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. If you’ve missed Part 1 of my Top 10 places to visit when you travel to Italy, you can check it out here. Otherwise, let’s continue with the 5 remaining off the beaten path destinations in Italy.
5. Ravenna and Its Early Christian Monuments
Just a bit further south of Bologna is Ravenna, the old capital of the Byzantine Empire in the west. The Nobel poet Eugenio Montale described Ravenna, saying,
And here where ancient life
is marked by the sweet
anxiety of the Levant.
Ravenna was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then the seat of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and finally the capital of the Byzantine empire in the west. Eventually it became part of the Papal States. In Roman times it had its own port but now it’s a cruise port and the city center is located eight miles from the Adriatic coast.
Ravenna is famous for its early Christian monuments that go back 1500 years. The mausoleum to Empress Galla Placida was built in 426 CE and the Baptistery is from 430 CE. The Basilica of the New Saint Apollinare, Saint Apolinnare in Classe, and Saint Vitale are all from the sixth century CE. All have magnificent preserved mosaics. The basilica of San Vitale probably has the best known. If you ever looked at any college history text, you will have seen a picture of the mosaic from San Vitale depicting the Emperor Justinian and his court and another of the Empress Theodora and her ladies in waiting.
If you thought Dante Alighieri’s tomb was in Florence, you have been misled by the “cenotaph” in the Santa Croce church there. The poet of the Divine Comedy is buried here in Ravenna, as he had been exiled and could not return to Florence under penalty of death.
4. The Valley of the Temples in the Area of Agrigento and Pirandello too
About Sicily Goethe said: To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. On your travel to Sicily I particularly recommend the temples.
The sixth century BCE Greek Doric Temples are not in a valley, but are lined up on a ridge that climbs to a summit dominated by the Temple of Juno. At the lower end is the Temple of Jupiter and Hercules. (Juno seems to have had more power.) In the middle is the Temple of Concordia, the best-preserved Greek temple. These temples and other archeological remains are in the largest archeological site anywhere in the world. Agrigento’s panorama is visible from the temples. On the way you can stop to visit the house of Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), Nobel for Literature and of Six Characters in Search of an Author fame. Nearby His ashes were laid to rest by his favorite pine tree.
3. Palermo and Monreale
The Cathedral of Palermo encompasses the various influences of the various conquerors and periods: Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque. As with most churches, it is an eclectic museum. Kings were crowned here and here are the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry IV of Hohenstaufen and his son Fredrick II, who is credited with creating the first literary language of Italy at his court.
The Palatine Chapel is a wonder of different mosaics , both Byzantine and Arab. It was as well the chapel of the Norman Kings.
Monreale – The Monreale Cathedral is on a hill outside Palermo, overlooking the Valley known as the “Conca D’Oro.” It is the church with the most extensive mosaics after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and they are wonderfully preserved. The adjoining Romanesque cloister is also a major attraction.
2. Vicenza and Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)
The city of Vicenza is not even on most tourists’ radar when they travel to Italy. Travelers to Italy will go to Venice of course and will stop at Verona, but in between often simply overlook this wonderful city built along the lines of what a humanist thought a city should be. Its chief architect, Andrea Palladio, gave it its distinctive classical look. Palladio rediscovered the classical style of the Romans and developed it into a style called Palladian ever since. It spread all over Europe and North America. When you see a neo-classical building, think of Palladio. You cannot turn into a corner in Vicenza and not see another wonder of a building, a villa or palazzo built by Palladio. In all there are over twenty Palladian structures, including The Palazzo Thiene, the Palazzo Barbaran, la Rotonda, and the Teatro Olimpico, and the Villa Malmarana.
This does not mean that Vicenza has nothing to see outside of Palladio. There is an early Christian basilica of Saints Felice and Fortunato which dates back to the 4th century. Although previously destroyed it was rebuilt in the tenth century. Some the earlier structure and artifacts have been preserved.
1. Cinque Terre (Five Lands)
If in your travel to Italy you want to see nature in addition to great structures and monuments, then the is the place to visit. However it is not just wild nature: in Italy nature is adapted to man by man. The name Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is from the five small villages on the eastern coast of the region of Liguria that borders with Tuscany. The villages are Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza. They are all built on the rugged coastline without disturbing the natural contours that nature has created. They are all very colorful and take you back to another time since they do not allow cars in the towns. Cinque Terre
You can park outside two of the villages and take a shuttle. Going by train is recommended. There are many paths and hiking trails that you can go on for long walks–the views are well worth it. Two of the famous paths are La Via dell’Amore (the Road of Love) that goes from Riomaggiore to Manarola, and the Sentiero Azzurro (The Blue Path) that goes from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. Don’t forget to try the local sweet white wine called Sciacchetrà [shaketrA] with your dessert or cheese.