In search of the good life... Italy's beautiful borghi
Rome, Venice, Bologna, Palermo…Italy’s cities are packed with history and bags of beauty, but if you’re looking for something a little quieter with historic charm in equal measure then it’s easy to come by. Cox & Kings’ Eleanor Lawrence goes off the beaten track to Italy’s borghi.
Italy is strewn with picturesque villages that are spread across the entire length of the peninsula, from the top of the boot right down to the toe. Known as borghi, they typically date back to the medieval and Renaissance periods, centred around a castle or noble residence and often with defensive walls encircling them. Intensely proud of their historic roots, the inhabitants continue to uphold time-worn cultural traditions. There are trattorias serving local dishes, perfected over generations, and enotecas selling wines harvested from the surrounding vineyards. Often perched on hilltops, idyllic countryside views are all part of the package too.
Some of these borghi are familiar tourist hotspots, such as the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, punctuated by its celebrated, competing medieval towers, but there are borghi aplenty unfrequented by the masses. These are the places where you can truly lose yourself in the quintessential laidback Italian lifestyle: historic architecture, blissful vistas, mouthwatering cuisine and exquisite wines…this is the good life.
Focusing on the central regions of Le Marche and Umbria, and the northern regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, here are just a few of the borghi that are worth taking a detour to. They are all part of I Borghi più belli d'Italia (Most Beautiful Villages of Italy Association), which works to preserve the culture, gastronomy and linguistic heritage of towns across Italy with particular historic interest.
Set between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine mountains, Le Marche offers dramatically varied scenery, from snowy peaks to rolling hills and white cliffs towering over azure waters. Despite this, it seems not to feature prominently on the tourist map. All to the good, as you won’t want the tranquillity you’ll find here to be disturbed. Hidden among the hills are spectacular borghi that will take you back in time.
Gradara sits on a hilltop not far from the coast, its bulky fortifications enveloping the village in a protective huddle. Enter through the Clock Gate and stroll up the ancient cobbled streets to the imposing castle at the very top. Dating back to the 12th century, it’s so well preserved that you can imagine life as it once was here. Walk through the apartments of the nobles that once resided here, the horrors of the torture chamber and the labyrinth of secret tunnels beneath the castle. Patrol as the soldiers once did around the impressive double walls of the borgo for enchanting views of a patchwork of olive groves and vineyards to the west and the Adriatic glistening in the distance to the east. This town is also famously the setting for the Fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno and the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca. Visit Gradara in the summer months and you’re likely to get caught up in one festivity or another. From June through to September there are food events, art exhibitions, street performances and music shows with the most important event being the re-enactment of the siege of the castle that took place in 1446.
Mondavio occupies a similarly picturesque hilltop position, with a mountainous backdrop and views all the way to the coast. Rocca Roveresca is the main sight to see here, a formidable fortress complete with moat, drawbridge and underground tunnels. Catapults and other machines of war are on display outside while installations inside the fortress depict scenes of daily life. Besides the fortress there are churches containing valuable works of art and the 18th-century, art nouveau theatre, occupying a former 15th-century church. Stroll the narrow, cobbled streets and chance upon charming courtyards and quaint trattorias serving tacconi, a local peasant’s pasta dish made using bean flour. July and August see a rash of festivities in and around the castle including Renaissance banquets, historical re-enactments of wild boar hunts and dancing. In January the culinary Pig Festival takes over the town with tastings, street markets and exhibitions on the processing of cold cuts.
Umbria is better known than neighbouring Le Marche, encompassing celebrated towns such as Assisi, birthplace of St Francis, and the university city of Perugia. Nonetheless there are borghi concealed amid the green hills of this central region that are not a part of the main tourist trail.
Just to the south of Perugia, Umbria’s capital, is Deruta. Like any other borgo, this small town is packed with history but, rather than sightseeing, you might prefer to spend your time searching for souvenirs amid the countless ceramic workshops. The town became known for its beautiful, handcrafted majolica pottery in the 16th century when the town finally enjoyed peace after many years of plague and war. Clay deposits from the nearby River Tiber provided the raw material while local artisans worked this into stylish designs, beautifully hand-decorated in bright, intricate patterns. The same designs are still on sale today, perfected over the centuries. Visit the museum for a full account of the ceramic industry in Deruta.
The views from Castiglione del Lago couldn’t get much more romantic. Looking across Lake Trasimeno, this fortified town is set on a promontory that was once an island. Rocca del Leone, or Lion Fortress, commands the best views over the waters, its bastions, towers and walls having withstood numerous incursions. Visit in April or May and you may be lucky enough to coincide with the annual Coloriamo i Cieli festival when hundreds of colourful kites and hot air balloons fill the sky.
All of the above borghi feature in our new 8-day, small group tour Discover Marche & Umbria. Travel across the central Apennines, visiting the many fortified hilltop towns and villages en route with stops for chocolate, wine and olive oil tastings.
Veneto & Friuli
People come to the Veneto region to experience the romance of Venice. Some travel on to the no-less-beautiful cities of Padua, Verona and Vicenza but few think to look beyond to the small borghi and wine-producing hills in the countryside. Even fewer continue east to the wild landscapes of neighbouring Friuli Venezia Giulia. It’s a wonder why when there is such beauty to explore here and a culture that is unique in the Italian peninsula, influenced by neighbouring Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.
If it’s fine defensive walls you’re after then Montagnana is a must. This borgo lies on the plains of the Po River, south-east of Verona, and would have been open to attack from all sides. However the medieval walls hold the town in a 2-kilometre-long protective embrace, reaching up to 10 metres high in places. Mighty watch towers pierce the sides at regular intervals. Inside the walls visit the castle, the gothic cathedral and several beautiful Renaissance palaces.
The small village of Arquà Petrarca looks a little less formidable. This scenic spot south of Padua, set amid the volcanic Euganean hills, was where the early Renaissance poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) decided to peacefully live out the last years of his life. In homage to him, the village added ‘Petrarca’ to its name in 1868. You can visit his house and his grave. Aside from this, wander the medieval streets, which appear to have changed little since Petrarch’s time, and appreciate the tranquillity that once inspired this great man.
Another beautifully preserved medieval borgo is that of Valvasone in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. This 13th-century town is a fine example of medieval town planning, built in large part to protect the ford over the nearby river and to regulate the transit of goods. Tour the restored castle, peek inside the town’s churches and admire the noble houses – it’s easy to imagine what life was like here hundreds of years ago.
Our new 8-day, self-drive tour Beyond Venice: Veneto & Friuli is a circuit encompassing the above mentioned borghi. This round trip travels from Venice through Padua and Vicenza before hitting the rolling hills of the Collio wine route. Continue through the relatively unexplored region of Friuli Venezia Giulia before finishing in the pretty port of Trieste on the shores of the Adriatic.
Turning from the north-east corner of Italy to the north-west, we also offer a tour of the borghi in the region of Piedmont. Our new 7-day, self-drive tour, Vineyards of Piedmont, is a single-centre trip perfectly balancing culinary delights, including wine, truffle and chocolate tastings, with visits to the region's historic towns.
Alternatively, if you are interested in tailor-made travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.