Yes, I’ve been up to something.

Italy

I have been neglectful of this blog lately – even more neglectful than normal, which is saying something. There’s a reason for it, though.

I’ve been pouring any spare time I have into Italy Explained, which I launched officially last year and am trying to build into the robust travel planning resource I know it can be. And more recently, I’ve been spending more time than I care to admit fiddling with the coding in the Kindle publishing system, getting my first ebook ready for primetime.

Which is now.

Italy Explained: Italian Trains

Italy Explained: Italian Trains” hit Amazon’s virtual shelves this week – FINALLY – and I couldn’t be happier.

The bad news is that I looked at the vast expanse of white space on my new Amazon author page and thought, “Oh, crap. Now I have to write more books.”

Jessica Spiegel Amazon author page

So if you don’t see me here, you’re likely to find me over at Italy Explained, or hunched over my laptop yelling at the Kindle Previewer when it hasn’t picked up the text-indent HTML I added mere seconds ago.

Ahem.

At any rate, I hope you’ll pass the book and Italy Explained site on to anyone you know who’s planning an Italy trip!

The book cover photo is a creative commons image by John Picken Photography.

being a woman in italy

Being a Woman in Italy: It’s Complicated

Italy

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You may have noticed that everyone at the Italy Blogging Roundtable is female. This wasn’t by design, but it has led us to this month’s blogging topic: WOMEN.

being a woman in italy

Milan 2007 | photo by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission

Being a woman in Italy is – to put it in Facebook status terms – complicated.

There are things about being a woman in Italy that I rather like, actually. The old-fashioned notion of chivalry is nowhere near old-fashioned in Italy – it’s alive and well. And it’s refreshing, in a way, to assume that nearly everyone is on the same page with regard to what might be called “chivalrous acts.”

For instance, in the U.S., if I reach the door first and open it, I expect any man I’m with to go through the door I’m holding open. I’ll even get a little irritated if he refuses, propping open the door above my head as if I’m not perfectly capable of continuing to hold it for the both of us. In Italy, I don’t expect any man to walk through the door first, so I don’t get annoyed when men hold the door for me.

Does this make perfect sense? Of course not. Like I said – it’s complicated.


In many ways, calling Italy “old-fashioned” feels so obvious as to be unnecessary. It is, after all, a country we visit in droves for its ancient ruins, cobblestone streets, and the sorts of dishes, views, and traditions we like to describe as “unchanged by time.” We’ve been known to lament modernization, wishing the things we love most about Italy would stay forever as they are. We’re eager to put Italy in a bottle, hit the pause button, and not let time destroy all the things we adore about the country.

What we forget, however, are the Italians who live there long after we’ve gone back home.

It can’t be easy to try to live a modern life in a country probably best known for all sorts of very old things that the outside world would prefer remain unchanged, particularly when what appears to visitors on the surface of Italy to be “charming” or “atmospheric” often has a more complicated story behind it.

Those buildings we love in Venice, so photographable with their brickwork showing through peeling layers of who-knows-what on the outside, they’re so pleasingly dilapidated, aren’t they? Never mind that the owner may well be an absentee landlord who bought a Venetian palazzo as an investment and now rents out apartments to vacationers and maybe some of the few residents left in the city. “Pleasingly dilapidated” feels entirely different when you’re living in a leaky building you don’t have the authority (or funds) to repair.

How many of us have in our Italy photo archives a photo (or twelve) of laundry strung between buildings on the narrow lanes of an Italian town? We’re charmed by the sight, taking it in as part of the scenery, not realizing that the incredibly high cost of electricity in Italy means that having a dryer is a luxury most Italians can’t afford.

Being “old-fashioned” in Italy means both good and bad things, sometimes simultaneously.


Which brings me back to the topic of women. It’s easy for me to say that my personal experiences of being female in Italy are overwhelmingly positive. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons for this is very simple: I do not live in Italy.

My relationship with Italy is that of an outsider. Even when I was working on the assumption I would one day live in Italy, I knew I would continue to see the country through the lens of a visitor – my role as the writer of an Italy travel guide compelled me to do so.

