Six Italian Hidden Gems

Spinning a globe, Italy appears deceptively small. A mere finger of land cleaving the Mediterranean and the Adriatic waters. But from top to tail, the Boot varies widely in dialect (my Umbrian Italian teacher once told me he’d stand a better chance of understanding my conversation with my husband than two people from Sardinia), cuisine (from Australian sensibilities in the north to Moroccan flair in the south), and landscape (dizzying peaks to impossibly blue seas). There’s a heck of a lot to discover.

And yet, tourists follow the same well-trodden pathways: Rome, Amalfi, Pisa, Florence and Chianti, Cinque Terre, Venice.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these destinations. Well, except possibly Pisa —maybe it’s a fabulous city, but as far as I can tell people go to take a funny picture, which makes no sense when Bologna’s towers tip even more precipitously AND in opposite directions. Plus, they are in Bologna.

But when you follow the same careworn paths as everyone else clutching their Rick Steves guidebooks, you face the real challenge of trying to sink into the coliseum’s storied past while jostling like sardines against heaps of visitors. And it’s just about impossible to contemplate the grandeur of a Venetian canal while avoiding getting your foot flattened by a Birkenstocked gentleman with sausage breath.

I mean, Venice is fabulous, really, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather let loose an arrow at a map of Italy and spend time where it lands then visit Venice in July (winter though, ah… magic).

Because the hard truth is that if you go to a touristed destination you will be surrounded by three types of people:

  1. Tourists

  2. People who are tired of tourists

  3. People looking to take advantage of tourists

I, for one, don’t relish the reality of being surrounded by Italians who are jaded from rolling their eyes at yet another tourist sneaking into the bathroom without buying a cup of coffee. I go to Italy for the lifestyle. The food, yes, (okay, yes, pretty much first and foremost); but also the feeling of letting the sun warm my bones while a barista serves me my Aperol spritz with a smile and maybe even a spot of conversation. I go to listen to the banter of townspeople describing the weather in terms of emphasis reserved in the States for Game of Thrones plot points. I go to be part of a world that runs in a rhythm different from my American life—joyful, spontaneous, present.

I can’t do any of that when I’m surrounded by tourists and Italians who are tired of tourists or trying to play them.

So if your entire desire to go to Italy consists of checking of “Sistine Chapel, Trevi Fountain, Coliseum” etc, then ignore this entire post. It’s not for you. You need to feel like you have the basics under your belt before you can venture into novel waters. That’s no problem. Maybe come back later.

But if you, like me, feel short of breath when you are surrounded by shoulders, if you enjoy wide views unimpeded by baseball caps, if you love the languid feeling of closing your eyes and letting language roll over your waiting heart, and if you delight in discovering mysterious wall carvings that videos and guidebooks didn’t prepare you for, well, I suggest you ignore the hordes of tourists telling you that you MUST SEE Rome or a trip to Italy isn’t complete without DOING Amalfi. You’ll drive yourself batty if you try to incorporate everyone’s ideas of a splendid vacation.

Practice the Italian shrug and “boh” that means everything from “Oh well” to “I don’t know and I don’t care” to “What are you gonna do?” Use it prodigiously when travelers furrow their brows at you while asking, “Wait, you’re traveling to Italy and not going to Michelangelo’s David? (For the record, we told our kids the fake David in the Florentine piazza was the real deal and seriously have never regretted the subterfuge….even though I myself have seen Michelangelo’s David and have sought out his work in a chapel in Bruges…nowadays it’s just not worth battling crowds. Hand me my spritz.).

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Now, I hope you realize the title of the this post is a little facetious. Because yes, these are places that I fell in love with, but I’m no fool. I know that Italy is chock-a-block with magical places to discover—Puglia, Sardinia, Le Marche, Veneto, Liguria (there’s more than Cinque Terre, I promise), Piemonte, Trieste, the list is endless. Ask any local and you’ll discover destination that most tourists know nothing about. My hope is that this list inspires you to set your footsteps towards less traveled roads. To discover an adventure, a corner of Italy, that lights your heart.

Moena

View from Moena

One may as well begin with the top of the boot. Moena is a town of about 2,000 tucked into the pink-hued Dolomite mountains of northern Italy. Reputedly a lovely spot for summer hiking, its big draw is for those drawn to winter sports. Shuttles run constantly between Moena and the various ski resorts, making a day of skiing a breeze (snowshoeing is also popular, for those whose interests trend that direction). There are all kinds of interesting ski runs, including Sellaronda, a 40 km run that makes its way through villages and forests, all the way around a mountain. I’m a novice skier at best, but my baby slope ran along a chattering stream beyond which I spied a horse-drawn sleigh jingling along.

