Monday, February 4, 2008

Where to go?

View of Costa Smeralda, Sardinia
Everybody i meet in the blog universe, that is not from Italy or doesn't know very well this country, asks me for suggestions about where to travel, if one comes here for tourism.
That, to me, is a difficult question, first of all because i am not a tourist, so i see this country with different eyes. I have all the time to spend over here so i don't have necessarily to choose the very best all of the sudden as it happens to tourists (unless they're so rich to be able to spend ages over here). Moreover, being that i am an Italian in Italy, i have more chance to appreciate the very deep inside it, because i don't have the barreer of language and cultural difference.

Autumn in Monferrato, Piedmont
by Mario Spalla
An american tourist in Italy would probably end up to eat at the touristic expensive restaurant in the center town, with the menu translated in English (where "Prosciutto di Parma D.O.P." is "ham"), which, undoubtedly, may serve good food. But Italy is also made of the little winebar in that hole of a wall, in an unknown village where they serve a good wine with a plate of salumi e formaggi locali (local cured meat and cheeses), where the owner will spend some time chatting with you (a good example of it is Il Covo).

Secondly the answer of such a question strictly depends upon what one is interested to. To make some exapmples, if somebody is interested in art i would suggest Florence and Rome. Who wants to have fun till early morning spending time (and money) in the discos, they should go to Riviera Romagnola. If you are interested in nice tans, sandy beaches next to a beautiful sea, Sardinia is your final destination.

Greve in Chianti centre village, Tuscany
But you may also be interested in skiing and in mountain landscapes. In these cases i would suggest the Alps...
About food... uhm... I think wherever you can find excellent McDonald's.
Ahaha... ehm... just joking!

So, not being able to be objective enough, i'll try an answer according to my tastes.

As a first suggestion i would say that, for who can choose, it's not a wonderful idea to travel in August. One problem is that it can be really very hot. Especially in the south, the termometer can easily reach 40 Celsius (104 F). I have been in Palermo with 50 C (122 F) and it was terrible. That problem is, obviously, less felt in the north and up in the mountains, where temperatures are more human-bearable.

Serra San Quirico, Marche
Besides the warmth, the main problem of August, anyway, is that Italians have the bad habit to take off for holidays in this month all together. This means that the typical holiday destinations are packed of people, while the non-typical ones are empty. Personally i don't like crowd, so i prefer, atleast in that month, the unusual destinations (there are nice ones too). Plus, if you go to some crowded place, it is also expensive (for an easy supply-demand rule), while if you go to an unusual one, being that there's not a big lot of people, also the shops tend to close for holiday. Last, in August, being that big herds of people moving, if you travel by car you can find a really busy traffic, especially on the main highways from north to south.

If there's no other choice than August, i would suggest the north, which is cooler and better served. But the best period to visit Italy, in my opinion, is the spring, untill the half of july. Infact winter is cold, and daylights are shorter, autumn can really give wonderfully colored days, but sometimes it can be very rainy.

I don't like strict programs that don't allow me to really enjoy one place because there's no time. Instead, i think that the best Italy one can appreciate is the one that is not visible on the surface. To meet people, having dinners in a little informal trattorias, shopping at the local artisan's, learn the local customs... no way you can do it, if you just pass by for a couple of days.
Which means that if you really want to have a wide experience of Italian culture you have to spend ages in this country, because the local cultures are so various that they are really different region by region, or also town by town. So, better to choose one or two areas and deeply explore only them. Just to make a gastronomical example, the typical dish of Piedmont is called bagna caoda.

Assisi, Umbria
It's a kind of big pot with a sauce made out of olive oil, garlic and anchovees, to be eaten hot wih raw vegetables.
In the next region of Lumbardy common people almost do not even know what bagna caoda is. Vice versa, the typical dish of this last region is casseula, stewed pork meat with cabbage. Nobody knows it in Piedmont. Moreover you'll never find casseula or bagna caoda nor in Piedmont nor in Lumbardy if you go to a common tourist restaurant.

Orvieto, Umbria
Those dishes can be found only in the old fashioned country trattorias, and only during winter.

So, planning to stay... let's say... one month in Italy i would choose no more than two places to stay, and rent a car to drive around those two places and visit the typical old little villages.

