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Beyond the art and architecture lies some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery. Here’s where to go off track in some of the loveliest landscapes in Italy.
Why has Italy produced so many artists? It’s possibly to do with the landscape. Wherever you look, there’s something spectacular: mountains, lakes, beaches; hills, cliffs, forests. There are canyons, badlands and even a tiny desert. No wonder Italians rarely venture abroad – this is one of Europe’s most diverse landscapes. Some of them are, of course, teeming with tourists. Most, though, are not – in many areas you’ll see more wild boars than fellow human beings. In these wondrous landscapes, there’s plenty of room to social-distance.
Umbria: Castelluccio di Norcia
Each year, from late May to early July, the Pian Grande – the Great Plain of this basin in the Sibillini mountains – explodes with colour: scarlets, violets, ochres and limes. The beauty is sustainable, too: these aren’t flowers for cutting, but the blossoms of cultivated pulses, including the famous lentils of Castelluccio, eaten all over Italy. Surrounded by ragged mountain peaks and overlooked by hilltop village Castelluccio, it’s cinematic in its beauty. Tranquil, too – the Sibillini necklace feels like a cocoon. But it hasn’t always been so – look closer at Castelluccio and you’ll see the village is still largely destroyed following an earthquake in 2016. The residents still till the fields below their ravaged community – so the most helpful thing you can do is to stock up on lentils. Foodie town Norcia, 30km (19mi) west, was also hit hard – but many of its exceptional restaurants are still going.
Veneto: Delta del Po
Islands, glassy-still waters – and not a hint of human intervention. Ninety minutes south of Venice, this natural park gives a glimpse of what the famous lagoon would have been like, before humanity arrived. Here, Italy’s longest river, the Po, slips quietly out into the Adriatic – as wide as a lake at this point, cleaving channels between chunky green islands as it goes. It doesn’t look much at first glance – that’s because this is a place best seen slowly. Rent a bike and lose yourself among the Dutch-flat fields, each separated from the next by moat-like water channels; hear rare migratory birds squawk as you walk past their riverside lairs; and be mesmerised by the centuries-old fishing nets staked in the water in the Sacca degli Scardovari, where cutesy fishing huts teeter over the water on stilts. Walk along the wild beaches facing the Adriatic, or along the high levees that guide the Po to its outlet. Comacchio, just across the border in Emilia Romagna, is a canal-cut mini Venice.
Pantelleria: Specchio di Venere
A volcanic crater wreathed by terraced vineyards, filled with steaming thermal water and tinged the brightest of turquoises. No wonder this lake on Pantelleria – a speck of an island flung into the Med between Sicily and Tunisia – is called Venus’s Mirror. Pick a spot on the circular baked-mud beach, inhale the sulphurous air, and go for a swim in the bath-warm water, bubbles fizzing to the surface all around you. The mud makes great face and body packs to dry off in the sun. The entire island is one unspoilt natural paradise – the majority of it is a national park. Take the road that circumnavigates it all, and as well as jaw-dropping views (and cliff drops, be warned), you’ll find thermal springs bubbling up in coves, vine-threaded terraces; or you can go trekking or mountain-biking across the rocky interior.
Tuscany: Maremma National Park
You want: a wild beach, backed by miles of undergrowth, where the Med batters the hot sand, and your fellow beachgoers include families of foxes. You need: the Maremma regional park. A couple of hours south of the perfectly manicured, lounger-laden beaches that Tuscany is famous for, this unspoilt park takes in scrub-covered hills scented with fragrant macchia mediterranea and topped with ancient watchtowers; ranches where you can go riding or biking; and deliciously wild beaches, where the elements are at their rawest. Bring a sarong to string between enormous driftwood slabs at Marina di Alberese – that’s your sunshade. Add a towel to save you from the scorching sand, and a lunchbox to save your snacks from the inquisitive foxes, who live in the pine forest backing onto the beach.
Calabria: Sila Grande
As the toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria is known for its spectacular double-sided coastline; but up here on the mountain plateau that connects the two coasts, it’s a different world. The air has been calculated to be the cleanest in Europe, and the national park – the Parco Nazionale della Sila – covers an enormous 73,000ha (180,000 acres), full of forest-flecked mountains and hiking trails sprinkled with wild deer. The Sila Grande is the most beautiful part of it, though, with wide open spaces, gently undulating horizons and a biscuity hue to much of the land, which has a hint of the South American altiplano. Stop at Camigliatello, where the shops are full of products from the area, from cured meats to porcini mushrooms.
Friuli Venezia Giulia: Lago del Predil
Lombardy is known for its lakes, of course, but ditch them and come here, nudging Slovenia in Italy’s easternmost region, to this glacial basin. “Hidden gem” is an overused term, but this lake – sparkling like a sapphire and set within the forest-bristled Julian Alps – is as close as it gets. The water’s so clear that the mountains reflect on the surface; the colour’s a deep greeny-blue. You’ll feel guilty jumping in and breaking that reflection, but it has to be done – there’s a little tree-topped island to get to, whether that’s by swimming, rowing, kayaking or on a pedalo. The surroundings are spectacular, too – nearby, the cloud-swirled Predel Pass winds you around to the Slovenian border.
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