Book Review: A Month of Italy – Rediscovering the Art of Vacation

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by author Chris Brady’s publiscist. They were starting a publicity campaign for Chris’s new book A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation and they wanted to buy ad space on Vagobond.  I asked the publicist, Doug, if he would send me over a copy of the book so I could make sure it was something I could feel good about recommending. I also offered to do a review on the condition that it be honest and unbiased.

Rediscovering the Art of VacationAt the time, I was getting ready for a trip of my own to Italy, then to Malta, San Marino, and Spain – so I didn’t have much time to sit and read it, but after going through the book on the fly and finding myself chuckling already – I figured this was just the kind of thing Vagobond readers would want to check out and agreed to the ad. As for me, I planned on giving the book a read while I was traveling in Italy. I told them that I would be more than happy to write a review of the book once I’d finished reading it – in my life though- finding the time to write a review isn’t easy and several months later – here it finally is.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book. From the beginning as Chris tries to trick his wife into taking a month long trip to Italy (only to discover that she is already way ahead of him) and then all the way through as this family man learns what it means to really dive into a country, it’s culture, it’s people, and it’s food – all while navigating the perils of bringing your entire family along for the ride.

And yet, there is much more to this book than the adventures and misadventures of an American family in Italy – instead, this book is about finding the balance in our lives between work and play – it is about the importance of taking the time to really live – and it is filled with powerful messages that every stressed out CEO or entrepreneur needs to read.  The reason? Because life is sometimes meant to be fun and sometimes it is meant to be downright silly.

Brady captures that, in particular with his take-aways and take-homes at the end of each chapter. A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation offers much more than just family vacation advice though.  For example:

If there were anything I learned from a tourist’s standpoint on this trip, it was that the best touring is done in the spaces in between. Sure Florence and Rome had been great, but much more enjoyable to me were the deserted country roads, the old men playing cards under an umbrella in a little nameless town, the forgotten spaces between the bustle. It was a metaphor for life, I was realizing. We tend to focus on the main goals, the biggest objectives: the crowded spaces. But life is perhaps lived best in the spaces in between.

The thing that most captured me as I read was the sense of how it made me feel good about the life I lead and the choices I’ve made. Chris is a hard working guy – like me. I spend a huge amount of time writing, editing, working on projects, and building a future for my wife, our daughter, and me. The thing is though, I always make sure to take the time to enjoy life too. Chris pointed out at one point that the average working American father spends an average of 37 seconds a day with their kids!!!! What?

Ultimately, this book is about Italy and more. It’s about Tuscany, food, culture, and the misadventures of travel – but, beneath the surface, this book is about the choices we make in our lives. It is about how to be more effective in our work, more loving in our families, and how to enjoy the art of our lives – both on vacation and at home.

At the core of the book is this idea of how American workaholics take one week in Italy and try to see all of it. Even a vacation is a stressed out event as they rush from one sight to the next to the next to the next. The Brady family takes a month and discovers that they have fallen into the same trap – but then, miraculously, they escape it.

While I’m not a fan of the whole traveler vs. tourist debate -which this book certainly delves into, though not as overtly as others, I do think the lessons of this book are worth sharing and worth enjoying. There is certainly something to be said for enlightened tourism  and while I don’t think that those who have traveled a lot are going to learn major lessons about how to travel from this book, I do think that the average working guy who takes his family on a trip now and then (or is planning to) will benefit from reading this. And, as I pointed out above, there are plenty of lessons about balancing work and joy – for those of us who travel for work, this might be of even more importance.

As to the rest – it’s an enjoyable story about traveling in Italy and it offers some funny stories, beautiful descriptions, and some inspiring moments. It’s a very good book and I recommend that you read it.

To find out more about the book, about Chris Brady, and about Italy – head over to A Month of Italy where you can see photos, read more reviews, check out some of the videos, and more or if you just want to grab a copy of the book and start reading, you can get that here.

Memory and Travel – Reflections on Bergamo and kindness to strangers


It’s funny how memory works in regards to travel. I was in Bergamo, Italy back in 2009 (and about 10 days ago but only to sleep in the airport but that’s another story) and my memory of it seemed to be perfectly clear. A very small sleepy place where I could walk from the train station to the Nuovo ostello di Bergamo in about 20 minutes. I even remembered a general map of how to get from the lower city to the upper city, where the funicular was, and how to get from the centro to the ostello.

So, last night, arriving at about 8 pm at the train station in Citta Basa – I started walking. I walked up the main boulevard past the grand square building in the area of the Sentierone and the Palace of Justice).I went by the 4 towers that housed The Health Tribunal, the Fair Curators, The Magistrate of Provisions and the Tribunal of Justice
and the famed 540 shops of the Sentierone. I strolled past the modern shops and began thinking to myself that I didn’t remember it being so…modern, so developed, so filled with luxury branded stores.

And as I kept walking for 30 minutes or so, I became less sure of where I was. At the point I remembered finding the stairs to the hostel, I found a hillside leading downward into a neighborhood instead of the ten flights of stairs leading upward that I remembered. Soon, I was in an area of closed shops and fairly modern apartment buildings. This didn’t fit with my memory at all.

