Visit these 3 Places in Italy before they’re Ruined by Tour Groups
Leah Walker August 8, 2015

Italy is that wild and crazy friend we all have. She’s intoxicating, and I’m drawn to her like a fine Barolo wine. She’s boisterous, colorful, and invigorating. She envelops all that she encounters, shaking up our worlds like welcomed whirlwinds. Having her in our lives produces a high that no drug could duplicate. And when she’s gone, we’re left completely exhausted, yet dreaming of our next meeting.

Leah Italy

On the surface, Italy and France are quite similar: great wines, food, and illustrious histories. I’ve written of the attitude adjustment needed to cross the French-Italian border, because culturally, they couldn’t feel more opposite. Recently, a Parisian friend told me that French are refined Italians. Conversely, a Florentine friend told me that Italians are happy French. Being a somewhat impartial outsider, I can see where both statements have some truth.

Italy Road Trip Map1

In the last year, I’ve left France and taken my life into my own hands by setting off on two road trips to visit some of the best places in Italy. Akin to a Formula 1 race, driving in Italy isn’t for the faint of heart, and the further south you go, the more the rules go out the window. Stop signs are suggestions, painted highway lanes are decoration, and continuous horn honks make the radio obsolete.

Leah Italy Road Trip

But, if you want to see Italy outside of big cities like Rome, Florence, Rome, Napels, Venice, and Milan then you’ll need a car. Even with the plethora of trains to smaller cities like Siena, Bologna, and Salerno, a set of wheels is necessary to find parts of Italy that most don’t know exist, including Italians. Having embarked on these Italian road trips, I believe that the risk is worth the reward.

As much as I love the country’s typical tourist stops, there is still so much of Italy that’s untouched by tour buses and guides holding flags. In Texas, we say the proof is in the pudding. Thus, here are three hidden places to visit in Italy before they’re ruined by tour groups.

Maremma

Mention Tuscany and most people think of the vineyards of Chianti, Pisa and its leaning tower, or the walled city of Lucca. I’d wager that very few people outside of Italy have heard of Maremma, much less point it out on a map. Located along the costal area of southern Tuscany, Maremma runs from the border of Lazio up to Cecina, a town about an hour south of Pisa. Once inhabited by Etruscans, the hills are home to medieval villages and dense forests. Pirates roamed the 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline that ranges from black and white sand beaches to rocky shores. It’s still a wild part of Italy, virtually untouched by tourists.

Argentario Italy 2

Within Maremma is Monte Argentario, an even more remote part of the region. What used to be an island is now connected to the Italian mainland by two large sandbars and reachable by crossing over lagoons. Once controlled by Naples and Spain, the two main areas of Argentario are Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole. The later was once a fortress harbor that transformed into a picturesque fishing village, welcoming the Italian elite come July and August.

Argentario Italy 3

Monte Argentario feels like no part of Tuscany I’ve encountered. In October, I left the familiar Florence area for a three-night stay at Argentario Golf Resort and Spa. The crowds were gone, but the temperate climate made the area still pleasant. The contemporary-style resort is located next to Porto Ercole, on the Lagoon of Orbetello and Tyrrhenian Sea. Only five minutes from the Duna Feniglia Nature Reserve, Argentario feels isolated in the best kind of way.

Argentario Italy 1

Like Maremma itself, Argentario Resort is a far cry from typical Tuscany. As a member of Design Hotels, the style is contemporary using a black and white theme. The modern resort is a nice contrast to this rustic area of Italy. The soft curves of the limestone façade set the tone for what’s inside. The first thing I notice in the large, open lobby is the glass dome that sits above a modern spiral staircase that leads to the seriously cool bar. Just off the bar is Dama Dama. This restaurant features a menu filled with new takes on Tuscan and Italian dishes, some of which are made with products from the resort’s organic garden.

Argentario Italy 7

The massive panoramic terrace looks out over the 18-hole, 77-hectare golf course and Lagoon of Orbetello. Below the terrace is an outdoor pool, which connects to a heated indoor pool and the 30,000 square foot spa. With thalassotherapy, Kneipp pools, hot tubs, fitness center, tennis courts, and eight treatment rooms, there’s something for everyone, including children.

Argentario Italy 5

The 73 rooms and suites are individually designed and unique. Each feature a private terrace and sunbeds, giving guests prime views of the Tuscan countryside. If it weren’t for my trip to Argentario Resort, I, too, would be ignorant to this little-known area of Italy.

Civita di Bagnoregio

For thousands of years, the Volsini volcanoes erupted on the Pliocene hills of the Tiber River Valley, helping to create what is now known as Civita di Bagnoregio. Dating to the 7th century B.C., the village has been occupied through the Iron Age, Etruscan period, and Middle Ages. Today, less than twenty people live here full time. Built on a volcanic plateau, this ‘Dying City’ is crumbling due to earthquakes, erosion, and landslides.

