Most of my writing about Italy has focused on the experience of owning a house and immersion in small town life. But when you travel in Italy, every time you turn a corner, something magical happens. These surprises generally encompass great natural beauty, great manmade beauty, food, or the great beauty of the Italian people. Here are some unforgettable moments that we’ve wandered into while traveling in Italy.
Revelations in Emilia Romagna
My husband Jesse has biked around Italy numerous times on his own and with other friends. One of his favorite discoveries was Brisighella in Emilia Romagna, a tiny medieval town in the lush green hills. We went there together on our “falling in love” trip, just before we were engaged. I got to meet all the Italians he’d befriended there over the years, all of whom knew him well as the ciclista Americano. We couldn’t walk down the street without someone yelling, “Ciao, Jesse!!” We stopped there for lunch together with our daughter Sophie on an interminable ride from our house to Milano a couple years ago. It was amazing to be there again after so many years with our now 17-year old daughter! The owners of the Hotel LaRocca remembered Jesse immediately, hugged us warmly, gave us a beer at the bar of their hotel, filled us in on who’d had children and who had passed away over the last two decades.
There were two additional magical moments. The first was being able to understand Jesse’s friends! This was a revelation. I’d always heard from other Italians that the Marchigiani slur and mumble their speech. But I never took this as the reason I had so much trouble understanding everyone in my town of Penna San Giovanni. I blamed myself and my inability to comprehend the language. In Emilia Romagna, I understood what people said to me in Italian! Eureka! Loved it!
We also were completely charmed by the two old ladies running the bar where we stopped for a sandwich. The sandwiches of course were beyond delicious. The two tiny old ladies who made them were precious and spoke in tiny little voices, repeating everything we said several times to make sure they had it right. In the depths of their bar were the remains of an old cave or cantina, cool and dark with an ancient stone archway leading to the washroom. The bar had probably been in their family for centuries. We also stopped by the ice cream park where Jesse also knew the owner, a shady peaceful part of town that felt like a Parisian park with its gravel paths and cafe tables. And we took a picture at the well in the town center where we’d previously taken a photo some 20 years ago. It was one of those perfect, full circle moments.
Royal experiences in Florence
Two of my former colleagues, now dear friends, visited us in Penna this past fall. One of them has friends in Firenze, and so we got the opportunity to rub shoulders with Florentine royalty. The Pirelli family has owned a jewelry store on the Ponte Vecchio for over a century. They also own a gorgeous bed and breakfast, Residenza dei Pucci, where we stayed. The manager there, Marina, is the most charming person –one of those Italians who want nothing more than to welcome you to their country and make sure you experience every bit of it authentically and fully. Marina gave us so many tips about places to go and places to eat, we barely got out the door to see the sights. She made us feel we were part of her family and her most important guests.
Again, there were two magical moments on this trip. One was the visit to the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, recommended by Marina, where locals go to shop. The meats, fruits, cheeses, prepared foods, pasta were the most beautiful and bountiful one can see. Unfortunately since we were tourists without a kitchen, we couldn’t shop. But the cornetto we had at the market’s bar with our cappuccino was truly the best I’ve ever had. Just the right amount of crunch with a sugary crust on top and rich cherry jam inside. Heaven! I also found six antique dessert plates in the outdoor market, each hand painted with different fruits. For 13 euros, I’ll put up with the few chips in the ceramic glaze.
The second memorable moment was dinner with the Pirelli family. We didn’t get to meet the matriarch, but the two beautiful and lovely Pirelli sisters (plus one of their sons and two dogs) took us to one of their favorite restaurants, La Giostra. Here was another warm, cave-like space, all wood, stained glass, brass fixtures, tiny lights and candles, wine bottles lining every wall, plus photos of the eccentric owner and all the celebrities he’s met over the years.
The atmosphere would’ve been enough to enchant us, but the food was extraordinary. Before we even settled into our seats, an enormous platter of antipasti appeared– cheeses, vegetables, olives, sundried tomatoes… The pastas were melt-in-your-mouth silky and flavorful; the desserts voluptuous. Meeting our Florentine hosts though was the most remarkable part of the evening. Though their heritage might make them “quasi-aristocracy,” they were down to earth, warm, kind, interesting and interested people who generously shared their perspective on Italy and America. We can’t wait for them to visit New York or Marche so we can return their hospitality in our hometowns.
