“You might find this interesting because in Los Angeles you don’t have any piazzas,” Stefano, my trekking guide told me over morning cappuccino.
Sitting in Vignola, a small town in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, I felt transported back to a time when the center of social interaction was not a computer nor a smart phone, but an open space in the city center where after-dinner drinks, trade, most neighborly banter, and even public wealth displays took place daily.
For thousands of years this was the case in small and large Italian towns alike. It was a cultural staple steeped in tradition, but due to one dramatic and traumatic moment in history, nearly everything changed.
Emilia Romagna in particular was quite poor prior to World War Two and was left quite war-ravaged by nazi occupation. Then, the economy skyrocketed due to the U.S. investment-induced post-war industrial revolution.
This changed social structure from a mainly agricultural, communal culture where people would trade goods directly to what we now have in modern times — a culture where people work in offices and have the money to just buy bread at stores. The personal interaction is erased since the purchase is made not from the individual who made the bread, but from an impersonal store shelf, most likely made by machine somewhere far away.
Stefano can remember a time when his neighbors would get together to make bread in large batches, each bringing ingredients and sharing in the finished product. He spoke about it with nostalgia, clearly preferring old times where food was made with natural ingredients and an element of trust was still there, as opposed to now when chemicals replace certain ingredients and conglomerates make our food.
Yet, one of the last strongholds of this communal living still remains in Emilia Romagna. There are still some autonomous communities on a small scale where everyone in the community still interacts and depends on each other.
In the countryside towns dairy farmers sell fresh cheese to their neighbors, made organically with hormone-free cows. Artisans sell directly to the consumer down the road instead of through a middleman. Steeped in tradition, this humanizes food and other items needed for daily life and fosters relationships more easily.
Stefano brought all of this up to highlight the Importance of walking to conduct daily life. The very trails we aimed to trek on that day are thousands of years old – some even pre-Christ. There are still traces of civilization from back then along the walking paths today.
It is no surprise to see people regularly waving and saying hello to each other in these small towns. There’s an element of openness and friendliness that is missing from large megatropolises like New York, for example, where people are more sealed off to interaction with each other.
Just being in this area and wandering these hills creates a feeling of going back several hundred years because everything is still on a smaller scale the way it used to be. There are no mega farms or conglomerates and there are literally thousands of walking paths that people still use today in the way that they have for countless generations.
I really felt transported back to those ancient times, traveling through hills where ancient life and modern times intersect.
The other fascinating aspect was the natural diversity and constantly changing micro climates, the same thing that had me so enamored with New Zealand. With so many trails there’s tons of variety. The big selling point for me, of course, is the lack of other tourists. One could walk for days and not encounter another one.
Sadly, we didn’t get much opportunity to test them out given the heavy rains, but I still very much enjoyed being transported back in time.