Mario Matassa reveals his choice of the top ten holiday resorts in Italy. From the mountains to the sea, for food fans or culture vultures, there’s a destination for everyone…
In a country synonymous with history, art, architecture, style, fashion, gastronomy – not to mention seemingly endless golden sands, striking and rugged landscapes, grand historical cities and picturesque towns and villages – nominating a top ten of holiday destinations is no easy feat. In fact, it’s a thankless task!
Whatever one’s choices, equally viable alternatives abound. The metaphor ‘There’s something in it for everyone’ hardly begins to sum up our number one holiday destination. Italy is a country rich in diversity. No matter how you enjoy spending those precious few weeks away from the daily grind, you are sure to find the perfect solution here.
Whether it’s art, culture or history that sets you alight, a romantic interlude with that special person in your life, a couple of weeks spent building that enviable golden tan, a break with all the family or simply a chance to get away from it all and recharge the batteries, Italy is a truly rich tapestry of choices. And so, with the warmer months fast approaching, here are my personal choices to shake off the winter blues and kick-start the holiday season.
Best for History – Rome
The 18th century masterpiece, the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps; the Piazza del Campidoglio, seat of Italian Government; Piazza Venezia, the ‘heart of the city’; the Trevi Fountain; the Pantheon; Saint Peter’s Square, gateway to the Basilica and the centre of Christianity … just exactly where do you start? The Colosseum, of course! No building better symbolises Italy’s grand historical pedigree than this 2,000-year-old ancient amphitheatre. And no city in the world, I dare say, better speaks history to its very core than Rome.
In fact, there’s so much history in the bricks and mortar of this capital city that they’re still digging it up! Archaeologists estimate that 95 per cent of ancient Rome is still buried under the ground. That’s a lot of history. Its interest and beauty derive in the main from two widely divided periods: the first three centuries of the Roman Empire (72 BC-AD 300) and the three centuries of the Renaissance and the Baroque (AD 1450-1750).
Within the Aurelian walls, the perimeter that demarcates Ancient Rome, there are more than 200 churches and 19 basilicas alone to be explored. The truth is, the moment you walk out of the train station into the chaos that is Rome, you are walking into the world’s biggest open air museum. All roads lead to Rome, it was once said. Rome’s pre-eminence as a centre of world affairs may have waned somewhat in the intervening years, but the grandeur that was Rome is still very much evident for all to witness.
Best for Art and Culture – Florence
Florentines are proud of their city and their cultural tradition, and for good reason. After all, they bestowed on the country its language, its art and the earliest model of rationalised government. Yet Florence is a relatively new city by Italian standards.
Most of the formative developments took place between the 15th and early 18th centuries under the rule of the Medici family, and Florence became, as one early travel writer put it, the ‘greatest factory of beauty’ the world has ever known. From the late 14th century Florence was the school of Italian art, bringing to the rest of the world such masters of sculpture and canvas as Ghiberti, Donatello, Giotto, Rossellino, Botticelli and the genius of Michelangelo.
The focal point of the city, the Piazza della Signoria, is testament to this tradition, with fine monuments such as the Grand Duke Cosimo I, the Neptune Fountain and the collection of famous works under the arches of the Loggia della Signoria. And it doesn’t end there. The Uffizi and Pitti palaces together constitute what many regard as the finest collection of paintings in the world.
Best for Foodies – Parma
The region of Emilia-Romagna is generally regarded as the soul of Italian gastronomy. The area is rich in fertile farmland and lush grazing pastures. The heart of the region, the capital of Italian gastronomy, falls to Parma.
It is Parma, and the surrounding environs, that bring us the famous Felino salami, culatello di zibello (aged, salted ham), the rare black truffles of Fragno, porcini mushrooms and a basket of DOC wines. But most famous of all, of course, are two products that take their name from their area of origin: the world renowned prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham), and Parmigiano Regianno, that most famous of cheeses. The latter has been hand-crafted using the same methods since the 12th century. With such a long and distinguished history it is hardly surprising that this region is held in such high gastronomic esteem by Italians throughout the country.
