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Marking a milestone with Italian extravagance

Marking a milestone with Italian extravagance

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When the husband and I both found ourselves facing down a milestone birthday this past year, thoughts naturally turned to how we’d mark our joint passage from 59 to 60. While grateful to be here to kvetch about it, on some level we found the occasion that little bit daunting. For despite how many well-meaning friends assure 60 is the new 40, there’s no denying once you’re over this particular hump, you’re going to pick up speed on the downhill.

But while mulling over the possibilities, we happened to learn in many Eastern cultures, turning 60 is thought to complete a full life cycle and hence the birthday is marked with great extravagance. For me, replacing the concept of getting old with starting anew certainly had a nice ring to it—not to mention the appeal of doing something greatly extravagant.

So with that, we settled on taking our first trip to Italy. The very best part? Three out of four of our adult children and their partners were down to come with us.

Accompanied by our youngest son and his new fiancée, we departed Toronto for Rome on an evening flight in late May. (Careers and logistics called for the others to follow within a couple of days.) After an easy non-stop flight, we arrived in the middle of a glorious summer day.

The first thing that struck us about Italy was the incredible quality of the light. Somehow it manages to be crisp and brilliant even as it’s possessed of a glorious golden cast that deepens as day slips into night. It’s otherworldly beautiful.

Italian motorists, especially in Rome, abide by an unwritten code that the most aggressive driver goes first. Hesitate behind the wheel and all might not be lost, but your bumper almost surely will be. And a cautionary tale: During the summer, most of the city’s eateries offer outdoor dining that spills out onto the roadways, so the aforementioned aggressive drivers practically graze your elbows as you dine. My son described the unsettling manifestation as enjoying “cacio pepe with a side of danger!”

Challenging traffic aside, there’s simply no immersion so magical as a magnificent summer day spent in Rome or southern Italy in the company of your nearest and dearest. Rome—a study in contrasts with a palatable tension between the old and the new—is beyond spectacular. Our boutique hotel was serendipitously located on Via Margutta, the cobblestoned alley where the classic Audrey Hepburn movie “Roman Holiday” was filmed. The fantastic area was home to a dozen galleries, loads of luxury-goods shopping and a ton of excellent restaurants. We even emerged one morning to find an incredible three-day art exhibit popping up on the cobbles under our windows.

Accounting for the desires of eight does translate to a hefty list of “must-sees.” One son had to visit Pompeii, the daughter had her heart set on the Amalfi Coast while the other son wanted to see the Italian countryside. Unknown to us, the daughter’s boyfriend needed the perfect spot to propose. (He found it and she said YES!) But, differing interests aside, everyone was charmed by Rome and we easily found common ground casually meandering the remarkable streets, savoring many delicious meals, appreciating renowned art and engaging in the history that is so plentiful the city has been called the world’s largest outdoor museum.

From the imposing St. Peter’s Basilica that dominates the skyline to the lively piazzas found scattered throughout, Rome, and indeed Italy as a whole, is brimming with life and beauty. We were continually amazed as to how simply turning a corner would gift us with a stunning fountain, a magnificent church or an incredible monument fashioned in gleaming ivory marble.

Naturally we’ll always remember activities like touring the Sistine Chapel or marveling at the Pantheon, but our shared impression of how Rome’s inimitable style was woven into the very fabric of the city will truly linger. Navigating the city’s streets, my daughter and I observed how you could immediately spot the Romans—their power bags, gorgeous shoes and classic silhouettes the dead giveaways as they radiate chic. Even the nuns and priests, eyes hidden behind black designer sunglasses, look totally on point when striding across St. Peter’s Square.

Given our hotel was a short stroll from the Spanish Steps, my husband and I made it a nightly habit to take our place among the throngs sitting on the stairs just people-watching and soaking in the ambiance. Full disclosure…there may have been black-cherry gelato involved!

The marble edges of the Steps have been worn smooth over the centuries and it’s easy to imagine a connection to the ages. Though, in hindsight, had I anticipated I was going to be sitting on the ground each night, I might not have packed so many pairs of white pants. But sadly, it’s a moot point since, as of this past August, sitting on the Spanish Steps is now prohibited with police issuing fines of $400 euros for non-compliance.

Making a day trip of it, the husband drove the gang—teeth gritted and hands at 10 and 2—to see Pompeii for what would be one son’s favorite outing of our Italian adventure. When Mount Vesuvius calamitously exploded in the summer of A.D. 79, it buried Pompeii under several feet of ash and lava. Rediscovered in 1748, it’s now the largest continually excavated archeological site in the world and an unbelievably fascinating immersion in what life looked like almost 2000 years ago in a then bustling city.

Already wistful at the thought of our diminishing time in Italy, we set out for four days on the Amalfi Coast. The final 15-mile stretch of Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline is a series of tight hairpin turns on a thin, black-ribbon of a road clinging to side of a mountain. The locals handily navigate it at top speed, with only the most casual concern for the concept of a lane. Whether from the otherworldly scenery or the simmering terror, the journey is guaranteed to take your breath away.

But once you arrive, well, it’s nearly impossible to adequately capture the magnificent natural splendor that is this sun-kissed Italian paradise. No mystery why the Amalfi is regarded one of Italy’s most memorable areas given the abundance of natural and cultural marvels. The once sleepy towns, clinging to steep, terraced slopes planted with a profusion of vivid lemons have morphed into stylish destinations complete with upscale resorts and luxury boutiques. The houses, in delicious shades of pink, terra-cotta and faded yellow, are stacked staircase-style up the cliffs rising from the sea. Swimming in a grotto, lingering over pizza or strolling the promenades, it was all beyond enchanting and our only regret was we hadn’t allotted more time for Amalfi coasting.

As parents, you can’t help but be aware how you are beyond blessed that when the world comes for your children, it treats them kindly. So much so it almost seems a little greedy to pine to have them back...if only for a spell. But this was our desire and, as it turned out, the most treasured of gifts marking our transition to a new decade.

Italy delivered phenomenal culture, remarkable art, astounding history and a fabulous culinary immersion. We were surrounded by ethereal beauty and fortunate enough to have life breathed into iconic images we’ve contemplated forever. And yet none of it surpassed the simple joy of sharing time with our grown children and the ones with whom they’ve chosen to walk the way. Life, in that way it has, has taken them back—but lucky us, we’ll all forever be able to summon the magic of these incredible Italian days.

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