The world is a crazy place and not only is no one able to travel right now, but we’re all confined to our houses and small radiuses near our homes. So, join us on a virtual tour of Europe! Here, we start at the top of the hill overlooking Assisi, one of Italy‘s most famous towns, and the stunning facade, tower and dome of the marvellous Assisi Cathedral of San Rufino. Birthplace of famous Saint Francis, patron saint of Italy, animals and – wait for it – stowaways (pray to St Francis next time you’ve not validated your train ticket!), Assisi has had people living here since 450BC – the Etruscans – though there were possibly people in the general area since 100BC! The town as we see it today was largely developed in the Middle Ages, and further developed during the Renaissance. The Cathedral of San Rufino is old – dating to the 13th century. It’s fame comes as being the place where the famous St Francis of Assisi was baptised, as well as some of his disciples such as St Clare (Santa Chiara of Assisi). Built in the Umbrian Romanesque style, you’ll see many similarities with other contemporary Italian churches, as well as some churches in parts of Spain and the Adriatic Balkans such as Croatia (a country that has a long history with Italy). Churches have stood here since the 3rd century (when Rome converted to Christianity), but this San Rufino dates to 1140 to contain the relics of 3rd century martyr, Bishop Rufinus. St Francis actually preached at this church, and it was here that Santa Chiara (Clare) first heard his message. It was here in Assisi that St Francis founded the famous Franciscan religious order in 1208, and St. Clare founded the Poor Sisters, later known as the Order of Poor Clares.
Pro tip: Follow the narrow walking route through the zigzag of tiny back alleys up to the Rocca Maggiore for this amazing view. Though the quarantine and travel bans are currently in place, we hope you’ll be travelling to Europe as soon as it’s lifted!
Church (Chiesa) di San Giorgio in Braida, Verona, Italy
As is typical of Italy, the Italian city of Verona is simply full of churches – the Chiesa di San Giorgio is just one such church. More than the others though, the Chiesa di San Giorgio’s location along the River X makes it all the more stunning, helped along by its beautiful Baroque dome. The San Giorgio in Braida Church was built in the 16th century in a medieval part of the city just along the riverbank, a stunning addition to the orange-tiled roofs and narrow alleys that make up the rest of Verona. On the opposite riverbank are the Roman ruins – there is the remains of an old amphitheatre here. Though large, it is far from the best preserved example, though still interesting to see. The city of Verona is probably best known for its Shakespearean connection – though ironically the play with the city name in the title – The Two Gentlemen of Verona – isn’t the one that will come to most minds. No, what Verona is most remembered for as home to Romeo and Juliet – and there is even a balcony that is supposedly the Juliet balcony in the Casa di Guillietta or Juliet’s house. All in all, Verona is a quiet and lovely place, a true Italian city. Not too far from Venice but with far fewer crowds, it is a welcome respite from the popularity and business of other Italian cities – without sacrificing the charm!
Pro tip: Apparently it’s good luck to touch the statue of Juliet at Casa di Guillietta, but it’s a bit of an odd tradition and no point waiting for a break in the crowds to do so. Though different, Verona can be a nice alternative to Venice (or at the very least, a nice breather after the crowds of the archipelago!).
The Porta Palatina / Palatine Gate in Torino, Italy
A Roman-age city gate in the Northern Italian city of Torino (or Turin), the magnificent Porta Palatina makes for a grand entryway into Torino’s city centre. We’re lucky to have the gate – it very nearly got torn down in the 18th century for an “Urban renewal” project during an era when people weren’t as concerned with protecting heritage and artefacts as they are now. Today surrounded by modern building complexes (many of which are adorned with graffiti and other non-art), the Porta Palatina is no less stunning for its less-than-grand locale. In fact, the Porta Palatina is one of the best-preserved Roman gates in Europe (certainly of its time), and represents the most important archeological site of Torino, along with the nearby Roman theatre. A large city in northwestern Italy, Torino is a place made up of broad avenues, great palaces, and grand architecture common to other near-Alpine cities (Lyon, Lausanne and Grenoble spring to mind). Built in the 1st century during the Augustan Age, this immense brick gate would have once been incorporated into the city defensive wall and probably attached to a palace (where the name likely comes from), and would have been just as impressive then as now. Gates in Roman times served to protect cities from invasion or simply keep records of who (and what) is coming to and from a city. Later, it was incorporated into a medieval fortification before falling into ruin for several centuries. Italy is full of Roman ruins of various types and scales – when visiting northern Italy, don’t miss the lovely city of Torino (Julia Augusta Taurinorum in Roman times) with its ancient and modern wonders, and impressive view of the Alps!
