Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it's my website's lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it’s my website’s lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo


As a sportswriter for 40 years, one of my favorite themes was things that were too hyped or overlooked. Nothing burned the bottom of sports fans’ shorts more than reading that their quarterback is overrated. Nothing made them smile more to know their stadium is underrated. One man’s opinion is another fan’s scorn. It could be anything. Overrated? Jose Canseco. Underrated? Stanford football. Overrated? Dodger Stadium. Underrated? Annapolis, Maryland.

Italy gets more publicity than all of American sports combined. What doesn’t the average traveler know about my adopted country? A lot. Italy isn’t all quiet canals, Dolomites and cappuccinos in dreamy piazzas, ancient islands in an azure sea and endless vineyards in the Tuscan countryside.

It has its sore spots. It doesn’t have many. I struggled to find five overrated places in Italy. But they are there and as you all plan vacations for 2019, here’s a tip sheet: Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations. I’ve been to all of them. Use it as a warning; use it as an insider’s tip. But use it. (They’re in the order of my rage and praise). Feel free to weigh in on your thoughts in the comments section. Those threatening my life please form a line to the right.

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo


MOST OVERRATED
1. Milan.
It’s Newark with a big church. The Duomo is worth a visit. The white facade with 135 spires looks like a birthday cake. But once you get past that, Milan visually pales compared to other Italian cities. Don’t blame the Milanese. It’s not their fault Allied forces bombed the place back to the Stone Age in World War II. But what’s built in its place is too modern to look historical, too old to look clean. The weather is usually awful. Yes, you can see the Alps from there — on July 15, about the only day there’s good enough weather to see past architecture as dull as Milanese cuisine. When your headlining dish is osso buco, a sloppy veal stew, you don’t deserve to be called Italian. The women are attractive if you like anorexics with attitudes and La Scala is nice but who likes opera? Plus, their soccer teams suck. (Forza Roma!)
Cortona. AikrPano photo

Cortona. AirPano photo


2. Cortona. Ever read “Under the Tuscan Sun”? If you didn’t, you’ve never wanted to visit Italy or don’t like self-obsessed chick lit. It’s about a woman building a new life in a fixer-upper in Tuscany, interspersed with Italian recipes. The 1996 blockbuster made Cortona, where author Frances Mayes lived, a must stop on the American tourist’s beaten path in Italy. Americans walk around town carrying her book, trying to identify her butcher, her vegetable stand and florist. Cortonese told me they felt like zoo animals. The truth is, Italy has dozens of quaint, walled cities like Cortona. You don’t need to fight tour buses to see one.
Trieste's Piazza dell'Unita.  Turismo FVG photo

Trieste’s Piazza dell’Unita.
Turismo FVG photo


3. Trieste. It figures that James Joyce would live in a town like Trieste for 10 years. I disliked them both. It’s a good debate which one is more boring. Trieste has the biggest seaside piazza in the world. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many. Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia is a massive 130,000-square-foot expanse weighed down like anchors by gray government buildings and two overpriced cafes. There is no brilliant architectural treasure as you’d find in lesser-known piazzas such as Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno or Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno’s Piazza del Popolo. Also, tucked into Italy’s northeast corner on the north end of the Adriatic, Trieste is constantly plagued by the Bora, the cold wind that sweeps down from the hills surrounding the town.
Capri. Capri photo

Capri. Capri photo


4. Capri. Come here if you want to see or be seen — or stand in line for 30 minutes waiting for a bus to take you zigzagging up the hill. Granted, the hill’s view down to the Tyrrhenian Sea is one of the best in Europe. It’s a lot better than the views of elbows and asses that squeeze past you in the impossibly crowded Piazza Umberto I. The piazza is in Capri town which I wrote in a blog four years ago was “like a playground for millionaire yacht captains.” Capri is “an Italian theme park with better wine.” While the island is beautiful and the sea is inviting, Capri has no beach. None. At one spot I had to pay 21 euros to lay a towel on a rock. Without 500-euro loafers and a 300-euro sweater wrapped strategically around my shoulders I felt like Oliver Twist scavenging for more gruel.
Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo

Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo


5. Costa Smeralda. See above but spread it out for 55 kilometers across the northeast corner of Sardinia without Capri’s views. Costa Smeralda is the epicenter for Italians’ August exodus. It’s lined with stuffy hotels, private marinas and tricked-out yachts. Beautiful, tanned Italians with sunglasses that cost more than their weekly food budget sit on yachts and drink Spritz and wine on the bows of beautiful boats. It’s the height of Italian stuffiness and a magnet for Italians wanting to join the A-list celebs for a glass of Campari. Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda’s main town, is as phony as an aging Italian actress’ face. And the prices in August make you wonder if Italy invented price gouging.
Me and Marina at Procida's Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Procida’s Chalet Vicidomini.


MOST UNDERRATED
1. Procida.
I’ve written about this idyllic little island before and I will the rest of my life. It’s right out of a movie set — which it was in 1994 when it was the setting for “Il Postino,” the classic love story about a postman in 1950s Italy who falls in love with a fellow islander. You can relive old Italy here. Just sit on one of the dockside restaurants with a Neapolitan pizza or dine at the heart-throbbing romantic La Lampara above the idyllic harbor and fall in love all over again. Then the next day go to the white sand beach on the north side of the island. Procida is only 10 miles north of Capri but a million miles away in authenticity.
Turin doesn't get the hype of other Italian cities but it's not Detroit, either. The Independent photo

Turin doesn’t get the hype of other Italian cities but it’s not Detroit, either. The Independent photo


2. Turin. Italians used to call Turin the Detroit of Italy. These Italians have never been to Detroit. The only thing Turin and Detroit have in common is car manufacturing except the cars out of Turin actually work. Turin, the gateway to the Italian Alps, is speckled with beautiful piazzas, tree-lined boulevards and long porticoed walkways. The 2006 Winter Olympics gave it a bit of a facelift but two things I love here stayed the same: The Mole, the spired museum dedicated to Italian film, and Barolo, Italy’s best wine and my favorite in the world.
Lake Nemi in Castelli Romani.

