Exploring Italy

Because I’ve always wanted to…

Issue 48 / April 2021

Greetings,

I trust with all the latest wonderful vaccination news combined with the openings of phase 2 of the lockdown programme that this e letter finds you and your families both well and in fine spirits?

The UK is certainly among the top few countries in the world regarding population vaccination percentages though sadly we fear that our success will not be leading to the opening up of international travel any time soon. Some other wonderful vaccination news comes from the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan.We are reliably informed that this week Bhutan could become the first country in the world to administer the first dose of the Covid 19 vaccine to all of its eligible population, estimated at 533,558! However, all of Africa (except North Africa) and all of South America are currently on the UK red list and most of the rest of the world, from India all the way East to NZ, is closed off to international travel. We are hopeful that this will start changing in July so now it’s the perfect time to spruce up your travel bucket lists!

Nico, who many of you know, spent 3 months last summer touring around her home country. Her trip has led to us offering up Italy as our first country within Europe to be a fully researched and deserved “Lateral Destination”. We hope you enjoy the informative and passionate way Nico describes the variety of fascinating destinations Italy has to offer within its borders. Most of these ideas have been compiled into a single, albeit lengthy show case itinerary, which can be discovered by clicking here.

We will be back to you in June to not only showcase the findings of my recent trip to the Kenyan coastline and safari regions adjacent to Mount Kenya, but also hopefully some more positive news about travel opening up further after the 17th May government announcement.

Wishing you all a wonderful spring enjoying some well deserved al fresco dining.

Italy Laterally

“Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.” – Bertrand Russell After a year of postponed and cancelled holidays and adventures, many of us definitely feel the gloom settling in and Russell’s words ring truer than ever. With first love in the past for most and spring taken care of, the only ingredient we seem to be missing is Italy, so it is with great pleasure that I showcase some of my favourite destinations this wonderful country has to offer, although the complete list is too long to fit in one newsletter. It goes without saying that Rome, Venice and Florence are stunning cities to visit but Italy is a country where each corner is picture perfect and every moment is an ode to la dolce vita – the good life; what more can we ask from a holiday?

Cinque Terre National Park

Even in Italy, a land of many wonders, Cinque Terre National Park is unique. The park includes a group of five picturesque seaside villages perched high atop the rocky Mediterranean coastline. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, the towering hills behind them, and the breathtaking Ligurian coastline itself are all included in this national park. The rocky, rugged coastal cliffs keep Cinque Terre in scenic isolation. Most visitors arrive by train or boat, or even on foot, because it’s extremely difficult to reach the villages by road. This makes the park, villages and all, a pedestrian paradise linked by footpaths that traverse seaside promontories, terraced vineyards, and olive groves. It’s easy to fall in love with this stretch of coastline and its unique landscape but it is also something that needs to be understood and interpreted. It has been defined as a living landscape: Man and Nature living together forming a society. Nature created this place, and men gave it a shape and are preserving it.

As the tiny villages are isolated and protected by UNESCO, the bigger hotel names have never managed to take root here as they have in the neighbouring more glittering villages of Portofino or Santa Margherita. Instead, small and family owned B&Bs abound and offer friendly hospitality and a more genuine experience than their larger siblings along the coast. La Torretta in Manarola is perfect for families or small groups of friends as it has a slightly higher number of rooms than most alternatives and all the suites feature a private terrace and sea views. The First has a handful of rooms in both Manarola and Riomaggiore (3 and 2 rooms respectively) and would be perfect for a family that could book it exclusively. Finally, in Vernazza La Malà is a delightful B&B with only 3 rooms hanging halfway between the sea and the sky, a stone’s throw from the village square.

