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
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.
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.
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.
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.
If it’s Wednesday, it must be Pisa. We
Gondoliers ply their trade beneath Venice’s famous Bridge of Sighs.