Castel Gandolfo in Castelli Romani. Like a Local Guide photo


3. Castelli Romani. One of Rome’s best secrets, Castelli Romani is a series of 14 small towns, many sporting castles, in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Each one has its own distinct draw, like gelato has different flavors: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling roast pork eaten at a string of outdoor restaurants; Nemi, on the beautiful volcanic Lago di Nemi, home to great views and some of the best strawberries in the world; Genzano, where many wealthy Romans lived during Ancient Rome and now where Romans go for the best bread around; Castel Gandolfo, on Lago di Albano, so beautiful you’ll see why the popes have their summer residence here; Frascati, blessed with a beautiful park, perfect for a picnic with the town’s trademark refreshing white wine.
Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo

Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo


4. Arcipelago di La Magdellena. If you see Costa Smeralda, keep right on going to the point town of Palau and take the 15-minute boat ride to Magdellena. It’s a national park consisting of seven small islands all lined with gorgeous white sand beaches on romantic, individually carved bays. Don’t let the U.S. naval base scare you. The personnel are well behaved and blend in with the kind locals. You need a car and a camera. You’ll want to stop around every curve for a photo.
Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo

Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo


5. Urbino. I call Le Marche Tuscany Light. Le Marche has everything its more famous neighbor has but with a third the tourists and cheaper prices. Urbino is the jewel of Le Marche. High atop a hill, the walled city of 15,000 people is so beautiful UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998. The home of the great Renaissance artist Raphael has kept its artsy rep after 600 years. Eat Le Marche’s signature strozzapreti (priest stranglers) pasta in the dimly lit Palazzo Ducale or just settle in with a glass of Le Marche’s trademark Verdicchio white wine.

Why Rome? From loathing to loving, the long, twisting journey to my dream retirement spot

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Italians are very curious people, like anthropologists but better dressed. They ask you a lot of questions. Where are you from? Where are you going on vacation? Where did you buy your shoes? Things that matter to Italians.

As a subject, I’m different. I’m a novelty. I’m retired. Four and a half years ago, at age 57, I left the U.S. to start a new life in Rome where I plan to end my life as well. It was a colossal leap of faith, a major risk with a downside of winding up dead broke in a foreign land with no family or friends. So Italians, most of whom work until they die, always raise a coiffed eyebrow when I tell them my situation. And they, as well as tourists, all ask me the same question.

Why Rome?

It’s a long story, one made longer by the many twists and turns the journey took since I first visited here in 1978. The political and economic climate changes in Italy like its fashion scene. That made each visit unique and challenging in its own way. Most expats here all have the same story. They came to Rome for the first time and fell in love, either with the land, with the food, with a man or with a woman. The beginning of my tale is different.

I hated this place.

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo


In 1978 it was particularly bad. Inflation and unemployment poleaxed Italians, exhausted from a decade of economic chaos. The right-wing fascists, left-wing Red Brigades and Mafia all fought over the ugly daily headlines. On May 9, it suffered a particularly gruesome one-two punch. Ex-prime minister Aldo Moro, the leading figure in the dominant Christian Democracy party and who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks before, was found murdered in the trunk of a car.

On May 1, Peppino Impastato, a noted leftist and outspoken critic of the Mafia, was kidnapped by his hometown Cosa Nostra in Cinisi, Sicily. On May 2 he was dumped on the railroad tracks with sticks of dynamite tied to his torso. Later that day, his body parts were found over a 300-meter radius. He was 30.

So this was the romantic Italian landscape I came skipping through as a skinny 22-year-old with a beat-up duffel bag and a dog-eared Youth Hostel card. I arrived in Italy a frazzled, filthy mess. I took a 27-hour train ride from the flaming shithole port town of Algeciras, Spain, to Milan. I stopped only in Barcelona just long enough to take a shower in what turned out to be the home of a screaming homosexual with gay porn spread around his bathroom. I blame only youthful naivete for not picking up that his Peter Pan slippers were a telltale sign. Fortunately, his shower didn’t work — or the lock — and I excused myself out his door before he could show me his paella.

In Italy I followed the American tourist path more beaten than the Atlantic City Boardwalk: Milan (Newark with a big church), Venice (too impossibly romantic to visit alone which I didn’t — if you count the 20 snoring, drunk backpackers with whom I shared a Youth Hostel dorm) and Florence (more excited about the John Travolta disco leather boots I bought for $25 in the flea market than Michelangelo’s David.)

Then, tired, hot and thirsty, I reached Rome. At the end of a two-week Italian run, I was arted out. I could suddenly understand why that mad Turk vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in 1972. He’d seen too many damn Michelangelo statues. He went crazy. So did I.

More than Renaissance art, I wanted a glass of ice. At the time in Rome, ice was distributed with the frequency of winning lottery tickets. Rome, even at that time in early October, seemed as hot as the inside of a Ferrari engine. Living in Oregon my whole life, I never felt humidity that was more appropriate for African violets. Also, the Italian language apparently didn’t have a phrase for “emissions control standards” and Rome’s smog baked me in the inside of a gray, smoky coffin. The Italian sun, the one I dreamed of growing up, was nothing more than a blotted, filtered orange ball.

Never a coffee or water drinker, I survived on room-temperature Coke, citrus fruit and a vile swill called Peroni beer. I was miserable.

I hit all the tourist sites and remembered being so exhausted at the end of the Vatican museums that I laid down on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, not for a better view of the ceiling but merely to rest. My highlight was jumping the fence at night with two Englishmen I met at the Youth Hostel near Olympic Stadium. We roamed the Colosseum’s corridors sans even small floor lights until a growl of a distant dog chased us back over the fence like the miserable, dirty degenerates that we were.

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo


I also saw history. On Oct. 4, I was one of 60,000 people who crammed into St. Peter’s Square to see the funeral of Pope John Paul I, who died Sept. 28 after only 33 days in office, launching a cottage industry of conspiracies that have lasted to this day. He died the night neo fascists shot at a group reading L’Unita, the Communist newspaper, killing one boy.

My memories of food in Rome were no better than of the food in my elementary school cafeteria. I lived on $15 a day. I ate salami and cheese out of grocery stores and pizza slices from the portable carts in the overrun piazzas. The pizza crust was as sharp as shrapnel. And what’s with only one ingredient? The combo pizza at my old Pietro’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield, Oregon, was better.

And during this year-long solo trip around the world encompassing 24 countries, nowhere, not Taiwan, not Indonesia, not communist Hungary, did I find a population that spoke less English than the Italians. I met no one.

On my way out of Italy, I found it absolutely no coincidence that fascists blew up the railroad track near Bologna and I had to change trains and stand the last two hours of the trip. It symbolized my entire Italian adventure. It bombed.

I didn’t return to Italy for 20 years.

I may never had if not for one chance encounter. I was covering Major League Baseball for The Denver Post and one day in 1998 in the Coors Field press box lounge I talked travel with Mike Littwin, at the time with the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. He said he loved Rome.

“Rome?” I spat, as if he said he loved Karachi. “It’s a shithole. I hated the place. I’ve had better pizza in frozen food sections.”

But he went on about the Pantheon, the food, the wine, the art. I walked away thinking, Hmm. Maybe I should give Rome another shot.

