Over the last month, we’ve experienced Italy through the eyes of a Roman neighbor, an Amalfi Coast transplant and Rome and Venice tourists. Today, we are filling our hearts and stomachs in Abruzzo with travel writer, Mike Sowden.
A thing that everyone tells you about travel is this: it’s never as ideal as it is in your mind’s eye. Oh, it may be invigorating, wonderful, life-changing – but there’s always that moment when reality fails to measure up, leaving you feeling wiser, sadder and older – in the sense of having lost a little of your inner child’s enthusiasm. This, we’re told, is Life.
Before 2007 I’d never been to Italy. My visit that year was fleeting, rattling down the coast in a train bound for Bari and the ferry to Patras in Greece. I caught a few glimpses of walled villages perched on distant hills, the occasional blur of a Vespa bombing down an adjacent road – but mainly the coastline was concreted with hotels that looked hastily built, many still littered with scaffolding. Aha, I thought to myself – the Italy beloved by British ex-pat escapist literature (eg. Annie Hawes) is a distant memory. Where’s the Italy that so besotted Eric Newby, both as a British Forces fugitive from the Germans and as a fully-fledged resident? A bygone age, no doubt.
Cut to 2008. I’m in Giulianova for a friend’s wedding. Imagine me thus: sat at a dinner table, glassy-eyed and exhibiting that special lobster colour that many British people acquire once they cross the English Channel. I can’t eat any more. It’s been some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, but I just – can’t – eat – any – more.
“I’m looking forward to the next course,” says another guest on my table. “It’s about time we dispensed with the starters”.
With a tortured groan I lurch to my feet. Apparently we have at least half an hour before the pasta arrives (oh good, pasta: and I was worried it might be something heavy) so that’s enough time to go for a walk, find a nice comfortable ditch, and die. I weave past the industrious and immaculate catering troop who have built a tented kitchen round the back of the house, and then I’m striding up a dirt track, heading for the nearest vantage point.
Left and right, the low Abruzzo hills buzz with sleepy-sounding insects. I hear the whirr of a tractor, and fail to locate it until I lift my eyes to the opposite side of the valley, at a tiny metal toy beetling a furrow in a field. I hear the farmer shout to his friend. No – he talks to him. It’s so deliciously quiet, no hint of the roar of traffic and whining machinery I’m accustomed to. I feel like I should apologise for my footsteps, every gravelly crunch sounding an intrusion, like I’m eating potato chips in a library.
Passing an abandoned farmhouse (“you like? Get money, come back, buy!” my host tells me later) I make my bloated way gingerly to the top of the hill…
It’s never as ideal as you imagined, they say. And they’re completely wrong.
The rolling patchwork landscape of the hills above Giulianova are absolutely how I dreamt, how I hoped Italy would be. Every shade of green, every shape that woos the eye, and a skyline that calls to you to give up your life right now, shrug it off your shoulders like the burden it suddenly is, and just keep walking. The Italy that fills your mind when you think of olive groves, colossal wheels of hard cheese and dusky, rolling landscapes peered at through a half-full wineglass? It’s there. It’s all there.
With a heart suddenly as full as my stomach, I return to the party. I’ve seen a little of Italy’s magic, and I’ve heard its call. It’s irresistible, because it’s what I’ve always hoped it would be. That’s why I’ve barely started exploring what that means. That’s the adventure ahead.
(Although next time, I might eat less).
* Photos courtesy of Mike Sowden.
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