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Italy, the perennial favourite: where do you begin?

Flat as a board, the Renaissance city of Ferrara needs no hills or dales to show off its own distinctive charm. The original city walls still stand, reasonably intact, whilst the fortified seat of the Este dynasty stands alongside a Palazzo Municipale (Town Hall) and a fine Duomo (Cathedral). Out in the piazza, svelte cyclists glide by. Young lovers are out and about, muzzling each other, holding hands, double-dinking on their bicycles... and summer has barely begun.

From the 13th to the late 16th centuries, the Este dynasty presided over one of the leading courts of Europe. Even as the Estes engaged in murderous feuds, their court attracted poets, painters and sculptors, including Mantegna, Titian and Bellini. Often cast as a femme fatale, the much-maligned Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, came to epitomise the ruthlessness and corruption of those times, along with her family. Traditionally we knew rather little about Lucrezia, but Australian researchers have recently announced a startling new discovery.

A taste of luxury, Italian-style: three boutique four-star hotels in Florence, Venice and Milan

These properties range from the period elegance of a palazzo, tucked away in the heart of the Castello quarter of Venice, to the minimalist chic of a Milanese retreat. In Florence, the main building of Hotel Lungarno is a modern structure dovetailing into the south bank of the Arno: directly across the lane stands a centuries-old tower which forms part of the hotel property. As the staff will explain, during the Second World War retreating German forces destroyed much of this area. The Ponte Vecchio, metres away, was the only bridge to be spared. The Lungarno's style is timeless.

The Liassidi Palace, like everything else in Venice, is reached only by water or on foot. In its heyday Venice was a most cosmopolitan city, and the Liassidi Palace occupies a fifteenth-century Gothic palazzo standing at the hub of what was once a Greek merchants' quarter. Spacious, brightly-lit guest lounges are furnished in period style, including hand-painted copies of famous masterpieces.

The good life in Tuscany - at Lucca's Ostello San Frediano

There's been a lot of puffery written about living the good life in Tuscany, often revolving around some darling little villa out in the countryside. The city of Lucca, enclosed within wide brick walls that now serve as a four-kilometre passegiata or promenade for strollers, joggers and cyclists is as charming and as unspoilt as any other of its size - but here backpackers have the last laugh. The Ostello San Frediano is an imposing, centuries-old former monastery, school and palazzo whose spacious, old-world public areas outshine those of many a three-star hotel. Relax in one of several spacious lounges or out in the garden which ends at the foot of the city wall; wine is served with dinner in the spacious dining room. Right next door stands the ancient church of the same name. Lucca, within easy reach of Florence, is an ideal base for touring northern Tuscany.

Trieste: the end of an empire, or two

The slow train eastbound from Venice hugs the craggy, forested Adriatic coast as it nears the city of Trieste, affording tantalising glimpses of the Castello di Miramare, a fabulous folly built out on a promontory in the 1860s by the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Maximilian and his wife Charlotte. With his fairytale castle barely complete, the young aristocrat took up the opportunity to become Emperor of Mexico, an adventure which would end in tragedy.

At the station in downtown Trieste, we find much to remind us that this was once a cosmopolitan port, the only outlet to the sea for the Austro-Hungarian empire dismembered after the First World War. Veteran travel writer Jan Morris enthuses over this somewhat cryptic city, not quite Italian, almost encircled by modern-day Slovenia. Trieste lacks the must-sees of other cities in northern Italy, but in some ways that is part of its charm. Launches bob at anchor in the Grand Canal whilst café patrons nibble their cicheti snacks and sip Campari spritzes on the nearby Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia.

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