4 Destinations for a Deeper Dive into Rural Italy

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

One of Europe’s grandest dames, Italy lures travellers with a seemingly endless history, delicious cuisine and a dizzying cultural tapestry woven from thousands of years of religion, politics and creativity. Repeat visits are obligatory to understand the nuances of Italian culture: the various peoples, their languages, arts and beliefs, and to see the beautiful landscapes: mountains descending to lush forestry, hill towns and heavenly beaches.

Ancient History in Matera: The City of Stone

The biblical beauty of Matera in the Basilicata countryside can be somewhat disarming. The city, ancient and mysterious, is all frescoed churches, cobbled lanes, exceptional views, and a uniquely antique atmosphere, at its best in the caves and crannies crisscrossing the underground of the vast rock that forms Matera’s ancient roots. But as one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, its story is a long one. With modern eyes, Matera looks cinematic, almost mythological, but the city begins life in the Paleolithic Age with inhabited caves, expanded to house peasants and artisans in the mediaeval times, most without running water, until it eventually became known as *the shame of Italy,*its residents moved to social housing projects that brought the ancient caves (*sassi)* to an era of ghostly silence.

Zip forward to the 2020s, via Pasolini and Gibson substituting Jerusalem for Matera in their movies, and many of the Sassi are homes again, others reimagined by modern innovation, bringing spas, hotels and cocktail bars draped in amber lights at nightfall, to this exceptional city and its warrens of grottoes. But for the most part, Matera looks as it always did - an ensemble of rock and stone, shaped by nature and a human touch.

Boutique Luxuries in Norcia: A Village in the Sky

Perched high up in Monti Sibillini National Park, this little village feels somewhat magical with its pretty rooftops closely haloed by the indented topography of the Sibillini mountains. Arriving by road via the Forca di Cerro tunnel, one passes stunning plateaus of buttercups, poppies, and streams filled with clear mountain water until the small walled town interrupts the verdant with a slice of the mediaeval. Norcia is sleepy by Italian standards, notable for its norcineria (Italy’s famous pork butchers that began life in Norcia), black truffles, and the monastic beers that hint at the importance of Saint Benedict (the father of Western monasticism and a Norcia local). For active travellers, it makes an ideal base for walks in the idyllic Monti Sibillini National Park, via truffle hunting in the woods, water rafting along the Corno and Nera rivers, and 500 km of biking trails, all with exquisite plateau vistas.

Stay in the sublime Palazzo Seneca, often cited as one of Italy’s finest boutique hotels, risen from Norcia’s vibrant Piazza San Benedetto in an attractive 16th-century palace. The contemporary rooms are all clean lines and historic accents, elevated by ornamental columns and antique beds, and the Michelin-starred restaurant proves an excellent showcase for Umbrian gastronomy. 

Hilltop Villages and Spring Waters in Montecatini Terme

Divided into two pretty parts: Montecatini Terme and Montecatini Alto, and connected by a charming Funicular, whose opening was witnessed by Verdi, this little town is often dubbed a hidden gem. The old town is up in Alto, a button-cute maze of cobbles and little houses with exceptional Valdinievole views. It’s the type of village that invites slow promenades and accidental trespasses onto private properties that blend into the village terrain.

But down in Montecatini proper, the draw is in the water, and the water is in the phenomenally pretty Terme Tettuccio, found in the stunning Thermal Gardens of Montecatini along with the Regina Thermal Spa. Tettuccio is a drinking spa with two water-tasting sessions a day, set in an art nouveau building with stunning collonades and colourful ceramic panels that represent things like beauty and adolescence, hinting at the water’s apparent therapeutic benefits.

Mountain Hiking, Gnocci and a European Icon in Aosta Valley

Mt Blanc, or Mt Bianco, the ethereal crag of a mountain dominating Europe’s natural skyline, is an icon, but few seem to consider it from the Italian side. To see it from Italy, visit the stunning Aosta Valley, best known for Courmayeur, which shares some personality with France’s Chamonix, with hills glazed emerald green in the summer, and winters filled with snow and plates of Gnocci glazed by molten fontina gobbled up by skiers looking for warmth. But the AostaValley is exceptional for explorers, with Roman archaeological sites and view-laden walking trails breaking onto wildflower-scented meadows and glacial lakes via picturesque towns like Fontainemore and Aosto.

Architecturally, the region is diverse, home to an enchanting collection of castles, many of which have a distinctly French charm (see: Savoy and Aymavilles). The regional differences here are intriguing too, born of the hybrid French-Italian culture known as Valdostan, which gave rise, not only to the slight differences in food and architecture but to the unique Valdôtain language spoken here alongside Italian and French.

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