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TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Longing to escape the crowds and heat to experience a different side of Italy this summer? Those who look beyond the usual destinations are richly rewarded, says Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains
Roccascalegna village in Abruzzo’s wild Apennine mountains. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

As Italian beaches are experiencing a fast post-pandemic revival of tourists longing to swim in clear waters and sunbathe on powder-white sand, there’s a more niche group of international travelers who are opting instead for alternative destinations. And with good reason. 

A recent survey by Milan’s Cattolica University found a 60 percent increase in the number of foreign tourists visiting or planning a holiday at Italian lakes and mountain areas, particularly in under-the-radar locations holding greater allure for those looking for ‘secret’ retreats. 

Talking to several Americans planning a holiday in Italy recently, I realized they were all eager to get away from the usual VIP lakes: Garda, Maggiore and Como, which although stunning, are usually overcrowded, pricey and overly-chic.

They asked for tips on where to go for a stay in pristine natural surroundings to escape from the heat, to bike around tiny lakes, go fishing, and enjoy trekking along solitary mountain trails far from the usual spots.

Beyond the traditional destinations everyone chooses, Italy is packed with stunning lakes and quiet mountain parks unknown even to most Italians, which are eclipsed by the more popular locations. 

READ ALSO: Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels – and where they’re staying instead

These gorgeous, smaller lakes are ideal in guaranteeing social distancing in the time of Covid, and offer no shortage of fun stuff to do. 

I recently discovered Lago di Tora in the province of Rieti, near Rome, and felt ashamed that I had never seen it before given that it’s a stone’s throw from where I live in the countryside. 

Two picturesque clifftop medieval hamlets of cropped stone dwellings with panoramic balconies overlook a sparkling-green artificial lake built in the 1930s to supply energy to nearby power plants. One single bridge connects the main road to the oldest village, Castel di Tora, where fresh fish is the main delicacy. 

The view is fabulous, and there are beach facilities with dinghies and canoes to rent. Local authorities are boosting sustainable post-pandemic tourism projects with guided fishing boat tours, giant carp fishing competitions (it’s just for sport: the carp are then thrown back into the water), and bike tours along the shores. 

A kilometer away, in the same area, is the Lago del Salto, a windy secret spot for kite surfers and jet-ski lovers who get to run wild on the waves without fear of crashing into sunbathers. 

Other off-the-beaten-path lakes I strongly recommend visiting are the heart-shaped Lago di Scanno in Abruzzo, where there are underwater magnetic fields; the tiny Lago di Martignano in Latium which is a former volcano crater and has dog beaches; and Posta Fibreno lake, an exotic-looking, hidden jewel in the wild Ciociaria area where you can stay at small B&Bs and rent paddle boats.

Lago di Posta Fibreno, Ciociaria. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

I think there’s something cool and ‘counter-current’ in not following the beach fad in summer and instead heading to remote lakes, and in particular to mountain arrss that are crowd-free now that skiing season is over and come with a pure oxygen intake for your lungs.

I strongly recommend heading to Abruzzo’s Apennine mountains, dotted with crumbling panoramic fortresses like Rocca Calascio, ghost hamlets and impressive cliff-hanging castles including the one in the secluded village of Roccascalegna.

Abruzzo national park authorities have boosted guided trekking tours into the wilderness for nature-amateurs, and even organize (safe) bear-watching day trips that allow groups of hikers to admire from a distance the beauty of the ‘orso marsicano’, an endangered, protected species. The unique side of this adventure is you get to do it only in summer, when there’s no risk of getting stuck in ice, snow or blizzards.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

Rocca Calascio ghost fortress in Abruzzo’s Parco del Gran Sasso. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

Other awesome mountainous areas are the unknown Apennines at the border of Liguria and Piedmont (yes, one might think those are the Alps), close to Genoa but part of another universe, where time stands still, like in the villages of Fascia and Carrega Ligure. 

In this secluded corner of northern Italy, panoramic mountain trails connect little hamlets where people live in their grandparents’ thick-walled stone cottages and call out ‘ciao’ from their windows. 

There are just a few bars, no social buzz but rewarding views and opportunities for great ‘scampagnate‘: outdoor time with picnics and hikes to isolated mountain huts turned into gourmet taverns serving traditional dishes, such as fried frogs and snails for the daring. 

READ ALSO: Exploring Bologna’s hidden countryside by bike

We need – and I mean us Italians first of all, but also foreigners – to get over the idea that Italy is just islands, bays, gulfs and beaches. The sea is our most precious jewel, but it’s not the only tourist asset. 

