6 boring but useful tips for your time in Italy

Okay, perhaps it’s the heat, but I had a hard time coming up with a clever title for this post so instead, I’m just tellin’ it like it is.  These aren’t particularly exciting or the “don’t order a cappuccino in the afternoon” types of advice you may read about for travel in Italy.  While these tips may seem mundane, personally these are the kinds of things I like to know about when traveling somewhere new and so I’m passing on some of these tidbits to you.

1.  Packs of tissue are your new best friend

A very popular brand here is Tempo, but really any brand of portable tissues will be very handy.  Toilets are available for use throughout the city – by law every public coffee bar in Rome must allow use of their toilets.  Because of this, you will find them in various states of uncleanliness and dysfunction and many of them do not provide toilet paper.  Soap to wash your hands afterward seems to be considered a luxury item, paper towels are like finding the Holy Grail, and usually the only drying device is one of those plug-in electrical dryers that doesn’t have enough power to dry the hairs on the back of your hand.  Also, if you see a sign on the bathroom door that says “guasto” or “fuori servizio” it’s probably not – bar owners often put those signs up to avoid public use of their toilets.

2.  On/off switches

In your hotel bathroom or if you rent an apartment, please be wary of flipping these particular switches.  You could very well be turning off the source of your electricity or hot water if you do this in a bathroom (cold showers anyone?).  Light switches do not have these, but power sources to hot water heaters always do.  “0” is off and “1” is on.

3.  You can look, but don’t touch!

Even in 2012, many shopkeepers in Italy still don’t want customers to mess with their merchandise.  I don’t know exactly what it is they’re afraid of – fingers sticky with gelato?  I have no idea, but many absolutely do not want you to touch their stuff – you must ask the sales clerk to help you.  If you don’t see any signs, feel free to touch away, but do try to avoid doing this to any items in a window display which is usually frowned upon.  The most ridiculous use of this sign that I’ve seen was at a toy shop (no touching at a toy shop?!?!)  along with the extremely grumpy owner who should have probably given up the business when her grandchildren got married.

4.  Saying hello and goodbye

Along with not-touching, it’s a very nice gesture to say hello and goodbye when entering and exiting a shop.  Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s good form to say thank you and goodbye when leaving.  A simple “Buongiorno or Buonasera” when entering and “Grazie, arrivaderci” when leaving.  With strangers, refrain from saying “Ciao”, but instead greet them with a “Buongiorno/Buonasera” or use “Salve” (sal-veh) instead – a more formal and polite way of saying “hi” to people you don’t know.  “Salve” only works for hello so use “Arrivaderci” for goodbye.  Rome friend Shelley Ruelle has a funny post about other useful words to know in Rome.

5.  Tipping

Recently, there was a huge blow-out from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s recent honeymoon trip to Rome and the fact that he did not tip while he was here.  Another Rome friend and local food expert, Katie Parla, wrote a great blog post about this very topic and I wholeheartedly agree with what she wrote and don’t really have much else to add.  Please refrain from the compulsion to tip by percentage and according to the total amount.  A euro or two really is plenty to leave if you appreciated the service, and we never leave anything if we are being served by the owner of the establishment.

6.  Receipts

After just a few days in Italy, your wallet will be full of these:

By law, all places where there has been a financial transaction are obligated to give you a receipt.  You, as the customer, are also obligated by law to collect that receipt – whether it be from a €1 bottle of water or €100 for that D&G white cotton t-shirt you just had to have.  The Guardia di Finanza (Italy’s very own tax police) are infamously known to strike fear in the heart of many a business owner and sometimes perform random checks outside of establishments to make sure that both the receipt is given and that the receipt is taken.  Hefty fines can be given to both parties if the transaction is not done properly.  Why such a big fuss about these little pieces of paper?  Well, that’s best summarized with these two words:  tax evasion.

I hope this helps!  Keep an eye out here for more tips in the future or post a comment if there’s anything in particular you want to know about.  I’ll consult my Magic 8 Ball if I don’t know the answer.



2 July 2012

Hidden gems in Esquilino

The neighborhood of Esquilino, lies south of Termini train station and named for the Esquiline hill – one of the original 7 Roman hills.  The Beehive’s first location was in this neighborhood and our Clover and Acacia guestrooms are in Esquilino.  Officially, the current Beehive is in what’s known as Castro Pretorio – not as interesting and because I have such fond memories and loyalties to Esquilino, I call The Beehive’s neighborhood “Esquilino adjacent”.

Esquilino is a much maligned area, many guidebooks and journalists write it off considering it as only a place of budget hotels and convenient to the train station.  For Roman residents, the last 15 years has seen a huge influx of immigrants from Asia and Africa which has indelibly changed the literal face of the neighborhood in both good and bad ways.  Good in that it’s a joy to walk in that neighborhood and see non-Italian faces, clothes, hear different languages and smell non-Italian food smells.  Bad in that many of the former mom and pop establishments sold out and were replaced by identical cheap trinket shops, chock-full of low quality imports all packaged in kilos and kilos of plastic.

