Veni, Vidi, Eat-i: Italy, Part I

In the piazza in Florence surrounding the Duomo, there’s a souvenir shop simply called That’s Italia!, which is the perfect description for the whole country. It’s a way to rationalize away all the crap you encounter here: nightmarishly complicated bureaucracy; mismanagement and inefficiency; horrible drivers; everything closed at inexplicable times and things never running on time, or on any schedule at all. But I find it impossible to be too upset about this stuff for too long, because that’s Italia! They don’t run a tight ship over here, but the Italy is so endless charming, the food is so unbelievably good, and the landscape is so varied and serene that you forgive them all their nonsense, as this wacky system of disorganization is exactly what makes Italy, Italy.

Traveling to Italy is essentially synonymous with eating a lot, and I cannot overemphasize how true this is. Even when Italian food isn’t great, it’s still pretty good—and it’s almost always amazing. I’ve eaten pasta a shocking number of times during my stay in Italy, and it’s always been better than anything you can find anywhere in the States.

I think there are several reasons for this. Compared to, say, French cooking, Italian food is more straightforward. Of course it still takes skill to do it really well, but there’s just less involved than with a lot of other cuisines. Overall, ingredients are so much more flavorful and fresher in Italy so combine that with even someone who sort of knows what he’s doing—let alone an actually skilled chef, which almost everyone is anyway—and you’re truly in food Mecca. People take so much pride in their food here, but not in a pretentious way. Good food doesn’t have to be elaborate, and no one understands that better than the Italians.

My initial foray into the country took me on what has to be the most unscenic stretch of highway in all of Italy. After following the coastline for a while out of Monaco, the highway turns inland through a patch of industrial drudgery; the highlight of this landscape is the wonderfully named Hotel Just Motel, 15 miles from the exit for Lake Como and the Swiss border. At that point, mercifully, the scenery takes a turn for the better.

Lake Como

Monte Carlo—Lake Como, 236 miles

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Lake Como, like Monte Carlo, is practically more myth than place, more synonymous with George Clooney than anything else. I tend to be very skeptical of places with big reputations; I was convinced Hawaii was thoroughly overrated until I actually went and discovered it was as incredible as everyone says. Lake Como is the same.

There’s something so satisfying about going to places like this and finding that it completely lives up to the hype, that George Clooney isn’t wrong. It restores order to the world. The most noticeable thing to me about Lake Como is that it feels totally distinct from the rest of Italy, and anyone who’s been to Switzerland—only 15-20 miles away at some points—will note the obvious similarities. The rest of Italy has some unbelievable landscapes, along the coast and in the northern central Tuscan and Umbrian area, but Lake Como is another world entirely.

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Tremezzo

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Cappella Alpini Tremezzo
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Bellagio, one of the more famous towns along the lake

Lake Como’s natural beauty is in large part due to its limited development. As developed as it is in some regards, with its five-star hotels and lavish private homes, the area is still largely untouched. There are no high rises, no souvenir shops, no nightlife to speak of; there appears to be an active interest in discouraging the backpacker crowd from traipsing through. You get the natural setting of the Swiss Alps with the creature comforts of the Italian gentry.

Lounging and boating are the primary activities here, though there are extensive trails in the surrounding hillsides. The various small towns are not particularly memorable so sightseeing is about as low-key and low commitment as it gets. To do any proper creeping on the famous villas and private homes in the area, a boat excursion around the surprisingly huge lake is the way to go. Richard Branson has a place only accessible by boat, the infamous George Clooney has his not-so-bachelor pad in an 18th-century lakeside villa, and there’s Villa del Balbianello, once a Franciscan monastery but now known as a location featured in obscure films like Star Wars and Casino Royale. Former cronies of Mussolini also own several of the palatial homes along the lake.

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Villa del Balbianello
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Villa del Balbianello
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Branson’s place

You don’t have to splash out at Lake Como. There are no hostels, not surprisingly, but there were some surprisingly cool Airbnb options. That said, this is the kind of place where it pays to go big. In cities, nice hotels are, in my mind, often an unnecessary money drain in a world that has things like Airbnb. But Lake Como is a treat yo’self moment.

