ROUGH GUIDE: Food for the soul in the heart of southern Europe

Nettle lasagne, vinegar ice cream, buffalo milk mozzarella and gentian grappa should on no account be missed, writes Celia Woolfrey

Best food

Lasagne con ortiche - sheets of pasta layered with a sauce flecked with nettles. An Emilia-Romagnan combination I'd never had before was ice cream with a really beautiful balsamic vinegar. As for best drink, other than some wonderful wine, I liked the flavoured grappas: gentian, plum and mountain herb are some of the most interesting. The one drink that has always remained inexplicable to me is Cynar, a digestif made from artichokes. Although it's displayed in every bar, I've never seen anyone to drink it.

Best for an all-over tan

The Aphrodite-Apollo thermal park at St Angelo on Ischia is a relaxing place to spend a spring day. It has a series of 12 thermal pools (with water at different temperatures), natural saunas in caves, a secluded nude sunbathing spot (which is rare for Italy), and a volcanically-heated beach, hot enough to cook food if you bury it in the sand.

Wildlife moment

The Gran Paradiso park is a protected mountain area near the border with France. While walking there one evening, we felt a startling presence appear 3ft above us: an ibex with curving horns, matted fur - which he was shedding in sheets - and the maddest, most glittering, amber eyes. Next to us, two younger ibex came prancing over the shallow part of the river, locking horns in a mock fight, followed by a timid chamois. My friend and I looked at each other in disbelief. All day, walkers in the national park had been training their binoculars on tiny specks of chamois and ibex running away into the distance. Then these jumped out at us like something from a Garry Larson cartoon. It's a schlepp up from the valley and so it is worthwhile staying overnight at the mountain refuge Rifugio V Sella. You will almost certainly get to see a lot of wildlife, especially at sunrise and sunset when everyone else has gone home.

Under-rated area

The Le Langhe wine region in Piemonte (nearest airport Turin). Terraced vineyards, ancient hill-top towns, weighty Barolos and Barberas, white truffles in autumn, good places to stay. Tuscany eat your heart out.

Worst pick-up attempt

We were driving fast along a motorway next to the Ligurian coast, when a car pulled up alongside us. The occupants gave us thumbs-up signs and what I think were meant to be inviting grins. They then swerved in front of us and mimed drinking espresso out of tiny cups, pointing to the services stop coming up and inviting us to "come back for a coffee".

Favourite country hotel

The Locanda di Sant'Uffizio was once a convent and is now a comfortable hotel with a great pool and views overlooking vineyards and cornfields near Asti. A close second is Tenuta Seliano, a more affordable agriturismo (farm holiday) place near Paestum. One of its features is a herd of buffalo which is kept for their milk and from which mozzarella is made. Here, too, is a swimming pool in the garden, and good, home-cooked food. Everyone eats round one table outside in summer. The best bedroom is in the circular tower

Cheapest city

Naples, by far. Walking around the tiny streets and lanes of Spaccanapoli is entertainment all by itself, and there is a whole network of small, neighbourhood restaurants to eat at in the evening where a pizza and a beer cost no more than L10,000 (about pounds 3.50). A good time to visit is in May, when all the museums and galleries are open until 10pm or 11pm and there are a host of classical and jazz concerts, screenings and events. Stay at the Ausonia, a decent two-star hotel a couple of minutes' walk from the hydrofoil service to Capri, Ischia and the Amalfi coast. For those on a budget, there's also a youth hostel.

ITALY

GETTING THERE

BA (tel: 0345 222 111) and Alitalia (tel: 0171-602 7111) operate scheduled flights to major cities. BA has return flights to Rome from pounds 119, plus pounds 20 tax. Alitalia's return to Milan is pounds 119, plus pounds 15 tax. Skyshuttle (tel: 0800 129129) offers summer charter flights with return fares to Naples from pounds 179. Go (tel: 0845 605 4321) flies from Stansted to Venice, Bologna, Milan and Rome. Internet bookings, at www.go-fly.com, offers the cheapest flights. For southern Italy contact Long Travel (tel: 01694 722193; fax: 01694 724291).

WHERE TO STAY

In Naples: Ausonia, via Caracciolo 11 (tel/fax: 00 39 081 682 278); double rooms pounds 60 per night. Youth hostel, Ostello Mergellina, Salita della Grotta 23 (tel: 00 39 081 761 2346) is pounds 9 per person, per night. Locanda di Sant'Uffizio (tel: 00 39 0141 916 292) has doubles for pounds 100 per night. Dinner, bed and breakfast at Tenuta Seliano (tel: 00 39 0828 724 544) is pounds 39 per night. Rifugio V Sella (tel: 00 39 0165 74 310) is open from Easter.

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