One of the great joys of traveling through Italy is discovering firsthand that it is, indeed, a dream destination. – Debra Lavinson

We are pulled to Italy, time and time again. In September – October 2013, we did quite an extensive trip, planning as we went along. This blog will set out to record where we went and with some tips/advice along the way…

Tuscany

We were very lucky to start off our trip with a stay for a week, with friends, in a very remote villa, just outside Sante Luce, in the hills of Tuscany. The location enabled us to not only thoroughly begin to wind down, but also to get out & about and visit San Gimignano and the coastal resort of Vada. The villa – Podere Le Pianacce – was booked by friends, via Tuscany Now and details of this, and other villas, can be found here.

Rome

We’d booked rail tickets from Pisa to Rome prior to coming out to Italy and this was such a good decision. Fairly inexpensive for first class travel for two, on a Friday afternoon, for 92 euros. We’d also pre-booked a hotel – Hotel Prati – for two nights which was actually a bit of a disappointment. Upon arrival, due to over-booking, we were taken to the sister hotel, only around the block, but the room was VERY small & very basic. We did ask immediately for a change of room, but none were available – it was only a two night stay, so not a huge problem. It would have been though, if we had been in Rome any longer. This was the only glitch to our stay in the amazing Rome, and over two days we were able to easily take in the Trastevere area, Castel Sant’ Angelo, St Peter’s (although not the trip to the top as we did that on our last trip), and Piazza Navona, as well as the lesser known Fontana dell’ Acqua Paola

Roma 2013
Roma 2013
Roma 2013
Roma 2013
Roma 2013

Greece – Corfu & Paxos

We took a short, early morning flight from Ciampino airport to Corfu (Kerkyra Airport), meaning that we could spend a day & night in Corfu town, before taking the ferry to Paxos. We stayed for a night in our favourite hotel – Siorra Vittoria. Other highlights  included Restaurant Bellissimo (best home-made food, honestly!), located in Lemonia Square.

Corfu Town 2013

Corfu Town 2013

Paxos is a 90 minute ferry ride away from Corfu, and is right up there as one of our most favourite Greek islands. Ferry tickets are just 15 euros and bought from the Despina ferry office, just across from the newly refurbished and quite swanky port. Once on Paxos, recommendations would definitely be the capital – the port of Gaios, and the smaller port town of Loggos. Both towns (very small) are on the eastern side of the island, so you don’t get the amazing sunsets, but you do get everything else! Monognissi, to the south of the island is worth a visit and there are plenty of small inland villages, if you want to explore authentic Greek life. A day trip to Anti-Paxos (don’t forget the last ferry back, or you’ll be stranded) is an absolute must…

Paxos 2013
Paxos 2013
Paxos 2013

Frascati, Lazio region, Italy

We started off our tour proper of Italy with a night in the Roman hilltop town of Frascati, famous for its wines. We travelled on the first ferry of the day from Paxos to Corfu, got a taxi to from the port the airport (about 15 euros), caught a connecting flight to Rome Ciampino, picked up our hire car and were in Frascati by lunchtime. We stayed in quite a modern hotel – Hotel Villa Mercede – which was good, but if we’d been staying longer, would have chosen a hotel in the beautiful old centre of Frascati.

Sperlonga, Latina province, Italy

We hit the road next day, driving towards the west coast and then south, down to Sperlonga, which had been recommended to us by a friend who knows the area. It’s a beautiful hilltop town, full of cobbled streets, stairways, cobbled alleyways, tumbling bouganvillia plants in the most vivid pinks and reds, and an amazing view down the wide, sandy beach right below. There’s a small harbour too – well worth the climb up & down the  many steps 😉 We stayed in Hotel Corallo right in the heart of Sperlonga, which is full of lovely bars and restaurants. Just be warned though if you stay in this hotel – they offer the sweetest breakfast we experienced in our whole trip. We had some early morning sugar rushes, but this one beat them all. And still remains to be beaten!

