Northern Italy seven-day tour itinerary: How to see the best of the north in just one week

On day one we are met at Milan airport by Frank Looze, the effervescent travel director we will get to know quite well in the next 10 days. With him, driving the coach is Tiziano, a native Italian whose ability to squeeze a 20-ton vehicle through some of the narrowest roads in northern Italy is, it turns out, second to none.

After a quick spruce-up at the hotel we meet our fellow travellers – American and Australian all – and coach into central Milan where local travel guide Marika is on hand to show us her city. It's only a whistle-stop tour but it's enough to give a good impression of the country's economic powerhouse.

We start at Sforza Castle – an impressive, moated fortification built in the 15th century and then renovated, enlarged, ravaged and rebuilt over the centuries – before moving on to the Piazza del Duomo and Milan Cathedral.

There isn't the time to go inside but that's fine because the outside is amazing enough. It's the largest church in Italy, the third largest in the world and took almost 600 years to complete. Imagine starting a bespoke suit in 1940, finishing it in 2018 and incorporating every style and fashion along the way and you'll understand why it's an edifice that elicits both love and hatred.

John Ruskin, for instance, despised it while Henry James was grudgingly appreciative (though calling it "a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort" might seem like damning with faint praise).

Of course, Milan is also known for fashion and shopping so a diversion into the nearby Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II seems appropriate. This pedestrianised shopping mall is housed in a 19th-century arcade and is awash with all the luxury brands you can poke a platinum credit card at. There is even a sign spruiking a new shop selling 24-carat gold bed linen. Talk about God and Mammon.

DAY 2

"Andiamo!" is Frank's cry as we head towards the south Tyrolean town of Trento, via Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame. On the way Frank takes the time to explain about the tour and the coming days as well as being a mine of information about our destinations and Europe in general. With just 23 of us on the tour, the coach is only about half full so there is plenty of room to spread out in a vehicle that's already pretty spacious, with plenty of leg room. There's Wi-Fi, too.

Far off to our left, explains Frank, are "the dolomites, ladies and gentlemen, one of the most beautiful parts of Italy and where we will be staying in a few days, at Cortina d'Ampezzo, which is such a beautiful name, like a poem".

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In Verona, which has sensibly banned large coaches from the city centre, we meet guide Roberto by the Roman amphitheatre (now used to stage operas) and follow him along the shopping precinct's marble pavements before entering the small courtyard that contains the balcony where Juliet supposedly romanced her Romeo.

We finish the day with a short pause in Trento, which Frank calls "a very nice provincial town, a hidden treasure". There's no guide here, just an hour or so to wander the streets and stop for a coffee or a swift Aperol spritz. Or two.

DAY 3

It was grey and rainy yesterday so it's quite something to wake up to bright blue skies in a hotel surrounded by snow-capped mountains. After breakfast we drive through fruit orchards and vineyards to Bolzano where the wonderfully animated and articulate Luciano guides us through this small but good-looking medieval town.

We take in the cathedral, the main square and the adjoining cobbled streets but the main attraction is the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology where the mortal remains of the Neolithic caveman Otzi are kept in a climate-controlled chamber.

Also known as Frozen Fritz, the mummified body of this caveman was found in the alps between Austria and Italy in 1991 after a glacier retreated. It's an unexpectedly fascinating exhibition that recreates Otzi's life and times, and culminates in an alarmingly lifelike and life-size re-creation of what he looked like.

In the afternoon we make haste towards Venice where we leave the coach on the mainland and take a flotilla of boats to our hotel in the old Cannaregio district, and an afternoon tour with another local guide.

DAY 4

Venice. La Serenissima. 'Nuff said. We visit a glass-blowing workshop, take a gondola ride, lunch regally on the colourful island of Burano and partake of an early evening snifter in St Mark's Square with Frank. This place is impossible and impossibly beautiful.

DAY 5

Back on the road again, we head to the mountains we've been looking at in the distance across the Venetian lagoon. We follow the Brenta canal out of the city and into the vineyard-covered foothills of the Dolomites. This is prosecco country and after a stop for lunch and a wine tasting at La Vigna di Sarah, an agriturismo B&B and wine shop, we make our way into the Dolomites proper.

Corrrrrtina d'Ampezzo (I am by this time rolling my Rs in conscious imitation of Frrrrrank, who would win gold if it were an Olympic sport) doesn't feel like Italy. We are so close to the Austrian border here that you can almost reach out and touch it. The architecture is pure Tyrolean, all pitched roofs on wooden chalets, and onion-domed churches.

It is, says Frrrank, a verrry popular winterrrr sporrrt rrrresorrrt.

DAY 6

Into the Dolomites proper where we visit a museum dedicated to the unknown war that raged here between Italy and Austria from 1914 to 1918 and then take a cable-car up to peaks above the Falzarego Pass where the views of the surrounding mountains are of the sort that make you take out your eyeballs, tap them on the nearest hard surface and ask yourself "are these working properly?"

DAY 7

Today we head for Como and Italy's Lake District. On the way, when we're not gaping at the stupendous scenery, Frank is both engaging and erudite. His patter takes in the history of World War I and II as well as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Nietzsche, the Schengen agreement, the euro, Mussolini, Hitler, Puccini and Pavarotti, whose version of Nessun Dorma he pipes through the sound system.

Gradually, the mountains give way to the flatter landscape of the lakes and that night we split up into smaller groups and dine at a lakeside restaurant a short walk from our hotel, which in turn overlooks the lake.

DAY 8

There has been a storm overnight and the day dawns grey and drizzly, yesterday's sparkling lake now a flat gunmetal grey as we make our way up the west side of the lake to the small village of Bellagio.

The lakeside roads are narrow and winding, skirting precipitous inclines down which pretty ochre-roofed villages tumble like Escher drawings. Despite the rain it's quite spectacular.

At Tremezzo, a motorboat takes us across to Bellagio, which turns out to be a pretty, cobblestoned village with steep streets and more leather handbag shops than you'd think humanly possible or sustainable.

From Bellagio we drive back down Lake Como (no, we didn't see George Clooney) and on to Lake Maggiore further west. This is our last port of call, where we will spend two nights before heading home.

Dinner is on Fisherman's Island, at the simply named Ristorante Italia, where the specialities are pesce di lago and exquisite views across the lake as the sun sets.

DAY 9

It's a late start today, our last full day, and another boat ride, this time to the Isola Bella, a privately-owned island with its own palace, the Palazzo Borromeo. We have another guided tour – the palace is superb and the tour fascinating – before some free time to wander at will through the Italianate gardens where elegant white peacocks roam, like chooks with ideas above their station.

After another free afternoon we meet in the early evening to dine in Ristorante Cardini, on a hillside overlooking the lake. The food is excellent, the views amazing and the mood buoyant. 

It's here I finally realise there's a touch of real magic about this tour. "Was Milan really only nine days ago?" asks a fellow traveller. "How is that possible?"

He has a point. Time travel? Dr Who? It's most certainly been a journey that, like the good doctor's Tardis, is bigger on the inside.

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Insight Vacations.

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traveller.com.au/italy

FLY

All of the major airlines operate frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan's Malpensa airport.

TOUR

Insight Vacations operates throughout Europe and Britain. The 10-day Country Roads of Northern Italy guided holiday costs from $3595 per person twin share. Prices include some meals, airport transfers, an expert travel director as well as local specialists along the way. See insightvacations.com

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