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I recently heard a talk about “building a new travel blog vocabulary.” Good timing for my post on rural Italy because every hackneyed phrase about a destination ever written comes to mind: “off the radar,” “hidden gem,” “best-kept secret,” etc.
So instead of torturing you with claptrap, I decided to come up with a quick list of three towns you should seek out: Matera, Soave and Cinque Valli. Most tourists to Italy have a set itinerary, such as Rome, Capri, Florence and the Cinque Terre. And while those destinations are beautiful and unique in their own ways, they are hardly the only beautiful parts of Italy. There are plenty of lesser-known spots in Italy that make for fabulous vacations, including the Piedmont region, the Aeolian Islands and the city of Bergamo. (And, these are the best times to visit Italy in general.)
“Authentic” is another cliché, but I can’t think of a more apt description for my favorite Italian towns. In Southern Italy, the laid-back culture influences daily life. For example, I still remember the lemon gelato I enjoyed every evening in Matera just perched on the edge of a fountain enjoying the show. Even in the industrial North’s small towns, life can be very relaxed, by American standards. This summer I stood on the main street corner in Soave at 2pm and timed it: There were six minutes between the only two cars that went by.
I will warn you in advance these three Italian towns — Matera, Soave or Cinque Valli — are not particularly hotel-points friendly: Get those flexible points ready from cards such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or Discover it® Miles, as this is the time to use them.
For each town, you can also book lodgings through the Hotels.com/Venture partnership where you’ll earn 10x miles when charging the reservation to your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Or, use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to pay for a hotel at a rate of up to 1.5 cents per point. We saw options in Soave for as little as 3,000 points per night during some parts of the year using that method.
The extra work of booking stays outside of the normal hotel chains is so worth it. Prices, especially at restaurants, in all three are a fraction of what you’ll pay in the big cities. More importantly, the only other tourists I encountered in all three cities were Europeans, mostly Italians on weekend trips.
To orient yourself to Matera, picture the “boot” part of Italy, south of Rome. From Naples, you can draw a somewhat straight line to Bari. Matera is roughly in between those lines.
The Sassi are Matera’s claim to fame. The what? The Sassi, or caves, of Matera were lived in without pause from the Paleolithic era to after World War II. The extreme poverty of the Basilicata region meant that poorer residents simply couldn’t afford houses and made do within the caves. Finally in the 1950s progress came to Matera — but so did UNESCO, so the Sassi remain intact. From afar, the town looks like Tatooine from “Star Wars.” Up close it rendered me speechless.
Even the “new” (17th–18th century) Matera is worth seeing. The piazzas are walkable, the cathedrals are gorgeous and more culture drips from a random Matera street than off many “A-list cities” I’ve visited.
You can even stay in a high-end luxury cave (yes, that’s a thing) with included breakfast from about 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points per night via the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Getting there: Matera is not the easiest to get to as you have to either take a train/flight/bus to Bari and then transfer to Matera, or find one of the few direct bus lines from Rome or Naples. Rome2Rio might help. I came from Rome and departed to Naples, and it was five hours from Rome, four hours back to Naples. There is a train from Bari (I would not drive in Matera proper). I spent three nights in Matera and three in Bari, where I rented a car and explored the Adriatic coast.
I found my award flights using Delta SkyMiles to fly nonstop from Minneapolis–Saint Paul Airport (MSP) to Rome, though that nonstop route is no longer offered, so a connection would now be required. Alitalia is also a Delta partner, if you wanted to fly directly to Bari via Rome, but I found train and bus connections to be more convenient. Bari airport (BRI) has numerous low-cost flights to many European cities and is about 45 minutes from Matera.
I learned a new travel truism this summer: Any town that has its own wine cannot be bad by definition. Soave certainly lived up to the bill, both with its crisp white namesake and the travel experience. About 90 minutes from Venice, Soave was pretty darn close to being a fictional Italian town — it was just that perfect.
Castle on the hill? Check. 360-degree vineyard views? Check. Local restaurant where the waiters know you by name on Day Two? Check. Pasta with truffles for 12 euros ($14)? Check. Not only is Soave brilliant on its own, but it’s also a terrific base for exploring Verona, Lake Garda and the surrounding areas. I spent a week there and didn’t scratch the surface of Soave’s charms.
In searching for hotels in Soave, there aren’t a ton available, but the ones that exist are usually under $100 per night.
Getting there: While Verona is closer, you’ll likely find a lot more airline award availability from Venice. I flew to Venice on American Airlines using AAdvantage miles via Philadelphia. AA flies to Venice (VCE) in summer only; Delta and United also run seasonal flights from Atlanta and New York.
Cinque Where? Just to the west of Tuscany and the more famous Cinque Terre is Liguria — as beautiful but with half the crowds and cost. Cinque Valli is off the radar for many people — and that’s a good thing.
I would base in Dolceacqua, which is about an hour from Monte Carlo, and smack dab in the middle of the area you’ll want to see. It’s a bit more touristy, but for good reason. My first thought upon seeing it was, “This looks out of an impressionist painting.”
Well, it is. Monet spent a fair amount of time in Dolceacqua and a number of his works are based on the area. The lanes lining the bridge pictured on one side feature cafes perfect for people-watching and on the other side, a farmers market. I enjoyed picking up fresh pasta and tomatoes from the market and tossing them up with olive oil from a local grove. Paired with wine from the vineyard next door to the olive grove, I was in heaven and it cost me almost nothing.
Pigna, just north of Dolceacqua, is a must-see. But at first, it’s jarring, to be honest. A little disorienting. No, scratch that — totally disorienting. The entire town looks like a stage set. Because nobody actually lives in a medieval town, right? Wrong.
My vision of “medieval village” was Rottenburg, along Germany’s Romantic Road. Now Rottenburg is lovely, but it’s basically a Middle Ages theme park. Not so in Pigna. A few hearty tourists have found the place, but it’s otherwise untouched from its founding 1,000 years ago. The 900 residents go about their business of, well, living — but not of driving: once you arrive into Pigna, you have to park your car as the entire town is only accessible on foot.
Pigna is Italian for “pine cone.” Think of the streets as layers of a pine cone; each is only accessible by stairs from the next. It’s a recipe for getting lost, which I did numerous times. Pigna is not for anyone with mobility issues — and this includes needing to use a stroller. If you can’t use a baby carrier, or your tyke isn’t ready for the hike, wait a year or two.
A lot of Italy is very close to a coast line, and Cinque Valli is no exception. I especially enjoyed strolling along the boardwalk at San Remo, gelato in hand, of course. Even at the height of August, I didn’t feel rushed or crushed, and the environment was much more family-friendly than the neighboring French Riviera.
Getting there: The easiest gateway to Cinque Valli is actually Nice, France. From there it’s easy to rent a car for the drive to Cinque Valli. I got to Nice (NCE) using Delta SkyMiles on Air France from Washington Dulles (IAD) via Paris.
It’s going to take a specific kind of traveler to seek out Matera, Soave or Cinque Valli. However, if you’re tired of the well-trodden trails and looking to add authenticity into your family’s travels — have I got some ideas for you. What are your favorite “undiscovered” towns in Italy?
Featured image of Dolceacqua, Italy, via Shutterstock
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