3 September 2021

Back to Italy? Where to travel now

I wrote a similar article a year ago but the resurgence of the virus ended hopes of travel for most of us. Now Italy is in reach again for many would-be travellers, with quarantine requirements dropped for vaccinated visitors from the UK (negative test also required). Hopefully this time the revival of travel will not be cut short. So where to go?

Blue sky thinking at the Pantheon in Rome
Favourite places

If you have a favourite place in Italy, this could be the right time to return and revisit all the spots you know and love, giving your support to the restaurants, bars and museums that have survived the pandemic so far. I'm desperate to return to the places I lived in and loved: Rome and Venice - and of course Italian cities are great to visit throughout the autumn, winter and spring.  


Art and history lovers will want to visit Rome in time to visit the exhibition of the Torlonia Marbles, due to close on 9th January 2022. Rome's a great winter destination anyway, with a good chance of fine sunny weather, glorious sights and more museums and churches than anyone could visit in a lifetime.

- Rome accommodation (Booking)



I never tire of telling people how much I love Venice in winter. Before  winters filled up with tour groups, mostly from China, the city had a really cosy local feel between November and March (Carnival excluded). Will the tour groups be back this winter? If not, Venice will be a really special place to enjoy. And if they are, they're quite easily avoided once you're away from St Mark's and the Rialto. Freezing mists, hot chocolate, atmospheric lanes and cold, sunny beach walks - allow several days to experience the variety winter has to offer.

 - Venice in winter

- 10 reasons to visit Venice in winter

Venice at Christmas

Italian cities

 Pretty much any Italian city makes a good destination outside the hottest summer weeks. Florence is another place that offers a wonderful visiting experience and is worth seeing before the full weight of tour groups is back. Genoa is one of my favourite non-obvious destinations - a fascinating city with a big range of things to see and do, and easy rail access to the Ligurian coast resorts and walking routes of the Cinque Terre and the Portofino area. Before the pandemic I had a superb short trip to Genoa in October, and was blessed with hot beach temperatures, enjoyed walks, art museums, shopping food, clifftop promenades, gelato and more.

October in Genoa

Naples is another city that's daunting at first acquaintance but really repays the effort of getting to know it: underground tours, art, monasteries, catacombs, chaos and pastries. 


Matera is set to feature in the new, delayed James Bond film No Time to Die, and this unique destination, half cave-town with homes cut into the grey cliffs of a ravine, will be on everyone's tourist radar. Already much busier and developed than it was a decade ago, Matera's likely to see even more visitors - so I'd recommend getting a head start and visiting in the near future. Matera fits well into an itinerary with Puglia, and the trulli houses of Alberobello - my suggested itinerary has been one of the most popular on my website.

- Matera and Puglia: a travel itinerary



Booking for next summer?

If I can manage it I'll be heading back to the islands next year. May to early July, and early September are the best times for Italian islands, to avoid the extreme heat and holiday crowds (and prices). There are lots of  islands to choose from; among my favourites are the Aeolian islands and glorious Capri. For walking, I was impressed with Giglio, Capraia and Ustica.

Aeolian islands

Sicily and the South

Sicily and the south are always fabulous, colourful and sunny places to visit, as well as very affordable. Although it's not usually essential to book a year in advance, if you want a choice of the best hotels and B&Bs, or to get flights at lower cost, it's a good idea to plan ahead - unless you are very flexible, I'd recommend making reservations by February at the latest.

- Sicily

- Suggestions for Sicilian history itineraries


A wild card: Asolo

Asolo is one of Italy's small destinations known to the cognoscenti. An ultra-civilised little historic hill town at the edge of the Dolomites, it's peaceful, scenic and very special. There's only a small handful of places to stay and not a great deal to do - it's perfect for a relaxing, classy weekend break or as a charming palate-freshener for a night or two during a tour of the Veneto, or maybe an add-on to a holiday in Venice.


