I recently asked long-term expats in Italy – and a few Italians – to reveal their top hidden secrets near where they live. This was part of a chat on Clubhouse, the audio-only social network currently in Beta, where super-blogger Georgette Jupe and I have a regular chat on Sunday nights at 9pm CET called The Italy Club, and it was actually her idea to hit up our friends for travel tips to keep us dreaming. At precisely one year from the explosion of Coronavirus in Italy, and with vaccinations in progress, people are apparently staying sane by booking travel, or at least making detailed plans with regard to their next Italy trip, so this seasoned crew is here to help. Without further ado, Italy experts and expats reveal their favourite places near their chosen homes.

Hidden secrets in Italy

Milan: San Maurizio

Miami native Thea Duncan’s Italian experience began as an exchange student in l’Aquila and continued with a Masters in Marketing from the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan. Now she’s established in Milan and amongst other things leads a Masterclass on moving to Italy on her website AND has written a guidebook to Milan, no less.

The frescoed interior of San Maurizio | ph. Thea Duncan

Thea recommends visiting a church that that is right up my alley yet I’ve never heard of it; it’s super central at just ten minutes away from Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church that houses the globally-renowned Last Supper by Leonardo. You probably have walked right past the Church of St. Maurice in Monastero Maggiore, which Thea says has a “relatively anonymous grayish-white facade, but once inside, seemingly every wall within the church is elaborately decorated with gold and vibrant cycles of frescoes depicting stories from the bible including the life of Jesus Christ as well as stories of noted saints, many of which were skillfully crafted by Bernardino Luini. As the name also indicates the church is housed within a monastery, which was the largest nunnery in Milan dating back to the 1500s. During a visit to the monastery, you can also see the ruins of the ancient Roman columns, which I think is pretty cool.”

 

Rome: Garbatella

Livia Hengel was born in Rome, but her family moved to the States when she was only one month old. Now, the blonde-haired journalist has made local headlines as one of Rome’s top bloggers and even had a private visit with the mayor. I love her articles for Forbes and her lusciously curated new website, The Italy Edit.

The charming homes and courtyards of the Garbatella area | Ph. Livia Hengel

Livia’s top hidden secret in Rome is the Garbatella area, which has its own metro stop just a 15-minute ride from Termini. Conceived as a “quality” social housing area in the 1920s, the area’s strange architecture is a mix of faux-baroque and Rationalism. The area is sometimes called a “rione borghetto”, a mix of the Roman “rione” or area and “borgo, borghetto”, small borgo or hamlet. The area has an interesting urbanistic history: the initial section or “lot” was made up of low-cost single-family homes centered around a garden-courtyard and assigned agricultural lands just beyond. As the area grew, the same concept of courtyards was applied to larger apartment buildings. Livia recommended this area because of this quaint, local architecture featuring homes that look like they come out of fairytale books set within communal courtyards.

 

“While you’re in the area,” says Livia, hungry visitors should “pop into the Casetta Rossa for simple, Roman dishes at this “social club.” Not far away you also won’t want to miss the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (a UNESCO Heritage site!) and the Centrale Montemartini museum, a fascinating blend of post-industrial architecture and Roman statuary.

 

Tuscany / Mugello: Sant’Agata

I’ve known Valentina Dainelli for more than ten years and for me she’s always “Valentina Too Much Tuscany,” the name of her blog and social media handles. She’s got years of bilingual (impressive!) blogging under her belt and, like I am, she is also part-owner of a marketing agency.

A detail of the miniatures in the Leprino Museum | ph. Valentina Dainelli

Valentina lives in the Mugello area of Tuscany, which she recommends visiting because it is authentic and easygoing. Indeed, there are fewer must-sees or well known things to do in the area. For something truly off the beaten track, Vale would have us go to the village of Sant’Agata, where she discovered two rather strange things. One is the Leprino Museum, a display of the town of Sant’Agata in a miniature model made by a man named Faliero Lepri, whose nickname was Leprino (as you might have guessed). This gentleman was a child in the 1930s and his charming miniature shows what this rural part of Tuscany looked like at the time.

A sculpture by Fritzi Metzger, ph credit Facebook page WooClass

Poking around just outside town, Vale stumbled upon the very colourful studio-house of Fritzi Metzger, a German artist and musician who studied under Niki de Saint Phalle, whose art played an important role in my own romantic Italian story. Her very colourful studio and the sculptures that surrounded it can be visited upon appointment.

Find more of Valentina’s unusual things to do in the Mugello on her blog!

 

Sicily: Torretta Granitola

Palermo-native Dario Cascio, who goes by the nickname “The Sicilian Wanderer” is the classic example of Italian brain drain with a profound love of his country. Working in international localization in the fields of video games, medicine and now in AI, in Ireland and in Canada, the hard-rock singer in a previous life dedicates return trips to Sicily to discovering hidden places. He’s doing his personal best to help preserve the cunti, old stories in Sicilian dialect that he is trying to capture in video.

