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Off the Beaten Track in Italy?

15th August 2012 • Posted in Where2 Magazine’s Italian destination airports not only serve the vibrant cities of Rome, Milan and Pisa but are also ideal gateways to many other fascinating places, known for anything from hot springs to herbal liqueurs. Pre-book a hire car through to drive straight off and explore.

Italy of the Beat Track image

Where2 for Roman rambles?

Keep Tivoli, Hadrian’s Villa and Castel Gandolfo for another day and head off east down the A1, turning off when you see the sign for Fiuggi Terme, an enchanting spa town just 70 km from Rome. Its fame derives from its mineral water, prized for centuries since it allegedly cured Pope Bonifacio VIII’s of kidney stones. The lower town’s grand buildings recall a former gracious age of “taking the waters”. Meanwhile its upper, medieval heart is a criss-cross of narrow streets. One, so narrow you need to squeeze past people going the other way, is rather evocatively called Vicolo Bacia Donne (Kiss the Women Alley).

After sampling the waters, drive on 15 km, past olive groves and orchards to Trisulti Abbey, first built over 1000 years ago. Semihidden among oak forests, some 825 metres up the mountainside, the beautiful and atmospheric buildings house paintings, frescoes and a famous 18th-century pharmacy that has been carefully preserved as a museum.

Outside you’ll find an extensive botanical garden, and a flower path with descriptions of over 60 varieties of local flowers.

Trisulti was renowned over the centuries for the monks’ herbal preparations and today there is still a small shop that sells honey, jams, liqueurs and medicinal products made by the monks. Their popular Sambuca aniseed-flavoured liqueur is based on an ancient recipe. Serve it neat with or in an espresso, or alone “on the rocks”. Perhaps do as the Italians sometimes do and drop in three coffee beans – and then chew to enhance the aniseed flavour. Some also serve Sambuca in a shot glass and set it alight!

Where2 for Milan’s gateway to the lakes?

As the airport is only 5 km away from the charming walled town of Bergamo, schedule a visit before you drive on. The town is the birthplace of the Commedia dell’Arte school of comedy (think Harlequin, Pierrot and Scaramouch...), the composer Donizetti and numerous Renaissance artists. Park in the lower town outside the walls and take the funicular up to the Città Alta, the medieval and Renaissance centre on top of the hill.

Afterwards make for Italy’s spectacular lake district, driving just 60 km northwest from Bergamo to Bellagio, the “pearl of Lake Como”, celebrated since Roman times for its magical location. Bellagio’s reputation as a sophisticated and elegant resort made it hugely popular among the rich and aristocratic from Italy and abroad. Today it’s a wonderful place for anyone. Relax and unwind, sample some local delicacies, try one of the many watersports on offer or take a boat across the water to see some of Como’s many other attractions, and especially its majestic lakeside villas and gardens.

Where2 for treasures of the Pisan province?

From marble in Carrara to alabaster in Volterra, the province of Pisa is an underground treasure trove. Make for Montecatini Terme, stopping off en route to visit the old Roman town of Lucca, some 35 km north of Pisa. Take a passegiatta along its imposing, 4 km-long 16th-century ramparts, after which you’ll probably need a gelato in one of the little caffè tucked against the walls. There’s plenty to see in the town including an 11th-century cathedral and some lovely Renaissance and Gothic architecture.

Montecatini Terme is 30 km further on. A fashionable spa resort with an ancient history, it now has 11 thermal spas, the largest and best-known being Terme Tettuccio, owned by the Grand Hotel Tettuccio and housed in a magnificent Neoclassical and Art Deco building. This is the place for a really memorable detox, mud treatment or thermal water massage.

Another fascinating drive takes you 65 km south-east from Pisa to Etruscan, Roman and medieval Volterra, where you can still see craftsmen at work in the alabaster workshops. The alabaster is extracted from nearby hills. Drive a further 30 km south to Larderello in the Colli Metalliferi or “Metal-producing Hills”, which used to be mined for iron ore and then copper. This is a volcanic area of striking boric acid fumaroles (i.e. gases shooting up from the ground) and natural warm water springs. Visit the medieval town of Sasso Pisano, famous for its impressive Etruscan-Roman  thermal baths, and you’ll see the thermal pools and the intriguing hydraulic system designed to convey the water to them from the springs.

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