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Portofino – Liguria, Italy

Postcard of the Italian Riviera

Portofino wins the beauty contest in Liguria, the crescent-shaped region known as the Italian Riviera. The town’s perfect little harbor has been designated a historical landmark, and Portofino is said to be the most photographed village in the world.

The facades of the fishermen’s dwellings are painted in the rich colors for which Liguria is known—faded mustard, ocher, pink, and rust. A fishing village no longer, Portofino is now graced by swank villas nestled in the wooded hills above; the small boats bobbing in the marina (alongside glamorous 150-foot yachts) are no longer used for fishing but as pleasure craft.

This exceedingly pretty village lies at the end of an unspoiled peninsula that is a carefully guarded government preserve, criss­crossed by marked footpaths affording beautiful views of the coastline.

Exhilaration of another kind is as easily found at the harborside restaurants, despite their tourist-trap location. Follow the heady perfume of pesto- flavored trenette pasta and grilled scampi to a disarmingly simple Ligurian meal.

Cunningly situated on a hillside above town is one of the world’s most famous getaways, the Hotel Splendido. If the roster of world-famous VIP guests doesn’t make you feel lightheaded (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were the first to sign the visitors’ book in 1952), the views from this Benedictine-monastery-turned-villa-turned-five-star-hotel will.

The 4-acre garden of luxuriant semitropical vegetation is so entrancing that even the five-minute stroll down to Portofino’s perfect stage-set harbor (and its recently opened sister hotel, the Splendido Mare) may not lure guests away.

The simple joy of an aperitivo on the Splendido’s terrace overlooking the romantic bay and its tree-covered peninsula makes any evening a grand event. Groucho Marx summed it up nicely: “Wonderful place, wonderful people.”

Bellagio – Lombardy, Italy

The Finest Location of Any Lake Town

On this sylvan promontory, where the fjordlike lakes of Como and Lecco join, those to the grand life born should check into any of the lakefront rooms at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni and revel in the same alpine magic that captivated Pliny the Younger in the 1st century A.D.

The Belle Epoque hotel’s cov­eted Royal Suite once hosted crowned heads, but every room has the same royal view of Lake Como, whose natural beauty attracted Goethe, Shelley, Byron, and many others, Wordsworth described Lake Como as “a treasure which the earth keeps to itself.”

Bellagio itself is one of the prettiest towns in Europe, even though it’s no longer the exclu­sive, aristocratic address it once was. Life has mellowed, but the band still plays by the lake under the stars, and the bracing air and riot of gardens and lush flowers hint of something inherently Italian about this otherwise Swiss scenario.

The dowager hotel’s real charm is its palpable sense of the past and the luxury of its formal parkland. (Don’t confuse it with the 50- acre terraced garden of the same name on a hill overlooking the lake, on the site of Pliny’s villa.) This lakescape inspired music by Verdi, Rossini, and Bellini. You’ll see why.

Cinqueterre – Liguria, Italy

A Coastline Hike with Inspiring Seascapes

Collectively known as the Five Lands, hidden in tiny coves along the craggy southern stretch of the Ligurian Riviera, the Cinqueterre were once virtually unknown to outsiders. Only recently connected by road to the rest of Italy and each other, these five vil­lages offer a glimpse of an elusive, pristine Mediterranean—Italy as it must have been a century or more ago.

This is one of the country’s most dramatic coastal settings, with cliffs so harsh and unyielding, that for cen­turies these fishing hamlets were linked to each other only by boat or a network of mule paths strung along the cliffs. These ancient sentieri are now paved for the most part, and considered one of the more gorgeously scenic and not-too-difficult hikes in Europe.

A heav­enly plate of pasta with pesto sauce is the payoff at the end of the day, followed by a cold bottle of the local white dessert wine called sciacchetra. With poetic names such as the Via dell’Amore, these panoramic footpaths pass through an overgrown, fragrant mantle of macchia, the Mediterranean’s slowly disap­pearing ecosystem, together with agaves, prickly pears, palms, olives, and everywhere the daringly carved stepped vineyards that produce wine renowned at least since the 14th century, when it was praised by Boccaccio.

Monterosso is the first, northernmost town, with a handful of hotels and the only village with what might be called a stretch of water­front, and thus a natural base. They say you can reach the fifth village, Riomaggiore, by foot in five or six hours—but what’s the rush?

