In between composing operas, Giuseppe Verdi shared wisely: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy”. I can only imagine he was invoking the country’s vibrant palette, rich architecture, simple yet delicious food and wine, and the welcoming nature of Italian people. Was he talking also about the quiet pauses between the big moments? The ones you have to stop and recognise because they’re not as immediately obvious, yet just as life enhancing?
Two and a half years into a global pandemic, we armed ourselves with vaccines and a hunger for colour and flavour, setting off for Italy with our two children in tow. The dream was to imbibe the laid-back lifestyle and, in the process, exfoliate the experience of extensive lockdowns and homeschooling.
We made a plan to discover the best pizza the country has to offer. To visit Amalfi, explore the heel and soak up the Tuscan sun. A week in we realised la dolce vita was working its magic. Nightly walks where the only decision was which gelato flavour to try. Gorging on Napoli pizze (that we didn’t ask to be cut, so ripped apart with our hands while still steaming). Seeing our kids’ faces light up when they discovered the croissant they were sharing was secretly filled with chocolate cream.
Travelling from Amalfi to Puglia, up to Tuscany and then back to Rome, put 2600 kilometres on our hired Fiat’s tyres, and reminded us of the art to driving in Italy. The autostrada’s extensive network crisscrosses the country. Seven or eight-lane exits organically turn into three thanks to the jockeying of confident drivers. Italian radio became the backing track of our adventure.
Winding our way along the coast of the country, I watched my landscape architect husband lap up the changing scenery. A patchwork of cyprus and oaks in the north slowly replaced the gnarled olive trunks and prickly pear of the south. So too did our tastebuds adapt as we moved from region to region, from the freshest seafood pastas to rich bean and beef stews flavoured with bay leaves and mopped up with focaccia.
Of course, the standout moments were those you can’t predict while planning a meticulous itinerary. The pauses between the big Verdi experiences. Discovering our best pizza of the trip, ostensibly low-key for €5 at Lido Pantano. Running into my in-laws’ former neighbours while on a day trip to Lecce. Conquering a steep climb in picturesque Siena – and being beaten by both of our small children. Watching a group of local teenagers fish and play football at 9pm at Massa Lubrense, the sun setting on Capri serving as their backdrop. Our daughter losing her first tooth and wondering if the tooth fairy comes to Italy.
We made mistakes and quickly learnt from them. When the inevitable travel stuff-ups happened we found ourselves laughing rather than stressed. We were grateful for the opportunity to experience culture shock after staying inside our homes for months on end. My husband accidentally told a shopkeeper he loved him instead of complimenting his shoes. “Grazie,” the shopkeeper replied, quite happy with the proclamation.
Italy is generous with its history, music, flavours and colours. We lapped up its green-blue waters, gorgeously deep red sugos and passatas, buttercup-yellow sandstone buildings: the perfect palette to reawaken our senses. But Italians and their generosity of spirit? Oh my god. Marco in Umbria making sure we had everything we needed for the perfect stay (Another towel? More Nutella for the bambini?). Luigi in Marina Lobra checking whether we had a good day or a super day.
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