Abbazia di San Vincenzo, Molise
Widely considered to be the region's artistic gem, framed by a 13th-century "curtain" of arches, this abbey sits alone in an overgrown field outside the town of Castel San Vincenzo. It was founded in 702 by Benedictines monks and played host to Charlemagne. If you take the guided tour you will see the only complete fresco cycle painted by 8th-century Byzantine artists anywhere in Europe. Click here for lodgings in the vicinity.
|Chiesa di San Pietro, Portovenere, Liguria
Sail along the coast to or from the Cinqueterre (which we highly recommend, by the way!) and you might suddenly think you'd fallen asleep and ended up at Tintagel or elsewhere off the cliffs of Cornwall, for when you round the headlands of La Spezia Bay you will be welcomed by this gray-flannel beauty. Pure 13th-century Genoese Gothic on the outside, it is reached by a long flight of stairs that would easily host the most colorful medieval pageant in the world. Children will adore this dramatic spot, as well as the castle that flanks it. Lerici Seaside Hotel is a perfect base for families to visit this wonderful destination.
|Collegiata di Sant'Orso, Aosta, Val d'Aosta
We especially like three features of this stark Alpine fortress-church: the incredibly intricate carvings which grace the 40 pillars in the cloisters, the exquisite carvings on the choir stalls, and the fresco cycle in the garret. The pillar carvings, executed by local and Lombard artists in 1133, tell the stories of the Bible. The choir stalls were completed at the end of the 15th century and are a magnificent example of the so-called "flamboyant" style popular in the Alps at that time. The frescoes, whose brilliant author is unknown to us, were painted in the 11th century. They tell the stories of the Apostles and show vivid depictions of martyrdom.
|Cappella Colleoni and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, Lombardy
Piazza Vecchia is considered one of the most picturesque squares in all Italy, so when you get finished ogling it and stroll beneath the archways at its far end you assume the thrills are over. Not so - these two beauties await you! Their façades are a striking display of Lombard-Renaissance techniques, combining many different colored marbles and intricate carvings. Inside, the breathtakingly ornate basilica is home to four exquisite inlaid wood panels designed at least in part by Lorenzo Lotto in the 1500s. Rather ironically, it might seem to a 20th-century visitor, the chapel was built to house the remains of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a renowned military leader. Click here for lodgings in Bergamo.
|Basilica Patriarcale, Aquileia, Friuli-Venezia
Massive ancient stone columns await us in this spectacular basilica, which harbors artistic masterpieces dating back as far as 300 AD. But without a doubt the most exciting feature here is the floor, covered by a vast paleo-Christian mosaic. There is also a crypt decorated with poignantly faded Byzantine frescoes portraying countless ghost-like saints. Click here for lodgings in Aquileia or the nearby seaside resort of Grado.
|Abbazia di Pomposa, Pomposa, Emilia-Romagna|
Since the 6th century a masterful work of art has towered over the drab flat marshlands near the coast just north of Ravenna. Perhaps it is overshadowed by its world-renowned neighbor, but after you have driven ten miles down a boring straight-as-a-ruler and flat-as-a-gridle farm road seeing nothing but the odd milk cow, to suddenly spy an eight-tiered brick-red belltower is one of the great surprises Italy has to offer, in our opinion. Go inside and be inspired by the gently faded frescoes that cover every inch of the central nave and apse. Afterwards, spend the night at Ravenna Centro Hotel, a beautiful historic residence only a few blocks from the town's acclaimed Byzantine churches.
|Duomo, Spoleto, Umbria|
This understated Romanesque lady displays her beauty with dignity. Since the 12th century she has gracefully presided over the main square of Southern Umbria's mysterious hill town. Inside, she holds the tomb of defrocked monk Fra Filippo Lippi. He and his son Filippino are portrayed in the lovely frescoes the father painted on the walls.
Oratorio di San Pellegrino, Bominaco, Abruzzo
This tiny sanctuary is truly for diehard treasure hunters! Not easy to find, it is nestled at the feet of majestic Gran Sasso, which is snow-capped most of the year. Once you find the minuscule ancient town of Bominaco, follow signs to S. Maria Assunta, a spectacular Romanesque basilica worth a visit in its own right. But wait, there's so much more! Around to the back, at the top of a slight rise, is a tiny chapel almost entirely concealed by a healthy stand of fir trees. Do not be fooled by its modest appearance. Legend has it that Charlemagne himself was responsible for its construction, in the 8th century. At that time, hordes of Christians were fleeing the Muslim invasions of Byzantium, and it seems quite a few monks ended up in Abruzzo, where they had nothing better to do than pray, chant, and paint some of the world's most exquisite frescoes. Those that cover every square inch of this unprepossessing little country shrine depict episodes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as charming illustrations of the astrological calendar. They are considered among the finest 9th-century paintings in the world. Brilliantly restored at the turn of this century, they are so revered that no photography is allowed. You'll have to take our word that they are well worth the detour. To complete your journey into the past, stay at Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, an entire medieval hilltown that has been converted into tourist lodgings.
|Chiesa di San Martino, Randazzo, Sicily|
We love the clean lines on the façade of this church. Its black and white exterior is probably the most elegant example of this local style, created by using lava from Mount Etna as a structural element. The volcano looms overhead, emitting a lazy white plume by day and fiery red light shows by night. The molten rock it has spewn over the ages looks like the costliest silk on the flanks of San Martino's belltower. Etna Vistas is a charming B&B located just down the road.
|Santissima Trinità, Codrongianos, Sassari Province,
This fascinating black-and-white monument stands alone on a vast plain backed by the rugged Sardinian mountains. It's not hard to imagine that it was built by Pisan artisans in 1116; masters of the same school that built the cathedral next to the leaning tower. Originally a Camaldolese monastery, it was eventually adopted as a symbol by the people of this enigmatic island. Still today it is visited seven times a year by a vast crowd of devoted pilgrims, who walk here from miles and miles away. It is a magical place: even the heavy-handed restorations performed in 1912 could not erase the potent spirituality that has resided in these rough stones for nine centuries. Funtanarena is an authentic country inn very close to the sanctuary.
Links to Our Virtual Tours:
The Cathedral of Orvieto
The Churches of Rome