The drawing room of Europe

With its obvious lack of roads, Venice, Italy can challenge travellers of any age – but especially the less mobile.

But whether you get there on foot, water bus or gondola, there is one Venetian attraction that all visitors to Italy should see – the stunning Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), famously known as “the drawing room of Europe”.

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Although one of many wonders in Venice, the Piazza – as the widest piece of flat and open land in the city – has long been both a meeting place for the citizens and an architectural showcase.

This is our favourite spot in Venice and is impressive whether approached from the sea or through the heart of the city.

Located just off the Grand Canal, the Piazza San Marco was built in the ninth century as a small square dotted with trees.

Its centrepiece is St Mark’s Basilica, that sits on the eastern end of the square. Commissioned in 1071, this amazing church, with its ornate domes, is built in Venetian-Byzantine style.

The building is said to contains some of the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which were apparently stolen in 828 by Venetian merchants visiting the original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt.

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Big crowds of travellers, locals and pilgrims are attracted to the basilica. Before you even enter the building, eyes are automatically drawn to the remarkable murals and mosaics that decorate the exterior above the doors.

The basilica has a separate Campanile de San Marco (bell tower) that stands 98.6 metres tall.

This slender tower is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the piazza and the city as a whole.

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Alongside the basilica is the Palazzo Ducal (Doges’ Palace), once the headquarters of the rulers of Venice.

A beautiful Gothic structure, the Palazzo Ducal faces the Venetian lagoon and was completed in the early fifteenth century, though portions of it were rebuilt after a fire in 1574.

A paved area that extends from the Piazza San Marco around the Doges’ Palace is known as the Piazzetta, or little square and boasts it own wharf and tall, ornate columns topped by statues.

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Saint Mark’s Square is bordered on its other three sides by structures known as the Procuratie Veccie and Procurator Nuove, which date to the 12th and 16th centuries.

These connected buildings once housed the offices and apartments of public servants from the Venetian Republic, but are now popular arcades and cafes catering to the locals and tourists who can be found enjoying the atmosphere of the famous Piazza at any time of day.

We recommend the Gran Caffè Quadri and Caffe’ Lavena.

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Once again, if walking is not a problem, we suggest you wind your way to and from the Piazza along Venice’s narrow alleys called calle.

You’ll discover small squares (campi) where Venetians and their children seem to spend much of the day, – as well as many small shops and cafes that give so much life to this city.

 

Italy Venice

Favourite attraction: The Duomo of Florence, Italy

The skyline of Florence is completely dominated by the spectacular cathedral dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Every photograph or postcard we’d ever seen of this gorgeous Italian city had featured at least part of theimposing orange brick dome.

It was our first stop after checking-in to the Sheraton Florence.

Dwarfing the ancients

At 91 metres, the dome of the Duomo was designed to dwarf even the great buildings of ancient Greece and Rome.

As we climbed the 436 steps to the top, we quickly understood the enormous size of the cathedral, which is roughly as big as a modern football stadium, holding up to 20,000 people and is the tallest building in Florence.

White, green and pink marble

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The cathedral is elegantly partnered with the adjoining Campanile, an 85-metre tower built in 1359 and clad in the same white, green and pink Tuscan marble that adorns the Duomo.

We recommend exploring the crypt that contains the remains of the 4th Century church of Santa Reparata, which was demolished in 1296 to make way for the Duomo.

Check the ‘Gates of Paradise’

Near the main entrance, across the Piazza Di San Giovanni, you’ll see another of the oldest buildings in Florence, the Baptistry, perhaps also dating to the 4th Century.

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Once inside, look up at the colourful mosaics above the large octagonal font where many famous Florentines, such as Dante, were baptised.

Outside, you’ll marvel at the ornate golden-coloured East Doors, dubbed by Michelangelo as the “Gates of Paradise”.

Tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo

The other major church in Florence’s City Centre East is the Santa Croce, which contains the tombs of many great Florentines including Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Leonardo Bruni.

Santa Croce is also clad in coloured marble

IMG_0268Getting there

Florence, which is often described as the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’ is the heart of Italy’s Tuscany Region, north of Rome.

Trains run between the two cities from Rome Termini and Tiburtina stations.

Fast train connections cover the trip in about one-and-a-half hours, while slower trains take between two and four hours.

The A1 Autostrada (toll road) connects Rome to Florence, a distance of 180 miles or 250 kilometres.

A trip between the two cities usually takes about two hours and 53 minutes.

Florence can also be reached directly by air.

