We invited three travel writers to argue in favour of their favourite country from our shortlist of potential Amberlair locations. First up, Chris Madigan (The Telegraph, Toronto Globe & Mail, Condé Nast Traveller) makes the case for Italy.
For me, the allure of Italy is found in a place such as Pistoia. Where? Pistoia. It’s not the best known city in Italy. It’s not even one of the best known in Tuscany. It would be easy to drive past it on the road from Lucca to Florence. But, finding myself there one day, I spent some hours wowed by the campanile in the Piazza Duomo, dazzled by a vibrant flower market and fascinated by the medical museum in a 13th-century hospital. In the evening, I had the best bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-bone) I’ve ever tasted in a very unshowy restaurant in a narrow street as marbled as the meat.
That is the point: Italy has so much to offer in even its humbler parts. It has its fashionable city districts – Milan’s Quadrilatero d’Oro is the design match of anything Paris, London or New York has to offer – but you find effortless style too in the white shirts and coppola flat caps of a farmworker in a Sicilian village square.
Everywhere you turn in Rome, you see wonders of the classical world, such as the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre ever built. Some destinations offer equally intense history – Petra, Giza, Angkor Wat – but they are dedicated theme parks… people are not flying past the Sphinx on a Vespa to go to work. It’s the same with art: Florence’s Uffizi has one of the world’s best collections. But you can equally gaze over famed Renaissance sculpture, including Michelangelo’s David, from a café next to the Loggia dei Lanzi. In Rome, you can sit on the edge of Bernini’s Fontana di Triton in Piazza Navona eating an ice cream from Grom.
History is woven into the everyday life of every town. In Matera, Basilicata, the 9,000-year old cave dwellings called sassi are not museum pieces. They are used as shops, restaurants and, most significantly, family homes. History and life are not separated. In Puglia, a Baroque masterpiece of a city such as Lecce is rivalled by the charm of trulli, the dry-stone dwellings dotted around the countryside between Ostuni and Alberobello.
Appropriately for Italy, food sums it up best. I’m sure the blogs arguing for Spain and South Africa will try to persuade you by talking about, respectively, game-changing chefs and an exciting street-food scene. But Italy is where you find reliable excellence at every level. I’ve eaten inventive Michelin-starred cucina molecolare. But, when I went to a Sampdoria football match, the cheap café next to the ground was serving freshly made gnocchi with fragrant homemade pesto.
When I was young, my grandparents had a house in the hills behind Finale Ligure, on the Italian Riviera. They weren’t Italian; they just fell in love with the place. As did I. If there was one thing I’d enjoy more than running among the olive trees, or picking the grapes at harvest, it was the restaurants. One was up in the mountains and served a Sunday lunch that went on for hours, with at least five courses of antipasti (they had a playground to stop us children getting bored between servings).
I couldn’t tell you the name, or where it was. But it doesn’t matter. Italy is not the place to go if you need to tick off “destination restaurants” you follow on Instagram. Head out of any Italian town into the campania and look for signs to a restaurant – you’ll find your version of that unpretentious place serving incredibly good, but simple, food. It won’t say “child-friendly” on its website, because it is simply welcoming to all.
Unpretentious high quality and genuine hospitality is why we should vote for Italy as the location of the first Amberlair hotel.