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.

Italy Roundtable: When “Il Solito” is Italy’s Sweetest Phrase

Italy

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When we decided that the topic for December’s Italy Blogging Roundtable would be DRINKING, I think the idea was that it was an appropriately celebratory topic for the holidays. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my fondest “drinking” memory in Italy doesn’t revolve around alcohol at all.

photo by paz.ca on Flickr

Italy turned me into a coffee drinker.

I owe Italy many things. Italy has taught me to take myself less seriously and to always have a Plan B (and C and D). But the most tangible impact Italy has had on me, the one that changed my daily life, has to do with the coffee.

I’ve always been one of those people who needs lots of sleep, so pulling all-nighters in college was never tempting and I never even bothered to try coffee until after I graduated. Even then, it was only a heavily-sugared mocha (which is more milk than coffee, let’s face it) that I found palatable. And then after several months of having one of those mochas every day, my stomach started to rebel. I switched to decaf, thinking that might help, but it didn’t. I had heard coffee was acidic, but when the doctor said the word “pre-ulcerative” and that was all I needed to hear – I didn’t drink coffee again for 12 years.

And then I spent six weeks in Italy.

photo by McPig on Flickr

It started when the husband and I moved into our apartment in Milan, the space we would call home for the next month and a half, and almost immediately decided we needed to find “our” corner bar. Every Italian has one, we reasoned – that place they stop en route from home to office each day for a quick coffee and pastry, that place where there’s no need to order because the barista starts making their usual drink as soon as they walk in the door. We wanted that – I wanted that – and no pre-ulcerative stomach pains were going to keep me from experiencing it, if only for six weeks.

Luckily for us, the first bar we tried was perfect. Located less than two blocks from our apartment on the sort of oversized intersection the Italians call a piazza, Bar Fusina was run by a young couple and was open every day but Sunday. They had coffee and pastries in the mornings, sandwiches and salads at lunchtime, and liquor available for aperitivo in the late afternoon. We started going to Bar Fusina every day.

photo by toolmantim on Flickr

Of course, in the beginning, we stuck out like sore thumbs. Other patrons got a quick glance and a nod, before taking (what I assume was) their usual seat and having their usual drink delivered by the barista with barely a word spoken. We got double-takes from staff and customers alike. We placed our orders and drank our coffees at the counter. We never felt unwelcome – far from it – only conspicuous. They were all so polite, I stopped feeling self-conscious about standing out after a few days, but it wasn’t until a few weeks had gone by that things really changed.

One morning when we walked into the busy bar, the barista gave us a familiar nod and asked, “Il solito?”

The usual. He had asked if we wanted our usual. At this bar in central Milan, we had a “usual.”

photo by Daisy.Chain on Flickr

That moment remains one of the happiest I’ve ever experienced in Italy. It’s always my dream to become “a regular” when I travel, but when you’re only in a place for a few days at most that’s nigh unto impossible. Being in Milan for six weeks on that trip gave us the chance to settle not just into a routine but into a community.

For the rest of our stay, we never had to place an order at Bar Fusina again. Leaving the comfort of being regulars at Bar Fusina was one of the saddest parts about going home, especially because we could never explain to them what a difference they had made to our Milan experience. During visits to the city in the years since that trip, I’ve gone back to Bar Fusina just to make sure it’s still there (it is). The same couple was running it the last time I visited, although of course after so much time I got double-takes and had to order my coffee again.

photo by arvindgrover on Flickr

The lasting gift from that trip is that I was so wrapped up in the experience of my daily trip to “my” corner bar that I never thought about my stomach’s prior relationship with coffee. When I got home, I started making coffee every morning in a mokapot, just to continue the ritual. I figured that if my stomach acted up again, I’d quit again – but it never did. I’d like to believe that my stomach didn’t just adapt to coffee better after so many years, but that having achieved “regular” status in the warm Bar Fusina environment had something to do with it, too.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

So, what DRINKING topics are my fellow Italy Roundtable bloggers talking about this month? There’s only one way to find out. Click 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.

