Italy ceased to be the country of the cheap pensione a long time ago. In fact, it takes some searching these days to find a hotel room with a shared bathroom.
Hotels are rated by regional boards on a system of one to five stars. Prices aren't directly tied to the star system, but for the most part, the more stars a hotel has, the more expensive it'll be -- but a four-star in a small town may be cheaper than a two-star in Venice. The number of stars awarded a hotel is based strictly on the amenities offered and not how clean, comfortable, or friendly a place is, or whether it's a good value for the money overall.
A few of the four- and five-star hotels have their own private garages, but most city inns have an agreement with a local garage. In many small towns, a garage is unnecessary because public parking, both free and pay, is widely available and never too far from your hotel. Parking costs and procedures are indicated under each hotel, and the rates quoted are per day (overnight). It should go without saying that there are no garages in Venice, as there are no cars.
The high season throughout most of northern Italy runs from Easter to early September or October -- peaking June through August -- and from December 24 to January 6. You can almost always bargain for a cheaper rate if you're traveling in the shoulder season (early spring and late fall) or winter off season (not including Christmas). In these reviews, I usually quote a range of prices. If there is one figure only, that represents the maximum. Prices vary so wildly, depending entirely on availability, that sometimes the only dependable figure is the highest the hotel is allowed to charge. The moral of the story: If it seems like availability is high, you should be getting a discount.
Supposedly, Italian hotels must quote the price for breakfast separately from the room and can't force it on you if you don't want it. However, most hotels include breakfast automatically in the room rate, hoping you won't notice, and many also argue that breakfast is required at their hotel. I've tried to include the separate per-person breakfast price for each hotel. With very few exceptions, Italian hotel breakfasts tend to consist of a brioche, or croissant (called a cornetto anywhere south of Bologna), and coffee, occasionally with juice and fresh fruit as well. It's rarely worth the 3€ to 15€ charged for it, since you can get the same breakfast -- and freshly made instead of packaged -- for around 2€ at the bar down the block. Ask for your room quote with a prezzo senza colazione (pretz-zoh sen-zah coal-lat-zee-oh-nay), or price without breakfast.
Agriturismo (Staying on a Farm)
The agriturismo movement is gaining ground in Italy. Though Tuscany is at the forefront of this movement, northern Italy also highlights this rural movement. Agriturismi are working farms or agricultural estates that offer accommodations to visitors who want to stay out in the countryside. An operation can call itself agriturismo only if (a) it offers fewer than 30 beds total, and (b) the agricultural component of the property brings in a larger economic share of profits than the hospitality part -- in other words, the property has to remain a farm and not become just a rural hotel. That's why you'll almost always be offered homemade sausages, home-pressed olive oil, and so on, either because they've been doing it that way for years or because these country barons essentially have been required to become farmers by law.
Agriturismi are generally a crapshoot. The types of accommodations can vary dramatically. Most, though, are mini apartments, usually rented out with a minimum stay of 3 days or a week. Sometimes you're invited to eat big country dinners at the table with the family; other times you cook for yourself. Rates can vary from 60€ for two per day to 250€ and beyond -- as much as a board-rated four-star hotel in town. I've reviewed a few choice agriturismi throughout this book, but there are hundreds more.
If you feel handy enough with Italian, you can avail yourself of the three independent national organizations that together represent all agriturismi (or, at least, all the reputable ones).
Go to the website of Terranostra (www.terranostra.it) and click on "La tua vacanza," then "Ricerche." This will bring up a map of Italy. Mouse over each region, and you'll find a list of local agriturismi; for example, in Lombardia, you'll find over 100 choices. They are arranged, unfortunately, alphabetically by name of the actual property (not by, say, town, which would make selecting one so much easier), with price categories of basso (low), medio (medium), and alto (high). Click on the property name, and you'll get a review with pictures and symbols (in Italian, but understandable enough), plus contact info and a link to the place's own website, if available.
At the site of Turismo Verde (www.turismoverde.it), click on "Scegli il tuo Agriturismo," and choose from a list of regions and then provinces (for example, click on Liguria and then La Spezia for something in or near Cinque Terre); this will give you a list of local agriturismi. Another useful website is Agriturist (www.agriturist.it), which is easy to navigate and offers its text in English. You can find hundreds upon hundreds of individual properties via a search engine.
