Seven Tips To Travel Ethically in Italy

The Fontanamaro agriturismo in Umbria, Italy...ethical travel isn't sooo bad.Every time you travel, you have an impact on your destination.

As much as we avid travelers like to think to the contrary, that's not always a good thing. Your waste is now your destination's waste, your carbon footprint its carbon footprint. The choices you make of what to eat and buy can commercialize the agricultural systems and undercut the artisanal production of your destination. The list of potential harms goes on — which is why "invasive tourism" is such a risk for cities and sites worldwide.

That's as true for top destinations in Italy as it is anywhere else. Just recently, the head of the Vatican Museums announced that the 20,000 or so daily visitors to the Sistine Chapel are damaging the frescoes with their dust, sweat, and carbon dioxide. Ruins are deteriorating, artisans' shops closing down, and the center is commercializing — thanks to lots of global forces, not least of all tourism.

Luckily, though, with just a little forethought, you can travel ethically. And you have the power, both with your pocketbook and the other choices you make, to preserve that art, support that culinary tradition, and help those people you like so much.

Here, just a few easy things you can do to make sure that you're helping — not harming — the places in Italy (and elsewhere!) that you love visiting.

1. Never, ever touch the frescoes. Or paintings. Or sculptures. Or tapestries. The number-one way to harm most art is to touch it, transferring the natural oils from your skin onto its surface. That wears everything away from paint to bronze.

For proof, just check out the corners of doors, say in the Vatican's Borgia apartments, that have been frescoed; because these are easy to grab as you go down a hall, they're usually almost entirely worn away. Or check out the medieval bronze statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica. Hundreds of years of pilgrims kissing and touching its right foot have — you guessed it — worn away the right foot. So please, if you like art, stand and gaze at it. But never, ever touch it.

Be careful with that camera flash, too — it damages cloth and tapestries, as well as some painting. Always be sure it's okay before the bulb goes off.

2. Eat only foods in season. When tourists demand out-of-season products, like artichokes in November, that either forces Italy to import the food in question (that Roman artichoke isn't so Roman, and isn't so "green," if it's from France!), or screws up local agricultural rhythms and the environment as farmers try to adapt to commercial forces. Be aware: Learn what you can, and can't, expect to be in season where you're going. For a quick read-over of what is in season when you're visiting Italy and other tips on how to eat responsibly when traveling,  check out Katie Parla's excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater.

Fiori di zucca pizza at Da Francesco, RomePizza with fiori di zucca at Da Francesco, Rome? That's something you should only be eating between July and November…

3. Don't buy plastic water bottles. Yes, they're everywhere. Yes, Italians buy them, too. But the effect is terrible. In the Cinque Terre each August alone, 400,000 plastic bottles are found littering the park and its beaches. Venice, which manages 20 million visitors each year, gets trashed with 13 million plastic bottles. And even if you dispose of your plastic bottles properly, remember that that waste has to go somewhere in Italy. (If you're in Naples, of course, that garbage might just stay there).

Italy is taking steps to eradicate the problem: The Cinque Terre banned plastic bottles this past September. From now on, visitors will have the option to buy a 1 euro metal bottle and to refill it at the park's fountains. But for areas of Italy that haven't yet legislated the matter, do the same. Buy a glass or metal bottle and refill it. That's especially easy in Rome, where there are 2,500 nasoni spewing cold, fresh water around the city.

5. Walk, or use local transportation. Italy's cities are great for walking. But if you have to get somewhere faster, take the metro or bus. It's much "greener" than individual taxis — and cheaper and pretty easy to use, too. 

6. Stay in agriturismi. They're super-cheap (think €30 to €50 per night), in every destination you could possibly want to visit in Italy, usually in beautiful settings, and they often include a home-cooked meal with ingredients all harvested or slaughtered right there. (Now that's hyperlocal).

Agriturismo near Siena, ItalyTypical Tuscan agriturismo: the Agriturismo Sant'Apollinare

Sound too good to be true? It's not. There are few more-rewarding places to stay overnight than an agriturismo, or "farm stay." And far from the slightly-backwards, eating-in-the-kitchen-with-the-farmer's-family image the word sometimes conjures, nearly every agriturismo I've stayed at has been beautiful and clean, with super-friendly but not-obtrusive owners. Some even go up to the "luxury" scale, like the beautiful Fontanaro agriturismo in Umbria (pictured at top of page). It's got a pool and gorgeous villas — but makes all its own wine, honey, and olive oil, too.

