As I write this blog post, I’m just about at the halfway point of my seven week trip throughout Italy. We began in Rome, the capital of the country, traveled south by plane to the island of Sicily where we stayed at a beach house on a nature reserve, then stopped in Naples, known for its pizza and bustling city life, and finally boarded a train to a town in Northern Tuscany called San Cassiano, where we’ll spend the rest of our stay.
Rome: June 13-15
I’ve visited Rome before as my family’s close friends live in the Trastevere neighborhood, known for its perfect location right across the Tiber river. Now, I am in the city after taking an architecture seminar through Swarthmore’s art history program, which informed the sites we visited and the lens through which I saw the city.
This trip, we diverged from the ancient sites – the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum – and instead opted to discover the newer, contemporary sites in the city. Our first stop was the MAXXI, a contemporary art museum located off the beaten path in the outskirts of Rome designed by famed architect, Zaha Hadid. I chose to visit this museum after spending a seminar class discussing the gender disparity in the field of architecture; Zaha Hadid was the first female architect to have been awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize. We visited another branch of the city’s contemporary art museum located in the former meatpacking district, Testaccio; visiting the museum is an eerie experience as some of the industrial elements from the old slaughterhouses are still incorporated into the museum’s space today. Of course, no trip to Rome would be complete without sampling the city’s famous cacio e pepe pasta – a traditional pasta dish with Roman pecorino cheese and cracked black pepper.
Sicily: June 16-22
Early Saturday morning, we boarded a small Alitalia flight to travel southward, down to Italy’s small island of Sicily, boasting gorgeous beaches and ample seafood. We rented a car at the Palermo airport and drove two hours on the autostrada – the highway – alongside vintage Fiats. Along the journey, we spotted an abnormal amount of concrete buildings; Sicily is one of the most impoverished parts of Italy and thus after the war, the Mafia funded reconstructions of large Sicilian cities using concrete, thus ignoring the artistic and cultural histories of these beautiful cities. One of my favorite aspects of traveling is learning about the obscure – and unfortunately in this case disheartening – bits of information and history of regions across the world. Our stay in Sicily was filled with days at the beach, ancient Greek ruins (as Sicily was part of ancient Greek civilization), barbecued swordfish, and fresh mulberries picked from an orchard near the house we rented.
Naples: June 23-26
As we stepped off the airplane in Naples, I was hit with the familiarities of Italian urban life: wailing European sirens, loud voices shouting, and women with colorful scarves begging for spare change. A group of eight young men all smoking cigarettes immediately approached us asking in broken English, “Taxi??” We sat in the back of the old taxi, waiting for our arrival in il centro di napoli, a place associated with great beauty and great poverty, a place brimming with juxtapositions.
Naples evokes a completely different air from the rest of Italy. Located in the South, Naples seems more hectic, more passionate, and more genuine than any other Italian city. However, it is also a very impoverished area. As we walked through the cobblestone streets, it was not unusual to see an ancient cathedral next to piles of trash that hadn’t been picked up or an unfinished, abandoned construction site. Naples is also brimming with history. Vesuvius, the large volcano, is located adjacent to the city and many tourists also make a visit to Pompeii, the ancient Roman city. While we didn’t have time to visit Pompeii, we instead opted to visit the archeological museum, which exhibits most of the artifacts found in that region.
San Cassiano: June 27-July 31
San Cassiano was our final stop; we’ll be spending a month in this small village in the hills of Lucca. Staying in this village has been a lesson in food and its history – in fact, good preparation for my anthropology course next semester exploring food and culture. The village we’re staying in is a picturesque Italian town. The buildings are made of old stone, nature runs wild, and nobody speaks English.
Sometimes on our drive down to the main town, we have to turn the car off for a bit as we wait for a herd of goats to cross the road. Our next door neighbor here is a woodcutter and hunter who raises rabbits and wild boar used in the village’s various pasta sauces. His aunt is a shepherd who delivers fresh ricotta cheese to our door in the morning, sometimes bringing us fresh eggs from her hens as well. When we go out to dinner, the chef at the local restaurant runs outside to the garden to pick sage for our ravioli and fresh lettuces for our salads. Life here is slow-paced and centered around an appreciation for food, family, and the region’s longstanding traditions.
It’s been wonderful exploring the country’s traditions, language, and art and food scene and I look forward to spending the coming few weeks continuing to immerse myself in the Italian culture.