After seven days of November Blog Week, I’ve decided to slow down a bit. I’ll be posting twice a week, instead of every day. I need some time to be outdoors, hang out with friends & family, study my Italian, prepare my garden for the winter, play in my art studio and take a short trip to California. But, I will continue with my theme for the month—Why I keep coming back to Italy.
My hometown of San Diego, California was founded only a few hundred years ago—Italy’s cities date from the 8th Century BC. Even if you aren’t an armchair historian, you can’t help but be amazed at the abundance of history found around every corner in Italy.
Walking the streets of Rome or Florence for the first time is such an exciting experience. I’ll never forget my first view of Brunelleschi’s Dome, in Florence, from a narrow side street. Even though I had seen many photos, catching a glimpse of the real thing took my breath away. There is nothing more exciting than roaming the streets of any Italian city with or without a guidebook. You may discover a minor archeological dig, Galileo’s birthplace—or a neighborhood church with Byzantine Mosaics. In fact, visit any church in Italy and you’ll often find several different centuries of architecture overlapping each other.
If you venture further south or hop over to Sicily, you can visit the beautiful Greek ruins in ideal settings. One of my favorite places is Selinunte and its beautiful temples located right on the southwest coast of Sicily, with the sparkling Mediterranean as a backdrop.
As we explored the island, we learned that many of the Greek myths are set in Sicily. Along the coast near the small town of Acireale, we could view the volcanic rocks that were hurled at Odysseus. On the island of Ortygia, near Syracuse, we could find the spring of Arethusa.
Both Sicily and Southern Italy are influenced by a wide variety of cultures that temporarily conquered these strategically situated lands. The rich history is reflected in the wonderful variety of foods, spices, art and architecture. Traveling throughout this area you can see the influence of the Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Normans, French, Germans, Spaniards and also the British.
Italy has over 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites—the most of any country in the world. So a visit to almost any city or town in Italy is always a lively history lesson. One good way to gain a quick overview of a new area is to take a guided walk with a local. Most Tourist Information offices offer a city walk (in English) for a reasonable price. You can research the popular guide books or the internet to find more good recommendations. We’ve found that the local guides are passionate about the history of their region and have many wonderful stories to share. Often, they even have access to some areas that are closed to the general public.
Some of my favorite experiences have been the small serendipitous discoveries we’ve made on our own—visiting Assisi and finding the Anfiteatro Romano, a quaint neighborhood of buildings that were once part of a Roman Amphitheater—or walking the streets of Volterra and finding an Etruscan Wall. Visit any town in Italy and you can stumble upon several different centuries within a few blocks. Whether walking the Roman roads or climbing the Medieval cobblestone stairs of a hill town, take some time to appreciate the history of each town. It will enrich your visit.
An excellent resource for history and art in Europe is Europe 101 by Rick Steves. It’s an easy read that provides just the right amount of information and some excellent time lines. You can even pick your favorite periods of history and find the cities and towns that provide fine examples of the era.