Published on: 10 April 2014 | Last updated: 6 March 2017
Getting the most out of your trip
Pick your roads with care — don’t just leave if it to autorouting software. Look for the less-obvious roads.
Look for the old road: in many cases, new roads have been built as faster alternatives to older roads or to bypass villages on the way … leaving the old road as a quieter and more interesting alternative
The Italian road system is very efficient: it does its job of routing traffic around towns. But that means that if you want to see the most interesting places you need to be prepared not to go with the flow — to turn off the main road and take a detour.
Go to places you’ve never heard of
Yes the big tourist cities like Rome, Firenze, Venezia are full of treasures, but if you’re a touring cyclist it can often be the little towns and cities that have the most to offer.
Focus on where you are: not where you’ve going
I’ve met people on the road who’ve been so preoccupied with getting to Roma that they’ve bypassed, or ignored all the interesting places on the way.
Plan to be flexible
If you’ve only got a week or two of holiday it’s tempting to plan a schedule that means you’re on the road every day. But sometimes things go wrong: you have a major mechanical problem, or you get food poisoning, or even the weather is truly miserable and you fancy a duvet day. It’s worth building spare day or two into your plans.
Take a break
There’s nothing in the Touring Cyclist’s Book of Rules that says you can’t, every now and again, stop somewhere for a couple of nights and treat yourself to a rest day, or a day when you can ride without your luggage.
Eat food and drink wine you’ve never heard of
One of the features of Italy is the local specialities you’ll find only in one area or town: there’s nothing to stop you having your favourite pizza if the mood takes you, but look out for the dishes you won’t see at home
The same goes for wine: Italy has hundreds of wine-growing areas producing wines that you almost certainly won’t see at home outside of a specialist wine shop. Make the most of it.
Learn a few words of Italian
No you don’t have to spend years studying. And English is widely spoken. But making the effort learning a few words always helps. A handful: Buongiorno/Buonasera (Good morning/Good day and Good evening/Good afternoon), Ciao, Arriverderci, per favore, grazie, will get you a long way.
This is where that handful of Italian words you’ve just learnt come in. In Italy, little courtesies are appreciated. Saying ‘buongiorno’ to the barista before you order your coffee won’t kill you.
Have a head for heights
Italy can be very hilly — when you’re planning your trip also take the amount of climbing into account. Sometimes the amount of climbing can be the deciding factor — not how many miles
Don’t underestimate the heat
Italy in mid-Summer can get seriously hot. If you come from somewhere where temperatures rarely go above 30 degrees you’re probably thinking ‘great bring it on’ but you can have too much of a good thing. A big climb in temperatures in the upper thirties is really not much fun (riding on the flat can be a bit easier as you generate a bit of a breeze as you ride). If you’re planning on cycling in the hottest months, then start early and finish early. The summer mornings are my favourite time of the day. Start at 7am, and you can put in a good days ride and still stop for lunch.
Alternatively head for the mountains July and August are the best times to ride in the mountains. For every 1000 metres of altitude, the temperatures are about 6 degrees less — the margin between comfortably warm and hot.
Keep a sense of perspective
It won’t all be wonderful. The bar-owner who doesn’t seem particularly friendly may be preoccupied with how he’s going to pay the rent at the end of the month. It’s probably not you (although if you’ve ignored the ‘be courteous’ bit, then it may indeed be you).
Occasionally you may be given bad food or bad service (or both). Complain. Or walk out. Or put up with it. But don’t let it get to you.
The top ten gotchas for foreigners in Italy
Forgetting to validate your train ticket
It’s easily done - even if you’ve travelled in Italy a lot. If you do forget then go in search of the capo di treno — don’t wait for them to find you
Forgetting to weigh fruit and veg in supermarkets
A few Italian supermarkets have machines for weighing fruit and vegetables at the checkout, but these are a tiny minority: generally you need to weigh them and attach the price sticker before you go to the checkout
Forgetting to buy a gettone
Most Italian campsites have free showers, but a few use gettoni (tokens). Buy a spare one as well - if there’s one thing worse than getting to the showers and finding you need a token, it’s finding that the gettone runs out just as you’ve covered yourself with soapy suds (although usually, they last for longer than you need).
Asking for a latte … and getting what you asked for
Latte is the Italian for milk if you want a milky coffee ask for a caffe’ latte or a latte macchiato
Leaving off the 0 in phone numbers
If you come from a country where, when dialling international numbers, you remove the first zero you’ll need to remember to leave them on.
Caldo may sound like ‘cold’ but it means hot. I can’t be the only person who’s reached, without thinking, for the tap marked C only to find that the results were the opposite of what I expected (although generally taps and shower mixers are colour-coded blue and red)
Prickly pears are a common sight in central and southern Italy, and the flesh is really tasty. The problem is that the skin is covered in tiny spines, and if you grab hold of one, you can be pulling them out of our hands for days to come. If you know what you are doing, you can cut the skin off without ending up with a hand like a pin cushion, but this is something best left to someone who does know what they are doing
If you still send the occasional postcard, then bear in mind that Italy stamps can be enormous - you write and address your postcards then buy the stamps and then find there’s nowhere to fit the stamp. (If you’re thinking ‘what’s a postcard?’ you can safely ignore this.)
Buongiorno and Buonasera
Buonasera means good evening, but you can hear it in the afternoon, particularly in the south, but it varies a lot. I’ve come to think of it as the Italian equivalent of scissors, paper, stone.
Munirsi con il scontrino
This one’s fairly simple: generally you pay when you’ve drunk your coffee etc, but at places like train stations you’ll be expected to pay first get your till-receipt (scontrino), and then go to order. Gelaterie often do the same thing.
