My General Impressions of Italy
We spent three days in Rome, three days in Naples, and then fourteen days in Sicily (on a Road Scholar trip) – twelve of those days in rural Sicily. In Rome, the major tourist destinations like the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and the Roman Colosseum were overrun with tourists without much infrastructure to support them. For example, there were no public toilets in the area. Outside of these areas, Rome was not unpleasant, but the roads had more traffic than they could handle, and there were no expressways near the central city. Not unlike New York, without a system of alleys, the garbage was stored in large containers on the sidewalks and it smelled. The garbage overflowed every container we saw, so it obviously was not being picked up often enough.
Outside of the waterfront, Naples seemed like a dirty rundown city. The one exception was the subway which has been voted the most beautiful subway in Europe. Part of the reason for this is a difference of opinion in the way old buildings should be treated. In the U.S. we think beautiful old buildings should be cleaned and refurbished. The Italians think that ruins them. They think that an old building’s dirty surface is a patina that adds to their charm. We did enjoy visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum, and we had an excellent guide that day.
Sicily is unique because it has been a crossroads for centuries. It has been controlled by eight different groups during the last three thousand years. These include the North African civilizations, the Turks, the Greeks, the Romans, the French, the Spanish, and the English/Normans, not to mention the current Italians. Most Sicilians will tell you they are from Sicily, not Italy. This means the area is filled with ruins that not only date back 2,500 years, but are a blend of all the cultures that lived there. There are several Catholic churches whose decorations reflect the culture of the Moors. I personally think that these artifacts are much more interesting than the more famous ruins in Rome.
Although many scholars say that Italy is poorly governed, Sicily takes poor governance to new heights. To be blunt, it seems the people lack a public conscience. They accept graft and corruption, and seem unwilling to root it out. Their economy is a wreck. Educated, capable people can’t find decent jobs. The best ones leave the area in search of a decent future. Let me give you just two examples of things I saw.
In 1968 central Sicily was devastated by an earthquake. The people from several towns were moved a short distance away, and new towns were built leaving the ruins to just sit there for 50 years! When I asked why they didn’t just bulldoze the area and turn it into farmland, people just shook their heads, and laughed. One town that was demolished by the earthquake was turned into an “art” project by just covering the old buildings with cement, leaving the old streets. They spent millions on this project while the people were still living in temporary barracks.
Sicily has 26,000 people in their forest service. When they run out of work, the workers set fires to the forest so they have work to do! During one of our hikes, we observed a bunch of guys out in a clearing, supposedly working. Several were fast asleep in their trucks or simply hanging out smoking, doing no work at all. When we asked why journalists don’t write exposés about this practice, we were told they would be killed by the Mafia. It is sad because Sicily should be a showplace. The countryside is really beautiful.
When we say we went to Italy, a common question is, “Was the food great?” My answer is a resounding, NO! I must say that I am at a severe disadvantage when it comes to eating in Italy. First of all, my migraine headaches prevent me from drinking wine, or eating cheese or sausage. In addition, I don’t like coffee, octopus, calamari (squid), or sardines. For the first week of our trip, we were pretty much on our own when choosing our meals, and we don’t eat the way the Italians eat. We don't go for super sweet cakes for breakfast. After having breakfast at 7 AM, we don’t want to wait until after 2 P.M. for lunch. When we had lunch, we didn’t want a four course meal because we got much too sleepy afterwards. We also didn’t feel like spending $50 per person for a mediocre meal. The Italians like their pasta crunchy, not just “firm to the tooth.” In addition, they use about two tablespoons of sauce for a large plate of spaghetti.
Once we joined the Road Scholar program, we got to experience how the Italians eat. We often had lunch after 2 P.M. and the meals were multi-course affairs. Unfortunately, 80% of the time the protein was either cheese, sausage, octopus, calamari, or sardines. The sardines tasted like they had been left out in the sun for a week before they were cooked. Out of 28 meals we had one meal with chicken (served as the last course with a bit of iceberg lettuce), one with roast beef, one with meatballs, and one with veal. Of the seafood meals, one was swordfish, and one was both blue fish and tuna. All the rest (22) had cheese, sausage, octopus, calamari, or sardines. All the vegetables were cooked, but usually served cold. The only things the Italians made that I liked were white bread and gelato. (Note from Lois: I did not lose weight on this trip, though I would have preferred more variety in my choices of food. I have eaten enough cannoli to last for quite a while.)
The guides that we had through Audley in Rome and Naples were average. The guides we had for the Road Scholar program were spectacular! The program coordinator was one of the best we have ever had. The history and naturalist guides had PhDs and were especially knowledgeable about the area we were in, as you would expect. In addition, their broad knowledge base allowed us to ask questions like, "Why didn’t these people just…". I think this happened because employment opportunities in Sicily are very scarce, and so people who might otherwise be college professors end up taking jobs as tour guides.
In summary, I would recommend people visit Sicily for beautiful scenery, and astounding cultural ruins. Hire a guide, and go in November when it is cool, and there are no crowds. We would recommend the RS tour.