Evening in Lecce's Piazza Sant'Oranzo (photo: Imagebroker/Alamy)

La Dolce Vita: Three Ways to Visit Italy

By Jennifer Allford

You’re sitting on a bench on an old, narrow street, sipping a beer and eating pizza. Nearby, the pizza maker’s daughter dances while an earnest young couple sings folk songs. A wedding party marches past.

It’s the sort of scene you might expect from an Italian art-house film. It’s also a regular weekday afternoon in Lecce…

NUMERO UNO: OFF THE TOURIST TRACK IN SALENTO
The main city of the Salento region, the geographic heel of Italy’s boot, is home to about 100,000 people and an abundance of 17th-century churches. For this reason Lecce is nicknamed the Florence of the South. Or call it Florence without the tour buses and selfie sticks: Travel here and instead of being one of an invading horde of tourists, you’ll feel like a welcomed guest in a long-lost cousin’s hometown.

Take the passeggiata, for example. The traditional evening stroll sees Lecce’s historic streets fill up with locals—everyone from babies in prams to grandpas with their canes. Teenagers stop to chat on church steps. Families walk together in the Piazza Sant’Oronzo, site of an excavated second-century Roman amphitheatre. Return to the square at noon the next day and you’ll be treated to a blast of opera—a recording of Tito Schipa, a local singer who died in 1965.

It’s these simple pleasures that make a trip to Lecce so appealing, as well as the fact that many other regional attractions are just a day trip away. Like the glorious beaches of the Adriatic Coast, just a half-hour drive from Lecce.

There’s good reason Italians like to vacation in Salento: You can set up your own umbrella along many kilometres of sandy shore, or pay a few euros to go to a beach club with Wi-Fi, showers and men in their bathers kicking around the soccer ball.

Otranto, Gallipoli & Alberobello
Southeast of Lecce, Otranto’s narrow streets meander uphill from its popular harbour. Visit on a Sunday and your shopping excursion may be briefly interrupted by white-robed priests and singing townspeople headed to the local cathedral.

In western Salento, the Ionian Coast offers more beaches and swimming—not to mention the town of Gallipoli, with its 14th-century walls and beautiful seaside, as well as contemporary fishermen tending their nets.

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Or head north to Ostuni, the pretty “White City” that sits atop a hill. Just beyond, you’ll find the trulli of Alberobello, a collection of UNESCO World Heritage-designated limestone houses with conical roofs. They look like something out of a fairy tale, but they were actually constructed as a tax dodge. The odd-shaped roofs didn’t use mortar so they were deemed “temporary” and not taxed.

Such charming quirks and easy hospitality are just waiting to be discovered throughout the region. Roam far and wide during the day, then make your way back to Lecce, where you can always enjoy an evening promenade and another slice of pizza—and maybe a street musician or wedding party.

The Flavours of Salento
Historically, Salento was one of Italy’s poorer regions; people couldn’t afford to eat a lot of meat. But flavour is hardly in short supply in its cucina della terra—dishes of the earth.

Family fare: Feast on platters of eggplant, fried ricotta and fried chickpea pasta at the family-run Alle due Corti in Lecce. The restaurant and its matriarch have been recognized by UNESCO for helping to revive the region’s gastronomic traditions.

Pizza: You can choose a variety of toppings for your pie at Lecce’s Pizza & Co., but the Ortona brothers who own it suggest taking a frugal approach: There’s much to be said for the fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce.

Gelato: Naturally, it’s a staple in Italy. Try a flight of flavours at Cremeria alla Scala in Ostuni.

Wine: Salento produces some excellent grape varietals—Negroamaro, Primitivo and Fiano. Most wineries offer tours, so grab a map and a designated driver and get tasting.

ways to see italy tuscany
The rolling hills of Tuscany (photo: Bluejayphoto/iStock)

NUMERO DUE: LONG-STAY VACATION
Perhaps we’ve been conditioned by countless movies, books or Italy’s own tourism bureau, but pretty much everyone’s ideal Italian vacation includes time at a country villa. You wake with the sun pouring through the windows of a 500-year-old stone house, pick fresh basil to toss in your morning omelette and then wander to the village to gather more ingredients for dinner, throwing out a few buon giornos to the locals as you go.

No wonder long-stay vacations are so popular. Instead of rushing around ticking sights off your bucket list (the Uffizi—check!), you have time for things you didn’t even know were on that list, like looking down a quiet street to see kids expertly kicking around a soccer ball.

You have time to relax, to get to know your neighbours and the local way of life. From rustic lodgings to stylish apartments in the centre of town, you can pick what suits your lifestyle and budget. But the first thing is to pick your spot. Italy has plenty; here are two in particular to get you started.

Tuscany
Arguably the country’s best-known province, its diverse landscape boasts everything from mountains to rolling hills to beaches. If you decide to venture away from your quiet courtyard, you can take in the Leaning Tower of Pisa as well as hundreds of medieval villages, churches and castles.

You can also, of course, drink plenty of vino. Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano are all areas of Tuscany well known for their red wines. No matter your home base, you can head off in almost any direction and find a winery (or farm that makes wine) offering casual tours and bottles to take back for dinner.

