Why leave one crowded tourist honeypot to spend 24 hours in another? Because San Gimignano offers more than towers and tourist tat. It sits amid some of the most beautiful landscapes this planet has to offer, so if you need a break from masterpiece-bagging, lose yourself among the rolling olive groves and vineyards where the hills are dotted with fabulous, tranquil, rustic places to stay: agriturismi. Clusters of ancient farm buildings seemingly assembled by the god of aesthetically pleasing structures-in-stone have been arranged artfully throughout the San Gimignano area. Take your pick from one of the 90 or so near the 'Medieval Manhattan' and you will see this town's best angle - from afar on your poolside veranda with glass of Vernaccia in hand.
An hour by road, San Gimignano is an easy day trip away from Florence. Great website with everything you need to arrange to stay at an Agriturismo in this stunning area: www.sangimignano.com/en/services-and-facilities/accommodation/farmhouses/
Google map: bit.ly/YFa2nc
A broad wooded valley north of Lucca, the Garfagnana is a ruggedly beautiful area of Tuscany hidden between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines, often overlooked in the stampede for the art-laden cities further south. If you are tired of galleries, museums and crowds or simply prefer nature to culture, a 24 hour escape to Barga, one of the 'Borghi piu Belli d'Italia' with its twisting lanes, artistic residents and incredible panoramic views will refresh your crowd-weary soul and renew your appetite for all that Florentine art. Among the elegant medieval merchant's houses are several flower filled stairways leading to the cathedral which surveys the town from above. The vista over the tiles and verdant valley towards the Apuan Alps is ample reward for the climb. There are plenty of trattorie for the obligatory sampling of delicious regional fare.
Barga can be reached from Florence by train but it is not a straightforward journey as you must leave the train on the valley floor. Simpler and quicker to drive - around two hours from Florence. Stay in the impressive and serene Villa Moorings in the town or in one of the many nearby agriturismi.
Villa Moorings: www.villamoorings.it
Via Roma 18, Barga (LU) 55051.
+39 0583 711538
Google map: bit.ly/Zg84hR
... and leave the train at Pisa Central. From the station walk towards the river and cross the Arno by Ponte di Mezzo. Explore the narrow streets and squares of this historic university town. Eventually you will arrive at the Leaning Tower in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Cathedral Square). Make sure that you walk back to the station exploring a different route – there’s so much more to discover than the buildings close to the Tower (which is all that you are likely to see if you book on an organised excursion).
Hilltop town favoured by the Etruscans and wealthy Renaissance families who valued the cooler climate. Well preserved Roman Theatre and other ruins in the archaeological park with lots of Etruscan artefacts in the Civic Museum. A Combo ticket also gives admission to Ethnographic Missionary and Bandini Museums (small but worth it for the painted panels).
Eating wise there are two good restaurants (l'Polpa particularly good) at the bus terminus on Piazza Mino or take a picnic on the panoramic terrace with wonderful views of Florence.
Take bus no. 7 either from outside the main railway station or from Piazza San Marco - about three an hour. Lots of hairpin bends up to the town. Double decker Florence sightseeing bus also goes there.
Piazza Mino, 21/22, 50014 Fiesole, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/XDwbVI
The 'Pedalata dei Castelli' is a non-competitive cycle ride that takes in medieval castles and picturesque villages that are largely undiscovered by non-Italians, against a backdrop of the stunning Apennines in Northern Tuscany.
There are two stops at castles along the way where you get to taste the best local delicacies and be entertained by reenactments of medieval sword fights. At the end there is a slap-up Slow Food or, as it is known locally, Zero Km lunch.
Full support is provided for cyclists and all types of bike are available for hire, including electric bikes, making it very accessible. Advice on accommodation is available.
Non-cycling partners and families need not miss out, as there is also a guided tour (in Italian, but it doesn't really matter if you can't understand Italian as you get to have a good look round) that includes the local food tastings, as well as the opportunity to join the cyclists for lunch.
It is a fabulous combination of the best local food, combined with sightseeing and cycling. Last year's event was great fun with nearly 300 cyclists participating despite poor weather.
