situated within the beautiful Nassau Nature Park. It has been known as a spa for hundreds of years, reaching its high point of popularity in the 19th century, when it was frequented by monarchs and artists from throughout Europe.
Photo courtesy of https://www.bad-ems.info/
Flowing from 15 springs, the local mineral water has a high salt and mineral content, which is used to produced Ems Salt. When inhaled, the water has a beneficial effect on sore throats and other respiratory illnesses.
The new Emser Therme brings these traditional wellness techniques into the modern age. This is one of the most beautiful spa complexes in Germany. It even has a sauna floating on the river! The surrounding nature reserve also offers numerous opportunities for cycling, hiking paragliding, horseback riding and more. When you visit Bad Ems you’ll also be located close to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, which has a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its palaces, castles and lovely vineyards.
Baden-Baden: The New York Times has said that Baden-Baden is a spa town where the Belle Époque meets Instagram. More than some of the other spas in the project, Baden-Baden has a taste of contemporary high society. But that also makes it more in tune with the needs of tourists and travelers. Make now mistake though, the spa tradition in Baden-Baden goes back some 2,000 years. Even the ancient Romans used to soak their weary bones in the natural springs.
In German, “Baden” means “Bath.” The problem was, there were so many towns named Bath among the best spas of Central and Eastern Europe, it was decided make the name of this one double, to make it stand out. And it certainly does. You’ll find Baden-Baden on the southwestern part of Germany, close to Stuttgart and the French border.
Bad Kissingen: Like the rest of the best spas in Central and Eastern Europe, Bad Kissingen, in the center of Germany, has a long history as a spa town. The architecture in Old Town goes back to the Renaissance period, in the 16th century to be exact. If you take a walk outside of the center, you can admire the ruins of Bodenlaube, a castle from 1180 which overlooks the town.
The spring water here comes from seven mineral springs, four of which are potable. The water comes out of bronze taps and is administered at set times in the morning and afternoon. After drinking the waters, locals and visitors take slow walks though the beautiful parks surrounding the springs.
When you visit Bad Kissingen, don’t forget to stop into the concert hall, where a 13-member orchestra plays twice daily. It’s the perfect diversion for a day of total relaxation!
If you’re on the road in Germany there are several spas that will make the perfect stops for a relaxing layover between destinations. Bad Elster is located between Munich and Dresden, a lovely spa with healing mineral springs. Another option, closer to Salzburg and Munich, is Bad Füssing, which is also highly recommended.
The Gellert Spa
The Gellert Spa in Budapest is probably the city’s most famous thermal spa, known for its gorgeous art nouveau architecture, its convenient location on the left bank of the Danube, and its pleasant indoor and outdoor pools, naturally heated by warm spring water. The baths first opened in 1918, boasting a wide range of wellness treatments and a water source in the deep subterranean springs used by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century and later by the Turks. The waters are rich with minerals, each of which offers a different healing property. But Gellert is also just a great place to go for a swim. Tickets can be purchased in the entrance hall for 5,700 forints, or about $20.
Other spas in Budapest that we recommend include Rudas Spa, a smaller, recently renovated Turkish bath, has an open-air jacuzzi overlooking the Danube. Budapest is famous for its spas and baths, so there are many to choose from. To learn more about the best spas in Budapest, check out this blog post!
We also recommend getting outside of the city to explore some of Hungary’s spas which are more peaceful. Near Eger, there is an open-air spa village called Egerszalok. There is a huge salt hill and medicinal hot water that is extraordinary. It’s a resort that’s popular with locals, which is always a good sign. Near Pecs, there is a village called Harkany where there is another thermal spa, with medicinal mineral water. It is popular among Austrians, they come here often for treatments. In these places the spa experience can be easily combined with wine tasting, both are in historical wine regions.
Along Lake Balaton, We have another thermal lake, called Heviz, which translates to Hot Water. It’s a spa town, with many hotels and possibilities to relax. There is also a cave-bath, of course thermal, in Miskolctapolca, closer to the Slovak border.
Montecatini Terme: In Tuscany about an hour from Florence, Montecatini Terme is best known for its famously beautiful—if you like art nouveau, and who doesn’t?—Parco delle Terme spa complex. But this is also a center for the arts, with the Montecatini Contemporary Art art museum housing greats like Joan Miró.
Photo courtesy of http://www.termemontecatini.it
Like all the best spas in Central and Eastern Europe, Montecatini Terme is known for its spring waters, which you can drink and bathe in. Strolling through the beautiful park in the center of town you can stop at nine thermal centers constructed in beautiful Art Nouveau style. It’s like an open-air museum! Also keep your eyes open for the magnificent monuments and fountains that dot the town. One of the buildings, the Palazzina Regia, was once the summer home of the Medici family. Clearly they knew how to relax in style!
And if you’re not totally averse to exercise, you can ride a funicular up the mountain to the village of Montecatini Alto. Here you can enjoy the medieval and Romanesque architecture, and admire the gorgeous views over the spa town and the valley beyond.
The springs of Tuscany:Tuscany has its fair share of natural springs that are famous for their healing and relaxing waters. Bagni San Filippo is one of the most beautiful, a place where the spa compliments the surrounding landscape. Best of all, it’s free and open to the public. Terme di Saturnia is another lovely destination that is worth a visit.
In Sicily and elsewhere, there are some other amazing springs and spas. The most famous include Terme Vulcaniche, Masse di San Sisto (in Viterbo, close to Rome), and Terme Libere di Bormio, in Lombardia.
On the way from Krakow to Zakopane, you can visit the Terma Bukowina thermal baths, which are fantastic. Another option is Goracy Potok, another spa very popular with locals.
Photo courtesy of http://www.termabukowina.pl
If you’re in Krakow and looking to relax, we highly recommend Hammam Szeherezada, a Turkish bath and spa that is very highly rated. It’s a great way to unwind from the bustle of the city.
Therme: This is an excellent spa center in Bucharest. The largest thermal wellness center in Romania, it has thermal water, indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, massage, water playground for kids, restaurants. In between lounging and enjoying spa treatments you can even sunbathe on the largest urban beach in Europe!
Are you planning a holiday to visit the best spa towns in Central and Eastern Europe? We’re Central and Eastern Europe travel specialists. Just get in touch to start planning the perfect trip!
Oh, Italy. It’s hard to decide which city and region to love best. Regal Rome? Vivacious Venice? Luscious Naples? There’s something wonderful about each of them. But Puglia is in a class by itself. Some call it “the real Italy.” There are plenty of things to do in Puglia and we can’t say enough about the place, from the beaches to the bakeries and everything in between. So let’s take a closer look at this lovely region!
A view of Polignano a Mare
Take a Peek at Polignano a Mare
There are several very scenic little towns on the coast in Puglia and they’re all easy to reach by car or train. Polignano a Mare is one of our favorites. A visit here is one of the best things to do in Puglia. Once a fishing village, this is a cozy place to spend a day or even to stay overnight. The cliffs along the water offer wonderful views over the sea and the beach is tucked between cliffs lined with houses. If you’re visiting on June 2 2019 you might find the town packed with spectators for the annual Red Bull cliff diving event. There are several tasty restaurants on the square, serving fresh seafood and other Italian fare. It’s nice to spend a day wandering among the sleepy winding streets. And really, don’t miss the beach!