Sistine Chapel – Rome, Lazio, Italy

The World’s Most Famous Ceiling

The spellbinding frescoes that cover the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel are among Western civilization’s greatest achievements. Historians always knew Michelangelo to be a master painter (although, following his success with David’s completion, he painted infrequently before being commissioned to create the ceiling by Pope Julius), but the biggest revelation of its fourteen-year restora­tion (the most controversial of all time) was his startling use of light and bright colors, which had been drastically muted over the centuries from accumulated dust, dirt, incense, and countless candles.

Although he started off with a team of assistants and apprentices, Michelangelo fired them all and worked alone for four years before unveiling his work to a speechless pope and public in 1512. After an international restoration team completed work on this brilliant extravaganza depicting biblical scenes from the Creation (the creation of Adam is the ceiling’s focus), they turned their attention to the wall behind the main altar and Michelangelo’s equally powerful Last Judgment.

Its completion in 1541 brought Pope Pius III to his knees. Although Michelangelo is often associated with his birth town of Florence (where he is represented by David and the Medici Chapels), his presence is strongly felt in the Eternal City.

The Sistine Chapel rightly caps any visitor’s short list, but the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica confirms Michelangelo’s genius as a sculptor, while Rome’s elegant Piazza del Campidoglio shows off his natural talent as architect and city planner: one of the world’s most beautiful and copied squares (reinterpreted in New York City’s Lincoln Center), it has been left essentially as he designed it.

The Hotel Hassler – Rome, Lazio, Italy

A Roman Holiday atop the Spanish Steps

Never have hotel guests been so undeterred by 136 steps—consider them the grand entrance to one of Rome’s great hotels. The fabled Hotel Hassler glories in its one-of-a-kind location above the capital’s famous Spanish Steps.

Being a coddled guest of the Hassler let Audrey Hepburn feel like a princess both on and off the set when filming Roman Holiday, and what was good enough for Audrey (and just about every other celebrity and crowned head on the planet) is good enough for most.

Dozens of the rooms and suites are blessed with terraces and romantic and dazzling panoramas of the Eternal City. Established in 1885 in a palazzo that was once the home of Napoleon’s sister, the Hassler is one of the rare luxury hotels in Europe today that is privately owned and operated.

Impervious to contemporary whims, the old-world hotel is impeccably run by fifth-generation hotelier Roberto Wirth, who believes in real keys, superlative service, messages delivered on silver trays—simple amenities quickly growing extinct in the homogenization of the world’s five-star prop­erties.

If you must go elsewhere to hang your hat, at least stop in for an aperitif at the Hassler Bar (which moves to the Palm Court in warm weather) or try the popular Sunday brunch in the hotel’s Rooftop Restaurant. The food, while good, takes a backseat to the view of Rome’s seven hills.

The Top Ten Sights – Rome – Lazio, Italy

“Rome welcomes you when you come and forgets you when you go.”—Federico Fellini

A republic was declared in Rome in 509 B.C., and all roads have led here ever since. A very busy city of leisurely citizens, Rome serves up a jolt of big-city life with the warmth of a small provincial town.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore— One of Rome’s four major basilicas, built in the 5th century, then restored and extended between the 12th and 18th centuries. Its magnificent 5th-century mosaics are among the oldest and most beautiful in the city, and its 15th-century coffered ceiling is said to have been gilded with some of the first gold brought from the New World, a gift of the Spanish monarchy.

Borghese Gallery—Begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 17th century, the collection includes Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, Raphael’s Deposition, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, among innumerable other masterpieces.

The Coliseum—Once able to seat 50,000, the Coliseum was begun in A.D. 72 by Vespasian and inaugurated in A.D. 80 by his son, Titus. Combat was the usual entertainment—between men, between animals, between men and animals, and even between ships, as the whole thing could be flooded. Centuries of neglect and outright ransacking have left it a shell largely without floor or seats, but what a shell it is, with three tiers of columns—Doric, Ionian, and Renaissance paintings, including numerous works by Tintoretto and Reni. The famous statue of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus is here, as is the original statue of Marcus Aurelius astride a horse, which once sat in the center of the piazza. Pollution led to its removal indoors; a copy remains outside.

The Pantheon—Built in 27 B.C. by Marcus  Agrippa and reconstructed by Hadrian in the early 2nd century A.D., the Pantheon is the most complete ancient Roman building remaining today and one of its architectural wonders: its dome is exactly as wide as it is high, supported by pillars hidden in the walls. Raphael’s tomb is here.

