Italy. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Italy. In short, we are loving it to death. Tourist hoards are coming in droves to take in the amazing sites of Italy, its food, its wine, and its culture. We love it. From the immense wealth of the Vatican and priceless artwork, to the canals of Venice, the Leaning tower of Pisa, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast, and the culinary heritage of Naples, we all venture forth to take our pictures, videos, and selfies. We love it so much we are starting to destroy what made it beautiful to begin with.

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21 years ago I set off on a train from Antibes, France following the coast into Italy to the sleepy terraced villages of Cinque Terre. It was the height of summer and as a young man felling restless and wanting to see more of the world, I happened upon these five delightful villages falling into the sea. Each home painted in Pastel color as if an artist rendered them just for the pleasure of the eye. People going about their daily lives like the generations before them, making a life from the sea and the limited land the villages clung to. A simple pasta transformed my idea of how good pasta could be, resembling nothing of the glutinous mass a noodles piled high with red sauce alla American. Garlic slow cooked in olive oil, tomato, basil, spaghetti and parmesan. 5 simple ingredients on a mission transformed a peasant dish into the representation of what Italy meant to me. A country for the senses.

21 years later I find myself bringing my young family to the very places I adventured to in my youth. Much to my surprise, some things don’t change. The Italian trains are still just as run down, graffiti covered, and still not on time. A fire on the tracks caused us a 6 hour delay on our way to Milan en route to Venice reminding me, yes, I am back in Italy. Seeing Venice again was a bit like seeing a long lost friend. Elegant villas overlooking the Canals bustling with gondoliers and Vaporetos, bridges providing the perfect vantage point for the perfect picture, waiters outside selling the menues of the the restaurants they serve, vendors selling endlessly colorful Merano glass, artists painting in the corners, the occasional musician playing his instrument for spare change to be collected in his hat. The camera loves Venice and everyone has a camera these days.

Piazza San Marco

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Our next destination was in the hills of Tuscany near the ancient town of Casole d’elsa set against a backdrop of rolling hills covered in the grape vines of Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano. Our medieval villa made for the ideal location to venture off the discover the neighboring towns, including the fabulous city of Florence. A capital of art and culture as well as food and wine, Florence is a fabulous city to discover the best of Italy. The Central Market is bustling with Florentines buying their daily groceries or enjoying a feast from the myriad of vendors just one floor above. A butcher cleaving off a huge T-Bone of aged and marbled beef, grilled rare right in front of me and presented as the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina. A 1 Kg slab of rich perfectly grilled beefiness to be shared with my family alongside, tripe, roasted potatoes, grilled eggplant, arancini, and a perfect riserva Chianti. My son opted for a hamburger, still craving his American roots. Visits to the Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens highlights the rich cultural heritage of the city and height of the power of the Medici family.

Green Grocery

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Moving onto Rome was more of a shock. For the those not accustomed to driving like a Roman let me give you a bit of a lesson. Just focus on the what is immediately in front of you and not about what is behind you. Count on the people behind you to do the same, Be bold and don’t hesitate. Driving too slow will cause problems and much consternation from other drivers around you. Scooters will be passing you on all sides so don’t make any sudden moves. Signs will let you down from time to time. One sign will says 24 km to your destination and 4 km later it will say 24 km to your destination. Signs will come up on you very fast and may be placed just before the turn, at the turn, or just on the other side of the turn. Sometimes you destination will not be posted at all so your navigator might have to look behind from time to time to see if you missed your turn. Parking is infuriating and designated parking spots give way to a free for all, find a spot if you can mentality. Don’t imagine your vehicle will escape being bumped, scraped or damaged in the urban jungle of Rome. My wife was trying to use Google maps to navigate, but the maps refused to give an accurate location for ourselves and our destination. Navigation to the center of Rome to our rental apartment left Benedicte a screaming hot mess trying to figure out where we were at. Benedicte cursed at the phone and my driving and began acting particularly French for that moment. Getting lost in Rome allows you to take in all the colorful graffiti lining the buildings, roadways, and trains. Some of it quite extraordinary in scope and others more like a dog pissing on its territory. Trash was another issue. Bottles and other detritus thrown from cars littering the streets and sidewalks juxtaposed against the graffiti and absurd traffic makes Rome feel particularly like it no longer belongs in the first world.
Visiting the cultural sites also has its hazards. Lines to get into the Vatican and St Peters Basilica border on the absurd. Hours spent waiting in the sun with your fellow tourists taking selfies, clicking away at anything that looks interesting trying to capture that shot that makes them look more interesting to those on their social media sites. Unfortunately, I am not immune to this, bringing my family, my cameras and my American good looks to the streets of Rome adds a few more bodies to the tourist hoard that has become Rome. Surly waiters, bad expensive food, and slow service add to the unsavory feeling I was having in the cultural center of Rome. Scaffolding in the middle of the Trevi Fountain or the 50 foot tall advertising dropped behind the Spanish steps reinforce my growing discontent with the tourist center. We escape to the less touristed part of town to live like actual Romans live. Clusters of apartment building stretching for blocks in every direction with cafes, restaurants and stores all at street level for the pedestrians of the city to wander in to have their coffee, nibble on snacks and smoke their cigarettes. The food improves, the prices drop, the faces are not as hostile, the pace begins to slack. We stumble into one of the finest gelato shops I have ever visited to enjoy real artisan Gelato made from all natural local ingredients, Gelateria Bartocci. This might have been my favorite gelato/ice cream ever! It was that good.

