Recently we’ve had several visitors pass through Anghiari – some are old friends and others we’ve just met. We’re certainly not the Welcome Wagon for Americans visiting Anghiari, but somehow we do manage to meet quite a few of them. They are all fascinated by what we’ve done and are curious about how we did it and what we think. I guess it’s not uncommon to vacation in a spot that you really love and say to yourself “I could live here”.
My first trip to Italy was in 1997. I had only been to Europe once before as a recent college graduate. That trip did not include Italy, and frankly, I didn’t want to go. My image of Italy was of a chaotic country with crumbling buildings and loud people. Then I met my half-Italian soon-to-be husband and became enthralled with his Italian heritage. His Italian father and aunt captivated me and I was mesmerized by the tales of their family. My family was American as far back as we could trace. Immigrants from Europe at some point, but nothing in our recent past. We were so diluted that we couldn’t point to Italian, or French, or Scottish as a heritage. Just American.
On that first trip to Italy, something was awakened in me. I was not expecting to feel that way and was surprised by it. I wasn’t wrong about my image – it was a chaotic country with crumbling buildings and loud people. But those buildings were the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Temple of Hercules. The chaos was not frenetic, but was like a modern dance performance – it still didn’t make sense to me but it was beautiful to watch. The people were loud, but they exuded a passion that I had never seen before. They live out loud with their whole bodies.
Passion permeates everything. Even the chaos is punctuated by passion. Riding in a cab in Rome, you’re part of the performance. The driver is careening down cobblestone streets, going at an impossible speed and shouting Italian insults at other drivers, gesturing wildly while changing gears. The next second he’s singing along to an aria that will bring a tear to your eye while driving past the Colosseum. And that’s when it all comes together – chaos, crumbling buildings, and loud people. All full of passion that is right on the surface – baring everything – and merging the heart, soul, and mind into one enchanting package.
I haven’t traveled extensively, but I’ve been to most of the US, parts of Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. All are beautiful. What is it that makes Italy so special? One thing that struck me on that first trip back in 1997 was that in the countryside, I noticed that the big power poles were green. I knew that this was a country that valued its natural resources and almost apologized to nature when they had to mar it in some way.
There’s a series of complicated laws and regulations that prohibit old homes from being torn down, even if they’re in ruins. Driving through Italy, you see the remains of family homes, unoccupied, sitting in wide open fields. More crumbing buildings. It’s haunting and ghostly but it’s an assurance that a strip mall is not going there. Or a 500 home subdivision. It’s a reminder that the past is always around us cautioning us about where we came from and, hopefully, where we’re going. It’s purposeful and intentional. And it’s beautiful.
This peninsula erupts from the Mediterranean and is a volcanic wonder. Studded by the Apennines from toe to hip, travel around Italy can be challenging. This is one reason so many of the small villages are unique and independent. Hundreds of years ago, you pretty much stayed where you were born. Moving around was very difficult so micro-cultures developed. Dialects, cuisine, and even some customs are particular from one place to the next. Their identity is with their locality first, their region second, and Italy third.
Every turn around a mountain road or a rugged coastline brings a new vista that takes your breath away. This dramatic natural beauty combined with the strict zoning laws make Italy feel like a step back in time. It seems pristine and unspoiled. It doesn’t take much imagination to put yourself back in medieval times and feel what it might have been like to prepare for an attack from the neighboring village.
Food and Fun
This setting – this magnificent, mountainous, strip of land roughly the area of Arizona – serves up some of the best food on the planet. And these people, who live life out loud, celebrate even the most simple food. Each tiny hamlet has some sort of celebration or festival honoring a local food product. Truffles, chestnuts, polenta, cheese, bread, all parts of the pig – you name it and it’s celebrated somewhere.
Food is central to Italian life. This is a culture that lives to eat. They celebrate food and take it very seriously. Recipes are passed from generation to generation and no two are alike. Attending these festivals, or sagras, is a great way to glimpse into a particular area. Most of the food is cucina povera, or poor cooking. Developed when resources were scare but stomachs were hungry, these dishes take simple ingredients and make them shine. And that’s what sets these dishes apart from others. The ingredients.
If it doesn’t grow here, you don’t eat it. If it’s not in season, then forget about trying to find it. Food is local, fresh, and seasonal. These sagras celebrate that – the local specialty that has been on menus for hundreds of years. Tradition.
Not only do the Italians honor these traditional dishes and ingredients, they do it with a certain flair. There’s always live music and usually booths where you can buy a sample of the star. It’s a party atmosphere, upbeat and lively. Food and fun – the two go so naturally together.
There’s Not One Thing
Italy offers such a combination of things that draw people to it. I don’t think there’s one thing that you can isolate that makes you say “This is why I love Italy so much”. It’s a lifestyle, an attitude, a land that offers riches and surprises. It’s not perfect, but it knows that and somehow even that is celebrated. Italians are the first to list off the imperfections and just after they throw their hands up in disgust, they pat each other on the back and go the bar for an espresso or grappa. As if to say, “That’s life – let’s live it to the fullest”. They don’t obsess over what they can’t change. They concentrate on what they love and live life out loud.