Many of the stereotypes you have heard about this charming country are accurate. Children are fussed over wherever they go; food and soccer are treated like religion; the north–south divide is alive and well; and (alas) bureaucracy is a frustrating feature of daily life for families and businesses. Some stereotypes, however, are wide of the mark: Not every Italian you meet will be open and effusive. Every now and then—but rarely in the South—they do taciturn pretty well, too. This chapter provides a little historic and cultural background to help you understand what makes Italy tick.
The most important fact to remember is that, for a land so steeped in history—three millennia and counting—Italy has only a short history as a country. In 2011 it celebrated its 150th birthday. Prior to 1861, the map of the peninsula was in constant flux. War, alliance, invasion, and disputed successions caused that map to change color as often as a chameleon crossing a field of wildflowers. Republics, mini-monarchies, client states, Papal states, and city-states, as well as Islamic emirates, colonies, dukedoms, and Christian theocracies, roll onto and out of the pages of Italian history with regularity. In some regions, you’ll hear languages and dialects other than Italian. It all combines to form an identity that’s often more regional than it is national.
This confusing history explains why your Italian experience will differ wildly if you visit, say, Turin rather than Matera. (And why you should visit both, if you can.) The architecture is different; the food is different; the legends and important historical figures are different, as are the issues of the day. And the people are different: While the north–south schism is most often written about, cities as close together as Florence and Siena can feel very dissimilar. Milan to Naples is just over 4 hours by train, but the experience is like two different worlds.
The big news for many North American travelers to Italy is the recent unfavorable movement in exchange rates. Last year’s edition of this guide listed the U.S. dollar/euro exchange rate at $1.06. At time of writing, it’s hovering around $1.25. The euro has strengthened quickly and significantly, and this change makes everything in Italy a little more expensive for U.S. visitors. (Canadians have seen a similar movement, from $1.39 to $1.55 in the same period.) Still, currency rates remain better for North Americans than they were 4 or 5 years ago. Mercifully, price inflation in Italy has also remained low during this time, largely due to a stubbornly slow recovery from the global financial crisis, known here as the Crisi. It had a disastrous effect on Italy’s economy, causing the deepest recession since World War II. Public debt grew to alarming levels—as high as €1,900 trillion—and is still around 135 percent of GDP. In addition, 2011 and 2012 saw Italy at the center of a European banking crisis which almost brought about the collapse of the euro currency. Concerns about major Italian banks rumbled on through 2018, even after the 2017 rescue of giant Monte dei Paschi di Siena (the world’s oldest bank).
Light is appearing at the end of Italy’s dark economic tunnel—a little, at least—with modest 2017 growth forecasted to be replicated in 2018 and 2019. Yet Italy has, in effect, experienced almost no GDP growth in well over a decade.
Just as in many Western democracies, populism has become a feature of national politics. A party formed by activist comedian Beppe Grillo—the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S)—polled around a quarter of the vote in 2013 elections. In the post-election shakedown, former Florence mayor Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister—at 39 years old—heading a coalition of the center-left led by his Democratic Party (PD). He resigned in late 2016, after defeat in a referendum on wide-ranging electoral reform. The PD remained in power, however, with Paolo Gentiloni taking over as prime minister.
It was not easy sailing for M5S, either: Their candidate, Virginia Raggi was elected Rome’s first female mayor, but her administration has encountered multiple problems since she took office in 2016. She has stated she will not run for reelection in 2021. At the national level, however, M5S with its young new leader, Luigi Di Maio, is on a roll. To a backdrop of discontent over unemployment, wages, and pensions, and the pace of immigration, Italians went to the polls in March 2018. M5S and the far-right League gained the most seats in Italy's parliament. But with neither able to form a government, nor perhaps even a stable coalition, Italy again finds itself on familiar ground: with no clear ruling majority.
Italy’s population is aging, and a youth vacuum is being filled by immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, notably Romania (whose language is similar to Italian) and Albania, as well as from North Africa. Italy had scant colonial experience, nor does it have the “melting pot” history of the New World. Tensions were inevitable, and discrimination is a daily fact of life for many minorities. Change is coming: In 2013, Cécile Kyenge became Italy's first black government minister, and black footballer Mario Balotelli has long been one of his country's biggest sports stars. But it is coming too slowly for many. The plight of migrant refugees arriving from North Africa and Syria through 2018 adds yet another layer of complexity to Italy’s relationship with stranieri (foreigners); events have left immigration centers bursting at the seams and any xenophobic sentiment ripe for exploitation by extremist politicians and marginal parties.
While others arrive, a “brain drain” continues to push young Italians to seek opportunities abroad. The problem is especially ingrained in rural communities and on the islands, where the old maxim, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” applies more strongly than ever in these straitened times. More optimistic signs of Italy’s changing society include the 2016 legalization of same-sex civil unions. And prospects for everyone will improve if and when Italy puts the worst of its economic turmoil behind it. From top to toe, highlands to islands, fingers are firmly crossed that the good times are coming around again.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.