A route to remember through Italy
Written by Brian Johnston
With Qatar Airways launching flights to Pisa on August 2, frequent visitor and dolce vita addict Brian Johnston takes us on a drive through northern Italy’s scenic and historic highlights. As starting and finishing points, the historic towns of Pisa and Venice are magnificent, but bracketed between the two are cultured towns, magnificent museums, and glorious countryside that amply showcase Italy’s many pleasures.
Driving holidays shouldn’t really begin with embarrassing failures, but in Italy it’s reassuring to know that even failures are beautiful. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a bit of an engineering embarrassment, built in 1173 on sandy soil inadequate for the task of supporting its heavy marble. Over the centuries successive architects have attempted to straighten the lean without success, though at least the tower has been prevented from toppling over. Its lean provokes silly selfie poses but, beyond the fun, the tower is beautiful in bands of coloured marble and harmonious tiers of arches.
Perhaps only Italians could make a failure famous – and then casually supply several more surrounding buildings that really ought to be equally renowned. Stand in Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) and you’ll realise that the Leaning Tower might attract all the attention, but several other glorious buildings stand all about, including an exuberant cathedral and a baptistery, one of the great early Renaissance masterpieces.
Get used to such fine architectural displays on a journey through Italy. Its old towns have an embarrassment of riches and dizzying pedigrees. Pisa, for example, was already a naval port in Roman times, then a powerful maritime republic, then a 14th-century university city; the Orto Botanico, still owned by Pisa University, is Europe’s oldest botanical garden. Pisa was eventually eclipsed by neighbouring Florence, but it continued to steal the occasional limelight, notably by producing great scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, who investigated gravity by dropping weights off the Leaning Tower, and later got himself in trouble for suggesting the earth revolved around the Sun. A walk along the south bank of the Arno River brings you past stately mansions thrown up in those illustrious days.
Beyond its historical sights, however, Pisa has the agreeable air of a lived-in town with a large student population. Kids kick footballs on the Campo dei Miracoli, retirees stroll through the park that lines Le Piagge boulevard, and food stalls are bright with tomatoes and artichokes in Piazza delle Vettovaglie. Follow the locals into Piazza Garibaldi for gelato, or onto Borgo Stretto for a table on a café terrace: just the spot for people-watching and cake.
You could be tempted to linger, but Pisa is just the start of what could be a multi-day meander towards Venice by way of northern Italy’s loveliest towns. In just 30 minutes, you could be rolling into the lush Serchio Valley and stopping at Lucca, a proudly independent city-state between 1369 and 1815, and crammed with architectural beauty. You can walk atop its Renaissance-era fortified walls and gaze over terracotta roofs and defensive towers towards the Apuan Alps; if you’re here in the evening, join locals for their ritual passeggiata (stroll) along elegant Via Fillungo.
Onwards at Florence is an even more gorgeous Renaissance town, graced with statue-studded squares and the art treasures of its Uffizi Gallery and Accademia Gallery. You should certainly stray beyond the city centre however, by crossing the Arno River and exploring the neighbourhood vibe (and agreeable eateries) around Piazza del Carmine, before exploring the rather overlooked Bardini Gardens, which have fabulous views over Florence’s dreaming spires and surrounding hills.
Those cypress-studded, olive-silvery hills enfold you as you drive northwards, until you arrive on the flatter plains of the Po Valley. Bologna, Modena, and Parma all have tempting historical diversions, but you might particularly want to stop in Cremona, whose old town is lined by pretty Gothic arcades and boasts one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. Then cut northeast towards Verona. This town’s historical (or perhaps just fictional) residents Romeo and Juliet pull in tourists by the busload, but beyond the famous balcony and the town’s central squares, you can find quiet streets of orange and yellow medieval buildings. A lazy loop of the Adige River adds promenades and fine views of the town.
Resist the temptation just to speed eastwards along the A4 motorway, always busy with long-haul trucks and lane-jumping cars. The back roads take longer but meander through vineyards and over serried hills from which the snow-capped Alps can be spotted to the north. It still won’t take much more than an hour to Padua, another of Italy’s illustrious city-states, renowned as the home of one of Europe’s oldest universities.
Padua has impressive architecture and art; the best of its half-dozen museums is perhaps Eremitani Museum, with a fine collection of Etruscan vases and paintings from great Venetian masters such as Tiepolo and Tintoretto. By dint of being slightly off the mainstream tour-group route, however, Padua also offers a delightful slice of ordinary Italian life. It has quirky fashion boutiques, colourful fresh-food markets in its central squares, and agreeable cafés in which to people-watch. A large university student population adds a youthful atmosphere and good nightlife.
