Italy, Italy, Italy. Oh how I have romanticised you from afar for so, so long. You have been the subject of many a European day dream. If I think about where this secret admiration began, I could probably trace it back to when I first watched the movie version of E.M Forster’s A Room With A View with my friends as a schoolgirl. Some of the scenes of Lucy and George in the Tuscan countryside are just gorgeous. The movie conjures up images of old farmhouses, fields of olive groves with flowers growing wild everywhere. And of course, one of my favourite parts of all, George, overcome by the beauty all around him, climbs up a tree to scream out his “creed”! Let’s face it, if I could find a suitable olive tree in a similar grove I had every intention of getting up it myself to scream out my own creed!
I have read before that Italy is apparently one of the most visited countries in the world. It certainly seemed to me to be the belle of the European ball by all accounts. Damien had not been to Italy himself so he was quite happy to make Italy the centrepiece of our European caravan extravaganza. This was not without us gradually and grudgingly realising that to fit Italy in meant sacrificing a number of other countries we really wanted to see. So many people I know have been to Italy and I have never heard a bad word said, so surely this was the right decision? I was very excited to be finally seeing Italy! Woo hoo!
It just sucked for us that the country we were in prior to Italy happened to be my poster girl, Slovenia. It is fair to say that I fell in love with Slovenia. What a magnificent country! We were both feeling the wrench to leave it. I would have loved to have spent many more weeks there. On our last day in Slovenia we wound our way through the narrow twisting streets of a town near the border crossing of Gorjansko. Once again I marvelled at the latest Slovenian take on perfect rustic charm.The town was full of old stone walls, low lying grape vines and beautifully modest but lovely country homes. I said to Damien, “This is just how I imagine Italy to be, I sure hope it is!” ”What if it isn’t?” I added somewhat nervously. Slovenia was a known entity and it had packed the biggest punch for such a little country. Could Italy live up to Slovenia?
Nonetheless, as we reached the border crossing we stopped to take a photo of me in front of the Slovenian sign, looking suitably remorseful but followed up by a jubilant shot of me in front of the Italia sign. We were on Italian soil! Let the adventure begin!
But as all secret admirers know too well, the art of secret admiration is that the object of your desire is almost always admired best from afar, safe from the fullness of truth. Thus, they remain unsullied from your knowledge of the terrible truth of their actual mediocrity or worse, that you discover they are simply unlikeable altogether! Secret admiration is based on a huge amount of subjectivity and not a great deal on actual first hand knowledge, ’cause let’s face it, if you could actually get to talk to, touch and interact with your source of secret admiration you would have done so a long time ago! So, from afar, you continue to wish, dream and create the most wonderful persona for the object of your affections. Should you actually get to meet them one day, you stand the very real risk that your dream will be irrevocably destroyed. The real just won’t live up to the imagined. Unfortunately for me, this cautionary tale was my reality with Italy.
I so wanted to love Italy as I had expected I would. As a result of that I spent a lot of time analysing why I felt the way I did and why it was seemingly different to the opinion of so many others. In fact, Damien and I spent a fair amount of our time devoted to dissecting this anomaly in our European adventure. We were both so eager not to be “those wankers” who came back and said they didn’t like large parts of Italy. Please! There must be an explanation!
So, yes, I have developed quite an elaborate analysis in my mind to cover all the myriad reasons why the majority of my Italian experience did not match up with all those of others that seem to have come before me. I have decided to divide my account of Italy into three parts as I think this allows me more adequately to give due respect and admiration where it is warranted. Thankfully, my experience had some serious highlights to counter what at times seemed to be overwhelming low lights.
I have heard on occasion that Italians (especially of the Roman variety) can be aloof and not the easiest of people to deal with. Wrong. At least, from my experience. I time and time again met with truly lovely Italian people. I found Italians to be extremely friendly, helpful and some of the nicest folk I have met in my travels. Granted, Damien I and have one notable exception in a certain ticket collector in Viareggio. Put it this way, we have forever hence forth referred to him to that “c….” and we don’t mean “c” as in collector!
Anyway, as I was saying, Italians as a whole are a charming bunch and I have many fond memories. Some of my favourite were when we were in the city of Ferrara. It was a day where we just kept meeting really nice peeps! It started when Damien went into an optometrist to get his glasses fixed. The lady fixed them and didn’t charge us anything. Later on, I went into a fruit store to buy an apricot and when the guy realised I wanted to only buy one, he insisted that I just have it. Later Damien and I went our separate ways to do a few shopping errands we needed to do. I had to buy a new bra and went into a store and had the most fun and funny retail therapy ever!
I spoke to the lady in English with a couple of Italian (and French) words thrown in for good measure. And she spoke to me in Italian with a couple of English words thrown in for good measure. There was also a rather large amount of flamboyant gestures to go with! However, somehow we managed to get me the right type of bra that I was after, including, one that apparently made my boobs look good! This was a particularly amusing part of the transaction. I tried to ask her which bra looked best and she replied by gesticulating with her hands in a fashion that indicated very visually how it all looked, and finished up with a good ol’ boob grab for a final flourish to demonstrate how the bra enhanced my assets so to speak! Guess you had to be there, but it was funny at the time! To top it all off, I didn’t have the right money so I got a further discount on top of what I was already receiving. Bonus!
After not really enjoying any of Italy up until Ferrara, Damien and I had decided that we would stop and have a couple of Italian wines before we headed back to our camp site. The wine bar we stopped at proved to be the site of yet another encounter with a friendly local. The guy behind the bar sure knew his wines, and was genuinely interested in talking to us about them and sharing his love of the local Italian wines.
