Italy's best kept secrets
At dusk, lights eerily illuminate The Sassi, an old district of Matera, Basilicata. (Alan Benson/LPI)
Set in southern Italy, Matera, Basilicata is a little-known glinting jewel with scenery that is more moonscape than landscape. Such is the cultural wealth of the Bel Paese (Beautiful Country), that it is speckled by seemingly undiscovered secrets – places most travellers do not reach.
Matera seems to grow out of the hillside, clinging above the rocky jaws of a ravine. More than 50 years ago people still lived in caves here, and now the cave-houses are being reclaimed. Some have been turned into unique boutique hotels with bathrooms in medieval caves and views over the car-less townscape. It is scenery so epic, so timeless, that Mel Gibson chose this as the location for his film The Passion of the Christ. Despite having been spotlit by Hollywood, Matera still feels a place forgotten by the outside world, where at dusk the whole town descends on the main piazza for the early evening passiagata (stroll) as they have for centuries.
Head farther south to the region that borders Basilicata, and you will discover Calabria, one of Italy's most mysterious regions, usually featured in the foreign press in connection with its notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia, rather than for its holiday potential. However, Italians have long known about the magnetism of Calabria's powder-sand coastline, wooded hills and limpid lakes. Most of Northern Italy heads down here during the holiday season in August. Away from the beaches, Calabria's La Sila area feels inconceivably remote, with balm-for-the-soul views of undulating mountains melting into the horizon. Visiting the southern town of Tropea, which clings to sea cliffs above translucent waters, resembles exploring an undiscovered outpost of the Amalfi Coast. In Calabria, travelling in Italy still feels like an adventure.
Farther north, bordering much-visited Umbria, is another magical corner that shares its neighbour's wild beauty but not its crowds of foreign tourists: Le Marche. Here lies the Monte Sibillini mountain range, freckled by flowers, offering easily accessible treks, wildlife spotting, and boating on mountain lakes, and with a history full of legends involving witches, Pontius Pilate, and miracles.
Not far from these otherworldly mountains, as tourists pour into Rome on summer weekends, Romans pour out of the city seeking the fresh breezes and shady green spaces of Lazio. While foreigners might take a side trip to an Umbrian hilltown or the fast train to Florence, the locals know that there are singular delights much closer to home. Rural Lazio is speckled by vast volcanic lakes, where you can swim, sail, or eat languorous meals on waterside terraces. The thickly forested hills are topped by little fortified towns, such as the bohemian centre of Calcata, colonised by artists in the 1970s. Then, there is the storybook loveliness of the "dying town" of Civita di Bagnoregio, a town built on an island-like outcrop, reached via a narrow bridge. The tufa rock on which it stands is slowly crumbling, making this one hidden gem that should be discovered before it vanishes completely.
Wander off the beaten track in Italy and one thing is guaranteed - a sense of having found a real place, one of the joys of travelling somewhere that fewer people know about. So, go forth, explore, and... do not tell too many people about it.