Book Review of the Week: Italy: spend less see more

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As a Special Bonus, Frommer's will give a copy of Italy: spend less see more, to a randomly drawn commenter on this article. Post your comments - you might win!

 

Pauline Frommer's Italy: spend less see more

Italy  - seems like a dream country, to live in or to visit. The food! The history! The sights! Yes. To all of the above!  Too often, however, those trips abroad can turn into a money pit. We've all been there. I'm pleased to find a new series by Pauline Frommer, of Frommer's Travel Guides, about spending less and seeing more. It is all about finding the culture, and spending less doing it. I think we all can agree that this is a fantastic venture in the travel guide business.  Our book review of the week is Pauline Frommer's Italy: spend less see more. When I was perusing the book for this article, I got deeper and deeper into it, barely emerging for food.

I was excited to interview Reid Bramblett, one of the authors of the book, for our Wandering Educators.  What we got was so much more than a book review - it is a personal history of travel guide writing, and a commentary on ways to travel today to get to the heart and soul of a culture - without spending a lot of money. 

 

Reid Bramblett is the founder of ReidsGuides.com, a trip-planning site devoted to travel beyond vacations that has won the Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers and has been recommended by CNN, USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, MSNBC.com, and Arthur Frommer. Lucky us!

Here's what Reid had to say...

WE: Please tell us about the book, Pauline Frommer's Italy: spend less see more...

RB: After a decade in the business—writing ten travel guidebooks through 22 collective editions and contributing to more than two-dozen others—I had pretty much moved away from doing guidebooks because they were no longer serving their purpose. Formulaic to the point of idiocy, with the information "nuggetized" so it could be spewed out in various emerging formats (first CD-ROMs, then Websites, e-books, and databases that could easily be licensed to travel sites), guidebooks were also spectacularly failing to keep up with the changing modes of tourism, especially in Europe.

Pauline's decision to jump into the family business has finally changed all that. She is one of those rare editors who actually pays attention to the advice of her writers and then makes decisions based on what's best for her readers.

I had the pleasure of working alongside her at a previous incarnation of the Website for Budget Travel magazine, and we spent our days trying to convince people to forget what they'd learned about travel pre-1995. The era of Eurail passes, traveler's checks, and even hotels is over, and to travel in that manner simply means wasting time and money on shallower, less fulfilling trips.

These days, savvy travelers fly no-frills airlines rather than take the train for long distances, use ATM cards rather than traveler's checks, and stay in alternative lodgings like B&Bs, agriturismi (farm stays), castles, convents, rental apartments, and any of two dozen assorted accommodations. These almost always cost less than your typical bland, if functional, hotel while at the same time usually entail a much more interesting experience. (Long before Pauline's guides came out, I got so frustrated with the lack of coverage in the mainstream travel press of these alternative accommodations that I created a Website--BeyondHotels.net--just to catalog links and resources to help people find out about them.)

When Pauline started her own series, she insisted on including all of these new travel techniques, making hers pretty much the only generalist guidebooks out there that give as much weight to, say, alternative lodgings as to traditional hotels.

The books also emphasize experiences as much as sightseeing, highlighting "The Other [Name of City]" in each town. These are descriptions of all sorts of ways to go beyond tourism and sample the local lifestyle and try your hand at some classic local experiences: cooking classes, soccer clubs, language courses, fashion shows, and more. Taking a gondola ride in Venice is one thing; taking gondola driving lessons is quite another. Seeing the Colosseum is great; training in the gladiator arts for a day with a group of enthusiastic amateurs (the Roman version of Civil War re-enactors) is much more thrilling. You can appreciate all those frescoes on the church walls much more after taking a workshop in fresco painting in the ancient Umbrian hilltown of Gubbio.

You can spend your vacation in the deepest rut of the tried-and-true tourist path and a fabulous time, returning home with great snapshots of all the glorious sights. Or you can get out of those ruts and out of your comfort zone, get insights into the local culture, try something new, and end up having the trip of a lifetime.

WE:  What has been your travel history, especially in Italy?