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Leaving Rome we made our way to the Amalfi coast to visit Positano, one of my favorite places in the past to visit when I was working on Motor Yachts. With my family we rented a small apartment in Vietri Sul Mare on the edge of Cinqueterre. This village was a delight and reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast of the past with smiling locals, quaint streets, local life not crushed by modern tourism. The town seemingly dedicated to the production of pottery with small shops everywhere selling its wares making for a colorful display of terra-cotta and locally produced products. Shopping from small vendors for our daily needs adds to the charm of Vietri. Local fishermen bringing their catch to market, a butcher chopping away, the green grocer selling seasonal produce, a shop selling olive based products all add to my culinary curiosity

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Suddenly I feel my love for Italy returning until… The bus.
Long my nemesis in many of the countries I visit, the bus is a thing I loath to take. Perhaps I have become too spoiled with luxury motor yachts, private jets, and exotic cars over the years working for those with such means. A billionaire I am not so from time to time one must endure the diesel driven machines of mass transit purgatory, bound to their schedules, destinations, space requirements, availability and cleanliness. Asia is the worst as I barely fit in the space provided, but the Amalfi Coast bus ride pushed my buttons but hard. They are cheap and for a reason. It was late, it was packed, it smelled of body odor, it was harrowing, it was long, and lastly it was numbingly slow. The coast is a winding road of absurdly tight corners not fit for a motor coach and barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass each other with cliff face on one side and and long fall to the sea on the other. I will say I give the bus driver an immense level of respect for his nerves of steel dodging Vespas, cars, tourists, and by a matter of centimeters just missing a scrape across the cliff face. His driving skills were masterful. How this mess of a road operates day in and day out is a mystery to me. An accident feels like it would take a Hercules Helicopter to clear it. Tourists should not be driving on this road by any means, but there they are, clogging up what used to be one of the worlds great driving roads, a vista paradise now looks more like a parking lot at LAX. We finally arrived in Amalfi just 16 km away and 2 hours later to find a town packed with people, stuck in queue trying to walk up the pedestrian street to take in the sites of T shirt vendors and snack shops. Not impressed was got back onto… the bus. #$H&T?!!

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Another 1 and a half and 10 km pass with more of the same as before. Good god I am disappointed by what I am seeing. But the bus finally lets us off and we walk the remaining 100 meters to get the overview of Positano. This is what I remember, this is the view I fell in love with 21 years ago and it has barely changed. The vivid colors of the cliff perched village are perfectly weathered with time. The village cascades from high on the cliff down to the beach lined perfectly with colorful umbrellas and tanned sunbathers swimming in the surf washing up on golden sand. Suddenly, as if the drugs kicked in, I feel better, much better like I was 24 again seeing a former lover just as she was. If anything, Positano has become more refined, more discerning, more tasteful, more expensive. It feels luxurious and this seems to keep the tourist throngs away who look for a cheap thrill and a snapshot rather than an experience. Winding cobbled streets make their way through the town and up the cliff face. Art dealers, jewelers, and sellers of couture line the walking streets. On the sea front we make our way to a restaurant I have waited 12 years return to just to have one of my favorite pastas in the world, the squid ink pasta of Chez Black. Chez Black, a seafront alfresco affair whose walls are lined with the photos of a self aggrandizing owner posing with the many celebrities who have frequented this seafood establishment. More photos have been added over the years since my last visit, but otherwise it was unchanged as was the menu including the squid ink pasta. Exactly as I remembered, spaghetti with bits of sautéed squid in a rich sauce of squid ink was deeply black arrives and it is accompanied by simply grilled vegetables, a chilled seafood plate and a Pinot Grigio. Simple fresh ingredients perfectly prepared. I am happy, maybe even giddy that I can share this experience with my family and all was suddenly right.