Pro tip: Find the Porta Palatina in the modern-day Piazza Cesare Augusto. Torino is most famed for its “Shroud of Turin” which supposedly shows the visage of Jesus. Though the age disproves this, the Shroud is still a fascinating find. Visit the Museo della Sindone to find out more. Italy is also known for its cheeses – in particular, try local cheeses such as Fontina d’Aosta (cow), Asiago (cow) and Robiola (goat, cow or sheep). Pair with local red wine!
Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a lovely little town in a strange region. Like all of Sud Tyrol, the region was once part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire until World War I happened, and Italy, who sided with the winners, was granted the mountainous little region of Sud Tyrol from Austria, who sided with the wrong side. Even today the Germanic/Austrian culture is visible, from the bilingual populace (and menus and road signs) to the cuisine to the architecture. Rising above cheerful Brunico is the beautiful medieval Brunico Castle dating back to about the 13th century. But hidden away in the lush green wooded hills on the other side of a narrow footbridge is something unexpected – a simple World War I era cemetery filled with the graves of soldiers from all sides, backgrounds and religions. In fact, soldiers from each religion – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – are each buried according to their religious rites. Though war is always terrible for those involved in it, the war would have been especially difficult for those soldiers fighting WWI in the high, inhospitable Dolomites Mountains, a region prone to high winds, deep snows, cold temperatures, steep slopes and rough terrain. Brunico’s wooded WWI cemetery was built by Russian POWs from local pine trees, each one carefully inscribed with the dead soldier’s names and dates of death. Tucked under a quiet canopy of emerald leaves, these simple markers serve as a stark reminder of the shortness of life and the madness of war – as well as humankind’s harmony with nature.
Pro tip: Brunico’s War Cemetery is located a stone’s throw away from Brunico Castle (in reality just across the footbridge). Visiting in summer? There are some pretty lowland walks in the area. If you want to climb something a bit higher, head over to nearby stunning landscapes Mt Kronplatz or the lushness of Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park. Visiting in winter? This region also has some good skiing.
Torino, like much of Northern Italy, falls far off the tourism map. When most of us hear the word, “Italy,” we think of rural Tuscany, fairy tale Venice, or the artsy Florence. Italy equals Mediterranean ocean views, Roman temples and gelato by the beach, right? Not necessarily. Northern Italy is like a country unto its own. Nothing at all like southern Italy, Northern Italy is Alpine and mountainous, fast-paced and serious, and in the winter it gets cold and snowy. Those who live here seem more Swiss than Italian (and those who live in the northwest Dolomites region are more Austrian than anything else!). The grand city of Torino (which you may know as “Turin”) is certainly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The eclectic architecture, genuinely happy (and multilingual!) people, elegant streets, mountainous backdrop, delicious cheeses as well as amazing pizzas and wines make Torino a city full of surprises. But if you really want a treat, take the time to hike up the hill, Monte dei Cappuccini on the other side of the Po River to see the whole of Torino spill out below you. On a magnificent backdrop of the towering Alps, the glittering Po River and the beautiful red roofs with white walls, the enormous spire if the Mole Antonelliana rises up to the sky, as if reaching for the heavens. Originally built as a synagogue in the late 1800’s, the building (which now houses a cinema museum) sports the highest work of masonry in all of Europe. After a day wandering the grand avenues, splendid squares and wee alleyways, take your time to drink in this aerial view of Torino – it is well worth it!
Pro tip: Whether you believe in its divinity or not, the museum about the Shroud of Turinexplores a fascinating piece of history and worth the visit. Visit here for practical info.
Where to visit next? More amazing places to discover in Northern Italy.
