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One Man's View - What to Avoid in Italy

Charley Wood

Anyone who has done even a modicum of travel planning has seen or used at least one of the ubiquitous travel books with the words "Top Ten" in the title or prominently splashed across the always colorful cover. The sheer number of these little guides available on bookstore shelves must be indicative of a high degree of popularity.

Frankly, it's easy to understand why this particular format is so successful. To start, they're almost always thin, promising to give up their information without hours of wading through hundreds of pages of dull prose. And that splashy color on the cover, well, just like a wine spill or a spaghetti stain, it goes right through the whole book. Pictures of the most improbable color. Makes me want to dig out my old Kodak Brownie and start taking pictures again. Best of all, each picture is accompanied by a stylishly written and appreciatively brief description of the featured attraction.

The usual fare to be covered in such a volume is the ten best restaurants, ten best shops, ten best museums, ten best churches, ten best wine shops and whatever else they can find ten of. Obviously, the intent and value of such a publication is to save time. In today's hectic world saving time also means saving money, avoiding unnecessary frustration, and a better than even chance of keeping ones sanity. Add to that the fact that these little books are just plain fun to look at and can be read without the degree of concentration that usually ends in a splitting headache.

However, as with all human endeavors, nothing is ever perfect. There is a flaw. Not fatal, mind you. Not a mistake of substantial proportions, just a simple little matter of an error in direction. If my reading of the real purpose of this genre of travel book is correct - that is to save time - then they've gone about it all wrong. Backwards, upside down. However you care to say it - they goofed.

In business vernacular, these books go at it from a 'top down' approach. But lots of travel experience and a dollop of logic tell me that this ought to be the ideal place for the application of the 'bottom up' strategy. In plain English, don't tell me what to see, tell me what to avoid. Talk about a time saver! Just think about it. If Cabot, Champlain, Hudson and all those other 15th and 16th century explorers had just had someone sit down with them and patiently explain that there is no Northwest Passage, they could have saved years of their time looking for it. Besides the additional savings in ships, men, and a good bit of the Royal Treasury, they could have stayed home to start the cruise ship business a few centuries earlier. You see my point.

I'm going to attempt the bottom up approach to travel recommendations and see if it makes as much sense to you as it does to me. My list may or may not have ten items. Quite honestly, I don't understand how every city has things to see or do in groups of ten. It doesn't matter what the category. Whether its churches, parks, gourmet restaurants, or fire hydrants painted to look like cute little animals, there always seem to be ten of them. Now I may be wrong, but I've come to suspect that a lot of these 'attractions' were nudged onto the lists just as fillers.

Obviously, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have a book called 'Top Ten' and then have a bunch of lists inside that stop at eight, five or even three items. That's why I don't know yet how many things I'm going to suggest that you avoid. Maybe when I've gotten over being aggravated at the time I've wasted, I'll sit back, say 'enough' and hope you can benefit from my experience. The fact that I'm limiting this list to Italy does not mean that I have some vendetta going against that beautiful country. I don't. In fact, I like Italy very much. Every country could have the same exercise applied for the benefit of travelers. It may be too late for this, but in the interest of brevity, I'll get started with my list.

Avoid Tuscan Bread

Yes, it's only bread, but I've wasted hour upon hour at the table hoping to find an edible version. Unfairly, I admit, my time in Italy followed several months of living in France. Whatever cultural quirks the French may be accused of, they know how to make bread. I've made a whole meal out of a simple but delicious loaf of bread from our local boulangerie. Because of that, I had equally high expectations of Italian bread.

Alas, Tuscan bread is one of life's big disappointments. The Tuscans know this and the excuse always given in Tuscany is that a few centuries ago there existed a prohibitive tax on salt, so none went into the bread. The resulting product resembles nothing fit for human consumption. The bakers of Tuscany obviously haven't heard of the repeal of the salt tax, so their bread is still made without it. Consequently, it tastes almost identical to cardboard, only a good bit tougher and drier. The biggest mystery is why they still bother making it.

Millions of kilograms of Italian wheat are wasted every year making something no one eats. I suspect that it eventually finds use in cat litter boxes and environmental cleanup applications.

One further word of warning, if you are still determined to try some of the stuff, I must advise you that there is no adequate way to determine freshness; it is the same whether it is one day old or one year old. Consequently, I suspect it gets passed around in much the same way as fruitcake in America. I say this because I've noticed a few specimens with a peculiar industrial patina, a development that usually comes with considerable age. My advice: just wait on the bread until you get to France.

