Italy: Crash Course Comparisons (part 1)

Oooooh, Italia. A country that exudes passion out of every pore and pothole (if you’re in the south). A country more divided than England, more insane than France, and more proud than anywhere else in the world. And with very good reason.

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The first full day, lunch on the Riviera.

If there were a ranking in my head, Italy entered this trip as my favourite country not just on my route but in the world, as it has been for many years now. Words would not have done my excitement justice, and there are no real adequate summations to my experience, either. The ‘is this really happening?’ moments came thick and fast in my month here, and life changed more than I had considered possible on the trip. They may share a border, but there’s little else beyond this that Italy and France can be totally aligned by. It was a testing four weeks, a hilarious as well as stressful period, but almost always soundtracked by beauty, brilliance and absolutely delicious food. I’m not sure about low-points, apart from the most geographically southern point, but Italy definitely produced some high points. So, diamo!

Cycling

Italian drivers don’t have the notorious reputation of the Hungarians or Russians, but they certainly have their moments. Nothing on this visit trumped the 2013 family holiday spectacle of a Smart Car (all the rage in Italy for their ability to fit into tiny spaces in crowded cities) blazing down a motorway, undertaking us in between two lanes, and the driver kicking back with his feet on the dashboard, both of them. However there were some close calls, more than I had in France, and the approach to most cities was a case of weaving in and out of traffic jams.

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Spotted in Liguria, half-way up a murderously difficult hill, I wonder if this is where the bikes that couldn’t make it ended up.

Rome is an interesting driving/riding experience. The apparent chaos, when one is actually within it, is surprisingly orderly. Maybe it’s the excessive use of cobbles or the amount of Vespa’s buzzing about that make it look much more dangerous than it actually is. Those lumpy bumpy mosaic streets make for an interesting time on a road bike anyway, and so any scraps of a cycling experience in the capital begins to suffer the minute you want to go anywhere old. It’s not as fun or comfortable or safe as London, but in fairness, it’s incredibly cool, at-least for a history lover like me, to pedal through an ancient city, travelling back through time.

Italians quite like cyclists all in all, plenty of room was given, as were approving cheers and beeps and waves from passing drivers. A large part of this appreciation probably stems from the fact many Italians cycle themselves, they were a common sight on most of the roads I ended up on. Speaking of the roads, they were…changeable. Most of the time road surfaces were fine, but in the hilly areas most roads have at-least one instance of an entire lane disappearing in a landslide (one landslide in Liguria sent me on a detour, a mere 2km in distance, but nearly a third of that in altitude too), and on the day I entered Tuscany, on what was supposed to be a major road, I rode for 35km on chunky, chalky gravel. You could almost hear the Italians saying “we’ll tarmac it tomorrow!”

Still, with fingers crossed and touching all the wood in the world (save that which was so kindly offered to me in Monterosso), Italy became the first major country I’d cycled through without any punctures, somehow (I honestly have no idea how, with all the cobbles, potholes and glass about). My gear cable wore out towards Rome though, meaning I entered the capital with two usable speeds, which was entertaining.

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Orvieto, the city on the rock, with exemplary Tuscan road quality in the foreground.

For the more relaxed riders, cycle paths and lanes and routes are something of a novelty compared to the UK, which itself pales in comaprison to other countries, and the roads can be equally frustrating anyway, with signage for anywhere further than 5km away often leading to a motorway without any warning. My approach to Bologna included a 10km stint on Italy’s answer to the M6, but it was fine, I only realised as I came off and was informed by a sign that I was no longer on the highway and thus I’d have to watch out for those pesky cyclists and pedestrians who were allowed back on the road. Tut.

France, I think I forgot to mention, bore witness to a couple of cycling records for me: highest elevation (which Italy then broke again, trumping the mystical 1000m milestone between Florence and Bologna), and the longest continuous non-stop distance – 114km. Italy brought with it another record, the most barebones of them all, the longest day: On the way towards Rome, from Pisa onwards, the coastline became a bit featureless, and so the prospect of motoring on towards the capital as fast as possible became too tempting to pass up. Between the cities of Follonica and Civitavecchia I covered 172km, thinking I’d only done 140. *pats self on back*. This should go down as at-least some minor testament to the state of affairs in Italy that this was possible.

Accommodation

There is one thing that I will always rue about Italy with regards to this trip, it’s the reason I didn’t learn half as much of the language as French, didn’t feel anywhere near as included in the culture, and thus, in a way, didn’t really enjoy it as much. This thing is Couchsurfing. In Italy it just does not work (for me). In the course of a month I had a grand total of two hosts (big up to Roberta and Andre, as well as Massimo who invited me for a drink in Bologna). Anywhere up to 80 requests will have been sent out, and the majority were met with completely blank rejections or silence. But if the profiles exist, if people are on the social networks, what’s going wrong?

