italy 3: italy and the italian … young country in an ancient nation

That and this about Italy

Surrounded on three sides by the seas [Tyrrhenian, Adriatic and the Mediterranean aka the water between the lands] and shielded by the Alps in the north, Italy is a land of mountains with the Apennine range cutting through it lengthwise. Sicily and Sardinia, Italy’s two major islands, together with a number of smaller ones cluster around the mainland. Covering an area of 301,338 sq. kilometres, the country has a population of 57 million people, with 4 million living in Roma.

Italy completely encloses two independent countries—the Vatican and San Marino—the two smallest nations in the world. The latter, a mere 60 sq. kilometres in area and with a population of 21,000, was founded by Marino, a stone-cutter in the 4th Century and has been an independent republic since the 9th Century. The Vatican City, an independent papal State constituted in 1929 as an enclave in Rome, includes the Vatican [the papal residence consisting of a group of buildings] and St. Peter’s Basilica. It covers an area of 0.438 sq. kilometres and has a population of 1,000.

The River Po is the longest river in Italy. On its journey to the Adriatic Sea it creates a delta which has been claimed to be “so ugly, that it was beautiful” and is a sanctuary for a rich and varied birdlife. The second and third longest rivers in Italy are Arno [flowing through Florence] and Tiber [flowing through Rome]. Riviera literally translates to “along the shore.” There are two rivieras in Italy; the shore of the rising sun and the shore of the setting sun, both near Genoa on the west coast.

Italy has very strict rules regarding the preservation and protection of its rich art and history. All properties, both in the cities and countryside which are over a 100 years old are declared national monuments and cannot be altered on the outside. Special areas have been designated for modern construction so as not to interfere with the historical centres. Only a limited number of grocery shops are allowed in the countryside and here again in restricted areas only, to ensure Italy’s natural rural beauty is kept intact and unscathed.

The country is divided into 20 States, each named after an ancient indigenous tribe that inhabited Italy in pre-Roman times. The Romans destroyed all these tribes along with traces of their civilisations in their quest to establish their prowess in the mainland. Tuscany for instance is named after the Etruscans that lived in the region.

After the invasion by the barbarians and the subsequent demise of the Roman empire in the 5th Century, Italy fell into the folds of the Dark Ages and the peninsula remained divided right up till the 19th Century. In 1000 AD, people believed the world was going to come to an end. When it still survived, unscathed, faith flourished and pilgrimages became a common occurrence from the northern areas to Rome, the centre of the Christian world; a pilgrimage that washed away all sins, opening doors to paradise. The ensuing crusades carried out led to rich booty being brought into Rome. The Middle Ages (12th to 14th Century) saw powerful landowners moving to the cities, setting up city-states and republics. Napoleon Bonaparte, the Frenchman born in Italy, strived for the unification of Italy which eventually occurred in 1860-1871, creating the first ever kingdom in its history.

Mussolini’s fascist party ruled Italy between the two world wars. Based on nationalism, his party took away political power from the people. Mussolini, though initially allied to the Germans, switched over to the winning side when the wars took a turn. On 2 June 1946, the Constitution was re-written and Italy became a republic.

Another interesting character in Italy’s story is Garibaldi—Italy’s national hero. He was married three times and had myriad lovers. Almost every town in Italy has a square named after him.

Some more politics?

In the 56 years since independence, Italy has had 59 governments, the average span for each being nine months. The shortest government lasted for six days, the longest for three to five years and for seven months in Italy’s modern political history there was no government in place. An instance when Italians claim everything worked fine, even better! Every time there is a disagreement in the Assembly, ministers are pulled out, resulting in the government coming tumbling down. The only requirement for presidency is age, namely 50 years, who is elected for office for a seven-year term by the deputies who represent every 80,000 Italians for a term of five years and senators, representing each State for a period of six years. The President is, in fact, merely a figurehead. All powers are vested in the Prime Minister. During the 1980s there were as many as 283 political parties in Italy of which 16 were major ones. The Italians are very actively involved in their politics. During the last elections as many as 92 percent of the population voted.

The Roman legacy

The greatest legacy bequeathed by the Romans to western civilisation is their language [Latin] and law. The most prestigious law school in the world is in Bologna which is over 900 years old and houses the original Codes of Law. Modern law is based and built upon these earlier Roman codes. The English alphabet is heavily indebted to the Latin alphabet, derived as it is from the former in both speech and script. The Latin alphabet [upper case] can be traced back to 600 BC with the lower case developed a few centuries later. Latin is the root of all European languages and is still taught in schools today. Romans were great believers in the power of the written word and wrote down everything. It is for this reason that despite so many hundreds of years later, we still have such an excellent knowledge and record of their lives and achievements.


