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

Photo by David Farley

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.

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David Farley

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town and co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s a contributing writer at AFAR magazine and his writing appears in the New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, and Gadling.com, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University.


16 Comments for On the Perils of Travel Writing

Lindsay 07.06.09 | 12:12 PM ET

Oh man…how sad!

Lindsey 07.06.09 | 12:36 PM ET

Living on the edge of danger! Sweet! I can totally relate. Some people love you, others not so much.

elena 07.06.09 | 2:48 PM ET

Very interesting article. next time i go down to Rome area, I will try to stop at Calcatta.

One side note.. when you say “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”...
fricchettoni actually means gays, so i don’t know if i would throw that phrase around. I’m sure the locals use that phrase, but whoever uses it didn’t want to admit what it really meant I think.

besides from that, great article and I will be sure to pick up a copy of your book!!

Frank Bures 07.07.09 | 10:45 AM ET

Actually, it looks like fricchatoni is a straight anglicization of “freak” from English, meaning something like “big freak.”

Frank Bures 07.07.09 | 10:50 AM ET

Sorry: make that Italianization, and make it with and “e.”

RosiC 07.07.09 | 4:43 PM ET

After years of working as a newspaper reporter in the Dallas area, I became a freelance writer.
But only after writing for a half dozen dailies for years, did I discover travel writing was what I wanted to do.
That’s why I loved reading all about how you broke into travel writing, a “closed shop” in journalistic circles. Having traveled extensively, and written on my travels sporadically, I can empathize with what happened to you in Calcatta.
Travel articles abound, but you really have to search several media to be as inspired as your readers were to visit Calcatta.  Personally, I would not visit any locale that promises a return to my familiar life.  Hippies and their attendant penchants for drugs and the like, would actually inspire me to avoud Calcatta. 
But good luck in your sojourns and with your up coming novel, which I intend to read!!

David Farley 07.07.09 | 4:54 PM ET

Thanks RosiC and everyone else who commented. Drugs or no drugs, Calcata is definitely worth a visit. It’s a wonderful, beautiful place. And thanks for saying you’ll read my travel memoir on my time in Calcata. I hope you like it.

Nancy D. Brown 07.07.09 | 5:33 PM ET

Great post. I love the fact that you didn’t feel a need to jump in and tell everyone that you were the travel writer behind the Calcata article. I hope our paths will cross someday; perhaps in Calcata.

Virginia Case 07.08.09 | 8:56 PM ET

Ahhhh, bella Calcata. I have fond memories of that creaky town perched precariously among thousands of hazelnut trees. My inlaws lived there. My favorite dog came from a litter in town and I loved going there to visit the locals back in the 80’s.
One of my companions e-mailed me this article and it was a trip down memory lane. I remember that when I was there, the town was still on the condemned to die a horrible death, though the new residents were not going down without being dragged from their homes, kicking and screaming.
I always remembered feeling like the town might just topple into the deep canyons below, so steep were the slopes. What I don’t remember was the foreskin. How that could have slipped me by….
Thanks for sharing David and remember, those italiani love a good drama and you provided grist for the mill. I am sure it will be a lively summer.
signed, a nostalgic ex-pat.

Jessiev 07.09.09 | 9:14 PM ET

it is always a toss-up for travel writers to truly write of a place (beyond gorgeous beaches, fantastic food, etc.). but no place is perfect. i loved your book and also, calcata. it is the characters of a place that make it memorable!

Luna 07.10.09 | 1:12 AM ET

Great story, Farlito. Next time I’m in Calcata, I’ll be sure and carry your article around with me, as well as a 5x7 headshot of you, and boast that I know the author who put the town on the map.

Todd Zuniga 07.11.09 | 8:28 PM ET

Great piece, really enjoyed reading this. Now to add Calcatta to my itenerary!

Danny Bloom 07.15.09 | 2:24 AM ET

Great picee. I was in Rome in 1971 when Lazlo Toth the Hungarian guy went into the Vatican and smashed the Pieta witt a hammer. he was my room mate at the local youth hostel. he read the bible every day. he eventually thought he was Jesus. Where is he now? Ask me how i met him….funny story. danbloom AT gmail

Danny Bloom 07.15.09 | 2:46 AM ET

notify me of followups

Ben Burns 07.15.09 | 9:17 AM ET

A very nicely written story, Mr. Farley.  Your students at NYU are lucky to have you.  Ben Burns

Michael Shapiro 07.16.09 | 2:33 PM ET

1,000 euros to includes someone in a story - finally a way to pursue our passion and make a living! I’m sure the old gray lady would be fine with that.

On a serious note, when I interviewed Frances Mayes for “A Sense of Place” she mentioned she’d changed the names of some of the villagers mentioned in “Under the Tuscan Sun” and they were so disappointed - they want their real names in there and saw it as their shot at immortality. We always gotta remember how much influence (or perceived power) we wield with our pens. Great piece Farley - can’t wait to read the book.

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