Having lived on Lake Garda in Italy for many years now I have some tips that I thought I would pass on to you regarding travelling in Italy and specifically Lake Garda. Some of these are very important, some are good to know and others are simply my cheeky observations. I’m sure if you’ve not travelled in Italy before this will be of interest and use. I have also discovered over my ‘many’ years here that even frequent visitors still don’t pick up all of the local customs.
DRIVING IN ITALY
I’m starting with the most important should you intend to drive here yourselves or hire a car when you arrive.
Speed limits : 130km on motorways, 110 Dual carriage (20km less in the rain) 50km through towns and villages. Be aware there is only a 5% tolerance on these.
Motorway tolls : are due on all motorways in the north of Italy. You collect a ticket getting on to the motorway and pay the correct amount when you exit. If you don’t have cash there are machines that take bank and credit cards.
Headlights : you must always have your dipped lights on during the day both on the motorways and A roads, it’s therefore good practise simply to always put them on.
Documents : you must always travel with your driving licence and passport, should you be stopped you must be able to produce them immediately.
High vis jackets : if you have stop on the side of the road (as opposed to a car park or lay-by) and get out of the car you should always have a high visibility jacket on.
Zebra crossings : This is relevant to pedestrians as well as drivers. In my previous life as a holiday rep in Garda I used to tell my guests that these were actually the Italians idea of chic geometric graffiti. They do usually indicate the point on the road with the best visibility but it is rare for the Italians to stop for you. If a car does stop check the plates, it’s probably German.
Chains : should you be travelling out to visit the lake during the winter in some areas it is obligatory to have snow chains in your car from the 15th Oct – 15th April. This doesn’t apply to Lake Garda but it’s something to be aware of if you are planning to travel further afield.
You can find more information of the British Consulates website page http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/staying-safe/driving-abroad or http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/touring_tips/italy-san-marino.pdf
Trains : train travel is cheap and efficient in Italy. Tickets can be booked in advance and seats can be reserved which is a good idea if you will be travelling at peak times. There are two things to note here. Many trains don’t have a bar of buffet cart so travel prepared, at least have some water with you. Your ticket once bought must then be ‘validated’ on the platform before you board the train. Look for a little wall mounted yellow machine which will stamp your ticket.
The Italians, to my great delight, take their food very seriously. While there are of course many places to eat to suit all pockets and tastes I’d say you have to try quite hard to have a really bed meal here. It’s a matter of pride. It’s certainly true that if there’s an Italian or two already there eating you have a good guarantee.
Cover charge : this is a small charge applied the minute you sit down and covers the dirtying of the tablecloth and breadsticks and so forth.
Homemade pasta : this really does taste better so if you find somewhere offering this you should consider it.
Wine : Lake Garda is surrounded by vineyards and there is a really amazing choice of excellent wines without straying from the area. All the restaurants will be able to advise you on what’s local and the great thing here is they don’t mark up ridiculously on the price. Equally they can also get hold of some really good more economical wines and ofter the house wine is great.
Selections from the menu : an Italian meal consists of an antipasto (starter), primo (pasta or risotto), second (main) and dessert. You’re by no means obliged to order all of these (though the temptation will be strong !) but if you are picking and choosing from different parts of the menu be careful to point it out when you order if you’d like to eat at the same time.
Times : most places open from 12.00 – 14.00 and 19.00 – 22.00 there are variations but they do tend to stick to these times for the most part so late lunches or early dinners are not always possible.
Tipping : always a conundrum. Basically here in Italy the Italians rarely leave a tip and some of this is to do with the fact that a cover charge has already been paid. If they do leave a tip it’s for outstanding service / food etc. The reason for this is that being a waiter is considered a profession here with a ‘living wage’ so there is no need to feel obliged, that said it’s a lovely gesture if you’ve been well looked after.
The cafe culture is alive and thriving in Italy and never more than around Lake Garda with so many beautiful views to take in, as you sit in the sun. People watching is also a really great way to pass some time over your coffee, beer or Spritz.
