Italy is a cultural homeland for all of us in the Western world, even if we are not Italian or of Italian descent. Whether you’ve never been there, or trod Etruscan and Roman soil many times, Italy is a place of a lifetime. No guidebook can quite reveal its secrets, no television documentary the charms of its wily and sensual people, no Fellini the fevered pulse of its life. You have to discover these things for yourself. But in the meantime, stories from travelers can help you shape your own memories-to-be, your Italian legacy of the future. In that spirit we’ve gathered here thirty writers to tell you what they discovered on their last trip.
If you had thirty days to spend in Italy what would you do? The simple fact is that there are so many things to experience in Italy that thirty days would but scratch the surface and launch you into planning your return. Nonetheless, the question remains: What would you do? Would you visit Assisi and walk the byways of Saint Francis or spend your time studying the antiquities of Rome? Would you wander Venice, Florence, or Trieste, or all three, and would you do it in the winter or the spring? Perhaps the energy and fashion sense of the Milanese interest you or the magnificent wine-producing regions that have their earliest origins in Roman times. Or you might wish to walk the old Roman stones of the Appian Way or try out winter sports in the Italian Alps. How about hiking the cliffs of Cinque Terre or taking a drive down the boot of Italy for some rough and tumble in Naples, a visit to Pompeii, or a hop across the Strait of Messina to Palermo enroute to the Egadi Islands, or a beach trip to Capri or Sardinia or the Italian Riviera? Or you might consider exploring the remote villages and hill towns of Basilicata and Puglia and Calabria and the Marche.
But no matter what one does in Italy—and among those choices will be so many memorable meals they will begin to blur—sooner or later the traveler is borne by gravity toward Rome, that ultimate locus of history that still reverberates with the echo of empire. Perhaps you will walk among the ruins of the Forum or the Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, where emperors and history were made and unmade. In his splendid travel classic, A Traveller in Rome, H.V. Morton notes that the word “palace” is derived from the mansions that were built on this hill in Roman times. And that the Capitoline Hill, from whence our word “Capitol” is derived, was once the site of the greatest temple of the Romans—the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. The legend is that when the grounds were being excavated for the temple (around 600 B.C.) a human head was found, said to be that of the mythical hero Tollius. The soothsayers interpreted it as a sign that Rome was to become the head (caput) of the world and so the hill was called “a capite Toli.” Another word in everyday use in those times came from the nearby temple of Zeus’s wife, Juno Moneta. As the temple was also a mint, the word “moneta” comes to us down the ages as the familiar word “money.” Likewise, the Papal Succession of the Catholic Church is the last living link with the Roman world and the papal line descends directly from the time of Tiberius, who was the Emperor of the Gospels. This is the only such institution directly related to Roman times still existing in the world.
The Roman model of government found its way into the U.S. Constitution with whole words like “senator” and “republican” being reused, such was the admiration of the Founding Fathers for Roman governance. The twentieth-century dictator Mussolini also sought to emulate the greatness of the Romans. He personally directed the draining of Lake Nemi in the Alban Hills outside Rome so that the stupendous pleasure barges of Caligula might be salvaged. These barges of immense size came complete with indoor plumbing, statuary, and heated floors. When the plumbing artifacts were examined, some of the valves were so modern looking that they were thought to be forgeries. (Alas, the pleasure boats were destroyed by retreating German troops in World War II.)
You might think that so much history would make Italians more nostalgic for past greatness but it seems to have had the opposite effect. Italians are so sure of their history, so familiar with it that it is hardly worth reflecting on—it is part of their common legacy and now their largess, their gift to the world. Enjoy their insouciance, their intolerance for the 9-to-5 routine, and their disdain for what we think of as order. Live a little, carve out your niche, and turn whatever time you have in Italy into your own private cornucopia of days.
