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Offbeat activities in Italy

Reid's List of 16 things you should do—besides visiting the museums, churches, and monuments—to really get a taste of what life in Italy is like

16 offbeat activities
• Attend a soccer match
• Take a cooking class
• Participate in a festival
• Go to church
• Get lost
• Find original souvenirs
• Join in the game
• Visit villages
• Help with the harvest
• Watch TV
• Get your own pad
• Visit a small private museum
• Jump in a lake
• Take a hike
• Go jogging
• Ditch your guidebooks
One of the best things you can do as a tourist is to stop being a tourist. These activities—soccer matches, cooking classes, Italian TV variety shows, mass in a church, etc.—are as much a part of the cultural experience and Italian life (and Italian travel) as exploring the great sights, frescoes, statues, cathedrals, and museums of Italy.

Following the heroic example of Michael Palin—who kicked off his BBC series "Around the World in 80 Days" by cruising the canals of a garbage scow—here are sixteen (less-smelly) suggestions for getting out of the tourism rut.

Attend a soccer match

In this secular age, when 98% of Italians still call themselves "Catholic" but in practice have one of the lowest church attendance rates in the world, soccer—which in Italian is called calcio, though they often also use the international term: "futbol"—is the closest thing in Italy to a common religion.

Look up the match schedule for Serie A (the top tier teams) and Serie B (second tier teams, and usually more fun) at—or just ask around in each town to see if there is a partita di calcio (soccer match) scheduled while you're in town.

Buy a cheap shirt in the local team colors from a street vendor, head to the stadio, and try to sit along the middle of the field. (The curva, or arc of seats at either end of the pitch, is usually infested by the most rabid fans—an interesting, but not necessarily the best, place to be; the hooliganism that plagues places like England is not nearly so prevalent in Italy, but it does occasionally simmer over at matches between arch-rivals.)

Take a cooking class

Rather than just taking home from your next trip tales of that fantastic tagliatelle alla bolognese, why not return with the skills to recreate all those great Italian meals in your own kitchen?

Cooking schools and cooking classes while traveling—whether for an afternoon or a full week—are becoming all the rage, and it's not hard to see why. You're getting the kind of genuine cultural insight no number of churches and museums could ever give, you're engaging with the locals on something about which they are truly passionate, and you're gaining a new skill (or at least new recipes to add to your repertoire). And, of course, you get to eat all your mistakes (mmmm...mistakes)... » more

Participate in a festival

Maybe it's a solemn procession in honor of the the town's patron saint, or a reenactment of a historical event, a poetry festival, a music festival, a communal feast in the streets to celebrate some local culinary specialty, Carnevale, a meeting of the Madonnas from neighboring villages, a traditional bareback horse race, the day they the uncork the new wine, the local bishop's blessing Fiats or flocks of sheep, a madcap race up the mountain carrying giant floats, the annual display of the cathedral's holy relic, a chess game on the piazza played with real people, or simply because it's the second Tuesday in May once again and on that day everyone puts on traditional costumes and dances traditional dances while the fountains flow with wine.

If you happen across town on a festival day, ditch your plans and your itinerary and join in the fun. (And yes, the examples above are all from real festivals—some famous, some obscure—I have stumbled across at some point in Italy.) » more

Go to church

Every church page will list the hours you can attend mass, vespers, Gregorian chant, and other scheduled services. This is not only for the benefit of religiously-minded visitors, but for everybody—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and non-believer alike. You travel to experience the local culture, no?

Well, Italy is a deeply Catholic country (heck, it's the Catholic country), and while most modern Italians are fairly non-observant in their daily lives and may only attend church on major holidays, religion and the church still exert a huge influence on Italy's culture and, obviously, its history.

Attend services in at least one church at least once during your trip—and make a special effort for St. Peter's in Rome (naturally) but also St. Mark's in Venice (on Sunday evenings, they illuminate all those amazing mosaics).

Get lost

This is my favorite travel activity—good thing, since it usually happens whether I want it to or not. Stick a good map in your daypack (for locating yourself later), seek any sign that points toward some landmark, and head in the opposite direction.

