1 January 2018

Italy 2018 - Where to go, month by month


Venice is wonderful in winter - at its quietest and most 'local'. January begins with the last celebrations of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, and this year it ends with the first weekend of the famous Venice Carnival. Inbetween you have a great opportunity to explore the city without crowds and linger in its churches, museums, restaurants and cafes. With potential for sunny days as well as icy mists and high water, it's good for atmosphere and photographs as well. Just wrap up warm.
> Venice in winter
Blue sky in Venice in January


If you're craving sunshine, one of the best chances you have for mild weather is Sicily. Although it's not tourist season and you won't find a big choice of flights (try Easyet), there is lots to do in Sicily regardless of the season. Catania makes an interesting city break, sitting between the sea and active volcano Etna, which is snow-capped in winter and offers skiing opportunities. There are historical sights to see, a picturesque city centre and colourful street markets and convenient public transport links to little coastal villages and to Siracusa and Taormina, both fascinating and beautiful destinations. Sicily's capital Palermo is also a colourful and varied city, famed for its food, which would be a good weekend break destination at any time of year. You could expect daytime temperatures in the teens in February, and an average of five hours sunshine a day. If you're feeling bold you could even head to the sea.
> Sicily


Although you could consider heading to traditional holiday areas by March, the nights can still be cold and many would consider this transitional season ideal for a city break. You'd find Italy's famous art cities less crowded at this time of year but why not consider a slightly less-known destination? Bologna is a fine university city with some wide piazzas where you can soak up spring sunshine, and you might even be able to eat lunch outdoors at one of the city's renowned restaurants or food stalls. With handsome buildings, churches, art museums and pleasant walks, it's a well-off and laidback city. An easy journey from the UK (regular flights, convenient airport), this is an ideal weekend break destination, especially for those who enjoy Italian cuisine.
> More about Bologna
Bologna in March


The Bay of Naples is an excellent holiday destination for a week in spring or autumn. In April, with lengthening sunny days, flowers blooming and spring in the air, you can find a real buzz in Naples and the surrounding areas, before the summer tourist crowds descend. Naples itself is a fascinating and vibrant city. As it's also hectic and a trifle stressful, I'd suggest combining a city centre stay - do the historic centre, the sights and the fab underground itineraries - with a few nights in a quieter location. The island of Capri will be much more affordable at this time of year, offering gorgeous scenery and walking, while Sorrento is a very good base for exploring the hills, coast and Roman archaeological sites including Pompeii. Ischia and Procida, the other two islands in the Bay of Naples, are also delightful destinations. With a bit more travel, you could add in a few nights on the glorious Amalfi coast.
> Campania


Just about anywhere in Italy will be idyllic in May. This is the perfect month for travel, with sunshine, warm temperatures, flowers and greenery - but without baking heat, too many mosquitoes or the tourist crowds of summer. You could consider a tour of Tuscany, taking in the great art city of Florence and other treasures like San Gimignano, Siena and Pisa. A countryside stay or a trip to the coast will provide a break from city sightseeing - if you like islands, you could catch a ferry to Elba or the little-known Capraia.
> Tuscany
Livorno, Tuscany


If you're not tied to school holidays, June is an ideal time to take a summer holiday in Italy. It will be hot, but probably not as uncomfortable as July or August. The tourist season will be up and running, but many seaside destinations - especially those most popular with Italians - will still be relatively quiet, without the crowds, the inflated prices, the packed beaches and the noisy discos of the Italian peak season. The Aeolian islands, in Sicilian waters, make up the most varied and beautiful archipelago in Italy, with active volcanoes, mud baths, clear waters, footpaths, archaeological sites, fishing hamlets and a lively small town. Go for at least a week and spend time on two or three of the islands, with trips to others. The journey is a bit long-winded (plane to Catania, coach to Milazzo, ferry to the islands) but it's worth the effort for an unforgettable vacation.
> Aeolian islands
Dreamy Panarea


July and August are tricky times for visiting Italy.  Traditional holiday destinations are extremely busy, and the temperature is often uncomfortably hot. A leisurely resort where you can avoid the crowds in comfortable accommodation, within reach of the refreshing sea, is a good idea for coping with the climate and crowds. Puglia, in Italy's south, will be very hot but does have lots of green countryside with high-standard rural accommodation, often with spas or cookery classes on-site. The coast is beautiful, with lots of beaches, and the region's towns, from Baroque Lecce to the charming trulli houses of Alberobello, are lovely to visit. The famous cave-town Matera, over the border in the Basilicata region, can be combined with a Puglia itinerary; the town has a colourful festa on the 2nd July which is well worth a visit.
> Puglia


Italians almost all flee their baking cities in August. They are generally divided into two groups: those who head for the sea, and those who head for the mountains. Italy's peaks offer cooler temperatures, green slopes and dramatic scenery to summer visitors, along with excellent walking, climbing and cycling opportunities. The Dolomites, in the north-east of the country, are scenic and make a good holiday base. They can be combined with one of the nearby cities, such as Verona, Venice, Treviso or Trieste. Cortina d'Ampezzo is probably the most well-known resort in the area, with good facilities and an attractive town centre.


