We didn’t intend to spend long in Italy. We had planned a short time on Sardinia and a visit to Elba, an island we had never heard of before The Germans raved about it. And that was all. Yet somehow, when our plans changed and we decided to spend longer in the Med, we ended up spending 8 months there in total.
And without expectations, we found four very different Italys
the islands, big or small but each with their own identities
the Tyrrhenian Sea coast with its rich Greek and Roman history and the glamour of the Amalfi coast
the poorer yet fascinating south
and the richer, wine drenched north
One thing that seems to define Italian towns whether north or south, island or mainland is the centro storico, the old town found often brightly pastel coloured
but always stone paved and usually up a hill,
with lots of tiny lanes perfect for wandering aimlessly and getting lost
before finding grand palazzi, statue filled piazze
and lots and lots of churches…
As one might expect with Italy being at the centre of the Roman Catholic world we saw a lot of this guy
and quite a lot of his mum.
We were introduced to these guys and their bones
and this lot were omnipresent.
In Sicily we were able to share the rituals of Christmas
and Carnival, which was as loud and bonkers as in Greece but seemed to go on for days longer!
And after having our fill of all the frilly Baroque
we loved the refreshing, cool architecture of the Sanctuario della Madonna della Lacrime in Syracuse.
Whether it was tramping over their mosaicked floors,
wandering in and out of their houses and shops
or marvelling at their giant, public structures, of course, we had expected to bump into the Romans
but as we headed towards Greece, Italy’s rich Greek past caught us completely unaware when we visited Paestum in southern Italy
and later the Valley of the Temples and Selinute on Sicily
Food and drink
Italian food is so much more than pizza and pasta (although they do those incredibly well) and what’s on the menu in northern Italy is so different from the south.
Breakfast is not really a thing in Italy – a cornetto filled with something sweet and gooey eaten standing at the counter leaving crumbs everywhere is the typical morning snack.
By far the best breakfast in the whole of Italy is Sicily’s granita or gelato brioche – a sweet bun stuffed full of ice cream or fruit flavoured ice. Again often a mid morning, bought from the kiosk or van snack eaten fast whilst standing up before it drips all over the floor. For the purposes of researching this blog, I tested a lot of granita and the almond was my favourite by far.
As morning routine’s go, it seems that no self respecting Italian starts the day without coffee. Drinking coffee is as vital as breathing and it is without doubt the best (and the cheapest) in the Med. Due cappaccini became our morning routine too although sometimes we asked for them in the afternoon which, we discovered, is practically sacrilege in Italy.
Lunch in Italy depended on where we were. In Sardinia some pane carasu. In Sicily an aranchini. Mostly lunches on board involved some kind of salad made with tomatoes bought from the back of a van and some mozzarella, capers and olives.
It is fair to say that we ate a lot of pizza in Italy – definitely more than pasta or risotto – and it is really, really good. The secret seems to be keeping it simple – no weird combinations of toppings and not a pineapple slice in sight – just good, honest ingredients and all cooked from scratch to order. Two pizzas and half a litre of local wine rarely set us back more than €12.
And the sweet treats, whilst they varied from area to area, were always very, very sweet indeed.
Perhaps because we spent a winter there, some of our favourite food experiences were in Sicily and especially in Palmero where the street food was just wonderful (when it didn’t involve offal!) and where we tried sea urchins. We had wanted to try them for ages and plucked up the courage. Suffice to say they taste rather too like the sea!
And in Sicily I got to try making some local sweets and gained a lot more respect for (a) the people who have the patience to make them and (b) their sugar content.
Our travels through Italy involved the occasional taste of Limoncello and developing a sundown habit of Aperol Spritz but we left Sicily in particular with a habit for chinotto, a bittersweet soft drink similar to Malta’s Kinnie.
In a country known for its Ferraris and Maseratis, you are much more likely to see one of these on the roads!
The humble Ape is the vehicle of choice for transporting just about everything around town and in the countryside. Vegetables are sold out of the back, tools carried from job to job and junk collected in them. It is testament to Italian men that driving this (ever so camp) one man van does no harm whatsoever to their masculinity and it is fun to watch the biggest of burliest farmers squeeze their huge frame into the tiny cab.
And small is beautiful when it comes to other cars on the road. The old Fiat 500 is frequently seen and mostly beautifully cared for.
And beautiful old cars led to wonderful interactions in the streets of Vittoria Veneto, Brindisi and Butera, even with our very rudimentary Italian.
Stefan was delighted to be reunited with his beloved Fiat Multipla – in times gone by used as a police car but now more ubiquitously found as a taxi.
The Italians and Italian
They say the camera never lies but in Italy it seems that we have the least photos of women in the streets. It is true that throughout southern Europe women are much less visible, far less likely to be sitting around drinking coffee but in Italy they are much more likely to be in the kitchen, commercial or domestic, making everyone else’s food.
When they do venture out we can’t say they always dress like this but there is a sartorial style to the Italians that made us feel terribly inadequate. This was not helped by the man in the hardware shop who looked me up and down pitifully, handed me this leaflet and said “new look?” when I went in to buy an o ring.
From the police officers to the lifeguards it felt like everyone was dressed in Versace and wherever we went we felt very scruffy indeed.
But despite this, the Italians are amongst the friendliest people we have met. Our attempts to communicate in Italian were met warmly and with encouragement even when we couldn’t quite get our message across and when we failed arm waving seemed to help.
And our limited vocabulary was improved no end when we worked out that you need to pronounce ever single vowel in each word with the emphasis in the middle. This still didn’t help Stefan to buy a carbon filter. “Filtro carboni” he repeated several times in his Cockney drawl before resorting to drawing a picture. “Ah, filtro carboni” said the man behind the counter. “Yes, that’s what I said” Stefan replied!
But grazie mille, Italy, for being an unexpected highlight in our Mediterranean tour.