Portofino

Lake Como—Portofino, 156 miles

Here’s what I knew about Portofino before I arrived: Elizabeth Taylor used to hang out there. And that’s pretty much the only reason any non-Italian knows it.

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Portofino is hardly under the radar, as it was a mid-century hangout for both Italian and American celebrities; Wikipedia feels inclined to point out that Avril Lavigne honeymooned here and that Kylie Minogue “several times rested in Portofino,” whatever the hell that means. Despite that dismal set-up, it is a sneakily upscale town. It’s hard to tell at first glance, but Portofino is a place that absolutely caters to a more expensive crowd. Unassuming storefronts house names like Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli, but the town is otherwise wholly unpretentious.

Like Lake Como, Portofino doesn’t roll out the welcome mat for the backpacker crowd, but it’s well suited for them regardless. There are tons of coastal hiking trails accessible on foot from Portofino and they’re significantly less crowded than in Cinque Terre or along the Amalfi Coast. Two hours’ walk from Portofino is San Fruttuoso. “Town” is a generous word to describe San Fruttuoso. About the only structure in town, besides two or three local restaurants, is the Abbey of San Fruttuoso from the 10th century. The hike here is about the hike more than the destination, but if you visit during high season—which unfortunately I did not—La Cantina will fulfill every fantasy of fresh Italian seafood served literally on the beach. Just don’t put any stock on the alleged ferry schedule, as I did. No matter what it says, you may be walking the two hours back, or maybe not depending on if the boat decides to show up.

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View from the hike to San Fruttuoso
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San Fruttuoso
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San Fruttuoso

Though the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre are along the same western coastline in Italy, they get a lot more tourist attention and I can’t say I understand why. As for natural setting, Portofino is no less stunning, and significantly less crowded—a relative statement given how packed the whole area is in general. I’ll talk more about these other coastal cities later but as a preview of coming attractions, know that Portofino is the best. 

Emilia-Romagna

Portofino—Castelvetro di Modena—Bologna, 190 miles 

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Castelvetro di Modena

Other myths to dispel about Italy: that Tuscany is the place to go for idyllic rustic accommodations and great food. That prize goes to Emilia-Romagna. Further investigation will reveal that this is obvious: balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, all forms of cured pork—most of the hallmarks of northern Italian cooking are produced here, so it’s no wonder the food is excellent.

Aside from Bologna, which I’ll get to in a minute, the cities are not places to linger in. I had an amazing lunch in Reggio Emilia, but Parma is bleak, to put it mildly. The best way to see this region is to stay in the countryside, in one of the countless agriturismos.

This is a concept that’s only recently becoming trendy in the U.S., but is long established in Italy as well as England. The area outside the cities is the thing you want to see here and the agriturismos, of varying levels of niceness, are completely the way to go.

I stayed at Opera 02 di Ca’ Montanari, an inexplicably complicated name and which is the furthest thing from rustic; the place was remodeled recently in a contemporary style but the setting cannot be beat. The service is more earnest than consistently good, but how can you complain about that view?

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If you’re in this area, it’s totally worth visiting a place that produces balsamic vinegar to learn about the process, which is surprisingly complex and interesting. Other than that, the thing to do is eat. Not like “Oh I’ll have a bite of this and that” but full on, elastic-waistband-on-the-pants-mandatory eating. If you’re counting calories or cutting carbs, kindly head north to Switzerland, where the local cuisine will not tempt you in the least. (I love Switzerland but bless them, the food is just not good).

The Emilia-Romagna region in Italy accounts for 30 percent of the country’s GDP, and even though the 30-year aged balsamic vinegar runs for more than $100 a bottle, it’s the cars that bring in the real revenue. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati are all manufactured in the area surrounding Modena and Bologna. Enzo Ferrari was born and lived his whole life in Modena and in the nearby town of Maranello, and the whole area pays constant tribute to him with an endless stream of cherry red and trademark yellow (a distinctly garish canary yellow) Ferraris going down the autostrada at painfully slow speeds. The guttural bellow of V8 engines is the soundtrack of the area, something you would not expect looking at the pastoral surroundings.

