Traveling Italy with locals
If you’ve been following our Italy travels, you know that we’ve recently been to some breathtaking destinations that are on many peoples’ travel lists. There are so many amazing places in this world, and when you travel to any country there are always a handful of must see locations. How do you go to Italy and not see Rome… or France and not see Paris? While these travel destinations have earned every bit of attention they get, it’s sometimes a breath of fresh air to go exploring outside the normal traveler’s path. There is an endless amount of hidden gems out there that are just as unbelievable and sometimes when you find them, it feels like you are uncovering secret treasure.
These treasures, however, do not come without challenges. If you google “visit Italy” you are going to find the first 5,298,213 sites talk about Rome, Florence, Venice, etc and you’ll probably have to read all day for a month straight before you come across the word “Garfagnana.” Information is limited if you don’t know what you’re looking for, not to mention going too far outside popular destinations will push you out of your comfort zone…. but that is sometimes our favorite part about traveling. In Italy, we were extremely lucky to have some family members as locals. OK… they aren’t locals in the traditional sense, but they do own a house in one of these “hidden gems” and they have traveled around plenty enough to have a great amount of knowledge of some places where tourists are few and far between. They use a good rule of thumb when seeking out hidden gems… when you find places that the locals don’t speak English, you’re on the right track. So for the rest of our time in Italy, we are going to let our cousins show us around some of their favorite parts of the country that you haven’t heard of.
Lucca is the capital of the Province of Lucca (one of the 10 Provinces of Tuscany), so it isn’t the most hidden of our next few stops, but it was such a cool city it was worth mentioning. This medieval style city feels like stepping back in time. The outer walls that surround the city date back to the Renaissance era and now serve as a walking/biking path around the city offering magnificent views. But for the best view in town, you can climb the Guinigi Tower to the rooftop covered in oak trees for a 360 degree view of the City of Lucca.
One of the coolest parts about the city of Lucca is their Summer Festival featuring an awesome live music scene. Since the stage area only holds a few hundred people the bands that play here are smaller groups that you’ve probably never heard of like this year’s headliner….. The Rolling Stones. Wait… what? Yes, apparently the Lucca music scene is cult like and comparable to Red Rocks in the USA featuring acts like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Green Day, Katy Perry, and Snoop Dogg as well as many other well known artists from many genres.
Benabbio is a beautiful little mountain town in Central Italy. Depending on how you feel about heights and car sickness, it may be a little challenging reaching it, but if you are willing to take the trip, we can assure you it is worth it. The road leading up the mountain and into town is extremely narrow (one car narrow) and switches back and forth up to the top with very long views down as you climb. Our driver (our cousin) apparently was used to and quite confident on the road because he made that rental station wagon handle like a Ferrari around the hairpins. After the thrilling ride to the top (I’m sure if you drove at your own pace it wouldn’t be near as terrifying), you come to one of the quaintest little Italian towns you will ever find. The one lane cobblestone streets are lined with charming, Tuscan style, stone houses and locals are working in their gardens full of fresh herbs and fruits. And the views of the mountains…..
You should leave your heels in your bag in this town, because these stone streets are steep. We saw the cutest little elderly Italian lady walking up one of these streets take about 6 steps, and then rest… and then take another 6 steps, and then rest. I think she planned her whole day around getting up that hill. There is a restaurant in town that was ranked one of the best in Tuscany so we had to try it out. Locanda Il Cavallino Bianco is as quaint as the town it resides in. The owner was an amazingly good host and made sure our experience was over the top and the food was spectacular. We had a table of 6 as we had some other locals join us and we ate family style over multiple courses like true Italians. It was an incredible experience and pretty much summed up our entire time in Benabbio.
The Garfagnana refers to the mountainous region of Northwestern Tuscany that actually includes the towns above and many other small mountain villages. The area is home to the Serchio River and is protected on all sides by the Apennines and the Apuan Alps.
It is a lush, green, woodland with high rainfall that attracts outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers looking for hiking, biking, climbing, and all other outdoor activities. We spent a day down at the River Lima which was a very “cool” experience… no I mean cold… like freezing, take your breath away, always running mountain water cold. Our cousins/tour guides had a favorite place they like to hang out which included a large rock to jump off. To get there, we first had to cross a cable walking bridge and then walk down the bank to our spot.
The day we were there was a hot one, so the cool mountain water was extremely refreshing and welcome. The water was so crystal clear and teal colored it almost looked like ocean water. Although it was a very dry year and the water levels were much lower than normal, there were still deep pools to jump into and we had some fun jumping off the rock. The Garfagnana is full of fun and adventure.
Cuneo technically isn’t in Central Italy (it’s Western), but it does belong in the hidden gem category. It’s western enough that it is actually pretty close to the French border and the Alps are in full view from the town which makes it quite a beautiful drive in. The Piazza Galimberti is the the main square in town and we were able to find a nice little hotel about a block over.
Unfortunately we didn’t get to spend very much time in Cuneo, as we were only using it as a base camp for a family oriented treasure hunt in another even more hidden gem……
Once upon a time, many years ago (the exact amount we are unsure of) a man and a woman got married in a little church in the little town of Lemma, Italy. This man and woman were Great Grandparents of the Barber half of R&R which also includes Jason, our cousin/Italy tour guide/Formula 1 driver. Past the church was also their family home (which may or may not be walking distance depending on who you ask). Over 20 years ago, their son, Papa Tom (Grandfather) and Aunt Judy returned to Italy and found the church and the old family house and took some pictures. Since that was 20 years ago, the details and directions had gotten a little fuzzy and included things like… take a left at the salt mines, and go up past the church a ways until you get to a goat track. Needless to say our hopes were not high of finding the house, but we did find the church pretty easily.
We stopped and got some pictures of the church and it was pretty cool knowing that 3 generations ago family members got married in this exact church before eventually coming to America to build a family. We left our car parked at the church and started walking up the winding road past the square in an attempt to find the old family house that was rediscovered just 20 years ago by Papa Tom. Our directions were loose at best, and we came across multiple winding roads and multiple things that could be considered a goat track. We were about to give up, although we had our hesitations because we had already come so far and not to find it when we were so close would be a complete shame. As we were walking back down one of the paths, cousin Jason saw a family outside of their house and walked up to them with the old picture from 20 years ago and tried to explain our story. The father of the family recognized the house immediately and insisted on driving us there. Walking distance question answered. So we all jumped in his car and he brought us to the same family house that Papa Tom found 20 years ago and at least one of his parents had lived in prior to coming to America. We were so happy that we were able to find this place and it made the day even more magical.
After a successful family treasure hunt we headed back to the square to a restaurant we saw on the way up so we could celebrate with some prosecco. The owner was sitting outside when we arrived and was intrigued as to why we were there… apparently we stood out as “not from around here.” We went through the whole story as best we could with our Italian and his English to a point where I’m pretty sure we all understood each other. He was either related to, or was close to the family that had purchased the house many years after and thought it was very cool that we had traveled all the way from America to find this little town. He invited us to stay for dinner and treated us to an amazing experience at his restaurant including some of his secret stash of grappa.
This hidden gem was a personal stop, but we still recommend it if you are in the area. The restaurant was worth the trip and the hospitality of everyone in this little town made us feel like we were family….and maybe we were.
For our next stop we are headed back to wine country, but we are continuing with our lesser known areas theme. Since we just came from Tuscany and indulged in Chianti and Brunello, is it possible to find a wine region that can compete with that? I guess we’ll see. But one thing we know for sure…. sometimes the path less traveled really is the better choice.