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


This month, we’re teaming up with another group of Italy bloggers who also write on a monthly theme.

We’re joining forces with the COSÌ group, which stands for Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy, to write about the topic of AUTHENTICITY.

Not only do you get to read the thoughts of the usual bunch of Italy Roundtable bloggers, you get to hear from a whole new crop of expats in Italy. Enjoy!

There are words and phrases that get overused in any profession. In the world of travel writing, there are plenty – I know one editor who won’t tolerate the word “nestled” when describing any village, and who automatically deletes email with the word “staycation” in the subject line. One word that is not only overused to the point of not meaning anything anymore but also potentially troublesome even when people try to use it in good faith is “authenticity.”

Every travel magazine is touting the secret to finding “authentic” (fill in the blank with whatever city or country name you like). Every traveler wants to get “off the beaten path” to find the “real” place.

But, tell me, what’s this supposedly elusive “authentic” place you seek, and how is it different from the place you’re trying so hard to avoid?

“Authentic” Italy

Posing for that iconic photograph || creative commons photo by Karl Reif

Posing for that iconic photograph || creative commons photo by Karl Reif

Despite the proliferation of Italy travel information extolling the virtues of travel throughout the country, most people still go to Venice, Florence, and Rome on their first visit. They may include a few other stops along the way, but those three – I call them the “Holy Trinity” of Italy travel – are nearly always on the menu.

And of course it makes sense that they should be. Tourist attractions are, after all, touristy for a reason.

Venice, Florence, and Rome are popular year-round, busy with tourist crowds, and have learned to cater to tourist whims. They’re not alone. Pisa is the perfect example of a tourist destination giving the visitor precisely what he wants – an easy route from the train station to the one attraction the vast majority want to see, plenty of places to buy knickknacks around said attraction, and an easy way back to the train station in order to move on to the next city.

One side effect of all of this is that these places are deemed “less authentic” by holier-than-thou travelers who think tourist throngs must equal tourist trap. Those folks rile me nearly as much as the ones who claim the words “tourist” and “traveler” don’t mean the same thing. (Don’t even get me started on that one.)

Pisa is authentic Italy – both the part of the city swarming with tourists around the Leaning Tower and the part of the city ignored by tourists and busy with students at the historic university. You may prefer one over the other – or you may prefer a different city altogether – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But to declare one part as “authentic” and another as “not authentic” just because you like one better?

That’s balderdash.

Let’s Get Technical

Italy souvenirs || creative commons photo by Giorgio Galeotti

Italy souvenirs || creative commons photo by Giorgio Galeotti

I am fond of the dictionary and thesaurus, so in brainstorming for this article I looked up “authenticity” on Some of the words and phrases associated with “authenticity” are:

  • accuracy
  • actuality
  • existence
  • genuineness
  • real world
  • tangibility

There is no denying the existence or tangibility of that ring of souvenir stands around the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They are genuinely trying to make a living, tempting tourists with reminders of their real world experience at this world-famous attraction. And those tourists are actually trying to capture the accuracy of the moment with their staged photographs of themselves propping up the tower.

Maybe Pisa doesn’t appeal to you. Maybe you’ve been and you didn’t really love it. That? That is completely fine. If all of us wanted to visit the exact same places, those places would always be overcrowded (and, probably, destroyed) while the rest of the world never got any visitors. To call the places you don’t like “inauthentic” is, however, just factually inaccurate.

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

Watch Me

Authentically at the Leaning Tower of Pisa || creative commons photo by Lindy

Authentically at the Leaning Tower of Pisa || creative commons photo by Lindy

In September last year, I got on my soapbox a bit and scolded people who routinely use the “you haven’t seen Italy unless you’ve been to…” line:

If you get any guff from anyone – and I mean anyone, including me – about your itinerary, I hereby give you permission to reply thusly:

You say I can’t really see Italy if I don’t go to a certain city? Oh yeah?

Watch me.

The same goes for calling part of Italy “inauthentic.” If anyone belittles your itinerary, for a trip you’ve already taken or one you’re dreaming of, by telling you that’s not really “authentic” Italy, here’s your reply:

Oh, that’s funny, because I had to get an authentic Italian passport stamp to go there.

I like saying that I want you to own your itinerary, to craft it exactly the way you want it to be and then go forth proudly with it. Part of that, unfortunately, is being armed against the travelers who think they know better than you do. To them, I say phooey. They know better for their trips, but that doesn’t give them the right to be haughty about yours.

