Authentic travel. We’re all talking about it but what exactly makes a trip authentic? And more to the point, is it really possible to find authenticity on a fleeting one- or two-week holiday – and particularly if we’re partial to a touch of luxury?
It’s probably worth highlighting at this point that I spend 10 months of the year leading gastronomic hiking tours in Italy and Australia, creating unique, immersive experiences for guests hungry (in all senses) to get behind the scenes on two different sides of the world.
So, I naturally have my own ideas as to what constitutes authentic travel. Of course, what’s authentic for one person may not be for another but if some degree of authenticity is on your ‘essential’ list, this checklist may help you plan your next trip.
First on the list – go slow. If you’re tempted to cram as many sights as possible into your trip, think again. While the Slow Food movement started in Italy in the 1980’s, formed by local chefs and food producers, it has now come to embody so much more than just food.
Travelling ‘slow’ is all about making connections and getting to know areas by lingering and exploring, rather than rushing from one big tourist attraction to the next.
Surrounded by such a wealth of artistic and architectural treasures in Italy, it’s so easy to get swept up in a frenzy of rushing from one church, glossy gallery or museum to another. This is partly because we want to see as much as possible while we can, but perhaps there’s also sometimes an element of bragging rights.
The truth is, if you want an authentic travel experience, you need to forget about notching up points and ticking off top 10 lists.
So where do you start? Well, in Italy, bookend your day with a morning espresso in the local bar, and, if you’re staying in a town or coastal resort, an evening ‘passeggiata’ with the locals. In between, focus on just one or two attractions that you’re really interested in or seek out some of the smaller Sagre (food festivals) which will plunge you straight into local life.
Where you stay will also affect your experience, both in terms of your accommodation and location. What’s so refreshing about Italy, however, is that even in a popular region, such as Tuscany, you can still have an authentic experience.
Choose smaller family-run hotels rather than larger impersonal chains so there’s time to chat with the owners whilst still enjoying the same level of luxury. We’re big fans of the Alberghi Diffusi, a unique collection of hotels created from lovingly restored village buildings including caves, medieval dwellings or simply abandoned homes. We stay in them whenever we can, including in Tuscany where the hotel is set on the Senio river.
We also try to avoid the busier cities such as Florence and stay in smaller towns such as Lucca and Colle Val d’Elsa, stopping by lesser-known, but equally wonderful little towns such as Pontremoli and Volterra.
The best way to experience a place to its fullest is by making connections with people who live in the area. So many Italians that we know have a genuine pride in their history and culture and love to share!
Of course, you’ll also get a wonderful flavour of a place by talking to people who are knowledgeable about their subject. They might be local guides, passionate volunteers or specialist food producers who will lead you through the local history, geography and culture – as well as demonstrating how good their produce tastes!
While local food and wine producers will arm you with the information you need about what to eat and drink, a few good recommendations regarding where you eat are worth their weight in gold.
Eating in restaurants frequented by locals is the golden rule wherever you’re travelling but never more so than in Italy where unwritten recipes are handed down between generations, and the same dish can vary in the tiniest detail from one village to another.
Michelin-starred restaurants certainly have their place, but lingering lunches can be as memorable for their views as their menu so aim for a mixed bag of experiences.
Lastly, if you’re travelling independently, consider swapping car rental for travelling by train. Train travel is a wonderful way to explore the landscape and chat to fellow passengers and is surprisingly affordable in Italy.
There are high speed trains between the main cities, including Milan, Rome, Florence, Bologna and Venice, in addition to slower regional trains. So, travel light and luxuriate in the ultimate indulgence of reading and catching up on podcasts as the poppy-strewn landscape flashes by.
Have the last few years changed your approach to travel in any way? Have you any experience of ‘Slow’ travel in Italy? Where are you going on your next trip? Please join the conversation.