(Featured image: on the rocks of Riomaggiore with Lara, Grace and Ian (US))
One of the downsides of not ‘merging’ as much is that the Italian language, my favourite of all, eternally passionate and emotive and simply beautiful to listen to (and speak), eluded me. I don’t even think my vocabulary doubled in my time there, and it wasn’t big to begin with.
As in France, I found a profound manner of goodbye to be the first thing I really wanted to learn. Ciao sufficed for an informal hello, but saying it twice in one discourse just seemed a bit wrong. ‘Buona giornata’ and ‘Buona serata’ ((have a) good day/evening) covered these fronts pretty well.
‘Bene‘ is good, but ‘buona’ is what really matters – because it’s what you say for food. Sorry and excuse me can be ‘scusa’, ‘scusi’, ‘dispiace’ and ‘permisso’, such variety allows British levels of politeness to be held while still being eloquent, which is nice, if also a bit strange in a country where you rarely have much to apologise for. A sidenote here, I’m writing these from two month old memory, so they could be horrifically wrong, but then again there was no guarantee they were ever right in the first place. The good thing about speaking Italian over French is that there is much, much, much less arrogance. Even if you pronounce something pretty much completely wrong, they will try to understand, and usually succeed, meaning the eye-rolling situation where the tiniest discrepancy in pronunciation leaves a French person mumbling with faux-confusion (they did understand, they’re just offended by your butchering of la langue), is rare.
Italians also love teaching their language, maybe there is some desire to promote it, being it the only major western-European language to not really conquer vast swathes of the globe or settle as a continental second-language. I feel sort of sorry for Italian, given that it had the chance to spread like Spanish, Christopher Columbus, despite sailing under the Spanish flag, grew up speaking some regional form of Italian as a mother tongue, and so took it with him to South America, but it wasn’t meant to be. In my opinion, European Spanish just doesn’t satisfy the ears the same as Italian, the lisp is distracting and trying to speak it makes it feel like my mouth is melting.
Italian is an absolute delight, soft and fluid, but accented with strong T’s and rolled R’s, and the rhythm, that rhythm. Everything is musical and unbeatably passionate, I witnessed conversations in which it looked like someone would either thrust a blade into someone or have the tendons rip themselves out of their neck through sheer exertion, when they could have been talking about just doing the weekly shop.
Finally, hands. The hands are just as, if not more important, to speaking than words for the Italians. Handcuff an Italian and they’re muted. It’s a pretty fun curiosity, and once picked up on it’s absolutely impossible to stop noticing, Italian arms and hands have a complete mind of their own. It reminds me of the Demented Cartoon Movie (not even worth linking here, it’s 20 minutes you will not get back), where none of the stick figures can make a sound without their arms lifting up.
It needs noting that outside the medium of my trials in finding hosts, everyone I encountered in Italy was incredibly friendly, they have much more patience with and interest in strangers than the English or the French, and seem to get satisfaction out of any and all social interaction. They are the most reliably open people I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across. There’s also seemingly strong community spirits, even in cities as large as Trieste (200’000 people) the locals are gelled and connected, my host Andre, who had only moved in a matter of months earlier, and wasn’t even born Italian, greeted upwards of a dozen different people on our walk through the centre.
If I stayed stood still for too long, someone would come along and speak to me in Italian, and whether they then adjusted to English or not they would remain for a matter of minutes talking. In the latter circumstance I’d often end up trying to remember the last time I ended up in such a situation at home. Nada.
Italian socialising is nowhere near as location-bound as it is in the UK. A continuation of the wondrous open carry liberty made parties out of entire communities at night time. Students filled the steps of bridges in Venice or crowded out entire piazzas in Rome’s iconic Trastevere district. The open, public night life completely outdid the atmosphere in actual bars and clubs, most of which were comparatively scripted, a little desperate, and almost completely full of tourists.
In truth there is no real ‘social lubricant’ necessary for an Italian, every moment of the day is an opportunity, thus the infinite chattiness and instinctive friendliness is a facet of every day life, rather than nights out. This is the country where the executive will say goodnight to the cleaner as he leaves the office, and end up staying for a 5 minute chat.