That weekend while reading my Sunday Post by my pool, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, heard my private message to myself. There in the travel section was an ad offering a dirt-cheap round-trip flight from Denver to London plus one other European city. The list included Rome. I left my lounge chair, went up to my apartment and made a phone call. I was leaving at the end of baseball season.

Single and wanting to explore Rome’s romantic side, I thought, who could I invite? How about a Brazilian lingerie saleswoman in Zurich? That’s right. I had met her in Rio two years before while she was on business and we had recently lost touch. I sent an email and the timing could not have been better. She wrote that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and would meet me in Rome.

Thank you, St. Christopher.

Suddenly, Rome didn’t seem so bad. Unfortunately, a 24-hour romance one could read in a dirty novel ended abruptly on Day 2 when I returned to the room. She told me her rich ex-boyfriend was flying to Rome that afternoon and if she doesn’t meet him, he’d kill himself.

“So let him,” I said compassionately.

“No. He’ll do it. I’m going.”

“Are you serious? You’re falling for this? He’s bluffing.”

She packed her bags and left. I never heard from her the rest of the year. This was problematic. We had agreed to meet in her hometown of Natal, Brazil, that spring for a travel story assignment I received on dune buggies. The last thing I wanted in a sultry, sexy Brazilian beach town was a mere roommate.

As she walked out the door for the airport, she told me to wait by the phone and she’d call me. She spoke excellent English and I’m assuming she clearly understood my American idiomatic expression, “Fuck that!”

I explored Rome.

At the time in 1998, Italy was on an economic upturn. Investments and exports were rising. Economic growth was at 3 percent. The Red Brigade was all but dissolved. Romans were going out again. Chic wine bars, known as enotecas, were surfacing. Even the air was breathable.

I was out all day and night. Rome seemed cheaper than most American cities I visited on assignment. I could get a glass of wine for less than a Coke, and I discovered a wine that remains my favorite to this day: Barolo. I learned pizzas in traditional pizzerias have as much to do with the crap served on the piazzas as the Sistine Chapel has to do with a 7-Eleven.

I researched a travel story about day trips from Rome. Every day I went somewhere new: Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port; Tivoli, the town filled with old villas of Ancient Rome’s aristocracy; Frascati, where I had a lovely picnic with porchetta, the sizzling suckling pig famous around Rome, and Frascati’s trademark crisp white wine; Nettuno, a beach town only an hour away with water swimmable in November.

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo


The lone problem came at night. After the Brazilian dropped me like so much rancid pepperoni, I drank in a new cafe every night, alone. Looking around I could tell Romans invented the term “public display of affection,” known during Ancient Rome, I believe, as “coitus minimus.” Everywhere I went, Roman couples were wildly making out. If I saw one more swarthy Roman bend a woman over a fruit cart, I swore I’d get one of those cat scratching poles.

I tucked Rome away as a regular destination in the future. Flash forward to fall 2000. I found myself in full burnout of sportswriting. Baseball bored me. My girlfriend at the time, a public radio reporter in San Diego, was equally burned out. We both needed new challenges, an adventure, a different direction in life, not to mention live in the same time zone for a change.

The Denver Post union contract allowed year-long sabbaticals. We could do anything we wanted during the year — write, travel, rob banks, whatever — and were guaranteed our jobs back. Maybe not our beats, but we’d have a job waiting. A Post news reporter friend named Joe Sinisi, an Italian-American, had just spent half his year in Italy. One 10-minute discussion hearing of the food, the landscape and the people convinced me.

I’d be a travel writer in Rome for a year. Rome would be perfect. It overflowed with travel stories and is centrally located. I could fly anywhere from Great Britain to North Africa within a couple hours. It was relatively cheap. Italian would be easier to learn than French or German (HA!) and sexier than Spanish. It was warm, a major consideration with a woman coming from San Diego.

So that November I took my girlfriend, Nancy, to the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas and on the first night gave her a wrapped present. It was a long narrow tube with a bow around it.

“What is this, a feather boa?” she said.

“Just open it.”

It was a rolled-up poster of St. Peter’s at night. I said, “Want to move to Rome for a year?”

(Guys, take a tip: If you want to score some points with a woman, try the above.)

After the shock wore off, she agreed but first we felt we should go on a recon mission. So that February 2001 we flew to Rome with backpacks, pens and paper. We took notes on every cost an expat would incur: public market food, public transportation, Italian lessons, utilities, wine, restaurants, apartments. We looked at neighborhoods with vacancies. She wasn’t impressed.

During one trip to the scruffy part of Trastevere, she said, “This place looks like Queens.”

However, after a week of wining, dining and exploring without a jacket in February, she turned to me as we sat over the best homemade pasta of our lives and said, “I’ll sell everything.”

We set our departure for that November. That’s November 2001. Yes, what better time to launch a career as a full-time travel writer than two months after 9-11? In one of the savvy career moves of my life, I tried selling travel stories when some newspapers weren’t running stories on destinations to which you couldn’t drive.

In the aftermath, 25,000 Americans cancelled their flights to Rome, which Homeland Security put on Yellow Alert, meaning there was a “significant risk” of terrorist attack. We went anyway and had the best 16 months of our lives. They were also the hardest. We moved to a foreign city where we had no home, no friends, no language skills and no job. We were living together without ever before living within 1,000 miles of each other.

Moving to Neptune may have been easier. The language seemed impossible; so did some of the kitchen appliances. She struggled to find a new line of work; I struggled with Italian school. The tension was palpable. At one point we were exchanging gunfire daily.

But, like an aging actress who gets herself back in shape, Rome slowly revealed herself as the great city it remains to this day in my heart. We found a beautiful, spacious apartment near the Vatican. We had all kinds of adventures. I spent two months in Rome’s gladiator school. (Yes, there is one.) I did a story on Solo Per Due, the world’s smallest restaurant, featuring only one table for one couple per night in the most romantic setting in Lazio. I made more friends than I ever had in Denver. I traveled all over, from Tunisia to Latvia. She joined me to London and all over Italy.

And the biggest discovery of all came from the realization that no matter how confused you get with the Italian bureaucracy, how frustrated you get with the language, how worried you get about money, one thing in Rome is certain.

You always have dinner to look forward to.

Unfortunately, my sabbatical ended — at about the same time our money did. We returned to Denver in April 2003 with the commitment to return some day. For ever. I became The Post’s national college football writer; Nancy took a job at a public radio station in Greeley, a small agricultural town 60 miles north of Denver.

The return was a quasi disaster. I had one of the best jobs in American journalism; she disliked her job in Greeley, a long commute to a town of slaughterhouses and air constantly smelling of cow pies. She hated the cold. She had few friends. For her, Denver was Karachi.

After four years, she had enough. She moved back to Rome in 2007 with the idea that I’d join her. I didn’t. I came close three times but each time jobs fell through, twice after I acquired work visas from the Italian Consulate in Chicago.

