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Episode #180: In Search of… Authentic Travel Experiences in Italy

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On your ideal trip to Italy, you probably dream of having authentic and unique experiences. But what is truly authentic to Italian life may not be what you visualize or would want for your perfect vacation. You may find where there are the true-life wonders of Italy, particularly in the smaller towns and countryside, access to them is often not straightforward, if even possible. We unpick the dream vs reality and look at what to look for when planning your trip. 

Show notes
If authentic travel is all about experiencing a destination in its truest form, then the realities of most people’s everyday lives wouldn’t make for an enjoyable vacation. In this episode, Untold Italy founder Katy talks about accessing the Italian experiences you’re looking for and the misconceptions about what authentic Italy is, what is actually possible and how to re-think the romanticized Italian trip you visualize but still have wonderful and fulfilling experiences. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

Authentic Italian experiences

  • There is a lot of talk about wanting “authentic” experiences in Italy. Katy has always struggled slightly with the term “authentic”, because if you really think about it, what we think of as an authentic experience is often a fantasized ideal and not the reality of life in Italy. Accounts of Itay like Under the Tuscan Sun the book and especially the movie did a great job of encouraging this fantasy view of Tuscany but, of course, it’s Hollywood and certain liberties were taken. You won’t find locals gathered around a flowing fountain in the main square of Cortona waiting to invite you back to their place for lunch – not least because there is no such fountain in Cortona
  • Is authentic Italy ancient villages with cobblestone streets and laundry floating in the breeze hung from ancient buildings? Is there a nonna stirring a batch of sauce in a window who waves to you “Buongiorno” as you pass by? It’s certainly possible to find this in Italy – far away from the crowds of Rome, Venice and Florence and the most famous towns of Tuscany. Whilst it’s an incredibly charming scene but let’s not lose sight of the fact that these are simply human beings getting on with their lives. This scene is no more or less authentic than bumping into a few thousand people at the central station in Milan or Rome commuting to work, just as we may do at home. Over 70% of Italians live in cities so perhaps more of an authentic experience of Italy is staying in a small apartment on the outskirts of a big city
  • Most of us travel to escape so no one really wants to run into a crowd of commuters on their trips, so when we say we want authentic travel experiences, what we want are those that reflect a contrast to our daily lives – representing a different way of life
  • We imagine wandering through a picturesque village – not worrying about bills, health issues or the daily minutia but instead living a dream life – making incredible archaeological discoveries on an ancient Roman site by day, before retiring to a restored palazzo in the evening to ponder life. Or eating piles of amazing local food and spending each night sitting in a piazza, soaking up the vibes – with a spritz but without a care in the world. It’s fantasy and that’s ok – but let’s not pretend it’s how most Italians really live
  • Many people’s idea of “the real italy” means experiencing something that in reality is not set up for tourists. Whether it’s a winery, local restaurant, artisan workshop or small village – people want to feel like they are tapping into real Italian life rather than joining in on an experience many other visitors are unlikely to have. That’s what most of us want, but the reality is that accessing that kind of experience is very very difficult simply because most of those people do not cater to visitors. Their primary focus is on doing their main job and you’ll generally find they are not online and rarely speak any more than very basic English
  • Katy and her family experienced this for themselves recently. She booked a cooking class at their agriturismo in Tuscany last year. It’s a fairly popular place and has clearly taken the opportunity to offer some extra activities but it was pretty clear they had not thought it through. There we were rolling out our pasta in the middle of their working kitchen and it just felt like they were in the way and so was quite uncomfortable, awkward and on the verge of being dangerous as people dashed around with hot pans. Their instructor was one of the chefs and obviously had plenty of other things to do so while she did her best, her full focus was not on the class and they struggled to communicate unless through Katy’s husband who speaks great Italian. She was pretty disappointed having paid hundreds of Euros for that experience
  • So although we all seek these lesser-known experiences, it can actually make more sense to do activities that cater specifically to tourists. It’s their main business so they need to get it right. They also, usually understand that visitors are looking for an escape and know how to tap into that and give the experience that you are looking for
  • As incredible as it is to be able to sit down with a wine or cheese maker and discuss their passions and processes, this is not something that is readily available to most visitors simply because the winemaker is very busy making wine. Agricultural work is incredibly labor-intensive and not really suitable to stop-starts to accommodate visitors and any spare time they do have they usually want to be with their friends and family. If you don’t speak Italian and you are traveling independently you are going to struggle to find these things which need to be planned well in advance and be curated to make sure it’s a great experience for both the host and visitors

Where to find amazing Italian experiences

Having accepted that our idea of authentic Italian experiences are somewhat of a fantasy, how do we find the ones that we’re going to love and give us the warm fuzzy feelings of pleasure that we’ll remember forever? Basically, it all comes down to expectations and budget but you can access idyllic Italy whichever way you travel. 

