How women can discover Italy through a writer’s experience. An exclusive interview with Susan Van Allen.
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Susan Van Allen is the author of four book, “100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go,” “Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice,” “50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go,” and “Hungry for Italy: Culinary Adventures in the Bel Paesee.
She has attained an international fan base through her books and stories that have run on radio, and in major print publications. She is a regular contributor to “Tastes of Italia” magazine. Her blog offers free insightful tips and comments about Italy, recipes ans o much more…
Susan Van Allen also promotes Italian travel through speaking engagements. She annually leads a panel of Italian travel experts at The New York Times Travel Show.
Susan’s writing comes alive on her Golden Weeks in Italy: For Women Only, custom-designed, small group tours that she leads, which give travelers a unique insiders’ experience of the Bel Paese, with a femme-friendly focus.
Here follows a candid interview with this powerful writer who has discovered how to share in so many ways her own wonderful experience with her roots.
L’Idea: Although your last name does not reveal it, you are Italian American. Can you tell our readers how much the Italian roots influenced your life and your writings?
Susan Van Allen:
My maternal grandparents were immigrants from southern Italy (Molise and Potenza), and it was at their dining room table in Newark, New Jersey, where I first felt the fullness of Italy’s heart and soul. My earliest memories are of abundant Sunday dinners that stretched on for hours, with my nana, mamma, and the aunts carrying in steaming bowls of pasta, opera blaring in the background, hands flying through the air in lively conversation. I loved every moment of those dinners, and of being in the kitchen with my mother when she cooked, following what was passed down to her from her mother. I also had sweet aunts and grandparents on my father’s side—they were Irish/Dutch—but the more flamboyant Italian side of my family overshadowed them.
My grandfather, who we called Papa, would go back to Italy every August to visit his family who still lived in Potenza, and he’d travel around the country, sending back postcards of piazzas, cathedrals, and masterpieces. He’d return by Labor Day with beads from Venice, rocks from Mount Vesuvius, and rosaries blessed by the Pope. Growing up on the Jersey shore, these gorgeous images of a faraway land fueled my desire and imagination.
I saved up my money from babysitting and working at Dunkin’ Donuts and got to Italy as soon as I could—on a backpacking trip after high school graduation in 1976. My first experience of Rome was a whirlwind of the major sights, tasting my first gelato, and meeting my Italian cousins for the first time. The spell was cast, and I continued to travel there, getting back as often as time and funds would allow. Keeping a travel journal, writing postcards, and lists of advice for friends, eventually grew into writing stories for magazines and books about this country that has enchanted me all my life.
L’Idea: You started early in your career as a playwright and writing episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” Could you tell us more about these beginnings of yours?
Susan Van Allen:
I got the “drama bug” in high school, had a fabulous time acting in musicals and comedies, and then went on to major in drama in college, at Hofstra University. I also had the travel bug, and moved from the East Coast to San Francisco after graduation, where I acted in a traveling Shakespeare ensemble and then with a lot of experimental theater companies. The atmosphere was very nurturing and creative, and there were a lot of places for people to try out new writing and solo shows. I joined in and wrote “Jersey Girls”, a show where I performed 5 different female characters from a small town on a Mother’s Day weekend—all inspired by my Italian-American family and neighbors. The show was a success, and I took it on the road—to New York and Los Angeles, where it got great reviews and the attention of casting directors and producers. I realized I enjoyed writing more than acting—at least with writing you weren’t waiting around for an audition to do it!
With that focus, I wrote a screenplay and some TV sample scripts, and then came great timing: my college friend Phil Rosenthal was creating a new show with a comedian—Ray Romano. Phil asked me to come on as a writer’s assistant—I was also a GREAT typist, as I’d been doing temporary secretarial work to support myself all through my San Francisco acting years. Being in the writer’s room was a wonderful education, and after the first season I pitched an idea for an episode, called “Marie’s Meatballs”—about Ray’s wife wanting to learn to make meatballs. That was my first script, and I went on to be on staff and write other freelance episodes for the series…always traveling to Italy during my time off!
