How to find yourself Italy, by someone who knows!
Seeing Venice, Florence and Rome in a week sounds exciting at first until you realize you will have spent most of your trip packing and traveling from city to city without ever exploring the secrets each city holds for you to discover.
As an Italian, born and raised, trust me when I tell you that each city and its surroundings deserve a full week or ten days to say you have truly vacationed in Italy, to “find yourself in Italy.”
The secret to taking a trip that feels like a vacation is simple. Pick a region, rent a car, a house or apartment, maybe a lovely B&B and establish a home base.
When I say a home base, I mean make it your Italian home. Go grocery shopping at the local market where the dirt is still attached to the roots of the fresh vegetables and the fruit smells like real fruit. Find out when your town has its open market where you can spend the better part of a day browsing the stalls and bargaining price on treasures you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Italians don’t eat
dinner until after eight p.m. so getting to a restaurant before that time truly
accentuates the fact that you are a tourist and haven’t done your homework. Ask
your hosts for local restaurant suggestions and what makes them special. Italian
food does not consist of only spaghetti and pizza.
Be adventurous and let the waiter or owner order for you. Oh, what gastronomical wonders we have tasted by doing just that.
One must be spontaneous in order to vacation in Italy. Have a list of places to explore in your area but whatever you do, do not have a travel plan.
Wake up every morning and while having cappuccino and a brioche while watching the sunrise, choose a destination for that day. It immediately creates excitement about what you might see and takes the pressure off of being scheduled. You deal with schedules in everyday life; why take them on vacation too?
One of my favorite vacation spots is in Tuscany where home base is always Montecatini. It is an amazing spa town nestled in the hills outside of Florence. I described its shopping as the Italian equivalent of Beverly Hills, and its spas have no comparison.
It is said that the Borghese family would summer there to drink the healing waters that pour through spigots that line the main Terme of the spa center.
Carrera marble is all
you see when you look at the floors and walls of the Terme. When visiting here,
it is best to get a cup of the healing waters, sit at a table, empty your mind
of all known reality and listen to classical music while staring up at the open
ceilings and the Tuscan blue skies.
Using Montecatini, which is located between Florence and Pisa, as home base allowed us to explore northern Tuscany by taking day trips that were all within two hours of home.
A typical day
We have gotten it down to a fine art, as we have done this more than once. Up by nine, morning cappuccino and croissants, a light-hearted discussion of what town to explore, who gets to drive as we both love driving in Italy - no really, we do - and then we are off.
Our first day will take us to explore our home base city, Montecatini Terme. Strolling the streets of the city feels like being on a most glamorous movie set.
Today, however, we want to visit the old city, Montecatini Alto. Alto is set high in the hills overlooking Montecatini Terme. It is reached by car, but we prefer the funicular that takes you up at a slow pace allowing you to take in all there is of the hillside.
We visit the small shops where one can find the specialties of the area from lace to biscotti. Lunch is at an outdoor café in the main piazza, antipasto, pasta, cheese, bread and wine. Nothing better than this to end our excursion for our first day.
It is a ritual for us that after the main meal, we return home to lay by the pool, take a dip, take a nap and get ready for a late dinner.
Another of our favorite choices of hill towns to visit is San Gimignano. Entering the old city transports you to a time of simplicity.
The town has a way of allowing you to exhale and then inhale the peace and calm of the cobblestone streets, the small shops that line either side inviting you in to wonder at the local goods sold proudly by the resident merchants.
Located approximately, an hour south of our home base, San Gimignano is one of my favorite destinations. It is completely contained within 13th century walls, has a grand archway as its entrance and is only traveled by foot. Cars are parked outside the old city.
It is said that the fourteen towers left within its walls were built by feuding families who would build a tower taller than their neighbor as a sign of power and stature.
The visit would not be complete without climbing to the top of the tallest tower for a view that takes your breath away. A photo could not possibly capture the intensity of the beauty of the Tuscan valley.
While strolling the streets of the old city, I hear a melody that resembles that of angels calling me to come closer. I find the musician who is sending the music with his harp and give my senses away to the magic of this town.
I am suddenly brought back to reality by my husband on my walkie-talkie calling me to come have ice cream in the main piazza.
Our days progress with visits to Cinque Terre, Montepulciano, Cortona and the Ferrari Factory in Maranello where my husband gets to drive a Ferrari and fulfill his dream.
Would you have had any of these wonderful experiences on a tour of Venice, Florence and Rome? Probably not.
Italy is a country to unfold slowly, with care and appreciation for every small detail. It takes time and getting lost to find yourself in Italy.
—Story & photos by Trisha Ballerini
A native of Florence, Italy, Patrizia Ballerini-Trackman has spent most of her life traveling between Chicago and Florence. Food, travel and writing have always been a focus for her.