There's no escaping it: Rome means history.
There's layers of the stuff - Etruscan tombs, Republican meeting
rooms, Imperial temples, early-Christian churches, medieval
bell towers, Renaissance palaces and baroque basilicas. In
this city a phenomenal concentration of history, legend and
monuments coexists with an equally phenomenal concentration
of people busily going about their everyday life. It's hard
to say what you'll find most breathtaking about the eternal
city, the arrogant opulence of the Vatican, the timelessness
of the Forum, the top speed of a Fiat Bambino or the bill
for your latte.
The cultural and historical impact of Florence
can be overwhelming. Close up, however, the city is one of
Italy's most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong
resemblance to the small late-medieval center that contributed
so much to the cultural and political development of Europe.
Unfortunately, it can also be one of Italy's most clogged
tourist traps, with up to 2000 tourist buses arriving daily
in the peak season.
Where Rome is a historical hot-pot, Florence
is like stepping back into a Fiat and Vespa-filled Renaissance:
the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, the trademark Duomo, the gem-filled
Uffizi Gallery, the turreted Piazza della Signoria and the
Medici Chapels. Thankfully, these unforgettables are all within
walking distance of each other.
There's no escaping it: Venice is unique.
For a start, this is a pedestrian's city on a very human scale;
cars are almost nonexistent, and beguiling narrow paths take
the place of ugly city roads. The harmonious architecture
seems to have sprung uniformly from somewhere between the
12th and 16th century, its secretive walls and enticing balconies
sparkling with flashes of water glimpsed through cracks and
windows. Dark paths suddenly emerge into the clear, bright
daylight of a pigeon-packed piazza or cross the city's myriad
canals by way of numerous and wonderful little bridges. The
atmosphere is magical and inexplicably festive.
The city is built on 117 small islands, and
is linked to the mainland service town of Mestre by a road
and rail causeway. The Grand Canal insinuates itself around
the city, emerging at the unforgettable vista of Piazza San
Marco, boasting its campanile, Doges' Palace, St Mark's Basilica
and elegant piazza. The Bridge of Sighs links the palace to
the gloomy old prisons, and the bobbing gondolas are overlooked
by the stunning Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore
and del Redentore churches. It takes only half an hour or
so to walk from the train station to San Marco - if you can
resist the temptation to take one of the many paths that diverge
from the main drag (Lista di Spagna). To appreciate the fine
palaces that line the Grand Canal, swallow your 'but I'm not
really a tourist' phlegm and take a gondola.
The Accademia Bridge leads to a quieter Venice
and the Galleria dell'Accademia, with its collection of Venetian
masters. The nearby Peggy Guggenheim Gallery updates your
walk through history and art, with its fine collection of
Venice is surrounded by equally enchanting
islands: the Lido (forever linked with Tommy Mann, Dirk and
Death in Venice), Murano (the home of Venetian glass), Burano
(famous for its lace) and strangely time-warped Torcello,
with its Byzantine cathedral.
Visitors come to Milan for its fashion, cuisine,
opera, church (the world's fourth-largest), Renaissance castle
and da Vinci's Last Supper fresco. But this is very much a
working city, the country's business and finance capital.
Shopping is huge, the food is legendary and nightclubbing
is the best (thanks to the presence of the country's largest
The huge city sprawls for miles, but the
main historical attractions can be found between the two most
important: the huge cathedral - commissioned in 1386 and still
unfinished - and the spiky Sforza castle. The Piazza del Duomo
is bordered by the world's most beautiful shopping mall: the
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Resist the cafes and boutiques
and you emerge opposite opera's sacred shrine: La Scala. Its
museum is pretty good too. Milan has plenty of art galleries
and collections, but the most popular venue is the Vinciano
Refector, which is home to the Last Supper.
Naples & Pompei
Energetic Naples, capital of the Campania,
is set on the beautiful Bay of Naples and overshadowed by
Mt Vesuvius. It's one of Europe's most densely populated cities
and throbs with the hubbub of workers and city dwellers, its
narrow streets crowded with people dodging overhanging washing
and speeding Vespas.
Naples' historic center features the church-encrusted
Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, the duomo, the Palazzo Reale
and San Carlo Opera House. The 13th-century Castel Nuovo overlooks
the ferry port, and further along the waterfront there's a
Norman castle, surrounded by a tiny fishing village, the Borgo
Marinaro. The National Archaeological Museum contains a fine
collection of Greco-Roman art, and the priceless treasures
discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Easily accessible from Naples is enigmatic
Pompei, the thriving resort town for wealthy Romans that was
buried under ash and mud during the devastating eruption of
Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. The vast ruins provide a fascinating
insight into how the ancient Romans lived, and include impressive
temples, a forum, one of the largest known Roman amphitheaters,
luxurious houses with frescoes and mosaics, and streets lined
Stretching for 50km (31mi) along a promontory
from Sorrento to Salerno is some of Europe's most beautiful
coastline. The road hugs the zigzagging bends and curves of
the cliffy coast, overlooking intensely blue waters and passing
picture-postcard villages that cling to the cliff walls like
Positano is the first port of call out of
Sorrento, and it's truly sublime: tiered arcades of rose-
and honey-colored houses hover precariously over an iridescent
sea, and further investigation reveals cafes and hotels to
die for. Farther around several intervening bends is Amalfi.
Its former status as a supreme naval power that rivaled Pisa
and Genoa is evident from its arsenal and imposing duomo.
Hairpin bends separate Amalfi from Ravello, which sits like
a balcony overlooking the bay. Its duomo has an interesting
pulpit with six lions carved at its base, and several villas
and their beautiful gardens add to its attractions. Salerno
has seen it all, from Etruscan to Roman and medieval times.
Unfortunately, the city was extensively damaged during WWII,
as it was one of the Allies' major landing sites.
Ramparts - just one of the many vestiges
of the city's medieval prime - still crown the hills that
surround gentle Siena. Its many reddish-brown buildings gave
the world 'burnt sienna,' and a thriving cultural scene was
dubbed the Sienese school in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Plague and autocrats from the Viscontis to the Medicis brought
urban growth and cultural finesse to a screaming halt, the
rot setting in with the plague of 1348, which killed 65,000
of the city's 100,000 people. Fortunately, Italy's finest
medieval square - the Piazza del Campo - was finished just
in time, with the graceful town hall and emblemic tower nearby.
Siena's duomo is a stunner, with black and white stripes of
marble on the facade. Palazzos, piazzas, art collections,
museums and churches are scattered throughout the easily walkable
old town, making Siena a great destination for visitors who
like to see things from the pavement up.
Walled Assisi is miraculous: it has somehow
managed to retain some tranquil refuges amid the tourist hubbub.
Perched halfway up Mt Subasio, the visual impact of its shimmering
white marble buildings is magnificent. The city is dominated
by the massive 14th-century Rocca Maggiore - a hill fortress
that offers fabulous views over the valley and back to Perugia.
St Francis was born here in 1182, and work began on his basilica
two years after his death in 1228. It's a magnificent tribute
to the patron saint of animals, with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue
and Martini. Relics from Imperial days include the excavated
forum and the pillared facade of the Temple of Minerva; Roman
foundations are a common feature of many buildings. The town's
many churches include Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro, St
Clare and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.