82 countries later, my favourite country is…?

I get asked this question a lot. It is a very difficult question to answer because I think every place is beautiful in its own way. I love some places for the people, other places for the beach, some places for the food and some areas for nature. “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list”; I truly haven’t been everywhere, but of all the places that have captured my heart, there is one country that shines bright at the top of my list and that is Italy, my perfect country.

Ok, I confess, I am a little obsessed with Italy…. my bella Italia, the country that stole my heart. I love Italy; I love the people, I love the food, I love the scenery, I love the architecture, the pace of life and the relationships between people. This country is so modern and so well rooted in traditions. I love this pace; I love that people still have an hour and a half off for lunch and that they actually go to their homes to eat with their families. I love the taste of everything, it tastes real. I love the people’s passion for good ingredients and the constant search of finding the best ingredients: be it by getting dirty while searching for porcini mushrooms in the forest or waking up early in the morning to get the freshest fish right off the boat.  I love the “live and let live” attitude of the people and the fact that in Italy, it doesn’t feel like a rat race and people actually seem content with what they have. 

Europe certainly does not lack in impressive structures and Italy shines bright at the top of my list for architectural wonders. After yearly visits to Italy, I still feel as though I’ve seen so little of this phenomenal country.  From North to South, every village you stop in and every big city, this country will wow you with its history and architectural wonders.   

In many ways, Rome is the birthplace of a different civilization. I felt that when I was in Rome; I felt as if I was in a different era and everywhere I turned, there was a different statue or building waiting to tell me a story.  Everything in Rome has a story. I had been to over thirty countries when I first visited Rome, yet my instant feeling was that I barely saw anything that could compare with this grandiose place. Around each corner there lies a beautiful fountain, ancient remains or an architectural marvel. I felt as though I was taken back two thousand years when I walked the streets of Rome. The Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Vatican, Vittorio Emmanuelle building, the Forum columns, they all have a story. Thousands of years ago, there existed a great civilization that walked those same streets. I love that Rome kept everything as it once was and there are no skyscrapers to create shadows over the magnificent structures. I loved the fact that I could walk to every one of those remains in one day. Everything is so close and walking in Rome was such a pleasure. The Vespas drove by with ladies in miniskirts and men with perfectly gelled hair. I was certain those Italians applied such large quantities of gel that not even the helmet could damage their hair.  

Later in my travels, I was fortunate enough to meet a number of locals who welcomed me into their lives as one of their own. I realized then just what being Italian really meant. Italians are so warm, so easy to approach and so easy to get along with. What surprised me most was the way they all approached me and held conversations with me as if we had known one another for a long period of time. They welcomed me in a way that I already felt like I was a part of their family rather than a stranger. I noticed this more-so with young adults who are not at all awkward when they encounter new people. Instant friendships were formed with the Italians. Although I am used to this sort of warmth in Latin descent people, I was mostly taken by surprise by the young adults who have outstanding social skills not only with strangers, but amongst one another. They are true to the way they feel and outspoken in their beliefs. They do not hide behind a curtain with friends in order to be polite and they demand the same kind of frankness from you. I liked their honesty. I was used to this in Romania, but I often forget this attitude in Canada because Canadians are very polite and they prefer to be kind in their comments. 

I spent a vast amount of time at Carla’s and Claudio’s home, my daughter’s grandparents, which lies atop a green hill filled with grape vines, olive and fig trees. There are no other houses around, except the home of her mother down the hill. The campanile from the church across the hill played serenely every now and then. The figs were ripe, the raspberries ready to eat, tomatoes were bright red and there were dark purple eggplants hugging the surface. It was August on our visit, when fruits and vegetables were at their peak. Savouring figs straight from the tree was a new experience for me. The flesh was purple and biting into them released the sweet flavour that seemed to have been waiting for that one bite to prove its potency. Even the simplest spaghetti dish tasted better there. I am not sure if it was the air or the land, but I loved the taste of food in Italy, regardless of what it was. Italy and its flavours infused all my senses. I laid on the hill facing the campanile to breathe in the magic of this place. Around me, stillness. On one side of the hill, the vines had almost given birth to a new crop. Every new crop will make the wine that will be sipped throughout the year. People take such pride in their craftsmanship.  

As I lay on the grass, I remembered that I was alive and how I had longed to feel the grass play with my toes. The sun, nature and the smell of summer surrounded me. I surrendered to the tranquility of the place. Back in the house, Carla, was making eggplant with cheese and of course, pasta. Pasta is a daily dish in Italy.  Claudio, was grilling a “Fiorentina” steak in the basement where he has a massive built in grill and a pizza oven. There is also a table with more than twelve chairs to host friends and family. I liked the setup of this once traditional locale. The smell of wine was infiltrated in the wood of the large table to remind the family of the many great dinners and laughs.  

