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Episode #161: Romantic Italy – Dreamy elopements, small weddings and vow renewals

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Many dream of eloping or getting married in Italy. Italy is not only hugely romantic but is full of stunning backdrops and scenery – perfect for capturing the moment couples exchange their vows or when celebrating any special occasion in life. A photographer with local knowledge can not only help you organize your trip but will help you find the most epic locations and make a beautiful record of those memories that will last a lifetime.

Show notes
In this episode, we talk to Rhianna Nelson, an Australian photographer who splits her time between Italy, where she lived for many years and Australia photographing special moments, specializing in elopements and intimate weddings in Italy. We talk beautiful backdrops, avoiding the paperwork, proud nonnas, as well as lakes, castles, sunsets and memories.

What you’ll learn this episode

  1. Rhianna fell in love with Italy in a roundabout kind of way. Throughout her childhood, she really wanted to go to Greece, but when she couldn’t do a University exchange in Greece, she figured Italy was close enough and off she went. And then fell completely in love with Italy. She moved to Milan first for a couple of months, which she wasn’t keen on until she went to Paris and the time away made her realize that she was actually madly in love with Italy, Italians, and even Milan
  2. She spent many years in Italy and is fluent in Italian and understands the way of life and culture well – perfect for helping arrange elopements and weddings
  3. Rhianna became a wedding photographer about a year after her time in Italy and her dream became to be a wedding photographer in Italy. At the end of 2016, she packed up all her stuff and moved over, having been offered a job working in a furniture showroom, figuring it will get her there. It turned out that she was on the wrong kind of visa and the wrong kind of contract, so the job ended after three months but it got her in the door to Italy
  4. She then set off to make wedding photography happen. She did styled shoots, networked, and then traveled around to discover the best of Italy to share with her clients. She has since managed to combine her life in Italy and Australia in such an amazing way, doing wedding photography in both. She gets to spend time with people celebrating the happiest moments of their lives in some of the most beautiful places and believes she has the best job in the world – even on the bad days
  5. Rhianna is particularly in love with Puglia right now. She was delighted to have tagged along on an Untold Italy tour last year (and we were delighted to have her!). She loves the conical, stone Trulli houses, the wide open spaces, and how the landscape changes with the red dirt, the green of the olive trees, and then the amazing beaches. Not to mention the amazing culture and food
  6. Puglia is an underrated destination that is just perfect for weddings. People can stay in renovated Trulli or in Masseria (restored farmhouse complexes that were owned by wealthy land barons) if they want to have more friends or family come to their wedding. The landscape and the towns and villages are a gorgeous backdrop. Ostuni, for instance, is known as the white city and it’s not become an intentional tourist hot spot – it is because it’s so stunning
  7. Rhianna also has a soft spot for Lake Garda in Northern Italy. She did an intensive study there in 2015 for three weeks. They put them up in an old villa right on the lake that used to be Mussolini’s secretary’s villa, gifted to the university by the rich family on the basis that they have international people come and study there twice a year. Understandably, she fell in love with Lake Garda and feels it’s a wonderful alternative to the more well-known Lake Como – it’s much larger and more adventurous
  8. Whenever Rhianna needs a break from editing or doing some intensive work, she sits and researches different places around Italy as potential locations – places like Umbria, which people don’t know about so much but may well become one of the big next things. Or coastal areas in Tuscany, like the hot springs of Saturnia or Bagno San Filippo. There’s so much around to suit so many different vibes, styles, and different things people might love to do
  9. When it comes to places she doesn’t like to shoot so much, despite the fact she loves Positano and loves seeing people see Positano because it is spectacular – it is a difficult place to work with due to its business. So many people are going there because it is an Instagram hotspot or because it’s what they’ve seen online about Italy and it is what they think they want. Rhianna recently caught up with a client in Perth, who got married in Positano last year. She said, she loved everything Rhianna did for them and about her wedding but she would tell other people not to go
  10. You don’t need to go far to find equally stunning, but less busy spots where you can have more. to yourself. Line the Cilento Coast, just a little bit further south, but you get to miss all the influencers – hanging out of a Fiat 500, blocking the one tiny access road
  11. Rhianna hasn’t had call to do shoots in Venice so hasn’t spent so much time there. Once she finishes booking out the season, then she looks at her spare time and plan trips around to places that she doesn’t know so well and Venice will be one of those spots soon
