Interview with: Orna O’Reilly

Interview with: Orna O’Reilly

In this month’s edition of our ‘Interview with…’ series, we talk to Orna O’Reilly who writes at her eponymous blog. We discuss favourite places, travel, and living in Italy. Grab a cuppa and settle in…

Tell us about your blog.

I began blogging several years ago, but those early blogs were on the subject of interior design, as I was an interior designer in South Africa, Mozambique and Ireland for more than 25 years. When I moved to Italy in 2013, many of my friends were curious about the fact that I had taken the plunge and actually moved here all on my own. So entertained were they, that I decided to write notes on my experiences, which became more and more interesting to my friends as I progressed. A blog on Italy was born! I named my blog: Orna O’Reilly: Travelling Italy. My blog covers interesting facets of living in – and visiting – Italy. It also covers destinations that I have enjoyed on my extensive travels around this beautiful country, which is now my home.

What do you love most about travel?

I have always loved to travel. For many, many years I travelled alone. My working life was a busy one; clients and staff surrounded me on a daily basis and I found it impossible to find quiet time. My travels gave me time to take a breath and absorb new cultures and scenery. Later on in my life of travel, I began to focus on Italy in particular. I have always found it a diverse country full of culture, fabulous scenery, weather and food, plus I enjoyed the Italians themselves and their attitude to life in general.

Where has been your favourite place to visit?

Apart from Italy, I have to admit I loved my two visits to Australia. My youngest daughter lives near Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast and I found life there pretty laid back and was spellbound by the the enormous, white beaches and the hilly, wooded hinterland there, not to mention the beauty of places like the Whitsunday Islands. Having lived for several years in South Africa, one of my favourite destinations at that time was the exotic island of Mauritius, which I visited on several occasions. I also loved to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the west African country of Namibia, which is spectacular.

What is your favourite place in Italy?

Now that’s a difficult question! As I mentioned, Italy is a highly diverse country with something for everyone, no matter what you want to do and see. From my perspective, the most interesting places to visit – not in order of preference, as that would be impossible – would be the city of Vicenza and the Euganean Hills in the Veneto, the Ligurian coast and hinterland around Bordighera and San Remo, the region of Puglia, where I now live, and the Italian Dolomites around San Candido. A country of contrasts, to be sure.

What’s your best tip for travellers and holiday-goers?

Learn a few phrases in the local language and read up about your destination in advance, making a note of places you would like to see. It’s awful to come home after a holiday and realise you missed something you should have seen, as you might never return.

What’s your favourite photo from your adventures, and why?

As my blog’s emphasis is on photographs of the places I visit, it is difficult to pick out a favourite, but I love this one of Ostuni on a winter’s evening, the town where I now call home.

What’s your go-to dinner party anecdote about your travels?

Undoubtedly it’s about my hike around the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where I froze with terror at the vertiginous drops bordered by narrow paths on which one was supposed to walk. I had a tremendously sympathetic response to my blog ‘Terror at Tre Cime’.

What do you love most about Italy / Italians?

Living here in Italy is completely different to coming here on holiday. I often think it’s like marriage versus courtship. During the ‘courtship’ phase of my love affair with Italy I cannot describe the thrill I experienced every time I got off the plane from Dublin and stepped into the Italian sunshine. It was the perfect holiday destination for me and I longed to stay forever. Now I have been living here for more than five years and have become accustomed to Italy with all its ups and downs. However, I have weathered the hefty bureaucracy and lengthy queuing involved in opening a bank account, getting residency, a health card, a new driving licence, purchasing property and even getting married. Now I can relax and enjoy my life here, which is quite idyllic, to be honest. Here in Puglia, everyone is friendly and we have made many wonderful new friends. I love the climate, the food, the culture and, of course, the people here who have made us feel so welcome. It’s ‘real life’ now and not a holiday, but Italy is a wonderful country.

What is the biggest cultural difference between the Irish and Italians?