Top-of-the-food-chain Grandma is everyone’s Grandma. She will feed you, she will sly you a cup of wine, she will pester you about your hair, comment on how you’re growing and, in my case, wax lyrical in Italian at my attempts to speak her language. There is one grandma in particular who I would almost consider my own, she is the mother of Paolo, an umpteenth-generation meat, cheese, wine, oil and vinegar merchant in the quaint town of Greve-in-Chianti (guess the region), who are firm family friends following numerous visits over the years. A little bit of Italy runs through my family’s blood, not through relation, but mutual adoration. Our Christmas turkey and Sunday roasts are wrapped in their prosciutto, and their fennel sausage is similarly a staple. Paolo’s mama has watched me grow up over a handful of visits over the years and recognised me quickly upon my return last summer, she smiled a golden smile, piped up in her native tongue and got her son to translate for me. Whilst Paolo and I chatted about my family and his work, I was fed sausage, conserve, wine and bread. A Russian family came in, the father, in something of a ham-fisted manner, picked up a bottle of balsamic vinegar, matured for some number of decades, and eyed the bottle inquisitively, tossing back and forth, this way and that. Paolo, having watched him for all of 5 seconds, set about chastising the poor guy for his manhandling of precious local produce. By the end of it, Paolo had to stress that he wasn’t angry. Passion can be hard to translate sometimes, and rule number one is don’t f*ck with the good stuff. If you’re wondering what the good stuff is, if it’s edible, it qualifies.
Paolo and your third Grandma now ship abroad, and their produce is available in a few spot across Europe, too. They’ve just completely revamped their business, including a flash new website, which you can check out here.
They didn’t pay me, by the way. They did feed me though, that could be considered enough.
Civilisation and Infrastructure
Italian cities don’t share the modern accents of French counterparts, more in line with the old centers of places like Canterbury and York: well-preserved, at places all-encompassing heritage. Although, of course, reflecting Italian history rather than English. The most slick city centres belonged to Genova and Trieste, non-coincidentally the closest places I visited to neighbouring countries, and even then the 21st century took a back seat to the times that preceded it, the now ended golden age(s) that this country played host to. In almost every city it seemed that history breathed, the past was still alive and very much evident.
Florence is the birth-place, global capital and best known home of the renaissance legacy, Italy’s second zenith. The streets ooze with the inspiration that was born there, the ongoing impact of Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo (da Vinci); Boticelli, Machiavelli, Galileo, that spread across Europe and the world, all from this one city, tucked under the Tuscan hills.
Going back a little further, a personal favourite spot in Italy is the tiny town of Monteriggioni, an almost perfectly preserved medieval settlement, complete with walls – which haven’t been built outside yet – and an old village square. The only thing that hasn’t survived time is the old castle, but it’s okay, I’ve (virtually) walked through that anyway, and anyone else who played Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood will understand. Before anyone asks, yeap, Ubisoft’s renaissance-set masterpiece is the main and only reason I wanted to visit back in 2012, and still largely behind my revisitation, this time with Sean and Gabo from Sienna’s only hostel. It’s an exemplary example both of respectfully and faultlessly restored or preserved history – open to the public in an effective, sensible and reasonably respectful way- and the ongoing traditions of Italian rural life.
That rural life, then. I saw more countryside in Italy than in any other country. The cities I visited tended to be smaller in at least their metropolitan sense, but their historic cores satisfied the cultural eye. There is an unspeakable charm to the small towns and villages too. It may owe something to the extent of old Roman routes that instead of roads connecting villages, it feels as though the villages are built upon the roads. Especially in the hilly regions of Liguria and Tuscany, there was a new hamlet every few hundred metres, each with its own little quirks, riding through them over an afternoon became a masterpiece of slow cinema. Community plays a big part, I’d often see the gentlemen of the village sat together in garden chairs in old bus stops, playing chess and watching the world go by. And when they went home to the matriarchs they just left their chairs for tomorrow, they’d always still be there.