I found it possible to organise my own walking holiday. Our first family trip began at Ortisei with the first ascent via cable car, giving everyone a boost. Another glorious walk finished at the Lago di Braies Hotel on that beautiful lake. Get the books, write yourself a booking script in Italian (or German) and you will be rewarded by stunning scenery and a variety of welcoming refugi. Our (big) boys love it!
The Sibillini mountains in Umbria lack the scale and severity of the Italian Alps and the Dolomites, but that only means walkers are less numerous, and all the tops are accessible to the merely fit and well shod. The scenery is unique and spectacular, particularly the vast utterly flat lentil fields of the Piano Grande, ringed by mountains. Our hotel in Norcia arranged a reasonably priced post-breakfast transfer to the largely deserted village of Castellucio, on the edge of the Piano Grande, from where it is a long-ish but straightforward walk to the summit of Monte Patino (1883m). This is the highest point for some distance and there are huge views over the rest of the Sibillini mountains, the rolling hills of Umbria and down to Norcia immediately below. By the time you get back to town you will be ready for a beer, and if you pick your spot carefully you will be able to look up at the big cross on the summit of Monte Patino and feel, well, smug. Norcia is famous for its salami and truffles and Umbrian wine is a match for its more expensive Tuscan neighbours. Add pasta, lentils and risotto and you get perfect hearty walkers fare.
Norcia - just Google it! It's an adventure!! (OK we booked it all through Inntravel. But still an adventure to get there.)
Strada Statale Picena, ., 62026 San Ginesio Macerata, Italy
+39 0737 97271
Google map: bit.ly/16U78kY
Wake up early and ride the Mount Baldo cableway up 1.6km to hike among breathtaking scenery of the snow-capped pre-Alpine region, the Po Plains and the Dolomite Mountains. After exhausting ourselves on the mountain trails we head to a hilltop restaurants for late lunch with panoramic views of the lake. We loved Mount Baldo so much we went back twice more during our week-long summer holiday to Malcesine, Lake Garda.
A wonderful family-run yoga retreat in the Italian countryside. You are picked up from (and, sadly, dropped back to...) Pescara airport and taken to the six-bedroom villa near Atri for a snack and tea before bed. The next morning you wake to the wonderful views across the valley, yoga on the terrace and lovingly home-grown, home-prepared vegetarian meals which will rival anything you've ever tasted (vegetarian or not). Local wine and 2 yoga classes a day are included, and you also have the option of paying for extra treatments and/or snacks on top. Spend your days enjoying the beautiful views over the mountains while you swim, sauna, hot-tub or just swing in one of the hammocks dotted around the garden. For those who prefer to get out and about, there are options of day-trips to nearby towns, a beach yoga day (all included in the price) and a meal out in a local restaurant (transport there and back included, meal is approx. £15). There are also bikes to borrow and a cafe a short walk away for that authentic capuccino (just don't ask for white tea). Stephanie teaches yoga in a calm, confident, serene and non-judgemental way, so you really will be fine whether a complete beginner or an expert. Her massages are to die for. (Seriously. Have one.) Rupert takes care of all the cooking (and, basically, rocks the kitchen). Put all these things together and you get a week (or a weekend) of utter bliss. You'll come back a different person. (And you'll be forever planning your next trip back...)
Pescara airport (from Stanstead) or Rome
Walk on ancient pilgrim paths in the high Apennines, swim in mountain gorges, see behind closed doors of castles, churches and palazzi … just some of the things we’ve done over the last six summers with the help of Farfalle in Cammino, a responsible tourism group in Lunigiana. This area is ‘undiscovered Tuscany’, the land of a million stars and a hundred castles, of small towns and villages in valleys which lead from the mountains to the sea. Life stays close to the rhythm of the year - what's on, what's available to eat, depends on the weather and the season. The Farfalle Guides are local, knowledgeable, young and enthusiastic, keen to share the delights of the area with English speakers. Stay in local ‘agritourismi’ or rent a villa. On Easter Saturday we’ll be on the first-ever Three Castles Electric Bike Tour – 25 kilometres power-assisted pedalling, with of course with a stop for lunch to sample local specialities. The Farfalle’s 2013 programme also includes a new one-week self-guided e-bike gastro-tour over the mountains from Parma to Lucca.
