As an expert in all things Italy, Patty’s Civalleri’s travel books are a must-have for any traveler looking to experience the hidden gems of Italy beyond the typical tourist destinations. If you’re prepping to secure your tickets to travel abroad, here’s an opportunity to learn why Florence, Rome, and Venice should not just be on your list of places to see, but why Italy is the premiere destination of 2023!

Unlike any other travel books, Patty’s books go deep into must-see places that the average tour guide may not know about or may not have much knowledge of. Even better, her books don’t just tell you to “go to see the Colosseum in Rome” — instead, they provide an immersive experience that allows travelers to journey off the beaten path and discover the miracles of the Italian landscape. Patty believes that you, the traveler, should lay claim to your favorite site, so you’ll never read about her mentioning her own favorites in any of her books. The reality is that Patty’s deep love for these places in Italy makes each entry in the collection a favorites list from beginning to end.

As an archaeologist, historian, and photographer, Patty offers a unique perspective that takes your discovery of Italy to the next level. Her collection features includes a Spinicity Board, an easy spin board that makes travel easier by removing the indecisiveness that may occur when deciding what to visit and experience in over 100 cities. Gone are the days of boring old travel reading, as we embrace Patty Civalleri’s modern take on learning, discovering, and falling in love with destinations abroad!

Below, you’ll learn a ton about Patty and what makes Italy such a highlight destination, while also having a few laughs, and falling in love with her charm as she schools us in all things Italy!

Q&A With Patty Civalleri

Q: Hi Patty! Let’s dive in with some details about you. Where are you from, and what made you want to become an author?  

P.C.: I am a California girl raised on a ranch in Livermore, California. My dad was a writer for the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and of us 5 kids, I was the only one that took to writing. I’ve been writing all of my life in one form or another. I began my adult life in what was later to become Silicon Valley. Whether my job was tech support or marketing, I was always asked to write.

Many of my pieces were published in some of the (long bygone) early technology mags & rags. I held columns in a variety of specialty magazines over the years as well. Later when I joined the Director’s Council of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, I had already added photography to my bag of skills. I spent nearly two decades traveling the world with renowned archaeologists in search of lost and ancient cultures, photographing and writing for their needs. So by the time I began writing books, I was no stranger to the world of writing. Book publishing, however, was a completely different story. My, how the world of book publishing has changed since my dad taught me about it when I was a girl!

Q: What was the most important thing for you to capture in your books: educating readers, not missing the magic of any location, or something else?

P.C.: With the institute, we traveled the globe many times over. For each destination we explored, I would hunt and search out books that would give me a running start in understanding the local culture, and the history, to learn what makes the local people the way they are. I didn’t have the luxury of plodding through heavy academic texts before each trip, I merely wanted something that a mere mortal could get through. In the world of travel, these kinds of books are pretty much non-existent.

Sure, there are plenty of travel books that tell you about where to stay, where to eat, where to shop, and where to stop. But I wanted something deeper: something that would take me beneath the modern surface of the local culture, and send me careening back into their deep past: where did they originally come from? Who were their historical leaders? How did the climate and location affect their food & dwellings? What were their major historical plights that have carved the scars on the souls of who they are today? We all have those historical/cultural scars, and I wanted to know what made the people in each destination unique. So why couldn’t I find books that were created for the consumer market that filled the gaping hole between surface consumerism and academic depth?

This is precisely what I wanted to capture in my books. UCLA taught me to grasp a history, take it apart, and put it back together in a way that is digestible for eager, curious consumers. I wanted to write the kind of travel books for the curious mind that wants a deeper and more fulfilling experience with their destination than the typical travel books will take them. And as a big portion of the consuming market is asking for deeper experiences, I see many of the other books trying to give it to them, but they are missing the mark – lacking a key ingredient. What is it? Well now, I can’t tell you that, as that is my secret sauce!

