By the time I land in Milan seven months from now, it will be just shy of six years since I last set foot in the Bel Paese. I've had the extreme joy of visiting Italy several times before that over the years, coming home each time filled with a bouquet of experiences and giddy memories. As I plot my course, there are a number of sights, tastes, and moments I am eager to re-experience or to indulge in for the first time. Why eight? Because it's my favorite number, and I had to cut myself off somewhere - it would be too easy to make a list of 20 or 100.
1. Cheese: Oh, how I love cheese! If I woke up with a sudden dairy allergy, the mourning period would be epic. I'll never forget the first time I tasted fresh mozzarella. By fresh, I mean it had been made less than 24 hours before. The taste was incomparable! I will also be fulfilling my dream of visiting a Parmigiano factory, with great hope that it culminates with standing in that giant room of cheese wheels while breathing in the nutty, rich aroma.
2. Venice: Venice is one of the Big Three (with Rome and Florence), overrun by a mind-boggling 20 million visitors each year. In peak season, it is hot, crowded, and cliched. But arrive in off-season, and it's like a whole new place. The residents are more relaxed, the lines at manageable lengths, and you don't feel like a sweaty clown jammed into a toy car. My favorite part, which is inevitable anyway, is getting lost. Since you can only go so far, it is probably the least stressful place to wander for hours with no idea where you are.
3. Bologna: The city is affectionately known as the "Citta Grassa" - the fat city. Known for its varied but always decadent dishes, I simply cannot wait to stuff my face with some of the best cuisine on offer in Italy. Tortelloni, mortadella (the "real" bologna), tagliatelle, prosciutto - it's a good thing I'll be doing a ton of walking there or I might be forced to roll myself to the next destination!
4. Sicily: Eager anticipation is the name of the game for my time in Sicily. While I'll be visiting other areas too, Palermo fascinates me. The crumbling yet elegant Arab-Norman architecture, mixed with a healthy dose of the Baroque, the noise and chaos with the peace of Monte Pellegrino or Capo Gallo just a short bus ride away. Plus, I'll be there during the Easter holiday, and I hear Easter in Sicily is quite something to behold. After reading the brilliant For 91 Days in Palermo, I don't know how a meager five could ever be enough. I suppose I'll just have to make sure to come back!
5. Pre-dawn: I have risen well before the sun in just about every city I've visited so far in Italy. It is especially lovely in the more popular spots. In Venice, it was just me with the garbage men, vegetable boat, and a few nuns and pigeons. The Trevi Fountain in Rome is pretty much always a complete mob scene, no matter the time of year. At 5:30 in the morning though, it can be just you and one early-rising shopkeeper chatting with a Carabinieri officer. Nice!
6. Churches: Even the smallest town in Italy will have more churches than seems practical for the population. There will almost always be at least one show-stealer, draped in dramatically shaped stone and swathed in frescoes or mosaics. Religious or not, these are places where I can't help but feel often overwhelming awe. While the grandeur of a place like St. Peter's Basilica can't be denied, I find I'm drawn to the lesser known (among tourists anyway) churches scattered nearby. They are generally much less crowded, and provide a quiet place for a bit of self-reflection and calm.
7. Hill Towns: While Italy is a pretty petite country (about 116,000 square miles - America is almost 4 million square miles), we've all seen the beautiful images from atop the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany. The vistas seem to stretch on endlessly, reflective more of the spirit of the country than the body. Pair that with my affection for pre-dawn excursions: heaven!
8. Milan: This particular anticipation is intermingled with a little apprehension. I've never had much desire to visit what seems in many ways a "just" a big, modern city. A significant part of Italy's appeal lies in cobblestone streets, gently decaying buildings, and pristine countryside. Italy can be surprisingly modern, and Milan is a great example of old and new coexisting. I would be a big ole liar though if I said ascending to the roof of Milan's legendary Duomo was not tops on my list.
I would love to hear about anyone else's favorite Italian travel experiences and what you look forward to - share yours in the comments.