10 places to get off-grid in Italy: Skip Venice and Rome for these hidden gems
Travel writer Laura Millar unearths la dolce vita for explorers searching for hidden gems.
As pinch points like the Venetian canals and Roman ruins grow increasingly crowded, here are ten tips for off-radar holidays in Italy.
1. Instead of: Pompeii
Visit: Herculaneum, Campania
Why: Every year, crowds flock to Pompeii, one of the world's most fascinating heritage sites. But nearby, the former chic seaside resort of Herculaneum was also destroyed by that fateful eruption in 79AD. In fact, because it was coated in a thick layer of hardened, Vesuvian ash for centuries, it's actually better preserved. As a result, many structures (including the town spa, where affluent residents bathed), mosaics and colourful frescoes are largely intact. The UNESCO heritage site is smaller than Pompeii - although only 25pc of it has been excavated - quieter, and easier to navigate. While you won't see the type of preserved figures you would at Pompeii, there is an eerie collection of skeletons huddled in what would have been Herculaneum's boat-houses, struck down while trying to escape. A grim reminder of a volcano's deadly power.
Do it: The nearest airport is Naples, serviced by Ryanair and Aer Lingus, after which it's a 20-minute journey by train or car. The cheapest route is by Circumvenusiana train from Naples station to Ercolano Scavi (sitabus.it/en). See also pompeii-tickets.com/herculaneum.
2. Instead of: Alberobello
Visit: Matera, Basilicata
Why: Little-known except by Italians, Matera is due its moment in the spotlight as one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2019 (the other is Plovdiv, in Bulgaria). Inhabited since the 10th century BC, and built on the slope of a ravine, its centrepiece is the Sassi, an ancient town composed of striking, prehistoric cave-dwellings carved into the rock. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993, the town suffered badly from poverty after World War II, with residents barely scratching a living from inside the Sassi until 1952. Thankfully, it's one of southern Italy's fastest-growing towns today, and has even had some Hollywood star-dust sprinkled over it - featuring as a filming location for movies such as The Passion of the Christ and Wonder Woman. Studded with churches, bars and boutiques, this is a beguiling combination of ancient and (relatively) modern. Visit before the crowds!
Get there: The nearest airport is Bari International, 60km/40 miles away (Ryanair flies direct from Dublin). For more information, visit materaturismo.it.
3. Instead of: Capri
Visit: The Pontine Islands, Southern Lazio
Why: New Yorkers have got the Hamptons to escape to when summer gets sticky; Romans have the Pontine Islands. Two of this archipelago of five islands are inhabited year round - Ponza and Ventotene. Palmarola offers seasonal, summer accommodation, while Santo Stefano (which housed a notorious prison until 1965, available for guided tours) and Zannone are home only to wild goats and seabirds. Crescent-shaped Ponza, the biggest - though at 9km2 that's not saying much - oozes stylish, seaside charm, its harbour peppered with cafes and bars perfect for sipping an Aperol spritz. Beaches are pebbly, and boat tours essential to spy its secret grottoes and inlets. On Ventotene, you'll find the ruins of Roman villas, colourful piazzas and superb scuba-diving opportunities, while Palmarola is surrounded by granite arches and sea stacks, its turquoise waters ideal for snorkellers.
Get there: Fly to either Naples or Rome with Ryanair or Aer Lingus; both are equidistant from the ferry port at Formia (directferries.co.uk), reachable by train. For more info, see italia.it or italyheaven.co.uk.
4. Instead of: Lake Como
Visit: Lake Iseo, Lombardy
Why: When it comes to the Italian Lakes, some hog all the headlines (we're looking at you, Como, with your celebrity residents, like a certain Mr Clooney…). But Lake Iseo, just three hours' drive southeast, is smaller and quieter, though arguably just as beautiful. What it lacks in flashy hotels and historic, waterside palazzi, it makes up for in scenic hiking trails, a medieval castle, a protected nature reserve, Torbiere del Sebino, and the Tadini Academy Gallery, which houses one of the oldest art collections in Lombardy. Add in boat trips to Monte Isola, a picturesque island in the middle of Iseo, the choice of several ski resorts, and a challenging but beautiful 40-mile cycle trail around the lake, and you have a diverse, year-round destination. Not to mention its proximity to Franciacorta, which produces delicious sparkling wine...
Get there: The nearest airports are Milan Linate, a one hour 40 minute drive away (fly with Aer Lingus), or Bergamo, 1hr and 20 minutes away (direct flights with Ryanair). For more information, see visitlakeiseo.info/en.
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5. Instead of: Venice
Visit: Comacchio, Emilia-Romagna
Why: In Italy's foodie region - which is home to Parma (ham), Modena (balsamic vinegar) and Bologna (mortadella, tortellini, lasagne - you name it), the teeny town of Comacchio has only one, er, gourmet ingredient to offer: eels. They thrive in the nearby lagoons, and as a result are served baked, grilled, fried, or in risotto, but 'anguilla marinata' (that's pickled eels to you and me) are the area's speciality. There's an eel festival every October, and a factory devoted to pickling them has been here for decades. In fact, Sophia Loren once played the part of an eel pickler in a short film in the 1960s, which led to her doing some advertising for the company. Aside from this, Comacchio is a charming spot, criss-crossed by canals and bridges, which make it a handy stand-in for Venice for budget-conscious film-makers. Sit at an outdoor table in a restaurant by one of the canals, lined with colourful houses, and soak up the atmosphere. It's, ahem, eely good.
Get there: The closest airport is in Bologna (Ryanair flies direct); Comacchio is a 95km drive. For more information, visit winefoodemiliaromagna.com/journeys.
