Yesterday a friend mentioned that her and her daughter might take a vacation in Italy and asked me what the 5 things I would recommend are. Immediately I thought this might make a good blog post so here goes...
5. Bologna. People are always surprised when I tell them this but I really think Bologna is one of the best kept secrets in Italy. I've often said that Bologna features the best food in all of Italy and since food is a major reason why a lot of people come to italy, it's surprising to me that Bologna isn't more popular. One of the best tasting dishes I've ever eaten in my life was a plate of freshly made tortellini cooked in a balsamic vinegar sauce at a little ristorante next to Il Due Torri (Two Towers) called Tinellos. Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region which is Italy's culinary heartland. In Emilia-Romagna you find balsamic vinegar from Modena (Pavarotti's hometown) as well as the city of Parma, famous of course for Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. For gelato lovers, Bologna is generally known as having the best gelato in all of Italy as well. But it isn't just the food that attracts me to "Bologna la Grassa" (Bologna the fat). There is quite a bit of history there as well. There is a big Duomo worth seeing as well as the famous Two Towers, all of which have an interesting and quirky history behind them. Bologna is also home to the oldest university and the university population drives a surprisingly enjoyable nightlife scene. Bologna is truly a hidden gem.
4. Florence. I sort of have a love-hate relationship with Florence. One on hand, there is no shortage of things to see there. It is, after all, the cradle of the Renaissance. However it's so famous and beloved that everytime I go
it's so unbelievably crowded that it's difficult to enjoy as much as I normally would. For me the highlight is the area around world famous Duomo, perhaps the most famous in the world. One tip I give people is to wake up early, around 6 or 7 and go walk around before the tourists arrive. Then, just as it opens, climb to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) that stands next to the Duomo for some of the most spectacular views of bella Firenze. Florence is the undisputed king of Tuscany so the side streets are littered with enotecas where you can sample some of the best vino in the world. Not to mention that some of the most famous and beautiful works of art reside in Florence, most in the Uffizi Gallery. The Ponte Vecchio is famous but these days is nothing more than one big outdoor jewelry shop. Despite the crowds, Florence is a wonderful city with no shortage of man-made wonders to marvel at.
3. Cinque Terra. Some friends took me to Cinque Terra for the first time way back in 2000 and I was instantly smitten. You won't find glorious churches and expensive works of art here; this is nature at it's finest. Cinque Terra basically consists of 5 little small fishing villages on the Ligurian coast that have evolved into a popular tourist destination over the years. The entire area has been turned into a national park and is a popular hiking destination as well.
What makes them special is the way they are positioned on the water with the mountains so close to them that they seem to be pushing them into the sea. Each of the 5 villages has its own charm and personality but my favorite is Vernazza. We usually go there every 4th of July to relax and enjoy life as it should be. In some ways, Cinque Terra is Italian living at its best. The pace of life is slow and sometimes the most enjoyable thing is to just sit in the pizza with a glass of vino and watch the children play in the water. The seafood is plentiful and delicious and the scenery is some of the most beautiful and dramatic in all of Italy. I'm a big hiker so that's one reason I love Cinque Terra so much. The hikes are the most enjoyable I've ever done. I can't say enough about the place, it's just magnificent.
2. Rome. I really go back and forth with Rome on whether it's my favorite or my second favorite. For most people it would probably be number one but this is my list so I'm putting it as #2, although in reality it's probably more like 1A. Rome just might be the most famous city in the world and for good reason. So much of the world's history was influenced by Rome in some way. I'm a huge history buff and Ancient Rome has always fascinated me so whenever I go to Rome - and I've been there I think 6 or 7 times now - I find new things to discover and explore. Rome is so big you'd need a month to really see everything. You could spend an entire week exploring the Vatican. One of my favorite things about Rome is that you can get blown away just walking around. The list of historical places in Rome reads like a history book: The Colosseum, The Pantheon, Circus Maximus, The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, The Forum, Piazza Navona, The Campidoglio, etc. Rome is huge and this is perhaps one of its few turn offs. The Metro goes around the edges but if you want to explore the city center, you either take a bus and risk getting pickpocketed or you walk. For me, I love exploring big cities, there's such an energy and excitement to them and Rome is right at the top of the list. You can choose to visit all the famous monuments along with the crowds, you can sit in one of the many piazzas and sip vino as you watch the struggling artists work, you can take an evening passagiata down Corso Palladio with all the lovers, young and old alike, or you can cross the Tiber and relax in Trastevere, Rome's Bohemian area. The city is packed full of bars and pubs too and I once spent an entire weekend visiting as many different pubs as I could. Rome is mysterious and seductive. She is historic and wondrous. And I always miss her tremendously if I go too long without seeing her.
1. Venice. I'm sure that many people would disagree with me on this and I can certainly understand why. There is no middle ground on Venice, most people go and either love it or hate it but believe me, you cannot form an accurate opinion of Venice from just one visit. I'm fortunate to live a mere 30 minute drive from Venice and have been going continuously since I first came here almost 10 years ago. Venice has its turn offs, the crowds being probably the biggest. I would say that Florence and Venice are the two most crowded places I've been to in Italy. In the summertime, the heat in Venice can be oppresive, the humidity brings out the mosquitoes and the combination of the two can make the canals give off a less-than-appealing odor. Despite all this, I have always enjoyed Venice immensely. I've been there no less than 50 times and I can honestly say that I have never not enjoyed myself. Every time I go, it's like seeing it for the first time. I never tire of walking around along the canals, over the endless bridges, taking in the eroding splendor of what was once the most powerful empire in the world. Venice is expensive but savvy tourists can get by cheaply. There are also parts of Venice where tourists seldom venture. It's joy to discover these areas. Perhaps I enjoy Venice more than the average person because I've learned my way around it by now and yet despite my familiarity with Venice, she always manages to show something different every time I go. Venice has so much to offer for those who are willing to accept. If you want to see the real Venice, the best time is very early in the morning and late at night. During these times, all the tour groups and tourists are back at their hotels in Mestre, the industrial wasteland across the lagoon on the mainland where the cheap hotels are. I like to walk around Venice around 6 or 7 in the morning. The city is almost completely empty except for some locals getting ready for the day. It's like you have the entire city to yourself. Several years ago a friend and I did an impromptu pub crawl in Venice and it was so enjoyable that it has become a regular tradition. Pub crawls in Venice are different than in any other city as the enjoyment is as much in seeing the city at night as it is in enjoying the drinks and cameraderie. I don't do much when I go to Venice these days. I mostly just like to wander aimlessly through the streets and back alleys, pop into the Devil's Forest or the Fiddler's Elbow for a pint (or 3), grab a panini and just take it all in. Being in Venice gives me a sense of comfort. Venice is unique, there is no other place like it in the world.