More about Lunigiana and the Apennines:
Farfalle in Cammino:
Simona Polli: +39 338 5238983
Parcobike and the Parma-Lucca tour:
Pierangelo Caponi +39 333 6502210
Google map: bit.ly/14nxjkl
The castle hamlet of Acera is home to about 100 Italians in the summer months and just a few goats in the winter. Its location nestled in the Perugian mountains 10 miles northeast of Spoleto and at an altitude of over 1000m above sea level, lends itself to any difficulty of hikes and on/off road cycling.
Acera has no shops so pay a visit to the pizzeria at the bottom of the winding access road before heading up. Leave the car in the village and you are spoiled with any amount of public tracks, from a 15 minute walk around one hill, with views back towards Spoleto, to choosing one of any number of peaks to conquer, to treks of over 15 miles to the valley of the River Nera, clear enough to drink from and take a refreshing swim in.
If you come this way it's best to organise to be collected by car at the end of your walk/ride. Make sure to stop at a local sausage maker, Salumificio Del Nera in Sant'Anatolia Di Narco, for the most amazing local meats.
If you ask around back in Acera, you should be able to get hold of some local truffle, its big business around here and absolutely delicious.
Accommodation can be found at a number of agritourismos in the area, though, at the moment, not in Acera itself.
Acera, Provence of Perugia
Nearest train station, Spoleto (15miles)
Google map: bit.ly/10atxnC
Salumificio Del Nera S.R.L.
Localita' Renare, Sant'Anatolia Di Narco, PG 06040
The Sibillini Mountains lie north-east of Rome, in a National Park established in 1993. The whole area is a little-known gem in the heart of Italy.
The walk encompasses high mountain passes, (with the option of summits), dramatic gorges, beech woods, vistas of rolling hillsides, meadows and pastureland, interspersed with medieval hill-towns, abbeys, towers and castles. The wild flowers are amazingly prolific and varied - but we weren't lucky enough to see a wolf!
Overnight stays included rifugios in converted castles, agriturismos, and B&Bs. A good starting point is the little town of Visso, but there are many options for starting and finishing on this circular walk.
Corvara in the Alta Badia region of the German speaking, northern Dolomites is the perfect summer mountain playground. The ski lifts remain open all summer giving access to the high alpine pastures and rocky limestone peaks. The Boè and Vallon lifts from the edge of town take you to the start of the amazing Via Ferrata (a rocky scramble secured by iron cables and ladders) up to the rocky summit of Piz da Lêche (2915m); there are plenty of mountain guides and rental shops in town for the less experienced. Alternatively you can hire mountain bikes and use the lifts on the other side of the valley. Then all you have to do is point the bike down hill and enjoy the ride!
There are many amazing walks in the Dolomites of Veneto (region in the north of Italy), but for somebody who is going for the first time there is nothing better than hiking from Passo Falzarego (near Cortina d'Ampezzo - BELLUNO) to Rifugio Nuvolau.
The best path to follow is: Passo Falzarego - towards Forcella Gallina, passing in front of Averau montain - up to Rifugio Nuvolau (where you can spend the night, possibly) and go down to Passo Giau (final stop of the walk).
The total length is more or less four hours and there are some difficulties but is definitely doable even by non professionals and amateurs walkers (like me!).
Why I suggest it:
1) You can enjoy a 360° view of the Dolomites (in particular on the Tofane, Pomagagnon, Cristallo, Sorapiss, Antelao and Cinque Torri mountains);
2) If you spend the night at Rifugio Nuvolau you can witness the amazing 'Enrosadira' at sunset. It is called 'Enrosadira' the moment in which the Dolomites rocks get the pink colour (due to the sunlight reflection on their rocks at sunset or sunrise) they are so famous worldwide for. In addition, if there is full moon the view on the mountains at night is breathtaking.
Where to go: Flight to Treviso or Venice and then rent a car (if not there are trains but the connections are not so great) and sleep the first night either at Selva di Cadore (www.infodolomiti.it/dolomiti.run?620000492-0) or Colle Santa Lucia)
If you are looking for total quiet; while sleep in Cortina d'Ampezzo (cortina.dolomiti.org/) if you want to enjoy the Dolomites posh life but still in a breathtaking place.
The starting point of the walk is closer to Cortina d'Ampezzo.
Rifugio Nuvolau: www.nuvolau.com/
Recommended to eat SALSICCIA!
