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What is it with Italians and bottled water?

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What is it with Italians and bottled water?
Bottled water in an Italian supermarket. Photo: DepositPhotos
11:04 CEST+02:00
Have you ever had trouble ordering tap water in Italy or been dismayed by the plastic bottles everywhere? Here's a look at what that's all about.

When I first moved to Italy I was appalled by all the plastic water bottles I saw on tables up and down the country. I couldn't stop noticing them in every home and restaurant - or discarded in the streets and on the beaches.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its coastline?

Since then, I've seen that thankfully Italy does seem to be weaning itself off its plastic bottle addiction. But filtered water is here to stay, and now, I think it's for a pretty good reason.

While both water and wine are essentials on any Italian table, many visitors to Italy complain about not being able to order tap water in restaurants. In fact, you'll usually be asked if you want frizzante or naturale (sparkling or still) as soon as you sit down, which will of course usually be branded, bottled mineral water.

A water bottling plant in central Italy. Photo: AFP

The water is perfectly safe to drink all over Italy, and you can ask for tap water if you want – it's just that no one usually does, and your waiter might not want to bring it to you.

But their reluctance probably has more to do with the taste than them wanting to upsell you an expensive bottle of mineral water (especially as upselling in restaurants isn't really a thing in Italy.)

It's true that sometimes the taste is pretty unpleasant. And it's not just city water - coastal areas also tend to have this problem.

Of course it's not the same everywhere. As in most countries, the further you get from big cities (and particularly when you get into the mountains) the better the tap water is. It might even be brought directly from mountain springs into homes without processing, and restaurants in these regions are rightly proud of their delicious local spring water.

But visitors arriving in cities or coastal regions will no doubt find the tap water there a lot less pleasant.

Hence the waiters' concerned expressions, warnings, and insistance on bringing bottled water in many areas of the country. Even at the simplest cafe or motorway service station, if you ask for a glass of water (which is common and should be free) with your coffee, they'll pour it from a bottle and not the tap. Usually into a plastic cup.

Just know that the insistence on bottled water isn't one of Italy's infamous restaurant scams - unless you're later overcharged for it, of course.

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Plus, in a country so obsessed with hygiene, drinking tap water is seen as potentially dirty or even dangerous by some. This view is especially prevalent among older Italians, who often have little faith in the country's water purification and sanitation services.

And these concerns are not totally unfounded. Just last year, the city of Matera warned that its drinking water had become contaminated, while an outbreak of legionella in northern Italy was blamed on contaminated water in industrial cooling towers. Such incidents are rare, but they do nothing to reassure extra-cautious Italian nonni.

You might notice that as well as advertising the various supposed health-giving properties of the bafflingly wide range of bottled mineral waters on sale, advertisements here also boast of the water's cleanliness. In fact, if you've watched many Italian TV ads, you'll know that all kinds of foodstuffs are promoted as being “clean”.

Small plastic bottles of water are ubiquitous in Italy in summer. Photo: AFP

As well as the potential taste and purity issues, another problem is that water in Italy is very hard, or full of calcium.

This is something every British person learns immediately after moving here: making a cup of tea requires using filtered water, otherwise your tea tastes chalky and your precious kettle, which you either brought all the way from the UK or spent weeks trying to find, quickly gets all furred up with calcium deposits.

When you see the state of the inside of your kettle after a few weeks in Italy, you might also wonder how good it is for you to be processing that stuff through your body.

American friends lament the lack of water-softening systems that are apparently found in many homes in the US. I've never seen such a thing, but I'm told the technology is available here in Italy should you want to install it.

Many people – myself included – complain that the hard water doesn't do your hair or skin any favours, and can leave it dry and dull. After moving here, the idea of washing your face with mineral water sounds a lot less eccentric than I once thought (although I haven't resorted to doing this yet.)

There's also the fact that, with environmental concerns not exactly top of the agenda here in Italy, drinking bottled water is still seen as fashionable and "modern" by many.

READ ALSO:'The end of the world': fashion blogger's €8 a pop bottled water sparks controversy

But the good news is that Italian restaurants and households are now increasingly ditching the plastic bottles I was once so disturbed by.

To my dismay, my Italian husband's family used to stock up on six-packs of 1.5 litre plastic bottles of water several times a week.

But after a filtered water station was set up on a nearby street, costing five euro cents per litre of filtered water, my mother-in-law now takes her six refillable glass bottles down there instead. She's still pretty excited about doing it every time as, she informs me, “it's very clean and modern”.

And the even better news is that more and more restaurants across Italy are now installing water filtration systems and using refillable glass bottles.

It's been a few months now since I've seen a plastic bottle lurking on a restaurant table. Let's hope the trend continues.

Refilling bottles at a filtration station in Italy. Photo: AFP


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Stewart - 10 Oct 2019 09:12
A water softener is an "addolcitore". They are common here in Umbria where the water is very hard indeed.
David M - 10 Oct 2019 16:26
We have wonderful mountain water in Turin, but plastic bottles dominate. And one might also think about the fact that your water is in plastic which may not be good for you. But you don't put water softeners on your drinking and cooking line ever. The rest, yes. Water filter on drinking line, yes. But all those minerals are good for you. We have at least as much calcium in Madison, Wisconsin. Ever see this great Roz Chast cartoon? We have the mugs here in Torino.
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