Highlights of Italy
Maybe its an age thing...
Over the years I have visited Italy on a number of occasions and each time I have questioned why it took me so long to return. I actually get that feeling about a lot of places but Italy perhaps more so than most!
I think for a long time I saw Italy just as a weekend or city breaks destination which it is but there is of course so much more. I perhaps overlooked the idea of a full summer holiday as in my twenties and thirties there were other hotspots offering the bright lights and boozy nights for a fraction of the cost. As I have got older though, and it comes to us all, places like Italy and Croatia which have so many similarities, have become much more my scene.
Now of course, the idea of a week or two in a Tuscan villa with a pool overlooking olive trees and vineyards, or an island escape, a cultural adventure or a Venice and Rome two centre holiday with added on experiences like wine tasting, truffle hunting, olive oil making is exactly where I am now at!
Something I have also always dreamed of doing is touring Italy in a open top sports car. I actually did do that on the island of Sicily back in the 90’s but the thought of travelling the Mille Miglia route of the fifties in an iconic rosso red Ferrari Dino 206 GT is the stuff of schoolboy dreams as opposed to my reality of cruising stressed as hell through the crazy streets of Palermo, Sicily in rush hour in 1996 in a Renault Megane – it was a convertible mind… but silver….and French!
Such a choice...
Cities like Rome, Naples and Florence in central Italy are home to some of the country’s best cultural attractions. As you head south, the sun-drenched coastal towns like Sorrento or the Bay of Naples area, offer traditional Italian life, authentic experiences, excellent food and wonderfully fresh locally grown produce.
Italy is also full of romance and iconic places to visit, such as Rome’s Colosseum, the amphitheatre in Verona, the northern lakes of Garda and Como, and then there is also Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and of course you have the Vatican.
I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time on the island of Sardinia particularly back in 1998 when I lived in Corsica. I used to regularly make the short 45 minute ferry crossing and visit Sardinia’s wild coastlines and secluded coves as well as the glizy seaside towns of the Costa Smeralda or the historic old town of Alghero. If you’re after culture, then Sicily is packed with sights to see too, the original Greek settlement in Syracuse, the mystical village of Corleone or the majesty of the smoking Mount Etna.
Whilst these are the iconic hot spots, I get just as much, if not more enjoyment from the undiscovered Italy, the off the beaten track retreats, the little villages, those cobbled streets in the twilight hour, that knockout coffee hit at breakfast or as I remember like it was yesterday, the Pecorino Romano cheese soaked in rosemary oil washed down with a glass of Chianti in stunning Lake Como.
A moment that captured a nation....
Now when people start talking to me about Italy there is strangely a moment from the world of football that I believe sums up this country.
It was back in 1982 at the World Cup in Spain when an Italian team who were slow out of the blocks at the start of the tournament hit their straps and made it to the World Cup Final against an unbelievable Brazillian team.
Against the odds Italy won the final and in doing so scored a goal by Marco Tardelli which had one of the greatest goal celebrations ever and it still gives me goosebumps to watch it today ….and I am English ! Even if you hate football have a watch – its just 50 seconds….
Life is a Dream...
Watching this clip, listening to the Italian commentary, seeing that excited elderly gentleman in the crowd maintaining his style for me just sums up this nation – Italians are emotional, they are passionate, they are flambuoyant, yes they are loud and yes they are at times crazy but mamma mia….. put this all together and its dynamite.
There is a saying in Italy – “La vita è un sogno” – which means “Life is a dream”. Welcome to Italy !
Time Difference: Local Time + 1 hour
2h 30m from London
No for British Nationals
Top Sights & Attractions
There is a huge variety of accommodation options in Italy including family hotels, boutique properties, youth hostels, self-catering villas, family-run B&Bs, villas, mountain monasteries and rural farmhouses.
In recent years Agriturismo has become really popular although actually it originated back in the 50’s but with so many of us conscious of what we consume, the healthy organic home grown farm stay has really taken off. Many of the farms are suitable for the family as they allow for the kids to interact with the farm animals.
Italy can be whatever you want it to be…. personally I love to experience the real Italy rather than the glitzy 5 star hotel offering impeccable service. and fine cuisine.
Regions & Cities
Italy is divided into 20 regions as per this map. …
The regions are divided into provinces, 110 in all, varying considerably in size.
These provinces are then divided into communes which has a mayor and a local authority and of which there are 8,100.
Key Towns/Cities / Regions
N – North. C – Central. S – South. I – Islands
Venice (Veneto) N
Genoa (Liguria) N
Rome (Lazio) C
Florence (Tuscany) C
Pisa (Tuscany) C
Siena (Tuscany) C
Naples (Campagnia) S
Sorrento (Campagnia) S
Palermo (Sicily) I
Aosta Valley is a small mountainous region of Italy and located in the North West between France and Switzerland. The regional capital is Aosta.
Aosta is rich in monuments from pre-historical, roman, medieval and even later times. The thousand-year-old Sant‘Orsa craft fair is held each year in the centre of Aosta on the 30 and 31 January. Attracting visitors from all across the region there are a wide range of interests including wood carvings, soapstone, ironwork, lace and woollen fabrics, as well as farming equipment, furniture, household utensils and sculptures.
Attractions of this region are:
1. The Alps – Cervino, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and then there is Mont Blanc, which at 15,781 feet is the highest mountain in Europe.
2. Courmayeur – one of Italies signature ski resorts with an amazing cable car ride and sensational views to take in.
3. The Gran Paradiso – a national park where it is still possible to see ibex, chamois, eagles and marmots in their natural surroundings.
Lazio is a central Italian region bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. The capital of the region, and the country, is Rome and the heart of the ancient Roman Empire.
