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Hi, thank you for allowing me to be part of your forum. I am a travel writer, but first and foremost, a traveller. I like to dive deeply into a place and so rarely stay for less than a month. My last trip in 2019 was to Paris where I stayed in the Marais section. While I had been to Paris more than 10 times over the years, I learned so much more by staying for a month and immersing myself in the culture. Regretfully, my French did not improve as much as I wished - in part because so many Parisians speak English. Next, headed to Italy. I would love to hear your stories about your stays in Italy and where you think a good center would be for a longer stay. How are the trains?

Ian Sutton

1000+ Posts
Hi and welcome!
A good centre very much depends on what your interests are.

if looking to travel the country from that base, then Rome is logistically useful, but likewise if looking to explore (say) the North, then Bologna or Milan can be useful.

If looking to embed more in a specific region, city or town then it gets more specific for your interests (and you'll have a good number of people here enthused that you very much buy into the 'Slow travel' concept).

I'll throw some generalisations in that might help shape your thoughts, but I'll also throw in a couple of book recommendations. The core of Fred Plotkin's 'Italy for the gourmet traveller' are restaurant and shop recommendations. but fwiw I find these a lot weaker than the next book. However where I think he has a rare talent, is his descriptions of regions, cities etc. that in not too many words give you a useful insight into 'why' going there might interest. The 2nd book is a regular buy for me, maybe every 3 years: Il Golosario by Paulo Masssabrio. It's an annually updated guide to food shops, producers, but also including restaurants, wineries etc. It might not have every shop that is great, nor is every one listed great, but I've found it's more comprehensive than any other listing, and on the whole gives a very good steer towards the wonderful wealth of specialist food shops in Italy.

So, (over)generalisations:
North: generally a little more 'well to do' and can sometimes be accused of aloofness, but that's not been something I've experienced.
South: Often more intimate, and can get somewhat rough around the edges

Tourist Centres (Like Florence, Venice etc) very much cater for english speakers and indeed multiple languages, making for an easier acclimatisation, but the culture can feel a little artificial
Away from the tourist trail (places like Turin until recently, Ferrara (surprisingly as it ought to be more popular, or Trento, or many smaller towns) English may be spoken, or may not. You'll always be able to get by, but learning Italian is a massive help. As in France, you'll have some people wanting to practice their English, but also some people who are very capable, but lack confidence speaking English, plus some who have never learnt it and may just know a few words picked up by osmosis ;))

Difficult places to 'embed': Bigger cities can have a lot of bustle and less time to chat, though there is lots to do that gets you into the culture. Tourist locations aren't great at all, but staying on the periphery can ease this
Great places to embed: Having a location where you might go for bread every 2-3 days, coffee at least daily, a local alimentaria, gastronomia every 2-3 days can get you recognised and thus start conversations. I found Molveno near Trento to be like this, even though it does have its fair share of tourism (skiing in winter, walking outside of that). Somewhere like Santa Vittoria near Alba though had just one alimentaria, but was reasonably close to a large out of town concentration of modern warehouse style shops and hypermarkets. Whilst to a degree that's also embeddding in the culture, I don't think it helped give the feeling of being part of a village. I typically lean towards places that might seem to others as 'humdrum' and on the whole it's been great for me, though Forlì was the standout exception. Apart from a special 'white night' evening of music and shopping until midnight, and one good gastronomia, it was remarkably dull!

Events Not necessarily a good way to meet people, but there are plenty in Italy, many rooted in history. They're both useful insight into a place and its people, but also convivial affairs, with good street food, entertainment (I love seeing the flag throwing / catching) etc. Some smaller ones do however encourage engagement e.g. sitting down at communal tables to eat truffles with pasta at the little truffle festival in Pianoro, south of Bologna. Similarly getting involved in social activities e.g. the lovely walking group we found in Castino (south off the Langhe wine region in Piemonte). We also got an invite to join the local Asti funghi group, and we'd love to take them up on that offer. Anything from conservation, through knitting to sports... whatever interests you, expect a warm welcome. Indeed when my partner had to get an x-ray for what turned out to be a badly twisted (but not broken) ankle, we got chatting to loads of people about it, in the hospital and out and about in Lipari (Aeolian islands). Their compassion came through so strongly. So whilst I'd not recommend it, it's a reminder that in normal activities, there can be genuine engagement. As an aside, and whilst not great for meeting people, I love the setup in the central post office buildings and positively look forward to when we send parcels of goodies home. It's a unique setting for people watching whilst we wait our turn. More useful though, is the Italian early evening 'passeggiata', often wonderful in otherwise humdrum places, but that have a central pedestrianised area (e.g. La Spezia or Recco in Liguria). Everyone emerges after the long lunch break to grab a coffee or gelato, to catch up on gossip, parade babies, for kids to get together for a kickabout, etc. and for me is a very special window into Italian culture. Anytime from say 4pm-7pm is good.

Where to stay: We've always liked apartments, and that feels like the right option for what you seek. Where possible, we'll go via a local letting agency, partly not wanting to feed national / international aggregators, allowing more money to stay locally, but also having someone on hand locally can be useful. As an extra bonus, these tend to be more isolated lets, amongst a block that still is predominately locals. If travelling around as well, consider agriturismo (farmstays) as a great way to not only embed in rural setting, but also when they serve meals, these are often remarkably cheap banquets that are well supported by local people, giving it a convivial atmosphere and an insight into family dynamics in Italy.

I hope this helps, but happy to put more specific suggestions in, if you've got interests or aims that you'd love to drive your choice.
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