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Part Three of our Travel Special!
Part One: Flying the Friendly Skies
Part Two: London for Singletons
Next week: Road-Tripping For Love!

Italy for Couples:
Travelling as a Dinamico Duo
or, Come direste "Venuto vi sedete nel mio giro"?

by Daphne Uviller

Last summer, my boyfriend Sacha and I went to Italy for our first extended, far-flung vacation together. Forget Paris, forget Vermont. Italy trumps both of them for romantic ambience. Along the way we collected the usual items: photos, memories... and a lot of experience travelling together.

Here's a myth: Travelling with your significant other is a good indicator of the strength of your relationship. Not true! Most couples will have a great time on vacation no matter what's going on at home. The circumstances under which you interact on trips are so different from your daily life that a foundering couple may actually gain a false sense of confidence about their relationship. I can think of at least three couples who waited too long to split up because they kept going on great getaways. (Not a bad ploy if you just want to postpone the inevitable, but, uh, why would you? At very least -- you should have the decency of good timing when you do the deed.)

However, if a bad couple can have a good time away from home, a good couple can have a great time. You become a team, a "we" in the eyes of the strangers you meet. Travelling lets you leave the laundry, computer crashes, and grouchy work days behind, and become a distilled version of yourselves. The best parts of both of you can shine through, sweet and clear.

Let me inject this disclaimer, however: if you and your co-adventurer have wildly different travelling styles, you have a different problem on your hands. If one of you wants to spend a week lying on a beach, doing nothing more taxing than lifting an umbrella drink to your lips, and the other wants to trek ancient trade routes in the Himalayas, well... you probably never got past the bookstore's travel section. On the successful couple-journey, you need to have a similar pace; if you're willing and flexible, you can find great pleasure in discovering that pace together.

We started in Rome, whose warm yellows and golds -- the buildings, the sun, the food -- immediately revived our dulled New York City senses. Between his Spanish and my French, we found our way to our hotel in a neighborhood called Trastevere. After naps and showers we headed out for a long walk and late dinner. We immediately started adopting the same balance between rest and adventure; we didn't force ourselves outside, but neither did we hole up for the night.

This was made easier by another travel trick: giving yourself a mission. In our case, I had read about fried artichokes in the Jewish quarter and we agreed it was a priority to eat some as soon as possible. If you both have the chance to choose a few specific sites or activities before the trip, you get two benefits: each of you will feel like you are getting to do what you want, but you don't always have to be leading the way.

Food motivated most of our adventures (appropriately, I think, considering where we were). In Trastevere, we dutifully sampled the pizza for which the neighborhood is known. In Umbria, the province abutting Tuscany to the south, we sought out wild boar, a regional delicacy. Together, we developed methods for expanding our appetites so that we could eat four or five courses at both lunch and dinner. We recommend jumping into cold water before meals, the theory being that it speeds up the metabolism. And even if it doesn't, it gives you something to talk about.

Another way to improve two-person travel: when you find something that both of you enjoy, go ahead and make it a ritual. Sacha developed an insatiable and rather pricey penchant for truffles, and once a day -- with the discipline some people dedicate to taking vitamin supplements -- we ate gelato.

On our second day in Rome, we hit the town hard, covering every inch of the Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica. We took a tour of the Vatican gardens, a hilly area so vast that a bus drops you at the top and you spend two hours meandering back down to the basilica. It was here that I had an unexpected and sweet relationship moment.

Sacha, who's an ecologist, came to the rescue when some other tourists had a question about the garden's flora. An Irish woman whispered to me, "Does he know this because of a hobby or a job?" Answering her, I realized I knew stuff about him! We could answer questions about each other! Sometimes, it's nice to see yourselves as a pair in other people's eyes and everyone will certainly see you that way when you travel.

From Rome we drove to Todi, where we stayed for a week. We had the best meal of the trip in Perugia (home of Perugina chocolates), napped on the church steps in Orvieto and reached new heights of couple-ness when we purchased pottery together in Deruta.

Of course, many co-travellers recommend spending some time apart during your trip. This will give you a much needed break from each other, as well as letting you experience a little solo travel. When you do meet up again, not only will you have fresh stories to share with each other, but you'll also appreciate the help that your partner can give you on the road.

Before we left for Italy, we talked about taking these breaks. I had imagined that during those times I would sit in cafes writing in my journal while Sacha wandered around a town. But in fact, we never found ourselves actively needing that space and time apart. First of all, don't underestimate the benefits of reading. Even when you're not travelling, it's essential to any relationship because it offers mental escape without physical absence.

But even when we weren't engrossed in our separate books, we were by no means constantly talking. If you find that happening, don't worry. You couldn't fill every minute of your trip with conversation and you wouldn't want to. Just enjoying the experience together is a reward. And you can learn a lot about another person during the silences. For instance, I learned that Sacha interprets Italy's lack of speed limits as an invitation to race. He learned to wait until I fell asleep before he passed other cars at 90 miles an hour.

We left Todi and headed for Sienna. Do your relationship a favor and avoid driving into Sienna. This walled city is situated at the top of a hill, and is virtually impossible to enter without misreading a map and sparking an inevitable squabble. Successful travellers will learn to forgive and forget quickly, though, so you can get back to enjoying the trip asap. We wandered from our hotel to the Church of San Domenico. Like most Italian places of worship, this church doubles as a shrine for a holy body part. Here, St. Catherine, Italy's patron saint, gives a permanent thumbs-up to the world with her detached digit.

We ended our travels in Cinque Terre, a region with five fishing villages nestled on a rocky coastline, where you can hike from one town to the next and jump into the bath-warm sea upon each arrival. On our final night, we sat under a full moon, the Mediterranean lapping near our feet, and talked about our future. We were only thinking about the coming year, but as we discovered back at home, others were thinking in bigger terms for us. If you travel together unmarried, be ready for your friends and family to lay bets on whether you got engaged. (If you feel the need to get back at them, just tell them yes, you did... and that you also had a lovely wedding and your two beautiful children are now in boarding school but they'll be back for the holidays.)

In truth, having travelled together, you'll have much subtler memories to look back on. Beyond all the history, facts, and maps, you'll have learned, say, that your companion so loves the sight of a wheat field that he'll rise at 6 a.m. just to photograph it in the warm glow of an Italian dawn. And that's a trinket brighter and more precious than any diamond.

Daphne Uviller is a regular Big To Do contributor who last wrote about legal touch. She discovered that if you can say "Aloro" and "Va bene" frequently, you've mastered most of conversational Italian.

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