Olives from Fontanaro, an Italy agriturismoOlives at Fontanaro, Umbria

Since many  agriturismi don't even have websites, one of the best ways to find them is simply to type "agriturismo" into Google Maps for the destination you're looking for. You'll be surprised at just how many crop up.

6. Try to limit your air travel. Flying back and forth from Europe to the U.S. emits three to four tons of carbon. That's more emissions than 20 people living in Bangladesh will cause in a whole year. To reduce that impact, take trains, ferries or other transport whenever you can. Consider purchasing a "carbon offset" for your flight, and try to make fewer, longer trips rather than short journeys.

7. Think before you buy. Obviously, that's true with every purchase you make, whether at home or abroad. When you buy a scarf from a Rome vendor that was made in China, your coins vote for outsourcing; when you buy handmade leather gloves in Florence, you vote for local artisans.

Be aware, too, that not all local products are necessarily "ethical." I posted several weeks ago about the coral industry on the Amalfi coast. Yes, buying a coral necklace supports local jewelry-makers, but it supports the destruction of the coral reefs, too. Decide what's important to you — but try to be aware of the local issues, both cultural and environmental, first.



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Bus and Metro-Related Questions in Rome, Part Two

Tabaccaio, where you can buy bus and metro ticketsI recently posted on whether tourists to Rome should use the city's public transport (short version: I think yes). For many, though, being told that Rome's buses and metros are fairly frequent, reliable, and cheap is all well and good, but how the heck do you actually use them?

And so: Some top questions — and answers — about Rome's public transportation.

Where do you buy a ticket? You can buy your ticket — which combines unlimited bus rides and one metro ride from 75 minutes after validation — at any tobacco shops or metro stations. Some bus stops, like the one at Largo Argentina, also have ticket machines. Some buses do on board, as well, but I wouldn't count on it. I've posted previously on how to find a tabaccaio and what else you can buy there.

Should I get a RomaPass? What are my other options? The RomaPass is easy and convenient: For €25, you get two free site entrances, discounted entrances elsewhere, and unlimited public transport, for three days. But as I've written before, it's not for everyone, even when you consider that it lets you "skip the line" at sites. 

If you're getting the RomaPass primarily to save on public transport, meanwhile, you're making the wrong choice. You have other (and cheaper) options, all sold by the city at the same locations as the normal €1 tickets. For €4, you can get an unlimited ticket for a day. €11 gets you an unlimited ticket for three days (that's less than half the cost of the RomaPass). And if you're staying for a week, you can spring for the €16 ticket, good for seven days.

Why didn't anyone check my bus ticket? Because they don't do it that way here. Instead of checking your ticket when you get on the bus, instead, Rome will (very occasionally) send guards onto buses at random stops to check all the passengers for their tickets. If you don't have a validated ticket, you get a fine. They used to do the metro this way, too, but that system changed a few years ago.

I had a ticket and when the bus was checked, I got a fine! Why? First, bad luck! Checks seem to happen very, very rarely — I take the bus once or twice a day, and I've been checked only twice in the past year.

The reason why your ticket wasn't sufficient, though, is probably because you didn't validate it. That means running it through the yellow machine on the bus as soon as you get on. (The metro does this for you when you feed your ticket through). The machine stamps your ticket with the time; if it's been 75 minutes since validation or if the ticket was never validated at all, it's, well, invalid. Otherwise, everyone would just carry the same ticket around and use it over and over and over.

If someone tries to give me a fine, should I pay it on the spot or wait? If you're unlucky enough to have screwed up the time, failed to validate, or plain old forgotten to buy a ticket — and get checked — you'll probably be given an option by the guard. You can pay €50 in cash on the spot. Or, you can fill out a form to get a fine sent to you at your home address, to the tune of €100.

The offer of cash-in-pocket seems a little sketchy. But it's not. It's even written on the sign with ticket prices that you should see when you get on the bus (in Italian). My best guess is that they have the two separate fees because they know that, if they send you a fine at your home address, it will most likely 1) not ever arrive or 2) not ever be paid by you, who's returned back to your foreign home country and will never be forced to deal with said fine…and, most likely, not even be forced to deal with it even if you returned to Italy, even to live. By offering you the cash option instead, at least this way, they know they have the money.

Why doesn't the metro run to Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and other sites that seem like they'd be pretty useful? Rome's working on building metro Line C, which will go closer to some of those sites. In general, though, Rome's lines A and B skirt the centro storico. That's primarily because it's too tough archaeologically: Whether you're walking around Piazza Venezia or the Pantheon, you have an ancient city from 10 to 20 feet beneath your feet. It's pretty hard to build a metro line there, particularly with entrances, without disrupting all of those archaeological treasures. 

