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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.
Robert Browning pronounced this Renaissance town “the most beautiful spot I ever was privileged to see” and spent most of his final years there. Nestled in the gentle green hills of the Veneto, and within breathtaking view of the pink snowcapped Dolomite mountains, the English poet’s “delicious Asolo” was a cool, favorite retreat of nearby Venice’s noble and patrician families who came here to escape the suffocating heat and ennui of the city’s summers.
A 15th-century doge bequeathed the jewel-like town to Caterina Comaro, Venetian-born queen of Cyprus— she relinquished her rule of the island in exchange for a golden exile here. Due to her patronage of the arts, Asolo became, and remains today, a hilltop oasis of culture and social life and an enchanting asylum for foreign writers, artists, and intellectuals lured by a countryside lush with fruit orchards, cypresses, and vineyards.
Over the years, most of them lodged at the Palladian-styled villa purchased by Browning, the home of today’s perfectly faded Villa Cipriani Hotel. One of Europe’s most seductive country hotels, it is particularly known for its top- notch dining and its fragrant garden, filled with roses, pomegranates, and birdsong.
Pampered guests occasionally venture beyond the garden’s walls for the idyllic 4-mile drive to Maser to visit Palladio’s 16th- century masterpiece, the elegant Villa Barbaro, abounding with trompe l’oeil frescoes by Paolo Veronese.
The drive through the majestic beauty of the sawtoothed peaks and needles of the Dolomite Mountains in the northern reaches of alpine Italy is to mountain lovers what the cliff-hugging Amalfi Coast is to fans of cerulean blue sea.
The 68-mile white-knuckle drive linking Bolzano and the premier ski resort town of Cortina is a study in road engineering, through an awe-inspiring mountainous landscape that comes as a shock to those who think of Italy as rolling vineyards and olive groves.
With the Passo del Pordoi (Pordoi Pass)—the heart of the mountain range—as its apogee, the road ends in Cortina, anointed the “Pearl of the Dolomites.” At close to 4,000 feet, it is Italy’s number one ski area and one of the best in Europe.
Given world-class status when the 1956 Winter Olympics were held here, it is actually an advanced intermediate’s paradise, with 95 miles of ski runs. But this is a sophisticated year-round resort where the bella gente of Rome and Milan come not only to ski and hike through the bracing, rugged countryside, but also to practice the art of il dolce far niente, the sybaritic pleasure of doing nothing.
Those who come to relax, shop, sleep late, enjoy two-hour lunches, people-watch—and perhaps squeeze in a little leisurely skiing—can do no better than to stay at the celebrated 100-year-old Miramonti Majestic Grand Hotel, a former Austro-Hungarian hunting lodge set in a magnificent mountain valley location on the outskirts of town.
Most of the rooms have balconies and captivating views, while inside, amid the alpine decor, a blazing hearth and cozy bar offering eighteen different kinds of hot chocolate keep things inviting.
Aerial shots of the Piazza del Campo, ringed with 13 th-and 14th-century palazzi, reveal its unusual scallop shape, but they don’t prepare you for its size or beauty. Built at the point where Siena’s three hills converge, II Campo is divided into nine marble-trimmed strips, which represent the city’s ancient Government of Nine and are also said to imitate the folds in the cloak of the Virgin Mary
Looming on one side is the Palazzo Pubblico, with its sky-scraping 320-foot bell tower, the Torre del Mangia, the second highest in Italy. If you climb its 505 steps, you will be rewarded with a vertigo-inducing view of idyllic Chianti countryside that stretches toward Florence, but your view is probably better—and certainly less strenuous—from any cafe table below.
The piazza has always been the city’s center stage and location for the raucous bareback horse race known as the Palio. Hysteria and excitement fuel this twice- yearly event, which culminates in ninety seconds and three hair-raising laps around the earth-covered piazza. But first, a remarkable procession, the corteo storico, unfolds.
Each of the seventeen contrade, the historical divisions of the town (with names like Giraffe, Tower, Wolf, and Wave), are represented by dozens of pages, drummers, and banner bearers dressed in the contrada’s heraldic colors and elaborate historical costumes, including knightly armor.
A highlight of the parade is synchronized flag throwing, which Sienese youths practice from their earliest days.
This reenactment of the pomp and pageantry of Siena’s medieval past is motivated not by tourism dollars, but rather by the participants’ deeply felt emotions about their contrade, the city, and its history—not to mention centuries-old feudal rivalries (the race dates to the 12th century).
Only ten of the contrade compete in each race, a selection determined by lot before the festival. In this freewheeling, treacherous race, with (padded) death-defying corners, the first horse to cross the finish line (even without a rider) wins. The prize? A banner of cloth painted with the image of the Virgin Mary, plus official bragging rights for the year.
Unless you live in Siena, obtaining tickets can be frustrating. The alternative is spending hours under the Tuscan sun, standing in the packed square with 50,000 new best friends.
II Pellicano is one of the Mediterranean’s most wonderful seaside resorts, born of a love affair between an Englishman and an American woman when it opened in 1965 with a guest list that included Charlie Chaplin.