Monopoli is another quaint little coastal town that’s definitely worth visiting. Again, the beach here is amazing, tucked amongst the cliffs where local fishermen set off each day in their small wooden boats. This is the perfect place to stop for a day of sightseeing, or just relaxing on the beach. There are some very nice restaurants and tavernas here and although becoming a very popular vacation destination, still most of the holidaymakers are Italian so the local feeling is retained. Monopoli is also home to one of our favorte gelaterias in Italy, therefore the world.
Taste the Breasts of the Nun Cakes
It’s no secret that Italian cooking is world-class, but you might be surprised to taste some of the more curious local baked goods in Puglia. Some of the most famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask), are the Tette delle monache Chantilly-creme-filled cakes, otherwise known as “Breasts of the nun.” You’ll notice in one of the photos above that we have carefully cross-sectioned the cake so you can see the filling. We’ll tip you off as to where to find the very best examples as you explore Puglia with us.
The beach in Polignano a Mare
The beaches in Puglia tend to be dramatic, surrounded by cliffs and coves and only accessible by footpaths and long stairwayswinding down from the road. The water here is warm in the summer and swimming or lounging on these beaches is an experience in itself, since the scenery is so dramatic. Because of the siesta that closes shops every afternoon when the sun is hottest, early afternoon is the perfect time to take a load off and head to the beach with some snacks and drinks.
Buy something in Bari
If you’re flying into Puglia, chances are you’ll be landing at the airport in Bari. This larger city doesn’t quite have the charm of the smaller towns up and down the coast, but it’s still worth spending some time here. There are many fantastic stores in Bari, especially if you’re into tailoring and fashion. Many fine men and women’s tailors have shops here, so it can be fun to wander the streets with a gelato, window-shopping or popping into some of the workshops where craftsmen still make clothes the old fashioned way. Then head down to the marina, where you’ll find a fantastic fish market and plenty of local color.
Sample the seafood
Fishing has historically been a primary industry in Puglia. To this day many residents of the smaller villages head out each morning on fishing boats. So the seafood here is pretty fantastic. If you’re a fan, try a little of everything. It’s hard to go wrong when you’re sitting outside a taverna by the water, drinking a crisp, cool white wine and sampling the local fruits of the sea.
Slow down and relax
The main thing to remember when you’re visiting Italy is that you’re on vacation, right? So slow down and relax. Everything is a little more laid back here, especially in the smaller towns. Afternoon siestas are still the norm, so don’t expect to be able to buy anything from shops or restaurants between about 1pm and 3pm. You can check the local hours wherever you visit, but it’s wise to plan your days around this pause. Stock up on snacks in the morning and spend the siesta at the beach or wandering through the deserted back streets. Then do like the Italians do and enjoy a later dinner.
Rent a car, or take the train
Puglia is very easy to explore by train, because there’s a train that runs up and down the coast from Bari, stopping at all the seaside towns worth visiting. If you want to keep it simple, you certainly could fly into Bari and explore the region by train. But if you want maximum efficiency and if you want to visit some of the harder-to-reach places inland, it’s definitely a good idea to rent a car – we can include either option in your Puglia vacation package. You’ll be able to explore at your leisure and go anywhere you want.
Check out the Trulli
Entrance to a Trullo
Trulli are ancient stone mound houses that have been in the area for thousands of years. In Alberobello, a UNESCO-listed destination, you can see Trulli that people still live in today. A traditional trullo is built as a cylinder with a conical limestone-tiled roof. They’re built without cement and whitewashed with thick paint. You’ll also see eyes and astrological symbols painted on the roof to ward off evil.
Alberobello will certainly be crowded with tourists, and for good reason. These structures are like nothing you’ve seen before and it’s amazing to wander up and down the hills, peeking into these unique stone houses.
Don’t stress about the “coperto”
Most restaurants in Italy charge a “coperto,” or a cover charge. This extra expense is automatically added to the bill. You might feel like you’re getting ripped off if you see that you’re being charged for something that isn’t specified. But don’t stress! That’s just the way it’s done here. Tipping isn’t really a thing, so the coperto is a way to make sure that everyone gets what they’re owed. Just pay the coperto, don’t make a scene, and don’t worry about tipping 10%. Instead, round up to the nearest euro or two.
Puglia really is an ideal place for a summer vacation. You’ve got fresh seafood, perfect beaches and more than enough chances for relaxation and adventure. What could be better? Well, that’s the problem: the secret’s out. And the region can get crowded fast, especially those tiny beaches tucked in between cliffs. In general I’d recommend avoiding August if you’re planning to visit Puglia. It’s high season, it’s crowded, it’s hot, and it’s harder to find the amenities you need. That said, if August is the only time you can come, then don’t hesitate! But if you have a choice, plan for a slower month.
Are you planning a trip to Puglia? We’re Italy travel experts. We’d love to help you plan the perfect vacation. Just get in touch to find out more!
This week we continue our books for travel blog series with the legendary city of Venice!
One of the highlights of Italy, Venice is a place with unmistakeable romantic charm. It’s a truly unique destination unlike any other. There are more than 100 islands in the Venetian lagoon that make up the city. They’re connected by a series of canals and overflowing with impressive palaces. On the surface, Venice may not appear to be very large. But once you step foot in the car-free streets and tight alleyways, this maze of a city will have you exploring for days. Venice is full of churches, museums and other sights of interests. There’s something new to discover around every corner and over every bridge.
Thanks to that special architecture and its… shall we say intimate relationship with water, it’s not hard to understand why Venice has been so uniquely inspiring to writers. A port city, Venice has always had something international about it as well, and giants of literature from all nations and all historical ages have dropped anchor here and put words on pages, in and about the city. The following are just a few of my personal faborites.
By the way, if you’re looking for literary Venice, one place you’ll certainly want to visit is the cemetery on Isola di San Michele. There you’ll find the graves of poets Ezra Pound and Josef Brodsky as well as composer Igor Stravinsky, among other notable cultural figures. You can get there by water taxi. But even if graveyards aren’t your thing you can still read these books before you get there. Or buy them at the English-language bookshops suggested at the end of the post!
The Cantos by Ezra Pound
One of the most influential American poets of the 20th century, Ezra Pound lived in Italy for many years, and visited Venice on numerous occasions. He knew Italian history like the back of his hand and that knowledge is on display in The Cantos, a book-length collection of poems that was his life’s work. Several of the poems are set in Venice, referencing some of the city’s most famous architecture, like the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Square, among others. Reading The Cantos is like reading an alternative guide to the city, complete with historical background and creative depictions of this legendary destination.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
No reading list for visitors to Venice would be complete without a mention of The Merchant of Venice. Focused on the lives of Venetian nobles, the play revolves around the drama created when one character, Bassanio, must take a loan from Shylock, a moneylender. Bassanio’s friend Antonio volunteers to be the loan’s guarantor, and when the time comes to pay up, the narrative reaches a fever pitch. The setting is Venice, of course, and the play also memorably brings to life archetypal characters from that period. Even though Shakespeare has been accused of antisemitism because of his portrayal of Shylock, an aggressive Jewish moneylender, The Merchant of Venice remains a must-read work of English-language literature, especially for those traveling to Venice.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
One of the most memorable–and shortest–novels by the great German writer Thomas Mann, Death in Venice is truly a classic. The novel’s depiction of Aschenbach, a famous writer who feels his powers have waned in old age, is touching and accurate. When Aschenbach goes to Venice for rest and inspiration, Mann turns his considerable descriptive powers to the mysterious and alluring city, with surprises around every corner and love just out of reach. Things don’t work out very well for Aschenbach, but that won’t put a damper on your visit to Venice. Mann envisions the city as a character in itself and his insights will give you a new appreciation for the timeless architecture and atmosphere of Venice.
