I have a love-hate relationship with Italy.
The sun-drenched strip of landscape is dotted with fruit plantations, vineyards, stocky stone buildings and ridiculous drivers, all tied together by huge, loud families running farms and restaurants with all manner of foodstuffs incomparable to anything you've ever put in your mouth before.
Italy dances on the line between civilised and entirely undeveloped, often making you question where in fact you have found yourself.
In many southern parts of the country, you feel almost as though you have stumbled into an eastern Asian continent or somewhere in South America, with dirty, cracked and broken undeveloped roads and matchbox homes stocked together in the smallest possible area. Stray dogs and children inhabit the spaces not occupied by roaring, tooting traffic or tumbledown ‘tabacchi’s’ or cafes, playing football and following various mischievous pursuits.
The countryside is unquestionably beautiful, huge peaks and wide-stretching valleys painted in green and gold, and freckled with pine trees and tiny cabins a stone’s throw from the highway. Massive, light coloured rock formations dominate the skyline, reflecting the blinding midday into the valleys below. The mood of the mountains shift with the weather and the time of day, seemingly amplifying the feelings of the people that live in their shadow.
The further south we travel, the landscape shifts into a flat, almost featureless, baking tray of a landscape that makes us feel right back at home. Castles are liberally sprinkled throughout the countryside, regardless of topographical challenges, each vying for some long lost advantage over the others.
The cities each have a chaos into which we don’t quite know how to fit, with sticky people all meandering in a narrow streets stocked with market stalls of clothing, handmade souvenirs and gelato, brushing past us as though we’re not there.
Small Fiat 500’s, new and old, jostle for position with scooters and motorbikes, changing lanes with reckless abandon and appearing and disappearing quickly into and out of cobbled side streets and alleys. The whole ordeal is a blur and suddenly you’re faced with the dilemma of trying to park a car. Ring the bell for round two! Stick to walking if you can, it’s marginally less stressful.
People live in every possible spare portion of ground space, buildings built high with apartments on the top floors and narrow entryways or shopfronts at the foot of the street, with clothing and bedsheets drying from every balcony and out every window. Almost every building has some greenery growing over the edges, supplying nonna’s with the essential fresh tomatoes and flavourful herbs that make their food so delicious.
The buildings are coated in what were once bright, pastel colours that make the area feel like a grimy fairy floss replica or a slightly seedy Wes Anderson set. Shutters remain open, and entire groups of shirtless men sit outside on white plastic chairs, in a sheen of sweat, trying to wait out the heat of the early afternoon that indicates the clockwork shut-down of almost every open establishments so shop owners or workers can disappear for their mid afternoon snooze. This a custom we adopted with eagerness on many a lazy, sun-kissed afternoon.
The cities are worth seeing at least once, particularly if you’re on foot, but once is enough to safely assume you’ve seen them all. Remaining north will ensure you miss the litter-stacked corners and the beaches that get dirtier and more polluted with plastic the further south you venture. The Italian Alps are absolutely worth the drive, a place that is unconquerable with a camera and indescribably magnificent, away from the frenetic pace of the cities.
Give the language a crack in order to get a smile and cheek-pinch from the sweet Italian people who want nothing more than to feed you and make you feel at home, provided you don’t get in their way on the roads.
Italy is a place to let yourself slow down (not on the highways, mind), break back into your napping routine, eat like it’s going out of style and just generally let your emotions and passion guide you as they see fit.
If you're about busy beaches, being out to be seen, leather tans, suffocating heat, incredible food and action packed roads, Italy will be for you. If not, we still recommend the Alps and the north for those who prefer to avoid most of the crowds and dip their toes in the flavour-filled conurbation that is Italy.