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Engineers Traveling in Italy - Part 1: Overview

Overview

Over the course of the preceding half century, I’ve traveled to Italy a total of twenty-eight times. As I mentioned in the Foreword to my blog, Italy was the first place I visited outside of North America, in the summer of 1971. I have now visited Italy six different times for periods exceeding a month, and as a result I have become fairly proficient in the Italian language. Beginning in 1996, I taught nine Study Abroad Programs in various parts of Italy over a fifteen-year span (Fig. 1), and in 2019 I renewed this program, most recently in Ravenna. Although the pandemic necessarily curtailed this program for two years, my study abroad program will be renewed in the summer of 2022.


Fig. 1 My First Study Abroad Program in 1996

I have also visited Italy on quite a few other occasions, and to date I can say that I have been to every corner of Italy, excepting Sicily. The cumulative total of my time in Italy exceeds two years of my life, and although Italy was not my first love (that was France), it is by far my favorite place on Earth. For this reason, quite a few of my travel suggestions lie within Lo Stivale (The Boot). This assertion is due to the fact that the geography, history and people of Italy have made it for me the most amazing place I have had the good fortune to visit, and even live within.

Regions in Italy

Italy is composed of twenty regions. Two of these are islands (Sicily and Sardegna), and the remainder are spread out over the length of the mainland, which is mainly mountainous due to the fact that Italy lies on a geologic fault. This fault is active, so that Italy is occasionally subjected to earthquakes. Still worse, there are two active volcanoes in Italy (Vesuvius and Etna), both of which have the capacity to behave quite badly.

As a result of these geographic features, the regions of Italy are quite diverse. Most are mountainous, although the Po Valley in the North is an exception, as well as the Venetian Estuary. The regions of Italy are significantly diverse in both appearance and culture, having been isolated by intermittent invasions during the Middle Ages. Also, it should not be overlooked that Italy did not become a country until 1871, thus allowing me to point out to my Italian colleagues that Texas’ independence predated Italy by 35 years. Weak humor notwithstanding, the point is that Italy’s history is punctuated by cultural diversity, and this proclivity towards disparity has propagated right up to the present.

My favorite Italian regions are (in descending order) as follows: Lombardia; Toscana (Fig. 2); Lazio; Campagnia; Emilia-Romagna; Veneto; Umbria; Basilica; and Puglia. I consider the top six to be essential to any all-encompassing travel itinerary. That is not to say that the remaining regions are not also impressive, for the fact is that there is nowhere in Italy that has failed to impress me.


Fig. 2 Me Overlooking the Tuscan Countryside in Siena

Traveling in Italy

I have flown into numerous airports in Italy, including: Milan Malpensa; Milan Linate; Venice Marco Polo; Pisa Galileo Galilei; Florence Peretola; Rome Fiumicino (Also called Da Vinci); Rome Ciampino; Naples and Cagliari Elmas. These airports are generally all acceptable, but I would recommend the following in order of preference for American travelers: Milan Malpensa; Rome Fiumicino; Venice Marco Polo; and Pisa Galileo Galilei. Indeed, I have never had any problems at any of them (with the exception of one unusual episode in Cagliari years ago).

Flying into Italy is becoming more and more convenient all the time, with direct flights from many U.S. airports. There are also intra-city flights in Italy on Alitalia and Easy Jet, although travelers will want to be careful about luggage weight limitations on many of these flights. In addition, transport to-from Italian airports is generally easy and inexpensive (excepting taxis, of course).

I have driven all over Italy on many occasions, and I have never had an accident, but if you are not familiar with the Italian highway system, you will likely experience quite a bit of frustration. Accordingly, for the novice traveler in Italy, take my advice: driving should be avoided. Unfortunately, Italian drivers are somewhat ambivalent regarding traffic regulations. In fact, auto insurance rates in Italy are the highest in Western Europe due to the rather excessive accident rate. Furthermore, several of the auto rental agencies have invented rather creative ways of extracting hard-earned money from American citizens (they know from your application that you are from the wealthy United States!). I therefore recommend using Avis exclusively (https://www.avis.com), and I suggest that you also join Avis Preferred.

On the other hand, since the turn of the millennium the Italian passenger railway system has become quite modernized, consisting of several levels of train travel including high speed travel in excess of 200 MPH. For those who are new to Italy, this is by far the best way to travel in-country. However, you will want to do your homework before traveling to Italy, and for this I suggest you check the following websites: https://trenitalia.com and https://italiarail.com. You may even decide to book some or all of your train tickets in advance of your travel dates, thereby easing your stress level during your journey.

Next question - should you learn some Italian before traveling in Italy? This is absolutely unnecessary, and frankly, you wouldn’t get very far on this track before your visit. These days most Italians speak English tolerably well, especially those working in the tourist industry. You will therefore find it quite easy to communicate in Italy.

Touring in Italy

Next question – should you take organized tours in Italy? This depends on a number of factors, but I recommend that you avoid lengthy tours (anything more than two consecutive days). Day tours can be quite useful and informative especially in these three large cities: Rome, Florence and Naples. These cities have quite a bit to offer, and finding your way around can be overwhelming, at least in part due to the tourist-induced congestion.

Especially in Florence, you will spend most of your time standing in lines in the blazing hot sun unless you take tours. Do some checking online, and locate a provider that offers skip-the-line tours. These are not cheap, but you will be able to cut your visit time in half (to about two days in Florence), thereby justifying your increased expenditures.

Venice is another matter entirely. Venice is an archipelago in the Adriatic Sea (Fig. 3). The main island is actually a bridge-connected assemblage of numerous islands that are all limited to pedestrian (or waterborne) traffic. Frankly, you don’t need a tour guide for this part of your visit - just start walking! You can’t get lost, because sooner or later you will come to water. Regarding the remaining islands in the estuary, there are at least three worth seeing: Murano, Burano, and Lido. These can all be reached by inexpensive launches right from the Piazza San Marco. However, if you have a penchant for getting lost, you may want to plan an organized tour to these islands.


Fig. 3 View of the Venetian Estuary from the Campanile

Towns in Italy

Now we come to the second level of things to see in Italy – the small towns. Here is my list of favorite small towns and cities in Italy, in more-or-less descending order: Ravenna; Siena; Capri; Pisa; Assisi; Padua; Matera; Amalfi; Tivoli; Montepulciano; Alberobello; Cortona; San Gimignano; Como; Bergamo; Positano; Portofino; Bellagio; Formia; Perugia; and Cinque Terra (actually, five villages ranging along the Ligurian Coast). The first seven of these warrant a minimum of an overnight stay, whereas the remaining ones can be visited on day trips. I will be providing more information about several of these in future blogs.


Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.




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