If you have ever visited Italy, you'll know how it lingers in the memory.
That matchless light, the centuries of art and architecture, the mid-afternoon heat, the people, the exquisite food. Just to think of it is restorative - and one trip will never be enough.
After 18 months of isolation, I could barely wait to get away somewhere different this autumn - but it had to be somewhere safe.
Like most people, I was still anxious about air travel. Triple vaccinated, I worried about safety on planes. But the opportunity to visit Italy turned out to be too tempting.
September – the month I traveled - is a romantic time there, with the weather still warm but the summer tourist boom finally ebbing, making it possible to visit galleries like the Villa Borghese in Rome and find entire rooms of the place empty, the better to enjoy the famous Caravaggio's.
Getting there was surprisingly easy. To travel, you must take a PCR test within 48 hours of flying. The nonstop flight I took on Emirates from JFK to Milan was reassuringly uneventful – and unusually affordable - thanks to the current pandemic pricing courtesy of that travelers friend, the Hopper app.
The thoughtful staff onboard allowed passengers to impromptu socially distance on the two-thirds full flight, offering me room to spread out and sleep – masked – across five empty aisle seats in economy. I was grateful for their thoughtfulness.
Upon landing in Milan, I was reassured by what I was seeing on the ground. For good reason, Italy is not playing when it comes to vaccinations and public safety.
Before you are allowed to enter restaurants, museums, churches, trains and buses, or any public place, the door staff will ask for your Green Pass or vaccination card. I was delighted by the lengths they went to protect each other.
Traveling in a pandemic has unexpected blessings I discovered. The greatest luxury turned out to be the unexpected solitude in what would otherwise have been crowded galleries and famous city locations in Florence, Venice, and Rome.
Now is the ideal time to go, in other words. Whether you travel in spring, summer, autumn, or winter, the present circumstances allow you to take the pulse of the nation in an unprecedented way, with lower tourist numbers allowing everyday life to reemerge again.
I had medieval and Renaissance churches to myself, entire gallery rooms to contemplate paintings and sculptures, and even the famed Pantheon (the most remarkable building I've ever seen) sans crowds in the early morning, where a life-changing cappuccino and the delicious breakfast bun that the Romans call a Maritozzi is just steps away at the Roscioli Caffè Pasticceria on the Piazza Benedetto Cairoli.
It can help to be Irish in Italy, I think. Although temperamentally different, we have a cultural shorthand that can help us to interpret each other in ways that can be very helpful. I found that again on this deeply revitalizing trip.
The art and architecture tell just one part of the grand story here. Era after era have built on top of each other, from the Etruscans to the present day, and just like in Ireland, the past is rarely ever the past here, because it fights for a hearing in the life of the present exactly the way it does at home.
But other things helped me appreciate Italy too. Right now Venice, a city that is usually thronging with busloads of gawking tourists, moves to a far more stately pace I discovered. Indeed on this trip, I found my Italo train from Milan had half emptied out before we even reached the floating world of gondolas and vaporettos (water taxis).
Better yet, I discovered San Marco, the city square usually teeming with visitors, had by nightfall half emptied out in a way I had never seen before, which meant that for long stretches I had the moonlit streets almost to myself at times, a luxury probably not to be repeated for another 100 years.
To get around Venice, I recommend the Venezia Unica City Pass, which places the art and history of the 1,600-year-old city at your fingertips. As well as access to the vaporettos, the card permits you free admission to the Doge's Palace and permits steep discounts and special deals on museums, shows, shops and bars and restaurants.
Meanwhile, in Rome, a visit to Castel Sant'Angelo, or Emperor Hadrian's Mausoleum, is a must on any visit to Rome and an ideal vantage point from which to enjoy the sweeping views of the wider city and St. Peter's.
With construction of the towering building beginning in 139 A.D., you can trace all the eras that followed it by running your hands along the exposed brick foundations. In fact, just to look at it is to connect to the ancient world, as well as the Christian world that followed it and at times threatened to subsume it.
But the monuments of Hadrian will outface time. A not to be missed trip to his ruined summer Villa just twenty minutes outside of Rome proves that. Here, in this remarkably well preserved time capsule, the eternal city's imperial past is brought to life by Through Eternity tours.
Through Eternity company founder Rob Allyn (who grew up in Stamford, Connecticut) accompanied me as tour guide on this visit and brought the Roman empire and Hadrian back to life again in a landscape that hasn't changed that much in 2000 years.
Through Eternity tours is one of the top-rated Italian tour companies on Trip Advisor for over 10 years for good reason, their combination of expertise – tour guides often hold masters degrees in their fields – and their local knowledge and sense of fun make for informative and lively tours, which I highly recommend.
My home base in Rome was the elegant Hotel Eden, a Dorchester hotel. The Prestige Room with a View featured a king-size bed, en-suite marble bathroom, a walk-in shower, luxurious bath and shower gels, and their signature attraction, the softest bed linen I have ever slept in (with a nightly turndown service that seems to appear and disappear unobtrusively like magic).