Along the Po river

The Po is Italy’s biggest waterway and the key, some might say, to her very existence as a nation and yet it is generally completely overlooked by travellers. The winding journey along its flowing waters reveals tranquil countryside, jaw-dropping architecture, and the history of the country’s cultural Renaissance. Its cities include Bologna, Turin, Milan, Mantua, Pavia, Cremona and Parma, all worth a visit and perfect for a quick weekend getaway. These were city-states where science, architecture, art and music once thrived and today offer some of the best food in the country. From the early Middle Ages to the Risorgimento, Italy’s 19th-century struggle for unification, this was pure fighting territory, whether between armies of invading superpowers or ambitious local dukes keen to stake a claim on the fertile soil. As always, it was the peasants who suffered most and a local proverb runs: ‘O Francia, o Spagna, purché si magna’ – ‘France or Spain, we don’t care who wins as long as we can eat’.

No wonder food figures so significantly in the area. Every town has a speciality, if only because the citizens learned to throw away nothing they could stew, fry, bake, boil or bottle. In Piacenza, a decent lunch gets going with pisarei e fasö, ‘little peas and beans’, a casserole of borlotti beans cooked in broth with tiny pasta nuggets, and it’s said that when a Piacentino gets engaged, his mother inspects the fiancée’s nails to ensure they are just the right shape for incising the pisarei. In Mantua, an architect’s wish-list, from the neoclassical Palazzo Canossa, to the cool Corinthian interior of the Duomo, the discerning foodie traveller will find bliss at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura’s three Michelin star realm and winner of best restaurant in the world in 2016 and 2018.

Dolomites

In the eastern section of the northern Italian Alps, the Dolomites mountain range is universally heralded as one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Europe. Reinhold Messner himself once said that “Each mountain in the Dolomites is like a piece of art” and while his passion for mountaineering may have made him biased, the impossibly perfect cracked mountain peaks, vivid green valleys, hairpin roads in the mist, and heavenly hiking trail scenes lined by wildflowers will speak for themselves. Add to this mix how easily they can be reached (two hours by train from Venice), an interesting and unique cultural mix (Italian and Austrian culture blend here and the area is further enriched by the Ladin language – an ancient Romance language, spoken only in the 5 Ladin valleys: Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Fodom and Val di Fassa), and finally how they are a wonderful destination year round thanks to the fantastic skiing in the winter and scenic trekking and cycling in the warmer months, and you have the recipe for a fantastic family holiday.

Food is an important part of culture here as in the rest of the country, but the Austrian influence makes for a delicious melting-pot of flavours. Enjoy hearty dishes, such as polenta with mushrooms, canederli dumplings, pasta fagioli and ravioli filled with pumpkins, along with local specialties such as speck (smoked, cured ham) and Schüttelbrot (dry, crunchy bread). To top it all, winemaking thrives in the valleys and cycling along the well organized and scenic wine trails makes for a wonderful day of drinking paired with local specialities in the sun – the Italian way! Finally, the strong spa culture means that many hotels in the Dolomites are “wellness hotels” and include free amenities such as a sauna, steam room, hot tub and more. After a long day outdoors, there’s nothing better than to treat yourself at the spa of lovely hotels such as the stunning family owned and run Alpina Dolomites in Alpe di Siusi and the traditional Ciasa Salares perched above the hamlet of San Cassiano in the heart of Alta Badia.

Trieste

Another criminally overlooked destination is the city of Trieste and surrounding areas. Being on the border to Slovenia and close to Croatia, no other Italian city shows such a profound historical and cultural transformation before and during World War II. Trieste only came back to Italy in 1954 and thus, its culture is the result of influences from the Austro-Hungarian and Slavic cultures that are reflected in its daily life, its dialect, its architecture, its traditions and, most of all, in its multicultural cuisine. Once the great seaport of the Habsburg Empire, its fabulous waterfront is lined with neoclassical architecture on a par with London’s, although its view across the blazing blue bay is considerably finer. It is this view, plus the marina chock-full of sleek white yachts, the city lidos, the long, sandy beaches and the vineyard-draped hinterland of the karst that hold the real magic of Trieste.

