Inspiration - 5 min read

Six lesser-known Italian road trips

By Nicole Franchini

What instantly comes to mind when planning a classic road trip in Italy is either the iconic Amalfi Coastline or the Tuscan wine roads of Chianti, yet within each of the country’s twenty regions, comparatively spectacular, lesser-known back road scenery abounds. Below, our Italian expert Nicole reveals her favourite lesser-known road trips that are perfect for your big return to Italy.

 

Lake Garda, Northern Italy

Length: 150 KM
Duration: one – two days

Considered one of the most evocative scenic roads in the world, a spin around this stunning northern lake at the foot of the Alps includes an extraordinary variety of panoramas made up of ancient villages, historic castles, gardens and nature parks, an island, beaches and imposing mountains.  

The lake includes both the Veneto and Lombardy regions (split down the middle).  Counterclockwise along the eastern Gardesana, start from Desenzano del Garda and immediately make a stop in Sirmione, to visit the Scaligero Castle and the Grottoes of Catullus and then continue towards Riva del Garda and Salò, Gardone Riviera (Botanical gardens). The gardens are unmissable: they are located on a private island and tickets should be booked before your visit. A ticket includes a boat trip from Salo’, a tour of the villa and gardens as well as a welcome drink.

No-car alternative: If you feel like getting some exercise instead of staying in the car, a newly completed 140 km bike path, jutting out on the lake, is wonderful to experience in portions, starting from Limone del Garda. 

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Turin

Piemonte, Northern Italy

Length: 285 KM
Duration: one – two days

This beautiful trip could easily be divided into two slower days as there is plenty to admire with landscapes, wine visits, Medieval villages, and slow winding roads.

Start in Turin and head to ALBA, an hour away and the heart of the Langhe area. The Langhe wine region needs no introduction as a wine & foodie lover’s paradise. It’s the home of the SlowFood movement and the capital of white truffles, as well as having spectacular scenery. Beyond the usual visits to the top vineyards to taste strains of Barolo and Barbaresco, take the time to visit the fascinating “Wine Cathedrals” in Canelli, UNESCO World Heritage site. The historic cellars were excavated in tufo limestone rock in the 18th century and are now stunning networks of galleries, tunnels, corridors and wide arches.

You have a choice of return route, through either Santo Stefano Belbo, or Roccaverano. If you stop in the latter, famous for its soft Robiola goat cheese, try the climb up the medieval tower. If you find it closed, ask for the key at the only café in the village. Moving on you’ll pass through Barbaresco,  see the Grinzane Cavour Castle and finally arrive at Barolo, where the Falletti Castle and Wine museum are well worth a look.

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Nature Park Gola della Rossa

North Marche, Central Italy

Length: 182 KM
Duration: one – two days

The central region of the Marche bordering the Adriatic coastline has the advantages of both spectacular countryside scattered with historic art cities, a strong artisan tradition and having the sea an hour away. Start at coastal Pesaro, a city with a dual personality split between its prestigious historical center and, on the other side, a popular Adriatic seaside resort.

Besides the impressive 15th century Palazzo Ducale in the main square whose surrounding streets are lined with ancient palazzo, cafes and shops, the city is famous for its weekly Saturday antique market and excellent seafood restaurants. 

Head inland and stop in the stunning Renaissance town of Urbino (Raphael’s home) for lunch and a walk along the artist’s quarter, a section of the city where abandoned spaces have been turned into artist’s workshops. There’s a break from all the art as you pass onward through bucolic landscapes to the Frasassi Caves within the Nature Park Gola della Rossa. The truly amazing and magical labyrinth of underground rooms which follow one another for more than thirteen kilometres and are filled with stalactites and stalagmites formed by water over millions of years. It’s the largest of its kind in Europe and the one-hour tour is spectacular. Return to the seaside just south of Ancona to visit the charming white stone village of Sirolo for a stroll and late afternoon aperitif with the locals. 

If you have the time, continue from Sirolo down the Marche coast to some of my favourite ancient cities –  Recanti a charming historic town with its red brick houses and the home /museum and extraordinary library of 19th century poet, Giacomo Leopardi. Fermo, Medieval town of Ancient Roman origins with views to the sea as well as the Sibillini mountains as a backdrop and home to the largest Roman cisterns of drinking water in the world after Istanbul! Accompanied by a guide, a fascinating itinerary takes you inside the cisterns below and includes over 30 rooms.  Finish up in stunning Ascoli Piceno, the city of 100 towers, to admire the Renaissance architecture and squares, have tea at the historic Café’ Meletti and taste the famous stuffed ascoli olives.

