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

planning for an Italy trip


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!

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3 comments on “Italy Roundtable: Crafting a “Handmade in Italy” Travel Experience

  1. N’er a truer word spoken. Great post and good advice. Italy is the kind of country where the more you go out on a limb, the bigger the fruit 😉 One of my favourite things to do when I rock up in a new place is to head to a local bar, grab a coffee, and ask the locals where I should visit. Of course, you have to pick your local carefully, but they usually tell me something useful…

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