There are many wonderful things about this neighborhood – things that are not very obvious to the casual observer, and my goal is to change that outlook by posting about the hidden gems located in this neighborhood.  A recent post by my husband Steve kicked off that campaign.

On 20 April, Context Travel began its Tours in the Public Interestwith a visit to what’s known as the Auditorum of Maecenas.  These tours will be held once per month with a Context docent who will lead these visits to little known, not-open-to-the-general-public, archaeological sites.

The Auditorium of Maecenas is located behind a wrought iron fence and locked gate on a very busy street in Rome, via Merluna near the basilica Santa Maria Maggiore.  Years ago it was a neglected, downtrodden place surrounded by overgrown weeds, rubbish and the urine of street people masking any kind of treasure that was inside.  Some care and with the rubbish and stench gone, now the auditorium is surrounded by a small and pretty manicured garden, but the gate is still locked.  Context with its magic keys opened the door to a site that I had passed on a daily basis for years and so I was extremely curious to see what lay inside.

On this rainy, but warm day, docent Agnes Crawford, led our small group into the auditorium and as we decended the ramp into the semi-underground room – that’s when with Agnes’ knowledge, insight and guidance it became a walk back in time. Agnes’ detailed ruminations on the history of the area, the politics of the time, and theories on what exactly this site was exactly were interesting and evocative.  Painted frescoes of garden scenes which were still visible and the idea that the auditorium was a bit of a cooling water garden for the elite wanting to escape the heat of Rome while looking out towards the Alban Hills had me imagining all kinds of halycon scenes of ancient Rome.


Back to the Basics – Wine 101 with Antiqua Tours

Guest post & photos by Sarah May Grunwald

I am a wine lover, wine snob and wine educator, but in my line of work, I often find the hardest thing to impart to my students and clients are the wine basics.  I suppose I just take wine for granted, just as many Romans take the huge amount of culture in their city for granted.  Wine is like air for me.  I can’t live without it, and not only because I like to drink it.  I am interested in the entire culture of wine.  I have had this passion since the first time I visited a winery, Wirra Wirra, in 1997 in South Australia.

Moving to Italy was an entirely different experience in terms of the world of wine.  Outside of Italy, wine is seen as some otherworldly drink, something for people with money, something to be coveted, there is a lot of money involved in the world of wine and a lot of that money is used for marketing.  But why?  After all, isn’t wine just fermented grape juice?  Yes, it is a fermented beverage, but its connection to human culture, including religion, medicine and art spans millennia.  It is more than an alcoholic drink; it is a culture in its own right.


Here in Italy, one can think of wine as its own food group.  It is at every table and almost every meal. Wine brings people together rather than separating them.   Italy is covered in vines and there is a huge variety of wines made.  This is due to the fact that Italy is extremely diverse in terms of topography and natural feature and the fact that the grape vine is a plant that mutates very easily and adjusts to a variety of conditions.  So firstly, you have a landscape that spans from the Alps to near Africa in the south; a landscape with extremely diverse terrain.   Then, in the scope of that landscape, there is huge amount of variety in the types of grapes use.

In Italy, wine is not for the privileged only but for all.   Even if some are not fine wines, almost every Italian knows someone who makes wine, including their own grandparents with their homemade wine.  In the fall, entire families participate in the harvest on a small plot of land to make the family wine.  These are simple and rustic wines, but it is a story that has firm roots in the Italian culture.  Even today, Italian immigrants throughout the world will make this effort.  If they no longer have a small plot of land, they will buy grapes and make wine at home.   Wine is ubiquitous to Italian culture.

When I lead a wine tour, I start with the basics, what is wine and how is it made.  Wine is made by yeasts converting the sugars present in the grape into alcohol.  Alcohol is the byproduct of this biochemical process.   Red wines are red because they are fermented with the skins; the skins give wine its color.  White wines are lighter in color because they are not fermented with the skins, hence you can have a white wine made from a dark skinned grape.  Rosè or pink wines are made by fermented with the skins for a short amount of time, giving them their pink hue.

Once we have these basics, we can talk about the sensory experience of wine, that of sight, smell and taste.   There are five tasting basics:  see, sniff, swirl, sip and savor.  Color can tell us a lot about a wine.   For example, how young or old it is or where it might be from.  When we sniff wine, we are evaluating volatile aromas that should tell us a lot more about the wine, what type of grape(s) is/are used, for example.  There are hundreds of aromas in wine, but they are NOT added.  I have been asked countless times during this phase of a tasting if the winemaker added the aromas to the wine, such as adding essential oil.  The answer is no.  The aromas we perceive are naturally occurring chemical compounds that come from the grape varietal-this means the type of grape, such as Chardonnay or Sangiovese-they can also come from the yeast fermentation.  These are called esters.  Esters are what give fruit their aromas.  Finally we have tertiary aromas and they come from aging.  What you smell in the glass should give you an indication of what you will shortly taste.  For example, if you smell a red wine and it has aromas of leather or coffee, most like the wine will have tannin, or if you are smelling grapefruit in a white wine, you can expect a fresh tasting wine.