Burglars in Paradise
The Partisan Artisans of the Oltrarno
The Synergism of Little Kindnesses
A Cold Day in the Dolomites
Under the Tuscan Sky
Standing in Line
Thelma Louise Stiles
Snapping Out of It in Naples
Susan Van Allen
St. Peter’s Black Box
Laurie McAndish King
Blisters in Paradise
Georgia I. Hesse
Francesca De Stefano
Castello de Gorgonza
Kicked into the Mediterranean
If I Were Pope
Deborah J. Smith
Last Trout in Venice
The Pasta Nazi
Linda Watanabe Mcferrin
Mary Tolaro Noyes
Mani di Velluto
The Nature of Italy
Sample Chapter: Burglars in Paradise
by Phil Thompson
It takes more than a key for this caper.
Even if one somehow tires of the David, gets bored with Pompeii, or yawns at the thought of another gondola ride, doesn’t the prospect of renting a farmhouse in the Italian countryside still excite? Of course it does. It’s every traveler’s fantasy, and with a minimum of planning it can be the best vacation of your life. But do pay attention to the details. You’ve been warned.
A few years ago my family and friends rented a 200-year-old farmhouse in Umbria for a week. We drove all day from Florence in two tiny Fiats and an asthmatic diesel Peugeot. When we finally turned off the spur road and bounced along the rutted dirt driveway to catch our first glimpse of the house, we knew we’d gotten our money’s worth. The house spilled down the hill in tumbled layers of rough-hewn stone and ended at a broad flagstone patio perched high above a misty valley. Surrounding the house was a shaggy meadow dotted with flowering weeds that rolled down the hill in a wave of green and yellow before dashing itself against a low rock wall at the foot of the property. A wobbly fence of ancient timber posts and rusting barbed wire surrounded the sides of the little compound, keeping a restless flock of sheep from entering and devouring the little flower garden beside the house.
Road weary but delighted at what we’d found, we set about unloading the bags of food and wine from the cars for our sunset feast while my wife went to fetch the key. The owners had e-mailed us the location of the key hidden beneath a loose rock in the belly of the ancient stone pizza oven built into the side of the house, the Umbrian equivalent of hiding the key under the mat.
We could hear the muted bells around the sheep’s necks as they roamed about testing the perimeter fence, grazing dejectedly outside when it held. The sun was already low in the west, and the air had grown crisp and cool on that late fall afternoon. We could smell wood smoke from a farm nearby. It was impossibly beautiful, the precise reason why so many tourists are drawn to the Italian countryside, why whole fantasies are created around that “someday” trip to Tuscany or Umbria. This was it, the dream, right here, Eden without the snake. I took a deep breath of Italian October afternoon and exhaled, smiling, as my wife walked quietly toward me from the house.
“I can’t find the key.”
My smile froze. She was trying hard not to look like a woman who’d dragged her parents and friends halfway around the world and down miles of twisting country roads in order to make them shiver on an Italian hillside beside a locked stone farmhouse surrounded by ravenous sheep. She shook her head quickly, anticipating my obvious question.
“Yes, I looked everywhere in the oven, and no, I couldn’t find it.” Her lips were tight, tension glittering in her eyes. She looked over at her parents, now removing cubic yards of heavy luggage from the car. “But maybe you could find it.” The optimism in her words didn’t agree with the hard set of her face, but hope was hope, so I made my way over to the narrow arched opening to the pizza oven and looked inside. I couldn’t see any loose stones in the floor of it but I wedged myself into the opening anyway. Feet waving in midair, I carefully fondled every inch of the floor, then let myself back down. Covered with soot and dust from head to waist, I raised my hands helplessly. There was indeed no key.
Word spread rapidly among our companions, and they gathered in a fidgety semicircle around the oven. Everyone was well past the days when an impromptu camping trip on a wet, dewy meadow or in a cramped European economy car would be considered a lark. “Well, I guess we’d better call Marta,” my wife said.
