Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: Italy

My partner and I love all things Italian so for our 20th anniversary we decided on our own grand tour - a fly/drive to glamorous locations so we’d get a decent dose of the best Italian art, architecture and scenery.

Our first port of call was the luxurious Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como. A former 16th century palace, Villa d’Este boasts a stellar guestlist from Frank Sinatra to Angelina and Brad.

Everything about this hotel was simply sublime (including the breakfast which was voted ‘the best we’d ever had’). The main attraction of Lake Como is the lake itself, unless, of course, you're lucky enough to spot ‘Gorgeous George’ Clooney, who has a summer house there.

Explore the pretty town of Como, then catch the ferry to Bellagio to enjoy picturesque shoreline towns and villas. But you must hop off and explore the ‘Ville di Delizia’ or villas of delight.

Villa Carlotta and Villa del Balbianello both boast spectacular gardens. Enjoy a coffee in beautiful Bellagio and walk up to the Villa Serbelloni for spectacular views.

Lake Como has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world and we were sorry to leave. But after a toe-curling drive up the steepest, mountain road, we reached the Lefay Resort and Spa on Lake Garda.

Electric gates swung majestically open to receive us and we spotted a building that looked like something out of a James Bond film. After a welcome drink, we were summoned to see the doctor. In his crisp white tunic he bore a striking resemblance to Blofeld (minus the cat)! With the help of an interpreter, he explained Lefay’s philosophy and asked several questions about my wellbeing, including how I slept.

When I mentioned I sometimes wake at four in the morning, he said something in Italian and made a swirling gesture with his index finger, which we took to be the international gesture for madness. Thankfully the interpreter was quick to explain that I merely had too much on my mind. Joking aside, the consultation was fascinating, merging ancient Chinese methods with modern techniques, after which Doctor Corradin devised a tailor made programme for me.

The Villa of Gabriele D’Annunzio, nestled high on the hillside in Gardone, is also worth a visit. D’Annunzio was a revered writer and poet, a great political orator and snappy dresser Mussolini and Hitler both learnt from his way with words and clothes.

Our next stop was Lucca in northern Tuscany, an absolutely beautiful town set within a ring of Renaissance walls. Most of the locals tend to cycle around the narrow cobbled streets so much of the centre is traffic-free. Our base, the San Luca Palace, was perfectly positioned within the walls for casually strolling around Lucca’s sights.

A must-see is the slightly creepy Volto Santo or Holy Face in the Duomo di San Martino, which is said to be a true effigy of Christ. Yet the strangest sight in Lucca has to be the Torre Guinigi with an ancient oak growing from it.

Climb this 44 metre tower for a close-up of the tree and the best views over the city. Our base was the Villa Moorings, a charming period building whose frescoes have to be seen to be believed. Barga’s Duomo, San Cristofano, has great views but there are steep cobbled approaches so leave your heels at home.

What can you say about Florence? It’s totally amazing, an art lover’s dream. The Uffizi gallery contains a wealth of Renaissance art from Michelangelo to Leonardo, you can admire Titians and Raphaels in the Palazzo Pitti then escape the crowds into its beautiful gardens and the adjacent Giardino Bardini for the money-shot view over this beautiful city.

Our hotel, the refined Helvetia & Bristol, was full of old world charm. It could hardly have been more central, surrounded by the best shopping streets in Florence (of course I had to buy some shoes) and only five minutes from Florence’s Duomo. But it’s the view from Brunelleschi’s dome over the famous terracotta rooftops that really takes your breath away... that, and the 463 lung-busting steps to the top.

We left the city centre after a few days for Villa La Massa, a romantic haven set in countryside overlooking the Arno. Our four-poster was the most comfortable bed ever.

Rejuvenated, we headed south for Siena. Top tip — forget the motorway and take the scenic SS222 road through the Chianti heartland instead so you can stock up on quality plonk.

Siena turned out to be the real find of the holiday. Its central square or Campo was a real hub, great for beer and people-watching. But for sheer spectacle, nothing beats Siena’s Palio — the famous bareback horse race round the Campo, with its pageantry, drama and occasional body count.We stayed at the 5-star Grand Hotel Continental, a converted palace with many original features.

A great day trip from here are the Sienese hill towns like San Gimignano. nicknamed ‘Medieval Manhattan’. Our next stop was the jawdroppingly beautiful Castel Monastero, a converted monastery, perched on a hilltop with birdsong the only sound. My partner summed it up best by saying if he won the lottery, he wouldn’t buy anything (well, maybe one Aston Martin) but would move into the Villa d’Este and spend the rest of his life there. It really is la dolce vita.

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