Italy has captured the hearts of many a traveller – and with its spectacular scenery, unbeatable food and history around every corner, it’s not hard to see why. But despite welcoming 64 million visitors annually (during non-coronavirus years!) there are still many corners that remain tucked away from the main tourist trail. Whilst the architecture of Rome, galleries of Florence, canals of Venice and rolling vineyards of Tuscany are iconic and unmissable, if this strange year has taught us anything, it’s the value in slowing down and stepping away from the main routes. Our team has long had a love affair with Italy – some have lived there and many travelled the boot from top to toe. So read on to find out how to discover some of the less-explored hidden gems of Italy on your next trip.
Food beyond Bolognese
Visitors will quickly learn that food is absolutely everything in Italy. In fact, the question “Hai mangiato?” (Have you eaten?) is almost another way of asking “How are you?” Most visitors have sampled some of the spectacular pasta and pizza dishes on offer, with roasted vegetables, cured meats and cheeses, and everything on your antipasti platter in between. But what many don’t realise is the huge variety of Italian cuisine and how much it changes from region to region.
You can venture up to the Dolomites and Austrian borders to taste pasta stuffed with beetroot and loaded with butter, chunks of hearty fried smoked cheese, and warming polenta – all perfect fuel for a day in the mountains. Or dine on Sicily’s red prawns, raw and straight from the sea, pastas heavy on aubergines, or a sweet icy granita alongside your brioche. Umbria’s wild boar ragu and rich flavours such as black truffles and porcini mushrooms prove that everything in this green region is about the woodlands. Or you can head south for the traditional recipes of ‘cucina povera’ (poor food) with the simplest of store cupboard ingredients becoming the star of the show – and right down to Calabria for a healthy dose of chilli peppers and the ‘nduja sausage which is ever-growing in popularity.
We could go on… but one thing for sure is that travelling Italy from top to toe and exploring each region is the only way to truly enjoy the breadth of its cuisine. The culinary experiences on offer across Italy are endless, but our favourites include joining an expert truffle hunter and his dogs to scour the woods for this exclusive ingredient, finishing with a wild picnic feast. Or stay in the stately Tenuta Palazzasso on the Piedmont hills – a private mansion complete with frescoes dating back to 1500. Here in the Occitan Valley, Mimi Thorisson will take you through an incredible five-day cookery journey, including visits to the nearby Castelmagno for tasting of the renowned cheese.
History beyond the Vatican
As our team has experienced first-hand, right now in 2020 is actually one of the best times to visit Italy’s renowned historical sites, from the Vatican to the Colosseum, and Florence’s famous duomo without the crowds. Yet you don’t need to head to the iconic sites for a taste of the country’s rich and varied history. The south in particular offers an eclectic history of invasions which leaves remnants from the Ancient Greek empire and the Romans, to Byzantine churches, Norman cathedrals, Saracen castles and even the simple but fascinating forms of the historic conical ‘trulli’ of Puglia. One of the charms of Italy is that you can wander into the smallest towns and stumble across ancient relics and an abundance of spectacular architecture – without another tourist in sight.
The town of Matera has to be mentioned for its history like no other. Our Marketing Manager Abi stayed there just last week, discovering the ancient network of ‘sassi’ cave dwellings in one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. Carved into the rock, these cave homes have historically changed from prosperous merchant dwellings to cramped and dirty squalor – where the infant mortality rate was shockingly at 50% up until the 1950s. Now part of a rejuvenation project welcoming visitors to boutique hotels, the city is preparing to burst onto the worldwide scene as the filming location of the new James Bond film ‘No Time to Die’ to be released in November 2020. Staying in Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita is an experience like no other – individual cave rooms are lit with candles and provide an atmospheric and rustic stay steeped in history (and the most spectacular setting for a bath!)
Coastlines beyond the Amalfi
Proving once again that Italy has it all, sparkling coastlines are next on the list. The elongated ‘boot’ has 7,500 kilometres of shores to explore – but a key tip to avoid the crowds is to stay away from the beach in August, when it seems like every Italian migrates away from the cities and towards the sandy shores! Stretches like the Amalfi Coast can become more of a traffic jam where you’ll experience a crash course in Italian driving if you visit in peak periods. To instead truly get away from it all, we suggest heading to the islands. The Aeolian island of Salina (a small cluster of volcanic islands above Sicily) offers a slow Mediterranean lifestyle, boasting vineyards on its cliff and hidden coves to explore by boat. Seafood is the freshest and tastiest that you have ever tried, and you can sleep in a lighthouse, at the Capofaro Resort, or at the boutique hotel Principe di Salina.
Or for a taste of island life without venturing far from the mainland, don’t just head straight to Capri – the lesser-known island of Ischia is hiding in plain sight in the Gulf of Naples. The relaxed volcanic isle is home to over 100 springs, secluded sandy beaches and dramatic historic sites. Here the opening of the Mezzatorre Resort – in a 16th century watchtower in its own secluded bay – is giving the island a new renaissance.
Green hills beyond Tuscany
If you’re longing for a country retreat surrounded by green rolling hills, you’re not confined to the ever-popular Tuscany. Nestled in the centre of the country, you’ll find the landlocked Umbria – often nicknamed the ‘green heart of Italy’ and much less frequented than its famous sister of Tuscany. Umbria’s charm is in its small size, lack of large cities and population of less than a million. But it more than makes up for this with vast landscapes smothered with olive groves and crisscrossed with endless biking and hiking trails. The ancient estate of Castello di Reschio, years in the making, will finally open next year and showcase the perfect combination of wild Umbrian countryside with effortless Italian style. Spend your days exploring the hills on horseback or just soak up the simply sublime views.
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