The perfect trip: Italy

A new take on the Grand Tour proves that the country’s treasures remain as rewarding as ever.

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.

Farmers and winemakers here are the mountaineers of the food world, toiling up and down the contours and sometimes taking away their harvest by boat – the easiest way. Since the Cinque Terre became a national park and Unesco World Heritage Site, the local economy has been boosted by the proceeds of the walking trails that weave through the hillsides. It’s a pleasingly symbiotic arrangement, hikers sustained by the plentiful seafood, dishes derived from locally grown ingredients such as lemons, olives and basil – and of course the Sciacchetrà wine that the region is famous for. Lengthening shadows and an easing in temperature signal the time to set off up the hillside, along La Strada di Olive, ‘The Street of Olives’. Dense groves of fig trees extend from the dusty path, as bees browse the white, trumpet-like flowers of bindweed in their midst. Around a mile up the path lies the stone-built rural hamlet of Volastra, its tight, winding alleys ghostly quiet.

Beyond the small Romanesque chapel – one of several preserved cliff-side ‘sanctuaries’ high above the Cinque Terre towns – is the home of Luciano Capellini. Stocky, bearded and serious, he is one of the region’s leading winemakers, producing 10,000 bottles a year and exporting as far afield as Japan and the USA. ‘Seven generations of my family have grown up here,’ he says, snipping at his vines. ‘We go back to the early 19th century.’ This represents recent history in a hamlet where wine-making has been traced back to the 13th century. Luciano leads a small group of friends and neighbours back to the stone terrace of his home, uncorks a bottle and pours out generous measures. Goat’s cheese is handed round and, with the sun slipping behind the hillside, there’s a tasting of the honey-scented Sciacchetrà.

‘Capellini wine is like a Picasso,’ exclaims one of Luciano’s neighbours, suddenly expressive. His host glances up from his pouring for a moment. ‘I would say a Leonardo,’ he says with a wry smile. Far below, the lights of Manarola are flickering on. Here, the restaurants and trattoria are filling up with diners ordering the likes of stuffed mussels and trofie al pesto – locally made pasta flavoured by basilico Genovese grown on these very slopes. There really is treasure in the hills.

Florence: Best for art
The morning sunlight filtering into the Gothic courtyard of the Museo del Bargello falls on a broad stone staircase. A middle-aged woman in a straw hat climbs it slowly, guidebook in hand. At the top, she will find one of Florence’s more curious treasures: the ‘other’ statue of David.

Built in the 13th century, the Bargello was a palace-turned-prison that witnessed generations of trials and executions. Since the 19th century, it has housed one of Italy’s finest collections of Renaissance sculpture. Crowds flock to the Galleria dell’Accademia to gaze at Michelangelo’s David: to sculpture, perhaps, what the Mona Lisa is to painting. At the Bargello, in a sepulchrally quiet room, just a handful of visitors admire Donatello’s version. Set in bronze, he poses hand-onhip, androgenous, a touch effete. Visitors glance from sculpture to guidebook, before moving on to a Michelangelo: a Bacchus looking pie-eyed after a glass of Chianti too many. There is time and space to take it all in – a throwback to the early days of the Tour.

Michael Lee first visited Florence on a European Grand Tour of his own from his home in Canada. He particularly loved Italy – above all Florence. ‘The whole history of Italian painting is here,’ says Michael, who works as a guide specialising in art. ‘Michelangelo was first discovered painting in that church over there, and Leonardo lived just round that corner.’

Across town in the Museo Bardini, a former monastery, students sit on the floor sketching items from the collection built up by Stefano Bardini, a Victorian art dealer. ‘He was friends with all the people who counted in Florence,’ says Dr Antonella Nesi, the gallery’s curator. She points out a gigantic 14th-century crucifix which Bardini ‘restored’ by grafting on bits and pieces from other works, and a 17th-century Persian carpet unrolled for Hitler when he stepped off the train in Florence in 1938.

Art in this city cannot be contained. In Piazza San Lorenzo, in the shadow of the Duomo, street painters add a personal flourish to a scene unchanged in five centuries. They bring art to the streets, just as the Loggia dei Lanzi does. The open-air arcade of sculpture is arranged beneath a trio of gigantic arches, its façade embellished with figurines. A group gathers around Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, conspicuous for its grisly subject matter. Among them is Michael Lee, his awe for his adopted city undimmed. ‘How do you get so much art in such a small place?’ he asks.

Cortona: Best for Tuscan life
Beyond olive groves and vineyards, tall pines stretch graciously across the plains. Swallows swirl over red-tiled rooftops, church towers vie with cypresses as focal points, and broad fields, bright with sunflowers, merge into a misty blue horizon of hills.

A Grand Tourist would have been enchanted by the sweeping panoramas on offer from almost every corner of Cortona. They might have come here as a relaxing break from the cosmopolitan culture of Florence, if they’d done their homework – in 1502, Leonardo da Vinci sketched this little Tuscan town as a sepia cluster of hilltop houses and towers, combining urban and rural charm in a way that survives to this day.

