10 July 2012

Travel tips from a screw-up

Well, that may be a little strong, but my decisions were not all perfect on my recent trip to northern Italy. My plan was to fly in to Milan and spend a couple days hangin' in the city (a couple of days is fine--it's not that big of a place), then head down by train to the Cinque Terre, five little villages along the Northwest coast of the Ligurian Sea, then fly back out of Milan, staying at a hotel near Malpensa Airport up in the 'burbs.  The Pisa airport was a little more expensive, but probably would have been a better choice for a return ticket; getting back to Milan made for a tedious day (though I don't regret the hotel I booked for that night). If you are heading to either of these areas, here are my tips for you, in Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness style:

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II at Piazza Duomo, Milan.

Did you know that virtually nothing is air conditioned in the crowded, polluted city of Milan?  It's even hit-or-miss on the trains, both the subway and above-ground systems.  And the businesses that do have air conditioning are just barely running it, so you can sit in a restaurant for an hour and not know for sure if it's on.  I guess what I'm saying is, don't go in July like I did.  I am an idiot.

The Metro (Milan's subway system) is efficient, well-organized, and easy to navigate.  The roads are not.  Don't drive. Ever.

I think people overlook Sforza Castle in Milan in favor of Duomo, but it's really amazing.  They say you need a ticket to get in, but then they just let everyone wander through.  Go, and then eat in the neighborhood at Da Rita e Antonio.

Sforza Castle, right in the center of town in Milan.

When you purchase train tickets for a long trip and reserve specific seats, you may or may not actually get those seats.  Don't worry, you'll get some seat (you won't have to stand), but you may be in a different train car from your companion.  And If someone is sitting in your seat when you get there, double-check your ticket, then kick them out.  Train tickets are oversold, and people without reserved seats will try their luck at finding a free one.  Make them stand.  You paid more.

The high- and medium-speed trains run on time, are comfortable, and get you to your destination quickly (by American standards).  The Regional trains (the slow ones) leave whenever they want, often publish schedules with the wrong tracks listed so that you have to run like hell to get to the right track when it comes in, and take a pretty long time.  Oh, and they're less likely to be air conditioned.  They're still worth taking, but don't try to keep a tight schedule while using them.

Malpensa airport (the largest in Milan) is more interested in providing high-end shopping opportunities than getting you to your next destination.  Drink heavily at the airport bars.

The groggy, jetlagged view from
bed at Gambara.

For a scrappy, 1-star hotel near a Metro stop in Milan, I was perfectly happy with the neglected (in online reviews) Hotel Gambara.  It is very simple and cheap, but it's clean and the service is helpful.  Be wary of their claim that they offer "concierge services" from their "multilingual staff", however.  Mostly it was old dudes shrugging their shoulders when I asked, "parla Inglese?"

For a funky hotel with excellent service (and hard core air conditioning) near the airport, go to Cardano Hotel Malpensa.  The free airport shuttle is very fast, the free breakfast buffet is actually amazing, and you'll feel like you're on the set of a James Bond movie circa 1965.

There is no such thing as a Cinque Terre town that isn't touristy, no matter what Rick Steves says.  Be prepared for stupid shops filled with sandals and ugly jewelry in every single one of them.  However, it's clearly worth the trip:

Restaurants are pretty equal in quality no matter how much (or little) you spend.  Pizzerias and cafeterias are cheaper than upscale restaurants and make great food with fresh ingredients. Try everything.  It's not like eating at Popeye's.

When choosing your international flight, the price is most important.  But food is pretty important when you're held captive for 8 hours in a big metal tube in the sky, too.  Icelandair doesn't serve any food (they'll sell it, though).  Scandinavian Air, however, serves a big meal and a small one while heading across the ocean, and you can help yourself to the beverage cart whenever you want.

The shops at the airport in Copenhagen accept American dollars and Euros (paper money only, no coins), but they actually operate on the Danish Kroner.  What's that about?  I thought they had to use Euros.  At any rate, be prepared to fumble around a little and get your change in useless Kroners.  They do have cool holes in the coins, though...