RB: When I was 11 years old my parents informed me that we would be moving to Italy where my father, a professor of painting and drawing at Temple's Tyler School of Art, would be teaching at the university's Rome campus for two years.

Their promises of glorious European travels and endless pizza and ice cream didn't fool me. I was furious they were making me leave my friends and my school to move to some foreign country where I didn't even speak the language. They told me that Italian would be easy: I already knew "spaghetti" and a few dozen other food terms, plus they were going to enroll me in an all-Italian parochial school just up the street from our apartment.

They woefully overestimated the amount of joy an adolescent would find in the prospect of "full immersion" language study, being thrown in the deep end of the linguistic pool where the only lifeguards were a cadre of Italian nuns—none of whom, I might point out, spoke any English, and some of whom were clinically insane.

That summer, they dragged me to Rome kicking and screaming and making dire predictions about how I would never forgive them…

That was nothing compared to the fight I put up two years later when it came time to move back to the States. (The impending move back marked the first and only time I seriously contemplated running away from home, just so I could stay in Italy.)

The pizza and ice cream (if not so much the nuns) worked their charms, and during those two adolescent years my family did a lot of traveling around Italy and Europe (well, Western Europe, this side of the Iron Curtain). Some of it was by train and staying in hotels, but starting with the first summer, increasingly we traveled by used Volkswagen in a Westfalia--a pop-top hippie-orange campervan--we bought used at a local campground outside Rome.

I returned to Rome for my junior year of college to study on the same program where my father had taught, thus becoming the first child in history actually to save his parents money by studying abroad (my home university was among the country's most expensive but, as a family member of an employee, I got to attend the Temple program tuition-free).

During that year abroad I saw a lot more of Italy--and received my first lesson in how much things can change, even in as seemingly timeless as Italy, which is something editors who believe you can update a guidebook via the Internet and phone calls don't understand--and I made some lasting friends. In fact, one of my fellow students, a pretty young woman from Tampa, is at this moment in the back bedroom putting our infant son down for his nap. So you can see why I feel so fondly toward Italy (and, for that matter, study abroad programs).

After college that young woman from Tampa and I moved to New York where I got a job at the bottommost editorial rung at a guidebook publisher. Within a year I had vaulted over the editorial desk to return to Italy and spend five months researching and writing the company's first regional guide, Frommer's Tuscany & Umbria. (These days I think they've shoehorned "Florence" into the title, and at any rate someone else is updating it--though, oddly, many of the anecdotes from my childhood in Italy are still in there.)

For the decade in which I wrote guidebooks full time, I'd spend four to six months a year over there, usually spread over two or three trips. I'm still lucky enough to get over to Italy almost every year. As a Contributing Editor at Budget Travel magazine, for the past five years running I have had the honor of writing about Italy as the cover story for their big summer double issue--articles on Apulia or Sicily, or the secret hotels of Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast. This past summer it was a profile on the new phenomenon of alberghi diffusi (a "diffuse hotel" with guest rooms scattered around the houses of a small village), with a second, follow-up article in the current issue (September 2008) on tiny medieval villages that have been transformed entirely into hotels.

In fact, I recently returned from the research trip for next summer's issue, which will be on those alternative accommodations I mentioned before. I got to stay on a working farm near Verona, a campground in Venice, a monastery in Tuscany, a residence hotel in Florence, a convent in Rome, and a B&B in Ferrara. It was the first time I'd actually stayed in a monastery, though I'd been wiring about it as an offbeat lodging option for years, and I delighted in the experience. (One piece of advice, though: attending the various services and calls to hours with the monks is an interesting cultural experience, but you should know that, to the layman at last, "Lauds" appears to be identical to "Vespers," only you have to wake up before 6am to do it. Next time, I'll sleep in and let the good monks pray for my lazy soul.)

I've been returning to Italy for nearly a quarter century, and collectively spent approximately six years of my life there so far, yet on every trip I discover amazing new places and have fantastic new experiences. A lifetime simply won't be long enough.

WE:  What are some of the best aspects of writing a travel guide?

