"Not a museum person"
How to see the best of Italy without ever visiting a museum
Over the past three weeks, I’ve done dozens of itinerary consultations for people going to Italy this summer. I’ve repeatedly heard the phrase “not a museum person”" but these self-planned itineraries inevitably include a day at the Uffizi or the Vatican Museum.
Let me offer my professional opinion on that: Italy offers the chance to live in the past, present, and future simultaneously, to understand what William Faulkner meant when he said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” It gives you the chance to see the beginning and end of things, be terrified and reassured that everything will fall apart, and everything will also be alright. This is all to say; you don’t have to go to a museum to have a meaningful cultural experience in Italy.
For the record, I love museums. I worked in one for fifteen years, and I think they are temples of awe and wonder…but I understand why people dread them. Museums are like convention halls. You are looking at art on a gallery wall entirely divorced from its intended setting in a church, or home, or palace. And unless you know a lot about that time and place, that two-paragraph wall label will probably not bring you up to speed. After two hours of slow walking through a very crowded space with minimal air conditioning, you’ll likely affirm that you’re “not a museum person.”
So here’s my advice — don’t wait in line for 2 hours of your precious vacation to visit the Uffizi. Instead, take a walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo just before dusk for a magisterial view over Florence. Notice the ancient city walls still in place, built to protect the city from invasion and plague — a once abstract concept that Covid-19 has made us all now appreciate. For a deeper understanding of how the plague affected what was then one of the world’s most important and influential cities, download the audiobook of The Decameron, and listen to just the introduction while taking in the view. On the way back downhill, stop in the church of San Miniato al Monte, sit in the pews, and notice how the mosaics glitter as the last of the day’s light filters in.
Pompeii is another site that is treated as a cultural equivalent of flossing. People try to squeeze it in as a quick excursion from the Amalfi Coast and often ask, “is Pompeii worth it?” Pompeii is definitely worth it because it’s the most exciting archaeological site in the world right now and yields new discoveries that give us information about health and climate change that can revolutionize the future. But it’s very easy to go there, try to take in way too much, feel way too hot, and twist an ankle.
The magic of Pompeii is to be able to walk around a 2,000-year-old lost city with a culture that echoes ours in myriad ways. But to truly understand what ancient Pompeii was like, have lunch in modern Pompei. (One “i” instead of two.) The buzzy, functional chaos is a reflection of the ancient city. Then and now, the locals love good food so have lunch at Mercato Pompeiiano, where my husband and I had a fried pizza topped with ragù that was so delicious it brought tears to his eyes.
Have a sweet tooth? Go to Modica, Sicily, where the chocolate is still made as the Aztecs did when cacao was brought to Europe from Central America in the 1500s. Then go to Erice to visit Maria Grammatico, where candies and cannoli traditionally made by nuns are still crafted with ancient recipes.
Do you love nature? Skip the hellaciously crowded cliffs of the Cinque Terre in high season, and go south to Matera, where you can walk the same paths as monks did in the 8th century when they carved out little cave churches in the wilderness. And if the Path of the Gods in Amalfi is too crowded (in high season, it’s too crowded), go instead to Salerno and visit the Garden of Minerva, once part of the first medical school in Europe.
If you love jewelry, get on the fast train to Naples to see the treasury of San Gennaro, which is larger than the collection of crown jewels of Britain’s royal family. Or make a pilgrimage to Scanno in the mountains of the Abruzzo region, where you’ll find Di Rienzo, a historic shop that makes gold filigree jewelry.
To get the most out of any travel experience, forget about the top ten lists and don’t worry if you’re not a “museum person.” Instead, indulge in your obsessions. Italy will always reward them.
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