Falling in love with Italy

BEING chased up the stairs of a public toilet by a bellowing, red-faced, extremely angry woman into the arms of two local Carabineri is not the ideal way to start exploring Italy.

This was 1972 and because of our naivete and a lack of appreciation for local customs, we were not aware that it's mandatory to tip the attendant presiding over the loos. Plus we'd been in the country less than 20 minutes and had yet to secure some local currency.

While the lavatory-lady-in-waiting continued to screech and gesticulate, we attempted some Marcel Marceau dialogue with the slightly bemused constabulary. In the interests of Italian-New Zealand economic and tourist relations, we were let off with a warning and the two officers may still be trying to placate the irate woman.

Almost 40 years later we revisit in style, entrusting our tour in the capable hands of Italian speaking Waiheke Island locals, Susan Williamson and John Percy, who have been shepherding timid tourists all over Italy for three decades.

Italy, no question, is a must-do for anyone contemplating travel, and I can make your visit far more pleasurable by sharing some acute observations.

I'm not talking about what you probably already know: translucent skies, breathtaking hills, wafting lavender, fields of bowing sunflowers and impossibly cute ancient unspoilt towns and villages.

The picture-postcard perfect stuff is yours for the taking, but you need to also heed the heartbeat, psyche and pulse of those glorious, mad Italians.

You see, it's not just about the local food and wine, it's about the engaging elusive X-factor that makes an Italian experience so different, so memorable and so essential.

As Donatella, our gypsy-esque guide, confided: "In Italy you look, you enjoy ... it doesn't matter if you don't understand."

The fact this history-drenched country has been unified for only 150 years is often overlooked. There remains a strong patriotic diversification and regionalism. In the Chianti region (roughly between Florence and Siena) you drink only Chianti wines. To ask for a bottle of anything else is to incur the wrath and disdain of the locals.

As one Italian friend observed, "Italy only really unites for a short time every four years for the soccer world cup. As soon as we're knocked out that unity is over."

Italians are generally gracious, hospitable and generous. They can be gently self-deprecating or witheringly rude and sarcastic.

In four weeks travelling the country I did not find one Italian who would own up to voting for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The general consensus was "He's all bluster and has no appreciation of class and style."

As a running soap opera he does, however, provide some amusement, but you get the feeling the Italians have had enough of a head of state who is viewed as a cross between Hugh Hefner and Charlie Sheen.

If you think the Italians are rude about the English (and they are), they save their most blistering vitriol for the French. As one local, pointing out yet another Madonna and Child fresco, said, "The French claim great art and sculpture and conveniently overlook the fact they were all taught by the Italians."

The good news for New Zealanders is that we are loved and adored - even if it's only because of the reputation of our All Blacks, plus being such a young country we don't compete in the areas of aesthetics, history and a truly defined and refined culture. Not yet anyway.

Then there's the simple stuff. No one drapes a sweater around the neck and across the shoulders like an Italian male. The men's ability to accessorise is matched only by the way the women can make a scarf look like an entire Chanel outfit.

On two occasions in different village trattorias or osteria I was served with absolute flair by handsome great-grandmothers in their 80s. One refused to produce a menu and said she would choose instead a selection of grazing platters. "Trust me," she said. I did. Words are inadequate to describe the feast that unfolded.

The myriad television channels are dominated by soccer matches and bizarre gems like badly dubbed versions of Benny Hill.

There's no obsession with rigid compliance codes. Tiny hilltop villages teeter on the verge of oblivion. They call it historical charm, we'd be swinging the wrecking ball.

Italy stands alone, beholden to no one. The people are complex, even the Italians themselves will tell you that. They're honest enough to admit that although aesthetics and style are in their DNA, they're capable of stealing ideas from everybody.

In Florence I get a haircut. "Do you know what our national game is?" asks the hairdresser.

"Soccer," I reply.

"No, we lose too often, our national game is sex ... that way everyone wins."

* John Hawkesby travelled around Italy with Etruscan Pleasures Italia and flew courtesy of Cathay Pacific, which has daily flights from New Zealand to Rome via Hong Kong and four flights a week from New Zealand to Milan.

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