Friday, 28 November 2014

Interview: the best of Italy

From the shining waters of Como and Venice in the north to the sandy southern shores of Sardinia and Sicily, Italy has something for everyone.

To give you a virtual guided tour, I decided to interview a man who's seen more of the country than most. On the basis that other people can't be trusted to give answers I want, the man I decided to interview was, err, me...

What were your first impressions of Italy?

Negative ones! I went to Bologna with an ex-girlfriend in 2008. It's a studenty city that's meant to have an artsy, bohemian feel and a decent live music scene. If it had been like that, I'd have loved it. But my main memories are a piazza clustered with bald blokes in tan shoes, an awful Ryanair flight and a very average Spaghetti Bolognese.

At the time I lived in Camden Town, and Bologna seemed neutered in comparison.

A Bolognese church. I thought this worth photographing in the days before I realised how many churches Italy has

So why did you come back?

I went on holiday with friends in 2010 and they didn't want to go to Greece! We compromised on Sardinia and I adored it.

If you're going, fly into Cagliari, then hire a car. Poetto, Cagliari's local beach, is nothing special but if you drive a little way out of the city, you can find some half-empty stretches of coastline that are heartstoppingly beautiful. Also, try the local liqueur, Mirto. It's made from myrtle berries and it's very moreish (Hans fans, the reference is deliberate).

Stunning Sardinian shores (photo by Ele)

A few months later, you went to Rome. Did the Eternal City match your expectations?

I'd met a girl in Sardinia, so I went back to visit her, but I stopped in Rome on the way. Rome bettered all my expectations. I've travelled a lot, so I've seen plenty of ancient monuments and I'm not easily impressed, but there's a square mile or two in the centre of Rome that's packed with wonderful sights every way you look.

I've been back half a dozen times and I can still see those same sights and not be bored. It's one of the few capital cities that have everything – culture, history, vibrancy, nightlife and weather. It's only 20 miles from the coast if you want some beach time and... well, I'd live there tomorrow if I could.

Roman ruins

Do you have any less well-known tips for Rome? 

For nightlife, check out San Lorenzo. It's a bohemian studenty quarter – basically everything I expected Bologna to be and found it wasn't.

In 2013, you and Ms Ciao stayed in Rome (again), Florence and Sorrento. What was the highlight?

Well, of course Rome was great. Florence is also gorgeous, but small. You only need about 48 hours there – one day to see the city and one day to see the art.

Sorrento is the home of Limoncello. It was our base for exploring Herculaneum and Pompeii. A lot of people prefer Herculaneum to Pompeii because it's less well known and has fewer tourists, but of the two, I'd recommend Pompeii. If you can only see one ancient city that was destroyed by a volcano, you might as well make it the largest!

A Florentine sunset

You went on holiday to Cinque Terre and Finale Ligure this year. What were they like?

Cinque Terre is part of a national park. The cinque terre (five earths) are seaside villages separated by hiking trails. The villages are clotted with charming multicoloured houses and less charming American tourists. It's a beautiful place that feels depressingly bereft of authenticity. It's sold its soul to tourism and that soul's now gone for good. I'm glad I've seen it but the reality of the place doesn't match the hype.

In contrast, almost everyone in Finale Ligure was Italian, including the tourists. It's a typical beachside town and nowhere near as striking as Cinque Terre, but Ms Ciao and I enjoyed it much more. I wouldn't go out of your way to go there though – for Italian beaches, the south's really where it's at.

A typical village, Cinque Terre

What are your favourite daytrips from Milan, the city you currently live in?

There are plenty of charming towns and villages near Milan, but if I had to pick one, I'd recommend Monza. I visited for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it's got everything a regular provincial northern Italian town has (for the uninitiated, that's a piazza and a church), plus plenty more besides.

Lake Como is also worth a mention for its beauty. If you go, get a hop-on, hop-off boat trip to the nearby harbours from the dock near the train station. Don't bother paying €40 to go to Bellagio, which is a little pretentious. I'd also recommend the hiking trail at the top of the funicular if you feel energetic.

Lake Como: not ugly

And then there's Venice...

Indeed! I thought Venice would be disappointing because I'd heard so much about it. I wasn't disappointed at all. It's awesome, by which I mean it inspires awe, rather than the way some people describe muesli as awesome.

If you only ever visit two places in Italy, visit Rome and Venice. And when you go to Venice, stay for at least a couple of days, so you can enjoy the evenings after the day-trippers have scuttled back aboard their cruiseships.

Of course, Venice is touristy, but unlike Cinque Terre, it feels as though there's a vibrant, nuanced city underneath. It's got a dark side to it, mystery, glamour and charm. It's the most unique place I've been in Europe and I'm already planning my next trip.

Venice: where locals hang their washing above canals

Where else are you planning on visiting soon?

I'm off to Verona tonight. And I'd like to see more of Sicily. I went last year at the end of a six month round-the-world trip but I was too jaded to venture beyond Palermo. It's a diverse island with loads to see – just don't ask the locals about the Mafia. They're not keen on talking about them... not so much (in my opinion) out of omerta; more because they're sick of every tourist asking the same questions.

Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, is also on my to-do list. And I want to see Pisa (for the obligatory photo – apparently it's not worth staying longer than a day) and Lucca and Lampedusa and Elba and and and... you get the picture...

You can see a map of all the places I've been in Italy here, should that be your thing.

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