Published on: 9 April 2014 | Last updated: 6 June 2014
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Italy has a bewildering range of names for places offering accommodation. Unfortunately they don't always provide a guide to what to expect. Here are some pointers.
Albergo: (the Italian word is giving way to the French-English 'hotel'). Usually you can expect a restaurant, and all hotels will serve breakfast - although there's nothing to stop you just asking for a room without breakfast (colazione). You'll occasionally see the word relais - generally a hotel with up-market pretensions.
Albergo diffuso: an albergo diffuso means that instead of a single building with reception etc and bedrooms, accommodation for guests will be in a number of properties with guests coming to a central point for breakfast and possibly dinner. The concept of the albergo diffuso has been important in the regeneration of a number of villages - one of the best known examples is the Sextantio albergo diffuso in the village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the Gran Sasso national park.
Agriturismo: the basic concept is a farm that offers products and services to tourists. Some agriturismi are very much working farms, while in others tourism is the main earner - there's nothing to stop someone buying a rural property and opening an agriturismo and not doing any actual farming. Most agriturismi offer a place to stay and often an evening meal, an agriturismo could also be somewhere simply offering apartments to rent by the week, or just a restaurant. Agriturismi can be a great option, but … unfortunately also, it's rare for signs that you see on the road to tell you how far away the agriturismo is, or give a phone number. (The word 'bio' (eg agriturismo bio) means organic).
You might also come across the term agricampeggio. This might mean that the campsite is on a farm - or it might not - but it tends to indicate a simpler, more basic site.
Bed and Breakfast: just as the word hotel is shouldering the word albergo aside, so 'bed and breakfast' has become more and more common - but with often widely differing interpretations. As in the UK or America a bed and breakfast will be a small business offering only a few rooms, but in Italy a bed and breakfast can mean an apartment (or shared apartment) with cooking facilities and breakfast will be a supply of coffee and pre-packed cornetti or biscotti - or alternatively a voucher for breakfast at a local cafe or bar. A bed and breakfast can be an economical option compared to a hotel but it can also be more upmarket.
Affitacamere: the word affitacamere translates (more or less) as 'rooms for rent'. Usually this mean economical, but there are some upmarket affitacamere. You'll often see the word alongside bed and breakfast.
Garni: the word garni is used widely across northern Italy for a smaller hotel.
Country House: more scope for confusion. Many tourist guides and accommodation listings use country house as the translation for casa rurale - a house in the country often available for rent to groups. But you will come across hotels styling themselves as a 'Country House' often offering things like spa treatments, pool etc etc.
Ostello: there are over a hundred hostels belonging to the Italian counterpart to the YHA is the Associazione Italiana d'Alberghi per la Gioventù (AIG). There are many more hostels that aren't members of the AIG.
Officially you need an AIG 'tessera' (membership card) to stay in one of their hostel, but this is often ignored. The membership was (IIRC) 6€. Rates for a shared room are about 20€, about 35€ for a room to yourselves. Afternoon and morning lockouts seem fairly common - although the ostelli in larger cities may be different.
Many hostels will also offer private rooms. There are quite a few that are located in old monasteries or other historic buildings - so these can be an attractive option.
So far as I can tell, the AIG is, as the name suggests, an association of independently-owned and managed hostels. There are also a few hotels that belong to the association. Many hostels are only open in the summer season. Some only in July and August. You can come across hostels that are only available for rentals by groups.
Rifugio: The word rifugio is usually translated as 'mountain hut', but in most are small hotels or hostels in the mountains. It may also just be a restaurant - reflecting the fact that the place was once provided shelter for travellers crossing mountain passes. (The term bivacco is used for something that really is a hut or bothy. The CAI - Club Alpino Italiano owns and runs a number of rifugi, but many are independently-owned.
Religious houses. Many monasteries, and convents and similar religious houses offer accommodation. Sometimes this is a commercial operation to bring in money, but on the pilgrimage routes the emphasis may be more on providing shelter for pilgrims - and you may need to be able show a pilgrims credential. monasterystays.com offers a booking service for a number of religious houses across Italy, prices seem comparable with budget hotels.
There are other words you may come across:
- locanda/osteria. This is a bit like the English words inn and hostelry - places that once provided services to travellers but today may offer food and a place to stay or may just offer food;
- forestiera. A forestiere is a foreigner or guest. So a forestiera could be anything from a hostel to a bed and breakfast;
- casale. A large farmhouse;
- tenuta/podestà/masseria. Different types of farmhouse - the masseria used to be fortified farmhouses;
- dimora storica/residenza d'epoca. A dimora is a residence. Usually used in the phrase 'dimora storica'. A residenza d'epoca is basically the same thing. The terms can mean pretentious and expensive but it can also mean some of the more interesting and evocative places to stay in Italy - like the fortified Monastery of Santo Spirito near Ocre in Abruzzo
FIAB (the Federazione Italian Amici della Bicicletta) has set up a website (Albergabici.it) with listings of bike-friendly hotels. A number of tourist promotion agencies also have schemes for recognising them. Some hotels don't really offer much more than a secure place to park your bike, while others will have tools available and provide local information, and maybe even offer special food - or at least tea and cakes in the afternoon.
