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Travel experts and authors Pauline Frommer and Reid Bramblett chat with David Lytle about traveling to Italy and reveal the best ways to get into the thick of authentic Italian life. Pauline and Reid offer advice about how to avoid tourist traps and when to save -- and when to spend -- on the most popular attractions. They also share their tips for finding alternative accommodations such as house rentals, camping and one-of-a-kind stays in castles, barns and prehistoric homes. Join us and discover how you can live la dolce vita and watch the carnival of Italian life go by.

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See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Places to Visit: Tuscany, Piedmon in Turin, Puglia in Southern Italy, Umbria, Assisi, Sicily
  • Affordable Accommodation: Rent apartments in a historic center of Venice
  • Museums: Galleria Borghese in Rome, The Uffizi in Florence

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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David Lytle: Hi, this is David Lytle. Welcome to the Frommer's Travel Guides podcast. Today, we're talking with Pauline Frommer again, this time about the Pauline Frommer's Italy guide. And we also have with us Reid Bramblett, who is a co-author of the guide and is a regular contributor to many of our guides on Italy. Welcome Reid. Welcome Pauline.
Pauline Frommer: Thank you.
Reid Bramblett: Thank you, David.
David: So, we've got part of your new series, Pauline Frommer's guides. We have a nice, big guide to Italy. Reid, you actually spent a good deal of your childhood in Italy, so that alone, I think, would make you an expert on the country.
Reid: At least on Rome. I lived there as a child for a few years and I studied there in college.
David: Italy's consistently ranked as one of the world's favorite travel destinations, especially for Americans. Generally, just why do you think this is the case?
Reid: I'd say one reason for sure is that Italy has got most of the things people want to go to see when they go to Europe. According to UNESCO, Italy is home to 40% of the art in the entire world. That alone is spectacular. Then there's the wine -- the Chianti and the Brunello -- the amazing food, the people are ridiculously friendly, and the countryside is straight out of the Renaissance paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. The low-slung hills striped with vines, and crowned with the medieval hill towns and castles where we can live that laid-back Italian lifestyle that we all wish we could do at home -- you know, "La Dolce Vita" where rather than living to work, you work to live and live to eat.
Pauline: Yeah I'd agree. And also you have to add the glamour factor -- Italy is just a sight more glamorous than say Germany, or England. Where you have not as many castles or great architectural sites -- but nearly as many -- but the people may be a little pudgier, a little pastier, not quite so effusive and warm and gracious and outgoing as the Italians.

I think beyond the great art and architecture and stupendous food of Italy, really the big lure there is just getting to hang out with the Italians because they're such incredibly great people.

David: Exactly. That was well put. The heat of the land, the flavor of the food, the passion of the people -- that's a nice encapsulation.

It's not really a huge country overall if you look at geography -- but there's such strong individual flavors to different regions. It's probably an unfair question to ask, but do you have a favorite region?

Reid: Well it's hard to say Rome because I have a personal connection with it, but I love Rome. It has that layer cake of history there, where you can go from pre-Roman ruins in a basement somewhere, upstairs to Roman ruins, upstairs to a renascence palazzo, and next door is a modern building. It's just chaos and beauty all mixed together.

Tuscany is great; it's a little crowded. I kind of enjoyed Piedmont in the northwest part of the country where Turin is, where the Olympics happened last year, because that sort of has a lot of attractions as Tuscany does, the great wines, the little hill towns, but its not really as well known. I kind of dig that. I really like Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot in southern Italy. It has rustic cuisines and extremely friendly people.

Pauline: I don't know if I could pick one. I mean Italy, yes each region is different, but they all have such charms. They overwhelm almost any other place in the world.

I'm also a big fan of Umbria, which is right next to Tuscany. Slightly less well-known, although sites like Assisi are going to be jammed with tourists. But you can go out into the hills there and rent a house for a fairly reasonable amount and live "la dolce vita" right there on the land. Looks just like Tuscany; slightly, slightly less expensive and less crowded.

