Italy off the beaten path 2019: Day trips from Rome and an Amalfi jewel

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy but I found the village of Praiano the perfect place to get away.

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy but I found the village of Praiano the perfect place to get away.


I never make New Year’s resolutions. Why make one on Jan. 1 when you can make it on July 1? Or March 15? You’re going to wait until the new year to stop drinking boxed wine? It’s a cop out.

If you’re going to resolve to do something in 2019, do this: Travel to Italy. Yeah, my adopted country is starting to lean right. The guy running the country has a Donald Trump bobblehead doll on his Fiat’s dashboard. But deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has no effect on Italy’s great beaches, delicious food or priceless museums.

What will have a lasting effect in Italy is where you go. Fifty million tourists come to Italy every year. Those of you who have done the American tourist triangle of Venice-Florence-Rome should look farther afield. Find a unique, truly Italian experience that is away from the mass hordes you saw the first time around yet has much of the beauty you crave when you come here.

This is where I come in.

I’ve been to 18 of Italy’s 21 regions (missing only Calabria, Molise and Valle d’Aosta) and they all have little towns full of charm and medium-sized cities viewed only as a place to go somewhere else. My girlfriend, the able-bodied photographer, Marina Pascucci, and I stumbled onto a few more places this year.

So when you pull out your 2019 calendar and plan your vacation, add my annual Italy Off-the-Beaten-Path to last year’s inaugural list . Clip it and press it on your refrigerator with a Chianti bottle fridge magnet. It’ll remind you to stop buying wine in hardware stores.

Heretofore are 10 places you likely have never heard of and can add to your next itinerary, in alphabetical order. (Caveat: Do NOT come in July or August, unless otherwise noted. It is stifling hot and the height of tourist season everywhere):

Bolsena

Bolsena


Bolsena (pop. 4,000): Italy has some famous lakes — Como, Guarda, Albano — and Lago di Bolsena often gets overlooked. So does its town. Located about 80 miles north of Rome, Bolsena makes for a memorable day trip from the city’s chaos. The 44-square-mile lake is one of the largest volcanic lakes in Europe and is a fabulous place to swim and sunbathe. The town is oh, so charming. It’s situated on a hill where narrow, cobblestone alleys lead up to a medieval center and the 13th century Castello Rocca Monaldeschi. Have a Prosecco in Piazza Matteotti and poke your head in shops specializing in local foods.
Bolzano. Climates to Travel photo

Bolzano. Climates to Travel photo


Bolzano (pop. 107,000): It’s the gateway to the Dolomites. Many come here as a base for their trekking, camping and skiing but stick around town for a couple of days. Few places in Italy are like it. It’s only 20 miles from the Austrian border and consequently is bilingual. You’re just as likely to hear “Guten tag!” as “Buongiorno!” Consequently, it has a German touch. Tyrolean buildings, some looking like Disneyland castles, share space with pastel-colored buildings on narrow cobblestone streets. Throughout history it bounced from Bavarian rule to Austrian to Napoleon back to Austrian then finally Italian in 1918. It’s only 30 minutes to great hiking and close to 29 ski resorts. Bolzano is a good place to stay cool in July and August. Be sure to dine at Hopfen & Co., for local cuisine such as the leg of pork and the best sauerkraut you’ll ever have.
Cesanatico. Marina Pascucci photo

Cesanatico. Marina Pascucci photo


Cesanatico (pop. 26,000). It’s a quiet respite from the crazy cheek-to-cheek beach in Rimini 30 miles to the south. Cesanatico feels like Venice with its long canal, bridges and marine museum but is a quiet Adriatic port town. Lots of hotel accommodations to provide for the excellent beach that is pleasant and comfortable except for the two crazy summer months. Have a glass of wine on pink antique couches in the kitschy cafe called La Saraghina Ubrica then fine dine at Ca’ Nostra (“Our house” in the Emilian dialect) where you try Emilia-Romagna’s scrumptious antipasti. But don’t miss the region’s signature sauce, ragu, on strozzapreti, the short, twisty pasta named for the shape of rope that can strangle priests.
Frascati. Cultura della Relazione photo