Perfectly at home in Sicily
Sicily is a truly magical place. We’ve only ever been there for a short five days some two summers ago, to visit our dearest friends who have an apartment about an hour from Palermo. There were so many unforgettable moments; several stand out. We were there in August and it was so hot, the only viable choices were the beach or the air-conditioned apartment. But our hosts insisted we must see Palermo, so we piled into the car and took off one day at high noon. Coming from workaday Le Marche where there are few of the fancier pastry shops, cafes and markets for which Italy is famous, somewhere in the middle of an upscale residential neighborhood in Palermo, we stopped at a pasticceria/gastronomica that took my breath away. It was bright and airy with huge windows and there were separate counters for perfectly arranged, neatly stuffed panini; intricate, fancy pastries; colorful gelato; coffee, marzipan and arancini. That’s what we were after and we brought a big greasy box of them out to the car (since we couldn’t find parking) for everyone to eat. They were astounding –stuffed with spinach, mozzarella, prosciutto, ragù, the perfect crunchy, crusty outside, warm fragrant rice, gooey mozzarella– it was the taste thrill of the century.
Palermo = seafood, of course. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to stomach seafood since I was pregnant and never regained the taste for it. But the menfolk were determined to visit a kiosk near the beach serving fresh octopus. The octopus was boiling in huge vats on the outside of the bancarella. It was already 100 degrees outside and the steam and smell from the boiling octopus was overwhelming. We girls nearly fainted, especially when we went inside the restaurant to find the washroom. The dining room was allegedly air conditioned, but it barely made a dent in the heat and humidity, and the aromas from octopus and all the other seafood being served, plus about 60 sweating bodies… we were reeling.
We must have visited five different beaches on this Sicilian visit and the most magical was on the first day. The beach is identified by a tiny ancient tower. The beach too is quite small with several dozen lettini on the rocks that border the sea. An unearthly shade of blue, the water laps at the legs of your lettino as you dip your toes in, and when you get too hot, you dive into the refreshingly cool water and swim among the rocks and fishes. It is indescribably peaceful and after you’ve soaked up the sun, napped, talked to your friend, read your book and swam, you wander up to the concession, have a seat on one of the cushioned couches and order a mojito, which arrives with patatine and olives, and you watch the sun go down and feel the earth begin to cool. If life were like this everyday, would you ever tire of it?
We visited two perfect homes on this trip. One, an apartment in Palermo, belongs to the friends of our friends. It is gigantic– two apartments combined, that appear to be an entire floor of a high rise building, which for Palermo is about ten stories. The apartment is vast inside with a huge open kitchen, walls painted the most soothing blues, grays and whites, uber-contemporary furniture, artwork, and the crowning grace for me– garden terraces that run the entire length of the apartment on both sides. That’s potted plants, cactus and trees, lounge chairs, dining tables, fish pond and candles on either side of your house– in any direction you look. Coming from New York City and the Italian countryside, I’d never experienced an urban residential space like this. By the way, the housekeeper made the supper and came back later to clean up.
The other perfect home was the beach cottage that belongs to our friends’ sister. Now, in Italy, when I walk the streets, I see these immense old doors in line with ancient stone walls– they look austere and weathered and I imagine that the residences inside are also old, shabby and decrepit. But generally, the old doors are just covering the entrance to a graceful marble courtyard with plants and skylight where carriages might have entered, and the apartments within are spacious, modern or filled with antiques.
This beach cottage is similarly deceiving. Along the road, there’s only a solid wooden fence and a locked gate that opens to a driveway. But once you enter and pass a few tall shrubs, there is an enchanting garden with weathered, sheltering trees, flowering shrubs, a clothes line strung with bikinis, string lights and sling chairs. The cottage itself has terra cotta floors, bright colors in small doses, big cushions everywhere, Moroccan pottery on every surface, a modest but serviceable kitchen with a giant worktable in the middle, and a huge outdoor barbecue beside a long terrace with a table seating twelve. Walk a bit further, amble down the hill and you arrive at the private beach. Having dinner in this setting, with this warm and welcoming family who treated us like we were the oldest of friends, was a truly memorable moment, the kind you can only find in Italy.