While long-distance relationship are trying, try one from 7,000 miles away. We saw each other twice a year, one time rendezvousing in Kuala Lumpur for a backpacking trip in Borneo. We swapped limoncello for leeches.

We finally set a deadline. I’d return to Rome by fall 2010 or we’d break up. I didn’t make it. I failed. An 11-year relationship ended because I couldn’t reinvent myself in Italy.

However, I reinvented my means to move. Unable to find a job, I decided to save my money and retire. I went back to Rome in 2011, again with pen and paper. I came up with a financial figure I needed to reach and met with my genius Denver broker, Stephanie Gudka. We strategized.

I reached the figure in August 2013, I spent that fall football season working on my visa and announced my resignation Dec. 26 in a crisp one-line text sent from the Palm Springs airport. I flew to Rome Jan. 10. It was a one-way ticket.

It’s 4 ½ years later and the thought of hating Rome seems as distant as my first words at 3 years old. Rome has given me a joy, at 62, that few can comprehend , a garden of adventure that never ceases to deliver. The sights. The tastes. The sounds. The smells. Rome is a kaleidoscope of pleasure that surprises me every day. I would never live anywhere else and I’ll never leave.

Nancy and I both found new life partners, and I truly hope she’s as happy here as I am. Rome is home. A rocky, tumultuous trail has led me to this lovely corner of the world, a place I could write about forever. I could write more now but I must go.

I have dinner to look forward to.

Lunch with Doctor Wine: One of world’s top wine experts, Daniele Cernilli uncorks his knowledge

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.


There are few things better in life than sitting in an historic Roman trattoria and drinking good wine and eating good food all afternoon. One thing that is better is doing it with one of the leading wine authorities in the world.

Daniele Cernilli is to Italian wine what Tom Brady is to American football. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Known as Doctor Wine (www.doctorwine.it), he has authored five books, including his most recent, “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” a massive 615-page tome that breaks down every wine and winery in all 21 regions of Italy.

In 1986 he co-founded Gambero Rosso, the bible of Italian restaurants which adorned every kitchen of every Italy resident who cares about food. A philosophy graduate and former journalist and teacher of history and literature, the 63-year-old Rome native has traveled all over the world and is an international wine judge. He has been to the U.S. 30 times.

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo


We met for lunch at Checchino dal 1887 in my old neighborhood of Testaccio. Checchino sits near Monte Testaccio where in Ancient Rome they piled broken shards of terracotta pots used to store wine, olive oil and grain in the nearby warehouse, the ruins of which still stand. Started in, yes, 1887, Checchino has been in the Mariani family for six generations and once received a Michelin star.

It’s tastefully decorated with white tablecloths and drawings of old Rome on the walls. Sharp-dressed waiters bring out all the famous Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinava (oxtail), rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with sheep intestine) and trippa alla romana (interior of a cow’s stomach). Yes, real Romans, such as Cernilli, still eat this stuff.

I wimped out and had the bucatini alla gricia (long pasta with pig’s cheek and pecorino romano cheese). Cernilli ordered us bottles of 2015 Chianti Classico from Brolio-Bettino and a Frascati Superiore from Vigneto Filonardi just down the road about 20 miles.

The food and wine were superb and so was the conversation. I sat down with Cernilli and Robert Della Vedova, my Australian friend and Cernilli’s English instructor:

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.


Me:: How does a wine expert from Italy get started in the wine business? Do you remember the first time wine became special to you?

Cernelli: Yes, of course. Imagine I was passionate for geography when I was a baby and I discovered that wine is a geography of taste. Every place, every wine region, has a particular taste, a particular scent. The wine is the marker of that. It’s very interesting. When I discovered this I was very interested in discovering more and more. Probably the first wine I had in my life that I remember was the wine that my father bought for the family. It was from Castelli Romani. It was a Frascati, probably. But also a Chianti Classico I remember from Carpineto, a very famous estate. I remember, for example, the ‘64 of Caponetto, I was 10 years old, probably 12, the wine was on the market two years later. Probably I had a little touch of wine when I was 12. I remember during the New Year’s Eve celebration, I remember some champagne, Cardon Rouge, with the label of the red cotton inside. I remember I was 10 or 12 years old but just to try because
it’s not good for a 12-year-old person to drink alcohol but the times were different then.

Me: So you’re 10 or 12 when you first got interested?

Cernilli: Just a touch. But the idea of the wine for an Italian family is like bread and olive oil. It’s not a great shape, especially 50 years ago, to have 12 years old person to drink a little bit of wine. Nowadays it’s normal.

Me: So your first wine was from Lazio. How’d that get you interested in geography?

Cernilli: It’s a good region for some wines like this but it’s not Piemonte. It’s not Tuscany. It’s not Burgundy. It’s not Napa Valley. It’s a region for wine that comes simply and for fragrant wines. It’s wine to be drunk not to be philosophered.

Me: But how’d that get you into geography?

Cernilli's last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli’s last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.


Cernilli: Then I discovered that the wine is very good. I attended the sommelier school and I became a teacher of sommelier after two years. In 1983 when I was 29 years old. I became a professional, then journalist. I founded a magazine that became very famous in Italy, the title was Gambero Rosso.

Me: What inspired you to do the magazine?

Cernilli: I was one of two founders. The other founder passed away, unfortunately, Stefano Bonilli. He was a professional journalist before me and had the idea. I wrote a lot for wine magazines. We started as an insert of The Manifesto, a communist newspaper. I was not a communist. I am not communist. The Gambero Rosso is the name of the osteria where Pinocchio was robbed by the cat and the fox. It’s a masonic history. Carlo Collodi was the first writer who invented Pinocchio and was a master mason. Walt Disney the same. The story of a piece of wood becoming a human person is a masonic story. This is the reason Walt Disney made the Pinocchio pictures.

Me: Has your appreciation of wine changed over the years now that you know it better?

Cernilli: You probably don’t listen to the same music. You don’t read the same books. You don’t watch the same films. It’s the same with the wine. Wine is something that’s a live drink. The wine is also a marker of the moment of the history of the technique of the spirit of the world. The technique is incredibly improved over the last 20 years. But there are other topics. For example, ecology, the sustainability of the production. Not to use sulfites of natural wine. Many people are very interested in that. A lot of people don’t care. Some people have great sensibility in this topic. It’s a new technique. Sustainability is very important. There are many ways to reach these kinds of results. There is no doubt it’s important to respect the nature and make wine with the least preservatives possible.

Me: Just philosophically, what do you like about wine?

Cernilli: Because it’s a great tradition of our Mediterranean area. Wine was born in this area, Greece, Middle East.