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
A literary detective novel meets Venice travelogue, The Aspern Papers is a gripping novel by Henry James. Set in Venice in the 19th century, it follows the adventures of Morton Vint, a critic who travels to the city to acquire poet Jeffrey Aspern’s romantic letters to his lover Juliana Bordereau. The problem is, Juliana is keeping the letters as a closely guarded secret. What follows is an intriguing tale of interpersonal intrigue and manipulation as Vint tries anything he can to locate the famous correspondence. There’s no better setting for such an interior adventure than the city of Venice, whose twisting, turning narrow streets can some times can border on the claustrophobic.
English-language bookstores in Venice
Venice is a small city, but there are no shortage of bookstores here, attesting to the city’s reputation as a literary landmark and an inspiring destination for writers and readers alike.
A charming little bookshop that’s a lot bigger inside than it looks outside. Libreria Studium is an institution, with more than two decades of history, which along with art, is one of the specialities here. You’ll find it just down the street from the doors of San Marco.
Address: Calle Larga S. Marco, 337, 30124
Like many bookstores in Venice, Libreeria Toletta carries mostly books in Italian. But there is a selection of English books here, and stopping by means you’ll be able to browse among the Venice intelligentsia.
Address: Saca della Toleta, 1214
Libereria Acqua Alta
Even if you aren’t planning to buy anything, you’ll definitely want to stop by Libreeria Acqua Alta. As the name suggests, this place has gone under the flood waters more than once. No matter, it’s the most beautiful bookstore in the world according to its owners and faithful regulars. All the amazing towers of book are stacked inside bathtubs and bins that are waterproof. If you wander around enough you might even find a gondola in one room!
Address: Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, 5176, 30122
Are you planning a trip to Venice? We’re Italy travel experts. Just get in touch to start planning the perfect holiday!
American writer Anatole Broyard said that Rome was “A poem pressed into service as a city.” When you visit Rome you’ll know exactly what he meant. But in fact you don’t have to visit Rome to get a feel for the magic of The Eternal City. And we might add that many works of fiction have taken inspiration from Rome, so it’s not only a poem. In this blog I’ll share my favorite books about Rome. But first, what can I say about the city?
The capital of Italy is vibrant, energetic and stylish. While thoroughly modern in sensibility, Rome is home to some of the world’s most important works of classic art and architecture. This city has been an epicenter for culture, politics and religion for more than 2,500 years. Of course, the museums are fantastic. Think of the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Vatican. There are more than enough sights to keep even the most active tourists busy in Rome. Even somewhere as popular as Rome you can find places just off the tourist trail and bustling with locals.
But it’s also nice to slow down and enjoy Rome’s famous cafes and restaurants. They can be just as beguiling as the buildings. Lounge with an espresso on the Campo de Fiori and watch the changing light on the fountains and facades in a piazza. Visit the Vatican and explore some of the world’s most beautiful churches. Rome really comes alive at night. That’s when restaurants and wine bars bring a renewed vitality to the city. You can also take day trips from Rome to local vineyards, olive groves, and other places producing regional delicacies. No matter what your interests, Rome will be an enjoyable destination.
Every visitor to Rome will be enticed by the city’s charm. And before you get there, pick up one of these books, or better yet, find them at one of Rome’s English-language bookshops!
The Ragazzi by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pasolini might be better known as a controversial film director, but he was also an accomplished poet and novelist. This novel follows 12-year-old Riccetto, a young boy growing up in the notorious Roman slums of Monteverde. Pasolini shows the often-ignored underbelly of Rome, a place of peasants and thieves who use their own dialect. It is a vivid and sometimes startling portrayal of what it’s like to grow up in Rome without a real connection to the history and beauty of the parts of town that tourists frequent.
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams
Fresh off the success of his famous play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” American writer Tennessee Williams moved to Rome for several years beginning in 1948. While in the city he wrote this lovely short novel which narrates the story of a middle-aged widow named Karen Stone. An actress, Stone is trying to deal with the death of her husband and her own ageing. Drifting through the city she observes the historic allure of Rome. Williams captures the beauty and mystery of the city and puts a surprise twist on the ending of the story that’s sure to surprise you.
Rome Tales by Helen Constantine
This collection of short stories about the city of Rome throughout history is just delightful. Diverse voices, time periods and literary styles all come together around the theme of the city as setting and even character. There are 20 Italian authors collected in the book. Reading so many different interpretations of Rome and its magic and marvels will convince you that Rome truly is the Eternal City.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
This is a rare book because it is both a novel and a history lesson. A fictionalized autobiography of Claudius that is set in the waning days of the Roman Empire, it is a masterpiece of imagination. You could read a traditional history book to prepare you for your visit to Rome, but this will do just as well and is much more interesting. The BBC made a television show based on the novel in the 1970s and it’s easy to see why it was so popular.
English-language Bookstores in Rome
The Almost Corner Bookshop
Founded by an Irish expat, this is a cozy, welcoming bookshop that specializes in both new releases and old favorites. There really is a little bit of everything here, so if you’re looking for a good book while traveling, stop by! Address: Via del Moro 45
This is a massive bookstore and cafe that’s worth visiting even if you’re just going to look around. The majority of the books are in Italian but there is a large selection of new English books as well. There are several branches of La Feltrinelli throughout Rome, but the one on Largo di Torre Argentina is one of our favorites. Come to check out the books and stay for an espresso and an Italian treat!
Address: Largo di Torre Argentina, 5/A
The Open Door Bookshop
You’ll find this comfortable used bookshop in the atmospheric Trastevere district. They have just about everything here, with a huge collection of books in many languages, including English. This place has been in Rome for nearly 50 years and always run by the same family. So it has a local, authentic atmosphere that’s perfect for bookworms. It’s charming, to be sure! Address: Via della Lungaretta, 23
Are you planning a trip to Rome? We’re Italy travel experts. Just get in touch to start planning a perfectly tailored holiday with all the local highlights.
Trieste is a city like no other. A true mix of cultures, Trieste exudes Italian, Austrian and Slovenian influences. That’s what makes visiting Trieste so special: you can experience different cuisines, architectures and cultures all on one holiday in a single destination. This has always been a city in-between. Let’s take a look at how you can make the most out of your visit!
Austro-hungarian nobility, Italian charm
It’s no surprise that Trieste’s origin story sounds like a who’s-who list of mighty civilizations. Back in 178 BC the Romans founded a colony here called Tergeste. Due to its favorable location on the sea it became a wealthy and powerful port almost immediately. Over the next centuries everyone from the Byzantines, the Goths and the Lombards as well as the Venetians ruled here. Finally, in 1382, an independent Trieste submitted to Austrian rule, ushering in the cultural heyday of the city.