The Roman and Imperial Forums—The center of Roman life in the days of the Republic, the Roman Forum was a stone quarry and cow pasture before excavations began in the 19th century. You need a map and guide to put some meaning to the ruins, which include numerous temples, the Umbilicus Urbus, considered the center of Rome (and, by extension, of the empire); the Curia, the main seat of the Roman Senate; and the House of the Vestal Virgins, home of the young women who minded the Temple of Vesta’s sacred fire. The Imperial Forum was begun by Julius Caesar to show the power of the emperors. You can see his forum, once the site of the Roman stock exchange; the Forum of Augustus, built to commemorate the defeat of Caesar’s assassins; the famous Trajan’s Column, with bas-reliefs depicting the emperor’s campaign against the Dacians; the Forum of Trajan; and much more

Spanish Steps—Designed by Francesco de Sanctis and built between 1723 and 1725, these wide steps ascend in three majestic tiers from the busy Piazza di Spagna to the French Trinity dei Monti church, one of Rome’s most distinctive landmarks and the place to be at sunset, with a view of Rome’s seven hills. The steps take their name from the Spanish Embassy, which occupied a nearby palace in the 19th century. The boat­shaped fountain in the piazza was designed in the late 16th century by Bernini or his father (the jury is still out). The house where John Keats lived and died sits beside the steps.

Trevi Fountain—Designed by Nicolo Salvi and completed in 1762, the fanciful Baroque fountain features Neptune standing on a chariot drawn by winged steeds.

Vatican City—The world’s smallest independent state, Vatican City is accessed through St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by an elliptical colonnade with some 140 saints on top. Straight ahead is the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of world Catholicism. The Circus of Nero, where St. Peter was crucified, once sat on this spot, and in 324 the emperor Constantine commissioned a basilica to be built here in the saint’s honor. The present structure dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and contains cream-of-the-crop statuary, the Michelangelo-designed dome and his famous Pieta, and so much more that it’s overwhelming—exactly as it was supposed to be. To the north of the piazza, the Vatican Museums contain one of the world’s greatest collections of art from antiquity and the Renaissance, including Raphael’s famous stanze (several rooms containing many of the artist’s masterpieces), housed in a labyrinth of palaces and galleries.

The gem of the collection is the famous Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512 (see separate entry on page 196).

Other Must-Do’s

Bocca Della Verita—Reenact the scene from the 1950s Audrey Hepburn classic Roman Holiday: Go to the atrium of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and stick your hand in the gaping Mouth of Truth— legend has it that if someone puts his hand in the mouth and tells a lie, the mouth will bite down. Be careful what you say!

Market at Campo dei Fiori—One of Italy’s great daily marketplaces, and some of its best theater. Shaded by canvas ombrelloni, stalls sell the freshest produce available—come before 9 A.M. or the city’s chefs will have snatched up all the best. Insight into daily Roman life at its most authentic continues after the last stall disappears. Patrons of the popular hole-in- the-wall La Vineria wine bar spill out onto the piazza, wineglass in hand, to discuss the scandal of the week or the day’s soccer score.

Ostia Antica—As evocative as Pompeii and twice as well preserved, Rome’s best- kept secret can even be reached by subway. Excavations of the ancient port of Rome reveal much of the history of the far-flung Roman Empire.

Piazza Navona—The Eternal City’s nightlife at its best. In warm weather, take a seat outdoors at Tre Scalini cafe for the people-watching and the specialty tartufo, a rich chocolate concoction named for its resemblance to the knobby truffle. Against the background of Bernini’s Baroque Fountain of the Rivers, a host of Felliniesque characters from central casting mingle with German students, retired couples from Florida, and Roman residents of all shapes and inclinations.

Via Condotti—Via Condotti and its grid of cobbled offshoots at the foot of the Spanish Steps offers ultrasmart shopping and the ideal venue for the early evening passeggiata ritual. In this atmospheric, traffic-free neighborhood is Rome’s oldest cafe, Caffe Greco, a centuries-old watering hole where Casanova, Goethe, Lord Byron, and Buffalo Bill all stopped for a coffee break.

La Posta Vecchia – Localita Palo Laziale, Lazio, Italy

Getty’s Former Seaside Retreat

John Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, isn’t around anymore (he left Italy in 1975, one year before his death), but you’ll still feel like one of his most coddled guests at La Posta Vecchia, the magnificent Villa that was once his palatial seaside home.