Q: You were very clever in providing different ways to consume the information within each book — each varying in the volume of detail, photographic visuals, and somewhere in-between. How did you come up with this ingenious way of ensuring even the most time-pressed readers could have a method to take it all in?

P.C.: Wow… it sounds like you really read my books! Without giving too much of my recipe away, it was obvious to me that everyone absorbs information in different ways. Especially when they are in a ‘casual’ vacation mode. Some want a deep dive, and some simply want to skim. I simply stitched the information together to accommodate three different ways of getting to the heart of each topic.

Q: What inspired you to write about Italy and specifically, Florence, Rome, and Venice?

P.C.: Truly, it was unintentional. I love ancient countries. Egypt, the Middle East, Asia, etc. But of the hundreds of places that I have visited, the one place that continued to be difficult to leave was Florence. I have no clue as to why. No other place tugged at me to return like Florence did. I had been back to visit her a couple of times, but I always had that same ‘heartbreak’ each time I left to go home. So one day, I packed my stuff, got an Airbnb, and headed off to Florence for a couple of months. And boy, did I fall in love! I called my husband and said, I don’t know what it is, but this city has such a compelling story. Get on a plane and get here as fast as you can.

The two of us proceeded to do the deep dive in this little town, and didn’t come up until it was time once again to go home. When I got back to California, I organized my photos and notes, threw in some graphic design and common sense, and added all of the things that I couldn’t ever find in other travel books, and — Voilà — I had a wonderful product in my hands. And it felt SO GOOD! As you know, when something feels so good, you can’t just stop at one, right? (Wink!)

Q: Can you share your favorite hidden gem in each city that most tourists might not know about?

P.C.: One of the things that I think about when I travel is what is interesting to one person may not be very important to the next. That is why I do not put myself into my books. Your journey has to be your own, not mine. Has a friend ever raved about a fantastic experience or place they ate on their trip? Then when you got there, it just wasn’t the same for you? I don’t really point out favs in my books – each book is actually cram-packed with my favs. Travelers must decide their [favorites] for themselves.

So given that… in Venice, it’s hard to imagine going underground in a city that was built up from floating marshes. But there are a couple of churches with tombs underneath them. How, you ask? And all throughout the Venetian streets are symbols left over from a thousand years ago, when people couldn’t read or write. What do they say? All I can say is that you have to read the book. (Especially page 118. LOL!)

In Florence, there is a small carving of a man’s face right out in the open. It was scratched into the wall by Michelangelo one day when he was bored. In a major Piazza, there is a plaque in the ground in the exact spot where a religious zealot was hanged then burned because his perspective angered the Pope in Rome. Among other things, the plaque says (in Latin) “We shall never forget.” You may have heard of “The Bonfire of the Vanities?” This is that original chilling story, and it is nicely covered in my Florence book.

In Rome, they have some incredibly cool things inside many of their archaeological and historical sites. They use technology to catapult visitors back a couple of thousand years. And it’s really good! For example, in the Forum, there is a little door that you can go down underground. Yes, underneath the Forum. You descend into Emperor Nero’s home. Remember the guy that supposedly ‘fiddled while Rome burned’? (By the way, that never happened.) His living room is an underground cave-like space with rocks, boulders, and remnants of broken painted tiles around you. You sit on a rock and don 3D Virtual Reality glasses and boom! Suddenly, the room around comes to life: the gorgeous walls rise up, fabulous mosaics cover the floor, you can hear water as fountains appear all around you. You are now in Nero’s living room! Today’s technology actually puts the visitors smack dab into the middle of ancient history! The biggest section of my Rome book is on these incredible ancient sites, many of which utilize technology to tell their stories. So in Rome, forget the “Top 10” sites. My books will show you a Rome that is far more interesting than a mere fountain or a staircase!

Q: How exactly did you determine which destinations to write about?

P.C.: If you are asking about how I chose each site? That’s easy. I chose them all. I began with the top sites in each city and was left feeling unsatisfied. So I kept going. I found over 100 sites in each of the cities, most of which are more interesting or exciting than most of the typical top 10 sites.