This isn’t to say I’m ignorant of the trials and tribulations of being a woman in Italy. I have expat girlfriends there who talk about the surprised looks they get when they tell Italians they have a job outside the home, and others who have left the country entirely, fed up with trying to get anywhere professionally as a woman in an Italian business. I have watched with disgust as Silvio Berlusconi has made a mockery of women by (for instance) giving a showgirl and former nude model the cabinet position of “Minister for Equal Opportunity” and repeatedly treating the German prime minister with juvenile disrespect (not to mention those so-called “bunga bunga” parties Berlusconi is now infamous for throwing) – and then with further disgust as he rises to power time and again, supporters brushing off his dalliances as unimportant.

My mother raised me to be a proud feminist, and that is what I am. I bristle at the way so many Italians seem to accept as par for the course behavior I have long thought of as incredibly sexist. I’m sure I would find it even more frustrating if I lived there – especially since I’m a woman with a career and (this may even be worse) one who has never wanted children. To me, Italy’s old-fashioned attitudes toward gender roles are nothing short of maddening.

And yet? I can’t say that being a woman in Italy doesn’t have its perks, too, some of which stem directly from those old-fashioned attitudes.

There is really no way to simplify the conversation about “being a woman in Italy,” unless you believe the status quo is perfectly fine and needs no adjustment whatsoever. (In which case, let’s assume we won’t be very good friends.) Let’s face it: being a woman just about anywhere on this planet is challenging.* Living in a place that throws additional road blocks in the way of half the population for “cultural reasons” makes it even more so.

At the moment, being a woman in Italy is complicated. I hope it won’t always be.

* Don’t believe me? Give “Half the Sky” a read.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

Are you as intrigued as I am to find out what the rest of the Italy Roundtable has to say about WOMEN IN ITALY? Let’s find out. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

Are we connected?

Have you LIKED us on Facebook? Are you following us on Twitter? Please drop by and say hello, we’re quite friendly. And we’re always taking suggestions on future topics for the Italy Blogging Roundtable! Drop us a note on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment on one of our posts.

Italy Roundtable: A Room Full of Botticellis

Italy

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Before we dive into April’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic, I’ve a small housekeeping notice to make. We’ve been at this for nearly two years now, and we are pleased to welcome our first additional Roundtable member!

Please help me welcome Kate Bailward of Driving Like a Maniac, whose writing we all adore and who (we’re hoping) will help anchor us to more than just northern Italy – Kate lives in Sicily. You may remember Kate’s contributions to the Italy Roundtable when we invited others to throw their hats in the ring last year – she told us why she writes about Italy and about a special Easter gift she received from a student. We all look forward to read Kate’s contributions to the Roundtable on a regular basis from now on, and we think you will, too.

This month, we’ve chosen the topic of SPRING for, well, a pretty obvious reason. But as you’ll see, we didn’t all stick to the seasonal meaning of the word.

Do you have suggestions for a future Italy Roundtable topic? You can leave us a note on Facebook!

A Room Full of Botticellis

Art history classes had always been a bit of a snooze for me in high school and college. Slideshows of so-called masterpieces are no match for the real thing, after all, and academics have been known to drone on about metaphors without realizing their students are half-asleep in one of those “it’s after lunch and the room is dark” comas. Even during a month-long art history intensive course I took in Canterbury during the first part of my junior year in England, I was merely going through the good-student motions until we took a field trip to see London’s National Gallery.

The lingering effects of food poisoning meant that I moved from bench to bench in the gallery, constantly on the hunt for another place to rest. When (after collapsing onto yet another bench) I looked up to see what remains one of my favorite paintings of all time, I forgot my weakness and feverish forehead. I stared at Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” for what seemed like hours, struck by how much detail had been captured in such a small painting. It was putting dimensions on the painting that struck a chord – slides and images in books cannot repsresent size accurately, and seeing the actual painting shows you very clearly just how much (or how little) space the artist had to work with.

