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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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CHRISTMAS

Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

Here are some of the most magical Christmas markets taking place in Italy this year.

Seven of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.

While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.

Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.

Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.

Bolzano

One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.

Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.

This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.

When? Until January 6th

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano's Christmas market.

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Trento

While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.

Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.

As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.

This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.

When? Until January 8th

Trento's Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years.

Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

Milan

Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.

Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.

This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.

As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.

When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Cernobbio, Como

Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.

Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.

Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.

On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.

When? December 7th until January 8th

Florence

Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.

It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.

This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.

When? Until December 18th

Florence's Christmas market is German-themed.

Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Verona

Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.

At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.

In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.

This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.

Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.

When? Until December 26th

Salerno

Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.

This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.

Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.

Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).

When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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