The region around Trieste is a big name in wine production, and cycling through the vineyard-lined hills along the Slovenian border is again a fun boozy activity. Friuli wine has made impressive strides over the past few decades, overcoming the destruction suffered in the World Wars to become a reference in Italian white wines and noble varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Grigio thrive here alongside a diverse array of native grapes. Trieste pairs easily with the nearby Venice and Dolomites and it’s worth visiting during (and ideally taking part in) the biggest regatta in the world: La Barcolana. This yearly event in the second Sunday of October, attracts more sails than any other and it’s a sight to behold. Taking part in the regatta is easy and pleasant as most participants couldn’t care less about winning and are mostly there to enjoy the sun and the sailing paired with lots of wining and dining on board – a wonderful way to exorcise

Le Marche

It goes without saying that Tuscany is beautiful, and we have all found ourselves sighing wistfully whilst gazing at pictures of golden hued vineyard-lined rolling hills at sunset. However, it is also undeniable that Tuscany is a well-trodden tourist destination and nobody wants to spend precious holiday time squeezed between tour groups and their omnipresent buses just to take a picture of the aforementioned beautiful sunset. But where else can one enjoy rolling vineyards and golden grain fields topped by crumbling castles and masterpieces of Medieval and Renaissance art? The answer is in Le Marche, a region that offers all of that and even more! Known as ‘Italy in one region’, it has retained its authenticity and remains one of the very few places in Italy to have escaped mass tourism despite its miles of untamed coastlines, medieval hilltop towns full of art and culture, its hidden beaches, its patchwork quilt countryside and its three national parks. The region was isolated by geography and history: it is cut off from western Italy by the Apennines and from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century it was ruled by the Pope.

Direct daily flights fly from London to Ancona, the region’s capital, but the town of Urbino is the true crown jewel of the area and remains little changed from the days when Duke Federico of Montefeltro set up his celebrated court here in the second half of the 15th Century. The town boasts an intact and extraordinary historical centre as well as being the birthplace of Raffaello and as such, of Renaissance itself. Some of the most impressive mountain scenery is found to the south of the region amidst the Monti Sibillini, whose peaks are often covered with snow until the late spring and also host the Frasassi caves, some of the most spectacular limestone caves you are ever likely to visit. Just south of Ancona lies the Riviera del Conero, a national park facing the Adriatic Sea featuring vertiginous cliffs, white sandy beaches and blue-emerald waters. The Conero is perfect for adventure seekers but families with younger children may prefer to enjoy the umbrellas and sun beds on hire on the beaches of Fano and Senigallia, two charming medieval resort towns with quaint historical centres and majestic roman fortifications.

Naples

Colourful, vibrant, exciting, hedonistic and high-spirited, Naples (Napoli) is one of the most fascinating cities in Italy and in Europe. Simultaneously ancient and modern, welcoming and intimidating, blessed and cursed by its location, the city is loved by some of its visitors and hated by others. For many, the country’s third largest city after Rome and Milan has traditionally been the mere launchpad to the nearby Amalfi Coast or the archaeological wonderland of Pompeii, but even a fleeting visit offers glimpses of the riches the city has to offer: streets and alleys full of history and culture, amazing views, a cheerful and lively nightlife, an ancient culinary tradition without equals in the world, seemingly infinite street food options, generous and friendly people, and an original and unique theatrical lifestyle. All you need before visiting is an empty stomach, an open mind and more than a pinch of madness.

The historic heart of Naples (a UNESCO World Heritage site and the biggest in Europe) tells tales of Greek settlements, the Roman Empire and Byzantine reign but it would be a mistake to imagine it like a Venice-type open air museum. These narrow streets where rainbows of laundry wave in the wind are full of bustling crowds, pungent aromas and shouting merchants and offer an endless array of Fellini-esque slices of life. Here visitors can see the ancient layout of narrow lanes, visit churches from various historic eras, explore underground labyrinths of ruins and ancient aqueducts, admire artworks including Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy and the famous statue of a veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Dedicate enough time to Napoli to deepen your acquaintance, to get the feel of the city, to explore its varied sights, to stroll by the sea, to feast on pasta, seafood, pastries and pizza, and to meet the Neapolitans bringing their heritage back to life.

