After a decade since studying abroad in Italy I look back at each city I visited and reflect on what I learned.
For a budding foodie, Italy is one of the best places to nourish your imagination and hone your palate. That’s what happened to me in 2010 when I visited the country for the first time during a study abroad program with UBC. I learned all about the Veneto region, the Venetian empire and how the Venetian Renaissance differed from their Florentine rivalries.
But while I learned about art in situ and toured museums until my feet were tender, something else was flourishing – I was beginning to appreciate food, wine and cultural differences.
At the time I was relatively new to my current hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia. I had been slowly opening myself up to the various wineries and discovering the subtleties of like Pinot Noir and micro climates.
It wasn’t until Italy, however, that I began to nurture my curiosity within the world of food and wine. Was I a foodie? Not yet. But during my first time visiting Europe, my first time away from North America, I would be learning about more than just art.
Capri & It’s Perfume
For for the first 4 cities it was me and my boyfriend at the time (now my husband). The Southern most city we visited in Italy was the island of Capri. It was a whirlwind to get there from Rome: A train, a crazy Napoli taxi driver, a boat and then a relaxing (and pricey) convertible taxi ride around the island. I believe that within a 5 hour period I had covered about 4 different ways of transportation including a chairlift to the top of Ana Capri.
While the food was less than optimal for a young university student looking to eat more than bad versions of bruschetta warmed in a microwave, I was fascinated by the garden culture.
At the town of Ana Capri there is a single chairlift you can take to get to the top of Mont Solaro for the views of the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius (which levelled Pompeii in 79 AD) and the Capri island itself. But before you get to the top you float quietly, alone, over local gardens. Lemon trees, olives and scents of basil waft in the summer air. Like a dream where I could fly, I looked down over my feet wondering what each house with each garden would cook up come dinner time.
While this isn’t the most profound thought it did plant a seed of appreciation for fresh products and the difference they make. This appreciation bloomed when I returned home.
I had not realized until then that my new home valley had the same appreciation for produce and fresh ingredients grown locally. You’ll taste it in the simplest and best dishes within the valley served at restaurants and wineries.
Again, it was a bit more difficult to find quality food in Rome for a first time traveller that had yet to come to the realization that I was a foodie in the making. My time here was a blur, a roller coaster.
At one moment I was admiring the colosseum and then the next I was battling calculating con men at the Spanish Steps. But how can I blame them? I didn’t realize that I should blend in rather than appear as an obvious newbie traveler.
“Buy a rose!” a man would inaudibly shout while shoving it into my arms then demanding 4€ for the wilted thing. “Buy this purse! Buy a tour! Buy! Buy! Tour Vatican! Meet the Pope!”
“Bella, I said 30€!” when an old man taxi driver had quoted me 20€ before getting in. “Ciao Bella!” he yelled laughing as he drove off with my money. That was not the context I wanted to hear those words.
At this point Rome was becoming a joke. I even despised my journey to the Sistine Chapel where we were herded in like sheep then rushed out with people muttering threats to each other.
“If this woman in front of me doesn’t hurry the hell up I am going to kick her!” One woman behind me audibly muttered.
But finally, a moment of peace was found one evening at a small and unassuming seafood joint just around the corner from my hotel.
Welcomed with smiles despite our lack of a reservation, my boyfriend and I ate and drank on our last night in Rome outside of the tourist area with kind locals and my first tiramisu outside of Canada. Consequently it was the first tiramisu I enjoyed.
When chaos ensues during your travels solace can be found at a table with wine.”
Florence, a Divine Comedy
At last, in Florence I felt like I could relax. I could eat. I could enjoy a bit of La Dolce Vita.
Despite the fact that many people find it difficult to discover good food in Florence, it’s again a recipe for venturing away from the tourist spots. Notice how this is a recurring theme in all of the popular cities in Italy (and the rest of the world really).
Florence was a city of art, the best, biggest and greenest olives I have ever tasted, Chianti and steak.
Il Latini, a restaurant that felt Italian with many inexperienced travellers at the door looking for an authentic experience, was a comedy of happy errors. The seating is communal so we were seated next to a knowledgeable and kind honeymooning couple from Australia who enjoyed wine as much as we did.
Limbs of ageing prosciutto hung above our heads in neat rows – looking back this was a tip that the restaurant wasn’t as ‘autentico’ as my young impressionable mind may have thought. But I was new to the game of ‘spot-the-fake’ and my skillset has since improved.
It is here at Il Latini that I learned you mustn’t order from all three menus – primi, secondi & contorni. You will in fact be ordering an appetizer, a plate of pasta AND a main course such as an incredibly large, rare Florentine steak. Enjoy!
San Gimignano: In Italy, Coffee is the Best Breakfast You’ll Get
Unlike North America it seems breakfast isn’t a to-do in Italy. But you know what is a to-do? Coffee.
