Unless you’re a frequent traveler to Europe, deciding where to go and how long to stay can seem overwhelming. Since now is the time to make plans for this travel season, let me share a few tips on what works for us, and hopefully for you.
First, for airlines: Check out which companies provide the most direct route from your starting point. Try to find a non-stop flight to the closest destination on your itinerary…in this post, Rome. Before you book your seat reservation, check out www.seatguru.com to see which seats on your particular aircraft/flight are most comfortable in terms of legroom, location with respect to restrooms, etc. A long-distance flight can be tiring and stressful, so you don’t want to arrive looking like this:
Now, in picking hotel accommodations, many travelers choose tried and true lodging chains, such as Holiday Inn. Even when spending a night near the airport for an early flight, we prefer smaller boutique hotels or B&B’s, where the service is a bit more personal and you have a chance to interact with the locals. Www.tripadvisor.com is a great place to start. Plug in the name of your destination city and look at the reviews. Check out nearby smaller towns, as well. For the hotels and restaurants I recommend below , just Google them or search Tripadvisor for addresses. Let me know if you can’t find them.
When reading through the comments, I always throw out the very best reviews (perhaps written by the owner’s relatives) and the very worst (which usually involve some disgruntled traveler showing up at midnight rather than expected 5 p.m. check-in and not finding the kitchen open to prepare an evening meal). We have best luck with those establishments where the vast majority of visitors have rated the hotel very good to excellent.
The www.karenbrown.com recommendations have also proved trustworthy overall. And if your tastes and budget run toward higher end accommodations, check out the www.relaisetchateaux.com site.
Try not to schedule a drive of more than a couple hours daily, which gives ample time to make random discoveries off the autostrada. Rest assured you’ll still end up in the car four hours or more, and that’s plenty for one day, what with two-hour lunches and cultural sites to see. Practically all shops close in the early afternoon, and re-open about four. Restaurants stop serving about two p.m., so stop early enough and relax. To determine driving times and best routes, go to www.mymichelin.com.
So let’s say you arrive in Rome. Many hotels will arrange a reasonable driver pick-up at the airport to whisk you into town to your hotel. You can, of course, take a cab, or use the fast train from Leonardo da Vinci/Fiumincino airport.
I’d suggest waiting to pick up your rental car until after your Rome stay. Parking is difficult and expensive, and many of the inner city streets cannot be used without special permits. It’s easy to have your photo taken and later receive a nice ticket via the car rental company, plus a service charge from them. It’s easy to get around Rome on foot and by subway (La Metropolitana), and taxis aren’t that expensive…just hope for a non-smoking driver who doesn’t mind running the AC on a hot and humid day!
Hotel suggestion: We love Trastevere, across the Tiber, yet it’s an easy walk to wherever your feet wish to take you. Hotel Santa Maria and sister hotel Rezidenza Santa Maria. On the city side of the Tiber: Hotel Britannia or Romantik Hotel Barocco.
Restaurant suggestions: For Trastevere: Romolo or Da’Lucia. For Campo de’ Fiori: Antico Forno de’ Fiori. For Pantheon: Girone VI. For Piazza Barberini: Tullio.
Reading suggestion: Any of Steven Saylor’s novels of ancient Rome. I particularly like his series about Gordianus the Finder, a private detective who gets involved with all the great figures of the Roman Empire.
Once you’ve seen the Colliseum and the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona, once you’ve exhausted the guidebook (yeah, like that’s ever going to happen), I recommend getting your rental car at the main railroad station. Reserving in advance with AutoEurope has worked very well for us. They’re a broker for a number of rental firms, so you’ll probably get the keys at a Europcar desk (along the far right corridor as you enter the station; look for the auto and key logo and the word Autonoleggio).
Check over the car for prior damage and take a few photos with your digital camera, in case nothing was marked on your paperwork. Your car pick-up will be in a garage a few blocks from the station car rental office, and you’re not going to want to try to find a parking spot in order to run in and complain. For the most part, Italy is much more lenient when it comes to minor scratches and wounds left by inconvenient parking spots, stone walls, etc., but when you do drop off the rental a dated photo or two showing pre-existing conditions on the day and time of pick-up speaks better Italian than you might. We once dropped off our rental at the Florence airport after I had introduced the right front fender to a stationary stone abutment. The rental clerk walked around the car with her clipboard, took a close look at the deep scar, and shrugged: “Looks great,” she said.
Here are two enjoyable driving trips from the Italian capital. (By the way, driving in Rome resembles playing an active video game, so bring your own GPS with maps installed, or rent one with the car. And familiarize yourself with the vehicle’s controls before you leave the garage. It’s hard enough following the signs out of town and avoiding the forbidden zones. (Should you know you’ve entered a no-entry zone…say to pick up your luggage at your hotel…explain this to the front desk and they will submit a form to the city authorities to get you out of the fine.
Now: drive south about three hours past Naples to the Amalfi coast. Stop at Pompeii along the way to relive the glory that was before Vesuvius buried the thriving city in ash. (Reading suggestion: Pompeii, a novel by Robert Harris.) Stop in Sorrento for lunch, but make your overnighting reservations over the hill in Positano overlooking the striking coastline. You’ll pay a fortune for parking, but it’s worth leaving your car for a boat trip to the island of Capri. If you want to visit the Blue Grotto, go early when the light is best. Mid-day you’ll miss the beautiful azure waters once you’re inside.
Hotel and restaurant suggestion: La Villa Gabrisa in Positano, or Romantik Hotel Poseidon.
Restaurant suggestion in the delightful town of Amalfi : Trattoria da Meme
If you’re driving north from Rome about two hours you should head toward Todi in Umbria, a striking hilltop town and beautiful region. Stay at Tenuta di Canonica (Room Two is nice) and you won’t regret the warm welcome and incredible morning view. But follow instructions carefully…it’s easy to miss. From Todi you can make short driving excursions to Orvieto west, and to Perugia and Assissi east.
That should get you started with a plan. Should you have any special question, don’t hesitate to ask. More on Italian and French travel ideas in coming posts.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon
Fabulous article..made me want to grab my passport and walking shoes..