Me: Actually Georgia. I was just there.

My bucatini alla gricia.

My bucatini alla gricia.


Cernilli: There’s another birthplace that is Greece. It’s not just Georgia. It’s Armenia. Modern Turkey. Sicily and Greece. It’s something we drink for 3,000 years. This is important for us. It’s a great tradition. I feel in this my roots. The roots of the Mediterranean person is in the wine. It’s in the olive oil. It’s in the pizza.

Me: What makes Italian wine special?

Cernelli: Italian wines we have 500 denominations. We have about 5,000 wineries in Italy. No, 50,000 wineries. We have 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of vineyards. So that means 6,000 square kilometers. All the Italian vineyards if you put together, are the coast. Every little town, little situations can change. You can have the same grapes and very different wines because of the soil, because of the weather, because of the vintage. This year is a very wet vintage. Last year was a very dry vintage. If you tried a 2017 of this wine in the future and 2018 of this wine in the future it would be different. One more bigger, more alcoholic; the other more acid, lighter. So it’s a functional concept.

Me: French wine is the same.

Cernilli: The only difference is the French have less varieties, 20-25 main varieties. We have 1,000 varieties. Every region, every little area has a local variety. France does not have that. They abandoned a lot of local wines to make more modern-style wines. Bordeaux influenced the style of the wine all over the world. All the world from the New World, from California, from Australia, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc come from Bordeaux. The Burgundy wines are part of the New World: Oregon, some parts of South Africa. The French dominated, colonized the world of wine for many years. Now there are the Italians. And Italians are only in Italy. If you take the Nebbiolo or Sangiovese and put them in Napa Valley it’s not the same. It’s very different. There is not stability in the expression of the wines. So Nebbiolo can only be made in the part of Piedmont. If you put Nebbiolo in a different part you won’t recognize it. This is the particularity of the Italian wine.

Cernilli's coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Cernilli’s coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.


Me: My favorite wine in the world is Barolo. Give me your opinion of Barolo.

Cernilli: Barolo is the best wine in Italy. Barolo is fantastic. But Barbaresco is not very far from Barolo. They are made from Nebbiolo so they are in the region and are very close. Barbaresco is a little lighter, normally. It depends on the producer.

Me: I always tell people, Americans, because you can rarely get a Barolo for under $50 in the U.S., get a Barbaresco because it’s released a year earlier and it’s about half the price. It’s not as good but close enough to fake it.

Cernilli: From Castello di Grinzane Cavour, inside the area of Barolo, you can see the bell tower of Barbaresco. It’s only 20 kilometers.

Me: I see you teach wine tasting. How long does it take to develop your palate to where you can determine the fruits in a wine?

Cernilli: There is a technique approach to the tasting, a sommelier approach. They want to let us dream about the wine but not explain technically what’s in the wine. If you tell me that you feel the smell of the running horse in the wine, it is not possible.

Me: I went to a wine tasting once and some clown said he could taste the mushrooms of Toscana. We were in suburban Denver. Come on!

Cernilli: You look at the color of the red wine. You can compare the color of the wine with the color of some berries. It’s very simple. The wine takes from the wood spices and vanilla or pepper or cinnamon or something like that. Not more. Then you check the balance of the wine between the tannins, the stringents and the acidity that make you salivate. The matching is very important for the Italians. Matching for the food is very important for us because we drink to eat. Less for the French. Less for the British. For the British they want to drink then to eat. Or they eat then they drink.

Me: It’s interesting you say that because when I have aperitivos, if I just have wine, the Italians need food with it.

Cernilli: For example, you can’t have a Cabernet with an aperitivo. That’s incredible for us to have a big red wine for an aperitivo. It is not possible. I can have spaghetti amatriciana with a Cabernet, not an aperitivo. An aperitivo is a Frascati. Or a sparkling or a light wine, a Riesling, or a light red. Not a Cabernet, not a Brunello, not a Barolo. We have to have to some meat with a Barolo.

Me: I like Barolo with amatriciana. It’s a heavy taste and Barolo has big flavor.

Cernilli: When you have fat added during the cooking, you need tannins so the Barolo is very good. If you have fat inside like the cotechino or a very fat salami, you need acidity. You can choose a sparkling or a big white wine with good acidity. Gorgonzola with a sweet wine.

Me: What do you think of this Chianti?

Cernilli: In this wine you can taste wild cherries and probably some smokiness because of the barrels.

Me: Are you getting that from looking at it or tasting it?

Cernilli: Both. After 40 years of tasting wine, I can understand something when I see something into the glass. Because I can hear the noise and how the wine goes into the glass. I can understand the alcoholic level. Because the more alcohol you have, the more grisarol you have. The grisarol is like the oil. You can see. If you put a Palo Cortado, a big sweet wine from the Sherry region, it’s like an oil in the glass because there are so many sugars inside that it’s solid.

This is a real Chianti Classico. This is the most Chianti Classico you can have. In order to make the barrels, you must work with the fire and toast the inside the wood because you have to curve the wood in order to make the barrel. You have to burn inside. The smell of burning is in the wine.

Della Vedova: When I was growing up, we’re talking 50 years ago, Chianti was considered the cheap wine.

Cernilli: Chianti is a wine. Chianti Classico is atop the list of the Chiantis. There’s the Chianti Reserva. Now they have the great selection that is more than the Chianti Reserva. It’s like a Brunello.

Me: I noticed you wrote a book called “Memories of a Wine Taster.” Give me your best anecdote.

Cernilli: If you know the wine producer, they are characters. There was a lot of memories. For example, in Burgundy, Dugat Py, a very famous producer, it’s a farmer, it’s a simple person. We were 3-4 people to visit the estate, a very, very little estate in Burgundy. We asked for a taste of a very important wine. Chambertin, a very important wine. Very expensive. But he disappeared and came back with a tuxedo. Because to open a Chambertin he changed his dress for the respect he had for the wine.

I wrote about a Champagne producer, Ricotan. It was a man so he went in a nightclub, a lap dance and strip tease. The girl in the strip tease was not so involved in the strip tease. He said, “You don’t know your work. Now I will show you what you have to do.” He began to make a strip tease.

Me: Ever think Gambero Rosso would get this popular? It’s kind of the bible now.

Cernilli: No. It was the bible. Now they lose a lot of power. Not only power but, I don’t know, respect. In the last year they are very commercial. They are a big company and they need money to pay. They are in the stock exchange. They have to sustain the level of the value and options. The change was a big change. Because Stefano Bonilli passed away. I left the company (in 2011). A lot of people left after us. Now I don’t recognize it. It’s different. Very different. I don’t want to criticize. Probably they must do that but I don’t agree. So I went another direction. I do this new wine guide which has a lot of information and honesty, intellectual honesty.