   Bus stop sign, Rome How can you tell at the bus stops what the bus route is? With difficulty! Romans know Rome pretty well — and the bus stops were designed for them, not for tourists. So instead of a handy bus route map at each stop, you get, instead, a somewhat-befuddling list of the names of bus stops. (Shown above).

Sometimes, this can work out. Piazza Venezia is a stop that's usually listed as "Venezia" or "Piazza Venezia"; "Aracoeli" takes you there, too. But Piazza Navona is rarely "Piazza Navona" (look for "Rinascimento," instead), and if you get on a bus to "San Pietro", you might wind up pretty darn far from St. Peter's Basilica — instead, the closest stop is the one called "Cavalleggeri." And if you want to get to the Cavour metro stop, don't get on a bus with a stop called "Cavour." That'll take you over near the Vatican.

Confused yet? 

The best way to use the buses, therefore, is to plan a route — and have a bus number in mind — in advance. Unless you know Rome fairly well, just wandering around looking for a bus with the stops you want can be an all but impossible way to get around.

So how do you plan a route or figure out what bus you want in advance? Ah, here it gets simple: Go to Put in your starting point (in the "da" box) and destination ("a"). Click "vai," and your route is planned out for you. Bus numbers and all.

Anything I missed?

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Going to the Amalfi Coast? Please, Don’t Buy the Coral

Coral jewelry sold in Sorrento, Amalfi coast, Italy
After visiting the Amalfi coast this week, I was struck by the amount of coral jewelry being sold — and the number of tourists buying it. It didn't seem as if anyone else saw signs like that above, proudly proclaiming "Genuine Coral," as a problem. But it is.

Why shouldn't you buy (genuine, unfarmed) coral, whether from the Amalfi coast or elsewhere? Let's count the ways.

1. It's not even from the Mediterranean. Most visitors seem to think that the coral making up those pretty blue, red, and pink necklaces comes from the Bay of Naples. But at least two-thirds of coral jewelry sold  on the Amalfi comes, instead, from the Pacific. Why? Because the Mediterranean is already largely depleted of its reefs… thanks to overfishing. And while the Pacific currently has more coral, its resources are quickly running out, as well. 

2. Coral is not a rock, or a plant. It's an animal. Coral is alive — at least, before it's fished. It belongs to the same animal group as jellyfish and sea anemones. Each single animal is called a polyp; together, these polyps make up a colony. They excrete calcium carbonate for protection, which makes up their exoskeletons. So what you are wearing around your neck is, literally, the skeleton of these creatures. (Yuck).

3. It's an animal that supports a full 25 percent of other ocean animals. More than 4,000 species of fish alone depend on coral, living in and among its handy nooks and crannies and feeding on the other creatures that live there. Coral reefs make up the world's richest and most diverse type of marine habitat. And they provide the backbone of a whole ecosystem that, without them, can't exist.

Think of coral reefs like a rainforest: If you wouldn't buy the harvested wood of an endangered tree that supported 25 percent of all rainforest animals, don't buy coral.

A thriving coral reef
4. Coral reefs are pretty important to people, too. They naturally protect coastlines from storms, erosion, and tsunamis; they provide millions of people worldwide with the fish that they rely on for meals. An estimated 500 million people worldwide require coral reefs for their livelihoods.

5. To get the coral, many Mediterranean harvesters still use dredging. That's illegal. Dredging, which means dragging nets along the seabed, takes absolutely everything in its path. Once dredged, coral reefs simply don't recover. They're deader than dead. The practice has been banned in the Mediterranean since 1994, but it's still done.

6. All of that important coral is disappearing. Fast. In the Mediterranean, red coral harvests have plummeted by 66 percent from 1985 to 2001. That's not because jewelers have turned to more sustainable practices; it's because hardly any coral is left. Worldwide, one-quarter of reefs are irreparably damaged, while another two-thirds is at serious risk of being lost.

I've scuba-dived in damaged reefs before, and there's no overemphasizing just how big the difference is between a dead reef — white, abandoned, without a single living thing — and a live reef, teeming with colorful fish and plant life. It's heartbreaking to think that 25 percent of reefs that were healthy just several decades ago have now slipped into the former category.

