So much to see in La Bella Italia
May 31, 2013 Leave a comment
Italy is a small country, and backpackers might think it’s easy to see it all—monuments, beaches, pizza—in one adventurous tour. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really the case. Despite being relatively small (116,347 square miles, or about the size of Arizona), Italy is long. Hostels can be hard to find. And the monuments aren’t the only thing that’s ancient—the trains are a bit out of date and often run late.
However, traveling through Italy from the top to the bottom you will experience regions wonderfully diverse in their culture, traditions and nature.
I’ll try to sum it all up with a practical top 10 list of what I believe has to be seen if you visit. I had a hard time trying to reduce the number to 10, so if you have enough time you can consider each point as a journey itself. Otherwise you can go crazy and try to see them all at once.
You’ll feel like a royalty in the first ever Italian capital, Torino. The city was long despised by tourists, since it was considered an industrial city, all gray and polluted. But times have changed, and since hosting the Winter Olympics in 2006, it never stopped improving. Royal palaces have been restored, and many now host important museums. Just to name few: the Mole Antonelliana, which hosts the museum of cinema; the Castle of Rivoli that hosts an exquisite modern art collection; and Carignano Palace, just few steps from the biggest Egyptian museum in Europe. But the best thing about Torino is its vibe, one that you will feel mainly walking at aperitivo time in San Salvario or on Saturday mornings around the Balon flea market.
Just let me suggest, if you decide to visit this city, you consider coming in autumn, when the Salone del Gusto is on. This is a huge festival of the very best Italian and international food. Yes, because if you come to Italy you will have to take into account the idea of eating a lot. And don’t fool yourself: the Mediterranean diet might be healthy, but there is a lot of food too amazing to avoid and absolutely fattening. Here in Italy, we say, “You can’t have a drunk wife and a barrel full of wine.” And where is good food, there is also good wine. So whenever you decide to visit Torino, don’t forget that just an hour away you have the Langhe hills, a beautiful vineyard area where Barolo, Barbaresco and many other wines are produced.
How about mountains? I am not talking about skiing, because that is a story for itself. I am talking about visiting Italy between June and August and avoiding embarrassing sweat and overwhelming heat. The Dolomites are high and wild mountains and there you can find all kinds of activities: easy hiking for the whole family; exciting, adrenalin-boosting Via Ferrata hiking; biking through the valley; and visiting the Lagazuoi tunnels built during World War I. Afterward, you can relax in a rifugio, mountain huts where you can take your time and enjoy the landscape (don’t miss the Marmolada glacier).
OK, I’ll talk about Venice because I’d be a liar to say it isn’t one of the world’s unique places. (Yes, I’ve been to Amsterdam and Hamburg, and loved them, but it’s just a different thing.) Getting off at the train station you will dive into an environment wet with history and romance … and tourists. It’s very difficult to find a moment where you can imagine Venice is just for you, especially if you follow the herd that goes to Rialto Bridge and straight to St. Mark Square. However, if you are lucky enough and you manage to go there on a weekday, say, in October, you might be able to get lost in the narrow streets around the university or in the fishermen’s neighborhood. Of course, you can’t miss Piazza San Marco, and I would say the best way to reach it is by boat. Ferries travel all day long and allow you to see Venice from what makes it so special—its canals.
Like Venice, Genoa was a maritime republic, and they both went around half the known world to make business and exchange things, especially money and culture. I believe this is what makes them so special: the feeling of being in a very Italian city where you are also somehow reached by Eastern influences. In Genoa you won’t find as many tourists as in Venice, and you won’t feel like you are walking thorough postcard photos. Genoa’s caruggi (narrow streets) will get you lost very fast. What you can do is follow them and surprise yourself when they open up on a beautiful square, on the dome, or on the sea. The best way to enjoy this atmosphere is to have breakfast with cappuccino and focaccia, play Fabrizio De Andre on your iPod and, ideally, leave you valuable things in the hotel room.
I say Florence, and I don’t even know why. I mean, you all know Florence, so I guess it doesn’t come to you as a new and surprising tip. But it’s just too beautiful not to mention. What I can do is advise you to have a good walk among the monuments, choose few museums you really want to see (there is just too much art and you don’t have to feel like you have to see it all, or else you’ll end up tired and hating Italy, and that’s not what we want), and get dizzy on Chianti and steak. Then you can rent a car and go around Tuscany, because if Florence will amaze you for how much beauty a city can contain, the surroundings will make you bond with the landscape in a way you will feel you want to walk barefoot in the fields and buy a nice house for your family. So, Pisa, Arezzo, Siena, Montepulciano, Cortona, they are all beautiful. And don’t worry if you lose your way among the tiny streets.
With the same car you rented in Tuscany you can go deeper on the Apennine Mountains and let yourself be fascinated with the Orvieto Duomo. The Umbria region has some hidden pearls like the medieval town of Gubbio, whose Piazza Grande is probably one of the most reminiscent squares I’ve ever seen, and Assisi, where you can find one of the few examples of Italian gothic and where you can learn the history of Saint Francesco (yes, the one the new pope got his name from).
The eternal city. Same warning applies here as with Florence, but more so. The best thing you can do is decide what kind of art you want to see. The Colosseum is an amazing structure and San Pietro is as well, but you might think twice before entering them all. I am thinking of time wasted in queues and your feet hurting when you are just halfway through the Vatican museums. I’m not saying the Sistine Chapel is not worth seeing. Just be aware you might spend all day stuck among the pope’s garments. Lucky for you, the city has evolved since the Romans and now you will miss something if you forget about MAXXI, the museum of contemporary art.
I didn’t talk much about seaside and beach parties. One of the best places to be during summer is Salento, in the south of Apulia. Here you can visit the city of Lecce, also called the Lady of Baroque for its beautiful city center. Then you can choose if you want to swim in the Adriatic Sea, in the Ionian Sea, or if you want to go down to Santa Maria di Leuca, where the two meet. Also, you won’t get bored getting tanned in front of a green and blue sea, since during summer there are several music festivals, from traditional Taranta to reggae. Should I keep on saying you will eat amazing food, and fresh fish? I think you get the idea.
Italy has many islands, and most of them are beautiful. So I don’t know why I will speak now about a place I’ve not been to, yet. The Aeolian Islands, a bit northern of Sicily, are a geological and sociological phenomena. Everything there is shaped by sea and fire: the landscape, the people, the culture. I think this is the place I would love to bring my children to have a simple and relaxing time. Swimming and chasing sea urchins, waiting for fishing boats in the early morning, chatting with the old ladies selling fruit. Am I being too dreamy? I’ve heard many friends going on like this for hours and supporting their thesis with pictures slideshows.
Have we reached 10 already? Then stay in Sicily, where basically everywhere you’ll go you will have a unique experience. The seaside is beautiful, cities have a special flavor of Africa, mixed with a taste of Viking influence, and the people are warm and kind. I do suggest you go to Noto, also known as the capital of Sicilian baroque, or as the city of bell towers, because it is basically filled with churches. After you’ve enjoyed the monumental silence of its old center, maybe refresh yourself with a Sicilian granita and then hit the road moving toward old Ragusa and the temple valleys of Agrigento or, on the other side, to the more lively Catania and Palermo. West or east, you won’t be disappointed.
GiuliaGrimaldi is based in Cumiana, Piemonte, Italy, and is a Reporter for Allvoices.