What’s a trip to Italy without exploring the vaulted passages of the Colosseum, skipping down the Spanish Steps and staring up in wonderous rapture at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel?
“Absolutely relaxing,” said Margherita Migliorini of Villa di Capannole, a luxury accommodation in the Tuscan countryside. Her family has owned the villa — which used to be a working farm — for generations.
Italy is one of the most popular places to travel in the world. The country received more than 95 million tourist arrivals in 2019, the third highest in Europe after France and Spain, and the sixth highest in the world after the United States, China and Mexico, according to The World Bank.
With 55 in all, Italy is tied with China for having the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, though not all are crawling with tourists, such as the rural landscape of Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia.
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Now, Italy is letting in some international tourists. The European Union this week agreed to reopen its borders to travelers who have been immunized with approved vaccines, as well as those coming from a list of countries with low Covid-19 infection rates. The list may be finalized as early as this week, according to Reuters.
Italy had already announced that residents of the E.U., Europe’s Schengen Area, the United Kingdom and Israel can avoid quarantining if they test negative for Covid within 48 hours of arriving.
Travelers from the United States, Canada, Japan and the United Arab Emirates can bypass quarantine requirements if they arrive in Italy via “Covid-tested flights” into Rome, Milan, Venice or Naples. Those flights require passengers to test negative before and after arriving in Italy.
Those cities are some of the most heavily trodden tourist destinations in Italy, which leave lesser-known parts of the country quiet and peaceful, even during the summer.
Driving trips through Sicily
In 2019, just under half (nearly 42 million) of all travelers to Italy arrived for vacations, according to the Bank of Italy’s 2020 “Survey on International Tourism.” More than 9 million of those arrivals purchased package trips, according to the report.
While the term “package trip” may connote a bus caravan of tourists under the tutelage of a flag-waving guide, there are companies that design escorted or self-driving trips for solitude-seeking holidaymakers.
Mondello, a borough of the Sicilian capital of Palermo.
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Milan-based tour operator Find Your Italy specializes in “off-the-beaten-track” tours of the country. Small group tours are available to destinations like Abruzzo and Puglia, as are self-driving itineraries, which start from 645 euros ($780) to places such as Langhe, Piedmont and Sicily.
“I think this year could be a good chance for individual travelers to visit also the art cities as they won’t be as crowded as usual, due to lack of big scheduled groups,” Roberta Leverone, a company manager, told CNBC.
From March to November, Find Your Italy arranges 11-day self-driving tours through eastern Sicily, which includes excursions led by archaeologists, art historians, chefs and wine producers, according to the company’s website.
“We propose this tour with [a] self-drive option, but it’s possible to have it with a private chauffeur,” said Leverone.
Sicily is popular in July and August, so Leverone suggests a Milan and Lake Cuomo tour to avoid crowds or a food, wine and nature tour through Sardinia, which she said is quiet year-round, except for August.
Scuba dive to the sunken city of Baia
Aristocrats once flocked to the thermal baths of the ancient Roman resort city of Baia, near the coast of Naples. The same volcanic activity that once attracted wealthy Romans to the area is why a part of the city now lies 50 feet under the sea.
Baia was once a hedonistic retreat for the rich; now most of it, including parts of the nymphaeum shown here, lies at the bottom of the sea.
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Seven underwater archaeological sites with remnants of ancient villas, toppled columns and colorful mosaics can be explored by scuba divers and, to a lesser extent, snorkelers.
One of the most important submerged sites is Claudio’s Nymphaeum, which was once part of an imperial palace. Though most of the site contains original Roman ruins, underwater statues have been reproduced, with the originals moved to the Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei, a nearby museum that reopened in April.
Caving in Marche
Within the region of Marche — located along the central “calf” of Italy’s boot — lies the Grotte di Frasassi, or Frasassi Caves.
Guided tours take visitors along a pathway to see features such as Crystallized Lake and the Neverending Hall. Travelers can get a sneak peek into the caves through a video of a live acapella performance of “Silent Night” by Andrea Bocelli last December.
Like the Grotte di Frasassi, the Temple of Valadier is also located near the small village of Genga, home to fewer than 1,700 people, in a remote part of the Ancona province of Marche.
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The cave can be explored in less than two hours, leaving plenty of time to visit the Temple of Valadier, an octagonal church built into the entrance of a nearby cave. Grotte di Frasassi’s website features one-to-three-day itineraries for visitors, which include stops to see the 13th-century frescoes in the medieval town of Fabriano, the narrow alleyways of the ancient city of Jesi and tastings of Verdicchio, the area’s famous white wine, and a spreadable salami called ciausculo.
