No-one wants to hear my holiday plans. Whenever I say I’m off to the land of Ia dolce vita – the oh-so-sweet life – I’m shut down. Italy, it seems, is the most envy-inducing destination on earth.
“It’s a coach tour,” I say, trying to douse the jealousy. It doesn’t work. Perhaps my friends know more than me because, as it turns out, coach tours aren’t what they used to be. For starters, we’re guided by a charming tour director, Daniele Nannetti, who lives in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland but grew up in Fusignano, a town between Florence and Venice. He, of all people, should be able to pin down Italy’s enduring appeal.
“First of all, there’s that warmth that’s not in every country,” he says. “Sometimes it’s too much – people are nosy -but they make you feel like you’re very special.”
He’s right. The boundless warmth of Italians – combined with privileged access to extraordinary places – make me feel special indeed as we tootle about Rome, Florence and Venice, and places in between.
Before my tour, I have a free day to channel Roman Holiday. I remember how Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann is asked by the reporter, a dashing Gregory Peck, how she’d like to spend her time in Rome. “I’d like to do just whatever I like the whole day long,” she replies. Naturally, I follow their footsteps to the Mouth of Truth, a stone mask made so memorable as a lie detector in the 1953 rom-com that even today a queue of tourists snakes out of its church-portico home and down the street.
Our group meets at the Baglioni Hotel Regina on the serpentine Via Veneto. Across the street is the Excelsior Hotel where Fellini filmed part of his 1960 classic, La Dolce Vita.It’s a 10-minute stroll from here to the Trevi Fountain where the film’s star, Anita Ekberg, frolicked in her black strapless gown.
There’s not much frolicking from us as we’re visiting the Sistine Chapel early the next day before the public arrives. It’s a rare privilege to sit quietly on a bench admiring Michelangelo’s handiwork (the chapel attracts 25,000 visitors a day).
We also skip the queue at the Colosseum, zipping straight into the gladiatorial arena where, once upon a time, more than 50,000 spectators jostled to see the grisly battles unfolding in the centre. Ancient Rome, we also learn, is to blame for the invention of pay toilets, which helped fund the Colosseum’s construction.
Certainly, the search for a WC in Italy can lead to interesting places such as the tiny Rock Cafe poked into an alley in Calcata, a medieval village perched on a volcanic stump. The New York Times once called Calcata, 50km north of Rome, “the grooviest village in Italy” and as I check out posters of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin pinned to the cafe walls, it’s hard not to agree.
From Calcata we hit Italy’s longest autostrada- the Highway of the Sun connects Milan and Naples- as we head to the queen of hill towns, Umbria’s Perugia, to visit textile artisan Marta Cucchia who is reviving the intricate patterns of medieval fabrics on hand-operated looms inside her studio. Standing under the high, vaulted ceiling of the 13th-century Women’s Church of St Francis, Marta explains how Perugia’s tablecloths were so revered that one features in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Leonardo’s birthplace of Vinci isn’t far from Villa Le Maschere – a grand late-Renaissance pile north of Florence. Royalty and noblemen, along with a pope, once stayed here but the villa fell into such disrepair in the 1960s that the roof collapsed and its frescoes and fittings vanished. Today, it’s a 65-room luxury hotel with a surprising larger-than-life Alice in Wonderland vibe.
Leaving the hilltop estate with its outdoor pools and views across rolling Tuscan countryside is hard but an irresistible treat awaits. Florence’s 16th-century, kilometre-long Vasari Corridor, hidden within the Ponte Vecchio, was built so the ruling Medici family could cross town without drawing attention.
Today, it’s possible to enter the unmarked door within the Uffizi Gallery leading down to the corridor as part of a pre-booked group. Those lucky enough to gain entry will see an astonishing collection of self-portraits with works by Rembrandt, Delacroix and Chagall. For art lovers, the day could only get better with one thing- and si, we end up standing before Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece, David.
How is one country home to so many masterpieces? That’s a question to ponder over more food and wine. At the Tuscan wine estate Villa Dianella, we make fresh tagliatelle, while sipping vino. At a restaurant across the road from Villa Le Maschere, we’re in for another delicious treat: a tasting of regional wines accompanied by goat’s cheese with tomato, ricotta with walnuts and pecorino with prunes. Could life get any sweeter? Amici, it does.
In Verona, after inspecting that balcony, Daniele passes around biscuits called Romeo’s Sighs and Juliet’s Kisses. In Venice, we pile into gondolas and Fulvio Galletta serenades us. I’m enchanted by the way our gondolier, kicks against the walls so they don’t scrape his gondola’s paint job. But my real pinch-me moment comes at our final dinner. At Ai Pescatori, a rustic seafood restaurant on the Venetian island of Burano, fisherman Mario ‘Bepi’ Bressanello opens his heart.
With a passion that’s as deep as the history of Italy itself, he sings us songs of the sea that speak to something in us all. Farewell, Italia, it’s been sweet indeed.