A Very Broad Travel guide for Italy
By CARA RAEKER | April 26, 2020
Cover photo by Cara Raeker / The Amsterdammer.
A picture taken at Italy’s West coast of the famous ‘Cinque Terre’, a coastal strip dotted with five small villages as beautiful as this one.
In 2018, I spent six months travelling through the northern-central regions of Bella Italia working on organic farms, mostly out in the middle of nowhere. In total I lived with six different italian families and I visited seven of the country’s major cities, as well as many small towns and villages whose names I can’t recall anymore.
As someone who took a gap year before coming to university, there is little I enjoy more than talking about travel. So brace yourself as I give you a quick rundown of five things that shaped my travels through beautiful Italy: Venice, Food, La Dolce Vita, Rome and the Mafia.
This place is magical. Hands down. Everything you have ever seen pictures of – the bridges, canals, gondolas and elaborate palazzos – are exactly as picturesque in real life as how you imagine them to be. I highly recommend doing one of the free walking tours offered by this company. They don’t take you to the main sights like the Rialto Bridge or the Piazza San Marco, but through back alleys and local shops which offer you a much more authentic experience. I even ended up eating the best ice cream of my life (coffee flavored) in some back alley I never would have come across otherwise. Of course, aside from the magnificence Venice has to offer, there is a lot of tourism. The cruise ships are atrocious and so are those ugly plastic carnival masks that you can easily buy everywhere. I also once paid 5,50 euros for a tiny cappuccino, which I am still so upset about today. However, you can’t really complain about the tourists when you are part of the problem, so you might as well enjoy what the city has to offer.
I am from Germany where the food just isn’t really that impressive. I have been raised on potatoes and bread, canned vegetables and the occasional currywurst. No meal has ever taken longer than 25 minutes and I would have dinner in front of the TV at least once a week. I turned out fine, don’t worry, but going to Italy, where food is a really important part of the culture, I definitely had a bit of a shock. For one, there are a lot of rules I wasn’t aware of. For Instance, ragout (e.g. bolognese sauce) can only be eaten with tagliatelle (the long, flat kind of noodle). Olive oil is on and in everything. Bread can shamelessly be eaten with pasta, and pasta can shamelessly be eaten once a day if not twice. A cappuccino can only be ordered before 11 am, any later and they know you’re a tourist. And, the biggest rule of all: Italians just make the best food. Can’t argue with that one.
La Dolce Vita
In fact, whenever you will sit down for a meal, let’s say some Pasta alla Norma, it will be the best pasta you have ever had – according to the chef. Hey, hey, because listen, ragazzi, the olives for the oil come from the cooks’ own olive grove, and the tomatoes are full of flavour because they are seasonal. The pasta is perfectly al dente and no one had to throw a spaghetti against the wall to know that. To sum up, it is not a simple meal but a sensual experience. In general, there is just so much love and time invested into the making of such beautiful things. Craftsmanship is still valued. If you venture through the streets of any Italian city you will find these little workshops which showcase woodwork, pottery or delicate jewelry. People still spend hundreds of euros to get custom-made leather shoes. They would rather have three good pairs and walk around in style than own a lot of cheap ones. You see what I mean? La Dolce Vita.
The Mafia has not so much shaped my personal experience in Italy but it just sort of surprised me that it still exists. On the mainland, where I spend most of my time in the north of the country, I only heard some stories here and there: About a man showing up at the farm asking for some money, which you pay without asking. Or some shady building project in the city with questionable funding. However, when I went to Sicily in the summer of 2019 to take a trip around the island, I did in fact encounter a real mafioso. It was the guy who knocked at my friend Giorigas’ car window when she tried to pull into a parking spot in the centre of Syracusa. They exchanged some words in italian until Giorgia gave him a euro so that he would let her park the car. “They never ask anything of you that you can’t give,” she explains to me. “I mean, what else should I do? Give him a single euro or return to a scratched up car? That’s just how it works.” She tells me that people don’t get killed anymore (or at least very rarely) like in the 1980s, but the mafia still control who can open up a business or not. They also have a monopoly on the drug trade in Italy. “The government should legalize soft drugs like they did in the Netherlands. That would take a lot of power away from the Mafia”, says Giorgia. Why don’t they, I ask. “They are still scared”.
And lastly, Roma. The eternal city. I actually did not enjoy Rome too much. Mostly because I was overwhelmed. You can touch almost any ordinary residential building and feel hundreds, sometimes a thousand years of history under your fingertips. I walked past a bunch of Romes’ most famous historical sites because I could not visually distinguish them from all the other big, ancient structures around me. On top of that I actually found the cliché to be true, that Italian food is amazing everywhere except for in Rome. I ate chinese food twice during my five day visit and that says something. If I had to recommend one thing which should be done in Rome, it is to visit the Vatican City, in order to see the St. Peter’s Basilica. I don’t usually care for churches but the sheer size of this building made my jaw drop. With your ticket you get the code for a free app on your phone, which serves as an audio guide so that you can take your time to walk around and explore. On your way back, you can take a stroll along the Tiber river and explore the Trastevere neighbourhood, known for its bohemian atmosphere and numerous bars. I would also recommend the Campo de Fiori, an open-air market, which is quite crowded but still worth a visit.