Susan Van Allen's "One Hundred Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go," now into its third printing, is a savvy Italian travel guide ideally suited to a country that produced centuries of Venus-Mamma-Madonna (V-M-M) themed artistic masterpieces. Gender aside, this "sensorama experience" of a book will hook anyone who likes Italy.
Van Allen opens with a detailed look at the country's V-M-M inspired art and follows that up with an examination of the role women play in art collecting and the decorating of palaces and villas. Her interest in ensuring a "total" travel experience means an eclectic, hands-on sampling of daily life, whether that means attending a hill-town grandma's cooking class or visiting wineries run by women. She's also practical. You'll learn how to set up group or self-guided bike tours, get a look at small restaurants beloved by locals, and tips for a night out at the opera. She even recommends women attend at least one Italian pro soccer match: "It's the most intense display of passion in this most passionate of countries."
Her book covers all of Italy's 20 regions but dodges the name-fame game by staying away from starred ratings. She gladly cheers on Italy's "infinite pleasures," but intentionally bypasses the obvious, Sistine Chapel included? Van Allen frankly suggests you skip the lines and comb through a detailed handbook instead.
In the long and well-documented opening chapter, "The Divine Goddesses, Saints, and the Blessed Virgin Mary," she covers the female religious figures behind famous art works. She deliciously introduces you to "Bellini's Beautiful Broads," the female sculptures in Rome's Galleria Borghese that seem in constant motion ("Their robes flow, they laugh, scream, sigh, and pulse with vitality.") After the Borghese trip, you're advised to walk to the artist's "Ecstasy of Saint Theresa" in the church dedicated to her. There, the Spanish nun's half-seated figure is ensconced in a theatrically sculpted side altar. As a stone angel pierces her body with a golden shaft, Theresa's face and ecstatic form reflect her vision of being "on fire with the love of God."
Another section examines Venice's "Santa Maria Churches" and the saintly dames within. The detail oriented Van Allen reminds us that Venice was established as an Italian Republic on March 25, the ritual day of Mary's Annunciation. She probes some of the lagoon city's finest Virgin-dedicated churches, including Santa Maria Della Salute.
Yet the city had a pronounced Madonna-whore perspective on women. In Renaissance days, it was considered the prostitute and courtesan hotbed of Europe. Look carefully at the two stone sides of Venice's famed Rialto bridge. On one side is a bas-relief of the Annunciation. On the other is carving that depicts an old Venetian tale in which a prostitute, her legs spread wide, sits upon a bed of raging flames.
The book's femme-friendly side and its sense-exalting interest in locale is strong enough to make the "where to stay, eat and learn" sections seem all but secondary. But for every beauty spa suggestion, there's also a how-to on organizing hiking trips, whether you're a beginner or a hardcore trekker.
Then there's the seaside. Bookmark her section on the beaches of Sperlonga, Emperor Tiberius's favorite summer resort. She tells you the location of lovely stretches of private beach as well as where to find coves you can have all to yourself for free. On the cliffs above is Sperlonga itself, a medieval town with a piazzetta ideal for a classic aperitivo.
Van Allen insists on the joy of full-immersion. My favorite is her mention of Venice's Orsoni Studio, a mosaic factory hidden behind a high wall in the Cannareggio district. You can watch blazing furnaces produce glowing liquid glass, which is cooled, cut into fragments, and shipped internationally. Plus, Orsoni's own Mosaic Workshop offers a two-day or two-month course in making your own sparkling work.
Overall, the guide's offers a rich blend of the aesthetic and physical experience of touring Italy. It personalizes those "Golden days" that make an Italian journey memorable.