Beyond the Gondolas and the Colosseum: Top 10 Offbeat Sites to See When you Travel to Italy
In choosing my Top 10 places to see on your travel to Italy I purposely avoided Rome, Florence, and Venice, the cities most visited by tourists on their first travel to Italy.
When traveling to Italy, choosing any top 10 destinations is a very difficult, almost impossible task because of the embarrassment of riches. Although the much-quoted statement that Italy holds two thirds of the Western cultural heritage is still debated, it is a fact that UNESCO has designated more World Heritage Sites in Italy (49) than in any other country to date and more are currently being considered.
Why so many UNESCO sites?
Unlike other European countries, Italy, after the fall of Rome, remained divided for 13 centuries. It maintained its political, cultural, and linguistic divisions, thus creating many capitals of culture. Cities that are now often not even considered by a casual tourist traveling to Italy would rate as major cultural centers in another country. Does that stir your imagination and whet your appetite for travel to Italy? You won’t be the first.
From the Grand Tour in the seventeenth century on it was a requirement for aristocrats and literary figures to travel to Italy for the culture experience.
“The land where the lemons bloom”
Two famous travelers were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mark Twain; both, with some exceptions stayed on the well-traveled routes. In The Innocents Abroad, which detailed Twain’s travels to Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, 15 chapters were dedicated to his travels in Italy, more than any other country. Goethe wrote The Italian Journey after visiting Italy, the land he described as the “land where the lemons bloom.”
10. The “Trulli” of Alberobello and Castel del Monte
Most tourist who travel to Italy don’t venture to an area close to the heel of the Italian booth in the region called Puglia. There are many surprises there, but none more enchanting than the town of Alberobello.
On first sight you would swear you are “not in Italy anymore,” to paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. All structures consist of a square base of white walls with conical roofs of grey bricks, split from rocks in the area, stacked in such a way as to end in a point. No mortar is used to hold the coned roofs together. The story goes that, in the 1400s, to avoid paying taxes on structures, the inhabitants built these houses without mortar, thus conveying the idea that they were only temporary. Today the town is still inhabited. The trulli, as these structures are called, can be single or several of them can be connected. The biggest complex connects 15 trulli. The largest trullo in the town, built in the mid 1700s, consists of two stories and serves as a museum. There is even a church in the form of a Greek cross built in the early part of the 20th century
If you are on the road or on a train between Venice and Florence, you will pass by Bologna.
Don’t just bypass this city on your travels in Italy; it is worth a visit. Bologna is called “La dotta” (the Learned) for having the oldest continuously running University in the world (founded in 1080 CE); “La Grassa” (The Fat) for its great cuisine; and “La Rossa” (The Red) for its famed red roofs. However it is also a great art center. During the 1500s and 1600s, Bologna rivaled Florence and Rome.
If you want to see a leaning tower, Bologna has two of them that stand as the symbol of the city. There are several great churches, starting with the Cathedral of Saint Petronio on the main square. Don’t let the unfinished façade mislead you. It’s the sixth largest church in Europe. Inside you’ll find a gigantic fresco by the main altar, which is a great example of late Italian Gothic. Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor here and sessions of the church-transforming Council of Trent were held here.
Among the various museums are the National Gallery with paintings by Guido Reni and others from the Bologna School, the Palazzo Fava whose first floor is covered with frescoes by Annibale Caracci, the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Medieval Art, and an Archeological Museum.
Another distinctive feature of Bologna is its arcaded walkways. You can practically walk through the city always protected from the sun or rain. One particular arcade, the “longest arcaded walk in the world,” is almost 4 kilometers long and it leads to the Church of San Luca situated on a hill outside of Bologna.
As you approach Urbino, in the region of the Marche in Central Italy, you suddenly realize you have gone back in time. The city with its turreted palace and walls has maintained the look and feel of the renaissance structure of its heyday.
It had been one of the great Renaissance centers of culture, but it saw its decline when it became part of the Papal States. Under Federico II da Montefeltro, whose profile was immortalized in the portrait by Piero Della Francesca, the court became a center of humanism with many of the great scholars of the time. Federico built a great library second only to the one in the Vatican. In addition to the imposing Ducal palace, there are churches and piazzas to explore on your visit to this city where the famous Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) was born. His house is still there for you to visit as well.
7. Villa d’Este in Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa
Situated in the hills about 20 miles west of Rome, Tivoli offers magical gardens with fountains and walkways and mythical statues and structures. It was built by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este after his appointment as Governor of the city. There are fountains everywhere in the gardens.
Since they are on a slope, water from a river is used as the source to feed all the fountains, which then empty again into the river as it follows its path to the Tiber. One of the most visited sites is the Cento Fontane (One Hundred Fountains). The fountains are decorated in bas-reliefs with tales from the Metamorphoses of the Latin poet Ovid. Now they have been overgrown with moss, but the sight is still magnificent. These gardens were used as a model for many parks throughout Europe. Villa D’Este of Tivoli famously inspired the Jardin de Tivoli in Paris, which in turn inspired the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
Originally Villa d’Este itself was inspired by the Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is located just outside Tivoli, so you can enjoy this visit as well
6. 18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta
In the 1700s Naples, known as the city of Kings, was one of the major cities of Europe.
Under his reign, the Bourbon King Charles commissioned a Royal Palace in 1751. He wanted the structure to rival Versailles and become the largest of all royal palaces.
He built it away from the sea, for better protection. At the time it was the largest Baroque structure in Europe. It has 1,200 rooms, gardens with many fountains, a park with a waterfall, a huge library, and a theater modeled after the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, also commissioned by Charles. The king never resided in the palace, for he later became the King of Spain as Charles III. It was used as the headquarters for the allies during WWII and later the first war crime trials were held there.