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Three alternative Italian weekend escapes

With so many lakes, mountains and UNESCO-listed sites, Italy has no shortage of stunning locations to while away a few days. These oft-overlooked spots promise a unique break.

Published 4 Oct 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 10 Aug 2021, 16:39 BST
Matera is fresh off its stint as 2019 European Capital Of Culture and its historic sassi cave dwellings ...

Matera is fresh off its stint as 2019 European Capital Of Culture and its historic sassi cave dwellings are slowly being reinhabited.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. THE ISLAND

Been to Capri? Try Ischia.

It shares the same glittering sea and glorious Vesuvius views as Capri, but Ischia remains very much an island for Italians, rather than for the jet set. Its thermal waters have been popular for thousands of years, and you can still take a dip today. Relax in the natural pools of Cavascura, as the Romans did, or, for something a little fancier, gently stew as you dangle over the Med at the Aphrodite Apollon thermal park. There are dinky villages (like Sant’Angelo, a hamlet with almost more beach than pavement) and glorious beaches, too — don’t miss Maronti, a long strip of sand on the south of the island, made famous by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. 

Where to eat
Ristorante Neptunus: Frequented by many a celebrity over the years, this is the go-to spot for perfectly grilled, caught-this-morning fish.

Where to stay
Botania Relais & Spa
Get back to nature at this adults-only retreat, where villas and rooms are dotted around the richly planted grounds. Doubles from €150 (£135), B&B.

You’ll find fish on menus all around Lake Iseo, often paired with hyper-local wine from the Franciacorta region.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. THE LAKE

Seen Como? Try Iseo.

Often overshadowed by its higher-profile siblings, Garda, Como and Maggiore, Lake Iseo is where the Milanese retreat to. This is fishing territory, and on Monte Isola (the island in the middle of the lake, accessible by ferry) lies the hamlet of Peschiera Maraglio, where villagers make their living either by hauling in the daily catch or manufacturing the nets. 

You’ll find fish on menus all around the lake, often paired with hyper-local wine from the Franciacorta region, whose sparkling whites bear more of a resemblance to Champagne than Prosecco. Don’t miss the 40-mile Strada del Vino Franciacorta wine trail, which whisks you from one vineyard to the next.

Where to eat
Ristorante Le MargheriteTinca al forno (a baked carp-like fish, stuffed with grated bread, cheese and spices) is the speciality of lakeside Clusane, and this restaurant is one of the best places to try it. 

Where to stay
Castello Oldofredi: This porticoed, towered castle dominates Peschiera Maraglio, offering top-notch views of the lake. Doubles from €79 (£70), room only.

3. THE HISTORIC WONDER

Seen Venice? Try Matera.

It appears almost as a mirage: thousands of houses carved out of the caves and cliffs, piled higgledy-piggledy on top of each other. The southern Italian city was once considered a national embarrassment, with its population living in dire poverty until they were evicted on public health grounds in the 1950s. But today, Matera is fresh off its stint as 2019 European Capital Of Culture and its sassi (‘rocks’) are slowly being reinhabited. There are excellent small museums including Casa Noha, a clutch of chic galleries and shops and artisans’ workshops. Don’t miss the rock-hewn churches or the Cripta del Peccato Originale (‘crypt of original sin’), a 20-minute drive from town.

Where to eat
Osteria al Casale
At this swish trattoria in a former cave, the only link to the past is the traditional Basilicata dishes on the menu. 

Where to stay
Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
This ‘scattered hotel’ comprises 18 cave houses converted into honey-hued, candlelit rooms. Doubles from €153 (£128), B&B. 

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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