Travel writer Alexei Cohen, author of ‘Moon Rome, Florence & Italy’ has an impressive knowledge of all things Italian. We caught up with him to discuss how to explore the authentic side of Italy, food and seek out authentic flavours.
Can you please tell us a few words about your background?
I was born in New York City and grew up in Connecticut the son of a French mother and American father. We spent our summers in France and I caught the travel bug from my grandfather who enjoyed long car rides through bucolic countryside. That’s probably why I still love grazing cows and old Renault 4 automobiles. I went to college in Pittsburgh where I studied creative writing and discovered Federico Fellini. I fell in love with Italy watching La Strada and the country became a major theme in my life. After graduating I traveled around Europe before returning to New York and getting a job in publishing where I met my future wife. We moved to London a few years later and eventually settled in Rome where I got involved with writing travel guides. I’ve written and contributed to several books for Moon Travel and am now using a blog and social media to share my passion for Italy.
In your book Moon Rome, Florence & Italy you share your expert perspective on some of our favourite Italian regions – Tuscany and Veneto. What do you love the most about these beautiful cities?
The great thing about Italy is that within a relatively short distance you can find unique cities. I don’t mean just architecture, art or food but the people themselves who have different characters and speak with different accents and vocabulary. With the advent of high speed rail visitors can get around the peninsula quickly and Rome, Florence and Venice in particular provide a marvelous experience for all the senses. It’s hard to pick just one favorite but I do have a great love for Venice and that city’s ability to provide tranquility regardless of how many tourists flock to Piazza San Marco. The trick is to seek out what everyone else is overlooking and in Venice there’s plenty that gets ignored. When I go I love getting a multi day vaporetto (ferry) pass and exploring random stops and lagoon islands like Murano and Burano.
You know Italy very well, please share with us some travel tips to have an authentic experience.
Everyone wants to see the Coliseum and the Statue of David and it’s difficult to avoid the crowds in those places but the beauty of Italy is that there’s an infinite amount of things to see. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome for example you’re almost better off taking the 20-minute train ride to Ostia Antica or walking along the Via Appia then filing methodically through the Forum. There are plenty of well-preserved sites and under visited museums that are nearly empty and allow travelers to experience Italy without elbowing through tourists.
I recommend entering bars and restaurants off major tourist routes and going out at night when cities take on a different character. It’s also a good idea to learn some practical words and phrases. When I first traveled to Italy I found speaking broken Italian with locals to be one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of the journey. These days there are dozens of apps that can help master the basics of any language and transform the experience of travel.
You are married to an Italian wife, how different is Italian food culture to American and how important is food in Italian family and tradition?
Let’s put it this way on our first date I prepared pasta with asparagus sauce I made using Campbell’s soup. I don’t do that anymore. I use fresh vegetables that I buy from a daily outdoor market near my house. My kids have a higher food culture than I ever had (and my mother is French). When I suggest we go for fast food they usually balk and if dinner doesn’t include at least two courses they complain. I think Italians (and Europeans in general) value food quality more than people in the United States. Here nearly every town has its specialties, which range from pasta sauce to desserts and every flavor in between. Good food is one of the clichés about Italy but it’s true and one of the most satisfying parts of a visit. It is however possible to have a bad meal and it’s up to travelers to avoid obvious tourist traps around major sites and seek out authentic flavors, which can usually be found right around the corner.
Alexei Cohen is a writer and social media editor living in Rome with his wife and two children. You can follow him on Twitter or read his Italy Chronicles blog for insights in Italy. His latest guide book Moon Rome, Florence & Venice will be released in April and is available in print and pixel.