Take Rome, for example. It’s important to remember how those sites were defined. They were defined by Hollywood movies in the 20th century: “3 Coins in a Fountain,” “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus,” “Cleopatra,” “The God Father,” “Roman Holiday,” etc. Some are popular because a starlet fell in love or made a wish. And some are popular because they are truly incredible. That is why I was left feeling unsatisfied after seeing the top sites. Many didn’t have much depth outside of the movies. I figured that Rome has been around for 2,700 years. Surely they must have left behind more than a few sites. And boy, was I right! Rome has left behind a whole trove of incredible sites. And more are being excavated by today’s top archaeologists today. So, to simply see an arena, a fountain, a church, a staircase and call it a trip is doing Rome – and yourself – a huge injustice.

Q: What do you think sets Florence, Rome, and Venice apart from other cities in Italy, in terms of their cultural and historical significance?

P.C.: Rome: Well, we know all about her Emperors – or at least a few. And the fact that they conquered most of Western Europe, including France, Spain, and England. Also Turkey, and Egypt and all of the little countries around the Mediterranean. They had a high level of literacy, they hugely supported art, music, philosophy and architecture… The Gladiators and Chariot races, Caesar and Cleopatra. The Romans brought Catholicism to the Empire. And when those Romans fell, they fell hard, plunking the West into the ‘Dark Ages.’ That meant that hundreds of thousands of pieces of great writings, paintings and sculptures were buried deep under the soil. Gorgeous buildings were torn down, and literacy was no more. Speaking of Catholicism, what about all those Popes? OMG – their stories will curl your toes! Much of what they built is still seeable today.

Venice was a major power of Western Europe for over 800 years! They lived on islands and therefore made the best fleet of ships than any other power in Europe. They had the biggest and strongest naval fleet on the water, and they controlled all trade going into and out of Europe. Which included ALL trade between Africa and Europe. They created the Silk Road and collected taxes for every thing that was traded between Europe and China. If a country wanted to fight another country on the water, they would hire Venetian boats and crew to assist. Even the Crusades hired Venetian boats when they (France) wanted to attack Turkey in the name of the Church. Venice owned the entire coastline of Northern Italy all around the Dalmatian Coastline and even all of Greece, Crete and in towards Istanbul. It was considered the chic-est place to be seen in all of Europe. The place to own property. The place from which to receive a party invitation. Their language is different – it is not Italian, and their food is not Italian. It is seafood (they’re an island, remember?) mixed with some French and Austrian, just to name a few culinary influences. Venice was truly her own country for nearly 1,300 years. So why weren’t we taught this in school?!? And why do we expect her to be ‘Italian-like’ when we go to visit her? Whew, what a cool story! We have so much to learn, eh?

Now, Florence is ALL ABOUT the Renaissance. The story of the Renaissance is one of the most compelling – and important – stories in all of Western Europe. Period. Because if it never happened, we might all still be living in the tremendously scary ‘Dark Ages.’ A bunch of artists and writers, funded by the Medici family, created a movement with their art that was so powerful that it became the voice of a population that had no voice of their own. This population was what we know as Western Europe, and that movement became known as The Renaissance. It was this ‘freedom of thinking’ movement that dragged the West out of the ‘Dark Ages’ and into the light of Freedom. So, if you think you are uncomfortable and unhappy living in today’s cushy-comfy time, think again. Because those Medieval ‘Dark Ages’ were so frightening that I don’t believe many Americans would have survived well at all. It’s all about perspective. Get some.

Q: What are some common misconceptions that travelers have about Italy?

