I recently had the pleasure of being in Italy for a week with my family, visiting Bologna, Ferrara, Verona, Padua and Venice. We had a great time. [7 Days]
Last night, the family decided to watch a film that included Venice in its storyline - Only You. Made in 1994, and starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr., this is a beautiful film about destiny and finding your soul-mate. [140 Mins]
But I was struck, as I watched Tomei’s character Faith sending a telegram home from Italy, about how much has changed in the way we travel in the 17 years since this film was made, and the (literally) far-reaching effects of internet technology.
OK, there are probably people reading this who have never seen or sent a telegram, other than perhaps when sent to a wedding. But even in 1994, fax machines were only just starting to appear in home offices, and internet access was still a relative novelty. There were only around 10,000 web sites, and most access was through dialup modem. IDC statistics estimate only 16 million people, or 0.4% of the world’s population, were using the internet in 1995. Today, the figures are closer to 30% of the world’s population, with almost 80% penetration in North America.
The good old guidebook
We came across a 1997 vintage guide to Italy in a charity shop before we left on our trip. It originally retailed at £20. Of course, some things in that book were timelessly unchanged, such as the interior of San Marco’s Basilica in Venice, or the Roman Amphitheatre in the heart of Verona. However, the choice of restaurants was very limited, and none of the hotels listed had a web site or email address. To book a hotel, you would phone one of those listed, hope your Italian was up to scratch, or their English good, and perhaps give them your credit card details, with any confirmation, if it came, being by fax. [20 Mins] If the hotel had a fax, of course. And think of booking your flight - you’d head off to a flight shop or travel agent, explain where you want to go and when, and they’d post you out tickets a week or so later. [90 mins] You might have been given a choice of one or two airlines for your route.
How do you hire a FIAT to Rome?
In the film, Faith and her girlfriend have to hire a car as there is a National strike taking place in Italy, and she needs to get to Rome from Venice. She’d have asked her hotel where the nearest car rental office is, and gone there to arrange the hire. [50 Mins] Of course, given the idiosyncrasy of Italian road signing, she gets lost, and runs out of petrol on the way. [120 mins]. Luckily, some passing Nuns (it’s a film) help her out with a fuel top-up, and she finds her way to Rome. On arrival, she drops off her car at the rental agency, and grabs a taxi to take her to the Roman hotel address she’s been given. As it turns out, the taxi ride is very short, as her destination turns out to be just the other side of the same piazza. [20 Secs]
So, Faith is still looking for her elusive soul-mate, but needs somewhere to stay. A local businessman recommends a little Pensione a few streets away, and accompanies them there, where, of course, being the movies, a room is free and the place is wonderful. [5 Mins] Her trips around Rome are initially by Taxi, and then she needs to buy a guidebook in order to locate all the hotels nearby where her elusive soul-mate might be staying… you'll need to see the movie to find out what happens next.
Fast forward to October 2011
Being a canny Scot, I start with Skyscanner to find the cheapest flight to ‘Everywhere’ around the school half-term dates. Italy is near the top of the list, with direct flights to Bologna. After discussion with the family, I pay extra for 1 piece of hold luggage, and book online. [15 Mins]. I check in online with all passport details transmitted, for both outward and return flights, and print my boarding passes. [5 Mins] I decide to stay two nights in Bologna, before we join friends in Verona, so head to Tripadvisor.com and book the second-most-recommended hotel in Bologna. The best rate I find is through hotels.com who also have an iPhone app, for which I recall from their newsletter gives a 15% discount if you use a promo code in their mobile app. I use the same app to book Verona - this time in the same hotel as friends we're meeting. [10 Mins] For both, I can print or store the PDFs for confirmation, which have maps to guide me there. I’ll need to hire a car after staying in Bologna, so I search via an online broker for the cheapest deal, and it turns out to be from Avis. Google Maps show me it’s easy to get to their downtown rental office from my hotel, so I book it, and choose a one-way hire, to drop the car at the airport on the way back. [10 Mins] After a serious amount of time investigating hotels available in Venice (notoriously small and expensive), we make our choice after reading reviews at Tripadvisor.com on their iPhone app, and book again through hotels.com. [10 Mins] I add my bookings and flights to Tripit by forwarding a few emails, so that I have my details in my iPhone as a backup to paper copies. [2 mins]
Driven to distraction
Of course, if you have ever driven in Italy, you’ll know that road signs can be a problem, with the signing concept of ‘primary destination’ being slightly alien. Seeing ten-plus destinations at one junction is also not all that rare, but direction confirmation signs are, meaning it’s easy to get on the wrong road without knowing it until it’s far too late. Such was my fate in Verona. [40 mins] I couldn’t find the SR11 out of town from the centre. So I admitted defeat, switched on data roaming on my iPhone, and asked my Maps app to take me from my current location to the hotel address. My wife read out the turn-by-turn moves as I drove. [11 Mins]
We hadn’t booked anything for a night in Padua, but on arrival, while my wife and child checked out a hotel that looked good, I checked their prices and reviews on my iPhone as I waited in the car. [5 Mins] My wife negotiated a better deal because I texted her the online cost, and she got also got parking thrown in.
I knew where to park in Venice thanks to a little prior research courtesy of Google, and I knew also to get the Number 2 waterbus into town for the cheap and very scenic route. The subsequent walk to our hotel was as per the Google Maps instruction - but we did have to ask a Gondolier for help at the last turn - we laughed when we saw that the hotel sign was right above our heads. The hotel was amazing, as per the reviews - and they were able to upgrade us free to a canal view as I’d requested in a comment when I booked.
We avoided some of the worst tourist traps, and discovered some off-the-track gems with a little free Guidepal app of Venice, which even had an Augmented Reality ‘point and find out what’s interesting nearby’. No data roaming needed, as the hotel had free wifi - as did every one we stayed in.
But the serendipity of travel is not all gone. Our last night was spent at a little hotel in Ferrara which was recommended to us by the girl who served us our lunch - it was just around the corner, and it provided the best breakfast of our holiday. [40 mins] Turns out it's ranked #2 out of 43 in the city at Tripadvisor...
This blog originally appeared at EnergySysFollow @energysys