Sperlonga 2013
Sperlonga 2013

Castellabate, Campania region, Italy

After a night in Sperlonga, and fuelled by sugar, we hit the road again, travelling south, hugging the western coast road as much as we could. The one thing to say about this stretch of the Italian coastline, is that it ain’t pretty. For miles and miles and miles. Industrial zones are broken up by towns which look as if they have definitely seen better days. There is a real sense of poverty and hardship in this part of Italy – it was also the only part where, again for miles and miles, prostitutes very openly worked the roadside. This was also our longest stretch of driving, as there was literally nowhere, we wanted to stop. The journey was broken up by a rush-hour drive through Naples – we still shudder about how terrifying this actually was – and once south side, we headed on towards to Salerno, intending to stop there for the night.

As an aside, we did do the Amalfi coast drive, taking in the whole of the peninsula, including Sorrento, Massa Lubrense, Positano, Praiano & Amalfi. All very beautiful, and the road was stunning for scenery, but it eas all just very, very touristy. In Positano and Amalfi particularly, there were just scores and scores of tourists on coach trips, getting off to snap the views and straight back on to the next beauty spot. I’m sure George Clooney has a different experience, but I just found the whole experience to be a bit soulless – and as beautiful as the Amalfi coast undoubtedly is, we experienced much more beautiful roads, especially on the east coast. A shame that I felt this way, but I guess I’ve sort of done it now, and have no real desire to be herded around expensive restaurants and shops selling over-priced souvenirs, again.

Unfortunately for us, the Italian GPO national convention was on in Salerno, and there was not a bed to be had in  the town. As the postal workers had bagged them all, we had no choice but to carry on. It was now dark and we were tired, but somehow, after a couple more unsuccessful attempts (Spinetta Nuova and Paestum – which, if we’d seen on daylight we would definitely have stayed at & explored), a wrong turn led us to the hilltop town of Castellabate. And it was possibly the best wrong turn we’ve ever made

Castellabate 2013

Tropea, Calabria region, Italy

Another long drive followed the next day, this time right down to the Calabrian town of Tropea – famous for its sweet red onions and chillies – and this time for a longer stay. We booked, when we arrived in the town called the “jewel of Calabria”, four nights in Hotel Residence Valemare. All I will say is you have been warned, if you are ever in Tropea. Avoid this hotel. And avoid again. It was so appalling, we left as soon as we could the next morning, not knowing if we’d get any money back, but delighted that a room was available in the stunning Hotel Rocca della Sena. It is AMAZING and we had four days of utter luxury, soaking up the beautiful Tropea, before heading off for Sicily.

Rocca della Sena, Tropea
Tropea 2013

Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

Ortigia is a peninsula, connected to the large, modern & fairly unattractive (although I stand to be corrected as we didn’t overly investigate) city of Siracuse on the south eastern coast of Sicily. We sailed over from Reggio Calabria on the car ferry to Messina and drove down the eastern coast of Sicily, straight to Ortigia. A long journey, but worth doing it in one go – driving very close to Etna was a particular highlight. We’d booked an apartment via Owners Direct so were able to live a bit more “normally”, right in the heart of ancient Ortigia. It was a perfect base for a bit of touring – we actually stayed a second week, in a different apartment, because it was such a great place and we were able to take in such places as Ragusa Ibla, Noto, Fonte Bianchi and on the way back north, to catch the ferry back to Italy, a night in the very lovely Taormina. Sicily is much, much recommended by us – especially the east coast.

Sicily 2013
Sicily 2013
Sicily 2013
Sicily 2013

Tarsia, Calabria region, Italy

After the hustle & bustle of Ortigia, we decided that we’d like some real peace and quiet in the heart of the Italian countryside, and so plumped for an agristurismo we found online, called Mandria del Dottore Toscano, in the area of Tarsia. This blog explains what it was like – the only additional thing I would add, is don’t get disheartened when you think you will never find the agriturismo you have booked. Even with google maps, you’ll get lost, and there is a very simple reason for this. Italian road signs, particularly in the countryside, but often in cities and towns, are quite rubbish and if you rely on your general sense of direction, or use the sun to guide you, you’ll probably arrive there quicker, and less stressed, than trying to follow road signs 😉

