20 April 2011

Italy Takes Over the World

Let’s take a look at the data: By most measures, Italy will rule the world one day. You say China. I say Italy is sneaking up on the outside track.

Italy has already captured the travel market. Guidebooks to Italy greatly outnumber guides to China. More Americans visit small towns in Tuscany than villages in Shanxi. More people can name Italy’s President than China’s General Secretary or Premier. It’s not even close.

In China, everyone’s heading to the cities, looking for work and adventure. In Italy most people stay put, waiting for you to pile out of the next tourist van. Some have neighbors who once visited the nearest big city. That’s more than enough excitement.

According to the nation’s biggest book distributor, current books on China outnumber those on Italy. However, add the word “travel” and the figures reverse – travel books on Italy more than double those on China. There is one current travel book on Italy for every 4,754 Italians, but only one for every 75,616 Chinese. You could look it up on the InterGoogle. I did.

That’s how Italy takes over the world – one travel guide at a time.

Writers such as Rick Steves, the Frommers, contributors to Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Fodors, Insight, DK, Rough, Michelin, Brand, Blue – all continue to produce guides to the place. The one I take along is the latest Rick Steves, the most user-friendly and consistently updated. He’ll get you into places by the back door, find you a nice place to stay, and hold your hand while you wander famous museums listening to Steves on your Mp3 player.

Rick Steves is highly selective and does not try to cover everything. When Steves omits a place fewer Americans visit (and the reverse is true – Americans appear anyplace Steves recommends – he single-handedly made fashionable the small towns along the Cinque Terre coast of Liguria).

If you want comprehensive information look to Michelin or the Blue Guides.  Lonely Planet is fairly inclusive and often provides extra detail. Lonely Planet favors the low-end of budget accommodations. Frommers and Fodors guides are budget-worthy but include more expensive places, too.

The best full-color maps and other visuals can be found in the DK Eyewitness Guides or National Geographic Traveler Guides. These are better for study than to lug around. Rough Guides are interesting for their distinctly British point of view.

One standout among these guides is the new series Insight Select Guides to places such as San Francisco, Istanbul, London, Hong Kong. My copy of Rome Select would look modishly fashionable casually resting on a café table across from, say, the Trevi Fountain. It has a beautiful fabric cover, a bookmark ribbon, and reads as if it was written person to person. If you’re in the mood for romance, ancient history, local flavor, modern art or a coffee break, Rome Select has you covered.

Some years ago Susan Cahill edited The Smiles of Rome, A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers and the collection is basically timeless. Entries include articles and excerpts from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James to Federico Fellini and Muriel Spark. If you did take this book with you, you’d find yourself searching in St. Paul’s footsteps along the Ostian Way, or wondering at a statue of Moses in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli where Sigmund Freud once pondered “the complex soul of the artist.”

Most things in Italy are in the habit of changing slowly. That’s why film maker, cookbook author and restaurateur G. Franco Romagnoli’s book A Thousand Bells at Noon, A Roman’s Guide to the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City resonates a decade after it was first published.

“Like a lung timed by traffic lights,” Romagnoli writes of Piazza Barberini, “the square inhales and exhales cars and buses from the seven streets that empty into it.”

Another series that has been around for some years and ages well is The Travelers’ Tales Guides. 30 Days in Italy, True Stories of Escape to the Good Life  includes this closing rhyme:

Paris has la Tour Eiffel
Babylon had its tower as well
But neither has the power to seize ya
Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


Rome Select, various authors. Insight Select Guides hard cover $15. ISBN 9789812822710.

The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers by Susan Cahill. Ballantine Books paperback $14.95. ISBN 034543420X.

A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman Reveals the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City by G. Franco Romagnoli. Harper paperback $14.99. ISBN 0060519207.

Italy, the Romagnoli Way: A Culinary Journey by G. Franco and Gwen Romagnoli. Lyons Press hard cover $24.95. ISBN 1599212447.

30 Days in Italy: True Stories of Escape to the Good Life. Travelers' Tales Guides paperback $14.95. ISBN 1932361421.

A few more:

The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard (Wonders of the World). Harvard University Press paperback $14.95. ISBN 0674060318.

Rome from the Ground Up by James H.S. McGregor. Belknap Press paperback $22. ISBN 0674022637.
One reviewer wrote: “I can't really have a favorite book on Rome, can I? No, but...well, this comes close. In three hundred pages of clean, muscular prose, McGregor has done the almost impossible task of pulling the glories of this city together in a neat, readable, incredibly well informed study...”

McGregor also has written “From the Ground Up” books on Paris, Venice and Washington DC.

Administrative map of modern China...

Italy: 12,620 books and 60 million people = one book for every 4,754 citizens.
China: 17,192 books and 1.3 billion people = one book for every 75,616 citizens.

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