Saturday, August 16, 2014

4 Reasons NOT to go to Italy

This is just a short post...a warning of sorts. To read my full Italian experience, click here.

1. Money. 
Saw this classy souvenir in every city- 15 Euro
Unless you're making the big bucks, Italy will be really rough on your budget. Coming from anywhere outside Western Europe, really, Italy is very expensive. This is a problem that causes many others: first, there's the struggle between good food and affordable food. In Italy of course you want to eat the best food, that's a huge part of the reason most people visit the country, but it's difficult to eat out for less than 10 euros at anywhere other than a kebab stand or a tourist trap with re-heated frozen spaghetti. Second, stretching your budget on 2 euro bus tickets and tiny 1 euro slices of fruit stresses you out! It's hard to relax when worrying about money. Third, Italy is a country best experienced with a knowledge and passionate tour guide. As much as I hate organized tour groups, in big cities it is literally impossible to avoid the lanyard-toting, headset-wearing gaggles of chubby foreigners in khaki shorts, so I say embrace it! You're obviously a tourist, so take advantage of the position to get a good tour guide who can turn cathedrals from another pretty fresco into an actually memorable, educational, culturally enlightening experience. There are also so many hidden secrets and treasures in Italy that you really miss going it on your own (unless of course you've done extensive research and remember everything you've read about the details of the chapels and statues and fountains). Of course, getting a guide means spending more money which puts you in another tight spot. Fourth, frugal accommodations and transportation exist in Italy, but you must check options often and book early, while also sacrificing comfort and western-style customer service. It really depends on the type of traveler you are, but your dollar goes a lot less far in Italy than many other countries.

2. Because of Impressions You've Gotten From Films and TV
Under the Tuscan Sun, Roman Holiday, Letters to Juilet- those landscapes and lifestyles exist, but you won't see them. Okay, you MIGHT see them. Maybe if you charter a yacht and sail up the Amalfi Coast, or rent a car and drive through Tuscan villages, knocking on locals' doors. The sad truth is, the rustic, idyllic life than many people imagine as quintessentially Italian is not accessible to most foreigners. It is far more likely that you will shuttle quickly from city to city along with the other tourists and hear more English, Chinese, and Russian than Italian. You'll eat more "touristic menu"s than home cooked meals, and see more multi-lingual directional signs than TV-style life.
Typical Roman man taking in the piazza

3. The People
Italian people are not known for their hospitality or jolliness, and you shouldn't expect that of people you'll interact with in Italy. Now, I'm sure there are plenty of nice, kind, friendly Italians- in fact, Roman and I met one of them when we couldn't find our hostel in Porto Venere and some random teenager who spoke English climbed all up and down the cliffs to help us find it! However, you will likely spend time in 1)cities and 2)touristy places. Italian city slickers are definitely too cool for you, and they will let you know by ignoring you as much as they can. In touristy areas (everywhere), the Italians you run into will be in the tourism industry- either giving you fake smiles if you pay enough or they want your money, or making it very clear that they would rather be anywhere else. If you manage to make it off the beaten path and find a cool locals bar (that you probably found on the internet by Googling "authentic local bar", and thus has already seen plenty of tourists just like you desperately searching for an off the beaten path experience), the bartenders will likely ignore you and make a big show of serving all the locals first. Italians are rude to tourists- they'll yell at you for bringing luggage on the bus, they'll mutter under their breath and shake their heads at your confusion while reading a map, they'll roll their eyes when you try to communicate through your broken 10th grade Spanish...but the upshot is that there are scores of other tourists to share your awkward dejection. 
Awesome local pizza place, but the guy at the cash register literally pushed me out of his way and they were overall not happy to have two tourists who needed help with the menu and tried to pay with a credit card...

4. Too Many Tourists
This is probably the number one turn off of Italy for me. I live in St. Petersburg, where millions of tourists a year flood the main prospects and sights- maybe I just know the city well enough to frequent the non-touristy places, or maybe it's just that the sheer volume in Italy is beyond comparison, but I've never experienced the boiling, seething rivers of hatred in my blood towards tourists as I did in Italy (okay, maybe that's a bit intense, but bear with me). The swarms of tourists are crushing, crippling, and oppressive. Venice alone gets an average of 50,000 tourists (almost the population of Yorktown) a day. Almost everywhere you go you are following and being followed by other tourists, shops and restaurants are heavily geared towards tourists, and there is a constant barrage of vendors trying to sell you umbrellas, magnets, water bottles, t-shirts, etc. I understand there were some compounding factors to my trip- we stayed mainly in cities, we were there for only a short time hitting the main sights, and we went at the peak of tourist season.
Venice, St. Mark's Square
So to lessen this burden, do the opposite of what I did. From what I've read and personal anecdotes, however, even in the low season there are still impressive numbers of tourists. If Chinese couples shouting to each other about how to pose for a smiley peace-sign picture on their iPad across the main hall of St. Peter's Basilica doesn't sound like a historical, culturally enriching experience...I think you understand my frustration.
This especially cut me in contrast with the last trip I took- to Georgia, which was basically the opposite of this open sewer of tourist filth. I visited Georgia just before the start of the tourist season, and with a population of less than 5 million, everyone in that country seems to know everyone. We in fact ran into the same tourists multiple times in different cities! Everyone was friendly and warm and we found ourselves the only foreign tourists or among a very small group at more than one sight. In fact, now that I think about it, I think the only Americans I saw the entire trip (other than my travel partner, Kaley) was an expat family living in Tbilisi where the father worked for the New York Times.
To give Italy a little credit, I did notice a significant increase in stress as I moved from Cinque Terre to Milan to Venice to Florence to Rome- the more touristy, the worse the city was. (Venice is basically hell, and I spent a lovely day on my own in Milan reading in a park). 

Overall...I understand why people like Italy. Especially people who haven't been there or who have lived there for a significant amount of time. I don't really understand how anyone could like Italy after a short whirlwind trip through major cities and sights at the peak of tourist season. If you do what we did, you will almost certainly be wasting your time and money. If you're still set on visiting Italy, take my advice and plan a trip that moves slow, that leaves lots of time for exploration, forget the "highlights" and the guidebooks, and try to get out of the cities. Unless you have a specific thing you want to do/see in Italy, some strong connection to the country, food, or language, or are very wealthy, my recommendation is to put off traveling to Italy. Italy is spoiled. Its glory days as a travel destination are long gone, and waiting can't make it any worse than it is. For your next trip, try to visit somewhere that still holds a little mystery, magic, and purity left before it goes the same way as Italy...good luck and happy travels.

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