Antica Mulattiera (Mule Track) in the Val de Susa, Italy
The antica mulattiera or ancient mule path carves its way up the mountain deep with the Val de Susa, carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years. Hidden amongst the curves one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” stone crosses each representing a different “station” – a stark reminder to the route’s pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by the centuries, sharp edges worn away by thousands if not millions of pilgrim’s boots make up the rugged path that hugs Monte Pirchiriano in northern Italy. Leave behind the 21st century to follow the antica mulattiera through the Val de Susa, travelling back in time to the Middle Ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer. In your modern homage to ancient pilgrimages, follow this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views, hillside villages and centuries of tradition. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
Pro tip: Start your walk from behind the church of Saint-Ambrogio of Torino, a short train ride from the city of Torino. From the train station, it’s about a 3km walk each way. Visit in the winter to avoid other tourists and marvel at the snow-dusted woodlands and mountaintops. Due to slippery stones and leaves underfoot as well as some muddy patches, we recommend sturdy shoes for this walk.
The original canal city (though far from the only city criss-crossed with canals), Venice is often recognised as one of the most romantic cities in the world. Sometimes nicknamed the “Fish” (for its shape as seen from above), Venice’s main island is also its most busy, though it is far from the only island in the Venetian Lagoon – in fact, there are 118 islands as part of the Lagoon! Certainly one of Europe’s most beautiful creations, the entire island is like a museum where some of the most splendid examples of architecture are on permanent display. Take to the canals, the grand squares and the beautiful bridges to admire facades displaying Rococo, Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles – in fact, Venice has its own version of the Gothic called Venetian Gothic, characterised by its lancet windows adorned with carved ogee arches. Both the Byzantines and the Ottomans had a serious effect on the development of Venice’s unique architectural styles, and in turn, Venice had a serious effect on the rest of Europe. Then as today, Venice has been wowing visitors who travel to this marvel of a city and bring back its artistic and architectural secrets to be used in the building of other impressive places. Though Venice is one of the most visited cities on Earth, it suffers from overtourism – there are simply too many people visiting these small islands. The best way to avoid adding to this problem is to visit in the off season, exploring the lesser-visited islands, as well as visiting other lesser-visited places in the region like Brunico, Lago di Braies,Verona, the Dolomites Mountains and more to spread the tourism more evenly!
Pro tip: There’s really no getting around the crowdedness of Venice – the best we can say is visit in the off season, and try to stay on one of the less-famed islands. Carnevale di Venezia (the Carnival of Venice) is in January/February and is an exciting though popular time of year to visit. While here, get off the main squares to wander the back alleys, keeping your eyes out for little hole-in-the-wall cafes with Italian-only menus to mingle with locals who love to meet, chat and drink afternoon glasses of espresso and spritz.
As the capitol of Apulia (a region commonly known as the “heel” of Italy’s boot), Bari is a bustling and chaotic labyrinthine city in southern Italy. The city’s fortress is the Castello Svevo, protecting Apulia’s capitol since 1132. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the Normans, Holy Romans, Angevins, Spanish and even Polish all had their hand in Castello Svevo’s existence. Polish, you say? Indeed, due to a coup d’etat, the 16th century Sforza family of Milan was ousted from power and instead granted Bari and Apulia in the far south (where they were far from the economic powerhouses of Northern Italy and yet could still be kept an eye on). Daughter Bona Sforza was later wed to Polish King Sigismund I the Old (though after her death, the castle was returned to the King of Naples). Castello Svevo’s imposing exterior is perhaps due to its use as a medieval prison. Today, the castle is a museum as well as the centrepiece of the Bari and its narrow, winding streets, perfectly Italian streets.
Pro tip: Bari is a port city – often used for catching ferries to Croatia (Dubrovnik), Montenegro (Bar), Albania (Durres), and even the Greek island of Corfu. Keep in mind that there are two ports and they are not right next to one another, so know where your ferry departs from!
Pragser Wildsee / Lago di Braies, Italian Dolomites
Reflections shimmer in the quiet pools of Lago di Braies’ furthest shores. This little turquoise and emerald lake is snuggled deep within the peaks and valleys of the Dolomites Mountains in the Sud Tyrol region of northern Italy. The Lago di Braies is the crown jewel of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies, a stunning nature park that covers some 63,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful mountainous landscapes deep in the Dolomites. Because of a rejigging of borders after WWI, the once Austrian region of Sud Tyrol is now Italian – though culturally and linguistically the locals have remained close to their Germanic roots. Lago di Braies, or its germanic name, the Pragser Wildsee, is one of the many pearls of this underrated region (most of the visitors to the lake and the greater region are domestic tourists). Offshoots of the Alps, the Dolomites are one of Europe’s significant mountain ranges – though the highest peak in the Dolomites (Marmolada) doesn’t even crack the top 200 hundred tallest peaks in the Alps. But it’s not all about height – Europe is full of beautiful, wild sites like the Pragser Wildsee that escape the tourist trail – you just have to know how to find them!
