Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Slower Rhythm to Italian Tourism

Much of the fascination that Italy holds for me doesn’t come from its big cities, but its smaller villages that populate the hills and valleys. They somehow manage to be isolated despite internet connections and satellite TV. It was a small village that welcomed me on my first trip to Italy, and the more villages I see, the stronger this connection grows. These places embody the everyday culture of Italy, rather than the world class art and music, hustle and bustle that is found in the bigger cities. Not that I have anything against those things. But it’s only in a small village where I can hear the clang of bells dangling from the necks of sheep as they climb down the steep hillside paths at the end of a long day. Or enjoy the sound of children singing from inside a school as I meander past, savoring a cup of gelato. This is not an experience of the fast and furious, but for what I like to call the slow and curious.

Generally speaking, these villages are not on most tourist itineraries. Yet, it is precisely these unique places, cut off from the constant ebb and flow of outside visitors, that incubate the Italy that so many tourists dream about. Lest all of this sound too idyllic, it is important to remember that these villages are not museums frozen in time, but places where people actually live; communities with economic, social, cultural and political concerns.

The National Association of Italian Municipalities created an organization to identify, encourage and safeguard the multi-faceted legacy of the small Italian village, I Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia (The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy). Formed in 2001, it is a surprisingly recent organization dedicated to the protection and promulgation of the history, art, culture, traditions and environment found in these special places. Villages are evaluated for membership based on various criteria, including the citizen’s quality of life (such as types of available activities and services) and architectural and historical consistency. Approximately 200 villages throughout Italy are current members, and membership is regularly re-evaluated to keep standards high. As a group, I Borghi allows its member villages to take advantage of an accessible tourist platform that, up to this point, villages have not been able to access individually.

If you are intrigued by experiencing this special side of Italy, keep in mind that traveling to villages like these present certain challenges. They may be time-consuming to reach, since they are not on the usual tourist train and highway routes. Communication may be a problem; how much English, if any, is spoken there? Fiorello Primi, the President of the Club of I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia puts it this way, “We are not offering heaven on earth, but we do want that the increasing numbers of people who return to live in these small historic villages and the visitors who are interested in learning about them may find the atmosphere, the fragrances and flavors that make local customs, products and traditions a way of life that is worth savoring with all five senses.” In short, though it may not be for everyone, the rewards are great.

I Borghi più belli d'Italia was featured by the Italian Government Tourist Board North America at a recent event in New York City. Hosted by the lively and engaging Board Director, Riccardo Strano, we learned the results of the latest polls on Italian tourism: Italy is number one on the list of Americans’ desired vacation destinations.

But which villages to choose? How can I get there? Where should I stay? Answers to these and other important questions can be found at I Borghi’s well-designed website, www.borghitalia.it. There are links to information on every member village, including hotels, restaurants, images, events and shopping. You can make reservations through the website and just count the days until your departure for la bell’italia.

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