This, for me, was a turning point in my relationship to art – I would never again be content to look at slides or color plates in books. Seeing the artwork in person is the only way I can really pay attention to it.

As we waited in line at the Uffizi during my first Italy trip in 2001, we leafed through our copy of Rick Steves’ “Mona Winks,” trying to get a sense of precisely what everyone was waiting in line to see. Some important Giotto painting, a Raphael that sounded familiar, a Caravaggio, a da Vinci, and a few Botticellis. Fine. These are the kind of artistic names you can drop at a cocktail party and get a response, almost no matter the audience. This, then, would be a useful sightseeing stop.

And yet, despite knowing what an impact seeing artwork in person had on me in the past, I was wholly unprepared for the effect of walking into a room full of enormous Botticellis.

primavera_botticelli

Room 10-14 in the Uffizi is the “Botticelli Room,” and holds both “The Birth of Venus” and “The Spring,” both of which are more massive than can be conveyed by a high school art class slideshow. “The Birth of Venus” is 5.6 feet by 9 feet, and “The Spring” is 6.6 feet by 10.3 feet. These are paintings for grand rooms and even grander lives, the kind common to the Medici, but completely foreign to the tourists wandering through that family’s old offices. The figures in these paintings are idealized and life-size. It’s jarring to anyone more accustomed to small works of art that can be easily contained in mass-produced 18×20 frames and hung on dorm room walls.

While both of these huge paintings leave a lasting impression when seen at their true size, it has always been “The Spring” that I liked more. I liked the density of the forest background, the many characters on parade in the foreground, and – when it was finally explained to me – what they all (supposedly) meant. But the figure I’ve always loved most in that painting is the woman in the dress printed with flowers. The floral pattern on the dress makes it somehow seem like a real garment, as opposed to the sea of monochromatic draped material I felt like I was looking at in most portraits, and the woman’s face is somehow less idealistic and more realistic. This face looked like someone you might meet turning the corner in the museum, albeit wearing more modern clothing.

I’ve never been back inside the Uffizi to revisit the Botticellis. I doubt that initial shock would return, since I’m now at least a little prepared for just how large those canvases really are. This might be another case of “you can’t go home again,” but I’d be willing to take the chance to find out if my affection for “The Spring” and that floral figure remains as strong. Next time I’m in Florence…

As a side note, it was only years later that I realized the face on that foral figure reminded me of Cate Blanchett. (And I’m apparently not the only one who sees the resemblance.)

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What about SPRING are my fellow Italy Roundtable bloggers writing? Let’s find out. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

Are we connected?

Have you LIKED us on Facebook? Are you following us on Twitter? Please drop by and say hello, we’re quite friendly. And we’re always taking suggestions on future topics for the Italy Blogging Roundtable! Drop us a note on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment on one of our posts.

Getting to Know Vatican City & the Pope [INFOGRAPHIC]

Italy

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One of my regular writing gigs these days is for Viator, where I write the Italy blogs. In the aftermath of the Pope’s resignation, I got asked to compile a crapload* of Vatican factoids for an infographic they wanted to put together. The graphic is now published, & I think it looks pretty cool.

You can click on the graphic to get to the original Viator post, where there’s an even bigger version of it.

vaticaninfographic

(I gave them way more data than they could actually use in one infographic, so we’re already talking about ways to use the excess trivia. I mean, when the rabbit hole that is the internet leads you to the Apostolic Constitution of Pope John Paul II, you kind of can’t let that go to waste.)

* technical term

Italy Roundtable: Why do we love Italian hill towns?

Italy

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A ready-made topic for the Italy Blogging Roundtable in March didn’t seem to be presenting itself, so I went back to the topic brainstorming document I had started months ago and pulled HILLS/MOUNTAINS from it as an option. It was decided, and then I realized I had no idea what I had to say about hills or mountains in Italy.

Oops.

Interestingly, however, doing a simple search for “Italy hills” gave me an idea…

Why do we love Italian hill towns?

