Travel consultant focused on cultural travel in the Middle East & Mediterranean
The art and culture of Italy are so deeply embedded in our western European imagination, and the images the name evokes are so familiar, that the problem for the traveller becomes one of selection – what do we try to see in a relatively short time? I think the answer may be to go back as often as possible!
The glories of Tuscany with the treasure house of Florence, the medieval hill towns of Umbria, the other-wordly vision of Venice, the lakes in the north, the glorious coastal towns of the Cinque Terre – all of these are well-known to travellers, and are always very rewarding places to visit. My personal orientation is more towards Rome and the south.
The citizens of Rome still seem to regard their home as the centre of the world, and it’s hard to disagree with that. The Eternal City has been the capital of the Roman empire, the political centre of Western Europe, the home of the medieval Papacy and the custodian of much of our European culture and art. Its museums, churches, galleries and public places dazzle the traveller; and the earthy attitude of the locals sits well with the vibrant mix of foreigners, pilgrims, immigrants and tourists. One of the many appealing aspects of Rome is that the historic centre is quite compact and easily explored on foot.
When in Rome, we don’t overlook the obvious sights – Imperial Rome is evident in the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the splendid Forum and the imperial baths. These places never fail to impress and inspire. The Vatican, with the mother church of Christianity, St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the wonderful museums, is of course a must. Rome’s churches are a delight, but please note, my obsessive interest in sacred architecture is never inflicted in full on my travellers (unless they want it!)
Heading south, we usually make a stop in Naples, the grand and shabby city that is almost a country in itself. Of all the riches on offer, we always sample the splendid National Archaeological Museum, and a pizza, which tastes better in its place of origin. Naples serves as a base for visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Roman provincial towns that were destroyed by the volcano of Vesuvius and then preserved under its ash. After the grandeur of ancient Rome, the traveller is often struck by the intimacy of these places – we have the streets and houses almost untouched by the disaster, we have casts of ordinary people trapped by the ash as they went about their daily lives, and the effect is one of domesticity rather than pomp.
Sicily is culturally quite separate from the rest of Italy, and this has been so for many centuries. The fertile island was fought over and invaded by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards and northern Italians, and all left their marks in the art and architecture, as well as the language and cuisine. Ancient Sicily is beautifully represented by Segesta, whose temple and theatre are regarded as among the most magnificently sited monuments in the classical world; Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples; and the wonderful Roman mosaics in the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina, to mention only the best known places.
The capital city of Palermo prospered under the Romans, and later under the Arabs and the Normans, who built the Norman Palace and the extraordinary Palatine Chapel. A few kilometres from Palermo is undoubtedly Sicily’s greatest treasure, the cathedral of Monreale with its magical blend of Arab and Norman art most evident in the splendid mosaics. In a more worldly mode, we always find time in Palermo to visit one of the colorful outdoor markets, and naturally to eat well.
Medieval Cefalu on the north coast, the resort town of Taormina, the cluster of Baroque cities in the south-east, the tiny medieval town of Erice that seems to peer across to North Africa, the glorious city of Syracuse – all are rewarding destinations on this enchanted island.