Italy. The boot-shaped land of pasta, of mountains, of sea, of tiny Mediterranean villages, of the Tuscan sun, of so, so many....clichés. It is perhaps second only to France in countries that You Think You Already Know Before You Get There. And, Rick Steves will tell you, do NOT forget to make a trip to Cinque Terre, "the most fantasy-fulfilling stretch of the fabled Riviera..." where "the lure of the Mediterranean, Italy, and village life combine so potently".
And if the dazzling photos, like this one of the stretch between two of the villages of Manarola and Riomaggiore, are allowed to speak, they do nothing but back him up. But my trip to Italy this time around wasn't about backing up old, tired stereotypes. I wanted to taste and smell and catch the slightest glimpse of the REAL Italy. It was hard. Very hard. But I think I got some flashes of what Italy is, and it's not the perfect, idyllic Rick Steves version. But traces of the Italy of collective memory still do exist. You just have to look carefully past the modern, and carefully past the modern stylized to look like the past.
THIS is Cinque Terre, folks.
Don't be fooled by my photography skills or angel-like baby, bottom right. This is Cinque Terre, where tourists (mostly American) walk ankle to ankle, often on metal trails, trying to get to the next already-completely touristified village, guidebook in hand. The natural beauty is still there, but it's hidden behind nets, khakis, and touristic signs, like the one that memorialized the Cinque Terre celebration of the 40th anniversary of Abbey Road. Huh?
Signs. Tourists. Plastic mardi gras colored cups. This is the real Italy, if you look along the beaten path. That once secret gem of a bistro now posts their (beautifully written by a new friend) New York Times mention out front. Maybe even brings the writer to feel a little remorse. It's still Italy, but it's meta-Italy.
There's the Italy of history, then there's the Italy that still pretends to be Italy of history, and the Italy of now, and the Italy of now as discovered by modern people, and the Italy of now as discovered that posts it discovery and invites a new, different type of person into its social circle, until that becomes the tired Italy. Then, of course, somewhere, there's the Italy of history that hasn't changed. Ready to be tainted by people like me, journalists, bloggers, adventurous and well-meaning travellers. It's complicated.
But I suppose that's what Italy (and any other country) is. We Americans aren't good at living side by side with history...we aren't used to it. We feel compelled to take pictures and go "aweeee" a lot. And if you go in looking only for the first Italy, as we tend to do, the Italy of storytales, the blinders that you inordinately put on yourself are going to prevent you from seeing the real country. The country that is a mixture of modern and historical, contradictory but beautiful.
That's the Italy I came out with visions of. Stay tuned for more....