You may be surprised to learn that some people have a love-hate relationship with Italy. When I first traveled to Italy in my early 20s I found the tourist crowds suffocating, the traffic insane, the prices exorbitant and the noise intolerable. Twenty years later I returned, determined to find the beautiful Italy that so many people talk about.
This time around I stayed outside the main city centres in traditional home-style accommodation, amongst the locals. I learnt to avoid the crazy peak season of July/August and to sightsee early in the day. Fortunately I fell in love with this glorious country – its friendly people, breathtaking landscapes, fascinating history and mouth-watering cuisine. Here are some tips on how to unearth the essence of Italy without the crowds and tourist hype.
Stay outside of Rome
If it’s fresh air, sunshine, birdsong and fragrant fields you yearn for, then plan on staying out of Rome’s city centre. We stayed at the Appia Antica resort about 12 km south east of Rome near the Appian Way.
Our mornings started with the mandatory coffee at the local café. Old men with their walking sticks sat around reading their newspapers and discussing last night’s football. Local dogs sprawled under our seats hoping for a scrap of food and a pat. The barista recommended a “Maraschino”- a strong coffee served with liqueur, cream and rich chocolate syrup – delicious!
The nearby Appian Way is the ancient Roman road built in 300BC to link Rome and Brindisi. In this area the quiet cobbled road is flanked by crumbling ruins, lichen-covered statues, old villas, Roman baths and catacombs. You can still see the tracks of the chariot wheels etched on some of the flagstones. Towering aqueducts sit amongst fields of poppies whilst locals cycle or walk the surrounding countryside.
A quaint restaurant with white-washed walls served us traditional food from the area – ancient grains with fried bitter herbs and garlic, washed down by a glass of refreshing wine. Perfect and not a tourist in sight!
Not far from the Appian Way is the pretty hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo. With mesmerizing views of the azure lake, you can soak up the ambience at one of the scenic cafes or browse the shops in the town square, where the church bells toll every 15 minutes. A wander to the Pope’s summer residence will take you past sweeping views of the plains below and spring water bubbling from a roadside fountain. A great escape from the chaos of Rome.
Hop over to Sicily
Sicily is Italy’s largest island and boasts an aqua blue coastline, smouldering volcanoes, cosmopolitan towns and an intriguing history. With fewer tourists than the mainland, it is the obvious spot to escape the tourist trail.
With lots of offshore islands to explore, you are spoiled for choice. Lipari, an Aeolian island to the north is a good starting point. Here you can hike the stunning volcanic landscape, bask on a secluded beach or island hop to the surrounding archipelago including Stromboli where you can climb the live volcano.
If you are a history buff then Syracuse should be on your bucket list. This famed city was once a prestigious Greek centre before falling to Roman rule. The archaeological park set amongst pretty citrus trees, showcases ancient limestone quarries, a Greek theatre and a huge Roman amphitheatre where gladiators once fought.
The hilltop town of Taormina sits below the active Mt Etna. With its Greco-Roman theatre and sweeping views over the cobalt sea, it is a photographer’s paradise. To recharge your batteries stay on the sparkling waterfront with its black sand beach and rows of colorful striped umbrellas.
Get lost in Venice
Venice is a beehive of tourist activity especially around St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. The best adventures you can have are to turn away from the Grand Canal to wander the lanes and footbridges that crisscross the lagoon. Here you will unearth the real Venice of hidden restaurants, beautiful jewellery shops, empty museums and secret gardens.
Finding an apartment overlooking a canal or town square will give you endless people watching opportunities – the daily life of the city is fascinating. From our windows we watched the locals walking their dogs, boats plying their trade, the occasional gondola floating past and flocks of huge seagulls screeching and wheeling in the sky above.
Alternatively you can hop on a vaporetto (passenger ferry) which traverses the Grand Canal or takes you out to the colourful houses on the island of Burano.
If you do plan on seeing the Doge’s Palace or St Mark’s Basilica, then be first in line at opening time. On my last visit, I was lucky enough to be first to enter the Doge’s Palace in the morning. I wandered alone up the Golden Staircase, through dark wooden chambers decorated with majestic paintings and then through the dim, squalid prisoner’s quarters below the Palace. A truly moving experience (but a bit spooky as well!)
Italy has countless other areas – rugged mountains, green countryside, small isolated villages and sheltered beaches where you can certainly escape the crowds – all it takes is a bit of research and planning. Venture away from the tourist traps and you will capture the true charm of Italy.
This is a guest post by Liz Noble.
Liz Noble is a Sydneysider with a passion for photography and a love of nature, dogs and adventure. Her favourite trips include exploring Africa, caravanning around Europe, backpacking in India, sailing the Aegean and immersing herself in Asia. Despite travelling to more than 50 countries, Liz is always planning her next escape – usually somewhere hot and exotic!
She runs a blog, TheEntranceTravel.com which showcases the beautiful coast north of Sydney, Australia.