Me: I find people in the wine industry — in enotecas, vineyards, wine journalists — very happy. You seem very happy. Are there any negatives about your job?

Cernilli: Two things: Corruption of some people and the alcoholism. Many people involved in wine drink too much. There are some people that destroyed themselves by the wine. It’s like a gynecologist who becomes a sexual maniac. People that eat in restaurant or go around the world, in order to sell the wine, to present the wine every day if you are not very secure of yourself and rational, the risk is very, very high. Because this could be a nice thing or can destroy you. It’s a soft drug.

Me: With whisky it’s more the feeling. With wine it’s the taste. If I get addicted it would be to the taste.

Cernilli: Yes, but the level of alcohol is very different. Whisky is 43, 44 and more. Wine is 14 or one third. I don’t drink any liquor. For me it’s too much.

Me: Beer?

Cernilli: I drink beer if I’m thirsty. It’s not something to think about.

Me: I drink white wine when I’m thirsty.

Cernilli: I drink white wine or water with lemon.

John: I have a very important question. Tell me why you get more headaches when you drink wine in the U.S. than you do in Italy? I say there are fewer sulfites and preservatives here.

Cernilli: I don’t think so. The Italian wine making is more safe wine making and more ecological.

Me: It’s more natural?

Cernilli: Natural is a strange word. Wine is not natural. Wine is human. Winemaking in Italy respects the nature because we don’t need, for example, irrigation. If you want to make wine in the States, you have to irrigate. Because you don’t have rain enough.

Me: There’s more rain in Tuscany than Napa Valley?

Cernilli: Yes. Much more. For us it’s impossible, it’s not legal to irrigate if there is not a big drought. This is one of the main topics. The second, the system of wine growing there are many changes in Italy. The use of pesticides is incredibly less in the last 10 years. Consider that 15 percent of the wine growing in Italy is organic. Fifteen percent is a lot compared to other parts of the world. Then probably we are auto criticism. We think to be worse than others. The image is probably not so positive. I’m very sure now, I saw a lot of vineyards in the States, Napa Valley, Central Coast, Columbia Valley in Washington state — and they are not so organic.

Me: Here’s the key question. I ask all wine experts this and I love the answers. I’ve had such a variety. Pretend you’re going to be executed in the morning. What bottle of wine do you drink tonight?

Cernilli: Probably the Monfortino ‘61, a Barolo. It’s one of the best wines I ever had. I don’t find now a ‘61 Monfortino.

Me: What makes it better?

Cernilli: It’s the emotion. It makes you remember. I remember when I had my Monfortino ‘61. I remember where I was. I know I can’t have another time with this wine because they finished the bottles. It’s not possible to buy. There were very few in production and it’s very famous. Now you can have the 2001, not the ‘61.

Me: How much was it retail?

Cernilli: I don’t know. Maybe 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 euro.

Me: It’s interesting because I ask a lot of sommeliers this and they often say very simple wines.

Cernilli: Simple wines are very important.

Scambios are ideal way to learn Italian — but careful how you say it

(I’m traveling. Below is a reprint from 2015)

At Eataly with Maria Angela, one of an estimated 50 (language) scambio partners I've had over the years.

At Eataly with Maria Angela, one of an estimated 50 (language) scambio partners I’ve had over the years.


The sun had long since set in Rome and that dark, crisp period right before dinner time settles into the most romantic city on earth. It’s the time when Romans sit in cozy enotecas, known in North America as wine bars, and warm themselves with good wine and conversation. I was sitting with a gorgeous Italian woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren in her early 30s. Long, curly, coal black hair, olive complexion and eyes right off a new-born doe. We were sitting in Del Frate, a dim enoteca near the Vatican so romantic you could fall in love with a mannequin. We were talking Italian and she was asking me about my former job as a sportswriter. She asked me if I played sports when I was younger. I tried to say, in Italian, “I was a lousy athlete.” But, instead, I screwed up the noun and the tense and instead of saying, “I was a lousy athlete” I said …

… “I’m lousy in bed.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t a date. It’s why I didn’t take offense to her — and every other beautiful woman within earshot of our table — laughing so hard. I kind of wondered how Italian women knew I hit only .236 my senior year in high school, but I wondered more how I messed up the sentence. Athlete in Italian is “atleta.” Bed is “letto.” Atleta. Letto. It’s an easy mistake to make, I lied to myself. (Oh, and to answer your next inevitable question, I did not get a chance to prove to her otherwise.)

I was having a scambio. It is great way to learn a language. It’s educational, fun and free. Scambio is Italian for “exchange.” I meet an Italian who wants to learn English. We talk Italian for an hour and then English for an hour and correct each other along the way. However, one of my first language lessons in Rome was how to ask for said language lesson. Technically, scambio in Italian vernacular usually refers to a sexual swap. I tried calling it a scambio di lingua but while lingua means “language,” it also means “tongue.” That became problematic — and a bit dangerous — when asking Italian women. While I still had my front teeth, I was told the accurate term is scambio linguistica.

When you move to a foreign country, you best learn a language three ways: You live with a family, you work for a local business or you get a girlfriend or boyfriend. You either live it, work it or sleep it. However, when I moved to Rome in January 2014, I did none of those things. I was a retired, unattached journalist whose lone baggage was a roller bag and a backpack.

Language classes? Ha! When I first lived in Rome from 2001-03, I followed the crowd and enrolled in language school. I liked Biology of Blood Clots more. I took two intensive one-month courses. It was awful. It was frustrating. It was humiliating. Navy SEALS training would’ve been less challenging. I was 45 years old taking my first foreign language lesson with 20-something Scandinavians and Latins working on their fourth or fifth language. They became fluent in, oh, about 90 minutes. After two months I still struggled conjugating “To have.” I remember once walking out of class so upset, so hopeless, I ordered a pizza that night in English. I order in the local language even in rural China.

Fabio and me at Bar Genny, south east of Termini train station.

Fabio and me at Bar Genny, south east of Termini train station.


But someone tipped me off to a fantastic website called ConversationExchange.com. It lists languages from French to Hmong. You list your native language, put in what language you want your partner to speak and fill out a brief bio. You peruse the list of potential partners and send them a message on the website. My bio receives about a dozen requests a week. It helps that I am an American journalist with an alleged solid command of English grammar. It also helps that the Italian economy is in its biggest recession on record and Italians see learning English as a ticket off this sinking peninsula.

