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Italy: But not as you know it

You’ve admired the Colosseum and soaked up the sights and sounds of Venice, but another Italy is waiting in the wings. We uncover the faces and places — old and new — that are rewriting this much-loved classic

Italy: But not as you know it

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The new city breaks

Culture by the sea: Trieste
It has stretches of spectacular coastline, a fascinating history involving tugs-of-war with Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia, and a cafe scene with a Viennese coffeehouse feel. Trieste may be Italy’s least Italian city (it borders Slovenia and Croatia), but it’s one of its most beguiling. Culture bubbles under the surface here. Italy’s Alinari Archive of photos opened a high-tech museum here in 2016, the Alinari Image Museum, and the marine reserve at nearby Miramare has a great new visitor centre. But the real reason to visit lies within the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Trieste. Millpond calm in summer, this five-mile stretch of shoreline from town to the fairytale Miramare castle becomes one enormous beach.

A slice of the south: Naples
Naples has a certain reputation. When Mount Vesuvius caught fire last year, it was, experts said, started by the Mafia. And it still isn’t the kind of place to strut around with your valuables out. But that’s still no reason to simply jet in then dash off to Pompeii or Sorrento. There’s a sizzle in the Neapolitan air right now. UNESCO recently granted Neapolitan pizza ‘intangible cultural heritage’ status, while the EU has allocated €100m (£88m) to restore the historical centre, plus almost half as much again for Pompeii. With new flights from Belfast (EasyJet), Doncaster Sheffield (TUI), Birmingham and Edinburgh (Jet2) this year — as well as fast trains from Rome that take just an hour — Naples is easier than ever to get to.

Modest charm: Genoa
Genoa has long been dismissed as a mere port town — a place to fly or cruise into, and get straight out of. But we’re finally waking up to the charms of this city, which has one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval centres. Its pedestrianised warren of alleys are topped by astonishing Renaissance architecture — including the Palazzi dei Rolli. Today, these former grand palaces house everything from bars and shops to B&Bs. Want more? No problem; there’s also a glut of art nouveau architecture in the ‘new town’, sweeping views of the colourful city and the Med beyond it from hillside lookouts, and — perhaps most importantly — some of the best street food in Italy. Focaccia was born here, while characterful hole-in-the-wall outlets offer such distinctive fare as farinata (chickpea pancakes), and fried seafood, from anchovies to calamari. Be grateful that the port’s reputation has put people off. For now, it’s all yours.

The new must-dos

The must-stay hotel: Eremito, Umbria
There was a time when Italian hotels seemed to abide by the motto ‘the glammer, the better’. Eremito Hotelito Del Alma cast all that aside when it opened in 2015, in the middle of a forested wilderness near Orvieto. A farmhouse recast as a modern-day hermitage, Eremito goes beyond mere digital detox (there’s no phone reception or wi-fi) — expect single-bedded former monks’ cells sporting hessian curtains and rough linen sheets, and candlelit vegetarian dinners taken in silence. Sometimes luxury comes from the simplest things of all. Rooms from £174, all-inclusive. 

The must-visit scenic spot: Civita di Bagnoregio, Lazio
Once a rapidly declining village, haemorrhaging its population to more liveable cities, today Civita di Bagnoregio — two hours north of Rome — is one of Italy’s tourism success stories. The medieval borgo, atop a verdant bluff, is the first Italian town to charge visitors an entrance fee. But instead of deterring them, it’s kicked off a level of tourism that the little-loved Lazio countryside has never seen before, with the footbridge into this car-free town becoming a hot new Instagram location. Go on a weekday when the crowds — and entrance fees (£2.60) — are smaller. 

The must-try spa: Ischia
Italy’s spa culture dates back to the time of the Etruscans (5th century), and although you can find plenty of establishments geared towards tourists, authentic Italian spas are more about thermal waters than gold-infused facials. Ischia, the volcanic island in the bay of Naples, is the place to dive in. The Terme di Cavascura is a Roman thermal bath repurposed for the 21st century. The philosopher Cicero wrote about its ‘boiling waters’. In a cave here, you can float in waters once used by Romans. After, shower in a thermal waterfall and bake in a natural sauna while inhaling gases (said to be health-giving) arising from beneath the ground. Massages and mud treatments are also offered. 

The must-see view: Lungomare Falcomatà, Reggio Calabria
‘Italy’s most beautiful kilometre’ is what writer (and Italy’s unofficial bard) Gabriele d’Annunzio is said to have called the Lungomare Falcomatà — the waterfront of under-appreciated city Reggio Calabria. Why? For a start, it’s gorgeous — a wide, pedestrianised walkway, lined on one side with chubby palm trees and elegant, art deco-style lamps, and overlooked by grand belle époque villas on the other. Then there’s the small matter of that view: Sicily — on the other side of the Strait of Messina, topped by Etna’s snowy peak — appears so close it looks swimmable.

The must-visit monument: Palazzo Ducale, Urbino
The Ideal City is the name of a 15th-century painting — a study of classical architectural perfection — that hangs in the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, in the Marche region. But anyone who’s visited the ancient walled city will tell you it could equally apply to Urbino itself. Unsullied by modern architecture and mass tourism, it’s centred around the enormous Palazzo Ducale, which manages to pull off looking both imposing and pretty, thanks to its delicate twin conical towers and hulking walls. Today, it’s an art gallery, stuffed with Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Piero della Francesca and Raphael — not to mention The Ideal City, a painting with unresolved attribution. 

The new destinations

This year’s interest in Italy’s lesser-known regions is not just focused on discovering pristine landscapes, in many cases it’s about helping destinations reinvent themselves.

