Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it's my website's lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it’s my website’s lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo


As a sportswriter for 40 years, one of my favorite themes was things that were too hyped or overlooked. Nothing burned the bottom of sports fans’ shorts more than reading that their quarterback is overrated. Nothing made them smile more to know their stadium is underrated. One man’s opinion is another fan’s scorn. It could be anything. Overrated? Jose Canseco. Underrated? Stanford football. Overrated? Dodger Stadium. Underrated? Annapolis, Maryland.

Italy gets more publicity than all of American sports combined. What doesn’t the average traveler know about my adopted country? A lot. Italy isn’t all quiet canals, Dolomites and cappuccinos in dreamy piazzas, ancient islands in an azure sea and endless vineyards in the Tuscan countryside.

It has its sore spots. It doesn’t have many. I struggled to find five overrated places in Italy. But they are there and as you all plan vacations for 2019, here’s a tip sheet: Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations. I’ve been to all of them. Use it as a warning; use it as an insider’s tip. But use it. (They’re in the order of my rage and praise). Feel free to weigh in on your thoughts in the comments section. Those threatening my life please form a line to the right.

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo


MOST OVERRATED
1. Milan.
It’s Newark with a big church. The Duomo is worth a visit. The white facade with 135 spires looks like a birthday cake. But once you get past that, Milan visually pales compared to other Italian cities. Don’t blame the Milanese. It’s not their fault Allied forces bombed the place back to the Stone Age in World War II. But what’s built in its place is too modern to look historical, too old to look clean. The weather is usually awful. Yes, you can see the Alps from there — on July 15, about the only day there’s good enough weather to see past architecture as dull as Milanese cuisine. When your headlining dish is osso buco, a sloppy veal stew, you don’t deserve to be called Italian. The women are attractive if you like anorexics with attitudes and La Scala is nice but who likes opera? Plus, their soccer teams suck. (Forza Roma!)
Cortona. AikrPano photo

Cortona. AirPano photo


2. Cortona. Ever read “Under the Tuscan Sun”? If you didn’t, you’ve never wanted to visit Italy or don’t like self-obsessed chick lit. It’s about a woman building a new life in a fixer-upper in Tuscany, interspersed with Italian recipes. The 1996 blockbuster made Cortona, where author Frances Mayes lived, a must stop on the American tourist’s beaten path in Italy. Americans walk around town carrying her book, trying to identify her butcher, her vegetable stand and florist. Cortonese told me they felt like zoo animals. The truth is, Italy has dozens of quaint, walled cities like Cortona. You don’t need to fight tour buses to see one.
Trieste's Piazza dell'Unita.  Turismo FVG photo

Trieste’s Piazza dell’Unita.
Turismo FVG photo


3. Trieste. It figures that James Joyce would live in a town like Trieste for 10 years. I disliked them both. It’s a good debate which one is more boring. Trieste has the biggest seaside piazza in the world. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many. Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia is a massive 130,000-square-foot expanse weighed down like anchors by gray government buildings and two overpriced cafes. There is no brilliant architectural treasure as you’d find in lesser-known piazzas such as Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno or Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno’s Piazza del Popolo. Also, tucked into Italy’s northeast corner on the north end of the Adriatic, Trieste is constantly plagued by the Bora, the cold wind that sweeps down from the hills surrounding the town.
Capri. Capri photo

Capri. Capri photo


4. Capri. Come here if you want to see or be seen — or stand in line for 30 minutes waiting for a bus to take you zigzagging up the hill. Granted, the hill’s view down to the Tyrrhenian Sea is one of the best in Europe. It’s a lot better than the views of elbows and asses that squeeze past you in the impossibly crowded Piazza Umberto I. The piazza is in Capri town which I wrote in a blog four years ago was “like a playground for millionaire yacht captains.” Capri is “an Italian theme park with better wine.” While the island is beautiful and the sea is inviting, Capri has no beach. None. At one spot I had to pay 21 euros to lay a towel on a rock. Without 500-euro loafers and a 300-euro sweater wrapped strategically around my shoulders I felt like Oliver Twist scavenging for more gruel.
Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo

Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo


5. Costa Smeralda. See above but spread it out for 55 kilometers across the northeast corner of Sardinia without Capri’s views. Costa Smeralda is the epicenter for Italians’ August exodus. It’s lined with stuffy hotels, private marinas and tricked-out yachts. Beautiful, tanned Italians with sunglasses that cost more than their weekly food budget sit on yachts and drink Spritz and wine on the bows of beautiful boats. It’s the height of Italian stuffiness and a magnet for Italians wanting to join the A-list celebs for a glass of Campari. Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda’s main town, is as phony as an aging Italian actress’ face. And the prices in August make you wonder if Italy invented price gouging.
Me and Marina at Procida's Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Procida’s Chalet Vicidomini.


