I have been really struggling to write this post, because it’s so hard to put into words my feelings about this country. I feel like I should love Italy, and in a way, I already did, purely because Andrea, one of my best friends in the whole world, loves Italy with all her heart – so much so that she made it her home for four years. I’m not sure if the Italy we saw was her Italy. To be honest, my first impressions of the Italian landscape was how much it reminded me of South Africa (except obviously for the ancient ruins). To be even more honest, I’m currently engaged in a tumultuous relationship with my country of birth, and the nuances of this relationship became a part of my judgement of Italy, which is perhaps unfair. Italy is not like the rest of the Europe we experienced. Things don’t necessarily run on time and not much is set in stone. Corruption is rife, the mafia is an actual real thing, the people hate their politicians and the country is in a serious recession. Italy is the Africa of Europe. And like my relationship with Africa, in Italy I was torn between intense emotions of love and hate, visions of extreme beauty and ugliness, and heart-wrenching moments of kindness and cruelty.
I wasn’t sure whether to divide this post into the various places we saw in Italy, or to discuss the country in general. I’m going to do a bit of both, so please bear with me. There’s no way I can go into detail about this crazy beautiful place, but I write real good so it shouldn’t be too tough to keep up!
If I thought the Parisians were passionate, I sure had another thing coming. One thing Italians are not is ambivalent. About anything. Whether chatting to a neighbour on the street or a friend on the tram, loud noises and hand gestures are par for the course. LOUD NOISES. Waiters were either super friendly or completely uninterested. Because waiters don’t earn tips, their attitude towards you is luck of the draw. I often felt compelled to woo and charm the waiters and waitress – just to get a smile out of some of them felt like I’d won first prize in the Cool Kids Contest. The Italians are gorgeous – and not just the specimens we saw in Milan during fashion week. They take such pride in their appearance and I must say, the Italians have inspired me to jack up my overall look – maybe go for a haircut now and then, shape my eyebrows or something.
The men… oh, THE MEN. What is it about an Italian man in a well-cut suit and dark sunglasses? In Milan especially, the men all rocked suits – old or young, it didn’t matter. Even the more casual peeps were still in the trendiest threads and hairstyles. An Italian man cannot walk past a mirrored surface without checking his hairdo. I swear. They are so serious about their hair that every hairdryer in every Italian hotels we stayed at was The Comfort 2000. While the hairdryers in Amsterdam and Paris almost required pedalling a bicycle to start them, the Comfort 2000 generated enough power on its own to start a jumbo jet! And if the Parisian women are all about the understated style, Milanese women are complete glamour pusses – big hair, lots of makeup and sky high heels are everywhere. If you can imagine Sandton City filled with sexy housewives on a Saturday morning, you can imagine the average Italian woman.FOOD AND DINING
Ah, man. I hate to say it, but overall I was disappointed with the food in Italy. No two ways about it. Except for an exceptionally delicious (vegetarian) lunch we had on the beach at a place called One Fire Beach in Praiano on the Amalfi Coast, no other meals really stand out in my mind as particularly amazing. Maybe I was expecting too much or perhaps this is because we mainly stayed in cities and tourist hubs – although we did actively attempt to seek out places packed with locals. I ate overcooked pasta and undercooked risotto, tasteless pizzas and so, so, so much bread. I am determined to return to Italy with Andrea one day and hopefully she will take me to a little village where a little old lady will cook me something homemade and delightful. With all the beautiful fresh produce around and the pure passion the Italians emit, I have faith that I will one day have the perfect and true Italian meal of my dreams – in Italy.
We did have a couple of yummy aperitivo sessions in Italy though, most memorably in Rome and a place (ironically) called Cape Town in Navigli in Milan. Aperitivo is the practise of going out for a drink before dinner (usually aperitivo runs from about about 5pm-8pm), and bars will serve snacks and nibbles with your drinks and some even have entire snack buffet tables which you can help yourself to with your order of drinks. These snacks usually consist of olives, hams, cheeses, and small savoury pastries such as this gorgeous little aubergine and tomato “cake” we had at a bar in Rome. It’s customary to drink “stomach-opening” drinks containing bitter alcohols such as Campari, which help get the digestive juices flowing before dinner. My favourite aperitif drink was called Aperol Spritz and consists of Campari and soda served with a slice of orange. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! I think I’m going to fix myself one this evening, actually.
