Highlights of Italy & Croatia
Known to pleasure-seekers as the Italian Riviera, the region of Liguria is northern Italy's most attractive stretch of coastline. The most celebrated destination is tiny but glamorous Portofino, though these days it gets competition from the even tinier villages of the Cinque Terre – made up of Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, famous for the hiking paths that run between them.
The Lake District is for those whose idea of heaven is palatial villas, rose-laden belvederes, hanging wisteria and bougainvillea, lanterns casting a glow over lakeshore restaurants and majestic Alpine vistas. This region is home to the magical lakes of Como, Maggiore and Garda. The majestic Dolomites dominate the north, straddling Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto, a region dotted with medieval castles and modern skiing resorts. On the plain, the elegant cities of Verona, Vicenza and Padua are all noted for outstanding architecture, history and museums, while the rural hinterland boasts beautiful villas.
The beauty of the Tuscan landscape and towns such as San Gimignano and Lucca prove a perfect foil for the abundance of superlative art and architecture found here. Local festivals and pageants are held with centuries old pomp and ceremony such as the Palio in Siena, held each July and August. The combination of unforgettable art, glorious views and eminently drinkable wines that pair beautifully with the simple food of the region makes a trip to Tuscany something beyond special.
Florence casts a spell in the way that few cities can. Perhaps because of its sublime art, perhaps because of the views at sunset over the Arno, perhaps because of the way Florentine food and wine delight the palate. Or maybe it's because the city has not changed much since the 16th century. A monument to the Renaissance, visitors will delight in the architectural masterpieces of the Piazza della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio, Pitti Palace and Brunelleschi's magnificent Duomo whilst for art lovers the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia and the Bargello Gallery represent a cultural pilgrimage.
Naples is extraordinary, permeated with a sense of doom from living under the shadow of Vesuvius. Despite this, Naples remains one of the most vibrant cities in Italy. Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum reveal towns frozen in time since their burial in AD79 under the molten ash of Vesuvius. The excavations reveal everyday life held transfixed - the villas, the brothels, the marketplaces, temples and even its people .
A journey down the fabled Amalfi Coast sweeps past rocky cliffs plunging into the sea and small boats lying in sandy coves like brightly coloured fish. Lemon trees, loaded with blossom or fruit, line the road that must have a thousand turns, each with a different view, on its dizzying 43-mile journey from Sorrento to Salerno. Beautiful villages – Amalfi, Ravello and Positano – cling precariously to steep cliff sides facing the Mediterranean Sea whilst the islands of sophisticated Capri and its peaceful neighbour, Ischia, beckon.
Sicily has beckoned seafaring wanderers since the trials of Odysseus were first sung in Homer's Odyssey. The island has been a melting pot of great Mediterranean cultures: first Greek and Roman; then Arab and Norman; and finally French, Spanish and Italian. The evidence lies in the temples of Agrigento and Syracuse, the Monreale Cathedral near Palermo and the theatre at Taormina. A culture shock to some, Sicily presents an old world charm that has long since left the mainland. Nothing can beat the feeling of enjoying a sundowner on a warm Taormina evening with the Mediterranean lapping far below you, and the natural light show of Mount Etna playing in front of you as lava continues to roll down, as it has done for millennia.
Rome is a heady blend of artistic and architectural masterpieces, classical ruins and extravagant baroque churches and piazzas. The city's 2,700 years of history are on display everywhere, the term "living museum" has never been more appropriately used than with Rome. Julius Caesar and Nero, the Vandals and the Borgias, Raphael and Caravaggio, Napoleon and Mussolini - they and countless other political, cultural, and spiritual figures have all left their mark on Rome. This is where a metropolis once bustled around the carved marble monuments of the Roman Forum, where centuries later Michelangelo Buonarroti painted Christian history in the Sistine Chapel, where Gian Lorenzo Bernini's nymphs and naiads dance in their fountains, and where an empire of gold was worked into the crowns of centuries of rulers. Nestled in the heart of Rome is the world's smallest state, the Vatican City, home to the truly breath-taking Sistine Chapel.
Built entirely on water by men who dared defy the sea, Venice is like no other place in the world. This miraculous city imperturbably floating on its calm blue lagoon is often called La Serenissima, "the most serene," a reference to the monstrous power, majesty, and wisdom of this city that was for centuries the unrivalled leader in trade between Europe and the Orient, and the staunch bulwark of Christendom against the tides of Turkish expansion. Its most famous buildings, the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale are delightfully idiosyncratic, an exotic mix of Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance styles. The pretty islands of Murano and Burano, famous for their glass workshops and linens, lie within a pleasant boat cruise across the lagoon, as does Torcello, known for the illustrious Locanda Cipriani Restaurant. Venice is a place full of secrets, inexpressibly romantic, and at times given over entirely to pleasure.
The Istrian Peninsula lies at the foot of the Alps, nestled at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. Enchanting maritime towns dot the spectacular coastline, while inland Istria is a striking fusion of rolling hills with delightful fortified towns. Once the home of the Histrians, the Romans and the Venetians, Pula's colourful past is reflected in the splendid architecture, including one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. The idyllic medieval town of Rovinj provides a romantic escape for those seeking a sense of time gone by.
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is Mother Nature at her best. Described as one of the greatest natural wonders of Eastern Europe, the spectacular scenery is made up of five miles of shimmering turquoise lakes and cascading waterfalls linked by emerald forests and meadows of wild flowers.
The town of Sibenik lies at the heart of the Adriatic coast at the mouth of the river Krka, looking out over a picturesque lagoon towards the beautiful islands of Kornati. The old town is still magnificently medieval in its appearance, filled with ancient churches connected by an elaborate web of narrow stone paved streets. During the 15th and 16th centuries the city was known as the "Croatian City of Culture" as it was home to many of the country's composers, scientists, writers and artists.
Ljubljana is the relaxed and friendly capital of Slovenia, characterised by its beautiful Baroque architecture juxtaposed with the younger art nouveau designs. More recently, world-famous architect Jože Plečnik has made a notable mark on the city. The Three Bridges provide an elegant entrance into the Old Town which buzzes with restaurants, cafés, galleries and antique shops. A climb up the tower of Ljubljana Castle will be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the city.
Bled is a must-see spot for any visitor to Slovenia. Perched on a rock above the town lies Bled Castle, from which you are offered enchanting picture postcard views of the town and the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church, famously positioned on a small island in the pristine glacial lake. In the town, be sure to try some Kremšnita, Slovenia's famous custard cream cake.
Kotor's magnificent medieval architecture and famous monuments have resulted in an UNESCO World Heritage listing and the Cathedral of St Tryphon reflects a remarkable legacy of Roman culture. The striking city lies in an amazing fjord, rivalling those of Norway.
Budva dates back to the 5th century BC. Charmingly picturesque, the town sits upon a small peninsula, a treasure house of cultural heritage. With numerous sandy beaches and the exclusive resort of Sveti Stefan just a short excursion away, this is the perfect spot for a relaxing retreat.