Pro tip: Like France’s network of GR (Grande Randonnées), the Dolomites have their own network of paths, numbered 1 – 8 and called alte vies or high paths.
Find other beautiful places in the Dolomites of Sud Tyrol:
It’s hard to talk about the beautiful places of Europe and ignore Venice. Venice is the city beauty – and of canals. When you constantly compare other beautiful cities with Venice – Anncey is “the Venice of France” or “the Venice of Belgium” etc. – you know that the original city (Venice) must be amazing! Venice is also thedefinition of a fairytale place – this is the kind of place one would expect to find in a storybook! Venice has famous sights – St Mark’s Cathedral, the glass blowing on Murano, the Grand Canal. Other major canals include the Giudecca, Canneregio and Scomenzera canals. But the best way to explore this city? By getting lost in its massive labyrinth of tiny streets and scenic canals criss-crossed with magical bridges of all shapes and sizes of course! There are over 150 canals interwoven around some hundred islands – and connected by even more bridges! Once upon a time, these canals were the city’s only ‘streets’ and all transport was done via gondola boats. While the canals remain a main artery for movement about the picturesque city, the gondolas are used only by tourists today. Overpriced and overcrowded, it’s best to skip the gondola and meander the tiny alleys and bridges, hopping on the water-buses when you need to get farther away. Keep in mind that this is one of the most popular cities in Europe as well as one of the most delicate. Venice is actually sinking, and has problems with flooding, water damage and erosion – none of which is helped by overtourism. There has been talk of establishing a quota of visitors to this special place. So instead of getting annoyed, remember that this is in order to protect this amazing city for future generations! Though Venice may be both stunningly amazing and breath-takingly unique, there are many other cities with canals to visit in Europe. See below for a few!
Pro tip: If you can, stay on one of the lesser-known and quieter islands and take the water bus into the main part of the city. However, if you really want to stay on the “fish,” don’t go to the centre of town. Instead, check out the far quieter region of Canneregio (in the northern part of the main archipelago). The same goes for food; avoid the big restaurants with the English menus in the centre, and instead find the mom & pop shops in the back alleyways! Definitely have an afternoon spritz after a fun day of exploring!
Other cities with canals to visit – Alternatives to Venice:
Possibly one of the most spectacular and amazing places in all of Italy is the medieval pile of stones that is the Sacra of San Michele monastery. Crowning the Mount Pirchiriano in Northern Italy, the Sacra di San Michele seemingly floats in the clouds, fanned by the incredible landscapes of the Val di Susa. Officially named as the Symbolic monument of the Piedmont region, this jaw-dropping abbey was probably consecrated in 966, but little is known about the early years of this amazing building. Tradition says that the Sacra di San Michele was erected by a pious hermit known as St Giovanni Vincenzo on the orders of archangel Michael – supposedly the angel then miraculously transported all of the stones and other materials to the summit of Mt Pirchiriano (though the miracles stopped there – St Giovanni still had to build the abbey!) Apparently the site was chosen for its isolation and difficulty to reach as this was typical of the Cult of St Michael (think France’s Mont Saint Michel!). The Sacra, part of the Benedictine Order, became part of the famous Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome, even extending beyond to Canterbury. In fact, the route is still in use today, and has seen a recent revival and resurgence of pilgrims (though today’s pilgrims are more interested in the history and culture and food found on the trail, and less in the religious aspect of it). The Sacra di San Michele is also famous for inspiring the abbey at the central of Italian novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Pro tip: Instead of driving, start your adventure at the village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, where you can follow an ancient mule track up the mountain. Following the Signs of the Cross, the trail winds around the mountain, in and out of the forest, past tiny hamlets and ancient sites before arriving at the mountain’s summit. The path, about 3.5 km each way, starts behind the old church and continues upwards from there.
