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When people go to Italy, they tend to think of the major players such as Rome, Capri, Milan, Florence and the Cinque Terre. And while those destinations are beautiful and unique in their own way, they are hardly the only beautiful parts of Italy. There are plenty of lesser-known spots that make for fabulous vacations including the Piedmont region, the Aeolian Islands and the city of Bergamo.
Here are three of my favorite places you should definitely seek out: Matera, Soave and Cinque Valli.
The word “authentic” may be a cliché, but I can’t think of a more apt description for my favorite Italian towns. In southern Italy, the laid-back culture influences daily life. For example, I still remember the lemon gelato I enjoyed every evening in Matera while perched on the edge of a fountain enjoying the show. Even in the industrial north’s small towns, life can be very relaxed. Recently I stood on the main street corner in Soave at 2 p.m. and timed it — there were six minutes between the only two cars that went by.
I will warn you in advance these three Italian places — Matera, Soave or Cinque Valli — are not particularly hotel-points friendly. But the extra work of booking stays outside of the normal hotel chains is so worth it. Prices, especially at restaurants, in all three are a fraction of what you’ll pay in the big cities.
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To locate Matera, picture the “boot” part of Italy, south of Rome. From Naples, you can draw a somewhat straight line to Bari. Matera is roughly in between those lines.
The Sassi are Matera’s claim to fame. The Sassi, or caves, of Matera, were lived in from the Paleolithic era after World War II. The extreme poverty of the Basilicata region meant that poorer residents simply couldn’t afford houses and made do with the caves. Finally, in the 1950s progress came to Matera and the government relocated most of the population of the Sassi to more modern areas. However, UNESCO ensured the Sassi remained intact. From afar, the town looks like Tatooine from “Star Wars”. Up close it rendered me speechless.
Even the “new” (17th to 18th century) Matera is worth seeing. The piazzas are walkable, the cathedrals are gorgeous and more culture drips from a random Matera street than off many “A-list cities” I’ve visited.
You can even stay in a high-end luxury cave, the Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa, for about $199 per night.
Getting there: Matera is not the easiest to get to as you have to either take a train, flight or bus to Bari and then transfer to Matera or find one of the few direct bus lines from Rome or Naples. Rome2Rio might help. I came from Rome and departed to Naples, and it was five hours from Rome and four hours back to Naples.
I believe that any town that has its own wine cannot be bad by definition. Soave certainly lived up to the bill, both with its crisp white namesake and the travel experience. Soave is pretty close to being a fictional Italian town — it was just that perfect.
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Castle on the hill? Check. 360-degree vineyard views? Check. Local restaurants where the waiters know you by name by day two? Check. Pasta with truffles for $10? Check. Not only is Soave brilliant on its own, but it’s also a terrific base for exploring Verona, Lake Garda and the surrounding areas. I spent a week there and didn’t scratch the surface of Soave’s charms.
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In searching for hotels in Soave, there aren’t loads available but the ones that exist are usually under about $115 per night.
Getting there: Verona and Venice are the closest major cities. From Verona, it’s about an hour’s drive or two hours on the train. From Venice, it’s about two hours drive or about four hours on public transport.
Just to the west of Tuscany and the more famous Cinque Terre is Liguria — a region just as beautiful but with half the crowds and cost. The Cinque Valli region, within Liguria, is off the radar for many people — and that’s a good thing.
I would base in Dolceacqua, which is about an hour from Monte Carlo, and smack dab in the middle of the area you’ll want to see. It’s a bit more touristy, but for good reason. My first thought upon seeing it was “this looks like it’s out of an impressionist painting”.
Well, it is. Monet spent a fair amount of time in Dolceacqua and a number of his works are based on the area. The lanes lining the bridge pictured on one side feature cafes perfect for people-watching and on the other side, a farmer’s market. I enjoyed picking up fresh pasta and tomatoes from the market and tossing them up with olive oil from a local grove. Paired with wine from the vineyard next door, I was in heaven and it cost me almost nothing.
Pigna, just north of Dolceacqua, is a must-see. But at first, it’s jarring, to be honest. A little disorienting. No, scratch that — totally disorienting. The entire town looks like a stage set. Because nobody actually lives in a medieval town, right? Wrong.
A few intrepid tourists have found the place, but it’s otherwise untouched from its founding 1,000 years ago. The 900 residents go about their business of, well, living — but not of driving: once you arrive into Pigna, you have to park your car as the entire town is only accessible on foot.
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Pigna is Italian for “pine cone”. Think of the streets as layers of a pine cone — each is only accessible by stairs from the next. It’s a recipe for getting lost, which I did numerous times. Pigna is not for anyone with mobility issues — and this includes needing to use a stroller. If you can’t use a baby carrier, or your tyke isn’t ready for the hike, wait a year or two.
A lot of Italy is very close to a coastline, and Cinque Valli is no exception. I especially enjoyed strolling along the boardwalk in the city of Sanremo, gelato in hand, of course. Even at the height of August, I didn’t feel rushed or crushed and the environment was much more family-friendly than the neighboring French Riviera.
Getting there: The easiest gateway to Cinque Valli is Nice. From there it’s easy to rent a car for the drive to Cinque Valli.
It’s going to take a specific kind of traveler to seek out Matera, Soave or Cinque Valli. However, if you’re tired of the well-trodden trails and looking to add authenticity to your travels I hope this has inspired you to get out of your comfort zone.
Additional reporting by Hayley Coyle
Featured photo by Gary Yeowell/Getty Images
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