Evolving river statue in Moena

When off the slopes, the town of Moena itself looks like it was designed by someone who read entirely too many fairy tales as a child and it morphed into a Dickens Village Christmas fetish. Whimsical details abound, from red-ball spangled trees to light-flocked gingerbread trim to an antique sleigh with frolicking wooden reindeer, ready for a photo-op. Even the little winter birds fluffing their feathers and settling on charming wooden posts look like they belong in festive scarves.

Moena cherishes its winter self so thoroughly, they create art in the river. On either side of the bridge, a platform floats with a pipe that trickles water which rapidly freezes, creating otherworldly ice towers, standing stark against the pink stone mountains.

Despite Moena’s extravagant beauty and the red-cheeked skiers that descend during snow-season, the townspeople are friendly and curious. Every day we were asked how we spoke Italian (and this was after five months of living Italy, so our language skills were limited at best), and asked where we lived, to joyous choruses of “Che bello è Spello!” Yes, we nodded. Spello is indeed beautiful.

Festive flourish in Moena, Italy

You’ll notice all kinds of Austrian flourishes in Moena, from the street signs in both Italian and German to the Austrian influenced foods to the Germanic Christmas vibe that draws you deeper into the heart of this magical village.

Tips: If you are going in winter, this is an excellent time to visit Venice! Venice off-season is ethereal, with lights strung across walkways, fog filled canals, and gondoliers who have got nothing better to do than plop down on the back bench and talk about life. Plus, traveling off season in Italy has all sorts of advantages. Food-wise in Moena, be on the look out for anything with apples, game, or speck (like prosciutto, but with a delicate smokiness). Adventurous cheese-lovers would do well to seek out Puzzone di Moena, which literally translates to “the big stinker of Moena.” It is strong, people. I wanted to bring some back to Spello and was informed by my family I could only do so if I found a way to strap it to the top of the car.

Bologna

Arcade in Bologna

Bologna is known as “the learned, the fat, and the red”, a singular description of a singular, and unsung, Italian city. “The red” may allude to Bologna’s communist leadings or to the brick buildings and sunset-hued porticos, I never got a definitive answer. I can tell you that I found the red buildings striking and those famed and shady porticos a pleasure to stroll through on warm days.

“The fat” is an easy reference—Bologna is the heart of Italy’s breadbasket. The city is famed for its iconic Italian cooking. Mortadella is from here (it took me days to realize that Oscar Mayer “bologna” derives from mortadella from Bologna), along with some salumi you can only get with your feet in the city. Lambrusco wine also hails from the area and if right now you are skimming along because you don’t like Lambrusco, let me tell you neither do I, but it’s excellent when quaffed beneath a shady portico as it’s dusky bubbles cut the fat of the cured meats. I think Lambrusco, like the salumi, just doesn’t travel well. Then, of course, there’s Bologna’s claim to culinary fame, tagliatelle with bolognese. Only in Bologna, it’s just called ragù. The best I can figure, the wealthy citizens of Bologna had so much time on their hands, and that, coupled with their intellectual spirit (that part is coming), drove them to create the perfect pasta. It really is as good as they say.

Bologna

“The learned” references Bologna’s honor as having the oldest university still matriculating students. That sounds kind of (yawn) impressive, but the way it plays out in the city is spectacular. You can visit the operating theater that Michelangelo frequented. There are statues all over the city celebrating advances in science and philosophy, which prompts visitors to think about the unseen and unknown in new ways, wonderful for leisurely dinner-time discussions.

The main cathedral is unfinished because the money went to the university. And that university is, I believe, central to what makes Bologna such a fascinating destination. Unlike other storied cities that pat themselves on the back for what happened in their schools of art or science centuries ago, Bologna is living, breathing, and totally in the moment. There’s graffiti and students lounging about reading and so much life. It’s not just a pretty, evocative backdrop. The people of Bologna live their history now.

Bologna detail

It’s not for everybody. Some people are turned off by the grittiness of the university quarter maybe, or they like more to “do”. But for travelers like us, who want to visit an Italian city without Italian crowds, Bologna is phenomenal. We spent five days wandering and it wasn’t enough. Every day we strolled and went into churches and museums and every afternoon we helped locals fill the crowded porticos at aperitivo hour, enjoying a spritz or a negroni with snacks and watching Bolognese life go by. Bliss, is the only way I have to describe it.

Tip: Make reservations, even for aperitivi. The restaurants you want to go to, the ones with locals topping off each other’s glasses of wine while scarfiing down salumi, they book up. Same day reservations are usually fine, but if you want to be careful, stop in a restaurant on your way to dinner and book a table for the next night. It’s easier in person. (click here for more on Bologna, or here for walking itineraries)

Bevagna

Bevagna street scene

You can imagine what a challenge I had coming up with a representative from Umbria for this list. After living in Spello for a year, Umbria is the region I’ve spent the most time, the region most closely melded into my heart. As such, every town is special to me—they are all wonderfully different. I chose Bevagna for this list because the discrepancy between how known it is and how fabulous it is is simply vast.