Google map: bit.ly/YOUc8s
A seven mile circuit with amazing views over the rolling hills of Le Marche out to the Adriatic, northwards to the Gran Sasso and also of the surrounding Sibillini Mountains.
Drive up the zigzag track up to the Refugio Sibilla and then it is a short walk up to access the fine ridge up to the summit.
The area is full of legends. The eponymous sibyl, or prophetess, reputedly lived in a cave near the summit with a group of beautiful enchantresses who could turn into snakes if the need arose and nearby the Lago di Pilato marks the spot that Pontius Pilate's body supposedly found its final resting place. We had the mountain to ourselves in April, when fresh snow added to the beauty.
Along the Ligurian coast east of the French border, the alps sweep down to the sea. The steep hills are punctuated with deep ravines and fast flowing rivers, and the mountains paths are deserted. Near the coast, small villages offer a simple bar meal bar, otherwise you carry food and water sufficient for the day. Views of the coast are stupendous.
Stay in Bordighera or San Remo, leave the car behind and use a local bus to one of the inland villages. Even better, a train from Ventimiglia to Cuneo, offers stopping places and opportunities to reach the Mercantour National Park:
23 Rue d'Italie 06000 Nice
+33(0)4 93 16 78 88
Google map: bit.ly/X6QI75
The Monti Sibillini National Park in Umbria, naturally conceals some of the most exhilarating and glorious walks you could ever wish to experience. Take the trail above Infernaccio through exquisite valleys and higher and half way up meet the hermit who, for forty years, has been building a church single handed and has yet to finish.
Or, walk to the Lago Di Pilatos. This dream like lake has its own population of crayfish not to be found anywhere else in the world. Witness the stunning views of the surrounding snow capped mountains.
A secret hideaway! Found this place through a recommendation and went with the family. A few holiday apartments on a beautiful estate surrounded by vineyards, with a pool. We found the owners, who live there too, went out of their way to make us welcome and to give great tips on where to go to eat and how to avoid the tourist hoards! Local vineyard "Isole & Olena" visit was amazing! Also very close to Castellina in Chianti (great local market on a Saturday) and with views to San Gimingnano. We went last summer and are going back in August. The kids loved it as there were other kids there when we went and they made great friends. We easily visited Florence (hot!), Volterra (very winding roads) and Siena where Simon told us where to park and when to watch the horses training for the Palio (free and amazing!) Also they gave us directions to a free beach 'The White Sands' where we had a day trip which was brilliant. Ask Verity for some of her fresh eggs and Simon for some great wine! Roll on Summer! PS Hubby wants me to add - sunsets like I have never seen before - sat on terrace with wine and/or beer every night before going for dinner!
I'm on my own and went on a learning to paint holiday to Montefalco. It was so wonderful because everything was included. I met lots of new people with similar interests and the tuition, the hotel and the food were fantastic. I would thoroughly recommend this holiday.
We stayed in Hotel Villa Pambufetti but the holiday was booked through www.learningholidaysinitaly.com
A charming town in Southern Sicily, located in the foothills above Agrigento. A perfect base to explore many destinations in Sicily. An easy distance from the famous Greek temples of Agrigento, the pristine beaches of the Capo Bianco, the fantastic nature preserve of Zingaro which sits above a crystalline bay. North of the town in the rugged mountains are many towns to explore and sites to visit: the grotto in Santo Stefano di Quisquina, the mafia Museum of Corleone, every town has festivities and celebrations throughout the year. We have just fallen in love with pleasure of finding a new little restaurant, an old church, a wonderful place in Sciacca where the owner makes granita, but also has a stash of house made limoncello as well.
But why Cianciana itself? It is one of the friendliest and most hospitable towns on the island. Featuring several restaurants, numerous bar/cafes, all the amenities and yet still small enough to leave your keys in the car without worry. During summer months the main street is closed to traffic every evening, and all the cafes place tables out from one end to another to enjoy balmy evenings and cool drinks.
Where to stay: there are self catering rentals as well as a new boutique hotel in a renovated palazzo, Villa Platani. It is a perfect base to explore all the wonders Sicily has to offer, and has become a place one returns to again and again, welcome each time like a returning family member. When traveling in the region of Agrigento, it really is our favorite place to stay.
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