Abruzzo
This region, east of Rome, has never been a magnet for tourists, and after a fatal avalanche at a mountain hotel in Pescara in January last year, it faded even further off the radar. To many outside Italy, it was already best known for the 2009 earthquake that devastated L’Aquila, the regional capital, which is still rebuilding. Today, however, it’s seeking to reinvent by promoting its natural landscapes. Abruzzo has varied terrain, from miles of manicured sands around Pescara, to mountainous national parks where wolves still roam and castles perch on rocky bluffs. This is a place where hotels are rooted in the landscape — Sextantio Albergo Diffuso (sextantio.it), for instance, seems to have been carved from the mountainside in which it sits — towns grow up around Roman remains, and fishermen still use trabocchi (ramshackle fishing platforms fashioned from driftwood).

South Tyrol
The province is making a bid for Italy’s food capital crown. The northern region now has more Michelin stars to its name than any other (32 across 19 restaurants), yet remains more laid-back than other gastro hotspots, with events like the Gourmet Ski Safari, where participants ski between courses, and a May food festival showcasing local products.

Basilicata
This southern region is shaking off its ‘poor man’s Puglia’ reputation by extending the focus beyond cave-city Matera. There are ancient ruins, a rugged Mediterranean coastline around Maratea (whose clifftop ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue was inspired by Rio’s) and a burgeoning luxury scene, centred on medieval hilltop town Bernalda and the Palazzo Margherita hotel, owned by one Francis Ford Coppola.

The new cultural hotspots

Florence
In 2013, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo closed its doors. When the landmark gallery, containing priceless artworks originally commissioned for the city’s cathedral, reopened two years later, it was reborn as a sleek modern cultural venue as visually impressive as Athens’ Acropolis Museum. Open-plan, light-flooded galleries and walkways crisscrossing bits of the original cathedral facade were now juxtaposed against centuries-old works by Michelangelo and Donatello, casting them in a new light. Another dramatic makeover comes in the shape of the Museo degli Innocenti, reopened in 2016 after a three-year revamp updated the Brunelleschi-designed building to glorious effect.

Rome
Rome, meanwhile, is focusing on lively new ways to experience its ancient sites, from sound-and-light shows (including projections at the Domus Aurea) to 3D headsets at the Ara Pacis and Baths of Caracalla, and a new Vatican-approved show, Universal Judgment, which marries laser technology and live acrobatics with a potted history of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo. There’s also the recent Detour app, which brings the city to life by making a surround-sound, GPS-based guide out of your phone, complete with film clips, music, and narration by experts on subjects as varied as politics and hip hop.

Calabria
On a grassroots level, there are fascinating initiatives bubbling away here. These include the formerly abandoned mountain village of Pentedattilo (still accessible only by foot or on donkey), which is rebranding itself as a cultural tourism hotspot, with artisan workshops, galleries and summer events. There’s also the Ionian coastal of Riace, which went from ghost town to boom town when it started welcoming migrants and encouraging them to embrace vanishing local traditions and trades, from embroidery to pottery.

The new food heroes

The farmer: Rita Salvadori  
While studying art at Milan’s prestigious Brera Academy, Rita Salvadori was asked to create an art installation. Keen to hark back to her roots (quite literally), Rita hit on the novel idea of planting chilli peppers amid the olive groves at her family’s Tuscan farm. It changed her life. Today, having ditched the art world, ‘chilli queen’ Rita cultivates over 80,000 plants on that same family plot, including some of the spiciest strains on earth. Everything is organic, and her Peperita line — sold in three shops, including one in central Rome — includes chilli-infused salt and jam as well as seeds and powder. 

The wine-maker: Giovanni Manetti 
Back in 1968, the Manettis — a family of terracotta artisans stretching back eight generations — wanted a new, yet equally Tuscan, challenge. They decided to produce wine on their Fontodi estate, in the hills south of the town of Panzano in Chianti — ditching traditional wooden barrels and ageing the wine in giant, homemade amphorae (a tall terracotta two-handled jug), a method that predates the Romans. Today, headed by Giovanni Manetti, the family produces nine organic wines, using amphorae at various stages of the process. One — a Sangiovese named Dino, after Giovanni’s father, who started the winery — is aged entirely in terracotta for a full 13 months. The result? Fresher and more delicate than any barrel-aged wine. Tastings by appointment.

The chef: Massimo Ratti
Massimo Ratti likes fruit — a lot. At his restaurant, Ponterosso, every dish is based on fruit — a radical reinterpretation of the culinary traditions of his region, Emilia-Romagna, famed for venerable dishes like tortellini and risotto. At Ponterosso, where there’s no written menu, meat tortellini are slathered in a sour-ish strawberry sauce; ricotta and parsley tortelloni are dusted with grated coconut and served on pureed peas; and the signature risotto adds orange, chestnut, pomegranate and passion fruit. Astonishingly, it works. And it’s highly affordable. Three-course meals at Ratti’s low-key establishment (the restaurant occupies the ground floor of his house) in rural town Monteveglio, cost around £30. 

The miller: Stefano Caccavari
It was a search for “the kind of flour that our grandparents used to eat” that prompted Stefano Caccavari to launch his Mulinum project. His flour revival takes seven ancient grains from his native Calabria that have long been out of fashion (including barley, rye and spelt) — growing them organically and grinding them with a stone wheel, as farmers in his region would have done through the centuries. In 2017, having crowdfunded on Facebook, he opened the Mulino di San Floro near Catanzaro, working with 20 local growers to “claw back what my grandparents were passionate about.” They’ve since added Italy’s first ‘farming’ pizzeria, where all the flour and vegetables used are their own, and there are plans to open mills in Tuscany, Puglia and Sicily. 

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)