 

If you’re visiting Sicily and want to get really off the beaten path like Dario has, he recommends a very small fishing village called Torretta Granitola, so close to Tunisia that couscous is a popular dish here. This town is located on the western coast of Sicily, which Dario localizes as “between Mazara del Vallo and Campobello di Mazara” if those are points of reference for you! A surf paradise just an hour from Palermo airport? I am seriously convinced.

 

Florence off the beaten track

It’s hard to find something “unknown” in Florence, given its small size vs number of visitors ratio, but we locals still have a few secrets up our sleeves…

Two lesser-known museums

Laura Masi, a Florentine photographer best known on Instagram as “Ruberry”, has a not-so-hidden geek side that loves quirky museums, as she told me when we recently visited the Bardini Museum together. Over Bardini’s collection of arms and armour she recounted childhood visits to the two lesser-known museums in Florence that she recommended in our clubhouse chat. Funny that I’ve never written about the Stibbert museum on this blog, as I worked on a video for LdM News about this strange personal collection of arms and armour for warfare and fanfare from the 16th to 18th centuries, from Europe and Asia. For Laura, it’s just “one minute and you’re right inside Game of Thrones”.

 

 

Laura’s other childhood favourite is the museum of La Specola, a natural history museum located near Porta Romana. This collection has two main sections, the first of preserved animals of all sorts, the second of wax anatomical sculptures used for medical training. I must admit, this second section may not be for all kids, as it’s pretty slimy and bloody.

 

Two charming local gardens in Florence

As for me, I always have trouble suggesting off the beaten track places in Florence but Laura’s contribution reminded me of a really fun, very local garden not far from the Stibbert museum – and that’s not counting the amazing 19th-century garden of the Stibbert itself, complete with an artificial lake. Head just uphill from here on via Trento and you’ll get to the Orti del Parnaso, which locals may call the “parco del dragone”. Separated by a railway track from the better-known Horticultural Garden at Ponte Rosso, where there are childrens’ games and a summertime bar, up top there’s not much more than a few benches and a great view over the city, featuring the Cupolone, that Laura and Vale told me is a preferred spot to hang out when skipping school. You can’t help but love the stone mosaic sculpture of a dragon (by Marco Dezzi Bardeschi, 1990) that roars towards the Duomo, a delightfully quirky piece of art that neighbourhood kids just love.

 

 

On the other side of town, between the Le Cure and Campo di Marte areas, is another park called Villa il Ventaglio, which reopened to the public in 2018 after restoration and is managed by the national museums service. When I moved to Florence in 1999 to do my Masters degree, I lived in a funky old-style, two-room apartment in Le Cure and I discovered this park walking around the fancy streets of Le Cure Alte. I used to come here to watercolour paint or to study, feeling oh-so-European. A duck pond lays at the bottom of this park, surrounded by a large flat lawn ideal for picnics or reading in the sun. You can walk or jog uphill on a winding path to the top of the park, where you can only spy on the villa that gives the park its name. The villa belonged to the Brancacci family in the Quattrocento, and through the centuries the list of owners reads like a who’s who of fancy Florence: Salvetti, Bardi, Torrigiani… It was transformed in the 19th century by the ever-present architect Giuseppe Poggi, who also transformed the nearby woods into a Romantic park with the help of botanist Attilio Pucci.

 

 

Secrets of the Oltrarno

Georgette is a famous supporter of the Oltrarno area; previously resident of the tiny piazza della Passera who recently moved to the piazza Tasso area, in 2017 she contributed to a Lonely Planet article on the world’s coolest neighbourhoods and her mention of San Frediano was much appreciated by local administration. Her dedication to neighbourhood and community was rewarded with the nomination as the 2021 Lonely Planet Community Award winner!

Il Conventino | Ph. Georgette Jupe

She shares two neighbourhood secrets. One is Il Conventino which she describes as combining “a cultural event space, a lovely café and artisan collective in an ex-convent near Piazza Tasso. It’s the perfect place for a coffee catchup or aperitif” and they also host events (when permitted by Covid restrictions) such as yoga classes and live music. The space is funky and young and represents “new Florence”. By total contrast, Georgette also loves the old-school “circoli” or social clubs like Circolo di Rondinella along the Arno, where nothing is at all hipster, the spritz costs three euros, and you get to sit outside on a large swath of lawn with one of the best views of the city. Catch up with the many articles Georgette has written about the Oltrarno on her blog.

 

 

Blogs and Instagram accounts from people like Georgette, Livia, Valentina, Laura and others who live in Italy are fantastic resources to discover places that are off the beaten track for your next visit, even in cities like Florence, where it seems hard to find anything still “undiscovered”. This post could go on forever – what is YOUR favourite, lesser-known place in Italy? Share it in the comments!

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