Some Places To Enjoy Life... In Italy
On this page you can find information and links about our favourite places in Italy (which include the Italian Lakes, Tuscany and Umbria).
- The Italian Lakes:
- Lake Maggiore - Cannero-Riviera
- Lake Garda - Sirmione
- Tuscany and Umbria
- Sorrento Peninsula and Amalfi Coast (new)
- "Agriturismo" - a great way to enjoy life in the country
- A few recommendations from our resident Italy expert...
- You will find all of my travel photoblogs (with pictures and more links) here in my Categorian blog.
- If you follow the links in the right hand panel, you will hopefully find a lot of useful or interesting information. The first (reddish-brown) link will take you to a map of Italy marked up with our favourite sites, restaurants, hotels etc.
- Links in that panel will generally open in a new window.
Lake Maggiore - Cannero-Riviera
This is an account of a magical week we spent around Lake Maggiore in July 1997, staying at the wonderful Hotel Cannero.
(We didn't have a digital camera in those days, but you can see a photo-blog of our 2009 trip to Cannero if you go here or click either picture below.)
The account starts after a truly awful flight that was delayed 6 hours (but that's another story). Frazzled and exhausted, we were picked up in Milan at about 3am by the driver from the hotel. Unbelievably, he was full of smiles and welcome, in spite of the long wait he'd had and the long drive still to come. It was then that we knew that life was about to improve greatly.
We first saw the lake somewhere between 4 and 5 a.m., with the sky just starting to turn light behind the hills. Contrary to the gloomy weather forecasts the sky was clear, and it promised to be a fine day. Our wonderful courier dropped us off in front of our hotel, waiting to make sure that someone would let us in. It took a while, then we were greeted by a sleepy but smiling person who we later discovered to be a kind of factotum of the hotel, and possibly its owner as well! He showed us to our room, and after peering out of our window (the balcony overlooked the lake as promised), we crashed out.
In the morning we really discovered what a nice place we were in. We came downstairs some time after 10 am to find an empty restaurant, but the head waiter greeted us the moment we set foot in the place, announced with a beaming smile that he had saved us breakfast, and saw us to our table on the edge of the front terrace, a kind of verandah set a few feet above the promenade which separates the front of the hotel from the lakeside and the ferry-boat pier.
It was a beautiful day, balmy weather, people were strolling past, the occasional boat appeared, offloaded/loaded passengers and disappeared, and we relaxed and enjoyed our first decent meal for some time. I had a jug of mild but very tasty black coffee which, if served at that time of day in an English restaurant, would have been stewed and bitter, but was absolutely perfect.
The manageress, also beaming, appeared at our table and welcomed us, and said she was sorry we hadn't been able to have supper there but would we like to have a free lunch in the restaurant instead? We felt like we had suddenly been beamed up from Purgatory to Heaven - just wonderful.
Cannero-Riviera is a lake-side community built on quite a steep wooded hill-side. The road passes through the top of it, leaving the main lower part mostly undisturbed by traffic. The houses are all on different levels, with pedestrian walk-ways going through them in all directions. Our hotel had a nice swimming pool on a courtyard terrace one level up, and a sunning terrace on its roof (which got too hot!).
We did all our travel by boat. We visited two of the islands (Isola Bella, Isola Madre) eating lunch at the restaurants there. The palace at Isola Bella was not really to our taste inside, but we enjoyed the gardens, and the boat trips themselves.
The highlight of our week, visit-wise, was the botanical gardens at Villa Taranto. The day started out rainy but cleared up quickly, and we had the gardens almost to ourselves. We also took a fast boat across the lake to the market day at Luino (Sue bought a nice cool pair of trousers for about six pounds), and on our last evening we hired a small low-powered motor-boat and cruised for an hour or so around the vicinity of Cannero, including the tiny islands with ruined mediaeval forts.
What made the holiday so enjoyable, apart from the sun and the quiet relaxing atmosphere, was the people. Cannero-Riviera has its own local community which assimilates the tourists quite happily. There seems to be an endless supply of what we called the "Botticelli Kids", tiny infants with immense character and poise. The brother-in-law of the hotel manager (Alfredo, as we found out later) had a little daughter of this variety (Benadetta, aged 22 months), and seemed to have her with him whenever possible. In the evening when we were at supper he would often come cycling slowly up the promenade, a basket of groceries/fruit/flowers on the handlebars, and his infant perched on a kind of extra saddle made of a bundle of something draped over the bar which joins the front and back frames of the bike, held upright with his other arm! He would stop in front of the hotel and have unhurried conversations with people on the restaurant terrace, while his kid perched there quite happily.
