Italy has a persistent dichotomy that strikes anyone who has travelled it extensively or lived here for a while.
There’s a huge gap between the quality of life as in efficient services, roads, good internet, and the ‘pleasures of life’, which come down to more immaterial and intangible aspects such as the hospitality and friendliness of locals, the beauty of surroundings, and overall cost of living.
All quality of life surveys usually rank more efficient, cleaner northern cities at the top, with sunny but less functional southern ones at the bottom – though on the other hand these have stunning beaches and cheaper services.
While it’s obviously not always so simple, there are differences which are clear to see.
To take two examples: in northern Bolzano you have punctuality, shiny roads, higher income levels, but also a bit of the stereotypical Teutonic cold, distant attitude. In Syracuse, Sicily, local food is more varied and most people are warm, open to strangers, but trains take ages to connect places, and the roads aren’t great either.
This makes it hard to say which towns are ‘best’ to live in because you just can’t have it all. It depends on what your expectations and lifestyle already are, or if you long for radical change.
I could never live in Turin, Milan or Venice – because of the weather, the crowds and the prices.
Were I to choose, I’ve always dreamt of relocating to a southern location to telework, either in Sicily (picturesque Palermo) or Puglia (gorgeous, Baroque Lecce). Even a tiny Sicilian island fascinates me, like Salina or Filicudi, but I might find too much isolation there as winters can get really solitary when the ferry boats don’t travel.
I’ve always envied Sicilians who get to enjoy beach days and warm temperatures eight months a year, have a succulent cuisine and can eat the real ricotta-filled cannoli whenever they feel like it.
Last time I visited Trapani and stayed there for a while the next door neighbor gave me a tray of pastries on the day of my departure. People welcome you in their homes and say ‘buongiorno’ when you meet them in the streets.
Human warmth is almost tangible in the south whereas in the north, perhaps because there are bigger cities, you need to be in small towns or villages to find welcoming residents eager to help you or make you feel at home.
The fact that the value of family is so important in the south, much more than in the north, explains why southerners are more open to outsiders and foreigners than in the north.
Cities like Naples, Lecce and Palermo also have a more laid-back vibe, people are less frenetic than in Milan and seem to enjoy life more. This attitude affects the way visitors feel, too.
People don’t just want clean roads, trains that run on time, efficient hospitals. A smile from a passer-by, a gift, or just a quick chat after a morning espresso can really make your day. Cities reflect the nature of their inhabitants.
I remember once I was touring Sicily heading to Noto, we stopped for some water at a bar in the middle of the countryside and my friend tripped, falling down. In less than a second a bunch of elders who had seen the accident rushed to our side and helped my friend back on her feet, making sure I was okay too.
Taxi rides can be quite enlightening. When you grab a taxi in Milan, Genoa or Trieste, don’t expect the driver to start talking to you unless it’s for specific information. But when I visited Naples and called a cabbie, he turned into my personal Virgil, sharing city secrets and taking me to see offbeat places along the coast. He sang and smiled, which he wasn’t required to do. It was a memorable ride.
However, it’s hard to draw a line. I’m not saying that all northern cities have a poor ‘pleasure of life’ level and all southern ones rank low for life quality, but this is a general trend.
And I believe Italy’s eternal north-south dilemma is here to stay.
The European Union’s pandemic funds, partly aimed at reducing these regional gaps, might improve services in the south but they surely can’t turn a gloomy, stressed-out Milanese into a loud, cheerful Neapolitan.
The economic gap (which affects quality of life) between northern and southern cities will always persist. That’s what makes Italy such a rich, multifarious country.
Do you agree with the opinions expressed in this article? How did you choose between the north and south of Italy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.