7. Once it's gone, coral ain't coming back, at least anytime soon. It takes a coral reef an entire year to grow from 1 to 3 centimeters horizontally and 1 to 25 centimeters vertically. And, of course, that growth can only happen in an area that's being undisturbed by practices like trawling. That means the coral reefs in existence are pretty old; the Great Barrier Reef, for example, started growing 20,000 years ago.

The reasons to think twice before splurging for coral go on and on.

Yes, it's worth keeping in mind, too, that the coral fishers and jewelers in the Amalfi depend on coral for their livelihoods. And it is a practice they've been following for hundreds of years. But before millions of tourists visited the Amalfi coast every year, the demand simply wasn't there for coral on the same level it is now. So the trawling wasn't at the same level, either. Many reefs still thrived. Not today.

So while my heart goes out to those who say they have to harvest coral to put food on the table, it's those workers, too, who might want to invest in more sustainable practices. Because at this rate, they'll all be out of a job in twenty years.

So please: Don't buy the coral. If you're looking for a souvenir from Sorrento or Positano, go for that limoncello instead.  

Positano, Amalfi coastYou can find a better souvenir of your time in Positano. How about a pretty picture instead?

For more information and to see what else you can do to help, check out:

Reef Relief, a nonprofit devoted to saving the world's coral reefs

Miss Scuba's article on the different types of coral and how coral harvesting is harmful

The Earthwatch Institute's section on coral reefs

The resources and information at the Coral Reef Alliance

 *Photo of coral reef in center of article taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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Eight Tips When Planning a Trip to Rome

If you don't think about what time of year you're coming, you might end up here during ferragosto. Goodbye, shopping and fine dining!

Yes, your passport’s important. But that’s not what I mean. As much as many people seem to plan their trips to Rome down to the detail, there are some mistakes that can be easy to make… from using TripAdvisor for restaurants to coming during ferragosto. Below, eight items to keep in mind while planning a trip to Rome.

1. Bring your student ID. If you’re a university student, bring your I.D. card with you. It’s true that this gets you fewer discounts than it does in more student-friendly countries like, say, Greece, but it does get you a discount at the Vatican (€8 instead of €15) and can come in handy elsewhere, too. If you’re an E.U. citizen, also make sure to bring an I.D. with you whenever you’re sightseeing: You lucky Europeans get discounts at almost all of Rome’s sites, including the Colosseum, forum, and Borghese Gallery.Everything's closed during ferragosto... so don't come then!

2. Don’t come in July or August Think about what time of year you’re coming. Yes, little Johnny gets the summer off from school. But so do everybody else’s kids, so this is when the hotels are full (and pricey), the Colosseum’s packed, and you have to stand on tiptoes to get a look at the Vatican’s Laocoön. Not to mention that it’s hot, sweaty, and in August, Romans celebrate ferragosto — meaning that the city’s best restaurants and family-run shops are closed. (For proof, see photo above). Scheduling limitations are understandable. But if there’s any way to sweep away to Rome in June, or better yet, spring break, fall, or Christmas, you’ll have a much more relaxing, rewarding experience. Little Johnny will thank you.

3. Do your restaurant research… Understandably, a lot of people come to Rome and think, “All these restaurants serve Italian food. They MUST all be good!” Sadly, that’s not the case. You would wind up eating in a tourist trap if you showed up at Times Square hungry and confused (I know I have…), and you will wind up having the same experience in Rome. Not might. Will. It’s a tourism-based city, and lots of restaurants take advantage of that, shoveling their customers terrible, microwaved food along with a gut-wrenching bill.

So if you’re spending any amount of time thinking about what museums and sites you want to see in Rome (and who doesn’t?), then do yourself a favor: Use some of that time to think about where you’ll eat, too. You’ll be spending at least two hours a day dining, three or four if you’re doing it the Italian way.  You don’t want to feel like those hours, or euros, are wasted.

4. …but don’t do your restaurant research on TripAdvisor. Yes, TripAdvisor is good for some things. It is not good for restaurant recommendations, at least here in Rome. It’s too easy to play the system — aggressively asking clients to post 5-star reviews, having cousins and siblings put up fake reviews, etc. I’m not casting any aspersions on the restaurants that are listed as Rome’s “best” on TripAdvisor. But. Suffice it to say that I’ve never heard of most of the TripAdvisor top-15 (Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, a local favorite, and Babbo’s, which is pretty good for the value, aside), among anyone claiming to be a “foodie” or even “very enthusiastic eater.” And those restaurants have never, ever come up as recommendations to me from any Roman or expat friends in all the times I’ve asked.

