October 26, 2012 7:11 pm

A passeggiata to Italy

This ritual of human sociability, a defence against atomisation, seems to have been lost in cities such as London or New York

I’m spending a week in Frascati, the small town outside Rome which you might know, if you have heard of it at all, as the source of the golden-coloured, broad-flavoured white wine which fills the Italian capital’s carafes. In truth the wine, for serious wine buffs at least, is nothing to write home about: it lacks a sharply defined taste profile, just a hint of almonds, something honeyed, though the wine is dry.

Neither is the small town much to write home about, if you are a serious culture or art history buff – apart, that is, from the dramatic Villa Aldobrandini, which looms over but somehow stands apart from it. Frascati appears to have been flattened a few times, whether by earthquakes, bombs or developers I am not sure; there are a couple of minor baroque churches – one of which, the cathedral, is of quite striking ugliness.

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Harry Eyres

But a relatively ordinary small town can be a better place, I’ve been thinking, to observe and even appreciate life, or a certain very distinctively Italian style of life, than a great and famous metropolis, where everything can suffer from excessive self-consciousness. People in Frascati are proud and like to cut a good figure but are not awkwardly self-conscious; they just get along with living their life.

If life (at least for an observer like me) is theatre, then a small town concentrates the action, deploys it on a manageable stage. So much is played out in public here that would happen in private in England or Germany or the US. The Italian piazza is still the ideal public space, and even in late October the weather is warm enough to eat and linger and even canoodle (as teenagers do on the benches) outside.

I arrive on a Sunday evening and, walking up the cobbled pavement from my hotel into the centre of town, I am immediately caught up in and entranced by that peculiarly Italian phenomenon, the passeggiata. Half the town is out on the street, not really doing anything, just strolling (first rule of the passeggiata – you promenade slowly), greeting one another, enjoying the view at dusk from the grand balcony of Frascati over the sparkling lights of Rome. The point of the passeggiata is not to go anywhere; it is customary to do a series of “laps”, repeatedly covering the same stretch of ground.

There are young couples pushing push-chairs, tight little bunches of teenagers, more mature couples walking arm in arm in what looks like comfortable companionship, friends (I notice in particular two professorial-looking guys) in lively conversation. It is a ritual, but not a self-conscious one, of human sociability, a defence against atomisation, a repairing of the social fabric – it’s something we seem to have entirely lost, if we ever had it, in cities such as London or New York, not to mention Los Angeles or San Diego, where anyone walking at dusk is likely to be stopped by a police patrol car and asked, “Where is your vehicle?”

I remember the first time I encountered the passeggiata, staying with an Italian family in Perugia during a university vacation. Perugia is more ancient and architecturally grand than Frascati, and the Perugian passeggiata takes place along the Corso Vannucci, which leads past the National Gallery of Umbria to the cathedral square with the striking many-sided fountain sculpted by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. As a 19-year-old I was even more struck by the beauty of the Perugian girls, whose faces chimed uncannily with those from 15th-century paintings and terracotta reliefs.

According to the sociologist Giovanna Del Negro, in her study The Passeggiata and Popular Culture in an Italian Town, the passeggiata “reinforces a sense of belonging” as well as providing “a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courting”. That rather depends who you are, and how you are dressed. Of course the young Perugian beauties would not look twice at me, in my shabby teenage student togs. I had not learnt the second rule of the passeggiata, to dress up nicely, not so much to impress, just to do yourself and the city proud.

Thank goodness those days of extreme awkwardness are over. Now, back in Frascati, much older and perhaps marginally better dressed, after a few “laps” of the Viale Vittorio Veneto, as the dusk drains away, I decide it is the moment for an aperitivo. On the terrace of the Gran Caffè Roma, a generous glass of chilled Frascati and a self-service buffet of tasty snacks, potatoes roasted with rosemary, meatballs, aubergine, small slices of pizza, costs a mere €7.

The aperitivo taken on an outdoor terrace feels like the natural extension of the passeggiata, and the bridge from the ritual stroll to the solemn business of eating. Judging by the wonderful selection of lardo, salami, prosciutto and porchetta, rolled joints of pork with delicious crackling, on display in the bars near the old market, I would simply say that Frascati both is and is not a good place to be a pig.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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