There is so much more to Italy than Rome, Florence and Venice. Don’t get me wrong; I love those cities. In fact, Florence is my VERY favorite city – and I’ve traveled to over 100 countries and can’t even begin to count the number of cities.
My most recent trip took me to another Italy – one of fewer world-renowned artistic treasures and more eye-popping landscapes – to new foods and even another language.
The map shows the area traveled.
The first city, Fano, is more central than northern Italy, but it was my first stop. While I went to visit family, there is much to be said for this city on the Adriatic coast. It boasts beautiful white sand beaches, and the historic center is a walled city, with much of the wall and a city gate still standing. The ancient Roman via Flaminia ended here. Sections of it are still visible. Fano is also home to the oldest Carnevale (Mardi Gras) parade in Italy. And it’s a perfect walking city
From Fano we visited Gubbio and Perugia. Gubbio, the most ancient medieval city in the region of Umbria, is just 49 miles, less than an hour’s drive, from Fano. It’s one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy, though its origins are much older. Its founding dates to the Etruscan (pre-Roman) era and it also boasts a well-preserved Roman theater. Its Palazzo dei Consigli in the main square dates from 1332.
Perugia, just 32 miles from Gubbio, is also a walled city dating from Etruscan times. Much of its architecture is Gothic and the historic center is walkable. Perugia is a university city dominated by its University and perhaps the best-known University for Foreign Students in Italy. It sports the beautiful Fontana Maggiore in its main square. Coming by car we parked just outside the historic center and took the MiniMetro. Cars run every five minutes and are completely automatic. It’s an efficient way to get to the center without worrying about traffic and parking. So, the modern meets the ancient.
Next I went to Milan, the southernmost stop of my northern European adventure, to meet my tour group. This is the one city on the tour with world-renowned architectural and artistic works. Unfortunately, the one day there was not nearly enough. Still, partly on my own and partly with the group, I did take in the Duomo (Cathedral), the famous Galleria, Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Sforzesco Castle. I really wanted to see the navigli area, where canals once used for trade still exist.
Now on to the lesser known Italy.
Rather than follow a strict day by day itinerary I’ll highlight the overnight stays and the highlights we covered from each of those.
Tirano is just over a four-hour drive from Milan. It’s in the Valtellina, a valley of northern Italy that is known for its hot spring spas, bresaola, cheeses and wines. It was a key Alpine pass between northern Italy and Germany. The city itself has two important buildings worth a visit: Palazzo Salis and the Madonna di Tirano Sanctuary and there are several hiking trails nearby.
Side trips to take from Tirano
Varenna is about a 1 ½ hour drive. This is a lovely village on Lake Como with a botanical garden worth a visit and numerous shops and restaurants lake side.
The Bernina Express and its route are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that can be taken from Tirano. It’s a spectacular ride through tunnels and around mountains. We got off at Diavolezza, the highest point of the eastern Alps at 7392 feet. From the train there is a cable car then a fairly steep moving walkway to reach the peak, where there are a glacier and a lookout and lodge.
Lake Iseo -This glacial lake is the fourth largest in Lombardy, the seventh largest in Italy. Monte Isola at the center of the lake is the largest inhabited lake island in Europe. There is hiking to the monastery at the top of the island. The 11 picturesque villages along the island lakeshore and slopes are all worthy of a visit.
This region is known as Franciacorta and is known for Italian sparkling wines. Visiting a local winery is an excellent activity.
Rovato – is a small town about ½ hour from Lake Iseo and a cooking lesson can be booked at a local restaurant.
Verona – is the city of Romeo and Juliet fame and is second only to Rome in the number of ancient Roman ruins. The Arena of Verona, a grand amphitheater built in the first century A.D. seats 30,000 and is still used for open-air opera performances.
Garda is a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Garda. A nearby farm/olive grove is a good destination to learn about olive cultivation in the region and to learn to distinguish among olive oils.
Bressanone (Brixen) – We are now in Alto Adige or South Tyrol, where the population speaks both German and Italian and all signs are in both languages. This area has alternated between Italy and Austria a number of times and has a unique culture in Italy.
Dolomites – starting in Verona the Dolomites dominate the landscape.
Trento – noted in history as the site of the Council of Trent, which began the Counter Reformation in the mid-16th century. The city is replete with historic buildings, an impressive cathedral and a magnificent bishop’s palace that resembles a fortress more than a home.
Bolzano is a short train ride from Bressanone and is the provincial capital of South Tyrol. Otzi the Iceman, the incredibly well-preseved 5300 year-old mummy discovered in the region in 1991, is in the Museum of Archaeology here.
Val Gardena, just an hour’s ride from Bressanone, is nestled in the Dolomites. Several of the small villages are centers of Ladin culture. Ladin is an ethnic minority of about 35,000 people who live in five valleys in this corner of the Dolomites. Ladin is a Greco-Roman language, older than Italian and unrelated to either German or Italian.
Cortina d’Ampezzo is a ski resort in the Dolomites and the drive from Bressanone di Cortina is breathtaking. It passes by the three peaks of the range that are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is lovely, with high-end shops, but the real draw is the drive to get there.
We spent the last night in a villa in the Venetian countryside as we would leave from the Venice airport in the morning.
This is an Italy unknown to most American tourists. Both the scenery and the food are different. The landscape runs more to mountains and lakes than to the seaside and rolling hills. Activities include more hiking and fewer museum visits. Pasta is a distant fourth to gnocchi, risotto and polenta. Buckwheat pasta is a specialty in one locale and the bread is rye bread. Rather than prosciutto one eats bresaola, sliced, dried beef. Wines are local.
Catherine Mitchell holds a master’s in Italian from Middlebury College and lived in Italy for ten years.
She has taught English at European language schools and Italian in the United States.