MOST UNDERRATED
1. Procida.
I’ve written about this idyllic little island before and I will the rest of my life. It’s right out of a movie set — which it was in 1994 when it was the setting for “Il Postino,” the classic love story about a postman in 1950s Italy who falls in love with a fellow islander. You can relive old Italy here. Just sit on one of the dockside restaurants with a Neapolitan pizza or dine at the heart-throbbing romantic La Lampara above the idyllic harbor and fall in love all over again. Then the next day go to the white sand beach on the north side of the island. Procida is only 10 miles north of Capri but a million miles away in authenticity.
Turin doesn't get the hype of other Italian cities but it's not Detroit, either. The Independent photo

Turin doesn’t get the hype of other Italian cities but it’s not Detroit, either. The Independent photo


2. Turin. Italians used to call Turin the Detroit of Italy. These Italians have never been to Detroit. The only thing Turin and Detroit have in common is car manufacturing except the cars out of Turin actually work. Turin, the gateway to the Italian Alps, is speckled with beautiful piazzas, tree-lined boulevards and long porticoed walkways. The 2006 Winter Olympics gave it a bit of a facelift but two things I love here stayed the same: The Mole, the spired museum dedicated to Italian film, and Barolo, Italy’s best wine and my favorite in the world.
Lake Nemi in Castelli Romani.

Castel Gandolfo in Castelli Romani. Like a Local Guide photo


3. Castelli Romani. One of Rome’s best secrets, Castelli Romani is a series of 14 small towns, many sporting castles, in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Each one has its own distinct draw, like gelato has different flavors: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling roast pork eaten at a string of outdoor restaurants; Nemi, on the beautiful volcanic Lago di Nemi, home to great views and some of the best strawberries in the world; Genzano, where many wealthy Romans lived during Ancient Rome and now where Romans go for the best bread around; Castel Gandolfo, on Lago di Albano, so beautiful you’ll see why the popes have their summer residence here; Frascati, blessed with a beautiful park, perfect for a picnic with the town’s trademark refreshing white wine.
Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo

Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo


4. Arcipelago di La Magdellena. If you see Costa Smeralda, keep right on going to the point town of Palau and take the 15-minute boat ride to Magdellena. It’s a national park consisting of seven small islands all lined with gorgeous white sand beaches on romantic, individually carved bays. Don’t let the U.S. naval base scare you. The personnel are well behaved and blend in with the kind locals. You need a car and a camera. You’ll want to stop around every curve for a photo.
Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo

Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo


5. Urbino. I call Le Marche Tuscany Light. Le Marche has everything its more famous neighbor has but with a third the tourists and cheaper prices. Urbino is the jewel of Le Marche. High atop a hill, the walled city of 15,000 people is so beautiful UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998. The home of the great Renaissance artist Raphael has kept its artsy rep after 600 years. Eat Le Marche’s signature strozzapreti (priest stranglers) pasta in the dimly lit Palazzo Ducale or just settle in with a glass of Le Marche’s trademark Verdicchio white wine.

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Your Italian island guide for 2018 — but book by Dec. 31 or your travel budget will regret it

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring this Cala Coticcio, is just one of Italy's underrated islands.

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring Cala Coticcio, boast some of Italy’s underrated islands.


Here’s a little travel tip for everyone. If you’re planning on traveling in 2018, don’t wait until 2018 to plan your travel. I’ve read numerous places that travel costs will jump next year. Many struggling airlines (that’s become a redundancy in recent years) will increase their airfares to an average of 3.5 percent, according to the 2018 Global Travel Forecast. Hotels will rise 3.7 percent. It’s primarily due to projected higher fuel costs and an increase in travel demand. It all means you start planning your travel sooner.

Like now.

I am here to help. If you’re already tired of fall weather and daydreaming at your desk of sky blue seas and boats docked in secluded coves, you need an island vacation. Instead of the Caribbean, where there’s not much left, or Greece, where there’s not much left unspoiled. Try my recommendation.

Italy.

Its islands are vastly underrated. Quick. Name two. No, Sicily and Sardinia don’t count. Those are more regions than islands. Sicily and Sardinia have their own islands. OK, you just chose Capri. No, Corsica belongs to France. Can’t think of others? Read on.

