“When is the best time to visit ITALY?” is a question I get asked about every few weeks or so. It could be at a cocktail party, in the check-out line at Whole Foods (maybe it’s the products I buy, but the conversation always shifts to Italy and the fact that I lead travelers there as part of my job) or at an Italian, French or Spanish class at Speak! This question is asked in person, on the phone, email, facebook and twitter by strangers, students, friends, friends of friends and distant relatives who emerge as soon as they begin to contemplate their long-yearned for European vacation (hopefully, with my help, not resembling National Lampoon’s in the least!). Quando, Christina? Dimmi quando, quando, quando!
Although they generally want a one or two word answer (in the form of a season or particular month), I always challenge people by explaining that Italy has both distinct political regions (twenty, to be exact) and geographic areas: mountain ranges like the Alps and Appenines, islands like Elba, Sicily and Sardegna, coastal microclimates such as in Liguria (that basil pesto is famous for a reason), cities located in potentially sweltering and smog filled valleys like Florence and others located along breezy coasts such as Genova and Otranto in Puglia or on pleasantly or unpleasantly windy hilltops such as Ravello, Orvieto, Cortona and Gubbio. Whether I’m in the check-out line or seated next to someone on a cross-Atlantic flight, whenever this topic comes up I also try to ask a lot of questions in order to determine the type of traveler I am talking to: their preferences – city, mountain or coast? big cities or small towns? major monuments or off-the-beaten-path? warm sea breezes or cool mountain air? – before making an educated reply to their question. I wouldn’t want to suggest Rome in August to someone who hates big cities and sweltering summer heat or to someone interested in getting a feel for what the locals do in Rome in that month (since most are not actually in Rome or Florence, for that matter, but at the beach or in the mountains!). If someone loves hilltowns and is eager to experience Tuscany or Umbria, I would explain that these central regions are beautiful in just about every month. If someone loves opera and wants to visit Verona, I would definitely recommend visiting in the summer when they could enjoy opera live in the historic arena (they can even do so with Speak! in July 2012!). I have experienced Christmas and New Year’s in Bologna, Pisa, Torino, Milan and Todi and loved each place for its traditional festivals, streets filled with shoppers and the smell of roasted chestnuts, the outdoor celebrations animated by fireworks, spumante and Panettone, so I always recommend visiting Italy for the winter holiday season. I also usually inquire about budget as there are certainly loads of discounts in many regions during the off-season and the relative lack of other tourists makes it much easier not only to find a table or a ticket, but also to interact in a meaningful way with the locals – which is the major mission of all Speak! travel programs and courses, naturalmente. But when I really want to condense my answer down into a few short but sweet tips, here is what I say:
- IN A WORD, OR TWO: Despite Italy’s unique geography and the seasonal nature of much of Italian life, the best month to travel to Italy in one word is : SEPTEMBER. I love September because the weather is still warm in most of the country. The sea waters are still warm enough to swim in, such that if you travel to islands like Sicily or coastal regions like the Salentine peninsula in Puglia you’ll find uncrowded beaches ideal for swimming and sunning and lower rates on still-open hotels. In two words is: JUNE and SEPTEMBER. Although early JUNE can tend to be rainier in many regions than September, both months are ideal as you can usually get a sense of two different seasons : Spring and Summer (in mid June) and Summer and Fall (in mid September). It’s not a coincidence that I schedule my Two Weeks in Todi course for June and September each year – when we can experience everything from flowering fields of lentils in the spring to sunset drives past vines sagging with plump clusters of Sagrantino grapes in September.
- CHIUSO PER FERIE: Try to avoid cities like Rome and Florence in the month of August – or at least be aware that many cities and even smaller towns empty out during that month as the entire country goes on vacation. The sign “chiuso per ferie” (closed for holiday) is a common sight!
- The Ups and the Downs: Pay attention to altitude and whether your destination is on the coast or in a valley. There can be 10-15 degree differences between a town in the valley and another on a hill, between a resort on the coast and another that’s land-locked. The fact that many places in Italy don’t have air conditioning or heating systems that will keep most North Americans happy, is an important detail to consider.
- FOUR SEASONS: If you can, try to visit the same region or town several times in order to experience it in at least two, but ideally all four seasons. That way, you’ll really get to know and appreciate the different festivals, smells, natural cycles, food and drink, and even the fashions of a single place. I am teaching Italian to a family who will be spending an entire year in the Umbrian hilltown of Spello starting next summer. I am so excited for them as I know they will get to truly experience “Le Quattro Stagioni di Spello” and fall intimately in love with a place in a way that would not be possible if they just visited for a month in the summer. Of course, the fact that they will be able to speak italiano will make their experience all the richer!