Italy Roundtable: Where’s the “authentic Italy” everyone is looking for?

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We’re teaming with another group, which also writes on a monthly topic, to bring you this month’s Italy blog.

We are joining forces with the COSI Group, which stands as Crazy Observations from Stranieri in Italy to write about AUTHENTICITY.

You not only get to read the thoughts and opinions of the regular Italy Roundtable bloggers but also hear from a whole new group of Italian expats. Enjoy!

In any profession, there are certain words and phrases that can be overused. There are many words and phrases that get overused in travel writing. I know of one editor who will not tolerate the use of the term “nestled” to describe any village. She also deletes emails with the phrase “staycation” in the subject line. “Authenticity” is a word that has been overused and is no longer meaningful. It can also be problematic even when it is used in good faith.

Every travel magazine touts the secret to “authenticity” (fill in any blank with your country or city name). Everyone wants to discover the “real” place.

Tell me, however, where is this “authentic” location you are looking for? And how does it differ from the one you are trying to avoid?

Italy “Authentic”

Even though there is a lot of information about Italy, many people still visit Venice and Florence when they first visit. While they may make a few stops along the way, the three most popular destinations in Italy – which I refer to as the “Holy Trinity of Italy travel” – are almost always included.

It makes perfect sense that they should. Tourist attractions are tourist attractions for a reason.

Venice, Florence, Rome, and Rome are all popular throughout the year, are always busy with tourists, and have learned how to cater to their needs. They are not the only ones. Pisa offers visitors exactly what they want: an easy route to the attraction they most desire, many places to purchase knickknacks, and a return to the station for the next destination.

All of this has the side effect that tourists thronging these places must be a tourist trap. These people irritate me almost as much as those who insist that the terms “tourist” or “traveler” are not synonymous. (Don’t even start me on that one.

Pisa in Italy is both the tourist-filled area around the Leaning Tower as well as the quieter, more traditional part of the city that’s home to students at the university. One may prefer one to the other, or you might prefer another city entirely – there’s nothing wrong with either. It is not right to claim one part of a city as authentic and another as fake.

That’s balderdash.

Let’s get technical

I love the dictionary and thesaurus so when brainstorming for this article , I searched for “authenticity”. Some words and phrases that are associated with authenticity include:

  • Accuracy
  • Actuality
  • Existence
  • Genuineness
  • real world
  • Tangibility

It is hard to deny the existence and tangible nature of the souvenir stands that line the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They are actually trying to make a living by offering tourists reminiscences of their actual experience at the world-famous attraction. They are trying to capture the exact moment by staging photos of themselves propped up on top of the tower.

Perhaps Pisa isn’t for you. Perhaps you have been there and didn’t love it. That? It’s perfectly fine. It is perfectly fine if we all wanted to go to the same places. However, it is not accurate to call places that you don’t like “inauthentic”.

Even the Las-Vegas-Venetian Venice authentic – it’s only authentically Las Vegas.

You can watch me

Last September, I was a bit irritated by people who use the “you haven’t seen Italy” phrase without having been to …” Line .

If I get any guff about your itinerary from anyone, and I mean everyone, I grant you permission to respond accordingly:

Are you saying that I won’t be able to see Italy if it’s not in a specific city? Yes.

I’m watching you.

It’s the same for calling parts of Italy “inauthentic”.

That’s so funny! I needed an authentic Italian passport stamp in order to travel to Italy.

I love to say that you should own your itinerary. You should be able to create it exactly how you want it to look and then take it with you. Unfortunately, part of this is being armed against travelers who think they are better than you. They are phooey. They may know better about their trips than I do, but they don’t have the right to be proud of yours.

Accept your trip regardless of what it is on your list and then come back with your opinions about Italy. If someone asks you for advice, give it freely – opinions included – and congratulate them when it forms their own itinerary.

This is authentic Italy that I love.

Italy Roundtable: Other Voices

There is a lot of reading this month, both on the Italy Roundtable blogs as well as the COSI blogs. Follow me to each post. Please leave comments and share with your friends. Tune in next month to see another topic on Italy Blogging Roundtable!