More: Revel in Rimini
6. Instead of: Lucca or Verona
Visit: Bergamo, Lombardy
Why: As medieval walled cities go, Bergamo is exceptionally beautiful, but stays out of the limelight thanks to better-known examples, such as Lucca, San Gimignano, or Verona. It would be a shame to pass it by, steeped as it is in gilded, baroque churches, frescoed chapels, cobbled piazzas and botanical gardens. Its centrepiece is the historic old town, or citta alta, elevated above the more modern citta bassa. Walk around its walls, constructed in the 16th century when Bergamo was owned by Venice, in an effort to protect it from threats by the Republic of Milan, and France. Here, you'll also find the old town's vibrant centre, Piazza Vecchia, perfect for gelato-eating (get yours at locals' favourite, Caffe del Tasso), people-watching, and architecture-exploring. Notable churches include the Capella Colleoni, its marble facade teeming with sculptured Biblical scenes and mythological stories, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; the columns of its exterior archway rest on carved, stone lions. Art fans will love the Accademia Carrera, stuffed with Raphaels, Botticellis and Canalettos.
Get there: You can fly directly into Bergamo itself with Ryanair, or, for a bigger choice of flights, Milan Linate is only 40 minutes away (Aer Lingus). See also visitbergamo.net.
7. Instead of: Positano
What: Ravello, Campania
Why: When people think of the Amalfi Coast, they usually think of two or three towns: there's Sorrento, the gateway to the idyllic, if expensive, Isle of Capri; chic Positano, star of the film Only You, and popular with the rich and famous; and Amalfi itself, a noble town with an impressive, black and white cathedral. But Ravello is almost in the middle of the coastal road that stretches from Sorrento to Salerno, and because it's set back from the sea, on a hill, people tend to just... drive past. Which is a mistake, as it's got some of the most picturesque gardens in Italy, set around historic villas. Known as the City of Music, thanks to its annual concerts and festivals, you can catch an open-air concert in the sumptuous grounds of the Villa Rufolo, which apparently inspired Wagner to write Parsifal. Elsewhere, admire the breathtaking view from Villa Cimbrone's Terrace of Infinity, lined with classical marble busts, or take an evening passeggiata in the main square, Piazza Vescovado.
Get there: The nearest airport is Naples (fly with Ryanair year-round), after which it's a scenic - if somewhat hairy - two and a half hour drive along the Amalfi coast. For more information, see visit ravello.com.
8. Instead of: Cacio Fiorentino
Visit: The Palio, Tuscany
Why: More than just a horse race, Siena's Palio is billed as 'the toughest in the world'. And it certainly provides a spectacle that is not to be missed. Put simply, it's a race that takes place twice a year - on July 2, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, and August 16, for the Assumption of Mary - in Siena's Piazza del Campo, and has been run continuously since 1633. Jockeys are only assigned their horse four days before the race, followed by practice heats and trial runs. Ten horses and riders (bareback), who each represent one of the city's 17 wards, or neighbourhoods, and are dressed in their colours and emblems, must complete three laps of the piazza. And, that's it - except to say just that would be do a disservice to the chaotic frenzy of the crowds, the deafening thunder of the horses' hooves, and the fierce, committed passion of the riders.
Get there: The nearest airport is Florence; Siena is an hour's drive away. For more information, visit discovertuscany.com/siena/palio-siena.
9. Instead of: Cortina, Veneto
Visit: Bolzano, South Tyrol
Why: Straddling the dramatic Dolomites, which connect Italy with Austria, Bolzano is the region's valley hub. Both Italian and German are spoken, and restaurants abound with hearty mountain food which blends the best of both countries, from Sachertorte and strudel to polenta and gorgonzola. Of course, as you're surrounded by mountains, hiking and skiing are strong seasonal options, but in Bolzano itself, don't miss the top tourist attraction, a man called Otzi. Alas, you can't speak to him, as he has been dead for 5,300 years, but his frozen, preserved body can be observed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. He was discovered in the mountains in 1991, his copper-bladed axe revealing he was a Bronze Age hunter. Elsewhere, explore the main square, Piazza Walther, which holds a colourful flower market every spring, stroll around the cloisters of the Gothic Franciscan church, and do a little wine-tasting; there are vineyards aplenty nearby.
Get there: Nearby airports include Innsbruck (Ryanair flies direct) and Verona or Bolzano (with one-stop connections). For more info, visit bolzano-bozen.it/en.
10. Instead of: Sicily
Visit: The Aeolian Islands
Why: Etna and, to a lesser extent, Vesuvius, are the volcanoes with all the touristic firepower, but among the handful of islands in the Aeolian archipelago off the coast of Sicily are two delightfully active ones, Vulcano and Stromboli. Hike to the rim of Vulcano, where you'll be breathing in delicious lungfuls of scorching, eggy, sulphuric air, then treat your skin to a mud bath in the hot springs by the harbour. And there's nothing like a night-climb of perfectly cone-shaped Stromboli, which spurts fiery, molten lava into the air at regular intervals, but with fewer crowds (the 1950 Ingrid Bergman film of the same name plays out against its backdrop). The rich and the beautiful party on Panarea, parking their yachts in the sparkling turquoise waters, while the biggest island, Lipari, is the place for laid-back sundowners; the best view across the coast is from Quattrocchi (which means 'four eyes'), just two miles from town on the way to Pianoconte.
Get there: The nearest airports are in Palermo or Catania (Ryanair & Aer Lingus), then you take a ferry or hydrofoil from Messina. For more information, go to visitsicily.info/en/10cosea/the-aeolian-islands.