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In: 2011, Cheryl Alexander's Newsletters, Spring

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Let’s travel “slowly” in Italy!
by Cheryl Alexander
Owner, Italian Excursion

Italy and I have been fast friends for over fifteen years. My first trip there was a whirlwind for three weeks, stopping in all the major cities for a day, a week, a few days, having the most delicious time of my life. Three friends of mine, all artists with wonderful backgrounds in European history, art and culture were my companions and guides on the trip. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! On the plane ride home I realized I was smitten and couldn’t live without all things Italian from then on. So, I started planning my next trip there, just six months away. In fact, I’ve been going to Italy two or three times a year since then and I still haven’t had my fill.

After finding a relatively unknown region, where Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio meet (these are all separate region-states of Italy), and making some wonderful new friends, I eventually bought a small property on a hill overlooking a lush farm valley in a small village called Bagnoregio, near Orvieto. That’s another story in itself, for another time! But it became apparent at some point that traveling to Italy that often is expensive , and I had to get creative about such a love affair. Fortunately, around the time I had my epiphany, people started asking me to take them to some of the places I had been raving about. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the birth of my company for small group tour travelers, Italian Excursion (www.italianexcursion.com).

My first few “tours” were with friends and I naturally developed a style of touring that was friendly, slow, fun and comfortable, as one would if hanging out with friends. In 2000 I happened upon a small website (www.slowtravel.com) that catered to Italy and a few other countries for folks who wanted to share the experience of traveling independently. It was to become a great resource for me and validated my own preference for seeing Italy which is to mimic the Italians and pace everything slowly. And it facilitated the formation of another resource that was formed out of friendship. A few of the travelers I “met” on this website created a consortium of small group tour operators in Europe that emulates the slow travel style, www.slowtraveltours.com. So, my experience of travel was once again expanded!

Now, what does “slow travel” actually look like? Well, first, the group must be small enough to allow for everyone’s voices to be heard. Even though I prepare itineraries, they are not set in stone and we might change our minds about a planned event if we feel like forgoing a museum for a picnic in the country that day. Maybe someone in the group would rather not take the cooking class or see the hidden archeological dig on the agenda for that day, so they go into the village to shop or stay at the house to read, sit by the pool or take a hike in the area.

One rule for slow travel as Italian Excursion sees it, is to stay put in one place for at least a week at a time. Renting a small villa, casita or apartment is easy in Italy as there are thousands of them in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of amenities. It’s possible, going by Italian time, to have two day trips or events in a day, but rushing around is not the point of slow travel, so some days there may be just one day trip.

Meals in Italy are almost a sacred ritual for Italians, except for breakfast, since they enjoy sleeping a little later and grabbing a roll and espresso on their way to work. Lunch and dinner are long, drawn out events that last two or three hours, include wine to pair with the food and as many friends and family members as are available. In fact the mid-day meal is so important that all of the shops and businesses shut down for several hours during the afternoon, opening again at 4:30 or 5:00, just in time for the pasagiata which is late day stroll around town. You will find Italians out en masse this time of day, to catch up with friends, make plans for the evenings, show off the bambini or whet their appetites for the next meal with a gelato!

Immersion is the natural outcome of staying in one place for an extended time and with that focus comes a sense of really belonging in that place. And, naturally, too, with that feeling of connection comes the realization of “presence” or slowing down to notice where we are in that moment. These are the times in our lives that are integrated into our minds and hearts, making an experience memorable, a snapshot of the feeling tone for that place and time. Italian Excursion strives to create that for every guest on every trip to enhance how they remember their time spent in this magical country.

Slow travel should be a way of nourishing one’s being which is what traveling to Europe used to be all about. The “Grand Tour” that people took in the last century was a way to educate the mind and the senses in a time when leisure was beginning to become the norm for people after the industrial revolution. When the pace of life began to pick up and get more frantic we forgot how joy and creativity support and nurture our well-being. Travel should be a “time out” of our busy lives, not an extension of that fast pace. Let’s get back to basics, find time to enjoy and have fun traveling. We invite you to travel with us to Italy, s-l-o-w-l-y!

Cheryl