Italy Off The Beaten Path
Allow me to let you into a secret. I loathed Venice the first two times I visited. Crowded, overpriced and with a not too pleasant pong from some of the canals thanks to the summer heat, it wasn’t the best introduction I could have had to a city others rave about. What was I missing?
Eventually I figured it out, and returned for a third time to ignore the sights in my guidebook and simply wander. That stroll took me to Cannaregio, where I finally understood what I was missing: old synagogues, pretty churches and canals lined with regular motorboats instead of tourist-trap gondolas. I watched the sunset over cicchetti and planned my next move.
You see, even in Italy’s largest cities, there’s a chance to escape the crowds if you know where to go. That said, my favorite places in Italy aren’t Florence, Rome or Milan, but those places that have yet to step on the tourist treadmill. Here are my picks for Italy off the beaten track.
I’m always surprised that Bologna doesn’t feature on more tour itineraries, though I’m guessing it won’t be long before that changes. Only 90 minutes by train from Venice and an hour from Milan, it’s a foodie’s paradise, earning the city its nickname, La Grassa, or the fat one.
Il Quadrilatero, Bologna’s ancient market, is a maze of narrow streets that today are packed with delis, butcheries, patisseries and ice cream parlors all waiting to tempt you inside. The street names offer a clue to times past, with names reflecting the businesses that used to cluster in each: via Pescherie Vecchie (fish), via Calzolerie (cobblers) and via Drapperie (cloth).
Walking off the calories is easily achieved. This university city, also known as La Dotta (or in English the learned one), is famous for its stone porticoes, or covered colonnaded walkways. The one that leads to San Luca’s Basilica is the longest in the world, a 4km slog uphill but worth it for the views at the top.
An even better view of the city is to be had from the top of the Torre Asinelli. The taller of the Due Torri, you have to climb a vertigo-inducing 498 worn wooden steps to reach the top, though fortunately there’s also a wooden handrail.
At the top, the city is laid out for you like a chequered red-tiled mat, punctuated by brick towers and weathered copper church domes. Its smaller neighbor, Torre Garisenda, leans as badly as the Pisa’s more famous tower, but is closed to visitors.
What if I told you there was a place in Italy that rivalled Venice for canals yet experienced a fraction of its visitors? The city can trace its history back more than 2000 years. It sprawls across 13 islets scattered across the Po Delta connected by the bridges that define it.
The most famous is the 17th century Trepponti, also known as Ponte Pallotta, which links the centre to the sea via the Pallotta Canal. Another bridge of note is the Ponte degli Sbirri (Bridge of the Cops), another 17th century structure which faced the local prison, giving it the alternative name of Ponte delle Carceri (Bridge of the Prisons).
Other important sights for the visitor include the 17th century Cathedral of San Cassiano, Bellini Palace and, perhaps most important of all, the Manifattura dei Marinati, the ancient factory where eels (the area’s signature dish) were cooked and marinated.
They stage an annual Eel Festival over three weekends each October to celebrate the importance of this slippery creature to the local diet and culture.
The maze of canals that criss-crosses the city is best explored from the water. Unlike Venice, you won’t see a gondola. Instead, hop on a batane, a small flat-keeled boat which was until relatively recently a regular means of transport for those who lived here. Motorboats take day-trippers further out into the Delta, where it’s possible to indulge hobbies such as cycling or birdwatching.
Read More: 7 Free Things To Do In Rome
Lombardy beyond Milan
Travelers to Lombardy often concentrate on fashionable Milan and pretty lakes like Como, but there are a number of off the beaten track cities which will reward the more intrepid.
Take Mantova, for instance. Shakespeare referred to it as Mantua and within the walls of its Palazzo Ducale you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Built by the Gonzaga family, who ruled the city from 1328 to 1708, many of the walls and ceilings of this 14th century palace are adorned with colorful frescoes. Wide staircases with shallow steps are also a clue to the past – in medieval times the family would ride their horses right inside to save themselves the effort of walking.