Pauline: Very slightly.
David: Maybe that's one of the reasons why it is so popular, is that people can return again and again and never really visit the same place twice, and have a completely different travel experience.
Reid: I've been returning since I was ten, and I think I've spent a total of about nine or ten years of my life in Italy, and I haven't come close to seeing.... Every time I go, I discover something new, some aspect of the culture. It's just fascinating.
David: What have you discovered recently that was new to you, that was surprising?
Reid: Well, I've been getting into Sicily a lot more lately. I was there last summer and I'm going there next week again. Sicily is a very syncretic Mediterranean culture its only been part of Italy since the 1870s. It has been variously part of Greater Greece in the ancient world, Phoenicia, later it was part of the Arab Empire, and it was under the control of the Norman Kings, the same ones who conquered England, and the Bourbons from France and the Angevins from Spain, so it has this incredible culture that mixes all of these very European and North African cultures together. And you can have everything from blonde hair, blue-eyed Sicilians with Norman names. You can get great couscous in the town of Mazara del Vallo because it's full of Tunisian fisherman and it's just a fantastic, wild culture.
David: Wow, that actually does sound fantastic. As you said earlier, Pauline, you can go to Umbria and can rent a house and get out of the tourist trap, where you're not staying in a hotel in a central square where it's crowded with other tourists. It's something that you bring up a lot, and all of the authors of your guides bring up a lot, are alternative accommodations. Italy's full of them, and there are a lot of different styles of accommodations, even. I was hoping we could talk about that today.
Pauline: Oh, absolutely. That's a major focus of the Pauline Frommer guides. When you do these alternative accommodations, you get out of the tourist enclaves and you stay in real tourist neighborhoods. I'll never forget a couple of years ago, staying in an apartment in Rome. I spent every day, maybe an hour a day, just sitting with my head on my fist, looking out the window -- and thus I was mirroring all of the other old women who were doing the same, shouting down to the street and talking to people.

And just the life of the street, watching the teenaged boys go past arm in arm. It was the time of a soccer championship, so people were walking around with flags and shouting to one another. The activity of the market, these are the little things that you are a little bit removed from when you stay at some hotels. So by renting an apartment or staying in a B&B suddenly you are in the thick of Italian life. I know this is something that is near and dear to Reid's heart. What would you say Reid?

Reid: That is absolutely true, and I have had similar experiences. I was staying at an apartment in Venice last fall and it was wonderful just to go out and go to the same little bread and pasta shops, the same cheese shops, go to the floating boat with the fruits and vegetables on it and go to the Rialto fish market in the morning to bargain over the catch of the day. And I got to know the local shop keepers, they got to recognize me and they were happy to see some foreign tourist making a life even for just a week in Venice.

It just made it that much more thrilling an experience. Venice is a place where it is very easy to feel like you are sort of in Disney Land Italy, because it is so crowded with people. And they're all sort of in that same tourist track, trotting from one sight to the next. And if you get off it, you can have a wonderful experience.

A family of four can stay in a historic center of Venice, in an apartment for $24 a person per night. That's cheaper than the hostel. I just finished an article on it, and I was surprised to find these sorts of things -- Fresco, Runes, opening onto the Grand Canal. I mean, it's absolutely stupendous. But that's just one.

I mean, there are -- I think at last count -- there are about two dozen ways to stay in Europe and in Italy beyond your standard hotel, and almost all of them are cheaper. And certainly all of them offer a different experience, often I would hazard a better one.

I would have to create a whole website just to mention them all. I'd call it BeyondHotels.net, because there's no way to get into the details when you start talking about residence hotels, where you can stay for a week. Or rental rooms where it's in the back of someone's apartment or in their villa, and you have your own key to get in and out, and it can cost as little as $15 or $20 a person.

In a country where a basic one- or two-star hotel is going to cost you between $90-$120 for a double room, when you can find a Bed and Breakfast which is by law only six beds, which is three rooms or fewer, and they serve you breakfast and you're usually in the family's home, and you're only paying $50-$60 a night for that kind of privilege, it's phenomenal.

