If ever there was a country of contrasts, it is Italy. The lush, tranquil and stunningly beautiful countryside, with its magnificent lakes and mountains, vineyards and olive groves, and fertile abundance, enfolds towns and cities that are almost impossibly ancient but are still as frenetic and vibrant with the bustle and noise of modern life as any in the world.
Once a major part of the 'Grand Tour', travellers who visited this eclectic country found inspiration and enlightenment and came back enriched in both mind and soul. Today, for many travellers, the same applies.
Great Rail Journeys runs over 28 tours throughout Italy and there can be no doubt that travelling by rail is not only a comfortable and relaxing way to reach your destination, it is, in its own right, a wonderful way to see the ever-changing and fascinating landscape as you pass through. It allows you, as no other mode of transport can, to compare and connect the never-ending regional variations.
To highlight the contrasts, and show how they are always interrelated, let us take you from the northern mountains and lakes to the hearts of three of its most famous cities.
The incomparable beauty of the Gardone Riviera
The journey starts, as do so many of our European tours, beneath the magnificent pink stone grandeur of St Pancras International, from whence the Eurostar whisks you to Paris. The next day, the equally rapid and modern TGV takes you through the delightful countryside of France and Northern Italy to Milan. After a coach journey through the foothills of the Alps, the magnificence of Lake Garda and the Gardone Riviera bursts into view. Four Star comfort at the Hotel Savoy Palace awaits, and this will be the base for seven days of pure pleasure and delight.
With ample time to stroll along the promenade or to venture further afield, the true beauty of this jewel of a setting on the edge of Italy's largest lake becomes more and more apparent with every step and every glance from the shining levels of the water, to the towering mountain peaks that are reflected in the intense blue as they tumble down to the water's edge. The climate is mild here, as is demonstrated by the olive and citrus trees, palms and cypresses that abound. In fact, it has subtropical characteristics that led the poet Catulle to call it 'the beneficial lake'. No wonder a relaxed café society thrives along the promenade, and one of the gentlest pleasures of this sybaritic lifestyle is to sit on a terrace, sipping a coffee or glass of wine and to watch, not people as would be the pastime of the city, but the equally enigmatic and ever-evolving clouds that skirt or surround the peaks of the great Alpine prominences. A boat trip on the lake itself takes you to the island of Isola del Garda and the flower-filled gardens and gothic splendour of the villa that dominates it.
Sometimes, though, it is necessary to tear oneself away from this near-paradise in order to sample the other delights of the tour itinerary. The legendary city of Verona, famous as the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, is waiting to be explored, and the famous wine-growing area of Valpolicella is not far away. There is fine wine to taste at a co-operative winery, followed by a four-course dinner of homemade and totally authentic local dishes at a rustic farmhouse.
Although the centre of the tour is amongst the rural lake and mountains, excursions to both Venice and Milan are included. The highlight of the latter is a visit to the famous church and cloister of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci's painting of 'The Last Supper'.
With so much to see and do, the days fly past and, all too soon, it's time to leave and enjoy the journey home. Stepping off the train at St Pancras is like awaking from a wonderful dream, but with the lasting memories of having been to what can only be described as a fairytale paradise.
Visiting three of Italy's most historic and iconic cities in one tour allows for a unique opportunity to compare not only the architecture, location and heritage but also the lifestyles and attitudes of the residents, and the different cuisines. Travelling between them by rail allows them to be seen in the context of their settings and landscapes.
Venice has a location unlike any other city in the world, built with its feet literally in a lagoon on a group of 118 small islands, separated by canals and linked by bridges. The site has been inhabited since 1000 BC and was once the capital of the Republic of Venice and a major and wealthy maritime power in medieval and Renaissance times.
Today the charm of Venice is in its quirky and often incomprehensible layout and the incomparable beauty of its art and architecture. Tourism is now a major industry with over 50,000 visitors a day, which is increased during major events like the Venice Carnival, the Venice Film Festival and the art Biennale. As may be expected, the city is a major shopping venue and fashion centre, famous especially for its innovative handbags. Whist the cuisine is international, there are also local specialities based around seafood and the local garden produce. Don't miss the famous bisàto (marinated eel), risi e bisi of rice, peas and ham, and the golden, oval-shaped biscuits called baicoli.
Florence, by contrast, seems more sedate and relaxed. Historically, however, this was not the case. As a centre of wealth and influence, controlled by the powerful Medici family, it was riddled with politics and intrigue. The cultural legacy that remains is unsurpassed, thanks to the patronage of church and state that supported the work of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. Florence has been called the birthplace of the Renaissance and buildings such as The Duomo, whose dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi, and the unequalled Ponte Vecchio testify to this. Since 1982 it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks not only to the architecture that dominates the city but also to some world-class museums and galleries including the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace, home to art and sculpture that forms the stuff of legends.
As the largest city in Tuscany, the famous wines of Chianti feature prominently in Florentine restaurants - the perfect accompaniment to robust, meat-based dishes, from superb salamis and ham, to succulent meat and game roasted over open fires. Indulge in all the courses that are on offer and lunch can last well into the afternoon and dinner late into the night.
Rome was known as the Eternal City even among the ancient Romans themselves. It was so called because the Roman people thought that, no matter what happened to the world and however many other empires might rise and fall, Rome would go on forever. This attitude still prevails to some extent amongst Rome's inhabitants, resulting in an air of confidence - some might even say arrogance - that adds to the excitement and frisson of the city.
Who has not heard of the magnificent architectural edifices that abound in this city? The Colosseum, the Pantheon and Trajan's Column take the visitor directly back the times of the ancient Romans who ruled much of the then-known world; the power of the papacy is demonstrated by St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel; the influences of the Renaissance and the Baroque remain in the works of Bramante, Bernini and Raphael. Little wonder that Rome is Italy's most popular tourist destination, the 11th most visited city in the world and, rightly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Rome's cuisine has evolved through centuries and periods of social, cultural, and political change, with the result that the city has developed its own peculiar cuisine. Typical examples of Roman dishes include Saltimbocca alla Romana - a veal cutlet topped with ham and sage, Carciofi alla Romana - artichokes with the outer leaves removed, stuffed with mint, garlic, breadcrumbs, and braised, and the internationally-loved Spaghetti alla Carbonara - served with bacon, eggs and pecorino cheese.
Whether your preference is for the countryside or the cities of Italy - or, more likely, for both - there can be no better way to see this amazing country than on a Great Rail Journeys tour.