Where is The Real Italy? Milan, Venice, Rome? No. Moncalvo? Hell yes.
Tourists need to learn to slow down. Often, I need to learn to slow down. Eat a slow cooked meal, have a drink, sit and people watch, and just hang with the locals. Ticking the boxes of tourist trap after tourist trap, isn’t the way to travel. Full immersion into daily life in another country, another culture – is.
Moncalvo. Not exactly on the hot list of must-see Italian tourist sights. However, the tiny historic city gave me an opportunity to completely avoid the many big-ticket tourist traps of the larger Italian cities. And, provide exactly what I wanted from my first visit to Italy.
Located in the Province of Asti, with a population of around 3000, Moncalvo is officially the smallest city in all of Italy. In my mind, Moncalvo will represent Italy, forever-more. Moncalvo is a metaphor, and a reminder, of what the best part of travelling is all about – living like a local.
Andrea is the Italian husband of Fiona, an old friend of mine who made the decision to get married to a Moncalvo local. An Australian ex-pat, Fiona moved to Italy a couple of years ago, and is now going through the process that all ex-pats endure – making new friends, learning the language, and adapting to the local customs. Visiting Fiona in Italy was a win-win situation – she absorbed as much Australian company as she could get, and I got to experience the real Italy.
“We’re not rich, but we all have a good life. A really good life.” Andrea was looking around at his friends, smiling. “We all help each other.” He passed me the Palmegano. Sipping on a locally made red, we were enjoying a day of slow paced life, having a bit of a boys-club afternoon with some of his friends. “He’s 26, and has his own house. He renovated it himself. It was cheap. You can’t easily live this life in Australia.” I looked around the room. Andrea, was right.
It was a continuation of my Italian immersion. The night before, we were watching his friend Michaele play at a local bar. Drumming, with a funk ensemble that included a saxophone drums, mouth harp, and two Didgeridoos – the ancient instrument made famous by Australian Aboriginals. Not an instrument normally associated with a funk band in Italy. Or anywhere else. But, hot damn, it worked.
Experiencing the welcoming warmth of Michaele and Kiara’s old Italian home, watching the snow fall outside, and knowing that Phillipa was doing the same back at Fiona and Andrea’s home, typified everything that I enjoy about travelling to far-flung lands. It’s precisely why I travel.
“Don’t buy any more oranges. That’s it for this year.” Moncalvo may be known for it’s obscenely expensive and rare white truffles, but even the humble orange is obliged to follow by the same rules. If it’s not in season, it’s not in season. Sadly, most of the world has lost this logical and simple way of shopping for food.
Earlier that day we had been to Casale, the town down the road, to pick up some ingredients from the fresh produce market. After I discovered my new favourite cheese – Gorgonzola – Fiona gave me a quick Italian lesson, and I went off to take some street photos of the incredibly expressive faces I was now surrounded by.
The Italian language lesson was invaluable for street photography. When my camera caught one lady by surprise, I offered a genuine “Bella. Grazie.” The fur-clad lady looked straight into my eyes, paused, and then I was rewarded with “Preggo” (you’re welcome) – delivered with typically restrained Italian sophistication. Connecting with a stranger in a foreign land is one of the unsung highlights of being a tourist.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
Slower travel, leads to deeper experiences. Even when your time is limited, as mine was in Italy, there’s something to be said for ignoring the typical tourist attractions and just spending the days living like a local.
I could have been visiting the leaning tower of Pisa. Instead, I was attending a birthday party and being served wine from a giant bottle, by a circa 1988 James-Spader-esque bar tender. Instead of seeing Milan, I was sitting with an Italian family for a traditional Sunday lunch. Three generations of family speaking with their hands whilst we tucked into a roast rabbit that was born, raised, and slaughtered 20 metres from the table. Buonissimo.
Milan? I passed through twice, and didn’t get out of the car. Venice? Raced past the outskirts on a high speed Italian train, without leaving the station. I wasn’t too far from the leaning tower of Pisa, the shroud of Turin, and whatever Genoa is famous for. Lake Como I saw from above, on the flight in to Milano Malpensa. It looked nice, but I didn’t bother to go there.
Moncalvo, Milan, Venice, Rome – it didn’t really matter.
I just wanted to be a part of Italy. And for five days, I was.
PS, a huge personal thank you to Fiona, Andrea, your family, and your friends, for giving Phillipa and I one of the best travel experiences we have had this year.
PPS, I have now arrived in Croatia.
24 thoughts on “Where is The Real Italy? Milan, Venice, Rome? No. Moncalvo? Hell yes.”
Great update as always Nate. Italy as a whole is one of the most under-rated experiences for travel in the world. So many people go in with so many preconceptions (I guess due to the large Italian Diaspora around the world) and never open their minds and experience the “real” Italy.
Cheers Paul. I can’t believe I left it so long before visiting, and then had only a handful of days to experience Italy. Damn you Schengen Zone visa! I think Italy is a bit like Paris – people have a huge amount of preconceptions, and then spend most of their time doing what they think should be done, rather than just kicking back and absorbing all that there is to offer. I can’t wait to return.