Or when you're out in the countryside, staying in the famous agriturismi, the agri-tourism farm stays, where you're on a working farm. Again, by law, these have to be working farms that also happen to rent out some of the unused space, or some of the outbuildings have been converted into sort of mini-rustic hotels. And you can go out with the family and pick grapes, and you can enjoy the wine at night on the veranda, chatting with the family. It's fantastic.

Pauline: Or when you stay in a monastery or a convent. When else will you have a chance to have a peek behind the walls and see what life is like in those places. Yes, the rooms will be, please excuse the phrase monastic they are not going to be at all luxurious they are going to be very simple. But you might be having breakfast with a squadron of lovely nuns or monks, but you will get behind those walls and see what life is like, and you will pay hostile like rates to do so.
Reid: The convents are especially in Rome, and in Assisi they have this convent housing for all of the pilgrims in who come to pay homage to St. Peters and St. Francis Basilica but there are also plenty of aficionados of the art and the culture who want to visit these places. They are welcome to stay in the convents and it cost 20 to 40 dollars, maybe another 10 dollars for a meal. There are a lot of monasteries out in the countryside in Tuscany, Umbria, and in Piedmonte where you can stay for free with the monks. They take as part of their vows they have poverty, they chastity, and they have hospitality.
David: That is fantastic, basic question, how does somebody contact a monastery? How do they contact a convent to make a reservation? Or is it luck of the draw that they happen to have space when you show up?
Reid: You can reserve convents in advance, for the most part. Monasteries and convents are sort of a slippery slope, defining which is which. A lot of people think a convent is nuns, and a monastery is monks, but it really has to do with how the community is set up.

A monastery -- everyone stays in their own cell. And a convent, they have a communal -- that's what it's called -- they have a communal life together. But convents -- for the most part, you can book ahead of time. There aren't very many centralized booking services. They don't show up on Hotels.com or something like that.

You have to get a guidebook; like, Pauline Frommer's guide does mention some convents and things like that. There are a few specialized books out there, like "Bed and Blessings Italy," I believe. I've got a lot of resources on my website, because there's not one place you can go -- you've got to look at twenty at once. So, it's hard to mention them all at the same time.

David: Right. Now, are these on your website BeyondHotels.net, or is it on your regular website, Reid's Guides?
Reid: It's on both. BeyondHotels.net is a separate site connected to ReidsGuides.com that deals with all of these alternatives to standard hotels -- from castles to camping.
David: Right, and I think it's important for listeners to know that Reid is your first name, and it's spelled R-E-I-D-S...
Reid: Right.
David: G-U-I-D-E-S dot com.
Reid: Correct.
David: So we have agriturismo, where people can stay on a farm; you can rent apartments in major tourist cities -- which I've done in Rome as well, and found it to be a fantastic experience. Convents, monasteries... what other options are there in Italy?
Pauline: Well, in the region of Puglia, you can stay in a Trulli house, which looks sort of like a conical mole hill. How would you describe it Reid? Is that fair?

[laughter]

Reid: A bit, yes.
Pauline: It's an odd-looking accommodation.
Reid: They're little whitewashed cylinders with pointy, stacked stone caps on them. I always think it looks like the land of point and I've actually done that. I've rented a Trullo in the Alberobello which is nothing but this whole town filled with nothing but these little pointy houses. It's this prehistoric type of architecture they've been doing in that region for 8,000 years. You can rent one for less than the cost of a hotel in town and I did kind of like what Pauline did. I sat in my doorway on the little straw caned bottom chair and sat there reading the newspaper and having a snack. Tourists would walk by and take pictures of me. They thought I was part of the scenery.
David: That's nice. I think that's important to point out that when people are traveling on vacation its not all about rushing from place to place to see as many things as possible because isn't the point of a vacation sometimes simply to relax. Being in a house where you can have your own food and not having to worry about going out to eat, you know, at a restaurant, it's very easy to sit with your own cup of coffee and watch life go by.
Pauline: Oh, yea, absolutely. And there's nothing worse than breakfast in most hotels, especially in Italy. Usually it's a hard roll and the sourest orange juice you've ever tasted, whereas if you just simply whip it up in your little apartment, it'll be much less expensive. And it's such a delight to visit all of those food shops in Italy.

