Italian Odyssey

The Grand Canal of Venice

ITALY - The grandeur of imperial Rome remains undiminished despite Italy's economic malaise as the multitudes throng the Colosseum like ancient times when spectators were drawn to it for blood sport.

Roman ruins still excite the imagination like Berlusconian parties. Each step on the cobbled streets tells a story. Rome wasn't built in a day but the city of grand monuments and ancient glories can electrify in seconds.

Like the high you get in the charge up Bramante Staircase in the Vatican (by jumping the queue) for a breathtaking view of papal history over two millennia, or when you gaze at the ceiling of Sistine Chapel to reaffirm Michelangelo's genius.

Racing through Rome and the Vatican in two hours is a feat of restrained animation, like watching a suspenseful thriller and missing the climax.

But good things must wait. We compress time in the capital to stretch it on the country roads of Umbria and Tuscany as we make our way in central Italy to Venice, icing on the holiday cake.

The coach weaves its way out of the congested streets and heads north past rivers and rolling meadows to Perugia, stopping for lunch in Orvieto, a slow food town with a 2,500-year-old history and an imposing Gothic cathedral that once was the centre of papal power. We watch Etruscan master chef Lorenzo Polegri make the perfect pasta.

Insight Vacations, one of Europe's top tour operators, plans the journey meticulously to provide an experience about travelling in comfort and style. The coach has wifi and configured with fewer seats for more legroom. It's also a culinary adventure.

As the autumn evening darkens, we speed past Deruta, where the porcelain moon high above lights up a town famous for its ceramics.

The peal of church bells sharpens the senses on Sunday in Assisi, the spiritual heart of Italy and hometown of Saint Francis, whose life of abstinence, poverty and devotion to the poor inspires millions of devotees around the world.

Rewarding the senses

We leave the town of limestone churches and linden trees for Spello to find the olive groves of Frantoio Ragani and taste a freshly harvested crop cold-pressed for extra virgin oil. The fruity fragrance invigorates.

Toasted bread sprinkled with salt and dipped in extra virgin olive oil whets the appetite as a starter for Italian indulgence in a long lunch at Il Molino, an award-winning restaurant housed in an antique mill.

Marco, our guide in Spello, tells stories with a theatrical flourish. Insight Vacations engages experts like him for his local knowledge. Tour director Belinda Richardson provides commentary in the bus and people like Marco guide us through the maze of local history when we hit town.

Spello lives up to its baroque style with a floral tradition in an individualistic country where every town is different in history, culture and customs. Once a year on Corpus Christi, the entire Umbrian town is bedecked with flowers everywhere.

Leaving Tuscany, we drive past Hannibal's battleground and the scenes of ancient Rome's military defeats.

We ascend the hills to Cortona, where the ramparts of stone walls 2,800 years old still stand among olive trees and cypress vines.

As we walk, the scent of rosemary bushes pervades the air in the wooded Tuscany countryside before the sun burns away the mist. Not far away is the village of Fonterutoli, where the Marquis of Mazzei family has made wines since 1435.

The cavernous cellar - one side is a natural limestone wall where clear spring water drips to cool the air for wine ageing in the wooden casks - is like no other in Italy.

Lunch is pasta diced with minced wild boar meat. It goes down well with the saline taste of white wine from the coast. Time moves slowly in this sprawling estate, one of the country's top ten oldest vineyards. The family's private library has a collection of books and papers that hark back to Machiavelli's day in the 15th century.

We spend the night in Borgo San Luigi, a Renaissancestyle villa amid the quiet Chianti vineyards. The fireplace keeps us warm. Our rooms are homely with Tuscan terracotta floor, wooden rafters and four-poster beds.

After a trip to the scenic town of San Gimignano to sample Gelato World Champ Sergio's prize-winning ice cream, we return to the villa for a romp in the countryside on a bicycle. The rain hardly dampens spirits.

The passage through the Apennines to the industrial heartlands in Maranello is pleasant. Makers of Ferrari and other famous marques, the Italians have built superb highways to match their fast cars. From Bologna we board the bus for the final stretch, then hop into a boat for a cruise up the Grand Canal of Venice.

Bauers Venezia, where we stay, faces the famous waterway next to the magnificent Roman Catholic baroque church Santo Maria Della Salute.

Of all the hotels we checked into, three stand out. Regina Baglioni in Rome has connections with an Italian queen; Borgo San Luigi is splendid in its medieval charm; and Bauers Venezia is exemplary with its 17th century Gothic Byzantine façade.

Our inimitable guide Anna hums with wit and humour as she keeps us engaged about how Venetians like her are constantly engaged in battle with the elements to stay above the waterline. When the tide is high and seawater rises, they stack up walkways and it's business as usual.

Venice is fast sinking, forever flooded and always wet. Yet the tourists keep coming for the Grand Canal, ornate palaces, gondolas, and singing boatmen in zebra-striped T-shirts.

In light and shadow, Piazza San Marco is intriguing by night and stupendous by day when the magnificence of its Romanesque carvings and grand arches are clearly apparent.

We take a boat to lunch in Romano Osteria, an eatery popular with celebrities in Burano island, where the landmark is a leaning bell tower. The signature dish, risotto cooked in squid ink, is unforgettable.

Travelling with Insight Vacations is an experience, not just a tour, says its president and CEO John Boulding. Insight's country road trips are customised to make a difference. For well-heeled Asians who want high culture, high fashion and hip food, he packages Puccini, Prada and pasta all in one go.

The writer's trip was organised and conducted by Insight Vacations.

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