Avoid Pisa

The people who are charged with promoting tourism in Pisa have both my grudging respect and my undying enmity. Respect, because they do such a magnificent job considering how little they have to work with; my undying enmity, because they do such a magnificent job considering how little they have to work with.

Pisa lies on a featureless plain that suggests the boring nature of the town long before arriving at the boring town itself. As far as I have been able to determine, Pisa's entire claim to fame hinges on the Piazza di Miracoli, a walled-in field that contains the three architectural 'jewels' of Pisa's crown.

The Baptistry and the cathedral are nice buildings, but by themselves wouldn't make the top 100 list of churches in Italy. They might be a great hit if they were in Liechtenstein, but Italy has such a wealth of beautiful buildings that there is no reason to have to endure Pisa in order to see these.

And then there is the leaning tower. It started to lean even as they were building it. I don't know about you, but I would have stopped and started over. The tower admittedly is a striking building - leaning or vertical - but they're taken the fun out of it in efforts to preserve it. Access to the tower is limited both by the admission fee (roughly $20 American) and by spacing entry times out as far as several hours.

All this might be tolerable were it not for the carnival like atmosphere that surrounds the whole Piazza and cheapens it beyond belief. The hundreds of sellers of shoddy and gaudy trinkets give the impression that you're in a third world bazaar with the hawkers actually chasing you down the street flogging their junk.

Avoid Pisa and see Lucca, a nearby city of great beauty with a sense of elegance and taste.

Avoid Venice

Sometime in the murky and distant past someone had the dubious idea of building Venice. A conversation between two of the early developers could have gone something like this:

"Luigi, I know there are lots of great building sites on the mainland, but why don't we go out onto the mud banks in the middle of the lagoon, drive a few million tree trunks into the mud, pile millions of tons of stone on top and see if the whole mess sinks?"

"Great idea, Paulo, we'll have canals instead of streets which will make it near impossible to get around, but we'll make a killing in the gondola business."

The word Venice should be in the dictionary of every language in the world with various meanings such as 'stupid idea', 'futile effort', 'how to take the simple and make it really difficult', or 'how to take the really difficult and make it impossible', etc.

To top it off, the Venetians have the audacity to act indignant and surprised that the whole mess really is beginning to sink. True, Venice has a few buildings of real beauty but most of the buildings that line the canals are so shabby and run down that the rare architectural gems seem like anomalies, out of place and lost in all the clutter.

Undeniably, Venice is in its death throes. Yes, it truly is sinking, but its death isn't going to be from drowning. Venice is dying from a more insidious disease - urban decay. It isn't practical or desirable to live there anymore. In 1950, the population of Venice was 150,000. Today, the population stands at less than half that, and the average age of the population is far older than that of the rest of Italy.

Having spent a week in the city, we found only one grocery store - tiny - and hardly any of the type stores that cater to a city's resident population. If you lived in Venice, I wondered what you did after the first week when you'd bought all the leather goods, jewelry, artisan papers, carnival masks, and postcards you needed for a lifetime. Where were the real stores; furniture, hardware, electronics, clothing, house wares, and all the other real life emporiums required for real life?

And then there are the street vendors again. It's even worse in Venice than in Pisa. They take up half of the already miniscule sidewalks displaying their gaudy junk and bickering with each other over that small space. I'm amazed that so many Italian cities allow this kind of selling. In one small alley/street leading to the Piazza San Marco, sellers of knock-off Gucci bags had set up a huge display right in front of the real Gucci store. Talk about chutzpah!

In sum, Venice is a pretty decent execution of an improbable idea. It's taken a few centuries to realize that no matter how good the execution of an idea is, a flawed concept is doomed to eventual failure.

It you feel that you really must see the place, give it a day and spend it all in Piazza San Marco. Do the obligatory tour of the Duomo and maybe the Doge's Palace and then homestead a table on the Piazza in front of one of the Bistros with an orchestra. Spend the rest of the day there and the rest of your money on a few good bottles of your favorite Italian wines.

Avoid Italian Markets

Here I may be stretching it a bit because we went to only three or four markets in Italy, but we did talk to other travelers who had been to markets other than the ones we had visited. Italian markets seem to be aimed more at the local populace than to tourists. This is good if you're a local but not if you're a tourist.

Again, I'm making comparisons with France. There the street markets are chocked full of local produce, crafts, foods to eat on the spot, foods to take home, as well as the specialty products from regions all around the country. There was music for the ears, art for the eyes, and stalls full of spices, herbs and lavender. A French market was simply a symphony for the senses.

