It occurred to me this week, as we contemplated structures aged roughly 1600 years and which still serve their intended purpose today, that the most stunning revelation on this trip so far is the idea that cities, inhabited by thousands, existed while our country was not yet born. It’s actually the closest thing I have experienced to time travelling.
Since arriving in Rome and now in Tuscany, we have seen vestiges of civilisation going back to Antiquity ( approx. 800 years BC). Estates, castles, churches, towers dating back to the Middle Ages (400 – 1300 AD) and the Renaissance (1300-1600AD) are scattered throughout the country.
There is a path, that cuts through the countryside around us called Via Francigena. If you have heard of the Santiago di Compostela walk from France to Spain then, you will be familiar with the concept. Via Francigena was the pilgrimage route from England to Rome that one walked on foot, to see the tombs of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. We see directional signage everywhere as we enter villages that have been offering shelter to travellers for more than 1400 years.
This part of the world, such as Italy but also Spain, England and France has been creating art, building cities, fighting wars, producing goods which they traded as well as leading the pursuit of knowledge in astronomy, physics, architecture etc., much longer than North Americans. These are the powerful nations that funded expeditions to our part of the world – less than 500 years ago, specifically to find new trade routes.
I doubt that in North America you will find any structure older than 500 years. Jacques Cartier landed in Canada in 1534. Around the same time, Spanish explorers were landing in Florida.
I recall friends from Denmark who paid a 2-week visit to Canada approximately 20 years ago, exclaiming their astonishment that our Parliament Buildings were not even 200 years old! That makes sense when you consider that Confederation was in 1867, and we just celebrated 150 years. In Canada, Quebec City is probably the only city who can lay claim to 400 year old relics as it dates back to 1608.
But being the seat of ancient worlds and civilisations has its drawbacks. Modernisation for example, is challenged by infrastructure laid down thousands of years ago. Great walled cities and towns face all sort of obstacles to bring modern day amenities to its residents. Plumbing is complex, electricity is expensive and vehicles cannot navigate many small alleys and streets, and have to park in common lots outside the city.
Is it better or worse in North America? Are we better off being a young country, with plenty of space to expand and design? I don’t think its either. I would say, its different. It’s just, very very different. Is pasta better than roast beef? Sometimes you’re in the mood for fettuccine Alfredo, and sometimes, you crave a roast beef sandwich. It’s just….different.