Updated: Dec 24, 2019
I still remember the first time we went to Italy... I’m talking back in the dark ages… at a time when if you wanted to find information about somewhere like Italy you either looked it up in the Encyclopedia Brittanica (note to anyone younger than 40… google what this was)… or the library…. Or you paid a visit to someone your mother knew who had gone there a few years before and when you got there you had to sit for three hours and watch a slideshow of pictures projected onto the wall of the lounge room while nibbling Kraft cheddar on Jatz and sipping a Cinzano and dry…. (come on… it couldn’t only have been me…)
Anyway, be that as it may… some of my memories of that first time in Italy were that it was really easy to get a table at a restaurant at 6:00 pm, and that as we were heading back to our hotel we noticed lots of people going the other way and we had no idea why.
If we'd had the internet back then, we would have done our research before our trip - as we all do today - and among the things we would have discovered are:
if you see an Italian in a restaurant before eight at night, it’s likely they are finishing lunch, and
every evening - in almost every Italian town and city - when the day comes to an end the locals take the opportunity to go out and take an evening stroll. It's what they call la passeggiata.
Depending on the time of year, activity will kick off in the early evening around 5 or 6; as the working day comes to a close. Almost as if an invisible force kicks in, the good people are drawn towards the main piazza or street, or along the lungomare if you're by the sea. It’s usually in the centro storico (or historic centre) and often these streets are closed to traffic for several hours (which is a good idea because given the way some Italians drive putting cars and pedestrians together at the same time may not be a great idea. (And I'm not saying we don't have some crazy driver's back home here in Oz....)
Now the passeggiata is not like an evening walk over people commonly take here in Australia, where you’ll find people in gym gear fast walking like Kel Knight or rambling along in their shorts and T shirts; headphones on and barely acknowledging the other people walking past them. A big part of passeggiata is seeing others and – more importantly - being seen, and therefore the locals tend to dress smartly and it's the perfect time to show off their new and stylish outfits. (Tourists who accidentally find their way into the throng are usually easy to spot in their shorts and backpacks; sometimes holding a large map with a look of bewilderment on their faces...)
Originally the evening stroll was a time for eligible young ladies to catch the eye of potential suitors, so the idea of dressing to impress had a practical purpose. Now it’s all part of the desire to fare la bella figura; or to make a good impression. And so the passeggiata can be a true art form. Shirts are pressed; jeans, if worn, are stylish.
And people of all ages take part; from the youngest babies being pushed along in their strollers to the more mature members of the community, who are often taking it in on a bench or nursing a spritz or a glass of wine in a bar along the way and watching for things to gossip about. La passeggiata is the social event of the day where friends and neighbours can meet and catch up on the day’s activities (and hopefully get the whiff of a scandal).
Through the week, it's a time for socialising in the gap between work and dinner but on the weekends it becomes a whole family affair, and it’s an especially popular ritual on Sunday evenings. Sunday lunch in Italy is traditionally a long, drawn-out affair, so the evening is the perfect time to abandon the house and take a walk. If you want a real taste of Italian life, find a Sunday evening passeggiata and either stroll along or find a bench or bar where you can take in the scene. There's usually plenty to entertain you.
The long, warm evenings of summer are prime time for the passeggiata. During the summer, some Italians even drive to the coast or the lakes ti take a special passeggiata. Beaches and seaside or lakeside towns are often very crowded on summer weekends and for the entire month of August when much of Italy is on vacation, and passeggiata is a big part of the seaside cultural scene.
Last year I was in Desenzano on Lake Garda, and the passeggiata started as the sun started to ease and it continued for three or four hours, with people alternatively ambling along the beside the lake or wandering into town where the buskers were entertaining the crowd and light displays lit up the buildings beautifully. It was one of the most magical nights I can recall.
The passeggiata often involves a pause for a drink at a local bar, or a gelato if that’s the preference, but, it's not about arriving anywhere in particular: it’s all about the walk itself, and bumping into acquaintances over a few laps around the piazza. It’s another of those Italian traditions that – at its heart – is about community. For townspeople of all ages, the passeggiata reinforces a sense of belonging. The greeting of friends and acquaintances, the swapping of gossip, and the sharing of the latest news weave everyone into the human fabric of the community.
If you want to find la passeggiata in the town or city you're visiting, head out to the main street or the most important piazza early in the evening. No-one will be holding up a sign, but you’ll see it happening around you.
In bigger cities like Rome, you will find passegiata happening in various piazzas and on pedestrian-only streets throughout the old centre.
For the visiting tourist, it’s a chance to feel a little like a temporary Italian, to walk off the pizza you had for lunch, and to help you work up a hearty appetite for dinner. I love it.
If you'd like to experience the passeggiata for yourself, why not join us on one of our escorted tours of Italy? Find out more at https://www.viaggioitaliatravel.com.au.