The bio is important. But folks, this is not a dating sight. ConversationExchange.com doesn’t even include photos. I made it clear that I am not looking for a relationship other than one for conversation. Many female scambio partners tell me they meet men for a scambio and the men steer the conversation from conjugations of past conditional to sexual fantasies in St. Peter’s Square. Or the men end the first scambio with, “Let’s do this again. How about my place? Say, midnight?” One Italian man left a note on our language school bulletin board requesting scambio partners. He ended it with, “Women only.” I don’t go there. Learning Italian is hard enough not to add a big dose of sexual tension.

Me and Stefania at the Sicilian cafe, Mizzica. I'm eating a granita, a traditional Sicilian dessert.

Me and Stefania at the Sicilian cafe, Mizzica. I’m eating a granita, a traditional Sicilian dessert.


In the process, I’ve made numerous friends. In two stints in Rome covering about three years, I have had probably 50 scambio partners. An actor. An economics professor. A cell phone executive. A movie producer. A journalist. An English teacher. A cafe owner. A tour guide. Old. Young. Male. Female. It doesn’t matter. As long as they have a desire to learn English and I have the time, I meet them.

The level isn’t important. I’ve had Italians who can’t put an English sentence together. With them, I’m very basic and speak slowly. I’ve had Italians who are so fluent I wonder why then need help. They say they’re working on pronunciation, slang and finer grammar points.

My Italian is probably intermediate. My comprehension is awful but I can speak it, read it and write it OK, with the expected number of mistakes. And some of the mistakes are legendary. Besides the one above, which I enjoy repeating to expats who are embarrassed by their Italian, there was also the time a partner and I discussed Rome’s current economic crisis. She said she was really stressed and miserable over trying to make ends meet. I tried to say, “Ma sembri molto molto felice.” (“But you seem very, very happy.”) Instead, I said, “Ma sembri molto molto facile.” Facile means “Easy.” Fortunately, she laughed. I did not.

This used to say "Italian-English Dizionario" and was blue. Yes, I've used it a lot.

This used to say “Italian-English Dizionario” and was blue. Yes, I’ve used it a lot.


It may seem redundant to do scambios when I’m already living in Italy and surrounded by the Italian language in a city where English is pretty much confined to the larcenously priced International New York Times. It isn’t. Scambios force me out of my apartment and into conversations with people from different backgrounds, accents and interests. People from Tuscany speak a more pure form of Italian than Romans. Sicilians, when they speak Italian instead of Sicilian, are essentially speaking a second language and are easier to understand. Some Romans teach me Romanaccio, the cruder side of the Romano dialect. I have scored points from waiters and restaurant owners all over Rome for declaring after a meal, “AMAZZA CHE BONO!” That’s Romano for “VERY GOOD!”

Scambios also get me to neighborhoods and places I would never see otherwise. Sicilian diners. Cozy enotecas. Outdoor cafes. Dive bars. I do what we call in the American sports world, a “home and home.” We do one scambio in their neighborhood, then another at Linari, the local cafe in my neighborhood of Testaccio, about a mile south of the Colosseum.

Learning a foreign language is like growing a tree. It takes a long time. It’s real slow. It’s hard to see growth. However, if you’re patient and keep watering your interest, you can eventually branch out to the rest of your adopted country. Scambios are a good tool, but remember one thing.

It isn’t facile.

Going solo: Traveling alone doesn’t have to be lonely or scary if you take these tips

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.


“When you travel alone it’s never crowded.”

I left off the source of that great quote because it didn’t come from Mark Twain or Paul Theroux or any other great travel writer. It came from a guy I had a beer with at my guesthouse in Jamaica way back in 1982. I can’t remember his name or even his country but I found that comment so astute.

Just four years before, I had traveled around the world alone for a year and what he said hit home. I remembered. No matter how crowded a bus was, a street, a museum, a bar, when I was alone I never felt confined. I never felt trapped. I could always break away. The idea of traveling to find freedom and then locking yourself into an itinerary, let alone a tour bus, seemed a complete defeat of purpose. It’s like flying in an airplane and never looking out the window. Traveling with another person means you’re never truly away from home. Home is right next to you. The purpose of solo travel is to find yourself, not your friends.

This is my 40th year of international travel and I’ve traveled alone to most of my 102 countries. I traveled with girlfriends a few times. I traveled once with a platonic female friend and that turned into a travel tale from the Third Circle of Hades. I have never traveled with a guy, nor would I. Why?

I also have professional reasons to travel alone. As a travel writer, I want to write my own views, not those of someone else who browbeats me into veering away from my first impressions. I keep a journal everywhere I go. Try telling a travel partner to wait 90 minutes while you pound out an essay about your ride through an Indonesian jungle the day before.

There are drawbacks, of course. Traveling to beautiful places, inevitably you’ll find yourself in romantic places. Alone. I’ve never felt so lonely than one night on the isle of Crete when every traveler I drank with in the beach bar that night had a girlfriend. I was the 21st wheel.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.


I was once on assignment on Hawaii’s Big Island and walked out to my hotel’s beach-side restaurant for dinner. It was Valentine’s Day. I totally forgot. Every table was filled with cooing couples sipping wine under torchlight while I was speed dialing every friend with no benefits I knew, just so the others didn’t think I was a complete loser. Bringing a girlfriend, you not only never feel lonely but you take your relationship to romantic heights not possible back home.

It’s cheaper to share rooms. Another set of eyes is good for directions. Another brain is good for ideas.

But to travel alone and relying solely on your own eyes, brain and instincts shapes you as an adult. It steels you for future roadblocks in life. It builds confidence you can’t get from how-to books or jobs. I’m terrible with directions. I can get lost in an elevator. But I know I traversed Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range, drove around Iceland, traveled the length of Laos and hitchhiked behind the Iron Curtain. All alone.

With the high tourist season upon us, I thought I’d give some handy tips on solo travel. I hope they all make sense and don’t impede your own personal freedom. Some may not make sense. Use it as a guide, not as a bible. I’ve written 10 for men and 10 for women, based on surfing other websites and talking to female travelers who don’t need company to eat out in the Third World.

Clip it. Put it on your refrigerator while packing and safe travels.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.


FOR MEN

1. Money belt. This is for anybody, even those on an American Express tour bus but it’s even more important for solo travelers as you don’t have a partner or group to watch out for you. It’s a long, wide, thin cotton pouch with two zippers where you put all the things you can’t afford to lose: passport, second credit card, ATM card, large amounts of cash. In the old days I put plane tickets in there. It clips around your waist inside the waistline of your pants. The only way you can get robbed is if they knock you out and strip you. Through 40 years, I have yet to be ripped off.

2. Don’t engage people who approach you. Every person who tries starting a conversation with me, especially in poor countries, wants something at the end of the conversation. It’s almost always money. The longer you talk to them, the more they think you’re indebted. However, if you approach a local, no matter where, you’ll likely wind up with a friend. People all over the world love talking about their country, their culture. Once in the Seychelles Islands, I asked a local in a bar about the best beach. He turned out to be one of the island’s top chefs. Shortly into the conversation, a raggedy man asked if he could talk to me. He mumbled something in French then I heard “money” in English. I returned to the chef and we wound up exchanging postcards for years.

