So you think you’ve ‘done’ Italy; what about lovely Lucca, or how about swapping Milan for Matera?
When you think of Italian city break destinations do you think Rome, Florence or Venice? Italia has several secret cities that are every bit as enticing, just a little less well-known and thankfully not so touristy! Consider one of these Italian beauties the next time you’re looking for a weekend break:
This beautiful city is often overshadowed by nearby Milan, but don’t let that fool you – Bergamo is a blinder! Sat on a hill at the foot of the Alps near Lake Iseo, it’s a tale of two cities: up in the historic Città Alta district you’ll find Venetian walls encompassing the Piazza Vecchia and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, but down below in Città Bassa Bergamo becomes a bustling modern city – it’s fun to ride the funicular railway that connects the two neighbourhoods. Looking for action rather than amazing architecture? You’re just a short hop away from some of the Alps’ best skiing and snowboarding resorts during the winter, and plenty of opportunity for hiking and biking in summer. Take a break in a street café – you won’t be short on choice, there are lots of places to sip espresso and watch the world go by in Bergamo – and ice cream lovers shouldn’t miss the frozen delights of La Siesta on Via Sant’Alessandro. Another regional sweet treat to try are the city’s famous polenta e osei cakes, decorated by deft pastry chefs to look like they’re being nibbled by a flock of marzipan birds.
Switch off from modern life and enjoy a thoroughly medieval getaway in the Tuscan city of Lucca. The best airport to fly in to is Pisa, and Lucca is just a short 20 minute train ride away, or you can hire a car to pick up when you land. Another charming walled city, Lucca’s defenses were designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. Get a bird’s eye view across the city and beyond to the Tuscan countryside from the top of the Guinigi Tower, or take a stroll around the oval Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, lined with restaurants and cafés offering outdoor seating and delicious Tuscan dishes, such as pastas loaded with meat sauce and farro soup, a hearty bowl of barley broth. Lucca also hosts a big comic and games convention every October/early November, attracting international audiences for a programme of games demonstrations, author talks and live music performances.
Tucked away on a Tuscan hilltop south of Siena, surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, you might not have heard much about Montalcino, but it’s got some pretty big claims to fame. Home to some of the finest grapes in the world, Brunello wine is the city’s most famous export, and you can tour the gorgeous vineyards, sample the wines, olive oils and even enjoy a gourmet lunch on the grounds, stopping to admire Sant’Antimo Abbey along the way. At night, the mysterious, dimly-lit alleyways are crowded with locals (and the handful of tourists lucky enough to have stumbled across Montalcino) looking for gut-busting portions of Tuscan delicacies, such as polenta and wild boar topped with freshly-made tomato sauce. In the morning, the aroma of warm pastries is enough to get you salivating all over again. The easiest way to get to Montalcino is to fly to either Pisa or Florence and catch the train to this northern Italian hideaway.
Located in the southeast of Sicily and situated on the shores of the sparkling Ionian Sea, Siracusa (also known as Syracuse) is home to some of the friendliest locals you’ll find in Italy. Restaurants, some of which sit right on the ocean, specialise in dishes such as frutta di mare (seafood) and pasta con sarde, a classic Sicilian sardine supper. But first, work up an appetite exploring the city’s ancient Greek ruins at the Neapolis Archaeological Park, an ancient city and the site of a Greek theatre and Roman Ampitheatre. Discover Siracusa’s hidden piazzas and quaint terraces, surrounded by charming houses washed in light pinks or purples. On Sunday afternoons, the Piazza Santa Lucia – where you’ll find the Duomo dedicated to Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the city – is filled with families enjoying an afternoon of rest in the warm Sicilian sunshine. Fly in to Catania and take a direct bus from the airport to Siracusa.
A real-life set straight out of a Biblical blockbuster, Matera has appeared in many movies including King David, The Nativity Story and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Located in the southern region of Basilicata, the city and its surroundings appear as if stuck in the neolitihc past – the oldest section of the city, known as The Sassi, is filled with 9,000 year old cave dwellings. Even the bread baked in this region is steeped in history – it is made of durum wheat from ancient fields, using ancestral techniques. Break bread with some excellent wines, or try Matera’s very own liqueur rosolio, which is made from rose petals. Good wine should be accompanied by a good book, and there are plenty to choose from during Matera’s annual Women’s Fiction Festival, held at the end of September. Make your way to Matera by flying in to Bari and taking the hour and a half train journey to the city’s central station.
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