If you are planning a trip to Italy this year here are a few ideas for marvellous things to do, some of them unusual, some of them not, none of them expensive!
Tuscany - Visit La Vialla
Fattoria La Vialla, (www.lavialla.it) home of the Lo Franco family since 1978, is one of the largest and oldest organic farms in the Chianti area of Tuscany. This beautiful estate is 8km north of Arezzo, on the SP56 at Castiglioni Fibocchi. Visit here at lunchtime and you feel as if you have joined a film set or are in one of those 'change of lifestyle' TV series. The difference is that this is real! One can sit under a tree at a rustic table and be served the most delicious cheeses, salumi, salads, breads and wine; all organic, all produced on the farm, and for around 12 euros! After the feast a walk around the estate beckons, followed by a visit to the 'little shop' to stock up on wonderful goodies to take home; and don't forget to sign up for a copy of their mail-order book. Scrumptious!
Liguria - Take a trip to Noli
If you drive the Coast Road along the Italian Riviera delle Palme, between Albenga and Savona, you will find Noli - the 5th Maritime Republic! It is hard to believe that this little town was an independent republic, albeit under the protection of Genoa, for six centuries from 1202 to 1797. Nowadays, with a palm fringed beach in front and an ancient ruined castle on top of Mount Ursino behind the town, Noli is filled with narrow alleys and small piazzas, a pretty colonnade lines the sea-front, in the evenings fishermen sell their catch on the beach. If you would like to stay in Noli the Hotel Italia in Corso Italia, doubles from 110 euros, is right on the promenade, the more modest Albergo Romeo, doubles from 50 euros, is tucked away in the Via Colombo. Both have simple, comfortable rooms and good food. Charming.
Venice - Shop in the Rialto Market early in the morning
Rise early in the morning and take the nearest vaporetto to the Rialto Market, around 7am. The chances are you will be the only tourists on board, sharing the ride with the workers, slightly bleary-eyed as the boat pushes its way through the mist. There has been a market on this same spot for over a thousand years, the servants of mediaeval merchants bought their fish here, in 1969 the great Elizabeth David shopped here for 'bruscandoli' (wild hop-shoots), only available for a couple of weeks in spring, after eating a risotto made with them. After you have watched the market traders unload their boats and marvelled at the mountains of glittering fish and sparkling fresh vegetables, take a coffee and pastry at a workers' cafe, before you make your way back to your hotel or flat. For a good, medium-priced hotel, La Forcola in Canneregio, double rooms from 80 euros, is recommended. Memorable.
Florence - Attend mass in the Duomo
Sit under the great dome of the cathedral, built by Bruneleschi, completed in 1436, amongst the Florentine worshippers, gaze up at Vasari's fresco Last Judgement, breathe the aroma of incense and witness the ancient Catholic Rite. This is the finest way to experience this marvel of Renaissance architecture. Please remember that, even if we don't share the beliefs of others, we must respect them. Try not to chat, switch off mobile phones and don't take photos during the service, just sit back and enjoy the experience. WayToStay for a wide selection (flat for two from 550 euros per week) and good service. Spiritual.
Orvieto - Go down St Patrick's Well
Going down a well may sound a bit odd, to say the least, but this well is like no other. Built by order of Pope Clement VII, who fled here from Rome in 1527, to provide a water supply to the town in the event of siege, it took 10 years to complete. That is because Orvieto, in Italy's Umbria region, is built on a great outcrop of volcanic rock and the water turned out to be over 60 metres down. The sixteenth century engineers built a double spiral stairway big enough to allow mules to go down and return without bumping into each other, presumably because they didn't have rope long enough! Now we can travel down the 248 steps, lit by 72 internal windows, and back up another 248 steps, all for 4.50 euros. For accommodation in Orvieto, I like the friendly B&B Palazzo del Cardinale in Via Malabranda, doubles from 65 euros. Awe-inspiring.
Pisa - Eat at the 'Teatro Vecchio'
Dinner 'al Vecchio Teatro' in Piazza Dante, Pisa, in north-west Italy, is one one of the more memorable dining experiences. Here the menu proudly proclaims that "We are not in Paris, nor London or New York, neither in Rome, we are only in Pisa," and the cooking is decidedly Pisan! Plump for the 'menu degustazione' (35 euros, including house wine) and you will be treated to four courses or services. Each service consists of several dishes, mostly involving fish, together with risotto, ravioli, vegetables, salads, breads etc (don't worry about the menu, take a copy home to read later). The fourth service will bring desserts from the four quarters of Pisa and the whole meal is rounded off with 'brodo di Giuggiole,' a kind of alcoholic punch designed to help digestion. Two visits to Hotel Minerva in Piazza Toniolo, doubles from 70 euros, have not disappointed. Gastronomic.
Santa Margherita Ligure - Join the Festa della Primavera
How can anyone resist a band called Banda Rumpi e Streppa? Every Spring, about the third weekend in March, the towns folk of Santa Margherita Ligure, on the Italian Riviera, celebrate the end of winter with their Festa Della Primavera (www.festadellaprimavera.it). A wonderful, exuberant display involving the 'Falo' (a bonfire on the beach), a firework display, dancing, several bands, including the incomparabley bizarre, Rumpi e Streppa. At lunch time on Sunday a great team of chefs, dressed in striped shirts and tall white hats, preside over vast pans, frying the traditional frisceu (sort of fritters, both sweet and savoury), which are freely offered to all comers along with local white Cinque Terre wine. Afterwards try a supper at the Trattoria da Pezzi, in via Cavour, for excellent farinata and fresh frittura misti or a Dover sole (meal for two, incl. house wine, less than 40 euros).The 2 star Albergo Nuova Riviera in Via Belvedere is a nice little family-run albergo, doubles from 85 euros. Exuberant.
Sicily - Take the bus from Taormina to Castelmola
Fashionable and expensive, with fantastic views, Taormina, on Sicily's eastern coast, has long been the destination of the rich and famous; but there is one memorable little trip we can all experience for a couple of euros. Catch the regular service bus from Taormina to Castelmola (timetable free from the tourist office in Palazzo Corvaja by the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele). This is a white-knuckle ride, the little road winds up through hair-pin bends past precipitous drops to the small village high above the town. Watch the locals cross themselves as they clamber aboard, join the round of applause as the driver gets the bus through impossibly narrow gaps and, finally, take a drink in the Bar San Giorgio in Piazza San Antonio when you arrive (you'll need one!). The village itself is charming, with little streets, steps and alleys. There are several restaurants, some with views of Mount Etna, and a footpath to walk back down to Taormina. Precipitous.