P.C.: There are many, but the one that is the most common has to do with food. You see, Americans think that we know all about Italian food. But we know all about Americanized Italian food, and food created based on Italian preferences, but I am aghast when I am in Italy and I overhear how Americans order food. For example, there is no such thing as Fettuccine Alfredo. That was invented in the US. If someone serves it to you in Italy, know that you are in a tourist venue, not an Italian restaurant. Italians do not put meat on their pizzas. But some places may do it for Americans. We do understand that Italians are very proud of their recipes. So why do we get obnoxious when they refuse to put meat on our pizza? How about pasta in general? In Italy, pasta is an early course. We serve our whole meal on one plate, Italians enjoy breaking up each thing on a plate into a course.

So pasta would be what we consider to be a little side dish, like perhaps mashed potatoes. The main course always includes a meat or fish, and fresh-picked veggies, either cooked or raw. What do Americans do? We have taken that little side dish, tripled its amount, and made it into the whole meal. Carbs. Then we throw in a bunch of bread and butter with it. Super carbs. (Is there a wonder that we are the most obese country in the world?) Just like in America, food is regional. You know how we have Southern food, New York food, New England food, etc? Italy is no different. So much of Tuscany is inland farming areas. Pork/boar is huge in Tuscany, and beef. Sicily is all about farming, so all of their meals include a healthy amount of vegetables. They have also been owned in the past by Spain, Turkey, you name it. So their food is heavily influenced by these other countries. Venice is an island, so seafood is huge. They were also conquered by France and Austria back in the day, so you will find their food is more by the North than by Italy in the South.

The best way to eat in Italy is to find a nice dark, probably un-windowed little restaurant, and go in. Keeping your voice at a polite volume (Americans have a reputation of being way too loud in public), ask the waiter to recommend what the cook would like to serve today. Period. Try it. If you don’t love it, don’t go back. If you love it, stay and sit and stay and enjoy. Italians are so happy that you chose their restaurant and so flattered that you love their food, that they are happy to host you for hours. Unlike the tourist traps that give you the check immediately, and begin pushing you out as soon as it appears that you have taken your last bite. Contrarily, that little dark Italian family restaurant will NEVER bring the check to you. You must ask for it. Sometimes repeatedly. Because giving you the check is tantamount to them asking you to leave. This would be horribly rude to ask you to leave if you are enjoying your meal and their ambience. I could go on about eating in Italy and how different it is to everything we have been taught. But I’ve been told that this is an article – not a book! (LOL!)

Q: How have Venice’s struggles with sea level rise, overcrowding due to tourism, and recently, drought, affected your outlook of the city personally?

P.C.: Let me separate that into two different questions:

1. Sea Level: Venice has been struggling with sea level issues since the 1970s because they dredged the bottom of the entrance lagoon to make it much deeper and wider to accommodate the entry of Cruise Ships. The many tiny islands that make up Venice were man-made on top of swampy marshy areas in the lagoon. By their very nature, they are fragile. Allowing so much more water to flow into the lagoon filled it too high, bringing the surrounding waters up into the streets of the islands. They eventually brought in an outside company to create sets of underwater ‘gates’ that would open and close based on the tides, thereby not allowing waters from high tides to flood their streets. That hasn’t worked very well yet, and it is quite controversial as to whether it ever will.

Additionally, the December monsoon conditions bring huge winds up from Africa in the South which pushes the waters of the Adriatic Sea to the North. And what is at the north end of the Adriatic? Venice. These monsoons have occurred annually forever, so the locals are quite used to it. The media makes an unusually big deal out of it every single year because frankly, it sells. And each year, they get a jaw-dropping photo that gets boosted all around the world. The ‘draught’ thing is the exact same situation: the waters in the lagoon recede all the time. Just like the California coastline, sometimes more than other times. They didn’t experience a ‘drought’ like it said in the papers. That condition lasted about a day, then the waters returned, and Venice was normal again. Yes, indeed they have water issues that will forever plague them. But people must stop believing that Venice is doomed to sink any minute now.