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20 Responses to “Italy Roundtable”: Where is the “authentic Italy”, everyone’s searching for?

  • Gloria has the following:

    Your post surprised me as I did not expect to see Pisa there. Although I’m not originally from Pisa but have lived there for over 20 years, it’s my second home. Your statement is 100% true. Many believe that Pisa the leaning Tower is true. They arrive, get off the train and board the LAM Rossa bus. After getting off at the souvenir stalls, they walk to Pisa, take their photo, then return to the bus stop to catch the train to the station. They claim they’ve been to Pisa. They claim Pisa isn’t very interesting. It’s a theme-park. That’s false. Although they’ve been to Pisa once, they haven’t seen Pisa. Although the leaning Tower is the most prominent landmark in the city it is not representative of the whole. You need to visit Pisa from Campo dei Miracoli. This is where you can see the real Pisa. One soon discovers that Pisa is more than just a small part of the city. It’s a whole new reality that is worth exploring. It’s not a tourist destination, but a “authentically Italian” place. That’s what it means.

    • Jess has the following:

      Gloria, I actually thought about you as I wrote the post. Although Pisa is not the only city that experiences this fate, it is a great example of what I was trying talk about.

  • Rodrick Ropers – says:

    It wasn’t just how my husband and me saw it! Ha! (Yes.)

  • Rick has the following:

    It’s so true…I get emails all the time asking for my “off-the-beaten-path” suggestions to find authentic Italy. My favorite Italian site, despite all the years spent living there, is still Pantheon. It was my first visit to Italy 15 years ago. Off-the-beaten-path? No. Authentic? It doesn’t get more authentic even when you are surrounded with souvenir salesmen and tourists with selfie sticks.

    • Jess has the following:

      YES. The Pantheon is my favorite. Also? I freaking adore Venice. It doesn’t matter if every guidebook you see will recommend Venice. It’s glorious.

  • Jessica, wonderful post! We did a blogger collaboration and I’m so glad I did. I now have to procrastinate from work to read some of your posts. Rick is a good friend of mine. I get many similar ‘hidden find’ emails from people looking for authentic Florence, but my advice is nearly always the same. People line up to see David’s Bum at the Uffizi and the Primavera at Uffizi. They are amazing works of art that everyone visiting Florence should not miss. People should ignore all the advice and follow their instincts, rather than listening to others telling them what they should do. Cappuccino after 11am? It’s okay!

    • Jess has the following:

      Thanks, Georgette! It was a pleasure to collaborate with you. I have many new blogs to follow.

      It makes sense for me to study the customs and practices of another culture. It’s not unusual for Italians to have a cappuccino at 11 o’clock in the morning. Although we may believe their reasoning is absurd, I think it’s important to understand the “why” behind the things we tell travelers. Then they can make more educated decisions about whether or not they want to follow the customs.

  • The Borghese gardens on Sunday afternoon is my favorite place in Rome. The entrance to the Villa Borghese Gallery is where tourists cluster, but there are vast expanses of walking paths and hidden gardens where local people can relax and cool down next to fountains. Bocci ball is played by old men, choral groups are practicing in the open, dog walkers, uniformed boy Scouts, couples walk hand-in–hand, and sisters, mothers, and daughters, arm-in–arm, while families drive around on rented pedal cars.

    • Jess has the following:

      Roy, thanks for your comment! Roy, that’s what I meant. The tourists are part and parcel of what makes it authentic (to me anyway). In a country like Italy, authenticity doesn’t necessarily mean “authentic”.

      It’s a beautiful scene, you have described. It makes me long to be there on Sunday afternoon.

  • All of it! I find the ‘but that’s *not* Italy’ gibberish annoying. Everybody has their own reality. As long as you are happy with it and don’t try and make it mine, I’m fine with that. Are there any suggestions for places to visit? Great. Let’s go! You denigrate my experiences because they aren’t authentic enough. This is not cool. Not cool at all.

