By now I have been to Italy so many times that I have stopped counting. After my native Denmark and Germany, the boot-shaped Italy is without any doubt the country in Europe that I know best. I have been traveling in Rome, Umbria, Marché, Tuscany and South Tyrol. And the more I explore of the country and its history, the less I seem to know. It’s like a Pandora’s Box with several layers, that just keep surprising and seduce. I will never get tired of going to Italy!
The trip down from northern Europe, through Germany, Austria and over the alpine passes has a certain symbolic meaning for me. The weather in northern and central Europe is somewhat “ever changing” and it seems to me that it simply ALWAYS rains when driving through Austria. Of course that is not the case, but a certain something happens as you finally get through the last curves after the Brenner Pass, and start your further drive down through South Tyrol (the northernmost region in Italy). The weather changes south of the Alps. The sun will burn through the clouds and welcome you, as you pass endless fields of wine and apple trees.
On the toll highways in Italy you frequently spot the gigantic service areas that they have built, where you can refuel and shop. Oftentimes there are supermarkets, restaurants and cafés. They are almost like cities. Sometimes they are even built like bridges going OVER the highways. They are highly effective places to make a short stop. The Italians will go straight to the counter by the coffee bar, order an espresso, wait with their fingers drumming on the counter and throw it down the moment it is served. They do not sip it over several times. No no, one go! And then they hurry back to their cars and leave. The barista behind the counter is usually very experienced. In that same movement they place the freshly brewed espresso on the counter, they give the giant sugar-bowl a small push, making it slide towards the guest, open the lid and place a teaspoon. I don’t think they even think about it... I’m impressed!
My long “italian affair” started already back in the mid-1990’s when I saw the Bernardo Bertolucci movie “Stealing Beauty” which takes place in Tuscany. For years we had had a certain “hype” in the Danish medias about anything Tuscan and just how fantastic it was. All the womens- and lifestyle magazines would focus on recipes and decoration “Tuscan Style”. Interior decorating was all about heavy, wooden furniture, preferably rural, and with large olive trees in heavy handmade terracotta pots. At this point I had not yet joined the choir of true believers, but the Bertolucci movie got me off the couch and on my way. Oh, yeah, Liv Tyler had the leading role in the movie. That didn’t hurt!
For thousands of years people have been living in Tuscany. The Etruscans are probably the most well known and the ones that influenced the area the most. You find plenty of old ruins of constructions and buildings that can easily be dated back to pre-roman empire times. Todays Tuscany is literally built upon historic Tuscany. Private houses are often subject to strict rules in terms of restoration. A building may look like it is falling apart from the outside, but inside it is modernized with the latest standards, and may be a functional home for a family. Italians live in harmony with their history and they respect it. And although there certainly are exceptions it seems to me that most of the “old stuff” may be used. In many small towns, the entire city centre consist only of houses at least 200 years old, or more. If you want to live here you simply have to live with the bureaucracy of getting the permissions for modernizing and the skyrocketing salaries of the craftsmen. In Rome you cannot turn a corner without seeing yet another roman ruin. It is intriguing and foreigners often have a hard time believing that the entire country is not closed off for archaeologic research.
One of the biggest attractions to foreigners, however, (myself included) is the laid back Italian lifestyle. It simply soothes your soul! Whenever it has been a long time since my last visit to Italy, I always get a longing for it. I miss it dearly! There is a certain something about checking into a hotel, go for a walk, check out the local gelato-bar, and perhaps just sit in a café and observe the locals. I will order an espresso and accept the fact that the waiter will ask me if I really do want a “normal” coffee (in Italy this means an espresso) or if I would rather have the “Americana” which is what most tourists drink. Usually I get an appreciating nod and a smile when they serve me the “normal” coffee. I may be tall, blond and Scandinavian, but on this particular matter I always earn some respect! This may be a good time to mention that Cappuccino and “stuff” like that is usually not something that Italians will drink after 10 AM. It is considered breakfast!
Italians are LOCAL people. They may be “on the beat” and modern in almost any aspect, but they have an affiliation to their own area that I have hardly seen anywhere else in the world. Anyone who has ever tried to drive a car in Italy just once will know that they do not exactly put a lot of focus on the signs. More than once I have tried to approach a T-junction and have had to make a “left” or “right” decision on pure instinct. The locals KNOW where they are and know the area like their own pockets. So why worry about the signs? Thus I once got completely lost way out in the Tuscan country side, and had to ask someone for directions. I stammered a few Italian phrases and tried to understand what they replied. I don’t really recall how I got out of the mess I was in, but I certainly recall the friendly faces and their slight pity in my rearview mirror as I drove further down the country road, their pointed fingers guiding me. It did not look like they had out of town visitors every day... But they could also have been pretending. Who knows?
