Throughout all of my solo travel this was the only place where I felt strongly that company was necessary to get the most out of being there. The amount of aesthetic pleasure and sensory absorption on offer was so great that I found myself wandering around wishing deeply that I had a companion to exclaim to and talk the experience over with. One like-minded pal or two to three fun, indulgent friends in tow would have been perfect. Another note is that it’s definitely a country best travelled by car. As someone who relied heavily on buses to visit the smaller towns, I quickly saw how much more limited my enjoyment of them could be seeing as the last bus home might leave at around 5pm; not to mention that the selection of towns I could choose to visit depended on which town I staying in and therefore busing out of. It was definitely quite a crapshoot way to sightsee because these are smaller, quieter towns (especially in August, the summer holiday month of Italy’s workers), so if the daytrip didn’t happen to fall on a noteworthy day I was left to ramble some very snoozy streets. My ideal holiday in Italy would be one where I could go on a tailored, year-long programme devoted solely to learning about either food and cooking, or the churches. I’m not religious but I can say without reservation that I could happily spend a year touring Italy’s churches and their meaning; they are that beautiful and unique.
Favourite destination? Venice, hands down. I hadn’t expected it to reach me because it’s reputation is so hyped up, part of me supposed quite cynically that the modern Venice was a tourist-pandering caricature of the Venice of old. Once there however I saw that Venice was real. It was quite enlightening to be in a setting that looked as if it had been created entirely out of storyteller fancy, yet had the feel of any regular, well-lived residential area. Another thing that caught me off guard was the effect of being near all that water. I had imagined calm, romantic canals where the water was simply another domesticated accessory. What I heard and saw in reality was water sloshing vigorously up against steps and walls, ripples driving forward towards anything they could find to take their energy out on. It was constant and so captivating that as the streets of concrete were bare and silent, the streets of water were alive and endlessly working themselves out. The greatest street of all, the Grand Canal, provided me an impromptu hour of relaxation as I sat at the end of a wooden jetty gazing out, at once following the wide reach of its restless waters to the horizon, at once watching the holidaymakers precipitate upon a distant jetty to wait their turn for a gondola.
I have it on authority however that the Venice I saw was being force-fed an unpalatable introversion. Months previous a Polish statue who I shared a dorm room with in Nuremberg had told us the woeful tale of how Venice lost its street performers – its heart, soul and music. Apparently up until earlier that year the streets were filled with street performers who all knew each other and took pride in the integrity of their artistic expression. Their aim was entertainment and increasing human happiness. One day a new act sidled into town, an act not like them, an act apart from the community of artists. They came only for the money; and not only did they not take any care with the content and planning of their performance, but they were even offensive to, and disparaging of, their audience on occasion. Breaking the implicit street performers’ code led to no good, giving city planners the perfect excuse to sweep the public space clean of everyone except the musicians. Our statue lamented that Venice was now dead and a very sad sight. It makes me very curious…. what was Venice like in its heyday?
But it is still in Italy, therefore it cannot be without personality. One of my favourite moments came while I was sitting on a small, over-canal bridge making some notes. A flotilla of about 5 gondolas was slowly approaching, and as soon as the lead gondolianer guy noticed me sitting up there he started calling out: “Julietta! Julietta!” This encouraged the next two gondolianers behind him to join in by singing an over-the-top love song and generally playacting the role of heroic romantic suitor. It was really entertaining and done in a nice way 🙂 , I couldn’t stop from smiling.
Rome was another destination that was nothing like I imagined it. Much bigger, more eclectic and more disorganised than my mind’s dream. My favourite part of Rome was the bit by the river and the island (I’m sorry I can’t recall the names). There I saw young guys lost to the world, sunbathing on the bank and fishing in the river (which um…. I wouldn’t do in that river myself); a bird resting on one leg on a rock interrupting the flow of water, seemingly in meditation; a well-browned young man on the bridge playing beautiful harmonica music. On a second bridge I came across a written poster-sized tribute chained to the bridge railing, created in memory of a man who had died at that spot. He was an artist who made people happy with his colours. I get the feeling that he jumped.
My biggest gripe with Italy is that it is very expensive to eat out there; if you do stick to the cheaper places the food is not so inspiring. I know some budget travellers have the attitude that one should cut back on food expenses anyway and stick to making pasta in the hostel kitchen, but for me Italy is supposed to be about the food. Therefore it was disturbing to have to accept that truly good Italian food is reserved for the well-to-do tourists. I’m sure regular Italian-folk eat good food too. So really, one’s options are a) be Italian or adopted into an Italian family or b) be a traveller who likes to spend it large.
All in all, although I do have favourite particular spots and sweet particular memories, the biggest, most enduring impression of Italy I got was that it was extremely touristy. It took me quite some time and work to adjust to the crowded environments and reduced freedom.
Places visited: Bologna, Foligno, Nocera Umbra, Montefalco, Firenze, Bigallo, Lucca, Siena, Roma, Venezia