Frascati. Cultura della Relazione photo


Frascati (pop. 22,000). Like picnics? There are few better places to have one than here. It’s only 12 miles southeast of Rome in the Alban Hills. Here is where they make the famed Frascati white wine, a fresh, light wine perfect for picnics, especially with the porchetta (sizzling, suckling pig) sandwiches they serve in the small main piazza. Frascati is famous for its 16th century villas. Popes, rich cardinals and Roman aristocracy built them and they remain today. You can’t miss Villa Aldobrandini, a hulking structure with beautiful Baroque gardens open to the public. Take a picnic and a bottle of wine and walk up the hill to the statue park and dine amongst the marble gods, or find a spot in the grassy park near Aldobrandini. For history buffs, Frascati was Germany’s Mediterranean headquarters until 1943 when Allied forces bombed half the buildings, killing 1,000 Italians and 150 Germans.
Marina and I in Itri

Marina and I in Itri


Itri (pop. 11,000). Marina and I discovered this little town while we stayed in the beautiful Casa Cerqua Landi B&B, complete with swimming pool, in the hills above Sperlonga, maybe the best beach in Lazio. Itri is an ideal place to stay for an Italian beach vacation. It’s only eight miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea and 90 miles south of Rome. It is real Old Italy where the elderly gossip in the quiet town piazza and the gelateria is the town social center. Located on the old Appian Way, Ancient Rome’s road to the sea, it is famous for its Gaeta olives, which have their own festival the first Sunday of every August, and its sauteed wild game like boar, rabbit and pheasant. Even in July it was void of tourists. And it’s cheap. The two best Neapolitan-style pizzas we’ve ever had, a beer and a glass of wine were only 20 euros at La Tavernetta.
Sunset in Praiano

Sunset in Praiano


Praiano (pop. 2,000). The Amalfi Coast is a magnet for romantics and those visiting Italy for the second time. If you want to avoid the crowds in the towns of Positano and Amalfi, try this little village in between. Praiano sits atop a rocky cliff with spectacular views of the royal blue Tyrrhenian below. I had a beautiful AirBnB overlooking the sea with just a short hike up to the village. The excellent SITA Sud bus system runs regularly, connecting Praiano with the other coastal towns. If you’re adventurous, you can hike the seven-mile trail named appropriately Santiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods). It begins in Praiano and goes along the Lattari mountains with gorgeous views of the ocean. It’s about three to four hours to Positano. But stay in Praiano and get some local cheese, bread and wine, sit in the piazza and look at the fantastic sunsets every day. For a dining option away from the crowds of Positano, try Trattoria San Gennaio and have the tagliatelle with clams.
Radda in Chianti. Private Driver Service photo

Radda in Chianti. Private Driver Service photo


Radda in Chianti (pop. 1,600). If you come to Italy for wine, particularly Chianti, Radda is the perfect base. It’s the capital of Tuscany’s Chianti country. Located nine miles north of Siena and 22 southeast of Florence, it’s a medieval walled city and nearby about two dozen wineries. Its cobblestone alleys make for the perfect stroll and it’s not big enough to attract crowds. Get a winery map and take off. If you only have time for one, I suggest Castello di Volpaia, voted No. 3 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2018. One caveat to Radda in Chianti: You’ll need a car. Rent one in Florence.
Santa Marguerita

