Italy opens 1,000 hidden cultural treasures to the public this weekend

This weekend, Italy will open up more than 1,000 cultural monuments, archaeological areas and other hidden treasures which are usually inaccessible to the public.

Italy opens 1,000 hidden cultural treasures to the public this weekend
The Villa Torlonia in Rome is one of the cultural monuments participating in the weekend. Photo: Bruno/Flickr

The list includes ornate villas, hidden gardens, historic castles, churches, museums, and other secret spots that usually keep their doors closed.

It's part of the 'Giornate FAI di primavera' (spring days of FAI), an initiative promoted by the Italian National Trust, FAI, between March 24th and 25th. This year marks the 26th edition of the annual event, which has grown each year and offers tourists and locals alike a rare insight into Italy's hidden gems.

The video below gives a glimpse into some of the sites on offer.

In Rome, architecture fans can head to the Neobaroque Palazzo Marini, home to the Italian Navy's central library and adorned with nautical themed sculptures, stained glass windows, and other decoration. 

Milan's Pirelli skyscraper and the city's first high rise, designed by the country's top engineers and architects, will also open its doors, giving locals the rare chance to climb its 32 floors. The building houses Lombardy's regional council and visitors will be able to see both the council chamber and the panoramic views from the 31st floor.

Elsewhere in the city, curious tourists can explore the construction site of the new metro, the Gerolamo theatre which is known as 'the little Scala', and several other important palazzi and villas.

Culture fans in Florence can explore the convent of the Ognissanti, filled with beautiful frescoes, or Le Murate complex — an artistic hub nestled in the site of a former prison. And further afield in Tuscany, visitors can head to the former mental hospital at Maggiano, a stunning 18th-century pharmacy in Asciano, or Livorno's Naval Academy. 

In Sardinia, there are churches, military sites, and the Saline Conti Vecchi — large salt plains including a natural oasis home to hundreds of flamingos, a huge natural area you can explore by train, and a museum complex — to explore, while over 100 palazzi will be open to the public in Sicily.

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Entry to all of the sites is free, though there's an optional donation to FAI of between €2 and €5, and in a few cases entry is restricted to members of the organization. These exceptions are clearly marked on the website, where you can find a full list of the open sites across the entire country.

One example of a site only open to FAI members is the private apartments of former Neapolitan king Ferdinand II in the city's National Library, though across Naples more than 80 other cultural gems will be open throughout the weekend, including the seat of the city's chamber of commerce and Villa Rosebery on the coast, one of three official residences of the Italian President.

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Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Sicily may be just a stone’s throw from mainland Italy but getting there and back is not always simple or fast, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Transport connections between Italy’s largest island region and the main Italian cities are expected to improve in the long run, with the government hoping to use European pandemic recovery funds. But infrastructure investments take years to bear fruit. 

Taking a flight is of course the easiest and quickest way to reach Sicily, where there are three main airports – Palermo, Catania, Trapani – plus two minor ones on the southernmost Pantelleria and Lampedusa islands. But there are mounting ticket costs. 

The recent investigation launched by Italian authorities into alleged price-fixing on flights to and from Sicily during Christmas holidays by many low-cost airlines shows how fliers might have been left with little choice. Unless one is a Sicilian resident with access to privileged fares, the round trip is often costly.

I recently did an online search and found flights to Sicily are still quite expensive, costing roughly 300 euros for a return trip from Rome, even if booked well in advance. And not all Italian airports serve the destination. 

READ ALSO: Trains and planes: Italy’s new international travel routes in 2023

Paradoxically, it is often easier to reach Sicily from a European city such as London or Brussels than from an Italian one, and I often envy foreign friends who quickly find a much cheaper flight than I can from Rome. Others hop on ferry boats in southern France to land in Sicily. 

For those already in Italy, other options are traveling by train or car, which can still be hellish. Even though the A1 autostrada del Sole, the country’s backbone, has been completed, driving down the length of the country takes 12 hours – inclusive of meal and toilet stops – roughly 1,500 kilometers. I did it once, and it is crazy, but it depends on how much one loves driving.

All train connections end in Reggio Calabria or other southern regions, even the high-speed Italo takes 10 hours from Milan to the tip of the boot. The journey by train is less stressful than by car or plane, and costs roughly 280 euros for a round trip from Milan.

Travel to and from Sicily can often turn into a nightmarish odyssey. I’ve spoken to lots of Sicilians and foreigners who often embark on a 24-hour trip to get to Sicily from Rome and Milan. 

I remember once going to Linosa island for the summer holidays and having to take the plane to Palermo, then a long bus ride to Porto Empedocle to catch the midnight ferry, sleeping on a bench and waking up the next morning to stunning volcanic black scenery. I could have taken the plane to sister-isle Lampedusa and then a quick ferry boat, but the air fare was way over my budget. That trip lasted 28 hours, exactly the same amount of time as my past flights to Jakarta from Rome – but with added stress.

The ferry connecting Messina, Sicily with Villa San Giovanni, Calabria. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The government aims to revive the Messina bridge plan, an idea which has been floating in the air since 1866. I doubt things would change much. Many people would still drive their cars along the bridge rather than take the ecological high speed railway expected to be built on it.

To improve connections, transport must shift from the road to the railway tracks by increasing high-speed train services, as well as ferries, thus curbing CO2 emissions. High-speed sea connections to and from Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno and other key mainland ports should also be increased.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

The Messina bridge, which I seriously doubt will be built during this government’s five-year legislature, would just end up increasing road traffic. Locals and tourists in Calabria will be tempted to drive their car or motorino just three kilometers to grab a cassata cake in Messina. 

However, the real issue is not getting to and from Sicily, but getting around Sicily once you land there.

I had the chance to meet several Sicilian commuters who travel almost daily from a rural village to Rome, Naples or Milan for meetings. They wake up at three in the morning and return home at 11pm, up to four times a week. 

Island train and bus connections are rather poor so the car is their best option to get to the airport. However, bar the main highways, most Sicilian roads are a work-in-progress or in bad condition.

You never know where a Sicilian road trip might take you. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I happened to experience an ‘adventurous’ road trip once from Catania airport to a tiny village in the province of Caltanissetta. According to the satellite map it was meant to take roughly two hours, but it turned out to be five, and I literally found myself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by sheep and ravines. Not quite the idyll I had dreamt.

Some highways were shut due to maintenance so I had to cut across unpaved rural roads without street lights, or deviate elsewhere which lengthened my trip (ravenous, I took five minutes to stop for a quick cannolo on the way).

It all depends on what degree of adventure travelers are seeking. Distances seem shorter for some foreigners than they do to Italians. Americans in particular and others from non-European Union countries are excited to drive from Milan to Sicily, for they can catch a glimpse of Italy in its entirety, or tour Sicily’s main archaeological sites in eight hours.

But many others I know, because of the poor state of Sicilian roads and regional connections, prefer to fly in and rent cars with drivers to take them to their destinations. 

The future of Sicily’s transport connections must be affordable and more frequent flights, high-speed railways and eco-friendly boats. Not new bridges and even more cars on the road.