Italy’s islands may not have the sugar-white sand of the Caribbean or the variety of Greece, but they have their own charm. Because you totally bombed my little quiz, you know they are naturally less crowded. Many are as unspoiled as they were before Allied and Axis forces bombed mainland Italy into rubble during World War II.

Plus, the food is pretty good.

I have been to seven. I have many more to go. Here’s a little guide, in alphabetical order and unvarnished with some bad mixed with the very good. I have written blogs about some of them and inserted the links if you want more detail and obnoxious commentary. So print it and put it on your wall to ponder as you watch the clock in your office while rain or snow pound the pavement outside.

I wrote that Capri "is the prettiest island in Europe."

I wrote that Capri “is the prettiest island in Europe.”


CAPRI

In my blog from three years ago, I called Capri “the prettiest island in Europe.” It better be. The crowds it gets it should put it on the same level with Bora Bora. It’s not for a number of reasons.

Namely, Capri has no beaches. It is surrounded by rock. Giant boulders and uncomfortable pebbles separate you from some of the bluest water in Europe. It is 27 miles off the coast of Naples and tourism is the lone industry. The only things Capri (pronounced CAH-pree) dumps in the sea are tourists.

You can place your towel on the flattest rock you can find and pretend you’re a Hindu fakir. One beach had lounge chairs selling for 21 euros but they were sold out — in October. I didn’t even see an unoccupied rock to place my beach towel. In Piazza Umberto I, the main square people go to see and be seen, I saw people bumping into people’s forks as they dined. I sometimes waited 30-45 minutes for a minibus that climbs the mountain which composes this island.

In summer, Capri becomes a parody of itself. This is an island 4 miles x 1.8 miles and in summer it gets 10,000 tourists a day. Nowhere on Manhattan island is it this crowded.

But if you don’t come for the beaches or the food, come for the views. That minibus ride is worth the wait, even if your bed & breakfast, as mine was, isn’t on top of the hill. Each switchback the bus made I got a new and improved view of the sea below.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.


For a reverse view, pay the 18 euros for a beach tour of the island. You get a good history lesson from the learned ship captain, and some stop for dips in the sea.

Capri has three parts: Capri town where most tourists congregate, Anacapri where most locals live and the countryside. My B&B, the Alle Ginestre, was in Anacapri and had terrific views of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. I highly recommend finding your lodging in Anacapri. It’s where you’ll find schools and kids kicking soccer balls in the street and locals sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes.

Also, don’t pass up the Torta Caprese, Capri’s local chocolate cake.

he Weather Channel ranked Favignana's waters as the 13th bluest in the world.

The Weather Channel ranked Favignana’s waters as the 13th bluest in the world.


FAVIGNANA

Marina and I went here twice this year, we liked it so much. We went for my birthday in March and again in October, carefully avoiding the summer high season. Favignana’s waters make Capri’s look like the North Sea. The Weather Channel ranked it 13th in its list of Bluest Waters in the World. Favignana earned it. Its water is as turquoise as around French Polynesia.

The largest of the three Egadi Islands, Favignana is an easy get from Rome: a 70-minute flight to Trapani on Sicily’s west coast, then a 30-minute hydroplane ride. What greets you are 14 square miles of island tranquility. It is spider webbed by narrow two-lane roads where the main mode of transportation is bicycle. The island is as flat as an Italian model’s stomach and touring the island isn’t a strain for even the fattest of tourist. Few places in Italy can you spend hours cruising the countryside with the only sounds being the birds above and the sea below.

Cala Azzurra, on the southeast coast, took credit for the No. 13 ranking and it is indeed beautiful. It’s a soft bend of the island seen from a cliff, with a precarious walk down to the rocks. However, Cala Rossa on the northeast coast should push Azzurra for the honor. While most beaches were all rock, like on Capri, last month we did find a sandy beach at Punta San Nicola, even closer to the main town.

Don’t come in March. The water temperature was 52 degrees. In October, the water was swimmable and as clear as any I’ve seen in Europe although not quite as turquoise as in spring.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.


Whenever you go, be sure to hang in Piazza Madrice. It’s Favignana’s nerve center. Go to quaint, friendly Caffe Aegus where you can sip their house Nero d’Avalo and chat with old-timers who left the mainland for Favignana long ago.