Wonderful post and photos. Never been to Italy, but desperately want to. For now, I’m traveling vicariously and enjoying it. So thank you !
Thanks Nancy. Glad you enjoyed this little insight into Italy.
Italy is full of those litte towns just waiting to be discovered. We spent a month for the passed two consecutive summers and never got bored. So many people pass it by because they think it’s overdone, they have no idea what they’re missing.
Hey Nat – yes, I noticed so many little towns, just in the area around Moncalvo. I actually mentioned that at the local market, it would take months and months, maybe years, just to try all the food there. Italy is certainly not overdone, it’s a really special place.
Love Italy….one of my favourite places.
It’s funny how you mention you just lived like a local for 5 days, yet reading this one gets the impression that you had a much longer stay. Love the lady in the fur coat.
Whenever we travel we try and abide by the going slow rule, and absorb some of the local way of life. So others usually think we’re nuts when they hear our plans, but I can’t remember overstaying in too many places yet.
Hey P, what a great compliment. It did feel longer than five days, I had such a great time. I also love the lady in the fur coat, she made me feel very special. And you’re right – overstaying is hard to do. If anything, I need to slow down even more.
This is great stuff again Nate, thanks!
Thank you very much, my man.
You got the most deep secret of our country: la dolce vita. As well as Fellini descibed in his famous movie.
There are so many Moncalvo around Italy, it’s a shame you spent only 5 days there.
Any way, enjoy your stay in the Balkans. Let me give you a suggest: don’t miss to visit Maramures in north of Romania and Viscri. Good luck.
Ugo, that is one of the nicest comments I have received. Thank you, I’m very glad I discovered the secret of la dolce vita. You have an amazing nation.
I absolutely love Italy, it is my favourite “overseas” destination – I live in Cape Town, South Africa. We travel to Italy at least every two years staying on farms and in small villages – your Post makes me long to go back and as this is the year for another Italian adventure, perhaps I will try and include Moncalvo!
As I have said before, I can’t believe I left it this long to visit. Incredible country!
Although there is much truth to what you say “typical tourist attractions” often include some of the most incredible works of art and architecture on the planet. Particularly in Italy. I travel there every other year and have spent time in small Sicilian villages, hill towns in Umbria that are virtually unknown and the great cities of Venice, Florence, Naples, Milan and Rome. Don’t ignore those cities. Rome contains more great art and architecture than many entire countries. And to find much of it takes time to research its location. For instance there are multiple works by Caravaggio in Rome within churches and private collections you would wander past if you didn’t spend the time to seek them out. For me part of the fun of travel is planning what great works of art and architecture I will visit. That doesn’t meen I don’t interact with locals or slow down to drink Compari in the Piazza della Rotunda and just watch the world go by. Rome has been a tourist destination for centuries. Don’t write it off because it is popular.
Hey Erik – please don’t misunderstand me, I haven’t written anything off! I’m a huge art and architecture fan, but when I’m given an opportunity to slow down and living like a local, I’ll take that every time.
Totally understand Nate. Just a different set of priorities. I just get irritated by this argument I hear a lot that serious/enlightened travelers, the free spirits who are supposedly connected to the place and people but ignore all the things the culture has to offer that are popular (and often most important) because they are touristy are the “true” travelers. Utter nonsense. You can do both. In particular if you come from the new world you should do both. I meet people all the time in Europe who are totally oblivious of the history, art and architecture (to be clear Europeans as well as new worlders). Of course the ruins are boring meaningless stones, the art dull and old if you don’t know your history. Coming from America, the centuries of culture are the primary reason I go to Italy (we don’t have that in America). Of course my time with the wonderful Italian people is equally memorable!
Ok, finally got around to reading this. And yay! So glad you had such a great experience the short time you were in Italy. How awesome that you got to really experience life like the locals. That’s what I want when I travel too, there’s some tourist stuff that’s cool to see at least once, but ultimately it’s about getting to know the place you are visiting. Things are always more interesting and the experience more meaningful when you go below the surface.
Hi Noelle… I’ll keep this short – I agree, 100%!
We’ve booked this summer a few nights in Moncalvo, before reading this article. I guess we’ve made a good choice!
Hey Bartho! That’s great – I have a really good contact in Moncalvo, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask, and I will pass them on to a local. Nate.
Hey Nate just came across this great summary! we have booked about 5 days in Alba (getting a car in Asti) as part of a trip to Italy over several weeks (from Australia). My husband and I really love seeing music in other countries and I was so intrigued by the group you saw – looked like it would have been wonderful. I wonder if you can check with your friends the best way to find out what music might be on in the Alba/Asti area while we are there (August 19-24) this year? if this is too much of an ask please don’t worry :) thanks
Explored a small town and posted. I love that thing. I did the same when i visited a small town like Vicenza. That town amazed me with the things it has. Its rich with industry, architecture, culture etc.
Visiting unknown and less attractive places makes your trips sometimes more joy able because you find it more different and calm than the other tourist attractive destinations and can explore new hidden things.