Insider’s Perspective – Italy
Imagine flying from the solemn sharp Alps covered by snow to the southern calm crystalline sea, passing through a colorful lakes region. Hills covered with vineyards and olive trees, cities that are masterpieces of architecture, lively villages, churches, and squares.
In Italy, whether you’re in a big city or in a small medieval town, you will always find a place where people get together for the mass, to play, to grab a coffee, or just to have a chat simply for the pleasure of staying together.
Places to visit
You can’t miss Rome, the capital of Italy and the center of Catholicism. You will need at least three days to visit the major places and museums of Rome and the Vatican. Besides the worldwide famous monuments from the ancient Roman period and St. Peter’s, you will also see many amazing fountains and palaces. If you want to have a tasty meal, go to the Trastevere area, where you will find very good restaurants (“osterie”) at affordable prices.
There are at least other two cities that are worth visiting for their art and history: Florence and Venice. Florence is like a little Renaissance treat: small but so beautiful! Being so tiny, it’s easy and pleasant to walk everywhere. Just outside the town there is the countryside with hills covered by olive trees and vineyards. Not very far from Florence there are some other small towns and villages that are worth visiting: Siena, S. Giminiano, Lucca. Great food guaranteed!
Venice is in North East Italy and famous for its main church (St. Marco), the many canals and the Carnival. The city is very romantic and you can’t miss a tour on the gondola! Unfortunately Venice is so beautiful but most of the Venetians live in the towns around Venice, as it is less expensive. So, Venice has become a totally touristic place. In the same region of Venice, another nice town is Verona, the city of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Besides visiting Juliet’s house and having a walk in this pleasant town, you can spend a nice evening watching the opera in the Arena, which usually runs in spring and summer time.
Milan and Turin are two of the major Italian cities in terms of business opportunities, but they also offer tourists a nice cultural experience.. In particular, Milan is famous for shopping and for the nightlife. In terms of art, there are a couple of places you can go to in Milan: La Scala (opera house), the Duomo (main church), the art museum Pinacoteca di Brera and the worldwide famous “The Last Supper” in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
If you’re thinking of a more relaxing vacation at the seaside, Sardinia and Sicily are surrounded by an amazing sea. Transportation for these islands isn’t always convenient. You can get there by plane or by ferry, but once you’re there you’ll have to rent a car. The “Costiera Amalfitana” in the Naples region, is breathtaking, as well as the “Cinque Terre”, near Genoa: five tiny and picturesque villages located one next to the other just above the sea.
For skiers or hiking lovers, in the Alps is full of little villages to stay. Cortina d’Ampezzo, Cervinia, and Madonna di Campiglio are just the most posh and popular places, but there’s a good choice of other nice and less expensive villages.
Finally, if you’d love to go for a trip to the lake and see beautiful historical villas and castles, there are three lakes in Northern Italy that are worth visiting: the Lake Maggiore which borders Switzerland), where you can take a ferry to the Borromeo islands and visit the beautiful villas and gardens of the Borromeo’s (a noble family); Lake of Como, beloved by the actor George Clooney; and Lake of Garda, surrounded by the hills where they produce oil and wine.
The Italian cuisine is varied, as all 21 regions have more than one traditional dish. If you are a meat eater, don’t miss the delicious steak in Florence, seasoned with just a pinch of salt, black pepper and a drop of Tuscan olive oil; on the coast (especially on the Venetian and the Tuscan coasts), enjoy fritto misto: fried calamari, squid, and shrimp seasoned with lemon and salt. In Rome, you can savor the tasty pasta alla carbonara (with egg, pork cheeks, roman cheese, and black pepper) and in Naples the worldwide famous pizza, with fresh tomato and the actual mozzarella di bufala. In Milan don’t miss a delicious and typical rice dish, risotto alla milanese (rice seasoned with saffron and parmesan cheese).If you’re fond of desserts, in Sicily you can taste delightful pastries, Cannoli, or the more refreshing granita siciliana (minced ice with coffee, topped with whipped cream).