3. Sports bars. It’s easier to meet locals when you’re alone. For some reason they take pity on you, mainly because they’d never do it. Every major city has a sports bar where you can catch locals watching local sports they can’t watch in person. Ask them about their sports, their town, whatever. They’ll engage you. Many sports bars are pubs filled almost entirely of expats. Still, it’s not a bad place to get Westerners’ views of the country you’re traveling through. One Brit who’d lived in Mongolia for two years told me in a bar in Ulaanbaatar that domestic violence is so bad there, if you take out a woman and just don’t hit her, she’ll go out with you again.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana's Savor Tropical.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana’s Savor Tropical.


4. Dating sites. I’m not a fan of these. Women lie about their weight; men, women tell me, lie about their age and height. (How do you lie about your height, guys?) But I did it once. Before the 2012 London Olympics, I joined a site and targeted London women telling them I was a traveling food columnist for my Denver Post newspaper and wanted a local guide to find London’s best gastropubs, a big trend at the time. If they wanted a free meal in exchange for some gastronomic insight, write me back. I made a point to say I wasn’t looking to hook up. I wound up meeting three wonderful women, two were sisters (Sorry. Not twins.) and I not only had great meals and wrote a good column but made a couple friends along the way. You don’t have to be a food columnist. Just tell them you want insight into local cuisine. You want food, not romance.

5. Do not ask taxi drivers where to meet local women. That’s a disaster. I did it twice: In 1983 in Mexico City a guy dropped me off at a brothel. And it wasn’t just any brothel. It was a brothel specializing in obese women. Yes, it was targeting chubby chasers. In 1997 a guy in Rio took me to a massage parlor. I was wondering why all these guys were sitting around the lobby in bathrobes. I bolted both times.

6. Don’t read during meals, not even your cell phone. I went to Sri Lanka three years ago and was devastated when my aging cellphone conked out after I landed. I couldn’t text friends. I couldn’t post on Facebook. However, with nothing to engage me, I was able to engage locals. I was in the cool, green hill town of Ella when a Sri Lankan sitting nearby filled me in on the Cricket World Cup playing on the TV above us. Meanwhile, at the next table, I couldn’t help noticing two couples didn’t even exchange words with each other. They were all looking at their cellphones.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.


7. Drink. Yes, drink. You’re not driving, or, you’re probably not. Get shitfaced a couple nights. Let the inhibitions fall and clink glasses with locals. As a travel writer, it’s easy for me. The best place to get a pulse on a city is a bar. I often talk to bartenders, people who talk to lots of locals. If you ask one question about a country to a group of people at the bar, you’ll usually start a lively conversation or maybe a debate. The best travel quote I got all last year was in a bar in Reykjavik. Poleaxed by the larcenous prices I’d seen everywhere in Iceland, I asked them, “With fish 35 euros, beer 13 and cocktails 20, how the hell do you guys take out women here?” They all raised their glasses, laughed and simultaneously said, “We don’t!”

8. Sit with a foot or arm around a strap of your bag or backpack. Without another set of eyes, you’re a target for thieves. Stay awake. If you do nod off while sitting in an airport or train station, you should be able to feel someone removing your arm or foot to steal your bag.

9. Don’t swim at empty beaches before asking locals about it. The south coast of Sri Lanka has really underrated beaches. After a couple of days in Goyambokka, with one of the most idyllic beaches I’ve seen in Asia, I decided to explore. I cut through the jungle to the west for 15 minutes and found myself on a deserted, perfectly shaped half-moon beach. I was alone. Why? I found a man working on a house and he said the beach has a bad riptide. He said, “But if you get past that first wave, you won’t feel the current. Then when you return, swim sideways a few hundred meters and …” If I’d gone in alone without asking, I might not be writing this.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.


10. If you’re hiking, tell the hotel or guesthouse or a friend at home where you’re going. If you don’t come back, they’ll at least know where you went. I lived in Colorado from 1990-2014 and one day in 1994 a Colorado outdoorsman named Aron Ralston went hiking in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon. A dislodged 800-pound boulder pinned his arm against the wall. He couldn’t get out. He had told no one where he went. He sat there for six days. What did he do? He cut off his own arm. What he wound up with was a well-received book called (what else?) “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and an appreciation of the before-mentioned rule.

FOR WOMEN

1. Carry a whistle. Of all the self-defense devices, this seems the most popular. Mace and pepper spray, in many countries where they’re most needed, are considered concealed weapons and illegal.

2. Dress like an expat. That’s a fine balance. Don’t dress like a tourist. No white fedoras. No Nikes. No souvenir T-shirts. But don’t dress completely like a local, either. Don’t dress head to toe in native garb. You’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Dress conservatively and comfortably, like what you’d wear at home. Thieves and men look for naivete. Expats who’ve lived abroad awhile are street smart.

3. Don’t get drunk. This sounds obvious but living in Rome, I’ve seen some cases where a woman gets too drunk and some “kindly Italian” offers to walk them home. He’s not interested in discussing Dante’s “Inferno” once he gets you there.

4. Day tours. If you want to meet other solo travelers, take a day tour that attracts them. Many major cities have free walking tours, a great way to introduce yourself to a place and make friends. I even take them.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

Even I tried yoga, in Varkala, Kerala state, India.


5. Take a yoga class. Yoga is booming all over the world. If you do yoga, or have ever been interested in yoga, find a class where you’re visiting. You’ll find local women who might put you under their wing and show you where the good places to go.

6. Have a Plan B for accommodations. I’ve read stories of women who get to an AirBnB or a CouchSurfing spot and the owner wants to show them more than the city. If you feel uncomfortable, have a second accommodation’s phone number handy to call for a quick change.

7. Cut back on the jewelry. Jewelry is a big fence item. Don’t draw attention to yourself with anything flashy. If you’re rich, don’t show it. This is especially true in Brazil where armed hold-ups are done in broad daylight.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.


8. Hide extra cash. I read this and didn’t quite understand it, nor did I want to understand it but I’ll trust women will understand it: Put extra cash in a tampon applicator and put it back in its wrapper. I do understand that will definitely hide the money.

9. No earplugs. While walking the streets, don’t wear earplugs. You need to be more aware of your surroundings, of people approaching you from behind. You must hear everything. The U2 tape can wait.

10. Doorstop. Many women carry cheap little doorstops and wedge them under their hotel room door for extra security. Some hotels are so cheap, a well-trained cocker spaniel could break in.