They have such an abundance of fresh fruits and fresh vegetables and fabulous cheeses and so many things that we don't have here in the United States, that just going to a super market or, even better, an open market, is an adventure in itself and as much a sightseeing occasion as going to any museum, I think.

Reid: And it's going to cost you less in the end. A meal in Italy, you won't believe this, but, it's going to cost you about thirty to forty Euro a head if you have a simple, one plate of pasta, either an appetizer, or dessert, wine and water; it is going to cost you 30-40 a person.

That is 40-50$ per person. And when you shop for yourself, and your meals in your own apartment, in your own rented place, it is going to be about 20$ person tops.

Pauline: That being said, we do tell people in the Pauline Frommer's guides about less expensive restaurants and part of the fun of going to Italy is eating out as well. So we are not saying be totally downscaled. It is great to have a balance and when you have an apartment you have that choice. You can either cook at home with all these food and stuffs or you can go out.
Reid: Oh, yeah. You have to switch off. I see sway too many people making a mistake of saving money at the expense of enjoying their trip. I've seen people outside that about to screen the plaza and then they see the charges in the admission and they may look inside their wallet and say, you know, maybe not.

And I go, go inside! It's gorgeous! It's beautiful! It's got some of the most perfect acoustics of any space in Europe. This is in the guidebooks and everybody knows it, so someone with a good voice is going to step to the center and let fly a few notes. They're going to bounce all around the interior. It's worth the admission charge.

David: Right. It's wise to allocate your budget differently. Maybe you save on accommodations, because you do want to spend some money on food.
Pauline: Or on attractions, because they do add up. There are passes in some of the cities that can be good. Sometimes they're not, really. Reid, you'll back me up on this: the Venice pass is a total waste of money.
Reid: It is. It's a scam.
Pauline: But in other cities, you'd buy a sightseeing pass and you get a bunch of sightseeing attractions for less money. That's a good way to save, because you don't want to go all the way to Italy and say, oh, I'm not going to go into this famous guild house in Perugia because it costs two euros. Spend the two euros. Your airfare cost a lot more.
David: I know on some attractions, especially in Rome, there are several where you must have a reservation ahead of time or you're simply not going to be able to get in to see it. How does somebody go about doing that? What's a good way to make those reservations?
Pauline: I think that's more unusual than usual, wouldn't you say, Reid?
Reid: There are going to be long lines at something like the Coliseum. But for the most part you can waltz right in. There are a few, however, places in Italy that you really should reserve in advance, because they do have a limited number of tickets available that day, and they will sell out, especially because tour groups tend to snatch up a lot of them.

And these would be -- in Rome, a small but fantastic museum called the Galleria Borghese, which is full of the young Bernini's greatest sculptures, paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael. It's an exquisite little museum. It used to be the private collection of a Cardinal in Rome's main park. It usually runs out of tickets by mid-morning, if it has any that morning, so it's good to book that in advance.

Another one to book in advance is the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. This is sort of the heartland of the Renaissance, this is where your big Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo DaVinci, Botticelli's Birth of Venus is there, Giotto's pieta. I mean this is the greatest hits of Italian art and everyone knows that so there are long lines. It really pays to pay the extra Euro or two to book that in advance.

The final one is the "The Last Supper" by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan. That again, will often sell out before you even get there. You might show up and it'll be sold out for the next three days and you'll miss out on seeing the fresco.

Now all three of those have obscure local websites where you go to book them. They're all mentioned in the guidebook though.

