A lot of people, eager to see more than just Baedeker country, have kindly asked me what they should strive to see on their first trip to Italy. Over the years, I ended up giving enough advice that I should have made me an expert, so here you are with my thoughts.

What's Italy all about?

Each country has its own ideal of its reason for being. The United States of America, say, calls itself the Land of the Free; Japan ended up being the Land of the Morning Sun. Italians call their home "the Beautiful Country".

Bit arrogant? You might think so, but that would be quite unlike Italians. And indeed when you'll hear an Italian utter the phrase, it will come as automatic as "our cousins on the other side of the Alps", which is the French people, or "a Swedish beauty", which is an allusion mostly to the fair hair of the Northerners.

Italians are obsessed with beauty. Their personal beauty, the beauty of their homes, the beauty of their country. Sometimes you wouldn't tell, by the large, ugly dumps visible all over the landscape. But then you'll drive on a sunny afternoon down the via Cassia and will see what a difference mankind makes when it thinks beauty first and convenience later. Three thousand years of attempting to tame the land to make it pretty to look at. Three thousand years of fashion, of architecture, of art: all for the sake of the pursuit of a life of pleasure.

And yet - not all is about beauty. Food, for instance, is primarily smells and tastes and fragrances. My favorite cookies (write down) are not what you call biscotti, but the incredibly, viciously crunchy, fragrant cookies Italians call brutti e buoni, ugly but good.

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