The Italian cuisine is varied, but there are some elements that are popular throughout the country:
Bread: you’ll always find bread to accompany your meal. Unless you are in a very touristic place, you’ll find plain bread (no butter or oil to spread on it). If you want to have a yummy snack (but not very healthy), go in one of the many bakery shops (fornaio) and enjoy focaccia: a kind of soft bread with olive oil. You can have it plain or with one of the following toppings: olives, onions, potatoes, tomatoes or rosemary. Focaccia made in the Genoa region is very famous and particularly tasty.
Pasta: it’s Italian’s favorite main course. There are so many different types of pasta and every type is good for a particular sauce. Pasta never comes as a side dish. Enjoy more interesting receipts, as pasta with truffles (popular in Tuscany).
Wine: there are so many different types of wines. Just to mention a few ones: Chianti from Tuscany, Barolo from the Turin region, Prosecco from the Venetian region or Greco di Tufo in Naples.
Coffee: Italians are fond of espresso. People often have 3 or 4 cups of coffee a day! They start with breakfast (coffee or cappucino with croissants); and then usually there’s the mid morning coffee, the after lunch coffee and the mid afternoon coffee!
Culture and habits
You’re not supposed to leave the tip at the restaurant or to the taxi driver. If you’re really very satisfied with a restaurant, you can leave up to 10% tip.
In big cities’ shops and restaurants and in touristic places people speak English. If you’re visiting a church, dress appropriately: it’s impolite to enter a church with naked shoulders or wearing too small or too short.
Happy hours: especially among young people, they often replace the traditional dinner at home. Happy hours usually take place in fashionable bars with music and are always very rich: at affordable prices you can get a drink and unlimited food at the buffet. Enjoy!
Cell phones: Italians are addicted to cell phones. They talk (loud!) or text with friends or family all the time in the streets, at home, at the restaurant, at work, after school. A lot of people have more than one cell phone.
Soccer: “Italians lose warsÿas ifÿthey wereÿfootballÿmatches, and footballÿmatchesÿas ifÿthey were wars” Winston Churchill.
Italy is “fashion land”. There are many stylish shops. It’s easy to find really nice products at affordable prices: you can obviously find worldwide known brands, but there are also many shops where you can buy high quality clothes, shoes or leather goods at affordable prices.
Shops usually open Monday through Saturday at 9.30 am and close for lunch break at 12.30. They open again in the afternoon at 3.30 and close at 7.30 pm. Malls and big shopping centers usually open at 9.30 am and close at 9.30/10 pm, without closing for lunch. Some categories of shops such as saloons and bakery’s are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Taxes are always included in the prices you see.
In Milan, enjoy “quadrilatero della moda”: an area dedicated to the most fashionable and famous ateliers. It’s located among Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga end Corso Venezia.
Outlets: they’re getting more and more diffused, especially outside big cities. You can buy branded clothes or shoes at discounted prices. If you visit these places on a Saturday or on a Sunday, be prepared to stay in line before being served!
Street markets: every town has one or more street markets that take place once or twice a week. Some of them are really good. You can buy nice clothes at affordable prices, as well as food, shoes, flowers, or books. Sometimes prices are really low, as can be the quality of the products.
Infrastructures, traffic and public transports
Italy has a good network of highways and railways. If you’re travelling by train, the “fast railway” (“Frecciarossa”) connects the main cities (Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples) without intermediate stops and it reaches 300 km/h of speed. But don’t be surprised if you train is running late; unfortunately delays happen quite often.
Traffic in the big cities such as Rome or Milan is usually intense and chaotic, especially during rush hours in the morning and in the evening. Remember that you’re not allowed to talk over the phone while driving, unless you’re using the headset.
The public transportation service changes from town to town: in Milan the subway is pretty good and extended. The rides get less frequent in the evening and the service stops at 00.30 am (1.40 am on Saturdays). In Rome the subway is less extended and traffic really is very chaotic.
