The perfect trip: Italy
The Grand Tour was a European cultural jaunt focused on Italy that became part of the education of 18th-century high society. We offer a new take on the trip, proving that the country’s treasures remain as rewarding as ever.
This 530-mile rail trip sets out from the waterworld of Venice, journeys across northern Italy to the rugged Cinque Terre region, continues to Tuscany for the treasures of Florence and Cortona, then heads south to the Eternal City, Rome.
Venice: Best for music
Dusk is gathering, and down a dimly lit alley near the Grand Canal, a 60-strong audience is assembled in the Barbarigo-Minotto Palace, ready for a unique performance. They sit expectantly under chandeliers, beneath a 1745 ceiling painted by Tiepolo. From within gilt frames, 18th century grandees gaze down sceptically.
As the light fades, the candles are lit and Giovanni Dal Missier, dapper in white tie and tails, launches Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. As befits an opera about a barber, it’s neatly trimmed, with just four singers and four instrumentalists: a true pocket opera, staged in three different rooms of the now-uninhabited 15th-century palace in turn, an act at a time, with the audience following and reseating. The soprano flirts with members of the audience, and the bass deposits his wig on the head of a beaming man in the front row. The applause at the end is as warm as the room has become.
‘In the past, musicians used to play in small rooms for aristocrats,’ says Giovanni, musical director of the Musica a Palazzo company, which stages operas here most evenings. ‘We are trying to do the same. But not just for aristocrats.’
Venice, a traditional gateway for early Grand Tours of Italy, is steeped in music.
It’s the city where Vivaldi was born, Monteverdi and Gabrieli lived, Wagner died, and Stravinsky is buried. But it’s not just classical music that thrives here.
In an alleyway leading from St Mark’s Square, a busker plays Che Sarà, the notes of her accordion drifting through the misty stillness. A gondola glides by beneath, silent save for the tenor at the prow. He clears his throat theatrically, pauses for effect, then launches into a serenade – his outstretched arms rising and falling with the notes. The couple on board look on, entwined, blankets drawn up to their chests against the evening chill. Few gondoliers, in all honesty, would pass muster at Venice’s most famous musical monument. La Fenice, which has premiered major operas by Rossini and Verdi, translates as ‘phoenix’. The theatre's name is apt for a building dating from 1792 that has twice risen from the ashes after devastating fires – the more recent in 1996. ‘It was a total shock to the city,’ says its artistic director Fortunato Ortombina, his words competing with an orchestra rehearsing in the auditorium. La Fenice reopened in 2003, its tiers of boxes and balconies now resplendent with gleaming gold and red velvet. ‘In Venice, you are going back to the birth of opera, 500 years ago,’ says Fortunato. ‘In every century, it is possible to find something important that was premiered here. The city is like a stage itself – it’s a show, an exhibition. When I look into the eyes of people who are looking at Venice, they are like this...’ His face mimics amazement. ‘They feel this sense of... marvelloso!’
Cinque Terre: Best for food and wine
It’s the after-lunch lull in Manarola – siesta time on the shores of the Italian Riviera. Curtains are drawn against the sun, cicadas hiss in the pine trees and the steep little streets are deserted, except for a trio of men playing cards in a tree-shaded corner of the central square. Shirt sleeves rolled up and espressos to hand, they’re absorbed in their game.
Behind them, pastel-painted houses – pink, lemon, orange – are stacked up the hillside, gleaming in the bright afternoon sunshine and framed by steeply terraced vineyards clinging like ladders to the near-vertical slopes. The dry-stone walls that dissect these precipitous slopes date back to the 11th century; laid end to end, locals claim, the walls would exceed the Great Wall of China in length.