  12. Anytime is a good time to have a wedding or an elopement in Italy – depending on what you want. June is good because it’s the start of the summer months. It is not in full-blown tourist mode quite yet, but it is warm and lovely and people are getting really excited about the summer arriving. If you want the snow, obviously you’re going to have to go in the wintertime – January or February. If you want summer – classic stripy umbrellas lying on the beach, sipping on a spritz, then all through June to August is great but in August, you just have to be wary of the crowds and so you would really need to seek out someone who knows Italy well and can help you find a spot where you will not be surrounded by millions of people
  13. Rhianna always recommends sunrise photo sessions, especially for elopements because if you’re eloping, you don’t have lots of guests that you have to get up early too. If you get up for sunrise you can make the most of the empty streets and the beautiful places and not have crowds watching on. Even if you go at a time when it’s not touristy, Italians are not exactly known for keeping to themselves and will likely be very excited to see you dressed up in a wedding gown or suit. Sometimes they’ll even come up and start giving advice about married life! That’s when it can be extremely helpful to have someone who speaks fluent Italian with you!
  14. If you want to have a more traditional church wedding, keep in mind that churches in Italy aren’t allowed to be closed to the public. They experienced this on the Untold Italy tour in Puglia last year – when walking through Bari where there was a big wedding at one of the main churches in Bari – this poor bride got out of the car and there were crowds of people everywhere including in the church – a nonna who won’t be moved. It really helps to have someone speak Italian and know how to charm them a bit and get them to move a little
  15. If you’re thinking about planning a wedding or an elopement in Italy – Rhianna’s advice, which she’ll discuss with any new client, is to picture the best day of your life ever. She says to forget about the wedding and just picture the best day ever of their life and then she’ll help them make that happen
  16. Location wise there is so much to Italy that so many people don’t know. Rome, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast are all amazing and there’s a reason it is so famous and popular. But Italy is a huge country with so many incredible places, so if you’re planning a wedding or an elopement, seek someone out who knows Italy well, who can help you plan it and experience the best of it in a unique way – instead of a cookie cutter wedding planner
  17. There are so many places you might not think of as wedding venues. Medieval hilltop towns, coastal fishing ports, cute alpine villages – all with fantastic scenery and light.  You can choose from incredible villas, hotels, terraces, mountaintops chalets, and unique little Airbnbs.
  18. In Italy, Rhianna’s main focus has become elopements. As part of that, she tends to help a lot with the planning and it includes part of what she wanted to do in Italy – getting to know people who are based there – to help support local businesses
  19. You hear stories of people flying photographers, and make-up artists out from the US, Australia, UK etc because they couldn’t find somebody that they liked in Italy.  Having lived in Italy, Rhianna knows that Italy is full of so much talent – so many incredible people, but they’re just not very good at marketing, replying to emails/texts unless they know the person
  20. Rhianna helps with planning for small elopements and very intimate destination weddings. For anything bigger than that, she usually recommends finding a wedding planner who can help organize and pull everything together. But find someone local – if you want the classic Tuscan Val d’Orcia affair – find somebody from there with all those local connections
  21. A typical photo shoot mostly involves getting up early – though not always, it depends. If they’ve got hair and makeup booked, it means getting up extra early. You might have thought that would generally be the case but some people don’t really care and are happy without
  22. After they get ready, Rhianna goes to meet them – depending if they have a car or if they need picking up. Then they usually wander around and take some portraits to make the most of the sunrise and the quiet streets. They’ll find a spot to say their vows which will depend on if it’s an elopement –  just the two of them, or if they’ve got more guests, in which case they’ll make the most of the morning for the portrait session, then go and have a ceremony. After that, it usually involves some kind of amazing Italian feast – whether that’s in a restaurant or catered. At one Rhianna did last year, they had an Italian nonna come out and cook an entire feast for them
  23. It’s always really beautiful and really emotional, even if it’s just a couple for an elopement. Maybe with a celebrant, maybe with just Rhianna
  24. From a legal perspective, you generally need to either get married before or after you do an elopement
  25. Some couples want to get married in Italy and have a legal wedding day there, in which case Rhianna always recommends them to local celebrants because getting married legally in Italy, like anything that involves bureaucracy, is not a walk in the park (to put it lightly). Firstly you have to get a document called an Atto Notorio – from the Italian consulate or embassy in your home country. The documents that you’ll need for that will depend on where you are and on the council area in which you’re getting married in Italy. Then when you get to Italy, you have to go to your home country’s consulate to get a Nulla Osta, which states that they give you permission to get married there. Then you have to have a legal celebrant which can either be a worker for the council or a priest if you want to have a Catholic wedding (in which case you also have to do all the Catholic rituals before – premarital counseling etc). You have to get married in a place that is allowed by the council – you can’t get legally marry anywhere you like. You then have to get everything registered afterwards in Italy and again in your home country
