Marianna Hunt

Italy: where to combine culture and coast

Italy: where to combine culture and coast
Scilla, iStock
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Holiday makers tend to divide themselves into two camps – those seeking culture and those for whom a holiday is not a holiday without a chance to flop on the beach or by the pool (with a good book and a cocktail for company). The good news is that in Italy you rarely have to sacrifice the former for the latter.

Travel abroad has been slowly cranking into action again since September. And, whilst Omicron might have put a dampener on immediate holiday plans there's still plenty of opportunity to dream about next summer. Fully vaccinated travellers are currently allowed into Italy without the need to isolate which bodes well for a 2022 getaway.

Brixen

Torre Bianca of Bressanone (Brixen), South Tyrol

Not widely referenced in guidebooks, the mountain town of Brixen (otherwise known as Bressanone) is one of the oldest and most beautiful in South Tyrol. This region, which sits on the border between Italy, Austria and Switzerland encompasses large swathes of the UNESCO World Heritage Dolomite mountains.

Brixen itself is just 7km from the mountain, Plose, which has a gondola and is excellent for hiking, biking and enjoying panoramic views over the snow-capped peaks.

In the town itself there are cobbled streets, colourful restaurants, a Baroque cathedral and lots of other pretty churches and monasteries.

FORESTIS is a Scandi-style hotel sitting on the Southern slope of the Plose mountain. Its pale wood interiors and soaring glass windows make you feel as though you’re sleeping directly within the surrounding forests. There’s also a spa, indoor and outdoor pools (filled with local mountain water), and a restaurant with open fires and floor-to-ceiling windows. The menu is heavily focused on ingredients foraged or farmed in the surrounding area.  Prices start from €660 per suite including breakfast and dinner for two. 

Much of the local population speaks German rather than Italian, so make sure you’ve picked up the right phrase book. Brixen is just over an hour’s drive from Innsbruck airport in Austria (currently on the UK green list).

Taormina

Isola Bella, Taormina, Sicily

This Sicilian town is famous for its Greco-Roman open-air theatre, which is perched dramatically on a cliff edge, practically tumbling down into the sea waves below.

In the centre the streets are lined with antique shops and bustling trattorias. Writer DH Lawrence was particularly taken by the town and lived here between 1920 and 1923.

Its most beautiful beach, and arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in Sicily, is Isola Bella, also known as the Pearl of the Ionian Sea. Connected to the mainland via a thin strip of beach, the island was bought by a rich English noblewoman in the 1890s who cultivated rare tropical plants there. Now it is a nature reserve and open to the public for an entry fee of €4.

Much of Sicily lies on the same latitude as the North African coast and average temperatures range from 22 to 27°C in September. The nearest airport to Taormina is Catania Fontanarossa.

Venice

The Grand Canal at twilight

Typically overwhelmed by tourists, coronavirus offers a rare opportunity to visit Venice without the crowds. Average temperatures in The Floating City are a balmy 20°C in September and even October can hit 18°C or higher. Ryanair is currently offering flights to Venice from as little as £4.99 one-way.

The city’s famous architecture festival, La Biennale, had a severely pared back launch in May when travel restrictions were still in place, so now is your chance to see creations by some of the world’s best designers before the installations are taken away on November 21.

Housed inside a 12th century Venetian palazzo, the Baglioni Hotel Luna is the place to stay if you’re looking to revel in the culture and glamour of the city.

One of the oldest hotels in the city, the Baglioni has its own jetty, so you can pull directly up to it in a water taxi - feeling just like Angelina Jolie in The Tourist. It is ideally located for sightseeing, perched in between St Mark’s Square and the lagoon. Inside the hotel has its own art gallery and colossal chandeliers made of Murano glass. A decadent buffet breakfast is served in the spectacularly frescoed salon. Prices start from €441 for a superior double room.

Isola Delle Rose

Translating as 'The Island of Roses', this patch of green sits just opposite Venice and is the place to go if you want to be near the city buzz but have a tranquil hideaway to escape back to in the evenings.