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There’s a predictably over-the-top Ferrari Museum (there’s a second on in the city of Modena just about Enzo Ferrari) and it’s pretty much a giant monument to Ferrari’s F1 supremacy and a now unfortunately macabre shrine to Michael Schumacher. If you get within 500 feet of the museum, you’ll undoubtedly be approached by someone offering obscenely priced rides in a whole range of Ferraris, though the Modena countryside isn’t the ideal environs in which to unleash a 458 Italia.

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Bologna is the only city of real substance in Emilia-Romagna. This is the ultimate city you would want to live in, but isn’t in any way designed for tourists, which is the source of much of its appeal. There is so much going on here. Lyon could learn a thing or two about what it means to be a gastronomic capital from Bologna. In addition to all the usual, known and loved Italian dishes you see everywhere, made with almost unimaginably good local, fresh ingredients, there are things you find in Bologna that are totally unique. In the U.S., nothing sounds more mundane than a bologna sandwich, but Bologna is in fact known for its sandwiches, made with a bread called piadina that’s pita-adjacent.

This is essentially a college town. The University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world, established in 1088. If you’re an extremely avid reader, you’ll remember that the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco also claims to be the oldest university in the world. According to Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records, the university in Fez is both the oldest university in the world (founded in 859) and the oldest continually operating university in the world, so I don’t know how Bologna gets away with that claim but needless to say, it is also a very old university. As such, you certainly get that grungy, crunchy college thing happening, but Bologna is still a city with a lot of charm and a laid-back sophistication that fits its student and unassumingly hip population.

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I was in Bologna for half a day and you could spend more time here if you really wanted, but an afternoon and an evening are enough to get a sense of the city and try some of its deservedly famous food. Like Lyon, it seems like an easy, exciting place to live; unlike Lyon, the food is actually incredible.

Cinque Terre

Bologna—Manarola, 142 miles

I feel like this is the travel world equivalent of telling children that Santa isn’t real, but Cinque Terre is a tourism industry con if ever there was one. Which, when you see the pictures, sounds crazy!

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Manarola

Surely there was a time when this was awesome. The five hillside villages that make up Cinque Terre National Park area are 1,000 years old and after some scuffles with the Turks in the 16th century, these villages remained almost completely untouched and isolated until the construction of a seaside railway in the 1800s. Traditionally, the villages—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—were all fishing villages, and the houses were painted bright colors to allow fisherman to keep an eye on what was happening at home while they were out at sea.

With a narrative like that, it’s easy to see why this has become such a popular tourist destination, and that is precisely what has robbed it of all its appeal. I feel like a broken record constantly noting this issue and it’s a stupid complaint in some regard. There are very few places left on this planet that haven’t been touched by tourism. The ones that are still completely untainted, most of us are probably not intrepid enough to go there. So with very few exceptions—Bhutan, you lovely anomaly—when you travel, you’re going to see other tourists. That’s the reality of traveling in 2016. But in Cinque Terre, it was positively overwhelming, and I felt the same way about the Amalfi Coast, which I’ll discuss in my next post. The biggest problem with these places is we’ve ruined them.

The five towns in Cinque Terre are not terribly distinct from one another, but I do think Corniglia seemed like the least junked-up. I stayed in Manarola, which coincidentally seemed to have the most going on, but was also painfully crowded during the day. The main thing to do here is hike between the various cities along the coast, and the views from the trail are amazing.

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Vernazza
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I’ve been traveling for eight months now, and this definitely makes the top 10 list for weirdest things ever. On the trail between Monterosso, the northernmost town, and Vernazza, you come across this bizarre, half-assed enclosure with a bunch of cats hanging around and this utterly strange sign.