However, the beauty doesn’t end with the city and the whole neighbouring area offers heaps of additional sightseeing. The ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum are both archaeological treasures giving unparalleled insight into the everyday lives of the citizens of the empire. Vesuvius, the volcano which destroyed the two towns, still threatens the Naples area but until it next erupts, it’s possible to walk or cycle up to the crater’s rim. Deemed an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape by UNESCO, the Amalfi Coast is one of Italy’s most memorable destinations. Here, mountains plunge into the sea in a nail-biting vertical scene of precipitous crags, cliff-clinging abodes and verdant woodland. Other longer excursions include the islands of Capri, Ischia, small but colourful Procida, and the under-visited volcanic landscape of the Phlaegrean Fields (Campi Flegrei).

Sicily
The Ruins of Taormina Theater at Sunset. Beautiful travel photo, colorful image of Sicily.

Italy’s biggest island stands distinctively apart from the rest of the country and is proudly unique in almost every way. The diverse island offers beaches, mountains, active volcanoes, and even skiing in winter. Well-preserved archaeological sites, cathedrals, and buildings show evidence of its history as a crossway within the Mediterranean and home to the major powers of history including Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. This melting pot is evident in its art, architecture and food but it runs even deeper in the island’s culture, languages and even in the Sicilians’ physical features. It’s not unusual to see couscous on a menu, reflecting Arabic influences, and pasta is served with a variety of ingredients, with each town having its speciality. Fresh, delicious seafood is plentiful, with the island’s more than 600 miles of coastline, and sardines are served on their own as well as in the flavourful pasta con le sarde that also includes fennel, pine nuts, and raisins. Sicily is also home to some of the world’s best preserved examples of Greek and Roman temples, structures, and art. In the southwest, Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples includes the nearly intact Temple of Concordia while on Sicily’s southeast coast, in Siracusa — once the leading city of Greece — a massive amphitheatre built around the 5th century B.C. is still used for theatrical presentations.

Surrounded by the Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Mediterranean Seas, Sicily has miles of varied and beautiful coastline, but true beach lovers will fall in love with the Sicilian islands: the Egadi Islands off Sicily’s west coast are accessible for day trips from Trapani. Favignana, the largest of the Egadis, is home to luxury hotels, beaches, and popular diving spots as one of the biggest naval battles between Carthage and Rome took place in its waters, still brimming with submarine archaeological wonders. Off Sicily’s northern coast, are the volcanic Aeolian Islands. Lipari is the largest and most popular with visitors who enjoy its hot springs and historic architecture. Small and quaint Panarea blooms in the summer and fiery Stromboli features an active volcano, which bolder visitors can hike to its summit. Finally, the island of Salina is known for its delicious capers and mountain peak. Off Sicily’s west coast, hippy, vibey and volcanic Pantelleria is a UNESCO World Heritage site with fumaroles, mud baths, and agricultural products that include olives, grapes, and their well-known capers.

Up Periscope: Hotel Belvedere Bellagio, Lake Como

Italy’s proximity to the UK and multiple flight connections, make it the perfect destination for a quick getaway, but how to choose where to go? One of the places I find myself retuning to every time I have free time whilst visiting my family in Milan, is the pastel hued town of Bellagio on Lake Como. The beauty of the Lake itself is well-known but you’d be surprised by how much can be done on and around its shores: boat trips, sailing, windsurfing, paragliding, rock climbing, cycling and trekking around the Alps, dipping in the lake’s emerald waters, visiting one of the many stunning historical villas dotted on its shores, and more.

Bellagio, sitting atop the peninsula that separates the Lake’s southern arms and offering steep stone streets, a traffic-free waterfront, arcaded shops and charming pink buildings, is the perfect base to explore. Frequent ferries make it an ideal starting point for day trips to historic villas, grand gardens, and outlying villages and Hotel Belvedere is wonderfully located above this hustle and bustle (thus blessed with the best lake views in town) whilst still staying within walking distance to all the cafes and restaurants Bellagio has to offer. Modern blends with the classic at this 60-roomed charming hotel, owned by the Martinelli family and handed down by five generations of women.

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