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Features Florence

A wonderland in the Italian Alps

Lake Maggiore, northern ItelyOh how I would love to return to Lake Maggiore – surely one of the most beautiful and beguiling of destinations.

Deep in Northern Italy, where the Alps rise snow-capped and shrouded in mist to Switzerland, the lake and its communities are breath-taking.

Put simply, this place should be on every bucket list.

Alpine magic

Beyond the fertile plains of Lombardy and the wine country of Piedmont, the Italian Alps dominate the landscape.IMG_0349

Thickly wooded areas hug impossibly steep slopes above alpine lakeland of unbelievable beauty.

For centuries, much has been said and written about this wonderland, but it’s still hard to be prepared for the majesty that awaits.

As we journeyed to our hotel near the town of Stresa, we quickly realised that the whole area is a traveller’s dream – a feast of sightseeing where traditional Italian lifestyles have long existed alongside villas of the rich and famous.

Isola Bella

IMG_0320Unfortunately, on this occasion, we had come in search of one particular attraction: the remarkable Isola Bella, or “beautiful island”.

One of Italy’s leading attractions, Isola Bella is one of three Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore, which is Italy’s second biggest lake at 66 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide.

The striking, somewhat flamboyant and unreal appearance of its red-roofed palazzo, or palace and tiered gardens, is known world-wide.IMG_0321

Less well known is Isola Bella’s  role in a futile attempt to prevent World War II.

But, all of this combined draws huge numbers of visitors  and was the main reason we found our way to this charming area.

It didn’t take long, however, to realise that Stresa and Lake Maggiore is one of the most memorable of destinations  – regardless of Isola Bella.

However, the island visit is still something I recommend.IMG_0324

Floating wedding cake

Approaching Isola Bella by ferry, the overwhelming impression is layers of gardens piled on top of one another, like a huge wedding cake, topped by a red-roofed palazzo.

Local Governor, Carlo Borromeo the Third apparently obtained land on what was then known as the island of Isola Inferiore in 1630.  He soon began planning a residence there – and renamed  the island after his wife Isabella.IMG_0322

Carlo’s sons later created not just a simple villa, but a palace worthy of entertaining the greatest nobility of Europe. Soil was brought in from the mainland and the gardens were not completed until 1671.

Today, the palazzo  rises above the small medieval fishing village on one end of Isola Bella.

The sumptuous rooms are filled with family heirlooms and treasures, including historical tapestries that date to about 1565.

Secret war talks

IMG_0326The Sala di Musica is the most famous room, where in April of 1935,  Italian dictator Mussolini, met  representatives of the French and English governments in a last-ditch and unsuccessful attempt to stave off the Second World War by forming an alliance against Nazi Germany.

But it is outside where visitors can be seen shaking their heads in amazement.

Formal gardens are large and grand, but an abundance of massive statues, obelisks, spheres, tropical plants, coral grottos and wandering white peacocks give an impressive of unreality.

IMG_0336The gardens seem almost deliberately ‘over the top’ and overwhelming, yet the whole package is distinctly unique.

Quite simply, it would be hard to find another Isola Bella.  It’s undeniably unforgettable – especially in its stunning setting.

How to get there

About 20 trains a day run to Stresa  from the main railway stations at Milan.  The journey will take about one-and-a-half hours.IMG_0319

From the city’s Porta Garibaldi station, take one of the 10 regional trains heading for Domodossola.

Alternatively, from Milan’s Centrale station, take one of the six regional trains heading for Domodossola or one of the five international trains heading for Geneva.

You can also make the journey from Milan by bus. From the Lampugnano underground station, 2 buses a day go to Stresa.

There are shuttles to the trains and buses from Milan’s main airports – and it’s relatively easy to reach Stresa  from Switzerland.

Once there, you don’t necessarily need a car in the Lake Maggiore area, as it is easy to  see most of the natural beauty and attractions on foot or by ferry.

Where to stay at Stresa

See this list of hotels

 

Italian Lakes

Don’t miss the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assissi, Italy

Although the basilica at Assissi is well known as a site for Christian pilgrims drawn to the crypt of Saint Francis, the architecture and views of the area are also a magnet for travellers.

The town of Assissi is part of the province of Perugia in the Umbria region, on the western flank of Monte Subasio.

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Along with a adjoining friary for the Franciscan order of monks, the basilica sits high on a hill, a striking landmark as you approach Assisi.

It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.

Started in 1228, the basilica includes two churches known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, and a tomb containing the remains of Saint Francis of Assissi.

The interior of the Upper Church is an important early example of the Gothic style in Italy.

Overall, the basilica is an impressive site with incredible views over the surrounding countryside.

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