Well… A dubiously large majority of couchsurfing users in Italy are male. And if you check, as I did a few times, you come to realise that all of their shiny, fantastic, delightful references are from…you guessed it… females. I didn’t stand a chance, and folks who have also tried to get about Italy the same way have backed this up. It’s a completely different ball game on the big boot, it seems. Closer to Tinder than Facebook. Oh Italy.

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Snap, the king of all card games, at a hostel with Elly (UK) and Ian (USA), Cinque Terre.

Still, don’t let that mar your view of Italian hospitality, because it is alive and well, very well. Where couchsurfing fell short, AirBnB took its spot. My first and probably tenth AirBnB experiences took place in Italy, and every host was very very friendly. The standout has to be Mahdi, who lives barefoot above the clouds at Monte Baducco, accepting guests, picking mushrooms, and cooking the most amazing food. You might have to pay, but you will be looked after. Don’t doubt that.

Italy being another country completely full of tourists all year round, hotels are good and common, and two of us even enjoyed a night of luxury across the road from the ancient marketplace in Rome. Hostels varied from what were effectively flats in Genova and Venice (€15 and €35 respective…yeap, that’s Venice for you) to purpose built, modern spaces full of international youth, such as in Bologna.

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..and at Pisa Hostel (guess where), with Elly again, the camera-whore.

I had a rather special couple of nights camping inside the Castle of St Peter (dispiaceSan Pietro) in Verona, enjoying beers with fellow cycling tourists with a beautiful view of the city of love below. Speaking of city of love, I think you get to pick your own, because Roma, Firenze, Verona e Venezia all claim, quite rightfully, to be the one true home of romance. I think those in the know can guess which one I would give the title to.
Anyway, camping, those two nights straddled off-peak and peak season, and they cost €15 and €20 respectively. Camping, just like France, is very glammed up these days, most sites have pools, a bar, a restaurant. And you pay for it whether you use it or not.

Wild camping was something I was uneasy about trying, even as the constant paying for a bed started to wear the budget. In Italy, especially national parks and foresty bits, there is a reputation for being particularly anti-free camping, with anecdotes of rangers being deployed to search deliberately for them and tell them to move on, and with a sluggish amount of Italian being learned, and English less commonly spoken, I didn’t really want to end up in a heated (as it would be, as most are in Italy) conversation about how I was breaking the law.

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The view from the campsite in Verona.

Culture

Where does someone even begin here?!

Italy draws on 2500 years of history to set the background of its national culture. From Empire to the middle ages to the Renaissance, dragged through war backwards and still alive today to tell the tale (with more energy than anyone else). Anything that matters in Italy matters so much that someone’s life probably depends on it. It is the spiritual home of excess, hyperbole and exemplary brilliance. The Italians have at some time or another strived for absolute perfection in effectively every field of life, and thus ended up a shining example of almost everything in some way.

First thing’s first, despite nearly 150 years of unification, Italy takes regionality to a whole new level. Numerous aspects of Italian society and culture, from the strength of family ties to the obsession with local pedigree, mean home is incredibly important, and hometowns are a very proud thing. In some cases it even overcomes the humongous Italian national pride: regional languages are all the rage and make no mistake regarding Sicilians, they are Sicilian, not Italian. Romans aren’t quite the buzzing capital bees that Paris and London suffer, that reputation tilts towards Milan.

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Tuscan wine, from Tuscany, nowhere else.

There is a very real sense of doing things properly, no matter what that thing is, be it eating, drinking, cooking, talking, loving, or all of them at once. It was pleasantly easy to reveal the warm heart of the French, but in Italy you don’t even need to bother, it’s always on show. Never before was a more animated people and thus animated life in existence. The exuberance of Italy seeps out of every pore.

