It's easy to find Italy's best-known museums, churches and attractions if you look at travel guidebooks and websites. They are justifiably famous; who would want to miss the Colosseum, Michelangelo's David or Saint Mark's Basilica? If, however, you're looking for the real Italy, the Italy that celebrates its modernity and looks back toward its illustrious past, you might need to wander away from the autostrada and the Appian Way. The real Italy is alive and well, honoring ancient traditions and establishing new ones, and you can find it in every region of this fascinating country. Let's go local and find out more about some of Italy's undiscovered towns.
Gaeta, in southern Lazio, is easily reached by car or bus, but does not have a train station of its own. The closest train station is in nearby Formia; it's easy to take the bus from Formia's train station to Gaeta at almost any time of day. Gaeta is a pilgrimage destination for Catholics; Montagna Spaccata (Split Mountain) is said to have been cleaved in two when Christ died on Good Friday, and the Golden Chapel in Gaeta's Annunziata church is the place where Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Gaeta is also a beach resort; the roads leading to Gaeta become clogged with beachgoers in July and August. If you visit during the summer months, plan your drive so you arrive between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. The old town is filled with narrow cobblestoned streets, fascinating churches and good restaurants, and you'll find excellent beaches in town and north of Gaeta at Sant'Agostino.
See it now: Gaeta Photo Tour
Learn More: Gaeta Travel Guide
Avio, just west of the A22 autostrada and north of Brentino Belluno, is known mainly for its castle, which sits above the town in Sabbionara di Avio and can easily be seen from the valley below. Built during the 12th through 14th centuries, Avio Castle is well worth a visit. Frescoes depicting secular scenes decorate the "Room of Love" and the guards' house; the "Room of Love" features scenes of Love's arrows hitting an unsuspecting woman and a knight, while the guardhouse frescoes depict archers and foot soldiers. The views of the Val Lagarina from the castle are spectacular. The Fondo Ambiente Italiano, or FAI, an organization similar to the UK's National Trust, operates and maintains the castle.
See it now: View of Avio Castle and Val Lagarina
Wine lovers have certainly heard of Soave, which has lent its name to the local wine region. It's easy to see the crenellated walls of Soave Castle from the A4 autostrada, but most travelers are headed to other destinations and do not have time to pay a visit. On your next trip, take an hour or two to drive into Soave and see the castle, walls and adjacent town for yourself. Soave Castle's walls are in very good shape, allowing you to see how the castle grounds expanded over time. The oldest building, a chapel, dates from the 10th century, while the newest set of walls was built in the 1400s. Soave's festival calendar includes several musical events during the summer months and the Grape Festival, Italy's oldest, on the third weekend of September.
See it now: Soave Photo Tour
Solopaca, in the southern region of Campania, is a quiet town in the province of Benevento. During one week in September, however, the Grape Festival draws visitors from near and far. During this week, normally the second full week of September, Solopaca celebrates its grape-growing and winemaking heritage. The highlight of the Grape Festival is the parade, held on Sunday, which features floats depicting scenes related to Solopaca's winemaking industry, all of which are depicted using the region's "white" and "black" grapes. The historic court, consisting of townspeople in medieval and Renaissance costumes, also takes part in the Sunday parade.
More About: Wine Travel in Italy
Oria, far to the south in Puglia, Italy's "heel," boasts a 13th-century castle, a cathedral with a museum and mummy crypt, several churches and an annual "Tournament of the Districts," held each August, in which young men from the four quarters of the city take part in contests of skill, medieval style, including jousting, using battering rams, pulling heavy loads and climbing poles. The sole prize, a beautiful banner, is awarded to the winning quarter and proudly displayed in subsequent tournaments. Oria once hosted one of Europe's oldest Jewish communities; one of the town's quarters is named Giudea, or the "Hebrew Quarter" ("Quartiere Ebraico"). Although the Jewish population left long ago, perhaps as early as the 11th century, Oria still remembers the Jews' contribution to the city's history.
As of this writing, Oria Castle is open for limited tours.
See it now: Oria Castle Photo Tour