Santa Marguerita


Santa Margherita (pop. 10,000). Go ahead and join the parade of moving flesh hiking along the Cinque Terre. Stay here. Santa Margherita is a quiet fishing village turned retirement town just 40 miles along the coast north of Monterosso, the most northern of the five Cinque Terre towns. Santa Margherita is right out of a Italian fairy tale: 18th century lanterns illuminating palm trees lining a beautiful promenade along the harbor where million-dollar yachts dock. I stayed at the Hotel Continental, overlooking a swimming pool and a private beach on the Gulf of Genoa. Eat at Da Michele, the best seafood place in town, and try the fresh grilled orata. Everything is about two-thirds the price of stuffy Portofino, three miles to the south.
Spello. YouTube photo

Spello. YouTube photo


Spello (pop. 8,500). This medieval walled city is in Umbria which is the only one of 21 Italian regions that does not border a sea or another country. Umbria may have fewer outside influences than any other region and Spello is in the heart of Umbria. Inside its three huge gates is a city made of stone with overflowing flower baskets lining narrow alleys and small piazzas. It features the Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore, a 12th century confection of white architectural splendor, and the 13th century town hall. Stop by La Bottega di Teresa where Teresa sells some of the best olive oil in Italy and local honeys, cheeses and salamis. Spello is the perfect off-the-beaten-path town to stay in while visiting St. Francis’ old home in Assisi seven miles to the north.
Trapani. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Trapani. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Trapani (pop. 70,000). The Sicilian island of Favignana is one of our favorite weekend getaways. We don’t fight the necessity of spending our last night in Trapani to catch the 70-minute early morning flight back to Rome. Located on the far western tip of Sicily 65 miles west of Palermo, Trapani is best known as the gateway to the Egadi Islands (Favignana, Levanzo, Marettimo). We like Trapani for its wide walking mall in its town center, excellent Sicilian cuisine (our favorite cuisine in Italy) and the long promenades on the water. Despite its relatively large population, Trapani remains more of a fishing port than a tourist destination except on Good Friday when it hosts the longest religious festival in Italy. It’s an all-day affair consisting of 20 floats depicting scenes from Jesus’ final days. It has played in Trapani every Good Friday since 1612.

Under the Lazio Sun: Finding a home in the Italian countryside isn’t easy but here are some tips how

Gretchen and Peter Bloom went into this 800-square-meter farmhouse 10 years ago.

Gretchen and Peter Bloom went into this 800-square-meter farmhouse 10 years ago.


BAGNOREGIO, Italy — It didn’t all start with Frances Mayes.

Yes, her 1996 blockbuster “Under the Tuscan Sun” made owning a house in the Italian countryside seem like Nirvana with better food. But mankind has sought Italy’s rolling green hills, vast meadows and sunny skies ever since the Ancient Roman aristocracy built villas in the Alban Hills outside Rome. Hadrian, the famous Roman emperor from the 2nd century, had a villa in Tivoli east of the city. Mussolini? When he wasn’t stomping human rights he was sipping wine near his summer home near Rimini on the Adriatic Coast.

Bagnoregio is in the farther northwest corner near the Umbrian border.

Bagnoregio is in the farther northwest corner near the Umbrian border.


So the idea of rural Italy has passed through the minds of anyone who is overworked, under loved and out of breath. For those blessed to visit the gorgeous nation of Italy, love for this country sometimes turns dreams into plans.

For Gretchen, 75, and Peter Bloom, 79, for Beth Blosser, 59, and Stefano Carta, 58, their dreams have become reality. I know. I’m standing in the middle of that dream. I’m in the spacious living room — I think. Wait, maybe it’s the sun room. The guest apartment? I can’t really tell. Their renovated home in the Italian countryside is an 800-square-meter (8,600-square-foot), 29-room palace with seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms. It has more balconies than St. Peter’s.

Festina Lente when it was first purchased in 2008. Stefano Carta photo

Festina Lente when it was first purchased in 2008. Stefano Carta photo


It has four kitchens, two spiral staircases, a conference room, an office, four fireplaces and three floors — not counting a loft that can sleep 10. It has separate structures to make wine and pizza, for God’s sake. All that’s missing is a swimming pool.

That’s next.