But the volatility didn’t end there. After World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste was assigned to Italy, along with large parts of Croatia and Slovenia. Then in World War II the region went over to Yugoslavia, making Trieste the capital of the multicultural Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
Today’s Trieste is a proud mix of cultures and architectural styles. Nowhere is this more evident than in the religious architecture. You’ll see everything from Greek Orthodox churches to Jewish Temples and Catholic Cathedrals. The old families who have lived here for ages also show an interesting mix of Austro-Hungarian formality and Italian charm. For lovers of history and architecture, this is a pleasing palimpsest city. Visiting Trieste is an instant history lesson.
Owing in part to its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste has no shortage of fine coffee houses. If you find yourself facing a day of misty sea breezes, or if you just need a pick me up and want to bask in some old-time elegance, we highly recommend popping into some of the best cafes in Trieste.
A list of our favorites would including the Antico Caffè San Marco, which will remind you of the coffeehouse culture of Vienna. And over near the Canal Grande you’ll find the Caffè Stella Polare, an elegant and atmospheric cafe where you can also enjoy lunch or a light dinner as you watch the people come and go along the rippling waters of the canal.
Follow the footsteps of James Joyce
James Joyce, the beloved Irish author, is one of the most famous inhabitants of Trieste. He lived in the city between 1904 and 1920. While here, he wrote most of Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his most famous works.
Today you can still visit some of the places Joyce frequented in Trieste. He tended to enjoy his breakfast at Pasticceria Caffè Pirona, an Art Nouveau bakery and cafe. His favorite item on the menu? Presnitz, a fig roll pastry. You can still find them in many of Trieste’s cafes. Joyce lived at 32 Via San Nicolò, in the same building where he taught English at the Berlitz School. Right next door you’ll find the famous Umberto Saba Antiquarian bookshop, which Joyce frequented. It looks almost the same as it did in Joyce’s day!
Other things to do in Italy
We’re big fans of Italy here at JayWay. In fact, we love it so much that we offer two ways to see the country. You could go as part of a small group tour focusing on regional food, history and culture with our expert guide and Italy Country Manager Daniele. In fact our Veneto & Friuli itinerary includes a half day in Trieste. Or go in classic JayWay style, traveling semi-independently with a complete vacation package including the benefit of our local staff’s assistance before and during your trip. Either way, you’ll have an unforgettable Italian vacation.
Europe is a fantastic travel destination at any time of year. There’s never a reason not to go. But there are some very unique festivals and feast days that are unlike anything you’ll encounter elsewhere. So if you time your visit right, you can really experience something special, from diving for crucifixes to frantic folk music processions. Here’s a roundup of our favorite.
One of the many vocal groups at the Klapa Music Festival in Omiš, Croatia. (Image courtesy of http://fdk.hr/festival-in-omis/ )
Klapa Music Festival in Omiš
When:29 June-21 July
The Klapa Music Festival is much more than a music festival. It’s actually a competition each summer in this beautiful Croatian riverside city. The competition takes place among groups of singers singing in a traditional Croatian style in the town’s main squares. They do it day after day until one group is declared a winner. The music is beautiful, haunting and very traditional.
Getting there: Split is the nearest major city to Omiš. If you’re traveling through Croatia, we highly recommend making a road trip to this special little city.
Spancirfest in Varazdin
This is a decidedly local street and music festival, with several days of costumes and concerts, along with local crafts and handmade products. Of course, there’s also plenty of delicious local food and wine. Thousands of people from the city and the region flood the streets to celebrate, remember, and have a good time.
Getting there: Varazdin is about an hour’s drive from Zagreb. A great day trip!
Alka in Sinj
Alka is a special horse riding competition with 300 years of tradition. Since 1715 locals in Sinj have been celebrating victory over the Ottoman army this way. The festivities include horses, traditional uniforms and much more.Getting there: Sinj is about an hour by car from Split.
The Czech Republic
A Moravian folk band at the Pálava Wine Harvest Festival in Mikulov. (Image courtesy of http://www.mikulov.cz/tourism/wine-and-viticulture/wine-events/palava-wine-harvest)
Pálava Wine Harvest Festival in Mikulov
When: 7-9 September
Czechs may drink more beer than anyone else in the world, but there’s also a rich heritage of winemaking here, especially in the eastern part of the country. In September of each year you can find dozens of wine harvest festivals throughout the Czech Republic. The Pálava wine harvest is one of our favorites. You’ll have to try the burčák, a sweet partially fermented wine that’s only available in the late summer. But there are plenty of other great vintages to try. It all takes place in Mikulov, close to the Austrian border. Expect costumes, traditional music, fantastic food and of course plenty of wine.
Getting there: We highly recommend visiting Mikulov and the Moravian region on any trip to the Czech Republic. Prague should be first on your list, but if you have a few days in the country, don’t miss Mikulov!
The costumed parades at Faschen in Munich, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Usien)
Fasching in Munich
When: Mid-January to mid-February
Carnival season in Germany lasts a whole month, and Munich’s celebrations are a fine example of just how festive it can get. There seems to be something happening every day, from a parade of clowns to a so-called “Dance of the Market Women,” which takes place at Viktualienmarkt on Shrove Tuesday. This tradition of dancing in the market originates in the early 19th century. Along with the street parades, many bars and restaurants host parties of their own.
Getting there: Munich is a vibrant city that can easily be worked into an itinerary that takes you through Germany or into neighboring countries in Central Europe.
The parade of Busós at Busójárás in Mohács, Hungary. (Photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/pg/busojarasmohacs)
Busójárás in Mohács
The most important event in Hungary’s carnival season, Busójárás is held each year to usher in the end of winter. The main event, besides the live music, eating and drinking, is a parade of Busós, or local men dressed in traditional scary costumes. The whole thing lasts for a week and can get pretty wild, nonetheless it’s an annual event that’s recognized by UNESCO.
Getting there: Mohács is on the border with Croatia.
A traditional singing group at Valfino al Canto in Abruzzo, Italy. (Image courtesy of: https://www.facebook.com/ValfinoAlCanto/)
Valfino al Canto in Arsita, Abruzzo
When: 9-11 August
This is a festival celebrating folk music in all its forms in Italy. The wine flows freely and so do the songs. It’s amazing how folk music is still an intrinsic part of Italian culture and nowhere is clearer than in Abruzzo in August. The atmosphere is informal but that doesn’t mean locals don’t take it seriously. The high point of the festival might be the fantastic banquets where you can taste the mouthwatering local speciality of coatto, lamb stewed in pots on the square all day long.
Getting there: Abruzzo is a simple day trip or overnight from Rome.
Easter Week in Italy
Easter week in Italy deserves a blog post in itself. Or really a whole website. This is a Catholic country after all, and Easter is the high point of the Catholic year. It all starts on Holy Thursday, with a special mass and a ritual foot washing. On Holy Friday there’s a solemn afternoon mass and then a procession reenacting the Way of the Cross. The biggest one in the country takes place at the Vatican and it’s televised nationally. At 3pm you’ll hear the bells ringing, reminding stragglers to get to Mass.
Another Mass takes place on Holy Saturday but the real attraction takes place at the Easter Vigil that night, usually involving candles and a dramatic procession. But Easter Sunday is when things really come into their own. Most towns and villages have their own exhibitions and parades to honor the religious feast. In Florence you can see the 300-year-old tradition of the Scoppio del Carro, or the explosion of the cart. It is what it sounds like, and it’s supposed to ensure a good harvest and good luck.
