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