Untold Italy Tours

  • Finding and sharing these unique experiences is a passion of Katy’s and the driver behind the Untold Italy small group tours of the Italian regions of Piedmont, Umbria, Tuscany, Liguria, Sicily and Puglia. Untold Italy spends countless hours finding the magical wow moments and working with local people to deliver experiences that really speak to the heart of local culture, season by season, bite by bite and sip by sip. You might meet a horn-blowing artisan with amazing stories to share, learn to make pasta with a woman whose pot bellied pig is part of the family, discover how breathe-taking an iris farm is to behold or try on Renaissance era hats while listening to tales of their former wearers
  • Many Untold Italy tour guests, like Rita and Ed in episode 176, comment that they could not have organised the wonderful activities and insights they had on tour with us on their own and knowing all the research and organization behind the scenes – we have to agree. The unique local experiences we include on our trips are simply not open to independent travelers and have been specifically curated in consultation with our local partners to offer something very special. They’re happy to work with us in a very bespoke way to share their way of life with our guests in a way that does not disturb the regular activities of their life and they dont advertise or take bookings directly. 
  • One of the important parts of Untold Italy Tours is staying in unique and luxury properties which are an experience in themselves and take inspiration from their local environments. We stay in a gorgeous Masseria in Puglia, beautiful baglio and palazzi in Sicily, a stunning historic farmhouse in Tuscany and a cave hotel in Matera. If any of this appeals to you then you can find out more about our tours on untolditalytours.com

Small group travel over several days is not for everyone for a variety of reasons so we have other suggestions for building your Italian experiences.

Untold Italy resources

  • Every day at Untold Italy we receive many, many messages asking for recommendations and unfortunately it is simply impossible to be able to respond to them personally but we do have thousands of resources and ideas on our Untold Italy website as well as in our very detailed podcast show notes that you’ll find for each episode with links to providers
  • One of the values Katy personally holds close and is keen to reflect from all Untold Italy resources is generosity. We do not hold back on recommending people and places that we love. Most of our content is offered to our listeners and customers completely free of charge and this is because we believe in good karma which goes hand in glove with sharing and generosity
  • With such a big audience, not just on the podcast but our Italy Travel Planning community on Facebook which has over 115,000 active members and over 50,000 email subscribers, we have to be very careful about who and what we recommend. We want to make sure that the providers are capable of not only responding to your inquiries but also delivering the wonderful experience both you and they want. It’s simply not possible or fair to anyone to put people in the spotlight who aren’t able to do that
  • You will find a lot of suggestions on our website and you can also sign up to receive our weekly newsletter where we share more ideas

Online market places

  • Italians often aren’t great at online marketing so when Googling/looking for experiences, you’re usually going to come up with online marketplaces like GetYourGuide or Viator and AirBnB experiences. A lot of people are against using these services because they do take a large commission from the providers but the reality is that if these businesses were not using these providers, they more than likely would not be found. They also make the booking and cancelation process straightforward and provide reviews – both of which you most Italian providers don’t generally manage very well themselves
  • If you want to book direct, these platforms do have to list the end provider so if you dedicate some time you can find out who they are and look at arranging a direct booking but do make sure you understand the cancelation and rebook policies
  • Another benefit of these marketplace experiences is that we can assume that the tours or experiences listed are specifically designed for visitors
  • The experiences and tours do vary greatly in price. The main drivers for price differences are group size – the smaller the group, the higher the price.  Also, exclusivity, if are you accessing something that is not generally available to others, is going to increase the cost. An example of this is the Vatican Key Masters tour that allows a very small group early access to the Vatican Museum galleries including the Sistine Chapel – unlocking the doors and switching the lights on. It’s a high-priced experience and as an analogy, it’s equivalent to a first-class airplane ticket whilst a standard Vatican Museum entrance ticket is equivalent to coach class

Agriturismi

  • Another option for finding amazing, local experiences is to stay in an agriturismo or farm stay that offers experiences. Some of these places are very good at delivering a great experience but as per Katy’s cooking experience, it can be a bit hit-and-miss. Most of the reviews you’ll see on Google will refer to their accommodation offering so you need to dig quite deep to understand whether they are good at providing experiences or not. Listen to our podcast – What is an Agriturismo and why you should stay in one

Local tourism boards and consortium

  • Italian tourist boards often don’t like to recommend specific vendors but the more local you get eg by province or local town you can get lucky
  • Another option is the local wine or food produce consortium. These are the groups that coordinate the marketing activities of local wineries and producers – for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar, for instance. They often have itineraries and lists of producers you can visit. All I would say though is that it’s difficult to know what the experiences are going to be like and their proficiency in English