  26. So mostly elopements and weddings are symbolic. The couples come over, either legally married at home or marrying upon their return. Rhianna had one couple who call each other husband and wife and tell everyone they are married, but it’s not legal and they’re not at all fussed to make it legal. They shared their vows in a lovely little sunrise ceremony, and they both got really emotional. There were lots of tears and hugging and laughing – it was beautiful
  27.  A standout wedding for Rhianna, from last year, was from her time in Puglia, in which she did an elopement in a Trullo. The Trulli are these little houses with stone, conical roofs, that look like they’re out of a fairy tale. This couple said to Rhianna that they wanted to get married in Italy – they didn’t know when/where/what or how, but they loved her photographs and trusted her. So she put together a few different itinerary ideas and they ended up in a fabulous renovated Trullo, just outside of Fasano in Puglia. It was magical to experience and they had a wonderful nonna come out and make lunch, which they ate under this giant, ancient oak tree. She was explaining about some wild arugula/rocket and took herself off into the fields to find some to show them – she was so proud of her food. Then they went out to the beautiful Polignano a Mare at sunset. She wouldn’t usually do a sunset, but it just worked out better that day – they got the most spectacular sunset ever and it was an all-around amazing day
  28. Another memorable wedding for Rhianna was on Lake Garda, was the first of the season and the couple was so much fun. They just laughed the whole time. They’d reached out quite late, in March, and they got married in June. The bride kept telling Rhianna that he is such a groomzilla and that he wanted to have photos in a castle – which is why they ended up at Lake Garda. She just wanted a beautiful backdrop and an excuse for exploring Italy. They got up at sunrise, ran around Riva del Garda, on the north shore, and then went down to Malcesine. They went up into the castle, said their vows (pretty quickly because they had half an hour there before another wedding came in) and then they went off and hung out on a boat drinking Prosecco and eating gelato and had the best time
  29. Another memorable experience for Rhianna, and an idea of a potentially stunning setting for a wedding, was during the Pandemic’s second lockdown when Italy was in color zones and you couldn’t move around much. They somehow managed to pull off a styled shoot in the Dolomites. They had to permission from the Carabinieri (the police). They took this couple and went up to the resort of Alta Badia. There was tons of snow, and they did a styled shoot in a deer park. So it was taking photos of this couple in these gorgeous wedding clothes with deer in the background, and they set up a little picnic for them and the local news come out because it was like the most exciting thing that had happened in ages
  30. In Italy, the beautiful natural environment means for a constant backdrop. You don’t need huge flower arrangements. The light is also spectacular. Even in Milan in the wintertime, the sun is insanely bright on a clear day. You’ve got those magnificent backdrops, you’ve got the person that you love the most in the world, and you get to celebrate with fabulous food and drink – it really doesn’t get much better than that
  31. Rhianna finds there tends to be an attitude with the people that elope or have smaller weddings in Italy that make for a great experience. People planning this kind of destination wedding as a general rule tend to be more relaxed – because they’re not looking to have the typical big event. If they are having guests, rather than it being about a huge party, it’s more about quality time with those people. It’s just great to have that attitude – “we’re going to go to Italy, we’re going to get married, I’m going to decide to spend the rest of my life with the person I love most, and I’m going to have the best time doing it”
  32. We all take a lot of photos on our phones these days and perhaps spend too much time attached to our phones because of it. So another amazing thing about this experience is that if they’ve got someone along, taking photos, they don’t need to think about the phone – they can be in the moment. They can relax while these beautiful photos are being taken and can enjoy and share them later
  33. Rhianna always makes sure her couples get some prints at the end of it, not just the digital photo. It’s one thing to see the photos on Instagram or on the computer screen, but to have them printed and framed, or in a book – it’s really special. You remember the whole story of the day and the way you were feeling in that moment
  34. Katy has asked Rhianna to come along and photograph her birthday celebrations on the Cilento Coast in the Fall. There are going to be people there that she doesn’t get together with so often and it’s their special relationship to her that she wants to capture. When she looks back on her wedding photos, they have some stunning photos of people that have now passed away, and they’re really special memories