Civita di Bagnoregio Italy 4

Located in central Italy, in the Province of Viterbo and region of Lazio, Civita di Bagnoregio was the first stop on my July road trip with Jennifer from The Luxe Adventure Traveler. Having lived in Italy for about six years, Jennifer put together a weeklong drive that literally circled the country. There was not a single city or place that appears on the typical tourist trail. Instead, our itinerary was filled with out-of-the-way and virtually unknown places.

Civita di Bagnoregio Italy 1

Reachable only by a long, steep bridge, Civita di Bagnoregio is simply one of the most magical places I’ve seen. In 1923, the construction of a stone arch bridge began, but was marred with problems. Ultimately, retreating German soldiers blew up this bridge in 1944. Two wooden walkways replaced it. Work on a new bridge began in 1963 and was finally completed in 1965. It was in 1999 that artist, Bruna Esposito, conceived the work of bamboo brooms with bells that line both sides of the pedestrian bridge. When the wind rings the bells, it’s considered a good omen for Civita di Bagnoregio. It reminds those visiting to listen to nature and focus positive and constructive minds on protecting the crumbling village.

Civita di Bagnoregio Italy 2

Civita di Bagnoregio Italy 3

Once you enter through the massive stone entrance, it’s as if you’ve entered another time. This rustic maze of stone buildings is one head-shaking surprise after another. Civita di Bagnoregio’s gathering point is the main piazza. Surrounded by a few shops and restaurants, the focal point of the piazza is a Catholic church, which also served as Etruscan and Roman temples. Simple in stucco, the terracotta-colored church is anchored by a tall clock tower.

Civita di Bagnoregio Italy 5

Civita di Bagnoregio Italy 6

Ivy clings to façades and brightly colored flowers adorn windows, stairs, and terraces. There are more cats than people, and they seek shelter in the shade from the sultry sun. The cobblestones are smooth from 2,500+ years of wear and views over the Tiber River Valley will easily fill your camera’s memory card. Civita di Bagnoregio may continue to crumble, but its true demise will come at the hands of tour buses and commercialism.

Craco

When Jennifer told me we were visiting Craco during our road trip, I secretly wondered why she’d included Poland in our Italian itinerary. As silly as it sounds, even Italians had no idea about this ghost town located in the arch of Italy’s boot. Found in the province of Matera, in the region of Basilicata, Craco is not a place you stumble upon by chance. It’s a destination unto itself.

Craco Italy 1

Looking more like Texas’ Big Bend National Park than Italy, the land leading to Craco is dry, deserted, and vast. Yellow mountains rise to meet the blue skies, and the only signs of people are the occasional farmer tending to his crops. Faded signs and Garmin are the only indications that confirm Craco’s existence.

Craco Italy 7

Craco Italy 2

The Greeks originally founded Craco in 540 A.D., with some of the buildings in the hilltop ghost town dating to 1060. Over the centuries, Craco continued to expand in population and size. And although the area regularly experiences earthquakes and landslides, it was the citizens of Craco that ultimately led to the town’s end. Over-expansion coupled with a massive landslide in 1963 made Craco unsafe for human inhabitation. Now, only goats, donkeys, and stray dogs call the area home.

Craco Italy 4

Craco Italy 3

Craco has played roles in blockbuster films such as Quantum of Solace and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. It was here that the hanging of Judas scene was filmed. More recently, a Japanese Pepsi commercial was filmed in Craco.

Craco Italy 6

Gates keep the public from exploring Craco on their own. Not only is it slightly dangerous {hardhats are required}, but also many of the buildings are privately owned. Admission is available only by daily guided tours. During the hour-long tour, only a small portion of the city is visited, but it’s enough to get a picture of life in Craco.

Craco Italy 5

Craco Italy 8

The crumbling buildings and faded frescoes are intriguing and the history fascinating, but it’s the seemingly never-ending views to the badlands that make the trek worthwhile. On this day, there were five people to about thirty goats. I’ll take that ratio over the mob of people at Rome’s Colosseum any time.

For more on Craco, see this article by Jennifer on The Luxe Adventure Traveler.

I was a guest of Argentario Golf Resort and Spa. In no was I swayed to write a positive review based on the exceptional cappuccinos, the mind-blowing sunsets, or the complete relaxation I achieved during my stay. As always, opinions are mine.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

23 Comments

  1. I love this post! For some reason, I’ve never been especially drawn to Italy (maybe because it’s so touristed? because I’ve seen pictures and heard stories so much that I almost feel as if I wouldn’t find anything new and surprising there?), but this leaves me feeling truly inspired to visit. Your pictures of Civita di Bagnoregio – gorgeous. Saving this post for future trip planning!

    1. Italy is sort of my guilty pleasure. I feel like I’m cheating on France when visiting. I think a little guilt is good, however. Get out of the cities and see Bella Italia!

