Although Italy is consistently one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, all too many holidaymakers restrict their attentions to Rome, Naples, Venice and Florence. As wonderful as these places are, Italy is so much more than the sum of its cities. Are you looking for a holiday that satisfies your passion for Italian history and takes you out of the city? Prestige Holidays’ exclusive portfolio of hotels includes properties from where history lovers can access Italy’s array of alternative historical destinations.
Italy’s rich history draws in many a visitor throughout the year. I’ve had more than my fair share of Italian getaways, and the two that delighted the historian in me the most had the same ingredients: unusual yet fascinating sites and a conspicuous absence of crowds. And in this respect, there’s nothing that can beat either Puglia or Lake Garda.
Explore ‘Italy’s Heel’
Puglia has had remarkably little attention from tourists. I say remarkably, because this region of southern Italy certainly matches Sicily for its intriguing history and quirky attractions. Other people’s loss is most certainly your gain though.
Sassi of Matera
Italy has long been a favourite of film directors in search of gorgeous backdrops, and Matera, with its astonishing cave dwellings known as sassi, has featured in its fair share of blockbusters, such as “The Passion of the Christ”.
The caves, which teeter dramatically on the edge of a ravine, are believed to have been first inhabited in the Stone Age, and became places of worship and habitation for hermit monks during the Middle Ages. As late as the end of the Second World War the sassi continued to house ordinary locals as well as those seeking an otherworldly life. While many have now been turned into bars, restaurants and even hotels (more on that in a moment!) some remain undisturbed; those at Sasso Caveoso are the most striking.
Trulli of Alberobello
As intriguing as the sassi are the trulli, or limestone huts, of Alberobello, believed to be the oldest extant examples. These fascinating dwellings were borne out of medieval pragmatism: limestone was plentiful as a building material, but the lack of mortar in the structure also meant they could be swiftly disassembled to avoid incurring punitive taxes from the Kingdom of Naples on new settlements.
To get a greater sense of the history of the trulli, be sure to visit the genuine article; the Trullo Sovrano is now a museum on two levels and the Church of Sant’Antonio is again of trullo design, replete with a bell tower and lateral chapels.
Flanked by the Dolomites and lauded by such literary grandees as Lord Tennyson, DH Lawrence and Ezra Pound, Lake Garda is not only a place of great natural beauty (though that cannot be understated) but also interesting from a historical perspective.
The fishing village of Malcesine stands out because of the work of one family: the Scaliger. These lords of Verona controlled the area around Garda during the Middle Ages and consolidated their rule by renovating an ancient fortress known as the Castello Scaligero, which today houses a collection of sketches by Goethe and a museum of local history. For those unafraid of heights, it is possible to scale a tower for superb 360° views.
The Captain’s Palace – so named because it was the residence of the Captain of the Lake until 1854 – features a lakeside garden and hall decorated with emblems of the town and former residents. The commemorative plaque dedicated to a Captain who defended Malcesine during the War of the Spanish Succession is a reminder that this idyllic spot has not always been a place of peace.
So taken by the beauty of the peninsula of Sirmione was the Roman poet Catullus that he made his home there. Away from the pretty historic centre can be found olive groves and shingle beaches as well as the ruins of Catullus’s residence, known as Catullo’s Grotto. A museum showcases many of the finds from the villa, such as stunning Pompeian-style frescos, and objects discovered from villages now beneath the surface of the lake.
Also well worth a visit is the Chiesa di San Pietro in Mavino. This 1300-year-old Romanesque church is testament to the fact that Lake Garda has long been a place of solace to all who have come here. Inside can be found recesses containing a Byzantine Christ Pantocrator in addition to medieval frescos.