Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento

The joys of authentic, historic Italy | Powell’s Travels

by W. Andrew Powell

It finally happened. This week I had my first vaccination shot, and it’s made me just a bit more hopeful. For the next few months, I still don’t expect to travel far, but travel is getting closer and closer, and it’s started to make me think about past trips too.

This fall, I’m excited about the prospect of exploring Canada, and just getting out to see Toronto and Southern Ontario again will be an amazing thing. That’s a great start, and I’m inspired and hopeful. Among other things, watching TV has actually helped get me thinking about one of the best trips of my life, and that was Italy.

Italy is magical in a way that feels timeless. Where some countries hold a few memories of their past, Italy feels like the past is part of their present. From the buildings and monuments from hundreds of years ago, to the food and culture, there are parts of Italy that have a mood like they haven’t aged a day in a hundred years, and that’s what makes it such a magical place to explore.

Trevi Fountain in Rome
Trevi Fountain in Rome

I think I first fell in love with Italy watching Cinema Paradiso as a kid. The film paints a vivid picture of the country, both bright and a bit sad, and it left an indelible mark on me. The soundtrack still takes me back to watching the film, and dreaming of seeing the country in person one day.

And there are so many movies about Italy that have made me love the country more from afar. Roman Holiday is one of my absolute favourite films; it’s beautiful, sweet, and so funny, and naturally, my wife and I lined up for the Mouth of Truth when we were there on our honeymoon a few years ago.

I also think of Under the Tuscan Sun, La Dolce Vita, and even Life Is Beautiful or The Trip to Italy. There are so many films that paint a vibrant picture of the country, and it’s hard to ignore the allure of each one, and the way they make Italy feel so accessible.

The TV series that has made me dream about Italy all over again though is Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. The CNN documentary series follows actor Stanley Tucci as he explores Italy’s passion for food, from region to region, and looking at the stories behind some of Italy’s most iconic dishes.

What makes the series so incredible is not just the fact that Tucci is such a profoundly fantastic host to take viewers on the journey, and it’s not just the people he meets, either. What I love especially is the way the series eloquently tells the stories of each place, and the food. That’s what makes it feel so authentically Italian. The episodes are passionate, moving, and somehow capture the history of the country in a modern context, and that’s one of greatest things about Italy.

The series also feels like an Italian vacation in the middle of this pandemic, and that’s what’s going to make so many people rush back to Italy when they can. If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend it.

Following the destinations in each episode, it’s easy to plan a trip across the country, and I’d say that’s a great place to start if you want to think about visiting Italy. I still have a lot of Italy I’m looking forward to seeing, but from my last trip there, I do have a few suggestions for a few amazing places you need to see one day.

Rome

Mirabelle at Hotel Splendide Royal
Mirabelle at Hotel Splendide Royal

For anyone first visiting Italy, Rome ultimately should be the first stop. Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport is a convenient place to fly into Italy, and if you have the time, it’s well worth exploring the city for a few days before you move on to see the rest of the country.

While you’re in Rome, the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Pantheon are must-visit attractions, and you could spend days just exploring ruins, cultural landmarks, and eating, but the city also has some of the most beautiful parks in Europe. Giardino degli Aranci and Villa Borghese are both wonderful, scenic, and relaxing parks that are filled with Italian charm.

There are also dozens of beautiful neighbourhoods worth strolling in and around the city. Trastevere is stunning at night for dinner, drinks, and a walk. Testaccio and Aventino are urban areas that are hip and where you’ll find real Italians, with great food and entertainment.

For the best food, avoid the most popular tourist areas and head off the beaten path to find the real hidden gems. Frommer’s has an exhaustive list of some of the most notable restaurants, and how they’ve been rated, if you need some help researching.

As just one tip, my top recommendation would be to save up and plan a dinner at Mirabelle for sunset one evening when you’re in Rome. The view is like you’re in a movie, the food is phenomenal, and you’ll lose track of the time as you watch the sun dip below the horizon.

The restaurant is at the top of the Hotel Splendide Royal, and has an unbelievable panoramic view of the city that stretches from Villa Medici and Trinità dei Monti, to St. Peter’s and the Gianicolo. My wife and I had our best meal in Italy at the restaurant, and I still look forward to going back one day.

Walking back from the restaurant that night, it was warm, a bit humid, and I could just feel the spirit of the city around us as we walked. Rome is a remarkable, historic city, and I wish I could bottle the mood up and take it with me.

Amalfi Coast

Hotel Bellevue Syrene in Sorrento

After leaving Rome, we headed to the Amalfi Coast for a week, and while there are numerous areas you can visit across Italy that are worth every moment, the Amalfi Coast is one of those rare places where you can explore for days, and still find new things.

Taking a train from Rome to Naples, and then riding the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento, it’s a fairly quick trip, and it gives you an amazing view of the countryside around all three cities. For something different, you can also travel from Naples to Sorrento by ferry, or by car, for a little more.

We loved Sorrento. It’s absolutely beautiful, there’s a lot to see and do there, and it’s also central to a number of day trips. To the north-east, you can visit Pompeii and climb Mount Vesuvius for one of the most incredible views looking across from Naples to Sorrento in the distance.

The history of Pompeii is visceral, the way it’s been preserved. It’s been more than 1900 years since Pompeii was an active city, but hearing the stories from guides, seeing the art, and walking on the streets makes it come alive again. When I was there, you could still take a drink from the original water fountains that are all over the city.

From Sorrento, you can also head southwest by boat or ferry and visit the island of Capri. Or by car, bus, or ferry, you can head east to Positano and Amalfi.

What makes this area so charming is the fact that there are so many vestiges of what Italy must have been like dozens of years ago. While Rome has preserved a lot of the city’s history, there are parts of old Italy still alive in smaller towns and areas in places like the Amalfi coast.

In Sorrento, people still buy from the fishermen who pull up at wharves along the coast, and there are lemon orchards for limoncello that’s still made the old fashioned way. We found potters, artists, and cafes where even the service feels Italian, offering classic espresso (caffè) and cappuccino to enjoy as you walk, or sit on a patio. And of course there’s gelato, like Gelateria Primavera in Sorrento, where one night the owner led people dancing through the street.

Searching for Italy does what so few shows do, showing the places across Italy where the real heart and history of the country comes alive in the food, the stories, the people. The series is a glimpse into the way life is led there, and that’s something I can’t wait to explore again one day. The country is just so full of life that it’s intoxicating.

There are some wonderful areas throughout Italy for tourists, but we found authentic Italy by stepping off the beaten path. When in doubt, wherever you’re staying can point you in the right direction for whatever you’re looking for, from authentic Italian food, to the experiences and vistas only a local will know.

Until we can travel once again, take the inspiration that you can from anywhere around you. Plan a movie night that offers a journey, tune into travel series or YouTube channels that feed your wanderlust, and get a meal ready that speaks to some of your favourite destinations. For the time being, it is fantastic at least feeling inspired.

Every month, I’ll be rounding up travel thoughts, inspirations, and eventually, travel ideas in Powell’s Travels. I’d also love to hear about some of your favourite travel memories, so tell me all about them in the comments or on Twitter. Watch some of my travel videos on YouTube.

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