Civita di Bagnoregio (by Alessio Damato on Wikimedia Commons)

Civita di Bagnoregio (by Alessio Damato on Wikimedia Commons)

There are countless articles, online and off, on the many hilltop villages throughout Italy that deserve a traveler’s attention, and a few discussions of why so many towns in Italy are built on hills. But Italy is certainly not the only country with hilltop villages – indeed, there are towns built on top of hills in countries all over the world. So, why are we so infatuated with the hill towns of Italy?

Wikipedia actually defines a “hill town” as the same thing as a “citadel town,” saying people built cities on hills to make them easier to protect and harder to invade. Many Italian hill towns still have remnants of their fortified city walls, further emphasizing this fact.

Today, of course, Italy’s hill towns aren’t being attacked by anything but tourist crowds.

Certainly, one of the appealing elements of hilltop towns is that they tend to maintain their history. Modern cities built on flat land can (and do) sprawl in all directions, while there’s only so far a hilltop village can go before it’s quite literally over the edge. In fact, many historic Italian hill towns have forcibly relocated residents to new towns built nearby (not on hilltops) as local government officials feared whole pieces of buildings would fall off the edges of town.

Rick Steves’ favorite Italian hill town, Civita di Bagnoregio, extended a footbridge from the new town (also called Bagnoregio) to the old town, which means residents can remain in their homes and tourists can still enjoy the peace and quiet of the tiny car-free town. There are precious few year-round residents in Civita di Bagnoregio these days, and there is some talk of shoring up the buildings that are most at risk of crumbling, but anyone who knows about Italian construction timelines knows not to hold out much hope for that happening anytime soon.

Calcata (by Mac9 on Wikimedia Commons)

Calcata (by Mac9 on Wikimedia Commons)

The hilltop town of Calcata, which serves as the setting for my friend David Farley’s fantastic book, “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” was condemned in the 1930s. A new town, Calcata Nuova, was built nearby, and residents of the old town were moved into new homes. Today, however, Calcata is once again home to a community of year-round residents – only now they’re largely foreign “artists and hippies” who started arriving in the 1960s. No doubt they found the abandoned town appealing, what with its distinct lack of government oversight, although years later the government rescinded its earlier condemnation of the historic town.

The ancient section of the Basilicata town of Matera, built across a canyon, is so historically unchanged in its more than 9,000 years of constant occupation that it was used as the backdrop for the film, “The Passion of the Christ.” The popular Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano is noted for the many medieval towers (each built to show off a family’s wealth), several of which remain standing today. And some Italian hill towns have even been studied to find out how their ancient buildings survived earthquakes that leveled more modern buildings nearby.

San Gimignano (by cfwee on Flickr)

San Gimignano (by cfwee on Flickr)

Some hilltop towns use their elevated status in singular festivals that sound too crazy to be real. Montepulciano hosts an annual uphill wine barrel-rolling race, during which participating teams of two run a little over a mile uphill along the town’s main street while pushing a 175-pound wine barrel in front of them. And lest you think this is a modern invention to attract tourists, the race actually dates back to the late 14th century.

Of course, not all hill towns in Italy are small towns, either – Rome is famously built on seven hills, although the legend of the city’s founding goes back to one specific hill.

The sheer quantity of Italian hilltop towns isn’t surprising, given how mountainous Italy is, but the question of why we as visitors are so enamored of these hill towns remains. Do we appreciate their relative quiet compared to the more-easily-accessed cities? Do we marvel at the historic surroundings that really do feel like they’re taking us back in time? Do we just like the commanding views afforded by higher elevations? Maybe it’s a combination of all these things – or something else altogether.

I’m genuinely curious now – what do you like about Italian hill towns? And if you have a favorite, what is it – and why?

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What Italian HILLS or MOUNTAINS are my fellow Italy Roundtable bloggers talking about? Let’s find out. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

Are we connected?