David: That's good to know. I asked that question specifically because I really wanted to see the Galleria Borghese and was able to because we made reservations several months in advance.
Pauline: Gosh, you know the last time I was in Rome I just showed up that day and waltzed in. But that might also have to do with the fact that we were there in the off-season. It's a great time to go to Italy and we're approaching the winter. If you don't want to deal with the hassles of reserving in advance, you go in the winter, and you just waltz into all these great sites and spend only two hours in line outside the Vatican rather than three.
David: I just felt sorry for those people who were walking away disappointed.
Reid: You don't have to book it months in advance. You really have to book it about two weeks in advance, maximum. You can even do it, if you know you're going to be in Rome, you're in Italy, you have a free-form schedule, and you think, I'll be in Rome, now we know we'll be there on Wednesday and Thursday, and now it is Tuesday. You can go on-line to your hotel or at a local Internet cafe and book the ticket a few days ahead of time.
David: That's good to know. We can't walk away from Italy without talking about food, specifically. Everybody thinks of Italy, and you think of food. We have talked about going to the stalls. What is your favorite region for getting food in Italy? There are so many different cuisines. It's sort of the same question I asked earlier but with a twist.
Reid: Well you know what we think of as Italian Cuisine in the United States is part of what they eat in Italy but it is not the whole story. Most of the pasta with red sauce, and pizza we think of as typically Italian in most of the U.S. is the southern Italian cuisine, because that is the area from which most people immigrated to the United States and they brought their local types of food with them, where as if you go to the north, you are going to find a lot more Risotto (rice dishes) than pasta, with a side of polenta which is sort of a cornmeal corn pone mush.

So everywhere is different, it is like the regions of Italy it would be like picking a favorite child. Picking a favorite cuisine is almost impossible. Tuscany is really strong on the gamy, earthy flavors in Umbria as well with the wild bore and the wild truffles it is a very hunter/gatherer culture.

In Rome you have got a lot of the earthy urban cuisine that used to be made in the poor families houses and the meat workers would take home all the entrails and things that nobody wanted and the wives would learn how to make them into delicious dishes like Coda alla vaccinara, the oxtail stew, and Pagliata, which is suckling calf intestines mixed with rigatoni, and it sounds disgusting but it's absolutely heavenly.

Every Italian is going to be fiercely proud, not only of their own hometown and region, but of their own cuisine. They'll say, "It's the best, it's the best!" If you twist their arm behind their back, though, and force them to pick one region of Italy not their own that has the best cuisine, they're going to say Emilia-Romagna, the region that Bologna is the capital of. And of course we know that because Bologna salami has become "baloney" in the United States, and Spaghetti a la Bolognese, the ragout sauce....

Pauline: Bologna is known as "Bologna the Fat," correct? Just because the food there is so good that it has an effect on its inhabitants.
Reid: It is good. It's got wonderful market culture and little shops. In the book I did a whole walking tour through the market and some of the food shops, and talked about a few cooking classes you could take.
David: That's a fantastic. That's always something that I know that our readers and our listeners like doing are taking classes when they travel. How easy is it to just join a class if you decide in the morning you want to go learn how to cook something? Are there classes across the country that you could just walk into?
Pauline: I don't think you could walk into them; you're usually going to need advance reservations. But throughout Pauline Frommer's Italy, we have different classes that we recommend in different areas. Reid put in a wonderful cooking class in Bologna. We also had one in the Cinqueterre region.

We had a class in Venice where you learned to be a gondolier for the day and how to actually steer one of those boats. Also, a class in Venice on paper marbling, which is a centuries-old art form there and is actually much more complicated than one would expect in kind of a Zen-like exercise to do.

David: Wow, that sounds fantastic.
Reid: Yeah, they do need to be booked in advance -- preferably a week or two.

And for the most part, the classes that are going to be open to tourists will be things like the cooking classes.

Italian language classes are also available -- sometimes even by the day -- if you don't want to do a whole course... The cooking class in Cinqueterre sounds delicious. For those of you that don't know, the Cinqueterre are five little fishing villages at the very southern end of the Italian Riviera, Liguria. And that's the homeland of pesto -- so you would probably learn to make a killer pesto there.