Technically speaking, it’s called a casale. That’s Italian for farmhouse. Built in the mid-1800s, this place is to farming what the Pentagon is to a gun case. Christened Festina Lente (Make haste slowly), it was used for farming livestock until the 1950s.

Today, it is the stone, mortar and tile love child of two couples who lived for years in the same building in Rome near the Colosseum. If your daily monotony has been invaded by thoughts of sipping Chianti on your own sunny patio looking at grazing sheep in a quiet green meadow, listen to their story.

It’s a tale that has taken 10 years of broken promises, laughable cost estimates, falling walls and hemorrhaging money. They’ve experienced tears, screams, sweat and endless sleepless nights. But today, 10 years later?

From left, Peter Bloom, Beth Blosser, builder Filippo Patacchini, Stefano Carta, Gretchen Bloom

From left, Peter Bloom, Beth Blosser, builder Filippo Patacchini, Stefano Carta, Gretchen Bloom


They’re sipping Chianti on their sunny patio looking at grazing sheep in a quiet green meadow.

Their goals and barriers are similar to those of all dreamers. Just keep in mind this project is a gross exaggeration of the average house in the Italian countryside. The foursome bought the house in 2008 for 400,000 euros. How much have they put into it?

At least 1 million euros.

“If you want to ask if this was rational? Absolutely not,” Peter Bloom says. “No way. I don’t think we had an idea how big this was. There were times three or four years in when I didn’t know what floor I was on or what room I was in.”

The view from the front door.

The view from the front door.


I’ve known Peter since I moved to Rome the first time in 2001. He helped organize Rome’s chapter of an international running club called the Hash House Harriers (“A Drinking Club with a Running Problem”). We spent many a day drinking wine and talking sports, American politics and Italian culture while sitting on their spacious rooftop balcony. He spent most of his career with USAID, traveling to 123 countries and some of the most backwoods hell holes on earth. Gretchen worked for World Food Program, traveling to 100 countries and places ranging from Haiti to Afghanistan helping the needy. We went through many a bottle of wine swapping travel tales from hell although, in comparison, my stories were more like from heck.

When I decided to retire to Rome in 2014, he became my advisor, telling me how to navigate Italy’s bureaucratic blackberry bush. When I arrived that January and butted heads with Rome’s Third World banking system, he loaned me enough cash to help pay my first month’s rent, security deposit and rental agent fee. He and Gretchen are the most generous people I’ve ever known.

This is why they’ve had an open invitation for me to visit their casale ever since I retired here. Last week I took them up on it. I took the train from Rome an hour and 15 minutes to the lovely town of Orvieto, a walled city high atop a volcanic rock and home every winter to one of the best jazz festivals in Europe.

The Blooms and their other guest, Alessandra Narciso, picked me up in their rental car and whisked us into the countryside of rural Lazio. The countryside of Rome’s region is one of the most underrated destinations in Italy. It features two of the prettiest lakes in a country full of them: Bracciano and Bolsena. The Apennine Mountains cross into Lazio which, of course, is also peppered with endless green vineyards and majestic walled villages.

The population of Civita di Bagnoregio ranges from 7 to 100.

The population of Civita di Bagnoregio ranges from 7 to 100.


On the way to the casale we stopped for a bruschetta lunch at Civita di Bagnoregio, a walled village eroded away by landslides and now home to only seven residents in the winter (though it swells to 100 in summer). Its peculiar perch, more peculiar residents and a bridge UNESCO built to stop sure death has made it the subject of travel stories from New York to New Zealand.

Festina Lente is located between the separate town of Bagnoregio and the pretty medieval lakeside town of Bolsena near the lightly troddened Lazio-Umbria border. Just 90 minutes from Rome, it seems like 90 years from Rome’s problems.

“All they wanted was a little house in the country,” Bloom says. “The origin of this is just a classic Italian couple. Everybody wants just a little place in the country. I mean little.”

