A tasty Ital­ian an­tipasti

A 10-day jaunt is like a tast­ing plat­ter, pro­vid­ing a de­li­cious sam­ple of some of the coun­try’s highlights, writes We do what ev­ery­one does in Venice – get lost. But it mat­ters lit­tle – La Serenissma is made for aim­less wan­der­ing and dis­cov­er­ing trea­sures

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

The time it takes from ar­riv­ing at Rome’s Fi­u­mi­cino Air­port to see­ing my first ac­ci­dent: 20 min­utes. I’m wait­ing for a bus out­side Ter­mi­nal 3 when a dusty Fiat runs into the back of a truck. Half an hour later, while surg­ing through Ro­man sub­urbs, I watch as a speed­ing BMW driven by an over-coif­fured blonde ca­reers into the side of a taxi.

‘‘Ital­ians drive like some­one has tipped a glass of acid in their laps,’’ laughs the bus driver who, it has to be said, is no slouch when it comes to shim­my­ing past on­com­ing traf­fic in the wrong lane, yelling at slower driv­ers to ‘‘Dai!’’ (‘‘Come on!’’), and giv­ing me a ram­bling his­tory les­son while rolling a cig­a­rette and an­swer­ing his cell­phone.

But I didn’t spend three flights and the bet­ter part of a day to be an ac­ci­dent statis­tic, so I’m pa­thet­i­cally grate­ful I won’t have to drive for the next 10 days. In­stead, the very safe Gianni will take me and 21 Amer­i­cans, Brits, Aus­tralians, and Ki­wis from Rome to Florence, then on to Venice, Pisa, and the glo­ri­ously In­stragammable Amalfi Coast on In­sight Va­ca­tions’ Best of Italy tour.

Here’s how I spent 10 days in one of the planet’s most mag­i­cal coun­tries.

Day 1

In the 18th cen­tury, when the tourism in­dus­try first hit Rome, most vis­i­tors took two years to see the Eter­nal City. We’ve only got two days so we fo­cus on the big-hit­ters.

We cross the Tiber to the Ro­man Fo­rum, a sprawl of ru­ins that was once the cen­tre of the Mediter­ranean world. Our guide Ilaria makes his­tory come alive, point­ing out the spot where Mark An­thony called on friends, Ro­mans and coun­try­men, and the un­re­mark­able tomb of Julius Cae­sar.

A toga’s throw from here is the Colos­seum where all sorts of blood was spilled in hideous bat­tles be­tween glad­i­a­tors and lions and ele­phants, and women and dwarfs, cheered on by 65,000 spec­ta­tors. To­day, the only thing I want to slaugh­ter are selfie sticks and their an­noy­ing users.

Al­though it’s far too early for the evening passeg­giata (stroll), we do our own around the back streets.

Our first stop is the Trevi Foun­tain, im­mor­talised by Anita Ek­berg’s dip in the clas­sic film La Dolce Vita. Thank­fully, be­cause it’s al­most win­ter, the crowds have thinned and we get the foun­tain mostly to our­selves.

Past the glo­ri­ously Baroque Span­ish Steps is Via Con­dotti, where stun­ning women prowl in and out of high-end shops, buy­ing hand­bags worth more than my car. Then there’s the Pan­theon, the 2000-year-old Hadrian’s tem­ple-turned-church, whose 8.8m ocu­lus, or hole in the roof, isn’t a de­sign flaw but was in­tended to con­nect the tem­ple with the gods.

Day 2

I once spent two hours queu­ing to get into the Vat­i­can, only to tire of the crowds and leave be­fore see­ing most of it. Thanks to the magic of In­sight Va­ca­tions, we’re able to by­pass the crowds and sweep through the Sis­tine Chapel, St Peter’s Basil­ica, and one of the world’s great­est art col­lec­tions.

Sadly, I don’t have the word count to go into de­tail about any of th­ese artis­tic and ar­chi­tec­tural marvels.

We break for cof­fee and cor­netto (the hugely calorific but ad­dic­tive pas­try-and-cus­tard mashup that Ital­ians love for break­fast) and I find the per­fect present for my Catholic mother-in-law, a Pa­pal lol­lipop I bet she’ll never eat.

Then it’s all aboard for the three­hour drive through an au­tum­nal Tus­can coun­try­side bur­nished yellow and red.

Day 3

The last time I vis­ited Florence, I was a 20-some­thing back­packer in love with a gor­geous Ital­ian boy I’d met in Lon­don. Of course, the re­la­tion­ship didn’t last, but time has been kind to the city pinned on the banks of the Arno River. Not only does it look a lot cleaner than I re­mem­ber, but the queues aren’t nearly as bad (again, be­cause we’re out­side peak sea­son).

We start at the Gal­le­ria dell’Ac­cademia, where Michelan­gelo’s 5.16m high statue of David has been thrilling vis­i­tors on this spot since 1873 (it was ac­tu­ally hewn from an enor­mous block of mar­ble in 1504).

Like so much of Italy, this city is an em­bar­rass­ment of riches – gal­leries, tiny shops sell­ing but­tery-soft leather goods and, of course, the city’s land­mark, the Duomo – a mar­ble mon­u­ment to me­dieval Florence that took 150 years to com­plete. After the gob­s­mack­ing fa­cade, the in­te­rior comes as some­thing of a sur­prise – most of the artis­tic trea­sures have been re­moved.

But hav­ing filled our mem­ory cards with the im­pres­sive 14th-cen­tury ex­te­rior and red-tiled cupola, we head to one of the city’s newer trea­sures, a branch of Eataly, the Ital­ian restau­rant/bak­ery/food store/cook­ing school chain that has spread to the US and Ja­pan. I eat a bras­sica pizza the size of my head, and watch stylish Ital­ians fill their trol­leys with fresh moz­zarella and smelly sausages.

For­tu­nately, I saved room be­cause din­ner tonight is at the 6th-cen­tury Villa Le Maschere, 32km from Florence, where we scoff far too many calo­ries (in the form of steam­ing bowls of pasta and creamy tiramisu), washed down with chi­anti while be­ing ser­e­naded by a lo­cal singer who should be on Italy’s Got Tal­ent.

Day 4

If it’s Wed­nes­day, it must be Pisa. We

Gon­doliers ply their trade be­neath Venice’s fa­mous Bridge of Sighs.

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