On the Perils of Travel Writing
Travel Stories: David Farley broke into the New York Times with a story about an eccentric Italian village. When he returned, he feared being chased out by torch-bearing villagers.
07.06.09 | 11:47 AM ET
Pancho’s clunky white Fiat turned the bend and began chugging up the hill toward Calcata, and the medieval hill town’s silhouette, highlighted by its slender campanile and stout rook-like castle tower, came into view. The first line of a recent article I’d written about this Italian village popped into my head: “Whether you arrive in Calcata by car or by one of the buses from Rome, it is impossible to remain unfazed when the village first comes into sight.” It was maybe the hundredth time I’ve approached Calcata this way and this might have been the first time I actually remained unfazed by the sight of this millennia-old village located about 30 miles north of Rome.
Instead of being rendered into a stunned silence by one of Italy’s best preserved medieval hill towns, I was knotted up in nerves. I had moved to this village of 100 people to work on a book about the disappearance of the village relic, the Holy Foreskin, which had been kept in the church since the 16th century and disappeared under mysterious circumstances about 25 years ago. I’d moved here not knowing anyone and now, after a seven-month stint (and three months back in New York), I had managed to meet just about every resident.
But something happened in the three months I was away. I was returning to my adopted home village a divisive figure. Some people loved me, but others had fantasies that included Calcata’s 450-foot cliffs and me freefalling down them. As we got closer to the hilltop village, its houses made from the same material as the rock they sit on, giving the impression the structures magically sprouted out of the earth, I began to wonder how close I’d get to the village’s stone gate (its only entrance and exit) before being chased out of town by torch-bearing villagers.
I can pinpoint the exact moment this shift in attitude toward me occurred: Jan. 28, 2007. That’s when the New York Times travel section published an article I’d written about the village. It was the first major international publicity Calcata had ever received. And it was a first for me: It was not only my first article in “the Gray Lady,” something I’d been dreaming about since I decided I wanted to be a travel writer, but it was the first time I’d be able to witness how a travel article affects a place.
Travel writers are, by definition, a lonely, nomadic bunch. We hop off the plane or train and get to work: which, to the envy of a large sector of the general public, entails eating, drinking, taking notes, snapping pictures, chatting up chefs, city officials, park rangers, hotel managers, drunkards and taking more notes. Then we get back on the plane, go home, write up the story and (eventually) do it all over again in another locale, the palimpsest of historic buildings, empty wine bottles, ancient temples, plane delays, and countless interviews with interesting people helping to quickly erase previous places from our memory. It’s not that we forget about those places. We just rarely look back. Not even when the piece is published (in some cases, a year or two after it’s submitted to the editor).
But Calcata, as the angle I took in my article suggested, was not your typical Italian hill town. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Calcata was in the process of being abandoned (due to a cooked-up, decades-old government charge that the village’s cliffs were crumbling) and would, according to the law, eventually be destroyed. While many of the old inhabitants began to desert their ancestral homes for a newer, more spacious town a half mile away, artists and hippies discovered Calcata, eventually buying the houses from the original owners and fixing the village up. They opened cafes and art galleries. They got high and put on plays in the square. They even had the place officially taken off the to-be-condemned list.
Four decades later, the village is known to Romans and others in the area as the paese di artisti, village of artists, or, more irreverently, “paese di fricchettoni,” village of freaks. Eccentricity is the norm. There was Athon, an artist and Egyptologist who lived in a cave with a dozen crows; Costantino, a talented and successful plus-sized sculptor who favored a baby Huey pony tail; there was a guy considered the village burglar; there was 87-year-old American Paul Steffen, who was a famous choreographer in Italy. Gianni Macchia, a flamboyant actor whose career peeked in the 1970s with several films that would have been right at home on late-night Cinemax, owned a café and palace inside the village that was covered in outrageous murals he painted. Then there was my friend Pancho, also American, whose restaurant, La Grotta dei Germogli, served up Italian dishes with an international accent (which was not only odd to find in an Italian village, it was a curious sight in all of Italy). There were also a lot of people who favored Subcontinental-style dress and most of the bohemians here spoke in a matter-of-fact tone about a “particular energy” that oozed from the rock Calcata sits on.
And, of course, there was Jesus’ foreskin, which had been prayed over in the church on the square for centuries until it disappeared (there are some wild theories about that too). It all helped propel Calcata into the improbable merger of the medieval and hippie worlds, perhaps found only at Renaissance fairs across the United States. I would later learn from a longtime Calcata resident that because the hippies and artists felt like they saved the village, they also felt very protective of it. I was told that anyone who writes about the village, good or bad, Italian or non-Italian, would face the wrath of certain locals because they want to control information about the place.
As soon as the article came out, I was getting almost instant feedback thanks to Pancho. I was back in New York for a few months and he would send emails telling me who liked the article and who didn’t like it. Gemma was upset that I didn’t include her tea house. “I thought we were friends,” she allegedly bemoaned to Pancho. Many people complained, Pancho informed me one day, that I didn’t mention the famed architect Paolo Portoghesi. The architect, who lives in a palace-like house that actually overlooks the medieval village, has been Calcata’s most public cheerleader. But I was over the word count and, I rationalized, he rarely steps foot in the village, so I cut him out. I even had to cut my good friend Paul Steffen. Pancho informed me via email that Paul was upset he wasn’t in the article. There were also some fears that I had “ruined” Calcata for good. It got to the point that I hated logging on to my email and seeing Pancho’s name in my inbox.
About a week after the article was published, a woman with an Italian accent (and, according to my caller ID, with a 212 phone number) called my apartment in New York every day for a week. She left crazy-person rants on my answering machine, actually the same message each time, saying she was a collector of the Calcata painter Romano Vitali, and she demanded to know why I didn’t include him in the article. I never called back, but I started to wonder if she’d be waiting outside my apartment soon.
Gianni Macchia was irate when he read the description of his acting career as anything but Oscar worthy. He let it be known in an email to me. “whay did you publyshed that stupid note abaut my activity?” the email began. “Who told you that i wos involved in ‘b’ movies? i didn’t expect this from you. i will formally protest whit the magazine abaut that. you are a very stupid person.”
Sure enough, I was CC’ed on an email to The New York Times a week later by a woman claiming to be Gianni’s agent. Written in all caps, the letter said there was no way Mr. Macchia could be a b-movie actor. Among other things, the letter claimed, he was recently quoted by Quentin Tarantino. Talk about missing your cue. Are Gianni and his agent the last people on the planet to figure out that a mention from Tarantino nearly cements your star into the B-movie actors’ “Walk of Fame”?
Critics like to point out that commercial travel writing is soft compared to “real” journalism, that the articles in newspaper travel sections and glossy travel magazines often lack an edginess. I see their point in some cases, but as Pancho and I walked toward Calcata’s stone gate (and I kept a keen eye in every direction), I was about to take a bullet—or, more realistically, a busted knee cap—for travel writing. If that’s not edgy, then I don’t know what is.