When we taste the wine, we do not actually taste flavors.  What we perceive as flavors are actually aromas.  80% of taste is smell.  There are actually 4-some might argue – tasting sensations and they are sweet, salty, sour and the bitter.  The fifth, Umami has been described a savory, tasty or meaty. It is a Japanese word meaning good taste.  It is elusive, but a sensation that cannot be described in any other way.  And strangely enough, it can be applied to wine.  We will first notice if a wine is dry or not.  Dryness in wines should not be confused with the astringency and dry feeling in your gums from a tannic wine.  A dry wine is dry due to absence of sugar.  Wines can be dry, off dry, slightly sweet and sweet.  The sweetness or lack of it is a result of residual sugars.  We then notice the backbone of the wine, its freshness or acidity.  Without the acidity, wines will feel flabby.  It is the acidity in wine that makes wine food friendly and stimulates the appetite.   You feel freshness on the side of your tongue.  Some wines can taste salty or saline to us and bitterness is what you taste on the back of your tongue.   Now there are the flavors we perceive.  Remember, you do not actually taste them.  80% of taste is smell.  Some wines are overtly fruity; some have a very strong minerality on the palate.  This is what we call the wines finish.  Those are the flavors and sensations that linger on your palate after your swallow the wine.  In general, the longer the finish- the length of time you perceive these aromas and flavors- the better the wine.

Wines should be complex and well balanced.  A well balanced wine is a wine that has all of the elements in harmony.  One does not overpower the other.   Elements such as alcohol, acidity and tannin are evaluated when we taste wine.  Tannin is often the most confusing element in the wine tasting for new tasters.  Tannin refers to a tactile sensation in the palate which leaves a sense of dryness, especially in the gums.  It is an astringent and sometimes bitter taste that is perceived in red wines and absent in white wines.  This is not to be confused with the sensation of dryness in a wine.  Dryness is the absence of sugar and you feel that on your tongue.

So with the fundamentals now covered you may be wondering why people are so obsessed with wine. People, like myself, make a career out of it and devote hours of their day to the study and tasting of this beverage.  Why is this drink so coveted and adored?  Many former normal people have thought the same thing until they had their “A-HA” moment.  This is the moment that makes you see in tunnel vision, when you drink a glass of wine or have an experience with wine and food that leaves you breathless, makes your heart beat a little faster and makes you feel like you’ve fallen in love.  This could be drinking a Lagrein on top of a mountain in the dolomites, smelling an aroma that brings you back to your childhood, sharing wine with a friend in a medieval town in Umbria while feasting on truffles.  For many it is tactile and others it is cultural.  If you feel intimidated because someone perceives balsamic aromas with hints of rosemary in the glass of wine, don’t fret.  People actually train their nose to perceive.  It takes most people a long time to develop a “vocabulary.”  There are very few people in the world who are natural super tasters.

In my travelling experiences, the best way to get to know a culture is to eat and drink with people in the culture.  If you are in Tuscany drink Tuscan wines like Chianti Classico, but to understand the complexity of the Italian world of wine you need to step out of the Pinot Grigio-Chianti comfort zone.  There is more to Italian wine than Tuscany!  Just in the region of Lazio-the region Rome is in-there are wonderful wines to be had at great prices that evoke warm summer days by the sea, tasting local delicacies in Rome.  You can buy a lovely Frascati Superiore for about €6 to €10.  I highly suggest tasting wines from Umbria, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige and Basilicata as well.

While you are in Rome, you can sample many wines from a variety of regions when you visit the local enoteca-wine bar.  Many of them have wonderful list of wines by the glass that will allow you sample wines from all over Italy.  Join a wine tasting, vineyard tour or join a market walk.  Get to know the real Italy or real Rome by tasting it.  Food and wine producers and experts are more than happy to share their knowledge with you, you just have to ask.

Cin Cin!!


Sarah May Grunwald comes from the sunny state of California and now resides in a country house in the Castelli Romani just outside Rome.  She is a wine educator, sommelier and tour guide who runs and owns Antiqua Tours. When she is not leading cultural and culinary tours in Rome, she is at home writing her wine blog, www.tastingrome.blogspot.com, hanging out with her Roman husband and 10 dogs and cats, in the kitchen or tending to her olive trees and garden.  

