5 Things You Don't Know About Italy

The marble stripes and lozenges of Florence's Duomo predate the Renaissance. Photo by Vanessa Berberian
By Donald Strachan

"Form is temporary, class is permanent." It's the kind of sentence a sports journalist might write, and it's certainly true when it comes to Italy.

The bel paese hasn't been on great form in recent years -- the economic storm that has hit the planet has blown fiercely here. But the crumbling majesty of its ancient ruins, the beauty of its landscapes, and the sheer mass of art and architectural treasures remain unmatched anywhere in the world. And major investments in the rail network have made visiting as comfortable now as it has ever been.

Donald Strachan (www.donaldstrachan.com) is co-author of Frommer's Italy 2013. You can also find him at twitter.com/_DonaldS.

Photo caption: The marble stripes and lozenges of Florence's Duomo predate the Renaissance.

Italian Euro coins. Photo by kipbot
Legislation enacted in 2011 allows cities and towns to levy a local tassa di soggiorno (overnight tax) on visitors staying in all types of accommodation. These taxes are not usually included in the price quoted when you book, and are generally based on the grade of accommodation and number of nights you stay. For example, in Florence visitors pay €1 per government-rated star of the establishment per night up to a maximum of 7 nights -- that's €16 extra per person for a 4-night stay in a 4-star hotel. Children aged 12 and under are exempt. Similar taxes operate in Venice, Rome, Siena, the Chianti and several other popular locations in Italy.

These taxes could make an unexpected hole in your spending money, so remember to budget for them. The European Tour Operators Association keeps track of many.

Photo caption: Italian Euro coins.

The Mercantino di Natale (Christmas Market) in Trento, Italy. Photo by aliceborciani
Italy hosts a special person in the Christmas cast: the bones of St. Nicholas were translated to the southern city of Bari in the 11th century -- our Old St. Nick" is known as St. Nicholas of Bari to Italians.

Many churches and small towns display a handcrafted presepe (Christmas crib) through December. And although northern European countries are more famous for their Christmas markets, there are also many across Italy. Festive markets in the bilingual South Tyrol mix Germanic traditions with Mediterranean flavors. Trento's market (www.mercatinodinatale.tn.it) runs November 24 through December 24. In Bolzano -- known as Bozen up until World War I, when it was part of Austria -- the market occupies Piazza Walther from November 30 to December 23.

Photo caption: The Mercantino di Natale (Christmas Market) in Trento, Italy.

A gas station in Cuneo, Piedmont, Italy. Photo by joebehr
The average national benzina price is pushing €1.90 -- and that's per liter, not per gallon. (Just one reason to choose the smallest rental car you can get away with.) However, prices at the pump vary wildly. You can check for the cheapest prices local to your accommodations at www.prezzibenzina.it. The same site has apps for iOS and Android smartphones.

Watch, too, for big price drops during the hours a gas station is closed. Between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning, some stations -- chains Api and Esso among them -- slash up to €.20 off the price of each liter you purchase using forecourt self-service machines. Note that these don't usually accept overseas credit or debit cards, so take cash.

Photo caption: A gas station in Cuneo, Piedmont, Italy.

A Trenitalia train in the Termini train station in Rome, Italy. Photo by ladyous
Italy has one of Europe's best high-speed rail networks. There's no need to leave the ground when new trains are hitting a maximum speed of 400 km/h (249 mph), and internal flights on routes such as MilanRome are becoming a thing of the past. This year state-run Trenitalia (www.lefrecce.it) split its long-distance services into four new classes -- Standard, Premium, Business and Executive. If you're quick out the gates, you can find Super Economy fares on every route for as little as €9 per person. These go on sale 4 months in advance.

Deregulation has come to the rails, too. New private operator Italo (www.italotreno.it) will have its work cut out trying to match Italy's excellent state high-speed services. It currently serves much of the high-speed network, including Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice.

You can even arrive in Italy by train. Thello (www.thello.com) launched in late 2011 with an overnight service from Paris to Venice, via an early-morning stop in Milan. It's ParisRome service, which stops in Bologna and Florence en route, begins on December 9.

You can book all these online, but cut the hassle out of seeing Italy by rail with a specialist agent such as International Rail (www.internationalrail.com; tel. 01962/772-700 in the U.K.).

Photo caption: A Trenitalia train in the Termini train station in Rome, Italy.

Artisanal beers at Open Baladin in Rome, Italy. Photo by robie06
And you thought IPA was all about London or the Pacific Northwest? Italy's ale consumption is growing fast, with young drinkers in particular abandoning wine traditions in favor of malt and hops.

Arm yourself with some specialist resources. Microbirrifici.org has a clickable map with details of microbreweries from Aosta in the north to the southern tip of Sicily, and everywhere in-between. Slow Food publish the Guida alle Birre d'Italia 2013, which reviews over 2,000 of Italy's leading beers and breweries. It is widely available in Italian bookstores.

The best time for beer fans to visit next is during the annual Settimana della Birra Artigianale (http://settimanadellabirra.it/), when beer events happen across the country between March 4 and 10, 2013.

Photo caption: Artisanal beers at Open Baladin in Rome, Italy.

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