Hungry and coming out of a hangover I ventured to San Gimignano determined to see those towers that decorated the cover of my DK Eyewitness Italy guide book. It’s on the cover, it must be a place I MUST go.
I finally came out of my haze and craved some good ol’ eggs and bacon. But the only breakfast I could find was sweet knockoffs of croissants, pastries and Nutella cookies.
My love of cappuccinos began and I haven’t looked back since.
Venice is a Stage, Don’t be an Unwanted Extra
Forget restaurants. In Venice you need a kitchen. I didn’t learn this until my second trip to the floating city.
I perused the market of fresh and incredible creatures from the Adriatic and was sorry I couldn’t cook something up myself. Fresh vegetables and fruit from the mainland painted the carts and the vendors looked at me in disdain knowing I wouldn’t actually buy anything. To them I was a waste of space. I found myself wanting to interact with the locals, not be a passerby.
After this first visit I became more interested in how to help the local Venetian economy as many of the cruise ships visitors that docked there for a few hours would only buy knock offs from China. They wouldn’t eat at any local restaurant because the food is included on the ship. I’ve heard this referred to as ‘hit and run tourism’ and I saw it first hand. After my third visit and much research I wrote an in depth guide to Venice that no only helps the traveler get the most of their trip to Venice but helps to support the locals.
Vicenza or How to Dine Alone
I was surrounded by over 30 fellow students at any given time during my study abroad program. Eventually, when I arrived in Vicenza I wanted some alone time. Everyone had made their plans. Twenty-somethings hunting for the night life, a fling or two and spirits to rouse their courage.
This was the trend as we went from city to city. Clicks naturally formed and I was lucky enough to find my tribe early on…the nerds. We wouldn’t go to a club or try to find love; Two of us had boyfriends at the time and now they’re our husbands but believe me the Italian men tried.
Instead my companions and I would find a historic site or a rooftop, share a bottle of wine and talk about the disbelief of what we were experiencing and where it was all unfolding. But even we craved our alone time.
One evening I snuck away wandering down Vicenza’s narrow streets, similar to that of Venice but without the canals, to a small restaurant that just opened for the evening. They were surprised to see me – a typical tourist who dines at 6:00 rather than 7:30. But I could also tell that they don’t see many tourists. Excitedly, three women sat me with giant smiles and spoke no English. I knew I had stumbled into an authentic restaurant.
Once again, I made the fallacy of ordering from all three menus – primi, secondi & contorni forgetting what I had experienced in Florence. I had ordered too much food but was able to sample a bit of everything; creamy corn polenta with lightly fried sardines, ricotta ravioli with a delicate butter sauce, tender veal osso buco. It was a feast for 3 and I was finally alone yet wishing I was my usual trio.
The women tended to me throughout the meal as if I was a critic. My glass of wine was never empty. They hung on each bite like and I catered to them reacting as each mouthful was savoured. In the end too much food was wasted but the women didn’t seem to mind. I gladly paid the bill with my Roxy wallet full of Euros. At the time I was there to live and rarely kept track of my spending – talk about an entitled white chick.
Contrary to my position on small towns in Canada, I revelled in the small towns of the Veneto. Cities like Rome overwhelmed me with its vast layout.
In Verona I felt comfortable enough to wander by foot and find my way back. Each evening my friends and I would grab a bottle of wine and walk to the Castel Vecchio Bridge where there were steps to a raised brick platform. There you could see the Adige river turn to black after sunset. More conversations of life, family and art would take place as we drained our 3 Euro bottles from the nearest grocery store. None of the wine was bad nor wasted as we sat upon this historical bridge attached to an age old castle. A simple and free discovery that made way for treasured memories a decade later. I still think of those nights and yearn to return to our ancient hangout and talk to my friends.
No elaborate dinners awaited us in Verona. Instead I took to 2 Euro gyros made by a Persian man in a modest shop near the train station. He was used to hungry men and boys coming into the shop. But when a group of equally hungry women came in his looks gave way to his judgements. I would ask for extra sauce on my lamb gyro and I loved watching him shave the massive rotating rhombus of marinated meat. I ate there at least five times during our 3 day stay. The owner never warmed to me despite my tips. But it was the perfect dinner after a day of walking on ancient marble floors and having to hunker down for a night of studying.
I remember arriving in Bologna by train, walking with the professor as she told us what the graffiti upon the exterior walls meant.
“There’s still a desire for fascism.” She warned.
Later, as we waited for her to purchase our tickets to the Basilica di San Petronio – one of the most impressive churches in Italy – I sat upon the steps flipping through my text book to gain some context. The only thing I knew about Bologna was that pumpkin tortellini was a regional specialty, even in summer.
I looked up to see my friend motioning to me with her eye brows.
“That guy next to you.” She mumbled. I looked to my right to find a man practically sitting on my lap ready to snap up my camera or Roxy zippered wallet from my messenger bag.
I gave him a glare and he went away looking for another prey buried in a book or a conversation.
