The way we were: Impressions of southern Europe

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
July 18, 2013

American writer Gore Vidal in Ravello, Italy, circa 1974 © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis

In 1776, Samuel Johnson is recorded by James Boswell as observing:

“A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see. The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great empires of the world: the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman. All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.”

Julia Cartwright, a British historian of the Renaissance, travels to southern Europe for the first time in 1876, aged 24:

“We reached Avignon by the afternoon and a delicious change in climate and surroundings met us at the station. We walked up the long Cours Petrarch where natives were lounging about chattering in voluble Provençal and in the true Italian fashion came running after us to beg. This was indeed the south—quaint turtuous streets, a perfect labyrinth, olive faced women at work in high windows, men singing as they moved lazily along—children running after us and old women begging at the church doors.

Here too the spring burst upon us and a sweet scent of lilac and may met us as we walked later on up to the palace where we found flowering shrubs all in blossom. Castia, tall Portugal laurel, white and red lilac, Spanish chestnuts and blue iris, forget-me-nots and wall-flowers and roses filling the air with fragrance. I seldom fell in love with a place so entirely at one sight.”

Gore Vidal, aged 13, records his first visit to Europe in 1939:

“Rome. August. Heat. I did not careen and moan from monument to monument like Henry James, but I knew that I was home. Forum full of broken marble. I picked up a head and hid it under my coat. Stanley saw me and made me put it back. Blackshirts everywhere. The crowds—like those in France—smelled of garlic. Ten years later no whiff of garlic in either country. Prosperity. Baths of Caracalla. The opera Turandot. We sit outside in a railed-off box, under the hot dark sky. In the next box, Mussolini, wearing a white uniform. At the first interval, he rose and saluted the soprano. Audience cheered. Then he left the box. As he passed me, I smelled heavy cologne.”

Sybille Bedford, the German-born British novelist and journalist, travels to Italy in 1961:

“If one were wafted from our shores on to the Via Aurelia at Ospedaletti, our first shock of pleasure might be the cypresses and fig-tree, the pink- and blue-washed houses, the dazzling sea. When the transition is by motoring in from France, the first shock is the mad driving. It is the driving that scares the French. Each time, one finds that it has become more impossible. It is not that Italian driving does get worse, it stays the same and they drive very well, extremely well, too well, every man boy jack of them; it is that each year there are more cars to drive. Italian motoring is like the nationalism of a very young nation, but there is more to it than that, there is also a natural affinity; the automobile must be God’s special gift to the Italians. He even created it noisy.”

In 1964, the art critic Robert Hughes, aged 26, visits Italy for the first time, staying in Porto Ercole:

“Below the terrace and its framing cypresses, Alan and Lucy [Moorehead] had planted vineyards: perhaps an acre under vines in all, not a large vigna but enough to keep the household supplied with its own ordinary white... now, in September, they were ready for the vendemmia, the gathering. I was looking forward to this. It was the kind of archetypally Mediterranean activity that I had heard of and never seen... Alan had rented a big oaken vat some two metres in diameter, which had, lain across it, a perforated pressing-lid with raised edges. The baskets of grapes which we carried uphill on our backs, were emptied onto this lid.

And then came the Mediterranean moment: barefoot, one scrambled up on to the pressing board and started treading the grapes, pushing down with movements similar to doing the twist. The grapes popped slimly underfoot, they squidged between your toes, the juices trickled into the vat, the crushed grapes were pressed again with wooden tools and at last the exhausted pulp of grape skins, pips and twigs was scraped and shoveled out to be replaced with fresh bunches, while swarms of aggressive yellow-jacket wasps buzzed around. Then the greenish juice was filtered and drained off into straw-cased, 20-litre glass demijohns. These were corked and carried down to the stone basement, a two-man job.

Two or three nights later the action began. You could hear what had been mere fruit juice fermeting, turning into wine: the rumble of the demijohns vibrating on the stone floor. It was an ancient, satisfying sound, and it permeated the whole house. To me it was deeply exciting, and it didn’t matter that the wine that resulted wasn’t great; it was drinkable, and I had helped to make it and that was enough. O for a beaker full of the warm south! I was in Italy, and that was what counted.”