As already stated, family is everything in Italy (ladies take note, the older you get, the more you own the shop, Grandmother trumps everyone else in the hierarchy by quite a stretch), but the irony of the Italian male is his very forward nature towards potential ‘suitors’, both metro and macho at the same time, almost anything goes and there is practically none of the subtlety of English courtship. ‘Ciao Bella’ isn’t just a cliché, it’s a very popular line. I even had myself a ‘ciao bello’ thrown my way at one point, they really aren’t fussy and they don’t think twice.
Make no mistake, this is a comparatively ill-informed observation, spending a lot of time semi-shut out does that, it certainly isn’t always the case, but this is an element of the Italian culture that I was constantly witness to, and it was a popular subject of conversation too. The confusion surrounds why these full-frontal (if you will) tactics prevail, when they are so rarely met with success. Pulling even a friendly, well-meaning smile from an Italian woman is famously difficult compared to other nationalities, because they live in the knowledge it can too often give the wrong impression to an eager would-be counterpart. This aspect of Italy is what makes couchsurfing near enough impossible there, and though Warmshowers is a little less social, it also suffered. I had my first truly unsettling experience on either of the sites while trying to find a host in Cinque Terre. For those who know, the story of Paolo is a funny anecdote, with somewhat creepy undertones, which highlights the approach towards these networks in Italy, and I can only assume it is a result of how their culture and thus mindset meets such an idea. There’s nothing malicious about it, it was always going to happen.

The strangeness in this comes when the Italian returns home on his Vespa to mummy. Suddenly the cheekiness and charm make way and they are full of a much more wholesome adoration. The Italian family unit is one of the tightest in the world, it’s less common than elsewhere that a child moves to another city, nigh unheard of (comparatively) that they move abroad. In-fact, most of the Italians I’ve met outside Italy either left through a break-away choice or felt, similarly, they were forced out by the status quo. Remember that the Catholic church, for all intents and purposes, calls Italy its home, and the country itself has a divide between urban and rural nearly as clear as that between its north and the south. There is a very strong traditional backbone in their society, which isn’t the most elastic.

It is always the case that this kind of thing really shouldn’t come across as complaining. It’s culture, it is what it is, and especially as a visitor I am nothing more than a mere observer. It’s neither a bad nor a good thing, it just is what it is, that is the way a lot of Italians are, and it just so happens that it ended up impacting my trip the way it did, which is sucky. But that is travel, things change and differ, especially culture, and it might require adjusting to, but in the end it’s that variety that makes you travel in the first place.

Instead, I left absolutely convinced that Italy, undoubtedly worth the effort, needs more commitment to break into. The least I can do is learn the language, move there, unlock the locals, and then make my own way. It’s likely that the Italians are just too busy, too pulled in and preoccupied by everything going on within and around them that they simply aren’t able to guide visitors like me into the mix. The authentic experience, or at-least the most of it, has to be got for oneself.

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Some casual beauty, not even considered worth mention to the locals of Tivoli.

Pride. Pride is everywhere. It’s understandable given the fact that everything’s so bloody brilliant. The interesting thing about Italian pride is that it doesn’t manifest itself in the arrogance of the French or the sometimes aggressive islandism of the English, it’s closer to that of a proud parent, they love to show and tell, they relish in the fact they nonchalantly live in a time capsule with in an open lid, if they run for milk in the morning they probably pass something at-least 500 years old and always remarkably beautiful, and they know it. They are quite uniquely happy in their home, the grass isn’t even greener on the other side. It’s also my finding that tolerance of tourists is actually rather high, again possibly as a result of a much more successful export of Italian culture to the wider world, where France and Britain are hopelessly clichéd, the central aspects of Italian culture are often reasonably well understood before people actually arrive, and I can only imagine what impact this might have on your opinion of the troves marching around your home year round. Another way to look at the Italian pride is as the constant attempts not to reach perfection, but instead to maintain the perfection that the Italians feel they have already achieved. This is most evident, as you may have predicted, in the belly of the boot (what a lucky belly that is).

Food

‘Yes.’ would again suffice completely here, especially with the much more accurate knowledge of Italian food in the Yook, but alas, an old joke is a bad one.

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Genovese ‘trofie’ pasta with Genovese pesto made from Genovese basil and Genovese pine nuts. True Genovese food, from Genova.

But still, where do I even start? In a month I passed through the birthplace and hometown of countless Italian classics: Pesto (and the Genovese basil used to make it), Focaccia, Gnocchi, Carbonara, the Margherita (the story of which I must have recited at-least a dozen times), Pecorino, Frittelle and Arancini, Spritz, Chianti, about five different types of salami, balsamic vinegar, Italy’s own recipe for tripes – a Fiorentine speciality alongside the Fiorentine steak, the timeless, ubiquitous and yet inimitable Bolognese ragu, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese (two iconic products from a city the size of Preston), Gorgonzola, Mascarpone, and certainly not to forget Tiramisu – which literally means ‘pick me up’. The Italians take regional obsession to an entirely new level. This list is only the places I passed through or near, and only the foods that I know are associated with them. Almost every single food or ingredient comes from somewhere, the source of it matters seemingly more than anything else. Whether it’s a region of protected origin or not, you will find out where something comes from the same instant you find out what it actually is. Prime example: Aceto balsamico di Modena, which I more than once considered putting in my bottle.

