One big advantage of studying abroad as a student, other than traveling, is that it allows you to mingle with local friends, which would deepen your knowledge of the country you live in. This time the possibility was given to me by a classmate of the courses I attend here in Bologna. If it were not for him, I would not have even imagined to take such a trip. Sondrio is a small city surrounded by mountains in the north of Lombardy, on the Italian-Swiss border. That was at the end of May 2014, after the last exam of the Spring semester. My classmate invited me together with other two friends to his family’s villa.
As a matter of fact, my friend is half Swiss and half Italian: he is born and bred in Switzerland and his mother’s family has got Italian origins. His maternal grandparents made each other’s acquaintance on the border. They were one from Sondrio and the other from adjacent Italian speaking canton, then they got married and moved to Zurich afterwards. Like any frontier area in the world, International marriages occur very often among habitants on both sides.
Our trip started in a car rented at a local company in Bologna and my Swiss friend was in charge of driving. The voyage took us about 5 hours from Emilia Romagna to Lombardy. Unlike the heat in Bologna, as soon as we headed northwards, the temperature dropped in a drastic way. The plain ended when we saw steep mountains on both sides of the highway, with snow still covering their peaks.
Sandwiched between the mountains, you can always see some narrow-shaped lakes in the midst of valleys, this is the typical landscape in the North Italy: many lakes, among which there are Lake Como, Garda and Iseo, that came into being thanks to the melted snow flowing down from the Alp glaciers. Roads have always been built on banks of lakes, at the foot of the mountains. As a result, traversing the area gives you the feeling of a refreshing experience especially at the beginning of summer.
We finally arrived at our destination around midday and I was surprised to find out that the villa was located in an advantageous position: with the mountains in the background, it was established at an eagle-sight point, enjoying a gorgeous view of the whole valley. In fact, the city of Sondrio was built in a valley: historic monuments and new urban buildings all together.
Different from big Italian cities like Bologna, you would not probably find a “centro storico” (historic center) at the heart of the urban area. Actually Sondrio, throughout European history, has always been considered as a peripheral fortress. Founded as a military camp in Roman times, Frenchmen, Lombards, Swiss and different European forces have all put their fingers on this small mountain village. Naturally, you would not probably feel the “calore” (warmth) like in other cities of Italy. People greet each other by simply nodding their heads without hugging or kissing on both cheeks, as they usually do everywhere else in Italy.
The other two members of our group were Sicilians, the best witnesses of Sondrio’s “coldness”. According to them, the place “didn’t look like Italy”, notwithstanding the people there undoubtedly spoke the same language. In the afternoon, we sunbathed in the garden lying on the lawn. In moments like this, I learned what the Italian lifestyle is: it’s not only about fashion, wine tasting or coffee sipping. It’s rather an attitude towards life: the beauty of the life could be perceived not solely by consuming, simple passion and curiosity may completely change your attitude to life.
At dinner we prepared our barbecue later in the evening. Something else worth mentioning is the local cuisine. Generally speaking, olive oil is a fundamental element for Italians, but here butter usually takes its place. Below 10 degrees late at night at the end of May, people need this ingredient to warm their bodies up, given the particular climate difference from most parts in the rest of the country. Local vineyards produce grapevine with quite a strong flavor for the same reason.
Italy has the capacity of surprising me with its wonders every time, I feel that I know this country well enough. Sondrio’s urbanism, mentality, climate and food all showed me another possibility of this “Bel Paese”.