Benvenuti in Italia!
Italy! Il Bel Paese (the beautiful country)! There are more than a few reasons why it deserves the nickname- sublime scenery, historic cities, enchanting architecture, amazing art and culture. No other country on the planet has as many World Heritage Sites. And that’s only the bone structure. Dig deeper and it only gets better. This is the country that taught the planet how to drink coffee. Blessed and cursed by a mountainous topography that often breeds provincialism, its regional food traditions are arguably second to none.
Of course, it’s not without its little imperfections. Some Italians drive their cars like the Romans drove their chariots back in the days when they ruled the Mediterranean world. Forming queues and orderly lines isn’t always a strong point. For those of us who call this occasionally crazy country home, there are plenty of irritations, major and minor. However, it’s hard not to love Italy in the end. Warts and all!
I tried to leave! I really did, but it called me back.
First Impressions of Italy
It was a steamy evening in late August 2010 when I first set foot in lo Stivale (the boot in Italian). The earthy green tones of Malpensa Airport didn’t make for an inspiring introduction to the country. Looking out the window of my Milan bound express train, the views were mostly of the flat countryside and unremarkable commuter towns. The suburbs of Milan were a grim vision encased in grey concrete. As I dragged my suitcases through the city, I hardly expected that I would still be living in Italy…almost seven years on. However, apart from a short break in sterile Sweden, here I am.
I’ve even got to love Italian TV. The horror! The horror!
Highlights of Italy
All roads lead to Rome! It’s as true now as it was 2000 years ago. The capital showcases the best history and art on the peninsula. As touristy as it may be, The Colosseum is still a must. Then, get on those walking shoes and explore. Heading south, there’s always Naples. To its critics, the city has one foot in North Africa. Nevertheless, love it or hate it, the views from the top of nearby Vesuvius must be among the most beautiful on the continent.
Heading north along the coat, Liguria and its brightly coloured fishing villages are simply unmissable. Further inland Emilia Romagna and the hilly Tuscan countryside continue to delight visitors. Travellers often overlook Umbria and Le Marche, yet those who make it to this region of Italy usually return with rave reviews.
Finally, there’s the far north. People may talk about the ‘Venice of the North’ or the ‘Venice of the South’. In reality, there’s only one Venice and it’s unique. Milan will keep shoppers busy. However, one they get tired, there are always the Italian Lakes to soothe the soul.
In such a country, it’s just so hard to pick out particular highlights. Choices! Choices!
Make sure to visit
Ancient Rome– if the Colosseum doesn’t transport travellers back to the days of the Roman Empire, entering the Pantheon surely will (read this guide to get more ideas for your trip to Rome)
The Amalfi Coast– Capri, Amalfi, Positano, Sorrento: the coastline paints a portrait of Italy at its most picture perfect
Genoa and the Ligurian Coast– the port of Genoa may have the look of a diamond in the rough, but towns like Rapallo, Camogli, and Portofino are true gems
Milan– Milan underwent a transformation during Expo 2015; discover the backstreets of Brera, the pedestrian area around Castello Sforzcesco, and see it all from the rooftop of the Cathedral
Lake Maggiore – the islands of Lake Maggiore seem to spring from pure fantasy (follow this link to start planning your trip)
Lake Como – follow the rich and famous to Lake Como: a place of vertical cliffs, lush gardens, palaces and natural beauty for every season (find out more by following this link)
Turin – it gave the world the gift of chocolate and today it houses the best Egyptian Museum on the continent
Venice – this city is absolutely unique (follow the link to find out more)
Verona – if it were in another country, it might the star attraction (discover its charms right here)
The Whole Boot
Soak up the atmosphere of Rome. Visit the remains of the ancient world and admire a Caravaggio in a backstreet church. Leave on a cultural high and head down the coast to Amalfi. Visit the Blue Grotto on Capri, go local on Ischia before uncovering the towns along the coastline. Every stone seems to whisper tales of times past… Head north to Siena and explore the Tuscan borghi, a collection of small medieval towns. Forget Florence, it’s a tourist trap! Instead, stop for a bite to eat in Bologna, the country’s gastronomic capital. Shop in the boutiques of Brera before viewing Milan from the roof of its cathedral. Finish the trip on the lakes, an area of scenic beauty and cultural riches.
Minimum Duration: 2 weeks
Optimal Duration: 3-5 weeks
Milan and the North
With three airports, Milan is an excellent jumping off point. Cross the plain to Bergamo, home to a medieval hilltop town that wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany. Venice may be the big draw, but there are other places to visit before travellers reach La Serenissima. Verona, the hometown of Romeo and Juliet, is a dreamy place for lovers of all ages. Vicenza, an architectural wonder, is the creation of Palladio. Finally, there’s Venice– a city that exists both on its islands and in endless watery reflections. Connecting via Milan, head down to the coast. Genoa is a great base to explore Cinque Terre and the colourful towns of Rapallo, Portofino, and Camogli. After all of this, there may just be time to rub shoulders with the jet set on Lake Como.
Minimum Duration: 2 weeks
Optimal Duration: 3-4 weeks
Rome and the South
Touch down in Rome. It’s one of those cities that warrants a lifetime of exploration. Once you’ve had your fill of ancient sites, head down to Naples, from where it’s possible to explore the Amalfi Coast. Positano, Sorrento, Amalfi, Capri– each destination has its own delights. Back in Naples, take a day to wander through the streets of Pompeii. Another trip might take you to Paestum, which unlike Pompeii, is in an entirely rural setting. Make sure to have a few days on Ischia, an island with a more local feel. Have lunch on the flanks of Vesuvius and climb this infamous volcano before heading back to Rome.
Rome and Milan are the starting points for most journeys. The latter, in particular, offers a choice of three airports. There are, however, also major airports in Venice, Genoa and Naples. Getting around is relatively easy. Trains link all the main cities. Book in advance on the Trenitalia website (advance bookings are usually cheaper). Expect express trains to be fast, comfortable and efficient. Regional train services, on the other hand, tend to be more like pot luck.
Italy, although far cheaper than northern European destinations, is not exactly a bargain basement. Shop around online when looking for accommodation. Smaller cities can offer excellent value. Bergamo, for example, is a great base to visit Milan. Although there can be real deals on booking.com, make sure to look at the AirBnB options in Italy. Sometimes it may be possible to find central locations at great prices. This is particularly true in places like Vicenza or Padua that don’t attract the massive numbers of tourists of the tourist hotspots. Yes, we’re talking about you, Venice and Florence.
Eating out doesn’t have to break the bank. Slightly out-of-town locations such via Wagner in Milan offer a large choice of eateries, so you can eat like a true local at affordable prices. Take a look at Tourist By Chance in the ‘Useful Links’ section to get more local tips on eating out.
Do you need help planning your trip? Have you got any recommendations that you want to share with other travellers? Send your comments and recommendations to me by email at Unlatinoverde@gmail.com or connect with me on the Unlatinoverde Facebook Page.