Given all that there is to experience in Italy; the Vatican, the David, the Colosseum, the Duomo in Milan, the Borghese Gallery, the Grand Canal, just to name a few, why would anyone put sitting on a park bench in this magnificent country, on their “must see” and “must do” list? It seems rather silly given all Bella Italia has to offer. But after reading this I hope you’ll come to agree that if Italy is in your travel plans this new year or beyond, then that park bench should definitely be pretty close to the top of that bucket list. And here’s why.
For starters, as an Italy travel coach, I always tell my clients, less is truly more when it comes to planning that itinerary. Most visitors make the same mistake. They are convinced that they’re not getting their money’s worth unless they run themselves ragged from dusk to dawn, and beyond. They fail to realize that one can only take in so many churches and attractions before information overload, not to mention sheer exhaustion sets in, and by the end of the trip they can’t even remember much about what they’ve seen and done because it’s all a blur. That’s why stopping to smell the roses, or in Italy’s case more likely the rosemary bushes that flank the Italian landscape, is so important. Too often Italy travelers race from Rome to Assisi, and then on to Florence, for example. Then they hop on the train back to Rome, only to get to the airport mentally and physically drained, never having taken the time to stroll the Italian countryside or watch the sunset over a vineyard or an olive grove.
And that’s where the park bench experience comes in. As you can see from our photos, and this fun video taken during recent Italy visits, these are hardly the typical bench you might see in your hometown or local gathering space. These benches are part of the Big Bench Project. The effort has been around for several years and is the brainchild of an American couple who moved to northern Italy’s Piedmonte region. Chris and Catherine Bangle certainly understand the importance of downtime and reflection. They fell in love with the landscape, and were trying to get more visitors to appreciate the natural beauty of Italy by simply hopping onto a big bench — and yes looking at the world through different lenses, and with childlike wonder.
The Big Bench website says it perfectly, “how to become children again by rediscovering the landscape” and to have “an experience to share or rediscover ourselves.” Chris Bangle, a designer, came up with the plans, and shares those plans with those who share his vision.
While not coming from a religious perspective, per say, the folks behind this website so strongly believe in “la dolce far niente” or the sweetness of doing nothing, that they either built or supported the building of hundreds of big, no, actually giant, brightly colored benches in Italy and around Europe. There is no better time to slow down, sit down, and learn la dolce far niente, from unique and fun vantage points that not only help you catch your breath, but also make you appreciate the Italy pilgrimage or holiday experience more deeply, and just as, if not more importantly, help you feel like a child again. And doesn’t our Lord tell us that we are to have a childlike faith?
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
These benches are so large that you automatically do indeed feel like a kid again. You’ll have to climb up cement blocks or small wine barrels (only in Italy of course) to take a seat. For those of us old enough to remember, think Edith Ann; comedienne Lily Tomlin’s character from the late 1960’s comedy show Laugh-In. Tomlin portrayed a five-year-old girl who sounded off about life from a giant rocking chair. The benches are placed in spaces that can be accessed by the public. Among the other requirements to receive the design from the Big Bench Project, the structures also must be erected in a “panoramic and contemplative” location away from large buildings and structures. In other words, off the beaten path.
So far, my husband and I, along with close friends, have visited at least half a dozen benches in northern, southern, and central Italy. Each venue required a bit of an effort to reach, but that is part of the Big Bench adventure, searching for them again off the beaten path, following back roads that can lead you to some surprising locations including secluded medieval villages, or a lovely winery owned by locals, or the “real” Italy as I like to say. And don’t worry, there is plenty of signage along the way, and the views are beyond spectacular and well worth the trek.
Italy continues to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. And the number of tourists visiting isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon. Given the cancellation of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, even more people are expected in Italy in 2024, and again for the Holy Year Jubilee of the Catholic Church in 2025. That means Italy will be busier than ever if you visit in the next few years.
So, to truly make the most of your experience, I hope you now agree how crucial it is to take the time to slow down, hop on a gigantic, bright bench, and take it all in much like we did as children when climbing up that tree in our backyard or sitting on the beach for hours. Feeling small again, as our Lord reminds us, is a very big deal when it comes to truly appreciating one of the most beautiful places on His green earth.
“Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:15)