There are apprx. 60 million inhabitants in Italy. They all have one thing in common: They take the subject “food” extremely seriously! Italian food is world famous for an obvious reason! In most families recipes are handed down through generations. And even though Italian food can be quite complicated at times, it is in fact the simplest dishes that are the most loved ones. “Less is more” is the golden rule! And with a climate that certainly meets the criteria for producing vegetables in each and every backyard, it is not hard to get whatever ingredients you might be needing. Top class ingredients that is! Tomatoes, basil, salad... Everything is within easy reach. And if you do not have what you need in your own back yard, you just go to the local market. The best local produce they will keep to themselves. Whatever cannot be used in Italy they will export. I like that!
You are allowed to make fun of the Italians. Their cars. Their clothes. Their politicians. But you can NEVER, EVER make fun of their food. And you should certainly make sure that you treat any ingredient with proper respect!
Some of my personal favorite dishes are the ones with the least number of ingredients. A simple tomato sauce made with fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes. A plate with tagliatelle just slightly sprinkled with a good olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan cheese. A pizza “Margherita”, with just tomato sauce, cheese and basil. Or the one with rosemary and thinly sliced potatoes. That IS all it takes!
And as you enjoy a god meal by the huge family table, in the company of the entire family and several friends, you already start to talk about the next meal. In the kitchen there are often at least one large pot in the corner, with “something” simmering. In Italy food is prepared with the proper amount of time. No rush! And they do not eat at fixed hours. Usually the sun is long gone for the day before everyone gathers around the table. The children are playing and fooling around. Then they come for a quick bite, and are gone again, playing whatever they were doing when they got interrupted. Everyone talks loud. All at the same time!
The Italians adore children! Our Anton has only been to Italy once. This was recently. But it is obvious to me that children are welcome everywhere, and even though restaurants do not bother to offer a children's menu with crayon cartoons and labyrinths on the back page, they will happily prepare a smaller dish at a reduced price. So when traveling with children through Italy one should not expect special conditions for families. Children are welcome, but on the same terms as anyone else. Children have been living with these terms for centuries. They should be fine, don’t you think?
The only thing I really cannot recommend doing when you are in Italy, is to go to the beach along the coasts. The Italian coastline is littered with all the classic tourist traps you can think of. Hotels, restaurants and bars with ridiculously high prices and service standards below even your worst expectations. Oftentimes you are not even allowed to be on the beach without paying rent for an umbrella and a set of chairs. A daily rental fee, even though you are only staying for an hour or so. The “holiday machines” along the coasts are also money machines and traffic is a nightmare. I avoid them and go to the more quiet places in the country side.
Recently, after what seemed like way too many years, I finally revisited Italy. Only for a weekend, but it was enough to feel the joy and once again gather appetite for more. We went to South Tyrol for a weekend with some good friends. We hiked, tried the local ice, the local pizzas and of course the local wine. The area seemed entirely authentic, and although we had all the modern aspects like houses and cars, South Tyrol, like Tuscany, looked like not much had changed for centuries. This is how it is supposed to be in Italy! In my view this is surely worth protecting in an ever changing, “flighty” world. The vineyards still need to be cared for (often by hand) the old fashioned way. The small hotels and pensions on the hillsides thrive in harmony with the local community like they have always done. And the guests in South Tyrol have plenty of opportunities to bike, hike and in other ways exercise during the day, before they head to the hotel restaurant or a local one in town for world class food.
Our hotel standard was somewhat below what we have seen during our journey around the world. But it didn’t matter. You felt welcome and a sense of revisiting an old friend in his home. A friend who had been waiting all along for your return. “Why did you travel all around the world, when everything you will ever need is right here?!”
And this pretty much sums it up! Italians have this lovely ability to simply relax a bit more than anyone else. In our everyday life with stress, endless hours of work, bad weather and too little time for any relaxation, Italy is just the right medicine to get you refueled once again. There certainly should be much more “Italy” in most peoples lives!
Click here for more pictures from South Tyrol.