L’Idea: “100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go” was your first book. What inspired you to write it and what is it about?
Susan Van Allen:
The idea for the book actually came about in 2008, during the Writers Guild strike, when film and TV work was not happening. I had been writing about Italian travel for magazines and websites, and the idea of how attractive Italy was to females kept coming up for me.
I always thought of Italy as a feminine place, because my deep connection to it came from my maternal side, and whenever I was there, even without my relatives, I felt so “at home”. Then, meeting other female travelers, who didn’t have a drop of Italian blood in them, I heard them say exactly that: “I feel so at home…”. That’s when I explored this feeling further, and realized that there was a great appeal to being in a country where females have been worshiped since the earth was cooling—from the Goddess Venus, to the Madonna, to everybody’s Mamma. It’s something ALL we women feel from the moment we get off the plane. And I kept coming upon all these great stories of powerful women in Italian history, women artists and artisans, winemakers, and of course all that great shopping, the spas…it’s like the country was made for us!
I had met Larry Habegger, an editor of Travelers’ Tales, years before when I attended the Book Passage Travel Writer’s Conference in Corte Madera, California. They had just published “100 Places Every Woman Should Go” in 2007, and when I saw that title, a light bulb went off, so I pitched the Italy version, and they said YES.
The book became an extension of all the lists of advice I had been giving to girlfriends for decades, arranged according to different moods—in other words, there are sections that guide readers to enjoy places where females have been worshiped, or glorified in art, or where heroines from history have lived and flourished. And there is advice for shopping—from shoes to leather to perfume, tasting the best chocolate, my favorite wine bars, and immersion activities that range from hiking on the Amalfi Coast to cooking fish in Venice and painting ceramics in Florence.
The 10th Anniversary Edition of the book will be released in September 2020. You never know when you write something where it will take you, and this experience has been such a joy, over these many years, to hear from readers far and wide about how reading this enriched their Italian travels.
L’Idea: Your second book, “Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice,” seems to have quite a different angle on the topic of visiting Italy, a more personal one…
Susan Van Allen:
I’ve always loved reading and writing personal travel stories—about adventures that surprise and transform us. In this book I was able to take readers along with me for such experiences as flirting in a Roman wine bar, hunting for truffles in Umbria, and climbing Sicily’s Stromboli volcano. And as always, I give travel advice—adding at the end of each story my recommendations—for example my favorite Roman wine bars, or great places to stay and eat in Gubbio, Umbria, that was the starting off point for my truffle hunt.
This is a great book for armchair travelers, and it’s inspired readers to go on their own adventures, and to keep travel journals, to capture the great range of emotions that come up as we explore the Bel Paese.
L’Idea: Your third book’s title, “50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go,” seems to have more specific destinations than your first one. Why is that?
Susan Van Allen:
As so many travelers, especially first timers, plan their trips around seeing The Big Three, (Rome, Florence, and Venice), I wanted to let women know about the female highlights of each of these destinations. The book has a tighter focus than 100 Places, but keeps the idea of arranging travel by mood—so if you feel like a day of church hopping in Rome with a female focus, I can guide you there, or if you want to know where to shop for glass in Venice, you can rely on my advice.
I also give a few easy day-trips away from each of these major destinations. I believe it’s great to plan a trip to Italy with some time in a small town or countryside to get a full experience. So, for example, I include a chapter about visiting gardens in the hill towns close outside of Florence, and to take an easy train ride to Padua, outside of Venice, to see Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, that’s filled with fabulous frescoes telling the story of the Life of Mary.
L’Idea: You also organize special tours to Italy for women only. What is different about these tours from the standard ones offered by other agencies?