Madonna has stayed here, as has Nelson Mandela, Tina Turner, Marlon Brando, Paul McCartney, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Meryl Streep - and now me, I laugh to myself.
Perfectly positioned near the Spanish Steps – “we're your home in Rome,” as the staff say - the Eden's upper floors offer panoramic views of the city so impressive that the legendary film director Federico Fellini used to pick the La Terraza and Il Giardino Ristorante locations on the top floor to give his press interviews (breakfast is served here daily, giving you the best possible start to another new day in the eternal city).
The Eden is not just a place to hang your hat in Rome, it's also an in-the-know guide to the city and to the wider region. The concierge will be happy to help you plan a day out or a chauffeur-driven tour to all the nearby regions.
Worried about the availability of a table at an in-demand city restaurant? Eager to take a day trip to Positano or Pompeii? Want to tour the town in a Rolls Royce Ghost? These are all eminently doable through this remarkable hotel.
With a staff of over 200 catering to 98 guests, the recently renovated Eden understands the meaning of the phrase la dolce vita (the sweet life) giving attentive but unobtrusive personal attention (champagne is waiting in an ice bucket on your arrival, with a handwritten note of welcome attached). I mean, come on.
On my first night in Milan, I stayed at the Principe di Savoia Hotel, another Dorchester hotel, that keeps its five-star luxury discreetly hidden behind an imposing neoclassical exterior. This building, a city landmark, dates back to 1896 and has welcomed guests as various as Ernest Hemingway, Andy Warhol, and Maria Callas.
Combining old-world elegance with contemporary style, a stay here is an unforgettable experience. Expect to find Aqua di Parma bath and shower gels in the all-marble bathrooms, to compliment the cloud-soft bed linen and elegant bathrobes.
Stays of any duration at The Principe di Savoia in Milan and The Hotel Eden in the heart of Rome are not opportunities to pass up lightly and there is simply no better time to experience their unforgettable welcome – and Italy itself - than right now.
To visit Italy without a stop in Florence feels like cheating. The epicenter of the Renaissance and home to some of the best restaurants in the world, it's an art lover and epicurean's delight.
For this trip, I stayed at the St. Regis, Florence, in a 13th-century palazzo designed by Brunelleschi (a founding father of Renaissance architecture, who designed the famous dome of the Duomo). The hotel, which is a delightful mix of old-world grandeur and modern style, is ideally located along the gently flowing Arno River, just a stroll from the Ponte Vecchio and the center of town.
A Marriott hotel, you can use travel points to upgrade based on room availability, but any room in this matchless hotel will be a delight. Breakfast is served in the Winter Garden Bar, featuring pastries, croissants, fresh fruit, cheeses, cold cuts, smoked salmon and fresh bagels, and freshly made eggs served the way you want them. It's the perfect start to the day beneath its high painted glass ceilings and crystal chandeliers.
My trip to see the sculptures at the Bargello museum astounded me. Once again I had entire rooms to myself to spend uninterrupted time contemplating the achievements of the Renaissance.
There are so many guides to the best pasta in Florence but always asks discerning locals for their recommendations. I found Risotorante Boccanegra in via Ghibellina at the corner with via Verdi with the help of the Florence Convention Bureau.
A restaurant, osteria, and pizza place spread over three main areas, matchless service and value were offered in each. On the night I dined, I ordered the wild boar ragout with pappardelle, which was exceptional and - I discovered - a popular dish at the restaurant.
For the second course, I ordered meatballs with spicy cherries tomato sauce (served with indescribably delicious roast potatoes). Paired with a glass of red wine I was very well fed and very happy on the way home, which is my template for a successful night out.
Offering sophisticated but unpretentious cooking in the heart of Florence, Boccanegra is the kind of restaurant that discerning customers who want to dine out alongside locals without the tourism traps or price markups - or the often stuffy atmospheres that can be found elsewhere. I loved every dish that was plated - and the value for money too - and I'd return here in a heartbeat. I highly recommended it.
I have been to Italy many times, but I am really glad I took a chance on seeing it in these challenging times this autumn. After 18 months of caution and high anxiety, it was a gift to my spirit to return to a place I deeply love - and it quickly lightened my heart and step.
Besides, the rewards of the trip far surpassed any anxieties that I had. By limiting exposure and taking sensible precautions it is quite possible to travel safely and to return to the places that we all love and miss. So what are you waiting for? Ciao!
Some sound words of advice: Just as with any business facing into these challenging times, I sought out local cafes and restaurants to give my business to and was rewarded by great food and friendly service.
Train travel is impressively safety conscious, as are the masked passengers onboard. I didn't see a single customer flouting the rules on my entire trip.
Returning to the U.S. is a cinch. You need to take another PCR test 48 hours before travel and your hotel or many nearby health clinics can set this up on a walk-in basis.
Finally, it's pricy to take a private water taxi up the Grand Canal in Venice, but you really should. The city is best seen from the water and this is the best way to see it. Live a little, you've earned it.