Usually when people think of vacation travel to Italy, the great cities of Florence, Rome, Venice, and Naples come to mind. If you have not yet traveled to Italy and wonder how to experience the true Italian culture, it is worth mentioning the areas that are “off the beaten path” of tourists where you can see this beautiful country with locals. In the countryside, valleys and mountains, there is land that has been in families for generations. There are long stories to be told of how it came to be.
If you are contemplating your first trip to Italy, I would certainly advise you to see the big cities first because there is true greatness in the art, architecture and structures that are hundreds and even thousands of years old. Those cities possess a long history dating back to the Roman Empire. It is an absolutely thrilling experience to walk through the coliseum where warriors fought with beasts, experience the awe you feel when walking into the Vatican and taking a tour of Michaeangelo’s breathtaking artwork in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, just to name a few.
I will take you through the towns where my mother’s family lives. There is a saying that resonated with me on my last trip to Italy- “When you go to the Neapolitan area, you cry twice….once when you arrive and again when you leave.”
However, once you’ve seen some of the great sites of the world-famous cities, I suggest taking a tour of a lesser known area nestled in the valleys of the mountains in southern Italy approximately one hour northeast of Naples. One of the towns in this area is called Telese Terme. Locals and Italians from other regions of Italy visit the town for its natural sulfur water springs in which people bathe for the skin benefits and it is very busy during the summer months. Telese Terme also has a busy shopping district where you can find some good restaurants, cafes, pizzerias, and retail stores. As in neighboring towns, there are street markets open year round for bargain shopping. Meanwhile, you will see great views of the mountains in each direction. This is where I’ve gained inspiration for my recipes Rosemary Chicken Stuffed with Prosciutto and Mozzarella, Easy Zucchini and Bacon Pasta, and Three Cheese & Salami Quiche.
As you drive to neighboring towns, you will see many vineyards and if you drive up a mountainside you may see an old woman in a dark dress carrying a basket on her head following a few sheep as I have seen. I’ve enjoyed summer picnics in the mountains during every summertime visit. You will see children playing with a soccer ball, men sitting around a table outside playing cards, and cars driving quickly down the street passing the car in front of them as if it is second nature. Oh, and red traffic lights are optional apparently. Green means “Go quickly,” yellow means, “Go quickly” and red means “See if someone isn’t coming and if not, go quickly.” You will see many traffic violations, especially ones related to parking because many of the old streets were not constructed with cars in mind, they were constructed for horses. Therefore, parking is very limited and with the gas being so expensive (three times the cost in America) small cars are very popular for their efficiency and practicality.
One of the neighboring towns of Telese Terme, is Castelvenere where one of my first cousins and her husband recently opened a Bed & Breakfast called Casale Venditti. It has been beautifully renovated and has four spacious bedrooms, each with a large private bathroom. The second floor bedrooms have a walk out balcony in which you can see the beautiful views of the vineyards, mountain sides and swimming pool. The driveway is lined with olive trees and there is a beautiful flower garden within view too.
The B&B owners will take you through a tour of their cousin’s operating vineyard which, is a short walk. You can see the vats of wine, how it is bottled and of course enjoy a wine tasting. This awarded wine, made with Barbera grapes, is made with no preservatives. It is full bodied and smooth. I’ve also had the best cappuccino at her cousin’s bar down the road. I know, there are lots of Italian cousins!
If you drive only a few miles, you will find the hillside town of Cerreto Sannita which, is near where my mother was born. It is a cute little town filled with cafes and retail stores, a town square and you will get a closer look at the mountains and nice view of the valleys. The cafes in Italy sell delicious cappuccino (they are much better than ones I’ve had in America), espresso, pastries and liquor shots! Now that sounds interesting! One time my husband and I were walking down one of the streets in Cerreto Sannita and an older woman sitting outside heard us speaking English. She quickly introduced herself, speaking in broken English, and said she was from Connecticut. She was visiting her family that summer. After a five-minute conversation, she insisted we sit down and so we did. She then brings out biscuits and Coca-Cola and offers to make us coffee. How is that for southern hospitality? She and her relative were so friendly. She at one point came out with a picture of her grandson who had recently graduated from an Ivy League school. She was so proud of him. We were delighted to talk to those women. This was a much better experience than when the cab driver ripped me off in Rome. Tourists beware in the well known cities, especially Rome and Naples, where tourists are targeted. Do research before going to protect yourselves.
In a neighboring town to Cerreto Sannita, called San Lorenzello, other first cousins opened a trattoria (a family operated casual dining restaurant) called “Il Pino” in the first floor of their beautiful home on a high hill surrounded by their vineyards. When my uncle and aunt first built this house, I adored it mostly because the stunning view they have the mountains and valleys below. They make wonderful homemade dishes, desserts and tasty brick oven pizza! They serve prosciutto, sausage, bread and olive oil they make in-house. YUM! Absolutely fresh and delicious! It is a little known treasure of goodness. I always enjoy a few great meals along with many laughs. The homemade wine is always flowing!
Telese Terme, Castelvenere, Cerreto Sannita and San Lorenzello each have their own Italian festival called “la festa” each summer. A religious procession takes place during the day where a statue of the saint in which their town is named is carried through the town. Races, games, and family activities are held. At night, the streets are lit up, musicians play, merchants line the streets selling great food and local products. There are sometimes fireworks too. The festivals are widely attended and by all ages.
If I haven’t convinced you enough to visit towns off the beaten trail, you can go to the Tuscany Valley, near Florence, and pay significantly more to see very similar views and culture. For example, I looked at the prices for handmade pottery in Florence and although it was very beautiful and artfully crafted, I can get very similar items in San Lorenzello (town mentioned above) for a fraction of the price. Balsamic vinegar can be outrageously priced in Florence. It is common for merchants in the cities that attract much tourism to charge Americans much higher prices because it is assumed Americans are rich and can afford to pay higher prices. I caught a merchant in Capri telling his sales girl in Italian to charge me 20% more than what the bill actually was. When I questioned his math, he quickly answered that he was sorry for the mix up. On another occasion, I was grossly overcharged by a cab driver in Rome and unable to recoup my loss. Be very careful .
Although, in the small towns, if you do not speak Italian, it will be much more difficult to find people who speak enough English in which to interact. If you decide to take a trip to Italy and go “off the beaten path” I suggest having someone who is bilingual guide you which, I know is not an easy task if you don’t have relatives residing there or ones that can travel.
You will have a wonderful time in the small towns socializing, shopping and dining. The food in Italy is really incredibly great tasting! Italian cuisine is truly amazing. If you are looking how to experience the true Italian culture, go off the beaten path and visit southern Italy with all its charm and hospitality. I hope you will get an opportunity some day to experience the true Italian culture.