The hooded Easter procession in Enna, Sicily. (Photo courtesy of: http://www.visitsicily.info/en/the-procession-of-the-mysteries/)
Good Friday Procession, Enna, Sicily
Easter Processions, with locals carrying statues from the city’s cathedral or main church around the city center, are a common sight in Italy. Probably the most eerie is that in the central Sicilian town of Enna. On Good Friday hooded confraternities (think Spanish Inquisition attire) shoulder wooden beams supporting statues. Enna is just a one-hour drive from Catania. Some towns in Puglia stage similar events too.
Easter Monday is also a holiday, and most locals spend the day picnicking and getting together with friends and family.
Getting there: There are Easter feasts just about anywhere in Italy, so check with your local JayWay contact once you’ve booked your trip with us!
San Gennaro Feast Day in NaplesWhen: September 19
If you’ve seen Easter in Italy you know the country takes its Catholic feast days seriously. Naples hosts this important celebration, when thousands of locals gather in the Naples Cathedral and square outside. They’re hoping to catch sight of the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Gennaro. It’s a powerful sight, to say the least!
The friendly local celebrations at the Kaziukas Folk Fair in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Kaziukas Folk Fair, Vilnius
When: Early March
This folk arts and crafts fair is held in Vilnius in early March, and dates back to the early 17th century. The fair occupies a large part of the city center, from Gediminas Avenue, Cathedral Square, Pilies Street, all the way to the Orthodox Cathedral and almost to the borders of the Uzupis neighborhood. Wherever you turn you’ll find stalls, pavilions, and processions! This is the perfect festival for anyone who loves handmade souvenirs. And if you’re looking to sample local cuisine, you’re in luck too. Don’t miss the riestainis, which are Lithuanian bagels.
Getting there: If you’re visiting Lithuania, Vilnius should definitely be on your list of destinations. Another great city, Kaunas, is about 90 minutes away by car.
Lake Ohrid is a wonderful destination in Macedonia where you can swim and sail between bouts of admiring the beautiful landscape and impressive ancient architecture. This special feast day for Orthodox Christians involves diving into the chilly waters to grab a wooden crucifix. The tradition goes back to the times of the Byzantines. Bragging rights and a year of health are promised to the winner. Hundreds of locals dive in, with even more cheering them on from shore. You’re more likely to visit Ohrid in summer though (the water is a lot warmer!) and from the 12th July to 20th August every year there’s an International Music Festival which combines folk and pop music from the whole Balkan region.
Getting there: Lake Ohrid is an ideal two or three-night stop on a tour of Macedonia, about three hours from the capital Skopje. It fits well into a tour that includes neighbors Albania or Serbia.
One of the many concerts at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. (Photo courtesy of: http://www.jewishfestival.pl/)
Jewish Culture Festival, Krakow
Krakow has a vibrant Jewish community and always has. This festival is the biggest event on Krakow’s cultural calendar, at least where Jewish heritage and history is concerned. World-class Jewish musicians and scholars from around the world converge on the city each June for more than a week of concerts, performances and lectures. If you have an interest in Jewish heritage, or if you just like fantastic music, this festival is highly recommended.
Wianki Midsummer Festival, Krakow
Wianki is a nation-wide celebration of midsummer in Poland. You’ll find celebrations in cities throughout the country, including Krakow. Originally connected with Pagan traditions, the festival has evolved over the years while maintaining its roots. Communities and civic groups make wreaths and float them down the river, a process that used to be used to tell the future. You can also look forward to parades, concerts of classic Polish folk music, and traditional costumes.
Getting there: Krakow is a definite must-see city for any visit to Poland, as it’s one of the country’s cultural hearts. It makes a nice visit on its own, or as part of a larger trip through Poland and Central Europe.
Are you planning a vacation to Central Europe? We’re travel experts in Central Europe and we’d love to help. Drop us a line and we can put together a personalized travel plan!
Team USA might not have made it to the Finals, but if you’re traveling in Europe this summer there will be no escaping the excitement around Football’s Greatest Show on Earth. Most of the Continent is mad for soccer (call it football when you’re there, please) and there will be plenty of places across many of our destinations where you can watch the World Cup and soak up the local vibe. From June 14th to the 28th is the group stage, the most intensive period, with three matches a day. After that the schedule is less packed, but since it’s the knockout stage, the pressure is on!
Of the countries we cover, Russia qualified as hosts while Croatia, Serbia, Germany and Poland went through the qualifying group stages.
But even if you’re visiting a country that didn’t qualify, there will often be places showing the game. In summer in Europe there will always be nationals of a country up for catching their team in action and even if not, locals may well be watching anyway.
With the games taking place so close to the Central Europe timezone, kickoffs are at quite sociable times, between 1pm and 9 pm.
We asked our colleagues across all our destinations to suggest the best places to catch the action, and we’ve assembled a thorough list of everything from sports bars to beer gardens to city squares that will become huge fan zones.
Serbia’s last World Cup was in 2010, and they’re glad to back, which you’ll see in full effect if you go to watch one of the Serbia games!
Wurst Platz: It might be a bit difficult to find for tourists, but if you ask anyone on the street they will definitely know where this place is. This used to be called Sport Cafe and now it’s Wurst Platz. It has giant TV screens and everyone goes there for the major matches. The food is really good and it’s not expensive. The location is right across from the Republic Square so it’s very central.
Passenger’s Bar: This is another great place in the center, just below the Faculty of Math and Chemistry and the famous Students’ Park. It’s comfortable, with a great garden and a variety of beers and drinks. The food is good as well. It’s best to reserve a seat up front!
Endorfin Bar: This bar is very cosmopolitan, a cozy place with good food and unique drinks. There are three big screens for the World Cup. It is a bit pricier and a bit posh, unlike the truly local bars. It’s just a few blocks from Passenger’s Bar in the direction of the Republic Square.
Obilicev venac Street: This place is located in the pedestrian zone just behind Knez Mihailova, which is the main street in the center. On this street there are more than 35 bars and cafes. All of them are great for watching matches and are usually full.
With Germany the defending champions and favorites to triumph again, you can bet the locals will be fired up for their games!
Prater Beer Garden: A nice beer garden in a cool area with an open-air screen. Get there early because it fills up fast!
Kulturbrauerei: This is a beautiful, historic brewery which is now a complex of art galleries, cinema and clubs. Entrance is three euros and begins two hours before the game.
Fanmeile: With big screens by the Brandenburg Gate, this place is always very crowded and touristy but it has quite a good atmosphere.
Mercedes Welt: In case of bad weather, it’s free to go into Mercedes World and watch the game on the big screen.
Most people take to the pubs & terraces in and around Bucharest’s old town, here’s a few of the best
Halftime: located in the heart of the Old Town on Gabroveni Street, this place has a long standing tradition with soccer games.
Stadio Sports Bar: Central location, on 11 Ion Campineanu Str. (near University Square). This place is unique because it’s built in a huge atrium and thus it’s probably the best indoor location for football matches. There are projections on all surrounding walls and in the middle there’s a “transmissions tower” covered with TV screens.
Beraria H: Located on Kiseleff 32, Beraria H is most likely the largest beerhouse in Europe and it has room for 2500+ people in the same time (indoor & outdoor). Located inside a former Soviet Pavilion and on the shore of Lake Herastrau, this is probably the dream of every football fan. With so many people, TV screens and projections, you actually feel like you’re at the stadium, but with a beer in your hand.
