Italy’s Hidden Charm: Umbria and Tuscany, as well as the Dolomites

Experiencing Italy

As the journey progressed, I fell in love with Italy’s rustic charm more and more.

Hidden behind the Dolce & Gabbana glamour in Milan or the spectacular Colosseum at Rome is authentic Italy: the sleepy Assisi and medieval Bologna and the olive-lined streets that run through Rufina.

Here is a list of lesser-known destinations in Italy. We found that we could bypass the traditional towns of Rome, Florence, and Venice and instead dive straight into some of the country’s most treasured gems.

Travel in Umbria, Italy

The regions in Umbria or Tuscany instantly spring to mind when you think about travel in rural Italy. They conjure images of rolling hills and vineyards as well as olive oil.

Umbria, however, is more down-to-earth than its more popular and sophisticated neighbor. After driving north from Amalfi Coast to Spoleto, our first encounter with Umbria was with Nunzio, our Airbnb host.

Although he didn’t speak English, I was able to learn Italian over the past four months and became the family’s representative. I communicated in broken Italian, which is littered with wrong verbs.

Nunzio gestures “Ecco la Cucina” and then turns to me for translation. “The kitchen,” I take over for my family. His slow speech was measured and his smile warm.

The Umbrian hospitality is evident in the apartment, which was equipped with everything from bathrobes to shower caps.

As I walked around the towns of Spoleto, Assisi and other Umbrian villages, I was captivated by the beauty of Umbria. With its high arches linking walls of sand-colored Brick, the architecture reminded me of “Enchanted”, a Disney film.

We would occasionally see a Franciscan monk in a simple, dark-colored hooded vest, which made me feel out of place. Tuscany was developed under the influence and fame of the Medici family. Umbria’s heroes are Catholic saints.

These were the heroes who gave up their comfort lives to live in the simplicity of Umbria’s mountainous regions, singing and cheerfully moving about. As I wandered through the sleepy towns, I read aloud a St. Francis quote, allowing the truth to sink into my soul.

Keep in mind that you cannot take anything you have not received when you leave the earth. But you can only take what you have been given. A full heart that has been enriched by love, service, sacrifice, and courage.

As we walked the cobblestone streets in Assisi, we came across this bustling square. Photo by Vivienne Tam
Travel in Tuscany, Italy

One of the best ways to experience Tuscany, a region known for its agricultural success, is by staying in an agriturismo, a farmhouse-turned-hotel. Ours was located in Chianti hills, which are well-known for their olive oil groves and Italian wineries.

We reached Il Giardino via a series of switchbacks as we climbed the hills of Tuscany. This terrace offers a breathtaking view of the countryside and allows you to enjoy wine while looking down at the sunset on the rolling hills.

It is here that Italians and others who travel to Italy know this secret escape to the countryside to seek la dolce vita, which literally means “the sweet life”.

You can take part in various activities offered by the Agriturismo. These include olive oil grove tours and cooking classes. Or you can simply sunbathe on the deck chairs next to the pool.

No matter what you choose, the goal is to share authentic Italian experiences with locals. Agriturismos are well-known for their delicious local food. It’s not about eating enough, but about enjoying the taste, texture, and sight of the food while laughing with your loved ones.

Dinner is long and drawn out with four courses, each separated by half an hour waiting time between each course. A family usually finishes dinner within 20 minutes.

We wondered if the kitchen had forgotten us during our long waits. We were inducted to authentic Italian cuisine by the two-hour dinner that followed.

“Anda a Firenze,” I was a foreigner. This became more evident when I tried to speak Italian with Gabrio, the chef who asked how our meal was. Gabrio was raised in the Tuscan hills.

He and his brother ran the olive oil factory. The family-owned the agriturismo. Private olive grove owners travel to their factory during the busy harvest months of December to get their olives processed.

With a gentle chuckle, he leaned against the table with his dark, tall frame. It was difficult to learn to take a step outside and most likely make a mistake.

However, the journey allowed me to connect with the heart and soul of Italy: the people who made their own olive oil made their own pizza dough and lived on the ground.

It is easier to learn the language in Italy if you have already studied it before you travel. Babbel allows you to learn Italian at your own speed with lesson plans that are flexible for all levels. Check out their language options and deals.

As we stood outside Refugio Lagazuoi (the highest refugio in Dolomites), my sister and I were both triumphant. Photo by Vivienne Tam
Dolomites

On the drive from Tuscany north, I fell asleep at the Dolomites. This is the section of the Alps that clusters around the northern-eastern tip of Italy.

The rolling hills of Tuscany had been replaced by sheer rock faces, the ash-grey structures rising magnificently from the ground, dwarfing the roads that snaked around them.

Montan, a German-speaking city in China was our first stop. I felt like I was at the border of two cultures. It was almost as if I had entered another country.

Caunzei was the main course. Instead of thin-crust pizza or Fettucine, they served us asunder, small, folded pasta packets filled with either white (potatoes, herbs) or red (beet) fillings. Canerdeli were large, plump dumplings filled with speck (dry, smoked ham).

Locals exercise every morning on the Alpine trails to maintain their slim figures.

You can only truly appreciate the Dolomites if you spend some time doing the same thing as the thru-hikers. The Alta Via is a 12-day trek through the steppes and mountains of the mountain range.

For those who are more experienced hikers or want to experience a challenging adventure, they can follow the trail through the stunning landscape and stop at rifugios (mountain huts) for the night.

We booked two nights at Refugio Scoiattoli for our Dolomite adventure. It is only accessible by foot or chair-lift. Scoiattoli, perched high on the peaks where World War One was fought among the Austria-Hungarian and Italian troops, is truly a hidden gem in the crevasse.

We rode a chairlift to Lagazuoi on the recommendation of four other lodgers, who were still in the middle of their Alta Via journey. The view was breathtaking and we could see the Trentino Alto Adige range.

The steep descent through the World War One tunnels, which cut through the mountain’s heart, was quite difficult. We were warned by a sign at the tunnel entrance that we needed a helmet, headlamp, and boots. However, we braved the dark with our hiking sandals, BlueJay caps, and iPhone flashlights.

After 500m of dark stairs, we were victorious and with a bruised ankle. We also had a deeper appreciation for our soldiers. There were many hikes that you could do from the Refugio. The via Ferrata is where you use pulleys and harnesses to climb the rock face.

Although we only managed one hike on this trip, my sister and I are determined to conquer Alta Via together someday. We will not be seeing the Dolomites again.

We were already talking about when we would like to return to Italy as we walked towards the airport. Italy has many undiscovered treasures.

These are the ones you don’t find by hurrying between tourist spots, but instead by letting the country seep into your soul: the language and culture. I’ll be back, but for now, Ciao, Italia.