With trips to Italy about to get the green light, Britons will be itching for a taste of la dolce vita. Here are a few lesser-known gems to whet your appetite
Calabria: Italy’s beautiful south
Italy’s deep south has an air of beguiling mystery. It’s less well-trodden by foreign visitors, but they’re missing a trick: epic mountains, rollercoaster roads, and rollickingly beautiful coastline.
Why it’s special
The landscapes of Calabria are big. Its fields and orchards are planted with bergamot, olives and lemons, and its national parks are splendid places to lose yourself in the vastness of nature.
On the border with Basilicata is Pollino, Italy’s largest national park, with mountains diving down to dizzying chasms, gentle pea-green valleys and broad, winding rivers. Sila, in the centre of the region, is a series of mountainous plateaux, with several lakes and the extraordinary ‘Forest of Giants’ where pylon-tall larch trees date back 400 years. Aspromonte, the southernmost of the parks, is a brooding, craggy mountainscape, with wide open views and roadside shrines on precipitous corners.
Calabria’s coast is likewise stupendous: most beautiful is Tropea, famous for its setting and its onions. Atop bone-white seacliffs, this cluster of creamy buildings overlooks a palace on a tiny islet and a curve of shimmering sand. Similarly glorious is Scilla, its sherbet-pale buildings cascading down a hill near the beach like a smaller cousin of Positano. End your trip on a high in Reggio, at the tip of the toe of the Italian boot, where the port faces Sicily and the museum has some of the world’s most incredible ancient Greek bronzes.
Vendicari: Sicily’s secret seaside haven
Tucked away in Sicily’s south-east corner is Vendicari, a nature reserve with dreamy duney beaches where you can spot flamingoes and sea turtles in the iridescent blue-green sea, eat sensational seafood, and stay in gorgeous boutique hotels nearby. One of the loveliest beach holidays in all the Med.
Why it’s special
With its endless sand dunes, glassy saltwater lagoons and craggy Mediterranean maquis, Vendicari is one of the most magical places in Sicily. It is ideal for a spring or autumn seaside holiday, when it is warm enough to swim and free of the crowds that flock here in July and August. Flamingos which traditionally arrived in the spring and left in November now appear to be staying far longer, and are just one of the many migrating avian species attracted by Vendicari’s lagoon. Initiatives to encourage sea turtles to return have been successful – sections of the beach may be roped off to allow them to nest undisturbed (but with more than kilometres of sand, this is no hardship to visitors). Make sure you have lunch at least once under the carob trees of the rustic trattoria of Agriturismo Calamosche.
Close by is the old tuna-fishing village and burgeoning resort of Marzamemi. The entire port area is occupied by picturesque sandstone buildings set around a central piazza which, abandoned until recently, have now been converted and house a handful of bars, restaurants and shops. Which to choose? La Cialoma is a traditional fish trattoria occupying what was once the house of the school caretaker. Another great place to eat is Ristorante Campisi, which, with its blue and white tables and heady sea views, would be the perfect spot for a Mamma Mia flashmob. The food is amazing – as might be expected from a family who have been catching and preserving tuna since 1856. Renowned throughout Italy, Campisi tuna, anchovies, pestos and conserves are on sale in an atmospheric waterside emporium, and well worth finding space in the suitcase for, to bring the flavour of Sicily home. Finally, foodies should not miss the rather scruffy town of Pachino, the capital of the sundried tomato. Buy them loose from the picturesque old-fashioned grocer, Alimentari Scimonello, on the corner of the central Piazza and Via Anita.
Hidden treasures of southern Umbria
From lakeside lounging to mountain hikes – via truffles, wine and saffron – the undiscovered territory south of Lake Trasimeno is an understated delight, every bit as beautiful as Tuscany but without the crowds.
Why it’s special
The area of Umbria to the south of Lake Trasimeno is immediately striking in its green beauty, but reveals its treasures only through curious exploration. The town of Castiglione del Lago sits dramatically atop an isthmus protruding into the lake – one of the few ‘urban’ outcrops along these relatively unpeopled shores. In the hills to the south, the small towns of Paciano, Panicale and Città della Pieve each contains gems worth seeking out – this last, in particular, with an impressive handful of works by its native son, Renaissance master Il Perugino. You’ll need a car to venture up hills for fine walks along well marked paths (parks.it), or to seek out some worthwhile local wineries (stradadelvinotrasimeno.it) such as Morami (morami.it) or Pomario (pomario.it).
Island-hopping in La Maddalena
Between Sardinia and Corsica, these rugged but welcoming islands are a paradise for beachcombers, sun-worshippers and anyone who loves messing about in boats.
Why it’s special
This scatter of seven large islands and 55 glorified rocks off the northern coast of Sardinia is the closest the Mediterranean comes to the deserted beaches and translucent seas that you find in certain blessed parts of the Caribbean.
With the closure, in 2008, of the huge NATO naval base on the main island of La Maddalena, the archipelago has rediscovered small-scale tourism and returned to the kind of laid-back rhythm that suits it. The default holiday setting is to stay in one of La Maddalena’s small hotels or B&Bs, get a grocer to put together a picnic, and take a boat each morning to an outlying island – such as Spargi, where pristine beaches like Cala Soraya have fewer footprints than Crusoe’s island. Joined to La Maddalena by a road bridge, Caprera, the second-biggest island, was the retirement home of 19th-century Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi. It’s a magnificently rugged place of grey-pink granite rocks and shady pine forests.
Rome’s romantic rural escape
Just an hour from Rome, Lazio’s Sabine Hills are one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, hiding medieval hilltop villages and centuries-old fortresses among the olive groves, with the most fabulous home cooking - and very few tourists.
Why it’s special
Less than 60km from Rome yet worlds away from the city chaos, Sabina’s ancient villages such as Casperia, Poggio Catino and Roccantica are perched on hilltops, with cobbled lanes and alleyways too narrow for cars. The rolling Sabine Hills are cloaked in olive groves yielding some of Italy’s best olive oil. Come late October for freshly-pressed extra-virgin oil proudly served in local restaurants with menus ranging from simple to sophisticated fare. Wild boar is a regional speciality as is porchetta, hot rolled herb-infused pork inside bread rolls. Stringozzi is the local pasta, often served with tomato-based sauces.
For imaginative fine dining with a local twist, a touch of romance and views across the hills, head to the excellent Cucine del Borgo (lecucinedelborgo.com) in Roccantica, set in the kitchens of a seventeenth century manor - stay in the manor’s beautiful apartments next door (ilborgoroccantica.com). For tasty vegetarian cuisine, try Le Mole sul Farfa (lemolesulfarfa.com) in Mompeo, a friendly, rustic agriturismo with a fascinating olive oil history dating to Roman days. Or indulge in the luxurious country house La Belle Evoque (labelleevoque.it) in Poggio Catino with spa, swimming pool, smart rooms and creative haute cuisine. And to learn how to cook authentic Italian meals, try the superb Gusto del Borgo cookery school (gustoalborgo.com) in Casperia.