As of today, I have been in Italy for four weeks with three more weeks to go. After spending time in the crowded, tourist-teeming cities of Bologna, Florence and Rome, the hubster and I are now tucked in at a little Italian town near the Adriatic Sea.
A common thread I heard throughout my early weeks in Italy was about finding the “non-tourist” restaurants, the coffee shops where the “locals hang out,” the places where “real Italians” shop, walk, eat, you name it.
American tourists are an interesting bunch. Florence, in particular, is overrun with American college students on their first study abroad experience, which means they tend to move in a pack with their fellow American students. I watched them eat American French fries, share a pizza (c’mon, order your own pizza!), ask for more ice for their Diet Cokes.
I, too, found myself searching for the “non-tourist” parts of the city.
But, here’s the thing. Tourism provides the mechanism for the interesting non-tourist places to visit in these towns. Tourism is what makes these cities flourish. For example, during our last day in Rome, we took a tour of the Vatican. It was a tourist-crushing experience to say the least. Sure, I saw the Sistine Chapel, but it was difficult to truly appreciate Michelangelo’s talent when we were packed in like sardines (and we were on a “skip the crowds” tour) while we were just trying not to suffocate. Craning our collective necks to gaze at the ceiling provided work for the tour guides, the guards periodically yelling “Silenzio!,” the refreshment hawkers at the museum entrance, the gelato sellers near the fountains, the Airbnb apartment owners near the Vatican, the ristorante owner around the corner, the taxi drivers waiting at Borgo Santo Spiritus, and on and on.
Even the small “authentic” villages of “old” Italy depend on tourism. Cortona, for example, is a fantastic village to visit with lots of lovely shops and restaurants. The town thrives because tourists have read the book or seen the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, and they want to experience the authenticity for themselves. (When I was there last year, I was ready to buy a house on the spot.)
You can stay at a quaint agritourismo (and we have!) to experience the authentic Italian country way of life. Except most likely the other guests at the agritourismo will be Americans or Canadians (and an occasional Australian). Tourism has allowed those with these lovely farmhouses to eke out a living.
Rick Steves has been both celebrated and criticized for bringing tourism to previously little visited areas like the Cinque Terre, which now is nearly impossible to visit without stifling crowds.
But what about the towns untouched by tourism?
Currently, the hubster and I are in Nereto, a small town about 10 miles from the Adriatic Sea. It’s in the province of Abruzzo, a strikingly beautiful area of mountains, hills, blue skies. While it is hot and humid back in South Carolina, here in Nereto, it is in the mid-70s with low humidity. We have all the windows of our apartment open and I am wearing a sweater.
There is not a single tourist in this town except for us. When we walk the streets, people look at us strangely. Surely, they know we don’t belong here, but they don’t seem overly curious about us. No one speaks English, but we know enough Italian now that we can order in restaurants (there only appears to be three here), can tell the grocery check-out person that we don’t need a bag, and can ask directions if we need to. Then again, we don’t need to because this town is so small, you can’t get lost.
But, I wouldn’t call Nereto quaint. Actually, I don’t know what I’d call it. It seems to be a town that had an idea for improvement and innovation, but somewhere along the way, it forgot about the master plan (if ever there was one). There are some beautifully renovated homes (where we’re staying is one of them), but lots of abandoned buildings, stores that are closed, others that we can’t really tell if they are open or closed.
The Jumbo Super Mercato is quite modern with lots of choices at excellent prices. Cars fly through the town to go who knows where. As I write, there is a week-long “beer fest” in the town square that includes a couple of hours of not great music in the evening (which we can hear even with all the windows closed), a bizarre bouncy house contraption, and some horribly cheap toys and other junk to purchase. A beer fest doesn’t sound very Italian to me, but who’s to say?
When you get right down to it, what does the average American know about Italy, anyway? Ask 100 Americans who have been to Italy where they went, and I’ll bet they’ll answer some combination of Florence, Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. But what about all the other places without the amazing art, or spectacular duomos, or tantalizing beaches?
This is my third time to visit Italy. I have been working hard every day for the past 18 months to learn Italian. I suppose I am getting better at it, but the more I talk, the more I realize how basic my language skills actually are. Come to think of it, that’s a lot like spending time in another country. The longer I’m here, the more I realize I don’t know Italy at all. I’ve heard plenty of tourists say things like “I did Italy last year.” Well, I’ve got news for them. They didn’t.
Meanwhile, as I try to get my head around what I’m doing here, I’m settling in, figuring out the rhythm, drinking wine. Writing. And cooking pasta. Non che male!