The best books for armchair travel through Italy and Italian history

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve just spent the last few years writing Return to Valetto, about a nearly abandoned village in Umbria and the last ten people who live there. In 2018, I received an NEA grant to conduct research in Italy and I visited about a dozen abandoned and nearly abandoned towns all across Italy. While I was traveling, I immersed myself in books about Italy—from history and biography to memoir and fiction. The books on my list were stepping stones in my education about all things Italian and I hope you find them as transporting as I did!

I wrote...

Return to Valetto

By Dominic Smith,

Book cover of Return to Valetto

What is my book about?

On a hilltop in Umbria sits Valetto. Once a thriving village, centuries of earthquakes, landslides, and the lure of a better life have left it neglected. Only ten residents remain, including the four Serafino widows, who live quietly in their medieval villa. Then their nephew and grandson, Hugh, a historian, returns. But someone else has arrived before him, laying claim to the cottage where Hugh spent his childhood summers. The newcomer asserts that Hugh’s grandfather, Aldo Serafino, left the cottage to her family when he fled the area in 1944 as part of the resistance movement against the fascists and the Germans. A complicated Italian property dispute unfolds, but also the excavation of a missing chapter from the Serafinos’ and the town’s involvement in WWII.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944

Dominic Smith Why did I love this book?

Reading this book was like a lightbulb going off!

Iris Origo and her husband provided refuge in their Tuscan villa during WWII for children who were fleeing the bombing up north. With incredible wit, insight, and empathy, she recounts the turmoil and the bravery of everyday Italians as they resist the fascists and the Germans.

This was an essential book as I was researching my book, acting as a window into the past and bringing sounds, sights, smells, and heartfelt emotions to life.

By Iris Origo,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked War in Val d'Orcia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling diaries of WWII in Tuscany, with a new introduction by writer and social historian Virginia Nicholson, and stunning rediscovered photographsAt the height of the Second World War, Italy was being torn apart by German armies, civil war, and the eventual Allied invasion. In a corner of Tuscany, one woman - born in England, married to an Italian - kept a record of daily life in a country at war. Iris Origo's compellingly powerful diary, War in Val d'Orcia, is the spare and vivid account of what happened when a peaceful farming valley became a battleground.

At great personal…

Book cover of The Path to the Spiders' Nests

Dominic Smith Why did I love this book?

This was Calvino’s first novel when he was just in his early twenties, and long before he became known for his explorations of fantasy, fable, and magical realism.

He tells the story of a cobbler’s apprentice in a Ligurian town who becomes involved with a band of partisans during WWII. This brotherhood, who take on assumed identities by day and fight for Italy’s freedom up in the mountains by night, provides a story of second family for the protagonist, Pin, as he comes of age during a tumultuous time.

I love how we see the flickerings of who Calvino will become as a writer with this early foray into realism.

By Italo Calvino,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Path to the Spiders' Nests as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Italo Calvino was only twenty-three when he first published this bold and imaginative novel. It tells the story of Pin, a cobbler's apprentice in a town on the Ligurian coast during World War II. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, and spends as much time as he can at a seedy bar where he amuses the adult patrons. After a mishap with a Nazi soldier, Pin becomes involved with a band of partisans. Calvino's portrayal of these characters, seen through the eyes of a child, is not only a revealing commentary on the Italian resistance but an insightful coming-of-age…

Book cover of A Valley in Italy: The Many Seasons of a Villa in Umbria

Dominic Smith Why did I love this book?

If you’ve ever fantasized about restoring a crumbling medieval Italian villa, then you’ll get to live that experience vicariously through this memoir.

The author has a wonderful sense of the absurd as she recounts her family’s multi-year efforts to turn a roofless villa into their dream home, complete with a complicated teenage daughter who is trying to find her way in the rural Italian countryside where the family has been transplanted.

Brimming with idiosyncratic and endearing characters. 

By Lisa St Aubin De Teran,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Valley in Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The author recounts a year she spent in San Orsela, a small town in the Umbrian hils of Italy, sharing portraits of her Italian friends and a celebration of the seasonal cycle

Book cover of The Italians

Dominic Smith Why did I love this book?

In many ways, this sort of book has gone out of style since it was published in the 1960s.

It’s an opinionated and ambitious portrayal of the Italian psyche and culture. Barzini looks at his fellow Italians with a dispassionate eye and a healthy sense of irreverence, uncovering their foibles, hidden beliefs, superstitions, and great strengths as a culture.

For me, Italy is an eternal paradox. Just when you think you’ve worked it out, something happens that makes you do a double-take. This book helps you understand that paradox has been part of Italy’s identity since the very beginning.

By Luigi Barzini,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Italians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this consummate portrait of the Italian people, bestselling author, publisher, journalist, and politician Luigi Barzini delves deeply into the Italian national character, discovering both its great qualities and its imperfections.

Barzini is startlingly frank as he examines “the two Italies”: the one that created and nurtured such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino, and Leonardo da Vinci; the other, feeble and prone to catastrophe, backward in political action if not in thought, “invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.” Deeply ambivalent, Barzini approaches his task with a combination of love, hate, disillusion, and affectionate paternalism, resulting…

Book cover of Italian Neighbors

Dominic Smith Why did I love this book?

This is one of the funniest and truest books about Italy!

The English novelist Tim Parks captures modern-day Italy through the lens of life on a single street in Verona, where he lives with his wife. He brings the entire neighborhood to life with a cast of characters that are colorful to say the least.

He also captures what it’s like to be a foreigner in a country where you weren’t born and whose essence is constantly evading you. Nonetheless, he shows us that it’s possible to find a true sense of belonging and home among the ragtag parade of your neighbors.

By Tim Parks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Italian Neighbors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this deliciously seductive account of an Italian neighborhood with a statue of the Virgin at one end of the street, a derelict bottle factory at the other, and a wealth of exotic flora and fauna in between, acclaimed novelist Tim Parks celebrates ten years of living with his wife, Rita, in Verona, Italy. Via Colombre, the main street in a village just outside Verona, offers an exemplary hodgepodge of all that is new and old in the bel paese, a point of collision between invading suburbia and diehard peasant tradition in a sometimes madcap, sometimes romantic always mixed-up world…

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Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

Book cover of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

Wendy Lee Hermance Author Of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Wendy Lee Hermance was heard on National Public Radio (NPR) stations with her Missouri Folklore series in the 1980s. She earned a journalism degree from Stephens College, served as Editor and Features Writer for Midwestern and Southern university and regional publications, then settled into writing real estate contracts. In 2012 she attended University of Sydney, earning a master’s degree by research thesis. Her books include Where I’m Going with this Poem, a memoir in poetry and prose. Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat marks her return to feature writing as collections of narrative non-fiction stories.

Wendy's book list on why Portugal is weird

What is my book about?

Weird Foods of Portugal describes the author's first years trying to make sense of a strange new place and a home there for herself.

Witty, dreamlike, and at times jarring, the book sizzles with social commentary looking back at America and beautiful, finely drawn descriptions of Portugal and its people. Part dark-humor cautionary tale, part travel adventure, ultimately, Hermance's book of narrative non-fiction serves as affirmation for any who wish to make a similar move themselves.

Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

What is this book about?

"Wendy Lee Hermance describes Portugal´s colorful people and places - including taxi drivers and animals - with a poet´s empathy and dark humor. Part travel adventure, part cautionary tale, Weird Foods of Portugal is at it´s heart, affirmation for all who consider making such a move themselves."

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Interested in Italy, the German occupation of Europe, and home?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Italy, the German occupation of Europe, and home.

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