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Italy – Who Knew Italy Was So Wonderful?

Everyone, for perhaps as long as travel has been a thing, would be the answer to the question in the title. I wondered whether it was worth even writing a post about my trip to Italy. After all, what’s not been said about Italy that hasn’t already been said before? Well, one thing that probably hasn’t been said (much) is that cats can freely roam wherever they want – even in famous historic landmarks. Anyone who harms a cat in Italy can be charged with a crime. So even if the rest of this article offers nothing new, you’ve at least learned one thing. One, new, utterly pointless thing.

Italy’s the fifth most-visited country in the world. It’s a place I’d been many times before. A couple of trips to Rome here. Business trips to Milan there. A lovely family holiday to Venice as a child. A much less enjoyable trip to Venice in the days following a week-long festival in Croatia. But in these fleeting trips, I’d never really felt I’d got under the skin of the place. Or understood Italy’s culture. And truthfully, I didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about. Italy was kind of like Spain, or maybe France, from what I could see. I couldn’t understand why Americans who travelled to Italy viewed the trip as some kind of spiritual experience. For so many of the them, it seemed, a trip to ‘Europe’ usually meant a trip to Italy.

A Tuscan sunrise. Siena, Tuscany.

So, to rectify this, and to take advantage of the fact that my days of being able to work remotely writing articles wherever I like in the world now look numbered (thanks to Chat GPT eventually taking my job), my fiancé Sophie and our baby decided to do Italy properly. We’d travel from the island of Sardinia, to the Amalfi Coast, to Rome, to Siena, to Florence, to Lucca, to Pisa, to Bologna, and finally, to Turin. And I’ll let you in on perhaps one of the least surprising insights I learned from the trip. Italy is pretty bloody nice, isn’t it? After almost two months travelling Italy; I finally understood what the fuss was about.

Beautiful Bosa, in Sardinia.

Our trip began in Sardinia, where we stayed in a lovely little town call Bosa. All colourful, picturesque little houses and flats, overlooked by a castle and Sardinia’s surrounding rolling, green hills. You do feel cut off here. Like so much of Italy, each region has its own unique and distinct culture. I won’t go into the specifics, because the history of Italy is extremely complex (as I learned reading an incredibly dense book about the country’s history during my trip). But in sum: Italy was only unified in 1861. Before then, it was split into a plethora of kingdoms and city states. They mainly spent the hundreds of years before unification fighting each other, or ruling over each other in some form. Or in fact, being invaded and ruled by the Greeks, French, Austrians, Spanish, and Tunisians, among many others. So like Sardinia, each place has its own unique feel and culture.

The rugged west coast of Sardinia.

In Sardinia, you really can tell you’re cut off from the rest of Italy. Just over a million Italians live here, a 16-hour boat ride away from Naples. It’s quiet. And the coastlines are dramatic and desolate. A wonderful place for a road trip; save for the hundreds of geriatric German motor bikers who appear to view the place as sort of Mecca. I could sort of see why they love the place. Empty rolling hills, olive tree-covered pastures abound. But driving in a Seat Leon Estate, with a baby who insists on crying whenever she’s in the car, didn’t perhaps have the same effect for us, as we blared nursey rhymes on every car trip in the doomed hope she’d fall asleep.

In Italy, we ate pizza, pasta, and gelato the whole time, and did so in the knowledge we were ‘respecting Italian culture’. Ideal.

In Bosa, we were served exclusively by men and women in restaurants who’d lived in London at some stage in their lives. Many of their friends had stayed. But some, clearly, had come back from a few years in the Big Smoke to live the quietest of lives. It’s hard to think of two places where the pace of life is so different. After a brief stop off in Cagliari – which to football fans always evokes memories of the heyday of Serie A in the 90s – we set sail for Naples. We spent 16 hours on a giant cruise ship, with a baby, which was totally easy and completely fine in every single way. Travel with a baby is most definitely not as simple as travelling solo. But fortunately, it’s still worth it. Having a baby is not the end of fun or the end of your life (as I, and perhaps many others, feared in my youth).

Siena’s main square, where they’ve hosted a horse race for centuries.

Our car was so full it felt like we were moving house. Gone were the days of travelling with a backpack that always fit in hand luggage. But these minor inconveniences were worth it alone for the food. Prepare for another incredibly obvious insight about Italy. The food is amazing. Truly. I think I’d made the mistake of always eating in tourist-trap places when I’d visited Italy in the past. But with a little research (done by my fiancé Sophie), we didn’t eat a single meal that wasn’t truly delicious in the weeks we were in Italy.

The pretty and immaculate side streets of Siena, Italy.

Food Glorious Food

You’d think that eating pasta every day would get boring. You’d think that following this up by eating the best gelato on Earth would get boring. You’d think that with a carb and dairy heavy diet like this, Italians would all be overweight. But none of these things are true. On the weight front, perhaps this is still because an insanely high proportion of Italians still smoke, or more likely, most adult Italians don’t eat ice cream every day. But if pasta, pizza, and ice cream were part of Italy’s culture; I’d have been a philistine not to have indulged. It would’ve been rude not to. And so in a valiant and noble effort to get under the skin of the nation (in a way), I obliged. Bar Japan, Italy has the best food on Earth. And for this alone, it’s worth a visit.

A smug man on the Amalfi Coast, Italy.

