Beyond the centuries-old temples and colosseums of Rome, and the celebrated churches and museums of Florence and Milan.
WORDS CLAIRE J. JIAO | IMAGES ROB J. JIAO
It’s not been the best of times in Europe. It hasn’t been for a while now.
Many countries are still reeling a decade after the global financial crisis. The European Union is the cusp of disintegration. And terror attacks have hit one major city after another, growing ever more frequent and ever more deadly. Tourism numbers have dropped sharply, especially in countries that have been targeted by violent extremists: the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Germany— usually the top destinations in the region.
Italy has been fortunate enough to be the only one of the so-called Big Five spared from the terror attacks. But even at the height of spring and summer, the travel business has been lean. Our guide Lorena Schiavon says tours have become less frequent as companies struggle to fill up coaches. Heavily armed military police patrol all the tourist hot spots, inspiring assurance for some and anxiety in others.
Still, Italy is a rare and much-needed bright spot as a pall is cast over the rest of Europe. There is something about this place that beckons you to come over, and to leave your troubles at the door when you do.
The people feel like family — they greet you with arms wide open and a bellow deep from the belly. The food is hearty and all that wine, unlikely good for the heart. The cities whizz by on bad driving and three espressos. But the country towns, they unfold for you, page by page like a storybook.
Rome and Florence are home to Italy’s long and glittering history. For centuries, the capital of the world and the birthplace of some of the most celebrated art and literature, political and economic thought. But if these cities are Italy’s brawn, the countryside is its heart and soul. Here, the landscape is serene. The architecture, more humble but no less storied.
Many of the small towns can only be reached by car, but a long drive through the Italian countryside is hardly the worst thing in the world. Especially down the Autostrada del Sole or “the Highway of the Sun,” which runs from Milan up north to Naples down below. The farther south you go, the skies clear and the sea calls.
A convenient stop between Rome and Florence is the region of Umbria. Known as the “green heart” of Italy, Umbria is unspoilt — all rolling hills and woodland, olive gardens and cypress trees. What truly completes the landscape, though, are the region’s hilltop towns.
You can spot them even from afar, lording over the valley. Built in medieval times, they’re perched on top of rock and ringed by terrace walls, wary of invasion by nearby clans. So, lace up your sneakers and warm up your legs since Umbria will be a trek. Buildings huddle close together and cobblestone streets coil around them tightly.
It adds to the charm — you never know exactly what’s around the corner. A steep staircase can bring you to the edge of the city with expansive views all around (visit Montefalco, the “balcony of Umbria”). A dark alley can open up to the best restaurant in town (hunt down La Taverna in Perugia).
Assisi is the most famous of these hilltop towns, home to the renowned St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan Order and patron saint of Italy. Even for non-Catholics, the Basilica of St. Francis is a must-see.
I daresay its art is much more impressive than those of more well-known churches. The space is small, but that brings the frescoes much closer to the observer. Its colors are still vibrant and its details still fine, despite being created in the 1200s — centuries before the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Outside the basilica is a more recent installation, though. A boat not more than seven meters long, paint faded and motor all but falling apart. The boat successfully carried nine refugees across the Mediterranean Sea in 2014. They fled Syria and managed to dock in the Italian island of Lampedusa.
In Christmas of 2015, the basilica used the refugee boat as the crib of the baby Jesus in their nativity scene. It was blessed by no less than the Pope himself. The boat has stayed in Assisi ever since, a tribute to the thousand others escaping the Middle East for safety in Europe, many of whom do not make it.
Perhaps in Assisi, more than anywhere else, the story hits close to home. St. Francis is much-loved here, the son of a well-to-do merchant who renounced his wealth to be with the poor and the lepers banished outside the city walls. While many in Italy debate over immigration and refugees, the boat represents what much of the West has and can afford to give away.
REMNANTS FROM A DIFFERENT AGE
Along with these gorgeous landscapes, Italy has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to architecture.
Look beyond the centuries-old temples and colosseums of Rome, the celebrated churches, and museums of Florence and Milan. So much of Italy’s structures are remnants from a different age, and they continue to dictate Italian life until today.
In the small, fishing town of Burano, you will be greeted by rows and rows of houses in every eye-popping color imaginable. Housewives of old used to paint their homes so they would stand out from the fog, almost like a lighthouse to guide their husbands who were out at sea back to safety.
Meanwhile, in Capri, streets are narrow and etched right at the edges of the craggy, limestone rock of the island. All cars have to be custom-made to probably two-thirds the width of a typical vehicle. And even then, they’re a tight fit on the mountain roads.
Not that that is a cause of concern for drivers. Locals will zoom up and down the island with the lightest touch on the brakes even at the tightest of hairpin turns. The views will take your breath away; the drive, even more so.
If you plan to brave the trip, take the open-top taxis so you can see all there is to see. Capri is pretty as a picture. Spindly umbrella pines frame the sea, its waters the most stunning shade of azure.
No discussion about Italian architecture would be complete, however, without Venice. An estimated 28 million tourists flock there every year just to marvel at its beauty.
