Amy has recently experienced many of Italy's highlights and lesser-known treasures on a small group tour with Back-Roads Touring - here's what she thought of her experience...
With its rich and proud history, the cultural legacy of Italy’s importance in classical antiquity and the Renaissance, iconic monuments (boasting the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in any country), famously delicious cuisine, varied and beautiful landscapes, ranging from picturesque coasts to some of the tallest peaks in Europe, friendly people, and generally blessed with great weather, it’s easy to see why Italy appeals to so many – whether visitors are looking for a cruise, city break, tour, or an activity holiday.
My previous trips to Italy have been on cruises, visiting some of the most notable cities for a few hours, or perhaps overnight, so I’ve dipped my toes, so to speak. My recent trip with Back-Roads Touring was a very new and different experience, and it highlighted the benefits of touring in a small group as much as it did Italy’s diversity.
The trip had been adapted from Back-Roads’ ‘Italian Indulgence’ tour, which begins in Rome before exploring Assisi and Perugia and then concentrates on Tuscany, discovering the cities of Siena, Florence, Lucca and Pisa, then heading northwards through Liguria, Piedmont, the Lake district, Verona, and then finally Venice. In many ways, it features a lot of the destinations you would expect from a 'Grand Tour of Italy', encompassing much of the country's greatest classical, Renaissance and Baroque treasures, and when I told my Nan about the trip, she reminisced about her tour of Italy forty or fifty-odd years ago, which was in a much more traditional escorted format, and she said that by the end her neck ached at looking up at the ceilings of all the basilicas; luckily, this was not a problem that I had to worry about!
Our trip was focussing on the latter part of the tour, and we flew into Florence, where we were promptly met at the airport by Isabelle, our lovely tour leader, and Fabio, our ever-smiling driver, and whisked off firstly to the Villa La Pallagina, a charmingly rustic villa in the midst of Tuscany’s rolling hills, olive and cypress trees, and vineyards. The Villa La Pallagina is usually used as accommodation for a couple nights before moving on to the Cinque Terre and Liguria, but doesn’t open until the Italian high season begins, on 1 April. However, we were lucky enough to have a little tour around the hotel, which boasts a famous neighbour (Sting), as well as two pools (one of which was an infinity pool), a pool bar, an inside restaurant which seats 40 and features a typically Tuscan vaulted ceiling, and a breakfast room offering views. The surrounding landscapes of rolling hills, olive trees, vineyards can be admired from the bedrooms, which vary in shape and size, all of which were charming. Our next stop was the Villa Il Palagio, where we were staying that night, and there was some time to settle in to our rooms before joining the group for a Tuscan cookery class.
Tuscany may well be synonymous with the artistic and cultural treasures of the Renaissance, and its cities – particularly Florence and Siena – may have been hubs to some of the leading philosophers of the period which led to modern Enlightenment, but its cuisine, led by generations of peasant farmers, has been influenced by the principles of simplicity and not wasting a single ingredient. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the simplicity of ingredients, Tuscan cuisine is renowned for its mouth-watering flavours; everything is balanced. A cooking demonstration in a Tuscan villa is one of the highlights of the Italian Indulgence tour, and it was no different with our trip. Under the expert tutelage of the Villa Il Palagio’s head chef, Mario (who had previously worked in the Dorchester, but preferred cooking traditional Italian cuisine), we were shown how to create Pappa al Pomodoro (or bread and tomato) soup, a deliciously simple pork dish, and biscotti. Mario was assisted ably by his sous-chef Vincenzo, and a few of us who volunteered, and the hotel’s kitchen team were a great team, both light-hearted and yet respectful to the head chef. We were offered a glass of prosecco or Aperol spritz, and it was a fun, casual affair, having a laugh and learning Tuscan culinary secrets while our mouths increasingly watered. Our appetites were truly whetted by the time we savoured the delicious three-course meal, and it was the perfect introduction to our Italian trip.
Villa La Pallagina
Villa La Pallagina
Tuscan Cookery Class
Tuscan Cookery Class
Italy is, of course, world-renowned for its food and wine, both of which soon emerged as recurring themes throughout the tour, and as we entered different regions, the cuisine and wine became as diverse as the landscapes we were beginning to see change. After our overnight stay in Tuscany, we were soon travelling through Liguria – where houses were painted in bright colours as opposed to the uniformly warm sunny Tuscan yellow – with the Italian Riviera in our sights. Whilst Tuscany is peasants’ country, and reflected in its deliciously rustic cuisine, the coastal region of Liguria specialises in fish – particularly anchovies (whether stuffed or not), shrimps (particularly in Santa Margherita) – and pesto. The highlight of the Liguria region is perhaps the famous UNESCO-listed Cinque Terre, the five colourful, picture-perfect fishing villages, which can be accessed either by train or by boat, which we were going to explore on day two.
