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Following in Dante’s footsteps: Eight beautiful towns to visit in Italy

Dante and his Divine Comedy rank highly on the list of Italy’s best cultural exports, but even if you haven't actually got round to reading his work, why not soak up some of his genius by visiting one of the towns where the poet spent his days?

Following in Dante's footsteps: Eight beautiful towns to visit in Italy
Follow in Dante's footsteps with this guide to Italy. Photos (L-R): Kosala Bandara, Paolo Sarteschi, Bert Kaufmann/Flickr

Dante was pretty well-travelled; not only did his political role allow him to see a lot of the country, but after being exiled from his hometown, he spent the rest of his life on the road. 

City breaks, rural retreats and cross-country road trips can all be injected with a Dante flavour – just follow our guide to discover the poet’s connection to eight spots across the peninsula, all of which are well worth a visit.

Florence 

This is the big one. Dante was born and grew up in the Tuscan city, which later exiled him when his political rivals gained power. The writer had a love-hate relationship with his hometown – so much so that he liked to describe himself as ‘Florentine by birth, but not in conduct’.


Photo: Ghost of Kuji/Flickr

But hindsight's a great thing, and the city that once threatened Dante with death if he dared to return, later decided it was actually quite proud of him. The ‘House of Dante’ is dedicated to the poet’s life if you want to learn more, or you can look for the dozens of portraits, busts and plaques in his honour which are dotted around the city. 

You can visit the places where the writer once set foot, starting with the San Giovanni baptistery where he was christened and – probably at a later date – found inspiration for a verse or two of the Comedy in its spectacular mosaic ceiling. Then there’s the Palazzo dei Priori, now a museum, where Dante once spoke at city assemblies. That's just for starters – here’s a self-guided Dante tour of the city which will make sure you don’t miss a thing.

Ravenna

Dante and his children spent two years of his exile in Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna. In 1321, the poet died at the age of 56 as he was returning to the northern town after an ambassadorial trip to Venice.

Then things got weird.

READ ALSO: Dante's last laugh: Why Italy's national poet isn't buried where you think he is


Did Ravenna's mosaics inspire Dante? Photo: Andy HayFlickr

Dante was buried in Ravenna's Church of San Pier Maggiore (now the church of San Francesco), and a grand tomb was built for him in 1483. Along with the beautiful mosaics Ravenna is famous for, the mausoleum is one of the city’s main historical sites.

But Florence later decided they wanted to bury Dante there, and built a spectacular tomb of their own. Michelangelo and even Pope Leo X got involved in the campaign for the poet’s remains to be returned to his hometown, but the sneaky Ravenna monks sent an empty coffin, hiding his bones in a secret location. It was so secret in fact that they were only discovered by accident in 1865, during construction works.


The spot where Dante's bones were hiddden during World War II, which can be found next to the mausoleum. Photo:Catherine Edwards/The Local

In the tomb today, you'll see candles hanging from the ceiling inside – the oil for the lamps is paid for by Florence to make up for exiling Dante. And the nearby Dante Museum features several exhibitions about the poet and the role of Ravenna itself in Dante’s life. 

Bologna

A respected politician, thinker and writer, Dante studied at Bologna’s famous university and visited many times afterwards, as well as name-checking the city frequently in his work. In De Vulgari Eloquentia, his treatise on language, he praises Bolognese as a noble dialect in comparison to those of other cities, even though he thought Florentine was the best of all.


Photo: Yuri Vivomets/Flickr

The city’s two towers – the most popular tourist sight in Bologna – are evoked in Inferno to describe giants submerged in the depths of hell. But far from being offended at the city’s pride and joy being compared to evil giants, the Bolognese are proud of the mention, and a plaque at the side of the towers displays the relevant quote.


The two towers. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

READ MORE: Why Bologna should be the next place you visit in Italy

Rome

Dante visited Rome in 1301 to meet Pope Boniface VIII, and it was while he was on this trip that Florence was taken over by a rival faction of Dante’s political party, the Guelphs, leading to  his exile. It's possible that he also attended Pope Boniface VIII's Jubilee the previous year, as he describes it vividly in Inferno. 