RB: You know every museum and historic monument you've ever dreamed of seeing, every ancient ruin and art-stuffed cathedral you have listed on your mental itinerary for that trip to Italy? Well, I get to go to every single last one of them. It's my job.

On the other hand I have to go to every single last one of them. It's my job. If, on a typical European tour, after about 20 churches it all starts becoming one big blur of altarpieces and flying buttresses, try to imagine visiting 200 of them--and then be expected to write about each cogently and engagingly.

That's not to say it is an interesting job. (If it weren't, we wouldn’t do it. We certainly don't do it for the long hours, abysmal pay, and interminable stretches away from our homes and families.)

Researching a travel guide, you get to know a destination, in some respects, even better than the people who live there. Sure, the locals will always have a deeper knowledge and understanding of their home turf (not to mention fantastic recommendations you'll never find in a guidebook; always listen to the locals), but the travel writer gets the chance to explore at least the basics of every aspect of a place and its culture. How many people have been to every museum, sight, and monument of their hometown, or read up on its full history, or checked out all the hotels and dined out every night for a month in a different restaurant to get a true sense of the current local dining scene? Well, that's a travel writer's job: to amass enough information to be able to present a full picture of a destination.

You also get to explore nearly every nook and cranny of a destination. Italy is divided into 20 regions (Tuscany, Sicily, etc.), which are further subdivided into 110 provinces. I've been to 102 of them (missing: the eight provinces of Sardegna). That’s far more than most Italians ever manage.

When I was writing a guidebook consisting of a dozen self-guided walking tours in New York City (where I was living at the time), it gave me the perfect excuse--the mandate, really--to go out and explore my own town. I discovered things about the Big Apple I never would have learned otherwise, from getting my fortune told at a Buddhist temple in Chinatown (after sampling dumplings amid a swirl of Cantonese at half a dozen dim sum palaces) to taking a old-school schvitz in the historic Russian-Turkish Baths on 10th Street to being schooled in the finer points of soul food at a hole-in-the-wall in Harlem.

I also got to do all the touristy stuff New Yorkers normally disdain or, at best, ignore--to their great loss. I mean, who wouldn't welcome the chance to tour Radio City Music Hall and meet a Rockette (like clowns, they're fun to watch from afar, but a bit scary up close), clamber up into the crown of the Statue of Liberty (back when they still let you do that), tour a preserved tenement on the Lower East Side, and sip a Bloody Mary in the bar where they invented the thing (the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel)?

You know, after September 11, 2001, my partner mentioned that, though we'd lived in New York and she'd been past the World Trade Center countless times, she had never actually been inside the Twin Towers. Thanks to my job, three times in the prior five years I'd dined with the vertiginous view from Windows on the World in the North Tower, and on rooftop observation deck atop the South Tower felt the wind whip my face at 1,377 feet, surrounded by a 360 degree view of my city.

 

 

WE:  How do you narrow down all the wonderful things to see, do, and eat,
into one (still large) travel guide book?

RB: I sometimes describe my job as being a professional tourist. This uber-tourist has to visit every single sight, museum, church, and monument in town, eat in all the noted restaurants (as well as all the hot new spots), spend a night or two in each of the most talked about hotels, and follow the locals to the best bargain shopping and trendiest nightlife scene.

Oh, and he must take notes. Copious notes. And he must do it in secret so that no hotelier or restaurant owner catches on that the uber-tourist is actually a professional critic in disguise, there to evaluate, compare, and pass judgment on their business (and, if they're lucky, a good write-up in the book). I need to know how well a typical tourist off the street is going to be treated and what kind of service/meal a given hotel or restaurant will provide--not how well they can (metaphorically) sing and dance to impress a visiting critic.

In terms of the listings in a guidebook--the sights, restaurants, hotels, shops, bars and nightlife, performance venues--I visit and evaluate probably about twice as many properties as end up in the book (in the case of hotels, about three times as many). Then I take all my notes and impressions and try to create a good balance consisting of the best examples to suit every taste and budget. Some people want chic boutique inns, others a charmingly ramshackle place that may lack amenities but where they feel like part of the family. Some want home cooking like grandma used to make, others want elaborate, refined cuisine and bow-tied waiters. It's not my job to tell them which to enjoy; it's my job to help them find the best purveyors of each.