For the day when the tour explores the Cinque Terre, you adopt a very Italian attitude where you go with the flow; the boat may be available to take you to the different villages, or the train will take you, and there’s no predestined order. Back-Roads Touring take you to three of the five villages, so there’s plenty to explore, discover and admire. We began in Manarola, before heading by train to Monterosso al Mare (where I enjoyed some delicious focaccia and anchovies during free time for lunch), and Vernazzo, which I thought was the prettiest of them all. The towns were all pretty, but the overcast clouds meant that the colours didn’t quite pop as much as they would under the full strength of the sun’s rays, although we did have the advantage of going in low season before the crowds arrive.
Driving back from the Cinque Terre for our overnight hotel in Santa Margherita, the clouds were low and ominously dark, but it made for some beautiful contrasts, as the hills seemed to rise up into the sky, and pockets of pastel coloured houses sprouted up like mushrooms. Santa Margherita is a small city on the Italian Riviera, just a few kilometres away from the famously chic town of Portofino – a popular haunt for the rich and beautiful (although perhaps not so much in March) – and there was plenty of free time in the evening to take a bus (or taxi) to Portofino. However, the inclement weather dampened any enthusiasm, and instead we all chose to join Isabelle and Fabio at a local restaurant nearby. Isabelle and Fabio were a great team who had worked together previously, and it seemed like their easy friendship (along with the small size of the group) helped create an easy-going atmosphere and a family feel. Because Back-Roads Touring offer a relaxed and informal style of touring, there’s lots of free time and lots of opportunities to enjoy meals independently, although the tour leader will always suggest a time for people to meet them, should they wish to enjoy a sociable meal or orientation walk. On my trip, we all ended up enjoying dinner together each night, even when it wasn’t scheduled as an included meal.
From the rolling, vineyard-covered hills of Tuscany and the colourful coastline of the Italian Riviera, on day three we headed north into changing terrain as we headed for Piedmont and its wild, wooded, and mountainous landscapes, stopping en route in the picturesque Ligurian town of Millesimo. Although this was a tour where regional gastronomy featured heavily, today was a real foodie and wine day! Piedmont is especially renowned for its wines – particularly the esteemed Barolo – and its sophisticated cuisine, and it’s famous for its truffle. Once in Piedmont, our first stop was in the Roero region where we met a local farmer, his family, and his trusty truffle-hunting dog, Willie (in Italy, it is illegal to hunt for truffle using pigs, as they damage the soil too much). Sadly, the truffle hunt was rained off, but we learnt all about the traditions and customs in the warmth and comfort of the stone-built farm house, and had the opportunity to sample some of this mysterious and fabled delicacy, and I made a new friend in the dog. But the culinary delights were to continue as we visited the historic and UNESCO-listed Grinzane Cavour castle, where we enjoyed an audio-guided tour, and sampled some of the local wines (including Barolo), and later that evening there was a real gastronomic tour highlight awaiting us.
The slow-food movement aims to preserve traditional regional cuisine, and originates from Piedmont in the 1980s – so where better to experience Italian slow food than in Piedmont itself? The answer: in a beautiful 17th century monastery in the charming Piedmont town of Cherasco. The Hotel Somaschi was our final stop on day three, and it was possibly my favourite hotel on the tour. Inside, many of the corridors featured embroidery on the walls, the reception was decorated in a stylish, classical taste, and there were also Baroque touches here and there (particularly on the ceiling of the hallway and staircase leading us to the dining room), while my room – the Armani suite – was furnished in a surprisingly modern style, complete with a mezzanine level, spacious shower and bathroom, a funky red mini-bar, two TVs, and a door leading on to the terrace outside. Yet in many ways, the room seem strikingly (and appropriately, given the hotel’s past life as a monastery) austere. We were treated to pre-dinner drinks and canapes, before savouring a delicious six-course slow-food dining experience, which featured steak tartare, an artichoke and cheese dish, cod, ravioli, veal, a hazelnut cake, and ended with petit-fours. It felt like a very special occasion, and was the perfect ending to a day which showcased the Piedmontese pride in its regional food.
There was time in the morning to explore the town of Cherasco, a small but picturesque town which is too small for larger touring groups and too off-the-beaten track to usually pop up on visitors’ radars, but I found it utterly charming. Cherasco is a perfect example of Back-Roads Touring’s focus on authentic local experiences by heading off the usual tourist trail. As the first stop of day four was a grappa distillery near Asti, we were leaving a little later that day, although the earliest start on any given day on a Back-Roads tour would be 8.30, keeping in with the leisurely and relaxed pace and feel of the tours. The grappa distillery was another small, family-run, local business, and we were given a tour by one of the members of the family, who was very passionate about the business. This is another recurrent theme throughout the tour: we were invariably treated to intimate and enjoyable local experiences which were charmingly authentic, because we got to meet the people and families whose businesses were being supported, and every single one of them was extremely proud about what they did, but also very welcoming and wanted to share with us. Most of these would simply be too small to visit if travelling with a larger escorted group, but they felt very personal and hospitable. The grappa distillery tour was followed by a tasting, paired with chocolates and nougat, and then we were off on the road again.