‘The town has such dignity in its architecture that it makes you want to stand up straight when you walk through it,’ says Frances Mayes, the American author who helped put Cortona on the map with her bestselling memoir Under the Tuscan Sun. The book – translated into 46 languages and made into a major film in 2003 – describes the restoration of her pink-and-apricot 18th-century villa, called Bramasole (‘Yearning for the sun’).

She discovered the house more than 20 years ago, ‘abandoned since World War II, full of spiders and old newspapers’. And she set out to rescue it. ‘This house is only a baby in Italian terms – only 270 years old,’ she says, as she walks among lavender bushes smothered in white butterflies. ‘Our neighbour’s house is 1,000 years old.’

Back in the town’s central piazza, the café tables and chairs that spill on to the sun-warmed flagstones are filling up. Some patrons are clearly bedding in – unfurling newspapers, lingering over espressos. Others merely seek refreshment in preparation for the steep walk up cobbled lanes lined with brick-and-timber houses to the church of San Francesco.

Its outside staircase is supposed – for obscure reasons – to ‘energise’ visitors for the testing climb further up to the church of Santa Margherita. Here the saint lies mummified, her parched face as brown as the Tuscan soil at the height of summer.

The piazza is busy but the pace is sedate. Cars are diverted from the centre of town and, among the tiny lanes that radiate from it, old ladies take kitchen chairs outside their houses and knit, keeping a keen ear for potential gossip.

‘Life revolves around the piazza,’ says Frances, very much a local celebrity. A Cortona jeweller confides: ‘If she crosses the square, people attack her.’ His wife comes to his linguistic assistance. ‘No, no, darling. Not “attack”. They applaud!’

A latecomer opens the door of the town's cathedral and music floods into the square. Inside, flanked by confession boxes, an organist is thundering out the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni: a libertine with more to confess than most.

Later, a busking jazz band will strike up and push on towards midnight. No-one seems overly worried about rushing home.

Rome: Best for architecture
All roads lead to Rome, the saying goes. On a stiflingly hot morning, Frank Dabell points to the very spot to which they did indeed once lead – a little to the left of the three tallest surviving columns of the Forum. ‘That’s the very heart of the Roman Empire,’ says the art historian. ‘Over there is where Julius Caesar was crowned, and that triumphal arch represents the Romans’ ambition to conquer the world. But a Grand Tourist in the 18th century would have seen cattle roaming around.’

Along with Florence, Rome was the Grand Tourist’s most exciting destination. It offered art, architecture and history in vibrant harmony: the Colosseum and the Pantheon; St Peter’s Basilica; the Sistine Chapel; the Trevi Fountain.

Less visited, perhaps, were the Capitoline Museums. Frank, who has lived in Rome for the past 12 years, leads the way down a stone staircase to the Piazza del Campidoglio, around which the museums are grouped. Visitors stand silent, or talk in hushed tones, as they take in the elegant symmetry of its colonnades. The cultured calm is disturbed only by the clatter of high heels on stone.

The piazza, designed by Michelangelo, is considered one of the supreme achievements of urban planning. At the square’s centre is a copy of an ancient statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius hailing his subjects from his strutting horse. Museum sculptures show Medusa’s head writhing with snakes; Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf; a stone hand – a fragment of a colossal statue – on its own plinth, index finger pointing skywards. A chattering school party gathers around what’s arguably the most famous sculpture: The Dying Gaul, a powerful depiction of a warrior, naked and slumped with exhaustion moments before his death. ‘His manly brow consents to death, but conquers agony,’ wrote Byron – a Grand Tourist himself – after seeing it.

It has a poignancy shared by the Keats-Shelley House, a half-hour stroll away. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, too, was a Grand Tourist, spending six weeks of 1814 travelling through France, Switzerland and Germany, and later visiting Italy. His friend John Keats came for grimmer reasons, hoping to shake off tuberculosis. He lodged in this tall, thin house, now a haunting museum and library, but his condition worsened and he died four months later at the age of 25 in a bedroom overlooking the Spanish Steps. ‘This room is my favourite part of the house,’ says Stephanie Di Croce, who works as a designer at the museum. ‘The fireplace is original, and Keats’ friend Joseph Severn sketched him by the light of the fire when he was dying.’

The resulting portrait hangs in the room, whose curtains are drawn against the sun. Below, crowds of teenagers – not much younger than Keats when he died – while away the afternoon on the steps.

In happier times, Severn also painted Shelley. The portrait, hanging in the house, shows the cherubic poet lounging in the ruins of Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, pausing mid-poem with his notebook on his knee.

It was Byron, however, who best summed up the appeal of both Rome and Italy itself to the Grand Tourist: ‘Fair Italy! Thou art the garden of the world, the home of all art yields, and nature can decree.’

The article 'The perfect trip: Italy' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.