I visited in April and while the trails weren’t terribly crowded, I had visions of what it would look like come summer and I can only imagine how backed up these tiny, cliffside dirt paths get come high season.

The only time you see an inkling of old, unpolluted Cinque Terre is at night. A lot of tourists only visit for the day so after the buses have left and things have died down, you get to see these towns for what they might have been once; sleepy fishing villages impossibly built on the side of cliffs with spine-tingling views of the ocean below. You get the same effect early in the morning but well before lunchtime, the hordes will descend, the t-shirt shops will open in force, and all tranquility will evaporate.

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Manarola
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Manarola

I don’t think I could in good conscience tell anyone not to go to Cinque Terre because it’s such a bucket list item and you’re going to go one way or another. But manage your expectations; there is something here, a faint whiff of seaside calm and rustic authenticity, but be prepared to deal with 10,000 other people looking for the same thing.

Rome

Manarola—Rome, 269 miles

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Trastevere, a particularly old neighborhood in Rome on the west bank of the Tiber, now the hip part of town.

I haven’t been to Rome in nine years and it’s exactly as I remember it, which says something about the kind of impression it leaves on the casual tourist. As I was 14 the last time I visited, it’s notable to me that a city could have such a strong identity that it would stay with me, totally intact, for a decade.

Rome is a rare city that I think fulfills every fantasy of it and still manages to surprise you. At night, it’s as romantic and buzzy and atmospheric as everyone imagines it to be, and as historical and visually rich during the day as every postcard promises. But it also has tucked away corners of the city that are still completely and utterly Roman, but evade the usual descriptions and cinematic depictions. It’s a city that somehow, every movie manages to get right, from Roman Holiday to The Lizzie McGuire Movie. And yet, there’s more.

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Centro Storico

You don’t need me to run through the checklist of must-see items in Rome, and the headache factor was actually relatively low when I visited on a weekend in April. The Forum was crowded and there was a long line at the Colosseum, but to be expected and hardly unreasonable. Waiting in line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican is a black hole for time that if you’re only briefly in Rome, is perhaps not worth it, but otherwise, you can’t miss the Sistine Chapel and everything else in the Vatican Museum. It is worth the ungodly wait.

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Colosseum
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Colosseum
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Piazza Navona
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Roman Forum
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Temple of the Vestal Virgins, Roman Forum
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Altare della Patria

This is true of a lot of places, but there’s really no wrong way to visit Rome. Whether you want to geek out about ancient history, or shop like mad, or walk around all day, or just sit and eat, all of that is Roman in one way or another. Almost every European capital is steeped in its own historicity, but I can’t think of many other places I’ve visited anywhere in which the past exists so harmoniously alongside the present. And in Rome, “old” has many different meanings and degrees; I happened to be visiting during Rome’s birthday (April 21), and this year the city celebrated its 2,769th year of existence. So there’s old, and there’s old.

Every image you have in your head about Rome exists somewhere in the city, whether it’s the insane traffic, or dimly lit, ivy-covered cobblestone alleyways in Trastevere at sunset, or the enormous austerity of the Pantheon, or hole-in-the-wall trattorias and wine bars with octogenarian Italian owners who gesticulate wildly. The only thing that lacks any of its cinematic romance is Trevi Fountain. The fountain is only just reopened after a $2.4 million renovation, courtesy of Fendi, so it looks great, but the crowds are distractingly onerous at every hour.

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Behold the masses

Whether you’re staying for three days or three months, Rome will satisfy you either way. The city is accessible and it wears its heart on its sleeve, so it’s not difficult to get to know Rome on one level. Every great city is full of subtle surprises that only reveal themselves over time, and Rome is no different, but it’s also an outgoing city in that you get to know it very quickly. When I think back to Tokyo, my very first stop, Rome is the complete opposite. Aside from the obvious language and cultural barriers, Tokyo felt like an impossible, impenetrable city, while Rome forces itself on you whether you like it or not—much like its male residents.

More food, more history, and more beautiful landscapes to come in part II.

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