We have twice eaten at Trattoria da Papu’, maybe Favignana’s most popular seafood restaurant where the specialty is busiate di profumo di mare. Busiate is western Sicily’s signature pasta, a thick, twisty noodle they cover in a big mess of shellfish. We needed reservations in October, when the large outdoor seating was filled by 9 p.m.

A great place to stay is Isola Mia. It’s a 15-minute walk to the piazza and run by Jose Tammaro, a touring musician, and his wife. Both are affable and friendly and put out a breakfast spread of meats, cheeses and cornettos, Italy’s signature croissants.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.


ISCHIA

While tourists flock to Capri, Italians flock to Ischia, Capri’s bigger cousin to the north. It doesn’t have Capri’s view or international cache but it has the sandy beaches and authentic Italian vibe.

I came here in the mid-2000s and stayed in a nice hotel (of which its name escapes me) with a glorious pool not far from an equally tranquil beach. The beach and pool were so mesmerizing, I didn’t bother with what attracts many Italians.

Thermal baths.

Ischia is lousy with them. Take a water taxi to the south side of the island to Maronti beach and the Il Sorgeto cove where a thermal spring awaits. If you want to really pamper yourself at a cheap rate, you can go to Negombo, which sports 12 pools and thermal pools ranging from 75-97 degrees, a private beach and 500 exotic plant species. Price is a very reasonable 33 euros a day.

Ischia’s waterfront is quite lovely despite not offering Capri’s jaw-dropping views from above. Small whitewashed buildings separate the sky-blue bay from cliffs hovering over the town. Dominating the view is Castello Aragones, the 15th century castle built by King Alfonso of Aragon who also added the causeway and accessory ramp that exist to this day. This is a well-worn fortification. Gerone I of the Syracuse republic in Sicily first built a fortress here in 474 BC.

The restaurants are more reasonably priced than in Capri and most offer rabbit (coniglio), a specialty in Ischia. Afterward, wash your palate with Rucolino, a local green liqueur, especially if you have a hankering for licorice.

Like Capri, Ischia is easily reached by a steady stream of hydrofoils from Naples.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.


LAMPEDUSA

It’s closer to Africa than it is to mainland Italy and has made international news as the first stop in refugees’ desperate, and often, ill-fated boat journeys. Waters around this island are littered with drowning victims.

When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, it was before the big wave of refugees poured in. I came to seek an Italian island experience with sugar-white sand beaches like the Caribbean and the kind of heat that requires an act of the military to get you up from said sand.

Lampedusa is 180 miles south of Sicily and easily reached with flights from Rome via Palermo. I was told by a Rome friend that Lampedusa was the perfect “simple Island” getaway. I wrote in my journal that “The only thing simple about Lampedusa was it simply sucks.”

It is 160 miles off the coast of Tunisia and is dry as a lunar landscape and just as barren. I went in August 2002 and I could not see a speck of sand under the cheek-to-cheek, towel-to-towel flesh mob on the beaches. The village of Lampedusa was chock-a-block with souvenir shops, T-shirt emporiums and hack singers butchering “Time in a Bottle.” It looked like a satire on Italian tourism.

What no one writes about is the island’s main mode of transport, the motorino, seemingly has no regulations. Each one is as noise as a Harley 1800 cruising a California freeway. With people buzzing around the island until 3 a.m., Lampedusa is the only island I’ve visited that’s noisier than Manhattan. It was like being on the infield of the Indy 500 or living inside a bumble bee’s nest. I couldn’t get away from it.

The north side of the island is as desolate as the south side is overcrowded. At the time, a putrid public dump extinguished any delicious aromas drifting up from the Mediterranean below. I don’t recall seeing a single village.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it's not crowded.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it’s not crowded.


Still, after five days I warmed to Lampedusa. Its beaches are worth it. Spiaggia di Coniglio has been ranked among the top 10 in the world. It’s a gorgeous slice of white sand in a cove you’ve seen in tourist posters. I saw an equally good beach at Cala Madonna 15 miles out of town. Just go in September after the mobs have left.

The island is governed by Sicily meaning it’s Sicilian meaning you get the great Sicilian desserts. Stroll along Via Roma, the main drag, with a granita or a cassata. Or sit outside in one of the plethora of cafes and eat one of the famed cannolis.

Also, even if it is crowded, it’s crowded with Italians. You still feel you’re getting away from wherever you’re from. You have no worries about getting in a bar fight about politics.

Parco Nazionale dell'Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia contain just some of Italy's underrated islands.

Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia.


MADDALENA

Again, if you come to Sardinia, do NOT come in the summer, particularly August. Italians pour over from the mainland during one of their two extended vacations a year. It’s as crowded as a pope’s coronation.

