Five Best: Italian viewpoints
Castel Sant'Elmo, Naples
Saturday 25 March 2006
The finest city on the Mediterranean? Naples stakes a good claim. This ancient conglomeration climbs magnificently from the harbour on a jostle of terracing. It's one of those rare cities where a spectacular view is the norm from almost anywhere. The greatest of them all, arguably, is from the battlements of the Castel Sant'Elmo, over 800ft above the sea. The present structure is 16th century, though its commanding position was first occupied many years earlier. Immediately beneath it, the beautiful 14th-century Certosa di San Martino provides some elegant foreground interest. Beyond these cloisters, the angular geometry of a more modern city extends into the water, in the shape of the arms guarding the harbour. Completing the picture: the elegant curl of the Bay of Naples, topped by the apparently innocent curves of Vesuvius. What future fury this mountain may wreak is a subject of Neapolitan debate. Meanwhile, sit back, relax and enjoy the view.
Tethered Balloon, Rome
The seven hills of the Italian capital are barely bumps among the 21st-century fabric of the city, so finding the perfect view is tricky. The solution: "Rome's eighth hill", the slogan for the Aerophile hot-air balloon. Built in Chantilly in France, it claims to be the biggest tethered balloon in the world. You lift off from the Borghese Gardens for a 15-minute ride that adds an extra dimension to your understanding of the city. From 500ft, you can fully appreciate the miraculous mosaic of the metropolis. If you are unwilling or unable to stump up for this, book a flight on one of the budget airlines flying into Rome's second airport, Ciampino - and if you get a window seat on the right, and the wind is in the usual direction, you'll be rewarded with a magnificent view of the city.
Aerophile (00 39 06 3211 1511; www.aerophile.it); the starting date for the summer is not yet known, but is likely to be in May or possibly June. Prices from €15 (£11).
Upper Funicular, Station Bergamo
Welcome to Milan - that is what you will hear if you happen to be flying with Ryanair. In fact, Italy's commercial capital is over 25 miles away, and has two perfectly good airports of its own. Your actual arrival point is Bergamo, one of those great little-known Italian cities that is full of surprises. The location, for a start: in the foothills of the Alps, and close to the Italian lakes. As was often the custom, the old town was built on a hill, which handily in the 21st century means that it remains aloof from the valley. You can ride up on the funicular railway, wander around the graceful architectural clutter and visit the Donizetti Birthplace Museum. Then return to the upper funicular station shortly before sunset and grab a seat by the window to watch the way the city unravels down to the plain. The background may be pocked with humdrum factories, shopping complexes and an airport, but they are softened by a gentle evening haze. Planespotting at its best.
High up in Fiesole, Tuscany
For a close-up perspective on Florence, turn to page VI. But to take the long view, hop aboard the number 7 bus, parked right next to Santa Maria Novella station. On the journey out, it sways giddily through the city centre, giving tantalising visions of art and architecture, then grinds through the gears uphill to the village of Fiesole. Make sure that you resist the temptation to turn around before you reach the end of the line. Fiesole, now Florence's own mountain village - and essential escape - was the site of the original Etruscan settlement. From one side of this natural balcony, you can view a heroic sweep of Tuscan countryside. From the other, the city is placed in its glorious perspective. The lazy curve of the Arno river hems in the heart of the city, and the dome of the duomo (cathedral) rises magnificently above the rest of Florence. To complete the ensemble, the hills of the south bank arrange themselves elegantly along the horizon.
Vaporetto No. 82, Venice
Not only does La Serenissima comprise an absurd collection of divine architecture but the local authority implausibly provides a spectacular means of appreciating it all. The network of vaporetti is surely the world's greatest public-transport system. They swish around every corner of the city, providing a sea-level view of miscellaneous marvels. Some boat buffs argue that Vaporetto number 1, the ride along the S-shaped swerves of the Grand Canal, is without equal. Certainly, this journey is a beauty parade of palazzi, but route 82 gives a much better sense of the city, taking you from the Santa Lucia railway station around Venice's southern flank, offering up a superb waterscape that takes in the island of La Giudecca as well as the working quayside of Dorsoduro. You sweep around to moor triumphantly alongside the Ducal Palace, close to St Mark's Square - and in pole position to catch Vaporetto number 1 back to the station, should you so wish.
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