Italy. Bella Italia. Il bel paese. This boot-shaped country draws visitors in time and time again thanks to its blend of history, culture and cuisine (and, of course, its movie-star good looks). Whether you’re a first-timer or you’ve already fallen in love and are dreaming of exploring more, we’ve got five reasons for you to make 2019 the year you venture back to the boot.
Visit Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture
Matera nestles up in the hills of Basilicata, the rugged region that forms the arch of Italy’s boot. It’s a city of two halves. The modern part is a typical Italian city, with wide streets, coffee shops and apartment buildings. But head to the sassi – the neighbourhoods sprawling down the hillside above the Gravina river – and it’s a completely different story.
Here, ancient houses and churches were built into the rock, linked by a maze of narrow, winding lanes and stairways. Although many of the dwellings have now been converted into boutique hotels and quirky restaurants, wandering through the sassi still feels a little like stepping back in time.
For 2019, Matera is one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture, so throughout the year it’ll be hosting all sorts of special events and pop-up exhibitions. We visit the city as part of our week-long tour of Puglia. As well as spending time in Matera, you’ll have the chance to discover Alberobello’s famous trulli houses, stroll through baroque Lecce and the città bianca (white city) of Ostuni, and taste freshly pressed olive oil – a Pugliese speciality.
Find out more about our escorted tour of Puglia.
Listen to live opera in a Roman amphitheatre
Every summer, the majestic 1st-century amphitheatre in central Verona plays host to the Verona Opera Festival. Come sundown, the arena is filled with smartly dressed opera fans, sitting down for al fresco performances of classics like ‘Aida’, ‘Tosca’ and ‘Carmen’.
Our Verona short break includes tickets to watch ‘Carmen’ at the amphitheatre on day 3. We’ll have 2nd sector stalls seats – with padded seats and upholstered backrests, they’re a lot more comfortable than the cheaper seats on the ancient stone steps. Before the show, we’ll enjoy a pre-opera dinner nearby, though you can also buy snacks and drinks inside the arena.
Our stay in fair Verona also includes an evening street performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, starting in Juliet’s Courtyard and moving through the city’s streets and squares for each scene, as well as a guided walking tour of the city on our first full day.
Find out more about our Verona opera break.
Sample volcanic wines
Everyone knows the big-ticket Italian wines – silky reds from Chianti and Piedmont, crisp whites from Campania and Veneto, fizz from Prosecco and Lombardy. But Sicilian wines – particularly those made from grapes grown on Mount Etna’s slopes – are fast becoming names to watch out for in the wine world.
The high minerality of the volcanic soil makes for elegant, complex wines. We’ll stop by one of these volcanic vineyards (Cantina Murgo) towards the end of our tour of Sicily, pausing to visit the vines and sample five different varieties produced here. We’ll also get to try a trio of their olive oils, with platters of bread, local cheese, salami and olives to soak it up.
It’s a fantastic (and delicious) finale to our Sicilian adventure, which also includes visits to the Valley of the Temples, Villa Romana del Casale and Monreale’s Norman-Byzantine cathedral, as well as stays in Catania, Palermo, Agrigento and Giardini Naxos.
Find out more about our escorted tour of Sicily.
Taste more than just pizza and pasta
There’s a lot more to Italian cuisine than margheritas and plates of spaghetti carbonara. Venture down to Calabria and you’ll find fiery, flavoursome foods, often made from the freshest local ingredients. ‘Cucina povera’ (peasant cuisine) is popular here, with plenty of hearty, simple dishes gracing restaurant menus.
On our tour of Calabria, we’ve included tastings of two Calabrian specialities – ‘nduja, a spicy, spreadable sausage, and tartufo, an ice-cream pudding covered in a shell of chocolate or nuts. You’ll also have lunchtime free each day to seek out more local specialities. Look out for dishes including cipolla di rossa (you’ll see strings of these purple onions hanging from shop and restaurant windows all over the town of Tropea), chilli peppers and local cheeses, and perhaps finish your meal with a small glass of bergamot orange liqueur – Calabria’s answer to limoncello.
Food aside, our tour wraps trips to hill towns, cave churches, castles and monasteries into nine action-packed days. If you’re looking to explore a corner of Italy that’s relatively undiscovered by Brits, this is perfetto.
Find out more about our escorted tour of Calabria.
Stay in a converted 16th-century palazzo
Montaione tends to fly under the radar when it comes to Tuscan villages. But that’s exactly why we love it. This medieval hilltop village has all the beauty and charm of better-known spots, with only a fraction of the crowds.
We base ourselves here for a relaxed week on our Tuscany holiday. And where better to hole up than in a 16th-century palazzo, beautifully converted into a charm-filled hotel? The UNA Palazzo Mannaioni is the ideal spot for a Tuscan escape, with a lagoon-like pool, countryside views and a restaurant set in the old olive mill.
It’s the perfect jumping-off point for exploring Tuscany – we’ll enjoy excursions to Volterra, San Gimignano, Certaldo, Siena and Monteriggioni. You’ll also have a couple of free days to relax by the pool or amble through Montaione’s honey-hued streets to a local café.
Find out more about our escorted holiday to Tuscany.