Time, Italian Style

The numbers we use to understand time might be universal, but as a concept it’s culturally malleable.  For example, in Germany, a place where things are precise, an appointment for 2pm means you are expected there at 2pm.

In the US, a culture of eagerness and over-achievement, for that same appointment, one would expect someone to show up between 1:45 pm and 2 pm if they were serious about it. Maybe 2:05 pm if they weren’t.

In Italy, an appointment for 2pm really means anywhere from, say, 2:30pm to…  never.  

Being late in Italy doesn’t warrant an apology, nor does it have to actually be acknowledged.  One can even exercise their right to not show up at all and offer no explanation.

The concept of time is flexible and changes based on where you go, and in Italy it’s incredibly flexible.  There’s a whole vocabulary in Italian of vague terms that refer to how long things will take:  un’ oretta (a small hour), una decina di giorni (10-ish days), and there’s the different ways to interpret time too, such as “90 days” which could mean literally, 90 days from today, or it could mean 90 “working days” which can take 7 months or more.

It’s basically all meaningless unless, of course, we’re talking about food, in which case time is not so flexible.  

In many countries, we eat when we feel like it.  Breakfast for dinner, 24 hour restaurants, etc.  But in Italy, one doesn’t eat lunch at 11:30.  Ever.  Dinner at 5:00pm?  An Italian would think, “what the hell is that?”.  It makes no sense here to eat dinner that early.

Time in Italy revolves around food.  Think of the clock like this:

Generally speaking, the morning lasts until 12pm, when lunch time (pranzo) begins, lasting until 3pm.  Morning is also the only time one would have breakfast, which in itself is optional – although lunch is not!

Between those times you can have a merenda (a snack) or getting closer to dinner you can go for an aperitivo.  Coffee you can have anytime, but milky coffee drinks only in the morning – while a cappuccino is frowned upon in the afternoon, a caffè latte is tolerated.  And a milky coffee drink is not an apertivo or dessert.

Aperitivo time (what we call wine-o’clock) can be 6:00, maybe 6:30pm, and goes on either until dinner, or can even substitute for dinner depending where you have your aperitivo.

Dinner (cena) begins around 7, 7:30pm when restaurants re-open.  But if an Italian invites you to dinner at their home, they probably expect you there between 8 and 9pm.

All those other numbers that mark the non-food related times of the day?  When in Italy, don’t worry about them.
The moral here is twofold: when traveling in Italy, don’t stress too much about being late.  Go with the flow. Unless it comes to meal times, in which case plan exactly where you’ll be and when so you don’t get caught in that dead zone between 3pm and 7pm.

And remember, l’ora di pranzo è sacra (the lunch hour is sacred).


Family Activities in Rome during the Holiday Season

by Shannon Kenny of ItaliaKids and Elaia Travel

The Christmas holidays are a wonderful time to visit the city of Rome as a family, when the city is adorned festively on what seems like every corner and in every piazza, and the weather is typically still mild. The season in Italy runs from around December 22 to January 6 on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Lucky Italian kids will exchange gifts of sweets and handicrafts with family members and receive a visit from Father Christmas on Christmas Day, when they celebrate by feasting and playing games such as tombola with generations of relatives for good fortune in the New Year, and also on the eve of the Ephiphany, when La Befana, a legendary old lady who rides in on a broom, places treats and gifts in the stockings of good children, and leaves only coal for those who have misbehaved. The La Befana tradition is especially rooted in the history of Lazio, and during the holidays Piazza Navona is transformed into the La Befana Christmas market with lights and decorations, a carousel, and rows of stalls filled with traditional Christmas crafts, ornaments, candied nuts, and typical holiday sweets. Rumor has it La Befana herself occasionally makes an appearance, peering out from a window in the piazza at midnight on January 6…

Another holiday family favorite in Rome is the charming temporary ice rink set up adjacent to the play park next to Castel Sant’Angelo, arguably the best “rink with a view” around. There is also a seasonal outdoor rink at the Parco della Musica, which is transformed into a Christmas Village with music, entertainment, an antique carousel, market stalls, and…of course Santa is there as well. The Christmas markets throughout the city, at Parco della Musica, and in other locales such as the Villa Borghese and Villa Celimontana, play stage to puppet shows and traditional musical performances during the season. Check family event listings on Italiakids.com, Wanted in Rome, and In Rome Now for up-to-date information.

