If you are a regular reader of my column, you know that we prefer independent or semi independent travel. The few times we have taken a tour or cruise (with the exception of one of our cruises, but more on that one later), we’ve not enjoyed the experience.
I think that part of what we enjoy so much with independent travel is what in Italian is called, il dolce far niente…. translated to mean the sweetness of doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing all that a place has to offer, but my experience isn’t complete unless I have some time for il dolce far niente. In our case, it means the joy of being able to sit back, relax and drink in the atmosphere or culture of a place.
My introductory taste of il dolce far niente was on my first trip to Europe with friends right after grad school. We were driving from Paris to Switzerland and decided to take a side trip to go to a three star restaurant in an out of the way location in the south of France. A friend had told us it was “worth the trip.” When I asked, “From Paris?” his reply was “No, from the U.S.” This was before widespread use of the internet or cell phones so we didn’t check on it in advance and it was August, so, of course, when we got there, the restaurant was closed. And, yes, it was out of the way. There were no other restaurants around. Very hungry, we stopped at the local épicerie (deli) and picked up the makings of a picnic including champagne. We were in France, after all. We found a lovely field, pulled over, and, although we still had miles to go before our next hotel, spent a lazy, sun dazed afternoon enjoying French cheese, pate,bread, and bubbly. It was also long before I worried about cholesterol.
I think our first experience really understanding il dolce far niente came in, of all places, Switzerland. Our apartment was the second floor of a chalet in a very small town. In fact, the town consisted of only a train station, one lake front restaurant, a chapel, a few houses, and many cows. One evening, we were drawn to our balcony by the most melodious acapella singing we had ever heard. It seems a local jodel club was having a party and entertaining themselves. We spent hours just sitting and listening to the dulcet tones.
Our il dolce far niente came to true fruition when we spent a month on a vineyard in Tuscany. Our hometown was Montalcino the origin of Brunello wine, arguably the best red wine from Italy and our antique furnished apartment was in a nineteenth century stone building on an estate. No matter what our day entailed – sightseeing or relaxing at the pool with a simple dinner in town, we tried to spend some time on our patio overlooking the vineyards below, with olive orchards above and the cedar lined hills in the background sipping some local Rosso di Montalcino and watching the sun set.
The sidewalk cafe culture of Western Europe lends itself so beautifully to il dolce far niente. I think that’s why we keep returning there year after year and many of our fondest memories involve our quiet times.
We spent a chilly, somewhat rainy day in Napflio, Greece, a seaport on the Argolic Gulf, sitting in the main platia (square) drinking freshly pressed coffee and eating wonderful loukomades, fried dough soaked in honey. Yes, by then I was worried about cholesterol, but forgot about it for awhile to enjoy those delights. We amused ourselves by trying to guess the nationalities of the various touristswho hurriedly passed through the square. I wondered how long those harried individuals would remember Nafplio; I knew our memories of that day would remain with us for our lifetimes.
Time spent in Venice brought us many evenings to Campo Santa Margherita, the heart of one of the neighborhoods and a lively place at night. We frequented a local cafe where the aperol spritzes were only two Euros vs the seven Euros of the tourist spots. We would sip our drinks, munch on olives, and watch the families with children and their omnipresent soccer balls in the early evening, followed by the students and young adults as night ascended.
Once we visited the Benelux (Belguim, Netherlands, Luxembourg) countries and didn’t enjoy our trip as much as we usually do. We loved the cities but realized we had gone in April and it was far too cool to sit outside and do that which we like most.
Even the very industrious Swiss and Germans have an idea of il dolce far niente which we learned while hiking in both countries. When visiting and hiking with friends in Germany, they introduced us to the term belohnen, or reward. Our reward for a strenuous hike was always lingering with a beer or simple lunch at mountain top restaurant terraces breathing in the panorama. Call it what you like, for us it was il dolce far niente, although we had to work for it.
The one cruise we did enjoy? It was a cruise of Turkey and the Greek Isles booked on a European cruise line through a travel agent in Athens. The timing of port stops was such that even if we booked one of ship’s excursions, there was plenty of time allotted on our own either during or after the excursion to enjoy a little bit of nothing. We still had limited time to get toknow a place, but at least there was some opportunity to savor it.
Incidentally, if you’ve traveled in Europe, you will inevitably notice that, particularly in the Mediterranean cultures, the men seem to have mastered the art of il dolce far niente. You will see them clustered in cafes and parks sipping coffee, sitting on benches, basically doing nothing. My husband has always pointed out how chauvinistic that is. My theory is, however, that the women have kicked the husbands out of their houses and apartments and they are sitting quietly at home enjoying their own il dolce far niente. Perhaps I am projecting.
We have the expression “take time to smell the roses.” So whether you think of it as il dolce far niente, a bohlonen, or taking time to smell the roses, try to do a little of it on your next trip. Or, if you are not traveling in the near future, try to do it at home. What better place for il dolce far niente then here in Paradise?
As I write this, we are getting ready for our next trip to Italy. We will be retracing some familiar steps in Tuscany and then spend two weeks on the Amalfi Coast, a new experience for us. Our apartment on the coast has a terrace overlooking the water and I am really looking forward to hours of il dolce far niente on it, staring lazily out to sea….perhaps with a glass of cold limoncello.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.