In Italy, it’s all about ‘La Bella Figura’ – one’s appearance. No matter how much, or how little, money an Italian has, they will always make sure they are looking their best before venturing out, even to the market. Scruffy dressing and down-at-heel shoes are an absolute no-no here. Good grooming is part of being Italian. And they dress for the season, not the weather. Visitors often remark that the locals are in winter jackets while they are in short sleeves!

Before I moved to Italy, I knew Italians in an entirely superficial way. Staff at hotel reception, waiters and tour guides were my only real contact with the people who were actually born and bred in Italy. Now that I have been living here for almost six years, I can see the huge differences in the way Italian people think and act versus the Irish.

For the Italians in general, family is everything. As far as I can see, when possible, they stay together for life. Children live at home for far longer and when they move out, it might well be to the apartment downstairs or just down the street. Family businesses appear to be the norm and when it’s holiday time they close down for two weeks and go to the beach together. In Ireland, nobody would even consider closing for two weeks and heading off. But here it’s accepted as a fact of life. On Sunday, if they don’t eat at home together, they go out to lunch and it is normal to see a table with at least twenty family members, from the snowy haired grandmother to babies in pushchairs, gathered around a restaurant table.

Also, shop opening hours have taken a lot of getting used to. Opening early, they close at 12.30 – 13.00 every day and only open again around 17.00. Large department stores and supermarkets appear to be exempt, plus franchises such as Geox and Intimissimi usually stay open all day. One needs to plan ahead before hitting the shops!

Down here in Puglia, most people live in apartments in town during winter and move to their beach house for the summer months. In August, just about everything shuts down and everyone goes on holiday. Towns are virtually empty by day and the beaches are packed. In contrast, these teeming coastal villages are ghost-towns in winter, when even the seaside supermarkets shut down.

Italians are also extremely formal and polite. As they enter your home they say ‘Permesso?’ and you answer ‘Prego!’ Then they will kiss you on both cheeks (left cheek first!). The men are renowned flirts, and though they may dally with the blonde tourists, they will marry, almost inevitably, a local girl. And you will never see them drunk and falling out of a pub! They drink while they eat and the pub culture, as in Ireland, is virtually unheard of except, perhaps, in the larger cities.

And, when chatting to an Italian, be prepared to discuss food. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject here and no conversation is complete without mentioning a good wine or restaurant, or even what’s for dinner tonight!

What do you enjoy most about living in Italy?

I enjoy virtually everything about living in Italy. Compared to Ireland, the climate is sublime; I love waking up to blue skies and sunshine and down here in Puglia that’s probably about 90% of the time. I love the fact that being in Italy means you can travel anywhere in Europe by train, as the rail network here is excellent. The Italian health system is top class and the state looks after its residents extremely well. I enjoy visiting the little Italian towns, all of which have an interesting piazza with its own village life carrying on under the trees or awnings: men chatting on a bench or playing cards together outside a cafe; women choosing vegetables and fish at the local market; smells of coffee and pastries and, inevitably, the sight of vast amounts of washing hanging high overhead to dry in the sun.

Why did you choose Puglia as a place to live?

Eight months after I moved alone to the Veneto I met Tom, a fellow traveller. We married two years ago in the Euganean Hills near Venice and decided to begin a new life together in the south of Italy. We decided to visit Puglia to have a look around and ended up purchasing our beloved home, Villa Allegra, amongst the olive groves near the ‘white city’ of Ostuni. Puglia was an easy choice with its relaxed lifestyle and fabulous climate, close to sandy beaches and interesting towns. We have never regretted this move, though we loved the Veneto too.

Which Bookings For You villa tempts you the most?

There are so many to choose from! However, Trulli Nicola (in Puglia) really appeals. A lovely villa and perfect location close to Ostuni. What could be better?!

And finally, do you have a favourite saying or quote about travel or sightseeing?

I don’t have a favourite saying or quote, but my own philosophy has always and ever been to try to visit places that are a bit less oriented towards mass tourism. So many beautiful cities and areas have now become over-exposed in the age of budget travel. Exploring alone, or as a twosome, with a guide book, or just following your nose, gives you the feeling of being a traveller, rather than a tourist, which is much more satisfying.