An Emergency Handbook for an Impromptu Italian Beach Vacation

Even budget travelers deserve a (virtual) concierge.

Perhaps you have noticed that Italy is entirely coastline.

I’m a huge fan of do-it-yourself vacations, maybe because they’re all I can usually afford. In my experience, it’s easy to have a good time in foreign lands even without the aid of a tour group or local guide, and if I can scrimp on the hotel room by staying at a hostel, camping out, or finding a below-market-rate Airbnb, that leaves more money for museum tickets and restaurants.

The problem is problems. When something goes wrong, even something minor like forgetting to pack a swimsuit, it sure would be convenient to have a hotel front desk crew, ready to direct you to the right local store.

In the spirit of evening the playing field, here is an alphabetized virtual concierge to help you navigate the minor hazards of an impromptu Italian beach vacation.

Air Conditioning

Air conditioning exists. However, it is an object of fear and suspicion, particularly among older people, and if you are staying at a private home or B&B you might be encouraged to use it as little as possible. As an American, you will assume this is an attempt to save on electrical costs, which to some extent it is. However, it’s more similar to South Korean superstitions around fan death.

As I understand it, fear of cold drafts dates back to a pre-germ-theory correlation error: open window lets germs and biting insects through, conclusion is that a gust of colder air makes you sick. Malaria literally translates to “bad air” in Italian. People younger than 40 realize this is ridiculous and don’t worry about it at all, but some members of older generations will do things like open a window when the air conditioner is on, to be safe. (Fresh air, unlike drafts, is thought to be protective.)

August

August is the month everyone in Italy goes on vacation, mostly to other places in Italy. This means that tourist stuff like beaches and restaurants will still be open, but if you’re hoping to get business done — translations, research, government filings — you may be out of luck. Italy has a reputation for a slow pace of life, and this isn’t entirely unearned. Most months of the year, shops will be open from nine to noon, close for lunch and naptime, and reopen from four to eight. However, in August, they may not open at all, or may be understaffed.

Bottled Water

Typically costs €1. Bottle size will vary for this value, but price will not. It will be readily available in clear refrigerators at every bar and cafe. “Frizzante” means sparkling water; still water will be labeled either “naturale” or “liscia.” Tap water is safe to drink in most of Italy (except near Naples), but everybody drinks bottled out of habit.

Bookstores

Most bookstores will have an English language section that’s a mix of classics and bestsellers. However, the books will be imported and therefore expensive. I think my trade paperback of The Martian cost me €16.

Bug Spray

Mosquitos are everywhere all the time. Any advice about dawn and dusk is useless, because they will bite you midday in full sunlight or late at night while you’re sleeping in what you thought was an airtight room.

Insect repellents don’t tend to display their DEET content because Italian consumers are nervous about chemicals. In general, if something is advertised as safe for children, that means it probably doesn’t have DEET, and if the label proudly says “no gas” it definitely doesn’t have DEET. On the plus side, it will make you smell like eucalyptus and citronella, which is pleasant.

I haven’t found anything that keeps the bugs off. I live an itchy life.

Cash

Cash is king. Do not ever assume you can pay with a credit card (although you can at most hotels). For large sums, bank transfers are normal.

Emergency Numbers

Italy doesn’t have a single emergency number like 911. 113 gets you the state police. 112 gets you the carabinieri (military police). 115 is firemen. 118 is for medical emergencies. Some dispatchers will speak English. Others will not.

Gluten-Free (Senza Glutine)

Celiac disease is taken extremely seriously; so much of the cuisine is wheat-based that gluten intolerance is a major disability. Glomming onto it as a diet trend would be like being fashionably diabetic. Grocery stores will have gluten-free aisles and most cities will have gluten-free bakeries. Restaurants will be careful about cross-contamination.

Italians have known about celiac disease for a long time. It was widely believed to be a uniquely Italian autoimmune disorder until Italian doctor Alessio Fasano demonstrated its existence in the American population in 2003.

Laundry

There aren’t a lot of self-serve laundromats in Italy. They’re starting to be built, but they’re still newfangled enough that, well, look at this website trying to recruit people to start Lavagettone laundromats. Almost all of it is devoted to explaining, with high-quality video, what a self-service laundromat is and that classy people use them.

Where I live, the main names are Mille Bolle Blu, Lava Piu, and HDUEO (“due” is Italian for two, so they’re being cute about H2O). I’m pretty sure Mille Bolle Blu and Lava Piu are franchises but I’m not sure whether HDUEO exists in other places. They all charge by weight. HDUEO charges €5 to wash 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of clothes, and €1 to dry them, but has a minimum charge of €10. Mille Bolle Blu charges €4 for 7 kilograms (15 pounds) plus €2 to dry. Lava Piu, about the same.

Any lavanderia that doesn’t say “self service” is a dry cleaner and/or industrial laundry and will most likely charge by the item, something like €2 per shirt.

Pharmacies

If you get sick and want over-the-counter drugs, you’re going to want to look for a farmacia, which as an English speaker you will instinctively mispronounce with a hissing s. (It’s more like “farm a chia [pet].”) You need to be able to distinguish between a real pharmacy and a parafarmacia, which will try to look as official as a pharmacy but will only sell herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, and what amounts to fairy wishes. They do have good lip balm and eye drops, though.