Social media, Blogs and other resources

  • There are a myriad of other blogs and social media accounts on travel to Italy but do be mindful of how much experience some of these people have as someone who has visited Italy for 10 days on their first trip is definitely going to have a perspective and many may not be able to give you much more than surface level information
  • Seek out websites and people who have immersed themselves in or are based in Italy. Some of our favorites:
  • When choosing these experiences make sure they include local traditions and seasonal produce. In Rome, you probably wouldn’t find a cooking class that makes seafood dishes because it’s so far from the sea, you’d be wanting to make traditional Roman dishes like carbonara or cacio e pepe
  • Depending on how serious you are about your cooking, check in to see what dishes you’ll be doing in any cooking class. Spaghetti Pomodoro (plain tomato sauce) and tiramisu are not difficult dishes to make so if you are an experienced cook and love cooking, that would be disappointing but if you just want to drink a few glasses of wine and roll out some basic but tasty pasta then it will would out great for you

Authentic travel experiences or incredible moments?

A wonderful thing about Italy is that you can have so many incredible moments simply by wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere of the places you visit and this is an activity that is, of course, completely free! When Katy was young she was just in awe of her surroundings and their beauty as it was all so new. She was happy just to soak it up in those pre-Instagram days so while there were few photos remaining from those trips – the memories of the feeling remain. 

As she got older and more experience in travel, she became more curious, craving more connection and context. Questions began to pop up – ‘What are those small openings in some buildings in Florence?’ ‘Why do they make sparkling red wines in Emilia Romagna and sparkling white near Venice?’ ‘How did Emperor Nero rule the Roman Empire from Capri?’ or ‘Why is the pasta in Puglia not made with eggs?’ It’s impossible to get these kinds of questions by simply wandering and gazing at scenery and whilst you may find the answers on the internet, you miss out on the context and cultural meaning behind it all. This is why Untold Italy Tours curates experiences on the tours and we share ideas on this podcast and on our website. We’re here to share some options you may not be aware of, tapping into your curiosity and desire for a deeper connection to the places you visit and the people who make them special.

Everyone has a preferred way to travel, and we believe everyone should do their own thing. Over the years Katy has gone from backpacking on a shoestring budget, to traveling with friends, solo or with her family in much more comfortable accommodation. She believes no travel experience is more or less authentic – it’s what you want to experience that matters. If you’re fixed on one way of travel for yourself – aim to keep an open mind and not judge something until you’ve tried it for yourself. 

Final note

Go into your travel experiences mindfully in terms of how you interact with people in the places you visit. Let’s always keep it respectful and be aware that you’re there for a short while as a guest and that while we are on vacation and want to everything to be perfect – others are simply doing their jobs or just getting on with their daily lives.

Travel the Untold Italy way

Traveling the Untold Italy way is soaking up every last minute, exploring the many different regions and subcultures of Italy. When you’re in the big cities it’s looking for those unique curiosities you can only find there or chasing after a unique experience that speaks to your passions – whether that be history, food, or creating art. Each and every one of our experiences reflects the local flavor, history and traditions of the regions we visit – which are so very different from each other. 

Our style of travel includes exploring the unique tastes that draw on seasonal local ingredients. We’re about meeting local artisans and discovering the passion and dedication behind their creations. But above all, we believe in having time to explore and time to relax. And to enjoy long leisurely aperitivo and meals with great wine and even better company.

Untold Italy Tours

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to experience Italy beyond the obvious but were not sure how to organize your trip, let Untold Italy Tours take care of it for you and help you discover your authentic Italy. Come journey with us to untold regions and discover the Italian places, faces, stories, and tastes whose memories linger for years to come.

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Resources

  • GetYourGuide – our preferred online marketplace for tours and experiences. Read our guide here
  • Viator – TripAdvisor’s online marketplace for tours and experiences
  • Airbnb experiences – online marketplace for tours and experiences
  • Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium – this is the consortium that has information on the history, the expected quality for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but also has details on visiting dairies
  • Consorzio Balsamico – the consortium for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, with details on visiting Balsamic Vinegar producers (Acetaia)
  • Corinna Cooke – Italy expert whose site with information, boutique tour experiences and excellent guidebooks for all over Italy
  • Zia Lucy – Amalfi Coast walking expert whose site has information and walking tour experiences on the Amalfi Coast
  • Debora Bresciani – Arezzo-based tour guide whose site has useful information on Tuscany and tour experiences in and around Arezzo
  • Monica Cesarato – Venice food expert whose site has information and tour experiences
  • Elisabetta Amadi – Venice tour guide with a site full of fun information and tour experiences in Venice
  • Michelangelo – Holly Star and her husband are Capri locals their site has information on the wonderful food experiences they offer on Capri

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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