Marta was a local woman employed by the house’s owners to take care of the place. We’d been given her number in case of emergencies. With the sun sinking fast and the air cooling rapidly we voted unanimously that this qualified as an emergency of the first order. My wife took charge, gathering her mother and Linda, the third woman on the trip, to go with her to the nearest town in hopes of finding a pay phone. They revved up one of the Fiats and sped down the driveway, pausing only to latch the gate behind them to detour the opportunistic sheep. Then they disappeared down the road in a cloud of dust.
I said that we had voted unanimously that being locked out of our vacation home in the middle of nowhere qualified as an emergency, but the vote had actually been 5 to 1. Our abstention was at that moment over by a shuttered window picking at the gap between the wooden shutter and the stone wall with a corkscrew, holding a sloshing glass of wine in his other hand. On the porch next to him was a freshly opened bottle of Chianti Classico and two more full glasses beside it. “There’s gotta be a way we can get in here,” said my father-in-law Dan, “but it’ll be more fun finding it if we have a little vino first, eh? Salute!”
Dan has a well-deserved reputation for being grace-under-fire personified, immensely charming and levelheaded, particularly when he’s holding wine, but on this trip there was an added dimension. Both his parents were Italian, his father born there before emigrating to the United States, and this trip to Umbria was a homecoming of sorts for him. He had been glowing with joy every since the plane had touched down in Milan, and his radiance had only seemed to increase with the missing key. He took deep breaths of the fragrant air and gestured around him dramatically. “Isn’t this great?” he asked, rhetorically. Our companion Roger and I found ourselves agreeing, why, yes, this was great, and the three of us toasted the deepening sunset from the chilly porch of the locked cottage and felt, well, great about our prospects.
Newly fortified, we inspected the house’s defenses more carefully. Dan had discovered that the shutters, while made of solid oak over an inch thick, left promising gaps between the wood and the irregular surface of the rough-hewn stone walls. Peering through the openings, we could see that the shutters were separated from the windows and doors they protected by the thickness of the stone, leaving a space of about six inches. Only the front door shutters had an external lock on them, so we deduced that all the others must be latched from the inside. If we only had a tool to use to reach down through a gap and into the darkness of the space inside, we might be able to throw the latch from the outside and get at one of the windows or doors. And, so our thinking went, if the shutters had been latched, might not someone have forgotten to lock one or more of the windows, or even a door, allowing us to just waltz right in and make ourselves belatedly at home?
A farmhouse in the country, even one that has been gentrified as a summer retreat for urbanites, has all manner of forgotten junk lying about in piles. Tangled nests of twisted wire and other metal objects fetched up in drifts at the perimeter fences, quietly melting back into the ground. Searching for anything that might serve as a tool, I kicked at the turf consuming one of those piles and found a thick piece of corroded iron strap about two feet long that could be bent with some effort into a long hook. Dan had located the most promising target, a narrow shuttered door at the far end of the house with a decent gap at the top. Dipping into the opening with my homemade hook, I felt around and found what seemed to be a little knob on the inside; I could just reach it with about an inch to spare. Pulling up didn’t budge it, so, after an anxious moment where I almost dropped the hook into oblivion, I pushed down on it and the latch suddenly gave way. The shutters swung open to reveal that the inner door had not only been left unlocked, it hadn’t even been closed. Dan flicked on the light switch. We were now staring into the house itself.
Oh, sweet victory! We high-fived and toasted each other anew, flush with pride. We had done it, we had broken into…
“The laundry room,” said Dan. He shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of wine while we pushed past him to confirm. It was indeed the laundry room, with a little half-bath just visible beyond the washer and dryer. It was the work of only a moment to discover what Dan already knew: there was no connection from this utility area to the main house. We were still locked out.
“Well, the good news is that we now have a bathroom.” I hoped I sounded more optimistic than I felt.
“No, gentlemen, the good news is that this isn’t just the laundry room or a bathroom,” said Dan, pointing into the corner. “The good news is that it’s also the tool shed.” There, on top of a workbench wedged into the small space, was an open toolbox overflowing with wrenches, screwdrivers, and even a pry bar. “To Plan B!” cried Dan, raising his glass again.
