By now, we were half way through our trip. After arriving in Italy by means of a Wes Anderson ferry ride, we spent the night in a bizarre hotel in Ancona, opposite the train station. But, the following morning we were off, on the Italian adventure I’d been dreaming of for over a decade. T was optimistic, in his chilled mood from the long sunny days of Croatia, and excited to see somewhere new.
Upon arriving in Bologna, we were hit with the noise, chaos and heat of August in the heart of Italy. Weighed down by our backpacks in 45 °C, we ended up in McDonald’s, stuffing our faces with the Italian special and enjoying the crisp aircon. We hadn’t managed to eat the night before and I devoured my meal like a hungry toddler, sauce everywhere.
After settling into our apartment, in a strange building complex just outside the city centre, we got dressed up for dinner, excited for our first glimpse of the long anticipated Italian cuisine. As often happens, having built it so far up in our minds, we wandered aimlessly unable to decide on a restaurant. Eventually, we found a table in a busy square, and ordered ragù (the authentic Italian delicacy originating from Bologna, which we Brits ripped off to make Bolognese).
Bologna was an interesting city, in that it was both geared up for tourists and hostile towards them simultaneously. I understand why guidebooks describe it as authentic, full of working students and businesses. People are on the move constantly in Bologna, but not to the extremes of Milan; it maintains the laidback enjoyment and rich culture of the South. There is also extreme poverty in parts, as the homeless lined the streets back to our apartment. The timing of our trip meant that the city was half-empty, as the majority shut up shop to travel to spend August on the coast, as much of Italy does. We chatted with the owner of a gelateria, down one side street. Nestled in the old town rather than the tourist streets, he looked ecstatic to have customers, as he explained how quiet his week had been.
A real highlight of Bologna was the Basilica di Santa Stefano, which locals call ‘Sette Chiese’ (‘Seven Churches’). Originally built on the temple of Isis, this church is made out of several merged buildings, built between the 4th and the 13th centuries. A beautiful tapestry of old stone, with rooms which were both cramped and echoey, the basilica seemed to open out on itself, expanding like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. We even happened upon a group of monks later in the evening, carrying candles and singing gregorian chants in some form of service. It felt like running onto the set of The Da Vinci Code.
We took a day trip out to Florence (or Firenze, as the Italians call it), but weren’t prepared for quite how busy the city would be. All tourists of course, just like us. Yet, we managed to use our 5 hours well, visiting most of the highlights and being perplexed by the Ponte Vecchio and how the hell it's still standing. It was also a place of serendipitous meetings, firstly with a friend, who we had met on the overnight train from Krakow. We met in the middle of the old bridge, as tourists swarmed and sellers tried to flog everything from scarves to sweets. We quickly caught up in the hot sun, before parting and heading off in different directions across Europe.
The second was unbelievable, really. Walking past the huge winding line of people waiting to go inside the Basilica di Santa Santa Maria del Fiore, we were debating on splitting up so that someone could source some gelato and the other join the queue. We sat down on the pavement to consult the map, when a woman came running towards us. It was M, my French Exchange, who I had last seen six or seven years before. She was here on a short break with her boyfriend. They were so kind to us, smuggling us into their place in the queue (just a 5 minute wait before entering), during which we caught up and reminisced. We had so much in common too, as we wandered the aisles of the tremendous basilica. It was just one of those days, you just couldn’t make it up.
Next stop in our Italian adventure was Verona. My fascination with Italy had come from a series of rom coms that I had devoured as a young teenager. Under the Tuscan Sun, Only You, Roman Holiday and finally, Letters to Juliet. The scenery transfixed me, the food, the tint of the sun on the cypress trees and soft undulating landscape. It looked like a dream. So off I dragged T to Verona, the setting for Shakespeare’s disturbing love story / tragedy, and Sophie’s research trip to meet the women who read and replied to the letters posted on the walls approaching Juliet’s balcony.
In fact, after dropping our things at the Airbnb, it was the first place we visited. For the first time in a while, we trusted our feet, and just went where they took us. And sure enough, T’s premonition that we were close by, meant that we were in fact, there. The place was packed. A sea of excitement, tourists queued to lay their hands on Juliet’s breasts (a symbol of good luck to lovers) and women sat, leaned, kneeled, writing frantically in hundreds of languages, about the highs and lows of their relationships. It really was beautiful, and speaks so much of Italy, that so many nationalities come here to open up, and scribble down their hearts’ greatest desires, in a safe and welcoming environment. Where passion, emotion and drama are accepted and celebrated.
We wandered around the city, with old piazzas and well tended flowerbeds. T discovered the best slushy of his life, sharp limone, and wandered around the amphitheatre sipping peacefully, daydreaming of gladiators. We were quite content in Verona, with each street corner offering a new alley and the map in our mind would change itself again. Eventually we came to a large piazza, with an evening market. All of the locals were going about their business, but were dressed beautifully, as only the Italians seem to do. One elderly woman sticks in my mind, dressed entirely in red with a matching Chanel bag, walking her pomeranian. It’s particularly memorable due to the dog’s wandering tongue, which ventured off in an entirely different direction from its owner, and flopped up and down, side to side as the dog scurried to catch up.
By now, we were searching for food. We wandered down the strip of restaurants on one side of the square, as each Maitre D’ tried to persuade us inside. After multiple picture menus, creepy chat up lines and empty tables, we came to an intriguing set of gates at the end of the row. Inside was a fairy-lit courtyard, with echoes of wine glasses and laughter. The menu was sublime, but as you’ve guessed by now, pricey. Some context too is needed here for how we looked. Despite shedding our backpacks, we still looked undisputedly like British backpackers. Smelly, grubby and a bit rough around the edges. I was wearing muddy trainers, and T his walking boots.
After much humming and harring, one dish coaxed us into the place. On our list of Italian foods to try while we were here, was truffle and risotto. We’d found the perfect pizza, gnocchi, gelato, cannoli, ragù, but we had one night to finish it. Here was a beautiful porcini, smoked ricotta and white truffle risotto, cooked to order with a 40 minute wait (so you knew it had to be good). We took the plunge and let our budget suffer, and boy am I glad we did. To this day it is still the richest and most luxurious dish I have ever tasted, with a nutty creaminess and a real savouring of every spoonful. It was even worth being sat behind a screen in the corner of the basement restaurant, rather than the dreamy courtyard, due to our state of dress. In fact it was all part of the fun - especially as the owner asked about our travels, filling us with delicious biscuits before we left.
It felt like the perfect Italian day of spirit, indulgence, relaxation, culture, excitement and the passion of the people who craft every inch of their beautiful country.