Election Night, November 1992

Musings

During the presidential election in November 1992, I was a 20-year-old student living in Nottingham, England. It was the first presidential election in which I could vote, and being on the other side of the planet wasn’t going to keep me from doing so.

Oregon didn’t yet have the entirely vote-by-mail system we have now, but I had ordered my absentee ballot well before leaving home. Having grown up in a very liberal household, the Reagan years weren’t exactly rosy (to say the least). I had watched the Democratic National Convention during the summer, as I alternated between reading about England and trying to figure out what to pack, and I remember thinking, “Wow, we might actually win this thing.” That belief helped propel me to the county courthouse to sign up for my absentee ballot, and to work out when I’d have to mail it from the UK in order to make sure it got back to Oregon in time.

This seems quaint in retrospect, but it felt like nothing short of a miracle when my ballot arrived in my campus mailbox in Nottingham – not to mention the eternity between when I mailed it back to the US and when election day finally rolled around. Along with some of the other American students, I set an alarm for some ungodly hour of the night and traipsed to a neighboring dormitory building – the only one with a television – to watch election coverage on the British news. Looking back now, I think having “my guy” win the very first time I was allowed to cast a presidential vote spoiled me forever – now, when election results don’t go my way, I take it much more personally than I probably should. But in any event, I stumbled back to bed a few hours later for a brief nap before classes started, happy with the results and what I thought that meant for my country.

When I got off the city bus later that morning to go to class, however, I was astounded by the headlines in all the British newspapers. Each banner announced the US election results, with what looked like the same importance they’d give to British election results. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that moment just what an impact the US government – and who’s leading it – has on the rest of the world. They pay attention to our political stories – in some cases more than we do – and they’re just spectators. How many Americans pay attention to elections halfway around the world, or can name leaders of other countries? The thought humbled me, reminding me what an awesome responsibility voting is, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve voted in every single election since turning 18.

Voting is more than coloring in a box on a piece of paper. However private the act itself may be, it’s how we as a community raise our voices. Without a laptop and WiFi to get election results from the comfort of my dorm room in 1992, I was forced to convene with others in my community to get information. Over the years, I’ve watched more election results at home with family than I have in the company of others, but the nights I’ve gone out to share the experience with a community have been the most powerful.

Somewhere in England today, maybe even in Nottingham, there’s a 20-year-old girl who voted this year in her first presidential election. Of course, she has the benefit of the internet to keep up with the election results – but I hope she still trudges across campus with her classmates in the middle of the night to watch the news unfold in real time. If she does, I suspect that she, too, will look back fondly on that experience twenty years from now.

photo by hjl

What would Cindy think?

Work

Email has become one of those things about which I complain, since my inbox is so often flooded with advertising pitches. Every so often, however, I get an email that reminds me it is, after all, just another delivery method for actual heart-felt messages – like the ones we used to scribble onto paper and send in stamped envelopes. I got one of those emails last week, and thankfully the sender has given me permission to share it with you.

Cindy found me on this site, and emailed me with an Italy question after reading my old Italy guide for (she says) “one full week.” Before she got to her question, though, she wrote this paragraph.

So I first have to say how much I LOVE your writing style. I honestly feel like I could go for coffee with you, have a good ol’ laugh, leave, and feel like I made a life-long friend. So kudos on your interesting, informative and engaging material. 2. Thank you for being so passionate and approachable. I have totally been captivated by your enthusiasm for travel and I SO look forward to my first ever trip to Italy. Your tips & suggestions have been ridiculously informative and I feel so prepared. And 3. Thanks for making me laugh. Out loud. By myself. Like a geek. You. are. funny.

I wrote recently about how supported I’ve felt by my travel blogging community. I never thought the same would be true of the people out there who read my words, but there you go – Cindy set me straight in that regard with one simple email.

Cindy, you might have just become the reader I think about when I write. I’ll pause mid-sentence and think, “What would Cindy think?” I hope you don’t mind.

photo by jasminejennyjen