Italy sometimes seems like a postcard that everyone has seen, stacked on those spinning shelves next to teddy bears and little badges, with pictures of gondolas in Venice and gladiators in Rome.
But this is a country of more than 55 million people, many of whom don’t live in St Peter’s square or have the modesty of Michelangelo’s David.
There are ways to see Italy from another angle, where the pictures aren’t laminated and red rope doesn’t block your path.
In this compilation of unexpected tourist spots, where you may discover a new part of Italy, it is fitting to start with a destination that cannot be seen above ground.
Grotte di Frasassi
Discovered in 1971, these are some of the largest caves in Europe and contain some incredible limestone formations. The ‘Cave of the Great Wind’ is the biggest of the 18km of caves underneath the Frasassi Gorge, and is big enough to hold the White House. Since its discovery just 40 years ago, the cave has been used extensively for scientific experiments.
The stalactites and stalagmites here have dripped up, and down, over thousands of years to create some unbelievable formations. The ‘Pipe Organ Cave’, for example, has amazing tubular rocks that are lit from behind, while in another chamber what looks like a Roman giant’s face stares back at visitors.
There is a kind of outer space melting feel to the Caves of Frasassi that gives them an eerie, ancient yet futuristic feel that is really unique. They are located in the Regional National Park of Gola della Rossa e di Frasassi, which, along with the Frasassi Gorge, is well worth a look in itself.
Unfortunately the public transport is not always great in this part of Italy so it may be worth renting a car to see it all. A vehicle will surely be an asset when trying to see the rest of Italy’s unexpected tourist spots.
Elba, located on Italy’s western coast, just above Corsica, is the country’s third largest island after its more famous sisters of Sicily and Sardinia. Exactly 200 years ago a certain diminutive Frenchmen was exiled here for 300 days, although these days people usually only visit for a few weeks.
Napoleon would have enjoyed the prickly pears, mushrooms and chestnuts growing all over the island, as well as the clean sea air. Elba is a fantastic spot for a recharge, to enjoy the dramatically clear water that encircles it today, as it did Bonaparte in the 19th century. When the rain falls here the crystal mountains shine with purple amethyst and green beryl, while the smell of rich pine forest fills the air.
This natural beauty was almost lost because of the mineral richness of the island, as civilizations through the years mined the rocks for Iron in particular. However, the decision was made to re-energise Elba after WW2 and today it is a haven for wildlife and a relaxed locale.
Much like its former inhabitant this island has a lot of firepower for its size, which is only added to by the fact that it is a part of Tuscany. Like other islands the cuisine is based solely around local produce, so dishes of octopus and chestnuts, mushrooms and Aleatico wine are commonplace.
Flights straight to the island are available although the most popular route is by Ferry from the mainland.
At the sole of Italy, just before the land goes south into the heel of the boot, is the Basilicata town of Matera.
The stunning cave districts of this southern town are really like nothing else in Europe, incomparable in beauty but also in necessity. These are not ornamental buildings built for luxury visitors. As recently as the 1950s more than 20,000 people were still living in the ancient caves that run beneath the picturesque landscape. Poverty was rife and many were still living like their ancestors were a thousand years before.
The caves are now empty after the Italian government rehoused the poverty stricken residents but the memory remains. Exploring the area is fascinating and gives an insight into the stark difference between Italy’s industrial north and more rural south.
Today, though, Matera is quickly becoming more affluent, and offers visitors some great places to stay and eat. The Trattoria Lucana is favourite eating spot in the middle of town. It gets seriously busy because the locals love it so much so booking a table is a good idea.
At the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita visitors can stay in a cave hotel that mixes the rustic simplicity of Matera with really comfortable accommodation and friendly service.
Way up in the north and very eastern part of Italy the city of Trieste has for centuries been influenced by Italian, Germanic and Slav rulers.
The real allure of the city is its cross-border culture, something that makes it so hard to define as a national city. London, for example, is red buses and telephone boxes, whereas Trieste is defined better by its geographic and cultural identity. This was, after all, one of the leading Austro-Hungarian cities, a place where today Slovene is a recognised language, and at one point was the home of James Joyce and Sigmund Freud.
The Piazza dell Unitia d’Italia is the main square of Trieste and is full of street performers at night, when the area is also lit by bright lighting. In the day you can often spot yachts and sail boats on the Gulf of Trieste, navigating the Adriatic water as the sun shines.
One of the best views of the gulf is just a short walk from the Piazza at the Molo Audace, an 18th century pier that was built on top of a wrecked ship.
Trieste’s culture has its roots in a turbulent area of Europe that has often changed authoritative hands. This constant change has manifested a racially eclectic and vibrant city.
Ok, so Rome isn’t exactly an unexpected tourist spot but, in between the obvious places, the Esposizione Universale Roma is a remarkable and largely uncredited part of the Italian Capital.
The idea behind this district was for it to hold the World’s Fair, celebrating 20 years of fascism in the 1930s. However, WW2 came along and Mussolini never cut the ribbon on this modernistic part of southern Rome.
More than any other building, the Palazzo della Civilta del Lavoro gives the best idea of 20th century ideas of a fascist future. It’s bright white stone, shaped around pigeon hole windows, stands monumentally over a manicured garden.
The history of the Italian kingdom can be seen all around Rome but this area is a fantastic example of the less distant history of this fascinating, beautiful country.