A real pharmacy has a green cross in front of it, typically striated, and it usually lists the name of the head prescribing pharmacist. (“Dott.,” which stands for either dottore or dottoressa depending on gender, does not mean medical doctor, although it’s also used by medical doctors. It’s respectful title for anyone with a professional degree.) Parapharmacies most often use a blue or red cross, and if they’re sneaky enough to use a solid green one, there will be some other giveaway, like the word “omeopatico” (homeopathic).

When you go to the farmacia, almost everything is going to be behind the counter; all you’re going to be able to browse on your own is insoles and orthopedics, baby formula and diapers, dental stuff, and one or two lines of expensive lotions. (Vichy, which as far as I know is carried exclusively by pharmacies in the same way some shampoos are only available in salons, is pricey but magnificent. They make my favorite roll-on deodorant, which retails at €8-€10. Pricey.) To even be able to look at anything with a drug in it — cough syrup, painkiller, wound cream — you’re going to have to talk to a pharmacist, who will bring the desired object from a back room.

Not only is this going to make it impossible for you to compare prices, but you’re not going to know what the pharmacy has in stock, and if you get an individual pharmacist who is stubborn or incompetent, you may not be able to buy any medicine. (When this happens, go to another pharmacy. They are not networked.) If you’re trying to get something specific, it’s a good idea to get online and look up the name of Italian equivalent before you go to the pharmacy, since you can’t just skim past packages until you find the one with the box art that looks like Mucinex. If all else fails, go ahead and ask the pharmacist for the American or British brand name. Most pharmacists will look it up, and may already recognize it if it’s common enough and you’re in a tourist area.

Special warning for travelers: In my experience, it’s impossible to buy Pepto Bismol or any similar bismuth-based digestive aid. It’s not illegal; it’s simply not something people here are in the habit of taking, so nobody stocks it. If you say you’re feeling nauseous, or if you have diarrhea, indigestion, or any of the other maladies that comes with eating unfamiliar food, Italians will recommend you take something called Geffer, which seems like Alka Selzer. It is nothing like Alka Selzer. It is an emetic and purgatory and it will make you throw up. It is the opposite of comforting to your stomach. I respectfully suggest you run away from anybody who offers you Geffer.

The silver lining to the consultative nature of Italian pharmacies is that the pharmacists have a fair amount of medical leeway. If you’re not sure what you need to take, they’ll be able to diagnose you or refer you to an inexpensive doctor. And when it comes to prescription drugs, they’re usually willing to fill an expired or missing prescription for something that’s obviously chronic. In other words, if you want to extend your trip in Italy but you’re worried you didn’t bring enough birth control pills, a pharmacist will probably look at what you’re taking and give you more of that, if it’s a molecule that’s available here. (A lot of low-estrogen micropills aren’t.)

I should note that if you’re looking for the wide range of non-medical stuff you can buy at a U.S. pharmacy — makeup, tissue, cleaning supplies, bath products, tampons, little plastic hooks you can suction to the wall — you’re better off going to either Tigota or Acqua e Sapone. Both will have a wider selection, set out on shelves you can look at with your own eyes, with prices clearly listed. The selection and prices at the two chains are similar, although Acqua e Sapone tends to be a few cents cheaper and to have grimmer florescent lighting. Basically, Tigota is Italy’s non-pharmacy CVS, and Acqua e Sapone is its Walgreens.

Tobacconist to the left; pharmacy to the right.

Postcards

If you’re looking for postcards, or have found postcards but want to buy stamps, don’t go to the post office. The post office is busy doing things like certifying documents, selling vacuum cleaners, and running a credit union. The place you’re looking for is a tobacconist, which is also where you buy local bus tickets most of the time. Their signs look like a big white T on a black field.

Prices and Presents

Prices include tax, and this is not a tipping culture, so the number somebody quotes you is the real number. In general, shopkeepers will be understanding if you pay slightly less than the bill (rounding off a penny) but confused if you try to overpay by adding a tip.

There is, however, a lot of informal gift-giving; it’s totally normal to buy drinks for strangers or throw in something extra that’s small and non-monetary. If somebody does this for you, they’re not necessarily expecting anything in return; it’s like a friendly wave. It doesn’t have the same “I’m hitting on you” implications that it does in the U.S. (They may also be hitting on you, but they’ll make this obvious.)

Private Beaches

If you see an area of the beach that is well maintained, with beach chairs and umbrellas and a play space for children, it’s part of a country club. You can’t sit there unless you want to pay to rent a spot, and most umbrellas will have been rented for the season by locals or will be linked to hotel rooms. For the remaining spots, prices vary through the season. Generally, a daily rental for one person will run €10-€20, while a family of four can share an umbrella for €20-€40. Weekly, a one-person umbrella is around €50-€80, and a four-person one is €100-€200. Most owners will speak English.

