“Travel is always a leap of faith into new worlds: 20 of them in Italy.”
While we can’t travel, author Frances Mayes and travel journalist Ondine Cohane team up, with a little help from National Geographic’s photo archive, for a dream-inducing book that reminds you that Italy is… Always Italy. And although you cannot visit us here, now, Italy will always be waiting for you. In some ways unchanged for thousands of years, in others, touched by every moment she has seen, including this one. When you come back, she will be a little different – we all will be. But she’ll be charming in every way.
Having moved to Italy just over twenty years ago, I’ve traveled a lot in this country. I often find that while there is much of the world left to explore, there is always something fascinating to visit closer by. There are a few stones I’ve left unturned – Calabria, the islands of Sicily, Abruzzo – but soon enough I’ll find time to visit every region.
Mayes and Cohane’s book takes you on an immersive tour from North to South – not “virtual tours” that are no more than glorified videos, but the old fashioned way, where from the smell of paper emerges the odour of pizza, or lavender, or the fresh mountain air of the Trentino if you let your imagination run. Thinking myself immune to the beauty of this country after so many years, I am quickly proven wrong, and every page turned adds another line to my “must see when we get out” list.
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I have made a selection of images from the book Always Italy, to which I add some of my own photos and thoughts as the book has me reflecting on my own travels; I hope this inspires your future trips to Italy.
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“Breathtaking may be overused, but English doesn’t have a better word to describe the Dolomites,” says Mayes, and I agree. I don’t think Italian does either. Any time I visit this area, I’m quite “stunned” (another to-be-avoided travel writing word) by the majesty of these mountains from close up. The Instagrammable lakes are one thing, but the sensation of relax that I get at the area’s spa hotels, sitting back with a glass of it’s crisp white wine, is something that is quite hard to communicate with words.
When it comes to travel, Mayes is clearly led by her stomach, and alongside that, her appreciation for wine tasting. In Piedmont, she of course praises the region’s two famous Nebbiolo’s – Barolo and Barbaresco. In the pages of the book, the big city Torino – on my list to visit friends, but life got in the way – gives way to the vine-striped hills of Le Langhe, where I traveled for a few days last Christmas.
Beyond Milan, Lombardy is one region I don’t know at all. Cremona’s historical piazza pictured here certainly inspires a visit, not to mention the famed Lake Como (but one would need deep pockets for that, or a book advance). Visits to Brecia or Gorgonzona – home of the stinky cheese – sound suddenly appealing though.
In the Veneto, food – like the chichetti of Venetian appetizers – inspire Mayes, but I love that she gets us almost immediately out of Venice to the more hidden islands of the lagoon, to cities like Treviso, Vicenza and Verona (known for its tortelli!), and into the Dolomites that tuck in the Veneto to the North.
The Cinque Terre is one of my favourite places in Italy. The love has come later in life (like my love for Naples, for different reasons). When you can get away from the tourists – like in the low season – the Cinque Terre is pinch-me-beautiful and full of humanity of the best kind. Mayes recommends both the port city of Genova and the coastal villages of Camogli and Noli. My to-visit-list is starting here, and I am thinking that as soon as we’re allowed out, I’m going to need some time off to start hiking the coastal paths from these lesser known spots just outside of the famed “5T”.
Dubbed by Mayes – and by many – to be “food central,” Emilia-Romagna is a region I haven’t had much occasion to visit, other than for a long-ago laurea in Bologna. Personally, I’m not one to eat my way across the country, but two things do inspire me here – the balsamic vinegar, the REAL stuff, and the huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
Mayes rightly waxes poetic about Friuli’s wines, which I fully agree are worth further intensive study. Venica & Venica tops her list of favourite wineries and I’m pleased to have a stash from a recent visit in my cellar too. The art historian me tends to get excited about towns like Udine, but even more so by a photo of the basilica in Aquileia. I’d never heard of it, but now I know: it’s a 4th-century church in its Romanesque cloak, with the largest floor mosaic in the Western world. Add that to my bucket list.
Over we go into the Valle d’Aosta and the more I read the more I think Mayes and I should go to a wine bar together, for she also enjoys Le Crêtes, whose Chardonnay I love, though I had no idea the winery had such modern architecture – thanks to the photo, I have another winery on my list to visit. I am rather jealous of her hotel choices, and thinking that I’d happily follow in her footsteps as she describes a suite with three balconies in a hotel that has been family run since the sixteenth century. An interesting section dedicated to this region’s French influence reminds me that I’ve never actually been here. How did I miss it?
Francis’s (we’re getting on a first name basis now) lowdown on Florence is an excellent mix of modern and the Renaissance – from the Duomo to the new Opera House to the new culinary hotspots like Desinare cooking school and Cibleo, Picchi’s Asian experiment. I guess I feel like Tuscany is too close to home, for the one photo that truly attracts me is the view from her own home, Bramasole just outside Cortona.
For Umbria, the book goes beyond Assisi – which I do appreciate – spotlighting lake Trasimeno (where at least once a year I meet up with friends who reside in Orvieto and in Assisi – it’s something of a halfway point and there’s some good fish restaurants) and dedicating a section to hill towns. Gubbio sure looks spectacular under a blue sky, reminding me of the need to return to the town famous in the Renaissance for its maiolica production. A photo from Mount Sibillini national park is another bucket list item for me – the fioritura or Spring flowering is reputed to be stunning, though I fear this won’t be the year to go there.