Later that afternoon 30 of us sat in a room called the Teatro Anatomico adorned with wooden pews, walls, ceiling and statues. The summer heat made the wooden construction perspire and the thick air was dense with the sweet rich smell of smouldering campfire. In the centre of the room was a marble operating table and we were the audience.
Suddenly, our study abroad in Italy turned into time travel.
The guide made it all very realistic as he described the building in its original use – the oldest university in the world – where men of great minds would assemble to watch a cadaver of a criminal be dissected for science. The doctors occasionally turned to grave robbing for subjects.
He described the incense that would fill the air to hide the smell of decomposition.
I remember I and a few other students felt ill and dizzy from the heat and our imaginations. For me, my blood sugar was dropping with my new habit of cappuccinos for breakfast and food was the cure and I needed stat. We found a charming little bistro serving, what else but, pumpkin tortellini covered in a thick black balsamic reduction. Perfect for an autumn dinner yet I was savouring each bite in the summer heat under a parasol. But Italian pasta portions are truly the perfect size. It was just the thing I needed to carry on.
Mantova: I am Capable
I was one of those students who would drop a class if a presentation was required. I wasn’t one to get up before a group of people and confidently state a thesis or something I spent hours researching and writing…Until I was forced.
One of the requirements of the ‘study abroad in Italy’ program was a paper on a selected site we were to visit AND a presentation at said site, what the academics like to call ‘in situ’. This scared me immensely. I mean, not only was I to leave North America for the first time and navigate what it means to be a traveler, but I was also to present a topic on location before 30+ students and visitors.
Prior to my presentation we all had free time to explore the town or check out some other lesser known historical sites worth visiting. I chose to shop. My nerves were getting the better of me and before I knew it I was carrying 4 bottles of olive oil, two types of cheese, and one bottle of red wine. Suddenly, I realized I had no where to put these items. I was reluctantly lent a backpack from a friend after convincing them the olive oil wouldn’t leak over her books and I would carry everything all the way back to our dorm.
Note to future self: Travel with your own backpack.
So there I was with my extra 25 pounds of goodies, books and nerves. I had to face my fears.
I jumped in feet first and have never regretted it. In fact, it is in doing so that I realized I know my shit. Not only that but when I know my shit I can get up and confidently present my ideas to anyone who’s listening.
My location and topic? At Mantova’s Palazzo del Te in the Sala dei Giganti. Read about it here.
Padua: Don’t Shit Talk on the Train. Or Take Time to Take a Breath.
Good guy. Bad guy. It is all a matter of perspective.
At the beginning of the study abroad program I had a roommate, as we all did. She was from my campus – for those of you who don’t know, UBC has Vancouver & Kelowna locations – and she was in all my art history classes. From the Kelowna campus it was me, her…let’s call her L and another girl named B. None of us were compatible. This was apparent to me when L would only order vanilla gelato and B wouldn’t try anything she hadn’t before.
None of us ended up in the same clicks. This became a problem for her and she requested a transfer to a room with a different gal.
I for one was quietly happy L left. One bathroom became all mine. On the other hand some girls were seeing this as an embarrassing situation for me. I had been dumped.
I carried on with my friends while she continued to create drama for her new roommate who eventually came to me to say how lucky I was I had a room to myself. I roll my eyes thinking about this entire mess now.
Later, another student was assigned to my room. She was to study Italian with the same professor after our art history study program ended. She got a key, diligently locked the room (as any roommate should) and departed for the train as we made our way to Padua. She unknowingly locked my camera, key and workbook in the room – both of which were laying on my bed.
On the train, frustrated, I vented. Keep in mind it had been 4 weeks with these 30 students, 28 of which were female, low on funds, and looking for a Letters to Juliet moment.
Above all, I think my professor was ready to call it quits with us at the end of the trip.
Padua was our final town together. Our little study abroad in Italy experience was coming to an end. We were all a little homesick, hungry to return home to the familiar yet we wanted to take a break from our studies to really allow our surroundings to sink in.
The Scrovegni Chapel and the Basilica di Sant’Antonio are the main attractions this Veneto town. We would often tour religious places as we studied art history from town to town. All of which were being used as places of worship by locals. During our visit to the Basilica we came across visitors leaving tributes and prayers at the tombs of their namesakes; In Venice the tomb of Saint Marco, in Bologna the tomb of Saint Petronius, and in Padua it was Saint Anthony.
The tomb of Saint Anthony is one of eight shrines, as per the Holy See, and pilgrimages are made yearly in hope of miracles and illumination. His tongue and chin are two relics notably on display at the reliquary which is enough to turn my stomach as I gazed upon the blackened and aged flesh.
During our stop a choir was singing and despite being a non-pious bunch with many sins probably committed by all of us during our trip, we stopped to listen and take respite in the moment.
Have you studied abroad in Italy or another country? What did you learn?
Do you plan to? Tell us in the comments!