Quality Assessor Helen Weetman has just returned from her trip route-proofing Saga's Great Italian Cities by Rail tour and she's come back full of the joys of Italy…
"The thing I liked best about this tour is that you have a lot of quality time to really live in these cities – once you’ve been given a taster, you can go back into the bit that interested you the most, whether you love architecture, art history, food – you can fill the days up nicely, at your own pace.
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I think with a lot of companies you don’t get the opportunity to stay in a hotel within the heart of the city, and that’s what I expected – I never thought we’d be staying in the locations we are.
In Milan we got to our hotel, in a very bohemian location, and not only was it within walking distance of the Duomo and the famous Galleria, and the shopping, the hustle and bustle of the big city, we were so close to the Navigli.
These are canals that go way back; they were used to provide Milan with their industrial goods, and now this area is trendy, arty, foodie, and a haven of tranquility.
It was delightful, and just on the hotel’s doorstep. I’d been to Milan before, and never heard of this part of the city. It struck me as a bit like an Italian Amsterdam, with lots of cafes and bars along the canal side. In the evenings they’re all lit up, I really loved it.
We’re off to Milan for a weekend. Where’s a great place to eat – filling, tasty – with a truly ‘local’ feel?
Milan-based Tom Jenkins, senior editor at finedininglovers.com, says, ‘A short walk from the bright and brilliant Duomo (cathedral) and the historic La Scala theatre is a door into another world, or more precisely, another time. Risoelatte (Via Manfredo Camperio, 6) models itself on a 1960s Milanese apartment, from the decor to the music, with coffee served in moka pots beneath a mock washing line.
‘Try the signature milk risotto or a traditional risotto alla Milanese, the city’s famous rice dish, scented and coloured bright yellow with saffron – a truly timeless dish. You’ll pay around €65 for two.
‘Or head out of the busy city centre to the edges of the ultra-trendy Isola neighbourhood, where you’ll find Ratanà
(Via Gaetano de Castillia, 28), a neo-bistro serving refined northern Italian classics, overlooking a small park. It occupies a pleasing price point between the hit-and-miss traditional trattoria and the wallet-punishing luxury restaurant. Try the tagliolini all’uovo tiepidi, tartufo nero – long ribbons of pasta with warm egg and black truffle.’
In Florence the hotel is on the very edge of the historical centre, overlooking the Arno. I remembered the food market from last time I visited, but now they have a food hall above it.
We make sure our guests have a tour with a local guide who will be able to go into the details of the various cheeses, wines and other local specialities, so they’ll have a really authentic experience.
I’m not aware of any other holiday company running this type of visit, but it’s something you really shouldn’t miss.
The local produce is all beautifully displayed and you can take a little from here, a little from there, and take a seat at one of the communal tables, where you can sit with local residents and soak up the atmosphere.
Rome was amazing. After being show around the hotel Palatino, where our guests will stay, we went for a walk to get our bearings.
We knew we were roughly close to the Forum, but we walked around the corner and found ourselves looking at what I originally assumed was a Roman aqueduct or something – but as we got closer, we realised we were standing right in front of the Colosseum!
We were in a really arty area of the city, with many antique and vintage shops. The hotel overlooks the rooftop gardens of some very smart apartments in this famous quarter, the Rione Monti with its cobbled streets , and you just step out and walk around, and soak it all up.
Every now and then you’d find a little pizza place where you’d slip in and get a slice of pizza and a drink for 5 Euros. It was like being a local – that’s what I mean by having time to live there. It gives you a taste of true city life.
The train journey is very fast – you’re not wasting any time of your trip on travel, which is lovely.
And the countryside you pass though is beautiful – it goes from the more rugged alpine hills of the north, then into the gently sloping hills of the Tuscan countryside – it’s lovely, relaxing and smooth. None of the journeys were more than two hours, and as we were travelling first class, the time just flew by.
When I go route-proofing on a tour, there’s often one or two things that I change or tweak slightly, but this time I didn’t have to change a thing. Jennifer (the Holiday Creator) has done a fantastic job.
She found an incredible place in Florence, really off the beaten track – we take our guests to the oldest pharmacy in town.
It’s hidden in a backstreet, and you walk through and elegant front door and find yourself in front of old potions and lotions, soaps and scents – it was mesmerising. For me, it sort of summed up the whole tour – unusual, spectacular, and certainly worth doing!
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