Anecdotes of Italy

Growing up in the suburbs, I lived next door to an elderly Italian couple from Sicily called Serge and Bianca. For twenty-one years they became my makeshift nonna and nonno; teaching me swear words over tea, showing me film strips of their youth and disclosing secret cannoli recipes. A foreigner among friends, I became obsessed with their culture – an Italiaphila who marvelled at the language, food, architecture and people.

I always knew one day I would pay homage to these memories and travel Italy like we were acquainted friends – known from afar but never personally introduced. Our time came this year when Rhi and I travelled for two weeks across the city, country and coast of Italy; collecting summer anecdotes from Pisa, Florence, San Gimignano and the Amalfi Coast. Sanguine, sun and splendour -benvenuta to Italia.

THE CITY
Pisa

Populating our Instagram feeds with comical poses of superhuman strength, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a bemusing piece of architecture gone wrong. Like an optical illusion with a tilting edit, the infamous bell tower began construction in August 1173, in which it took a total 344 years to build. Surrounded by its lesser-known friends (a cathedral, cemetery and baptistery), the tower has been declared stabilised for the next 200 years. The one thing I read that stuck with me the most was hearing about the loyalty of Pisa’s residents. For centuries, many dictators and engineers have set out to reconstruct the tower, but the people have said they would rather see it fall than be straightened. Facts and fictions aside, for me, that was the real story and heart of Pisa.

We continued to roam the streets, stopping in for our first taste of pasta at a local ristorante with dusty chandeliers and red velvet curtains. We revelled in parmesan servings and bowls of bolognese whilst practicing our Italian over a shared handbook (“il conto, per favore?” soon became our favourite phase: translating to “the bill, please?”). By the time we had finished, the storm had arrived so we caught an earlier train to Firenze, dancing and fooling around like a duet of idiots, our luggage and hair soaked by the rain.

Florence

A city of renaissance and romance, Florence is grand and quaint; balanced equally by modernism and history. The composition played here is legato: where one lives life fully, smoothly and simply. It’s pistachio gelato and street-friendly dogs, lively promenades and yellow-washed walls. There are local fruit markets on each corner, bewitching piazzas with buskers, and venetian-style lamp posts designed purely for late night snogs. Even our Airbnb was a treasure in itself. It was furnished with framed tapestries, golden mirrors, wooden headboards and exquisite chairs that you know weren’t actually designed to be sat on, but rather admired in an exhibit. We spent little time here except for in the hot evenings, where I would read near the windowsill watching the sun rotate with the moon as Rhi snoozed on the bed, the open air both making us lull into sleep.

Our days in Florence were spent selfishly unhurried. We ate pastries in bed and listened to Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ as our morning alarm clock. We climbed the Duomo – designed by Brunelleschi – taking in a breathless 463 steps to the top. We visited the Ufizzi Gallery for works of sensual and bold femininity, with the likes of  Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus‘ and Caravaggio’s ‘Medusa‘. We had multiple affairs with food, always claiming that “no, THIS is the best pasta I’ve ever had!” every single time we dined somewhere new. We tried on skimpy swimwear in little boutiques and marvelled over gold, crystal rings in the local shops. We talked about our careers over tagliatelle and discussed sex over Aperol, or sometimes we just sat in our comfortable frame of silence.

The most delicious moment of the trip happened on an ordinary mid-week day when Rhi and I were sitting in the sunny square of Piazza della Signoria, smudging our red lips against capricciosa pizzas and bellinis. I was reading André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and Rhi was people-watching. Our waiter Fernando – who was very much married – had been unabashedly flirting with us the whole afternoon, but we kind of didn’t mind. On his round back to the kitchen (with other patrons dishes still balancing on his forearm), he abruptly stopped, put Rhi’s hand to his chest and told me to serenade him with a passage. For a good minute he just stood there as I read him an excerpt about want, desire and human connection. When I closed the book, he simply shook his head in knowing, looked up to the sky, called us heartbreakers and walked off with a smile. That minute will forever be the reel I playback in my reverie. 

THE COUNTRY
San Gimignano, Tuscany

You see the cypress trees first, tall and mighty like Tuscany’s own towering, watchful eyes. Then come the verdant hills with its olive groves, vineyard and wild flowers. As we travel from Florence to Poggobonsi to San Gimignano, I watch the landscape transform into an oil panting; the pigmentations of the green deepening by each mile. Encircled by 13th-century walls and registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Gimignano is known for its medieval architecture and giant towers. To see it in it’s most natural state, you must travel by foot; walking through the rolling valleys and beaten off-track roads to get there.

We booked our accommodation for San Gimignano at Villa del Sole – a serene and rustic country chateau. Known for its nature and tranquility, the property is owned by a beautiful Italian family. You have the charming blue-eyed manager Roberto and his sweet mother Marina (who brings you a breakfast basket of coffee, Nutella, croissants, cheese, salami and fresh apricot juice every morning). Ladies of leisure, we drank wine that was produced adjacent to the house, listened to David Bowie on repeat, got eaten alive by mosquitos, journaled for hours by the hills and swam until our fingers resembled dried-up prunes. We were indulging in so much food and laughter that our bellies pushed against our swimsuits in happy pride. It was such a distinct feeling of splendour that I promised myself that for as long as I live I would continue to search for moments like these; seeking out the richness of life in the simplest of ways. There was a particular quote from Call Me By Your Name that strikes a tender chord with me when I think about Tuscany. The line reads: “Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music on perpetual replay play forever. I’m asking for very little, and I swear I’ll ask for nothing more.”