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Bagno Vignoni

Rome to Southern Tuscany

Length: 180 KM
Duration: two – three days

From Rome this route follows the ancient Via Cassia all the way up to Siena in one or two days – built by Romans over pre-existent Etruscan routes, it is a slower alternative to the main artery, autostrada A1, but much more panoramic and scenic. 

Less than an hour from Rome, visit the Lazio lake districts and admire Lake Bracciano, where you can stop in at Anguillara Sabazia for a cappuccino by the lake before moving on to

Continue north to Viterbo, the city of Popes, for a dip in the natural thermal spas or a visit to the weekly antique market. Then there’s a little horticultural leg, with majestic gardens at the Farnese Palace in Caprarola and Lante Villa in Bagnaia, before you arrive at Lake Bolsena.

In the next section of the trip, you cross over the regional border from Lazio to Tuscany, and discover the ancient village of Bagno Vignoni, whose main square is a thermal pool! Then it’s on to a classic Tuscan charmer of a walled town, San Quirico d’Orcia. From there you pass into the Crete Senese area, (clay terrain) and the landscape changes dramatically, with rippling folds of hills for your to cruise through as you head to your final stop in Siena!

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Modica

Sicily’s south-east

Length: 165 KM
Duration: one – two days

Follow a trail to UNESCO-listed Baroque treasures on a two-day trip around Sicily’s rugged southeast. Start off by exploring Catania’s grandiose historic centre and lively fish market. After a fresh seafood lunch, hit the road south and make for  Syracuse, where you can trawl through ancient ruins and the amphitheatre at the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis and then stroll over to the historic center and admire the elegant Baroque architecture lining the streets of Ortygia island jutting out into the sea.

Continue to Noto for yet more Baroque and a cruise down the stunning Corso Vittorio Emanuele, dotted with churches and outdoor cafes. Once you’ve digested this masterpiece of urban design, turn inland to Modica, a bustling town wedged into a deep canyon.

On the way, it may be worth your while taking a peek at Ispica and more specifically the amazing canyon below the town.  A walk in this natural historic wonder reveals ancient caves, rare local fauna, catacombs from the Greek and Roman eras and verdant well-marked trails. While in Modica, stock up on the town’s famous dark spicy chocolate before pushing on through the rocky hinterland to Ragusa and the handsome historic centre known as Ragusa Ibla, built on a steep hill.

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Locorotondo

Matera to Puglia

Length: 178 KM
Duration: one – two days

Start in Matera and head to down the heel to Lecce (“The Florence of southern Italy”) in the wild Salento area for an immersion in Baroque architecture, hitting the back roads of Puglia and seeing its many historic, natural and gastronomic marvels. 

After a head-spinning walk through the most unique of cities, Matera, with its incredible cave dwellings turned accommodation, head to Alberobello.  The first city you will meet will be Gioia del Colle, known for its fresh mozzarella and milky burrata: definitely worth a stop to taste these products and visit the 12th century castle in the centre.

You will pass through the Itria Valley, characterized by the unique architecture of the trulli houses, stone buildings with conical roofs. Stop in Noci – stroll through the narrow streets of the historic centre with its lime-coloured roofs – then move on to Alberobello , a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its 1,500 trulli. Wander on to Martina Franca, less touristy than Alberobello, its charm intact. The old town is surrounded by stone walls with Baroque Portals which lead to the main square. A visit to the Doge’s Palace or lunch for a taste of the famous capocollo cured meat among many possibilities.

Leaving Martina Franca behind, you re-immerse yourself in the countryside, following low stone walls through kilometres of olive groves and the occasional vineyard to arrive at the “Pomona” botanical conservatory. This is a true sanctuary of biodiversity, where hundreds of fruit plants from all over the Mediterranean are housed, including an astounding collection of more than 400 different varieties of fig. The next stop is Locorotondo, named one of the ‘most beautiful villages in Italy’, with its striking architecture and famous white, slightly sparkling wine. Walking through the picturesque historic town, you can appreciate the architecture of the “cummerse”: tall rectangular buildings with sloping roofs made of chiancarelle slate.  

It’s onward to Ceglie Messapica, a small town packed with some of the best restaurants in the area and famous for its bread products (Frise, Taralli, Focacce, biscotti) which you can taste in one of the oldest bakeries in the city, located in the historic centre, Cosimo Urso. Last stop, Lecce!  Stunning Baroque architecture, majestic cathedral, Greek amphitheatre right in the heart of the city, plus plenty of trendy restaurants where you can sit back and relive the trip.

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