Nearby Cremona made a name for itself thanks to the work of one man in particular: Stradivari. History’s most talented violin maker was born here and even now, something like 130 craftsmen continue the tradition. It’s painstaking work to transform slices of maple, spruce and ebony into a finished instrument. To give you an idea, even the lacquering stage requires forty coats of varnish. It’s no wonder these violins can sell for up to 25000 euros apiece.
If you only make one day trip out of Milan, or Bergamo if that’s your base, make it to charming Vigevano. They say – in Vigevano at least – that the stiletto heel was invented here.
You’ll see plenty in the museum devoted to shoes which occupies some of the 15th century palace, alongside such artefacts as an aristocrat’s platform shoe from the same era. Afterwards, stroll across to the pretty Piazza Ducale. Its elegant porticoes contain plenty of boutique stores, bars and cafés.
Crespi d’Adda is my last pick, a UNESCO-recognized oddity whose character has been preserved due to its geography. The owner of a textile factory built this planned industrial town to provide better quality housing for his workforce. Though the factory gates are now locked for good, descendants of the original occupants still call these villas home.
South to Puglia and Basilicata
Comparatively few international visitors make it all the way south to Italy’s heel. Those that do will be enchanted by the trulli town of Alberobello. Admittedly it’s busy with tour groups during the day, but stay over and you’ll have the cobbled streets in front of these quirky cone-shaped houses all to yourself.
Book well in advance to a table at tiny La Cantina a cellar restaurant serving authentic local cuisine.
If that still feels a bit mainstream, catch the bus over to neighbouring Locorotondo. It occupies a hilltop position overlooking a flat plain.
Here and there, you can see the distinctive shape of more trulli, but the attraction of Locorotondo is simply to get lost within its labyrinth of alleyways lined with whitewashed homes festooned with flowers.
Matera too is worth a look. Despite its status as European City of Culture in 2019 international tourism here is still in its infancy.
Outside the summer months, you’ll feel like you’ve ventured off the beaten track if you explore its sassi, the cave dwellings that were until relatively recently semi-derelict and home to a deprived population. It’s fun to stay in a cave hotel, such as the highly regarded Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita, Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa or Le Origini.
The city overlooks a dramatic gorge, also riddled with caves, which attracts day hikers and photographers in equal measure. Hike this canyon to reach Murgia Timone, on the opposite bank of the Gravina, which offers a breathtaking view back across the gorge to the sassi.
The Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore
Lake Como hogs the limelight when it comes to Italian lakes, but if you want to try something a little less obvious, then the Borromean Islands might just cut it.
Caroline, estranged wife of the British King George IV was enchanted by the place when she fled into exile in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century. She especially loved the palazzo on Isola Bella, and Isola Madre, which she tried unsuccessfully to buy. But the Borromeos weren’t persuaded to sell, and still own both islands to this day.
Today, the palaces and immaculate gardens of “the sisters” as they’re called, Isola Madre and Isola Bella, are a delight. They boast a fabulous shell-adorned grotto and elegant terraces, strutting white peacocks and sumptuously decorated halls. Napoleon Bonaparte and Mussolini are amongst those privileged enough to have stayed here.
A third island, Isola dei Pescatori, has been continuously inhabited for over 700 years. As the island’s name suggest, its residents are fishermen and they designed the long balconies you’ll see on their homes for drying fish.
Wander the narrow alleyways that radiate from a tiny plaza before sitting down to an al-fresco lunch overlooking the lake. A visit to coincide with Ferragosto, on August 15th, is particularly special, as you’ll witness the fishing boat procession that carries a statue of the patron saint around the island.
A ferry ride away is the pretty town of Stresa. If your budget allows, stay at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées. This opulent hotel, decorated with Murano chandeliers and Renaissance paintings, has a guest book which reads like an edition of Who’s Who: the Aga Khan, Toscanini, John Steinbeck, Clark Gable, Andrew Carnegie and Ernest Hemingway. The latter’s wartime convalescent stay was the inspiration for his best-known work, A Farewell to Arms.
If you’ve ticked off Italy’s mainstream destinations already, why not come back and explore Italy off the beaten path? Away from the crowds, there’s no need for skip the line tickets, and you can enjoy an authentic experience at an unhurried pace. Now doesn’t that sound enticing?
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About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.