  • Jo has the following:

    Everything you said is right on! Milan is the quintessential “inauthentic Italy” but I lived there for a while. It’s not “authentically Italian” because it’s “not beautiful”, a large city with a lot of hustle and bustle, and has less time to have coffee breaks or gossip in a piazza.

    Since there is no definition of “authentic Italy”, it’s a joke. My neighbours thought they didn’t have much in common with me when I lived in a small village in Le Marche (from Urbino, population 15,000, not exactly a metropolitan area!) Never mind people from other regions!

    • Jess has the following:

      Jo, thank you for your comment! It’s very well said. It’s the variety of Italian cities, towns and villages that I find most interesting. It is these things that make Italy Italy. It would be a beautiful country if it had all the medieval cities on its hilltops or those with ancient cities beneath it.

  • longbowman says:

    It seems a bit chipper, which is understandable. But, humour me if I can muster the patience. “Don’t get started…people who use the words tourist and traveller don’t mean the exact same thing.”

    Is it simply a semantic discrepancy, meaning that people don’t understand what they mean by these things? Or is there more to it?

    Although I am happy to admit error, I still use the terms in a different way.

    It’s a pleasure to meet “travellers” from my country. These are people who travel to create memories and experiences, to learn more about their destination countries, and to make new friends. They can be introverted or extroverted, it all works out differently. They are respectful and understand that this is not their home.

    As I have heard it called, “Tourists” can do a variety of things, but they generally do the following:

    -Photo-rape everything they see. This is when you focus on everything and don’t care about what it actually looks like. A woman was quick to take terrible pictures from her smartphone through the Bernina Express window in Swiyzerland. She immediately looked at them on her computer and didn’t even look at the scenery. No exaggeration.

    -Abject disregard for social customs and no desire to learn about them

    -They are disrespectful of the environment and others around them, including people.

    -To objectify people and their environment as “other than”

    -Thinking that tourist traps and gimmicks are cultural mainstays

    The common thread is disrespect, selfish ignorance, and closed-mindedness. People don’t like you being around for anything other than money.


    • longbowman says:

      I.e. Tourist traps are people who sell fake Prada bags at a’special rate’ thinking that everyone is listening to “Con Te Partiro” because buskers often play this song.

    • Jess has the following:

      They are one and the same to me. While there are considerate and inconsiderate tourists, if you don’t live in the area, you’re still a tourist. It’s all over.

  • Thomas Cappiello says:

    Longbowman, I am with you. But the Rick Steve’s and the travel bloggers around the globe don’t write enough about tourists (hords) of. Perhaps they fear offending the people who make their living. Perhaps they feel like Jessica, Jessica above. They are part of the traveling environment, just as everyone else. There are good and bad. If you don’t like tourists, perhaps stay home. For me, a middle-aged occasional traveler and first timer to Italy as an American, Florence’s tourists shocked me. My first day in Florence, I thought wow! Mistake? Next stop India While art, architecture, and medieval monuments are not the only reasons I went to Italy, they were very high up on my list. I wanted to live and see the world. I don’t see David in the life. I see the history, human achievement, humanity, and lots of tourists using selfie-sticks. The life part of the festival I missed most, but caught a glimpse at Chestnut Festival Marradi (full-fledged of Italian “tourists” but not groups of foreigners standing infront of every statue, church, or cobble street with their iPhones), great food; lots of fun for everyone. After school, I sat in a park watching the children play and the parents nearby discussing local gossip. This was Italy, culture, attitude and life I was looking for. It was a small part of what I found. It wasn’t enough, perhaps I was too touristy and not enough traveler. It was a great learning experience. I felt that all my planning and train-learning went smoothly. I came home feeling empty and like I wasn’t doing it right. It wasn’t about the museum or church we didn’t visit. We did see all of Rick Steve’s must-see items, but it still felt like something was missing. Maybe it’s my subconscious saying “Go back, there’s more!”

    • Jess has the following:

      Thomas, thank you for your input! I believe there are both good and bad tourists from every culture, and there are places that resonate more with us than others. If everyone traveled the same way as each other, certain places would be more inundated than others. Wouldn’t it be boring to live?