Interview with My Bella Vita's Cherrye Moore

Cherrye Moore, Texas-born travel consultant and author of My Bella Vita, lives in Calabria, the beautiful region that fills Italy's southern “toe”. There's a great deal to discover here, but public transport is virtually non-existent – Cherrye, who runs private tours of the area, advises all her clients to hire a car, take to the road and explore the fantastic scenery, not to mention stopping off for many legendary Italian meals. We asked her to tell us more about her adopted home, and how a Texan adapts to life in “old Italy”.

CHM: You’ve lived in Italy for nearly seven years now, having bravely moved from your birth-town in Texas to live with your Italian husband - have you been in Calabria the whole time?

Cherrye: Oh no! As much as I love southern Italy, I could never go that long without being with my family. We always went home a few times a year, but now that we have a child we try to make the trip even more often. I’d say I start getting “homesick” after four or five months in Italy - not just for my big Texas family, but even for little Americanisms (think big cups of coffee, sitting at the bookstore, lunch out with my girlfriends… that kind of thing). On an average I’d say we spend a couple of months a year in Texas.

CHM: How much time did you spend in Italy before you moved there?

Cherrye: I knew my husband five years before I made the move, so I’d been here (to Calabria) maybe a dozen times before I moved. I’d also travelled solo around Italy after my stint at Disneyland Paris in 2000, and I travelled a few weeks with friends who helped me move here in 2006.

CHM: Exploring a new country with someone who calls it home usually makes a huge difference to how you experience the place and its people. How has your discovery of Calabria been enhanced by your Italian partner?

Cherrye: That’s funny because he always says I know Calabria better than he does! Of course that can’t be true, but he does tend to refer to me when giving people advice about where to go. In those first few trips we did the tourist thing, and he took me to all of his favourite spots in Calabria - but since then it’s more like I’ll read about a place and then tell him we need to go. I think helping me discover Calabria has made him see the region through fresh eyes, and I think he appreciates it more now, too.

We also have some Calabrese friends who love that I am helping English speakers visit Calabria. They get excited about pitching me ideas and each time I see them they’ll have a new list of places I need to see, or a new restaurant I should try. I love their excitement and encouragement.

CHM: How quickly did you learn Italian, & do you ever go off exploring alone?

Cherrye: Italian grammar is really complex, so I still make mistakes in lengthy sentences and use the wrong gender from time to time (okay - a lot of the time!) but I’d say it took me a couple of years to really feel comfortable in new situations. As for solo exploring… uhm, no. I don’t really go off alone too often. Since we live here, we have the luxury of time that vacationers don’t have, so we can typically rework our schedules so my husband can travel with me. It isn’t because I’m not comfortable or because I wouldn’t feel safe, but rather because we have more fun when we travel together. We also like to travel with his cousins, who live across the “giardino” from us.

CHM: You run personally guided tours of the region - was this inspired by your expat status, your recognition of the needs of outsiders, or more by requests from your B&B guests?

Cherrye: Yes! To all. Really, your question nailed it. It is as if all of these things came together at once and we realized we could meet that need for English-speaking travellers. One of my favourite things about Calabria is that you rarely overhear English in the streets; however this does make it harder for non-Italian speaking travellers to get around. We also have the benefit of the American / English mentality and focus on customer service, so we can bridge that gap for our clients and help make the overall Calabrian experience a little more seamless.

CHM: How would you describe Calabria to someone who’s never been there? What defines the region? What are the landscapes and people like? How about the climate? Are there particularly good - and less good - times of year to visit?

Cherrye: I always jokingly tell people I’m living in my grandmother’s America (we hang our clothes on the line and have to check our own water meter) but really Calabria epitomizes what many people think of when they envision “old Italy.” We always say it is a land of contrasts, referring to the mountains and the seas, but there is also the striking difference between that “old world” land and modern technology.

