The Magic of Italy, New Discoveries

Apr 08, 2013 Avatar Hilton Smith Hilton Smith

Falling in love with Italy is easy. The challenge is to break free of the beloved tourist treks and discover equally satisfying new horizons.

My excursion last month did some of each. I flew United Airlines and Swiss via Washington D.C./Dulles and Zurich into very convenient Florence Airport, right in the heart of Tuscany.

After fast, simple arrival formalities, I was only four miles from the historic heart of Florence.

I was picked up and driven to my new home for the next three days, the imposing Villa “Il Salviatino” on the hillsides of Fiesole, just 15 minutes outside of Florence.

This 15th century villa and gardens, originally built as a hunting lodge, has been converted into an amazing and luxurious resort still extremely convenient to town.

The villa retains status and style and you feel comfortable with welcoming staff, beverages and cuisine. The grounds are stunning with a pool, gardens and spa. My one-bedroom suite had an imposing view of Florence and its dominating Duomo. In the evenings, the high ceiling library of the villa comes alive with lit silver candelabras and truly special drinks and tasty treats. Later in the dining room the Michelin star chef would show his skills with gourmet offerings in amazing color, textures and taste.

Of course you are only 15 minutes from the heart of historic Florence and the villa provides almost hourly complimentary shuttle service with its Mercedes to and from the Duomo.

You have all day to explore, shop, be the photographer you always wanted to be, dine and drink well into the evening and then return to paradise.

Florence, of course, is a highlight of any Italy adventure and the city never disappoints. Tourists are already lining up well ahead of the busy tourist season. This is a reminder that advance planning with the assistance of a knowledgeable travel counselor can make your trip good smoother.

Standing in line is no fun; there is no time to waste here.

After Florence, it was on to Trentitalia and the 90 minute rail trip to Verona for a short stay at Palazzo Victoria, another Il Salviatino property.

Here this historical complex of three buildings has been fashioned into a contemporary complex, right in the center of the ancient town. In fact, Roman ruins are everywhere, including artfully preserved ones at the hotel which can easily be seen. Part of the wall in my spacious room was preserved in this way.

The location is supreme — within minutes of the famous Arena Amphitheater, very close to the Via Mazzini shopping street and across from Corso di Porta Borsari.

Verona has significant architectural elements from different periods including the looks of Venice without the canals and aqueducts, reflecting more of the dictates of Rome itself. The town size is manageable and walking is the best way to explore the narrow streets and colorful piazzas. Outside the town, we experienced Villa Della Torre, a gastronomic and wine hot spot with wine so good I brought some home with me.

Our final stop was after another short train ride which ended up in Milan. This is a city with many faces, some of which do not appeal to the typical tourist. After skipping it the last several trips, I was back and happy to be here.

The city has changed for the better, with more to see and do. There is amazing architecture, history, design and fashion and an energy you can feel everywhere.

We stayed at the nexus of all that at the recently opened Armani Hotel, right on the Via Manzoni, just a few blocks from the famous Galleria and Milan Cathedral and at the foot of the main shopping street. Armani himself designed the hotel and it shows with its unconventional but innovative design. Italian marble was not distinctive enough, so the first floor entrance utilizes green marble from Argentina. The main lobby, stunning bar and restaurant are located on the 7th floor. The 8th floor includes the expansive spa, gym and pool.

I had a spectacular room on the 6th floor with a balcony overlooking the city. With a touch of a button from the master control unit, almost everything is possible. Everything has been custom designed, but comfort is still the key. The room has one of the most comfortable beds I had ever experienced. Sometimes the staff is attractive but comes with an attitude. At the Armani they could not have been more helpful. A sudden Lufthansa strike would have impacted my departure. It was addressed, and with assistance from the concierge I was rebooked with no real disruption.

The city itself has undergone a renaissance and we had a chance to do a walking tour inside renewed La Scala Opera House, the Galleria and the distinctive Milan Cathedral.

Several new museums have opened in the last ten years, from historic to those focusing on furniture and design. One of the highlights for me was to finally see daVinci’s “The Last Supper,” which has been painstakingly restored. It was well worth the short taxi ride.

Also notable here is that tickets are only sold in advance for viewing this iconic work of art.

An unexpected highlight of Milan was a visit to Peck Italian Bar and Food Hall and Via Cantu 3 and its restaurant across the street. The bar and food hall are huge, on three levels, and I have never seen such a selection of Italian foods of every description. From fresh baked breads to homemade gelato to literally boulders of prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano, everything is there. Downstairs is a wine cellar with a huge selection of Italian and other wines.

Dining at their restaurant across the street was an experience in itself, with freshness permeating every tasty dish.

Milan has indeed graduated, and it now shows off its assets proudly. It deserves to be on the list of stops for the first time or repeat visitor. A few days there is certainly worthwhile.

Sadly returning to Los Angeles, I was routed on Brussels Airlines through Brussels and then on United via Chicago back to LAX.

Whereas Zurich is a dream to connect through, Brussels was filled with waiting and lines. It may be best to avoid connecting there if possible.

Italy still has it and more. If you are planning to go this year, now is the time to plan your adventure. Advance planning with a travel professional will save you time and money.

Find out what is possible and let an expert guide your way on an Italy tour.

For the first step in your journey to exploration and happiness in amazing Italy you can reach out to Hilton Smith.