Other Beautiful Medieval Religious Sites in Europe
Possibly containing Europe’s highest density of picturesque villages, Italy is practically a fairytale land. Deep within Northern Italy’s charming and beautiful Aosta Valley is the little-known fairytale village of Cogne, perched within a now-forgotten mountain pass crossroads through the Alps. Often home to Italy’s professional cross country skiing team who come here to practice on its renowned 70 km (43 miles) of trails, Cogne village is snuggled into the Italian Alps making it an outdoor lover’s paradise. During winter, enjoy cross country skiing or perhaps downhill skiing and snowboarding. Explore the nearby valleys on snowshoes or even try your hand at ice climbing! On your way there, be sure to visit the Savoyard town of Aosta, founded by the Romans. During the summer, hike the impressive mountain trails of Gran Paradiso National Park. Inhabiting these mountains are herds of ibex, wild goats, marmots and eagles – all easy to spot while out hiking or snowshoeing. Back in town, wander the adorable streets of Cogne to admire the quaint old-world Alpine architecture. Be sure to taste the region’s delicious red wines and cheeses such as the Fontina and the Fromadzo where you’re here!
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a relaxing Alpine escape, plan a stay at the rustic wellness hotel & spa, La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso. Please keep in mind that though the road to Aosta is quite good, you’ll need to take narrow, winding mountain roads the rest of the way to reach Cogne. Not for the faint hearted!
Autumn falls on Italy, alighting this already magical place with more colour than seemingly possible. Sloshing through the beautiful city of Torino (or Turin to you North Americans) in northern Italy, the Po River flows some 682 km (424 miles), starting from a tiny spring in the stony hillside at Pian del Re on the border of France and Italy. When it comes to photography, autumn is one of the most beautiful times to break out the camera, but the area around the Alps and northern Italy in particular is especially stunning. It is also a brilliant time to travel to Europe’s hotspots as the number of tourists (particularly casual tourists) is down, accommodations and flights cost less, and attractions aren’t yet closed for winter – not to mention the dramatic panoramas such as this one! The Po River winds its way through northeastern Italy, a region known for red wine, Roman ruins, ancient castles, dramatic valleys, and delicious cheese. The banks of the Po River in Torino provide scenic sights as well as lovely walk paths – a way to experience nature and the outdoors even when you’re in the city. Here, you’ll feel the wind in your face, smell the leaves in the air, hear the current rushing past fluttering trees, and feel at peace in the alpine Italian city of Torino.
Exploding out of the northeastern corner of Italy, the Dolomites are an offshoot of the Alps Mountains, Europe’s most prominent and iconic mountain range. The Dolomites are named for their substance, known as carbonate rock dolomite, which was so named for the pioneering French mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. Much like the Alps, the Dolomites have long been recognised as a winter destination – particularly for skiing, though also like the Alps, recent times (and global warming) have changed this, turning the mountain range into a dual-season destination. Chair lifts bring snowboarders and skiers up mountains in winter, whereas in summer, the continue functioning, carrying up hikers, mountain bikers and paragliders. In fact, the Dolomites are one of the best places to hike in all of Europe! And then there’s the Sud Tyrol region itself. Strictly speaking, the Dolomites spans across three regions: Trentino, Belluno, and Sud Tyrol. Historically speaking, Sud Tyrol was part of Austria. Then WWI happened, borders were moved, new passports were issued… and now the region is like miniature Austria but in Italy. The residents are bilingual but prefer German, more often choosing to study in Vienna rather than Rome, have names more in Germanic than Italian in origin – even the architecture of the villages themselves look more like Austria than Italy (probably because the Austrians built them…). It is a strange, culturally-diverse corner of Europe perfect for hiking and skiing but also as a cultural experience. Often overlooked, most people don’t even know German-speaking Sud Tyrol exists let alone visit. So, visit the Dolomites for the mountains and also the culture, in summer or winter… just make sure you bring along not one but two dictionaries!
Pro tip: The Dolomites are one of Europe’s most renowned hiking destinations. Be sure you come prepared with sturdy hiking boots and consider either finding a mountain guide, or visiting the local tourism office for best hiking routes.
