The stock market did great in 2016. You’re tired of talking politics. Your cravings for pizza are gnawing at you like a bad withdrawal. What to do?
There isn’t a better time to visit my favorite country than 2017. I’ve lived in Rome 4 ½ years in total and the number of ugly places I’ve seen wouldn’t fill a decent blog space. I’ve traveled to 17 of Italy’s 20 regions, from Lampedusa off the southern coast of Sicily to Bolzano near the Austrian border. I know where to go.
You all know the well-pounded tourist trail of Milan-Venice-Florence-Rome. Here I present you with 10 places that you probably have never heard of, let alone never made your bucket list. So here’s my collection, in alphabetical order, of lovely, interesting, off-the-beaten-path places to visit in Italy in 2017. Print it, put it under a refrigerator magnet and know you’ll never eat a better pizza than outside on a warm Italian night. (Country code is 39).
ARCHIPELAGO DI L’MADDALENA, Sardinia. If you’re a jetset wannabe, you’ve heard of Costa Smeralda. It’s the yacht-laden swath of coastline on the northeast corner of Sardinia. Instead of getting hosed on prices and sneered at by the wealthy, keep driving your needed rental car north to Palau and take the car ferry to Maddalena.
It’s a series of orange-roofed houses stretched out around a beautiful sky blue harbor. Don’t let the U.S. Naval base bother you. They’re well behaved and don’t bother anyone else. Instead, drive around to all the fine, grainy-sand beaches. Each turn of the road has a car park where you can pull over and take pictures of tiny bays, individually carved by wind-washed rock. The water is so clear you could see the bottom 50 feet down.
Where to stay: B&B Petite Maison, http://www.lapetitmaison.net, Via Livenza 7, 07-89-73-8432, 85-130 euros. Highly recommended bed & breakfast is five minutes from the main piazza and has a great breakfast.
Where to eat: I Mille, Via dei Mille. On the neighboring island of Caprera, it received TripAdvisor’s top rating of restaurants on the archipelago.
BAROQUE TRIANGLE, Sicily. For my 60th birthday last March, my girlfriend took me to Syracuse, Sicily. It was the best birthday of my life. One reason is we rented a car and drove through the Baroque Triangle, a series of villages southwest of Syracuse dripping with beautiful Baroque architecture.
We went to: Noto, a UNESCO World Heritage site with perhaps the prettiest street in Sicily; Ragusa, where you walk under cast-iron balconies that give it a New Orleans feel and where the blue dome of Chiesa di St. George in sprawling Piazza del Duomo can be seen for miles; and Modica where the Chiesa di San Giorgio may be the best work of famed Baroque artist Gagliardi.
Place to stay: Grand Hotel Villa Politi, Via Maria Politi Laudien 2, Syracuse, 0931-412-121, 75-300 euros. We stayed in Syracuse where Winston Churchill based himself during the Allied invasion of Sicily.
Place to eat: Gallo d’Oro, Via Giuseppe di Vittorio 110, Ragusa, 0932-621-895. It’s classic, thicker-crust, Sicilian pizza in the newer part of Ragusa that gets even fewer tourists than the old town below.
BOLZANO, Alto Adige. I lived in Colorado for 23 years. Few places in Colorado match the area around Bolzano for sheer beauty and majestic mountains. Bolzano is the jumping off point for the Dolomites, the sharp, steep mountains that look like Northern Italian is covered with a series of 10,000-foot steak knives.
Once part of Austria, Bolzano is a town of 100,000 that has remained bilingual and maintains what some say is the highest quality of life in Italy. Picture Tyrolean buildings, all shaped like little Disneyland castles, with pastel-colored shops on the narrow cobblestone streets you find in Rome. It’s lively German beer bars next to cozy Italian enotecas. It’s a hike through the Alps followed by a night of sipping minestrone in a quiet piazza.
Place to stay: Parkhotel Laurin, http://www.laurin.it, Via Laurin 4, 0471-31-1000, 112-394 euro. A reasonably priced five-star hotel in a garden in the town center. Lots of local antiques and one of the town’s best restaurants.
Place to eat: Hopfen & Co., 17 P. Erbe, 0471-300-788. It’s like a Swiss chalet but with Italian prices. Try the leg of pork with sauerkraut.
CALCATA, Lazio. This is one of my favorite weekend getaways from Rome. Located just 30 miles north of town, it’s a village built on 150-foot-high pile of volcanic rock. The population numbers, at last count, 70. I think 69 are artists. It has spectacular vistas of the Lazio countryside that tourists often ignore in their obsession with Rome.
And to think this place almost didn’t exist. Mussolini condemned it as too dangerous (think of that for a moment). It was all but abandoned in the 1960s but in the ‘70s, a collection of artists escaping Rome’s chaos propped it up.
Place to stay: Gisa Federici has a lovely apartment that has the feel of a rustic cabin. Gisa.firstname.lastname@example.org, 329-695-8947/0761-587-989, 60-80 euro.
Place to eat: Ristorante 3 Monti, Piazza Roma 11, 0761-587-998. Just outside the town wall, it’s true country Italian dining. Try the cinghiale (wild boar) stew.