Get inspired

- Browse all the Italian destinations I've written about from tiny villages to art cities

- Where to go in Italy - ideas, itineraries and inspiration

On the beach in Venice, pre-pandemic in February 2020

A request for help

It won't be a surprise to anyone that small travel companies and websites are struggling to survive after 18 months with no income (and no government support, for many of us).  If you are booking travel, please consider using my booking links to choose your accommodation - if you book accommodation anywhere in the world through these, you won't pay any extra, and Booking.com will pay Italy Heaven a small commission which will help to keep www.italyheaven.co.uk online. They have a Price Match guarantee. Without this support the website cannot survive. Thank you.

Book accommodation with Booking.com

Buy my Venice Kindle guidebook (published in 2013; prices, a few restaurants, and some museum layouts will have changed but the walking tours, descriptions and vast majority of detail will still be accurate. It has excellent reviews!)

Read the Italy Heaven travel guide - where to go in Italy, detailed destination guides and travel tips

26 November 2020

Aromas of Rome: scent and memory, from perfume shop to stadium

Earlier in this year of lockdowns I opened a new bar of Nesti Dante soap named 'Roma'. With an image of the Colosseum on the wrapping, it was designed to evoke the Eternal City, its scents oleander, zibbibo grapevines and fig. It started me thinking about the scents that say 'Rome' to me, the smells I remember from living in the city and the perfumes that can transport me back to Rome when I'm far away.

One particular aroma came back into my mind a while ago. In a secretive, elegant French perfume shop in London I tried some scents from the Roman perfume brand Profumum Roma. Several of the scents had gorgeous sweet gourmand notes that took me back suddenly and vividly to a particular spot in Rome: the pavement outside a little bakery on one of my favourite corners of Rome, on Via della Scrofa opposite a stumpy tower with stories from the past. I've no idea why that spot stuck in my head or why I was so familiar with it - perhaps it was a meeting place? I can't remember if I've even eaten their pastries.

Back in present-day London I took my perfume samples home from Piccadilly wrapped in a black velvet bag and whenever I took them out I would inhale that heady sweetness of the lightest, sugariest pastries on a Sunday morning, mingling with the richer chocolatey decadence of heavier, cocoa-stuffed biscuity treats. When I looked up the address of Profumum Roma, it seemed very fitting that a shop was just up the road from the bakery. Coincidence, or not?

When I was in Rome in January I paid a visit - to the perfumier, not the bakery. I sampled a small number of their perfumes (always best to stick to five or fewer), sniffing the coffee beans provided to clear my nose in between scents. Then I headed off to a romantic statue-filled tea room near the Spanish steps to drink a hot chocolate and make my choice between the scents, lifting the perfumed card samples to my nose one by one to pick a favourite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the two I subsequently selected had glorious chocolatey notes and now reminds me not just of Rome in general, but of that particular day in Rome, the tea room, the sculptures, the perfume chat, and the hot chocolate I drank with its little accompanying sugary pasticcini. And also of my favourite Roman chocolate shops, one in Trastevere and one in Rione Monti, and the overwhelmingly rich aroma as you step inside.

Another perfume which transported me from London to Rome was Maison Margiela Replica By the Fireplace. In the dispiriting surroundings of the Westfield Centre, this triggered instant vivid memories of the braziers on the street corners of Rome where old men from the countryside (now replaced by younger immigrants) would roast and sell chestnuts, the smell filling the crisp bright air of winter Rome. In my memory, this is one of the most characteristic smells of the city in winter and when I wear the perfume I only need to sniff my wrist to be back on the Appia Nuova or strolling through the shopping streets of the Tridente.

One of the strangest smells to me when I first arrived in Rome was the smell of lightning; not a phenomenon I'd ever noticed back home. The autumn storms in Rome were like nothing I'd experienced in England: great flashes and cracks of lightning directly overhead, rain beating down in torrents, in sheets, and deafening thunder like giants rolling boulders over our heads. This would be accompanied by a sharp smell: metallic, like phosphorous, ozone, the scent of lightning itself filling our office, like living in an ancient myth.

The smell of coffee and cigarettes was of course ubiquitous, though no more characteristic of Rome than other Italian cities. A cloud of cigarette smoke puffed out by bank staff as they worked, when I went into a Parioli branch to exchange my meagre wage slip for cash. The coffee and pastry aroma filling the air outside Rome's favourite cafe, Sant'Eustachio.