An older version of a Botticelli Kid, a girl of maybe 5 or 6 years old, creased me up by waiting for her errant parents outside the pier, her arms folded, frowning and tapping her foot, but obviously making allowances for the frail behaviour of Parents.
Even the hotel dog was a character, a low-slung fat-sausage- shaped dog called Vicki with a long nose, silly tail, eyes close together and an endearingly goopy expression, like a dog from a Ronald Searle cartoon (you remember St Trinians?).
The fun with people culminated in the event on our last night, a community concert (oddly enough, mostly of music with English or American titles) held right outside the hotel restaurant, on the section of promenade (not very wide) between us and the boat pier building, which was basically two kiosks separated by a space on which to get onto the pontoon, all covered by a single roof (home of nesting swallows).
The night before people erected a simple stage platform, and stacked a few hundred white plastic chairs against a kiosk wall.
On Saturday, about 9pm when we had just finished supper, people started to congregate in front of us, including families with 3 or more generations represented, and the chairs magically unstacked themselves and distributed themselves in a series of shallow semi-circles, maybe 5 or 6 rows, filling all the available space except a narrow walkway just under our table, apparently (if you blinked) without human agency involved.
People gathered up and down the promenade as well as on the seats, and the hotel balconies and neighbouring cafe tables were also full of people watching. The small orchestra (or band, most of whom were teen- agers or just above, with a sprinkling of older hands) assembled for the 9:15 performance, in a fairly unhurried fashion between about 8:45 and 9:30. The Botticelli Kids were well in evidence in the audience, including a little boy with an amazing shock of hair which was much larger than his small face (it more than doubled the size of his whole head), who entertained everyone by dancing along to the music in the space between the front row and the orchestra, along with another small girl who kept escaping from her family to do the same thing. The boy was really good, Michael Jackson eat your heart out! Standing on seats in the back row were another couple of the BK's, who held hands and bobbed up and down to the music, right in front of us. A couple of policeman came along, one of them a squat plug-ugly cop with grizzled grey hair, the exact model for a Roman Centurion in a French Asterix cartoon, obviously well known to the family in front of us; the tiny girl bobbing up and down turned round and treated this cop as a favourite uncle (he might have been!), having a very perky conversation with him, pulling his cheeks etc.
The mayor (I think) introduced the event (and each musical number, whose English titles gave him some trouble) with long-winded speeches, and many applause-gathering references to the Maestro who was patiently waiting to do something, welcomed all the visitors, presented merit badges to the newest recruits to the orchestra (more applause for each one), the music was really very enjoyable (mostly light pops, varying from Beatles arrangements to arrangements of Russian melodies, and well performed), the entire town seemed to be out, and in short a great time was had by all. We felt that we were very much part of the local community for this one evening.
All this time it was a beautiful clear evening, as most of the evenings were, just perfect temperature for sitting in shirt-sleeves. About 20 minutes after the performance (and its many encores) finished (we were still watching, as the community was still there and the magic act with the chairs was reversing itself), a few drops of rain started to fall. Not long after that, a grand-daddy thunderstorm arrived and the rain came down like stair-rods, with people dismantling the stage at high speed and the band sheltering under the pier roof.
We retired to our hotel room and watched the further proceedings from our balcony. The thunder was quite impressive; one lightning strike hit the lake so close that the "bang" was extremely loud and completely simultaneous with the flash, making us all jump. The lingering members of the band sheltering under the pier roof cheered themselves and us up by playing impromptu versions of "Oh When The Saints Come Marching In", "Roll Out The Barrel", and many others of similar ilk, with an ear- splitting accompaniment of metal scaffolding-poles being thrown hurriedly into the back of a truck. A wonderful night.
Next morning (alas, our last day, but we had until 5pm to be lazy around the hotel) the weather was beautiful again!
Lake Garda - Sirmione
In July 2011 we had a different kind of holiday - a train trip from London to Sirmione on Lake Garda, spending a week there with a few guided tours (we ducked out of several - too little time and too hot!). French and Swiss trains are great, but train travel in Italy... not recommended! Sirmione was a nice place, though - we'll be back (by air).