  2. The thought of car hire in Italy is something that’s always terrified me – I’ve always stuck to public transport. But I know I need to get some bottle and just try it or I’ll never see places like you’ve mentioned and truly, that’s the Italy I want to know!
    Also – I loved the beginning of this post! It reminds me of something I wrote about Italy a while back. I won’t post the link, but it was about Greece and Italy- my two legendary loves.

    1. Yes, renting a car in a foreign country can be stressful, but just do your research and be totally covered before hitting the road. Having a car in Italy opens up the entire country. Just don’t drive in the cities!

  3. Leah, there is so much I love about this post. First, it reminds me of the conversations/presentations I listened to in Florence for Florens 2012 about the need for tourism to spread to lesser-known parts of Italy, both for the benefit of those local economies and to ease the pressure of tourism in the big tourist centers of Rome, Florence, etc. Second, your first suggestion reminds me of my friend Alexandra Korey, who runs Arttrav.com, because she has a holiday house in Maremma, and her photos of the area make it seem so beautiful and peaceful. I would love to travel to all these places and maybe follow that road trip route you’ve provided. I hope to make it back to Italy next year. Thank you for sharing these great tips with us!

    1. As much as I love Italy, they are not great at promoting tourism. If they would follow the lead of France and Great Brittan, Italy would be #1. They’re #2 without even trying. That’s really saying something about the attributes of Italy.

  4. Driving in Italy terrifies me! But I know one day I will have to conquer that fear if I really want to see the places that are harder to reach. Civita di Bagnoregio looks amazing! I visited Cinque Terre in 2004, and while it’s was still just catching on to tourists, every person I passed was carrying a Rick Steves book. I look forward to exploring these gems while they are still the places they are. Love! PS: That photo of you in mid-jump cracks me up!

    1. I’ve yet to visit Cinque Terre for several reasons, the biggest due to the large number of tourists. I’m sure there are hidden places in that area, too. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Civita di Bagnoregio was totally worth the hike in the heat to see. Go!

      Oh, and that picture cracked me up, too. 🙂

  5. Nice post, Leah. I, too, love Civita but it certainly is not undiscovered. I visited over 20 years ago, having learned of it in Rick Steves’ guidebook.

    1. Rick Steves has written about so many great places in Italy, but I’d still wager that 9/10 tourists don’t know it exists. I mentioned Civita to at least a dozen Italians and they’d never heard of it either. It’s certainly not well-known, which is one of the things I loved about it.

  6. What a great post and I wanted to go to Italy for quite sometimes and sometimes, its good to keep some places away from tour groups but at the same time if that promote the area and the local businesses it won’t be a bad thing. I think moderation is the best.

    1. If you’ve never been to Italy, I think it’s important to see some of the great cities. I particularly love Rome and Florence. But, make a point to go beyond those places for a different look at the country.

  7. I just enjoyed this post with my morning (ice) coffee and I love, love, love it Leah! I was so excited for you to write about these places after following your adventures on facebook and instagram and I very much agree that these places are still gems, craco is just wow!. Maremma is a vast area in Tuscany that most miss, also because you need a car and it doesn’t make for a very convenient day-trip like Montelpulciano does. One city I recommend you visit next time is beautiful Pitigliano, carved out of the cliffs like a city of the gods, each year they have an ‘infiorata’ festival covering the tiny streets in flowers, as part of an ancient tradition. I am planning on heading to Monte Argentario tomorrow with a few girlfriends but sadly we won’t be staying at the awesome resort, next time I hope! Come back to Italy soon so that Nico and I can steal you away for a few fun trips 🙂

  8. Wow, what a great trip and a well-written post. I would love to take this exact same road trip. I visited last year and hit some major cities including Rome, Florence and Venice but it was my 4 days in Umbria that remain a highlight of the trip. In addition to exploring my roots on my father’s side (mother’s side is from Sicily), I was able to drive much of the area ans see many of the small Umbrian hillside towns and experience more of the “real” Italy. Hope to do more of that soon, and you have given me inspiration to make it happen sooner rather than later and some ideas of what to see and do! Thank you.

  9. Leah, This post is wonderful! I felt like I was there with you and your photos are spectacular! I too enjoy the off-the-beaten path places…More ideas for my next trip ! Craco looks amazing!

  10. Ha! I love the descriptions of the French and Italians by your friends. As for Italy, it was the first country I fell in love with years and years ago… I haven’t been in some 6 years and hope to go back, this time for some off-the-beaten path fun. I have a feeling I’d like Civita di Bagnoregio.

  11. Great post! I’m going to Italy in November and want to drive around the countryside. I was definitely inspired by this post and thinking of going to these places. 🙂

  12. Lovely pictures! My dad is from Viterbo, so of course I have been to Civita di Bagnoregio… but I was such a small child that I hardly remember it and would love to go again. If you are up for more unexplored places in Italy, let me know and I can point you in the right direction 🙂

    1. You should go back and see it through older eyes. I love revisiting places from my childhood. I’d love any Italy tips. 🙂

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