The best and worst thing in the world

It didn't look good. The shutters were coming down on the clothing stores, on the newsagents and the small shops at the front of the mall. A trickle of people seemed to be headed in one direction - the car park - as the place slowly emptied.

I had come here to shop for food. A lot of food. As cook for a tour company, I'd been given the task of feeding 40 people for the next three days and this was my window in which to buy supplies. That window, however, looked as though it might have already closed.

The supermarket near Venice is huge; it's one of those European monstrosities where you can buy just about anything you desire if you search hard enough for it. Surely, I figured, a place such as that couldn't just close for a few hours during lunch. It was too big; it would be too hard to empty the store; it would cost them too much.

But then I rounded the corner and there it was: the huge grilles coming down over the entrance, the staff joining the flow of people heading for the exits. The supermarket was closed and it would be for the next three hours. I looked around for a bench and settled in to wait.

Siesta. It's at once the best thing and the worst thing in the world, depending on your circumstances. If you're at work or even on holiday and you fancy a long lunch with the family and a quick snooze afterwards then it's solid gold. If you're trying to, oh, I don't know, get something done, it's a nightmare.

Venice was the bad bit. Cut to another Italian town, Taranto, for the good bit. They take their siestas seriously in Taranto. Step out on the streets between 2pm and 5pm and you'll think there's been a zombie apocalypse and you're the sole survivor.

Except I wasn't on the street. I was in a rooftop restaurant named Fogge, with a host called Joseph who knew how to do a mid-afternoon break properly. The menu was up to him. We were doing this family style.

Our meal began at 2pm and wouldn't wind up until almost 5pm. This was a siesta done the way it was intended because it's not just about sleep. That bit, contrary to popular belief, is an afterthought - the food and company is the main event.

A proper siesta is about making a little time in the middle of the working day for the things that are important to you. Which is not work. For most people, it's family and food. You go home for a good meal and time with loved ones. You might drink a glass of wine, then have a little nap, and then go back to work - and start thinking about dinner.

Joseph kicked off our siesta in Taranto with a huge platter of appetisers: some ricotta, mozzarella, prosciutto, cherry tomatoes and olives.

There was wine, too, a generous pour of local red.

The sun gradually made its way across the sky as our host returned with plates of orecchiette pasta in tomato sauce. There was more wine, more conversation.

For those not into the siesta, it must seem an obvious sign of laziness. You could probably argue the practice is almost single-handedly bringing down the eurozone. Look at the countries that are struggling: Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. I'm not sure what Ireland's excuse is, but the rest are passionate observers of the siesta. The whole concept is completely at odds with urban life, which is why it's something of a dying art. It's observed in some Mediterranean areas, and in parts of South and Central America, but as modern city life creeps in there's little room for a long afternoon of rest. You can, however, find pockets of resistance.

Such as Taranto. Back there, the orecchiette plates were cleared as the shadows lengthened. We were already two hours into the meal. But then Joseph emerged from the kitchen once again, arms laden with plates of beef with rocket and tomatoes. He set them in front of us, and poured more wine.

I was getting a little tipsy, and extremely full.

"Dolce?" Joseph inquired, trying to tempt me with dessert. I gripped my stomach and he laughed. "Cafe?"

Fine. Then there was coffee, and a dessert wine because Joseph had found a bottle of his favourite and wanted everyone to try it.

The wine was good. The food was good. The company was good. Is this daily ritual, I wondered, worth a few small sacrifices, such as your country's financial system and the ability to go food shopping at 2 o'clock in the afternoon?

Of course it is.

At about 4.30pm, I made my excuses and left Joseph, wandering the still-quiet streets back to my hotel, ready for a little sleep - and to start thinking about dinner.

What do you think of the southern European tradition of siesta? Do you think we should adopt it? Have you run into problems while travelling because of siesta (like shops being closed when you need something? Post a comment below.