Meals in Italy, especially lunch, and especially a Sunday lunch, can become coma-inducing. Starters, a first course (usually a pasta-based dish), a second course (usually your meat or fish) and sweets are consumed. We decided to do the whole proper four course Italian meal at a restaurant in Rome for a Sunday lunch. MY GOD. We couldn’t move afterwards and blew so much of our euros that my brain (and heart) hurts to think about it even now. Important to remember when eating out in Italian restaurants is that a cover charge (anything between one to five euros) is often included on your bill (this is basically like paying “rent” for your table and is meant to cover the cost of your bread and olive oil); if you want your meat dish with vegetables or salad or chips, you have to order it extra as a side dish (usually at about four to six euros each) and it is seriously frowned upon to tip waiters and waitresses. We were severely stung by cover charge at the very first Italian place we ate at in Milan, and became very conscious of checking for this sneaky charge before we ate at places. We found that if you sweet-talked the owner and told him how delicious his bread or meat was, the cover charge often miraculously disappeared off the bill. Another reason why Italy is so much like South Africa. Ass-kissing works!
On the whole, we found good food and good restaurants in Italy to be luck of the draw. Trip Advisor was often misleading (as it usually is) and we had some of our best meals at places that looked like they were going to be rubbish and the yummiest caffe we had all holiday was from a tiny family-run corner store in Florence in Piazza Della Republica. If you’re looked for cheap, delicious coffee, look for slightly dodgy looking little cafe/pubs filled with little old men reading newspapers and drinking espressos. They often have “Tabbachi” written above the door and a caffe should not cost you more than eighty euro cents there (as opposed the the three or four euros they charge in Paris).
We got around Italy by train before we rented a car from Rome to Amalfi. The trains are clean and safe and run (mostly) on time. Man, I’m a fan of the train. There is nothing better than watching the countryside whizz by at 300kms per hour. Tuscany looked particularly amazing as we zoomed past and I would really like to return there one day. In Milan we used the underground metro to get around, which was really clean and ran on time (this may just have been because of fashion week, but we weren’t complaining). In Rome we used trams (there is an underground, but there are only two lines available due to all the ancient underground ruins) which were hot and sweaty and not always on time, but relatively cheap. We walked a lot in Italy – way, way more than we did in Amsterdam and Paris. In Florence, we did not use public transport once, other than a taxi to get us to and from the station with all our bags. There are no trams in Florence as the city is really tiny and many of the roads are impossible to drive on due to their narrowness and the excess of walking tourists. On the Amalfi Coast we took a hair-raising bus ride on the notoriously scary roads. Yoh. Those roads made me develop a rash from breaking out in fearful sweats. I much preferred walking and clinging to the side of the cliff if two cars had to come past at once. Our bus driver had to stop for ten minutes at one stage to negotiate a corner with another bus. The two drivers got out of their vehicles, assessed the situation, told all other traffic to reverse and then slowly negotiated getting past each other. All the while you’re looking out the window at a sheer drop down a very high cliff straight into the sea. Not for pussies. Due to situations like these, the buses on the Amalfi Coast do not always run on schedule! But they’ll get to your stop, eventually. Don’t rush. Pretend you’re in Africa.
On the island of Capri we rented a little scooter. The road up from the harbour to Ana Capri at the top of the island is next level scary, but worth it if only for the most beautiful views you have ever seen. Ferries and private boats run all day between the Amafli Coast and Capri, and I cannot emphasise the importance of taking a boat while you’re in the area to see the views of the coastal towns properly. Seeing Positano and Amalfi and Furore from the sea is a sight burnt into my memory for the rest of this lifetime and probably the next. Indescribably breathtaking.
THE SIGHTS AND CULTURAL STUFF
We only had one day in Milan, which, looking back at, I’m really sad about – because it may just be the city I loved the most in Italy – even more than Florence (yes, I said it). Our day in Milan was spent exploring the Duomo, wondering around the very expensive department store next to it and marvelling at all the pretty things. Italy has made me fall hopelessly back in love with fashion again – clothes made with passion and clothes as an art form is such a wondrous thing. I couldn’t afford any of it, but at least my eyes were happy. In the afternoon, we wandered around the Navigli district, an area which we returned to again in the evening for aperitivo. The Duomo is just incredible – made almost entirely out of marble and with it’s impressive spires, it’s a must-see in Milan. Unfortunately, while we were there a lot of the building was hidden behind scaffolding. As with a lot of historical places in Italy, I think autumn is generally the season when renovations happen. I’ll take it for the lack of summer crowds and queues though!
You have to see the Duomo, of course. Famous for its massive dome, historians still have no idea how it was constructed when it was without the use of scaffolding and modern-day construction methods. You can walk up the tower for views, but we chose to climb the (much higher) tower of the near-by Mvseo di Palazzo Vecchio so that we could see views of Florence with the Duomo in them. Clever, hey? The Mvseo di Palazzo Vecchio housed the governing families and bodies of Firenze from the end of the thirtieth century and is filled with impressive Renaissance art work and sculptures. Every room is an artwork in itself – from massive reception rooms with amazing ceiling work to little chapel rooms. The Room of Maps was particularly impressive – it’s filled with beautiful old maps of the world drawn in the Renaissance era – incredibly accurate considering they were drawing them without having seen the earth from sky. When in Firenze, you must go to the Piazzo Santo Spirito at night, buy a bottle or two of beer from the Chinese shop around the corner and sit on the church steps drinking and eating takeaway with the rest of the locals and art students. It’s too awesome.