Although I’m calling these private beaches, they aren’t exactly; the beach usually still belongs to the city and is being rented on a long-term lease by the club. That’s why they aren’t fenced in — they’re still public land. Nobody will stop you from walking through these areas, or swimming in the water. It’s only if you try to sit down or spread out a towel that a club employee will come by and ask you to either pay or move along to one of the non-umbrellaed stretches of beach.

I’m an extremely frugal person who opts for the public beaches every time, but I still stop into the private clubs for coffee, and more usefully to rinse off saltwater and sand in their outdoor showers. These are token-operated, and you can buy a token at the club bar by asking for una doccia calda (hot shower) or una doccia fredda (cold shower). A hot shower is sometimes a little more costly than a cold one, but either will usually run you in the ballpark of 50 cents.

Restaurants

Menus will be split into Primi (first courses, usually pasta), Secondi (second courses, usually a small piece of meat), Contorni (vegetable sides), and Dolci (desserts). You don’t have to order multiple courses, but portions will be calibrated with the assumption you will. This is great news if you’re a small-stomached woman who tends to have to take half of an American restaurant meal home with her.

Sunblock

Here are the sunscreens I have tried so far:

  • Vichy Idéal Soleil: Glorious. It feels like you’re wearing sunblock, but really chic sunblock. 50 ml of SPF 50 is €18 full price, but will sometimes go on 50% Off sales.
  • Derma Sol GC Citoprottetivo: I like this one. It’s light enough I use it instead of daytime moisturizer. However, my husband says it slides right off him as soon as he sweats, and he finds it in puddles on his collarbone. My skin is comparatively dry and his skin is comparatively oily, so take that for what it’s worth. Supposedly the vitamin E protects you from pollution. I’m skeptical. Prices on this one are all over the place; I’ve seen 50 ml tubes for €17 and 100 ml tubes for €14. Whatever the market will bear, I guess.
  • Sole Switch Bimbi: Extremely runny, about the consistency of milk. This would make sense if the spray bottle let you mist yourself, but it doesn’t; it shoots out in a hyper-focused jet. It does absorb quickly. It cost me €14 but said on the receipt it was €16.
  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios Dermo-Pediatric: This one is a little chalky compared to the others, although less so than most U.S. sunscreens. As I understand it, the chalkiness comes from a high mineral content that acts as a physical sun barrier. It’s very water resistant. I’ve seen a 50 ml tube of SPF 50 go for around €8, and 100 ml for €12.

Hot tip #1: If you see the word “bimbi” on the front, that means it’s for children, a.k.a. sensitive skin. I don’t have sensitive skin, but I sometimes like to pretend, particularly when I think I may have gotten too much sun.

Hot tip #2: Lycopene, a nutrient plentiful in cooked tomato products , has been shown to speed up recovery from UV damage. Predictably, the actual study is hard to access, thanks to Elsiever, but here’s a summary. My ultra-pale self has thus far avoided sunburns even when I forget to wear sunblock, and I suspect the credit goes to bucatini all’amatriciana.

Swimsuits

If you are in need of feminine swimwear, your cheapest option is to find one of many pop-up stores that proliferate in the city’s commercial center during the summer months. They will sell two-piece suits almost exclusively, and will sell the tops separately from the bottoms. You will probably be able to put together an ensemble for €15-€30.

The bra tops will use the old style of Italian sizing, which means they will not have separate band and cup sizes. Size 1 = A cup. Size 2 = B cup. 3 = C, 4 = D, 5 = DD. That’s the largest cup size this type of store will probably carry. It will feel like shopping at a one-aisle Target. If you’re somebody who has an ample bosom but a small ribcage, as I do, you’ll want to look for a top that uses a tie closure instead of hooks, because otherwise band size will be a problem.

Also, it seems like American women have rounder behinds than Italian women; that angular clothing you’ve seen on the runways of Milan is made for bodies that really are less curvaceous. This means your swimsuit bottoms will very likely either hang loose, or they’ll try to become thongs regardless of cut. But who cares? Nobody’s looking at you critically on the beach.

If you want a one-piece or specialty size, i.e., a swimsuit that fits well, you’ll need to go to a grim, pseudo-Soviet looking bra shop, the kind you could mistake for a medical supply closet, where a staff of competent older women will approach you immediately with measuring tapes. This kind of shop will not be in the hip commercial district; it will locate near a grocery store or bakery. Suits will start at around €60.

Clothing boutiques will also sell swimsuits, but don’t like to use price tags, and when you think you’ve found something that you could live with, you’ll find out it’s €120 even though it’s the cheapest one in the store. Often, the boutique owner will be willing to haggle, but that only works if you’re not laughing hysterically at the idea anybody would ever spend €200 on a swimsuit.

Useful phrases:

  • Posso provare?” (Can I try this?)
  • Quanto costa/Quanto costano?” (How much does this/do these cost?)

Website?

Whatever you’re trying to look up probably doesn’t have a web presence. If it does, it’s poorly designed and the information is out of date. They won’t answer the phone, either; they’re busy or at lunch, and receptionists don’t exist. Your best bet is to check for a Facebook page. But you should probably go down there in person; they’d love to grab a coffee.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Romie Stott lives in Pescara, a small city on the Adriatic coast.

Previously:

DIYing a Second Language

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