From colourful Cinque Terre fishing villages to swanky Portofino, Liguria has long attracted tourists. Yet venture west of Portofino and you find an altogether more authentic fishing village, devoid of designer stores and billionaire yachts. Dreamy Camogli comprises a cluster of skinny, brightly painted houses overlooking a surf-bashed beach. At weekends, the Genoese escape here for their fix of seaside fun. The bay-hugging promenade has unpretentious restaurants and bars leading to the rock-perched Baroque cathedral. Explore Camogli’s stacked narrow streets, feast on seafood pasta at Ostaia da ö Sigù, then hike or ferry over to San Fruttuoso whose 10th-century abbey overlooks an idyllic cove. With sea views from all bedrooms, the new Sublimis Boutique hotel has doubles from £160, B&B (hotelsublimiscamogli.it).
Santa Maria di Castellabate, Salerno, Campania
Perfect for families, the blue-flag beaches of Santa Maria di Castellabate are where Neapolitans go to escape their city’s summer swelter. You’ll hardly hear another English voice here – instead, the evening passeggiata around Piazza Lucia is pure Fellini: Italian mammas comparing babies, old men licking ice-creams, kids enjoying Punch and Judy shows while handsome cassock-clad priests swish through the crowds. Given its proximity to the Amalfi coast, this delightful seaside resort remains surprisingly off-radar. Flop on beaches, dawdle over a sunset Aperol spritz at Bar L’Ancora, skedaddle up hilltop Castellabate or visit crowd-free Paestum. The choices are plentiful. Offering both sea-view and family rooms, centrally located Pepi B&B has doubles from £81 (pepi-bb.santa-maria-di-castellabate.hotels-in-it.com).
George and Amal Clooney may have given Lake Como an extra sheen, but there are quieter lakes showboating similar levels of loveliness. Lago d’Orta near Maggiore may be small, but offers pilgrim hiking routes and a preserved medieval lakeside town in Orta San Giulio. Enjoy fine lake views from 15th-century Santa Maria Assunta, explore its narrow cobbled lanes, relax in the café-lined square, then ferry over to the island of San Giulio. This idyllic, middle-of-the-lake cluster of dreamy palazzi and secret gardens contains a Romanesque basilica – and, guaranteeing peace, a ‘way of silence and meditation’ walk encircling the island. Only 50 yards from Lake Orta’s shore, Locanda Orta has doubles from £85, B&B (locandaorta.com).
Nestled in a valley surrounded by the peaks of the Grand Sasso and Velino-Sirente mountain ranges, L’Aquila is a great base for exploring the Abruzzo region. It’s relaxed and laidback, thanks to a burgeoning student population, combining a Renaissance core of palazzi, piazzas and baroque churches – all easily navigable by foot. Café-lined Piazza del Duomo is home to a daily market and there are plenty of choices for high-calibre osterie, serving regional cuisine, alongside buzzy night clubs. Staying in L’Aquila also provides easy access to the hiking and biking trails of the spectacular Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso. Set in the heart of the centro storico, Palazzo dei Pavoni has antique-filled doubles from £93, B&B (palazzodeipavoni.it).
Poet Robert Browning lived here so did the explorer Freya Stark; the fun-loving exiled Queen Caterina of Cyprus held court in Asolo in the 16th century, attracting some of the period’s top literati. This idyllic hilltop town encapsulates Italy at its best: delicate loggias shading booksellers, narrow streets filled with authentic food shops, alongside poetic views over cypress-spiked hills, olive groves and prosecco vineyards. Its social heart, initiated in the 17th century, is Caffe Centrale – a perfect people-watching spot and great, too, for gazing over those grand Venetian townhouses painted in earthy washes. Centrally located Hotel Asolo has elegant doubles from £85, B&B (hotel-asolo.com).
Lagoon island hopping, Venice
If you’re overwhelmed by Venice’s crowds, escape to its Lido and spend a weekend cycling to neighbouring islands, using ferries (bike in tow) and wheels, as far as lagoon-fringed Chioggia. Not only do you get fantastic views while riding on to the domes and belltowers of Venice, but the chance, too, to explore lesser-known islands such as Malamocco. Enjoy quiet alleyways and painted fishermen’s homes here, then drop in on Pellestrina – a skinny island with a workaday scene of fishermen sorting shoals of mussels. Stop for spider-crab spaghetti at Da Celeste on its pontoon terrace, then continue on to Chioggia. Peaceful, easy, crowd-free pedalling guaranteed. Villa Mabapa has free bike hire and doubles from £83, B&B (villamabapa.com).
Despite being Raphael’s birthplace, Urbino remains relatively undiscovered; so, too, much of the rugged Marche region. Handsome, grey-stoned Urbino may be a vision of Renaissance perfection, but it’s not stuck in the past. There’s a lively student vibe here, and some great slow-food restaurants and buzzy bars. Climb its steep cobbled streets to the semi-ruined Rocca fortress for views over the surrounding countryside; pop into Palazzo Ducale, and don’t miss Casa Natale di Raffaelo for an insight into the artist Raphael’s childhood. Afterwards, venture further afield to the exquisite fortified towns of Montegridolfo, Gradara, San Leo and Pennabilli. Set in a former seminary in the centro storico, Albergo Raffaello has doubles from £87, B&B (albergoraffaelo.com).
Salina, Aeolian Islands, Sicily
Of the seven islands in Sicily’s volcanic Aeolian chain, Salina is easily the most bucolic. Its twin peaks overshadow the fertile central plain of Valdichiesa. Vines for the sweet Malvasia wine grow here in abundance along with capers – and acacia trees trace a straight route to Pollara, the pristine fishing village where Il Postino was filmed. Staying on Salina allows you to ferry-hop to the other islands, spend days hiking volcanic Monte Fossa delle Felici for dreamy views over the archipelago, or simply relax alongside holidaying Sicilians at the tiny buzzy port town of Rinella. With panoramic views over Stromboli and Panarea, Le Sette Valle da Riccardo has doubles from £65, B&B (lesettevele.it).
Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia
On the southernmost tip of the Salento peninsula, where the Adriatic mingles with the Ionian, Santa Maria di Leuca is hugely popular with Italians – yet remains off-radar for many overseas tourists. Its huddle of white-washed buildings and Art Nouveau villas culminates in an impressive Roman basilica set high above the harbour. In August, catch the parade of the Blessed Virgin reliquary, set on a flotilla out to sea. Fireworks and full-on partying follow. Alternatively, cycle ancient pilgrim pathways, boat around the cave-pocked coastline, feast on fabulous seafood and check out family-friendly sandy beaches running from all the way to Felloniche, Posto Vecchio and Pescoluse. Just 500 yards from the beach, Il Pappagallo has doubles from £47, B&B (ilpappagallo.net).
Castiglione della Pescaia, Tuscany
Part hill town, part fishing village, Castiglione della Pescaia is pure, off-the-beaten-track Tuscany. This gem of a coastal town, with its sturdy green-shuttered houses and steep flagstone streets sloping down to a dinky harbour, epitomises Tuscany’s lesser-known Maremma region. After exploring the town, join locals on buzzy Via Camaiori where, at apertivo hour, Caffe Piazzetta does a brisk trade in Aperol spritz. Then venture further to the flamingo-dotted wetlands of Diaccia Botrona nature reserve, or inland, to unsung hilltop Massa Marittima. This atmospheric town has a medieval Tree of Fertility fresco – peer closely and you’ll discover some outrageous phallic detailing. Close to the sea, Pensione La Scogliera has simple doubles from £63, B&B (scogliera.com).
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