Practice the art of Zen walking, turning wherever your whims take you. Soon you'll be in a place where no churches, museums, or monuments are indicated on your map.

Belly up to a local bar for some coffee or a beer and a chat with the neighbors, sit on a park bench to watch the world go by, or just wander the streets, peeping into peoples apartments to get a sense of the exotic minutia of daily life in a foreign land.

Souvenir-shop away from souvenir shops

Wander the aisles of a supermarket, hardware store, or the local equivalent to Target, checking out an Italian's daily essentials. Instead of just bringing home mantelpiece tchotchkies, return with souvenirs you'll use in everyday life.

Pick up a brand of toothpaste you’ve never heard of. Purchase some typical Italian housewares—find a kitchen store or hardware store and grab one of those cheap, thick glass half-liter carafes in which your wine has been served at every little trattoria. I have "no smoking" and "beware of cat" signs in a variety of foreign languages.

If you’re a music fan, pick up CDs by native pop groups. I must have 200 Italian pop albums. (My iPod is also crammed with songs I can't for the life of me sing along to—and, in the case of those written in Arabic and Chinese, can't even figure out the name of the band—but I really dig the sounds.)

Join in the game

Sit at the edge of a circle of friends engaged in one of those card games, backgammon matches, or bocce ball tourneys that never seems to end and probably started several generations back. Watch carefully to try and suss out how it's played.

One of the grizzled men may eventually gesture you over to be dealt in on a hand or two. Everyone will get a kick out of trying to pantomime to the foreigner the rules of the game as you proceed to lose spectacularly.

Visit villages

Sure, the great art cities—Rome, Florence, Venice—are amazing, as are the hilltowns of Tuscany and Umbria. But to really get off the beaten path, make your way to the tiniest villages and unheralded towns.

(About 100 of the most picturesque are gathered at the amazing site, a site celebrating the most beautiful tiny towns of Italy, virtually none of which have been heard of outside their immediate area.)

Often, you will find the forgotten Italy of yesteryear hidden in these small knots of medieval streets, the village men perched around the pocket-sized main square before a modest baroque church facade, the women chatting amicably from doorway to doorway. It doesn't matter if there are "sights" to check off your list.

Take a break from Reanissance altarpieces, ancient ruins, and endless souvenir shops to just sit and soak up la dolce vita of Italy's slower pace of village life. Have an espresso in the little local bar. Start up a conversation with the locals. Picnic on the church steps. Sketch the view down a single crooked stone street. Nap in a spot of sunlight. Just enjoy Italy.

Have a cotton-picking good time

Harvest season brings out the farmhands, and they're usually happy to let nutball tourists who doesn't seem to realize it's hard work pitch in for an afternoon.

I've picked grapes and olives—both of which are a lot harder on your fingers and, in the case of grapes, your back, than you may imagine. But it's fun, it's different, and there's nothing like having a sun-raisined old farmer wave you over during a break, divide his sandwich, and hand half of it to you along with the communal wine jug.

Be a couch potato

Watching TV in a foreign country isn't just lazing around, it’s a bona fide cultural experience. You may be amazed by what they put on TV in other countries—a whole lot more nudity, for one thing.

You can follow slapstick comedies in any language, make a game out of figuring out the rules to oddball game shows, and learn that Bart Simpson is a beloved bad boy around the world.

(Also, the unbelievably cheesy Italian theme song for the Dukes of Hazzard totally rocks—even as it fails spectacularly to rhyme: Bo e Luke... Bo e Luke... Questa è la ballata degli Bo e Luke... due ragazzi in gamba con una marcia in più... corre l'auto corre e sfreccia a tutto gas, la città non dorme mai, con Bo e Luke... Bo e Luke...)

Heh. But anyway, it's the little differences that stand out.

In America, variety show spectaculars died out after Sony & Cher and the Brady Bunch Hour, but in Italy they're alive and well as the lynchpins of prime time.

