I recently returned from a 10-night road trip around beautiful Tuscany – a journey filled with fine architecture, food, drink, views and a good dose of sunshine.
Although it was my third trip to Italy – having previously visited Naples and Rome – my Tuscan experience was in many ways a real eye-opener. Here are seven things I learnt about Italy, its people and culture while I was there.
1. Italian red wine is amazing
In the UK our supermarket shelves are stocked full of reds from Chile, France and Australia, but you hardly ever see a bottle of Italian vino rosso on sale. In fact, I can’t ever recall buying a Chianti or Montepulciano in London.
This, as I have now discovered, is a terrible shame. From having never tried Italian red to elevating it to my favourite drop, the balance of body, fruit and endless drinkability (I really put this to the test without ever having a hangover) means I’ll be permanent vino rosso watch from now on in restaurants and shops!
2. Pecorino cheese is a thing
Like Italian red wine, pecorino cheese has completely passed me by in the UK, but in Tuscany I practically ate my bodyweight in this deliciously firm and flavoursome cheese made from ewe’s milk. It’s origins were also a surprise to me as I am not a fan of goats’ cheese.
3. Personal space doesn’t really exist
Although I’d already been on a couple long-weekend city breaks in Italy before, in the course of my 11 days in Tuscany I began to pick up on the fact that my British concept of personal space is not really a thing in Italy!
In almost every queue I was in, I’d have someone standing uncomfortably close behind me – jostling my camera bag, pushing their chest into my back and, in one instance, heavily nose breathing on the back of my arm!
The same applies to driving too, where even when you’re in slow-moving traffic the car behind is practically swapping paint jobs with your motor.
4. Italians are very accommodating to tourists
With English being such a world language, I like to think Brits are very accommodating when it comes to interacting with foreign speakers – ignoring their grammatical mistakes and trying their best to make sense of thick accents.
The same can’t be said of some other nationalities I’ve met on my travels, where your best attempts to speak the local language are greeted with faces that suggest you’re a complete failure before they start speaking English at you.
In Tuscany I found it really refreshing and enjoyable that the locals were always prepared to chat to me in “I-nglish” – a fun mix of GCSE Italian and competent English.
When I raised this point with my expat Italian friend she told me that many Italians have a confidence issue when it comes to speaking English, which they shouldn’t.
5. It has to get to at least 25C or more before Tuscans take off their winter coats
Let’s just say it’s not hard to look like a tourist in Tuscany. All you have to do is bare your arms or put on a pair of shorts and you’ll have people shouting “tourist” at you in the street (that literally happened to me in Montefollonico!).
Even when it was in the low 20s and I was sitting basking in the direct sun sipping an aperol spritz and getting a tan, the locals around me were wrapped up beneath jeans, jumpers, leather jackets and scarves like it was mid-December!
6. Italy isn’t as cheap destination as I thought
There’s definitely a certain irony in being handed a 90-euro bill by a waiter moments after he’s said to you: “You live in London – that’s really expensive right?”
While certain things are a bargain – a coffee and a croissant (a couple of euros); an aperitivo (5 euros for a cocktail and a plate of snacks) – I found the majority of restaurants and accommodation to be on a par with the south of England, especially since the pound is much weaker following the referendum.
Main courses tended to be in the 15-20 euros range and when you factor in the cost of the cover charge (coperto) for the obligatory bread basket as well as a bottle of water (tap water isn’t drunk in Italian restaurants), a meal for two can quickly add up. It’s a good job the food and drink is so delicious to justify how much I spent on eating out!
7. Italian ‘queues’ aren’t the same as British queues
We Brits love a good organised queue and we pour scorn upon those who choose to become queue jumpers. In Italy, erm not so much!
In fact, show a moment’s hesitation at a counter and you’ll have one of those locals who’s been jostling you from behind ducking past you to pay first.
And when it comes to queuing for attractions, Italians prefer a rather more chaotic approach where no one is quite sure what’s happening and everyone just charges towards the one member of staff on the door waving their tickets.
Photo by Rich Ward