September can begin with summer heat, but as the month progresses, temperatures drop and rain arrives. However, a late summer holiday can offer good weather, quiet beaches and a great chance to be in the open air surrounded by glorious scenery, before the inevitable return home to colder climates and the onset of autumn. Heading for islands is a good bet - a low-key island like Ponza or Ventotene will be beginning to breathe again after the summer onslaught of holiday-makers, and you'll find good food, company, boat trips, warm sea, and heaps of island charm.
> Pontine islands


October can be quiet and the weather's getting cooler, but autumn brings handsome colours to the wooded slopes around Italy's lakes. You should check ferry timetables when planning a lake trip, but generally October is a fairly good time to make an out-of-season visit to a lakeside town, admire the scenery, and perhaps take day trips to nearby sights and towns of interest. Lake Iseo is one of northern Italy's less well-known lakes, but it has its own charm, and a large inhabited island which visitors can explore on foot. Nearby sights include the city of Brescia, and the UNESCO-listed prehistoric rock carvings of the Valcamonica.
> Lake Iseo
Lake Iseo


For November, with shorter days and colder weather, a city break is a good bet. Genoa is a fascinating city with many attractions, including family-friendly sights like the large aquarium, and an interesting transport network which includes boats, escalators, unusual lifts and funiculars. There are also fine historic palaces and art collections as well as good restaurants to try local Ligurian specialities. It's also a short flight from the UK (frequent BA flights) with a conveniently-central seaside airport.
> Genoa


December is a time for wrapping up warm, hunting out the finest cafes for warming coffee or hot chocolate, and enjoying culture and Christmas shopping. Italy's most famous art cities are all good places to visit in the run-up to Christmas; you'll find speciality food stalls, Christmas markets, elaborate church nativity scenes and artisan crafts to buy as gifts. Rome is lively all year round, and in December you could enjoy the usual sights and museums, a bit of culture at the Teatro dell'Opera, strolls in the winter sunshine, and look for the little Christmas markets which pop up in the city. Venice is another good pre-Christmas destination, much smaller and more calm than the hectic capital.
> Rome
> Venice in winter
Portico of the Pantheon, Rome

Venice at Christmas

31 December 2017

2017 highlights and hotels

As usual I've had had some rewarding travels in Italy in 2017. Here are some of the highlights, along with the hotels/B&Bs I've stayed in and would recommend.


Venice is always a highlight and as usual I spent time there throughout the year. The best bits included spring when wisteria spills over walls, a summertime laze on the beach, and finally hot chocolate, empty calli and Christmas lights in December.

View from Pensione Accademia - Villa Maravege
On the Lido in July

This year I've stayed a couple of times at Suite in Venice ai Carmini, serviced apartments in Dorsoduro which have rather soulless interiors, but are extremely convenient and picturesquely placed, with canal views. (In the absence of a desk, I fashioned a window workstation from an ironing board). In summer the flats were convenient for boats to the Lido and for their laundry facilities.
A bright December day in Dorsoduro

In spring I stayed for one night at a hotel I've often admired, the gloriously-situated Pensione Accademia Villa Maravege, which is at a junction of canals, with pretty gardens. Old-fashioned and atmospheric,  this would be ideal for a first Venice trip or a follow-up.

> All about Venice
> I wrote this piece about where to stay in summer in Venice


Naples is a city which I've always found chaotic, alarming and dirty. It is indeed all those things, but it's also colourful, dramatic and endlessly fascinating. I stayed there in March, enjoyed some welcome, warming spring sunshine, and explored the historic centre, the catacombs and the museums, and I was converted. There are far too many highlights to list, but I particularly enjoyed the underground tours of catacombs and ancient aqueducts - absolutely unmissable, the views over the city from Castel Sant'Elmo, and the art collection at the Museo di Capodimonte. Naples's archaeological museum is of course one of the best in the world. I also met some enthusiastic young Neapolitans opening the rough and neglected bits of their city to tourism, which I found very inspiring.

Napoli in spring
Visiting Naples I stayed in the Hotel Piazza Bellini, very conveniently located for seeing central Naples safely and without too much stress. I was extremely impressed and I think it would be hard to find a better city centre hotel - healthy/tasty food next door, good location, modern comfort, helpful staff.

> More about Naples
Underground Naples - Bourbon tunnel


The beautiful island of Capri is one of my favourite places in Italy, and I already know the island well - so this year, with only two nights on the island, I set out to explore a footpath I hadn't previously braved. The Sentiero dei Fortini hugs an unvisited rocky shoreline, connecting old forts built by the English and French during the Napoleonic wars. I'd been reading up on history so this was a fascinating walk for many reasons. Although only March, the day was hot and sunny and the footpath beautiful - until  I reached a steep rocky section where vertigo nearly broke my resolve to continue. There wasn't another soul to be seen, though the path was well-maintained and ornamented with pretty painted ceramic tiles bearing information on local wildlife and history. Finally reaching the more visited environs of the island's lighthouse, I shared a bus back into Anacapri with locals including a woman who'd been out collecting wild asparagus.