2. Overcrowding: This is such a huge issue in Venice that most of the locals have moved away from Venice. In the 1950’s, the population was approximately 175,000. Today, a mere 51,000 people still reside in Venice. And the number is still declining every single year. The island is now primarily made up of retail stores, tourist restaurants, hotels and vacation rentals. Most of the restaurants are large brass-and-glass places that do not cook traditional Venetian food, and they have also gained the reputation of severely over-charging customers. By and large, the gift shops on the beaten path sell cheap knock-offs of Venetian treasures. Visitors don’t really understand that the soul of Venice includes a deep pride in their artisanal goods, such as hand-blown glass items, carved wood items, and such. The cheap knock-offs have become so normal as take-home souvenirs that the tolerance for the higher prices for the authentic Venetian goods are not well accepted by tourists.

Visitors to the floating city are not taught much about Venice. In fact, when I went there to research the city, I was shocked at the lack of depth of widely available materials. Giant cruise ships would pile into the port, sometimes 15 – 20 in a single day, unloading thousands of passengers per ship. The passengers would have around 3-5 hours to visit the city, then they would have to reboard the ship to leave the Island. Sadly, tens of thousands of people would flood the island, go straight to St. Mark’s Square, pass through the miles of shopping storefronts, get to the top of the Rialto Bridge, grab a quick bite then make their way back to the ship.

The damage caused (litter, wear and tear, petty crimes) by this exorbitant number of visitors every single day is extremely costly to the city. It might be better if people would stay longer and spend money, but the cruise industry doesn’t often allow long stops in these port cities. The damage far outweighs the benefits to the city. Since I was there, the city has restricted large cruise ships from docking directly on the island. They must dock on the mainland and passengers must take extra transportation to get to the island. This was enacted during Covid, so it is still early to understand the ramifications if any.

With all of that said… Venice is a fabulous piece of history that sits patiently in a glistening lagoon. Her buildings are still beautiful, managing to keep the unique mixture of Moorish, Roman and Venetian architecture. Graffiti covers the outsides of the buildings, but the Venetians never took the outside of their buildings very seriously. This is because outside building maintenance requires equipment over water which has always been tremendously expensive. But the insides? Palaces!!! I will forever harbor a special love for Venice and will always know that she allowed me in, to gain a rare inside knowledge of her past and her secrets, and to teach me her whispered language. Why people aren’t taught to take a closer, slower look through Venice is something I will never get. Alas…

Q: How has tourism changed the experience of visiting these cities in recent years — especially since COVID — and how do you see it evolving in the future?

P.C.: As I write this, Covid is still going on in most parts of Europe. But I think that the nearly 3-year break in travel has been a golden opportunity to re-imagine travel. How to go slower, rather than speed traveling. How to go deeper to connect better with the culture, rather than merely eating & drinking one’s way through their vacation, then leaving. This mindful way of approaching travel is good at so many levels, both for us as well as the destinations. We have been taught that speeding through as many cities as we can cram into a few days is a way to save money. But I disagree. I think that because there is no time to make a connection, we come away with prematurely formed decisions about these places, judgements.

To me, that is counter intuitive to the reasons why we travel to begin with. My generation is the very first generation to have the freedom to roam the world at our whim. The first humans to be able to visit other times, places, and cultures whenever we want to. EVER, in the history of humankind. It seems wasteful that we wouldn’t want to take it slowly, absorb all that is new and different, and gain a glorious perspective of our place on this Earth and in history. And return home with a newborn love and gratitude for this place in this country where we are now. Perspective.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who is visiting Italy for the first time and feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of things to see and do in these three cities?

P.C.: Take the time to do a little bit of research before your trip. If you are the person just described in this question, you will surely get swept up in the mobs, and get dragged into every tourist trap, speed through, and over-pay for everything. If you don’t believe me, try to estimate the number of people in those crowded places, cities, and sites. Most of those people are part of the crowd because they too did not do a little research before their trip either, and are now in it with you.

Q: What are some other cities you’d like to cover in future books?

P.C.: Stay tuned. 😉

And there you have it! You can get your hands on Patty Civalleri’s travel books here!