25 April 2012

Coffee break in The Beehive’s neighborhood

The Beehive’s cafe offers vegetarian and organic homemade breakfast goodies – eggs, oatmeal, granola, toast, etc.  Our coffee and teas are fair trade and our milk – cow, soy and rice – are also organic.  Since everything is made to order and there is only one chef working at a time – our cafe epitomizes slow breakfast.

If you need or want a faster alternative in the morning, just a couple of blocks away from us is Bar Fondi.  They serve pastries and coffee with speed and efficiency since they cater to a lot of the B&Bs and guesthouses in the neighborhood that offer breakfast vouchers for their guests.  It’s quite a crush in the morning, but it moves quickly.

Entering Termini train station from The Beehive side is another option – VyTa bar.

There you will find pastries and coffee and at lunch and in the afternoon there are also sandwiches, salads and pizza by the slice including focaccia delivered from the excellent Roscioli bakery and cookies from the local kosher bakery, Mondo di Laura.  There’s also free wi-fi.

Other VyTa bars can be found in the central train stations of Milan, Naples and Turin.



19 April 2012

How to do nothing in Rome

Guest post & photos by Toni DeBella

In my everyday life I am somewhat of an “over-planner”.  I like to know when and where I am going far in advance.  However, when it comes to spending an afternoon in Rome, I prefer to let my day just unfold instinctively and naturally.  When in Italy, I prefer to improvise.

 Sweet Nothings 

 Italians  have asay ing: “il dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing), but I wonder if it’s possible to be in one of the great capitals of the world and actually not do anything.  I am about to test the veracity of this expression and set out into the Eternal City in hopes of answering the question: Is it possible to do nothing in Rome?

 Piano, Piano (Slowly, Slowly)

Walking is one of the best ways to pass time while doing nothing special. Rome is perfectly situated for kicking around all day on its ancient, uneven cobblestones.  I didn’t have a destination in mind, nor did I bring a guidebook nor street map.  I was a blank slate, ready to improvise away!


Today I started out from Stazione Termini (the main train station) and walked over to and down Via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia.  Because it’s Sunday, Via dei Fori Imperiali is closed to motor vehicles allowing everyone to stroll freely from the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (also known as the Vittoriano) to the Colosseo unassaulted by honking taxis or buzzing Vespas.  A quiet walk into tranquil nothingness.  I ventured back up Via Dei Fori Imperiali, heading for parts of town undiscovered and unscheduled.


By zigzagging through the narrow, winding streets, I avoided the heavy foot traffic and loud buses and ambulances.  I loved translating the meanings of the beautiful and evocative street signs carved into the sides of old buildings along the way. 


Some streets are named for things (Vicolo dei Venti, Alley of the Winds and Via della Pace, Road of Peace), some for artisans (Via dei Cappellari, Hatmakers Street), some after famous people (Via Cesare Balbo, Via Garibaldi) and others after Cities (Via Napoli, Via Firenze).  Don’t be afraid to duck around corners and peek into alleyways – you never know what small treasure or grand masterpiece you might bump into along the way.


Time Flies When you are Doing Nothing

Much of Rome’s main sites are jam-packed into the historical city center, so quite a lot of territory can be covered in one afternoon.   For instance, today I encircled the Colosseum, glanced at the Roman Forum, walked along the Tevere (Tiber), waited in a long line outside a bakery in the Jewish Ghetto, “window shopped” at the Campo dei Fiori (in the past a place for flower sellers), observed artists paint on PiazzaNavona (read more about Painters in the Piazza here),



ate lunch in a centuries old portico, cruised past the Pantheon, made a wish in the Fontana di Trevi, people-watched on the steps at Piazza di Spagna, sipped espresso in front of Bernini’s statue of Triton at Piazza Barberini, marveled at one of the great intersections at the corners of Via delle Quattre Fontane and Via del Quirinale,


then finishedup at the famous church,Santa Maria Maggiore, where Gian Lorenzo Bernini happens to be buried.   Now I am just a few blocks from the start of my journey at Stazione Termini where I can grab my train back to Orvieto.


Idle in Rome?

In answer to thequestion: When in Rome, is it really possible NOT to do as the Romans do?  I don’t think so, but I wonder if perhaps one shouldn’t take “il dolce far niente” too literally.  Could it be that Italians aren’t actually suggesting one strive to do “nothing” as much as it’s a manifesto for living with more intention, savoring the simple moments and allowing life’s rich experiences to sink in and permanently imprint in our memory?  If that’s the case, my day in Rome was not about nothing – it was in fact really all about something.


Toni DeBella divides her time between San Francisco and Orvieto, Italy and writes about the adventures on her blog, Orvieto or Bust (www.orvietoorbust.com) – a collection of stories and articles based on her experiences of Italy, travel and life in a small hill town in Umbria. 

2 March 2012
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