World class hotel chains are available in almost every city: it’s not the cheapest option, but it’s a reliable option: you know what to expect; there are also many hotels that are not affiliated with a world class chain. As a general rule, luxury hotels are marked with five or four stars. A three star hotel can be cozy but not luxury. One and two star hotels are the cheapest.
Bed & Breakfasts as well as holiday rental houses are becoming more popular especially in very touristic cities such as Florence or in smaller touristic resorts. They are cheaper than hotels and usually the rooms are cozy and clean. Some of these B&B are really elegant places. With this kind of accommodation it’s easier to be disappointed though: so, double check the actual location of the place (sometimes “city centre” means 10 miles away from the city.) and don’t trust too cheap options.
Holidays in a farm or agriturismo: enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside in one of the many farms that renovated and are equipped to host tourists. Some of them can be considered as luxury accommodation: beautiful villas with swimming pool, Jacuzzi and many other comforts. These places usually also produce wine, olive oil or other local delicacies. So, good food and beverages are guaranteed!
Here are some of the most popular events in Italy:
Palio di Siena: it takes place in Siena (Tuscany). It’s a horse race held twice each year on July 2nd and August 16th. Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colors, represent ten of the seventeenÿContrade, or city wards. A magnificent pageant, theÿCorteo Storico, precedes the race. Jockeys have to circle three times the Piazza del Campo (the main square in Siena), on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid. It is common for jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and indeed it is not unusual to see unmounted horses finishing the race without their jockeys!
Carnevale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice): the Carnival starts around two weeks before AshWednesdayÿand ends on Shrove Tuesdayÿ(Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetianÿcarnival. The whole of Venice becomes a platform for the Carnival with different events happening here and there. St Mark’s Square is usually the hub, but during the nearly 2 weeks of celebrations you’ll find people wearing masks all over the city. The Venice Carnival has its origins in the mid 1100. The fact that masks were worn meant that people could remain relatively anonymous, and it allowed the lower classes of Italian society to rub shoulders with the upper classes.
Opera: if you’re in Milan, don’t miss the opportunity to see the Opera at the worldwide famous Opera house Teatro alla Scala. The season traditionally opens on December 7th, Saint Ambrose’s Day, the feast day of Milan’s patron saint. All performances must end before midnight; long operas start earlier in the evening if necessary. TheÿMuseo Teatrale alla Scalaÿ(La Scala Theatre Museum), accessible from the theatre’s foyer and a part of the house, contains an extraordinary collection of paintings, drafts, statues, costumes, and other documents regarding opera and La Scala’s history.
Working in Italy
Milan is the city of finance and business. In fact, the stock exchange is located there, as well as many banks and big multinational corporations. In the past years Milan was also the location for many important manufacturing industries. Nowadays many of these factories relocated or closed.
People usually start working from 8 to 9:30am and finish from 5:30 to 7:30pm. It is quite common to have a 15 minute coffee break two or three times a day. And then there’s the lunch break that usually lasts 45 minutes or one hour.
Italians can be quite inefficient at work compared to people in other countries (especially the Anglo-Saxon countries). This is particularly true in the public administration and in big organizations that sometimes employ more people than they actually need.
Trade unions are powerful. It’s not unusual to hear about strikes in the public sector as well as in the private sector. If you have to leave on business trip, before buying a train or a plane ticket, make sure that no strikes are planned for that day!
When you write an email to someone or ask to talk to someone over the phone, it is common to address people with “Dottore” (Doctor), even if they don’t have a PhD or are not physicians!
Buon viaggio! (Enjoy your trip!)
Smita Pranav Kothari, a proud Indian, is an EC partner. She likes to help new partners adjust to life at the B-school as the HBS International Partners Club Co-chair. She is taking Journalism classes at the Harvard Extension School. Besides learning about different cultures and learning international languages; she loves traveling, cooking, dancing and watching movies.
Giulia Cattaneo is an EC partner from OD. Here in Boston she teaches Italian for a school of languages. She enjoys biking and hiking in the summer season and skiing in the winter. When at home, she loves to get relaxed reading classical and science fiction books. In addition to being a good Italian, she enjoy cooking and baking cakes (and especially eating them!).