MENAGGIO, Lake Como — Como is my favorite lake in the world. It’s 56 miles long and 28 miles wide and dotted with 18 villages, all accessible by a ferry that bounces back and forth along the banks. Menaggio is on the west side less than hour from the city of Como where you pick up the ferry.
I’ve stayed in Lenno and Tremezzo, and Menaggio may be the prettiest. Its pleasant piazza, lined with cute cafes and lavender stands, faces the lake. The town is so quiet you can hear the water lap against fishing boats.
Where to stay: Hotel Bellavista, Via IV Novembre 21, 0344-32136, 110-180 euros. A balcony overlooks a large swimming pool and lake over the rail.
Where to eat: La Tana del Luccio, Viale Italia 49, 347-906-7437. On the main piazza, it has great ravioli noci gorgonzola, homemade ravioli filled with nut cream and covered in thick gorgonzola cheese.
PONZA, Lazio. Tired of Rome’s heat and chaos? There’s a lovely island only a couple hours away. Take the train to Anzio and a ferry takes you to Ponza in 70 minutes. Ponza doesn’t have the world rep that keeps Capri preening just 70 miles to the south. But it’s almost as pretty and much more navigable. Little villages serve up cheap, authentic food just a Frisbee throw from the crystal-clear sea.
Like Capri, there are no sandy beaches. But sun yourself on the large flat rocks and throw yourself in the sea when the sun gets too hot. Outside July and August, Ponza is remarkably tranquil.
Where to stay: Grand Hotel Santa Domitilla,, Via Panoramica, 0771-809-954, rates unavailable. A four-star palace with a gorgeous swimming pool overlooking the sea.
Where to eat: Tutti Noi, Via Dante 5, 0771-82-0044. It may have the best seafood on the island, which is saying something.
SANTA MARGHERITA, Liguria. I trekked along the famed Cinque Terre trail and here’s a tip: Avoid the crowds and stay in Santa Margherita, a charming port town north of the five packed tourist towns along the trail. Santa Margherita is the quiet countryside park to Cinque Terre’s Disneyland.
Night in Santa Margherita is something out of an Italian romance novel. Eighteenth century lanterns illuminate palm trees lining the main promenade encircling the harbor. Bright blue lights mark the slips for the multi-million-dollar yachts, kind of like spotlights on a darkened stage.
Where to stay: Hotel Continental, Via Pagana 8, 0185-286-512, 135-300 euros. It has its own private beach and great views of the harbor.
Where to eat: Da Michele, Via G Amendola 17, 0185-283-660. The best grilled fish in town, particularly the orata, a local white fish.
SPERLONGA, Lazio. Contrary to popular belief, Rome has nice beaches not far away. The farther you go, the nicer they are. Sperlonga is 90 miles south of Rome and has a long, gently curved beach with fine white sand. The water, unlike farther north at Ostia, Rome’s beach neighborhood, is a nice clear blue.
It’s packed on July weekends and in August but summer weekdays it’s not crowded. Rent lanais chairs and then head off to one of the many great seafood restaurants around town.
Where to stay: Hotel Mayor, http://www.hotelmayor.it, Via 1 Romita 4, 0185-283-660, 55-110 euros. Near the town’s historical center with its own small private beach.
Where to eat: Incontramare, Strada Lungomare, Km. 29,950, Sabaudia, 335-758-4486. In the next beach town north from Sperlonga, Incontramare may be the most romantic restaurant on the Lazio coast. And the food is great. Try the pan-fried tuna in parmesan sauce with candied pears.
URBINO, Marche. Marche is Tuscany light. It’s about 30 percent cheaper than its more glamorous neighbor and Urbino is its most beautiful town. A walled city high atop a hill, it features the impossibly romantic Piazza della Repubblica and the Palazzo Ducale, a sprawling Renaissance palace built for Urbino’s ruling class.
Urbino is the boyhood home of Raphael, Michelangelo’s Renaissance rival, and his elaborate, multi-story home is right near the piazza.
Where to stay: Albergo Italia, Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi 32, 0722-2701, 67-95 euros. Just down the street from the piazza, it’s convenient and quiet.
Where to eat: Le 3 Piante, Via Voltaccia della Vecchia 1, 0722-4863. It’s a cliff-side pizzeria with a spectacular view of the red-tiled roofs and rolling green farmland of the Marche countryside below. Try the volcano pizza (spicy salami, gorgonzola, onion, mozzarella and tomato).
VIESTE, Puglia. It sits like a spur on the end of the peninsula that is the Parco Nazionale del Gargano in the heel of the Italian boot. The town of 14,000 is a maze of narrow, windy, hilly alleys barely wide enough for two people to pass without walking sideways.
It also features a broad, white-sand beach near its massive white trademark rock monolith, the Scoglio di Pizzomunno. Buy a ball of Puglia’s delicious caciocavallo cheese and a bottle of its Negroamaro wine and feast your appetitive and eyes on the Adriatic Sea.
Where to stay: Rocca Sul Mare, Via C. Mafrolla, 0884-702-719, 50-90 euros. In a 1,000-year-old building with a rooftop view of the Adriatic.
Where to eat: Vecchia Vieste, Via Mafrolla 32, 0884-707-083. Puglia is famous for its orecchiette (ear-shaped) pasta. Vecchia Vieste makes the best in town.