The billion­aire oil baron and art collector extraordinaire gave new meaning to the expression “there’s no place like home,” and much of the money-is-no-object luxury and quiet sense of privacy he demanded has been left intact.

Getty purchased the villa from his friend Prince Odescalchi, whose ancestors built it in 1640 for guests visiting the family’s neigh­boring 15th-century castle—still inhabited today by descendants of the noble lineage.

The wealthy American tycoon spent millions amassing an enormous collection of antiques and antiquities (Maria de’ Medici’s marriage chest and Gobelin tapestries are just some of the myriad museum-level pieces) still used to appoint this amazing seventeen-guest­room villa.

It was only by chance that his architects discovered the ancient foundations of a Roman villa—perhaps two—upon which the 17th-century structure was built. In what is now a small informal museum located beneath the villa, intricate mosaic floors indicate the wealth and affluence of those ancient Roman landlords (some have even suggested that the emperor Tiberius lived here).

Modern-day guests enjoy the ultimate in civilized living, the same timeless serenity of an unparalleled alfresco meal on the glorious seaside terrace, light-years away from the glory that is Rome, caput mundi.

Ravenna – Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Once the Western Capital of the Byzantine Empire

Ravenna is the home of the most celebrated mosaics in Western art. The superb 5th- to 7th-century Byzantine mosaics are dazzling reminders of Ravenna’s storied past as the last capital of the Western Roman Empire after the fall of Rome in the 5th century.

Today it is a sleepy town, nonchalant about the unparalleled artistic treasures that fill its museums and churches. For the art-loving visitor, this means no crowds, no lines, and an enjoyably slow, genuine rhythm in a place where tourism seems almost incidental.

The city’s red-brick buildings are unpretentious, an intense contrast to the brilliance and refinement of the mosaics that cover their inte­riors. Tiny pieces of glass, colored marble, and semiprecious stones have been painstakingly cut to fit drawn designs of epic proportion.

There are six places to see these tapestries of mosaics, ordered by the Byzantine rulers in their attempt to have Ravenna outdo rival cities, but most visited is the 6th-century duo of the Tomb of Gallia Placidia and the adjacent Basilica di San Vitale, believed by many to be the crowning achievement of Byzantine art in the entire world.

Piazza del Duomo – Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

A City of Great Art and Refinement

Although generally identified as the home of Arturo Toscanini and parmigiano cheese, Parma offers so much more, as confirmed by a visit to the Piazza del Duomo, one of the loveliest city centers in Italy.

The stunning octagonal Battistero (Baptistry) is clad in Veronese-colored pink marble and elaborately festooned with reliefs by the local sculptor and architect Benedetto Antelami (1150-1230). Much of Antelami’s renown comes from works found within the Baptistry, one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in northern Italy.

In the Duomo next door, a high point, quite literally, of a visit to this 12th-century cathedral is looking up toward the recently restored cupola at Antonio Correggio’s famous Assumption of the Virgin (1522-1530). A master of light and color, the “divine” Correggio was one of Italy’s greatest masters of the High Renaissance, although the concentric circles of figures were described as a “mess of frogs’ legs” by the bishop who commissioned the piece.

Parma is one of Italy’s most prosperous cities, and a sense of well-being harks back to its days of splendor as capital of the Farnese dukes from the mid-16th to the early 18th century.

The Quadrilatero – Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Where Food Is a Magnificent Obsession

Being the preeminent culinary center of a food-conscious country is an imposing position that Bologna la Grassa (Bologna the Fat One) has shoul­dered proudly and insouciantly for centuries. Most trips to this handsome medieval city are devoted to the pursuit of gas­tronomic pleasures.

Head straight for the Quadrilatero. The well-known food district lies within a medieval labyrinth whose narrow streets and porticoed arcades of family-run shops make up the city’s oldest and best-preserved quarter.

Bologna is the birthplace of mortadella sausage (the distant and infinitely more tasty granddaddy of American bologna), meat-stuffed tortellini pasta, and the exquisitely chunky ragu alia bolognese. The popular preoccupation with eating is happily played out amid some of Italy’s most historically important architecture.

The hungry and the plain curious will be in paradise in Tamburini, Italy’s most lavish food empo­rium, an amazing display of artistically pack­aged and prepared foods, pastas, meats, and salads. A visit here is more about cultural enhancement than shopping, but no one with a sense of sight or smell or taste leaves the store empty-handed. The recent addition of a self- service bistrolike corner is a godsend.