Mayes calls Rome a “jumble of sensory treats” and I can’t agree more. Being art-focused, I tend to stick to enjoying that, though the pizza and pasta featured in this section are indeed a treat (one in which I’m currently, sadly, not allowed to partake). I love the book’s review of Rome’s neighbourhoods, including “my” Monti (it was a short stay, but that will always be my area in Rome). Beyond the big city, Mayes spotlights Ponza, an “island escape” in Lazio that I’d not heard of until I was invited on a blog tour there some years back, but sadly, have never managed to go (perhaps its less-than-ideal connections to the mainland are what make it so special).
The opening photo of the section dedicated to Le Marche’s stunning colours of the Conero beach transports me to summertime, with a twinge of regret… The coastal towns are a different Marche from inland, where the largest town is Urbino – a Renaissance heaven so of course one I’ve visited many a time, despite it being terribly inconvenient to reach. A note on the wines is a good reminder of the value for money of the area’s Verdicchio- and Montepulciano- (the grape not the city) based wines.
Abruzzo and Molise
This is uncharted territory for me, and Mayes calls it the “wild heart of Italy.” Known for the warmth of its people and the abundance of its food, these areas appear to have untouched wilderness on offer as well: I was particularly drawn in by photos of the Gran Sasso National Park.
The further I get in this book, the further I get from my home base in Florence and I realize there’s still so much to explore! Campania presents fascinating contrasts – Naples vs. the Amalfi Coast, the blooms of Ravello and the ruins of Pompeii. They’re all captured in full colour here.
This region’s “white towns” have charmed our authors – and me! Gleaming villages and charming trulli (take this from me, don’t stay in a trullo in wintertime – what’s cool in summer is brutally cold in winter) give way to unexpected artistic masterpieces and delicious food (that’s no surprise). I seem to have missed out on the basilica in Otranto when I was last in the area, and have just learned that it has a most impressive 12th-century “Tree of Life” on its floor (what is it with me and mosaic floors?).
Mayes’s experience as a traveler in Italy really shows when she speaks about Matera, the city of caves, and how much it has changed in the past twenty years, from squalor to tourist destination. I admire that she’s had the opportunity – accompanied by an ex-local, a friend now resident in Tuscany – to visit some of the still-poor towns beyond Matera. While the name of the area Maratea is just a few letters off from the better known UNESCO town, this is one gem I have never heard of – another for the bucket list – what the author calls Amalfi coast without the crowds. Yes, please!
Beaches and abundant seafood are what tend to draw tourists to Calabria, and for this reason I haven’t visited (it’s also not that easy to reach, in that I don’t tend to fly to go to the beach), but a photo of the earliest Byzantine church in this region, the Cattolica di Stilo, may convince me. I am starting to think that there are not enough holiday days to cover it all.
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“Italian, but turned over” is how Mayes defines Sicily, and I can’t agree more – this island has charmed me so much. I’m personally partial to Palermo, but she recommends the Baroque town Scicli and of course Taormina. The wine section here reminds me of my desire to visit Etna wineries.
Sardinia is another Italian region that is “all about beaches” and so another that I haven’t visited, though the sparkling waters tempt me, as does its brushy interior.
With a good dozen new discoveries on my to-see list, this book has reminded me that Italy has enough destinations to last a lifetime.
Always Italy – Bonus content!
After this article was published, I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Frances Mayes on The Florentine’s live video series, TF Together! Watch the video:
Boutique Hotel Monteverdi Tuscany (who is cited in the book) has organized special cultural events during the Coronavirus closures, with guest appearances from the likes of Met opera singers and yes, a reading by the authors of Always Italy. Hear the beginning of the book told in Mayes’ own voice in this video.
Dream of Italy, a “newsletter” by Kathy McCabe, who is also the host of the PBS travel series of the same name, has been helping people “dream of Italy” for 17 years now (her newsletter is actually one year older than this blog!). Never more aptly titled, I noticed that she has teamed up to offer USA-based 1-year subscribers a free copy of Always Italy (as well as a cute sunflower pendant from Cortona – home of Frances Mayes). I thought I’d pass on this super offer: you can subscribe here. Below, enjoy the trailer of the episode in which Kathy explores Cortona with Frances – I sure did, as Cortona will always be special to me too, the first place I worked as a professor after I got my PhD!
Where to buy the book
Always Italy was released in the USA just a few weeks ago and can be purchased and sent to your home on Amazon for your armchair-traveling convenience. The link above is a referral link, meaning if you make a purchase, I’ll get a small percentage back at no cost to you!
Book Giveaway (CLOSED)
I want this book to be in your hands as soon as possible so I’ve arranged for the publisher to send one copy to a lucky winner! Head on over to my Instagram (instagram.com/arttrav) where I’m asking you to share where you want to go next in Italy with a friend – comment there for a chance to win! Ends April 30, 2020.
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Book #giveaway! If you ♥️ #Italy it will be “Always Italy” even when you can’t visit. Always Italy is the title of the newly-released, lusciously illustrated armchair-travel companion by @francesemayes with @ocohane and photos by @natgeo. Never has a book been more useful to transport us to desired, far-away destinations, which is why I want you to win a copy! 🄷🄾🅆 🅃🄾 🅆🄸🄽 1/ make sure you follow this account @arttrav 2/ comment: tag a friend and say which region of Italy you’d like to visit with him or her – and why! 3/ enter as many times as you wish (don’t exaggerate😜) *Giveaway ends April 30 2020 at midnight CET Publisher will ship one copy of the book worldwide to a winner chosen at random amongst those who comment on this post. For inspiration: read my review of the book on arttrav.com (click link in profile) 📷 Photo credit: Pietro Canali/SIME/eStock Photo – upon concession of the publisher