Chaos and Connection: Travelling in Italy


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I went to a Catholic primary school. And although I was a terrible Catholic, I was an excellent student. So in grade seven, when our Italian teacher informed us that she was holding an ‘Italian prayer competition’, I knew I had to win. (Naturally.)

It didn’t matter that the prize was something that I didn’t care about; or that I wasn’t particularly keen on learning Italian, I simply knew that there was a competition in the offing and I had to win it.

The contest? Reciting the Hail Mary off by heart in Italian, with a textbook as the prize for whoever pulled it off the best.

I spent that weekend repeating the prayer over and over and over and over again. ‘Ave Maria, piena di grazie, il signora e con te.’ I learned it so friggen well that it felt embedded in my very pores.

I won the competition (I’m still considering adding this momentous achievement to my email signature) and nearly twenty years later, the words have never left me. I can still recite the entire thing perfectly — albeit with a very Aussie accent.

So it was a moment of supreme surrealism on my very first day travelling in Italy, when I was wandering around Rome by myself and stumbled into a church that happened to be in the middle of mass.

I’d been wandering around Europe by myself for 6 weeks, and was feeling a little lost and alone. And then, as I walked in, they all started chanting aloud those words that I had ingrained in my brain so long ago:

Ave Maria, piena di grazie…

With tears in my eyes, I repeated the words along with the congregation. I cried not for any religious reasons. Not because I felt close to God or a spiritual being in that moment. But because I felt close to people.

Through all my travels in Europe, Italy was where I felt the most at home. It could be because some remnants of my primary school language lessons surfaced and I was able to converse with more ease there than anywhere else. (Don’t let these words mislead you, though – my Italian is still limited to greetings, ordering pasta, and vague pronunciations about the weather!) It could be because I look quite Italian, and did not stand out as a tourist. (Everywhere else I went in Europe, people would assume – before I opened my mouth – that I was Italian.) It could be because so much of our Western history stems from those Roman roots and the symbols, themes, and motifs were therefore so familiar on an archetypal, Jungian level.

It could be any of those reasons, but I don’t think so.

I think it was that I understood Italy, in the way that you understand the quirks of an annoying sibling. It was chaos, but I got it.

Ask anyone: travelling in Italy can be an exercise in extreme frustration. Public transport time-tables exist only as an approximate guide. Different sets of rules (and prices!) apply to tourists than to locals. Completely random things are accepted as ‘the way that things are done’ and although no one can explain them, they are followed like law.

Case in point: the tobacci near our hotel in Positano opened at 9am most days. But not all days. And it is usually but not always opened on Mondays. And it usually sells bus tickets, but only in lots of two – even if you only want one. But sometimes they run out and don’t have tickets for weeks.

(As a sidenote, they also sell bottles of wine which they will open for you, and they’ll furnish you with two plastic cups free of charge for your drinking pleasure. Maybe that’s another reason why I love Italy?!)

Whenever I tried to fight this chaotic flow, I struggled to enjoy Italy (Positano was particularly challenging). But it doesn’t make sense! But that’s not the most efficient way for it to be done! But… just… why?!

But whenever I stopped trying to make sense of it — to dissect and analyse and categorise and assign meaning to it — I liked it a whole lot better. In fact, I loved it.

The sibling analogy kept popping into my brain: Italy is like an annoying little brother – even though you can’t quite figure out why they won’t take out the rubbish or return your text messages within a reasonable timeframe, you accept those quirks and love them anyway. Wholeheartedly.

In fact, sometimes, those quirks help you to connect with them even more, because it means you know them more intimately. It means you’ve seen their real face and met their real self.

For me, Italy was a lesson in surrender – one which I needed and appreciated and ended up loving. So that first day in Rome, when I stumbled into an insignificant church and was able to pray alongside a group of people that I had never met before and whom didn’t share my language, I was moved to tears.

And moved enough to send up a prayer of my own. While my lips murmured the words of an age-old Italian benediction, my mind offered up a message of intense gratitude and overwhelmed-ness.

Dear God/The Universe/Whoever’s out there,

Thank you so much for letting me be here, in this moment, with these people, on the other side of the world.

Although we may not speak the same language, or follow the same rules, or see eye-to-eye on issues of public transport… I think we understand each other.

