The Italian comic Alessandro Siani once said that when you visit the South of Italy, you cry once when you arrive and then again when you leave. It is nearly impossible to understand this expression unless you start to understand that beautifully crazy area of Italy that starts with Rome and extends to Reggio Calabria. Many people (especially the Romans) might take issue with having Rome described as the beginning of the South, but take it from me, when I’m in Rome, what I see, smell, hear and eat has much more to do with Totò than it does with Dante.
I have come up with a list of indicators that will let you know when you are in the South of Italy:
- The letter “s” is pronounced “sh” – e.g. “scuola” is pronounced “shcuola”; “spaghetti” is pronounced “shpaghetti”
- You drink espresso about once an hour, including at nighttime, but somehow still seem to sleep well.
- Nearly all streets are unusually narrow and look convincingly like they are one way – but are not.
- Stray dogs have names and look like some deranged person crossbred them – e.g. German Shepard meets Dachshund.
- The adjective “shpeshiale” – i.e. “speciale” – is the most commonly used superlative.
- Food portions look like they came out of the “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” movie.
- 60% of men are named “Gennaro”, which is usually pronounced “Gennà” or “Gennarinn”.
- 95% of women are named “Maria”, which is always pronounced “Marì”.
- 80% of men are shorter than 5’7’’.
- 80% of women are shorter than 5’2’’.
- Everyone makes the sign of the cross as they pass by churches, cemeteries, funerals, and car accidents.
- Air conditioning is considered a lethal killer.
- It is perfectly ok to ride in 3, 4, or 5 people to a scooter. (see above)
- Diego Armando Maradona is more important than Jesus. (see below)
- Totò is considered the greatest actor to have ever lived.
- Nino D’Angelo is considered the greatest singer to have ever lived.
- Everyone is a hypochondriac – oops, that’s actually all of Italy! Sorry, scratch that.
So, why do you cry when you arrive in the South? Because…
…The South of Italy is anarchy – if any of you have ever driven or been driven in Naples, you know what I mean.
… It is unpredictable – e.g., cars stop in the middle of the road to emotionally greet someone passing by, indifferent to the traffic jam that they create.
…It is chaotic – the concept of a line/que and personal space does not exist.
…The dialect is incomprehensible – and it is sung not spoken. Although it is a dialect that most Italians understand from the incredible number of famous Neapolitan songs and the fact that all the bad guys on Italian television speak Neapolitan.
Then why do you cry when you leave the South? Because…
…It is impossible – I repeat, IMPOSSIBLE – not to fall in love with such a colorful and animated people. The Italian word for it is “simpatico”- which translates literally as “congenial” but in reality is closer to “charismatic”. And Neapolitan people are considered, without doubt, the most simpatici in all of Italy. And these are my people! My mother is from a small town just outside of Caserta, 20 mi. north of Naples, so our dialect, food and customs are all Neapolitan – and believe me there was never a dull moment in my family!
…It is impossible not to be completely enchanted by such a breathtakingly beautiful area. The Bay of Naples with its sapphire blue waters and exotic islands of Capri and Ischia, all framed against the awesome (and I am using that word literally) silhouette of Mt. Vesuvius. (see above). At the south of the Gulf of Naples lies the charming and limoncello-happy town of Sorrento, whose strategic position offers stunning views of it all. The Amalfi Coast, with its cliff-side roads, and magical towns of Positano, Ravello and Amalfi that look like natural outgrowths of the waterfront hills that they elegantly dress, is justifiably the most sought-after coast in Europe.
…It is impossible not to fall in love with the food. Birthplace to pizza, Naples is home to the world’s greatest pizzerie. (see below) Part of the reason is the extraordinary quality of the buffalo mozzarella produced in the surrounding area. Not to mention the bread and pasta (which are the best in Italy), the espresso, the pastries and desserts – e.g. sfogliatella, babà, aragostine. While Southern Italian wines are lesser known than their Tuscan or Piemontese cousins, they are by no means inferior. And once you have eaten a Neapolitan tomato, all other tomatoes will leave you wanting…
It is impossible not to fall in love with the almost inconceivable amount of artistic and archeological treasures to be found in the South of Italy. Starting with what I believe to be the most important thing to see in all of Italy – the archeological parks of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Unfortunately for their inhabitants, both cities were “flash frozen” by the pyroclastic blast caused by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE. But fortunately for us, the nearly-perfectly-preserved cities offer an extraordinarily vivid view of daily life in the ancient world. And although it was the Romans that controlled the area in ancient times, the Greeks before them left indelible monuments to their own greatness. Monuments such as the three incredibly rare and well-preserved archaic temples in the former Greek colony of Paestum. If it’s Renaissance art that you are after, then there is the remarkable collection of paintings at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, with works by Simone Martini, Masaccio, Titian and Caravaggio – just to name a few.
One thing is certain, no place is perfect. And although the South of Italy might be a bit more “unpredictable” than places like Rome, Florence or Venice, it has just as much, and in many ways much more, to offer!
Join me for my Southern Italy Program – https://rockyruggiero.com/shop/italy-programs/southern-italy-program-2023/– and let me show you why I think the South of Italy is the most magical place in all of Italy!