From haunted caves to stunning views, these under-the-radar villages are Italy’s best-kept secret.
Forget the glamour and grandeur of Rome, Florence, and Venice. Italy is dotted with thousands of small rural villages unknown even to local Italians. These small towns are more than just picturesque; they’re quirky with a magic allure. These idyllic and bucolic spots are ideal in times of COVID because of their remoteness and tendency to draw fewer crowds. But, beyond being an off-the-radar destination, the following Italian villages boast delicious food, extraordinary landscapes, and even intriguing legends.
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This tiny hamlet close to the Eternal City is shaped like a giant mushroom growing out of a deep green chasm. Calcata is perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river where Pagan tribes once made human sacrifices. The dark-colored houses have been cut from the rock, so you can hardly distinguish the natural from the man-made. The town itself is a labyrinth of moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels, and wall openings overlooking the thick jungle-like canyon.
INSIDER TIPForget cars; Calcata is best explored on foot.
Many Italian villages are like rainbows with houses painted in different pastel colors. But, the town of Casamassima is unique for being painted in various shades of blue, earning it the nickname of the Blue Village. With its blue-hued homes, Casamassima feels like being in Smurf land. Why it was painted blue isn’t entirely clear, but local lore suggests it was to honor the color of the veil of Jesus’ mother, Mary. In the 1600s, the local lord chose that color, believing it would keep the Bubonic plague at bay, and, surprisingly, it seems to have worked as the village was spared.
Prepare for a witchy thrill and a few goosebumps when visiting Triora. This lovely mountain village harbors a dark past as it was once packed with presumed witches until the Holy Inquisition came along and burnt many at the stake, right on the public piazza. Each year, a witchy festival celebrates the town’s spooky heritage with ladies dressed as sorceresses. Walk by the tiny stone dwellings and prepare to bump into grannies who still give you the creeps.
Guardia Piemontese is located on a hilltop overlooking Calabria’s shimmering coastline, with great views from the huge fortress. The town has an eerie ambiance because of its storied past. Locals of the town were originally Waldenses refugees who had fled from the north. When they were caught by the Church and sentenced to death in the 1500s, it’s said the blood from the massacre flowed down to the beaches and turned the sand red. To this day, visitors enter the village through a thick stone portal called the Door of Blood.
Cornello dei Tasso
Do you love collecting old stamps? Then you can’t miss this medieval hamlet where time stands still. Cornello dei Tasso is where the first European postal service was born in the 1300s, thanks to the Tasso family. Yup, one member was genius Torquato Tasso, the author of the Jerusalem Delivered epic. Cobbled alleys and narrow arches connect a bunch of houses with thatched roofs. The only way to reach it is by a 30-minute walk along a crooked path. The old family house is now a museum that takes people on guided tours.
Set in sunny Puglia, this village stands out from the rest due to its particular scary decorations. Fake tongues stick out everywhere, including balconies, doorknobs, portals, village walls, and whitewashed houses covered in pink bougainvilleas. Everywhere you look in Specchia, you’ll spot painted majolica and stone masks of monsters and clowns with bright red tongues sticking out of their mouths. You might not feel welcomed, but according to local tradition, sticking out one’s tongue is the best way to keep a jinx at bay.
Not all Italians speak Italian. Welcome to South Tyrol, at the border with Austria, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and where people still speak German. Bars sell apple Strüdel pies and restaurants serve Canoederli dumplings. San Candido is surrounded by pristine Alpine peaks and is covered in wall paintings of pastoral scenes. The town is said to have been founded by a giant who was fed up with living alone in a cave. One of the giant’s alleged ribs is kept in the church as a relic. There’s also a weird museum showcasing dinosaur fossils found in the area.
The first thing that hits you when visiting Sutri is the huge necropolis at the foot of the village. Caves and clefts in the red-brownish rock were used as tombs by the Pagan Etruscan tribes who inhabited this patch of central Italy before being slaughtered by the Ancient Romans. Later on, bandits and outlaws took refuge in the caves. Today, you get to stroll by the empty cave-tombs, said to be haunted by ‘primitive’ ghosts.
Marzamemi is an exotic name for an exotic place. In this town, you’ll find just one rectangular piazza made of dazzling white stones and surrounded by low-cut fishermen stone dwellings, a few bars, and a shimmering sea. Welcome to the Arab soul of Sicily. Founded by Muslim conquerors, Marzamemi used to be a vibrant tuna factory. Old majolica tiles dot the facades of buildings covered with fishermen hooks and nets. A fishy vibe survives, and if you’re lucky, you might bump into the descendants of the last tuna boss known as ‘rais.’
Civita di Bagnoreggio
The setting and views are shocking but don’t go to Civita di Bagnoreggio if you’re afraid of heights. This 2,500-year-old hamlet rises on a round tuff plateau overlooking the Tiber River valley as if suspended in mid-air. In fact, the town is falling to pieces, earning it the nickname of the Dying City. Due to the constant soil erosion, Civita looks like a rocky isle about to crumble any minute into the deep chasm. The town’s only bridge was bombed during the second world war, so today, just one metal catwalk connects it to the main road.
INSIDER TIPOnly scooters are allowed inside Civita di Bagnoreggio.