We had noticed earlier that the shutters’ hinges were attached to the wood with regular screws that could be simply unscrewed, a security breach we had been unable to exploit earlier because the only tool we’d had at hand was Dan’s corkscrew. Now, however, the laundry room had yielded up a heavy-duty ratcheting screwdriver, the next best thing to the key itself; we were back in business. We chose a window close to the front door that would be relatively easy to climb through, and proceeded to the attack. Pounding on each screw to loosen it, Dan muscled them all out with the ratchet, and as the last one slipped out I pulled the shutter free, exposing the window beneath. Rubbing his hands together with the relish of a successful safecracker, Dan confidently pushed on the newly exposed window. It wouldn’t budge, securely locked from the inside.
“I don’t suppose we have a Plan C,” asked Roger, plopping himself down on the steps.
“What on earth are you doing?!!” my wife shrieked. We had been so focused on our efforts that we failed to hear the car return. We would-be burglars stood frozen in place, the severed shutter from the house askew in my hands, a handful of screws and the screwdriver in Dan’s. Two empty bottles of wine lay at Roger’s feet.
“Any luck?” I asked innocently. My wife shook her head as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “No, well, we did find a pay phone and a place to buy a phone card, but the line was busy and we came back to see if you had found the key and…and what on earth are you doing?”
“The good news is that we have a bathroom,” said Roger helpfully, pointing to the open laundry room door.
The three women stood with their mouths open in shock and their arms tightly crossed while I explained ourselves as best I could. My wife shook her head slowly. “Well, I have to go back and try Marta again,” she said, “but you have to stop dismantling the house in case someone comes by. She climbed back into the car with her mother. “Look for the key, maybe we missed it.” Turning to the third woman, she said, “Linda, you stay and make sure they don’t rip off any more shutters!” Off they went down the dusty driveway again, leaving our new babysitter to keep us in line.
No sooner had the Fiat disappeared down the drive than Linda whipped around and said, “Don’t just stand there drinking, pour me a glass and get to work on more shutters!” Clearly Linda was the kind of babysitter you revered as a child, the kind who would let you drink beer and watch R-rated movies on cable. Dan clapped his hands together and set to work on opening another bottle, and I attacked another window. This time the work went more quickly, but the result was the same: the window within was locked. “Well, try the door,” suggested Dan, ever cheerful. “Maybe they got lazy. Those shutters lock, so why would they lock things twice?” With the sun touching the trees on the horizon and a serious chill to the air, his logic sounded impeccable, so we went to work on the door. Five minutes later, we pulled one shutter free and set it aside. Dan squeezed into the opening and tried the door. It opened.
We peered into the gloom at the shadowy forms of furniture and a fireplace; the archeologist who first looked inside King Tut’s tomb and saw the glint of gold could not have been any happier than we were to see that huge stone hearth. We all squeezed inside, the room still warm from the lingering effects of the afternoon sun. We took a moment to toast our successful burglary, and then got to work. While the others brought all the food and luggage inside, Dan and I quickly reattached all the shutters and put away the tools. By the time my wife and her mother had returned from their second unsuccessful call to Marta, all the shutters were open, the house was flooded with light, and the four burglars were lounging on the patio watching the last of the sun disappear below the horizon. “You found the key!” they cried, greatly relieved. Dan smiled and poured his wife and daughter a glass. “Salute!” he said happily, and left it at that.
Phil Thompson is a native Californian with a lifelong addiction to living out of a suitcase. His wife is half-Italian, and he’s spent the better part of their marriage drinking vino rosso in a futile attempt to catch up. He lived in Tokyo for a time, during which he believes he was the tallest non-athlete in Japan. He once bowed to physicist Stephen Hawking on the banks of the Thames, and has waved to the Queen of England; more importantly, she waved back. Phil has a degree in Ecosystems Analysis from UCLA, and is currently a graduate student in Liberal Arts at Stanford University. He travels as often as he can, and writes from his home in San Mateo, California.