The usual length of this tour is 13 days but we did a shorter version so started in Florence rather than Rome.
DAY 1 – TUSCANY
After our British Airways flight from London City to Florence landed, we were whisked away into the Tuscan countryside. Due to it being too early in the season, the hotel which is usually used on the Backroads tours, Villa La Palagina, was not open yet and was just at the end of some refurbishment, but we got to have a look around and try to imagine what it would be like all finished and occupied.
It was a very traditional and beautiful Tuscan Villa with stunning grounds, fountains, a swimming pool and terraces. No two rooms are exactly the same due to the nature of the old building. Some were pretty small with small windows but if you stayed here you would probably not be spending much time in the room as it is too beautiful outside. I also have no doubt that the hospitality and surroundings would make up for this. And it’s next door to Sting’s house albeit down a very long driveway/lane!
After a site inspection there, we went on to Villa Il Palagio where we would be staying.
Still a traditional Tuscan building but more modern inside. Backroads would not normally use this hotel so I won’t go into too much detail!
Before dinner we had an Italian cooking class in the hotels kitchen. This was a lot of fun with banter between the chefs who didn’t speak a word of English, but it was all translated by our wonderful guide Isabelle. They showed us how to make several dishes, and a few of us did some chopping and mixing! We then ate the delicious creation and it was excellent! They printed out the recipes too so will definitely try them at home. The secret to Italian cooking apparently is balance of ingredients…not too much of anything so nothing is over powering.
DAY 2 – CINQUE TERRE – SANTA MARGHERITA
The weather was not kind to us on this day, with some heavy rain. But we still got to see some spectacular views across the UNESCO protected area comprising of 5 villages – “Cinque Terre”.
The 5 villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. We visited Monterosso, Vernazza and Manarola.
The landscape here is quite dramatic, with colourful buildings perched on the cliffs and up on hillsides so steep you can’t imagine how they got up there let alone built them!
We took a train between the villages as this is the only way to get from village to village. Buses and cars have to park quite far up the slopes. In the villages are quaint cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops and the odd church.
By early evening we arrived at Santa Margherita and our hotel Lido Palace. This town in the Italian Riviera is an excellent alternative to Porto Fino without the exuberant price tag of the “hang out” for the rich and famous! We didn’t have much time here unfortunately and as it was raining until we finished dinner, we only managed a quick stroll along the beachfront. However if the weather was better I think a couple of nights here would be nice.
DAY 3 – BAROLO – ALBA – CHERASCO
We headed north and inland to the region of Peidmonti, famous for rich red wines and luxurious cuisine. Oh go on then!
We were supposed to join a truffle hunt with a local farmer and his dog but it was too wet. So we settled for sitting down to a tasting of different products made with truffles…and wine!
After “truffle stuffing” we continued to Grinzane Cavour Castle and looked round the museum, followed by wine tasting. I was quite excited to taste the famous Barolo red wine being one of the most expensive wines in Italy. And it was amazing! Still wouldn’t pay the price tag though! So I bought a 9 euro equivalent!
That evening we stayed at the impressive Monastero Cherasco Somaschi Hotel. Try saying that after a few glasses of Barolo!
This is a converted Monastery right on top of a hill. They have restored this beautifully and was possibly my favourite hotel on this trip. The food was equally impressive as we sat down to a slow food dinner of 7 courses! And more wine!
DAY 4 – ASTI – LAKE ORTA – LAKE MAGGIORE
After leaving Cherasco we soon arrived in Asti, where we got to sip regional liquors called “Grappa”, complemented by chocolate and homemade nougat.
We then headed for the hills and the pristine lakes of northern Italy. I am glad I had the front seat of the coach on this day because the scenery was stunning. (However, wherever you sit on this small luxury coach you get a good view). We passed the rice growing region of Vercelli and stopped briefly at Lake Orta to take pictures! We wound our way along the roads circling the lakes, each corner offering a more beautiful scene than the next.
Backroads usually use The Majestic Hotel on Lake Maggiore but we were a couple of weeks early for the start of the season so it was not open yet. However, the manager showed us around, and it certainly lived up to its name. Standing on the terrace area right on the lake, we could imagine staying here and sipping a drink with the late afternoon sun on our faces. It’s in a good location too – a leisurely stroll along a tree lined promenade takes you into the town where you find restaurants and shops.
