by Fred Mawer, The Telegraph, April 10, 2018
Italy is a country that can easily be explored on your own. So why take an escorted tour? First, there's the reduction in stress and hassle: it's a well-known fact that driving and parking in Italian cities can be challenging. Second, the sheer amount of culture on offer – classical ruins, Renaissance paintings, Baroque architecture – can be overwhelming. Tours led by well-informed and engaging guides will separate the interesting from the humdrum, and bring everything to life.
Third, many tours, particularly specialist ones, include special access to villas, palaces, gardens and wineries, or after-hours visits – and with a tour guide you can usually skip the sometimes long queues at museums and sights.
So, where to go? If you are a first-timer to Italy, you might want to sign up for a countrywide highlights tour. That said, such is the density of history and art in regions such as Sicily, Tuscany, Umbria and Campania that they really reward an individual focus.
As for when to go, most cultural tours sensibly take place in the spring and autumn; try to avoid the summer, when the heat on a shadeless site such as Pompeii will be sapping. It’s worth looking at visiting cities such as Rome, Venice and Florence in winter when they are less crowded with visitors.
The tours below cover many of the themes for which Italy offers brilliant holidays – not only culture but also food, drink, gardens and walking.
1. Walking in the Dolomites
In summer, the jagged limestone peaks of the Dolomites rise up above green meadows speckled with hamlets sporting onion-domed churches and wooden barns, best enjoyed on foot. Ramblers Walking Holidays runs seven, 10 and 14-night In the Heart of the Dolomites breaks from three-star Hotel Belvedere in Val Badia. A choice of guided walks, both easy and hard, is offered daily.
Departures in July, August, September: seven nights £1,685 half-board, including a pass for mountain lifts and buses, and flights; Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk ).
2. Sicilian highlights
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Sicily is the Mediterranean’s largest island; its multilayered history can be hard to piece together; and Palermo, the capital, is chaotic. So an escorted coach tour is a good plan, especially if you’re a newcomer. Titan’s fast-paced and comprehensive 10-day Sicily – Jewel of the Mediterranean tour covers key classical sights such as the Valley of the Temples and Piazza Armerina, plus Norman-era high points such as Monreale cathedral, and Etna. Vox audio headsets, promising improved audibility, are used on excursions.
Frequent departures April-October: from £1,649, including breakfasts, some dinners, flights and home-to-airport transfers. Titan (0808 115 4089; titantravel.co.uk).
3. A classical education
To appreciate fully the remarkable sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, you need an expert guide. On Andante Travels’ Pompeii, Herculaneum and Classical Campania tour, not only are all the guide lecturers specialists in Roman archaeology or ancient history, but many have also excavated at Pompeii. As well as devoting a whole day to Pompeii, the seven-night holiday heads to intriguing lesser-known sites such as the Piscina Mirabilis.
Multiple departures in April-November: £1,995 including most meals and flights. Andante Travels (01722 713800; andantetravels.co.uk).
4. Undiscovered Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche
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Jules Verne has six of what it calls “Secrets” tours in Italy during 2017, aimed at travellers who are revisiting the country and wanting to take in less-explored areas, towns and sights. Secret Italy focuses on some hidden corners in Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche, such as Arezzo, Urbino, Gubbio (right) and Pienza. Trips are made each day from a base in Assisi, and a local art collector hosts the seven-night tour.
Once-a-month departures in April-September: from £2,295, including breakfasts, some other meals and flights; Voyages Jules Verne (020 3733 2694; vjv.com).
5. Truffles, cheese and Barolo
Citalia’s new eight-day self-guided walking holiday in Piedmont promises insights into the gastronomy of the region, from Barbaresco to Barolo. You'll join a truffle hunt with foragers and their dogs through hazelnut and chestnut forests and make pit-stops at family-run wineries in Barolo. Other highlights include Verduno and Roddi castles; the 12th-century cathedral in Alba; and La Morra, known as the "balcony of Langhe" for its views over Barolo‘s pinstripe vineyards.
Departs anytime: eight nights from £1,365, including accommodation on a B&B basis, private transfers, luggage transfers and flights. Citalia (01293 839166; citalia.com).
6. Lakes and gardens
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Set against glittering waters, wooded escarpments and the snow-capped Alps as a backdrop, the villas in the Italian Lakes are reason alone to visit this northern region. Gardens specialist Brightwater Holidays is offering a trip in late March, timed to see the gardens at their very best. Focusing on Lake Como and Lake Maggiore and its exquisite Borromean Islands, the itinerary includes visits to gardens that are not open to the public. Leading British garden designer Andy Sturgeon will provide insights on two of the days.
Departing March 24: £2,195 for seven nights’ half board, including flights; Brightwater Holidays (01334 897375; brightwaterholidays.com).
7. Italy by train
Among the wide selection of Italian holidays offered by Great Rail Journeys, there are some that include flights and coach trips as well as train travel. If you want to stick to trains all the way, consider the 14-day A Grand Tour of Italy. High-speed rail services will whizz you from London via Paris to Milan, then on to Rome, Florence, Venice, Turin and back to London; and from Florence there is a day excursion, also by train, to Pisa and Lucca. Almost all the train travel is in first class, and guided tours are included in all the cities.
Departures once a month in May, September and October: from £2,815 including breakfasts, some dinners and rail travel. Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com ).
8. Flavours of Bordeaux with Raymond Blanc
Join chef Raymond Blanc on this 11-day cruise aboard the five-star Scenic Diamond to sample the gastronomy of Bordeaux. Raymond, who is on hand for two days of the voyage, will share tales from his career at events including a talk, a Q&A and a cooking demonstration. There are also tastings of the region’s best vintages at local vineyards and tutored masterclasses with The Telegraph’s wine critic Susy Atkins.
Departing August 26: £3,230, including accommodation, some meals, wine tastings and flights. Telegraph Tours (03331226774; telegraph.co.uk/tt-bordeauxchef).
9. The grand tour
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Trafalgar’s 17-day Grand Italian Experience tour takes in the three must-see cities of Florence, Venice and Rome – but also Pompeii, Capri, Assisi, Verona, Milan, the Lakes, Liguria, Siena and more. Along the way, there is time for such experiences as a meal at a traditional farmhouse in Puglia, and an after-hours tour of the Missionary Ethnological Museum at the Vatican followed by a private dinner in a courtyard.
Departures weekly April to October: from £3,395, including breakfasts and some dinners but excluding flights. Trafalgar (0800 533 5619; trafalgar.com ).
10. Venetian palaces
Martin Randall runs small-group tours of Venice’s most memorable palaces, led by Dr Michael Douglas-Scott, a specialist in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. Visit richly decorated private palazzi otherwise not open to the public and enjoy St Mark’s Basilica on a private, after-hours visit.
Departs November 6: from £2,480, including four nights in a hotel on the Grand Canal, a gondola ride, breakfasts, three dinners and flights. Martin Randall (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com).
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