Months before our plane touched down in Milan, Italy in the summer of 2014, I was already obsessed with the idea of finding “real” Italy. I dreamt of standing over the shoulders of sweet old grandmothers in rural villages to learn their secret bolognese recipes and going truffle-hunting with their wizened old husbands.
I’ve had unrealistic goals for every country we’ve lived in but Italy–with it’s paved highways and European amenities–made me want to set the bar for our travel experiences a little higher. Whereas our road trips in Northern India sometimes felt like an accidental foray into poverty tourism and our excursions in China most often ended in frustration, Italy seemed infinitely more doable–if also infinitely done before. The goal would be to find the lost few corners of Italy that hadn’t made it into a gorgeous magazine feature spread yet.
But there is an Italian saying that goes something like “Non far sapere al contadino quanto é buona la pera col pecorino.” Or “Don’t let the peasant know how good the pear is with the pecorino.”
It might be uncharitable to read too deeply into this old saying, but there’s something revealing about the Italian mindset embedded in there (besides the obvious: pears and pecorino are really good together and Italy has some pretty long-standing class warefare issues). Northern Italians are not like me and my millennial cohorts. When the people of Northern Italy have something really great, they don’t tend to shout about it from the rooftops.
Which is why the best places in Northern Italy–and there do seem to be an infinite number of them–are the ones no Northern Italian in his right mind would ever tell a random foreign tourist about.
It took me awhile to figure this out about Northern Italy. And a little longer than that to get our toddler feeling settled enough to become a willing participant in any journey further than the gelato shop three blocks from our apartment. And a little longer than that before I wore down a few of the people I’ve met here into becoming my friends.
And I guess somewhere around that time–probably a full 9 months into our tour here, was when we figured out that the best of Northern Italy is no where in a guidebook, no where to be found on Trip Advisor and sometimes not even on a map.
I won’t sugarcoat the truth, a car is crucial to finding these places–as is the ability to reverse down a mountain switchback in order to find a space on the road wide enough for to cars to pass one another without going over a guardrail.
But they are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The best strategy we’ve found is simply to consult Google Maps and head for a small patch of green on the map, denoting regional or national forest.
Forests and state park land are different in Italy than in America. Back-country camping is forbidden everywhere in Italy (and in most of Europe) and there are few places you can reach either by car or by foot that haven’t been touched or altered in some way by farmers and shepherds either present or past. Ancient small towns filled with stone-roofed barns stand at the top of some of the most isolated mountains in Northern Italy, in the middle of national forests. There are bed and breakfasts and telephone lines strung up over even the most intimidating cliff faces.
In short, there is nowhere in Italy that can matched the breath-taking wildness and the rugged solitude of America’s greatest national parks.
But there is probably also no national park in America where you can pause on a mountain trail for a plate of house-cured salami and homemade goat cheese while sitting under a portico of grape-vines with a backdrop of ancient stone barns behind you and nothing but miles and miles of mountain views to the front.
And in America there are also not too many 15th century churches standing just a short walk in a direction I am not at liberty to disclose from a particular bountiful stand of old-growth, wild chestnut trees.
A few weeks ago, some friends here offered to take us chestnut foraging on public park land that had been a close-held family secret for at least two generations–on the condition that we told no one where we went.
They were deadly serious about this, despite the numbers of families we encountered on the trail that day all rushing back to their cars carryings sacks of chestnuts. And I’m sure all of the other families on the trail would have told their friends the same thing–if they’d even been willing to bring them along.
On the way back to our cars, my husband asked my friend’s husband–the native Milanese of the couple–why such a beautiful place with such interesting old ruins wasn’t more widely publicized online in either English or Italian?
My friend’s husband looked slightly taken aback by the question, “Why in the world would we want anyone else to know about this place?” he asked.
After our chestnut hunt, we went hunting for lunch. The nearest town was covered in blue and white ribbons for a wedding party and all of the restaurants seemed to be either closed or catering the event. So we backtracked to an ancient looking monastery just off the highway that promised a cucina (kitchen) within.
It turned out to be a UNESCO heritage site of sorts and we had to wait for a small Italian tour group to clear out before we could sit down. But the “little bit of antipasti” my friend’s husband requested turned out to be hysterically bountiful–paté and grilled bread, salumi and cheese, a sausage and sauerkraut dish–the main dishes were rustic and local and gorgeously flavorful. And at the end of it, after all that food, plus pasta for the four kids, a bottle of wine and espresso all around, the bill was easily half what it would have been in downtown Milan.
I’m sure the place is easily findable online, but I’m also sure we would have never found it, much less sought it out had we not been in the area with four starving kids between our two families. I still have yet to look it up because I don’t want to color our memory of it with other travelers’ opinions.
And maybe that’s the most useful way to consider the secretiveness we’ve come to expect from Northern Italians. If you tell everyone how to get to your most beloved of places, you invite not only them but their opinions as well. And you run the risk that, possibly, if your place doesn’t rank as the absolute best in the world for someone else, it may lose some of its sacredness for you as well. Comparison is the thief of joy and all of that.
Now I’ve lived other–far less beautiful, far less safe–places than this and I know I’d be a total a-hole to say “everywhere in the world is beautiful if only you venture off the beaten track!” In many parts of the world, that’s not even an option.
But objective standards of beauty/fun/feasibility aside, what I mean to say is that it’s the places that we find for ourselves, the places we don’t even know we will find when we start out, that are the best places we’ll ever go here. Because those places are the only ones in which I think we are ever fully present for the whole experience, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching without any 2-star review or wikipedia entry to subconsciously reference back to. And maybe part of the thrill in these places is that it reminds us a little of what life was like in the old days, before we had so much data at our fingertips to reference our every move against a framework of everyone else’s opinions.
I hope you don’t take this post as one big long humble-brag because that’s the opposite of what I’d hoped to convey. Instead, I think the takeaway is this: going anywhere can be special when you don’t know and don’t care what anyone else thinks about the place you are going. A good map is worth more than a good guidebook.* Italy isn’t always the easiest place to live (surprise!) but it’s unquestionably the most gorgeous place I can imagine in which to relearn how to travel.
*obviously assuming you are in a relatively safe place with plenty of food/water/fuel/etc. And yes, guidebooks and trip advisor reviews can be incredibly useful when trying to find a place to stay or a restaurant to try in a new city but I find that I can go a little overboard with too much information. I start getting a little too concerned with finding the absolute most “authentic” place for a given value of money, cleanliness and convenience and get totally overwhelmed. I’m slowly learning not to let those decisions make or break our trip. Sometimes picking at random from a sea of roughly equal options (and then putting every single thing you’ve read on the subject out of your mind) is the way to go.