I visited the Eternal city of Rome back in the 1990’s and remember it as this big brute of a city but with a huge sprinkling of romance, character, incredible history and astonishing art! I ticked off all the signature sights include the Colosseum, Roman Forum, the Pantheon, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. As you walk the streets and stumble upon sculptures by Michelangelo, paintings by Caravaggio, frescoes by Raphael and fountains by Bernini you realise that there is nowhere in the world quite like Rome.
With all the sightseeing I found a great place to catch your breath was at the famous Trevi fountain. Yes its full of tourists taking pictures (today its selfies) and gazing longingly into one another eyes but hey that’s what you do on a city break to Rome….. isn’t it?
I really liked a market square called Campo de’ Fiori which is a crazy busy area full of tourists and locals buying everything from fresh fruits, flowers, and vegetables to local olive oil and wine.
For views of the city its hard to beat the Ponte Umberto where you can watch the sunset while admiring the Ponte Sant’Angelo, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica all grouped together.
The Spanish Steps are not far from here and ideal to visit towards the end of the day as the Spagna metro stop is right by them so its easy to get back to your hotel or the airport if needed.
In the evening fashionable drinkers descend on the city’s bars and cafes for deep conversation and plenty of Italian choreographed gesticulation and flailing of arms!
Rome is magnificent and huge…. so you need two or three days to do it at your own pace!
Other attractions of this region are:
- Ostia Antica – an archaeological park.
- Pontine Islands – an archipelago of six volcanic islands – Ponza, Palmarola, Zannone, Gavi, Ventotene, Santo Stefano.
- Castel Gandolfo – an area on the Alban hills and the venue of the Pope’s summer residence, noble villas and high class cuisine.
- Civita di Bagnoregio – known as “the Dying City”, this historic village perched on a hillside and accessible through a pedestrian bridge.
- Tarquinia – a town of artists with an extraordinary necropolis, medieval monuments and a nature reserve.
- Gardens of Bomarzo – a park with XVI century basalt sculptures depicting monsters, deities and mythological beings.
- Tivoli – a peaceful city outside of Rome with magnificent villas.
- National Park of Circeo – a wide UNESCO protected area along the coast between Anzio and Terracina.
- Sperlonga – one of the “Borghi più belli d’Italia” – Italy’s most beautiful villages.
Abruzzo is located in central Italy and considered the greenest region of Italy. It stretches from the heart of the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea, on a mostly mountainous and wild terrain. The regions capital is L’Aquila.
L’Aquila is the regions main art city and therefore has a cosmopolitan feel. However very sadly the city is now more famous as having been rocked by a massive earthquake in 2009. The grandeur is gone and being rebuilt.
Attractions of this region are:
1. Pescasseroli, Rivisondoli & Roccaraso – popular winter ski resorts.
2. Gran Sasso, Laga Mountains, and Mount Majella – popular mountains, peaks and hills rich in history, traditions and art.
3. Aterno Valley – an area full of ancient villages and pretty scenery.
4. National Park of Abruzzo, the Park of Gran Sasso and the Laga Mountains – for species such as golden eagle, wolves and the Marsican brown bear.
Visitors to the Aeolian Islands will discover a remote and escapist destination rich in stunning natural beauty, a brilliant clear light and unpolluted seas.
There are actually seven islands that make up the Aeolian Islands. From Catania you take the scheduled ferry boat taking one hour to Lipari. Access to the other islands is also by sea.
Lipari – the largest of the islands with a pretty town full of shops, bars and restaurants. The best way to explore the island is by bus or to hire a taxi.
Vulcano – The smoking Gran Cratere looms high over the island and can be climbed in about an hour. There are mud baths, natural springs and a choice of hotels. Lipari is 15 minutes by ferry.
Salina – the greenest island with two extinct volcanoes and 30 minutes from Lipari by hydrofoil.
Stromboli – the most spectacular island with an active volcano which is 2200 metres in height. Undaunted people still live beneath it in whitewashed house with beautiful gardens.
Panarea – the smallest and prettiest of all the islands. Leafy lanes line with fruit trees and no cars. This is a retreat for the rich and famous many of whom arrive from the riviera in their opulent yachts.
Alicudi – This island really is the back of beyond . The island forms a volcano cone and there are some pleasant walks but this island is extremely quiet with little to do.
Filicudi – another small quiet island great for walking with spectacular paths criss crossing their way along mountain terraces, alongside craggy mountain boulders and flowering cacti.
The Aeolian Islands are unique and a visit is for those who love nature and silence ! Perfect !
Explaining in just a few sentences what are the most famous Italian dishes and where to eat the most authentic Italian food is not straight forward and simply not possible as each of the 20 regions have their own dishes, products and ingredients.
Yes of course there are the pasta dishes and the pizzas but in Italy you really need to try the local specialities which are so unique and given the pride the Italians take in their food, almost always ,exceptional !
A typical Italian meal consists of an antipasto, a primo (usually pasta or risotto), secondo (main course, typically fish or meat), contorno (side dish), and dolce (dessert).
Spaghetti ai frutti di mare – Among the classic Italian dishes, the best and most delicious varieties of this dish still are in regions like Sardinia, Sicily and Puglia regions.
Sea urchin spaghetti – Sea urchins only live in crystal clear waters and as such Italy’s coast is full of them and peak season is between November and April.
Arancino – This is typical Sicilian street food and are cone-shaped rice balls breaded and deep-fried.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina – a speciality in Florence is the local Fiorentina T-bone steak.
Risotto alla Milanese – This is probably one of the simplest and most straightforward classic Italian dishes and made from saffron, rice and butter.
Panettone – Typical Italian Christmas cake and available in every bakery and pastry shop across the country.