In the States, a few agencies will help you track down a perfect agriturismo in Italy; Ralph Levey's Italy Farm Holidays, 547 Martling Ave., Tarrytown, NY 10591 (tel. 914/631-7880; fax 914/631-8831; www.italyfarmholidays.com), represents a few northern Italian properties and can help you book a stay there. For apartment, farmhouse, or cottage stays of 2 weeks or more, Idyll Untours (tel. 888-868-6871; www.untours.com) provides exceptional vacation rentals for a reasonable price -- which includes air/ground transportation, cooking facilities, and on-call support from a local resident. Best of all: Untours -- named the "Most Generous Company in America" by Newman's Own -- donates most profits to provide low-interest loans to underprivileged entrepreneurs around the world.
Each summer, thousands of visitors rent an old farmhouse, or "villa," a marketing term used to inspire romantic images of manicured gardens, a Renaissance mansion, and chianti martinis, but in reality this term guarantees no more than four walls and most of a roof.
Actually, finding your countryside Eden isn't that simple, and if you want to ensure a romantic and memorable experience, brace yourself for a lot of research and legwork. Occasionally, you can go through the property owners themselves, but the vast majority of villas are rented out via agencies.
Shop around for a trustworthy agent or representative. Often several outfits will list the same property but charge radically different prices. At some, you sign away any right to refunds if the place doesn't live up to your expectations. Make sure the agency is willing to work with you to find the right property. Try to work with someone who has personally visited the properties you're considering, and always ask to see lots of photos: Get the exterior from several angles to make sure the railroad doesn't pass by the back door, as well as pictures of the bedrooms, kitchen, and bathrooms, and photos of the views out each side of the house.
If you're traveling with other couples, ask to see a floor plan to make sure access to the bathroom isn't through one couple's bedroom. Find out if this is the only villa on the property -- some people who rent the villa for the isolation find themselves living in a small enclave of foreigners all sharing the same small pool. Ask whether the villa is purely a rental unit or if, say, the owning family lives there during winter but lets it out during summer. Renting a lived-in place offers pretty good insurance that the lights, plumbing, heat, and so on will all be working.
One of the best agencies to call is Rentvillas.com (formerly Rentals in Italy), 700 E. Main St., Ventura, CA 93001 (tel. 800/726-6702 or 805/641-1650; fax 805/641-1630; www.rentvillas.com). Its agents are very helpful in tracking down the perfect place to suit your needs. A U.K. agency -- and one of the best all-around agents in Britain -- is International Chapters, a division of Abercrombie & Kent, Sloane Square House, Holbein Place, London SW1W 8NS (tel. 08450/700-618). Marjorie Shaw's Insider's Italy, 41 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn, NY 11201 (tel. 718/855-3878; fax 718/855-3687; www.insidersitaly.com), is a small, upscale outfit run by a very personable agent who's thoroughly familiar with all of her properties and with Italy in general.
The Parker Company Ltd., Seaport Landing, 152 Lynnway, Lynn, MA 01902 (tel. 800/280-2811 or 781/596-8282; fax 781/596-3125; www.theparkercompany.com), handles overseas villa rentals and offers several properties in northern Italy.
For some of the top properties, call the local representative of the Cottages to Castles group. In the United Kingdom, contact Cottages to Castles, Tuscany House, 10 Tonbridge Rd., Maidstone, Kent ME16 8RP (tel. 1622/775-217; www.cottagestocastles.com).
One of the most reasonably priced agencies is Villas and Apartments Abroad, Ltd., 370 Lexington Ave., Ste. 1401, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212/897-5045; fax 212/897-5039; www.vaanyc.com). Homeabroad.com, 22 Railroad St., Great Barrington, MA 02130 (tel. 413/528-6610; www.homeabroad.com), handles hundreds of rather upscale properties. A popular but very pricey agency is Villas International, 4340 Redwood Hwy., Ste. D309, San Rafael, CA 94903 (tel. 800/221-2260 or 415/499-9490; fax 415/499-9491; www.villasintl.com).
House-swapping is becoming a more popular and viable means of travel; you stay in their place, they stay in yours, and you both get a more authentic and personal view of a destination, the opposite of the escapist retreat many hotels offer. Try HomeLink International (http://homelink.org), the largest and oldest home-swapping organization, founded in 1952, with more than 11,000 listings worldwide ($115 yearly membership). InterVac.com ($100 for over 10,000 listings) is also reliable. Craigslist.org also has an extensive list of housing swap options in Italy, as many Italians are eager to find a cheap vacation alternative in American cities.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.