For most of the summer, I was afraid to go to Italy. I was scared to hear the accent, to taste spaghetti Bolognese, to smell espresso. I worried that hearing my favourite Italian word, “Alora”, might send me straight over the edge. You see, I fell in love with an Italian last year.
His name was Riccardo, and he was from Rome. He was 6 feet tall with thick black hair and a beard. He was thirty years old, just a few months younger than me, and a world-traveller. We met in South America and spent the most magical week together. He taught me how to cook spaghetti Bolognese using just a few ingredients; his mama’s recipe, naturally.
He would say things like: “I love the music my hand makes when it rubs against your shoulder.” If anyone else said a thing like that, you’d laugh in their face. But an Italian says it, and it’s the most romantic sentiment you’ve ever heard.
I walked around all week with the song “That’s Amore” in my head. How lucky to find my very own Roman!
The week ended and we went our separate ways, promising to meet again. But our romance never made it off the beaches of Uruguay. Turns out, Italians are passionate, romantic and spontaneous; but they’re still all of those things even when they have a girlfriend back home.
It would be easy to forget him if he had come from anywhere else; I could have avoided somewhere like Lithuania for the rest of my life, for example. But no, he had to come from the most beautiful, historic and captivating place on Earth.
Italy perfects everything it touches. Do you like cars? Italy has Ferraris and Alfa Romeos. Looking for great fashion? What more can you ask than Dolce and Gabbana, Valentino, or Versace? Interested in cinema? Is there any film more touching than “Life is Beautiful?” The Italians invented opera, their cuisine is spectacular, their women are beautiful, the men sexy, the kids cute, the old folks charming, the language a pleasure, and they have more UNESCO World Heritage sights than anywhere else on Earth.
Simply put: Italy is unavoidable. I couldn’t let one man keep me away. So, a month into my summer holiday, I decided to slowly venture in.
If I was going to be heartbroken, I figured I might as well head straight to the city where Casanova, the most notorious womanizer in history, was born.
You hear people describe parts of London or Amsterdam as “Little Venice.” Bangkok has been nicknamed “Venice of the East,” while Stockholm and St. Petersburg have both been dubbed the “Venice of the North.” Make no mistake about it: there is nowhere in the world like La Serenissima.
Venice was built on 117 islands, with nearly 500 bridges spanning 177 canals. Most of the buildings don’t have addresses and the streets don’t always have names, so it’s impossible not to get lost; but that’s the whole point.
Every alleyway, canal and archway is stunning. I spent hours wandering the streets, taking hundreds of photos, posing with the 100,000 pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. I bought a traditional Venetian mask, I ate a calzone, I took a Vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal.
Finally, on my second evening in the city, I decided it was time for a gondola ride. I settled into the velvet seat, and my gondolier, Marco – just as gorgeous as everyone else in the country – chatted about local legends as he paddled slowly along the quiet waterways. When we arrived at the Bridge of Sighs – under which tragic convicts, including Casanova himself, passed as they were being taken to prison – the sun began to set and Marco began to sing “That’s Amore.”
I thanked him and gave him a kiss on each cheek. The next morning, I caught the first water taxi heading anywhere but Venice.
My next stop was Florence, where I figured there was no time to feel sorry for myself. This is the city where the Renaissance began, where Colombus found the map that took him to the New World, where Dante, father of the Italian language, was born. There is the Uffizi Gallery to explore, the marble statue of David, the Duomo, the church that holds the tombs of Gallileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli, plus nearly 100 other galleries and museums. In fact, there is so much to do in Florence that you can come down with a medical condition, known as the “Stendahl Syndrome”; in the presence of so much beautiful artwork and architecture, people can become overwhelmed, and experience hallucinations or fainting spells. It all sounded good to me.
I spent two busy afternoons there, feeling nice and distracted. I saved one of the city’s most famous sights for last: the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge. The medieval stone bridge was built by Romans in the 10th century, and parts have been reconstructed over the years after being damaged by floods. The bridge is lined with shops that were originally occupied by butchers and now sell jewelry, art and souvenirs.
I sat under one of the archways at sunset, joining the crowd that had gathered to watch a band of street performers play classical music. Beside me, a young Italian couple kissed and took self-portraits. Suddenly, the girl pulled a small padlock out of her knapsack, on which they had written their initials, surrounded by a love heart, in black marker. They giggled as they fastened it to a small post, took a quick photo, and hurried away.
Who had I been kidding? Florence is every bit as romantic as Venice. After all, it’s the capital of Tuscany, where the soft air makes everything pastel-coloured and dreamy. The Ponte Vecchio itself is so beautiful that even Adolf Hitler ordered it not to be destroyed – unlike every other bridge in town – when the Nazis retreated from Florence in 1944.
After the sunset, I decided to cut my losses. Besides the Renaissance and the Italian language, Florence is also home to Italy’s best gelato; I went to find a dark chocolate cone, and headed back to my hostel to read the Divine Comedy, which wasn’t funny at all.
When I got to Rome, the last stop on my Italian itinerary, I feared I would never make amends with the country. I wandered around the Colosseum, I snuck a photo of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, I had coffee beside the Spanish Steps, I explored the bohemian Trastevere neighbourhood. Unfortunately, none of it worked.
This was no longer the city of Romulus and Remus, or Julius Caesar, or the birthplace of western civilization; Rome was nothing more to me now than the city where Riccardo lived. Before I left, I threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, which is supposed to guarantee a return to the Eternal City. By that point, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to return at all.
And then, three months later, Edu invited me to Torino.
We have been friends for years, and I’d been staying at his chalet in Switzerland for my last few weeks in Europe. Last week, just before I was due to head back to Canada, he suggested we take a little trip. He’d heard wonderful things about Torino, a city in northern Italy, only a couple of hours south of Switzerland. So we booked a ticket on Trenitalia and away we went for the weekend.
From the moment we crossed the border, we were overjoyed. The language, the smells, the sights; everything was exciting again. We wandered from café to café, through the sepia-coloured streets, browsing the bustling fruit and vegetable markets and book shops and walking alongside the river. On our first evening, we ate dinner al fresco in a gorgeous plaza where the walls were decorated with bright graffiti and jazz music trickled out from the bars. We returned the following night because our shrimp salad and lasagna were so delicious that we just had to have them again; by then, the restaurant owner recognized us and came over to kiss us on both cheeks.
At the end of each long day, we walked home hand-in-hand, buzzing from sweet Muscat and warm air. Edu, fluent in Italian, translated the fragments of conversations that we overheard as we passed beside terraces. I giggled every time I heard someone say, “Alora.”
It was one of my favourite weekends of the summer. By the time we left, I wasn’t so sure I’d return to Canada at all. A romance that had begun quietly in Switzerland had finally come out in the open in passionate Italy, where such feelings cannot be denied and love must always be celebrated.
Was I lucky for the chance to fall for an Italian last year? For sure, it must be one of those 1001 Things to Do Before You Die. I was even luckier to visit his country at the end of the affair, because there’s nothing like a breakup to heighten your awareness of every lonely gondola ride, every exquisite sunset, and every wish thrown into a fountain.
But this is Italy, after all, where life is beautiful and there’s no time to waste on bad gelato or broken hearts. In the end, I was luckiest of all for the chance to visit again, at the beginning of a new romance.
And those eternal cities are still there, just waiting for us to rediscover them together.