The Romanians are nothing if not enthusiastic about televized sporting events, and there are also going to be some outdoor fan areas set up (video projectors in parks & squares) so there’s really no excuse for missing a game!
Tineretului Park: screen & terrace located the entrance next to Tineretului Metro Station.
Constitution Square: in front of Palace of Parliament
University Square: in front of BCR Bank
Ioan Cuza Park: on Pensionarilor Island
Budapest Park: This huge concert park offers tasty food and drinks and outdoor seating, though it’s a little outside the center.
Erzsébet Square: Near the Aquarium, this is actually the most popular meeting point in the city.
Szabadság Square: Similar to Erzsébet Square, maybe a bit less crowded, but very popular as well.
After crashing out in the first round last time, the Croats will be looking to put up more of a fight in Russia. They’ll have their work cut out for the, they’re in the same group as mighty Argentina and giant-killers Iceland.
Karaka Irish Pub: With a perfect location in the heart of Old Town, this is a great place to watch live sports. It can be crowded so we recommend getting there at least an hour before the game.
Uvala Promenade: This street is full of bars that can be perfect for watching games. Some of the bars we recommend are: Mario (located at the beginning of the promenade), Promenada Bar, and Celtic Bar Belfast. This area is located outside of the city center so we suggest either taking a taxi or getting there by bus. Bus number 6 departs every 10 minutes from Pile Gate to Lapad’s “Posta Lapad” station.
Seeded 6th, the Polish should have a much easier time getting out of the group stage, with Colombia the only real threat in their group.
Irish Pub Pod Papugami: One of the oldest pubs in Krakow. Very centrally located, it has two big screens and seven tv sets.
Stara Zajezdnia: An old tram depot close to the Jewish Quarter, this is now Krakow’s biggest beer hall. It’s possible to sit outside as well.
Pergamin: Great atmosphere, tasty cocktails, and two tv projectors
Browar Lubicz: A sprawling brewery space with five rooms and many tv sets.
Traleibus: A cheap bar with several projector screens.
O’Brians: An Irish pub in the center where they’re always playing sports games.
Slovenians will not be taking part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup but they’re big fans of football and on top of that the president of UEFA is from Slovenia. Therefore you shouldn’t have problems finding somewhere to watch a game or – basically any bar that has TV and beer will be showing it.
As for sports bar, Hiša športa (which literally means ‘House of Sport’, and is in the centre of town) and Lepa Žoga (located close to park Tivoli and offers an escape from the most touristic parts) are probably the best options, but get easily full. Good locations are also Cutty Sark Pub and Lajbah (great place if you’re into craft beer). But as said in Ljubljana you will probably have more problems finding a place that doesn’t show the World Cup than other way around.
Olympiasee: This is an outdoor cinema in Olympic Park. Entry is 6 euros. They’ll play all of Germany’s group matches, plus the last 16 games of the tournament.
Loewenbrauekeller: Indoor and outdoor screens in one of Munich’s nicest breweries.
Riegrovy Sady: A vast beer garden on the edge of a park in the residential Vinohrady neighborhood. With one large and two smaller screens, you can usually get a view. It can be standing room only for some of the more popular matches. Grilled meats on offer and several bars serving nice cold Czech lager to accompany the game.
Prague’s many Sports Bars and Irish Bars: Prague’s got a wealth of Irish bars and sports bars, right in the heart of the old town is the Lion and Ball and the Dubliner, in Mala Strana you’ll find J.J. Murphy’s and off Wenceslas Square, Rocky O’Reilly’s. Food menus feature classic sports bar fare and drinks priced higher than locals like to pay but can be good for atmosphere. If you really want a taste of home, there are even two branches of Hooters.
Scholars Lounge Irish Pub: A cozy spot catering to foreigners.
La Fiaschetta: A very nice place with indoor screens.
Magnolia: A great bar right in the heart of the nightlife.
Alvaro al Circo Massimo: With indoor and outdoor screens, this place is quite big and very nice. It’s also very close to the Colosseum and Lungotevere.
Shamrock Pub: An Irish pub with good food and a big projector screen.
If you’re in Split during the World Cup, visit any of the cafes on the Riva waterfront!
Skanderbeg Square: There are several cafes and pubs on the square that will show World Cup games.
Blloku: Almost all of the bars in this hip neighborhood will show the games.
Hemingway Bar: A smaller, quieter choice.
Old Bazaar: All the bars in the Old Bazaar will be showing World Cup games. Take your pick!
The main square: Usually they put a big screen on the main square with a stage, so you can make an evening of it. The game is usually followed by a concert.
When I think of Tuscany, the first images that come to mind are rolling hills, vineyards and idyllic hilltop towns. But Tuscany is the fifth largest of Italy’s 20 regions and it covers a wide variety of terrain, including some beautiful coastline. There’s much more to La Bella Toscana!
Without a lofty position to defend itself from attackers back when it was in competition with Florence, Lucca needed a different defensive ploy and to this day the city’s Renaissance-era ramparts are still mostly intact. But they’ve long since been converted into a pedestrian promenade, making a bike ride around the walls an almost compulsory part of any visit to the city. Some of our partner hotels even have a fleet of bikes available for free use by their guests. Now that’s service! If your hotel doesn’t offer bikes there are plenty of rental shops around town too.
A section of the pedestrian and bike path atop Lucca’s city walls
The historical centers of Tuscany’s other major cities, Florence and Siena, are nowadays mostly abandoned by locals in favor of the tourist crowds, but Lucca retains a vibrant feeling. It’s just far enough out of the way that it’s not beset by too many day trippers and the city doesn’t have so many hotels.
Lucca’s history stretches back much further than the Renaissance of course. The Romans were here, and the very center of the city still preserves the original Roman street plan. The Piazza dell’Anfiteatro (above) is a bit of a giveaway too, though you have to use your imagination to picture the amphitheater (see right), since it has been built upon and around by everything that came after.
What to Eat
The food in Tuscany is certainly hearty, but in Lucca they take things a step further. There’s a starter, pasta and dessert all named after the city and although filling, each should be included in your dining plans when you’re in town. Zuppa Lucchese is a bean and vegetable soup that’s also vegan friendly. Tordelli Lucchesi is a dish of meat-filled tortelli or ravioli with a delicious meat ragu. Yes. Meat inside and out. Which you then heap a good few spoonfuls of parmigianno onto. Dessert is no more subtle either. The “dolce” version of Zuppa Lucchese is a mess of broken cookies, in-season strawberries and a creme patissiere or custard. Save room for it though, it’s divine. It’s hard to get a bad meal in Lucca by eating the local specialties but the pizzas I tried were not worthwhile. Lesson learned! Book your Italian tour including some time in Lucca with us and you’ll get our tried and tasted tips on the best spots to try these local specialties.
A Wellspring of Composers
Lucca is the birthplace of several composers but the most prolific among them was Giacomo Puccini, pictured above, whose operas are a fixture in most companies’ repertoires. Just off Piazza Cittadella you’ll find a museum dedicated to Puccini located in his birth house.
With all that classical pedigree, you might expect the Lucca Summer Festival to be focused on orchestral works, but that couldn’t be further from the truth and acts performing at the 2018 edition include Norah Jones, Queens of the Stone Age, Ringo Starr, Roger Waters and Lenny Kravitz.