The private island is occupied by the JW Marriott 5-star hotel. The resort allows you to admire Venice’s famous spires from a distance - luxuriating in one of the three pools (rooftop, garden and spa) or sipping an aperitif in the gardens. There are both boutique hotel rooms and individual villas. Guests arrive via private boat, crossing the lagoon to the island's refreshing microclimate, created by the sea currents. There are 12 hectares of greenery to explore, including olive groves and organic kitchen gardens. It is also a good base from which to visit neighbouring islands. Rates start from €450 per double room per night.

Punta Ala

Punta Ala, Tuscany

Think of holidaying in Tuscany and you typically conjure up images of bucolic scenery: Cypress trees, rolling hills and sprawling olive groves. But the region also boasts of some fabulous beaches and buzzing port towns.

Punta Ala, one such town, is a little-known gem perched on the coast facing out over the Tyrrhenian Sea towards the Isle of Elba, to which Napoleon was famously banished after his forced abdication.

Baglioni’s 5-star outpost in Punta Ala has terraces overlooking the marina and views which on a clear day stretch all the way to Corsica. The hotel also organises a range of experiences such as cycling tours which include tastings at local vineyards and farms. There is a well-respected hotel golf club, with spectacular sea views.

If you have time, Castiglione della Pescaia, another coastal town about 20 minutes’ drive away, is well worth a visit. It has cobbled streets lined with artisan shops and gelateria, a medieval castle and cool pine forests to stroll in. Every evening fishing boats arrive with fresh cargo. Popping by a local trattoria for a bowl of cacciucco (a seafood stew that is a regional speciality) is one of the best ways to taste their catch.

Scilla

Scilla

Sitting almost on the very tip toe of Italy’s boot, Scilla is a long way from the tourist traps of Naples and Rome. This traditional swordfishing village is sandwiched between the thickly-forested Aspromonte Mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Given the location, almost all of the local restaurants serve fresh seafood. Make sure to try the local delicacy, swordfish, as well as the excellent regional wines which are made from Zibibbo grapes.

Scilla is steeped in history and mythology. There is an ancient castle, heaps of dazzling palazzos and, according to Greek mythology, it is the home of a terrifying sea monster Scylla who guarded the Strait of Messina and menaced Grecian heroes such as Odysseus.

Although Scilla is not on the radar of foreign visitors, it is popular with Italians so can get quite busy in peak summer. But during the off-season you will often have the beachfront to yourself.

You can fly to nearby Reggio di Calabria – transferring at Rome – or fly to Naples then drive or take the train the rest of the way.

Padua

Prato Della Valle, Padua, the biggest square in Europe (iStock)

Known by most of us only through Shakespeare, Padua is often overlooked when considering an Italian city break. But, with its dazzling churches, a sprawling food and flower market and botanic gardens that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, Padua has lots going for it.

The surrounding countryside is also a big draw. The Parco Regionale dei Colli Euganei (the Regional Park of the Euganean Hills) is only around half an hour from the city and very popular with cyclists, walkers and campers. It hosts lots of flora and fauna including many different types of butterfly. The volcanic landscape is full of hot springs and there are around 130 thermal spas dotted around local towns.

At villa Ca’ Dogaressa, with its quintessential stone walls and terracotta tiled roof, you can enjoy healing waters all to yourself. The six-person villa, which sits within the Euganean Hills, has a private natural swimming pool - one that is filtered without the use of chlorine. In this case, the water is purified using Himalayan salts and an electrolysis system. The pool also has hydromassage jets and looks out over lawns, olive groves and vineyards. Weekly rates at Ca’ Dogaressa start from £2,433 with Tuscany Now & More.

With Padua and Venice just a 30 and 45-minute drive away respectively, it’s easy to squeeze in a few days of city exploring as well as jaunts out to the surrounding countryside during a week-long stay.