Friday, April 25, 2014

Highlights of Italy

I always thought of the Amalfi Coast, the stretch of Italian seaside just south of Naples, as the playground of the rich, overrun by tourists.  And perhaps in summer it is.  But I had the pleasure of visiting in April and was unprepared for the quiet villages, the lemon groves spread out along steep mountain sides and above all, the stupendous views.

My sixth trip to Italy had started in Venice, a city I had visited many years ago and with which I needed to reacquaint myself.  I spent many hours walking its back alleys, visiting beautiful cathedrals like the Frari and eating great sea food in little hidden-away bars.  I loved sailing up and down the Canal Grande using the local traghetto (ferry) service, seeing the city during the day, sunset and at night - each time was quite different.  The undisputed highlight though was a concert by Interpreti Veneziani - Vivaldi's Four Seasons, played on original instruments, in the setting it was meant to be played in - the baroque church of San Vidal.  I could hear the birds of Spring, the rain drops of Summer and the storms of Winter as the musicians gave it their all - never will I listen to this music the same way.  Listen to a short excerpt of it here.

While some may want to explore the Veneto area, or the Italian Lake District, most people will make Tuscany their next stop.  Birthplace of the Renaissance, it is rich in beautiful cities and towns.  Florence being the most famous, it should feature of anyone's itinerary.  Climb the Duomo and marvel at the incredible paintings on the inside of the dome, or the view across town from the outside.  Be sure to also visit the Uffizi Gallery with its enourmous wealth of art treasures.

Two of the most spectacular churches of Italy are found in Siena and Assisi respectively.  The former I have visited three times and even on my third visit I was still gobsmacked by the unbelievably beautiful frescoes which cover the walls and ceilings of the church.  The church of Assisi has such frescoes as well and it was here that I had a 90 minute guided visit.  During such visits I normally tune out after a while due to information overload, but my guide made all the frescoes come to life in such a personal way that I was almost in a trance.

Hilltop towns are a hallmark of Tuscany and Umbria.  Towns such as San Gimignano, Gubbio, Todi, Volterra, Cortona, Pienza and Montepulciano are all well known, but worth exploring.  Picture winding streets where houses are decorated with flower boxes and where little restaurants and terraces welcome the traveller with good food and wine.

For lovers of small towns and walkers, the Cinque Terre is a must-see.  Five villages cling to the steep vineyard-clad hillside, each of them with its own particular feel.  Walk from village to village, or take the train.  Don't forget to climb up and discover little hamlets and farms high up on the hills.

En-route between Florence and the Cinque Terre, Pisa makes for an easy stop to see its famous leaning tower.  Or travel south on the high speed train and end up in Rome.

Rome, the Eternal City, is a city made for walking.  Great pedestrianised streets lead from the Roman Forum to the historic centre, where you will find the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps as well as numerous museums, palaces, squares and art galleries.  Be sure to spend a full day in the Vatican - book your tickets online ahead of time to avoid the line-ups.  The same applies to Galleria Borghese with its unrivalled collection of paintings and statues.

Rome is of course the centre of Christendom and so churches abound.  San Maria Maggiore is one of the most beautiful ones, while San Paolo fuori le Mura is a lovely basilica rivalling St. Peter in size.  it is however little visited and has a wonderful atmosphere.   A hidden gem is the basilica of Santa Sabina and its associated gardens giving you a great sunset view of St. Peter.  After dark, retrace your steps to the Tiber and into Trastevere to soak up the atmosphere.

Travelling south and arriving in Naples, you may be excused for thinking you have landed in the Middle East.  Streets are narrow, noisy and dirty, but once you are over your culture shock, Naples has some real gems to offer.  Be sure to visit the Catacombes of San Gennaro, a true walk through time, and don't miss Capella Sansevero with its beautiful statues.  If you get hungry, Da Michele is considered one of the best pizzerias in Naples.  And in the evening in Naples, stroll out onto the Lungomare, pick up a gelato and join in for some serious people watching!

The haunting ruins at Pompei should be on any traveller's itinerary - you can do them in one day along with a visit to Vesuvius, or the ruins at Herculaneum. 

The Amalfi Coast makes for a spectacular and fitting end to any trip through Italy.  High mountains drop to the blue waters of the Mediterreanean while villages and lemon groves cling to the steep hillsides.  There are some spectacular hikes to be done in the area, the Walk of the Gods and the Valley of the Mills being some of the best.  Lovely towns and villages await exploring - Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento are the most famous, but few ever make it to lovely Atrani.

After a full day of sightseeing of hiking, the best way to spend the evening is in the company of friends over a good meal and some great wine.  In Amalfi, restaurant Degli Apostoli, right underneath the cathedral, would be my choice - try Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ), wonderful light wines from the flanks of Vesuvius.

Finally, Sicily has to be one of the most fascinating islands in Europe. It has an incredibly diverse history, thanks to the different marks left by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish civilizations. Explore the island through its picturesque villages, well-preserved archaeological sites and splendid scenery. Of course no trip to Sicily is complete without trying its mouth-watering cuisine and world-renowned wines.

For a line-up of the best trips in Italy, check out the post Best trips in Italy.

People watching on the steps of the Cathedral in Almalfi