Northern Italy off the beaten track
Italy is a country of distinct cultures, developed over many centuries, bound under the same flag. The weight of history and the remnants left by it's ancient civilisations still weigh heavily on the Italian people to the extent that no matter where you dig you are likely to find something of historical consequence. It is because of this that you can travel to the extremes of the country, where others do not venture, to experience the rich and varied nature of Italian culture.
Here we show you that, with a little effort to reach these destinations, you will be rewarded with views and experiences that are largely free from the heaving crowds that Italy has become famous for. Surely a much better was of enjoying the Italian summer.
Bassano del Grappa
BDG (Bessano del grappa) is located in the Veneto region in the far north of the country. Whilst there has been evidence of a town being located on the same spot since the 2nd century BC, the current town is more likely to have it's origins in the 11th century.
Easy to reach, by train, from Venice, the town boasts a charming medieval town, cobbled streets, and a wooden bridge dating back to 1569 (though it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since).
What I found particularly charming about this town was the bars, a plethora of drinking spots that serve a mean Mojito. It is a town that is beautiful by night or day, but in my opinion comes alive in the evening.
Close by is the city of Marostica, a medieval walled city famous for an unusual inclusion in their town square, a life-sized chess board. The story goes that, some times during the medieval period, the lord had a beautiful daughter whom two suitors both wanted to marry. The lord, not wanting to displease and thus lose the allegiance of either suitor nor wanting to propose the customary duel, devised a plan where the men would compete in a game of chess. The winner, the most wise and measured of the two, would win the hand of the lord's daughter. And so, an enormous chess board was placed in the town square, and using men of their own retinue, played for the hand of the lord.
Whilst the story is inevitably a fabrication the chess board is real, and every September a human match occurs in the town where men actually ride horses as the knight piece.
Located within easy driving distance from our previous destinations of Marostica and Bassano del Grappa, Belluno offers nature lovers a true treat. Whilst the town itself is much like any other town in this area it has a train station, making it the perfect place to start your exploration of region where the Apls meet the Dolomites.
At sunset the bottom the Dolomites glow red, folklore says the colour comes from an ancient Wizard King's rose garden in constant bloom, others say the mountains simply take on the colour of the sunset behind them. Either way they are a stunning sight anytime of the day, and even more so at sunrise and sunset.
The hills standing before the Dolomites are green and lush in the summer time, with natural spring waters running throughout. In fact, most towns in these parts have taps for you to drink from with clear crisp water flowing all summer long. A key feature of the grassy slopes are the cows with large bells around their necks which can be hear from miles away - an absolutely picturesque moment.
Where the mountains meet the sea is where you will find this next gem of a town and one of my favourite seaside towns in Italy. Not far from the throngs of the Cinque Terre, but far enough away to attract mostly local tourism, Albisola is perfect for a beachside getaway.
Located in the district of Liguria, famous for its focaccia, pesto and seafood, the produce and dishes are phenomenal. The town has been an important stop on the road to and from Rome since the beginning of Roman times and the name of the town itself means 'dawn of the sun' in latin. It certainly is the perfect place for watching the sun rise.
Albisola Marina has a vibrant seaside town with plenty of trattorias and gellaterias, as well as excellent promenades to stroll along if, by some chance, you have had enough of soaking up the sun on the beach. At night some of the restaurants become nightclubs and become hot spots for party seekers looking to drink and dance until sunrise.
A mere 20 minute train ride away from Albisola is Finalborgo, an absolute medieval gem of a town with some of the most amazing gelato in the country, especially fantastic are the cafe and amerena (black cherry) flavours.
The town itself boasts charming architecture, galleries, a church of course, as well as a fine collection of shops. A short stroll down the hill will find you relaxing on some of the best beaches, with the clearest water in all of Italy. And what's more, only the locals know about it. For best results, plan to go to the beach in the morning and the winds in the afternoon make the water less clear and too rough for swimming off the rocks.
If you fancy a stroll up the hill from the town you will be rewarded with the castle of Finalborgo, as well as blossoming trees and several great photo opportunities. The castle was under renovation when I visited the area but it was still worth the climb to see the town from this arial angle and to take in the natural surrounds of the town.
For the avid hikers Domodossola is heaven sent. Located in the province of Piemont and at the foot of the Italian alps. As well as being bedecked with beautiful mountainous scenery the town is also a great stop before entering Switzerland via the Simplon pass - a great day trip from Domodossola if you have a car. It is also possible to travel a similar route, though the mountain, on the train though you will miss out on the views that make this area spectacular.
It's the perfect place to strap your hiking boots on and spend a few days exploring the mountain pass between Italy and Switzerland.
Whilst many people know the likes of Lake Garda and Lake Como, very few know the relatively secret Lake Orta. Equally as stunning, with beautiful little cities encircling it, and even on the water, Lake Orta should be top of your list for any lake lover.
Located in north west Italy, west of Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta was previously named Lago di San Giulio (lake of Saint Julio), patron saint of the area. Whilst the name may of changed the island of San Giulio remains named after the saint and still retains it's old world charm. Even better, in the summer, it's the perfect place to take a dip.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore is located in the region of Piemont on the border with Switzerland. Unlike other Italian cities, this town, is a perfectly preserved example of Italian village life and offers visitors an uncrowded look into the past.
What makes this village unique is its easy proximity to Turin, a major city and easy commute between, and it's natural surrounds making it both a perfect stop for the day or more if you intend to explore the mountains and woods.
Edolo/Tonale di legno
Looking to escape Italy's soaring summer temperatures that surpass 40 degrees Celsius? Look no further than this town set at an altitude of almost 1000 metres above sea level. It provides a cool change from the rest of Italy and is the perfect gateway to Presena Glacier which you can also ski on during the colder months.
In summer, however, do not be fooled, this experience will still be a cold one. The top of the glacier is set at 3069 metres above sea level and can still be blisteringly cold, when I visited we almost got stuck in a snowstorm but made it through on one of the last cable cars before it closed.
For avid mountaineers you can climb the glacier, I would not recommend this without the appropriate gear, and for the people who don't want to climb there is a cable car which will take you most of the way. Along the way there are cafes where you can sit and enjoy the view. The best option, in terms of price and views, is the second, before the cable car to the last stop, order the hot chocolate - you wont regret it.
If Italy is all about wine and good food then a stop in Fiumane is essential Sadly what the rest of the world consider typical Italian wine, prosecco and chiante, are not what Italians consider the pinnacle of good wine, that would be Valpolicella, an untypically strong but delicious wine. This wine is made in one region only, near the beautiful Lake Garda, in the five fingered valley's of Fiumane, famous for it's cool climate and fertile soil.
Easy to reach from nearby Verona, it is a perfect day trip. Food and wine connoisseurs rejoice for this is the perfect destination for a tour of local vineyards. Don't forget to nab yourself a couple of bottles before you leave, this wine is so sought after it is heavily regulated and only the best Valpolicella is available in country.