A handshake might be convention when meeting someone for the first time but once that formality is over and done with, Italians will greet anyone as though they’re a lifelong friend. Expect hugs, kisses and plenty of squeals of delight.
Whether it’s a barista shouting confirmation of your order across the hubbub of a crowded bar or drivers honking their horns at the slightest hint of indecision from other road users and pedestrians, things are more lively in Italy. Once you’ve got used to the chaos though, other places just seem, well, boring. It makes you wonder if you’ll ever be able to patiently queue in line again.
It’s no secret that Italians love their food. Not only do you eat well (si mangia bene!) here but there are also countless festivals, known as sagre, to celebrate all kinds of wonderful delicacies and regional specialties. Fan of porcini mushrooms? There’s a sagra for that! In love with chestnuts? Find your people at the Sagra delle Castagne.
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi, da Vinci’s Last Supper in a crumbling church in Milan, Michelangelo’s David in Florence and his Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican – see all these and barely scratch the surface of the artistic masterpieces Italy has to offer. Also on the doorstep are Raphael’s frescos, Donatello’s sculptures and carvings, and Caravaggio’s perfect examples of chiaroscuro.
With gendered nouns, conjugated verbs and a surprising number of tenses to master, Italian is a difficult language to learn. It’s also one of the most beautiful, with plenty of elongated vowels, thick rolled R’s and a melodic tempo that just exudes elegance. Quite simply, everything sounds better in Italian.
Traditionally a pre-dinner drink to whet your appetite, perhaps with a few stuzzichini like nuts, olives, crisps or other salty snacks, the aperitivo is an Italian institution. In some cases it has evolved into apericena (cena means dinner in Italian) and includes a full buffet of delicious pastas, salads, grilled vegetables, meats and cheeses.
Italy is full of spectacular cities that are layered with the remnants of their previous inhabitants. Ancient ruins, Renaissance-era churches, Gothic cathedrals and 19th century palazzos help make up the rich tapestry that is the Italian cityscape. What’s more, as buildings are renovated and re-purposed, modern life thrives on the very same ancient streets.
Much to the amusement and often confusion of foreign visitors, most homes in Italy have a bidet. Italians are so adamant about the advantages of this intimate area-cleansing piece of equipment that even the most resolute cynic can’t help but be won over. Plus, it has plenty of alternative uses like hand washing delicates or conveniently shaving legs.
La Passaggiata is the ritual of going out for a stroll, usually in the afternoon or early evening. The destination isn’t important, instead the point is to take some time for yourself, socialise with friends or family and escape, just for a little while, from the chaos of every day life.
Good coffee does exist in other countries if you know where and what to look for, but good coffee at reasonable prices? That’s much harder to come by. In Italy however, coffee – whether you opt for espresso, cappuccino or macchiato – costs around €1 as a standard.
Pushing an index finger into the cheek to signify a dish is particularly delicious or flicking the fingers outwards from under the chin as if to say ‘I couldn’t care less!’ are just a couple of gestures common among Italians. It doesn’t take long for newcomers to start using them, knowingly or not.
While supermarkets offer convenience and sometimes questionably low prices, many Italians still rely on local stores for the essentials. Loyal patronage to the local greengrocer often means a free bunch of herbs in your basket while any neighbourhood butcher will happily share their expert knowledge with regulars in need of advice. Being friendly with shopkeepers has many rewards.
After tasting authentic Italian gelato, it’s a fact that standard ice cream no longer comes up to scratch. Made with more milk than cream and sometimes no cream or eggs at all, gelato is denser, silkier and softer. Plus, it’s served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, meaning the flavours are that much more palpable.
Literally translating to ‘make a beautiful figure’, to fare la bella figura goes to the very heart of what it means to be Italian. Making a good impression counts so it’s possible to fare la bella figura by being well groomed and wearing stylish clothes, but the concept goes beyond the superficial. Be respectful, kind to others and take pride in everything in order to avoid making a brutta figura, or a bad impression. Italy wants you to be your best self.
Trains in Italy cost an average of 15p per mile, making them the cheapest in Europe. Compare that to Britain where, at 45p per mile, travellers pay five times as much, meaning an Italian weekend getaway or an impromptu day trip is an absolute must. Such bargain prices make it easy for travellers to discover the diversity on offer across the entirety of the country.
Yes, there’s so much more to Italian cuisine than just pasta, but once you’ve tried the real thing, preferably made by a real Italian nonna, there’s no going back. After learning that pasta should be taste tested to determine when it’s al-dente (rather than boiled for 12 minutes straight) or that carbonara should never include cream, the sorry dishes served up under the label ‘Italian’ in other countries fail to stimulate the appetite.