I try to be tough but fair to every place, always keeping in mind my bosses: the readers who are going to make their travel decisions--and spend their hard-earned vacation budgets--based, at least in part, on my advice. So I try to point out the pros and cons, the good and the bad, of every establishment--and I try to steer clear of brochure-speak, that fluffy, cliche-ridden writing that gushes enthusiasm but never tempers the over-wrought praise with a non-nonsense check on the practicalities. No place is perfect, but there are plenty that are wonderful each in their own ways despite their flaws.

Sure, I'm harder on the fancy places than I am on the mom-and-pop joints, but that’s only because they're trying harder to impress and charging you exorbitant fees for the privilege of patronizing their establishments. I'm probably not going to even bother mentioning a cigarette burn on the hall carpet in a cheap, friendly, central, and otherwise clean little one-star hotel--but I'm going to (and have) pounced on such a failing if there's a charred hole on the threadbare hall runners of a supposedly five-star luxury hotel. At $750 a night for a double room, they can afford new carpets.

Not that those sorts of hotels have a real place in the new Pauline Frommer's guides. Most guidebooks seemed aimed squarely at the wealthy, which only perpetuates the myth that, in order to indulge in international travel, you have to be either stinking rich or willing to stay in hovels and hostels with the backpackers. Neither is the case, and the Pauline Frommer's guides are designed with the vast majority of travelers in mind: middle class travelers who might need to keep an eye on that budget but still want to enjoy life.

These books are perfect for just such an audience--and go beyond merely saving money (plenty of books help you do that) to show you how to have a far better, richer, and more rewarding trip not in spite of spending less but because of it.

WE:  What are your favorite spots in Italy? Any places that you return to repeatedly?

RB: Oh, boy. That's like asking someone to pick a favorite child. I do, however, find that I particularly enjoy the less-trammeled and less famous corners of Italy.

There's Apulia (the stiletto heel of Italy's boot-like profile), with its rich foods and wines and idiosyncractic ancient cultures than range from the cave-city of Matera (technically just across the border in the Basilicata region) to the whitewashed cylindrical houses with pointy gray stone roofs called trulli in Alberobello and the Valle d'Itria.

In the Alto-Adige region north of Trent, hard against Austrian border, everyone speaks Tirolesische (a medieval German dialect) and they have festivals on the high Alpine plains consisting of tournaments waged between neighboring villages of horseback prowess that seem straight out of the Middle Ages.

Then there is the Friuli, north of Venice, where they produce fruity white Tocai wines in the foothills of the Slovenian Alps; the Valle d'Aosta, with its frescoed castles and rib-sticking cuisine tucked under the looming shadows of Monte Cervino (called The Matterhorn on the Swiss side) and Monte Bianco (The French call is Mont Blanc); the hinterlands of Sicily where the churches are converted Greek temples and ancient myths still pervade modern life; and the mountains of Abruzzo and Le Marche, where witches dwell in the caves, potters still create hand-painted ceramics in the medieval styles, and castles crumble Romantically off craggy peaks.

 

 

 WE:  It is eye-opening to see how inexpensively one can get around in Italy, through reading your book. Was it difficult to find these inexpensive places, or do they abound and no one writes about them?

RB: Mostly the latter. Almost nobody writes about them (or, at best, they are covered in a catchall section in the chapter at the beginning or end of the book that deals with general information about traveling to that country), and therefore few tourists even know these options are available.

They are, admittedly, a wee bit more difficult to find if only because the vast tourism machine--from guidebooks to Websites to the local tourist office brochures--is so geared to promoting the traditional travel styles, putting much more emphasis on hotels and major sights rather than, say, rental rooms and tours of Turin's industrial sector (fascinating, by the way). It's not that the intel isn't out there; you just sometimes have to know to ask for it. The Pauline Frommer's guides are unique in that they tell you how to do so.