Bevagna has the honor of being one of the few Umbrian medieval towns not on a hill. Instead, it lies in the bend of a small river, like it’s being hugged by water. This makes for some charming gardens and views, and also gives Bevagna a sense of being sealed away, separate from the world.

Even Bevagna’s famed Mercato delle Gaite di Bevagna (a festival celebrating the daily life in Medieval times, complete with reenactments of manuscript illumination, wood dying, candle making, and the like), hasn’t catapulted this charming town to the world tourism stage.

Wood smith in Bevagna

Instead, Bevagna is filled with local people living their local lives.

When the sun begins its predestined slide down the horizon, old men bring folding chairs out of their houses to sit in the street and swap stories and commentary.

There is fantastic food, friendly people, and overflowing local color to be found in Bevagna.

Tip: If you can come the days before or after the Mercato delle Gaite, so you can experience the town without visitors but also enjoy the festival, I’d recommend it.

Two restaurants I endorse are Trattoria di Oscar for upscale regional dining and Scottadito for delectable grilled Umbrian meats, though there are many fabulous options.

 

Sulmona

Coffee in Sulmona, Italy

I fell head over heels in love with Sulmona. We tacked it onto the end of a trip to Italy, only because Keith felt strongly that he wanted to visit the region that his great-grandfather hailed from, particularly in light of his citizenship. I will be honest, I didn’t look forward to it. I had this image in my head, based probably on the fact that nobody seemed to go to Abruzzo, that it would be hard-scrabble, inscrutable, boring.

We crossed from Lazio into Abruzzo and I about my lost my mind. The beauty of this place, the sheer valleys and the little castles and towns clinging to the cliff-faces, sweeping vistas, alpine meadows. All I could do was whisper, “What is this place?” interspersed with pleas to stop the car so I could get out and spin, Sound of Music style. Or at least leap about, mountain-goat style. I didn’t much care, I just wanted to BE in it.

Then we arrived in Sulmona and I fell in love. Head over heels, smitten breathless, in love. I knew the town had been hit by an earthquake generations ago, so in my head, it would have been built back in big cement blocks or something (I suppose this might explain my reluctance to visit). On the contrary, Sulmona’s restoration was delicate, fanciful. I once posted a photo of Sulmona asking people to guess where it was taken. Nobody could. Why would anyone expect to find waterfalls of green plants tumbling out of wrought-iron Juliet balconies, whimsically painted buildings, and streets framing stunning mountain peaks? It doesn’t even feel real, let alone found in Italy’s (arguably) least touristed region.

Police strolling in Sulmona

Besides being jaw-droppingly gorgeous, Sulmona is also…how can I explain?… out of a past I’ve read about, but assumed long gone. I’ve traveled through Italy for decades now, and had never been to a town that seemed so lifted from the pages of a historical romance set in Italy.

The streets were filled at night. Not with tourists buying trinkets made in China, but with teens walking arm and arm, grandmothers fussing over sweet cheeked babies, old men arguing over a newspaper. Life here bursts at the seams.

Every morning, I couldn’t wait to get out into it, and crept out of the house while my family slept. Every shop I entered felt like I accidentally stumbled onto a movie set. The action stopped. These bakers and fruit sellers and cheesemongers clearly were not used to tourists.

Beautiful Sulmona

Beautiful Sulmona

Luckily, I’d been in Italy for weeks at this point, so my Italian flowed out. Limited sure, but enough to get by. Everyone exchanged glances and then broke into immediate questions. Where was I from? How did I speak Italian? What brought me to Sulmona?

Questions answered, I was steered toward the juiciest apricots, the most unusual baked goods, the local cheeses. Everyone lingered, drawing out the moment. One customer trotted out her English and then laughed with the butcher because she and I kept responding to each other’s questions in the other person’s language. The fruit monger asked my name and waved me out, asking me to come back the next day.

Unreal.

View from our Sulmona apartment

View from our Sulmona apartment

And not just in the shops. As I walked through town, old men on a bench stopped me. A man on the street caught up to me to point out the mountains and tell me about Sulmona before steering me to his favorite bakery.

I felt like I was in a time-warp. And I never wanted to leave.

Tip: Don’t flit in and out like we did. I wish we’d stayed for much longer. Partly because the two excursions we did were so extraordinary (dining in an Alpine meadow and in a fishing hut perched over the Adriatic), partly because the food in Sulmona rocked my world. But also because the charm of this town is feeling part of it. Let yourself linger. And buy some confetti (candy coated nuts, orange peels, etc) to take home to remind yourself of an old world that still turns day by day in Sulmona.

