(Some of) The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy

Arquà Petrarca: The pearl of the Colli Euganei, Veneto

This could more accurately be nicknamed ‘the city of flowers’, as all residents seem to have taken it upon themselves to adorn their window ledges with boxes of blooming, brightly coloured displays.

This borgo is historically notable as the chosen retirement sanctuary of Petrarch, the 14th century humanist scholar and poet. Perhaps it was the green shades of the hills that change colour many times a day, or the warm burnt orange of the houses nestled into the sea of green which seem like something from Tuscany, or maybe it was just something in the air. It certainly boasts a serene spirit, and Petrarch described his resting place as the ‘paese di vigilia’, a place for internal reflection and thought before the next life in paradise (vigilia meaning eve). Beside the church of Santa Maria Assunta you can find his tomb made from red marble of Verona. You can also visit his house, which he designed himself. From a little balcony above the door you can admire a calming vista of the gentle hills. The house is decorated with 14th century frescos. Here Petrarch died literally resting on his books.

Civita di Bagnoregio: The Dying City, Lazio

For my full description of this borgo see Civita di Bagnoregio: 8 Inhabitants and 12 Cats.

The most enticing reason to visit this little island of rock in a valley is that its precarious geological situation means it may disappear in the near future. It’s currently home to 8 permanent residents and 12 cats. In the summer it hosts a donkey race, a kind of miniature Siena Palio. It is a truly spectacular place, a real jewel that should be visited at least once in a lifetime (if it’s still there…).

Castel Arquato, Emilia-Romagna

A hilltop wonder, you approach the town through a grand archway, looking up at the towers and spires that define the skyline. Just inside the gateway we witnessed a scene worthy of a Fellini film. A window banged open above us and grandmother’s head popped out. ‘Filippo!’, she called down to the floor below. A second later the window below opened. The grandmother produced a basket covered with a flowery cloth, attached to a crudely constructed pulley system. She lowered the basket down to her son below, bellowed ‘buon appetito’, and withdrew. This brief scene of daily life is representative of a village frozen in time and its enduring culture of family life.

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While there are many hilltop villages with quaint cobbled streets and stray cats, Castel Arquato is impressive for the sheer size and integrity of the historic village. Often borghi are merely a piazza and a couple of streets trapped inside a sprawling city, but here modern construction is relegated to outside the town walls. Aside from losing yourself in the winding streets and admiring the well-kept gardens overlooking infinite views of the hills beyond, there is even some serious history and architecture here. The town sits on a terrace of fossil shells, deriving from prehistoric times when the sea covered the Po valley. As you reach the summit of the hill, a grand piazza opens up before you, a surprise in a little town like this. The piazza hosts la rocca Viscontea, erected by Luchino Visconti between 1342 and 1349, which is considered one of the most important military workshops in Northern Italy. You can also find a religious complex of buildings called the collegiata which is one of the oldest in the area, dating from 1117. The most attractive part of the structure is the volumetric play of the four apses set against the roof of the church and bell tower.

In terms of food, have an antipasto fit for a king with local coppa, pancetta and salame piacentino.

Locorotondo, Puglia

Ostuni, in Puglia, bears the nickname ‘the white city’, but in my opinion this borgo is also worthy of the name. On approach there is a postcard view of white houses above terraced vineyards. We visited at Christmas time, and the red baubles and santa outfits adorning the town looked delightful against the white buildings and streets. The historic centre has several churches to visit, and some houses with a particular roof design called ‘cummerse’, formed in a high peak and constructed without cement. Of course you can also see examples of the distinctive trullo, a typical rural house of Valle d’Itria. Their conical roofs are also built without cement holding them together, and one bar owner’s charming explanation for this was that when the landowner visited to collect taxes for the houses they simply pulled down the roof so it could not longer be designated as a house, and then rebuilt it once he’d left. I’m a little dubious of the historical accuracy but I like the story. Locorotondo is home to the Trullo of the Marziolla contrada, the oldest trullo in Puglia (1509).

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Polignano a Mare, Puglia

First a word of caution. Unless you own a Fiat Panda or Cinquecento do not attempt to drive into the old town. These streets were built before Land Rovers could dictate their width, and you’re sure to lose a wing mirror or two if you’re not careful turning a corner. Furthermore, if you do venture forth into the labyrinth, be aware that all streets are one way, so you need a sharp eye to avoid having to reverse back down every second street you take.

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However, it is more than worth having to walk an extra couple of minutes to stay in the old town. Our apartment had a wonderful vaulted ceiling, an old stove and pretty decorative tiles.

And outside the apartment was even better. First wander to the sea, particularly good at sunset, and admire the ever-changing shades of turquoise and dark blue as the water flows in and out of the caves. These caves can be visited by boat in the summer. Then stroll into the old town and lose yourself in the white marble streets. Even when it’s dark there is a slight luminosity created by all the white stone. As you wander round, look out for the poems and quotations that are inked on doors, staircases and walls, all signed ‘The Flaneur’. This man is now somewhat famous locally for his poetic graffiti. Morning is the perfect time to take a walk to the little bay, flanked on either side by cliff face and teetering houses. When you get peckish, the sea food is a must. I recommend Ristorante Antiche Mura, where we gorged on never-ending primi piatti of pesce crudo (raw fish), little fried fish, tuna carpaccio, oysters and scallops.

Vipiteno / Sterzing, Trentino-Alto Adige

If you are sick of Italy but are still stuck here for a few more days, you could visit South-Tyrol, the region trapped in the wrong country. This region has a complex history (see A Nationality Trapped in the Wrong Country?) and was once part of a larger German-speaking area. After the war one half was annexed by Italy, and thus there is little part of Austria seemingly misplaced in Italy. The population is German-speaking, Italian is spoken with a heavy accent, and the architecture is thoroughly foreign. Vipiteno is a classic little village of medieval alpine architecture: crowstepped gables, pastel colours and pretty wooden signs. At the end of the picturesque main street is a backdrop of snowy mountains. The gastronomy is also notably Austrian, with a celebrated Latteria producing milk, butter and yoghurt. Indeed there is a festival of yoghurt in July and August where restaurants in and around Vipiteno prepare traditional dishes and new creations using the quality yoghurt from the Latteria Vipiteno. Here you must also try canederli and speck. You can find many traditionally ‘German’ products like sachertorte and strudel to take home as gifts.

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3 thoughts on “(Some of) The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy

  1. We were just in Arqua Petrarca in March and it was lovely! It was a little sleepy on the day we visited and lots of the shops were closed, but it was nice strolling the streets and looking at the lovely scenery. We found a great little lunch spot (L’enoteca Arqua) and it had a great patio overlooking the valley below. I love exploring these out of the way villages – thanks for all the other recommendations!

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