The Italian economy and social structure is similar to a many layered cake.
At the top, in the north, is the thick butter cream icing. Much of the industrial and financial wealth is concentrated here and life is good. At the bottom of the Italian boot, is a thick crusty base where poverty and unemployment are high. The governmental infrastructure flourishing in the north is difficult to find in Southern Italy. Not surprisingly, many of the Italian families who immigrated to Western Pennsylvania in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can trace their heritage back to Calabria in the southern portion of Italy.
In early October, my wife and I traveled with a group of local attorneys and other interested parties to the center of the Italian layer cake. We spent three full days in Sorrento on the western coast below Naples; three days in beautiful Florence and three days in Rome. Each area was distinctive and held its special charms.
Sorrento is the gateway to the Italian Mediterranean playground. Beaches, yachts and sunburned tourists are the order of the day. Our hotel in Sorrento looked out onto the Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, off in the distance. Both the Amalfi coastline and the Island of Capri are within easy reach. The breathtaking ride to Amalfi along the switchback coastal road reminded me of the Big Sur portion of Highway One in California. Local ceramics, seafood restaurants and expensive hotels built into the bluffs over the Mediterranean are what make this area so desirable.
A short hydrofoil boat ride transports tourists to Capri. The island has always been known for its limoncello liqueur and lemon perfumes. More recently, Capri has become the destination of the rich and famous from around the world. Every upscale designer and boutique is represented along the narrow winding streets. A ski lift takes tourists to the top of the island to view the panorama of olive groves and sea below.
The next leg of our journey took us north to Florence via high-speed train from Naples. The view from our window changed to rolling hills filled with vineyards, ancient towers and Tuscan villages. We spent the afternoon on a walking tour of old Florence, which included Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo and the Baptistery with its famous bronze doors.
For shoppers, among the attractions in Florence are leather goods, truffles and finely crafted gold and silver jewelry. For lovers of Renaissance history and art, Florence is ground zero. The Medici family made its money in banking, not considered an acceptable vocation by the local nobility. Cosimo de Medici, “father of the fatherland,” and his prodigy, responded by using their vast wealth to rebuild Florence into a showcase, utilizing the talents of Italy’s greatest creative minds. The buildings, houses of worship, sculptures, and paintings make Florence the most beautiful city in the world.
The next day, under the bright Tuscan sun, we spent the morning in the towering walled, hill town of San Gimigano. The trek up the steep hill to the town square was rewarded with incredible vistas of Tuscany, cottage linen shops and what is regarded as the best gelato in Italy.
The afternoon was a true adventure at the Tenuta Torciano Winery in the Tuscan countryside. This 15th generation family business has more than 1,000 acres under cultivation. The grapes are planted under different soil conditions that produce several world class varieties of wine. We were heartily welcomed by the owner and invited to participate in a truffle hunt; vespa scooter rides through the vineyards and a cooking class. The evening festivities featured a six-course dinner with wine tasting. Many in our group ordered wine, olive oils and a 30-year-old balsamic, all sent home in time for the holidays.
On our last day in Florence, the group was free to explore the museums and shopping. My wife and I had been to Florence several years ago and missed the Palatine Gallery and Gardens at the Pitti Palace, the residence of the Medici family. We trekked across the Ponte Vecchio covered bridge that crosses the Arno river, shopping and eating along the way. The Pitti Palace was not as crowded as other attractions and was well worth our effort. At sunset, we returned to our hotel with spectacular photo ops along the way. As we packed for Rome, an opera singer serenaded us from the courtyard below.
Another high-speed train delivered our group south to Rome for our final destination. There was no evidence that the tourist season was winding down, with large crowds at every attraction. Not even an early morning arrival at the Vatican could escape the throngs lined up for the Vatican museums, Sistine Capel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The Trevi Fountain was surrounded by thousands of spectators, as were the Spanish steps.
Our last day was a free one and our destination was the Capitoline Museums on the Roman Hill with the same name. Again, we were in luck as all the tourists appeared to be braving the hot sun and were wandering outside through the Forum and Palatine Hill. A special exhibit highlighting the life and paintings of Luca Signorelli held our interest along with some of the more important archaeological discoveries found in Rome and the surrounding area. Other members of our group ventured to the Borghese Gallery and Museum or to the Coliseum.
While all of Italy is a tourist mecca, the center layers of this amazing country offer a great deal to see and do. My summary of the trip has skipped the long luxurious suppers, which are a story in themselves.
One day we will return to tour the north and take in Venice, Lake Como and Milan. In addition, we will plan a future trip to Calabria in the south to find my wife’s ancestral roots.