I asked a few Italians if they knew where to find the Ostello di Bergamo but they didn’t speak enough English or didn’t know and then, I found a Moroccan kebob shop. They didn’t speak English either and my Italian is zero, but much to their surprise, this lost looking white guy wandered up and greeted them in Darija. My Moroccan Arabic is functional though far from fluent. Once they got over the shock of my speaking Arabic, they were very kind and interested.

They knew where the hostel was and I was far from it. One of them, Hisham, asked his boss if he could leave for a few minutes to get me started in the right direction. We chatted in Darija about family and life in Italy. He’s originally from Agadir and has actually been to Sefrou for some reason. I admit that I’m not always keen on meeting Moroccans in Morocco, but when I meet those who have left or travelled abroad, it is always an extreme pleasure. It’s something about the broadened world view and the shattering of the illusions the media puts in people’s heads. An expansive worldview makes a world of difference. The Prophet Mohammad said something like “Don’t tell me what you’ve read, tell me where you’ve travelled.”

In any event, Hisham and I were lucky to run into his Italian friend, Enzo who was waiting to pick up his girlfriend from work. Enzo speaks English and offered to drive me to the hostel. During this exchange, I was translating Arabic to English and English to Arabic – a good exercise that seemed to work.

So then, Enzo and his girlfriend drove me to the hostel which was miles from where I had ended up. Once at the hostel, I thought I remembered where the pizza place nearby was – but once again – memory failed me, so I ended up eating a frozen microwave dinner. And while I can say that my memories of the hostel being clean, bright and comfortable were right I was disappointed to recall that they require you (or at least me 2x now) to check out each day at 10am, leave your bags in the luggage room, and then check back in in the afternoon. Not ideal by any means- it makes me glad I took a day in Greece to just lounge in my hotel room.

Anyway, I’m excited to get back to Morocco but I have a full day and another night here in Bergamo. I had thought to take the train and get lunch in Switzerland, but the weather may not be cooperating – in any event there is a giant world food festival here as well as a world renowned organ music festival – so it may be best to stay here – besides the trip to Switzerland wouldn’t allow enough time to see the Alps.

 

The Glaoui (Glaoua) Palace in Fes, Morocco

Slightly outside of the UNESCO classified Fes Medina, you will probably miss something extraordinary, unless you take the time to go and look for it. The Dar al Glaoui, the Glaoui Palace, a crumbling reminder that power is fleeting.

While a lot of people mention Paul Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky as the ultimate in capturing the essence of Morocco, for me, it was a different book that succeeded in capturing not only the Moroccan mentality, but also the soul of the country itself. Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956 is perhaps the ultimate in coming to understand Morocco.

Consider this review from The Library Journal

British author Maxwell accomplishes the twofold task of detailing the daily life, customs, and rituals in pre-independence Morocco and of recounting the rise and fall of El Hadj T’hani El Glaoui, the legendary tribal warlord through whom the French ruled one of their prize colonies in North Africa. Maxwell, who died in 1969, considered himself an explorer and wrote of faraway places; here he introduces readers to the harshness and beauty of Morocco. He shows how the blend of Berber, Arab, and black African races created an extraordinary cultural mosaic and explains how the French colonialists recruited the Atlas Mountain tribal warlords to subdue the other tribes.

As the chief beneficiary of this policy, El Glaoui was able to rule most of southern Morocco in an absolute fashion, until Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 brought an end to the rule of a very colorful warlord.

At times it is necessary to remind yourself that not only is this a true story, but that most of the events portrayed took place in the 1900’s! It is a fantastic account of the power behind the French Protectorate, and a reminder that politics has always been a filthy business. Anyone planning a visit, or who has been to Morocco, especially the Glaoui kasbahs of the High Atlas, should read this book, as should fans of bloody, political intrigue.

I should point out though that the book has more than a few critics who generally say something like this: “If you want a book singing the praises of a few thugs who made good during the French mandate (Primarily on prostitution) A book filled with unsupported (And frankly slanderous) comments, a book written by a man who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about Morocco, Islam or Arab culture and a book that’s basically a rip off from someone else’s then this really is the book for you. ”

After all that, hands down, this is my favorite touristic destination in Fes. It’s not as well kept as the Batha Museum, not as grand and glorious as the Karaouyine Mosque, not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries, but there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.

The palace is owned by 14 families who have fallen on hard times in Marrakech and France but is lived in and taken care of by Abdou, an artist. He was born there and lives there with his sister. He is the third generation born there and while not a Glaoui, he is happy to be there and try to keep it from falling in on itself.

The palace is generally closed to the public but usually open to the public via Abdou and his sister who are happy to show you around the 150-year-old palace comprised of 17 houses, stables, a mausoleum and cemetery, Quranic school, hammam, garages and two large gardens. While generally the tour is composed of seeing a few salons, the haram, the massive kitchen and a few of the courtyards, it is possible to see a bit more if you are careful and polite and the weather lines up for you.

Apparently, the palace complex is for sale for several million dollars. A steal for anyone who gets it since it would be like owning your own miniature al-Hambra (which it was actually designed after). The entire house is a masterpiece of painted wood, zellij (mosaic tile), carved wood, fountains, and also the first modern bathroom to ever be built in North Africa complete with original plumbing.

If you do buy it – try to get a few of Abdou’s paintings thrown in. Total hidden treasure. I would tell you how to get there, but it would be a waste of time, because you would get lost and have to ask someone anyway – so, just go to Batha and start asking people how to find Abdou and the Glaoui Palace – they’ll know exactly where you mean.

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