Tarsia 2013

Matera, Basilicata region, Italy

Next stop on our journey north, was the jaw-dropping town of Matera, deep in the Basilicata countryside. Until the 1950s, Matera was an impoverished town, with people living in caves, in desperate conditions, with no electricity or running water and high infant mortality. Between 1953-1968, people were moved out of the cave dwellings and into the new town. In 1993, it became a UNESCO world heritage site and many of the dwellings are now converted into boutique hotels. However, it is not the easiest place to reach and still seems to be relatively undiscovered by tourists. It’s probably one of the most unbelieveable & other-worldly places I have ever been to. Special mention must be given to Hotel Basiliana – just stunning. A place I will never forget…

Matera 2013
Matera 2013
Matera 2013
Matera 2013

Alberobello, Puglia region, Italy

Leaving Matera, we headed east on the relatively short journey across into Puglia, eyes peeled for our first sight of a trullo. Given what we were about to encounter, I still love this image of the very first one, hidden in the trees, that we came across as we hit Puglia…

Trullo, Puglia

This didn’t prepare us for what we saw when we visited Alberobello, Locorotondo and Martina Franca. These towns are like magical kingdoms, with what look like hobbit-style houses, often white washed, with amazing stone conical rooftops. And there are hundreds of them, scattered about the countryside.

Alberobello, Puglia 2013
Alberobello, Puglia 2013

We arrived in Puglia in the middle of October, and although we did have some glorious sunshine, it’s fair to say autumn was on its way. The trulli we had booked into – Pietra Preziosa – is located above Alberobello, on quite an exposed hilltop, so it was already becoming cold. However, the trulli was such a cosy place to stay, that the nightly howling winds (& sometimes lashing rain) only added to the atmosphere. It was difficult to find initially – the owner had to come out to Alberobello to collect us initially, but when we found our bearings it was actually a joy to get lost in the countryside. As the season was coming to a close, not only were we the only guests, but the pool was also closed – however, neither detracted from the experience of our very own hobbit house 😉

Puglia 2013
Puglia 2013

The Gargano region, Italy

From Puglia, we had no accommodation booked, no real timescale and no plan – apart from heading north, so we headed across to the east coast road (E55), heading up towards Bari. The first stop off we had was a beautiful find – Monopoli. A gorgeous coastal town, with an historic centre and definitely somewhere we think we’ll revisit, especially if we ever fly into Bari.

Monopoli, 2013
Monopoli, 2013

We continued up the E55 (and the eastern coastal side of Italy is so much prettier than the stretch of the west between Rome & Naples), taking in Bari, which is certainly not the industrial, rough port I had always imagined it to be. The road hugs the Adriatic coastline and is spectacular in places, becoming even more interesting when you hit the Gargana peninsula. Manfredonia is the gateway to this area of Italy which I’d previously known nothing about it, but which proved to be a bit of a highlight of the trip. The middle of the peninsula is quite mountainous, and we wanted to get across to Peschici on the northern side – we didn’t fancy taking mountainous roads in the dusk, so instead, continued along the coast, being lucky enough to see, just as it was getting really dark, the famous 25 mt high monolith rock which rises from the sea, on the shoreline of Vieste. We’d booked a night in Peschici in Borgo del Nespolo and couldn’t have more delighted with the choice we’d made…

Borgo del Nespolo, Peschici

Next place on the list to visit was the town of San Giovanni Rotondo, the town that fans of Padre Pio flock to – we found this such a bizarre, fascinating place that there’s a blog here about it. Nuts 🙂

However, driving across the Gargano peninsula to reach this hillside town, opened our eyes to this previously unknown part of Italy – and as autumn was starting, it was such a gorgeous time of year to discover it. It’s high & mountainous, and the air is filled with the sound of alpine cow bells. We were so lucky to see an eagle, literally flying above the car and wild horses…

Gargano Peninsula, Italy

 L’Aquila, Abruzzo region, Italy

I will be adding a separate blog about L’Aquila, because it was just a very special place. On 6th April 2009, an earthquake devastated the city, killing over 300 people, injuring over 1500 and leaving 65,000 – out of a population of 72,000 – homeless. The city is still rebuilding itself…

L'Aquila, 2013
L'Aquila, 2013
L'Aquila, 2013

We stayed in Hotel La Compagnia del Viaggiatore, about 5kms from the city centre and it was lovely. It is a modern hotel – but given that most of the city centre hotels will have been destroyed, this was only to be expected. We are so glad we ate in the hotel restaurant  – again, first impressions weren’t what we usually go for, but the food was so good (as was our room), that we booked an additional night in the hotel.