My favorite area in Italy is the center. In the center I would avoid Tuscany, because it's packed of foreign people, tourists or immigrants, especially from UK and USA. I have nothing racist against British or American people, but for sure, if you want to experience the real Italy, their invadent presence is a big limit. I remember, for example, walking in the center of Greve in Chianti (a little village in the famous wine area), where one can think there's the most authentic and uncontaminated italian culture, the most widely spoken language that i could hear was English.
My favorite regions are infact Umbria, Marche and Abruzzo, considered much less as a target by those "colonizers". That's why those regions are much less expensive although the territory is very similar to the Tuscan one (i hope this won't be considered a suggestion to rich American and British people to colonize also those lands!).

Dolomiti view, Trentino Alto Adige

Saint Rhemy en Bosses, Valle d'Aosta
Those regions are my favorite for the food, the landscapes made of sweet hills, the wines (although Tuscany is still the best to that respect), the little medioeval villages, the courtesy and hospitality of people, and in general the culture strictly linked to the roots in their territory. The Parco Enogastronomico della Marca Centrale (Oenological and Gastronomical Park of Central Marche) is a good example of research of our root in the territory, through food, and preservation of our culture.

One of my favorite activities is also hiking in the mountains. With that purpose i suggest the spring on the Alps. Hiking paths are well kept and pretty much each one of them has atleast one refuge on the top, which makes the walk even more interesting for the food and the rest that can be enjoyed after the hard ascent.

View from Monte Tesoro, Lumbardy
from Rubber Slippers in Italy
The dolomites in the Alto Adige area are one of the most beautiful scenic view i have ever seen in my entire life, and the variety of mountain landscapes in Valle d'Aosta worth some days spent on hiking. Also the area (Como lake) where I live is enjoyable for hiking, and it offers also dramatic views of the lake.

Coliseum, Rome
Besides my tastes, i think that the ultimate thing that is missing wherever in the westerner world and we have in Italy, is the History, mother of our culture and customs. That's a fact that most of European (and, by extension, also South and North American) cultures were somehow originated in this country, so any foreign tourist coming to Italy can find atleast a little stone of his own History.

If i was a tourist, then, i wouldn't miss to visit Rome for its monuments, buildings and ruins that designed all the westerner cultures of the last three millennia, although nowadays it's a so busy and messy town that can be really tiring.

A good guide for Italian restaurants is Slow Food's Osterie d'Italia.
A good help to choose hiking paths in Lumbardy is Diska's Photos and PassoLento

(click on the photos to enlarge)


Aaron Abitia said...

Ahhhh, grazie mille Dario. I read your post quickly just now I will go back and give it a more thorough read and visit all of the links. Thank you for such a good review! I will be sure to forward this to my friend Jeremiah. Ciao.

rowena said...

The unfortunate reality for most visitors traveling to a foreign country is that they have only so much time. And time costs money$$$! How can you possibly combine the two and come out a winner? I just witnessed a news clip on the Venice celebrations and today is the last day. Venezia, hands down, is the most glamorous Carnevale in all of Italy, yet when I go to the one in Bagolino, I feel very self-satisfied to a grand extent, because these occasions are privileged only to those like myself who can truly spend time in this country.

Maybe one day there will be a better/faster/cheaper?! way to travel. I'll be one of the very first ones to go all over the world at my leisure. With my rubber slippers.... :-)

tychecat said...

Most of my trips to Italy have been associated with tours- The best tour operator active in the US is probably Parillo - who more or less specializes in Italy.
They have a "three cities package:" Rome, Florence, and Venice -5-7 days in each - they provide transportation, lodging, etc but are not otherwise much organized -no "tours" which is nice because you can wander around these three delightful cities at your own pace.
You are, of course right about visiting just about any country - it's best to settle down in a fairly obscure spot and get to know something of the region's specialites. I remember once we stopped for lunch in Perugia (I know, pretty touristy) but we wandered around and found a place on a side street - the Hotel Rosetta where I had one of the best meals I've had in Europe - Yes, it has Michlin stars, well deserved.

jeremiahblackwell said...

Thanks Aaron for forwarding this to me. I like the way he thinks. I figure we'll only stay in one town for the entire time. This was very helpful