More people in the world have a mobile phone than a toilet. Shocking isn’t it? So as the 19th November is UN World Toilet Day, I thought I’d take a pee(k) at the loos in Italy and see how flush we are! (See what I did there!)
Overall, you’ll be glad to hear, Italy is a country with good facilities, especially in homes and hotels. In fact Italian bathroom designers are arguably some of the best in the world. But the public loo is often raro come le mosche bianche or as rare as white flies as Italians would say. And in my time here I’ve discovered a few Italian bathroom idiosyncrasies too, not all of which I can explain! So if you’re caught short, where do you go?!
One of the best places, in my experience, to find a loo in Italy is at a train station although the charges might be a little more expensive than you’re used to! Its pretty much impossible to “spend a penny” without it costing you anything from 50 cents to €1.50 unless you use the loo on the train. It depends how desperate you are whether the cost is worth it I guess! On the plus side, facilities are normally clean(ish), well-stocked with loo paper, well-lit and staffed. The main problem, apart from the cost, is that most close in the evenings.
A lot of bars and cafes, but certainly not all, also offer facilities for their customers but many owners are rather sharp-eyed when it comes to spotting tourists just wanting to use the bathroom without buying a drink. Some even lock the loo so you have to ask for the key. Awkward!
There is, of course, the age-old tourist favourite of the American-style fast-food restaurants, we all know the ones I mean, that usually have decent, accessible and free loos. I’d never normally advocate setting foot in one of these establishments but sometimes needs must and if you walk in confidently, heading straight to the WC you can normally get away without paying or buying anything. Mind you, I have noticed some of these restaurants, in high volume tourist locations such as Venice and Prague, have started to introduce charges or door-codes to dissuade non-paying customers so its no longer always a guaranteed free option.
Public buildings can be a decent option. Museums and galleries often have the best facilities although they’re generally only accessible once you’ve bought a ticket so make sure you take full advantage and go before you leave the exhibition!
For all other circumstances you’ll need track down a public loo, but you might have to search! Public toilets are often down an alley, off the beaten track or hidden behind the sights. For example, in Venice I’ve found 4 – one behind St Mark’s Square, one under the Accademia bridge on the Dorsoduro side, one near the Rialto market and one down an alley off the approach to the Rialto Bridge on the St Mark’s side. None is particularly obvious and all cost €1.50 but trust me, when you need to go, you need to go and they always have paper!
The main thing you’ll notice with a lot of toilets in Italy, though, wherever you are is that they don’t have seats! I’m not sure why Italians have a problem with seats in public toilets. I doubt anyone would prefer the cold porcelain – its certainly not something I’ve noticed in Italian homes or hotels. I can only guess that it may be to prevent damage or to save on costs. In the meantime, if we look on the bright side, it’s a chance to strengthen those thigh muscles as you hover a couple of inches above the rim! Too much information…?!
Well I say hover but sometimes it’s not possible! I have found a range of heights of loos in my travels around the Italian peninsula from those where my feet literally dangle, to those that would be low even for a small child! And when I say low, I don’t mean squat loos. Some toilets are barely 6 inches in height so it’s all you can do to hover without falling into the bowl as your thigh muscles blaze furiously! It can make for some interesting noises from the next cubicle!
Talking of squatting, though, you will occasionally still find the odd squat toilet in use in Italy, although they’re increasingly being phased out. And ordinarily I’d say that you’d only find squat loos off the beaten track, in parks or the smaller towns etc, but last year I had rather a shock to find one at the Teatro Storchi, in Modena. How all those wonderfully attired theatre-goers cope with a squat toilet in their fancy designer frocks I can only guess but suffice to say it was not a nice surprise to find one in such a cultured establishment!
On a more amusing level, the cutest loo, if that’s possible, was one I found in Perugia city centre. It was a bargain at just 50 cents and included not only soft loo paper, but also a parent & child cubicle! What a great idea!
Sadly, though, such comfortable public loos aren’t always to be found. In fact, many visitors don’t seem to be able to find toilets or are just too lazy / desperate / rude to bother, choosing to use an alleyway or backstreet for their bathroom. Not only is this highly inconsiderate to residents and other visitors, but its also rather smelly!
For this reason, Venice, which is often accused of lacking public loos, has had to come up with the rather innovative invention of the gobba or pissotta. Normally made of concrete, the gobba is a bulge or ledge that is usually found in corners or along dark walls, anywhere that might look tempting to someone thinking of relieving themselves. But if they do, they’ll get something of a surprise as the gobba is designed to ‘splash-back’ all over your shoes! You have been warned!
And do me a favour and don’t resort to the kind of behaviour witnessed this summer in St Mark’s early one morning. Truly disgusting!
Finally, there is the elephant in the room. The bidet! Non-Italians are often a little confused about what to do with a bidet and end up washing their feet or socks in it. Italians, on the other hand, think we’re the weirdos for not having bidets in our bathrooms and are often revolted at the thought of our consequent lack of hygiene. Bidets will, therefore, usually be included in most self-respecting domestic and hotel bathrooms and should be used after the toilet to wash your “downstairs area”, your bits and pieces or your bathing suit area, lady-garden, whatever you want to call it, and definitely not your socks!
So what have we learnt? The main lesson to take away from this is never pass a loo as you never know where the next one will be! Carry change for public toilet turnstiles and always pack tissues or wet wipes, even just for your hands. And, whatever you do, don’t resort to using the streets, there is always a solution somewhere, even if it means a quick trot back to your hotel or into a museum! If you need to know how to ask where the loo is, check out my helpful Italian 101 post. And finally, one last but very important tip – pay attention to the spelling on the doors! Signori means men whilst Signore means women! If you’ve had an embarrassing toilet moment or have more bathroom advice when travelling, leave me a comment and in the meantime you’ll be “relieved” to hear that its time to wash your hands and get back to celebrating World Toilet Day!
19th November is World Toilet Day
To find out more about the non-profit World Toilet Organisation click here
According to the United Nations, 2.5 billion people, or roughly 40% of the world’s population, do not have access to proper sanitation, including toilets. World Toilet Day, initiated by Mr Toilet, Jack Sim, in 2001, cherishes and celebrates toilets around the world, aiming to draw attention to this silent sanitation crisis. His non-profit World Toilet Organisation works to improve toilet provisions as clean and safe loos ensure not just improved health but also better education, especially for girls, and economic well-being as jobs are created building the loos.
A few of the public toilets I have consumer tested for your delight!
Venice St Mark’s, L’Accademia Bridge, near the Rialto Bridge & at the Santa Lucia railway station, all €1.50
Florence Station €1
Perugia, off the main square, parent and child for 50c
Assisi under the Basilica of St Francis 50c