The single greatest resource in travel is the local tourism office. They'll have endless lists of university dorms where can stay in summer, local hiking clubs that welcome strangers on their outings, nuns who will serve you a full, home-cooked meal in the refectory for $10, and specialty tours and lessons all across town. Increasingly, they post it all on their Websites; if not, at least they'll have printed information in the little office by the train station or on the main piazza once you get to town.

Another nice thing about alternative accommodations: they rarely book up far in advance, as happens with most of the best inexpensive family-run hotels in town (of which there are so few, and they're in all the guidebooks, so you've got a lot of competition for those rooms). You can usually just roll into town and find a local B&B, farmstay, or convent with room for the night.

Even if you arrive in the evening and the tourist office is already closed, you can just pop into a bar, ask to borrow the pagine gialle (yellow pages of the phone book), flip to affittacamere (rental rooms) and just start calling around. By the second or third call, I usually have a room for the night--often quite basic, but at one-third the cost of the hotels in town, and sometimes with fantastic views over the boats bobbing in the harbor or onto the carved balconies of a baroque palazzo (as with all of the random examples I've been giving, yes, I'm thinking of actual experiences I've had).

 

 

 

WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

RB:  Only this: The more money you spend, the more you suffer a vacation larded with luxuries rather than loaded with experiences. Padding your trip with excess dollars only serves to help insulate you from the cultures around you. To travel on a budget is to travel richly indeed.

Sure, five star hotels can be wonderful indulgences--the luxuriant spas, the expertly prepared fusion cuisine, the solicitous concierges, the soft pillows piled like clouds on the king-sized beds--but frankly I'd rather stay in a rented room in the apartment of a local radio producer in Rome, or shack up in a rustic farmhouse bedroom in Piemonte and spend my evenings on the terrace with the owner, sharing a bottle of his own wine, gazing over the moonlit vines, hearing tales of the agricultural life in Italy.

Besides, I can spend up to a week living like that for what it would cost to spend a single night in a five-star luxury hotel. Rather than blow my year's $4,500 travel budget on a week or two of luxuries, I'd prefer to spend $1,500 each on two weeks in Thailand, five days in Buenos Aires, and another week back in Italy, where after 25 years I continue to find new parts of it to love. After all, I still haven't been to Sardegna…

WE: Thanks so much, Reid. I want to travel with you! This explains why this new book, Pauline Frommer's Italy: spend less see more is so enticing to me.

Thanks for sharing your insights into the travel writing business, and your experiences with Italy and this book! If you'd like to learn more about Reid and his extensive website (you can get caught up in it for hours, discovering new things about travel), please see: ReidsGuides.com

 

Interested in purchasing Pauline Frommer's Italy: spend less see more? 

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Comments (6)

  • carolstigger

    11 years 2 weeks ago

    And, the best part of budget travel is making the most of the free activities, which I am sure the author has covered. One of my favorites is sitting in the rose-scented courtyard of St. Cecelia's in Rome watching the birds and nuns go by. If I hear music, I go inside the church to hear the nuns sing the hours.

     

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    11 years 2 weeks ago

    Carol - I'll add that to our list, for when we go next. Thanks!

     

    Jessie Voigts

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

  • monacake

    11 years 2 weeks ago

    what a wonderful interview! if this book is as engaging, funny, and full of information as reid is, it is a must have. as someone who has only been to italy once, and who has three italian grandprents, reading this makes me ache to go back. thanks to you both!

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    11 years 2 weeks ago

    Mona - once you read this book, you'll be booking your plane tix. he's that good, at sharing the unique parts of Italy that we all want to see. 

     

    Jessie Voigts

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

  • rfrisbie

    11 years 2 weeks ago

    Never heard of "diffuse hotels" before, but I love the idea. And I especially like the involvement in the community and culture of a travel destination. The concept of this series is one real travelers will get a lot out of.

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    11 years 1 week ago

    Congrats to Richard, Mona, and Carol - Frommer's sent us three copies of Pauline Frommer's Italy: spend less see more. 

     

    Thank you, Frommer's! 

     

     

     

    Jessie Voigts

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

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