While most think of rolling vineyards and medieval hill towns when conjuring up Bertolucci-induced images of Tuscany’s interior, the seaside-savvy will yearn instead for this tiny peninsula in the southwest coastal comer of Tuscany that juts out into the eye-dazzling waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The exclusive 8-acre compound is composed of stone cottages scattered down a dramatic cliff face of Monte Argentario, covered with pine and olive trees around the hotel’s own private cove. Brilliant white umbrellas and deck chairs the color of the water line the stone seawall “beach.” You can dive directly into the sea here, and guests paddle about idly waiting for the afternoon barbecue, held on a shaded terrace.
Despite its relaxed, villa-meets-country-club atmosphere, II Pellicano matches the standards of a much larger world-class hotel. The service is excellent, as are the wine list and the fresh, unstuffy food, with fish straight out of the sea. The rooms are airy, first-rate, and extremely tasteful, and most have private balconies. And everywhere are gentle breezes and the vast expanse of the sea.
More than twenty-three centuries ago, when Sicily was part of Magna Graecia, this tiny mountain town was already famed for its sweeping views. As Sicily’s most fashionable resort, Taormina was described by Guy de Maupassant as “all that seems made on the earth to entice eyes, spirit, and imagination.”
Its ancient Greek amphitheater, the Teatro Greco, enjoys one of the loveliest sites anywhere. Framed by the stage columns is the snowcapped summit of Mount Etna and, beyond, the Straits of Messina and the terra firma of Italy and Europe.
The acoustics are just as impressive, and the theater, hewn into the rock face of Mount Tauro at an altitude of 675 feet, is still used every summer for a festival of the arts, film, and music. Attending one of the Greek classics performed just before sunset is an experience without peer.
The city’s favorite pastime is a leisurely passeggiata along its one bougainvillea-swathed strip of boutiques and curio and ceramic shops, interspersed with intimate piazzas and dramatic belvederes. Be sure to stop by one of the cafes and have a traditional Sicilian dessert of granita (flavored shaved ice) while you watch Etna puffing gentle plumes into the Sicilian sky.
Then retire to the hotel that proves an old saw: The church and the government always know how to pick the finest real estate. The Hotel San Domenico, a luxurious hotel with transfixing views of Mount Etna, was built as a Dominican monastery in 1430.
Today it is Sicily’s finest and one of Italy’s most romantic hotels, its rooms the actual (albeit enlarged) cells of monks until the last century. The brothers would never recognize the cushy wrought iron or richly carved wooden beds, the crisply ironed linen sheets or the gracious service.
Enjoy a cool pomegranate juice before dinner in the former chapel, now the atmospheric hotel bar. Dining in the main hall, once the refectory, is a culinary event. The vast garden is a serene jasmine-scented oasis with palms and lemon trees and a near-perfect view of the azure Ionian Sea.
Chianti is Italy’s most beautiful wine region and its most important, producing premier red wines whose reputation today could not be finer. In Tuscany’s heartland, it stretches between Florence and Siena.
Wine production in the area goes back to the pre-Roman Etruscans. The serendipity of lazy vineyard-hopping drives and spontaneous winetasting stops is heightened by the region’s postcard-perfect landscape. Even designated drivers will swoon.
The old Via Chiantigiana links a string of wine towns that dot a history- rich area of forested hills, medieval castles, stone farmhouses, and wine-producing estates—both small, unsung wine producers and renowned names like Antinori, Freseobaldi, and Ricasoli.
Producing first-rate wines in a setting that could not be more picturesque, the tiny, family-owned 14th-century village of Gastello di Volpaia welcomes a limited number of guests to it’s unique agriturismo establishment.
Optional meals prepared exclusively for guests highlight the region’s seasonal best, as well as the family’s own olive oil, honey, preserves, and aromatic vinegar. But meals here, good as they are, are just something to accompany Volpaia’s finest vintages, all of which manage to somehow taste better when consumed next to the vine-clad hill where the grapes are grown.
Just over another of those hills is San Gimignano, a name long synonomous with ‘Tuscan hill town.” San Gimignano has captured the traveler’s imagination for centuries. Its distinctive skyline bristles with fourteen medieval towers dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries—a mere fraction of the original estimated seventy.
Try to arrive late in the afternoon, when the tour bus caravans have pulled out and given the town back to the people. Climb to the top of the Palazzo del Popolo’s 117-foot Torre Grossa, the highest of San Gimignano’s towers, for a bird’s-eye view of the town, its towers, and the Val d’Elsa beyond.
Then settle in at the Bel Soggiomo’s rustic and spacious restaurant, where the menu shares the spotlight with the glorious Tuscan countryside framed by the oversized windows. Wild game from the surrounding wood-covered hills is the house specialty, and a selection of Chianti’s best offerings completes the ticket.
Nearby, in two adjoining piazzas, there is an ambitious summer program of everything from alfresco ballet to opera. Imagine the plaintive strains of Tosca wafting up and over San Gimignano’s medieval skyscrapers.