Fancy some more romance in your life?

Find some wonderful, romantic Italian tunes in our Spotify playlist here.

About our guest – Rhianna Nelson

Rhianna May is a wedding photographer who splits her time between Western Australia and Italy. While she grew up in Perth’s southern suburbs, her Italian friends affectionately say she’s ‘Italian DOC’, because of how she has adopted the Italian language and culture as her own. 

After doing a university exchange in Milan in 2013, Rhianna found herself making her way back to Italy time and time again until finally, she made it permanent in 2017. Something about the food, the embodied culture of slow living, the dreamy epic landscapes that change and morph across this Mediterranean land, drew her in. 

She called Milan home for 5 years, and while she was there, made it her mission to explore the very best of Italy, so that she could share it with her destination wedding clients (while of course, documenting their weddings beautifully).

As it did for so many, the pandemic saw Rhianna completely rethink the way she ran her business. So many couples were looking to get married in a way that broke free from tradition and expectation; they wanted to have a destination wedding in Italy, but in an intimate, fun, authentic way – no show or pretense or forced tradition. They wanted to explore Italy off-the-beaten-track, and exchange vows somewhere along the way. 

And so, Rhianna turned her focus to destination Italian elopements – not only photographing them, but also helping laidback lovers and the wild at heart to plan truly unique and authentic Italian elopement experiences. 

The pandemic also made her appreciate the value of home, and so she decided to split her time evenly across the home she was born into (Australia) and her adopted home (Italy), which as a happy coincidence, also means living her lifelong dream of chasing the summer! 

Rhianna now lives on the road, setting up home wherever her work takes her and is determined to keep on exploring more of Italy every year – taking at least a few weeks each year to get to know a new region so that she can keep offering her clients unique and epic experiences. 

You can find Rhianna on these channels:

Places to visit mentioned in the show

  • Alberobello  – possibly the most well-known in Puglia, known as the city of Trulli
  • Ostuni – a gorgeous town in Puglia, so famous for its white-washed houses that it is known as the white city – la Città Bianca
  • Fasano – town in Puglia
  • Polignano a Mare – beautiful old town with dramatic cliffside – wonderful in the summertime but very quiet offseason 
  • Riva del garda – a resort on the north shore of Lake Garda
  • Malcesine – town on Lake Garda 
  • Termi Sadurnia  and Bagnig San Filippo – hot springs in Tuscany
  • Dolomites – mountain range in Northern Italy
  • Alta Badia – a ski resort in the Dolomites
  • Cilento Coast – The coastal area south of the Amalfi Coast which not only is much quieter but has better beaches. Learn more in Episode #39 Captivating Cilento Coast

Resources

  • Atto Notorio – an affidavit to be done prior to a wedding in an Italian Consulate in Australia or the US
  • trulli houses – a traditional stone hut with a conical roof, unique to Puglia
  • masseria – is a fortified farmhouse or country house on an estate
  • Carabinieri – the national police of Italy who primarily carries out domestic and foreign policing duties

Resources from Untold Italy

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