In addition to the live Nativity scenes throughout the city, most famously in St. Peter’s Square, which is revealed at midnight on Christmas Eve, Piazza del Popolo hosts an annual show of hundreds of antique Nativity scenes (presepi) at the Sale del Bramante in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Or the kids can make their own Nativity scenes and learn how Rome has celebrated the season since antiquity at the Arte al Sole arts and cultural holiday workshops in English near Piazza Navona while you enjoy some grown-up time shopping or lingering over lunch.

As is the case with almost every season, many of your family’s memories will likely touch on food during your visit. Romans celebrate on Christmas Eve with a simple menu of fried fish and vegetables, and enjoy a long lingering lunch of roast meats the next day. Bakeries are filled with seasonal sweets and golden-hued cakes like panettone, pandoro, and the Roman pangiallo—so make sure to stop by the forno in Campo dei Fiori, not the least for the smell. Every dessert table will also likely be set with a welcoming bowl of juicy mandarins.

On New Year’s Eve the city is itself a spectacle of music, street performance, and fireworks lighting up iconic views in sites that have hosted such revelries for several millennia, a chance for your family to make new memories while experiencing living history through Roman traditions of celebration.

About the Author
Shannon Kenny is Editor-in-Chief of Italiakids.com, an online resource for families traveling in Italy, Director of the children’s cultural program Arte al Sole, with 6 locations in Italy, and Founding Partner of Elaia Travel, a specialty travel concierge with expertise in family travel to Europe.

Understanding Italian Strikes

Another general strike in Italy has been announced for this Friday, November 14th, that will affect almost all forms of travel and public transport throughout the country.  Such a strike seems like a crippling affair when reported by English news sources, one with the potential to ruin plans and strand travelers.  However, as with everything else in the Bel Paese, strikes are not the same as they are “back home” and the amount of fear and panic they induce is mostly unnecessary.

So how do strikes really work here?  Well, strikes work pretty much the way other stuff works here – that is to say, not very well.  In the US, a strike means the negotiations have failed and the result is a total shutdown until an accord can be reached.  The threat of a strike is powerful because if a strike comes there’s guaranteed to be serious losses.  It’s the end of the line.  And if the strike was ultimately carried out half-assed, then it would undermine the threat of future strikes.

Here that’s not the case.  Here, they are optional.  They’re flexible.  It means, maybe the bus will run, and maybe it won’t.

To understand strikes you have to understand Italian unions.  They operate with or without the support of the people they are calling to strike.  They are essentially independent entities who lobby government for laws that govern workers rights and will affect different categories of employment, but they don’t require employees to join the union in certain sectors to lobby for them.

When you see news about strikes, what you’re seeing is not a notice from organized workers themselves, whose collective voice is being expressed by a union official.  Instead, it’s the union which is calling the workers of that sector to strike – and whether they do or not is up to them.

I get up and I go on strike

A few important things to note, to get a better grasp of how severe a strike can be:

- the trains to the airport from Termini station, such as the Leonardo Express, cannot be affected by strikes.  This is guaranteed by law.

- often, the Freccie, or high speed trains, cannot be affected by strikes – only the regional ones.

- for public transportation, the buses and metro are obligated to run for a few hours that are crucial to get people to and from work – around 8-9am and from 5-6pm.

- workers don’t have to notify employers that they intend to strike, and can’t be reprimanded legally for participating, so companies have to operate in the grey area of not knowing how much a strike will affect them either.

