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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