Shhh … Explore some of Italy’s top-secret spots
Protruding geographically like a well-heeled boot into the Mediterranean Sea, Italy’s golden triangle (Venice, Florence and Rome) is the standard meat-and-three-veg destination for most European–bound travellers. And it’s understandable – Italy is famous for its ancient history, enchanting landscapes, food, wine, fashion and art.
The Colosseum in Rome, the architecture in Florence, Venice’s meandering canals and the iconic leaning tower of Pisa … just a few of the sites that instantly come to mind when thinking of Italy. However, if you’re keen to dodge the frenetic, SLR-toting hordes and embrace a little dolce vita of the non-touristy kind, then buckle up for an alphabetical exploration of a few lesser-known gems. And prepare for (what might actually be) the quintessentially Italian experience.
Rising out of the bluest of blue seas off Sicily’s north-eastern coast, you’ll find the UNESCO-listed Aeolian Islands, a smattering of magical outdoor playgrounds, ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving. Lipari, the largest and liveliest of the seven, boasts a breathtaking cliff-top castle, while Stromboli and Vulcano will adequately entertain naturalists with their black sand beaches and hissing volcanoes.
A small town in the southern region of Puglia, Alberobello is renowned for its trulli (traditional stone huts) that are sprinkled liberally throughout the city and recognised by their white washed conical roofs. Escapists should consider booking a stay in one of the whimsical guesthouses and spending the day exploring the Old Town and its handful of quaint museums, including the Museum of Olive Oil and the Museum of Wine.
Located on the northwest coast of Sardinia (the second largest island in the Mediterranean), Alghero is encircled by ancient walls and its cobblestoned centre houses a number of Catalan Gothic buildings, including the 14th-ventury Chiesa di San Francesco church. Spend endlessly sunny days splashing about in its crystal clear waters or consider a day trip to Porto Conte’s wildlife reserve or the towering 300-metre high cliffs of Capo Caccia.
Side step bustling Milan in favour of a stay in nearby Bergamo and enjoy a romance-laden stroll through one of the loveliest squares in Italy, the Piazza Vecchia. Enjoy a leisurely lick of a local gelato while you explore the baroque architecture or venture further out into the Lombardy countryside for a picnic-with-a-view beside one of its crystalline mountain lakes.
Lush, green countryside highlights row upon row of pastel-painted dwellings, bicycles meander through riverside tracks and market stalls are flush with fresh produce, tasty local speck and gloriously creamy Alpine cheeses. Bolzano is certainly anything but boring or provincial, plus its home to Europe’s oldest mummy, The Iceman, who lived around 5,300 years ago and now calls the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology home.
Side step San Gimignano’s clamouring tourists and instead head fifty kilometres south of Florence for an intimate peek into the true charms of Tuscan life. Traipse through Castellina’s medieval walls for a quick peak at a selection of gelaterias and galleries then make a beeline for one of the local enotecas for a handmade pasta and a taste test of one of Chianti’s most famous wines.
One of the largest of the seven islands in the Tuscan Archipelago, Elba Island offers ridiculously beautiful cliff top views and a coastline buffeted by translucent waters. Outdoor pursuits are popular here – energetic types will fall in love with its thickly wooded slopes (perfect for a hike) – or if you prefer more passive pursuits, find yourself a quiet little cove and lay claim to your own patch of beachy paradise.
Bordering Slovenia to the East and Austria to the north, the Friuli region is saturated with mountainous terrain, interspersed with sweeping plains and criss-crossing rivers. This isolated spot has undoubtedly retained its medieval style, evidenced by its frescoed cathedrals and painted house facades. Day-trippers should set their sights on a visit to San Daniele del Friuli for a sampling of some of the country’s best cured ham, courtesy of the local artisanal producers.
Renaissance palaces adorn Liguria’s capital, Genoa, a city steeped in history, religion and architecture. Stretching for almost forty kilometres along the coastline of the Ligurian Sea, it is divinely sandwiched in between the towering Apennine Mountains. With a rich seaport history, it is home to one of Europe’s largest aquariums and the bestower of one of the world’s most tantalizing gastronomic gifts … pesto.
Yep, it’s got a leaning tower and yep, it’s one of Italy’s most visited attractions, however head further north from Pisa to Lucca for an idyllic dose of noteworthy architecture (Duomo’s carved columns for a start). Here you’ll find a plentiful serving of terracotta roofed stuccos, horse-drawn carriages and an appropriately respectful tribute to Giacomo Puccini (ie. his own museum), that will delight opera fans.
Go (literally) underground for a fascinating tour of the Marche region’s Frasassi caves and an other-worldy glimpse of thirty kilometres of limestone in the shape of stalagmites and stalactites of spectacular proportions. View the uniquely shaped Organ Pipes, the Sword of Damocles (a 7.4 metre-high stalactite) and wonder at the world’s largest underground ‘room’, the Abyss Ancona, which encompasses a space of 2 million cubic meters.
While we’re on this cavey theme, consider a trip to Matera in the region of Basilicata, which has been described by UNESCO as ‘the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean’. Huh? Basically, this town is a honeycombed hive of prehistoric cave dwellings that have been carved out of calcareous ‘tufa’ rock and its 150-plus cave churches contain some of Italy’s oldest frescoes outside the catacombs of Rome.
Parma. Kind of rings a bell, huh? Food forms the foundations of this charming little town, which holds the accolade of being the home of Prosciutto di Parma and the origin of Parmigiano Reggiano (one of the world’s most to-die-for cheeses). Visit this place and you’ll pretty much be eating the whole time, although if weight-conscious, consider working off that carb-loaded meal with an exploration of the area’s historic centre, including the spectacular Camera di San Paolo.
And who doesn’t get even a teensy bit syrupy when encountering the tale of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers? Drama, romance and fatal family feuding have been the hallmark of Verona for centuries. Here you’ll find a 14th century palace complete with balcony, where one fateful night the love-struck Romeo is said to have kissed the equally smitten Juliet. A UNESCO world heritage site, Verona is also home to a 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre where, in the balmy throes of summer, visitors can view performances by some of opera’s biggest names.
Ah, Italy … what’s not to love?