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The Italy you see in brochures, isn’t the Italy you encounter in Summer. It’s full of crowds, so how do you explore Italy without the crowds? Easy, go where the tourists don’t.
The last time I was in Venice, there was queues of hundreds of people waiting to cross tiny bridges over canals. Mostly American (with a handful of Aussies) it seemed, straight off their mega cruise ships.
I then wandered the Piazza San Marco to again find myself stepping in front of dozens of tourists, snapping away, who’s thick accents were only drowned out by dozens of souvenir seller’s trying to offload flags, tee-shirts, statues, postcards and theatre masks.
I retreated into a cafe to have a slice of pizza yet everywhere it seemed were restaurants with signs emblazoned with ‘Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Fries’ or worse, showing prices in US Dollars. All supposedly catering to tourists. This was not the Italy I sought.
Venice with it’s water-filled laneways is unique, but it’s not the only Watertown. There’s plenty of other’s around the world including Wuzhen near Shanghai in China (actually there are many in China), Halong Bay floating village in Vietnam, and of course, Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
So the next time you head to Italy, and want to avoid the crowds remember that for every big tourist attraction, there’s an equally lesser known one, without the crowds.
Want a big church? You’ll find that in any Italian town. A piazza with cafe’s and restaurants? Yep, again most towns no matter the size have one too. Ancient ruins and history? Come on this is Italy we’re talking about! Photo opportunities? Of course! (You’ll nab some incredible photos after listening to my Travelosophy Podcast episode #17 (listen below:)
The main things I seek on any visit to Italy (I’ve now been 4 or 5 times) are incredible meals, beautiful churches (and ancient architecture), alongside lustful golden sunsets over hilly fields of olive trees and sunflowers.
Just like Venice is not the only water town, so too, Tuscany is not the only nice scenery, nor the only place offering an authentic Italian experience.
Take Forli, a small city about an hour from Bologna. I’d never heard of it until a friend moved there and I visited Forli because she was getting married and insisted I attend her wedding. Ten days in Italy in Summer? I could hardly say no.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Forli, because Ilse had only ever referred to it as a small town with nothing much going on. However I was literally the only tourist which meant there was no businesses catering to my lazy needs, they were Italians, going about their daily lives. If I wanted a coffee, I had to order ‘un espresso per favore’ and if I wanted a sandwich for lunch, it was ‘un panino al formaggio e salame per favore’. There was certainly no hot dogs or burgers (not that I wanted that of course).
Days in Forli were spent exploring cobble stone alleys on my friend’s scooter and I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted to driving on the other side of the road.
Everything had to be accomplished either in the morning or afternoon because like in Spain, everyone went for a long lunch and all shops were closed from 12pm to 3pm. A perfect opportunity to read my book, have a nap away from the midday heat, then explore the nightlife as the city became alive with alfresco eateries and bars.
The central Piazza was a hub of entertainment with shops and evening markets, but off that, there was of course cobblestone laneways with bookshops, cafe’s, local designer clothing stores and everything else needed to become immersed into Italian life.
The suit I had brought with me to wear at Ilse’s wedding, was a black easy-care suit I wore for work back in New Zealand, but of course this would not do for an Italian wedding. I found myself in a local menswear shop where the delightful shop assistant was only too happy to redress me from top to toe.
I walked out with a grey-blue cotton pin-stripe suit, shiny handmade black Italian leather dress shoes, a soft mauve shirt and a silver striped tie, all for only 240 Euros.
Sure there was art galleries, ancient ruins and fountains dotted around Forli, like most Italian towns, but a trip to Italy is as much about being surrounded by the Italian lifestyle and you won’t find that, waiting in a queue with hundreds of other tourists at the colosseum or trying to take a selfie at the Trevi Fountain.
One afternoon, about an hour out of Forli, (where some of Ilse’s friends were staying before the wedding), at the foothills of the Tuscany region (but away from the crowded areas) was a little guesthouse, with a stunning pool; overlooking fields of olive trees. Hours were spent lazing in the pool, gazing out at the scenery and drinking San Pellegrino Limonata. On the drive back to Forli, we passed an entire field of sunflowers, most taller than me!
Sunflowers can not be ‘picked’ like normal flowers. The stems are thick and so they’re best left in the ground and enjoyed from afar. The following photo was taken in early July if you want to ensure you capture any photos of sunflowers.
Another evening was spent at a winery, enjoying a barbecue watching the sunset over fields of grapevines. The warm summer air and laughter over fine food, was exactly the Italy I imagined.
The pre-wedding get together was in the garden of a small house, on the top of a hill (again overlooking fields of olive trees which one never tires of). We were met with long tables decorated with white tablecloths. Plates filled with antipasto which consisted of olives, prosciutto and breadsticks which quickly disappeared into hungry mouths beneath dangling fairy lights.
The perfect Italian sojourn needs the perfect soundtrack. Download millions of tracks, free for three months with Apple Music (or press play to be transported to Italy whilst you read the rest of the article).
Sure you could visit Italy the same as all the other hoards of tourists and stand for hours, in a queue with hundreds of others whilst gypsy children pick your pockets, and touts try and sell you cheap souvenirs at over-inflated prices, or you could explore little medieval villages with incredible food, architecture and scenery; where you have to speak Italian to get by, and you’ll feel obligated to dress the part if you want to fit in, but most of all, you’re getting the true Italian experience, not some fake antique version.
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Family and friends, laughter, delicious food and beautiful scenery is key to happiness in life and if you want to experience the real Italy, not just seeing it, but living it on your next trip, you’ll find it in off the beaten track places like Forli, San Gimignano (though I suspect that’s now been taken over by Instagrammer’s) and the up and comer, Grottole in Southern Italy.
A warning though, many small villages are trying to revive themselves by offering cheap houses as low as 1 Euro (though you need to spend at least 20k-30k to renovate) but you might fall so in love, you may never leave, just like Frances Meyers in her novel, Under the Tuscan Sun.
Getting to Forli:
Forli Airport is currently closed (it went bankrupt) but supposedly is due to reopen sometime in 2019. Otherwise the closest main international airport is Bologna. I flew into Venice which is about two hours away by train. The train station in Forli is a short taxi ride from the centre of town. I booked a train ticket online but you can easily purchase a ticket from any train station on arrival. There’s hotels and guest houses in and around Forli which can be booked through the usual sites like Agoda.
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