This beautiful house on the hill is so far from civilization, but only half an hour’s drive to Venice, half an hour to the beach and about the same distance to the mountains. It is idyllic. I could spend a lifetime here gazing at nature growing around me. I am not a gardener, yet I have to admit there is great satisfaction in picking your own vegetables from the garden. Most of us have forgotten the meaning of eating in season when cherries, tomatoes and watermelon are available all year long. And that is the reason that we have forgotten all together what ripe fruits and vegetables taste like when picked from the source. Food in the supermarket comes from New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. It is usually picked a month before it is ripe in order to make it to Canada. It must take a journey across the world to reach my plate. Not in Italy; because in August, everything grows around the house.  

Our next trips allowed us more time to visit the magic of the Italian canvas. We drove to Pisa, Tuscany, took the gondola through Venice, visited the mountains close to Austria, explored the breathtaking Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, and almost everything in between. Florence and Siena are both beautiful cities, each with its own colour. Siena, the dark, medieval city, Florence, the picturesque and awe-inspiring Tuscan capital. But Tuscany, nothing says Italy better than Tuscany. This is the birthplace of the Italian language and the way the locals spoke rang music to my ears. We arrived at our hotel in Tuscany which was nestled among green hills and cypress trees; a small villa in typical Tuscan style. Bright earth-tone colours, canvassed against the dark green lushness that surrounded us. The only shades of blue in Tuscany were those of the sky and the hotel pool. Silence surrounded this hotel and Tuscany in general. This was the perfect retreat from the outside world. We arrived after dinner time at the villa and it seemed like nothing on the restaurant menu was available so the hostess prepared a platter of fresh local cheese and prosciutto for us. This is the typical antipasto platter that is so simple in nature, but so fulfilling. Everything I love in one place and not too far from the sea. I finally comprehended why the main character in Under the Tuscan Sun left everything behind for Tuscany. I could live there and breathe the calmness of the place every day for the rest of my life. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who doesn’t like Tuscany; this is a place to love. Italy is a place to love.  

From North to South, the Italian landscape is a masterpiece of its own; you will find everything from high mountain peaks to beaches to forests to lakes and all that’s in between. If you enjoy skiing, Cortina is definitely a picturesque ski town. I for one have never skied and I perhaps cannot appreciate its potential. In the Northern part of Italy, small and large chalets decorate the canvas with majestic mountains in the backdrop. Up there, it looks a lot like the Swiss and Austrian Alps. And having seen most of the middle and top of this country, we are anxiously awaiting our trip to Sicily and Puglia in the next few months. After visiting the Amalfi coast with Carla who lives up North, we both agreed that nothing says Italy like the South. When people envision the dolce vita, they usually envision the South of Italy. Though breathtaking in its own right with places like Ravello where the trees touch the sky, it was the locals who made the Amalfi coast even more special for us. Warm, welcoming, kind and passionate, the people we met in Amalfi remain with us forever.  The sweet family with the little shop on the corner who made us feel at home, Pepe who offered us a free night tour of the coast on his boat and even the hotel owners all filled our hearts with love.  

My dilemma from my previous Italy trips remained unchanged. I have not quite figured out why everything tastes better there. At the market in the village, even the chicken had a different colour. The chicken was still yellow, as it used to be when my grandmother used to cut it. Where we live, it is pink for some reason. The gelato however, that was a different story…..the gelato is simply scrumptious across Italy. It is as if Italians have the secret to gelato which they keep locked in their own country. There is no country on earth that better understands ice cream the way Italy does. The gelato is velvety smooth and comes in flavours like baci, stracciatella and nocciola, to name a few. Something about the Italian language that is so appealing to the ear and even hearing the names of those flavours has me craving gelato.  

This country is the best amalgamation of everything a country has to offer. You place together the best of simple food, the most beautiful scenery from mountain tops to sea shores, the kind people, the passion for life and a rich history and you get Italy. Italy to me is the best of all worlds. And how could I forget the piazzas, the cafes, the music and the feeling of just being in Italy? But it was not love at first sight with Italy and this is why I continue to emphasize the importance of seeing any place through the eyes of the locals. Locals know the places that tourist guide books will never reveal. Locals will share a story that can make the place come to life in a way that you cannot just read about. This country has become my favourite destination, where I will be happy to arrive, time after time and I hope to soon be able to call this masterpiece my new home 😊  

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