Halfway from Florence to Arezzo, the train came to an unexpected halt. It was late August and steamy outside, and the train wasn’t air-conditioned. We sat there for at least half an hour, but no one uttered a word of complaint.
Instead, folks took the opportunity to eat lunch. Passengers chatted, mostly about the food. The unexpected setback turned into a pleasant afternoon reprieve. Here was Italy in a nutshell: enjoying the moment and not worrying about the destination. And of course, always, Mangia!
The best way to get the real deal Italy is to do it up slow and local. By planting yourself in a location for at least one week (instead of trying to “do” Italy in 10 days), you’ll experience more culture and joie de vivre than by running from one monument (or city) to the next.
Follow these 5 tips on traveling and eating slow all over Italy and you’ll do it up Italian style: nice and easy, piano, piano, slowly:
1. Understand Italy’s Diverse Regions
Keep in mind that the boot has 20 regions, each with its own indigenous culture, food traditions and climate. Each region is like a mini-country, with much to explore.
That’s why it’s imperative to pick an area and stay planted for at least a week. Visit the same café every day and chat up your neighbors. Before you know it you’ll feel like a native.
Birthplace of the Renaissance and home to countless influential personalities like Dante and Machiavelli, this region’s inhabitants are perhaps the most food-centric in the country. Whether you stay in Florence or in a medieval town like Lucca, rest assured everyone will take a healthy interest in what you are cooking and eating.
The food here is hearty and simple: from ribollita (soup made with vegetables, beans, and chunks of bread) to beefsteak and panzanella (salad made with bread).
Steeped in history that goes back thousands of years, this region is home to ruins like Tivoli and Ostia Antica. Capital city Rome is home to endless pleasures, in terms of art and a robust culinary tradition.
When in Rome, do it like the Romans: eat delicacies like carciofi alla guida (twice fried artichokes), rigatoni con la pajata (calf intestines) or bucatini all’amatriciana (spicy tomato and pancetta sauce).
Highlights of this northern region include the 15 mile-long open-air museum of the Brenta Canal, Verona (of “Romeo and Juliet” fame), and Venice, at one time the crossroads between Europe and the Orient.
With ingredients such as pomegranates, pine nuts, and raisins, the exotic flavor remains in dishes such as seafood risotto. Beans and polenta are commonplace, as is minestra di pasta e fagioli (soup with pasta and beans).
Photo by MumbleyJoe.
2. Stay In a Vacation Rental
To truly experience Italy, you need more than a few days at a hotel or hostel. Forget the must-sees and long day trips. You’ll experience more culture by staying in one region, exploring your environs in concentric circles and settling in a home like a local.
Villas are like hostels, only a hell of a lot more fancy. Piedmont’s Villa San Lorenzo Di Bovicino includes walks through winding vineyards, hikes in the Alps, and visits to Liguria (think fresh pesto) and Turin (largest Egyptian museum outside Cairo; chocolate).
These are ideal for singles or couples looking to get a taste of the La Dolce Vita. Stay at a flat in Rome built on the ruins of Pompey’s Theater – Rome’s first theater, located on via dei Chiavari, near Campo dei Fiori. Rates vary.
Both of these agricultural stays will give you access to the outdoors and relaxation, yet you’re close enough to frequent the big cities for entertainment. You might also consider Wwoofing.
Photo by Agni dalle Bande Nere.
3. Do it like a Locavore.
It’s no coincidence that the Slow Food movement originated in Italy. What other country is so devoted to the art of eating?
To help support local economy and agriculture, buy fresh fare at local open-air markets.
And as noted by Kevin Gould, when it comes time to eat out, the best way to go local in Rome is to look for simple tavernas where you’ll most likely find local specialties and a relaxing atmosphere:
Rome: Dino’s Express, Via Tacito, 80
Perugia: Taverna del Lupo, Via Ansidei, 21
Florence: Taverna del Bronzino, Villa del Ruote 27r
4. Take the Train
Although it has occasional hiccups (like breaking down unexpectedly), taking the train across Italy is an experience worth writing home about. Traveling from point-to-point in Italy is inexpensive, and you can purchase a rail pass for longer trips such as Rome to Palermo.
This trip is long (10-13 hours), but worth the adventure. Once at the port of Villa San Giovani, the train cars are rolled onto barges for crossing of the Strait of Messina, which lasts about an hour. Then they are rolled back onto the tracks in eastern Sicily for the rest of the journey to Palermo. A one-way ticket costs about 73 euros.
Photo by Hyougushi.
5. Explore Backwoods Destinations
Don’t forget the less traveled but all the more interesting regions of Italy. You might see fewer museums here, but fewer tourists.
With Abruzzo National Park and local delicacies like wild mushrooms and wild boar ham, and yes, plenty of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, how can you go wrong?
Sparkling seas, a rugged landscape, and passionate local food traditions abound in the heel of Italy’s boot. Each month, a different food is celebrated, based on whatever is in season.
And you know those cute little pasta ears, orecchiette? Those are a national dish here, served with broccoli rabe and salted fish.
With miles of vineyards to rival Piedmont and Tuscany, Italy’s largest island is unspoiled by modern life. The Mediterranean diet is king here, with plenty of local fish, lemons, and oranges. Add eye-popping blue seas and olive groves to the food feast, not to mention Sicilian gelato and local wines.
Get in touch with Italy experts from the Matador community before planning your trip.
Suz, or “diastro Americano” as her Italian cousins call her, knows all the best wine bars and live music venues of Rome. Julianne is a writer and photographer, currently working on a book about the Italian Renaissance from her base in Venice. KatieBas has lived with her husband in Rome for over 5 years.
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Marla Seidell is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. She lived in Holland for six years, because even more than she loves traveling, she enjoys living in foreign countries. Check in with her at http://www.mediabistro.com/marlaseidell.