So, embrace your trip, no matter what’s on your must-see list, and come back with your own opinions about Italy. When someone asks for your advice for their trip, offer it gladly – opinions and all – and then congratulate them when they form their own itinerary, whether it’s the same one you’d have taken or not, because then they’ll have their own authentic experience.

That’s the kind of authentic Italy I can get behind.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

This month you have loads of reading to do, between the Italy Roundtable blogs and the blogs of the COSÌ gang. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

cosi_logoCOSÌ bloggers:

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Have you LIKED us on Facebook? Are you following us on Twitter? Please drop by and say hello, we’re quite friendly. And we’re always taking suggestions on future topics for the Italy Blogging Roundtable! Drop us a note on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment on one of our posts.


20 responses to “Italy Roundtable: Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?”

  1. Gloria says:

    I was surprised to read your post as I didn’t expect to find Pisa in there! I am not from Pisa, but I have lived here for 20 years so it’s my second home. What you say is totally true. Some people believe that Pisa is the leaning Tower. They come, they get off the train, get on the LAM Rossa bus, get off the bus by the stalls selling souvenirs, walk to the Tower, take their picture, and go back to the bus stop and off to the train station they are. They say they have been to Pisa, and that’s true. They say Pisa is not that interesting, it’s a theme park. And that’s false. They have been to Pisa, but they have certainly not seen Pisa. The leaning Tower is the most famous landmark in the city, but it is certainly not representative of it. To see Pisa for real, you need to venture off Campo dei Miracoli, where people work, study, live. And one soon finds out that outside that small area of the city, Pisa is a completely different reality, well worth experiencing. Not just a tourist trap, but an “authentically Italian” city. Whatever that means.

  2. So it WASN’T just the way my husband and I saw it! Ha! (Yes.)

  3. Rick says:

    It’s so true…I get emails all the time asking for my “off-the-beaten-path” suggestions to find authentic Italy. After all my years of living in Italy, my favorite site is still the Pantheon, which I saw during my first trip 15 years ago. Off-the-beaten-path? No. Authentic? Doesn’t get any more authentic, even when surrounded by souvenir salesman and tourists with selfie sticks.

    • Jessica says:

      YES. I love the Pantheon. Also? I freaking adore Venice. It doesn’t matter that every guidebook on the planet will tell you to go to Venice, or that it’s nowhere close to “undiscovered,” or that it’s busy with tourists every day of every year. It’s glorious.

  4. georgette says:

    Jessica, wonderful post! I am so happy we did this blogger collaboration because now I have completely procrastinated from work to read a bunch of your posts :). I like Rick, get a lot of those same ‘hidden finds’ email questions from those looking for the ‘authentic’ Florence yet my advice is almost always the same. There is a reason that people line up to see David’s Bum or the Primavera at the Uffizi, they are marvelous works of art that no-one visiting Florence should ever miss. I think people should ignore the chime of people telling them what THEY should do and just go with their gut. Cappuccino after 11am? That’s fine too 🙂

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks, Georgette! I’m glad we did this collaboration, too. I now have a bunch of new blogs to follow. 🙂

      From my perspective, it always makes sense to learn about the customs of a new culture. There’s a reason Italians think it’s nuts to drink a cappuccino after 11am. We may think their reason is crazy, but I think it’s helpful to know the “why” behind some of the things we tell travelers to do or not do – and then they can make their own (more educated) decisions about whether they want to abide by the customs or not!

  5. For me the most “authentic” place in Rome is the Borghese Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. Tourists are clustered around the entrance of the Villa Borghese Gallery, of course, but then there is a vast expanse of walking paths and hidden mini gardens where local folks kick back and cool off next to fountains. Old men playing bocci ball, choral groups practicing in the open air, dog walkers, uniformed boy scouts, couples walking hand-in-hand, sisters, mothers and daughters arm-in-arm; families driving around on rented pedal cars.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the comment, Roy! That’s part of my point – the tourists are part of what makes that an authentic scene (to me, anyway). “Authentic” doesn’t mean tourist-free in my book, especially in a country so touristy as Italy.

      That is a lovely scene you’ve described, by the way. Kind of makes me want to be there this Sunday afternoon, in fact. 🙂

  6. Yes to all of this! The ‘but that’s not the *real* Italy’ guff really annoys me. Everyone has a different reality, and so long as you’re happy with yours and don’t try to knock mine, that’s fine by me. Suggestions of places to see? Great. Bring ’em on! Denigration of my experiences because you don’t deem them ‘authentic’ enough? Not cool. Not cool at all.