To sum up: a transport strike doesn’t mean that there won’t be buses or that you won’t be able to get where you’re going. It means there will be delays and you can expect to waste some time and have to be a bit flexible and easy going about it.

But, wait, that’s what it’s always like here, isn’t it?

Updated news about the actual hours and the companies/unions involved can be found at this Italian website which is fairly easy to decipher and updated regularly:  http://www.mit.gov.it/mit/site.php?p=scioperi

Day trip from Rome: the beach (without a car)

by Amy Knauff

The Italians’ beloved national holiday Ferragosto has passed, which means summer is starting to wind down – but it’s still hot in Rome, and central Italy’s moderate climate means there’s about a month of potential beach time left.

The good news is that you don’t need a car to get to the beach – there are several different beaches easily reachable by bus or train. The bad news is that the beaches near Rome aren’t known for being particularly beautiful (or clean). Having said that, if you’re willing to go just a little farther out you can find some very nice, clean beaches. And even a day at one of the closer beaches can be fun – if nothing else, it’s a very typically Roman experience.

Ostia / Torvajanica

Ostia is the beach closest to Rome, and it’s packed with Italians all summer long. The water here does not win any cleanliness awards, so taking a dip is up to your own personal squeamish factor (although plenty of people do!). You can pay a fee to go into a stabilimento – an organized beach complex where you rent an ombrellone (beach umbrella) and lettini (loungers) or sdrai (deck chairs). Otherwise, you can “rough it” by going to the part of Ostia known as i cancelli – a stretch of coastline with several free beaches in a row that are identified by numbered front gates (cancello means gate in Italian). Here you just throw down your beach towel wherever you find a free spot of sand. Heading away from Ostia and the cancelli, you’ll get to another beach called Torvajanica. It’s similar to Ostia, but as it’s slightly farther out, it’s a little less crowded and the water is a little cleaner. In Torvajanica, you’ll find both stabilimenti and free beaches.

Do as the Romans do: go early in the morning and stay until evening. Rent an ombrellone and lettino and spend the day tanning, reading, snoozing, strolling along the water, chatting,  playing cards, and taking swims. Have a panino and gelato from the closest bar for lunch, or better yet, if you’re at a stabilimento, take a break from the sun and have a long, leisurely lunch at their (usually cafeteria-style) restaurant. Don’t forget the Italian summer favorite insalata di riso (a cold rice “salad” with mixed vegetables) or pomodori ripieni (baked tomatoes stuffed with rice). Seafood is a good option too. And if you want to be truly Italian, follow up your meal with some fresh fruit (like a juicy peach or slice of watermelon) and an espresso.

Getting there: Take the metro line B (blue line) to Piramide. Exit the metro station straight into the small Porta San Paolo train station (just next to it, you don’t have to go through a turnstile; use the same ticket you used on the metro). Board the train and exit at the last stop, Cristoforo Colombo (about 40 mins). From there, simply cross the piazza and big street to the other side and you’ll find a few stabilimenti there. Otherwise, you can take the bus from right in front of the train station (bus 07) farther away to the cancelli (another 10-20 minutes) or Torvajanica (another 15 minutes or so). Total transportation cost: €1.50 one way.

Santa Marinella

Again, this beach is winning no beauty contests, but it can actually be easier to get to than Ostia, depending on where you’re coming from, and it’s not quite as close to Rome so the train and beaches are not as packed.

Santa Marinella, near Rome’s port Civitavecchia, is mostly full of stabilimenti but there’s one small free beach – tucked away in a corner near a cement wall. Not very picturesque, but if you’re on a budget, it works.

Getting there: Take the train from Termini station (you can also get a train direct from Trastevere station or San Pietro station) – it takes about 1 hour. When you exit the train station, walk straight up to the main road: the sea is in front of you. Make a right on the main road and walk up until you can cross the street and take the stairs down to where the beach is. It’s about a 5-minute walk. Total transportation cost (from Termini): €4.60 one way.

