“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life,” said Anna Akhmatova. Many Italian Americans, Italophiles, and culture-seeking adventures head to il bel paese during summer and early fall. Perhaps your days will soon be filled with the Mediterranean sun’s warmly hued daylight, Aperol spritz, robust espresso, and Italy’s iconic afternoon stroll, la passeggiata. From my perspective as a professor who has led countless study abroad programs in Italy, I’d humbly like to offer some travel advice: step off the beaten path and connect with locals.
Using your senses, you can discover intriguing moments anywhere. I’ll never forget seeing two laborers eating fresh mozzarella and prosciutto in their work truck while sharing a mini bottle of wine. Wander down a side street at the right time, and you’ll hear the melodic sound of dishes and absorb the irresistible aroma of Italian home cooking wafting from open windows as the afternoon news plays in the background. Unscripted local moments can be culturally insightful, downright magical, and often are the hidden gems, such as a restaurant I discovered en route to Sestri Levante (a potential base destination for those wishing to visit the Cinque Terre).
Driving the autostrada, my family’s stomachs grumbled. In a valley of wooded and hilly terrain, we spotted a quaint village dominated by an ornate church spire and separated from the highway by a shallow stream. Full of hope that there might be somewhere to eat, we took the exit and stumbled upon Trattoria al Vecchio Scalo in the little hamlet of Isola del Cantone. As I stepped foot in the door, I scanned the restaurant’s eclectic décor. It was enveloped by wood paneling and immediately overwhelmed us: walls festooned with dusty liquor bottles, old sports trophies, dozens of ornamental plates adorning the pale-yellow walls, along with kitschy knickknacks and old photographs. While nearly deserted, the aromas drifting from the back were reminiscent of my Italian grandmother’s kitchen – jackpot. I recall sitting with my family, enjoying the daily specials in a warm environment that felt like being in a relative’s basement for a meal. We chatted with our waiter, Walter, a man in his sixties whose face was framed by square glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard. Curious about each other, we learned that he was a retired businessman who had spent time in the U.S. and discussed why we ended up in his village. As we were leaving, we had the privilege of meeting Walter’s grandchildren on their way back from school to have lunch at the family restaurant. I smile every time I think about this simple roadside stop.
Now, I’ll contrast this with a group of students I saw on the terrace of what I’ll call a tourist trap restaurant opposite the Pantheon in Rome. The area was teeming with visitors snapping selfies, vendors hawking souvenirs, a cacophony of loudly spoken English, and aggressive waiters beckoning passersby to eat there as they touted free shots of limoncello and flirted with female patrons. Of course, all of this was set to the melodic tones of “The Godfather” theme song playing in the background. While everyone has their own idea of a meaningful experience, this scene makes me cringe as it’s more akin to a twisted artificial Italian theme park.
Unscripted experiences can make for an adventurous day. Nonetheless, it can be helpful to learn a little about your destination before leaving for Italy. Questions to consider are what is the history of the area? Which foods are specialties? What are the key industries? Look into the local events, leisure activities, art, and culture. An excellent place to start is Italy’s official tourist website. If you want to connect with a local area, look no further than the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia. This group promotes villages in Italy known for their beauty and exceptional cultural heritage. Searching the webpage, for example, just an hour and a half from Rome’s chaos, you’ll find an experience called “Castel di Tora, natura e sport insieme agli asinelli” on Lake Turano. According to the description on the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia’s website, you’ll be surrounded by spectacular pastures, enjoy a boat ride, and even a hiking excursion where you’ll be accompanied by two donkeys, all while staying at a picturesque bed and breakfast.
Authenticity is one of the most essential elements of a meaningful trip to Italy. It can be simple, but you must step away from the hotspots, even a few blocks, to find it. Off the beaten path moments will color your dreams of Italy for years, allow you to connect with people, and add zest to your travel.
Dr. Patrick Tunno is the author of a forthcoming book, “A Guide to Italy: Cultural Insights and Tips to Maximize Your Trip”, which will be released this summer. Visit patricktunnophd.com to sign up to be notified when it is available.