No matter how many times I travel with guests and tour groups to less-traveled areas in central Italy, the places and people we visit never cease to fill me with an invigorating sense of adventure and wonder. Although there are many, many things that I just can’t get enough, here are 7 of my top favorites.
1. Simple Food
Yes, yes … there’s pizza and there’s pasta. But that’s just scratching the surface. Italy’s foods and dishes are as diverse as they are delicious, and they vary greatly from region to region. However, there is something that almost all have in common. Simplicity. Simplicity is at the heart of authentic Italian cooking, and the best dishes (that haven’t been “adapted” to please tourists) are naturally found in less-touristy areas. From wood-fire-toasted bruschetta to sautéed spinach in olive oil to prosciutto with fresh melon, it’s just not possible to get enough of Italy’s simple, delectable foods.
2. Medieval Hill Towns
Some people might believe that medieval hill towns have a lot in common, and I suppose that’s true at a glance. They’re situated on hills, they’re often fortressed (including, perhaps, a castle) and they date back a thousand years or so. But in other ways they’re surprisingly unique. In fact, I often remark that each medieval village has its own personality. Some feel light and inviting (like Spello), some are mysterious and intriguing (like Bomarzo) and some are so medieval that you can imagine boiling oil flowing through the streets (like Città dell Pieve). Countless hill towns with countless medieval personalities. No, I’ll certainly never get enough of that.
3. Art, Art Everywhere
My high school art teacher, Mr. Orlandi (who first filled my heart with a love for Italy), told us that Italy’s art was not just inside – in museums – it was out in the streets and piazzas. “You can lean on the art in Italy,” he shouted to us. (Because that’s the way he communicated when he was excited about something.) Of course, Mr. Orlandi was right. Art is everywhere in Italy, but many people don’t realize that in tucked away villages art can be even more accessible than in Italy’s cities – simply because you can get closer to it. When I sit inside a countryside church and gaze at a centuries-old painting, sculpture or stained glass window, I’m filled with awe again and again. There’s no way I’ll ever get enough of Italy’s art.
4. Countryside Roads
Getting off the beaten track, path, road (strada) – whatever you might call it – is easy in less-traveled areas of Italy. Countless white roads and narrow lanes wind back and forth across the countryside, forming endless routes between hill towns and crumbling farmhouses. Walking along them is one of the best ways to see central Italy’s beautiful landscape up close, and to take in its incredible, natural beauty. Plus, the same route is different each time – a different season, a different sky, different plants and animals. Such a rejuvenating, soul-filling thing to do. I just can’t get enough of walking those countryside roads.
5. Ancient Sites
Ancient sites – prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman – are scattered throughout central Italy. Entire villages, that appear as they did a thousand years ago, are built upon ruins that sometimes date back three thousand years. From Roman villas to Etruscan necropoli (cities of the dead) the remains of Italy’s ancient history are evocative, intriguing, enchanting and (lucky for us) oftentimes accessible. Plus, each is so fabulously unique that visiting ancient sites can become a full-time pastime. Just another something that I can’t possibly get enough of.
6. Embracing Just About Anyone
Generosity, passion and friendliness are an innate part of Italian culture. That’s a generalization, of course, but one that holds up. I’ve tried and tested it for years and continue to find that local residents are more than eager to embrace foreign visitors – both figuratively and literally. This is particularly true when you travel further away from Italy’s larger cities. Of course making friends with strangers is a two-way street, but even the smallest effort – speaking an Italian greeting, smiling at a baby, admiring an artisan’s work – can bring about that warm embrace. For me, that’s just irresistible … and something I’ll never get enough of.
7. Pausing for Panoramas
They’re everywhere, of course – Italy’s spectacular panoramas. Long ago I decided that those panoramas, at any given moment, require sufficient pause. Glancing just isn’t enough when it comes to those vivid green pastures, castle-topped hills and breath-taking sunsets. Better yet, combine that pause with a deep breath to allow Italy’s landscapes and skyscapes (so dramatic!) to work their magic. How could anyone ever get enough of that?
Pamela Haack is an Italy travel consultant and author of Off the Beaten Strada: Top 10 Favorite Etruscan Sites. She specializes in creating personalized experiences and group trips for active travelers, helping them to better explore Italy – off the beaten strada.
From art experts and operettas to authentic cooking classes and ancient Etruscans, Pamela helps visitors experience the spectacularly beautiful, endlessly interesting regions of Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio in an up-close and personal way.
Pamela lives with her husband, Luigi, in Umbria, Italy.