In fact, few places could be said to have developed and transformed their culinary traditions into such a flourishing international industry. Food in Parma is a way of life and is celebrated at every opportunity. Museums have been erected dedicated to the subject. In the warmer months, beautifully designed market stalls spring up in every piazza, proudly exhibiting all the big contenders. And, at the beginning of May, the Castles of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza open their doors for the sumptuous banquets of the Ricordanze di Sapori (memory of tastes). For the diehard foodie, there really is no substitute!
Best for Shopping – Milan
Milan is as cosmopolitan as it gets in Italy. Here, fashion rules and for anyone who has some serious shopping in mind, no other place in Italy does it in such style. For the serious label hunter with bottomless pockets, you need never leave the Golden Quadrangle, Milan’s equivalent to designer shopping nirvana.
Most of the made-in-Italy brands house their flagship stores here, from Armani and Versace to Dolce & Gabanna. Moreover, with the introduction of brand name designer cafés, cocktail bars, hotels and restaurants, you need never stray too far from the comforts of your label of choice. But even for the shopaholic on a budget, this city destination is at your service.
The spirit of the independent boutique and designer still flourishes in Milan, and not just for fashion. Whatever you fancy taking home – from the kitchen to the garden – you’ll find something with that unmistakable, and unique, Milanese style. Now, with all major carriers flying into Milan’s three airports, at the very least transport won’t break the bank, making this the perfect destination for anyone who suddenly gets the urge to embark on a serious shopping spree.
Best for Natural Beauty – Tuscany
Tuscany – the scene appears as though depicted on an artist’s canvas. Golden fields, long, winding roads that meander gently around sweeping contours, stone farmhouses seated proudly on conical hill tops, and everywhere the landscape dotted skilfully with the ubiquitous cypress tree, removing, once and for all, any lingering uncertainty as to place. It is, of course, the Tuscan countryside.
Such is the charm and refinement of the area that it has drawn the imagination of the British ever since the Victorians. And it’s not just us! The desire to live under the Tuscan sun is such that this region is amongst the most sought after for foreigners seeking to buy a home, a small piece of country living, Tuscan style. Yet, for those with pockets less deep, for a couple of weeks a year the Tuscan countryside offers that most Italian of destinations, with an unrivalled natural landscape of tranquility and beauty. And of course its history is pretty distinguished too.
From the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, Tuscany has been home to some of the greatest Italian writers, artists and thinkers. Dante, Gioto, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo, to mention just a few, all come from these parts. With such an illustrious guest list, how could it fail to inspire?
Best for Romance – Venice
The travel writer HV Morton once wrote, ‘To appreciate a gondola a man must be 20 and in love.’ That’s all very well, but what about the rest of us? Romance isn’t just for the young – surely the young at heart can join in too! And when it’s romance you are after, there is only one place in Europe (the world even) to go. Venice.
This destination oozes romance, from the very fabric of its buildings to the impenetrable waters of its canals. There is a certain mystique to this city which is hard to explain – perhaps because it is hidden behind the lurid, dark secrets and infidelities of its past, the labyrinth of passageways and small side alleys, the dark and romantic interiors of the cathedral or in the anonymous eyes watching behind the mask.
Whatever age you might be, who could deny the romantic appeal of a gondola, drifting gently through moonlit waters on a warm summers’ evening, the only sound the gondolier’s voice in soft serenade? I’m not sure what it is, but this extraordinary city really does have that X Factor when it comes to romance. Maybe there truly is something in the water!
Best for Scenic Charm – The Cinque Terre
Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, for me, the 15km stretch of coastline that is known as the Cinque Terre (or five lands) is the foremost beauty hotspot in a country that defines itself aesthetically. But don’t take my word for it. Such is the intrinsic splendour of this destination that in 1998 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. The decision was based on the grounds that the Cinque Terre represents a shining example of how the harmonious interaction between man and nature can produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality, illustrating a traditional way of life that has existed for a thousand years. In other words, nothing has changed.
The Cinque Terre is a grouping of five villages – Monterosso Al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – situated along the extreme eastern end of the Ligurian coast, between Levanto and La Spezia. Although there are obvious similarities in form, each of the towns convey their own distinctive character and charm. If anywhere in Italy the oft used term ‘picture postcard’ applies, surely, it is here. The Cinque Terre is a place to wander, breathe in the landscape and simply admire.