Have you LIKED us on Facebook? Are you following us on Twitter? Please drop by and say hello, we’re quite friendly. And we’re always taking suggestions on future topics for the Italy Blogging Roundtable! Drop us a note on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment on one of our posts.

planning for an Italy trip

Italy Roundtable: Crafting a “Handmade in Italy” Travel Experience

Italy

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When the topic for this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable came up – HANDMADE – naturally my first thoughts were food-related. I envisioned writing lovingly of making handmade pasta, leaving fingerprints in the dough as tendrils of tagliatelle were gently shaken to relieve them of their excess flour. I considered writing of the finely-honed skills required to make something as challenging as kneading the perfect pizza dough or pulling the perfect shot of espresso look so bloody simple.

And then I remembered I am useless in the kitchen.

My food-related prowess exists only in my ability to eat – and then wax poetic about – the dishes others spend lifetimes perfecting. So I went back to the mental drawing board to figure out what my equivalent of a culinary masterpiece might be. Here’s what I found.

The Allure of “Made in Italy”

Florentine leather shop

creative commons photo by brianburk9 via Flickr


Shoppers know that one of the things to get excited about when you’re traveling through Italy is something with the coveted “Made in Italy” stamp. Whether it’s a leather handbag from Florence, a bottle of balsamic vinegar from Modena, or a painted ceramic plate from Deruta – the reason so many are willing to pay higher prices for this stamp is that it indicates a higher quality product that’s the result of the time devoted to crafting it.

Which is why it’s shocking to me that so many of those same “Made in Italy” hunters are willing to outsource the very trip planning that gets them to those crafts in the first place, settling for a mass-produced travel experience.

I am biased on this topic, I’ll admit that at the outset – but I’ve never understood how a person can hand over the reins to a travel agent or tour operator for something they’d call a “trip of a lifetime” and expect their experience to be in any way unique. Organized tours are pre-packaged products. There are, I know, times and places where such tours are the best solution for a traveler – I’ve booked them myself, and likely will again.

However, when so many travelers express a desire to find what we call “authentic” or “artisanal,” it seems to me the choice is clear: what’s required is a “handmade in Italy” travel experience.

Crafting a “Handmade in Italy” Travel Experience

planning for an Italy trip

creative commons photo by fotologic via Flickr


What exactly do I mean by a “handmade in Italy” travel experience? I’m not suggesting you need to ignore all books on the topic and do no research so that you can go into your Italy experience as a blank slate. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. To me, a “handmade” travel experience is a DIY travel experience – it’s a trip for which you do the research and booking yourself (or at least most of it), according to your specific travel wants and needs. Sure, you’ll visit some of the same places as other tourists, especially if you’ve never been to Italy before. But let’s be fair – if two leather artisans in Florence make purses with straps in relatively the same places, does that make either one less handmade? Of course not.

The commodity most travelers who book organized trips say they’re short on (which leads them to the organized trips in the first place) is time. And creating a “handmade” travel experience – in Italy or anywhere else – does take time. There’s no getting around this – just as there’s no getting around the fact that it takes longer to paint each Deruta plate by hand rather than run similar dinnerware through a machine that stamps every dish with an identical design. The end result will either be something unique you can cherish, or it will be something to which you feel only a marginal attachment, knowing there are more where that came from.

The thing is, it takes very little time to learn a few tricks that will help you have a more “handmade” Italy experience – you just have to be willing to open yourself up to making mistakes, taking wrong turns, and generally going out on a limb (since, as the saying goes, that’s where the fruit is).

painting studio in Deruta

creative commons photo by picdrops via Flickr

Do you want to get off that overly-beaten path? Then don’t make every stop on your itinerary a city with its own chapter in the guidebooks.
There’s plenty to Italy besides Venice-Florence-Rome, and even Tuscany has corners that most visitors ignore. They are, however, not the ones highlighted in Lonely Planet. If it’s an escape you’re looking for, you won’t get it on an organized tour or by following the suggested itineraries outlined in guidebooks. It’s that simple. Get out a detailed Italy map and head for the towns in between. Keep going until you find one you love. Stop there and pretend you’ve discovered it. Repeat.