Rome is an interesting place, not at all like London or Paris. It trumps the two of them together for historical grandeur, though it can’t match the beauty of its French equivalent and pales against the economic and infrastructural might of the English capital. It isn’t as sprawling, the metro system is a minnow compared to either of the others’. Rome could in-fact be considered one of Italy’s three capitals. Milan to the north (which I neglected to visit, for now) handles the lion’s share of administration and finance – housing the national stock exchange and superseding the capital proper in global city status, and by some counts it has a larger population than Rome itself. Naples to the south also tussles with the eternal city in headcount, and stands up to Manchester and Marseille as the grittier metropolis of the nation, though with much more actual grit. It sadly still stands true today that once in the south, the mafia is a palpable force, and continues to cause problems.
The ‘three capitals’, in-fact, demonstrate a patterned issue. Not one to be any less than the best at absolutely anything, Italy takes the UK’s north-south divide and supersizes it. There is a huge disparity in wealth and quality of life, with Milan comparatively richer than Sweden and Naples poorer than the Czech Republic. Living the former leaves you on average a sight more than twice as well off as in the latter. There is a reasonably sincere movement for independence from the Northern states, which would leave the south even firmer in its own quagmire. For a place with just as much vibrance, passion and cultural wealth that would be little short of a disaster.
Never-the-less, don’t let that give you the impression that the UK doesn’t still suck at trains comparatively. I took a comfortable, quick and cheap as chips train from Rome to nearby Tivoli and reflected on what Italy would happily trade such an asset with Britain for any feature of its grander infrastructure. Shit trains seem to be a British national achievement. The only thing to point out about Italian trains is that you must validate your ticket before you hop on, or you could get landed with a hefty fine. Thankfully, the conductor on my train was more than a little camp, took a shine to me and let me off with a 5 euro penalty. I only took one Italian bus, and that was up a mountain composed almost entirely of hairpins, and so suitably mad.
Standout towns and cities of interest include:
Genova/Trieste: The two respective coastal ‘gateways’ to the country, both squeezed between mountains and a little more distant from the Italian archetype in their architecture and atmosphere, but Genova has its staple in pesto and Trieste has a delightful atmosphere hinting at other east-Adriatic gems in countries further south.
Cinque Terre: ‘Five Lands (towns)’ in Italian, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are five postcard villages precariously clothing the valleys and cliffs of the riviera, closed off cutely by a lack of road access. Though likely to soon completely succumb to tourism, for now they remain an unparalleled window into rural, beautiful, seaside Italian community life.
Rome: The be-all of Italian history and the culture it fuels. A capital without quite as much of the Londoner or Parisian bustle, with iconic and idyllic treasures around every corner and a unique, enticing aura seeping from each concrete and marble block, shrouding the city in a quiet wonder and an addictive warmth of feeling. My favourite place in the world.
Orvieto: A curious city built atop a giant rock, with a stupendous cathedral and ancient caves.
Florence: The home of beauty, a bastion of art and architecture, and a similar seeping sensation of the soul of the Italian character. Not as occupying or memorable to a solo traveler though, its brilliance requests company.
Bologna: Home of bolognese, city of arches, the oldest western university and a modesty not afforded by neighbour Florence, a nice alternative with plenty about itself to be unique and memorable.
Verona: The city of Romeo and Juliet, still shrouded in romanticism and a sense of living and literary history. A theatrical pilgrimage site with plenty to distract those looking to the nearby alps or Lake Garda.
Venice: A place like no other in the world, canal-cut and unspeakably charming. Expensive, as expected, but completely deserving of its reputation. A city in the sea… Need I say more?! A rare gift to this era of humanity, as it likely won’t be around forever.
Milan*: (Not a part of the trip, but visited in February 2017). Italy’s modern, functional and financial capital, with charm more from the 50’s-onwards than the Romans or Renaissance, but still hosts the impressive Duomo. Classy old trams and all the grandeur and high-end shops expected of one of the world’s three fashion capitals. Rich.
If England has the charm, and France has the landscape, where was there to go for country number three? Somewhere in-between is a phrase which serves okay, but patronises the scale of both the atmosphere and aesthetic of Italian rurality.