Next up for us was the Amalfi Coast. Where giant, towering mountains plunge into the azure waters of Mediterranean. Picture-postcard little towns cling impossibly to the cliffside, with little settlements tucked into small coves. Towns like Positano exemplify this. Pastel-coloured houses are etched into the mountain side, the town must be built on a 45-degree angle. You’d have to be fit to live here and constantly deal with all of the steps. Whereas in charming Sorento, situated above plunging cliffs, the grand hotels and boulevards conjure images of the Grand Tours done by European aristocracy from centuries past. It’s simply a delight to wander around. Giant lemons, which the Amalfi coast is famous for, fill markets and road-side trucks.

A potentially even smugger man on the Amalfi Coast, on account of the better weather this day.

I’d hazard a guess that few places on Earth have the same combination of natural geographic beauty, wonderful historic architecture, and incredible food as that on offer in the Amalfi Coast. And other people know this, clearly. Even though we visited out of season, the place, all of it, is utterly heaving. Bloody tourists, everywhere, ruining my experience of being a tourist in the same place as them. So. Damn. Selfish.

Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. Practically perfect?

An Unparalleled Depth of History

Heading north, we stopped at Pompeii. Perhaps, the greatest historical sight on Earth. An extremely well maintained Roman city from over two millennia ago (thanks to it being covered in ash and magma from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius). Walking around its cobbled streets, you realise how so little has changed since the times of the Romans. They were so advanced. We in the West speak languages based on Latin. Our architecture, laws, and philosophy are inspired by and were in effect created by the Romans. We saw old Roman sports arenas, theatres, and villas with underfloor heating. A sign saying ‘Cave canem’, which means ‘Beware of the dog’. There were streets with shops, others with government buildings.

One of the many wonders of Pompeii, near Naples.

The depth of history in Italy makes the rest of Europe seem positively modern. Just a few hours up from Pompeii and we found ourselves in Rome (because we drove there). We again bore witness to Roman architecture which has survived for millennia, and not just a couple of hundred years. The epic Colosseum, a 50,000 seater arena which even had a retractable canvas roof. And then even in the post-Roman era, we visited towns like beautiful Siena. Where you can walk around a truly medieval city, where most buildings are over 500-years old. The square in its centre, where they’ve held an annual horse race for hundreds of years (‘Palio di Siena’), couldn’t be more picturesque. And the same can be said for the city of Florence. Which save for being a place where I don’t think I saw anyone who wasn’t an American tourist, is still wonderfully romantic.

Romantic Rome. Is that where the phrase ‘Rome’antic came from? If not, it should be.

All of this in Tuscany, itself just one of Italy’s many fabulous regions. Rolling green hills. Winding country lanes flanked by Cyprus trees. Walled fortress towns like Lucca. Pisa. Its leaning tower is staggering to be behold. But even if the tower wasn’t leaning, I felt, it and the neighbouring 1,000-year old Cathedral are some of the most ornate and well-crafted buildings in the world. And to top it all of – as I did – I got to eat pizza and pasta after seeing sights like this. What’s not to like?

Florence. Which has as many Americans’ per square mile as wonderful restaurants and historic sights: loads.

The Italians we all met were truly charming. They really, really like babies here. It was totally normal for strangers to walk up to our baby, coo ‘belissama’, rub her head, pinch her cheeks, make faces, and well up with joy. Back in the UK, I think you’d be reported to the police for doing any of this stuff. People tolerate babies if they are quiet, and that’s about it. But in Italy, family takes centre stage. Food takes centre stage. And you’re left with this magical combination and feeling of wholesomeness that few other places had. Like you see in those Dolmio adverts, or something like that.

The just wonderful tower of Pisa. It’d still be a marvel if it wasn’t leaning.

Economic Woes

I’ve covered Italy as an economist for many years. The general them here of the articles I’ve written are that the economy’ stagnated for three decades. The political system is dysfunctional. Living standards have not improved. Youth unemployment is high; many young people have to leave Italy to find work. All of these things are indeed challenging. And true. But my reading of the situation at work made me expect that Italy would be some kind of failed state. Mired in misery. But this is perhaps where one of the many limits of economics come in. Statistics and economic forecasts simply can’t measure the intangibles. Intangibles like the weather. The history. The architecture. The scenery. The charming people. The sanctity of the family in Italian life. You can’t capture these things by examining real GDP growth rates or inflation, as it turns out. Up in Northern Europe, we often feel pity for the comparative economic challenges facing Southern European economies. But from what I could see, I doubt few here in Italy were jealous of our cold, wet, and grey existences up in the north.

Mole Antonelliana, completed in 1899, which dominates the Turin skyline.

We completed our trip in Turin, which perhaps ended up being my favourite city of the trip. It had a much more Germanic feel; people here were more subdued than their more expressive brothers and sisters in the south of Italy. It was the first capital of unified Italy. And its grand, tree-lined boulevards, and architecture are testament to this. The romance of the place only added to by the snow-capped peaks of the Alps peering over the horizon. Turin is like a (much) smaller version of Paris. A version of Paris with far less dog poo on the streets. And with waiters who don’t treat your presence in their restaurant as some kind of insult to them and their families, given how cold they can be.

Leafy, lovely Turin. My the Italians do have it so very nice indeed.

Italy, you’ve truly stolen my heart. And also, made my jeans a bit snugger than I’d like. I think I can forgive you.

For more anecdotes and views on the world, informed by travelling to over 80% of the world’s countries, check out my bestselling book. The Travelling Ape: What Travelling (Nearly) Everywhere Taught Me about Humanity, Geopolitics, and Happiness is out now in eBook, paperback, and hardback. Search for ‘The Travelling Ape’ on Amazon to purchase the paperback or hardback in your home country, where it’s available. 


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