My disastrous entry into travel writing
The anti-Tucci hacks his way through Italy
There he is, swanning around, distinguished, fit, resplendent in his tailored outfits, speaking Italian with the locals, drinking fine wine and eating great food. Making it all look effortless.
It’s a lie.
When you get to Italy, it will be overcrowded. You probably don’t speak Italian, or pass as a local due to your incredible dress sense. You will have at least one near-death experience if you rent a car.
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Stanley Tucci is selling comfort food, which went down very well during the pandemic. And if more people go to Italy as a result, all the better. But when you get there, don’t kid yourself that you will be Stanley Tucci. You will be anti-Tucci.
Folks, thats ok, because your fearless author is also the anti-Tucci. And I have a cure to make your vacation in Italy at least moderately bearable.
What is it? Hacks.
Yes, hacks. Tips. The inside scoop. Why should you have to do it right if you can find a shortcut? After all, you don’t have an army of administrative assistants paving the way for you.
Some hacks are obvious, and require more resources. For example, your time on vacation is more valuable than regular time, so you should expend more to make it better. Always splurge for the skip-the-line tickets. But a lot of hacks are not more expensive, and might even save you a few Euro.
Hack! Don’t go to a restaurant where Stanley Tucci has eaten
A list of the restaurants Stanley Tucci visited can be found here. I am giving you this list so you can avoid them. This is not because the restaurants are not great — they are better than great, they are Tucci-approved.
The problem is the clientele, the army of Tucciphiles. We went to Osteria Cinghiale Bianco in Florence. Able to snag a reservation when it opened at 6.30pm, we enjoyed a serious steak and wild boar pappardelle.
The vast majority of the diners were American. Our neighbors next to us kept inquiring to the waiter about Tucci. When had he come? How long did he stay? What was his favorite dish? A steady stream of Tucci questions went on throughout the entire meal.
Hack! Find that one overlooked place with the really good view
There is always one place with an amazing view that has not quite figured out how to monetize it. In Pisa, it is Grand Hotel Duomo, whose top-floor has an outdoor restaurant where you can order a cocktail, wisely avoid the food, and take in the view far from the maddening crowd. In Florence, it is Il Caffe del Verone, on top of the Orphan’s Museum (but skip the museum if you don’t want to be depressed before looking at that gorgeous view).
Hack! Don’t stay in the expensive hotels
AirBNB has opened a lot more off-the-beaten track options, but the OG in this department is the Agriturismo system where you can stay in a rustic (or not so rustic) farmhouse-turned-apartment. This generally requires renting a car. If you are not interested in driving, look at public transportation options. Florence has an excellent tram system that lets you easily avoiding having to weave between thousands of tourists and narrow alleyways in the city center. Rather than try to drive into Florence, we dropped our car at a tram stop, and used the tram to get in.
In general, hotels in Italy are expensive and small. But you can get the grand hotel experience by dropping in for a cocktail. For the price of a New York cocktail you can enjoy something amazing, especially if you visit during quieter periods.
Hack! Bring your own ice-cube trays
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Europeans and Americans have different approaches to ice cubes. Americans are willing to slightly dilute their glasses of ice with other beverages, while Europeans prefer a tepid room-temperature option. Your European lodging has a better chance of providing a bidet than a basic ice-cube tray. So bring your own. (Ice-cube tray, not bidet).
Hack! Go to the slightly less famous and much less busy place
You’ve heard of the Cinque Terre, right? There is also a sixth town nearby, also beautiful, on the coast. It’s Portovenere, and worth a visit in its own right.
The town is quite small, but lots to see and eat, great hikes and lovely beaches. Even better, it offers lots of options to hop on a boat to visit or just cruise around nearby islands, or to jump on a ferry that lets you get in and out of the much busier Cinque Terre towns. A smart way of exploring the Cinque Terre is to make your base here.
The general principle is that the non-iconic venue might be a much more relaxing way to spend your time, and even a good way to hop-scotch onto the place everyone is going to. For example, if you are staying in Tuscany, pick a nice, remote town and then day-trip to places like Siena, Montepulciano and San Gimignano. We stayed in a small town near a beach mostly used by locals. The restaurant around the corner from our agritourismo was inexpensive, but like most small towns in Italy, had great food.
Hack! Cities in the off-season, coast in the summer, avoid August
Timing matters. If you are going to visit the most famous Italian cities, like Florence, Rome and Venice, they are going to be at their busiest, and hottest, during the summer. The main attractions at these venues is cultural, which are better enjoyed when you are not jostling elbow-to-elbow with school tours, backpackers, families and other tourists who have can only easily travel during the summer.
This hack becomes more relevant as heat waves become more of an issue in Europe. This year, we stayed near the coast outside of Pisa. Even as someone who is not a beach person, I appreciated the chance to be able to hop into the water near sunset to cool down.
When we traveled inland to Florence, we chose a cooler day, but it was still close to 95 Fahrenheit, about 10 degrees warmer than our rural location, the difference between bearable and borderline unpleasant.
In August, of course, everyone is on vacation, so you are competing with not just your fellow sweaty Americans, but also the native Italians for the same limited supply of gelato.
Hack! There is a museum for everyone
You will be tempted to check the boxes at the most famous museums and churches, but chances are some members of your traveling party will have had their fill of Renaissance art fairly quickly. Mix it up. For example, the Ferrari Museum near Modena disproves the idea that modern art is not good.
Hack! Don’t get Covid on your vacation
This one I learned the hard way. Zero stars for COVID. Would not recommend, especially in the midst of a long-planned family reunion.
When traveling it is harder to isolate, so chances are everyone in your party gets it, and you have to spend a lot of time trying to rearrange your travel plans. Given the absence of testing to travel now, you should assume people on your flight have it, and act accordingly.
My very strong travel advice: don’t get COVID.
If you enjoy my shitty travel writing, please check out this piece about what it was like to travel through Denmark when the country decided that COVID was no longer a serious health priority. Also consider subscribing if you have not done so, and share with others!