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.