Dear Italy. Cara Italia. Thank you for beautiful Venice – photo taken during my, ahem, “significant” birthday visit to the Venice Carnival in 2015, my fourth visit to my favourite Continental city. Thank you for Assisi, a holy place which really does seem holy, for your beautiful lakes, for your magnificent historical cities, for your pretty little towns, for your stunning mountains, and for your orange and lemon groves and your fields of olives, vines and sunflowers. Thank you for your lovely cafes on the shores of the lakes, and overlooking the Bay of Capri, and in beautiful little town squares, where you can spend an evening with ice-cream and cappuccino. Thank you for your gloriously complicated history, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thank you for veal Milanese and limoncello and Asti Spumante. And for the fact that every town in Tuscany has its own special cake or pastry, so that you feel obliged to try all of them! And for those little marzipan things that they make in Sicily, and for arancini, and for Murano glass and Burano lace and gondolas. Thank you for the processions that you hold to honour saints I’ve never heard of: they make for fascinating watching!
Thank you for ‘Italia 90, for Serie A which we all got into during the ban years, and for your lovely southern music which we murder into football chants and Cornetto adverts! Thank you for being the setting for so many books and plays, and for being the place that anyone lucky enough to be able to go on a Grand Tour made their priority. Thank you for the lovely old man in Sicily who stopped me in the street and told me that he’d seen me at a hotel (and he had, because he named it!) and thought I was lovely, and for the lovely old man in Pisa who told me that all English girls were beautiful – Italian men can be terrible flatterers, and it’s a wonderful confidence boost when you haven’t got any confidence!
Thank you for the man who, whilst dressed up as a gladiator in Verona, chatted away merrily with me about United beating Roma 7-1 – Italians, like Mancunians, love to talk about football, in any circumstances! Thank you for the Italian tour guide who sat with me on an island in the Venetian lagoon and listened to my tale of woe about not being able to get a job after leaving university, and told me that it would all be OK. Thank you for all the staff in the Sicilian restaurant who, because I was the annoying fussy idiot who didn’t want the stuff on the set menu which had been put on the table for everyone to share, kept bringing me plateful after plateful of alternative food to make sure I didn’t starve, even though I’d said I’d be fine with bread and salad.
So many special places … I’ve hardly got started!!
Venice is the star of the north, but there are also those beautiful lakes. I always say that I’ll buy a villa at Lake Como if I ever win the lottery. We’ll draw a veil over the time I trekked up a steep hill in 90 degree heat to find the site where Mussolini was captured, but, hey, it probably burned off some of the gelato calories! Lake Maggiore and its beautiful islands, and its hydrofoils which carry you off to Switzerland. Elegant Milan, a capital of football and a capital of fashion, and Genoa with its lovely port and its lovely buildings. And the little seaside resorts where I spent my first visit to Italy, when I was 3.
Moving a little further southwards, beautiful Assisi. There are a lot of places which are supposed to be holy, and sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. In Assisi, I do. I was so sad when it was badly damaged by an earthquake, and so glad to see that much of the damage had been repaired. Glamorous Portofino, and the little trains running between the Cinque Terre towns. The castles outside Parma. And, of course, stunning Tuscany – the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence with its fascinating history and Renaissance buildings, San Gimignano with its towers, Lucca with its little stalls in the streets, Siena with its lovely Palio and for the sandwich shop where they actually understood my manifold instructions about what I did and didn’t want … in fact, thank you to anyone in Italy who’s ever understood my Manchester-accented Italian!
And, of course, Rome – the magnificent Eternal City, with its incredible Roman remains, its grand buildings, its squares and its fountains. And the Vatican, although technically that’s not part of Italy. We’ll also draw a veil over the time I got chocolate ice-cream all down my T-shirt in St Peter’s Square: you can’t take me anywhere! Thank you for lovely Sorrento, and for the Neapolitan cafe that provided us with breakfast when our overnight ferry from Palermo docked late and we were horrendously hungry! For Capri, and for Pompeii – when you’ve had to do the Cambridge Latin Course at school, seeing Pompeii really is a thrill! And for Sicily – for Mount Etna, and for all those lovely little seaside resorts, Greek-built towns and steep villages.
I could go on for ever! And there are so many places in Italy which I haven’t been to and want to, and so many places that I’ve been to and want to go back to. Thank you, Italy, for so much. It is heartbreaking to see what you’re going through at the moment – it’s like some nightmare out of the Middle Ages, or even out of the Bible. I know that good wishes from abroad aren’t going to help, but I find myself wishing that heads of state would send messages of support to Italy at this difficult time, and also to China, South Korea and anywhere else particularly badly affected. Italy is a very special place to me, and I’m thinking of it and hoping that this horrible situation doesn’t get much worse and doesn’t go on much longer.
Lots of love – con amore,