L'Aquila 2013

Rimini, Emilia-Romagna region, Italy

From L’Aquila, we headed back to the east coast and took the E55 most of the way to Rimini, discovering places such as Fano, Pesaro and Cattolica, before reaching the Italian riviera seaside town of Rimini. A town that has everything – historical centre, huge beach, fantastic restaurants and one of the best hotels we stayed in, during out trip, DuoMo Hotel. In fact, due to the flexibility of our trip, this was another hotel where we booked an additional night on spec. Our visit was during October, but we had beautiful weather and a beach, literally to ourselves…

Rimini 2013

Venice

Because we were nearing the north eastern part of Italy, we couldn’t resist a trip to Venice. We had already made a booking in a hotel in Verona, so this was literally a flying visit from Rimini, but we set off and by early lunchtime were in Chioggia, a fishing port in the south of Venice’s lagoon. It has been described as a “mini Venice”, and I could sort of see it, but it was a gloomy afternoon, and I just wasn’t feeling it…

Chioggia 2013

…so we set off for Venice. I went to Venice many years ago but really wanted to explore it properly. I remembered that it is actually quite small, so was sure we’d be able to get quite a lot done in one afternoon, and was right. Top tip – it is expensive, so stay outside and do day trips. Means you can also explore the region too, and as we showed next, Verona isn’t that far away. The blog I wrote about our trip to Venice, can be found here.

 

Verona, Veneto region, Italy

As we had a booking at Hotel Verona, we decided to take the A57 and then the A4 motorways to get to Verona quicker. We know Verona quite well and had stayed in the hotel previously, so arrived in good time – there is free parking under the hotel, so great if you have a hire car. The hotel is located just outside of Corso Porta Nuova, so great for the amphitheatre, restaurants, bars, shops, Juliette’s house & balcony, Piazza Bra (the main square) and down to the River Adige. Another beautiful city- and even Juliet’s house is worth a visit…

Hotel Verona, Verona

Bergamo, Lombardy region, Italy

On the way west to Bergamo, we stopped off for the afternoon in the beautiful Sirmione, on the southern tip of Lake Como. Breathtakingly gorgeous – with weather to match…

Bergamo is a huge favourite for many reasons. The old city (Citta Alta) is just 15 mins from the airport and it’s a relatively short flight from Manchester, so perfect for a weekend break. It’s also close to Milan and very accessible for ski resorts further north. To the south, the Cinque Terre is accessible within a couple of hours. A city which offers history, great food, and is close to the mountains and the sea. We’ve usually stayed in the new, lower city (Citta Bassa) and taken the funicular or walked to the old town up the hill, but this time we stayed in the heart of the old town, just off the main square, in Hotel Piazza Vecchia for three nights. We then did an AirBnB, and found a fabulous apartment, in the lower town, but in the best location. Another one that was so good, we booked for a week, then booked another.

I’ll be posting a separate blog about Bergamo, packed full with recommendations and tips – it’s too good a place not to!

Milan, Lombardy region, Italy

A trip to Lombardy probably wouldn’t be complete, without a trip to the style centre of Italy. It is an amazing city, but not one of my favourites. For me, it’s a bit too impersonal and bit too cool. If you want to be seen, it’s definitely the place to be 😉 We took the train from Bergamo and it was only an hour – we had the advantage of staying with friends, so didn’t get to check out any hotels this time, but there’s always the next time. We also ended our trip around Italy in Milan – we were moving on to a last few days in Paris and took the train. Very affordable, too. It was about £100 each , but given it was over a seven hour journey and we travelled 1st class (as there was so little price difference between 1st & 2nd class), and travelled in real luxury, it was so worth it. And a lovely way to say goodbye to Italy in 2013.