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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Italy.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Italy.
There is a road that runs straight as a stretched string from Sansepolcro, in the Tuscan Valtiberina, across the valley and then steeply uphill to the most perfect Italian hilltown you are ever likely to visit. There are magnificent medieval walls, towers, cobbled lanes, arched passages, stairs, and views over the countryside. Although tourists are few, the town is famous, because of what happened down the hill, along the same straight road, long ago.
Piazza Baldaccio boasts an excellent gelateria, and splendid views of the valley below. You can eat your ice cream, and imagine the scene on 29 June, 1440, when the brave Florentine soldiers defeated the fearsome Milanese in a titanic struggle. Or so it was said. It lives in history as the Battle of Anghiari.
Actually, according to Niccolo Machiavelli, it was a fairly sedate event lasting four hours, between hired armies on both sides, in which the only casualty was a man who fell off his horse. Machiavelli disliked mercenary armies, who often waged their battles carefully, to fight (and get paid) another day. Possibly Niccolo was exaggerating to make a point. There is a museum in town about the battle; you can decide for yourself.
The clock has just struck 12 on a beautiful late spring day. I am walking through the narrow cobbled streets of II Ghetto, the historic Hebrew neighbourhood in Rome. When I arrive at Piperno, one of the capital’s longest-running restaurants, the doors are still closed. A well-dressed gentleman is already waiting there. “It will open in a few minutes,” he tells me in a reassuring tone, smiling politely. “I’ve been a regular here for about four decades. There are not many places like this one – have you tried their artichokes?”
This is the reason for my visit here. Piperno is rightly considered the ‘grandfather’ of all artichoke restaurants in Rome. The owner, Pier Paolo Boni, has something truly delicious in store for me: a super-traditional menu starting with carciofi alla giudia (crisp and crunchy, deep-fried, Jewish-style artichokes), followed by carciofi alla romana – a lighter, Roman-style version slowly stewed with wild mint, parsley and garlic – and vignarola, a spring stew of artichokes, peas and broad beans.
On the water-taxi ride from Venice’s Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, a storm is building on the horizon. The boat skids over the canals, blurring past Gothic arched windows and ornamental bridges before emptying out into the vast, open wetlands of the lagoon.
The driver points to the inky sky and shouts over the engine, “Acqua alta!” It means “high water” in Italian, but it’s the Venetian term for the especially high tides that afect the lagoon from September to May. Tellingly, it’s also interchangeable with the local word for storm. Water, as every Venetian knows, is ubiquitous here: It’s under you, around you and, in this case, even over you.
This rainy day is the start of my five-night trip to Venice, capital of the Veneto region. This time, though, I’m not setting foot in the city proper; the tourist-clogged Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs, Saint Mark’s — those I’ve done. Instead, I’m turning my sights to the oft-overlooked islands of the Venetian Lagoon, 118 in total. Some are mere islets covered in grass and of interest only to nesting ducks and their hunters; others are home to crumbling ruins and fishing camps. But several are undergoing a major renaissance — with new luxury hotels, revived vineyards, locavore yoga retreats and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Mazzorbo, Isola delle Rose, Burano, Torcello, Sant’Erasmo and Isola di San Clemente: what these islands ofer is a taste of Venice — with far fewer crowds.
Welcome all to the inaugural Italia! Travel Awards, wherein our team selects the very best places to visit, museums to view, beaches to relax on and much more. Discover the best of Italy right here… From cities, restaurants and beaches to holiday companies, hikes and hotels, we present the very, very best that Italy has to offer in 2016…
Best Attraction – The Palio, Piazza Del Campo, Siena
It’s the battle of the contrade on horseback. The ten wards of Siena compete in a series of totally frenetic races around the famous Piazza del Campo twice a year (on 2 July and 16 August), in an attempt to garner religious and local pride. The jockeys, dressed in their contrade colors, ride bareback, and it’s seriously dangerous. But what a spectacle! Though beware, many thousands of people crowd into the square and it can be a bit of a squeeze. Indeed, local residents often rent out the apartments surrounding the piazza so that visitors can appreciate the races without the threat of being trampled or squished by the throng.
Best Museum – Museo Dell’Opera Del Duomo, Florence
Inside this strikingly modern museum, you’ll explore the world’s largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Medieval and Renaissance periods spread over 25 exhibition halls. Sounds overwhelming? Actually, thanks to the layout’s careful planning, it’s quite the opposite. The elegant design layers over itself, offering new perspectives on halls you’ve previously walked through, and varied lighting throughout the galleries is just one of the tricks employed to engage visitors. The original museum was founded in 1891, but its lack of exhibition space meant that its concept was always unfulfilled.” If you’re a lover of classic Italian art then this newly refurbished museum simply has to be visited.