And what a beauty it is. From the Grand Canal, Venice seemingly emerges from the depths of the lagoon surrounding it. It’s no wonder they call it The Floating City. But the truth is no less impressive. Venice is built over more than a hundred islands—it’s propped up on a bed of wooden poles that have been submerged in water and clay for centuries.
Water has been the way of life here for centuries. Venice amassed its wealth and power as a trading post between Europe and Asia. Many of the city’s most iconic sights are a testament to this rich, cosmopolitan history.
St. Mark’s Basilica is decorated with many a treasure taken from Constantinople during the Crusades, from its carvings to its statues. Even the remains of St. Mark, buried underneath the basilica, are believed to have been stolen from Alexandria. The Doge’s Palace and the Piazza San Marco, meanwhile, are built in the unique Venetian style, a fusion of Europe’s Gothic architecture with Constantinople’s Byzantine influences.
But it’s not just these grand structures—so much of Venetian life has been adapted to the lagoon around it. Without cars, the only way to get around is through the maze of waterways and bridges across the city.
Think of any vehicle, add “water” to it, and Venice will have it. There are water taxis and water buses, water police cars and water fire engines. If you wake up early enough, you’ll catch the water garbage truck making the rounds through the canals. Never in the history of humankind has taking out the rubbish been such a pleasant task.
For many locals, however, this way of life has lost its charm. Venice, after all, is isolated from the rest of the mainland, and the city itself produces nothing.
Establishments—from restaurants to souvenir shops—have to ship in all their supplies every day, from cooking oil to paper bags. And not all establishments are close to the port, so locals have to pick up their shipments at the strike of dawn, then cart them back to their place in time to open their business.
Worse, because Venice is a heritage site, it doesn’t have many of the modern conveniences. Locals have to travel to nearby Mestre and Marghera to go to the cinema or the supermarket.
Only about 50,000 people live in Venice now—even less than the 60,000 tourists who visit there by the day. For those who stay, however, they find there is still something about the Venice of old. If you stay in Venice for longer than a weekend, you’ll begin to see it too. People sit in the cafe and catch up. They call each other by name in the square. Baskets are still strung between kitchen windows so nonnas can borrow salt and pepper from each other.
This is just like Italy. The place is not without problems, some of them even by their own doing. (One of my companions had travelled to Italy from Switzerland and observed that trains were travelling on time and on the dot until they crossed the border.) But even as Italians grumble the loudest, they will also set it all aside and enjoy anyway. Trust they will enjoy it to the fullest too.
As they say here, la vita bella. It’s not so much that life is beautiful, simply put. It’s that despite the turmoil and despite the terror, life should go on—and there is no reason it shouldn’t be beautiful.
Sidebar | Piano, piano: Italian cuisine as it should be
Unlike Italy’s other cultural gems like art and architecture, food—and good food at that—doesn’t necessarily require you to travel. Everyone and their mother has had their take on classic recipes too, from sweet-style spaghetti to bagnet pizza. What else was there to eat in Italy that hasn’t already been imitated, deconstructed and rebooted elsewhere?
How very wrong I was. The greatest joy was in rediscovering Italian cuisine, not as we know it, but as it should be.
The classics are kept simple—unbelievably so. When they say pesto, they mean basil and olive oil, give or take some salt. When they say margherita, it’s only tomato and mozzarella. Perhaps that’s why others feel the need to embellish the recipes. However, there is great skill in paring down. When there are so few elements to a dish, there is nowhere to hide.
It’s also testament to the quality of ingredients that they can be left to stand on their own. In Liguria, home to the Cinque Terre and birthplace of the pesto sauce, they will insist only on Genovese basil and Ligurian olive oil, pound by mortar and pestle. In Tuscany, where truffles grow aplenty, servers will cut the truffle at your table, so only the freshest shavings cover your dish.
Different regions will play to their strengths. In the island of Capri, just-caught fish, squid and shellfish will be tossed into the pasta. Granitas are spiked with Capri’s world-renowned lemons, cooling you off after your swim. In the town of San Gimignano, you’ll find some of the world’s best gelato in Gelateria Dondoli. It’s no mystery why Sergio Dondoli repeatedly wins the gelato championships. Surrounded by all the produce of Tuscany, he has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to developing new flavors. Think saffron and cream, raspberry and rosemary, mango and grapefruit champagne, even gorgonzola and walnuts.
It’s not just about the food here in Italy, it’s the feasting. Italians welcome you into their restaurants like they are welcoming you into their homes. The chef comes out to talk to you about his favorite dishes on the menu and how he makes them. Then, the meal is a production on its own. An aperitivo to whet the appetite, cheeses and cured meats for the antipasto to start, pasta for the primo or the first course, meat or fish for the secondo or the second course, often a tiramisu or a panna cotta for dessert.
Each of these courses is drawn out and in between, washed down with jugs and jugs of wine. In my family of fast eaters, we would fret waiting for the next round of food, worried they might have forgotten about our orders. “Piano, piano,” they would tell us. “Slowly, slowly.” Food is meant to be enjoyed at its own pace.
By the time dinner ends, it would have been a good three hours or more. It is easy to slip into a food coma, but no worries. They’ll serve you a shot of pure espresso to revive you—at least long enough for your walk home.