I entered the country along the riviera, which continued the jagged forms of the French coast, complete with beaches. The mountains, once a pretty back-drop, were now an intimidating presence to my left, forested and round, they had character, a character I’d come to learn as that of Liguria, where the alps clash with the Mediterranean. The road began to flatten out and tunnels became more of a feature. Everything was great, until…
I was forced up into the picturesque foothills I’d spent all day mocking, it was a rage-fueled trip that took me hundreds up metres up in elevation in a similar distance forwards, and then back down, but the scenery was stunning. The blue sea, yellow sand and green backdrop became an alternative tricolore which couldn’t be mistaken for anywhere else. I crossed a bridge into Albenga, the sun was setting and the sky burst behind the hills in the distance. Even the driver of the bus stopped to take a picture, she nodded at me as she drove past.
With 20kg on my back wheel I forged a love-hate relationship with those hills. They were gruesome, really nasty bastards, but from every single viewpoint they compensated with views. It’s a lush green that looks just as good in sun or rain, and to an Englishman the domes of those hills are both otherworldly and strangely homely, without any of the jagged edges or sheer rock of the ‘real’ mountains to the north. And when the hills hit the sea as cliffs, they cuddle some of the most picturesque communities in all of Europe.
That was one slice (of many varied slices) of the beauty of the Italian country, what came next was its counterpart. From Pisa to Rome, as already mentioned, the landscape was flatter but duller. Very dull. I mean, incredibly dull. Factories, industrial scale shipping ports, power plants, nasty, vein-like roads and a complete absence of colour. The Po valley was slightly more picturesque, but not by much. It’s the price to pay for a cycle tourist, the easy bits of Italy are by far the least rewarding.
So it’s all about the hills, and there’s a few of them. All kinds of hills. In all kinds of different shapes and sizes. Aside from Ligurian lumps, there’s the ranges of Tuscany. I broke through the 1000m altitude barrier between on the way out of the region towards Bologna, at a tiny village called Monte Baducco. Aforementioned Mahdi, like his neighbours, lived off the land. All manner of mushrooms, great swathes of wild herbs and vegetables and a thriving population of free-roaming boar all call the hills surrounding the metropoles of Florence and her sisters their home. There are lively rivers dividing what are technically mountains, a miniature of the alps, which put a striking canvas to some of my longest, loneliest but loveliest days of cycling. And regarding those alps, they’re up there, in the northern parts. I might not have taken them on in this country, but they’re something to behold wherever you see them.
It wasn’t all mountain though. Sometimes the hills refused to get too tall, in-stead creating an unspeakably beautiful blanket of rolling green and yellow, fading to a blue haze with distance, stretching as far as the eye can see. Roads carefully twist up and down the sloped sides of Chianti, rows of vines give the quilt a patterned, patchwork appearance, and trees, like needles give the softness a friendly edge. The sun seems to shine all day on these sumptuous fields, home to some of the best wine in the world, and when the time comes they’ve more than once framed a big, bright, grapefruit moon on a crisp, warm evening. Singular farmhouses and dirt tracks leading up to them and roads with twists and turns to match all the up and down, this must be one of the prettiest places on earth. Cycling through it was a dream come true, quite literally, and still better than I could ever have expected.
In-fact, the only reason I can’t say Italy is more beautiful than France is that they’re largely incomparable. They’re two separate kinds of striking. And as for that quaint English country charm, the character of Italy remains tied to its people. But don’t let that take anything away from the claim that if anyone wanted to see the most picturesque of Europe, they’d have thoroughly travel Italy, if it was all they did.
Screw it. It is more beautiful than France.
Where in the UK it’s a pint, and in France we went for the croissant, Italy judges its local expense on the venerable espresso.
€1 (85p) is the standard from which you can judge both cheap and dear. Metro coffees in Rome cost a friendly 70 cents (60p). Tourist traps will set you up for costs of €1.50 and upwards.
Venice and Milan were the most expensive places to live, while Trieste, Genova and Pisa were among the cheaper options. Cities are invariably more expensive than towns and villages. There is a pedigree to food which makes it pricier in comparison to other elements of spending, and regional calibre such as that of Tuscany sent produce prices soaring, but despite this, on average, things were a touch cheaper than back home (at-least at the May 2016 conversion rate (€1/80p), which was much more favourable than the current one…).