There are other ‘uncommon’ destinations in Italy offering diverse experiences, and these should be exploited more. Many foreigners, particularly those who love camping, tend to appreciate lakes and mountains more than coastal locations and long to discover these new landscapes.

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REVEALED: The Italian beaches you might want to avoid this summer

Overcrowded, overhyped, or endangered by overtourism, some of Italy's most famous beaches are best avoided in peak season. Here's our selection of hotspots you may want to skip - and where to go instead.

REVEALED: The Italian beaches you might want to avoid this summer

Guide lists of the best beaches to visit in Italy and stunning social media shots of Italian coastlines have created hotspots of overcrowding.

Some of these coastal gems are in danger of being destroyed by the hordes of tourists that descend each summer season, while others can simply be a chore to find a patch of sand where you can lay your towel.

MAP: Which parts of Italy will get the most tourism this summer?

Instead of following the top beaches list, which sometimes focus on just the top ten, you can try one of the hundreds of gorgeous and environmentally sound spots throughout Italy.

As the summer season gets underway, here are the beaches best avoided if you want to escape the masses, with alternative suggestions for a more relaxing Italian seaside getaway.

Puglia

The southern Italian region of Puglia has a coastline that could give the Maldives a run for its money, with the waters consistently ranked the cleanest in Italy. As a result, it’s one of the most popular holiday destinations among Italians. It’s also soared in popularity among international tourists in recent years.

Unsurprisingly, this means it’s hard to find a beach in Puglia that could be described as peaceful at the height of summer. But, despite the enormous number of beautiful beaches along Puglia’s particularly long coastline, a handful of names tend to crop up again and again on lists of ‘must-see’ or ‘most beautiful’ beaches in the region – meaning a lot of visitors tend to pack into the same areas, and some beaches are more crowded than others.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

While all of the below beaches are stunningly beautiful, often featuring breathtaking rock formations surrounded by turquoise waters, most are located in tiny cale, or coves, and space is very limited. In summer you’ll need to get there at dawn in order to enjoy them before the hordes descend.

Baia dei Turchi – Lecce

Torre Lapilo (Porto Cesareo) – Lecce

Torre dell’Orso – Lecce

Punta della Suina – Lecce

Punto Prosciutto – Lecce

Torre Guaceto – Brindisi

Lama Monachile (Polignano a Mare) – Bari

Here are some alternatives that are lesser-known, at least among international tourists: 

Porto Selvaggio – Lecce

Punto Pizzo – Lecce

Torre Vado – Lecce

Spiaggia degli Alimini – Lecce

Spiaggia delle Conchiglie – Lecce

Torre Canne – Brindisi

Baia delle Zagare – Gargano

The beach at Polignano a Mare, Puglia, may be highly instagrammable but it’s not very spacious. Get there early if you want to enjoy it in summer. Photo by Nassim Wahba on Unsplash

Sardinia

Visiting Sardinia can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Yes, it has world-class, astoundingly beautiful white sand beaches and crystal turquoise waters, but because of that, it draws in huge crowds in peak season.

Some beaches and stretches of coastline face severe environmental pressure – and don’t make for an enjoyable day out when you have to get there for 6am to grab a parking spot and a space to pitch your umbrella.

Here are some beaches in Sardinia that are probably best avoided:

La Cinta – San Teodoro

Cala Brandinchi – San Teodoro

La Pelosa – Stintino

Where you can go instead:

Spiaggi Di Li Cossi

Cala Romazzino

Spiaggia Rudargia

Spiaggia di Cala Cipolla

Sardinia’s Spiaggia della Pelosa beach in Stintino is extremely popular. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Sicily

The incredible island of Sicily is a favourite destination for both Italian and international holidaymakers for good reason. Plus it has a longer summer season than the rest of the country, so there’s more time to enjoy the beaches outside of August. Still, as in other popular parts of the country, visitors are often directed to the same few spots all summer long.

The island has no shortage of stunning natural beaches, and those who venture off the beaten path will be richly rewarded – even if this means packing a picnic and forgoing sun loungers.

READ ALSO: Why Sicily’s archipelagos are the best part of Italy for island-hopping

While the following famous beaches deserve their top-ten spots on all the ‘most beautiful beaches’ lists, they’re likely to be extremely crowded in July and August:

San Vito lo Capo – Trapani

Scala dei Turchi – Agrigento

Mondello – Palermo

Cefalù – Palermo

Spiaggia dei Conigli (Rabbit Beach) – Lampedusa

Here are a few to try instead – though most have fewer services around, they’re arguably just as beautiful.

