It’s popular with Italians, but – as Telegraph Travel’s Andrew Purvis discovered after a holiday there – very few Britons have discovered the forgotten stretch of coast between Pisa and the tourist honeypots of the Costa d’Argento and the Maremma Natural Park. “Punta Ala lies a few miles south of Follonica, a cheap-and-cheerful tourist town to which Italian descend in their thousands each summer (Maremmans like to call it Miami in Tuscany),” he said. “Punta Ala could not be more different. Leaving the main road, you skirt a cool, shady glade of pines where the smell of damp, sandy humus and sweet resin calls to mind the French Riviera. Through the trees you glimpse secluded wooden chalets, smart residences, woodland gymnasiums, tennis courts, an equestrian centre and private beach clubs. If Follonica is the Miami of Tuscany, Punta Ala is the Newport, Rhode Island.”
Lee Marshall, author of our guides to Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Sicily, adds: “One of my favourite stretches of unspoilt Italian coastline lies within the Maremma – a long coastal swathe in southern Tuscany that for centuries was a malarial swamp populated only by a few hardy fishermen and the local cattle rangers known as butteri. The Medici began draining the marshes in the 18th century, but the job wasn’t finished until the Fifties. As a result, this is still a place of wide-open spaces, with most of the towns clustered on hilltops some way inland.
“Since 1975, this area of timeless rural landscapes has been a protected area, the Parco Naturale della Maremma. The horizontal sweep of stone pines, low hills, Mediterranean maquis, beach and sea is at its most pristine in the coastal stretch between the salty little port town of Talamone and the Ombrone estuary, where wild horses and long-horned cattle graze.”
Tim Jepson, our Italy expert, has three other recommendations in the region: Radda in Chianti (“The smallest and most peaceful of the Chianti towns and villages: be sure to visit the nearby Badia di Coltibuono, a tranquil abbey that offers wine tastings and has a wonderful restaurant”), Chiarone (“Some of the longest and quietest beaches in Tuscany – they are also some of the best places to swim and unwind on the coast within striking distance of Rome”), and Montalcino (“Its Brunello wines are prized, but the small town, the surrounding landscapes and Sant’Antimo – Italy’s prettiest abbey – are all worth a visit”).
Lake Orta, Piedmont
“It is one of the country’s most beautiful lakes, yet it remains off the tourist track,” says Kiki Deere, our Italian Lakes expert. “Even Italians haven’t heard of it!”
Found just a few miles west of the better known Maggiore, visitors say it has an ethereal quality to it. Michael Aspel, writing for Telegraph Travel, compared it to an opera set. “I’ve been going there for 40 years or more, having discovered it when I went on holiday to Italy with a BBC cameraman,” he said. “As we were driving along a road, I spotted some water below, went to investigate and simply fell in love with this pretty little jewel of a lake, with an island crowned by a 14th-century basilica.”
Tim Jepson agrees: “If you want an unspoiled Italian Lakes experience on an intimate scale, go for Orta. Like the main lakes of Garda, Como and Maggiore, it has its built-up portions – Omegna is the main culprit – but the west shore, especially, is divine. Orta San Giulio is the lake’s best overall base, and its quaint main square, Piazza Mario Motta, is the point of embarkation for boats to the lake’s little island, Isola San Giulio.”
Ascoli Piceno, Le Marche
The Marche region, east of Umbria, is kinder to the pocket but can’t quite match Tuscany when it comes to landscapes, handsome towns and first-rank culture – with a few exceptions.
“A fine central piazza and celebrated food – notably olives – mark out the small town of Ascoli Piceno, close to the Adriatic coast,” says Tim Jepson. “It’s also within striking distance of the region’s finest scenery, the Monte Sibillini National Park.
“Nearby Urbino, with its superb Ducal Palace, is larger and better known, but also remains relatively unvisited.”
He also advises making tracks for San Leo, “a hill town with sweeping views and a castle that Dante described as one of the most redoubtable in Italy.”
Another of Tim Jepson’s picks. He says: “Visitors to Puglia are often tempted to the town Lecce in the belief that it is a ‘Baroque Florence’. In fact, the region’s smaller, Greek-like ‘white’ villages, notably Ostuni, are far more interesting to explore.”
Fiona Hardcastle recommends it too in her guide to the region, as well as Alberobello, home to more than a thousand dome-roofed, hobbit-like “trulli”, Locorotundo, with a maze of ivory-stone lanes in its old town and a pretty church at the summit, and Martina Franca, whose “grand monuments, archways and polished piazzas give way to the faded beauty of labyrinthine streets”.
Kiki Deere explains: “While the city is of course well known, it does not often feature on the itinerary of foreign tourists. The first capital of unified Italy, Turin has a gorgeous baroque centre and is home to the world’s second-largest collection of Egyptian artefacts at the Museo Egizio.”
Kate Simon, in her guide to spending a weekend in Turin, adds: “There are art nouveau and contemporary structures – such as Renzo Piano’s bold conversion of the Fiat factory – to marvel at, too.
“Although Milan hogs the commercial spotlight these days, Turin has a palpably industrious spirit. This is the home of Italy’s car industry, its first cinema, and arguably chocolate; it’s the place in which vermouth and Nutella were invented, and it gave birth to the Slow Food movement. It’s all there to explore and easily so.”
Cala Gonone, Sardinia
Robert Andrews, our Sardinia expert, advises eschewing the glamour (and sky-high prices) of the Costa Smeralda in favour of this lesser-known gem. “It’s Cala Gonone’s very inaccessibility that forms a good part of its appeal,” he says.
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