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Looking for Northern Italy

Bob Little (Bob the Navigator)

You would think that someone with the term "navigator" in his handle might have some clue how to locate a geographic area as well known as "Northern Italy." Well, I am confused and will welcome any intelligence that will help me to gain closure on this question.

My confusion started very early. Larry Galupo was my best friend during our pre-school years, and we were constant companions. Over breakfast with his family during my first sleep-over I made a casual reference to their Italian heritage and got a reaction that stuck forever in my young and impressionable psyche. Mrs. Galupo, a pleasant lady who favored Meryl Streep, stopped cooking the eggs and looked me right in the eye and said "yes, we are from Italy, but you have to understand that we are Northern Italians."

It was her tone and manner that told me this distinction was very important, at least to her. I dropped the issue and enjoyed the eggs, but even today I cannot see a restaurant sign with the term "Northern Italian Cuisine" without recalling that scene.

Now, sixty years later, I need to better understand the parameters that define a term that others seem to already comprehend. Over the past twenty years, I have enjoyed 22 trips to Europe, including twelve to Italy, and have planned more than ninety customized itineraries for other independent travelers to the same regions.

Without a doubt, my favorite destinations would fall into a circle defined by Nice, Lucerne, Salzburg, and Venice to the north, and Tuscany/Umbria to the south. This is a geographic definition that obviously encompasses "Northern Italy". I just don't know how or where to draw the line. So, I decided to ask others for their perception of what defined this elusive region.

My first guinea pig was the food and beverage manager at our local golf club. Michelle just smiled and said "that's easy, Northern Italy means white sauces and southern Italy means red sauces." Well, I have eaten in a wide variety of establishments in Italy from Campania to Lombardy and I feel this definition may be a tad too general. Oh well, you know what they say about the mind of the beholder. Apparently, cuisine is not a clear distinction.

During a recent Italian adventure in October, I decided to ask the night manager of our hotel in Riva del Garda. He was an intelligent man who had lived in the Trentino area for more than fifty years. Surely he could shed some light.

His response was stern and almost belligerent: "Sure, I can tell you, the Northern Italians are the ones that do the work and make all the money, and the Southern Italians are all either on welfare or work for the government." Interesting!! A political statement to what I had intended to be a geographic question. Now I think I can start to understand Mrs. Galupo's reaction.

Signora Marisa is the energetic owner of the farm house near San Gimignano which we rented with five other couples. Her English is not the best, but we did manage to communicate well enough for me to understand that her definition was purely historical.

"Il nord d'Italia (northern Italy) is the region that was taken from Austria after World War I", referring to the Trentino Alto-Adige region where the town names and the menus are still in German and Italian. Her perception is historically accurate, but certainly not comprehensive.

My most recent inquiry was to a person whose opinion I have learned to respect over the past 52 years. We were on our way back from church when I posed the question to my Phi Beta Kappa wife. She was wearing her brown leather Aigner boots at the time, and she merely smiled as she reached down and said "well, I guess that would be the wide part at the top of the boot that goes over the calf ". I knew I could count on her for a perceptive answer.

At least for now a small measure of my geographic homeostasis has been restored. I will no doubt continue to ask the question and will welcome any input from those of you who know and love the area as well.

Oh yes, if you have never had the pleasure of travel in this area loosely defined as "Northern Italy " you owe it to yourself. Ciao!


Bob the Navigator is a retired IBMer whose passion for European travel has evolved into a hobby and trip planning business - www.bobthenavigator.homestead.com (Slow Travel Classified Listing). See Bob's Slow Travel member page for a list of his articles.

© Bob Little, 2001

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