As I was born near Amalfi, then let me start with the spectacular drive along the coast. With its precipitous winding roads, charming villages terraced into hillsides, lush gardens, green-swathed mountains and superb views of the crystal-clear turquoise sea, it is no wonder it is considered one of Italy’s most scenic stretches of coastline. Years later, I still get that buzz of excitement after leaving Naples airport and its concrete suburbs behind to get that first glimpse of coastline.
One of my favourite regions in Italy is charming, laid-back and very southern Puglia – not only for its genuine food, people and traditions, but I love the town of Alberobello famous for its trulli. These magical houses, built in local limestone with their characteristic conical-shaped roofs, are a joy to visit and you could easily think you were transported to fairyland! Most of the houses in the centre are open so you can go inside and take a look at what life was once like. Probably the best way of experiencing a trullo is to stay in one.
When I am in this area, one place I absolutely love to visit is the town of Matera. Matera is situated in the somewhat remote, undiscovered region of Basilicata, about 60km from Alberobello. The town is a living museum with its cave-like dwellings carved in the rock known as sassi. I was first introduced to Matera on a filming trip many years ago and was struck with awe and amazement at how well preserved this ancient settlement is. Uninhabited now for the last 50 or so years, you can visit many of the caves and see how people used to live – it is absolutely fascinating. Over recent years, some of caves have been refurbished into hotels and restaurants. I have since returned with Liz, but was only able to spend a couple of hours there. I think next time, an overnight stay in one of the cave hotels is a must. I highly recommend a visit to this historical and amazing town which is often not on the typical tourist trail. I am sure you won’t be disappointed.
Although very much on the tourist map, Venice remains one of the most beautiful, amazing and romantic cities in the world. There is no particular landmark I can say is my favourite – it all is. I could say the Bridge of Sighs, St Mark’s Square, the Doges Palace, the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge, Santa Maria della Salute - I could go on and on. But the best of Venice, for me, is to get lost among the secluded little alleyways, unknown little bridges, and the many campi (squares) with its churches and palazzi and neighbourhood cafés. Here I love to watch local Venetians go about their daily business in what is one of the most enchanting and unique cities of the world. And if you get the chance, visit Venice during Carnevale - this is a sight you will never forget.
I love the rural regions of Tuscany and Umbria with its rustic charm, sleepy hilltop villages and romantic landscape. I also love to visit the cities and my favourite is the well-preserved medieval town of Siena in Tuscany. When I first visited many years ago, I fell in love with the main square – Piazza del Campo – or locally known simply as Il Campo. The square is home to a number of well-preserved architecturally beautiful palazzi and dominated by the impressive gothic Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) and its tower, Torre del Mangia.
The square is an immense space and I love its magnificent red-tiled paved floor – for me the most beautiful I have ever seen in a town square. The square is probably best known for the famous Palio, a bi-annual horse race to which I was lucky to have witnessed once. All the citizens of Siena were gathered in the square to watch this incredible event, as jockeys, each representing an area of the city, raced bareback at breakneck speed, whipping each other – anything is allowed as long as you win! The race is over quite quickly, but the atmosphere is intense and the festivities, rituals and preparations that start days before and finish well into the night on the day of the race, are a unique opportunity and not to be missed.
These are just some of my favourite sights in Bella Italia - the list would be endless if I could write about all of them! Which are yours? I would love to know!