Road Trip: Italy from Top to Bottom
05 October, 2017
We began our trip by flying into Venice and grabbing a shared water taxi (€30pp) to the city. We visited in mid-August, the height of tourist season. The weather was hot but it didn't matter; seeing Venice for the first time was truly magical. The canals, the buildings, the tiny piazzas and towering churches. You could get lost for hours wandering the narrow streets.
We stayed at Boscolo Venezia in the Cannaregio, Venice's 16th-century Jewish ghetto. Casual canal-side restaurants and bars line nearby Fondamenta della Misericordia and Fondamenta dei Ormesini which make a perfect escape from the tourist-heavy areas. It feels good to sit among locals in the local bars in the evenings. A favourite was La Caravella, a vine-strung courtyard which does excellent seafood. Among the hundred tourist "musts" to tick off your list, don't miss the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for timeless exhibitions tucked away down a pretty street.
Our chosen pitstop was Sfoglia Rina, a contemporary and charming fresh pasta café where, of course, we had to have spaghetti bolognese - and it did not disappoint. After lunch, we wandered the city and visited the Two Towers, impressive medieval structures dating back to the 12th century. Then it was time to get back on the road.
If it's your first time in Florence, book as much as possible online in advance. Otherwise, there are uniformed hustlers offering tours and queue jump tickets outside the major tourist sights - for about €30 per person we got an excellent guide, and you can leave at any point if it's not your thing.
One of the main draws of Tuscany is the food, and we happily spent our days in Florence sampling as much of it as we could. Mercato Centrale is a vibrant market, great for a quick lunch. Alternatively, All'Antico Vinaio sells hefty sandwiches overflowing with Italian fare - there's always a queue of hungry Florentines but it moves quickly and is well worth it, so grab a coffee from Ditta Artigianale just down the road and get in line.
If you're after a sit-down lunch, 4LEONI is my favourite trattoria in town, tucked away on a tiny square with both indoor and outdoor seating, perfect for a long lazy affair which will probably roll into dinner. For evening drinks, head to Piazza Santo Spirito and sit on the steps in front of the Basilica di Santo Spirito - ideal for people watching.
You can't leave without trying some proper gelato; at Gelateria la Carraia they put chocolate mousse on top of ice cream in a cone - enough said. Gelateria Dei Neri is also incredible; go for the caramel, the most intensely rich flavour.
I don't need to tell you about the obvious tourist spots, but absolutely do not miss paying a visit to the statue of David at Galleria dell'Accademia - having seen so many photographs of it, to see it in real life is pretty incredible. We also stumbled upon a fantastic leather factory behind Santa Croce called Scuola del Cuoio. It was a real insight to watch how Italian leather is carefully handcrafted at this traditional family-run establishment.
For an afternoon pick me up between sightseeing, head to Procacci, a shop with a small bar which sells high-quality Italian produce such as olive oil and truffles - the perfect place to pick up a souvenir.
Next, we drove to the tiny town of Pienza, famous for pecorino cheese and picturesque walking trails. Tuscany was everything I imagined; adorable towns nestled among rolling hills and roads lined with cypress trees.
We stayed at La Bandita Townhouse Hotel, a modern townhouse which has the added benefit of a sister a property about 25-minute drive away, out in the Tuscan countryside. We spent a leisurely day by the pool - exactly what we needed after all the walking over the past week.
Pienza has lots of little shops and restaurants and a couple of churches - and that's about it. It was extremely peaceful and one of the most beautiful places I've visited; if Nancy Meyers was to create a Tuscan village, I think this might be it. Be sure to stop by one of the delis to sample some local cheeses and meats, and go for cocktails overlooking the city walls.
Of course, we had to do a cooking class while in Italy, and we found a fantastic one at Le Pietre Vive di Montaperti, a farm 10km outside of Siena. Our teacher, Valeria, taught us how to cook traditional Italian plates using ingredients from the surrounding land. Most importantly, we learned how to make fresh pasta from scratch - incomparable to the stuff you get at home.
Rome is where I found my favourite restaurant in Italy; Pierluigi. Nestled in a beautiful square with outdoor seating and white tablecloths, they serve the freshest seafood with an unparalleled wine list to match. After a long, lazy lunch you'll need an espresso to pep you up, so head to Sant'Eustachio il Caffè, a proper Roman coffee bar where the waiters are suited and booted. If you have room, they do particularly good pastries too. For ice cream, seek out Gelateria Come il Latte, where melted chocolate is poured from chocolate taps (yes, really) into the bottom of y0ur cone.
Getting into Ravello can be confusing because it's set back in the cliffs on the Amalfi Coast. You'll need to liaise with your hotel about where to meet, and typically they will take your car and luggage before you walk into the tiny town. Like something out of a story book, there are no cars and stray cats wander the cobbled, leafy streets. Be sure to peak your head into the local football pitch, which balances precariously on the side of the cliffs.
We stayed at Villa Maria, a boutique hotel in the hills of Ravello, which has a gorgeous lunchtime restaurant and a pool just down the road. I also recommend visiting Cumpa Cosimo - and preferably more than once. This small, family-run restaurant under the watchful eye of Nonna doesn't look like much, but the food is outstanding; the five-dish pasta sampler menu is a winner. Spend an afternoon wandering the gardens at Villa Cimbrone, where you'll find a hidden bar among the trees - the perfect place to debrief on your Italian road trip over late-afternoon Aperol.
Tips for Living La Dolce Vita
- Always order the house wine (it will be local and is usually the best)
- Bring comfortable shoes and a good data plan
- Walk everywhere
- Poke your head into every church you stumble across
- Be prepared for tollbooth charges on the main roads
- If you pick up a car in Venice and drop it in Rome, you'll never drive for more than three hours, even when taking more scenic routes
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We think we might have found the perfect Italian road trip, taking you from labyrinthine Venice down to the cliffs of Ravello. Our truffle hunters have sought out the insider spots - all you need is a Sat Nav and an appetite.