So you’re planning a trip to Italy and you want to be prepared. We all know that the fun starts when the planning starts. It’s the time when your imagination paints pictures: Of yesterday’s ruins where history began and of today’s hilltop hamlets that refuse to relinquish their connection to the past. You’re going to the country of food and fashion, of grand sights and grand people. It’s where art and literature, science and religion combined during the Renaissance to develop western civilization. And it’s where life today is lived to its fullest.
In your imagination, every destination is picture perfect. The Grand Canal in Venice is clean, the marble of the Leaning Tower in Pisa is sparkling white. Your mind doesn’t want to deal with the pickpockets near Vatican City and the rigors of language and monetary conversions. It would rather create lists of the sights and cities you expect to see, of rolling Tuscan hills and the rugged Ligurian coastline; of fields of sunflowers and lines of Italian cypress trees; of Chianti Classico and 42-month old Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The trouble with Italy is that there are too many picturesque places for one vacation, too much to taste and touch. How does one choose? Perhaps you’ve read Frances Mayes and Tim Parks; perhaps you’ve seen “Roman Holiday” and “Under the Tuscan Sun;” perhaps you’ve exhausted the experiences of friends and you find your list has grown impossibly large. It’s time to manage that imagination of yours. So you turn to the resource you learned to use in school. You’re ready to hit the books … the guidebooks.
But which ones?
There’s no doubt that Rick Steves knows his stuff and you can’t go wrong with the latest Fodor’s or Frommer’s. Michelin and Baedeker’s are still reliable. I find the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides a bit heavy, both literally and figuratively. I prefer the smaller and cheaper books for the first-time traveler … the ones on the discount racks. They cover the basics and provide introductions, and that’s exactly what you are seeking: introductions to the treasurers of Italy.
I’ve always thought there are two Italys. In the first, the traveler checks off the must-see sights of the guidebooks. It’s a worthy tourist experience that fills scrapbooks and memories. In the second, the traveler discovers the heart of Italy, the people who connect with land, history, art, culture and each other.
You find the first Italy in the “Travel” section at your bookstore. But you find the second in the “Travel Literature” section. Here the books may be short on the “how to” and “where to” stuff, but they are rich with elegant writing and first-hand experiences. They contain vivid memories, and, unless I’m terribly mistaken, it’s memories you’re after.
There’s a series of books entitled “The Collected Traveler.” They provide practical tips and suggestions on sight-seeing, hotels, food and travel, but they also provide extraordinary experiences and discoveries of noteworthy writers. Through the writers’ eyes and words, one discovers the second Italy, the real Italy.
“The Collected Traveler” books are subtitled “An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource.” The essays are categorized by region and explore both the adventure and atmosphere of Italian travel. And, yes, they will fill you with delicious pre-trip inspiration.
Another book has equally enhanced my Italian travels. “I Borghi pui belli d’Italia,” is an Italian-language book, but it’s easily appreciated by the typical English-language traveler. This book may be a bit more difficult to find outside of Italy, but a good bookseller can help.
The title refers to the “little villages” of Italy. There are hundreds of hamlets – largely undiscovered by the foreign visitors – that dot the landscape of the entire country. They are all wonderfully unique, but they share a common sense of community pride and esthetics. The towers, cobblestone streets, piazzas, churches and the people of these “borghi” will fill you with memories that will last a lifetime, and make you want to come back.
Both “The Collected Traveler” and “I Borghi pui belli d’Italia” have added enormously to my Italian experiences.