Some things to miss about Italy now I’m not there

  • The smell of dry pine needles when you walk on them. We twice visited a little Umbrian town called Asciano because of its small but wonderful collection of Sienese art, and both times we walked across a carpet of dry pine needles crossing a park. The scent takes me back to childhood because my sisters and I spent hours playing on a hill at the back of my grandparents’ house that was thick with dried pine needles. It’s a very Proustian memory smell which in this case carries a heavy tang of spicy heat, and the springy underfoot crunch is also delightful. The photo is of Sant’Agata, the church in Asciano where the pictures used to be, and where I first saw them more than 20 years ago, although now they’re housed in a glorious new museum.

  • Two-sided billboards. I’ve always been amused by the absurdity of driving along country roads in Italy and being faced with a large billboard advertising a restaurant or hotel in the opposite direction to the one in which you’re travelling – oftentimes it’s in the town you’ve just left. I’ve spent idle hours wondering how it was that someone actually paid for such a mad installation. Did the owners ever check to see if their ad was in the right place, facing the right way? But on this trip we noticed that the billboards are now mostly double-sided, so at least some potential customers are captured on their way past. Phew. The Italian domestic economy is saved for another day. I don’t have a photo of one of these billboards, I’m sorry to say.
  • The views. This applies particularly – though not exclusively – to the Tuscan and Umbrian towns and countryside, and you have to ask yourself how they do it. How is it that absolutely every view is beautiful, even in the towns? As in “every prospect pleases and only man is vile” (Reginald Heber, since you’ll probably want to know, from the From Greenland’s icy mountains hymn) except that in Umbria and Tuscany the young men are so often strikingly beautiful as well, as though they’ve stepped straight from a fresco. Not vile at all. I would hazard a guess that Bishop Heber never visited Italy. This is a view in Narni, just to make one tiny point among many.

  • Tomatoes. Yes, I know I go on about these a fair bit, but the wonderful thing about Italian tomatoes is the fierce summer heat that ensures they aren’t even slightly watery. They’re deliciously juicy, but when you cut one open, watery juice doesn’t run everywhere. Because there isn’t any watery juice, that’s why not. So the flavour is more intense. Ipso facto and QED, and I rest my case.

  • The Sienese storage buildings that you see at the side of minor roads throughout the region. I used to think they belonged to the electricity workers but I’ve been told (on reasonably good authority) that isn’t true. (AMM.NE simply stands for ‘Amministrazione’ so that doesn’t get you any further into solving the mystery.) I don’t know who uses them, I’ve never seen anyone hanging around or opening or shutting the doors, but the buildings are impossibly sweet – the paint colours are perfect; the size meets every aesthetic criterion; even the finer points of the spacing and alignment of type in the signage is beautiful. Italy, you win the style prize again.

  • Oh, and the figs. You knew I was going to talk about the figs again, didn’t you? The organic farm where we stay has three purple fig trees, two green fig trees and one white fig tree, and the fruit on all of those comes to perfect ripeness in the month of September when we stay there. (No coincidence, I assure you.) D.H. Lawrence wrote a rather predictably rude poem about ‘the honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside’ and reminded his readers that ‘ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime’. But they keep in our food memories, David Herbert: they keep there, safe and cherished, from year to year. Photos help.

2 Responses to “Some things to miss about Italy now I’m not there”

  1. Helen Lowe Says:

    Wonderful–now I want to go there, too!

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for that, Helen! But you’re now looking forward to spring – and yes I know it’s been a hellish one in NZ so far but it’ll get better. Here in Europe we might have the joy of new pumpkins & beetroot and the memory of figs & tomatoes, but the nights are soon going to get very long and dark and last for way too long. Stay right where you are would be my advice!

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