Our ultimate destination on day four was Lake Maggiore, but before we reached the Italian Lake District, we drove through Vercelli, the rice-growing capital of Europe, driving past rice fields and learning about how rice was produced from the fields. After a little while (and conveniently during lunch time), we made a stop in the tiny town of Desana, which in many respects seems like a ghost town, but it does boast an excellent restaurant and a historic castle. If I hadn’t already been converted to the many benefits of a small group tour, then Desana would perhaps have been a turning point, as here, after our small group had enjoyed a delicious local lunch in the restaurant (where we had the option to sample three different types of risotto, as well as some beer brewed from rice, as we were, after all, in Europe’s rice basket), the waiter of the restaurant spontaneously invited our group to visit the castle next door, which – it transpired – belonged to the family who ran the restaurant. Because our numbers were small, we were both able to enjoy a meal in this small town restaurant and were invited to view a private castle, which his cousin gave us a tour round. It felt a bit of a surreal moment, but it’s one of the classic benefits of small group travel – that, and the freedom and flexibility for the group to decide whether or not they all wanted to join the tour, or to catch a bit of the sun that was finally appearing. From Desana, our journey continued to Italy’s Lake District, stopping for photos at Lake Orta, before arriving at Lake Maggiore.
Back-Roads Touring usually stay for two-nights on the lakeside Grand Hotel Majestic, an elegant and classic hotel which boasts a prime location on the very shores of the lake, amidst the picturesque town of Verbania, so offering a number of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and a charming waterfront, within easy walking distance. The Grand Hotel Majestic was also the hotel where Princess Caroline and members of the wedding party stayed for the religious wedding ceremony between Pierre Casiraghi and Beatrice Borromeo in 2015 (and, incidentally, Isabelle was leading a Back-Roads tour staying at the hotel at the very same time!). However, as the Grand Majestic does not open until Easter, we were staying at a hotel in a nearby town, but we did have the opportunity to have a quick look around. Breakfast is enjoyed in the panoramic breakfast room, which boasts superlative views of the lake, and makes the most of the sunlight at that time of the day, while both the indoor swimming pool and al fresco terrace also boast incredible views overlooking the lake. After some time to soak up the atmosphere (and enjoy a gelato) in Verbania, we headed to our hotel for a two-night stay overlooking Lake Maggiore.
As an adapted version of the Italian Indulgence tour, my trip had fewer two-night stays in hotels than the original tour, but I found that changing hotels was much more seamless than I had thought. As someone more experienced in cruising than touring – where one of the most acclaimed benefits is waking up in different places but only having to unpack once – I had anticipated that this might have been an issue, but it wasn’t. Firstly, porterage meant that I didn’t need to lay a finger on my suitcase except for opening and closing it, or leaving it outside my room to be collected, and check-in was always smooth and quick, as it was expertly overseen by Isabelle, and the group number was small (again, another major benefit of small group touring!).
With two nights in Lake Maggiore, we had a non-driving day on day five; instead, we took to the water on a private boat, setting sail for the famous Borromean Islands. We began with the Isola Madre, where – as well as a Renaissance Villa and small chapel – you can find plenty of wildlife, in the form of vibrantly coloured pheasants and proud peacocks as you walk through the gardens. The next stop was the Isola Bella and its ornate Baroque Palace and Gardens, which we explored with an audio guide, before finally the Isola dei Pescatori, where Isabelle recommended lunch in a restaurant run by a family who live on the island year-round and also catch their own fish. This was followed with a chilled out afternoon and evening of free time (although we all met up later to go out for pizza and beer).
Lake Maggiore was not the only great Italian Lake we visited, as on day six we made a stop near Lake Garda in the town of Peschiera del Garda for some free time to explore and have lunch, before heading to the delightfully colourful and expansive Sigurtá Garden Park (although the tulips were a little late this year). The tour’s itinerary includes numerous stops at charming towns which are perhaps lesser-visited, adding an intoxicating dose of local authenticity, and the thrilling sense of visiting somewhere off the beaten track to discover hidden gems, as well as punctuating journeys. Sometimes people say that ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’, but with Back-Roads, it’s also very much a case of exploring and soaking up the atmosphere of the different towns dotted along the journey. However, we were nearing the end of our tour, sadly, and our final destination for the day would take us away from the Lake District and the surrounding Alps, and into Veneto in Italy’s northeast. Our final region on tour, Veneto, stretches from the Dolomites to the Adriatic, and we would visit fair Verona and – of course – the enchanting and magical city of Venice.