Otherwise just walk around. Walk over the river. Walk up the steepest hill in the world to Fort Di Belvedere. Get lost. We avoided the touristy side of the river (the Duomo side) with all the big overpriced Chanel and Gucci and Louis Vuitton shops as much as we could, simply because they were so touristy (and expensive! I honestly don’t understand how anyone earning rands can buy anything by any label in Europe). Florence is choc-a-bloc with American tourists and was the one place in Italy where I hardly heard any Italian spoken on the streets. So wander around until your feet get sore and then rest on the steps of an old pretty building and suck on a cheap supermarket beer. Ah, man. It’s the best!
We walked this city flat. It was too hot to do anything during the day other than eat and sleep. We also hit some major traveller exhaustion on the day we arrived in Rome which called for a hotel day – this is what we call staying in your pyjamas all day, watching tv and ordering takeaways. As soon as it started getting cooler in the evening, we would whip on our walking gear and trek. The one night we walked thirteen kilometres and saw the Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon, the Piazzo Navona, the Piazzo del Popolo and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (among so many other beautiful and impressive places and buildings I fail to remember the names of).
Of course, we visited the Colosseo and The Forum ruins, which was mind blowing. The Colosseo was super eerie and made me sad. So many people (between 500 and 750 000 human beings) and animals were killed there for the entertainment of others. The crosses embedded into the walls every two metres served purely to solidify the anti-religious sentiment that runs deep in my bones. We didn’t get to see the Vatican, but I was pretty much over all religious jols after the Colosseo. We walked through parks and down little side streets. We walked over the river into Trastavere (great bars and nightlife), but we mostly hung around our neighbourhood (Parioli) and pretended we were Italian and made friends with waiters and dog walkers and watched young parents strolling around with their kids.
The Amalfi Coast
The coast was all about relaxation for us after all the craziness of the cities, but if you feel in need of some art and culture, you must visit the little village of Ravello while you’re there. Take a bus up the mountain to Ravello from the town of Amalfi. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO WALK UP THE MOUNTAIN IN A MINI SKIRT. Ha. Thanks Google Maps. Seriously though, the walk was beautiful, but if you do it, wear walking gear and take a bottle of water. Google Maps told us it was only a 600m walk – it neglected to tell us that it would take an hour and a half to do those 600m because we were basically walking up a cliff face at a ratio of 1:1! There are great art galleries and little shops in Ravello and many, many wine bars. YUM. It’s chilly in the shade up there due to the height, so take something warm if you’re there in autumn. There are so many old buildings and churches on the Amalfi Coast and due to the lack of flat ground and wide roads, the best thing to do is to just walk around the little streets and take it all in. My favourite place to wander around was the little village of Praiano – take a walk down to the beaches (go to One Fire Beach, rent a bed and eat their delicious food – chat up the owner, Piccoletto – he is delightful and hands out free watermelon slices at about 5pm), pass little homes and walk through church squares and take it all in. The tiny corner shops in Praiano are amazing – the quality and variety of their produce should make our local Spar feel very ashamed. Just a warning – the sand beach on Maoiri (the only natural sand beach on the coast) is really dirty – only the sections where you have to pay for a sunbed are swept and kept tidy! Be prepared to lie amongst lots of cigarette buds and rubbish if you don’t hire one. In fact, rather just laugh it off and go to the beaches in Praiano – much better!
We stayed in the little village of Ana Capri and spent most of our time wandering around this beautiful place as we were only on the island for one day. Take a walk down the residential cobbled streets and marvel at the old postboxes and beautiful mosaics. Everyone is obsessed with mosaics here and they decorate most homes and shops – making everything a true feast for the eyes. We took the scooter to The Lighthouse and of course, to The Grotto Azzure, where you swim into a cave lit up with a magnificent blue light. If we had stayed for another night (which I wish we had – the locals in Capri were the friendliest Italians of them all), we would liked to have rented a boat and sailed around the island. We ate dinner that night at a place called Da Gelsomina where I had the best Caprese salad of my life and drank two (!) bottles of their homemade wine! I also saw the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen from the island of Capri at the lookout point at Parco Filosofico (just a short walk from Da Gelsomina). Oooo and if you’re ever there, you must taste the craft beer made in Ana Capri (in a brewery behind the church, of course)! It’s called Birracapri and it was so delicious that we’re thinking of importing some for the restaurant! Ladies, try the Lemon Peel. Smashing.
We spent most of our European holiday in Italy and I still feel like I barely know her at all. I must return to play in Tuscany, and swim in the lakes and lie on the beaches in the North and glide around Venice. And I still want to visit that little village and have homemade pasta made for me by that little old lady. Okay, maybe, despite her many faults, just maybe… I am completely in love with Italy after all.