Italy, alongside Greece, is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of Western civilization. At its height, the Roman Empire stretched across much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and echoes of this ancient civilization are still evident across the boot-shaped country.
When I was planning a trip to Italy my mind was filled with mages of rolling olive groves, the steamy taste of gnocchi and the rich scent of a freshly poured glass of Chianti. However, after visiting several Italian cities, I realized there is much more to the Bel Paese (Beautiful Country) than its stupendous cuisine.
Substance of Style
Having driven into Italy via the South of France, the northern city of Milan was my first port of call. At first the business-like bustle of Milan was far from the laid-back, terra cotta roofed vision you might expect from an Italian city. You are much more likely to see locals shoot a strong espresso before rushing back to work than sipping on large glasses of Asti before a warm afternoon siesta.
As well as being the business and financial centre of Italy, Milan continues to sizzle as one of the world’s premier destinations for fashion and design. While Milan’s historical treasures and striking architecture put it on a par with Rome and Venice, its creative streak is what gives the city its edge. The catwalks of the city have given us the likes of Armani, Versace, Prada and Gucci and the maze of cobbled streets offer up a gold mine of designer boutiques branded by veteran and up and coming designers.
Like London, Paris and New York, Milan is a powerful magnet for shopaholics from across the globe. The Galleria Vittoria Emanuele is set within a stunning 19th century property, where stores housing the likes of Louis Vuitton and Prada are connected by a colourful mosaic floor. Visiting in December was a particular treat, as the mall was lit up with Christmas lights that transformed it into an enchanted fairy tale palace. A stroll down Via della Spiga also offered up plenty of opportunities for me to give my credit card a workout, as it was home to basically every designer label I could hope to find splashed across the pages of Vogue. Via Montenapoleone is another of Milan’s glittering high end fashion destinations, where designer stores were interspersed with a generous scattering of jewellery boutiques and chic cafés.
In Fair Verona
While Venice is often celebrated as one of the world’s most romantic cities, there is a reason why Shakespeare decided to set Romeo and Juliet – the ultimate love story – within the city walls of fair Verona. Situated an hour’s drive to the west, Verona is an ideal day trip from Lake Garda, or vice versa. The city began life in the 3rd Century as a centre for trading in the Roman Empire, and flourished throughout the Middle Ages under the rule of the Scaligeri clan. In contrast to its one time incarnation as Mussolini’s control centre from 1938 to 1945, the city has now become an eclectic cosmopolitan destination for tourists, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the best things about Verona is its size. Unlike Venice, it is easier to explore the city on foot and not feel as if you are bypassing treasures hidden by a complex network of narrow alleyways and canals. The city’s Roman amphitheatre is the best place to start. Built in the 1st Century AD, the arena was built of pink-tinged marble and hosts some of the most famous opera acts in the world. While the arena and the leafy piazza outside boasts a starry-eyed charm at any time of year, couples looking to dial up the romance on vacation often coincide their visit with the opera season, which runs from June to August.
A short stroll from the Arena found me admiring the communal city walls along the western side of the square and the city’s ancient palace – the Palazzo della Gran Guardia. After indulging in a sublime strawberry gelato it was onto the next portion of my Verona explorations – Juliet’s balcony. At number 23 Via Capello, visitors can visit the small courtyard and balcony which allegedly inspired Shakespeare’s famous Act 2 Scene 2 speech, “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” The courtyard is now home to a small golden bronze statue of the tragic star-cross’d heroine herself. While Juliet’s house is about as gimmicky as tourism in Verona gets, superstitious visitors that touch the statue’s chest are said to be showered with good luck from that day forward.
The Eternal City
For visitors in search of Italy’s mighty Roman history, the namesake capital should be a number one destination. After a quick trip to Lake Garda, I bypassed the olive groves of Tuscany and the glittering jewels of Florence to make my way to the Eternal City.
As well as being home to some of the greatest treasures leftover from the Roman Empire, the Vatican City (situated within Rome) is still a must visit attraction. Old Rome, meanwhile, comprises a magnificent collection of opulent ruins, elaborate statues, charming piazzas and elaborate fountains. Strolling (with a map, of course) through the city’s labyrinthine streets is one of the best ways to soak in the sights and absorb the atmosphere. Highlights include the Piazza Navona, Camp de’ Fiori, the Pantheon and the Ghetto.
The Colosseum is perhaps the city’s most striking attraction, and this 50,000 seat Roman gladiatorial arena attracts thousands of visitors each day. Guided tours are available, but I preferred to stick with my guide book and visualize the arena’s heyday through my own imagination, with scenes from Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” providing a great proportion of my inspiration.
After wandering through Rome’s warren of criss-crossing streets for some hours, I eventually found myself at the Spanish Steps, which have been a honeypot for visitors since the 18th century. The famous staircase, which was built in 1725, leads to the landmark French church – Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti. Whether or not you venture into the church, the steps are a good place to settle down and take in the magnificent architecture surrounding you, or simply to people watch.
Italian Holiday Hotlist
Italy’s cultural gems and culinary treasures are simply too numerous to list, but it’s always best to arrive with a few helpful travelling hints, so here is an Italian holiday hotlist.
- No trip to be Milan should be without experiencing the city’s unique “Aperitivo” scene. Many of Milan’s bars now offer mouth-watering buffet meals for the duration of their daily three-hour cocktail sessions, so you are free to indulge at your leisure.
- If you appreciate the aesthetic beauty of Milan’s edgy fashion and design scene, you may also enjoy a visit to the city’s Museo del Novecento, which houses an impressive collection of 20th century Italian art, including Pellizza da Volpedo’s “Il Quarto Stato”.
- Wine choice is extremely important in Italy, and can even determine what kind of service you receive from staff. By doing a little research on local wines that complement your dish, you might even be able to score a better price.
- Lago di Garda (or Lake Garda) is a mere 45-minute drive from Verona, and offers up an idyllic Mediterranean microcosm for holiday makers that want a day’s retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city.
- The majority of Rome’s culinary treats are found in the Testaccio neighbourhood, which is just off the beaten tourist path of Old Rome. Award-winning pastries, delectable wines and sumptuous cheeses are all within tasting distance.
- The Trevi Fountain remains a must-visit location. This elaborate cascade of water encompasses nearly an entire piazza, and is crowded with flamboyant baroque statues of Neptune’s chariot and Triton’s sea horses. Tossing a coin into the water means that you will be lucky enough to visit the Eternal City again in your future.