 

Fregene

The swimming is not great  – last time I was here I saw some trash floating in the water. However, the beach is free (and therefore particularly popular with students and young people) so if you’re into sunbathing, it can be fun to just hang out. Fregene is also known for being something of a pick-up scene, so if you feel like flirting and maybe getting a phone number or two, this is the place to go.

The real reason I’m mentioning Fregene, though, is not for the swimming, but for its nightlife. In the summer, several outdoor bars/restaurants on the beach open up and they get packed with people who come for aperitivo (drinks and a buffet) and to watch the sun set. The bar Singita is particularly popular: you can sit at tables, lie on beds (yes, beds), or lounge on big sheets on the sand while you listen to chill “Buddha bar” type music and sip drinks out of pitchers with extra-long straws.

Getting there: Take the train from Termini to Maccarese-Fregene. From outside the Maccarese station, you’ll need to take a local bus (like the 020) to Fregene. Total transportation cost (from Termini): €4.10 one way.

Sabaudia

This one’s a little trickier to get to by public transport, but well worth it. By far this is one of the prettiest, cleanest beaches near Rome. It regularly wins awards for having some of the cleanest beaches/water in the Lazio region. It’s also less crowded, and the beach is rather large so rather than feeling like sardines packed in with rows of lettini, you have room to breathe and even play a game of frisbee without tripping over your neighbors. The lovely San Felice Circeo mountain overlooks the beach (also worth a visit, but sadly, you really do need a car for that one).

Getting there: Take the train from Termini station to Priverno-Fossanova. From there, take the Cotral bus to the town of Sabaudia. From Sabaudia town, there is another bus that goes to the beach, but it’s also possible to walk (about 15 minutes). Total transportation cost (from Termini): €6.10 one way.

Sperlonga

I’ve saved the best for last – in my opinion. It’s also the farthest away, just past Sabaudia. It’s definitely worth it, though, so whenever I have a whole day free to spend at the beach, I go here.

The beach itself is probably prettier at Sabaudia (as it’s less “built up” with stabilimenti), but the water here is equally as clean and beautiful. What wins me over, though, is the town itself. The other beaches on this list have pretty unattractive towns (relatively new, Mussolini-era blocky cement towns), but Sperlonga looks like a little white-washed Greek village. The town’s main square and pedestrian street have a gorgeous view over the beach below. It’s possible to take the bus directly down to the beach, but I always choose to get off first at the town so I can walk through the tiny, labyrinthine streets and stairs to get down to the beach. I also head to the alimentari to get a fresh sandwich made (opt for mozzarella as one of the fillings – being pretty close to Naples, the mozzarella around here is amazing!). You can also get some fresh fruit, snacks, and water, and you’ll be set for the day.

Head down the stairs (follow all the people dressed for the beach, or ask somebody) to the beach below. If you want to go to the free beach, make a left and walk for about 10 minutes. Otherwise, you’ll have no trouble finding a nearby stabilimento.

Getting there: Take the train from Termini station to Fondi-Sperlonga. From right outside the train station, there is a bus that leaves regularly (it coincides with the train arrivals) for Sperlonga town and beach. Total transportation cost (from Termini): €7.90 one way.

Day trip from Florence: Lucca

by Amy Knauff

I’d always heard good things about Lucca, a small town in northern Tuscany, but only after a decade of living in Italy did I finally manage to visit. I was not disappointed – in fact, a few months later when my mom came to visit, I insisted on taking her there too (and it turned out to be one of her two favorite towns in Italy, along with Orvieto).

Lucca is not a major tourist destination – the crowds are bigger in, say, Siena or Pisa – because it doesn’t have any famous sights to see. But that was exactly what I was looking for: something slightly off the beaten path, with some interesting things to see and do, but mostly just a charming town to walk around in and relax.

In fact, it’s the perfect day trip from Florence (it takes between 1 hr 15 mins – 2 hours on the train, €7.20-11) as you can pretty much see it all in one day, at an easy pace.