Procida

Procida

Listen, I understand the appeal of Cinque Terre’s colorful buildings tumbling down to jewel-toned waters. I vastly enjoyed the those five villages connected by walking paths when I backpacked through Europe, but that was a different time. I remember a gaggle of us from the youth hostel walked together along the trail without seeing another person. Just us and the water, twinkling out to the great beyond. Then we ate pesto-slicked pasta for dinner and leaned back, totally satisfied, and watched the street fill with local shopping and talking as the sun set over the ocean.

The stunning thing is, you can still have that. You just have to scan down the Boot, across the water from where everyone else is assembling in hordes on the Amalfi coast. A short ferry ride from Naples and you arrive in Procida, which you might have seen before since it’s where Anthony Minghella filmed The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Walking the port in Procida

Imagine strolling a port built of giant stone blocks with actual fishermen unloading their wares and restaurants ready to receive them. Imagine decadent pasta shops and bakeries, where people look a little surprised to see a stranger, but they smile and roll with it. Imagine walking out of a bar to the sound of the mozzarella man calling down the cobblestone streets and old women rushing down, coins tight in their fists. Imagine yards filled with more kinds of citrus trees than you can count. This place still exists. Go to Procida.

But don’t go as a base to see all the places the tourists are. Go to experience this former site of shipbuilding excellence, where the locals have long traditions of twining their lives with that of the sea. Soak up the color, the tides, the beauty of Procida.

Tip: If you go in the off-season, make sure the places you want to see will be open. While I do think that islands as bases aren’t particularly effective, ferries run often to Ischia and Capri and Naples if you want a day to explore more of the Bay of Naples. As for eating, get those little fried fish wherever you can.

Favignana

Walking to the water

I probably shouldn’t have two islands on here, but I couldn’t help myself, they both spoke to me with voices that linger in my soul. And they couldn’t be more different.

Favignana is a tiny butterfly-shaped island off the coast of Trapani, Sicily. We discovered it almost by chance, since there are direct (and cheap) flights between Perugia and Trapani (it seriously took us longer to get through the rental car line in Trapani than it did to drive from our house, wait at the airport, and fly to Sicily…Did I mention I love Italy?), and in researching Trapani, we discovered a series of islands to visit.

Men working with fishing wire

I’m using the word “research” here loosely. You see, Keith and I both had wasting illnesses and just didn’t know it yet. Our return to Spello would be marred by my bronchitis diagnosis and Keith’s hospitalization for pneumonia, so it’s an absolute testament to the glory of Sicily that we loved it as much as we did. We abandoned almost all our plans in favor of finding benches that could house our fever-weary bones and popped Advil with granita chasers and couldn’t find a moment to be resentful or begrudging. We were too damn satisfied with our limited lot.

Old quarry in Favignana

Sicily is a wonder like that. It smells like wild herbs and salt and Phoenician laced earth. Okay, I’m making up that last part, but it’s fantastic to visit a space with ruins from so many ancient peoples and the image is constantly with you as you gaze longingly up vineyards awash with wildflowers. Structure and mayhem. That’s Sicily.

Favignana is a slice of that, with more sea breezes and more wonder. People often hire boats around the island or rent bikes (the island is tiny and remarkably flat), but we rented a jeep and our kids clambered in the back with their paper bag of cherries from the market in Trapani and enjoyed the ride of their lives. We drove from beach to beach, stopping where we felt led. No schedule, no agenda. We found beaches of all varieties—sand, stone, and what appeared to be cooled and condensed lava.

But that’s not all we found. We found sheer cliff faces that suggested a history of quarrying, with little huts still at the bottom. We found cave drawings of indeterminate provenance. We found water impossibly clear and blue. We found tide pools with skittering sea creatures. We found the promise of something wonderful, here, there, and everywhere.

Dancing in Favignana

And at the end of the day, we found our way to the central piazza of Favignana, where children rode bikes beneath festival flags, and grandparents argued, and townspeople bought giant slabs of freshly caught tuna. Our mouths opened to stumble upon such raw and burbling life. Unable to contain ourselves, we allowed ourselves to be swept up by the music drifting from a nearby restaurant and danced ourselves around and around.

Here is how I can best sum up the magic of Favignana. As we left the bar where we feasted on Arancini and stopped to take in a staggering view, Gabe found a dandelion as big as his head. He snatched it with hands still starfish round and called to Siena to make a wish. She turned and said, “What is there left to wish for?”

Tips: No tips. Just go. Figure it out—where to eat, what to do. Create an adventure. Find your own magic in Favignana.

Where are your favorite off-the-beaten track destinations in Italy? Let us know in the comments! And share this post with your friends to show them that Italy is not just Tuscany.