Stretching across more than 100 islands in a saltwater lagoon, the Queen of the Adriatic continues her reign as a unique and timelessly fascinating city destination. It's an elegant world of singing gondoliers, magnificent palaces and bustling piazzas, interconnected by a labyrinth of narrow streets and canals. In the summer, crowds flock to bask in the romance and beauty of Venice's historical centre, while quieter months such as November and March offer a more tranquil opportunity to enjoy the city's charms. Alternatively, escape the confines of the centre by hopping on a Vaporetto water bus at the Grand Canal and exploring the vast lagoon. Murano’s famous glass works, the lacemakers of Burano and Torcello's magnificent Byzantine Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta... just three of the alternative island delights to be enjoyed.
Rome's Appian Way, down which the Roman legionaries marched, begins in the Imperial Forum. In the Forum is a massive temple door, green patina’d with age, that a visitor can touch, knowing that 2,000 years ago, priests and citizens pushed against this very surface. That sums up one aspect of the Eternal City – history you can see and touch. The glory of St Peter’s is another, the quirky alleys and courtyards of gourmet paradise Trastevere, yet another. The length of Italy as a whole contains many such contrasting delights. Venice, with its “streets full of water” is touristy, historic, and reveals a painter’s eye view at every corner. Florence is for the art lover, Naples and Sorrento for the incurably romantic, Milan for the modernist. Vesuvius shows a civilisation ‘frozen’ in lava and Sicily’s Etna can still erupt today. While for tranquility and nature at its kindest and loveliest, the spectacular lakes, Como, Garda, Maggiore, Lugano, are unrivalled.
Hemmed in between the mountains and the sea is scenic Amalfi with its tumbledown streets and squares. The tortuous drive there snakes above the coast, threading together hairpin after hairpin. Heart-stopping for the driver, breathtaking for the passengers.
Curious open taxis will waft you from the waterfront to the heights of Anacapri, the main town on the island. Tourism has all but chased the jet set away around the Piazzetta in Capri Town, but expensive labels remain, and the unspoilt beauty of Roman and period villas stealing the best vantage points over the sea.
‘The world’s art gallery’ – a fair description of Firenze, the city that has also been called the birthplace of the Renaissance and where there is a museum or gallery at every corner. The Uffizi, of course, the Bargello for sculpture, San Marco, the Accademia for the real Michaelangelo ‘David’ statue, the several Medici chapels – more galleries than churches. Feeling rich? Go window shopping at least on the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno where an early rule limited vendors to jewellers and goldsmiths – see the bust of Benvenuto Cellini the finest goldsmith ever. To give your mind a rest, relax in the Boboli Gardens or take a short trip out to the Tuscan hills and vineyards.
Glacial in origin, Como is one of the deepest lakes in Europe – and certainly one of the most beautiful. A 50 km elongated ‘Y’ shape, it is 400 metres in depth and despite its mountain location the bottom is far below sea-level. Since Roman times, elegant lakeshore villas have been built and occupied by sundry royalty, millionaires and celebrities – even a James Bond villain (Casino Royal). Lauded by poets and writers such as Shelley and Mark Twain, it was key destination in the 19th century ‘Grand Tour’. In summer, countless ferries make for a port-hopping inland cruise vacation – pick at random from Bellagio, Cernobbio, Varenna, Brienno, Argegno, Torno as spectacular destinations.
The largest of Italy’s lakes, the glacially formed Lake Garda is an elongated shape, widening out at the southern end. Northwards, the Brenner Pass provides a magnificent Alpine entrance to a spectacular region that has long been somewhere for weary city-dwellers to restore their spirits (wealthy Romans built villas and spas here). The many islands, such as Isola del Garda, and plentiful ferry services mean you can sightsee at ease on the water or, more energetically, trek or climb in the mountains. Vineyards, olive & lemon trees and abundant flowers – oleanders, bougainvillaea and magnolias – add scent and colour to any stroll. There are a dozen splendid golf courses around the lake, sailing and water-sports facilities galore, and both Venice (130km) and the ancient town of Verona (30km) are easy excursions.
Another curving bay along the spectacular Amalfi coast hosts the resort town of Maiori, rebuilt after a flood at the foot of the Tramonti Valley. Locals and discerning visitors love it for its beach, the longest you’ll find along this stretch of the Sorrentine Peninsula.
Two lists of names can define Milan. There’s Verdi, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donnizetti. And there’s Gucci, Prada, Armani, Versace, D&G. In other words, Milan is the city of opera (La Scala) and fashion. (Local sports fans might add ‘Inter’ and ‘AC’ for soccer – but they have plenty of rivals.) The capital of Lombardy, its original prominence as a financial centre, with the Lombard bankers, has also been restored and it is the home of the Borsa, Italy’s stock exchange. The Sforza family established an elegant and accomplished court in the 14th and 15th centuries that began its artistic fame – Leonardo worked there – and their Castle is a superb architectural landmark today. As is the wonderful Gothic ‘Duomo’ cathedral with the adjoining Piazza shopping area. More unusually, the magnificent railway station has been described by Frank Lloyd Wright as ‘the most beautiful in the world’.