Thank you, thank you, thank you…

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Keep scrolling for my Italy travel tips…

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2013-04-04 15.37.12(One of the lesser known Roman Emperors — Lord Julius Voldemort)

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Random Nuggets, Must-knows and Must-do’s when traveling in Italy…

+ If you are in Positano, you simply MUST do the hike along the top of the cliffs from Nocelle down to Bomerano, known as the Path of the Gods. This is the most stunning walk I’ve ever done in my life. Take water and a hat. If you are afraid of heights, also consider taking along a brave boyfriend who can coax you through the scary bits. Make sure to visit the abandoned monastery along the path and enjoy a cool (if surprisingly expensive) drink. (That’s the monastery in the photos above, with the basket of lemons in front, and the two photos beneath it too.)

+ In Florence, the family-run restaurant ‘Il Latini’ is amazing. Make sure you book a table, and get there with plenty of time to spare (people mill around outside for up to an hour before their allotted sitting, to make sure they get a seat). We ordered the set menu, and proceeded to be presented with plates and plates and yet more plates of some of the best home-style Italian food we’ve ever had. The various roast meats were out of this world.

+ I fell in love with two Roman specialties: Cacio e pepe — spaghetti with cheese and pepper, and Carciofo alla giudìa — Jewish-style artichokes, essentially a deep-fried artichoke that is the epitome of salty delicious goodness.

+ If you can, get outside of the big towns to see some of the countryside. We fell in love with Orvieto — a tiny hilltop town about an hour and half out of Rome, in the south west of Umbria. Sitting atop a giant bluff, the town has dramatic views of the surrounding countryside. The hill itself is riddled with man-made caves that the residents built more than 2500 years ago during times of warfare (a guided tour of the caves is a worthwhile distraction between glasses of wine). There’s also a giant licorice-allsort of a cathedral, a charming main street, plenty of great restaurants, and loads of cute cobble-stoned paths to wander. Bonus points if you order pigeon for dinner — a local delicacy.

+ If you’re feeling game, try a ‘Corretto’ — a traditional Italian drink consisting of a shot of espresso mixed with a shot of grappa or sambuca. However, do NOT try it at 10 a.m. in the morning — no matter how hard the barista insists that that’s how the locals do it. #HelloHangover

+ We had four days at Villa Sofia in Nocelle (up the hill from Positano) and LOVED it — the best view I’ve ever seen, an entire villa and sundeck to ourselves, and gorgeous hosts who brought us fresh home-grown vegetables and who stoked our fire every night. We’d return there in a heartbeat.

+ When in Rome, devote an afternoon to wandering through Trastevere, on the west bank of the Tiber near the Vatican. The endless winding cobble-stoned streets are dotted with restaurants, pubs, cafes and awesome people-watching opportunities. We had the best pizza of our lives there in a random little ma-‘n-pa eatery — cheesy, oozy Diavola pizza, topped with chilli and spicy salami.

+ Though it will cost you a ridiculous amount, it’s worth having a Bellini (prosecco and peach puree) in Harry’s Bar in Venice. A Puccini (prosecco with mandarin juice) is also a good choice. (Just as a side-note, everything will cost you a ridiculous amount in Venice. It’s still amazing though!)

+ In Rome, we stayed right near the Campo dei Fiori, which was an awesome spot from which to explore the whole city. We also loved hanging out at the pubs and restaurants around the square itself.

+ If you can, get thyself to a Serie A football match — the professional Italian soccer league. My boyfriend (a staunch rugby devotee) and I (a soccer novice) both had an amazing time watching the insane, balls-out passion of the crowd. Oh, and the game itself was good too.

+ Gelati is its own food group, and it’s important to get your ‘5 serves a day’. Kidding. Sort Of. Make sure to ask a local where to go so you can avoid the touristic offerings and get straight to the good stuff.

+ Awesome Italian books to read while you’re travelling: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (both set in Venice), My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (set in Naples), Eat Pray Love by Liz Gilbert (the Italian portion is set mainly in Rome), The Confessor by Daniel Silva (set in Rome), and Brunelleschi’s Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King (set in Florence).

Now it’s over to you!

Where’s your favourite spot in Italy? Any good travel tips or pointers? I’d love to hear them — let ‘er rip in the comments below.


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2 Responses to “Chaos and Connection: Travelling in Italy”

  1. Ainslie Young

    Loved all of your Italy Tips and Tricks Jessica! (Plus your photos are gorgeous!). I would love to go back to Florence and spend more time in that fabulous city and hiking the ‘Path of The Gods’ is definitely on my bucket list. Oh and I totally agree that gelati is it’s own good group. My sister and I made it our mission to try as many flavours as possible whilst we travelled throughout Italy! x

    • Jess

      Thanks Ainslie! I think I could easily live in Florence for a while — so much to see, so vibrant, and the foooood! Glad I’m not alone in my gelati problem. 😉
      xx