Where happiness is a way of life
I'VE been dreaming of Italy, and I want to go back there. Apart from a couple of shore excursions on a Mediterranean cruise last year, it has been too long since I have enjoyed the many distinctive pleasures of Italy.
To turn my Italy dreams into reality the first step is research. And how easy it is in today's marvellously modern world to click a mouse and be instantly transported to the place of your dreams. It is also easy to become confused. There is much out there to contemplate.
Should I do Tuscany, visit hilltop villages and mingle with the locals? Buy fat red tomatoes at the markets and eat them beneath the cypress trees? Munch on slippery olives with a glass of chianti and then spit the pips into those cute little ceramic dishes that come to you in every Italian bar?
Or hit the galleries in Pisa, Florence and Lucca and let da Vinci and Michelangelo have their way with me? Or should I go to the south, the glorious Amalfi coast and revel in Ravello and party in Positano? Get on a vintage Vespa and zoom along the winding coastal road (am I mad?) or better still, hop on a bus, stand up hanging on to a strap, and enjoy one of the most hair-raising and scenic rides in the world?
It is especially exciting when the big buses meet each other headlong on the narrow, twisting road. They have to slow right down and inch their way past each other with a hair-width between them, and a terrifying drop to the sea for the unfortunate bus on the coast side.
See how delightful it is to dream of Italy?
Perhaps I should not focus on one region. Do all of Italy. Hire a car (always a daredevil act in this country where every driver considers himself a Formula One contender) and motor from the top of Italy to the tip of its boot, sticking my head out the car window, waving my arms theatrically shouting "mi scuzi, mi scuzi'' when the Italian drivers honk impatiently as I fumble my confused way through the toll booths on the autostrade.
Everyone who visits Italy has their own special memories. My first time in Italy in the late 1960s I could not walk the streets without a small crowd of men suddenly appearing around me like a pride of lions on the hunt. They seemed to come from nowhere yet everywhere: out of shop doors and dim bars, even apartment windows. They all called after me "bella ragazza, bella ragazza'' and I had no idea what it meant.
It became a mantra everywhere I went, from the busy streets of Rome to the back alleyways of Naples.
It was not until a few decades later that I returned to Italy as a mature woman (wondering why the crowds of men no longer suddenly appeared like magic as I hit the streets) that I bothered to look up the meaning of bella ragazza. Beautiful girl.
I was stupidly flattered even though it had taken about 30 years to understand the compliment.
Needless to say there were no more crowds of men, no more calls, not even a single "bella donna'' (beautiful woman) as I made my way around Italy at this later stage of my life.
The thing about Italy that is so compelling is not just its stupendous art, its ancient history, its enviable sense of style, it is the way Italians enjoy life like no other race I can think of. As Frances Mayes observed in her bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun, the Italians have a gene the rest of us do not. A happiness gene. A special DNA that ensures they make their way through life having more fun than anyone else.
And that is a lot of love about a country, and a good philosophy to base your holiday dreams on.