A Return to Italy, at Last

I finally got back to Italy. I spent eight days on the ground there in May 2018, about 25 years after the last time I visited the country. Much too long of an absence. 

It is a beautiful country, and the Italians are very likable people. The last time I was there, I spent a few days in Rome and visited Sorrento, the Amalfi coast, and Capri. I walked a lot in Rome, but elsewhere I mostly used public transportation—trains, boats, buses—to get somewhere. I loved where I got to, and I have fine memories from the trip.

This latest time, I hiked a lot. I wanted to be closer to the land, still a tourist but a little less of a tourist, a little more of an individual in a landscape. So I signed up with the Backroads travel organization for a small-group hiking tour in Tuscany and Umbria, with bilingual guides. It worked out as I hoped. I saw a lot, learned a lot, and felt I was more in touch with the country and its people this time than last time. I hiked with a likable bunch of Americans and a couple of excellent Backroads guides, one American, one Italian.

I was amazed at the beauty of parts of Tuscany and Umbria. I saw place after place that was absurdly attractive. Age-old villages perched on hilltops, not just in a few locations but in many locations. In Umbria we stayed in Norcia and visited Assisi and hiked in the surrounding countrysides. In Tuscany we stayed near Cortona and Montalcino and visited Pienza and hiked in more beautiful countrysides. 

It was the land of olive groves and vineyards, especially. And of cypresses, their columnar shapes everywhere, planted by homeowners along driveways and near houses, planted by regional and local governments along roads. There were Benedictine monasteries, too. We visited a monastery in Norcia where most of the 18 monks actually were from the United States. They sang wonderfully during an evening service. 

We stayed in a couple of exceptionally fancy and beautiful hotels, part of the package deal. We also had a wine-tasting in Montalcino, at a very fine old establishment where for the first time I got to taste Brunello, maybe the best Italian wine. I have never been able to afford the bottles of it sold in the U.S., so I was especially appreciative of my first taste. It was, yes, the best Italian wine I’ve tasted.

I am used to seeing European and Asian imported trees and shrubs and flowers in America. In Italy I saw an American tree, the black locust, growing alongside roads in Tuscany and Umbria. It is a tree that blooms extravagantly, and it was in full bloom in May in Italy. There also were puffs of cotton floating in the air from cottonwood trees, but I have read that those may have been native, not American imports. There was ailanthus, a seriously troublesome invasive weed tree from China, growing on historic sites in the heart of Rome.

After the hiking, I visited Florence for three days. What a city. For four hours I had an individual guide, a well-educated pretty woman with a wonderful warm personality, and I wanted to ask her to marry me but she was already married. 

Florence is drenched in history and filled with great art and great architecture. It also is drenched in tourists. On my first night there, a Friday night, it was a party town. I heard people outside until about 4:45 a.m.

Pedestrians in Florence (and Rome) cope well with taxis and other vehicles that come nosing through the crowds. There is a pragmatic peaceful coexistence between the walkers and drivers, not the tensions common in the U.S. There also are pedestrians absorbed in their cell phones in Italy as in the U.S. A driver who got me through the streets of Rome narrowly missed a few pedestrians, but the walkers were blasé about it, not even looking up from their cell phones as a car narrowly zipped past their heels.

Some of the cars there, notably taxis, are equipped with something we do not have in America—warning beepers that can be switched on while the car is rolling forward through pedestrian crowds, not just for backing up. Very appropriate for the streets in the heart of Florence. Italians also have a kind of vehicle I have never seen in America—mini garbage trucks, suited to the narrow old streets of a city like Florence. They also have some special driving and parking restrictions. Many of the ancient Tuscan and Umbrian towns have very narrow streets and limited parking, so driving is restricted to residents and a limited number of other people who have permits. 

While I was walking back to my hotel at 10 p.m. on my first night in Florence, I had to pause to listen to a street singer. She was singing in a sort of arcade, beneath a roof about 30 feet or three stories above the ground, amid ancient-looking stone columns holding up the roof. She sang beautiful opera arias in a lovely, limpid voice. I had to toss some euro coins in her basket as many other people did. I can’t tell you how glad I was to be there.

​May 2018

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