THE COAST
Sorrento & Capri

Stretching along the southern edge of Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast is the pinnacle of the Mediterranean landscape. Abodes in abundance on the precipitous cliffs, the mountain range meets the dramatic coastline in a striking contrast of chaos and calmness. Our first destination was Sorrento, a coastal town with beautiful marinas, courtyard gardens, independent boutiques, historical churches and Sofia Lorenzo shrines. We stayed at Sorrento Stylish Rooms a charming boutique bed and breakfast managed by a kind Italian couple called Libera and Mimmo. Soon enough, Libera became our mum away from home – bringing us prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella for lunch and scribbling on maps for our sightseeing needs.

Like a Warner Bros. movie set, the streets of Sorrento are animated in colour, texture, sound and scent. Fresh basil and cherry tomatoes tease your tongue as you shop for the finest linen dresses and woven espadrilles. Along every corner, there is a store with lemon ceramics and wooden cooking utensils, or a quirky furniture store selling prized vintage decor. One morning, we also took a train to Pompeii, touring the ancient Roman ruins like an open book; learning about the art, customs, and trades of the past. As Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii in ash and pumice, you can see casts of the dead frozen in terror. There are babies, elders, pets and belongings preserved for over 2,000 years. And then here was us, travelling Italy, in which our biggest dilemma was where we would eat or what cocktail we should wash our tiramisu down with. What privileged, fortunate and sheltered lives we live. 

On our second day, we took a boat trip to Capri; the idyllic island that eats your bank account for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We climbed on board, greeted by Salvatore (driver) and Lorenzo (skipper) – a father and son duo who share a common lust for knowledge, fun and cheek. To paint a portrait, Salvatore is a sixty-something year old man with greying stubble and bony features, who wears a fedora hat and smokes a cigar like they’re his permanent fashion accessories. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is your quintessential romancer, sculpted from his Italian male ancestors with hazel eyes, a tanned, muscular torso and a brilliantly white grin. For eight hours we shared the sun with them and ten other travellers; bonding together over limoncello shots and Italian anecdotes.

We spent most of the day on the water, snorkelling in the deep azure sea, with one hand holding our beers overhead and the other skimming against the tiny fish. We heard the legends of slaves at Villa Jovis and passed through Faraglioni – Capri’s great oceanic rocks, where if two lovers were to kiss underneath, they’d remain together forever. We were steered into luring grottos and towering caves, and was given a freezing shock when our heads collided with the harsh, natural Roman waterfall near Ieranto Bay. On our route back to Sorrento, Salvatore liked to play this game called “free showers”, where he would unexpectedly crash into oncoming waves, bouncing and splashing us all in delight. Everyone thought he was crazy, I thought he was drunk. Finally, we pulled up to the marina and said our farewells; our bodies heavily fatigued by the day. It wasn’t until we got up to our room and looked in the mirror that we realised the sun in Italy doesn’t just ‘kiss’ your skin. Oh no. She pashes it, with reckless and feverish abandon. 

Praiano & Positano

The thing nobody shares on their glossy, European Instagram feeds is just how stressful and tiring travelling in Italy is. From Naples to Sorrento alone, we had a man quack (yes, like a duck) at us, another stare for a linger too long, and one woman make a near-pass vomit on us. Buses are never on time, or sometimes they just don’t show up at all. On a particular night in Positano, we were stranded for three hours with our only options being: pay 40 euros for a 5 minute taxi ride, take an auspicious ride with a car full of 70-year old fishermen (trilogy of Taken: now screening) or wait 3 hours for a bus that may never come. We chose the latter. 

On our arrival into Praiano, we checked into Hotel la Conchiglia – a family-run property by the seaside with floral tiled walls and pastel styling. Our routines here became quite simple: eat scrambled eggs, drink espressos on the terrace, go for a swim, fall asleep by the docks, read into the late afternoon, eat bowls of pasta, then sleep. On our adventure days, we kayaked into the secluded shores of Fiordo di Furore, singing the Australian National Anthem to the ocean because it was the only song we both knew the lyrics to. We jumped off cliffs and climbed on ropes, drank Amaretto in nightclubs and watched the boats anchor in for the sorbet skies. Our preferred dining style was alfresco, with Catalonian wine for companions as we sat in fanciful restaurants in damp togs. Praiano felt like home, or at very least, like a short ripple in time where we could just stop and take a breather and enjoy the richness of doing nothing and absolutely everything at the same time.

When I think about Positano, I can still taste it on my lips – a mixture of sea, salt and sweat. The taste of summer. We roamed the pebbled beach like modern settlers, searching for free land to pitch our towels and bodies on. Like most beaches in Italy, you pay a small fortune and then some for a space, umbrella and sunbed. Between nana naps, swimming and Pina Coladas, we lied on the beach until the sun had reached the other side of the mountain. The weather was balmy and the sky was pink, so we then explored the narrow streets lined with wisteria-draped cafes and trinket shops. We toured the vertiginous houses where a band of elderly women gossiped in the streets, shying away from the commercialisation and tourism of their city down below. 

There are many things that I have come to know from my travels in Italy. Firstly, Mediterranean mannerisms and feverish linguistics, the Italian’s are people of passion. A lending hand, shameless kiss, nonchalant winks or hospitable service – here, everyone is family. Secondly, life is best lived in the slow lane. Whether it’s a stroll at dusk, kneading the dough by hand or saying ten goodbyes, merits are given to those who live presently and mindfully. From the mountains and the sea to the hills and the sky, being in Italy makes you finally understand something that’s much bigger than yourself. So we swim for a little longer, laugh a little louder and walk a little further, because why not? “La Dolce Vita” – it’s a sweet life indeed.

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