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For this week's blog post, our Italy expert and Tour Leader Co-ordinator Alison Watt talks to Solos about her infatuation with Italy, where to find the best food and how to live like a true Italian while you're there!

So you've spent a lot of time in Italy! What attracted you to the destination initially?

It all started on a trip that I did around Europe when I was 18. My final destination was Venice, where I fell in love with the city - and Italy as a whole.

When I returned home I decided to make Italian part of my degree and so the following year I started studying the language. While I was doing so, I spent every summer in Italy and also studied there for 6 months as part of my course.

After that, I just knew I had to go back there and use the language. So six months working in a ski resort led to 17 years living and working there! 

I didn't know much about Italy when I was younger; Italian restaurants weren't as commonplace in the UK as they are now! Obviously I'd heard of Italy and Venice and it all sounded exciting, but I couldn't predict how I would fall in love with it from day one.

 Alison in Venice in the 90s

 

You've done some Tour Leading in Italy as well I believe. Can you tell me a bit about that?

When I lived in Italy I worked as a Tour Manager for American groups travelling from Venice to Sicily.

When I returned to the UK and started working for Solos, I took on my role as Tour Leader Co-ordinator but I also act as a Tour Leader on some of our Italian trips myself - maybe one or two a year.

So far with Solos, I've taken groups on Tuscany, Italian Riviera, Turin and Sorrento tours, and a foodie holiday near Venice.

 Alison making pasta in Venice

 

Out of all the places you've visited or lived in Italy, which stands out as your favourite?

That's such a tricky question! The whole country is fantastic which makes it very difficult to choose. A few of my favourites would have to be Venice (because that's where it all began for me!), Sorrento and the island of Sicily in the south. The volcanic Aeolian Islands, just off the coast of Sicily, also hold a very special place in my heart.

I loved learning how to make vermouth in Turin - and the chocolate of course. If I was to live anywhere though, it would probably be Rome. It's such a beautiful city packed full of so much history.

Chocolate selection in Turin

 

What makes Italy special?

Italy has a bit of everything: beautiful beaches, a rich culture, historical cities and lots of natural beauty - and every town has an authentically Italian centro storico. 

The attitude of the people is always warm and welcoming, and they do everything at their own pace. It's not always an efficient country, but the locals just want people to have a good time and they'll find a way to make that happen.

Italians love life; nothing is ever a problem and they'll always find a solution to everything! And, of course, the food and drink is fantastic. I believe that it's a combination of all these things that truly makes Italy special.

 

What would you recommend for a first-time visitor?

It depends what your interests are, but a tour of the classic cities is always a good place to start.

Take Tuscany for example; you've got the iconic cities of Florence, Lucca, Siena and Pisa where fantastic history and art sit amongst beautiful countryside. Rome is another must-see; there are centuries of history to uncover and plenty of iconic sights.

Equally though, if someone wants to start with something completely random and off-the-beaten track, such as the ancient mountain town of Trevi, I feel like you'll still get a true Italian experience.

 

And what about the food?

Honestly, the food is amazing absolutely everywhere, but each of the 20 regions has its own speciality.

In the north, they tend to eat more meat, cheese, butter and cream. As you travel further south you'll find more vegetables and seafood - especially if you're on the coast. Italians tend to eat what's local to them, so if they travel to a different part of Italy they like to sample the specialities of the places they’re visiting.

I personally prefer the food in the south. A dish that I love in Sicily is involtini di pesce spada - rolled swordfish coated in breadcrumbs and filled with pine nuts, raisins and capers. It's a unique dish which, if you like fish, I'd definitely recommend trying.

Tucking into a great meal in Sardinia

 

Do you have any travel tips about what to do in Italy?

Have an open mind, go with the flow and find out what the local specialities are. Stand at a bar and enjoy an espresso, but also don't be put off by the price of sitting outdoors in one of the cities' beautiful squares. You can sit there for ages, sipping Aperol spritz and people-watching like a true Italian.

Another thing to get involved with is the daily passeggiata. This is when the Italians stroll - or parade - the streets in the late afternoon or evening, sometimes with an ice-cream or stopping for a drink.

Also look out for bars or cafes that offer an early evening aperitivo. It's kind of like the equivalent to 'happy hour' in the UK, but instead of offering cheap drinks they offer snacks or sometimes a full buffet of food to enjoy with your drink. This is a tradition that started in Milan, by the name apertivo milanese, where people would go for a drink and nibbles after work.

And finally, eat cake for breakfast! Italians love tucking into pastries and cake for breakfast, so when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

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Browse our full selection of holidays to Italy today

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