Smaller cities have mountains of potential

Next September my husband and I plan to fly to Milan as a base for a five-week trip by train around northern Italy, Lake Como and Venice before leaving for Switzerland and a four-day train trip sightseeing through the mountains. Then we hope to travel by train to Vienna and Salzburg. Any information on this itinerary would be much appreciated, including how we book self-contained accommodation in Milan.

- A. Wilcher, Annandale.

Self-contained accommodation in Milan is available through Homelidays ( or Holidaylettings (holidaylettings Instead of basing yourself in a large and busy metropolis such as Milan, you might consider a smaller and more atmospheric alternative.

For example, when exploring the Italian Lakes, you could base yourself in gorgeous Varese, a city with connections to Lake Como (pictured), Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano.

The same goes for Venice, where I would stay in Padova - Padua - a city with great character and no tourist hordes, just a half-hour train ride from Venice. You could also consider a stop in Verona.

I don't know how your plans for rail travel in Switzerland could work into this but from Venice, you're just a couple of hours away from the Dolomites, where the cultures of Italy and Austria fuse. Anchor yourself in Cortina d'Ampezzo, which is within easy reach of Salzburg.