My special place in Europe – Northern Italy and Tuscany

I suspect that most people who have travelled a lot have their favourite overseas places.  Places that they would like to go back to or even live in.

My three sons all have their own favourite places. For two of my sons their favourite places are in the US – for one it is New York and for the other Chicago. For my oldest son, it is the South of France. The South of France certainly has much to recommend it – a warm, dry climate; beautiful countryside; easy access to the coast (the Riviera); and a typical French approach to life involving lots of wine and food.

But for me, my favourite place is Northern Italy and Tuscany – they are effectively adjoining areas and are bounded on the northern side by the mountains which lead to the adjoining countries of France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Part of the appeal is the Italian people who are almost instinctively friendly and helpful and provide a welcoming environment.

Although a tad temperamental compared with other European countries, there is also an excellent train network which enables point to point travel to the centre points for local exploration. But be prepared for the unexpected. We have more than once had the experience of waiting for a scheduled train which never arrived!! In the end, we had to make it up as we went along. We also had a nerve-wracking experience travelling from Venice via Milan to the French city of Perpignan.

The Milan/Perpignan was an overnight train with sleeping cabins on board. We were halfway between Venice and Milan when our train suddenly stopped for no apparent reason and just sat for about 15 minutes – unfortunately that 15 minutes was needed for us to make our connection with the Milan/Perpignan train. We remonstrated with the conductor about this suggesting he might phone ahead to have the connecting train delayed, which was not helped by his poor English and (to be fair) our almost non-existent Italian.

To our surprise and relief, all the Italian passengers in the carriage came to our rescue and with much loud argument and gesturing, “bullied” the conductor into phoning Milan about the delay. In the end, it turned out that they had held the train for us, and a couple of other travellers in Milan, so it all ended well.

In the process, we had an experience worthy of Harry Potter and the train to Hogwarts. Our train was due to depart from Platform 3A I think it was, but as we walked along – or rather struggled through the crowd – we passed Platforms 1,2,3 and 4 – there was a no sign of 3A!  We must have spent 5 minutes frantically looking for it, but finally found it tucked around a corner with no indication of what it was or how to get there. The train had obviously been waiting for us as it started moving while we were still hauling out luggage into the carriage!

The was not the last of our experiences on that train. It turned out that the French rail people had decided to go on strike for 3 hours in the middle of the night and we came to a grinding halt as soon as the train had passed the Italy/France border. As a result, we were 3 hours late in arriving at Perpignan where we were being met – 9 am instead of 6 am. That all turned out well, however, as they gave us breakfast on the train rather than having to find breakfast when we arrived at 6 am.

Tuscany is a relatively small area compared with Northern Italy and the ideal centre point for local exploration is the medieval city of Sienna. Sienna is famous for the annual horse race around the city centre square featuring each of the major families of the city. This race actually featured at the start of a recent James Bond film. Sienna is interesting to get to know and is an old city with many historical points of interest. But for me it would not rate as a great place to live. The real appeal of Tuscany lies in the rolling hills and valleys of the countryside – famous for the quality and variety of the food and the home for such famous wine varieties as Chianti.

One of the lesser known facts is the great number of wine varieties that find a home there – reputedly over a 1,000. Sampling every wine variety available in Italy would be a massive undertaking but not without its attractions!!!

If you like sightseeing then a must is the leaning tower in Pisa, which is about on the boundary between Tuscany and Northern Italy.

Northern Italy is quite different in that it is a much larger slice of Italy and is famous more for its history, art and scenery than anything else. The food and wine are still great.  In the far north, once you get into the lakes, like Lake Como, the scenery is breath-taking. A popular tourist trip is to take the ferry up Lake Como – have lunch at one of lakeside villages – and then catch the ferry back to Como. Como itself is well worth exploring but you need to walk into the old town – the lakefront is entirely taken up with restaurants and hotels.

There are some great and famous cities in the area. Of particular note are Florence, famous for its art galleries and architecture, and Venice.  Milan also deserves more than an honourable mention. But our favourite place is Venice, or at least it was. When my wife and I first visited Venice in the late 1970s there were tourists aplenty, but not unduly so. I understand that Venice is now positively overloaded with tourists and that is both degrading the experience of being there and is not doing Venice any good either.  The city is gradually sinking and I guess will one day be uninhabitable.

Why did we love Venice? – first and foremost for the canals which wind their way all over the city and provide a unique way for getting around, whether by gondola or water taxi. But we particularly love all the little lanes and streets that run throughout Venice and can serve up all sorts of out of the way attractions in the form of shops and restaurants. For all the problems from overcrowding, I think Venice is a “must see” but I don’t think I would fancy living there.

One of the most famous parts of Northern Italy is the Cinque Terre which consists of 5 villages on the eastern (Ligurian) coast. The villages are spectacularly beautiful and in some cases, seem to be clinging to the hillsides – it is a very steep coast.

The villages are connected by road, rail, walking tracks and ferry, but the trains are probably the easiest way of getting from one to another. If you have plenty of time and love walking then that is the way to go – the sea views are fabulous and the walks suitable for most people. If the sea is calm the ferry is also an option with its own charms. Again, the food is marvellous particularly once you get off the main street and into the back streets.  (Somehow even simple dishes taste special when they are eaten in the right (authentic) surroundings. We have had Italian food of equal quality at home but somehow, it never tastes as good,)

Great food, Italian wine, friendly people, history, art, marvellous old towns and scenery – I guess you could apply many of those things to most of Europe but they are a special combination in Tuscany and Northern Italy.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.