Bella Italia

Grazie, Alex Polizzi.

I stumbled across the final episode of her Secret Italy series on TV last week. This piece was on Puglia in the south, the heel of Italy’s endlessly fascinating boot.

The concept of the series is Alex reconnecting with her own roots, as part of the venerable Forte family.

Her first language was Italian, but she has been brought up largely in the UK. My own connection with that bellissimo country is more tenuous, but she helped to remind me of the places I’ve already been lucky enough to enjoy visiting, and those still on the list for my retirement years. And also kick me into a more structured approach to learning the beautifully demonstrative Italian language, as animated as a Roman rush hour.

My father used to work in the travel industry, and I could only have been 5 or 6 when he secured tickets for a posh cruise around the Mediterranean. We enjoyed a few days stopover in Rome, in an August heatwave, and brief trips to Pompeii and Capri. I was too young to appreciate the history, beauty and passion of this romantic country, but the seeds had been sown in my youthful soul.

Fast forward many years and the love affair was ignited when Gill and I spent a week walking in the majestic Dolomite mountains. Part Italian, part German and part Ladino, this area is an intoxicating miscela of cultures, language and food. The following week touring round Tuscany was almost an anti-climax, although it sounds folle to dismiss the living museums of Florence, Pisa and Siena so heartlessly.

We found the quieter Lucca more rewarding, sipping chilled glasses of Prosecco in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro as dusk brought to life the locals in the multi-tiered ancient properties encircling the elliptical plaza, like the opening scene in an epic production at the Globe.

Trips to the beguiling islands of Sicily and, more recently, to Sardinia – both with their own distinct history and culture – continued the affair. And back on the mainland, another epic twin-centred Italian vacanza cemented the relationship for ever: a few days in Rome, my first time back there since the 1960s and now in a more bearable temperature; and a week in the Majella mountains and national park in Abruzzo, an unspoiled eastern province with hilltop villages unchanged for centuries and seaside resorts, with the clear Adriatic lapping at its broad, sandy beaches.

A couple of skiing holidays, in the tax-free Livigno domain and the vast Sella Ronda area back in the Dolomites, didn’t provide another full-on Italian affair. But it’s still rewarding to find a tiny piste-side trattoria serving a secret recipe home-made pasta special for lunch, or gargle with a throat-stripping grappa before bedtime….and know that the country’s traditions will endure for longer than I’ll be around to enjoy them.

So where’s next? The rugged Ligurian coastline; Le Marche, Abruzzo’s quieter northern neighbour; the tourist mecca of the Italian Lakes; stay in an Apulian trullo; and visit biblical Matera, in Basilicata, thanks to Alex Polizzi’s own love affair with this ancient community etched into its rocky surroundings, and saved in the 1980s from its poverty-stricken ghost-town status.

And I’d like to immerse myself somewhere in this bellissimo country to learn their language properly. To engage fully with Italians on the merits of this year’s Montepulciano vintage, or who will win the Scudettonow there’s a worthy ambition for retirement.

Bravo bella Italia…e grazie Alex Polizzi.

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