Even one of the Road Junky editors lives there, despite the fascist political climate.
Italy is the land of all things beautiful. From the good food to the designer clothes, from the medieval art to the historical towns, life in la bella Italia is good. A Gucci boot sticking out into the Mediterranean Sea, Italy remains one of the most romantic destinations in Europe simply because whether its fashion, cuisine or porn stars running for parliament, Italians do it better.
Heaving with international tourism in the summer, Italy is the love of art connoisseurs, backpackers on Euro Rail passes and Americans hoping to pose before as many statues and Roman ruins as possible. If you know your Raphael from your Michelangelo then you can walk around places like Rome and Florence with your mouth open… then once you’ve stopped gaping at the stunning girls and swarthy guys there’s always the paintings and sculptures.
Italy is a modern country which is in no hurry to leave behind its past. Until Garibaldi came along in the 19th century it was still a collection of warring city states. Even today, everything from the dialect to the mentality to the infrastructure vary drastically as you travel around Italy.
The country is sharply divided between the north and the south – or if you live in the middle, the north, the south and the centre. North Italy is the home of all things designer, people spend all their disposable income on their appearance and it can generally be as cold and alienating as much of North Europe. The far right who currently run Italy would even like to separate Italy in two, cutting off the poorer south just below Rome.
The centre of Italy begins around Bologna and stretches down to Rome and here perhaps you find the best of both worlds. The people are warmer, there’s a wealth of cool university towns and there’s enough work around to support a good standard of living.
Then you head down to the south of Italy, the people become more extroverted, more ‘Italian’ as the foreigner would imagine and much more conservative. There are unemployment rates of around 40-50% and very little industry other than agriculture – hence it’s a beautiful place to live if you can somehow make a living. The culture revolves around the Family and conservative Catholic values still burn strong. At least as far as appearances go – Italians don’t worry about much else.
Italy begins around the Alps and there are plenty of cute little mountain villages around but it soon gets cold and industrial around Turin and Milan. If you can cope with the tourist hordes then damp but magical Venice is worth a visit, as is fair Verona.
Bologna and Padova are the biggest university towns where up to a fifth of the population are students and hence are quite left wing and alternative. Into Tuscany you find all the expatriate artists living their Italian dreams in medieval towns like Lucca, Sienna or Florence. Prices stay high due to the guaranteed yearly tourism but the latter has helped Tuscany escape the industrial age and stay picturesque.
Rome is the capital and despite its frenetic pace is one of the coolest cities in the world and the last port of call before you hit South Italy.
Napoli is the essence of the Italian stereotype – flamboyant, loud and extroverted – yet is an enormous city ridden with crime and not a place to go wandering about with a backpack less one of the Camorra thugs relieves you of it.
Down to Sicily and you have an island with beautiful beaches and countryside, villages full of reticent Sicilians and an undercurrent of the Mafia – more than just a film with Marlon Brando.
Then it’s just a quick boat to Sardinia, an enormous, lovely island inhabited by people who are a historical mix of every empire that stomped through the place. Anarchic, conservative or just a bit strange according to whom you talk to, “the Sards”: are probably one of the most hospitable people in the world. Just don’t call them Italians.