I remember a friend giving me a recipe once, then saying “Oh, but you can’t do that - you don’t have a microwave!”… but of course we have a microwave! It is interesting, though, to see a teenager walking through a 15th century medieval village on a cell phone, sporting a mohawk and earring - but you see that (and I kinda love it!). Yes, there are 90-year-old grandmas dressed head-to-toe in black, wearing stockings in the heat of the summer, but we also have our youth and we should be proud of them, too.

Oh... I got off topic, didn’t I? Oh yes, the climate. It gets pretty cold here by this southeast Texan’s standards, especially if you are in the mountains where there are ski resorts (and lots of snow in the winter). I recommend people travel in mid-May and June, then again in September and October. July and August are really nice, especially for beach bums, but it is HOT and crowded. The first two week of August are probably my least favourite weeks here because of the crowds and extra traffic.

CHM: Italy is well known for its amazing food; British travellers tell stories of excellent - nigh on legendary - quality and deliciousness, and often return home a bit chubbier than when they left. Are the legends true?!

Cherrye: Ah, man … I hope my mother doesn’t read this. She thinks I’ve become such a food snob. Really, the legends speak for themselves. We say it is all about the fresh ingredients and local produce and I really believe that’s true. The last few times I’ve gone home I took ingredients with me - my favourite brand of pasta, our preferred canned tuna … and what do you know - it doesn’t taste the same in Texas. I don’t know what it is - maybe it is the water!

CHM: Does Calabria have its own distinct cuisine? Can you describe some regional specialities? Have you learnt to cook many of them?

Cherrye: Oh my goodness, yes! Even each province or area in Calabria has a distinct cuisine and recipes they make in northern Calabria are different from the ones they make in the south, and so on. In general, you should expect to find hot chili peppers, local seasonal produce (eggplant is big around here), a fiery spreadable sausage called ‘nduja, hard salami, and homemade sausage. Calabria is also famous for its sweet red onion (cipolla di Tropea). In the south, near the sea, you’ll see a lot of tuna and swordfish, and in the mountains you’ll find porcini mushrooms and truffles.

When I first started dating my husband I couldn’t cook a thing (seriously, I burned chicken kabobs the first time I cooked for him)! He did all of the cooking. Over the years, that’s changed and now we fight for kitchen rights. Some of my favourite Calabrian dishes are pasta al forno (baked pasta with meatballs) and grilled zucchini with fresh mint.

CHM: How important is experiencing a country’s cuisine when you visit?

Cherrye: In a place like Calabria it is absolutely essential! The cuisine and culture are so intertwined that you can’t fully understand Calabrian culture without experiencing the food. I co-host a culinary tour of Calabria twice a year, and while food and wine take centre stage, I actually refer to it as a cooking, food and culture tour of Calabria. It is much more than a “cooking” tour and that’s because of the connection with local people and their culture.

CHM: Your privately guided tours of Southern Italy typically involve a car and driver. What’s the public transport like in the area? Are there many places that can only be reached by car?

Cherrye: My #1 Calabria travel tip is to rent a car! Yes, public transportation exists but it’s unreliable and doesn’t really cater to travellers. To get to one of my favourite sights, you’d have to take a train to another city, get a local bus for a 30 minute ride, then - just an hour later - get the bus for the return. You’d spend all day on a train or bus and have very little time to see the sights and experience the area.

CHM: Is there one definitive route that takes you through Calabria’s “must see” villages and scenic places, or is it better to just take to the road and explore?

Cherrye: Calabria is Italy’s 10th largest region, so there’s a lot of land to cover here. If someone wanted to take a direct route through Calabria (say the A3 autostrada), they’d miss most of the charming little hilltop villages and a lot of the best seaside towns.

There are also great things to see on both the west and east coasts, so taking one direct route would leave off some pretty neat places.

One nice driving route is through La Sila mountains from Camigliatello Silano. Mountain driving is always slow-going, but there are some pretty mountain villages, lakes and cultural sights along the route.

