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Longing for Italy

2020 was supposed to be the year that Emily FitzRoy celebrated two decades of her award-winning company Bellini Travel, the UK’s pre-eminent Italian travel specialist.

Ma purtroppo, covid had other ideas so the party had to be put on hold.

But with the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel growing stronger, she chatted to me recently about some of her favourite places in Italy that she longs to return to this year.

Tell me about your connections to Italy.

My grandmother was from Naples and determined to go to her grave with jet-black hair, looking like a rather fat, short Sophia Loren, which she did. She married a Scotsman in the early 40s and moved to Scotland but bought Naples with her. She had a wonderful Italian cook called Dora and we all grew up eating mountains of spaghetti al pomodoro. She’d whip her top off when she got even the slightest blink of sunshine, which shocked all the neighbours.

It was only when I first went to Naples that I realised I had never felt so at home in my entire life. My northern Italian friends were all like 'ooh, you’ll get mugged, you might die' but, whatever, to me it was all wonderful – the chaos, the smells, the noise, the FUN. So inherently deep down I feel more Italian than English a lot of the time.

I was very spoilt at university when I did an incredibly happy, wild six-month stint in Venice studying the works of Titian with our Professor. We had no cash so lived in the city’s only high-rise tower block in the Ghetto.

So, all in all that is where my real love of Italy began.

After leaving university I worked in the music industry before being asked to research a website that two relations had set up called Bellini Travel, which for the grand total of £9.90 a year was going to offer subscribers hidden, insider knowledge to Italy.

So, I spent a year looking up opening times of churches and so on and all that happened was that people started saying ‘actually, as you know it so well can you organise my holiday?’

I think it was my lack of professionalism that was quite appealing and probably still is – I just had my opinions on a particularly great guide and the best place to get a gelato in a small square that no one else seemed to know about. I still operate from the heart, and what I think would make the happiest of holidays, not who is going to give me the highest commission. Somehow it works.

How was 2020?

Awful! But I do think we’d been so very lucky for the last 20 years and 2019 was so fantastic for us I can’t see how it could have ever got any better. More than anything, last year was heart breaking for the Italians we work with, for the guides and drivers and one-man bands who lost everything overnight. They are the ones who really suffered and still are. For me the last year has been a moment to finally stop and reflect and have time think how I want to regrow. You’ll be amazed to hear there wasn’t really a plan before, it just grew and grew and grew and this time round at least I have age and a bit of wisdom on my side.

When you’re in London on a grey winter day, where’s your happy place in Italy that you’re dreaming of when you close your eyes and picture yourself returning to in a few weeks or months’ time?

For sheer bliss, I want to be on a boat with Pippo our driver, lying at the front because he obviously wouldn’t let me drive. We’d be drawing up at Lo Scoglio on the Amalfi Coast, which is a restaurant on stilts on a pebbly public beach. It’s not Capri or Positano that people think of when they dream of the Amalfi Coast which is one of the reasons I love it.

The De Santis family would be shouting at me from the balcony 'Ciao Emily! Ciao Emily!' and I would be grinning from ear to ear because I know the minute I get into that restaurant I’ll walk straight into the kitchen where Tommaso and Margherita will be battling away over a hot stove, and a glass of very delicious, flinty, volcanic wine will be thrust in my hand by Santina the grandmother, even if it’s 9.30 in the morning.

And then I’ll be sitting down to the most delicious lunch of all time, ideally on my own at the corner table under the white umbrella.

If a Star Trek transporter machine had been invented and you could pop elsewhere in Italy for lunch where would it be?

Cammillo in Florence would be one spot, which is less of a personal experience but more like going to the theatre or watching a ballet - the people who are in there are fascinating, be they waiters, cooks or guests. If you are given the golden ticket and allowed to sit in the prima sala, which is the first room as you go in, then you know you’re in for three hours of sheer happiness.

What would be your ideal Italian road trip? Where are you starting, where are you finishing and where are you stopping en route?

I’d be setting out from Florence early in the morning and aiming to get to a house called Arniano in Southern Tuscany in time for a large drink at sunset. The drive isn’t that long but it is very wiggly and takes in Siena, before roaring down the old Roman Road, the Via Cassia, which you’ll have seen from a million postcards.

If we’re talking about October or November, then the truffles will have begun which means I’ll have shot past Siena and raced down to get to an Abbey called Monte Oliveto before it closes at midday.