The Italian street markets we saw reminded me of an old fashioned five-and-dime, just out of doors. The products were the type you'd have bought at a first generation Wal-Mart. Necessary and perhaps interesting for a local resident, but probably not all that exciting for the average tourist. This is not a criticism of the Italian street market institution. It seems to be a necessary part of commerce. I'm simply suggesting that a visit to the typical Italian street market is not something you'd want to plan a day around as many visitors to France do with the markets in Aix, Apt, Isle sur la Sorgue, and Carpentras.

In both Italy and France the legitimate street markets are organized affairs that in some cases go back centuries. The vendors are established business people who set up shop at the same designated place week in and week out and year in and year out. They pay taxes and even have return policies.

Avoid Tour Buses

The idea here is not to boycott tour buses, but simply to avoid competing with them. Undoubtedly, there are instances where hopping on the ole tour bus is a practical way to cover a lot of territory in a short time. It has the added benefit of not having to personally deal with Italian drivers. That's why most tour bus drivers have that deer-in-the-headlights look. The idea is that if you aren't actually riding on one, stay as far away from them as you can. Someone in Italy told us of this great time saving concept. Bless them.

Beautiful San Gimignano, the village of towers, has around 7,000 residents but is visited by tourists in the millions - a high proportion of them on tour buses. The narrow roads leading to the town have a hard time coping with this overwhelming traffic.

Someone had mentioned that the buses usually load up and leave by around 4:00pm in order to get their passengers back to Siena or Florence at a respectable hour. We timed our visit to arrive after that and practically had the place to ourselves. No trouble getting into stores or restaurants. Strolling the streets with mostly the locals was very enjoyable.

This strategy should also work for visits to other hyper tourist locations where buses are a problem. Just remember, if you aren't riding them, avoid them.

Avoid Driving in Major Cities

We spent in excess of one hour in Florence simply trying to find a parking space. We weren't looking for just any old space, mind you, we were trying to get to one specific garage that we were assured would have places available. Eventually we did get there and sure enough there were plenty of spaces. The problem wasn't finding it, it was getting there. We knew pretty much where it was located, but then we hadn't reckoned on the type of traffic that plagues the larger Italian cities.

The Italian automobile driver is bad enough. He/she has no hint as to what the painted stripes on the pavement might be for. Art perhaps, or just some insane doodling by the guys in the street department after breathing paint fumes too long.

And they consider any space between cars as wasted. Preferably, bumpers should touch, and side rear-view mirrors will usually be dangling at peculiar angles due to head-on collisions with other rear-view mirrors. But as bad as they are, the automobile drivers are almost tolerable.

It's the Vespa riders that give Italian traffic the real character of the wild, wild West. In Italian, Vespa means 'wasp' and the name is appropriate - they swarm and buzz just like the ornery insect. They obey no traffic rules, other than traffic signals, and seem determined to collide with you at every turn.

Their most obnoxious habit occurs at traffic signals. It you thought you were fortunate in having the front place at a light, rest assured your 'first' place will soon become number 20 as Vespas zoom around you both on the right and on the left and crowd in front of you as if it were their right.

We saw one Vespa rider who tried one of his maneuvers at a corner and got run over by the car. After I stopped cheering, I noticed that the rider (who wasn't really hurt) started yelling profanities at the driver of the car.

I can't help but believe that most Italian hospitals are filled with Vespa victims and riders.

Save time and aggravation. Park at the airport and take public transportation into the city. It will probably be a little more expensive, but then you can maintain your sanity and watch the Vespas from the safety of a much larger vehicle.

Avoid Tuscan Bread

Whoops, I've mentioned that already, haven't I? I suppose the effect on my psyche was more damaging than I thought. And if I'm back to Tuscan Bread, I must be finished complaining about Italy, and in only seven items!

Actually, I hope you don't think that I was really complaining. I was just trying to help you save time for looking at and doing the really neat stuff in this incredibly beautiful country.

By my conservative calculations, you should be able to save from three to five days simply by following the aforementioned suggestions. And if you seriously heed my warnings about Tuscan bread, your vacation could ascend to a higher plane with enough time for everything you want to do.


The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and 10-year old Kelly began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks).

© Charley Wood, 2005

Note: This is not the opinion of Slow Travel, except for the bit about markets - I agree with that. Do not email me with your complaints about this article. Post on the message board.

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