Best Beach – Su Giudeu, Chia, Southern Sardinia
Enjoy a round of golf at the Chia golf course, and then what? Why not relax on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world? Around 50km west of the Sardinian capital of Cagliari you’ll find Su Giudeu (which is very close to Chia, see The Best of Sardinia’s Coast, page 42). Chilling out on a sun lounger not your thing? Then take to the ocean to enjoy one of the best surfing experiences on the island. Alternatively, give scuba diving a go – lessons are available if you’re not already qualified and reefs abound just waiting to be explored.
Best Overall Destination – Rome
Ah, the Eternal City… Some of you may consider it an obvious choice as our Best Overall Destination, but we stand by our decision: to view the recently renovated Trevi Fountain (go early in the morning to beat the crowds) or to stand within the Colloseum, Italy’s capital has so, so much to offer, and all of it memorable.
But there’s a lot to discover that’s well off the beaten tourist track, and the best way to find hidden destinations is to walk. And you can do so for hours, days even. Enjoy the street food, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the very best that Italy has to offer.
Without a doubt, the island of Sardinia is home to some of the very best beaches in the Mediterranean. Crystalline waters of dazzling turquoise, cobalt or emerald lap shores of white or golden sand – variously backed by fragrant pinewoods, plunging rocks or charming small towns. With more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline, a list of the island’s ‘best’ beaches could easily run into the hundreds.
And who can arbitrate on ‘best’ anyway, given that tastes vary so much on what makes a beach perfect?
To some, it’s seclusion and an air of exclusivity – a tiny, private-feeling cove flanked by sculptural rocks and pretty vegetation, with not a sunlounger or snack-bar in sight. To others, it’s a huge expanse of soft, strollable sand with wide views to distant islets and a cute nearby fishing village full of cafés and restaurants. Needless to say, Sardinia offers plenty of beaches like these, and more. You’ll always be spoilt for choice on this island, but here are some ideas on where you might start…
Sinis Peninsula – West Sardinia
Wild, undeveloped, windswept and dramatic, the coastline of the Sinis Peninsula is a protected wonderland of colourful landscapes. There are stubby cliffs, shapely sweeps of low-lying land, sleepy lagoons, reefs, gleaming beaches, miniature deserts of dunes, Greek ruins and even a small, cracked volcano. Uncrowded and entirely unspoilt, this is a wonderful area to bask in the elements, and to surf, cycle or snorkel. Two beaches you should include on your itinerary are San Giovanni di Sinis – a long gentle arc of pale sand overlooked by an old watchtower – and Is Arutas – where the sand is fine pieces of quartz, like shiny multi-coloured grains of rice. The nearby provincial capital, Oristano, is a handsome place and a good base from which to explore the peninsula.
Arcipelago di La Maddalena – Northeastern Tip of Sardinia
The Maddalena archipelago is a protected geomarine National Park comprising seven agonizingly beautiful islands – four of them uninhabited – plus innumerable tiny islets. Entirely unspoilt, it’s an aquatic Eden, with white sand, wind-sculpted rocks and dazzlingly clear water in barely credible shades of blue and green. Among the best beaches are the white-sand Cala Corsara on the isle of Spargi and the pink – yes, pink – Spiaggia Rosa on Budelli. Getting to and around the archipelago requires planning. From mainland Sardinia, you can embark from Santa Teresa di Gallura, Porto Pozzo, Palau or Cannigione. La Maddalena is the largest of the islands and there is some accommodation available in its eponymous town.
Like the humble Polo mint, this 1,900-year-old temple is defined by a hole. Few sights are more sublime than watching rain cascading into the rotunda where all the classical gods were worshipped (free entry).
Many cities have been built on seven hills – Jerusalem, Istanbul, Sheffield, Torquay – but Rome has the most famous claim. For our money there is no hilltop view finer than atop the Capitoline Hill looking south across the ruins of the Forum.
For the pas few years the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain have all been under restoration – the Trevi Fountain just reopened, and 2016 will see the unveiling anew of the Spanish Steps.
Forget Vespas, Ferraris and chariots – a pint-sized Fiat 500 is the most stylish way around Rome’s twisting streets.