The City of 100 Churches
San Michele in Foro
You’re never far from a place of prayer in Lucca but the most impressive churches in the city are the Chiesa di San Michele in Foro and the Duomo (Cathedral). The first was built on the site of the Roman forum and notable mostly for its intricate facade with four loggias. Atop is a four-meter statue of Michael the Archangel. The Cathedral of San Martino’s exterior looks a little off since it’s not symmetrical (pictured below), but it’s also quite interesting. The focal point is an equestrian statue of San Martino. Inside is where the true artistic gem lies, literally. The Volto Santo, or “Holy Countenance,” is a large-scale walnut crucifix guarded inside an octagonal chapel by Matteo Civitali which according to legend was carved by the same Nicodemus who helped bury Jesus after the crucifixion. It is purported to show the “true face of Christ.”
The reality is a bit more nuanced. The present crucifix is a 13th century copy because the original (which also wasn’t truly the original) had been chipped away by relic-seeking pilgrims. The Duomo is home to another masterpiece, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, upon which is a Sleeping Beauty-like life-size marble sculpture of the wife of the Lord of Lucca – Paolo Guinigi. Created by Jacopo della Quercia in 1406 to Guinigi’s commission after his young wife died in childbirth aged just 26, this is one of the most touching pieces of art you’ll find in a church anywhere.
What to Do in and around Lucca
Snapping a selfie in Pisa
Besides touring Old Town and biking the walls, you’ll want to climb at least one of Lucca’s two towers. My favorite was the tree-topped Guinigi Tower. Heading out of Lucca, you have Pisa very close by. It’s just half an hour by train. Want to do more than gawk at the Leaning Tower? We can arrange for a spot on a walking tour that will give you a new appreciation for this classic victim of hit-and-run (or should that be selfie-and-run?) tourism. You’re also not far away from Carrara, source of most of Italy’s marble. A half-day tour that includes exploring the quarry in a 4×4 is a jaw-dropping experience. Finally, this being Tuscany, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest a winery visit. Although not well known, the vineyards around Montecarlo di Lucca have been cultivated for over a thousand years. Group or private tours are offered.
Stay a Few Days
If you’re inspired to include some time in Lucca on your next trip to Italy, we can prepare a customized itinerary that combines this beautiful city with others in Tuscany, the Cinque Terre, the northern Lakes, Venice or Rome. We’ve checked out all the best hotels in Lucca to include our custom vacation packages too.
After six months living in Italy and traveling from the top to the bottom and back again, I think I can safely say I’ve seen it all when it comes to the Italian way of driving.
Italy’s North – South Divide
First of all, it’s fair to say that the Italian driving style differs from north to south. In the north, close to Switzerland and Austria, drivers are a little more aware and respectful of other road users. But as you make your way south, that ceases to be the case. In Sicily’s cities, you really need to have your wits about you. There are certain constants however…
Autogrill and the various similar entities are highway rest stops with a café and a canteen-style restaurant. The food’s actually edible and the coffee is decent and cheap. A stop at one of these is mandatory on any long journey. Try to avoid the temptation to pick up wine here though, as it’s usually not very good. If there’s a good price on parmigianno, however (17 Euros per kilo or less), go crazy. You’re allowed to take hard cheese back to the US. Some of them have a walkway between the two sides, which is where the picture above was taken from.
It seems that blinkers are an all-or-nothing deal. Some people will steadfastly refuse to use them. Others love the clicking sound so much they leave them on long after they’ve changed lanes.
Italians are keen cyclists plus a lot of the more touristy areas like the Amalfi Coast are very popular with cyclists from abroad. Expect to wait quite some time behind them before an overtaking opportunity presents itself.
Expect the Unexpected
In line with the Fluido ethos detailed below, if you see someone ahead of you approaching a junction and you think “no, there’s no way they’d be crazy enough to pull out in front of me,” think again. They just might. Maybe only in 2 out of 10 cases (higher in the south), but it’s an eventuality we suggest preparing for.
Something that can generally be relied on is that your fellow road users are operating on a principle known as “fluido.” Just like water will fill up all available space, Italians seek to do so on the road. Forget sensible minimum braking distance – if there’s a gap between you and the car in front, expect someone to try and dive into it.
A whole article could be written on Italian gas stations. If you’re used to a well-stocked convenience store with pumps under a big canopy where you roll up, fill your tank, stroll inside, pick up some snacks and pay for your gas, be aware that these are not common. Gas stations can be as stripped down as a couple of pumps on the sidewalk. They might not be staffed. They might not take credit cards. If they are staffed, watch out for the dual prices. There’s usually a “fai da te” or “self” price, which is lower, and a “servito” price, where you’ll be paying between 10c and 40c per litre (there are 4 litres in a US gallon) for the pleasure of someone pumping the gas for you. Some pumps are designated as self-service and some with an attendant. Make sure you pick the right one or you’ll pay extra and still do the work yourself. In many places, you’ll need to pay for the gas before you put it in the car. Returning a rental with a full tank may not be so easy when you need to guess how much you need to put in. In general, always have 10-20 Euros in cash on you for gas just in case you run low.
International Driving Permit
The big question – do you need one? Yes, and no. No, your rental company won’t ask to see it. If you get stopped by the police, they might. Don’t take the chance, it’s cheap. Just get it from your local AAA office and quit worrying.
In some parts of Italy lane markings it seems are optional. Either they were there, but they faded, or they never got painted. People get by, literally. A stretch of road that looks like it should have three lanes is treated as if it has four. Best just to try and blend in, follow someone else who looks like they know what they’re doing, and be fluido!
Parking in Italy is predictably complex. In many parts of Europe blue lines signify places you need a residents’ permit to park while white lines signify places you can park if you pay. In Italy, blue lines are meter bays and white lines signify free spaces. Yellow lines are either disabled parking spots or for residents only, so avoid those unless you want your car ticketed or towed.
When parking in a blue-line bay, look for the nearest parking meter. Take a note of your car’s registration plate as some require you enter that before getting your ticket. Once you have it, place it printed side up somewhere clearly visible on top of the dash. In Italy Monday through Saturday are considered working days. You might see that holy days, denoted by a cross (Sundays only) are free. It’s still worth putting in the minimum amount to get a ticket that you can put on the dash to ward off any fines.
You might also see some parking spaces that give you limited free parking (15 minutes to a couple of hours) but require you to show when you arrived. Your rental car probably has a blue and white clock/disc somewhere. Set that to the time of your arrival and put it on the dashboard.
There’s an app that I’ve used, successfully, to pay for parking – MyCicero, which uses GPS to find where you are, and tells you the parking cost. You enter your car’s registration number and choose how long to park, then pay with credit you’ve purchased in the app using a credit card. It also allows you to buy train tickets and public transport tickets in some cities, like Rome, so it’s pretty handy all round. There are other apps that are specific to parking and that have wider acceptance, like EasyPark Italia. To use either you’ll need a data plan or wifi access though.
There are also public and privately owned multi-story parking garages. Prices for these vary widely and in places like Rome you can pay at least $40 a day to park. Hotel parking is usually similarly priced.