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Or you can drink in culture—Tuscany being the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, after all. Take a day to venture into Florence to see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus up close in the Uffizi and Michelangelo’s David (a copy in the Palazzo Vecchio or the real deal at Accademia Gallery). Or simply wander into any of the hundreds of old churches in the region: You may find a Renaissance fresco or two.

Le Marche
To the east of Tuscany lies Le Marche, a region cradled between the Apennine Mountains and Adriatic Sea. The latter means coastal towns and beaches abound. Whether you want to lounge at a beach club or bring a towel and find your own spot of sand, you’ll have plenty of options for seaside rest and relaxation. Head inland, though, if you’d rather spend some time off your feet: The Italian shoe industry is scattered in the mountains of Le Marche. Footwear fetishists can score bargains at the outlet stores of Prada, Tods and other famous brands.

Tuscan Essentials
Getting around: Depending on where you decide to stay, you may wish to rent a car. In urban areas, public transit and the occasional taxi may be sufficient for your needs. In more rural areas, it may be quite a hike from the train station to the farmhouse. Day trips to Florence are best done via train: You’ll avoid the stress of navigating the city’s restricted-traffic zones and dodging its swarms of scooters.

Getting fed: Cooking for yourself is a necessity during a long-stay vacation, but you’ll want to splurge for at least one night by hiring a private chef to prepare an Italian feast. Many also give cooking lessons so you can pick up a few tricks to impress at your next dinner party—such as pouring a C of olive oil into the pan (never an S) and only using unsalted butter and a wooden spoon when making risotto.

ways to visit italy gelato bicicletta
Neapolitan gelato and a ride through Roman streets (photos: Olaye12/iStock; Ventdusud/iStock)

NUMERO TRE: SAIL THROUGH THE SIGHTS
Whether you sail to Sicily for the markets of Catania or stop in Livorno en route to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, a cruise is the ideal way to get the most out of the country.

The creature comforts of cruising are well documented—it really is a luxury to fall asleep in the same bed each night but wake up in a different place every morning—and life onboard can be just as exciting as excursions to Mount Vesuvius or Rome’s Colosseum. Loads of activities and entertainment are covered in the cost of the cruise, as well as meals and some beverages. That means you can save your money to go shopping for Italy’s famous leather bags and shoes when you’re in port.

Cruises also enable you to meet many people who share your interests.

Hit up the nightly disco, roll up your sleeves in an Italian cooking class or partake in a lecture on Renaissance art: You’ll be joined by like-minded voyageurs from all over Canada, the U.S. and beyond. Both Celebrity and Holland America cruise lines offer routes around the Mediterranean that focus on or include stops in Italy. Here’s a pair to ponder.

The Adriatic & Italy
Celebrity’s nine-day tour embarks from Venice and crosses the Adriatic Sea to Croatia’s ancient city of Dubrovnik. Explore the famous city walls, which date back to the 7th century, and stroll the white sandy beaches overlooking postcard-perfect turquoise waters.

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The cruise continues its course along the Adriatic coast, stopping in scenic Montenegro and the island nation of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea. Malta’s capital, Valletta, has been designated 2018’s European Capital of Culture, and is home to St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a Baroque masterpiece built in the 16th century for the Knights of St. John, and many other significant works of art. After stops in Sicily and Naples, where you can compare the famous cuisines of both regions, the cruise culminates in magnificent Rome, where you can tour ancient ruins and gaze up at Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Treasures of the Adriatic
This 15-day Holland America journey starts and finishes in Rome, giving you ample time to survey the Colosseum, Pantheon, Vatican and other must-sees. In between, you’ll hop from Croatia to Montenegro to Greece.

In Corfu, venture to the Old Fortress, a structure dating back to Byzantine times, or stop by Paramythia Traditional Cheeses, a gourmet food shop where you can sample locally made cheese. The cruise continues on to Turkey, where you’ll visit Istanbul—home to the stunning Hagia Sofia, a basilica-turned-mosque, and the Grand Bazaar, a centuries-old maze of streets that’s a shopping paradise for food, jewellery and souvenirs. There’s some additional island hopping with stops in the Greek isles of Mykonos and Santorini, before the tour deposits you back on solid ground in Rome.

BOOK WITH AMA
Whether you choose to see Europe by cruise ship, coach or car, AMA Travel agents can help you plan your dream journey.

Southern Italy & Sicily (Trafalgar Tours)
10-day coach tour of Capri, Taormina, Agrigento and Palermo
From $2,795; AMA Members save 7.5%,
plus $150 per couple, when you book and
pay by Feb. 28
Call 1-866-667-4777

Mediterranean Dream (Holland America)
12-night cruise from Venice to Rome, departing May 23
From $1,819 + $206 tax
Call 1-866-989-6594

Western Mediterranean (Celebrity Cruises)
10 nights from Barcelona to Venice, departing
May 26
From $3,179 + $171 tax
Call 1-866-989-6594

HOW TO SAVE
Rental discount: Save up to 20% and earn up to $25 in reward dollars on Hertz vehicle rentals

Great rates: Save 10% or more on Best Western hotel stays throughout Europe