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Libraries, Galleries, and Hostels: The Broke-Ass Traveler’s Sanctuaries in Italy

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Photo by Leigh Cuen

Italy is not a cheap place to travel. Expensive culinary delights call out to pedestrians like sirens. Italy’s famous museums are costly and offer the crowded feeling of Disneyland or a zoo. Visitors are herded past masterpieces in lines, which often snake around corners and out into the streets. But if you are prepared to venture into lesser-known areas, there are hidden gems that can satisfy your wanderlust without a hefty price tag.

Don’t come to Rome with high expectations. Seeing great monuments surrounded by tourists wearing fanny packs and men in cheap Gladiator costumes spoils the magic of ancient ruins. Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are the least romantic places in Italy. You’ll make it to the top, sweating and panting after wading through hordes of tourists taking pictures of themselves. If you are traveling with a partner and dare pause to soak in the view, salesmen from India will confront you and insist that you buy flowers to prove your love. “Kiss and buy flowers!” They will demand loudly behind you.

So stop by Angelica Library for a quiet moment in Rome. It was established in 1604 and listed by Flavorwire as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Walk up the curved, marble staircase. Despite the bustle and frenzy of the streets outside, inside the doors the air is utterly still, silent. You’ll stroll beneath the classically-painted portraits, into the sanctuary of books, bursting with almost 200,000 volumes and manuscripts. These include a collection of historic bibles and influential texts on poetry and theater from the 15th to 18th century. This was the first library in Rome, one of the first in all of Europe, to be opened to the general public. It is a historic site for lovers of both social justice and art. It is FREE to visit, but only locals can access its books. Flash photography is not allowed inside.

“Game of Cultures” by artists DARIO TIRONI and KOJI YOSHIDA. Nude woman with a lust for books, in the background Samurai robots gather around a thick black book as if it were a shrine.

Down at street level beneath the library, there is a FREE art contemporary gallery, Galleria Angelica. When I visited this past spring it was home to “Game of Cultures” by international artists Dario Tironi and Koji Yoshida. The exhibit included sculptures made from recycled trash that explore modern consumer culture through historic themes such as ancient art and books. Trash makes for FREE art materials and the results can be spectacular.

Sculptures from “Game of Cultures” by artists DARIO TIRONI and KOJI YOSHIDA

Sculptures of Samurai robots from “Game of Cultures” by artists DARIO TIRONI and KOJI YOSHIDA.

The north of Italy is also sinfully beautiful, with its green countryside and hilltops adorned with little cities like old jewels. If you journey from Rome to Florence, stop in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, just beyond the rims of Tuscany. There you can stay at a cheap international hostel, under the same roof as a historic library and the ghosts of a bloody legend.

View from a bedroom window at Perugia’s International Hostel. Photo by Leigh Cuen

The hostel was once the Borgias mansion, home to one of the most infamous families of the Italian renaissance. Local lore has it that the family would marry their daughter off to increase the their wealth and influence, then kill her husband and repeat the process. Their name became synonymous with corruption in the Renaissance Papacy and European politics. Their tale is the subject of a play written by Victor Hugo, the author of “Les Misérables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” This family, especially the daughter Lucrezia Borgias, is the subject of many modern works of art, literature, opera, films and television dramas, including the Showtime series “The Borgias.” Lucrezia had a personal feud with a noted Umbrian mystic, Columba of Rieti, and their history is replete with legends of magic and miracles.

Today the hostel is also home to the multilingual library of a local Catholic holy man, which has recently been made available to the public. The view from the terrace reveals the old city below, with twisting modern streets melting into the green plains. Watch the sunset from up there.

While much of Italy can be costly, the creativity and awe come for FREE.

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Leigh Cuen – Wandering Dreamer

Leigh Cuen – Wandering Dreamer

Leigh Cuen is a poet and journalist from California. She left her heart in San Francisco and followed the sun to the coast of the Mediterranean. She reads like a fiend, scribbles wild ideas and thinks too much.