Making battles in the Colosseum look like the Teddy Bear’s Picnic, the Rome Derby sets the whole city’s pulse racing. Go soon to see Roma captain Francesco Totti, gladiator of the pitch since 1993, before he retires.
The great composer Gioacchino Rossini was so fond of his hometown, Pesaro, that he left an ample fortune to the municipality, which honored him by establishing a Rossini Foundation. From this grew the annual Rossini Opera Festival, devoted exclusively to his work (die rarely performed ones as well as the famous) and now one of Italy’s most popular summer music festivals, a favorite among purists since it was founded in 1980.
Even when the festival is not in town, life centers around—where else?— the animated Via Rossini. Pesaro is a popular, attractive seaside resort, and its piazzas and cafes are always full. For the quintessential festival experience, stay at the handsomely refurbished but still old-world waterfront Hotel Vittoria, the meeting place for the stars of the festival.
Check out the culinary’ genius of Otello Renzi, a genuine scholar of food and wine whose restaurant, Da Teresa, is named after his mother, who oversees the kitchen. The house specialties of fresh pasta and fish draw the festival’s performing artists annually.
The old-world hotel where Ernest Hemingway’s tragic WW I hero Frederic Henry trysted with his goddess, Catherine Barkley, in A Farewell to Arms still dominates the banks of Lake Maggiore, in a setting that only grows more gorgeous with age.
The enormous 19th-century Grand Hotel et des Iles Borromees is as romantic and princely as in the days of the young American soldier, and the lobby bar still serves a stiff Hemingway martini to help guests slip into that mood of being “faint with love.”
The views alone are enough to warrant a certain lightheadedness: ask for any of the lakeside rooms for a priceless view over the 40-mile sweep of water toward the snow-dusted Swiss Alps and a glimpse of the four Borromean Islands.
The tiny but fabled Borromeans are named after the aristocratic Lombard family that has owned them since the 12th century. They consist of two Baroque palaces, a tiny fishing village, and two lavish gardens, whose springtime display of rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, resident peacocks, and golden pheasants is world renowned.
“What can one say of Lake Maggiore, and of the Borromean Islands,” wrote Stendhal, “except to pity people who do not go mad over them?”
Wait till the afternoon crowds thin, then cross the drawbridge to this fairy-tale castello almost entirely surrounded by the deep blue water of Lake Garda. All towers and fancy battlements, the 13th-century castle was built by the powerful della Scala (or Scaligeri) princes of nearby Verona, 2 miles out into the lake. Garda is the largest in Italy and considered by many to be the most beautiful in the Lake District.
Just as Bellagio is known as Como’s Pearl of the Lake, fans of Garda call Sirmione the Jewel of the Lake. Beyond the castle are the narrow streets of the boutique- and cafe-lined Old Town, a pedestrian island still redolent of medieval times. In ancient times, the Lake District served as the cool summertime destination of Rome’s VIPs, in particular the hedonist poet Catullus, who was drawn to Sirmione as much for its natural sulfur baths as for the lovely setting. The panoramic Grotte di Catullo is said to be the ruins of his villa.
By comparison the 19th-century Villa Cortine Palace Hotel seems downright modern. Palatial, colonnaded, formidably decorative, and just this side of over-the-top, it is the area’s finest hotel, with impeccable gardens, lapped by the lake’s edge.
Where else can you tell a taxicab driver the name of a painting as your destination, and expect to get there? Every self-respecting Milanese, cabbie or not, knows the location of Leonardo da Vinci’s II Cenacolo (The Last Supper), one of the world’s most famous images, tucked away in the Gothic church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The entire country closely followed the painstaking twenty-year restoration that was completed in 1999. On a wall in what once was the refectory of the church’s adjacent convent, Leonardo created this powerful 28-foot mural.
Capturing the emotion-packed moment of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, it began to deteriorate almost immediately following its completion in 1495. Its recent restoration was as controversial as that of the Sistine Chapel, with some historians claiming that precious little has survived of the original painting or coloring, having been re- (and mis-) interpreted a little too zealously over time by countless restorers (there have been seven restorations since 1726); others herald it as a milestone of patience and craftmanship.
There is no dismissing that it is one of Leonardo’s finest works, one whose every brushstroke revealed the “intentions of the soul.” He searched for years among the city’s criminals for Judas’s face; the result, art historian Giorgio Vasari declared, was “the very embodiment of treachery and inhumanity.”