Interview with Susan Van Allen: ‘100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go’

Travel Interviews: Eva Holland asks the author why female travelers (and travel writers) are so drawn to Italy

01.11.10 | 10:39 AM ET

Photo courtesy of Susan Van Allen

It’s been almost three years since we interviewed Stephanie Elizondo Griest about her book, “100 Places Every Woman Should Go.” Now, a second installment in the Travelers’ Tales series is out: 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go. I caught up with author Susan Van Allen via email to talk about the book.

World Hum: You’re a longtime Italophile. When did you first fall for the country?

Susan Van Allen: I was a kid at a dining room table in Newark, New Jersey. It was my maternal grandparents’ dining room—they were immigrants from Southern Italy, and their dining room was the setting for old world Sunday dinners: candles glowing over a lace tablecloth, my mother and the aunts carrying in steaming bowls of macaroni, a soprano on the hi-fi singing Un Bel Di Vedremo. It was my first Italy: one abundant, delicious, loving heart.

This was in the 1960s and every August my grandfather would go “back home” on a ship. He’d send me postcards of gushing fountains, humongous cathedrals, a statue of a naked guy my mother told me was named David. He’d come back bearing amazing gifts: beads from Venice, rosaries blessed by the Pope, rocks from Mount Vesuvius. Italy became this magical place, beckoning me—like a cartoon finger wafting out of a bubbling pot of tomato sauce.

I got there as soon as I could, right after high school, with money I’d saved from working at The Pancake House and Dunkin’ Donuts. The trip confirmed all my Italian dreams—I gasped at the Sistine Chapel, I tasted my first gelato (pistachio). There were surprises: getting my bottom pinched, having a romance with a bel ragazzo. I met my Roman cousins and sat at their dining room table—coming full circle back to that Newark dining room table of my childhood. I was officially hooked.

Some of the most famous travel books by and about women—“Under The Tuscan Sun” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” for a start—have been set in Italy. What do you think it is about the country that draws female travelers (and travel writers)?

Italy loves women.

Women are adored here, from baby principessas to nonnas. And what woman doesn’t adore being adored?

On the surface, the adoration comes from those handsome Italian men who, in the great tradition of Casanova, have mastered the art of flirting. But the adoration goes deeper than that—it’s rooted in this culture that’s worshipped women as divine creatures ever since the earth was cooling.

Okay, it’s not like Italy is advanced in its treatment of women as far as business and political realms go, but spiritually/culturally this strong tradition of female worship is what makes us women travelers feel so “at home” in Italy. We feel understood and appreciated here for who we are—no matter our age or shape.

Even if you’re not immersing yourself in Italian art, two major images of female worship surround you: Venus, the Goddess you’ll see posed naked everywhere—that Vixen Patron of Love and Beauty—and the Madonna, the generous Mother of Compassion. With these two reigning side-by-side, Italy honors all aspects of the feminine.

Frances Mayes and Elizabeth Gilbert follow in the tradition of Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. All these women give voice to the chorus of female travelers who tell me again and again: “Italy feels like home.”

How did you settle on the final 100 places you recommend?

I started by nixing those major sites that are well covered in other guidebooks and, though wonderful, seem to me very male—such as the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Sistine Chapel. Instead I focused on sites and artworks that glorified the female—in the form of goddesses, saints and the Madonna. And I chose places where women lived and flourished—like Peggy Guggenheim’s museum in Venice, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s apartment in Florence, Isabella D’Este’s studiolo in Mantua.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest inspired me to style the book as she had: “Categorize it by mood, it’s how females make decisions,” she said. Once I decided on the sections (such as Go To The Divine, Go To Spas, or Go On Active Adventures), I filled them in with a selection of places from my 30-plus years of Italian travel and included places that my savvy traveling girlfriends and Italians have raved to me about.

Also, I wanted the book to be useful to first-time travelers, so in each section there’s good coverage of the feminine appeals in The Big Three (Rome, Florence, and Venice). And I wanted to introduce travelers to less-touristed places, so hopefully it’ll bring readers to regions such as Le Marche, to enjoy its beautiful beaches, or Fruili-Venezia, to discover the wonderful wine region there.

Was there a pet recommendation that didn’t make the cut that you could share with us here?

So many! One is Catania, in eastern Sicily. It’s the second largest city in Sicily (after Palermo), with fantastic baroque architecture—buildings designed with a mix of black lava and white marble—including a great opera house that pays homage to Bellini, the composer who was born here. Recently, there’s been a lot of young people moving to Catania, livening up the place with wine bars and clubs.

And there’s a divine female presence here: Saint Agatha, Catania’s Patron, an early Christian martyr. Agatha apparently worked miracles so that even after many volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and World War II bombings, Catania still stands. Seven churches in the city are dedicated to her. I’d love to be there for the Feast of Saint Agatha (Feb. 5), when her dripping-with-jewels statue is paraded all over town. There’s wild celebrating and great food to go along with it, including a pastry called Minni di Sant’Agata (Breasts of Saint Agatha)—dome shaped goodies, covered in white icing and a candied cherry in the center.

Sounds wonderful, Susan. Thanks.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.