Photo: Bert Kaufmann/Flickr

Rome is mentioned frequently throughout Dante’s work, and in return, the city has paid tribute to Dante. You’ll see statues, paintings and streets bearing his name across the city.

Among the more notable homages are the bust in the magnificent Villa Borghese park, and his cameo in the background of The Parnassus, a Raphael fresco, which you'll find in the Vatican Museums.


Dante in the background of the Raphael fresco. Picture: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons 

Verona

Verona was where Dante first sought refuge after being exiled, and he stayed for six years between 1312 and 1318, editing Inferno and Purgatorio and working on the final part of the Comedia, Paradiso, in which he praises and thanks his “earliest refuge”. He was hosted by Verona’s ruler, Cangrande della Scala, on whom he lavishes praise in Paradiso and whose tomb you can visit today.


Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr

Dante’s strong bond with Verona is commemorated with a statue in Piazza Dante, and you can take a Dante-themed guided tour through the city’s streets. 

You might also want to explore the city's connection to another literary giant; Verona's Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore is not only mentioned in Dante's Purgatorio, but is also the setting of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage in Shakespeare’s play. And a small section of Paradise has been used as evidence that Shakespeare’s lovers were real; Dante refers to the sadness of the Montecchi and Cappelletti families – could these have been translated as the Montagues and Capulets?

Casentino, Tuscany

About 50km east of Florence is Casentino, full of forests and castles steeped in history. It is untouched by most tourist routes today, but hasn’t always been so peaceful; Arezzo and Florence bitterly fought for the territory, notably in the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, in which Dante played a part. You can see a white column on the site of the battle, known to locals as ‘Dante’s suitcase’, and the nearby Poppi castle has information about the battle.


The Casentino countryside. Photo: Mark Goebel/Flickr

But Dante’s experiences on the battlefield didn’t put him off returning to the area. He stayed in the towns of Poppi, Romena and Dovaldo to work at court, and if you choose to recreate these trips, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery and majestic castles.

Casentino had a special place in Dante’s heart, and he ensured local citizens fame by including them in his Comedia – even giving the enemy leader who died at the Battle of Campaldino, Buonconte da Montefeltro, a favourable portrayal in Purgatorio.

Lunigiana, northern Tuscany/Liguria

Lunigiana today lies between La Spezia and Massa Carrara, though in Dante’s time the borders were rather different. Dante visited the territory several times between 1306 and 1308, and his time in the region included a stay at the monastery of Santa Croce del Corvo – which now offers guest accommodation if you want a true Dantean experience.


One of the castles in the region. Photo: Paolo Sarteschi/Flickr

According to writings from a monk named Ilaro, when Dante arrived at the monastery and was asked what he was looking for, he simply responded: “Peace”. You’re sure to get plenty of that in the mountainous rural region, which has several beautiful medieval castles.

The castle of Mulazzo. Photo: Paolo Sarteschi/Flickr

If you want to add a bit of culture to your trip you can visit the local Dante museum which explores the links between Dante and Lunigiana. And since 2011, the town of Mulazzo has held annual historical reenactments in April to commemorate the poet’s arrival in the city.

Venice

Dante went to Venice numerous times during his period of exile. The first was for a few months in August 1321 to resolve a diplomatic dispute, when he stayed with his good friend, a nobleman named Giovanni Soranzo. Soranzo’s family home, the Palazzo Soranzo, is still standing in Campo San Polo – the city’s second largest square – and though it now houses apartments and offices, see if you can spot a plaque on the front noting the poet’s visit.


Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr

Dante was particularly impressed by the busy shipyard of Venice, and uses it as a simile to evoke the movement and restlessness of sinners in Inferno. This is ironic, because while the Venetians produced beautiful ships, the sinners' activity is futile. The tercet has its own plaque, which is on the main entrance of the Arsenal close to a bust of Dante.
 

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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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