Susan Van Allen:
During my book tour, when 100 Places was first published, women in the audience would raise their hands and ask, “Can you take me with you?”. I’d never really thought about creating a group tour before, though for decades I’d been arranging everything when I traveled with my family or girlfriends to Italy, and those trips were fabulous adventures, so I thought, I’ll give this a try. I joined forces with Perillo’s Italy Vacations (the division of the company that does custom small group travel), and with their 70-years of Italy business expertise and my 40-plus years of exploring, we were off!
What’s unique about these tours is that they are highly personal. My guests really enjoy traveling with a writer and with someone who has deep personal connections that have come from decades of traveling here. I design Golden Weeks exactly as I’d planned trips with my loved ones–with a balance of group time and free time to discover on our own, a beautiful location and hotel where we can feel at home and immerse ourselves for an authentic Italian experience, and an itinerary that mixes culture, history, art, great food, fabulous wine, artisan shopping, and activities (cooking, craft classes, spa time) so we LIVE Italian traditions, with my Italian friends. And everything is done at a relaxed pace and female-focused, with thanks to my fabulous local guide/girlfriends who love customizing their museum and city tours so we discover Italian heroines of the past and present, and art that glorifies females.
Over the past 8 years, it’s been an absolute joy to introduce women to places I’ve long loved, and to watch them form friendships in the small group (14 guests), that last well beyond our time together. Women from all over the USA and Canada have joined in, bonding over a range of life experiences. We’ve celebrated milestone birthdays, reunions between sisters and friends, women who have experienced losses in their lives have come to find the Golden Week profoundly healing. It’s a thrill for me to see again and again how Italy transforms travelers—women who range in age from 23 to 83, mothers and daughters, solo travelers, girlfriends on a getaway—in just one week become more radiant, more joyful—all caught up in that bliss and enlightenment I felt as a kid when I first experienced Italy. Also, like me, once they’ve had a taste, they want more! There are so many returnees on these trips, women who love traveling in this Golden Week style come back to experience another part of the country and are happy to reunite with other women they’ve met on these trips.
So far I’ve designed and hosted Golden Weeks in northern Tuscany, Southern Italy and the Amalfi Coast, Florence, the Italian Riviera, Venice, Milan and the Italian Lakes, and this year we’ve added Sicily. The choices are infinite, and I look forward to showing these wonderful women more and more of this amazing country.
L’Idea: What do you believe is the major misconception by tourists who visit Italy and what would be the best advice for a traveler who wants to discover Il Bel Paese?
Susan Van Allen:
The biggest mistake travelers make when planning a trip to Italy is trying to squeeze too much into their vacation. One week to see Rome, Florence, and Venice is too rushed! To truly experience Italy, you need time for spontaneity, time to not be rushing around to the major sights. Yes, it is amazing to see the Sistine Chapel, the Uffizi, and Piazza San Marco…but you also need time to wander through a market, linger in a piazza and people watch, be still to admire a sunset.
L’Idea: Let’s talk a bit about your last book, “Hungry for Italy: Culinary Adventures in the Bel Paese.” It has added a precise topic as the main focus: food. What made you decide to take this new path and what does this book brings that is new to the table?
Like so many other Italophiles, food was how Italy first seduced me. Growing up with an Italian-American mamma, the kitchen was always the best place to be—where Italy’s Magic Spell embraced me with deliciousness and comfort. Over so many years of travels, I’ve headed straight to kitchens in Italy, exploring traditions, and it’s been great to go beyond my first kitchen to discover the great variety of regional specialties in Italy, to get to know chefs who bring them to life, and take cooking classes with locals, which feels like getting a backstage pass to the country’s soul.
The quest is ongoing, and with Hungry for Italy I reflected on some of my favorite Italian food experiences, including meeting Gino Sorbillo, aka The King of Pizza, and learning the secrets of risotto making in Milan. Food is a jumping off point for so much more—from personal revelations to deepening connections with the Italian Way. And as always, because I love to give advice, I ended the chapters with my favorite restaurants to taste these specialties and recipes to recreate the deliciousness at home. As it came out just as the USA was going into #stayathome phase, the book became a perfect guide to experience Italy vicariously and deliciously!