Stretching for 50km (31mi) along a promontory from Sorrento to Salerno is some of Europe's most beautiful coastline. The road hugs the zigzagging bends and curves of the cliffy coast, overlooking intensely blue waters and passing picture-postcard villages that cling to the cliff walls like matchbox houses.Positano is the first port of call out of Sorrento, and it's truly sublime: tiered arcades of rose- and honey-coloured houses hover precariously over an iridescent sea, and further investigation reveals cafes and hotels to die for. Farther around several intervening bends is Amalfi. Its former status as a supreme naval power that rivalled Pisa and Genoa is evident from its arsenal and imposing duomo. Hairpin bends separate Amalfi from Ravello, which sits like a balcony overlooking the bay. Its duomo has an interesting pulpit with six lions carved at its base, and several villas and their beautiful gardens add to its attractions. Salerno has seen it all, from Etruscan to Roman and medieval times. Unfortunately, the city was extensively damaged during WWII, as it was one of the Allies' major landing sites.
Walled Assisi is miraculous: it has somehow managed to retain some tranquil refuges amid the tourist hubbub. Perched halfway up Mt Subasio, the visual impact of its shimmering white marble buildings is magnificent. The city is dominated by the massive 14th-century Rocca Maggiore - a hill fortress that offers fabulous views over the valley and back to Perugia. St Francis was born here in 1182, and work began on his basilica two years after his death in 1228. It's a magnificent tribute to the patron saint of animals, with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Martini. Relics from Imperial days include the excavated forum and the pillared facade of the Temple of Minerva; Roman foundations are a common feature of many buildings. The town's many churches include Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro, St Clare and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
The cultural and historical impact of Florence can be overwhelming. Close up, however, the city is one of Italy's most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval centre that contributed so much to the cultural and political development of Europe. Unfortunately, it can also be one of Italy's most clogged tourist traps, with up to 2000 tourist buses arriving daily in the peak season.Where Rome is a historical hot-pot, Florence is like stepping back into a Fiat and Vespa-filled Renaissance: the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, the trademark Duomo, the gem-filled Uffizi Gallery, the turreted Piazza della Signoria and the Medici Chapels. Thankfully, these unforgettables are all within walking distance of each other.
Visitors come to Milan for its fashion, cuisine, opera, church (the world's fourth-largest), Renaissance castle and da Vinci's Last Supper fresco. But this is very much a working city, the country's business and finance capital. Shopping is huge, the food is legendary and nightclubbing is the best (thanks to the presence of the country's largest gay community).The huge city sprawls for miles, but the main historical attractions can be found between the two most important: the huge cathedral - commissioned in 1386 and still unfinished - and the spiky Sforza castle. The Piazza del Duomo is bordered by the world's most beautiful shopping mall: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Resist the cafes and boutiques and you emerge opposite opera's sacred shrine: La Scala. Its museum is pretty good too. Milan has plenty of art galleries and collections, but the most popular venue is the Vinciano Refector, which is home to the Last Supper.
Naples & Pompei
Energetic Naples, capital of the Campania, is set on the beautiful Bay of Naples and overshadowed by Mt Vesuvius. It's one of Europe's most densely populated cities and throbs with the hubbub of workers and city dwellers, its narrow streets crowded with people dodging overhanging washing and speeding Vespas.Naples' historic centre features the church-encrusted Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, the duomo, the Palazzo Reale and San Carlo Opera House. The 13th-century Castel Nuovo overlooks the ferry port, and further along the waterfront there's a Norman castle, surrounded by a tiny fishing village, the Borgo Marinaro. The National Archaeological Museum contains a fine collection of Greco-Roman art, and the priceless treasures discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum.Easily accessible from Naples is enigmatic Pompei, the thriving resort town for wealthy Romans that was buried under ash and mud during the devastating eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. The vast ruins provide a fascinating insight into how the ancient Romans lived, and include impressive temples, a forum, one of the largest known Roman amphitheatres, luxurious houses with frescoes and mosaics, and streets lined with shops.
There's no escaping it: Rome means history. There's layers of the stuff - Etruscan tombs, Republican meeting rooms, Imperial temples, early-Christian churches, medieval bell towers, Renaissance palaces and baroque basilicas. In this city a phenomenal concentration of history, legend and monuments coexists with an equally phenomenal concentration of people busily going about their everyday life. It's hard to say what you'll find most breathtaking about the eternal city, the arrogant opulence of the Vatican, the timelessness of the Forum, the top speed of a Fiat Bambino or the bill for your latte.
Ramparts - just one of the many vestiges of the city's medieval prime - still crown the hills that surround gentle Siena. Its many reddish-brown buildings gave the world 'burnt sienna,' and a thriving cultural scene was dubbed the Sienese school in the 13th and 14th centuries. Plague and autocrats from the Viscontis to the Medicis brought urban growth and cultural finesse to a screaming halt, the rot setting in with the plague of 1348, which killed 65,000 of the city's 100,000 people. Fortunately, Italy's finest medieval square - the Piazza del Campo - was finished just in time, with the graceful town hall and emblemic tower nearby. Siena's duomo is a stunner, with black and white stripes of marble on the facade. Palazzos, piazzas, art collections, museums and churches are scattered throughout the easily walkable old town, making Siena a great destination for visitors who like to see things from the pavement up.
There's no escaping it: Venice is unique. For a start, this is a pedestrian's city on a very human scale; cars are almost nonexistent, and beguiling narrow paths take the place of ugly city roads. The harmonious architecture seems to have sprung uniformly from somewhere between the 12th and 16th century, its secretive walls and enticing balconies sparkling with flashes of water glimpsed through cracks and windows. Dark paths suddenly emerge into the clear, bright daylight of a pigeon-packed piazza or cross the city's myriad canals by way of numerous and wonderful little bridges. The atmosphere is magical and inexplicably festive.The city is built on 117 small islands, and is linked to the mainland service town of Mestre by a road and rail causeway. The Grand Canal insinuates itself around the city, emerging at the unforgettable vista of Piazza San Marco, boasting its campanile, Doges' Palace, St Mark's Basilica and elegant piazza. The Bridge of Sighs links the palace to the gloomy old prisons, and the bobbing gondolas are overlooked by the stunning Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore and del Redentore churches. It takes only half an hour or so to walk from the train station to San Marco - if you can resist the temptation to take one of the many paths that diverge from the main drag (Lista di Spagna). To appreciate the fine palaces that line the Grand Canal, swallow your 'but I'm not really a tourist' phlegm and take a gondola.The Accademia Bridge leads to a quieter Venice and the Galleria dell'Accademia, with its collection of Venetian masters. The nearby Peggy Guggenheim Gallery updates your walk through history and art, with its fine collection of early-20th-century works.Venice is surrounded by equally enchanting islands: the Lido (forever linked with Tommy Mann, Dirk and Death in Venice), Murano (the home of Venetian glass), Burano (famous for its lace) and strangely time-warped Torcello, with its Byzantine cathedral.
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