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Choosing not to take… the bus, we chose the ferry this time. Arriving right on time allowed us to catch the setting sun from the sea and take in a final glimpse of Positano from a distance. I have missed you, I will miss you again.
Getting off the beaten path and back to the kids education, we decided to make a trip to the little know Greek ruin site of Paestum. If you have never heard of it, look it up. The ruins of this magnificent site makes the Acropolis in Athens look humble. A parthenon of such scale and grander was an astonishing site to see giving we were in the middle of the countryside without a major town anywhere in site and. Only a handful of tourists were visiting this magnificent site and the accompanying museum filled with treasures of the past mostly exhumed from the Tombs of the long deceased elite. Archeological evidence dates the founding of Paestum somewhere around 600 BC with the oldest of the Temples, dedicated to Hera, dates back to 500 BC and still stands intact today.

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Our parting glance was that of Naples, birthplace of the pizza, and a pilgrimage of sorts to find the world best pizza. Pizza is a simple thing. A street food for the masses with international fame concocted in every possible way these days in restaurants everywhere, but it all started in Naples. I have a soft spot for pizza to the point I installed a pizza oven in my restaurant to create an artisan version for my guests. Venturing out into the street by foot in Naples feel a bit dodgy. It is not clean, people drive like mad, graffiti, garbage, and unkind stares make you feel immediately not at home. The best of the pizza restaurants in Naples always have a wait, but I hate feeling as if my very presence to pay for a meal is somehow an inconvenience to them. Surly waiters briskly taking your order, annoyed by our lack of Italian and foreign accents. The chefs can be seen in the back stretching dough and topping each with dizzying speed and accuracy. Wood paddles lightly coated with semolina, gently glide the raw pizza into the wood fired inferno, quarter turned every 40 seconds. Our pizzas arrive quickly as the 700 degree wood burning oven makes quick work of the pies. They smell amazing and the anticipation of eating one of the world great pizzas was now going to be satiated alongside a bottle of Campagna. We dig in and take that first bite. Hmmm. It is good, but not the mind blowing creation one reads about in travel blogs. The puffy outer crust has a nice amount of char, good chew, no crunch, an maybe just a bit bland. Bland? Bitting into the center gets no better. Overtopped and maybe just a bit undercooked, the center is a wet, flabby mess. The mozzarella has the lactic flavor ones comes to expect from good mozzarella created from buffalo milk, the sauce is a simple crushed tomato sauce with little or no seasoning, the basil, oddly, was the star of the Naples famous Margherita Pizza. Chef do have their off days and dough can change in nature from batch to batch, but I think I got what they serve everyday. I just did not feel the love in the food, very much the same way I felt in Rome. And I wanted to love it. I wanted a transcendent experience and a opportunity to bring something back in my culinary bag of tricks and that did not happen. As a matter of fact, most of the pizza we had in Italy was exactly this. A problem where the legend does not live up to real life. The world has started to speed past it in terms of excellence, creativity and affordability. Now am I talking about Pizza or Italy?

Leaving Italy was bittersweet. Seeing Italy again after so many years brought back so many memories, but it reminds me the world is changing, and sometimes not for the better. Magnificent history and culture now being commoditized and destroyed by those who only seek to profit from its existence. Lack of care and pride in the community manifests itself in the vast amounts of graffiti and garbage present in the streets and sidewalks of the largest cities. Lack of vision and investment is evident in the crumbling structures and endless traffic congestion show a world living in its past and not looking forward. Maybe a lesson for us all.

2 thoughts on “Italy. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Coucou la famille Menke
    Merci de nous faire partager votre belle aventure familiale qui en plus nous permet au passage de lire de beaux commentaires en Anglais…vous nous nous avez donné plein d idées de belles destinations le choix va être très difficile…
    Grosses bises à vous

    1. Salut Karine, on a vu de très belle chose on vient d’arriver en Thailande il faut que je travaille pour poster le blog des enfants. Ton anglais doit progresser! Biz pour le moment tout va bien

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