The last short drive from Padua to Venice navigates through the industrial suburbs of Mestre. But Venice lies just across the water, and is surely a grand finale to any drive across Italy – though ironically, you’ll have to abandon your rental car to see it. Boats are the only form of transport in this famously floating city, which is otherwise explored on foot along winding alleys and across the innumerable bridges that knit together its dozens of islands. There is, however, no better way to soak up its atmosphere than by walking. Venice might be faded, occasionally flooded, and in parts crowded, but it remains one of the most fabulous creations of humankind. Sit in St Mark’s Square as café pianos tinkle and pigeons swoop against gold mosaic work, and congratulate yourself on having completed a route to remember.
Padua University was founded in 1222 and, over the centuries, became a leading European seat of learning that educated some of northern Italy’s foremost minds. Dante and Copernicus studied here; Galileo and Petrarch were among its teachers. Its 1594 Anatomical Theatre, ornate with sculpted wood and the coats-of-arms of illustrious students, is open to visitors and provides a fascinating look at the history of medicine. It was here that the first understanding of blood circulation was developed in the early 17th century. The surrounding Bo university district retains its cobbled streets, arcades, and lively student vibe.
Though accommodation is limited in Pisa, a town often visited by day-trippers, attempts by hotels to entice overnight stays make this a competitively priced destination.
This 14th-century family mansion-turned-hotel is only five minutes from the centre of old Pisa, yet provides a tranquil getaway in a garden setting. Uneven terracotta floors, wood-beamed ceilings, and plenty of antiques create the requisite historic feel, yet guestrooms don’t forego any of the mod cons and include indulgent marble bathrooms. Owner Maria Luisa Bignardi is an elegant presence and ensures top service. The hotel’s gourmet restaurant dishes up fine Tuscan food.
Via della Faggiola 12/14, +39 50 830 361
Fattoria di Migliarino
If you want a tranquil country location and a classic Italian experience, this working farm near Pisa airport provides a B&B and apartments in 18th-century farm buildings surrounded by fields planted with corn, sugar beets, and soybeans. Families can make good use of the swimming pool, tennis courts, and activities including horse riding and canoeing. The estate is owned by the Salviati family, who rose to prominence as silk producers and bankers in 15th-century Pisa.
Via dei Pini, Migliarino, +39 50 803 046,
A quick walk from the Leaning Tower brings you to this historic residence with just 10 guestrooms. For a mid-range boutique hotel it provides surprising style, with antique furnishings and vaulted, frescoed ceilings contrasting with contemporary design items such as Dolce & Gabbana chandeliers, Philippe Starck armchairs, and rain showers in en-suites. A compact courtyard garden, overlooked by the breakfast room, offers a patch of greenery, scented with roses in summer.
Via Roma 37, +39 50 500 323
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
One of Venice’s great art museums runs free Sunday afternoon workshops for children aged 4–10, offering an engaging introduction to contemporary art in a short tour of the gallery’s exhibits, before allowing the kids to get hands-on and create their own art on particular themes, and using a variety of techniques. The workshops are run in a range of languages dependent on demand.
This Florence museum is dedicated to the high fashion and handbags of the famed Italian design house. It has a CreaKids programme of hands-on workshops and art-based activities that will give children aged 5–12 an insight into the story of how fashion changes through the decades.
Most children have a fascination with creepy-crawlies that will certainly be satisfied in Europe’s largest live-insect museum on the outskirts of Padua, which features ant and bee colonies, stag beetles, and butterflies. Exhibits detail insect biology and evolution, and there are interactive stations that allow young visitors to spin silk from silkworms and interact with spiders and stick insects.
All of Pisa comes here for sweets, treats, and chocolates, many of them beautifully presented in gift boxes. Among the local Tuscan specialities to look out for are brutti ma buoni, or ‘ugly but good’ biscuits containing hazelnuts, almonds, and orange; hard aniseed-and-almond cantuccini from Prato, great for dipping in coffee; and confetti, or sugar-coated almonds in pink and blue.
Via San Francesco 107, +39 50 542 406
Osteria dei Cavalieri
This delightful restaurant in the heart of old Pisa is a local favourite for its home-style Tuscan cooking. At lunchtimes, make do with a single hearty dish such as clam and mussel soup or pasta with rabbit and asparagus. In the evenings, four-course recommendations based on meat, seafood, or vegetables take the headache out of ordering.
Via San Frediano 16, +39 50 580 858
This is one of Pisa’s quirkiest cafés, with a charming and creative ambiance that will appeal to bookish types during the daytime: leaf through coffee-table books or use the crayons to draw your impressions of Pisa. In the evening, a chic and arty clientele arrive for live jazz music or sultry DJ-spun vibes.
Piazza San Paolo all’Orto, +39 50 991 2364
Distance: 4,231 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 20 minutes