It’s been 25 years since my first trip to Italy, and 19 since I first visited Orvieto. I, of course, have not changed AT ALL during those years, but I started thinking about some of the ways Italy has changed.
First of all, there was almost no English spoken – at least not where I went 25 years ago, which was to Venice and Capri. I was in that “uber-American” mood, so I didn’t enjoy those 2 beautiful places nearly as much as I should have. For instance, there were NO cruise ships in Venice. It was peaceful and elegant, and I should have taken advantage of being able to wander alone through its quiet streets, because now it’s almost impossible to avoid the hordes of tourists who get dropped off every day.
My friend Lou was along on my second trip, and he quickly whipped me into shape as far as appreciating Italy for being Italy, instead of expecting it to be America with an accent. It’s been love ever since.
By the time of my first trip, Lou had been visiting for 20 years, so he really knew his stuff. He told us where to stay in Capri, and the reason he chose that hotel was because it had the best air conditioning he’d ever run across in all his visits. To us, it was only slightly better than being issued a hand-held paper fan. But at the time, it qualified as “best ever”. Today, hotels have wonderful air conditioning systems, where you can have your room as cold as I have my home in the US – the “meat locker” setting. Many stores and restaurants are still back in the paper fan days, but hotels have come a long way.
And speaking of hotels – both their beds and showers have changed. 25 years ago, most mattresses were soft and saggy, and you almost always woke up with a backache. Now they tend to be so firm that I often wake up because whatever part of me is next to the mattress is numb. In general, numb is better than a sore back, however, so I score another point for Now.
Showers could have been a lot of things back then. Some were hand-held nozzles in a bathtub that had no curtain around it, meaning water was pretty much everywhere by the time you rinsed off. The very worst were shower heads in the ceiling or wall, a drain in the floor, but no lip to hold the water and no slant to guide it down the drain. The success of this arrangement is based totally on the how good the drain is, and even now Italian drains tend to be sluggish, so there was almost no chance of taking a shower without having several inches of water covering the bathroom floor and seeping into your bedroom. The next step in shower evolution was the VERY small stall. You still see these occasionally. Some were so small you would have to step outside to retrieve your soap, should you drop it. Still….it was an upgrade and your bedroom stayed dry. Today, stalls are normal size and if you have a tub, you usually have some kind of water shield – even if it’s just a glass panel that protects only half the length of the tub. Today is DEFINITELY better than Yesterday.
Sticking with the bathroom theme – one thing that has not changed is that almost no hotels have face cloths. I know that many people do not use them for bathing, but I do. It’s one of the top 3 things I tell people when they say they’re coming to Italy for the first time: If you use a face cloth, bring it!!!!
A huge change is that many homes, and even some restaurants and hotels – particularly in the countryside – now have screens on their windows. This was totally unheard of 25 years ago. Our apartment has large windows and it would be very difficult to install screens, so in effect, I still live in the past. I’d like to modernize, but I’m sure we’d miss all those fluttering insects that like to gather around our lamps at night.
As I’ve mentioned, my first trips were all bike trips, so the roads were of utmost importance. Here I have to give points to 25 years ago. Financial crisis, government indifference, corruption…. probably all of the above…. have led to a deteriorating network of back roads. The other day, I drove on a road where I used to bike, and while the views are still gorgeous, now the only place that wouldn’t be like riding on a washboard is the center of the lanes. It is one small step up from being a dirt road. On the other hand, the Autostrada – which, as you might recall from my last blog, I despise – has a surface that is in much better shape than any of the major highways around me in the US. It’s not cheap – almost $20 round trip to go to Rome (an hour away) – so you pay for that great road surface while the free back roads turn into gravel.
Italians adore grumbling (don’t we all???), and I think that when it comes to what’s happening with their economy, they have the right to grumble. However, things look much more prosperous than they did 25 years ago. Italy did an enormous amount of restoration and clean-up work prior to the Year 2000 Jubilee celebration. Buildings black with age suddenly had their golden stone revealed. Frescos that had been abusively touched-up over the centuries were expertly taken back to their original colors. There’s been an increase in flower boxes adorning houses and businesses. And the piazze are more user-friendly (…….except for our Piazza della Repubblica, of course, which is still human-hostile). When we first settled in Orvieto, we had good friends who would describe their house to newcomers as the only one on the street with clean stonework. Now they have to give first-time visitors additional directions because several other houses are looking well-cared-for also.
So while there might be a few differences, from a tourist standpoint it seems that most of Italy’s changes have actually enhanced the things that bring people back time after time. Certainly for me, this relatively quiet evolution has kept me returning for 25 years ….and I have my fingers crossed that sometime in the next 25 years, those back roads will be returned to 1988 standards.