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. Practical 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.
Soft waves lapping on this Italian lake’s shore. In the heat of summer, lakes such as this one become an oasis for locals and tourists alike. The turquoise blue of this lake with the dramatic mountains raising up behind make Lago di Braies particularly popular. Located deep in the Dolomite Mountain range in South Tyrol, this region was originally part of Austria, hence the Germanic version of its name. Local legend has it that the south end of the lake holds a ‘gate to the underworld,’ though this hasn’t stopped the steady flow of tourists looking for an escape into nature! The lake makes a good starting point for hiking in the Dolomites. For those only there for the day, there is a pleasant walk around the lake, or you visit the lake by water, renting a rowboat to explore the lake’s edges. It;s not hard why it is sometimes nicknamed, ‘The Pearl of the Dolomites!’
Typically known to be a place of vibrant colors, here is another perspective of the famed Italian city. Known as the scene of Shakespeare’s immortal Romeo & Juliet, Verona is more than a city of doomed lovers. (It is also the namesake of “Two Gentlemen in Verona,” and the setting for “The Taming of the Shrew.” Ha!) Verona is a city of architecture, a city of color, of history. It is a city that has ties to the Romans, to Dante, to Shakespeare. Nestled along the Adige River, the cobbled streets of Verona twist and turn along the river’s banks. In fact, it was this convergence at the river’s bend and intersection with several main roads that led to Verona’s growth during the Roman Empire. Over the next 2,000 years, it changed hands too many times to count (some of the most important were the Romans, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Bavarians, the counts of San Bonifacio, the della Scala family – who seems to have turned on each other several times with treason, betrayal and fratricide – Venetians, Napoleon, Austrians, the Nazis, and finally, present-day Italy). It is a city steeped in history, a city that, though you would not know it from its appearance, has maintained a strong military presence due to its strategic position for most of its existence.
Lost in the Dolomites, Innsbruck is the perfect starting point for a mountain trek. You may already know that Innsbruck is in the Austrian Alps, in the province of North Tyrol – what you may know is that just south of it is South Tyrol: a German-speaking, Austrian-looking province of…wait for it…Italy! Yes, you read that right – all due to shifting borders after the War. This region, including Innsbruck and its province North Tyrol, along with two regions in northern Italy, correspond closely with the historical Tyrol region. This accounts for the huge resemblance these regions have with one another, despite being separate (usually very different) nations! Today, only 23% of the Italian Tyrol region speaks Italian as a first language (63% = German). The Italian Tyrol is also one of the richest regions in the EU – despite its rural and mountainous nature. On the Austrian side, many of the Tyrol-Italians come to live, work, and study in Austria for both economical and cultural reasons. These three regions are an interesting example of a cross-border shared culture – the same kind of trans-border relationship that exists in ‘Pays Vasco’ (Basque Country) seen on both sides of Pyrenees (in France and Spain), or in the Alpine regions (ie the ancient state of Savoy between France, Italy and Switzerland), or even the relationship between L’vov, Ukraine and Poland, to which it has historical ties. At the end of the day, borders have to be drawn somewhere – but just because it’s marked on a map, it doesn’t mean one cultural stops and another starts immediately. No; culture, history, language, architecture and heritage are much too fluent and gradual to be that abrupt. So, rock on Tyrol!
Northern Italy and Southern Italy are as different as night and day. In fact, that’s not quite specific enough, as Northwestern Italy and Northeastern Italy are quite different from each other while still different from the South. Northwestern Italy is more French/Swiss, while Northeastern Italy is so Austrian that if you spend a few days there, they’ll fool you into thinking you’re in Austria! The Valle d’Aosta is in the northwestern sector, not far from Torino, and in the heart of the Alps, and more French or Swiss (or rather, just ‘Alpine’) than anything else. Literally the “Valley of Augustus,” it goes back to Rome’s conquering of the region to secure the strategic mountain passes. It’s one of the most castle-rich regions in Italy–it had to be, as the region comprised of a vast array of warring kingdoms each with the need to protect themselves against his neighbour. Valle d’Aosta is also the least-populated region of Italy, making it the great-outdoors lover’s place to be. If you have the time, planning a few stops would be ideal. Get out and stretch your legs, breath the fresh mountain air, hike the hills to reach a few of the many castles such as this one! But if you don’t have the time, taking the train through the region is also extremely satisfying–there are so many castles along the railroad track that you can play “I Spy the Castle” simply by looking out the window!
