- Capital: Rome
- Location: Southern Europe along the Mediterranean
- Language: Italian
- Currency: Euro
- Population: 60 million
Italy has a nice, relaxing feel... as long as you avoid the tourists. I recommend going either in the off season or to less traveled areas since that will give a better authentic experience. Definitely try the food as much as possible. Even if you have to wait an hour after ordering, it will be absolutely worth it. And make sure to go to Sicily if you get the chance. It has a much more of a genuine feel than the mainland and everyone there seems incredibly friendly and welcoming. Just be prepared to move slowly.
July 2009 and July 2015
I've traveled to Italy on two specific occasions. The first was back in 2009 as part of a family trip with my Aunt and Uncle. We had a brief stopover in Rome for a couple of days before heading to our primary destination: Sicily. The reason being, my grandfather on that side of the family (my Mom's side) is Sicilian and still has family back in the old country. We went to go see them, which, for me, was the first time I'd ever met them. So, for me, the Sicily part of the trip sticks a little more in my memory, but as you can imagine, the two places are incredibly different and distinct in their own ways.
My second trip was in the 2015 backpacking trip with Blake, just after Slovakia and before Ireland. This time we stayed for a few days in Milan, thus completing the north, middle and south trifecta for me, and naturally, since this particular trip was with a friend instead of family, it went much differently.
I'll start here since this was by far the most unique experience for me of the three (yes, even despite Rome's history). We stayed in this town called Giardini Naxos, which was right near the more popular destination Taormina. Before getting there, I had always heard that the Sicilian landscape was gorgeous, but when I got to see it for the first time, I was absolutely blown away. (Keep in mind that I hadn't really traveled much yet, so this was all pretty new to me). The whole island looked like it was this relaxing, warm seaside paradise, straight out of a movie. The whole town consisted of small buildings, etched into the hillside and descended down into he sea which was clearer and bluer than I ever imagined. It was warm, but not humid, and best of all, it had significantly less tourists than Rome and mainland Italy, so it was much easier to take it all in and appreciate it.
However, what made this trip most interesting, and different from anywhere else I've ever been to, was the fact I actually had family living there. My grandfather on my mother's side is a Sicilian immigrant, and although he grew up and raised a family in the US, many of his relatives stayed behind, and this was the first time in my life I ever got to meet them. And although they hardly knew any English, and we knew no Italian (except for my uncle to an extent), the whole thing was quite an experience.
I had always known that family was important to Sicilians, but just because of our distant bloodline, we were all treated like royalty. I still remember when we first entered their house, they had a huge dinner awaiting us, and the father of the family, this short happy-go-lucky guy Giorgio, already cracked open the limoncello and was instantly ready to share. And for the remainder of our stay, they made sure we got the full-on local, relaxed and enjoyable Sicilian lifestyle.
The next thing we all did together was go to the nearby local beach, which, to be honest, I wasn't looking forward to as much as you would expect. I was never too big of a fan of the beach growing up near the shoreline of Connecticut. There, the water (Long Island Sound) was usually pretty cold and gray looking. The rough sand was filled with rocks and occasional pieces of trash that washed ashore. But then I got to the beach in Sicily and all of that changed. The water was clearer and bluer than I had ever seen before and the sand felt so soft and smooth. And best of all, everyone there seemed happy, relaxed and in good spirits. There were none of the loud, obnoxious families yelling at each other (as I had grown to accustomed to seeing at such settings).
All that aside, however, the thing that struck me the most about Sicily was the pace of life. I would say it was relaxed, but that wouldn't do it justice. It was relaxed and slow enough to make a sloth look like a coked-out New York businessman. Sicily would make The Dude from The Big Lebowski look type-A. For example, you could watch a group of people walk down the street and it would seem like they were standing still. Food would come an hour after you ordered it (granted it would be delicious though), and most places opened an hour behind schedule. But I cannot complain though. People all seemed to be enjoying and savoring life. At least much more so than those of us (and I speak of myself here) in big, fast paced cities.
My visit to Milan was a whole six years after my first trip to Italy, and this time it was with Blake as we backpacked Europe east to went. When we got here. I noticed something right away that was different than any city we had previously been to, which also made it starkly different from my previous Italy trip. And that was, there were no locals anywhere. Everywhere I looked, especially in the city center, there were no Italians to be found anywhere. Instead, there were large groups, primarily from China, carrying selfie sticks and posing for photo ops. To me this was unfortunate, but apparently, as we were later told, this is what usually happens in the summer. All the locals leave and the tourists flood in (aka Hell).
That being said, despite the tourists and a bit of a manufactured atmosphere, there were some things I really liked about the city, such as the architecture and the huge medieval fortress (which remains one of the coolest things I've ever seen). But the thing that stood out to me the most, however, was the food, and one dinner in particular. To give some background information, half of Blake's family is from Italy, so before going, his grandmother gave him $100 to spend on a nice Italian dinner. Here is how that went:
We roamed the streets, up and down, until we finally came across what looked like the most 'Italian' place in the city (we wanted the authentic experience, which was not the easiest to find). We entered and sat down, and we're greeted by a waiter who didn't understand English, which confirmed to us that we made the right choice. After a little struggle of communication, we placed our order, choosing a variety of stereotypical yet delicious looking choices and drinks.
I can still remember the look on our waiter's face as he watched Blake's and my seer excitement upon the arrival of our food, which was, as it is everywhere in Italy, amazing. It was clear by know that the wait staff was enjoying our presence and our expressions to everything, so I decided to ask for one more thing: limoncello. Blake had never had it before, and for me, it reminded me of my very first Italy trip six years prior. They brought it out and, to my astonishment, the waiter said, in English, "Free. On the house!"
When we left, they all waved us goodbye, and we, in return, did the same. For me, this was just the thing I needed to escape the tourist cluttered, hot and humid outdoors of the city, and it still remains one of my highlights from the whole backpacking trip.
It is a little hard for me to describe Rome in detail, having only briefly visited eight years prior to writing this, but here is my attempt to do the best. Since we didn't have so much time, we tried to make the best of it and see as much of the historical sights as we could, which I have to admit as a history buff, were pretty amazing. But the thing that struck me most of all was just the sheer magnitude of sights and ruins, and how they were interspersed among everything else in the city. I remember walking down the street, seeing hotels, restaurants, office buildings, and then, suddenly, the Colosseum. It was as if modern Rome had grown up around ancient Rome to create what it was today.
Anyway, I wish I could explain and tell more, but I don't think I would be able to do it justice without a revisit to see and interact with it again. When I do, I'll finally give this city, a proper reflection.