Do you want to enjoy that slower pace of life? Then resist the urge to plan every nanosecond of your day.
We all love hearing about the delights of the unexpected when others tell travel stories, but we tend to overplan our own trips so that there’s no time for anything unexpected to happen. This is especially true on organized tours, where there’s usually very little free time on a given day (something you can’t fully appreciate until you’re on the trip, since you didn’t plan out each day yourself). Serendipity is ready and waiting in Italy, but asking it to make an appointment is as good as telling it to buzz off. As challenging as it can be, to really get the most out of every travel day you need to act as if this trip will not be your last. Accept from the start that you won’t be able to do everything – stop trying to do everything! – and go from there.

Do you want to eat that amazing food you keep hearing about? Then skip restaurants with menus translated into eighty languages, or where the entire seating area seems filled with other foreign visitors.
Put yourself in an Italian’s shoes – if you’re going out for dinner in your neighborhood, are you going to the place that’s crowded with tourists, or to the place that’s crowded with locals? This choice is even more pronounced when those tourist-stuffed restaurants are on famous piazzas or have great views, which means the owners have raised prices accordingly on everything – locals know the prices are too high, and will go elsewhere. Your job as the seeker of “handmade” Italy experiences is to find out where the locals are going for dinner. Walk away from the major sights, great views, and any multi-language menus. Bring a sense of adventure (or a menu translator, if you’re really freaked out by not knowing what you’re eating), strongly consider the daily special, order the house wine by the carafe, and have the wherewithal to ask what the restaurant’s specialties are. If you’re armed with a basic knowledge of the dishes/ingredients that city or region is famous for, you’re even better off.

Do you want to see “authentic” Italy? Then go to Italy.
I am being flippant with this answer, because unless you’re standing alongside the too-clear-to-be-true canal in the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas rather than the actual Grand Canal in Venice, it’s hard to argue that you’re seeing “inauthentic” Italy. If you’re in Italy, it’s the real thing, whether it matches up perfectly with what you thought Italy would be or not. Busy Milan and its high-fashion bankers, gritty Naples and its fend-for-yourself mentality, postcard Venice and its tourist crowds – all of these are pieces that make up “authentic” Italy. Accept that not every part of Italy will be your favorite. Find the places that speak to you, and then seek out more of those places, but in any event accept Italy as it is – good, bad, and ugly. It’s the crazy mix of all three that make up what we call “Italy,” and taking out any one ingredient would leave the resulting dish rather unappetizing.

Artisanal Boldness

leatherworking tools in Florence

photo by Jessica Spiegel, may not be used without permission


The artists and craftspeople who wrestle leather into graceful handbags, who tend barrels of vinegar for years before it’s ready to sell, and who paint delicate flowers on ceramics do this as much for the pride that comes from creating something as they do for the profit that comes from it. (There are certainly easier ways to make a living, after all.) There is a boldness in these actions, knowingly ignoring the path of least resistance, following your instincts, trying something just to see what happens. It doesn’t always work out, but when it does, it’s a masterpiece.

Creating a “handmade in Italy” travel experience takes more time than simply booking an organized tour, but even more than time what this requires is that travelers are bold enough to allow a trip to take them as much as they take the trip. Channel Michelangelo, who famously said he was merely freeing the statue inside a chunk of marble. Open yourself up to the possibilities that can happen by spending all morning in a sidewalk cafe, taking a wrong turn because you like the look of the road, ordering the illegible thing on the menu because the curlicues of the lettering made you smile.

When you’re done, you can look over your handiwork – your trip, molded into shape to form something unique and personal – and finally understand the value of that “Made in Italy” stamp.

Do you take “handmade in Italy” trips? What are the ways you make your travel experiences “handmade?”

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What HANDMADE goodies are my fellow Italy Roundtable bloggers talking about? Let’s find out. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

Are we connected?

Have you LIKED us on Facebook? Are you following us on Twitter? Please drop by and say hello, we’re quite friendly. And we’re always taking suggestions on future topics for the Italy Blogging Roundtable! Drop us a note on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment on one of our posts.