I remember the smells of football matches, of the Stadio Olimpico: the pipe smoke in my face from the older man whose season ticket placed him in the row in front of me at every match; more annoying than cigarettes as it lasted so much longer. The unmistakeable odour of lacrimogeni, tear gas. As soon as you got a whiff of it, you knew there was trouble somewhere nearby to avoid. On one occasion, at a match with children and families present, we were teargassed inside the stadium, yellowish-grey clouds seeping in the entrances and over the terrace, as we held scarves pressed over our faces, trying to protect our eyes, the Curva yelling angrily at the police.

On a contrastingly floral note, walls of scented jasmine aren't so common in the heart of Rome but flourish in the residential streets near my cousin's home, and the heady white perfume reminds me of the time she showed her young daughters - and me - how to pick a tiny bloom and drink the nectar from it.

And the scent of roses: in late spring, making a Roman pilgrimage to the Aventine along with half the city, a tour of the Roseto meant bending to test the perfumes of all the beautiful roses cultivated there, across the Circo Massimo from the vast ruins of the Palatine hill.

The smells I remember aren't all beautiful or nostalgic. As well as the cigarettes and the teargas, I remember very strongly the stench of unwashed human. I had never really been acquainted with this odour before; the tube trains of London never smelled half as bad. That ripe, gritty, meaty stink of a man who hasn't washed all week became an unwelcome daily ordeal on my commute on the underground Metro.

There were other unsavoury smells, too: of the big municipal bins where we tipped our rubbish sacks. The grubby street corners where elderly ladies left plastic plates of stinky food for cats. The smell of cigarettes everywhere.  Of joss sticks and cannabis on the streets of Trastevere, where young drop-outs from wealthy countries would sit begging from the poorer Romans. 

But of course there was also the food: pizzas reeking of delicious truffle, or porcini mushrooms, steaming plates of pasta with cacio e pepe, artichoke, fiori di zucca, tomato sauce, the fresh-bread smell of bakeries, the doorway of a cheese shop, a glass of red wine in winter, the bouquet of wine from the Castelli Romani, the fresh mint smell of the Mojito cocktail popular with my cousin's friends, the sharp fresh citrus of a refreshing spremuta di arancia in the summer. I remember one orange juice in particular, on a very hot day, in the garden of Villa Giulia, the Etruscan Museum, that tasted like the most perfect and welcome refreshment in the world.

When I was a child I had no sense of smell that I was aware of. A forward-thinking GP prescribed nasal drops and a temporary dairy-free diet and suddenly I had a whole new sense. There are times when I've thought it might be convenient to be free of olfactory stimuli. But looking back and realising how big a part smell can play in our memories and in our appreciation of the world around us, I'm inclined to accept the unpleasant odours in return for the benefits. At a time like this, when most of us are exiled from our favourite places and experiences, scent can prove to be a comforting or inspiring window to past experiences and other worlds.

What Roman scents have I forgotten? The beer my local friends drank as they drove recklessly through the night (I tried to avoid lifts). Churches filled with incense and guilt. The heavy clouds of overpowering chypre as older Roman women walked past (spray it on your feet, your wrists, your elbows, you hair, in order to waft it through the air as much as possible, women were taught). The throat-tickling scent of vin brulĂ© at the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. 

As well as forgotten aromas, there are others I must have been so used to they hardly registered. And perfumes which I can't bring to mind though I must have inhaled them often. The smell of exhaust fumes and car tyres. Of melting tarmac in the summer heat. Of a crowded pizzeria in winter.

Are there smells I've missed that represent Rome to you, or remind you of times in the city? Or aromas that evoke other places in Italy? I think of the South, or Venice, or Florence, and a whole new set of scents comes to life...

The Nesti Dante soap which started this trip down memory lane was this one: Dolce Vivere Roma. Although pleasant, it didn't compare with my favourite the glorious and more highly scented: Il Frutteto Fig and Almond (Amazon UK affiliate links to support the Italy Heaven website). My chosen scents from Profumum Roma were Battito d'Ali - light, high-pitched, creamy, sugary, orange-flower sweetness 'inspired by the beating of an angel's wings', and Sorriso, a darker scent, its sweetness overlaid with dark chocolate and a little bitter orange. In the UK you can buy the perfumes from Jovoy Paris.