Italy: From top to toe, it's a bumper year in the Boot

Celebrate Palladio and Puccini's birthdays, or learn football from a World Cup star. Sarah Barrell reveals what's new in Italy

This year promises to be a good one for those bound for the Boot. For a start, it's Palladio year (andreapalladio500.it). The father of neo-classical architecture was born 500 years ago in November, and to celebrate there will be events held across the Veneto, where he designed many of his grand palazzi and churches. Highlights include a string of summer concerts staged in his villas, and an exhibition featuring many of Palladio's original drawings, at the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, in Vicenza from 20 September. If you miss the exhibition, you can catch it at London's Royal Academy in 2009.

Archaeology and architecture tours continue to grow in popularity, with companies looking for new takes on old designs. A trip with a difference is launched this year by White Hat Tours (020-7771 2681; whitehattours. com). This cultural specialist operator offers small group tours to Italian cities and towns and has recently added the Modern Rome tour to its programme. Aimed at clients who have seen the traditional sites and are looking for something new, this tour takes in sights that have been key to the development of the city since it was declared the capital of unified Italy in 1870.

If you remain more of a traditionalist, Rome unveils some ancient treasures this year (romaturismo.it). On Palatine Hill, the fresco-covered palace of Rome's first emperor, Augustus, will be partially reopened on 2 March after years of tricky restoration. Not to be missed are two patrician villas that have been unearthed beneath the Palazzo Valentini, near the Forum. Each has stunning mosaic flooring and the adjacent museum brings to life these rich Roman households with retrieved artefacts and clever multimedia reconstructions.

Another virtual tour of old Rome can be found at the Teatro Colosseo, called Rewind Rome. Due to open on 21 April, is a virtual reconstruction of ancient Rome, which allows tourists to walk in the city's streets as they were in AD320.

Andante Travels (01722 713800; andantetravels.co.uk) takes its archaeology tours into new territory this year. A new Bare Bones lecturer-led tour heads into the increasingly popular region of Puglia, visiting Lecce, the best-preserved baroque city in the Mediterranean, Gravina, and a former Roman and Iron Age settlement.

Dwellings of a more modern kind made the news in Puglia this year. One of the masserie (farmhouses) on the books of southern Italian specialist Long Travel (01694 722193, long-travel.co.uk) was awarded the region's first EU eco-tourism label for contributions to sustainable tourism and environmental issues. And a new addition to the accommodation scene, Italian Hideaways (0845 602 5836; italianhideaways.co.uk) has just launched a deluxe villa near Bergamo offering short breaks with tuition in regional cookery.

Back down south, more areas are getting attention from Italian tour operators, including Basilicata and the second smallest Italian region of Molise. There are some unique accommodation options here for real Italophiles – who will get more out of the area with their basic grasp of the language and an appetite for less obvious Italian pleasures. For example, you can stay in a hotel set in a beautifully restored cave dwelling in Matera on the undeveloped Basilicata coast (with Long Travel).

A growing trend in Italian holiday accommodation is upscale agriturismo or farmhouse holidays. These rural retreats are becoming more focused on high-quality family holidays with extras such as cooking courses offered on site. Children can learn how to make classic Italian fare such as pasta and tiramisu on a half-day cookery course on Montestigliano farm estate near Siena. The kids head out into the grounds to gather herbs, fruit and vegetables before cooking it all up and serving to parents. Self-catering properties are dotted around the estate, which also has two pools, a restaurant and often stages summer concerts. For more information contact Invitation to Tuscany (0845 838 7421, invitationtotuscany.com).

Another novel addition to the farmhouse scene is Poggio Cennina (poggiocennina.it) in Chianti, an agriturismo run by ex-footballer Paolo Rossi, who conducts a summer soccer school for guests. Neighbouring Case del Borgo (lecasedelborgo.com) is a glorious new spa hotel set over 14 farmhouse buildings surrounded by vines. The best thing about this place is that the cooking is done by one of eight Tuscan Mamas, a rotating team of local women from villages in the surrounding Ambra valley.

Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk) has responded to the growing market in holidays for more adventurous families with a dedicated family programme including walking itineraries, self-catering accommodation and hotel stays. Long-established walking specialist operator Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 386766; ramblersfamilyadventures.co.uk) is also launching its first dedicated family holidays brochure this month, which includes a walking holiday around the Sorrento peninsula.

Further north, there will be celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Giacomo Puccini. The new Puccini Grand Theatre is the place to see performances of Tosca, Turandot and Madama Butterfly, inaugurated in his birthplace, Torre del Lago, on the Tuscan coast near Viareggio, during this summer's Puccini Festival (puccinifestival.it). Meanwhile, La Bohème is being performed this July at La Scala in Milan (teatroallascala.org).

And finally, something that is long overdue: a five-star hotel comes to Genoa. Many feel affection for this scruffy port city whose architectural and gastronomic delights are present, if veiled and unpolished, but few praise the city's hotels. That is until now. The new Bentley Hotel (thi.it) is located right in the city centre in what used to be the headquarters of Ilva, Italy's biggest iron and steel manufacturer. This imposing 1920s building comes with 99 slick, modern rooms, a restaurant serving regional Ligurian dishes and art by contemporary Italian artists.

Further browsing: Contact the Italian National Tourist Board (enit.it)

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