Bella Italia

Date Posted: 17/02/2012

Colourful, cultural and vibrant, there’s nowhere else quite like Italy. Jeannine Williamson takes a closer look at what you can see and do on a memorable group holiday.

When it comes to unrivalled cultural attractions, endless picture postcard vistas of beautiful coastlines, countryside, lakes and mountains, fantastic food and drink, music, fashion and a sheer passion for life, nothing beats Italy. No wonder it has captured the hearts of painters, composers and writers over the centuries.

With a wide choice of scheduled, charter and budget airlines serving Italian cities from London and regional airports, high speed trains linking major destinations such as Rome with Venice and Florence and Milan with Naples, plus an excellent motorway network, it is easy for groups to enjoy a taste of la dolce vita. All GTOs have to do is decide where to go.

Classic cities

Italy has many beautiful and historic cities, and Rome - the eternal city - is a captivating destination for first time visitors and returning groups alike. The many sightseeing landmarks include the Pantheon, the best preserved ancient Roman building; the Colosseum and Trevi fountain. Within Rome is the Vatican City, headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and the world’s smallest country where, by contrast, the square is dominated by the world’s largest church, St Peter’s Basilica.

Shaped by world renowned artists, sculptors, painters and architects, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Tintoretto, Italy is an open-air art gallery. Renaissance art was the great cultural movement that started in Italy in the 15th century, and today this legacy can be seen in cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Naples. Venice is one of Italy’s most legendary destinations. Built on around 120 small islands connected by 450 bridges, the focal point is St Mark’s Square and other highlights are the Bridge of Sighs and Doge’s Palace. Whilst they are an iconic Venetian sight, a trip on a gondola is very pricey and the most cost effective way for groups to get around is on the water taxis, or vaporetti, used by locals.

Lombardy, the most prosperous and densely populated region of Italy, is famous for being home to Milan the capital of Italian fashion and finance. Away from the catwalk and commerce this stylish city has plenty of interesting sights including the grand La Scala opera house, where groups can go on guided tours, and a huge cathedral that took 500 years to build. A daily institution is aperitivi, when bars offer canapes with drinks and provide a great opportunity for people watching as the fashionable Milanese enjoy after-work cocktails.

Lively and flamboyant Naples - the largest city in southern Italy - is the place to take your group for a pizza or vanilla, chocolate and strawberry Neapolitan ice cream. On the sightseeing front Naples is the gateway to the winding roads of the stunning Amalfi coastline and Mount Vesuvius with the incredible remains of the ruined city of Pompeii.

Lakes & mountains

The trio of magnificent Italian lakes - Garda, Maggiore and Como - set against the backdrop of the Dolomites, are perennially popular with groups. Garda is the largest and most visited lake, with pretty villages and medieval castles dotting the shoreline; followed by Maggiore, which crosses into Switzerland; and glacial Como, one of Europe’s deepest lakes. The best way for groups to soak up the atmosphere of the lakes and stunning surroundings is on one of the leisurely boat cruises that link the lakeside towns.

If you have visited before and are looking for a different destination, consider Liguria. One of Italy’s smallest regions, this slender strip of land stretching from Tuscany to the French border is framed by the sea and green Apennine mountains. The historic port of Genoa - Linguria’s capital - is a former European Capital of Culture with one of Europe’s largest medieval quarters.

Try Turin

With a backbone built on industry and the Fiat motor car, Turin doesn’t immediately spring to mind like some Italian cities. But a massive urban regeneration programme has seen Italy’s fourth largest city reinvent itself as a captivating tourist destination.

Sightseeing highlights include the National Museum of the Cinema - the only one of its kind in Italy - which traces the country’s movie history from its birth in the city to the present day, and your group members will recognise films such as La Dolce Vita and Cinema Paradiso. It’s housed inside the Mole tower, Italy’s tallest brick building, which in turn provides a cinematic 360-degree view of the city. After a four-year restoration and extension the National Automobile Museum reopened last year. Showcasing one of the world’s rarest and most valuable collections, the 200 cars chart the Italian motor industry from the early 18th century to 1996. For shoppers, Via Roma is designer heaven, and pedestrianised Via Garibaldi leads to Turin’s grandest square, Piazza Castello, which rivals those in any other big city. Take time out to enjoy a bicerin, the typical drink of Turin made with coffee, chocolate and cream. 

See Sicily

It’s known as the ‘football kicked by Italy’s boot’, and although only two miles separate Sicily from the south-western tip of the Italian mainland, this fascinating island - the largest in the Mediterranean - is a world apart. Sicily has a unique history, landscape and even a language of its own. Greek temples are part of the island’s rich heritage and the Spanish, Arabs and French have all left their mark. Sightseeing highlights include the Valley of Temples at Agrigento; the beautiful city of Taormina with its ancient Greek theatre set on a cliff; and the Villa del Casale archaeological site in Piazza Armerina with its famous ‘bikini girls’ mosaics. All this is set against the dramatic background of 3,000-metre (9,842-feet) Mount Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano.

If you visit Sicily, catch the ferry across the strait of Messina to neighbouring Calabria. Although it’s popular with Italians it remains mostly undiscovered by Brits. Once the site of rich and powerful Greek colonies, among the island’s attractions are three national parks and the National Museum in Reggio Calabria which is packed with items from the Hellenic period. Exhibits include two large bronze statues that were discovered in the sea in 1972.

Top three sights

1. Colosseum: Rome’s landma rk and one of the world’s most famous structures, the largest amphitheatre built during the Roman Empire dates back to 72AD and was the venue for bloody gladiatorial ‘games’ performed before up to 55,000 spectators.

2. Uffizi Gallery: Located in the heart of Florence the Uffizi houses one of the greatest collections of Renaissance art, with masterpieces that include Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

3. Leaning Tower of Pisa: Part of the city’s cathedral complex and now the symbol of Pisa, work on the tower began in 1173 and by the time the third storey was built in 1178 it had started to lean due to subsidence. Today the 55-metre (180-foot) tower is more than five metres off the perpendicular.

Italy Essentials

Eat: Whilst pasta and pizza are enduring favourites, Italian cuisine is very diverse with a distinct difference between the north and south, and plenty of delicious regional dishes. Rice is a staple in northern Italy and there are many tasty cured meats. Colourful Mediterranean dishes and fish are more commonplace in the south.

Drink: With more local grape varieties than any other country, Italy produces excellent wine along with thirst quenching local beers such as Peroni. There is much more to Italian coffee than espresso and cappuccino (incidentally the Italians only drink the latter in the morning) and it’s fun to try other variations such as a strong caffe doppio or refreshing iced caffe freddo.

Try: Head off the beaten track and travel back through time at Rome’s unique Basilica of San Clemente, a five-minute walk from the Colosseum. Admire 12th century mosaics at street level before descending into a 4th century basilica and then taking another staircase to a pagan temple.

Buy: Leather goods, dried pasta in unusual shapes and colours, ceramics and elegant Italian fashions at discount malls including the McArthurGlen outlets near Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples.

Go: A year-round destination, with winter sports and activities in the Italian Alps, spring and autumn are a good time to visit cities as summers can be very hot, particularly in the south. Some shops and restaurants close in August when the Italians traditionally go on holiday.

Factfile

Flight time: 2hrs to the north and up to 3hrs 30mins to southern Italy.
Time difference: GMT +1hr.
Language: Italian, with regional dialects, and German in parts of Trentino-Alto Adige in the north-east.
Currency: Euro.
Red tape: None.

Useful contact:

Italian State Tourist Board (ENIT):
020-7408 1254
www.enit.it

facebook twitter make as homepage