How this happened is a combination of one couple’s dream and another’s generosity. It all started more than 10 years ago when Beth and Stefano had a 150-square-meter country house sold out from under them. Seeing their friends devastated, the Blooms offered to go in with them on another search.

They found a 200-square-meter place near Todi, across the border in Umbria, but the Blooms didn’t like the long dirt road in or the 67 acres of fields and woods on the property. In the meantime, Beth’s and Stefano’s 10-year-old daughter, Emma, was surfing the Internet. She came across this big stone house on seven acres of land in northern Lazio.

Perfect. The deal was signed. Now all they had to do was renovate.

Ahem, this is when dream becomes reality, the wrong kind of reality, when nightmares don’t only come when you’re sleeping. They received some horribly bad advice. A Rome architect told them the roofs were fine and sturdy. They weren’t. They had to be replaced.

The kitchen

The kitchen


All four roofs cost $40,000 each.

The roofs also needed chimneys. They had to drill a well 130 meters into the ground to get water. That was 8,000 euros. The original stone structure may have looked classic but it was faulty. It had to be plastered over and painted. The ground floor was rubble. There was no staircase connecting it to the first floor. Rusting, old farm equipment was strewn around the lawn like left over from a fire. Only the top floor was livable.

“You can’t imagine what wasn’t here,” Bloom says.

And in the winter, at 600 meters (1,970 feet), it is freezing. Stefano found out the hard way how heat is exasperated in huge stone houses. He stayed 10 days one winter and the heating bill came out to 500 euros.

It got worse. In 2008 the U.S. banking crisis also hit. The Blooms had all their money in the stock market and at one time were tempted to leave Rome for the U.S. But instead of bailing, Peter took out loans and the foursome continued hammering away. Stefano made countless trips north to monitor the progress.

All the time, the Blooms rejected sanity. They weren’t scared of investing in an 8,600-square-foot farmhouse in the midst of a financial crisis that nearly crippled their country.

“Eh!” Gretchen says. “We were concerned. We might have to leave Italy, but we were already committed.”

The Blooms split half of every year in their condos in Newport, Rhode Island, and on DuPont Circle in Washington. While the Blooms were in the States, Stefano and Beth kept rolling with the major renovations while traveling around putting their own personal touches on the place.

They found bathroom tiles from Morocco and kitchen tiles from Sicily. They found a parquet floor from Croatia. They worked with an Umbrian artist to design a mosaic floor tile of clouds and a snail. They found a blacksmith in Caserta in Southern Italy who made the towel racks with a Tuscan design. They ordered another standing towel rack from the United Kingdom. They had the new chimneys made in the same ancient style as seen around the region. Beth, who does garden tours of Rome’s Villa Borghese park, planted 60 ancient fruit trees on the grounds.

I ask Beth, a Kent, Ohio, native who has lived in Rome since 1987 and is a graduate of John Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies, if it was worth it.

The master bedroom.

The master bedroom.


“If you asked me a year ago, I might not have been so much,” she says. “Now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel? Absolutely.”

Peter gives me a tour of the place. It is a long tour. The kitchen has a fireplace — for cooking. The dining table is solid marble. “Four people couldn’t lift that table,” Bloom says. The kitchen cabinets are antique with wrought-iron handles, found on eBay, to hang pots and pans. An antique clock hangs on the wall.

The living room is made up of the Blooms’ old furniture which came amongst the 84 boxes they sent up from Rome. A rocking chair sits on the yellow brick floor.

The hallway has Stefano and Beth’s bedroom which looks like a honeymoon suite at a Four Seasons. A king-size bed opposite a fireplace with a big balcony that looks out at the farmland beyond. While the whole place looks pulled from a 19th century romance novel, the bathrooms are all modern with bathtubs and walk-in showers.

Every room I enter, even my modest guest room with two twin beds and romantic reading lamp, has great views.