Pauline: There are also tours that you can take that are like classes. Interesting thing about Italy is you have so many impoverished graduate students going there to study the art and the art history -- and when I was in Rome last, I took an incredible tour with a company called "Through Eternity" -- It was run by a woman who spends her life restoring paintings.

She not only gave the most learned tour about the four major piazzas, but she also filled us in on the gossip that art historians know about art through the ages.

The fact that when Michelangelo was in Rome -- and he was there for over a decade -- he never bathed, because he felt that the waters were going to be dangerous to him. And everyone who was on the scaffolding with him, painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was desperate to get off it and were writing these letters to the pope, saying, "Please let me down. I can't stand the stench up here anymore."

You get these real insider views of the cities when you take these walking tours, because they are often staffed by graduate students in art history, by art restorers, by people who are in the thick of the art history underground, if you will.

Reid: That's probably why Michelangelo ended up firing everybody else and finishing the job himself. He couldn't take their complaints.

But no, walking tours are fantastic, and they're usually no more than about $10-15 a person to take a walking tour through any town or city, and they're a great way to get beyond just like the big -- we have to see this cathedral and these two museums and this little church with an altarpiece," which is what a lot of visiting Italy feels like after a while, is just an endless parade of churches and museums. But when you get beyond that on a walking tour, you'll learn more about the history and the daily life of the people there, and how these things actually work, interactive with people's lives.

It's not just the walking tours -- you can take tours of the sites themselves, and often those are incredibly cheap or free. In a lot of museums you can take a tour of the museum with one of the docents, and it'll cost you maybe two Euro, maybe three dollars. Oftentimes they're free. There are professors from American University who hang around the Roman Forum at certain times, and they run free tours of ancient Rome in the heart of the city. There are some nuns who'll give you tours of St. Peter's for free.

So there are a lot of those sorts of things that if you seek them you can find them, and have a much richer and more fulfilling experience than you would have, just sort of wandering through and checking things off your list.

Pauline: And you'll find those in Pauline Frommer's Italy as well as other places obviously.
David: And that sounds fantastic too, because obviously these people leading tours are not doing it to make a salary so much as they are doing it because they are actually interested in it themselves and they are passionate about it.
Pauline: Oh yeah they are doing it for the love of it. I mean they also make a salary, it is hard to make a living if you are a graduate student in Europe and you don't have the working papers.
David: Just before we go do either of you have any top tips to offer before we say goodbye?
Pauline: I guess my top tip would be, don't go to Italy in an uneducated way. This is going to sound snobby but you will enjoy yourself so much more if you not only buy the guide book but you also take the time to read a book like Brunelleschi's Dome, which goes into all the behind the scenes gossip, history, and architecture on how the great dome in Florence was built.

Or even a book by the great Irving Stone, which we will go into the background of Michelangelo will enhance your trip so much. And take the time to pick up phrase books. When you say just the simplest phrases in Italian people are even more delighted to deal with you and they treat you even more graciously. I would never say the Italians aren't gracious but it becomes over the top when you do your best to speak the language with them.

Reid: If I had to pick one tip, one tip that I am guilty of violating continuously, which is don't pack too much in. Italy is tiny but its delights are vast. There is that compulsion that you want to see Rome and Florence and Venice and the hill towns of Tuscany and you want to go to Pompeii and you want to hike Cinqueterre and see the last supper and maybe go to Sicily and you've got a week or two weeks and there's just no way to do it. Pick an area and focus on it. I understand the compulsion to want to see the greatest hits and certainly spend a day maybe in Venice. Work out with an open-jaws flight into Milan and out of Rome, so that you don't have to spend a lot of time getting from one place to another, so that you can fit in a few of those things, but pick one area and focus on it.

Again, that whole "living la dolce vita" is a large reason why we want to go over there. So don't schedule every day, and don't overschedule the days you do schedule. Take a day just to wander, to sit in the piazza, drink a cappuccino and watch the carnival of life go by.

David: Great advice. I'd like to thank both of you, Reid Bramblett and Pauline Frommer.
Pauline: Thank you.
Reid: Thank you, David.
David: Great, thanks.

[music]

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