October 22, 2003

Some Things Right And Wrong With Italy

There are three things wrong with Italy – traffic, concrete, and zoning. Let’s start with concrete. The Italians seem to be having a love affair with concrete. It’s hard to find anything new that isn’t being built with concrete. Not only is most of it ugly, but there seems to be a general inability to finish anything. All I could think yesterday while driving through the outskirts of Florence was thank God for the Renaissance, because without it Italy would be a concrete wasteland.

Which brings up the zoning issue. There are some places, like Lucca, that seem to have their zoning act together. But I tried to drive from Florence to Lucca yesterday, without using the Autostrada, and it was essentially impossible. I literally couldn’t get through the sprawl of Florence to find Pistoia. This was primarily because many signs are missing because of all the construction going on (need I mention that it’s mostly ugly concrete construction?). I can be an incredibly tenacious driver, but after 30 minutes of going round and round I gave up and took the Autostrada to Montecatini Terme.

The other big problem with zoning is that the Italians seem to think that industrial zones should be attached to most every town, even towns that are far from any major city, and where the roads are narrow and winding. The road from Lucca to Bagna de Lucca for example, is narrow, winding, and passes in several places through long rows of narrowly planted trees. It travels through dozens of small towns, several of which are so narrow that they require a traffic light so the traffic can move through town one direction at a time. All the way up, and all the way down I was passed by hundreds of huge trucks full of things like cement, concrete and steel, being delivered to and from one of the many industrial parks along this road. No doubt local employment is important, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like living in any of these towns, where all the houses are right on the road, and these huge trucks are thundering by day and night.

But enough about what’s wrong, let’s talk about what’s right. And at the top of the list is food. Every lunch and dinner I have made a point of stopping for a meal. Last night I was in Florence, and had the most amazing funghi (mushrooms). Two of them, cooked quickly in hot oil, served hot and tender, so tender in fact that they literally melted in my mouth. And the other night in Perugia I had spaghetti tartufo (with truffles), which was earthy and subtle. If you’ve never had truffles, try them, I promise they will taste like nothing you’ve ever had before.

But the best meal I’ve had so far was this afternoon, on the outskirts of Lucca. I was driving the vino strada (wine route), and stopped at a tratorria in the middle of nowhere. It was full of locals, not another tourist in sight, which as any traveler will tell you is the equivalent of a hole in one. I had minestra fagioli (bean soup), spaghetti alla oilo e perperocini, followed by a tarte miele (apple tart) and a capuccino. Fantastico!

Aside from food, the other thing the Italians do right is use their cities both day and night. Every city I’ve been in has people out in force until at least 11pm. They promenade. They eat gelato. They talk. They ride scooters. They hang out in bars. They live life in a way that neither Americans nor British seem to know how to do (even in San Francisco).

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the cities are made for walking – the narrow alleys, the twists and turns, and never knowing when you’re going to come across another incredible shop, or gallery, or trattoria, or gelatoria, or church, or museum. Or maybe it has to do with the Italian lifestyle – centered around family, and affected by living in such close quarters.

Whatever it is, it’s been lovely to be around, if only for a little while.

Posted by: Frank @ 8:32 pm — Filed under:

1 Comment »

  1. Re: concrete. Most Italy is middle to high seismic risk, that means masonry cannot be used. That leaves: (1) steel – it’s too expensive; (2) wood (expensive _and_ disregarded for cultural reason); (3) reinforced concrete.

    Housing is very expensive as it is, so the choice is usually to build the cheapest alternative, that is ugly concrete buildings. In time I hope we’ll move to _nice_ concrete buildings…

    As for the crazy zoning, with many small industrial parks everywhere, instead of a few large industrial zones, I think it’s due to _campanilismo_ that is the fierce local competitions among villages.

    It’s an improvement, though, up to 30 years ago or so, there was no concept of “industrial park", and factories were build everywhere (in my city, Trento, the largest factory was 200 meters from the city center).

    Comment by Stefano — July 12, 2007 @ 7:39 am

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