Here’s how I would spend a day in Lucca:

Exit the train station into the piazza in front (Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli), and stop by the Lucca Tourist Center to pick up a map for €1. Cross the piazza and at the main street, Viale Regina Margherita, turn left. Walk up the street – on your right, you’ll see the old wall surrounding the historic center of Lucca. A little ways up the street, at the traffic light, you’ll see an entrance in the old wall. Cross the street and walk through the arches and you’ll be in the historic center. It takes 10 minutes or so to walk into town.

Head straight to the Guinigi Tower, which opens at 9:30 am (entrance at via Sant’Andrea, 45, cost is €4). This is the most important tower in Lucca, and you can pick it out from anywhere in town as it has a few oak trees growing out of the top of it – a pretty unique sight. It was built by the Guinigi family, who were rich and powerful merchants in the 14th century. There are 230 steps to get to the top. It’s worth it for the gorgeous view of the whole town and the surrounding hillside.

 

Your next stop should be one of the many bike rental shops in town – try Tuscany Ride a Bike on via Elisa, 28. Head over to one of the entrances to the ancient Roman wall that encircles Lucca, and take a ride around on top of the wall. Yes, that’s right – on TOP of the ancient Roman wall. Lucca no longer needs protecting, so the top of the intact wall has become a park – it has grass and trees growing on top of it, and a biking/walking loop that goes all the way around (4 km). You’ll see locals jogging, biking, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, or reading on a park bench. Cycling around the top of the wall high above the town gives you a great view and a feeling of freedom.

After an athletic morning, park your bike and have a hearty Tuscan lunch. I liked Osteria Baralla (via Anfiteatro, 5 ) which had a charming atmosphere and great food. In the cooler months, try one of the filling Tuscan soups like ribollita or the farro (spelt) and vegetable soup.

After lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon biking around town. By the way, even if you’re rusty on a bike, this is the place to practice: the historic center has little to no car traffic, it’s flat, and the whole thing is non-stressful. Plus it seems EVERYONE in Lucca is always riding a bike – grannies, little kids, and everyone in between. I saw a local woman smoking, talking on a cell phone, and window shopping all at the same time as she biked slowly through town.

san frediano lucca

During your ride, stop off and visit the Romanesque Duomo di San Martino (Piazza Antelminelli); inside you can see the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her husband, Paolo Guinigi, and made by Jacopo della Quercia (the church is free, but a visit to the tomb is €2). Also stop by the town’s other two main churches, Basilica di San Frediano with its gold mosaic façade (Piazza San Frediano) and the Romanesque San Michele in Foro (Piazza San Michele).

If you’re an opera aficionado, the Puccini Museum, his birth home, is worth a visit (Corte San Lorenzo, 9, for €7). And if you’re visiting Lucca in July or August, DON’T miss the Puccini Opera Festival in the nearby town Torre del Lago (http://www.puccinifestival.it/).

 

End your sight-seeing at the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. This stunning oval piazza is built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. In the same curved shape of the ancient amphitheatre walls, there are now shops, restaurants, and apartments. The buildings are new, but inside some of the shops you can see pieces of the ancient structure. Have a late-afternoon coffee at one of the tables in the piazza as you take in the atmosphere.

After returning your bike, stop by Pizzeria da Felice (via Buia, 12) for a snack to tide you over for your train ride back to Florence (open until 8:30pm most nights). This humble hole-in-the-wall is a tiny place with only a few tables, but don’t be fooled: it has the most amazing cecina I’ve ever had! Cecina (also called farinata in some parts of Italy) is typical of Liguria and northern Tuscany: a simple savoury, flat, pizza-shaped “torta” made with chickpea flour, water, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Eat it straight away, hot from the oven, topped with salt and pepper, and pair it with a cold glass of the house wine. It will be one of the simplest, but best, snacks you’ll have in Italy.