Useful words and phrases
- incrocio pericoloso — dangerous junction
- rallentare — slow down
- curva pericolosa — dangerous bend
- uscita mezzi pesanti/automezzi — entrance used by heavy vehicles
- strada chiusa — road closed
- strada chiusa a [x] km — road closed at the x-kilometre point
- deviazione — diversion
- divieto di transito — road closed
- frana — landslide
- strada disestato — road in poor condition
- bici a mano — cyclists dismount
- discesa ripida — steep descent
- velocipedi cyclist
- vietato — forbidden
- vietato appoggiare biciclette — do not leave/park bikes here
Bike parts and repairs
- there’s a problem with this — c’è un problema con questo
- it doesn’t work — non funziona
- it’s working badly/not working properly — funziona male
- I need — mi sirve […]
- I need a tool for this — mi sirve un utensile per questo —
- I need a new inner tube like this one — mi sirve una camera d’aria come questa -
- can you do it today? — sarebbe possibile farlo oggi? —
- how long will it take? — quanto tempo ci vuole?
Parts and consumables
- inner tube — una camera d’aria
- valve — una valvola (Schrader/Presta — you definitely don’t want Regina)
- tyre repair patch — un Tip-Top (this brand is so common it has become the word people use, but if you prefer, una pezza reparazione)
- tyre repair kit — un set di reparazione (or un set Tip-Top)
- tyre — una copertura (may also be referred to as un copertono — un copertoncino)
- folding tyre — una coperta pieghevole
- cable — un cavo
- gear cable (stainless steel) — cavo di cambio (acciaio INOX)
- chain (9-speed) — una catena (nove velocità)
- chainlube/lubricant — lubrificante [per la catena]
- grease — grasso
- olio (eg for forks) — olio
- screw/bolt — un vito
- chainring bolt — un vito guarnitura
- chainring — una guarnitura
- water bottle — una borraccia
- bottleholder — una portaborraccia
- Co2 cartridge — una bomboletta di CO2 (‘ci-oh-due’)
Wheels and tyres
- 26-inch — ventisei pollice
- 2-inch — due police
- tyre lever — una levagomme
- puncture — un buco (or una foratura di camera d’aria)
- tubeless — tubeless (non-tubeless — montaggio con camera)
- quick-release — un bloccaggio rapido
- wheel(s) — la ruota — le ruote
- spoke(s) — il raggio (i raggi)
- rim — il cerco
- brake — il freno (i freni)
- disc brakes — i freni a disco
- v-brakes — i freni V or i v-brake
- cantilever brakes — i freni di corsa
- brake lever — leve freno
- brake blocks — i pattini di ricambio
- brake block holder portapattini
- disc brake pad — una pastiglia freno (or pads)
- a pair of disc brake pads — un paio di pastiglie (or una coppia di pastiglie) or due pad
- sintered/organic pad — una pastiglia sinterrazzata/organica
- resin pad — una pastiglia in resina
- brake fluid (for hydraulic brakes) — brake fluid
- gears — le marcie
- pedal — il pedalo — i pedali
- front mech — il deragliatore anteriore
- rear mech - deragliatore posteriore or il cambio
- shifters - i comandi cambio
- bottom bracket — il movimento centrale
- external BB cups — le callotte delle guarniture
Other bike parts
- frame - il telaio
- forks — la forcella
- suspension fork - una forcella ammortizata
- seatpost — una regisella
- stem — piantone
- handlebars — il manubrio
- bar ends — gli appendici manubrio
- pump — una pompa
- mini-pump — una minipompa (probably best not to ask for a pompino (blow-job) in a bike shop)
- Co2 cartridge — una bomboletta di CO2 (‘ci-oh-due’)
- minitool — un minitool
- cassette tool — chiave cassetta
- spoke tool — una tira raggi
- screwdriver — una cacciavita ( — crosshead screwdriver)
- spanner — una chiave
- pedal spanner — una chiave per pedali
- cone spanner — una chiave per coni
- adjustable spanner — un chiave inglese
- chaintool — un estrattore catena
- allen key — una chiave esagonale
- spanner for chainring bolts — una chiavetta bussole viti guarnitura
Tools for hollowtech cranksets/external BBs
- Shimano tool for left hand crank — una chiave per montare la ghiera pedivella sinistra
- external BB tool - una chiave per montare le calotte delle guarniture
Reading a route description
There’s always Google Translate, but sometimes but a few useful words and phrases can help to make sense of a route description.
- sinistra/destra — left/right (abbreviations SX or DX)
- dislivello — the amount of climbing
- impegnativo — a hard climb or ride
- difficile/medio/facile — difficult/average/easy
- strada — road
- strada sterrata — unsurfaced road (also carrareccia)
- fondo [stradale]- road surface (normally either asfalto or sterrato)
- sentiero — path
- pista/percorso ciclabile — cycle path but don’t assume it’s rideable with a roadbike
- percorso ciclopedonale — path shared with pedestrians (pretty much all cycleways are shared with pedestrians)
- discesa — descent
- discesa ripida — steep descent
- salita — climb
- salita ripida — steep climb
- pendenza — gradient
- incrocio — junction
- scaricare [traccia GPS/roadbook] — download GPS track/roadbook]
- s.l.m — altitude above sea-level
- sede propria su asfalto — part of traffic-free cycleway with a tarmac surface
- sede propria su sterrato — part of traffic-free cycleway with aggregate surface
- sede promiscua a basso traffico — part of cycle route on roads with light traffic
- sede promiscua forte traffico — part of cycle route on busy roads
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