Lake Garda is the largest Italian lake by area, although Lake Maggiore is the longest. As a lake I personally prefer Maggiore, surrounded by more interesting scenery, and the much quieter community of Cannero (described above). But Lake Garda has many really interesting and nice places around it, including Verona and the wine growing areas of Bardolino, Soave and Valpolicella.
The pictures below are a selection of those that appear on my Categorian photoblog of our trip, which included Sirmione itself, Verona and a nearby "agriturismo" vineyard, and the lovely Isola di Garda. Click any picture below to see the photoblog.
Tuscany and UmbriaFollow the links below for more information!
Tuscany is a great favourite of visitors to Italy, because of the beautiful countryside, the famous cities and towns that blend in to the countryside so well (and which seem to be works of art in themselves), and the communities whose lives often seem so much better (with less money) than our own.
I took this picture of the beautiful Tuscan countryside at Annie's Farmhouse, in the Chianti region a few miles south of Florence, at the end of May 2007. If you are looking for a place to rent that will cater for 10 people then I can really recommend this one - it's one of the few properties I have stayed at that is actually nicer in real life than it appears in brochures.
Alas, argue as you will as to its causes, climate change is a reality...
You used to be able to rely on good weather here at this time of year. We had a nice afternoon on the day of our arrival, and a few gleams of sun during the week. The rest of the time it was like this. The neighbouring village had snow, and this picture shows a previous fall of large hailstones, large enough to seriously hurt, being dissolved by cold rain.
If you want reliable weather in Tuscany, it seems that you now have to wait for early June! We still had a great week, though. The food, the people and the countryside are just wonderful, no matter what the weather.
Umbria is another favourite of ours. Much of it is quieter and more rural than Tuscany - I sometimes think of it as the Wales of Italy, although comparisons with Wales shouldn't be overdone!
I don't have any good photos of Umbria (although you'll find many images and maps here), but I do have fond memories of Assisi (before the earthquake of September 1997 that caused damage to many historical sites, much of which I hear has now been repaired). Assisi is perched on a small mountain, and we stayed in a self-catering villa which was one of a number of converted outbuildings on a large estate, on the other side of the mountain from Assisi. I don't remember the exact spot now (long time ago!), but if (when) we go back there we would start by looking at the vacation rentals listed here.
The place where we stayed near Assisi had a swimming pool and general outlook much like the one in the picture above. What I do remember is standing in the pool in the evening, surrounded by total silence in the deep countryside, while swallows would fly down and scoop some water from the pool in their beaks (or maybe grab an insect on the water?), making a quick "blip" that sounded quite loud in the silence, only a few feet from where we were standing. Some of life's best experiences are free!
Sorrento Peninsula and Amalfi Coast
We spent the last two weeks of September 2013 on Italy's Sorrento Peninsula and Amalfi Coast (new to me), sharing a very nice villa (Sorrento Villa's Villa Vervece B) with two other couples from our family.
A two week stay is recommended at this time of year, if you can manage it. We had 3 days of wind and rain, which seems not unusual at this time of year, the rest of the time being glorious weather with temperatures in the mid 70's - much more pleasant than July or August! 3 days out of 14 isn't bad... but 3 days out of 7 would be a different story!
The pictures below are a selection of those that appear on my Categorian photoblog of our trip. Click any picture below to see the photoblog.
"Agriturismo" - a great way to enjoy life in the country
Agriturismo, or agritourism, is enormously popular in Italy (as is its counterpart in several other countries), with both owners and visitors. What is it? Well, you will find a good definition of the Italian version here.
Here is one example that we came across recently:
After a guided tour of Verona in July 2011 we had a traditional supper arranged at Roberto Mazzi, an "Agriturismo" Valpolicella vineyard. They used to grind maize and flour at this water-mill (shown above) before converting the family business to pure wine production. Now, as well as making excellent wine, they offer meals and accommodation (more details here).
You will find pictures of our day at Verona and this vineyard here on my Categorian blog.
A few recommendations from our resident Italy expert...
This picture [writes my sister] was taken at our rented villa (scene of a typical evening debauch) a few km from Palombara Sabina, an entirely unremarkable town north of Rome on the lower slopes of the Sabine Hills.
Keep going east, and you reach the Gran Sasso d'Italia, a fabulous mountainous region popular with skiers in winter.
The pleasure of this area is that it is off the (foreign) tourist routes (everyone heads out of Rome aiming for northern and central Tuscany, missing the pleasures of northern Lazio and Southern Tuscany on the way).
The best company I know of directly for walking holidays is Inntravel.