After visiting Lampedusa in 2002, later that September I took the boat from Civitavecchia, 50 miles northwest of Rome, to Sardinia. Prices were less than August. So were the crowds. The water was just as warm. The sun just as bright.

The highlight of a trip that had me circumvent the north half of the island and cross back through the spectacular Sardi hinterland, was a side trip to Arcipelago di La Maddalena. It’s a series of seven islands, the lone lands still existing from a valley that once connected Sardinia with Corsica, seven miles to the north, and is now under water.

Located off Sardinia’s northeast coast, a 15-minute ferry ride from the town of Palau, Maddalena is subject to winds. While in September they were low, the winds carved natural formations in the granite that make the beaches unique in Europe.

They also formed numerous individual bays bordered by cozy, romantic beaches. I just looked in my journal from that week 15 years ago and I called the beaches on the island, “the best I’ve seen in Southern Europe outside Santorini.” I wrote further:

“Each turn of the road had a car park where you could pull over and take pictures of tiny bays individually carved by wind-washed rock.The water was (so) clear you could see the bottom 50 feet down and four shades of blue: cobalt, royal, turquoise, blue-green.”

If you haven’t heard much about Maddalena, it may because its romantic image is smudged by the presence of a huge U.S. naval base. An anchor the size of some tuna boats sits on shore as your ferry approaches. The Navy doesn’t have an overriding presence. Locals I talked to said the sailors are respectful, mature and reasonably sober.

A big consideration with Maddalena: a car is a must. Sardinia’s public transportation is extremely limited and I saw nothing on Maddalena. A rental car is highly recommended.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.


PONZA

Tired of the crowds and heat of Rome? Come to Ponza. It’s the closest island to the capital. Just take a regional train 50 minutes from Rome’s Termini station to the town of Anzio, Emperor Nero’s birthplace, and then a 90-minute to 2 ½-hour ferry ride, depending on the boat.

Ponza is a volcanic island which has its pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is its jagged outline provides tons of tiny, secluded coves; the biggest negative is hardened volcanic ash is lousy for sunbathing. Still, find a spare rock and lay down a towel. The Tyrrhenian Sea is a gorgeous blue and warm from June through September.

I went one September and loved the laid-back nature of Ponza town, void of package tourists and side-by-side souvenir stands. Its quaint harbor is backed by small buildings of red and blue and yellow and white. Ponza is popular for Romans seeking a weekend away but during the week it is your own paradise to explore.

A good public transportation system took me to the north side of the island where I had lunch with local villagers before descending down a narrow, switchback path to a beautiful secluded cove below. No entry fee. No lounge chairs. Just a royal blue sea and plenty of space to lay down a towel, however precarious it may be to lay on it.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.


I splurged and stayed at the luxurious four-star Hotel Chiaia di Luna, featuring a head-turning swimming pool overlooking the bay, port and Palmarola, the other inhabited island nearby. It also had 2,000 meters of terrace and free shuttle service to the port.
Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film "Il Postino." Photo by Marina Pascucci

Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film “Il Postino.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


PROCIDA

This is what island life was like in Italy in the 1950s. Fishermen mending fishing nets on old boats. Eating a pizza on a quiet, semi-secluded harbor. Old men in hats sipping wine and chatting on street corners. This step back in time is the polar opposite of the jet-set theme park that is Capri 10 miles to the south.

“Il Postino,” the movie about the love-sick postman in 1950 that was Oscar nominated for Best Picture in 1995, was filmed here. It hasn’t changed much since. The same pink dockside building where the postman hung out still exists on the harbor where I had a couple of great Sicilian pizzas for 4-8 euros.

Marina and I came here in May to celebrate our two-year anniversary. It lived up to its hype as a romantic paradise. We dined on a limestone cliff above the harbor at La Lampara where the ravioli al sapore di mare (ravioli stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese) was simply the best ravioli of my life. Nearly every menu features mussels and calamari as thick as lobster tails.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.


We took a bus up to the north end of the island where we spent a day combing the sandy beach and sipping cocktails at a dockside bar in the sun. Procida (PRO-chee-duh) is big with the boating crowd but doesn’t have the stuffiness of towns where you’re measured by the size of your yacht.

Topping the romantic weekend was a stay at the four-star Albergo La Vigna, high above a hill where a courtyard looks down at the sea below. Highlighting La Vigna is a spa you can block off for a, um, private hour to yourselves.