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.
If you want a unique, cross-cultural experience, try driving from Verona, Italy to Innsbruck in Austria. It’s only at the very end–when crossing into Innsbruck–that you arrive in Austria. Yet, arriving in in South Tyol (also known as Alto Adige or Sudtirol) in northern Italy, it already feels Germanic – and Italian at the same time (and everyone is bilingual)! These mountains hold some of Europe’s most precious, unexplored gems: a trip through the Dolomites, especially outside of ski season, feels like a trip back in time to the age of exploration. And even better, the Dolomite region of Italy has the highest concentration of medieval castles in Italy, with 400 fortresses, castles and medieval structures rising up from its hills, such as the spectacular and enormous Beseno Castle. As the largest fortified structure in the Trentino region, Beseno Castle’s roots stretch back to the 1200s and has witnessed the tunes of history play out in the ancient mountain pass below. Whether you play “I spy a castle” from your window while traversing the region, or you find a snug mountain village like Besebello to use as a home base to discover the region on foot, the Dolomite mountains, especially Trentino and South Tyrol, is not a region to miss! Practical info: Beseno Castle may be approached via the Besenello village, or via Italian highway Strada Statale 350 – the route from Verona to Innsbruck through the Dolomites.
“In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” says the famous Prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Even though William Shakespeare never set foot in the Italian city, it is still Verona’s main claim to fame, and thousands of tourists–mostly fans or lovers–flock to Casa Guilietta, or Juliet’s House, from Shakespeare’s ultimate love story. Whether it’s to tour the house, call down from her balcony, take a photo with her (lucky?) statue, or write a love message on one of the blank walls, Juliet and her love are still alive and well in Verona. But don’t let that be the only reason to visit–Verona is a truly charming, beautiful city that dates back long before Romeo and Juliet fell in love–all the way to the Romans. Tiny pizzerias and cafes serving Italian coffee are on every corner. The piazzas are buzzing with life, the sun shines gently on the cobblestones, vibrant markets sell anything from vegetables to furniture to cheese, and everyone–students, tourists, locals–all stop to chat in the street while sipping an elegant espresso. Even if Will never saw the city, he got one thing right… Verona is certainly ‘fair!’
In northwestern Italy, there is a quiet, beautiful place called the Aosta Valley. Known for its castles, the valley is snuggled into the Italian Alps. Taking its name from the charming alpine town at the far end, the journey to the once-Roman town of Aosta takes the traveller past castle after castle. While Fenis Castle is certainly magnificent, it’s hardly the only option. With at least 10 castles hugging the valley’s slopes alone, the smallest region in Italy has no shortage of ancient strongholds. Fenis Castle dates back to the fourteenth century and exemplifies both military might on the outside and cultural riches on the inside. Less than 15km from the regional capital of Aosta and roughly 100km from the city of Torino, Fenis Castle is located in between the villages of Fenis and Nus on the dramatic backdrop of Dora Baltea River and the Italian Alps. Getting there with public transport can be tricky; check in with the tourism office in Aosta to plan your trip accordingly, and do not (under any circumstances!) attempt to visit on a Sunday afternoon – northernmost region or not, Aosta is still in Italy, and in Italy, Sundays are still the day of rest!
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
Known for once hosting the Olympics, and probably more importantly, for hosting the infamous Shroud of Turin, Torino is still often overlooked. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the ruins of Rome and the canals of Venice, Torino does not fit into the typical Italian mold. And yet—Torino can hold its own. It is a superbly beautiful and elegant city. The banks of the Po River (here) are charming. The streets are grand, everything is clean. Because of its location in northern Italy and on the doorstep of the Alps, even the air feels cleaner. The city has a pulse; it doesn’t take much to hear its beating heart. If you continue across the river, you reach the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio which rather looks like the Pantheon, and just past that, a hill that leads to a monastery. From there, you can see the whole of Torino, and, just beyond, the Alps. Torino may be a big city, but it is also a mountain city. The simplicity and tranquility often associated with Alpine towns can be found here, in one of Italy’s largest cities!