I spent much more money in Italy per day than any other country. The reason for this was quite singularly the woes of attempting to get hosted. AirBnB on AirBnB began to bite away at my savings, and loosening the budget during visits from girlfriend and sister in Rome and Venice didn’t help. If you’re a hotel person anyway, you’ll be prepared, but to travel on the cheap through couchsurfing or similar, Italy might be a challenge.
Wine is cheap and of a much higher standard per penny than the UK. Buying direct from vineyards is an option which further reduces the price of delectable drink. 66cl bottles of Peroni (red or blue) were available pretty much everywhere, any time, for less than €1. Aldi sees competition from a supermarket called PennyMarkt, which widens the availability of cheap everything, and the only thing that could be worth noting with regards to added expense is that motorways are tolled.
As already stated, if you want something done in real Italian brilliance, you will pay. The two most expensive meals I’ve ever had have both been in this country, and they were unforgettable. But the quality is still a near certainty. Special mention goes to Pastifico in Rome, right by the Spanish Steps, which serves takeaway boxes of beautiful pasta, in two different sauces, for €4 a pop. If you stay and eat in on the shelves, you get a free cup of wine. We went there more than once.
Safety & Comfort
The dated (not at all in a bad way) appearance of Italian cities can understandably spill into an assumption that things might not run quite a smoothly as elsewhere. There is certainly a chaos to Italy, partly satisfying a stereotype of poor organisation. Flappyness and a obsessive preoccupation with food, drink, love and mama might seem to leave things like healthcare, emergency services, welfare and cleanliness to afterthought.
This is, as you hopefully already thought, a complete misjudgment. Bear in mind that I visited the north of Italy, as far south as Rome, but nevertheless within those regions everything runs perfectly smoothly. Italy keeps up the trend set by France of being largely similar to the UK in its efficiency when society comes to need it. Your EHIC card, for now, still works there, and the EU will be to thank for much of the logistical uniformity experienced in each and every country I visited.
A mention should be given, however, to the problems of the south. vast unemployment plagues the ‘semi-country’ and there is the phenomenon of organised crime, romanticised in cinema but still a tangible reality for the area. Extortion has long had its roots set in the south, and attempts to weed it out have been met with repeated and continued failure. It is not so much to say that one shouldn’t visit these places, but that they should certainly do so, aware of the subcultures and undercurrents at play within communities, economies and society in general. It seems strange when travel teaches one so often of the spectral qualities of the world, how nothing is black and white, to attest that this is a purely southern issue, and that there is some sort of solid border acting as a rubicon between the two halves of the country, but all my experience, over years, all over the north, attests to this. The north is not purely free of crime, just like anywhere else, and the south is not a quagmire of danger and Godfathers, it is still vastly frequented by swathes of tourists each year. It only serves to say that you are safe as houses in Genova, Venice, even in Rome, and the same can’t be as confidently stated as you head further south.
There still aren’t many carpets either.
National Sport: More Football than anything, Calcio is love and life for the Italians. The minnows of the six nations, with more wooden spoons than all the other teams combined since they joined in 2000. Italy winning a Six Nations match is about as surprising as me knowing anything at all about Rugby.
Metros: Brescia, Catania, Genova, Milan, Naples, Rome, Turin. The most in Europe.
Mopeds: Absolutely everywhere, especially the iconic Vespa. Insurance is rare because it’s ridiculously expensive, and being in any city will demonstrate why.
Blood and body: According to an eccentric pizza chef, Italians consume on average over 200g of bread and two bottles of wine a day. I shit you not.
That massive white thing: It’s a monument. All of it. No other purpose, bar a museum opened at the very bottom. It’s wider than Buckingham Palace and a sight taller than the neighbouring colosseum. Vittorio Emanuele was an important sod.
Sheffield: Both built on seven hills, the home of Stainless Steel is heralded as our very own Rome.
This concludes my rambling on this incredible country, then. And I hope also the longest hiatus ever to be taken on this website, I’m aware it’s been a ridiculously long time since I last posted. I’m now in the throws of university while trying to process the footage from the trip, so things are getting squeezed out like pasta from a roller. I don’t make my way here to write blog posts more than once a fortnight at the moment. Never-the-less, there’s more to comment on, hopefully with a little more regularity from now on.