You may on occasion come across a situation where an unkempt but “helpful” gentleman, usually wearing a cap of some kind, will advise you on where you can park. Italians refer to these characters as “parcheggiatore abusivo” – no translation is required I feel. They are definitely not to be trusted as they’ll often charge you to park somewhere it is forbidden so when you return you’ll also have a fine to pay. Follow the parking regulations outlined above.
Roads Can Be Terrible, or Cease Existing
This is less of a problem in wealthier parts of the country like Veneto, but from Rome south, potholes are common. In Sicily you might find roads with warning signs (yet you can still drive past the signs unknowingly, since they’re all in Italian) that really shouldn’t be attempted in anything other than a 4×4. Parts of the road may have fallen in and you’ll find yourself navigating a small trench. Rail crossings can be treacherous too – slow down. A lot.
As you’re in the homeland of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and more, expect to see some serious cars on the roads. Don’t try and race them! Do go and visit the factory museums though.
Italy’s highway tolls run the gamut from exorbitant in the north to trifling in the south. It has something to do with relative income levels, maybe. You can ask your GPS/Google to route you via non-toll roads, but the journey time will often be much longer if you’re traveling far. Certainly the back roads are more scenic and you never know what you’ll find, but you could spend more on gas than you save, plus you’ll lose a lot of time. Because of the high prices, traffic jams are rare on toll roads.
Usually the way the toll system works is that when you join the highway you’ll stop at a barrier and take a ticket. Keep this somewhere easy to get to (usually there’s a strap on the driver’s-side sun visor to slip it behind). If you see a toll gate that just has a blue or blue and yellow Telepass sign on it, do NOT go through it. That’s for a credit-based system where you have a sensor placed in the car. Your rental almost certainly won’t, unless that was specifically added at the rental desk. Running a toll will cause you problems later. When you come to your exit from the highway you’ll find either manned or automated toll gates. Above them you’ll see signs indicating whether they take cash, card or telepass. You may notice there’s often a line at the cash ones and none at the card-only ones. This is because Italians have a deep mistrust of paying by card. They may have had an experience where the card is swallowed by the machine, or the payment is rejected, at which point a slip is spat out that will require you to go to a post office and pay, or pay online somehow later – the barrier opens but you’d better pay up later! In general it’s better to have cash (crisp notes work best, or lots of 1 & 2 Euro coins) and use a cash-accepting gate.
Italy’s landscape is jaw-droppingly beautiful and on most roads you’ll find places to stop and take a photo. Try not to brake too suddenly when you see one of these. And if you miss one there will probably be another one with an equally beautiful vista just ahead.
A ZTL is a “Limited Traffic Zone.” They are sometimes permanent, and sometimes apply only during certain times. The instructions for these are only ever written in Italian. ZTLs are designed to limit the amount of vehicles entering historic city centers. In some cases, by discouraging you they’re doing you a big favor. Some of the streets in these towns are incredibly narrow and really only best navigated by a local.
Usually if the ZTL isn’t permanently in force or the times aren’t completely consistent you’ll see a digital display with a sign that will say “Varco Attivo” or “Varco Non Attivo” (Gate Active or Gate Not Active). Varco Attivo means you should only enter the ZTL if you have permission, which you won’t have unless you’re staying at a hotel inside the ZTL. The hotel can send your car registration number to the police to make sure you’re not fined for entering.
I might have made driving in Italy sound incredibly daunting, and in fairness, the traffic of a city like Naples or Palermo can be traumatising, but once you’re out of the cities it’s plain sailing. If you’re worried about getting out of the city in a rental car then pick one up from an airport – take a taxi or transfer there and you’re already clear of the madness! Some of the best of Italy is out in the countryside, but public transport is patchy at best so if you’re on a budget it’s the only way you can get to some places.
Everyone needs some refreshment when they’re exploring new cities. But often travelers find themselves reaching for the old familiars rather than trying something unusual. Now that Coca Cola is available just about everywhere, it can be harder to branch out. But one great part of traveling is getting out of your comfort zone. There’s no easier way to do that than with local food and drinks. The unique political and commercial history of the region means that soft drinks from Central Europe are particularly interesting.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics all have a wide variety of soft drinks. Some are quirky and some are an acquired taste. All are worth trying at least once. Here are our favorite.
Photo courtesy of Loimo
Almdudler: This carbonated, sugar-free soft drink tastes something like fizzy apple juice. They’ve been making Almdudler for over 50 years according to a secret recipe that includes 32 Alpine herbs.
Kvass: This beverage comes from rye bread. It’s a classic Baltic drink that promotes good digestion and general well-being.
Kefir: A fermented milk drink that tastes something like yogurt, kefir comes in unflavored and fruit-flavored versions.
Photo courtesy of pipi.com.hr.
Pipi: Everyone in Croatia knows this fizzy citrus drink. They sell it in retro packaging, and there’s an orange and a lemon version.
Jamnica Sensation: Lemon or lime-flavored mineral water. Perfect for the summer heat!
Cedevita: Mix this instant vitamin drink powder with water. The most popular flavors are orange and lemon.
Elderflower syrup: Popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe, elderflower syrup is a natural syrup you mix with water to create a sweet drink. You can find it in most grocery stores.
The Czech Republic
Photo courtesy of kofola.cz
Kofola: Another rival to cola they make with a secret recipe consisting of local ingredients. Kofola contains less sugar than usual colas, and also contains 14 herbs and fruit flavors. Available in cans or bottles but best enjoyed on draft at a riverside pub during a bike ride.
Malinovka: You can purchase this raspberry-flavored soda in shops. Many restaurants and bars have it on tap.
Semtex: A popular Czech energy drink that tastes quite a bit like Red Bull. It’s named after the Czech plastic explosive that’s manufactured just a few miles from where the drink was originally produced.
Club Mate: Berlin’s unofficial drink, Club Mate is a fizzy version of yerba mate, a highly caffeinated South American tea. It comes in several different flavors and is sure to put some pep in your step.
Fritz-kola: This soft drink made in northern Germany appears in many nations in the European Union. It is mainly known for its high caffeine content and its strong lemon flavor as well as its distinctive glass bottles.
Spezi and Mezzo Mix: Manufactured under two names, this is a curious combination of cola and orange soda. Sounds strange, perhaps, but it’s quite refreshing!
Traubisoda: A classic Hungarian grape soda. Young people enjoy it today as a retro throwback.
Màrka: Another Hungarian original, this brand of soda comes in various flavors.
Crodino: A bitter carbonated soft drink made from herbs. Many Italians drink Crodino as a substitute for a cocktail at the famous “aperitivo” time in the late afternoon.
Socata: This traditional Romanian soft drink is something like elderflower lemonade. Unlike most of the other drinks on this list, it’s not carbonated.
Russia and Ukraine
Tarkhun: Following the trend of European sodas made with herbs, they make this one with estragon. It’s got a tangy sweet taste that’s quite refreshing.
Riazhenka: This fermented milk drink is something like the kefir that’s served in the Baltics. It’s perfect for breakfast.
Guarana: A popular energy drink in Serbia, this one’s made from extracts of the guarana plant, which contains caffeine (sometimes called “guaranine”), theophylline, and theobromine. Guarana has a caffeine content equivalent to, or more than, most energy drinks.
Photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/Cockta
Cockta: This Slovenian soda has an interesting taste that comes from its unique mix of ingredients, including rose hip, lemon, orange and herbs.
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