I should say though, that I've stayed in quite a few hotels in Italy and I've not come across one that was bike-unfriendly; hotels will almost always have a cellar or garage where you can leave your bike overnight. In many areas, and especially out of season, hotel owners are only to happy to see 'bikers'.
There are an increasing number Bike Hotels. These are hotels that are aiming for cyclists who will use the hotel as a base for a holiday, and offer things like bike-washing facilities, tools, and possibly even guiding.
The Italian hostels association is the Associazione Italiana Alberghi per la Gioventù, it offers a booking service, as do Hostels International but many hostels are not members of either group. Check these sites for information about hostels that don't have their own website.
Bear in mind that in more remote places, hostels may only be open in the summer. Some may only be available to groups. Also hostels can and do go out of business. So it's a good idea to check their websites and to ring ahead.
Finding somewhere to stay
If there's a tourist office handy that's an obvious first port-of-call.
I mainly use Booking.com. This seems to be well-established in Italy and is used by a lot of hotels. I have got some bargains in low season but generally the prices seem to be comparable with the hotel's normal rate. I've never used tripadvisor but it also seems to be well-established. Both websites also have user reviews which are generally helpful.
The website terranostra.it is a portal for agriturismi operated by an offshoot of the farmers' organisation Coldiretti. In theory it's available in four languages but in the English version many of the pages with details of individual pages weren't available (I don't know whether the same is true for the French and German-language versions). Where the terranostra.it site might be particularly useful is if you are interested in wine and wanted to stay in agriturismi on vineyards - the advanced search page (ricerca avanzata) lets you search for vineyards offering accommodation.
Italian campsites are generally very good, often with a restaurant, a bar and shop and pool. You do find some more basic and cheaper sites, but don't expect to find as many cheap, basic sites as you'll find in France. Expect to pay around 12 euros for 1 person, maybe 18 euros for two, in the off-season rising to 18€ in high season or at a site near a popular destination. These days most campsites have a website with a price list (listino) so it's easy to check prices.
Camping in Italy
In general campsites are open from Easter to the end of September (in Tuscany the end of October). You'll find exceptions - some sites are open all year, but equally some beachfront and mountain sites may only be open in July and August (or only open at weekends outside the main season).
Italy is a major destination for German and Dutch campers. There are lots and lots of sites in the north and centre - especially in the on the coast and by the lakes. Inevitably campsites are harder to find away from the lakes seaside especially as you move into the areas that are less well-known in the northern European market.
It's also inevitable that campsites with a lakeside or beachfront location will tend to charge more and probably also give you less space. If you can do, it's worth looking around for sites that have a less favourable location as they tend to offer you a bit more space - and seem to try just that little bit harder.
The best sources for information are eurocampings.eu (the site of the Dutch ACSI organisation) and alanrogers.com (a British directory and booking agency). These listings aren't necessarily comprehensive - there are nice sites that aren't included in either, and equally inclusion in the guide doesn't necessarily guarantee quality, but they usually have enough information to give you a good idea of what to expect. The ACSI site also includes user ratings and reviews - even if many of the reviews are in Dutch or German the ratings give a pretty good idea of which ones are good and which ones aren't. (8 or more is a very good site, while 7 is good and 6 or so is OK for a night).
One thing to bear in mind is that many campsites also have bungalows and rent sites on an annual basis for static caravans. Usually the static caravan morphs into a little chalet with at the very least a wooden porch. At worst, you can turn up at a site and find yourself in a gloomy corner amid the bungalows and caravans, but normally even sites with a majority of permanent residents will have an area for tourers - sometimes even a separate area for tents. If I have a choice I prefer the sites that aren't dominated by permanent caravans and bungalows. Both the ACSI and Alan Rogers websites include information about the number of touring pitches as a proportion of the total (although the ACSI site is more explicit about this).
A couple of tips
Most lightweight tents come with lightweight pegs. Maybe these are useful if you camp on peat bogs but in my experience they definitely aren't useful in Italy, I use a combination of y-pegs or titanium nail pegs - both from clamcleats.co.uk.
In most campsites in most parts of Italy the showers are free,but very occasionally you come across a site where you need a gettone (geton - token). It's worth checking this at reception (bisogna un gettone per la doccia?) - there's nothing worse than getting into the shower and then finding that you need to trek back to the reception for a gettone. Actually there is something worse: getting into the shower, getting lathered up and having the hot water run out. this has only happened to me once, but I always ask for a spare just in case - the campsite will refund the unused gettone.
Camping without permission
In many places in tourist areas the mayor (il sindaco) has issued a regulation prohibiting camping except in recognized campsites. The good news is that this suggests that there is no blanket ban on wild camping.
In areas where tourism is an important to the local economy the local municipal police may well take action against people camping without permission. In other areas - especially out in the country the carabinieri (national police force) are going to be much less concerned.
Some park authorities also prohibit camping outside recognized campsites but again there doesn't seem to be a single national approach. Discretion and keeping out of site are probably the best idea.
Area sosta camper
Camper is the italian word for campervan. 'I camper' are big business in Italy. Many places have an area sosta camper (a sosta is a stop or rest break). Sometimes these are a parking place with no services, others have some services, and occasionally they are a full-fledged campsite that also accepts tents. Some are free while some charge a fee. Some of the sosta camper that I've seen, might, at a pinch provide a place where you could put a tent without being in anyone's way.
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