“Le Marche is one of the best regions for travelers seeking a more immersive and authentic experience in Italy,” said Juliana de Brito, founder of the Wonderful Marche website. “In Le Marche, it is still possible to find the heritage of ancient crafts transmitted over time and [which are] at risk of fading away.”
That includes paper-making traditions dating to the 12th century and artisans who make shoes by hand, which de Brito said can be found in the south of Marche, where some of the most famous Italian shoe factories are located.
She recommends the area’s natural parks too, which include the many trails of the coastal Monte Conero which can be explored by foot, bike or horse. She calls the Marche “a paradise of food and wine.”
“It’s an incredible mosaic that mixes geography, climate, and history,” said de Brito.
Hike Italy’s active volcanoes
Italy contains the only active volcanos in mainland Europe, and one 15-day tour takes travelers to hike all of them — Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna and Stromboli, plus Vulcano (which is dormant, but not extinct).
The summit caldera of Mount Vesuvius, near the Bay of Naples.
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The “Volcanoes of Italy — the Grand Tour” from Volcano Discovery, a travel company that specializes in volcano tourism, focuses on nature, culture and archaeology. It’s a walking and study tour, the latter describing a trip that combines learning with travel.
The difficulty level is described as “easy to difficult,” and it’s conducted in small groups of six to 12 travelers, according to the website.
The next tour is scheduled to depart in October this year, though custom dates are available on request.
Soaring above the colors of Castelluccio
Though the tiny Umbrian village of Castelluccio located high in central Italy’s Apennines mountain range was badly damaged in an earthquake in 2016, people still come for the area’s naturally socially distanced outdoor activities, such as river rafting, biking and “La Fioritura,” or “The Flowering” that occurs every year from late May to early July.
The blooming of flowers below Castelluccio di Norcia, prior to the 2016 earthquake that damaged much of the village.
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During this time, vibrant daffodils, poppies, violets and shamrocks fill the plateau where the town sits, a remarkable sight when combined with hang gliding or paragliding. Tandem flights are available for beginners from 100 euros ($122), according to the website of Prodelta, a local gliding school.
Wellness retreat to Tuscany
Tuscany is high on many travelers’ lists, but those who can avoid the allure of Florence, Cinque Terre and San Gimignano can find remote solace in luxury villas, such as Villa di Capannole, near the town of Bucine.
The villa is a quintessential Tuscan country estate and comes with a pool, separate cottage (for larger groups) and expansive views of the bucolic landscape. Guests can pop into the tiny towns that dot the region during the day and relax with lavish home-cooked Italian dinners, prepared by the owners who live nearby, at night.
Rates range from 3,500 to 5,920 euros ($4,285 to $7,250) per week.
Travelers who prefer hotels can consider Como’s flagship European resort, Como Castello Del Nero, which is reopening on June 11 with a renovated wellness center. The hotel can arrange outdoor activities such as truffle hunting — the estate is home to three types of black truffles — as well as the ultimate remote experience — hot air balloon rides at sunrise.
Those planning past this summer can look into Monteverdi Tuscany, a luxury boutique hotel in the village of Castiglioncello del Trinoro. Following an 18-month renovation, the hotel is reopening to guests with a regenerative clinic, revamped spa facilities and new hotel suites in January 2022.
Like the Colosseum, but without the crowds
Visitors bereft about skipping Rome’s Colosseum this summer should know they have other options.
TripAdvisor reviews are unequivocal about one of the best reasons to visit Pozzuoli’s Flavian Amphitheater: “quiet,” “practically for yourself,” and “we were the only tourists there.”
The underground passageways of the Flavian Amphitheatre in Pozzuoli, Italy.
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The site, located outside of Naples, is the third-largest amphitheater in Italy and once held as many spectators as the Colosseum — around 50,000 people. It is known for the impressive preservation of its subterranean chambers which show where gladiators and animals were kept and how trap doors and pulley systems were used to hoist them into the arena.
The smaller Verona Arena attracts more visitors, though still far fewer than the 7 million tourists who went to the Colosseum prior to the pandemic. Violent gladiator matches have been replaced by a more benevolent form of entertainment — opera performances.
The near 2,000-year-old site has been home to the Verona Opera Festival since 1913, and tickets to this year’s festival with shows scheduled throughout the summer, go on sale May 25.