Spiaggia dei Francesi – Palermo

Baia di Santa Margherita – Trapani 

Lascari (next to Cefalù) – Palermo

Punta Bianca – Agrigento

Spiaggia dell’Asinello – Agrigento

Torre Salsa (nature reserve) – Agrigento

Sampieri – Ragusa

Italian families sunbathe on August 17th, 2017 in San Vito Lo Capo, northern Sicily. Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP

Veneto

Veneto is not exactly the best place to go if you’re looking for crystal-clear waters and picturesque beaches girdled by rocky cliffs. In fact, the region’s beaches are for the most part narrow strips of fine sand with generally shallow seabeds and fairly decent waters.

But Veneto is still an incredibly popular destination for beach-goers. Why? The città d’arte (art cities) located just a few miles away from the coastline, the large number of seaside resorts, and the relative proximity of both Austria and Germany all make Veneto a very appealing haven for holidaymakers.

MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

So it isn’t rare for the region’s most famed beaches to be packed during the summer months. Here are a few of the busier places that you might want to avoid:

Lido di Jesolo – Jesolo

Lido di Venezia – Venice

Spiaggia di Sottomarina – Chioggia

Spiaggia di Ponente – Caorle

This is where you might want to go instead:

Spiaggia di Cà Roman – Pellestrina

Spiaggia del Bacan – Venice

Spiaggia di Scano del Gallo – Rovigo

Spiaggia della Brussa – Caorle

Tuscany

With over 500 kilometres of coastline, Tuscany is the Italian region that offers the greatest variety of beaches of all. From narrow strips of white sand encircled by maritime pine groves to remote cale (coves) hidden away between cliffs and headlands, the region has it all.

READ ALSO: What are the rules on wild camping in Italy?

The deep blue of Tuscany’s waters and the bonanza of nightlife venues skirting the coastline, especially in the famed Versilia area, prove irresistible to hundreds of thousands of both Italian and international tourists every summer. As a result, certain beaches in the region tend to get very crowded very quickly in July and August. 

Here are some of the region’s hotspots: 

Cala Violina – Maremma

Marina di Chiarone – Grosseto

Cala del Gesso – Monte Argentario

If you’re looking for somewhere quieter, consider heading to:

Cala Martina – Grosseto

Carbonifera – Piombino

Cala di Forno – Maremma

Buca delle Fate – Populonia

Emilia Romagna

The Romagna riviera is incredibly built up, with beach services offering hundreds of sunbeds and umbrellas that cover swathes of the wide and flat sandy beaches there.

Although not known for its crystal clear waters like other parts of Italy, it’s a popular area with tourists due to the convenience of back-to-back bars, restaurants, children’s playgrounds and lifeguards.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

Some beaches get more packed out than others such as Rimini and Riccione, thanks to being popular with families for the former and being known as party central with youngsters for the latter.

Here are the most overcrowded beaches in Emilia Romagna:

Riccione Centro-Sud

Cattolica

Rimini

Cervia-Pinarella-agliata

Milano Marittima

Where you can go instead:

Some of the ‘lidi‘ further north can be quieter, still with beach services in places, but not as packed as the beaches above.

Lido di Volano

Lido delle Nazioni

Casalborsetti

Campania

The Amalfi Coast draws vast numbers of visitors to Campania every year – but while its rocky cliffs make for an impressive backdrop, its tiny, overcrowded beaches aren’t necessarily the best place to set up a sunbed.

Nor is the shore around greater Naples, where the sea is so often polluted that swimming is officially banned – though this doesn’t deter large crowds of bathers from taking a dip every summer.

Due to crowding, pollution, or both, some of the beaches you’ll likely want to steer clear of are:

Baia di Trentova

Spiaggia Calanca

Spiaggia di Minori

Spiaggia Lannio

Instead, consider heading to:

Cala Bianca

Spiaggia libera Lentiscelle

Spiaggia del Lago

Baia di Ieranto

Spiaggia le Saline

Calabria

Though perhaps not quite as popular a beach destination among foreign tourists as the likes of Sicily, Sardinia or Puglia, the Calabrian coastline still holds its own when summer hits, attracting large crowds to its shores.

Some of the most popular beaches to avoid:

Tropea

Le Spiagge di Pizzo Calabro

Spiaggia di Falerna

Le baie di Grotticelle

Beaches to go to instead:

Spiaggia di Copanello di Staletti

Spiaggia Paradiso del sub

Spiaggia Del Tono

Spiaggia Di Michelino

This list is of course not exhaustive. Do you have a top beach tip to share with other members of The Local? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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