But the bad news continues. Also be wary of guidebooks, since as with all restaurant scenes, things change quickly here in Rome, and guidebook-info is often at least a year behind. (Not to mention that as soon as a restaurant winds up in a guidebook, it often starts resting on its laurels). For proof, just check out my post on Ristorante Montevecchio. In 2007, it had a glowing review from NPR. But three years is a long, long time in the dining world.

If you do your research, you can have pizza like this. Formula Uno, RomeSo what do you do? Well, research elsewhere — preferably in recent newspaper articles like, okay, mine, and on good Rome-food websites like Katie Parla’s I’ll also be adding more and more restaurants to the “Food and Drink” part of this site, so stay tuned.

5. Think ahead of time about taking a tour. Because if you’re interested in the concept at all, what will happen is this: You’ll get to the Colosseum. You’ll see the line. Some nice-looking 20-something holding a clipboard will stop you and say “Hey, do you speak English? Do you want to skip this twenty-three-hour line?” And before you know it, you’ll be hustled into a tour that, well, might get mixed reviews, to put it nicely.

Instead, do your research in advance and think about what you might want to take a tour of. (The Vatican can overwhelm visitors, and those companies worth their salt arrange for you to skip the line; the Forum can seem like a pile of rubble without a knowledgeable guide; an evening city walk can help you get your bearings). Then book it. Done. You don’t have to think about it again — nor do you have to get swept into a group of 50 with a barely-English-speaking guide, all because you didn’t book a well-researched company in advance.

6. If making a strict itinerary, know your closing dates. I never fail to be saddened — and surprised — by the number of visitors who come to the Vatican Vatican museums on Sunday, expecting to waltz right in. Why do these downtrodden hordes surprise me? Because the Vatican museums (including the Sistine Chapel and Raphael rooms, of course) are always closed on Sunday. (Except for the last Sunday of the month, when it’s free, but that means the line snakes for miles and miles, so….).

If you’re planning your sites day by day, make sure you know what will be open when. If you can’t find out opening dates for a museum/restaurant/site through a quick search online, give them a call on Skype. Also, remember that if you want to go to the Borghese Gallery (and you should! It’s lovely!), you must reserve in advance.

7. Don’t get a RomaPass. Necessarily. A lot of visitors do this ahead of time because it seems like a great idea: Once you activate it, your first two entries to sites are free, the rest are discounted, and you get free public transport, for three days. Sounds pretty great, right?

Before you spring for it, though, consider which sites you’ll be going to first — and if “skipping the line” is worth it. (The only RomaPass site that tends to have a long line is the Colosseum). A RomaPass costs €25. Let’s say you’re coming to Rome and you’re doing a Colosseum tour with a company that lets you cut the line. So instead, you immediately do the Capitoline museums (€7.50 saved) and the Palazzo Barberini (€5 saved), neither of which have lines that I’ve ever seen. In the next three days, you would have to take the bus or metro six times and hit up three more sites that charge you entry for the card to even pay for itself. (Are you even going to three more sites that charge you entry? Most top spots, including the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Basilica, and other churches, don’t have an entry fee. Plus, the RomaPass does not include the Vatican museums, a €15 entry).

You also don’t have to buy a RomaPass in advance: If you decide you want to buy one once you get here, you can purchase it from any of the ticket desks of the participating sites or from ticket desks at some metro stops, including Termini, Spagna and Ottaviano.

For a RomaPass FAQ, click here; for a list of the museums it includes and their respective discounts, click here.DSC_0103

8. Forget the traveler’s cheques. Or, at least, don’t go too crazy: They’re nice insurance, but can be way more of a hassle than they’re worth. Bringing a big wad of cash and expecting to change it when you get here is a bad idea, too, only because any of the money-exchange places you find will give you a “you-must-be-kidding” (and not in a good way) kind of rate.

Easier: Bring a couple of ATM cards and use them when you get here. (At least one will work. Really.) For bigger purchases, use a credit card, like Visa’s CapitalOne, that doesn’t bang you with a surcharge for international fees. Both options will give you the “High Street” exchange rate, not the rate that some guy with a storefront and some pretty currency symbols came up with.

Just remember two things. First: Credit cards are accepted far less often in Italy than they are in other countries, including the U.S. and U.K., so you should always have cash on hand. Second: To be on the safe side, make sure you call your bank and credit card companies in advance to inform them that you are going abroad, so charges that they see won’t be the nefarious workings of some Roman scam artist.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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