Hidden Capri

I like staying in quiet Anacapri, which has a local village atmosphere compared to touristy Capri town. This year I stayed in the friendly family-run B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri. My room was structurally a part of the adjacent church (San Michele, with its wonderful maiolica floor), and had once been the choir where nuns would enter the church to sing. A quirky and appealing place to stay for history-lovers.

> Guide to Capri

Hot chocolate and cake on the roof of the Villa San Michele, Anacapri

Campi Flegrei

The volcanic crater of Solfatara

I'd wanted to visit the dangerous, unusual Phlegraean Fields area for ages. Volcanic and threatening, this area near Naples offers very varied sights to the visitor - in a long day trip I managed to tour underground Roman streets in the hilltop town centre of Pozzuoli , abandoned after a series of tremors in the 1980s, the extensive ruins of Roman Baia, and the steaming volcanic crater of Solfatara. I even took a boat trip hoping to see the underwater streets and villas of sunken Baia, though sadly the water wasn't clear enough (a frequent occurrence, to judge by reviews). The public transport was a bit of an adventure, but my route also led me to a marvellous sight I'd never heard of before: the Casina Vanvitelliana on one of the area's round volcanic lakes, Lake Fusaro. Once a hunting lodge for Neapolitan royalty, this little water-pavilion was actually open to the public as I passed by, and it was a great extra to my planned itinerary - plus it gave the chance for some sunset photographs.

Casina Vanvitelliana
'Temple of Mercury', Baia - said to be the earliest large unsupported dome


Like Naples, Bologna was a city I'd only visited briefly before. In spring 2017 I spent a short break getting to know the gourmand university town better. It's a great place to spend a leisurely weekend - enough interesting sights, museums and churches to engage the visitor without being overwhelming. And of course the food and wine are renowned, with lots of welcoming restaurants and bars where you can sample local specialities. I particularly appreciated the food market Mercato di Mezzo, which was great for a busy solo traveller to enjoy a quick tasty plate of pasta and a fine local red wine.
Convenience food, Bologna-style

With an airport very close to the centre of town and bargain British Airways flights, Bologna is a very affordable and easy destination for a short trip. I stayed in the good-value 2-star Hotel Centrale, which was badly in need of a decorative overhaul, but was a practical option right in the heart of town, with very generous breakfasts.
> More about Bologna

Ponza and the southern Lazio coast

At the end of the summer I made a return visit to the island of Ponza - beloved of Romans in August, but not much known outside Italy. I had a terrible ferry-crossing but arrived feeling smug I had been among the few passengers to keep their sea-legs, and amazed at how beautiful the island was - I had forgotten just how attractive the clusters of pastel houses around coves and harbour were. I will write about my visit in detail another time, but I enjoyed glorious views, a walk up Capri's 'mountain' (where I explored a ruined coastguard station), a hike to isolated vineyards where I was invited to an impromptu lunch and wine-drinking session,  and a boat trip to nature reserve island Zannone.

I stayed at Hotel Chiaia di Luna, which had some beautiful outdoor terraces, a breath-taking view of  Chiaia di Luna beach, and the advantage of being one of the only full-service hotels on the island. I felt lucky to have arrived too late for their noisy bar parties, and I didn't care for the irritating ambient music, but on the whole it was a decent place to stay and I'd give it a moderate recommendation - outside the late-night music summer season. On my last visit I'd stayed at Hotel Mari, with constantly-interesting harbour views, and this is another worth considering.

Ristorante Eea
The high point of my stay on Ponza was my last evening, when I enjoyed a perfect meal-with-a-view at the classy restaurant Eea, followed by a walk down a dark and shadowy lane, admiring the moonlight and silhouetted trees on the skyline behind the traditional whitewashed island homes. As I limped (bad knee) the strains of E Lucevan le Stelle echoed through the buildings from an unseen television set. An old woman was sitting quietly listening on her steps in the dark as the tenor sobbed out the aria's climax. It was a magical moment.

> More about Ponza

Before setting sail for Ponza I stayed in the mainland port Formia, where I was lucky enough to be shown around the town's archaeological sights by an enthusiastic local expert. This little, overlooked town had some really impressive sights, including the supposed Tomb of Cicero, a remarkable underground Roman reservoir and some beautiful Roman statues in the small town museum. I also enjoyed the non-touristy vibe and prices at the town's pizza joints and a lovely wine-bar. There's not much accommodation in Formia, even though it's a convenient base. I stayed in the comfortable modern B&B Dall'Architetto, in an architect's studio.

Cisternone Romano, Formia

More about Formia

From Formia I took trains and buses to Sperlonga (one of the first destinations I wrote about for Italy Heaven) and to Gaeta. Sperlonga was as fine as I remembered; a picturesque white-washed town perched on a headland, with a beach walk leading to the archaeological museum and cave-complex of Tiberius's villa. Gaeta was another pretty historic jumble of houses by the sea, where I explored churches and monuments, racing against the lunchtime closing-times and threatening drizzle. My unexpected highlight was the hill walk to a huge Roman mausoleum overlooking the sea - though seeing the magical hand-print left by an infidel pirate was also memorable, as was the handsome Duomo and the local speciality tiella, a kind of pizza pie.

> Sperlonga


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