Beyond this, despite still proudly coming from somewhere or other, a lot of Italian staple foods are nationally brilliant, equally mouthwatering no matter where they come from: olive oil, mozzarella (especially buffalo mozzarella), tomatoes, fresh and dry pasta, oranges and lemons, WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE, salt, bread – especially ciabatta, rice, fish (especially tuna and anchovies), and last but not least, in-fact possibly most, gelato, practically always handmade, life-changingly creamy, life-affirmingly refreshing, always ridiculously tasty.

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I kind of helped make this. Ish.

The only thing that’s left to touch on is coffee. A staple of the Italian personality, it completes the list of Italian culinary certainties – to my knowledge the only country to have such things (apart from good bread in France and good beer in Belgium and Germany – not Stella). You will never have bad coffee in Italy, it just doesn’t exist, even the shoddiest of places serve the good stuff, and the same for a lot food too, you’re in safe hands, and you have that pride I mentioned to thank for it, most Italian cuisine is simply too sacred for everyone to even consider serving it badly.

A typical Italian day in food will start with coffee (which, if you ask for, you will simply get an espresso – that’s coffee to them, though cappuccinos are popular in the morning) accompanied by a cornetto, which is definitely not a croissant. I mean, it definitely isn’t an ice-cream, we can rule that one out straight away, but this croissant confusion was a little harder to get above. Coming from France, I’d been warned about various Italian inferiorities, and few were as shockingly abominable to the French as Italy’s sinful attempt at the holy crescent of buttery delight that is the French croissant. But you quickly realise that it isn’t a failed attempt at all. In-fact, the cornetto deserves a different name because though similar in shape and usage, it is an entirely different thing. It’s not as flakey, it has a cake-brioche-like texture rather than the indescribable crispy-fleshy-bready experience of the French counterpart, and it’s usually made to be much sweeter too.

Lunch will bring with it bread proper – usually ciabatta in a panino (for some reason the English decided to take the plural panini and use it as a singular), with mozzarella making an almost inevitable appearance. To drink, more coffee, possibly wine, or maybe an Aperol spritz. In Venice, if you’re feeling a bit more sophisticated, or just want to have five types of snack in the space of one, cicchetti are your thing, which also include tapas-like miniatures of other Italian favourites like bruschetta or arancini, served with white wine (ombra) and usually eaten stood at the bar.

Salad, you say? How about one with only a third green leaves? Oh yeah. Caprese is my kind of ‘healthy option’. Mozzarella, tomato, basil. Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Or my childhood favourite starter; prosciutto and melon.

Then there’s the big guns.
Italian dinners once had so many courses that they all merged into one, each leading into the next, thus the whole country was constantly eating. It was a tragically tasty time. It wasn’t until the Medici’s came along with their art and power and war-thingys that the population was forced to make time for anything else. They put down the forcetta and picked up the focaccia – before also putting that down and reaching, finally (and slowly, so they were all morbidly obese), for the paintbrush. And thus the name, Medici, referring to the family’s historical reputation as the ‘medicine of Italy’s great addiction’.
*parts of this may not be of the utmost historical accuracy or legitimacy

In all sincerity. The things you might usually consider ‘dinner’, your meat and two veg, are these days served as a secondi piatti, following the primi piatti which is reserved for pastas and risottos. There’s also pizze, of-course, as well as carpaccio – raw cooked meat, bruschetta and the marmite masterpiece that is Limoncello, or Di Saronno, or Grappa.

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Cath’s elbow. Oh, and pizza, by the slice, or…
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Whole. ~50cm wide. And delicious.

Let everything sink in, for eating in Italy is far from an exercise of survival, satisfying hunger or tasting something pleasant, it is a sublime assault on all the senses, even the sixth one (dundundunnn). The finest dining experience of all of them this trip was at a restaurant in Rome called Club Macchiavelli, which was true Italian hospitality at its best. The food was dreamy, and we had our table for the entire evening, though circumstances meant we couldn’t stay the whole night to chat with Mauro, the owner. It was a special night nonetheless, shortish but very sweet, a sidenote of sickness, but by no fault of the food, and a reaffirming experience in the country that prides itself on perfection.

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One of the most recognisable sights of Rome: tourist groups.

 

This has once again become absolutely huge. But there’s certainly more to tell of the month I spent in this incredible place, and so Part 2, as you might imagine following part 1, will arrive soon (eventually). Until then!

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