Sitting round the dinner table one night , after a few bottles of Chianti with some old friends, most of whom had spent time as European tour guides and backpackers, I asked them to name the best thing to see or do while staying in Italy. There was a lot of loud discussion as some tried to praise the less obvious things over the more mainstream, but there were also plenty of unanimous agreement for others.
In no particular order may I present to you the top 20 things to do in Italy as decided by my mates.
1. Nun Watching in Piazza San Pietro
There is something serene about watching a line of Nuns on tour, especially on specific Saint's days, taking photos of the façade of St Peter's or trailing behind each other inside the huge basilica. They are only out numbered by the pigeons, which parents ,who hate their children, encourage to sit on their offspring's head in hopes they will pick them up and fly away, perhaps dropping them somewhere over the Forum.
2. Eating Gelati 3 times a day
This is mandatory for anyone travelling during the months of June, July and August. How the Italians get it so creamy, tasty and dribbly is beyond me but you never feel full. It's the best thing after a long hot day queuing up for hours to see all those magnificent artworks. It is made with totally natural ingredients and everybody claims to have the best gelato shop in Italy, which is believable, but some even go further, experimenting in odd flavours like tomato and believe it or not basil.
3. Holding up the leaning tower of Pisa
You've all seen it. The obligatory photo of someone and their mates holding up the Leaning tower, either with one finger or both hands. Probably the next best thing to climbing it, which is all anyone goes to Pisa to do. And holding it up is about the cheapest thing there.
4. Dodging Cars in Rome
After sky diving in Switzerland and a taxi ride in the Czech republic this probably the most adrenaline packed activity you can do in Europe. To cross the road you must keep walking, make sure you keep eye contact with any oncoming driver like a bullfighter and keep moving. The cars and bikes will come very close, never actually touching you, so long as you keep going.
5. Parking on a Kerb
Everyone else does it.
6. Singing a Duet with a Gondolier
He may not be the next Pavarotti but your gondolier should have a pretty good voice. They know all the old favourites and it makes the experience all the more authentic. They usually ask for a bit extra for the service on top of the hire fee. The most favoured time is around dusk as the lights are coming on making the reflections in the water add to the atmosphere.
7. Hanging out with the Pope on Wednesday
Tourists, Nuns, Priests, locals and pigeons flock to Piazza San Pietro for the weekly address from his holiness Pope Benedict XVI at around 10am. Afterwards you can check out the inside of the Basilica and the crypt where St Peter's remains are kept.
8. Checking out David's A--e
You could line up and pay to see the original inside the Accademia, where it was shifted at the end of the 1800's to protect it from vandals and the elements. Or you could examine his copy up close in Piazza Signoria for free, or you could climb the hill above the Ponte Vecchio to see the bronze version standing in Piazza Michelangelo. Or you could see all 3 and make a comparison.
9. Drinking wine and watching the sunset in Cinque Terre
There is something quite unique about sitting on the rocks next to where the fishing boats pull up, lanterns bobbing along the wires around the cove in the sea breeze, listening to a guy practising his baritone opera through an open window, watching the sun sinking over the horizon sipping on a locally made red after eating home made pasta and pesto sauce. Perfect.
10. Eating Pizza in Napoli
Home of the Margherita pizza. A famous local pizza maker Rafaelle Espositi heard the Queen of Naples was interested in trying a pizza so he made a patriotic one using basil, tomato and mozzarella for the colours of the Italian flag. She liked it so much she gave her name to it. To be enjoyed while observing the kamikaze scooters and cars going hell for leather down the narrow streets.
11. Cliff Diving in Sorrento
Not for the faint hearted. Locals, generally boys, scramble up the steep cliffs to leap off dropping tens of metres into the big blue beneath. If that is way too over the top you could always take a mask and snorkel and wait around underneath.
12. Calling your mum from the top of the Venice Campanile
Believe it or not there is a public pay phone at the top of the campanile so you can make that all important call to your mum, or maybe order a pizza for dinner.
13. Wine Tasting in Chianti
There is a theory that the word Chianti comes from the old Etruscan word for water 'Clante', which is an obvious connection to make if you drink a lot of Chianti. The stringent production standards set by the Consortium means the quality of all types of the wine is consistent and it's hard to find a bad one.
14. Tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain
But don't go swimming unless you want to pay a huge fine. One coin means you return to Rome, two coins means you return and get kissed and three coins means you return and get married. All the money gets swept up regularly and given to charity. The authorities also don't take kindly to anyone stealing from the fountain. Put the coin(s) in your right hand and throw over your left shoulder. It's something fun to do with the change from your third gelato.
15. Visiting the Sistine Chapel
If you survive the 3km walk through the rather opulent Papal Rooms of the Vatican Museum you will be rewarded with the sensational view of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Created in situ by Michelangelo, he often painted freehand straight onto the wet plaster, through belligerent Papal outbursts, financial difficulties, staffing problems, slipping foundations, wars and finally completed after 4 years in 1512. Take mini field glasses and some sort of key to each fresco. The noise of everyone whispering is only drowned out by the guard bellowing 'silencio' every so often.
And don't sit on the steps.
16. Walking the planks in a flooded Venice
One of the more original experiences when visiting this watery city. Winter rains flood the lagoon and when the tide is in the level can rise to your knees. Practical locals have come up with the solution in the form of raised platforms so you can walk the planks around Piazza San Marco without getting your toes wet. Or you could invest in some stylish rubber booties.
17. Getting Grappa-ed ( drink too much Grappa)
Every country has it's fire water. In Russia and Poland it's vodka, in Mexico it's Tequila, in Czech it's the Absinthe and in Italy it's Grappa. Distilled from the leftovers from pressing the grapes for wine, all the pips, skins and stalks, it is usually drunk at the end of a meal after the espresso. The first shot takes care of any sensation in your throat and the second and third take care of the rest of the nervous system.
18. Buying a Ferrari hat
After football, the Pope and their own mother comes the nation's almost religious following of that little red car from Maranello. Most Italian drivers appear to fancy themselves as the next Schumacher along the autostrada, including the truck drivers, but you have to admit the car is cool.
19. Riding a scooter in Tuscany
Winding country roads between rolling green hills, vine rows neatly slicing down the hillsides, wild flowers in the fields and those tall cypress trees lining the driveway to a mediaeval villa. All that fresh air and the chance to take life at the local pace while unpacking a tasty picnic in some farmer's field.
20. Finishing a Bistecca alla Fiorentina ( T bone Steak)
The resurrection of the Florentines favourite steak made national headlines. The local celebrity butcher from Panzano, Dario Cecchini had held a public funeral and memorial service when the EU banned the sale of beef on the bone products after the mad cow scare a few years back. Now it's back and everyone is celebrating. Just make sure you're really hungry for this one as it is huge.
The general consensus was that these were all the things that should be done during a trip to Italy, along with all the usual art and history things of course, in order that you get the most out of the trip.