Italians are known for their appreciation of beauty. Immersed in a rich history and cultural heritage, they have a magnificent ability to turn everyday moments into memorable affairs. Italy is a country that makes people feel good and once you’ve visited, you can’t wait to return. If wellness can be defined as “the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal” then Italy, I think, is the ultimate wellness destination.
It may seem like a modern phenomenon but the concept of traveling for wellness has been around since antiquity. Greeks and Romans frequently traveled to thermal springs and ancient baths, known for their rejuvenating properties. They enjoyed plant medicine and indulged in retreats. They lived in accordance with the seasons and rhythms of daily life long before these rituals became seen as a luxury.
In the travel industry, the word wellness has become synonymous for a type of travel that involves spa days, yoga, meditation, healthy food and other detoxifying elements. Its increase in popularity can be seen across the world as travelers seek out experiences that allow them to return feeling rejuvenated and refreshed, to indulge in aerial yoga, meditation journeys and green juices at vegetarian cafes.
But wellness, especially in the context of Italy, is so much more than that. Wellness is a state of mind, a connection of body and spirit, a blissful state where you find yourself so completely full of joy and the experience of wholeness that you feel like you might burst with happiness. And if wellness is a state of being, then Italians have mastered the art of living a holistic lifestyle. This, for me, is the true dolce vita.
Italians have effortlessly cracked the code on what wellness is, and they have done so without depriving themselves of a single thing. They do so with a glass of wine in hand. They practice wellness as they walk to the market and buy their fresh local produce for the day, not because it’s trendy, but because it’s what they’ve always done. They take their time over meals and don’t spend too much energy checking their phones while they’re surrounded by friends. They go to the beach for the entire day when they are on vacation and then they take long luxurious passeggiate along the promenades of whatever beach they’re visiting.
The Italians believe in slow food and slow travel and slow living. The Italians believe that even in August, in the height of ‘beach season’ it is absolutely necessary to eat that salty slice of pizza bianca with the creamy burrata dripping out of the seams, plump juicy figs nestled between the cheese. The Italians believe in a plate of spaghetti alle vongole at lunchtime, and it would be a bit of a deprivation if you didn’t accompany it with a glass of crisp cold white wine as well. The Italians believe in serving a bit of food while you have aperitivo, in order to absorb a bit of the alcohol and to add to the social element of sitting with friends around a table. Prolific smokers with late night dining habits, Italians may not be the healthiest population by standard traditions, but they are a population who teaches the rest of us a bit more about how to live.
My interest in the intersection between Italian travel and wellness started seven years into my time as an expat in Italy – incidentally, right around the time I started eating pasta a little more regularly. I had always enjoyed an occasional bowl of pasta (after all, it’s difficult to avoid) but I couldn’t quiet the nagging North American voice in the back of my head that reminded me of the calories, gluten and all the other things in that plate of food. While I always encouraged visitors to try cacio e pepe or amatriciana in Rome, I was personally wary of them for years.
Embracing Italian culture helped me gain perspective on what ‘wellness’ truly is, and it gave me the permission I needed to indulge in pleasure. Because in Italy, wellness and well-being are embodied as cultural norms in the way the Italians eat, the way they travel, and the way they live. To some, wellness might be a green juice – and to others, it might be an extra glass of wine.