We then carried on around to the other side of the lake to our hotel – Hotel Dino. We had a nice room with a balcony overlooking the lake.
DAY 5 – LAKE MAGGIORE
The only transport we took today was a boat! We set sail for the Borromean Islands which are still used by the family for their summer retreats. The first was Isola Bella, with beautiful Baroque gardens with wandering peacocks and colourful birds. Then Isola Madre with the awe-inspiring Renaissance Villa. This was just incredible! Each room was incredibly ornate and sumptuous. The detail they went into to create such a luxurious palace… I would say for impressive historical buildings this came second only to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican itself!
Then we hopped over to Isola dei Pescatori to a wonderful sea food restaurant.
DAY 6 – LAKE GARDA – SIGURTA – VERONA
We left Lake Maggiore and made our way to the famous Lake Garda, through the Lombardia region, with quintessential Italian villages. We had a few hours to have lunch and wander around Desenzano del Garda. A small town on the shore of the lake with a market, quaint streets and many Gelato shops! You could sit and watch the world go by quite happily here. Our trail then took us to Sigurta Garden Park where the poppies and many other spring flowers were in full bloom.
Our final stop for the day was the city of Verona. Well what a little gem of a city this is! We stayed at Hotel Italia which was welcoming and had spacious rooms. It was about a 15 walk into the centre but it’s easy to find your way around Verona. There is a small Colosseum, a castle and of course many lovely eateries and cafes around a large square. We stopped at “Juliet’s balcony” but if you go there, take this visit with a pinch of salt because it is purely tourist attraction and a bit of fun. Who knows where the real one was! It is a great place if you want to do some clothes shopping though, with plenty of designer and high street shops for all budgets.
DAY 7 – VALPOLICELLA – VENICE
After leaving Verona, we headed up into the hills of the Valpolicella region – the jewel in the crown of Italian wine making. We were not expecting such a beautiful wine tasting experience, but this was something else! The Tenuta Santa Maria Valverde estate is a small family run winery, and the owners could not have been more welcoming. It’s worth mentioning that large coach tours cannot get here due to the small road leading up to it, so it is very special. The traditional stone building with archway doorways, had a long wooden table, laid with a wonderful spread of local food which complemented the wine. There were cheeses, chutney, cold meats, bread and of course several different bottles of Valpolicella. And they were VERY generous with the tasting! I bought a couple of bottles and some peach and pistachio chutney, to take home as presents (well one was a present!!) We could have easily stayed there all afternoon but we were due in Venice!
Some hours later we arrived in Venice. We said goodbye to our wonderful driver Fabio – who had driven us safely the whole way, always with a huge smile on his face – and caught a water taxi to our hotel. We stayed at Hotel Principe which isn’t the usual Backroads hotel but it was very nice.
We visited the usual tour hotel ……. Right on the canal and had a Bellini in the sunshine.
The centre of Venice is a bit like a rabbit warren. You wander around tiny streets taking left, then right, then snake around part of the canal and then the path just stops… and you’re at a water taxi point! I would definitely recommend a map or using your phone to find your way around. However, if you have more time than we did it would be quite nice to get lost and take your time, stopping at the many souvenir shops and ice cream vendors.
We walked from our hotel to St Mark’s Square. This Square is much bigger than I expected and was very busy even in March. We had a quick look inside the Cathedral and then wandered around the quay front and of course had an ice cream! We then hopped on a water taxi which for 7 Euros took us back up the canal to our hotel. We didn’t get on a gondola unfortunately as they are very expensive (40 Euros each!)
All in all Venice is definitely a novel experience and has some very picturesque photo opportunities. But it is very touristy and expensive, so if you go with this in mind it’s worth visiting at least once but if you are after a more authentic Italian city I would go for Verona or Rome.
In summary, this is a trip true to its name “Italian Indulgence”! If you choose a Backroads tour you will fall in love with this country as I have. The food, wine, scenery, hotels, people and their outlook on life will leave you feeling simply…. “Bella”.
Senior Travel Consultant