Inside are some incredible frescos by a bloke called Sodoma in the cloister of a Benedictine church which no one really knows about, and they are completely wonderful, especially the depictions of Renaissance animals including a pet badger, and a cat and dog fighting.

However possibly what is even more wonderful is the trattoria next door, Locanda Il Paradiso. This is where all the local builders go, replete in their high vis jackets, and along with everyone else are gorging on the most delicious plates of fried eggs with white truffles and freshly rolled tagliolini obviously also with white truffles. It costs about €10 a head and is very joyful and convivial.

I’d then get back on the road and go to Bagno Vignoni an ancient town just off the Cassia with thermal waters. Its not the obvious way to spend an afternoon in Tuscany but there is a small hotel where you pay a modest amount in return for a towel and bath hat and access to their thermal pools. There is nothing more relaxing, even in the winter and its piddling down with rain, than floating on your back in hot sulphur waters looking out over the Tuscan hills. It’s something we now suggest to all our clients for a rainy day and they think we’ve gone mad but they all love it.

Finally I’d end up with my friend Amber Guinness at her mother Camilla’s house in Buonconvento, where the fire would be lit and the cocktails waiting.

So in one day that would take you all over the Val d’Orcia, the landscape of Iris Origo. Nothing beats it.

Where is the most underrated region of Italy and why?

The reason a region is so often considered underrated is almost always because they lack a really good hotel or a house to rent which naturally makes it more challenging to send clients. I’d be split between Abruzzo – seriously beautiful where some of the Spaghetti Westerns were filmed, with some great wine makers like Emedeo Pepe and ancient basilicas to explore – and Tuscia or Lazio as it’s now called which is just north of Rome and full of majestic, often uninhabited castles and some fantastic moonscapes known as the calanchi.

And I’d also say Friuli, north of Venice bordering Slovenia and Austria. Completely off the more well-trodden Italian tourist track but totally doable as a day trip from Venice. It is fascinating and beautiful and weird with some very eccentric wine makers and food producers tucked away in the hills. I can’t see why it’s so undiscovered other than a lack of good accommodation.

Where in Italy is your favourite town for a long weekend?

Asolo, in the Veneto. From Venice, you are there in an hour and in my opinion, it’s the most civilised town in all Italy. It is the ‘Tuscan’ hill town that you yearn for but often can’t actually find – well-heeled locals live there all year round which means there are some seriously good restaurants and shops, one brilliant hotel, The Cipriani, some fantastic culture with works by Canova, Palladio and Carlo Scarpa all within a short drive and masses of sport –the local Bar Centrale in the morning is full of people in cycling shorts and clippy shoes or hiking boots.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but in Tuscany that just doesn’t exist because either the hill town has been bought by a giant hotel group and been Disenyfied, albeit very beautifully, or it is so remote and untouched that it’s more than challenging to find somewhere to lay your head at night.

But Asolo has got everything – they welcome but don’t rely on tourists and it’s a joy to visit whatever the time of year.

What’s your secret spot that you love so much you’re almost unwilling to share?

The real killer for me is the island of Procida, close to Naples and just before you get to Ischia. It’s like being in Capri in the 1940s, but instead of drawing up in the harbour and having Chanel and Gucci in all the shop fronts on the quay, you’ve still got mechanics in their workshops and fishermen mending nets. They still have a strong fishing industry and the Italian Naval Academy is based there, so unlike the other islands they don’t rely on tourists. Total bliss, but yet again a lack of really good hotels or private villas.

You’re planning to launch Bellini Ski – why are the Italian mountains such a great destination for winter compared to say Austria or France?

Well if I’m going to be unromantic, I’d say it’s because they are considerably less expensive than their neighbours over the border. But for me, quelle surprise, the food is off the charts, whether you are up the mountain or in the villages.

And if you’re rather lazy like me, the lifestyle suits me down to the ground. I love the fact the Italians stroll out at 10am and would positively look down their noses at people racing to get the first cable car up, they then have a little gossip and an espresso at the bottom of the lift, another espresso at the top of the lift, smoke a fag, think about where they’re going to go for lunch and what they’re going to eat, followed by maybe a couple of hours of gentle skiing, an enormous lunch, then if you’re really lazy you either take the lift back down or get pulled home by horses.

Grazie Emily!

All photos c/o Emily FitzRoy

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