It was in ‘fair Verona’ where Shakespeare (and, before him, Luigi da Porto) set the scene of the famous and doomed ‘star-cross’d lovers’ Romeo and Juliet, and it was here in Verona where we had our first taste of the Veneto region, which had been dominated by the mighty Venetian Republic for over 1000 years between the 7th and 18th centuries (the Venetian Lion could be seen dotted around). Staying overnight in Verona, we had plenty of time in the afternoon and following morning to explore this compact but cosmopolitan and elegant city, and enjoyed a tasty included dinner in the hotel that night. Isabelle offered an orientation tour of Verona, including a stop at the balcony claimed to have belonged to Juliet, before some free time to chill out, browse through its incredibly tempting shops, or enjoy a drink on the square overlooking the ancient 1st century Roman amphitheatre, which predates Rome’s famous Colosseum. Strolling through the marble-paved streets, I was utterly enchanted by this beautiful and historic city, and it was the perfect introduction to a city which I would very much like to return to.
On day seven, after a relaxed morning and a late departure, we left beautiful Verona and headed to the vineyards of the Valpolicella region. This was one of the stops I had been most looking forward to, as I can’t resist delicious Valpolicella wine, and it was another classic, intimate Back-Roads local experience; in fact, the family only offer tours and tastings with Back-Roads. We were warmly welcomed in, and during the tour learnt about what makes Valpolicella vines different, how it’s fermented, and the three types (Valpolicella, Ripasso, and Amarone), before enjoying the tasting. I’ve enjoyed a number of wine tastings, but this was by far my favourite – we entered into this homely, stone-built room with vaulted ceilings, and were met with the sight of a beautifully presented wooden table, lit by candles and decorated with red berries and blue willow-patterned plates, and we then savoured each of the wines, with a variety of cheese and salami, and chutneys, including a sharp cherry and mustard which really cleansed the palate for the wine. The whole experience was just top-notch: intimate, informative, but most of all warm, friendly, and enjoyable. It was a bit of a wrench having to leave, but the thoughts of soon being in Venice were remarkably consoling!
Finally, the three Vs of the day (Verona, Valpolicella, and Venice) were completed, and our tour was soon coming to an end; but not before entering Venice in remarkable style on a water taxi. Thanks to the small group numbers, Back-Roads Touring include overnight stays in Venice itself (usually at the Hotel Carlton on the Grand Canal, which is conveniently close to the train station), rather than outside the city. Venice is the perfect enchanting finale to an Italian tour, pulling out all the stops with its spectacular monuments and palaces, the pastel coloured buildings which line the canals, and, of course, St Mark’s Square. There was time to explore both the city and the Hotel Carlton, before enjoying a farewell dinner at a local restaurant. The time of my return flight the next day meant that I had a leisurely morning to explore more of Venice, but the included water taxi back to the airport meant that I enjoyed some fabulous last-minute views of the city before heading home.
Over eight days, starting from Florence in central Italy and wending our way to Venice in the north-east, I had truly indulged in the diversity, beauty, culture, and authenticity of Italy (and certainly its cuisine and wine!), and I had experienced the Back-Roads Touring difference. The pace was relaxed and the atmosphere friendly and informal, and there was plenty of scope for freedom and flexibility, and the worries and stresses of checking in and out of different hotels had been taken care of. The small group size enabled us to get to know one another better, as well as enabling us to enjoy intimate and authentic experiences, such as private tours of family-run grappa distilleries or having a private castle opened up to us spontaneously, or staying in a hotel inside Venice as opposed to a few miles away on its outskirts. As someone with a lot more experience in cruising, this was an entirely different way of travelling for me, but I felt that I was able to immerse myself a little more in the country I was visiting, discovering smaller but nonetheless charming towns way off the usual tourist trail, and learning so much about the Italian way of life and what was special about each region from our fantastic tour leader, Isabelle, and by soaking up the local atmosphere for myself.
The itinerary we followed (and the original, complete 'Italian Indulgence' tour) weaves varied landscapes - from rolling Tuscan hills carpeted with vineyards (albeit not yet with vines), to the vast lakes and Alpine backdrops of the Lake District to name just a couple - contrasts small towns with the famous 'must-do' cities, and threads together some authentic and immersive experiences seamlessly into a memorable and beautiful tapestry. What made the tour really special, though, was the knowledge, professionalism, and friendliness of our tour leader, Isabelle, who was passionate, funny, and informative, and helped make the whole experience memorable and enjoyable, as well as entirely smooth. With Isabelle and Fabio, the driver who always made sure the luxurious mini-bus was pristine every day and greeted us with a friendly smile, a family-like atmosphere was created for the group, which really enhanced everything.
If you would like to find out more about Back-Roads Touring, why not contact us today to talk to Amy or Tracey, who has also experienced the Back-Roads difference?
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