Maiori’s neighbouring twin is another popular seaside resort. As well as a pleasant beach, you can explore the historic town, once home to the Amalfi maritime empire’s arsenals. Visit its many churches, its Roman villa and sample locally-made Limoncello liqueur.
Think only of pizza and pickpockets and you’ll miss the point. Naples offers an eclectic mix of royal palaces, Renaissance forts and marbled cathedrals that mirror the whims and aspirations of the many nations and factions that have been here. Don’t miss the Archaeological Museum, home to many of nearby Pompeii’s finest finds.
Pisa was deemed an ancient city even in Roman times – an important centre in the Etruscan empire that preceded the Roman. It became a major port – until commercial rivalry with Genoa spilt over into real conflict with Pisa eventually losing and suffering decline. It is now most famous for a single building, the Leaning Tower, and one person, Galileo born there in 1564. The white marble tower is actually the campanile for the Duomo (cathedral) with its 7 bells being a complete musical scale. It is almost 4 metres out of true at the top but happily has now been stabilised- after tilting slowly for 900 years. The tale that Galileo used it to measure the force of gravity is apocryphal but the man himself is undoubtedly the ‘father’ of modern science – with his work leading directly to Newton and Einstein. The Cathedral, Tower and stand-alone domed Baptistry are an architectural assembly that fully justify the Piazza of Miracles description of where they stand.
Pompeii was an important port on the Bay of Naples for thousands of years BC, eventually as a Roman colony. Nearby Herculaneum was smaller, a dormitory town for the wealthier merchants and traders. Both owe their fame to having disappeared for some 1,700 years. The two-day eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in AD79 simply smothered both towns and they remained hidden and effectively unknown until 1738 when workmen excavating for a new Royal Palace for the King of Naples disturbed the remains of Herculaneum. Ten years later, the excavation of Pompeii itself began. Now substantial portions of the town are uncovered and attract many visitors – the amount of excavation has slowed almost to a halt because of the damage risk following exposure. The speed of the entombment meant that life in all forms stopped abruptly and some discoveries verge on the macabre. Ash, rather than lava, also meant that preservation of all kinds of fragile artifacts occurred, including the famous frescoes - often risqué to 18th century eyes, leading to restrictions on their viewing.
Fourteen 4-star hotels, four 5-star, the hideaway of film stars and ballet dancers (Massine and Nureyev), restaurants galore – what makes you think Positano is made for tourists? Located on the spectacular Amalfi coast, built on steeply descending terraces overlooking the deepest blue Med (facing west for the sunsets, of course), a choice of four beaches – all excellent. The town is surrounded by citrus groves and looks out to the Isle of Capri, to which there are plentiful boat trips. The town itself is fully pedestrianised, for added tranquility, and if you tire of the beaches the beautiful church of St Maria Assunta holds a wonderful XIII century black Madonna. Or shop for an amazing array of handmade casual shoes, from roped soled sandals to cork clogs, that craftsmen will make while you wait.
On the spectacular Amalfi coast, many would claim the medieval hill town of Ravello as providing the most beautiful view of the Mediterranean anywhere. And since the ‘many’ includes an immense list of artists, writers and musicians who lived and worked there, who are we to argue? Boccaccio (of ‘Decameron’ fame), Virginia Woolf, EM Forster all wrote about it; Wagner is still honoured by a music festival, MC Escher drew townscapes. Originally a maritime republic, like Venice, it too was ruled by a Doge. Its solidly attractive cathedral dates from 1087 and stands in contrast to the Moorish influences in other architecture. Nearby Naples prompts local food tastes – but Ravello is really where you feast your eyes.
Effervescent Italian style finds its expression all around the city on seven hills. The Trevi Fountain or the wedding cake tiers of the Victor Emmanuel monument are nothing if not over the top. Yet, when it comes to seeking out the genuine article, Rome is blessed with more than its fair share of loot. Looking as fresh as the day it was built is the Pantheon, there since 118AD. To Romans wrestling the traffic on their Vespas, the Colosseum is little more than a roundabout. Behind symmetrical façades where Michelangelo frescos adorn Vatican ceilings and poets like Shelley and Keats came looking for inspiration gazing over the Spanish Steps, today’s revellers seem as infused as ever with the charms of the dolce vita.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Goths and Vandals, Arabs, Normans; all were so enthralled by the beauties of Sicily that they invaded, and settled. No wonder Palermo, the modern capital of the island and of the medieval Kingdom of Sicily, still has a reputation for crime and as the home of the Cosa Nostra – though now safely visited by tourists on the ‘Godfather’ trail. The invaders left many influences and Palermo is an Italian city … yet different. Arab influences in cooking make an evening stroll – the ‘passegiatta’ – a sweet-toothed delight as you pause for a multi-flavoured ‘cassata’ ice-cake. The handsome Royal Palace and Norman Cathedral are well worth visits.
Snap pyjama-striped beach huts lining the jetties below Sorrento’s towering cliffs. Watch for Vespas buzzing past Piazza Tasso’s terraced bars. Window shop along elegant Corso Italia and hunt down leather and ceramic bargains in the maze of narrow streets nearby.
Just two hours west of Venice, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Verona each year to marvel at its artistic beauty, fairs, shows and operas. This historical city boasts a well preserved Roman amphitheatre and is also where Shakespeare based his star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.