On a U.S. news crew, the meteorologist is usually the goofiest guy in the room—but in Italy he's a full-bird colonel accorded an obsequious amount of respect by the anchors.

(For the record, on Russian TV it's often a young woman who strips...very un-sexily as she reads the weather off a TelePrompTer in a monotone.)

Get your own pad

Instead of staying at several hotels in different cities or towns, pick a city or region to explore more fully and rent an apartment or villa. If you choose a small town or a place in the country, rent a car and settle down to life, Italian-style. Not only can you save money in the long run, but you’ll become a temporary native of sorts.

Become a “regular” at the cafe on the corner and the little grocery store down the street. Get to know your neighbors; maybe they’ll teach you the family recipe for spaghetti sauce. You may enjoy the lifestyle so much that you find yourself pausing at the windows of local realtors to peruse the offerings and check on property values.

Visit a small private museum

You wouldn’t believe the places you can find where wealthy collectors left behind dusty old mansions jumbled with valuable bric-a-brac ranging from Ming vases and Roman reliefs to medieval suits of armor and occasional paintings by a Renaissance master.

Although few of the individual pieces, or the collections as a whole, tend to be first rate, they offer fascinating insights into one man or family’s tastes and styles—and often as not these places are preserved exactly as the collector left them in 1754 or 1892 or whatever, and as such offer a glimpse into the lives and times of a different era.

And before you pooh-pooh the idea of a private collection and being piddling or pathetic, remember the names of a few of the larger private collections ones installed in the personal residences of Italy’s richest past collectors: the Uffizi (the Medici’s artwork installed in their old office building), and the Vatican (the Pope’s best heirlooms in his private digs)...

Go jump in a lake

Ask about the local swimming hole. Just be aware of one thing: when they say "nude beach," nine times out of ten they mean a beach full of naked men who are there precisely because it's full of naked men.

Few capital cities in the world have river water that’s actually clean enough for swimming. Bern is proud to be one of them. On warm summer days, the locals troop partway upstream, jump in, and let the surprisingly swift current float them down river into the heart of town where a public bathing complex awaits. Upon arrival, they clamber out and relax poolside or hike 20 minutes back up the tree-shaded path to jump back in the river.

Take a hike

Leave the big city behind to explore the countryside on foot. Buy the most detailed map you can find showing all the unpaved roads and trails.

Pick a destination, any destination—a neighboring village, a mountain hermitage, or some commanding hillside with a scenic overlook—it doesn’t matter where you go; it’s the journey that counts. Stuff a few clementini oranges in your pocket and go walkabout, chatting with farmers along the way.

You can even do this without leaving the city. I discovered this joy after falling asleep on a Florence bus. I awoke when the bus sighed to a stop in some suburban outpost, stumbled out to revive with an espresso at the bar across the street, and ended up in a wonderful conversation with a pair of Florentines who proclaimed me to be the first tourist ever to set foot in the neighborhood.

Another time, I found myself along the backwater khlong (canals) of Bangkok, with children skipping home in their school uniforms and shirtless men trundling wheelbarrows over rickety wooden bridges.

Go jogging

Most of the world is not as health-nutty as modern America, but the concept of cardio workouts seems to be catching on. Ask where and when the locals jog, and join them for a run. Or find a yoga studio. Or folks doing early morning tai chi in a park. Doesn't mater what it is. Go find wherever locals are following the same zen you are.

Ditch your guidebooks

Guides are great tools, but do you want to repeat the writer's trip or take your own?

Once in a while, leave the travel guides in your hotel and wander without advice. Poke your head into a church without even checking to see if it’s listed in your guidebook.

This goes double for dining. If a Rome trattoria is cheap and full of Italians, chances are it’s good. Try a dish that your menu translator doesn’t cover. (Okay, that can be risky, but if the locals are willing to eat it, it probably isn’t poison, though don’t hold me responsible if it involves more tentacles than you’re comfortable with.)

Enjoy the thrill of discovery. Turn tourism into travel, and your vacation into an adventure. The memories will be worth it.

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