23 January 2012

Thinking about summer

This is a good time of year to think about the summer, and temporarily forget the cold while indulging in a spot of escapism. I've added a couple of new articles to the Italy Heaven website as well as a few bright and sunny pictures.

The best seaside holiday destinations
Amalfi Coast

There are so many good seaside resorts in Italy - and so many coastal towns now featured on the website - that it can be hard to know where to start when you're planning a holiday. This new page is a selection of some of the best, with a range of destinations that should suit all tastes. I've been updating the Cefal├╣ page with photos I took during my visit, and I think that it could be one of the very best seaside holiday destinations in Italy, as it has a lot of charm and offers so many different things to the visitor.
> Italy's best seaside holiday destinations

Weird and wonderful places in Italy
I've seen some strange and unusual places in Italy, and there are others I'd love to visit (the underwater Roman city at Baia, the island of Pantelleria, the open-air war museums in the Dolomites). Here are some destinations where the scenery and atmosphere are truly striking, and where you'll find some unique accommodation too:
Weird and wonderful destinations

3 January 2012

Italy in 2012 - where and when to go

Latest news
The coastline of the Cinque Terre was hit by floods in October 2011, which severely damaged both the resort of Monterosso and the picturesque village of Vernazza (featured on the home page of Italy Heaven). The other resorts in the area will be open for business as usual this year, though walkers would be well-advised to check latest updates or telephone ahead to ascertain the state of footpaths. While there are hopes that the main coastal trail will be open by Easter 2012, the damage to the settlements may take longer to repair.

Festa della Bruna, Matera
On a brighter note, L'Aquila, ruined by the cruel earthquake of 6 April 2009, is slowly pulling itself back together. Some restoration projects are already finished, and work is continuing to bring life back to the historic town. Hopefully before too long L'Aquila will return to tourist itineraries and visitors can do their bit to revive the local economy.

Where to go in 2012
Every year more tourists visit Matera, in the Basilicata region (reachable from Bari Airport). This is somewhere I'd suggest visiting before visitor numbers grow still further. At present the town is well equipped for classy tourism, with some excellent hotels and B&Bs housed in the town's famous caves. This is one place where tourism has had a beneficial effect, bringing the abandoned cave districts to life without the damage of excessive development. Although it is hot in summer, a good time to visit is the start of July, when you can witness the remarkable and colourful Festa della Bruna, a deeply-felt festival which takes over the town.

If the cave attractions of Matera are just too developed for you, a completely undeveloped version can be found in Sicily. The pretty Baroque town of Scicli has a ruined church on a hill, and rows of abandoned cave dwellings in cliffs which intrepid visitors can explore. Rejuvenation projects are at best making slow progress here. You won't find much in the way of tourist facilities, but the town has an excellent hotel (Hotel Novecento), a cave-restaurant, a couple of small museums and some fine architecture.

Modica chocolate
Scicli is one of the Baroque towns rebuilt after a devastating Sicilian earthquake in 1693. The towns - Scicli, Ragusa, Modica, Noto - of the Val di Noto, along with ancient seaside port Siracusa, are incorporated in a UNESCO listing for their cultural importance. Charming, small-town Sicily at its best, these towns are on the up, with some good B&Bs and hotels, increasing awareness of tourism and excellent food at reasonable prices. Local specialities include the marvellous chocolate of Modica.  A new airport due to open at Comiso, near Ragusa, will really put the towns on the tourist map, so I'd recommend visiting while you can. Fans of Inspector Montalbano, a fictional detective featured in a popular TV series – of which two episodes have so far been aired by the BBC - will recognise the scenery of the towns.

La Maddalena
Italy has great beaches all around the mainland and islands, but many of the most renowned are on the island of Sardinia. Somehow Italian and un-Italian at the same time, this island has popular seaside resorts such as picturesque Alghero, the art and culture of the capital Cagliari, some fascinating towns and archaeological sites for explorers leaving the beaten track, and of course the famous turquoise seas surrounding Sardinia and its small offshore islands. Visiting the archipelago of La Maddalena (easily reachable from the airport at Olbia), I was impressed by the lovely unspoilt beaches - and by how empty they were in September, with the weather still hot.

One of the most interesting exhibitions of the year in Italy will be the display of historic documents from the Vatican's secret archive at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The Lux in Arcana exhibition runs from March to September 2012 and is likely to include letters from Mary Queen of Scots and Henry VIII among its treasures.

When to go
As Italians mostly holiday en masse in July and August, when the country's resorts are packed, expensive and uncomfortably hot, I recommend visiting Italy in May, June or September for the best holiday experience. Earlier or later in the year can be good too, especially for cultural and city breaks, or for travellers who don't mind slightly lower temperatures.

Ragusa Ibla

2 January 2012

Best of Italy 2011

Here are my personal Italy highlights of 2011

Most luxurious hotel

Best off-the-beaten-track accommodation

Hotel Novecento, Scicli

Most frightening experience

Walking right around the rim of Vesuvius

Best views (and best exercise)

Amalfi Coast walking holiday with Exodus

> See a view

Best ruin

Castello Eurialo – an ancient Greek fortress outside Siracusa

Best meals

A tie between La Rusticana in Ragusa and Sicilia in Tavola, Siracusa

Best antipasti

Buffet at the Antica Trattoria Pizzeria in Olbia

Best ice cream

Olive-oil flavoured gelato in Ragusa

Best beaches

La Maddalena islands, Sardinia

Most surprising city

Cagliari - from beaches to art to flamingos

Best sighting

The Pope in a boat

Creepiest spot

The Ipogeo Celtico, a mysterious underground chamber in Cividale del Friuli

Best tourist trap

Grotte di Nettuno show caves, Alghero - actually worth a visit

Best tour in the footsteps of a fictional detective

Visiting the Montalbano locations in the baroque towns of Sicily

Naughtiest moment

Sneaking in with a private tour to see some of the best - and rudest - frescoes in Pompeii

and finally:

Top destination

I've spent time in lots of amazing places this year, but my award for top destination goes to Scicli, for its off-the-beaten-track charm, fine architecture, atmospheric hilltop churches and ruins, and mellow atmosphere.