Our last couple of days in Pompeii were spent just chilling out. We popped in the new town a couple of times, got some laundry done and gave the van a bit of a spring clean. Yesterday we drove across to the south eastern coast of Italy, spending our last night in Italy on a sosta in the lovely town of Trani, and we’re now parked up in the port at Bari waiting to board the ferry to Patras in Greece.
Over the past few days I’ve been reflecting back on our time here in Italy. We’ve really enjoyed ourselves and had a good time, but I have to say that I do feel a bit disappointed as Italy promised so much. Those of you that know me will know that I am a hispanophile. I absolutely love Spain – the country and people, the culture, food, wine and so on. I’ve visited Spain many times over the years and am always sad to leave. Having not travelled through Italy before – apart from a mini-break in Rome a few years back which doesn’t really count – I really wanted to fall for Italy just like I fell for Spain when I first visited Madrid all those years ago.
Before arriving in Italy I read an excellent book to get me in the mood, called (appropriately enough) The Italians by John Hooper, a journalist for the Economist who has lived in Italy for a number of years, which I found really interesting and insightful. I also learnt 100 or so words and phrases – way more than I normally learn – to help me interact with the locals. However, after six weeks or so in Italy, I’m just not feeling the love.
So why might that be? After all, the people are friendly and helpful; it’s a beautiful country with some of the most fantastic scenery; there’s obviously so much history all around; we’ve stayed on a number of free, good quality sostas; public transport is cheap and fairly reliable; the wine is good; and we’ve found some lovely towns and villages such as Tuscania.
Well there are a few things which I found disappointing: there’s definitely a north-south divide (affluent, industrial north vs poor, agricultural south) which is more than apparent when you look at the infrastructure, especially the roads which have been dreadful south of Florence unless you use the toll roads; the standard of driving is appalling, with drivers pulling out when they have no right of way and generally cutting everyone else up (though we haven’t been to Greece yet!); Italians don’t queue and will go to extreme lengths to push in (yet when walking along the pavement they will dawdle, two or three abreast, and don’t let you pass when they can see that you’re there); the food has been a real let down – so much pasta, cheese and pizza, and not a lot else; and there’s litter and graffiti almost everywhere. Clearly Italy has been through a tough time following the financial crisis, but then so has Spain.
I’ve found Italy to be a land of contrasts, underpinned by its colourful and complex history (if you’re interested then I can recommend David Gilmour’s book The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples).
So, like many people whose blogs I have read, I find myself having a bit of a love-hate relationship with Italy, something I really wanted to avoid, but at the end of the day I guess the spark just wasn’t there. As I said before though, we’ve enjoyed ourselves here and had a good time overall, and that’s the main thing.
One thing that did surprise us is that Italy seems to be a lot less religious than we thought it would be. In neighbouring Slovenia for example, the church bells rang early and often (sometimes waking us up) and everywhere closed down on a Saturday afternoon and Sunday, but in Italy we’ve hardly heard any ‘call to prayers’ church bells, and most shops are open on Sundays, with some supermarkets operating 24 x 7. There are also condom machines on almost every street corner. Not what we were expecting in the centre of the Roman Catholic world!
One final thought. Something that has puzzled me about Italy is the way that the names of so many towns and cities have been anglicised. For example:
Roma – Rome
Venezia – Venice
Napoli – Naples
Torino – Turin
Genova – Genoa
Milano – Milan
Firenze – Florence
Pompei – Pompeii
Ercolano – Herculaneum
Sicilia – Sicily
Sardegna – Sardinia
Sure, a few place names in other countries have been anglicised – I can only think of Sevilla/Seville in Spain (ignoring dropped accents for towns like Cádiz, Málaga etc), Köln/Cologne, Nürnberg/Nuremberg and München/Munich in Germany, Bruxelles/Brussels, Antwerpen/Antwerp, and Brugge/Bruges in Belgium, Wien/Vienna in Austria, and I can’t think of a single French town name which has been anglicised. So why so many in Italy? Answers on a postcard please!
We’re now very much looking forward to Greece. In preparation we’ve been reading the Lonely Planet book and researching on the interweb, checking out other people’s blogs. We’ve also been listening to a Greek language course to pick up some basic vocabulary, as we’ll be staying away from the tourist resorts much of the time.
Greece isn’t as geared up for motorhomes as the western European countries we’ve been to so far, so there aren’t many aires and most of the campsites close down for the winter, which means that we’ll be wild camping much of the time. We have though found a campsite which is open all year round (Ionian Beach, ACSI €19/night) where we’ll be spending the Christmas and New Year period. When not on campsites we’ll therefore be off grid with no electricity, and so will be heavily reliant on our leisure battery for power, topped up by solar power if/when the sun comes out, meaning we’ll have to ration the use of our gadgets which is no bad thing and should be interesting!