My top 10 Favorite Things to Do in Italy. Okay, 8, Because the Site Wouldn't Let Me List 10
Feb 8, 2010
I lived in Italy for a year, so I had time to visit the tourist sites described in the guidebooks, which were well worth seeing. But I also got a chance to "live like a local." Actually, with no car, and living in an apartment with little hot water and no water pressure, I lived worse than a local. By all means, see the major tourist attractions. But give yourself a little time to just...be....in Italy. If you'd like to read more about what that was like, I have a funny blog on Wordpress, at 4initalia. Or check out this list of things I most loved doing:
Piazzas are where Italians go to drink. Wonderful things, like cappuccino (before 11 a.m.), espresso, (after 11, and any time thereafter) and always, wine. While you sip, you watch Italy go by. There is always something going on: a violinist, creating swirls of colored sound and throwing it against the ancient stone, young people beguiling each other with their skinny jeans and studied nonchalance, North Africans in rich cottons peddling paperbacks, Gypsy women, in faded mismatched prints, skirting the edges of everything, and always, ambulances trolling for business.
Even small Italian towns hold an open air market from around 9 a.m. to 2, on the same day every week. At an open air market, you can buy last season's couture (with the labels removed), curtains, great leather, and gloriously fresh produce. How do you know what's worth buying? Follow the nonne, the Italian grandmothers. They've been going to the same market since before WWII, and they know which vendors sell the best stuff at the best prices.
The greatest thing about living in Italy was the simple joy in just walking around. I lived in Modena, Pavarotti's birthplace, where winding streets wandered like poets lost in thought. The town was over a thousand years old, so in the town center, there were elements of architecture from every age: Roman, Medieval, Renaissance. A terracotta bust peered over the same street for 500 years. An art restorer's shop window held seashells of antique paint. And every hour, bells called to each other to mark passing hours, and centuries. Just walk: Italy will do the rest.
Italian churches have created comfort and joy for hundreds of years. Even in the most bustling of cities, to enter one is to wrap yourself in time. When you realize that people have sought peace in that same space for centuries, through famine, and wars, and disease, you recognize that we share with those before us the same travails. Sometimes just taking the time to listen to eternity is enough. But if you lift your eyes, and take in the art, and architecture, your soul lightens. I'm not Catholic, but I'm a believer in the power of beauty, and art, and the communion of souls.
In Italy, gelato is an art. Gelato has rich and intense flavor, because it contains less butterfat than ice cream. Ordering gelato is an art in itself: you have to watch carefully, to see if you stand in line, (which means ordering anarchy) or you take a number, which only barely cuts down on the chaos. Either way, when your turn is called, you have to be ready. Do you want a cup (coppa?) or a cone? How many flavors? Two, three? Do you want whipped cream on top? In Modena, one gelateria offered 70 flavors, with exotic names: Amarena (chocolate, cherry, cream) Malaga (rum raisin) - so hard to choose! Another offered cones, but pressed the flavors into petals so you in your hand a frozen flower. Mmmmn.
Italian cities are full of church bell towers. To climb one is to become part of history: the towers were built to warn the town of approaching invaders, or fire, or gathering weather. As you climb the treacherous stairs, look for the small hand holds and tiny ledges that permitted the tower watchers to ascend to the windows. And if you are fortunate, you can be inside the tower when the bells ring. The deep tones will massage you from the inside out, and caress your very soul.
Cinque Terre is a group of five towns built into cliffs along the Ligurian Sea. The houses are painted the colors of gelato, and the Ligurian Sea is aquamarine glass. Each town is a separate treasure, starting with Riomaggiore, the first in the chain. You enter Riomaggiore through a tunnel lined with a mosaic of brilliantly colored glass. The towns are tiny and welcoming, and you can reach them by a walkway that carries you along a crystaline sea, or by train or ferry. Cinque Terre is for lovers, and for families, and for travelers who want to savor the best of Italy.
Unlike the major museums in the big cities, like the Vatican in Rome, small town museums are never crowded. There is time to linger, and to marvel that Italians made so many incredibly beautiful things, and preserved them. In Modena, the town museum has a special room for maps, and illuminated manuscripts. There is a map from the 1600s that intricately details the coastline of the Americas. This map was only recently discovered hanging in an ordinary deli. it had served as a screen until ten years ago, when a historian realized that it was a precious piece of geographic history. But it's also art - rich in color and shading. The Modena Museum also has a textile room, with fabric for the fashion forward socialites of eight hundred years ago. And a sienna glass, etched and delicate, that survived centuries.