As everyone knows, Italy is blessed with wonderful sights, historical buildings, the sea, mountains, lakes, delicious food and is always a winner for a wonderful holiday. In addition to the usual beauties, I would like to share with you some of my favourite off-the-beaten track, hidden gems.
Starting with my favourite region in Italy, the Amalfi Coast, is the tiny hamlet of Erchie, not far from Maiori, and mainly frequented by local Italians from Salerno. It is said Hercules was one of the first people to visit this tiny coastal gem hence the name! It is much smaller and quieter than the other resorts and during the peak summer season, I like to visit in the early evening when day-trippers have gone to enjoy a drink in the beach bar as well as visit the local church built on the ruins of the ancient abbey.
For good home cooking along the coast and a stunning view of Minori as the sun goes down, the trek to family-run Villa Maria, is well worth it. They don’t have many tables, so it’s wise to book.
I love Rome, which to me is a “living museum” and as with all large cities there are always hidden gems to discover. I was told by a friend to visit the Giardino degli Aranci (also known as Parco Savelli) located on the Aventine Hill. This small park with its orange trees is a welcome haven of peace and tranquillity from the hustle and bustle of the city and has one of the best viewpoints of the city’s domes. Nearby is the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta where a door with a secret keyhole gives you a most amazing view of the Vatican. Judging by the queues to the keyhole, this is not so hidden anymore, but it was a new and welcome experience for me and worth the wait.
If you are staying in Puglia, about 120km north of Bari, you will find the enchanted Foresta Umbra del Gargano, a national park preserving the diversity of this beautiful unspoilt area. The ancient forest densely covered with thickets of tall, epic trees of all types is a fascinating place for anyone with an interest in the diverse flora and fauna as well as wildlife which includes wild boar, roe deer, badgers, foxes and the rare wild cat if you are lucky! When Liz and I visited we went by car, but there are many trails for walkers and cyclists and if you get organised beforehand, take some food and enjoy a well-deserved break in one of the picnic spots.
The Gargano coast is lined with pretty beach resorts and one of my favourites is Vieste, perfectly perched atop the cliffs overlooking sandy beaches. I love a walk in the quaint magical alleyways of the old town. But don’t leave the area until you’ve visited one of the Trabuco restaurants along the coast. These typical wooden fishing platforms are not fancy establishments but offer the best in freshly caught fish – surely an experience you can’t miss in this unspoilt, picturesque coastal area.
If you fancy venturing out of Puglia, take a drive inland to Matera to the remote region of Basilicata. Here you will find the amazing Sassi di Matera – spectacular ancient cave dwellings said to be Italy’s oldest settlements. For a good view of the Sassi, head to the belvedere (scenic viewpoint) from where you can take photos. The best way to experience Matera is to wander through the labyrinthine alleys and streets of the two sassi districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. You will be able to visit cave houses, cave bars and restaurants, cave churches and witness the historical hardships and poverty of the Sassi, which in the 1990’s was finally recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. On your way to Matera, make a stop in Altamura, where you can buy the best bread in Italy.
When I’m in Venice, I love to get lost in its back streets and alleyways and try to avoid the main tourist hubs. It’s not hard to wander off and following a map of Venice is totally lost on me! As soon as I spot laundry hanging outside balconies, I know I’ve hit a local residential area and these are usually the best to stop for a drink and cicchetti. Not only more peaceful but you get more of a feel of what local life is like in Venice. Head for the eastern side of Castello or the student area of Dorsoduro and the Campo Santa Margherita. I also enjoy a visit to the quaint island of Burano with its array of colourful houses where I like to enjoy a simple lunch of freshly caught fish from the local fishermen.
Heading north of Venice, is the town of Bassano del Grappa, located at the point where the flat plains reach the hills leading up to the Alps. As its name suggests, this town is famous for the strong liqueur and there is even a Grappa museum. It is also a historic town with military links to both world wars. The architecture of Bassano is reflected in its location with Veneto-style piazzas and streets combining well with quaint wooden Alpine balconies and Austrian-influenced bars and eateries. Easily reached from Venice by train, this would make an interesting day trip out enjoying the green rolling hills at the foot of the Alps.
On Lake Como, take the funicular railway from Como to Brunate where you will be able to see spectacular views of one of Italy’s most beautiful and scenic lakes.
For me the Aeolian Islands are paradise. Not far from the Sicilian mainland and with easy ferry connections from Vulcano, discover the Mediterranean gems of Lipari, Panarea and Salina for a get-away from it all experience but with still that touch of Italian flair and elegance.
In Umbria, visit the Cascate della Marmore, spectacular waterfalls created by the Ancient Romans and immersed in the natural beauty of this lovely rural region.
In Tuscany, the medieval town of Barga near Lucca is definitely worth a visit. Located high up above the Tuscan Appenine hills, this almost fairy tale town has a castle, churches and is a delight to wander the quaint little back streets and alleyways.