Other Fascinating & Little-Visited Regions of Europe
Tucked into an extraordinary mountain landscape in Sud Tyrol, northeastern Italy, Castel Tures or Taufers Castle is first mentioned in documents in 1225, when the newly noble family started construction on a lavish house fit for a lord. For a hundred years the castle flourished but sadly by the mid 1300’s, it was already in decline. It wasn’t until the Dukes of Austria took an interest that Tures Castle was renovated and reconstructed. New towers, draw bridges, walls, gardens, and castle residence return in all their glory. Today this 64 room castle is open to the public, showcasing beautifully panelled rooms, a magnificent library, and a precious chapel. But the greatest jewel of this castle in northern Italy is truly in its location – the mountains of the Dolomites, themselves part of the Alps tower over Tures Castle’s turrets and towers, with the town and fields spreading out at its feet. This forgotten corner of Ireland, Sud Tyrol contains one of the highest castle-to-land ratios in Europe, as well as countless natural beauty – parks, mountains, forests, waterfalls, preserves. Overlooked by tourists, Sud Tyrol is a magnificent and quiet region in the Italian Alps.
The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation in central Italy from the 7th century BC until the Romans conquered the powerful civilisation, assimilating it into their ever-growing Roman Empire at the end the 4th century BC. Even today, the Etruscan influence cannot be denied; Eturia’s ancient heartland even lent it’s name to the modern region of Tuscany. In its heyday, Etruria reached as far north as the Po River valley, past Rome along the coast to modern-day Naples (in the Campania region). A merchant community, the Etruscans grew rich and powerful on trade with the northern Celtic communities as well as the ancient Greeks, who influenced much of their culture. Etruscans had a vivid pantheon of gods and used their wealth to fill their tombs – which is where much of our understanding of their culture, history, art and architecture comes from. The village of Fiesole, some 10km from Florence, is both a tranquil escape from the bustle of Florence as well as a time capsule to the ancient Etruscans and Romans. Here, find crumbling Etruscan walls, what remains of the Roman baths built later on, and a Roman amphitheater still used today for summer events. Nearby, there’s even the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci once experimented with flight! Once a powerful rival to Florence, Fiesole was founded as an Etruscan town in the 8th century BC until the Romans finally conquered and destroyed it, building their own Roman town on Fiesole’s roots. In the 1500s during the magnificent Italian renaissance, Florentine nobles moved out of Florence and built their splendid villas much like movie stars do today in glamorous SoCal towns. Fiesole’s beauty also inspired writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and EM Forster, making cameos in their work.
Pro tip: Take bus #7 from San Marco Piazza to Fiesole. Or, splurge on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see even more of Florence and its region.
Soft, white snow slowly falls on the red clay rooftops of the sleepy village of Sant’Ambogio di Torino. This simple but picturesque village is snuggled soundly at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano. Crowned with the stone ruins of the legendary Sacra di San Michele monastery, Mt Pirchiriano and its monastery have been made famous by inspiring Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. Below the mountain, Sant’Ambrogio di Torino contains its own history and beauty: medieval wonders such as Middle Ages towers, fortified walls, a ruined abbey, a 12th century Romanesque-style bell tower (the tower in the above photo, now integrated to the current church), and the remains of an 11th century church, located above the town in the tiny commune of San Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio di Torino still plays the role it has for centuries: the starting place for the ancient pilgrimage path leading to the mountaintop Sacra di San Michele, as well as housing the relics of St John Vincent, the monastery’s founder. To mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s path weaving through the mystical Val de Susa, is the lovely 18th-century Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Giovanni Vincenzo – today covered in a powdery blanket of snow. Though it may be faster to drive directly from Torino to the top of the mountain – bypassing Sant’Ambrogio village, the Pilgrim’s Path, and the Val de Susa altogether – the effect will be far less impressive or special; you will miss out on a homage to quiet village life, beautiful architecture, ancient tradition and stunning landscapes. Instead, take the train to Sant’Ambrogio from Torino central station, walk the quiet streets to the Chiesa di San Giovanni, and then follow the narrow cobblestone path to the sacred monastery above (roughly 2 hours hike). Exploring the region in the snow provides an added layer of beauty!
