10 Things Not To Miss When Traveling To Italy
Napoli - Old and New
Lake Garda from Monte Baldo
A land of contrasts
Italy as a geographical entity has been around a long time - but as a country only since 1870. So, culturally, it really isn't one country. There is a diversity in customs and language that is surprising to the uninitiated. So my first advice is to try to visit several different regions of Italy. Include:
- One of the mountain cultures, such as the Trentino. The mountains themselves are beautiful and the people courteous although somewhat reserved. The culture is a cross between Italian and Austrian - a little strange but worth sampling! And of course the mountains themselves are very much worth visiting: wild, majestic, beautiful, at times foreboding, the list of adjectives goes on and on...
- the Northern Lakes (Maggiore, Como and the smaller ones). Again, some of the most beautiful views on the planet, if a little crowded at the height of the season. Visit the castle at La Rocca on the East shore of Lake Como. If you can manage it, climb the many staircases to the very top and you can see all the way to Switzerland. There are several smaller lakes, not so well known, but still worth visiting and they wont be crowded with tourists (just day trippers from the city:). Lake Garda is another favourite tourist spot but it's worth it - and the view from Monte Baldo, on the side of the lake can be fantastic - see the photo. There is a cable car to the top from one of the small villages on the eastern shore.
- The Northern city of Milano, commercial capital of Italy and probably the most stylish city in the world. Walk down Corso Monte Napoleone and just windowshop - unless you have a whole deck of platinum cards! Pay a visit to the Castle Sforzesca. The history of this place makes sobering reading but the castle itself is amazing.
- Rome: 3000 or so years old and a microcosm of Italian contrasts: two thousand-year-old stone edifices cheek-by-jowl with modern glass and steel high-rises. Eat at a restaurant in the old Roman catacombs - Da Meo Patacca. Good food but a little scary!
- Food! Avoid the clones of US fast-food outlets and find the small local places where middle-management eat - you'll be rewarded with a stunning variety of superb food at a reasonable price. It will take a while to arrive - it's mostly freshly cooked. This is true pretty much anywhere in Italy. In the smaller towns and villages, try the run-down old-looking place in the middle of town. In Napoli (Naples), of course, you have to try pizza. The Napoletani claim to have invented it and I think that their's is the best in the world. It's unlike pizza almost anywhere else and is usually quite a healthy meal. This also means you get to see Napoli!
- One of the bigger Southern cities such as Bari (Watch your purse!) or Taranto. The language, food, customs and wines are different to the North. For example, chilli is used in some places, a gift from the Muslims that conquered and occupied parts if the South for hundreds of years.
- Near Torino (Turin), a little way up the Susa valley, is the Sacra di San Michele: an abbey built in and on the living rock at the top of a 900 foot cliff. I have read that it was the inspiration for the abbey in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, made into a film starring Sean Connery.
- Venice needs no introduction. It's pretty much unique. Don't bother with the gondola rife unless you really must - they're very expensiev and the gondoliersa are often brusque and rude. Get around on the vaporreti which are cheap and efficient - that's how the Venetians do it.
- The coast. I'm not going to single out any particular part of it as it's so varied and which bit you'd like is for you to decide. There are many guides and much free information available online. There are free beaches which are relatively quiet, pay beaches with every mod-con, places where younger people seem to be competing for the most outlandish (or simply provocative) look and others which are fine for a family. There good places for snorkeling, diving, fishing and anything else associated with the sea. The Cinque Terre is a group of five small, very pictaresque villages east of Genoa, difficult to get to and expensive to stay in - but worth it of you can. Santa Margherita Ligure, not far from there, is also stunning.
- Wilderness: not everyone's cup of tea but if it's yours then there's quite a lot of it, especially in the Apennine mountains - in Tuscany for instance. There are many trails rideable by mountain bike or trail bike and large tracts of unspoilt woodland only reachable on foot. If you like the wilderness but can't manage the hard bits then, in a car, you can often find small roads where grass is growing in the middle of the tarmac. A careful, slowish drive up one of these (look out for "private propery" signs such as "strada privata") can be rewarded with a picnic spot with a view not many will have seen. Not to mention the amazing peace you find in such places. Yours may be the only car on that road this week!