CHM: How long does it take to drive around the Calabrian coast? There might be two numbers here - one for if you’re just driving end-to-end, and another if you’re lingering over the sights and flavours along the way!

Cherrye: If you mean starting on the northern Ionian, driving around the toe, then back up the Tyrrhenian, that would be a really long drive! If you had plenty of time and could leisurely make the drive, I’d allow several days - maybe a week - otherwise you will feel rushed and stressed.

CHM: For visitors touring the whole of Italy, how long should they set aside for Calabria?

Cherrye: Consider that you could be in Calabria for a month or more and still not really see everything, especially if you want to experience the land, as opposed to driving by and just looking at it. However, most people don’t have this kind of time. In one week you could hit some highlights, with 10 days to two weeks we could customize you a trip so that you are seeing everything on your “list,” and still have time to experience the local culture, cuisine and people.

CHM: You send out regular newsletters with “insider secret” style snippets about Calabria and little-known facts about the region. Can you recommend any special places or experiences that show the visitor what life in Calabria is really all about?

Cherrye: It sounds cliché, but the best Calabrian experiences are really pretty simple. Here in Catanzaro, Sundays are the day to go into La Sila Mountains for lunch. You'll see generations of Calabrians, from 80-year-old grandparents to 2-year-old toddlers, gathering around a big table and spending hours talking and enjoying the local food at their favourite trattoria.

I always take my family and close friends to the mountains for this Calabrian experience. I also like to urge travellers to slow down and plan time in their itinerary to people-watch. Around dusk, grab an outdoor table in a busy piazza, order an aperitivo and watch the nightly passeggiata ritual unfold in front of you. If you are in the same place for a few nights, you'll notice the same people appearing each night (at the same time) to meet up with their same friends. It's very predictable and quite endearing.

When my partner and I created our culinary tour, we thought about those places and - like you say, “experiences!” - which make Calabria special, and we added as many as possible into our tour. Oftentimes, travellers will want to combine the Calabrian Table Tour with a self-drive or some independent travel either before or after the tour. When this is the case, I work with them to find other areas and/or experiences that interest them that are different from the Table Tour, so they can have a more complete Calabrian experience with just one vacation.

CHM: Your blog demonstrates a deep love of your adopted region and a natural hospitality towards its visitors. Has this hospitality always come so naturally, or has Italy - and your husband - inspired you to open your arms?

Cherrye: Thank you! My first job post-university was with Walt Disney World in Florida and my husband and I met while we were both working for Disneyland Paris, so we both had a solid foundation - and love for - tourism. I think, personality-wise for our jobs, you need to have a certain amount of compassion and understanding for the people who travel here. When I plan a vacation I try to offer the same advice I would if I was planning the trip for my mom. There is a lack of reliable English-language information on Calabria, and I know travellers have to rely on my recommendations for their trip. I take that seriously and I would be really upset if someone travelled to Calabria on my advice and didn’t love it.

CHM: And finally... what would you say to someone who’s on the fence about visiting Calabria? Why should they choose it over the rest of their holiday shortlist?

Cherrye: A few years ago I wrote an article about why Calabria isn’t for everyone and I encouraged potential travellers to consider whether it would be a good fit for them. If travellers are somewhat inflexible and easily bothered by museums being closed (even when the sign says it will be open), or by restaurants not quickly bringing your check, or by people in the tourism industry not speaking English, then they might get frustrated in Calabria.

If, on the other hand, travellers want to get past Italy’s Big Three (Rome, Florence and Venice) and have a genuine experience in “old world” Italy, they’ll be rewarded with a vacation they won’t soon forget. I regularly get emails from our past travellers who end their message saying “tell your Italian cousins I say hi.” Thanks to the warmth and generous personalities of the people they meet, our travellers leave Calabria feeling like they’re part of the family. And that’s a pretty special reason to love this place.