Coffee : an important part of daily life here and as individual as the person drinking it, there really are a 100 variations. Good to know is that a café will get you a little black espresso, a latte (an often used term in the UK) will get you an odd look and a glass of hot milk as my brother-in-law discovered on his first visit! A cappuccino, according to Italian laws of digestion, should not be ordered past 10am. If you want more tips on how to cafe like a local check out this link http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/6246202/Italian-coffee-culture-a-guide.html
Tea : is where the Italians let us down. They drink it black or with lemon and don’t like to too strong. Consequently it’s not really what we are used to. I regularly have family & friends bring me over tea bags from the UK. If you are a tea-o-holic too you might want to consider bringing some with you.
Aperitif & funny orange drinks : I have often been asked what I’m drinking if I order one. It could be one of two things. Very much in fashion at the moment is Aperol Spritz or Pirlo, a light cocktail (seen drunk by even the most macho of guys) of Aperol, prosecco and soda water. It’s slightly bitter but quite refreshing in the heat. There is also a Campari version of this which is even more on the bitter side. The other possibility is a crodino. This is a non alcoholic drink that it sort of savoury really, again it’s slightly bitter and I really haven’t found a good way to describe it so you’ll just have to try one. I’m also told 😉 that it’s nice with white wine added to make it into a longer drink. The new aperitif is called an Hugo, prosecco based again it has syrup of sambuca and a slice of apple.
Snacks : some ground work is necessary here. Take note at each bar of the snacks on the table. Most you see will have been given free with your drink but you have to choose your place wisely. Often you’ll get olives and some crisps but there are a few places that you can practically lunch at so keep your eyes peeled. It’s also about the time of day that you order it and no, they do’t come with coffee. I’ve seen many a person looking hard done by when they order an 11.30 coffee and their companion who orders a small beer gets all the trimmings!
Swimming : it’s perfectly fine to swim in the lake, many do. Personally I’m a big fairy (my mothers term for me) and I can therefore only venture in during the height of summer when it’s really hot because it’s a bit chilly for me.
Beaches : the beaches here around the lake are always pebbly so some jelly shoes for those with delicate feet really do help. They are available everywhere here if you don’t have some to bring.
As a weather indicator : being so close to some stunning mountains does mean that we sometimes get some spectacular summer storms. Don’t be put off, the south of the lake gets a lot less than the northern resorts of Limone, Riva & Malcesine and they are also short lived. What’s the lake got to do with this ? It will probably change colour and get darker before the rain arrives so if it’s getting cloudy keep your eye on it.
Ferries : the ferries here run back and forth around the lake all day long but do check your timetable to be sure of the return time as they don’t run late into the evening.
Water : tap water is drinkable although the high mineral content means it has a taste we’re not used to. Bottled water is readily available and cheaper than back home. There are also many public water taps which have fresh spring water where you can fill up your bottles. If it’s not drinkable it will say ‘acqua non portabili’. It’s not usual for restaurants here to serve tap water but they should if you ask.
Shops : many shops close for the long siesta (along with banks, post offices and petrol stations). The traditions are changing and through the summer and in tourist resorts more stay open throughout the day but it’s not a give so always check.
Chemists : they also close for the long siesta and have a day off during the week too however one in the area will remain open and each chemist will display the list so you know where you have to go.
Tabacco : can only be served to over 18’ s and is not on sale everywhere but only in Tabacchi shops which have a sign outside with a big T on them. Out of shop hours you can only get cigarettes from vending machines for which you have to produce ID. Being Italian machines they recognise Italian ID so either decide to give up before you come or remember to stay stocked up.
Exchange : as most of Italys other tourists belong to the Euro there is now very little request for travellers cheques and in fact some banks no longer change them. Those that do will probably how a limit of €250 or €500 so please be aware.
Banks : open from the early morning until lunch and then for a short period in the afternoon but it varies. ATM machines are common place but there will be a daily limit which is usually €250.
A note of thanks goes to my ‘English mafia’ circle of friends who all had something to say on the various subjects – but mostly on the Spritz v’s Pirlo!