“Every view is beautiful,” Bloom says, “and every view sees nothing.”

We walk down into a long airy room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. We look at the vast farmland beyond. We don’t see another structure. The sun on a day in the high 60s is shining. This is their sun room, perfect for sipping wine, brandy or a good book in winter. The windows can fold open in summer.

“This was an old crummy garage full of nothing,” he says. “We were here in April 2017 and it was a little cool. The sun was coming in and you could’ve been in your underwear.”

The apartment

The apartment


We go down to the ground floor which has an entire apartment, complete with couch, love seat, dining room and coffee kitchen — which all can serve the adjacent massive conference room through a window in the wall. A bigger kitchen is planned.

We walk outside where he shows me the wine press and the small hut where they hope to make pizzas some day. There’s a fountain “for no good reason,” he says. He stops talking. We listen. We can’t hear a thing. The only sound is an odd rhythmic whacking of what may be a piece of farm equipment far away.

“This is in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I’ve stayed in a number of agroturismos in Italy and other places and I’ve never been anywhere where you can’t hear something. Some road, somewhere. Or some factory, somewhere. Here …?

We walk up to the second floor where the Blooms were sequestered for 8 ½ years of visits while the rest of the house caught up. It’s another entire apartment with a cast-iron fireplace, decorative couch, a dining room table and rustic wooden floor. Upstairs is an open loft, perfect to flop a dozen mattresses for all the grandkids.

The upstairs

The upstairs


That was much of the Blooms’ motivation in this project. They will leave it to their children, who have already had longish stays, at least long enough to know one floor from another, something I couldn’t accomplish in two days.

“My hope is them and their grandkids will come here and spend summers,” Bloom says. “Will they? I may never know. My hope is, as this went on, wouldn’t our kids rather have this lovely place in the countryside of Italy rather than just being left some money?”

OK, so who can relate to an 8,600-square-foot farmhouse? It doesn’t matter. This foursome can relate to you. Anyone who searches for their dream home in Italy has the same guidelines, regardless of need. So if you haven’t lost hope, here are their five best pieces of advice in finding a country home in Italy.

1. “Don’t do it without an Italian partner,” Bloom says. “Don’t even think about it. You’ll get ripped off six different ways and you won’t know what you’re doing and, unless your Italian is perfect and you know building and land and you’ve done this somewhere else, you’ll get screwed.” Stefano filled the bill here.

2. Ask yourself serious questions. Says Bloom: “Why do you want it? How often will you use it? Is it for you or your family? How often would you come? Is it really worth it to you? They need to know why they’re doing it.”

3. Make sure you can renovate it. The Italian bureaucracy is beyond confusing. It’s easier to build a stadium in the U.S. than a newsstand in Italy. The building restrictions are mind numbing. Also, different regions have different restrictions. Lazio’s are more lax. If this casale was a pizza toss away across the border in Umbria, half the renovations could not have happened.

4. You’d better be able to afford it. As the Blooms learned, prices can be four times more than you expected. In the U.S., Bloom says, builders “are realistic.”

5. When you get an estimate, get it from a local. Their first architect who came up from Rome gave them costs that were ridiculously low. No, the roofs were not fine. “No question, had we gotten an estimate from the local builder we now have, we would not have bought it,” Bloom says.

The view of Montefiascone from the front door.

The view of Montefiascone from the front door.


However, they’re glad they did. The commitment took 10 years but now they have many years to enjoy it. And they have plans. Beth already has a group of 24 guests lined up sometime next year for their trial rental run. Bloom said if they take four couples, each with their own room, “You could easily rent that floor for 5,000 euros a week. That’s cheap. That’s just a thought.” That comes out to less than 90 euros per person per night, much less than your average agroturismo.

But the biggest event is already planned. In June 2020 the casale will host the Blooms’ 50th wedding anniversary. They are inviting half of Washington and half of Rome. I’ll be among the mob.

I think they’ll have room.