Italy is part of the G8 group of most industrialised nations in the world. Italian businesses are at large family run affairs with a staff count of between 11 and 100 workers only. The main exports are food, such as olive oil, wine, pasta, tomatoes, salamis and cheeses, and cars, namely, fiat, ferrari and AlfaRomeo. Mr. Ferrari, born in 1898, designed the first ever sports car in 1947. This car went on to win the grand prix in 1949 and since then it has consequently been winning at the Formula 1 races. The company also manufactures cars for urban users. Built in a limited number of colours and priced at around US$ 160,000, they are sold/ given to a select group of people who find themselves in favour with Mr. Ferrari. The Italians have a natural knack for design, creativity and originality which is reflected in all their exports—beauty is of paramount importance. They are often called upon by other European multinational companies to design their products. Scooters, another Italian innovation, scour the cities and towns alike. Called vespa, they literally mean mosquitoes.

A welfare State

Italy is a welfare State with the State providing free education, health and welfare services to its citizens. Out-patients in the hospitals only pay for tests. In the event that a pregnant woman needs to stay longer at the hospital after childbirth, the State provides a social worker to look after her children and husband at home!


Italians have 13 years of education, commencing from age 6 to 19. High schools are divided into five specialised categories: classics, technical, linguistics, art and music. According to statistics, 52 percent of students opt out of university. There is a very high unemployment rate in Italy, ranging from 2 percent in the north to 30 percent in the south. There are no bachelors or associate degrees. Studies after school lead straight to a masters degree. Five years ago all education was free. It is only lately that fees and closed numbers have been applied to universities. The latter is a system that permits a limited number of students, who can be guaranteed a job, to study in the social and medical fields.

Till recently, French was the official, diplomatic and aristocratic language of Europe. English was introduced in the Italian school curriculum a couple of years ago. The result is that most Italians do not speak any English, even when highly educated.


Olives have been growing in Italy since the past 3,000 years. They were introduced to Greece by the Phoenicians who a thousand years later brought the trees to Italy. Both the Greeks and Phoenicians were sea-faring traders and colonists. The latter followed the route of the stars, that is sailed at night. The Greeks followed the route of the sun and sailed during the day. The olive trees in Sicily are said to be about 1,000 years old. A hundred year old olive tree produces around 200 kilograms of olives; 4 kilograms of olives make 1 litre of oil. The oil that is pressed from the young fruit is called extra virgin oil, the finest of all olive oil. Today, Spain, Greece and Italy produce 75 percent of the world’s supply. Olive oil is used in all Mediterranean cooking. The average Italian woman uses 60 litres of it in a year. The best oils come from the Chianti and Tuscany regions. A common household remedy for stomach aches is one teaspoon of olive oil at night. It guarantees to make everything come out the next morning, making for a perfect puke.

Pasta! Six hundred different types of pasta and sauces from Italy’s various regions make it one of the most popular dishes worldwide. Pasta in Italy is a starter and not the main meal, with a serving comprising a mere 100-150 grams topped with one tablespoon of sauce. Meals in Italy are served warm and tepid, never very hot nor very cold. Unlike most pastas, Gnocchi is made of potatoes. Risotto, rice cooked with gravy, is also pretty divine. There are no snacks/ snack times in Italy and neither do they eat huge breakfasts. A roll of bread with an expresso or cappuccino, and then lunch and dinner. Fat Italians are quite a rarity. Interestingly, there is no age restriction for alcohol. The Italians start drinking very early in their lives, usually at the age of seven. Alcohol, mainly in the form of wine is only taken with meals during dinners. Hard liquor is hardly ever consumed. Since they grow with it, there are no cases of its abuse. Alcoholism and breath detectors do not even exist in Italy.

Whilst the whole world has a zillion different types of pizza, the Italian pizza comes in three different toppings and thick crust only: cheese and tomato, olives, and egg plant. And delicious. They also make sandwiches with pizza bread. Their regular toasted mozzarella cheese sandwiches are wonderful. Huge slices of soft white bread with melting cheese. But the most delectable and my daily lunch during my trip was the one and only gelato. Differing from the usual ice-cream in that it is made daily from fresh milk and contains no preservatives, it comes in a range of flavours and literally melts in the mouth. No trip to Italy could be quite complete without it.

And finally, one last byte before I close this post. 🙂 In 1901, an Italian invented a machine that was to change life forever! The Expresso. It led to the creation of the ‘Bar’, an establishment situated in every turn and corner and road and town throughout the country which serves breakfast, snacks, alcohol, phones and gossip, in the company of the expresso coffee. The correct way to drink expresso, the dark ominous liquid filling only half a tiny cup, is in one quick shot, followed with a gasp of delight. Cappuccino, is primarily expresso with milk. As the day progresses the milk portion gets lesser and lesser, transforming the beverage closer to the beloved expresso.


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