After the wine bar we then went to a little deli to buy some local meats and cheeses. As we chose our cuts the lady offered us delicious slices to sample. We then got waylaid by the local wine and beer in the fridge, to which the lady promptly cracked open a longneck of beer and next minute the three of us were sharing glasses of it. Now that’s what I call service with a smile! The beer was awesome so we bought a bottle of that as well as a bottle of the wine. I just really enjoyed the approach to service in Ferrara!
So as far as I am concerned, Italy comes up trumps in relation to the hospitality and joie de vivre that they go about most things they do.
Well without even meaning to, I can see my love of Italian food was sneaking its way into my section about the people. I am happy to say that the vast majority of our food experiences in Italy were fantastic. Although we are now in France as I write this, we just enjoyed a delicious pasta of fresh pesto and reggiano parmesan that we bought yesterday at an Italian supermarket. When you can buy such outstanding quality ingredients as that just from the shops, you have to be pleased! Though, in fairness, it can’t compete with the pesto pasta that we dined on at the restaurant attached to our seaside campground, just west of Genova. That pesto was so fresh it tasted like it had just been picked from the bush! It was preceded with some crumbed and stuffed anchovies, another local specialty of Liguria. Delish!
One delicacy they do oh so well in Italy is sliced meats. We had a bit of a sliced meats-a-thon! In fact, on reflection, it’s seeming like a bit of a theme in Europa! Some of my favourite sliced meat moments were at the wine bar in Ferrara. I should mention that this is in fact the oldest wine bar in the world – dating back to 1435! Included in the cost of the wine we were treated to small platters of meats, cheeses and other delicacies. Our favourite being the salami de sugo, which I am pretty sure is a local speciality because as try as we might, we did not find it anywhere else in Italy. Another magic meaty moment was going to the butchery in Greve in Chianti. This butchery has been there for centuries and has a veritable selection of meats. We would love something of this standard down the road from us at home to visit for some dinner party meal preparation! We satisfied ourselves with some truffled salami, wild boar salami and diced speck. The speck made some ratatouille I cooked go from great to outright sensational. If I do say so myself! I might add, the said ratatouille was eaten on top of some delicious local Tuscan eggs with grated parmesan. The breakfast of champions I assure you!
As an aside, I have to say, it has been really nice for me to be able to cook again. I really enjoy cooking food as much as I love eating it and throughout Asia I had not cooked a single meal for us. It has been enjoyable to be able to browse the local produce wherever we are and then create our own meals inspired by what is around us. I am restricted to what I can do with two hot plates, but I reckon I have done alright so far!
Our biggest blow out meal was in Barga. My brother went to Barga last September and highly recommended we visit the town and in particular a restaurant there called Scacciaguai. So off to Barga we went. Barga did not disappoint. What a top little town and what a totally enjoyable meal! We splashed out and enjoyed a bottle of Planeta chardonnay (from Sicily). We first tried this wine this year in Phnom Penh of all places. We mistakenly thought at the time we might get as far as Sicily and wanted to test out some of the good stuff at affordable Cambodian prices. Well, it was still half that price again in Italy and just as lovely as we remembered. It has an oak and honey flavour and although I am not the one for describing wines, it had a boldness to it that I loved and would happily drink anytime I could afford it! Our meal consisted of entrees of truffled potatoes and prawns along with another plate of an Italian take on sushi. We both had the same main, a simple but juicy and entirely flavoursome steak with truffled polenta as a side. Damien said that it was the best steak he has ever eaten outside the hanger steak we ate at Est in Sydney. (We both agree that Est served up the best steak we have ever eaten). I am not a steak eater usually so it was an unusual choice for me. I thought it was totally delicious and if more steak tasted like that, I’d eat it more often!
We had dessert at the local gelataria near the gates of the town. I chose two flavours, yoghurt and pistachio. Damien had pistachio and stracciatella. Pistachio: enter the Simpsons: “There’s a party in my mouth and everyone’s invited!” It was hands down the standout gelato experience of Italy and all for the bargain price of €1.50 for two scoops! It set into play a wee bit of a gelato obsession for Damo and I. I am serious when I say that part of our planning for our trip to Rome involved marking on the map numerous locations of recommended gelateria round the city! Needless to say, each day in Rome involved a little of this “afternoon delight” and we feared that none would come close to Barga. But on the last day, even though we were foiled by our “mapped” option being shut, there was a gelateria across the way and it was a winner! In fact, I punched my hands in the air with glee when I sampled the pistachio, as I was afraid up until that point that we may have to exit Italy without one last gelato high point! But no, we were saved! The owner was so buoyed by our obvious delight at all our samplings of his creations that I think we both parted ways with a little glow in our hearts!
I would be remiss in my nod to Italy if I did not mention the wine. I loved Italian wine. As we were unable to bust out and buy a bottle of Planeta whenever the mood took us, I am happy to report that you can purchase an entirely quaffable bottle for as little for €6. Even the bargain basement white I bought for €1.39 for the spag bol I cooked seemed to come good after a day of “airing”! Again, I have to mention Ferrara and our wine bar experience. That was the standout for both of us. We drank very affordable €3 – €4 a glass wine that seriously I would expect to pay up to $10 – $15 a glass for the same quality in Sydney. Basically we couldn’t believe our luck at sampling such exceptional wine, at such affordable prices, in a funky back street in an old walled city with a knowledgeable and affable barman! Bellisimo!
Part 2 and the third section on the places of Italy will come in a couple of days. This will be a somewhat less glowing report I am afraid…