Route one: Pilgrim’s progress
Following in Napoleon’s footsteps (or hoof prints – he travelled by mule) over the historic Great St Bernard Pass, this journey connects Martigny in Switzerland with Aosta, in Italy. Start in leisurely style by the shores of Lake Geneva, then over the Alps and on to Turin, followed by fashionable Milan, Parma, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Orvieto then Rome. Journey length: Approx 559 miles
Geneva’s serene location betwixt lake and mountainside inspires clean-living among its inhabitants who are keen skiers, hikers and climbers. You can raise your heart rate by pacing the attractive, cobbled Old Town overlooked by St Peter’s Cathedral. Once there, climb the North Tower (a 157-step slog) for a panoramic view of the smart city and of Geneva Lake, with its fountain gushing up to 140 metres – a potent symbol of the city’s strength. Precision is a very Swiss art and, to see what makes Geneva tick, pop into the Patek Philippe Museum, which tells the story of five centuries of watch making.
Timing was once essential for the next stretch of this journey – which used to be rendered impossible by the heavy winter’s snowfall. (The summer road still closes over winter). Pilgrims undertaking the Via Francigena route between Canterbury and Rome have toiled over the pass for centuries. Daunting drops and sweeping vistas come with the territory.
Your pilgrimage continues to the Italian city of Turin. Here, one of the most famous Christian relics, the Turin Shroud, is on display from 19 April to 24 June in the 15th century Cathedral. The Guarini Chapel, where the shroud is kept, is a Baroque masterpiece in its own right. Guarini, the architect behind the Chapel, is also responsible for the Royal Church of San Lorenzo with its elaborate dome.
Those who prefer clean lines and industrial heritage can eat lunch overlooking the rooftop racetrack (where a race scene from The Italian Job was filmed) at the old Fiat factory in the Lingotto District.
Motor on from here to Milan, sip on Campari and soda and see one of the world’s great masterpieces, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It was painted on the wall of the Dominican Convent next to the church of Sante Marie delle Grazie between 1494 and 1498 and is still a wonder to behold.
When you’ve had your fill, move on to Parma, which, with its famed prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and parmesan, is more relaxed. Gourmands can walk off the calories in the Ducal Park, along Parma River, admiring the marble statues and Neoclassical vases by Jean Baptiste Boudard or when delving into the Ducal Palace to see its 18th century staircase and frescoes depicting everything from cupids to myriad varieties of birds.
If Parma is the primi piatti, Bologna, your next stop, is the main course. Off impressive Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero – or old city food market where noisy sellers and enticing food stalls enliven and perfume the narrow streets. Inner glutton satisfied, you can pay homage to Bologna’s patron saint in the 11th century Chiesa del Crocifisso off Piazza Santo Stefano, which houses his bones.
A 90-minute drive from Bologna is beautiful Florence. Grom, on Via del Campanile, is a very good place for gelato. Art lovers will be sated by the magnificent Uffizi, home to truly inspiring works of Renaissance art – Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Spring among them. Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio are all on the walls.
Beware ‘Florence syndrome’ though: the art is so sublime it can cause fainting and dizziness. Buy your ticket online (uffizi.org) and avoid the lengthy queues.
A little over an hour south will bring you to the attractive walled city of Siena. Ditch your car and cycle the perimeter of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Those with a sporting bent will know that Siena’s Piazza del Campo, the enormous medieval square, is where the annual Palio horse race takes place (in July and August). The rest of the year, it is a joy to wander. Don’t miss the strikingly monochrome cathedral, which has an even more arresting interior, with an alter-piece by Nicholas Pisano and sculptures by a young Michelangelo.
By now, Rome is in your sights – a two-hour drive away. But pause halfway at Orvieto, perched handsomely on a rocky plateau. Walking the path around the tufa rock will reveal Orvieto’s Etruscan tombs, a church built into a cave, a medieval aqueduct, 13th century convent and communal gardens as well as untangling car weary legs. Catch the funicular from Piazza Cahen back to the bottom and onward to your Grand Roman finale.
WHERE TO STAY
Swish Hotel Lungarno provides one of the best vantage points from which to view the Ponte Vecchio lungarnocollection.com
Campo Regio Relais is a 16th century B&B in the heart of Siena, which has its own frescoes camporegio.com
Route two: Lure of the lakes
This route begins in Venice before following the east coast to lakeside Comacchio and Ravenna. From here you will cross the Apennines before dropping into Perugia and Terni. Journey length: Approx 328 miles
So well-illustrated is this lovely Lagoon city, first-time visitors will find it familiar. But even Canaletto cannot rival the real thing. Its charm – and crowds – are overwhelming. Rise above it all by climbing the Bell Tower of St Giorgio Maggiore, which offers views across St Mark’s Square. Or take to the Grand Canal, on a vaporetto (water taxi) to admire the elegant waterside palazzos. Stop at the Guggenheim for 20th century art and imagine what it must have been like to live here – as Peggy Guggenheim and the Marchesa Casati once did. If Renaissance art is more to your taste, the atmospheric Scuola di San Rocco filled with paintings by Tintoretto, is close by.
Glorious as Venice is, it is tricky to get a sense of real Italian life here. Rev up then to Comacchio (less than a two hour’s drive away). Its canal-side streets and attractive bridges, particularly Treppontini built in 1638, are much less busy. Comacchio lagoon (where fisheries once thrived) is home to bird-life including over 10,000 flamingoes and the local delicacy, eels and boat trips run from the lagoon’s visitor centre from March to October.
Alternatively, you could simply drive alongside Comacchio Lagoon, en route to Ravenna, roughly 22 miles south along the lido-lined coast. The capital city three times between the 5th and 6th centuries AD, Ravenna had clout. Now it is home to some truly fine Byzantine art and Christian monuments. The Church of San Vitale is filled with Byzantine mosaics and decoration and you can learn about the history of Ravenna’s mosaics at the Tamo museum in the city centre. If you resisted the siren call of the sea on the way then Ravenna is also within easy distance of the Adriatic coast and several resorts, lidos and lovely stretches of beach.
Leaving the coast behind, cast off into Italy’s middle and Perugia, a little over two hour’s drive. The historic centre of Umbria’s capital will lure you in with its pale pink Palazzo dei Priori and one of Italy’s oldest churches – circular Sant’Angelo, which dates from the 5th and 6th centuries. Those with a sweet tooth should linger at the city’s periphery to find Italy’s answer to Willy Wonka – the Museo Storico Perugina and chocolate factory responsible for Italy’s iconic Baci (meaning kisses) chocolates.
The Italian’s do romance with unabashed gusto and your next stop, Terni, gets to the heart of it all. The town’s patron saint is St Valentine – and he is celebrated with spirit every February. The lover’s hero was buried in the early 17th century Basilica of St Valentine, so this is the place to make any heartfelt appeals.
Those seeking a romantic spot – or just somewhere scenic to stretch the legs – should steer 15 minutes south east from Terni to the manmade Marmore Falls, in a lush forested park. This should be tonic enough to fuel you for the final leg of the journey to Rome.
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Hotel Sitea is in Turin’s historic centre and has its own courtyard garden
Babuino 181 is a 19th century palazzo with modern amenities romeluxurysuites.com