Under a Sud Tyrol sun, the narrow trail quietly weaves to and fro through leafy forests and thick undergrowth as it climbs the steep slopes of Mt Kronplatz. Germanic though the name may sound, the mountain is most assuredly in Italy, not far from the cute village of Brunico. Though admittedly, this region of northern Italy was actually Austrian before the wars of the 20th century. The cool thing about Mt Kronplatz is how fluently it masters the double seasons when so many other mountainous places don’t. Ever since the rise of popularity in the luxury ski resort in the French Alps, Alpine destinations have forgotten to tell the world how fantastic exploring the Alps is during the summer. At Kronplatz, it too has a fancy ski resort, attracting wealthy skiers from all over the world during colder months. But during the summer, the mountain bursts into lush forests and rich meadows blanketed in a brilliant quilt of wildflowers. For those adventurous souls who love to hike, there are (steep) trails that wild their way up the mountain, as well as mountain bike trails that head back down it. For those who want the view but not the strenuous effort, or for hikers that prefer a one-way trip, simply take the gondolas! Repurposed during the summer, the network of skiing gondolas are perfect for getting up and down Mt Kronplatz while still providing epic views of the Alpine slopes. At the top, enjoy rich views, including this one of a mountaintop cross-like shrine on a sublime backdrop of the majestic Alps, before heading into the cafe for a deliciously well-deserved lunch and cold beer at the repurposed ski resort!
Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park in Sud Tyrol, Italy
The Dolomites is a loosely defined mountainous area in northern Italy comprising of peaks, villages, waterfalls, parks and a strong Germanic identity leftover from post-war. border changes with Austria. The Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park (Naturpark Rieserferner-Ahrnin German). Crowned with high, rugged peaks and low, lush valleys, the park is a paradise for golden eagles, peregrine falcones, wild deer, and diverse Alpine flora. Cold, clear mountain lakes shimmer like lost marbles amongst the jagged peaks of the Dolomites carved out of the rough mountains by ancient glaciers. Waterfalls like the nearby Cascate di Riva continue to chisel away at the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina’s Alpine canvas. Best of all, ancient forests spread their leafy branches in a canopy over the chocolate-coloured earth, their leaves whispering in the wind. This is a place overlooked by the rush and buzz of the high-sprung 21st century routine. From creaking pine bridges and wooden stairs to soft, springy earth underfoot, the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina park is a place best explored and appreciated while travelling on foot. (One recommended start is at the Cascate di Riva, as there is a small car park just off the main road).
Italy is full of churches. To no one’s surprise, it’s one of the most church-dense countries in Europe. The Chiesa di Santa Maria is surprisingly old – it was built in the 1300’s. It’s charm, however, comes largely from its location in the quaint, Germanic village of Brunico (Bruneck in German), nestled in the heart of the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Brunico is the perfect base for exploring the rugged backcountry of Sud Tyrol (Trentino-Alto Adige in Italian), a relatively new region of Italy (only becoming part of Italy after WWII). With an interesting melange of Italian and Austrian cultures, even the smallest of villages of Sud Tyrol feel wildly diverse. In the winter, this northeastern corner of Italy is well-known for fantastic skiing. The summer season draws adventurous travellers in with the promise of narrow mountain paths weaving through sunny forests and emerald meadows, full of chirping birds and rustling undergrowth. In the village of Brunico, visit the idyllic castle perched atop the hill for panoramic views of the village and beyond. The castle, now a museum of mountain climbing and the Himalayas, is situated on a lush forest backdrop, complete with meandering mountain paths and a rustic WWWII cemetery. Coming down from the castle’s hilltop path, enjoy this perfect view of Brunico and the lovely Chiesa di Santa Maria, the turquoise mountains forming a magnificent backdrop. Back in town, settle down to a pizza in the family-run restaurants in the historic old town as the sunsets over this adorable mountain village.
Cities by night are highly underrated. The same could be said for cities in the small hours of the morning. Night – and by extension early morning – somehow seem ‘bad’ – the immoral dark hours where indecency and ugliness show their teeth. Nights are cold, dark, empty. At night, ‘good’ people are snuggly asleep in their warm beds because everyone knows that bad things happen at night – mostly because ‘bad’ people come out at night. Or so we’re taught. And in some ways, this is true (crime rates, for example, go infinitely up at night). But the rewards for staying up late or getting out of bed early are worth it. Whether we want to be reminded at how big the galaxies are, we are astronomy geeks, or we simply want to see the world in a new perspective, travelling destinations by night is a unique way to get to know a place. Torino, for example, is an entirely different city by night. The cool, Alpine air whistles through the empty streets, each monument, church or palace strategically lit up. The streets are clear and quiet – quite the change from the Italian hustle and bustle typically filling Torino’s city centre. First, enjoy the quietness of an empty city, then enjoy the stars as they spread across the sky, and finally, the best part: enjoy the dawn painting across the canvas of a new day breaking.
Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.
Gran Madre di Dio Church, Torino, Italy from the Po River, Torino, Italy
Even if you haven’t yet been to Torino (if this is the case, you really should go…), you may have already beheld the Gran Madre di Dio Church if you’ve seen the 1969 classic film, The Italian Job, which tells the story of a high-stakes theft in Torino. Commissioned and built to celebrate King Vittorio Emanuele I’s return to power in 1814 following the defeat of Napoleon, the Gran Madre is a breathtaking purveyor of the briefly-popular Neoclassic style. Though perhaps exaggerated in the film, Torino is sometimes noted as the ‘cradle of Italian liberty’: it was capital of the wealthy House of Savoy (eastern France and Northwestern Italy) since 1563 as well as becoming the finally-unified Italy’s first capital in 1861. Though much of its wealth and importance (both political and economic) dissipated after WWII, Torino rests Italy’s third city – with a GDP of $58 billion, it is ranked the world’s 78th richest city (based on purchasing power)… not too shabby, eh? Not to be forgotten, the impressive neoclassic Gran Madre perched on the banks of the River Po is hardly the only piece of beautiful architecture or style in town – Torino is also home to splendid examples of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Art nouveau exemplars. It sports elegant and extraordinary parks, castles, palaces/palazzi, public squares, boulevards, and apartments, many of which were erected in the Golden Age of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.Torino is a city drunk on elegance and beauty, a city that is both down-to-earth yet financially capable (that is to say, the city is indeed a wealthy one, in both looks and in vaults), and it is a city that holds true to her long heritage as a place of prestige.
Monastery of Sacra di San Michele above Sant’Ambrogio, Italy
Imagine foreboding, nebulous labyrinths forming the veins of an ancient stone bibliotheca in the heart of a mountaintop monastery perched deep in the Italian Alps. While the labyrinth itself may exist not in stone but simply on the pages of a famed Italian text, the monastery seemingly holds dark secrets and a forgotten past. The inspiration for the epic tale of ancient mystery, The Name of the Rose, written by none other then the famed Umberto Eco (RIP), the Sacra di San Michele is a silent beauty lost in the snowy woods of the Val de Susa. Looming over the hushed, 11th-century alpine village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, the Sacra is best reached on foot, ascending Mount Pirchiriano via the ancient mule track worn smooth by centuries of millions of pilgrims who have come this way to pay homage to this sacred site of mystery and religion. Benedictine for most of its history, Sacra di San Michele is now managed by the Rosminians, though its mountaintop perch has been home to humans since Roman times when the site lay upon the road from Rome to Gaul. Difficult to pinpoint the monastery’s exact origins, a monk called William (not the one in The Name of the Rose!) claims the Sacra was founded in 966 (though he also claims it to be founding during the time of the pontificate Sylvester II who ruled some 50 years later). On the other hand, tradition states that it was built by St. Giovanni Vincenzo the hermit, who was simply following the commands of the archangel Michael (and consequently, the stones used somehow miracle-d themselves to the top of Mount Pirchiriano). No matter who laid the first stone, the Sacra is a long-lost stone beauty, which gave backdrop to Umberto Eco’s magnificent, foreboding tale of intrigue.
Thundering waves churn past the narrow shores of the little Italian city of Brunico. Just a blimp on the map of quaint, charming Italian cities, Brunico holds its own in the northeastern corner of the Boot. Deep in the Italian Dolomites with the towering silhouette of its squat castle gazing down from the mountaintops, Brunico is only a short drive from both Austria and Slovenia. While this all helps to spotlight this town, none of this is what adds the extra something special to Brunico’s recipe. Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a town without a country, a town of many languages and cultures, a town plastered onto a multi-cultural lining. For nearly all of its history, Brunico was Germanic. Founded by a baron called – wait for it – Bruno (von Kirchberg) in the early 1200s, the town remained Germanic until the end of WWI, when shifting barriers pushed the region of South Tyrol (including Bruneck) down into Italian territory, where it was re-baptised under an Italian name, Brunico. It is, therefore, an Italian town that is, in effect, Germanic in all but name. The interesting result is a multi-cultural colouring that leaves the city with a dual nationality, which manifests in language, names, gastronomy, architecture and personality.