  7. Jo says:

    I agree with everything you say! I lived in Milan, which is the quintessential ‘inauthentic Italy’ but in a slightly different way. Apparently because it’s “not pretty” and a big city with the associated bustle and less time for coffee breaks and gossiping in a piazza, it’s “not really Italian”.

    To be honest, the idea of there being a definition of ‘authentic Italy’ is a joke anyway. When I lived in a tiny village in Le Marche, my neighbours didn’t think they had much in common with the “city folk” an hour away (from Urbino, population 15k, not exactly a metropolis!) nevermind people in other regions!

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jo! And it’s very well put. To me, it’s the diversity of the different types of Italian cities, towns, villages, etc. that make Italy ITALY. If it were all medieval hilltop towns or cities with ancient cities underneath it would be a pretty one-note country, wouldn’t it? 🙂

  8. longbowman says:

    Seems to be a bit of a chip on the shoulder, understandably, but humour me if you can muster the patience: “Don’t get me started…people who say tourist and traveller don’t mean the same thing”

    Is this simply a semantic discrepancy that disregards what people mean by those things, coming from hearing a phrase that’s turned cliche from repetition, or is there something else to it?

    I’m happy to be wrong, but despite the similarity in basic definition, I use the terms differently.

    I like meeting what I call “travellers” in my home country. They’re the people who come to form experiences and memories, to learn about the cities and countries they visit, to meet people and let it change them in some way. They can be extroverted or introverted — it all comes out differently. They’re respectful, understanding this is not their home and they adapt to culture.

    “Tourists”, as I’ve heard the term used, have variations, but generally do all or most of the following:
    -“Photo-rape” everything they see (objectifying everything and not caring to actually see or experience it, but either being concerned about cataloguing and seeing things only through their iPhone screen or posing in front of things for selfies). I saw a woman rapid firing terrible smartphone pictures out the Bernina Express window through Swiyzerland and immediately look at them on her computer, she didn’t look at the scenery at all. No exaggeration.
    -Utter disregard for social customs, and no apparent desire to learn about them
    -Disrespectful to the environment around them, possibly including people
    -Objectifying people and their surroundings as something “other than”
    -Thinking gimmicks or tourist traps are cultural mainstays

    Common thread: disrespect, selfish cluelessness, closed-minded ignorance. Basically, people don’t like having you around for other than your money.


    • longbowman says:

      I.e. by tourist traps I mean people selling fake Prada bags for a ‘special price’, thinking that everyone listens to “Con Te Partiro” all the time because buskers frequently play this song, etc.

    • Jessica says:

      Nope, to me, those are the same thing. There are considerate tourists & inconsiderate ones, but if you don’t live in the place, you’re a tourist. Full stop. 🙂

  9. Thomas Cappiello says:

    I’m with you longbowman. The Rick Steve’s and travel bloggers of the world don’t write about the tourists (hords of) enough though. Maybe they are afraid of offending people, the very people whom make their living. Maybe to some, like Jessica above there, they are just part of the travel environment just like everone else, there’s good ones and bad ones. IF you don’t like tourists, maybe stay home. But for me, the occasional traveler, middle-aged, and first time to Italy, as an Italy-American, I was utterly shocked by the tourists in Florence. On my first day I began think wow, what did I do? Mistake? Next stop India? Art, Architecture, and medieval monuments were not my only reason for travelling to Italy, but were high on the list. I wanted to see and experience the life. I do not see the life standing in front of David. I see the history, the human achievement, the humanity, and a lot of god-damn tourists with selfie-sticks. The life part I missed mostly, but got some glimpses perhaps at Chestnut Festival in Marradi (full of Italian ‘tourists’ but not groups of foreigners standing in front of every statue, church or cobble street with an iPhone), great food; fun for all. Sitting at a park after school watching the kids play, and the moms or dads nearby catching up on the local gossip. That was the Italy I sought, culture, attitude, life. Found bits of it. But not enough really, maybe I was too much tourist, and not enough traveler. I learned things though, yes, felt all my hardwork planning, learning the trains, it all came together so nicely without really any hitches (forgot to cancel hotel reservation and lost some money, worse thing that happened really). But I cam home with an emptiness, and feeling like I didn’t do it right. Not about the church or museum we didn’t see, saw all things listed in Rick Steve’s must see list, but still just felt like something, was missing. Or maybe that’s just my sub-concious saying ‘go back, there’s more!’.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the input, Thomas! Again, I think there are good & bad versions of tourists from all cultures, & there are also places that resonate with each of us more than others. If we all traveled the same way, some places would be even more inundated while others were ignored. And, really, wouldn’t life be boring? 🙂

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