I have lost count of how many times I have been to Italy, and whenever someone asks me where to go and what to see there I simply tell them to “get lost”. Whether you’re travelling independently or on a scheduled tour, to truly capture the essence of this beautiful destination make sure that you always find time to explore and to make discoveries on your own.
I recently travelled there with 27 photo enthusiasts, and our 14-day journey began in the Eternal City. First stop was a mostly private stroll on the antique Appian Way, one of the earliest and most strategically important roads of ancient Rome. Today it is mainly enjoyed by locals, as a passeggiata and an escape from the summer heat and tourist crowds … which we also later encountered. Few cities in the world can compare with Rome and its ancient wonders…the Colosseum, the Forum, the Palatine Hills and, of course, the three main piazzas — the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and my favourite, Piazza Navona. The other must-see is Vatican City, showcasing Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museums, and one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the Sistine Chapel.
For three days we walked, experienced, and photographed, and soon discovered that most of the tourists are gone by sundown, allowing us to savour quiet evenings dining al fresco in local cafés and trattorias. Fresh-out-of-the-oven lasagna, minestrone and various pasta dishes with local wine selections were enjoyed by all…diets forgotten or ignored. My most memorable Roman dish was ricotta and spinach filled homemade ravioli, with either a porcini mushroom or gorgonzola sauce. The owner proudly allowed me to sample both. Unfortunately I discovered this dish on our last evening.
We moved on to Tuscany, travelling bright and early towards the Val D’Orcia region. After busy and hectic Rome, this provided a peaceful and serene environment. Brief stops to enjoy a local village antique car show and the quaint hilltop town of Pienza left us all wanting more of the same, but Siena awaited.
We were welcomed with a typical Italian Sunday pranzo (mid-day meal). After the antipastos and three types of pasta were served, I recognized the panic in everyone’s faces, upon the realization that this was only the second course of our lunch, with at least two more to come. I have often witnessed this reaction at my parents’ home with first-time meal guests. We persevered and after lunch waddled through what was left of our afternoon in what is likely Italy’s loveliest medieval city. Fortunately Siena was built over three hills, allowing us to walk off most of our meal.
Next stop and base for five days was Lucca. A beautiful Tuscan town protected by perfectly preserved thick 16th-century walls, Lucca is a city to stroll through. Featuring some of Italy’s finest medieval and Renaissance architecture, superb cuisine and shopping, a few of the must-sees are the Piazza Anfiteatro (built on the site of an original Roman amphitheatre), the Guinigi Tower with a tree growing on top, and of course the city’s wide walls — which can be enjoyed either on foot or by bicycle (the town offers bike rentals by the day or the week.)
Everyone loved Lucca. This is where we enjoyed the best thin-crust wood oven pizza and savoured two other memorable dishes: local meat-filled tordelli with ragout sauce (probably lovingly handmade by someone’s nonna), and tagliatelle with freshly shaved white truffles. Need I say more? Oh yes — local wines and gelato!
As a traditional Lucchese I ended each meal with a corretto (espresso coffee with a splash of liquor — I preferred Sambuca). Our group leader is now also hooked, and will be trying it at home.
From Lucca we enjoyed a day trip to Cinque Terre, the perfect sunny day allowing us to reach the five villages by boat. Another day brought us to Monteriggioni and a leisurely wine tasting and lunch at a nearby winery, which resulted in the cancellation of a planned visit to San Gimignano. These things happen when one is experiencing la Dolce Vita.
We also enjoyed our trip to another medieval town, Barga — aka “The most Scottish place in Italy”. The link to Scotland dates back to the early 1850s and many locals still maintain a strong connection to their Scottish roots. Arriving in the early afternoon allowed us the luxury of wandering the streets practically on our own. For avid photographers this is a wish come true, as there will not be any (other) pesky tourists featured in their perfectly framed shot!
Giovanni, a very colourful barista at the Bar Spuntineria da Aristo, invited me to sample local cured meats and cheese, which this area of Tuscany (Garfagnana) is well known for in culinary circles. In return I promised that I would mention him and include his photograph with this article.
We moved on to Florence (our home for three nights) via brief visits to the seaside town of Viareggio and the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa. Our photographers were quite creative in their compositions while in Pisa, one actually framed a perfect shot of the tower so that it no longer leaned!
Along with group visits to iconic landmarks and points of interest such as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Michelangelo’s David and Ponte Vecchio, we ventured out on our own and came back with exciting discoveries. One was the English Cemetery, where over half of the unique and decorative graves are occupied by members of the Anglo-Florentine community of the early 1800’s, including poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and American sculptor Hiram Powers. Another was the incredible church and museum of Santa Croce, the burial place of Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. I also enjoyed losing myself in a local Sunday afternoon antique flea market.
After much gelato and many photographs of this Renaissance city, we moved on to the last leg of our incredible trip, Venice! One of the most interesting and lovely places in the world, this “open air museum” contains the world’s most artistic masterpieces per square kilometer. It was built on a marshy lagoon and is almost the same as it was six hundred years ago. Linked by over 450 bridges it provides delightful surprises at every turn. One of the highlights was a guided tour of Venice’s famous La Fenice Opera House, a renowned landmark in the history of Italian theatre. Like the phoenix for which it was named, it finally rose from the ashes for a third time in 2004. Restored to its former glory, it has since regained its status among the world’s top opera houses.
Whether you partake in a gondola ride, visit one of the many cathedrals or galleries, or enjoy a cappuccino in St. Mark’s Square while watching the world go by, Venice is not to be missed. Whenever I visit I make a point of venturing away from the popular areas to discover the calm, beautiful, magical side of this city. Before long I find myself in a Venice with kids kicking a soccer ball around a deserted campo, and locals sitting in park benches chatting with their neighbors. I briefly close my eyes and take in the familiar aroma of fresh cappuccino coming from nearby cafés.
That is how I feel most at home and deliriously lost in Italy!
Claudia Viani is an avid traveller and has worked in the travel industry for over 35 years. She is a Director, Leisure Operations Canada, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.