Lonely Planet has long conquered the domain of the travel guide, and its well-thumbed tomes appear in the hands of travelers, desperately searching for a particular restaurant or hotel recommended in the aforementioned guide, the world over.
Experience Italy, a new release and part of the expansion of Lonely Planet titles to every conceivable nook of a bookstore’s travel section, is a long way from such humble titles as Southeast Asia on Shoestring. As a hard cover coffee table book, thick with colour images and packed with a dizzying amount of information, it is not one you will be taking on your travels. Rather it is one to dip into at home for a bit of escapism, to be elsewhere – an elsewhere that, as it turns out, might not be akin to actually being there.
The book traverses culture, architecture, food, sport and daily life, presenting a range of potential experiences to inspire the traveler, and ‘to introduce you to the personality and, dare we say, the very heart of Italian culture and landscape’. Images abound – detailed maps, archival photos, glossy landscapes, reproductions of famous artworks, light filtered through lush vines. All invite exploration of the book and evoke a textured, multifaceted Italia.
The extensive material, which includes entries such as ‘Walk like an Italian’ ‘Puglia’s Peasant culture’ and ‘Exploring Sicily’s Market’ is primarily marshalled into sections that are reflective of the ‘themes that season Italian life’ – from ‘The Italian Icons You Already Love’ (histories of the Vespa, pizza, and grape varieties/wines included), through to ‘Treasured Heritage Hill Towns and Harvest’ (featuring, among others, the Slow Food Movement, mosaics and Shakespeare’s Italian Plays). There are also sections on the big hitters: Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice. You can follow circuitous routes through the book by heeding the cross references, which then lead you to stumble upon others. It is a self-confessed ‘scavenger hunt’.
This labyrinthine method can seem confusing at first, and irritating if you did just want to read by area without having to continually look things up, but this is a book to read at home. And perhaps this approach is more reflective of how we experience and discover a place – haphazardly, in parts and without ever conquering the whole. And there is something to be said for the pleasure of chance discovery, for being exposed to ideas that would never had occurred to you to look up in the first place.
Yet Experience Italy, which champions the offbeat, cobbled paths, cliff-hugging towns, rolling hills and hidden secrets, risks branding experience. We are advised to eat that ‘last, lingering gelato on the steps of the Duomo’, look ‘beyond its blockbuster, crown-pulling sights’ and avoid ‘hordes of motor-coach tourists. Rather we should ‘Walk in the oak and chestnut forests of remotest Tuscany, as the autumn mist creeps in’, engage with its ‘Epic art and architecture’, experience its ‘insanely lovely spread of deep-cut, vine-blanketed valleys’.
The avuncular tone, the triumvirate of punchy adjectives so often rolled out to rule over perceptions, and the parade of dramatic verbs set to fire you up can be relentless at times –almost oversaturated. It’s as if a filter (by way of a distinctly Lonely Planet style) had been applied to enhance your potential experience, advising you how to reflect on it. One could be forgiven for wondering how expectations will match reality.
It suggests a consumerist approach to landscapes, culture and climates, pandering to our need for ticking off bucket lists. This is an Italy where everything is incredible, unique and yours for the taking. It is, perhaps, too inclusive, confusing two traditionally opposed ways to travel: heading out on your own and taking the well-trodden path. It is hard to know whether the title is suggestive, inviting or an imperative – a rallying call to the Lonely Planet way of life.
But for all my cynicism, this is a nice book to have within reach of the armchair – it is a pleasure to look through and there is much to glean from it, when it gets down to business and stops playing the hype-man. From tips on the price of coffee through to background information on Lecce’s tradition of papier- mâché statues (which originated in the affordability of the raw materials required) it explains customs, the significance of sites, the history of certain foods – it presents many entry points as to what Italy has to offer.
And it does get you excited and make you want to go. So, read up from the comfort of your armchair and leave the book at home. Love at first sight is promised: ‘We’re not talking a mere flirtation, but a fully blown, red-hot love affair’ but ‘before you set foot on Italian soil and unzip the length of its boot’, perhaps steady those heady expectations and apply some measure to the hard and hyped up sell.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
by Lonely Planet, Bonnie Alberts, Oliver Berry, Alison Bing, Abigail Blasi, Cristian Bonetto, Kerry Christiani, Gregor Clark, Douglas Cruickshank, Matthew Fort
Published by Lonely Planet