Nothing says "Italy" like a hill town, whether a village in Tuscany or a hamlet in Sicily

Italy's Hill Towns
From the Most Famous to the Most Secret

[Regions of Italy]

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In the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to take the Grand Tour. Obligatory stops on the route were Rapallo or Portofino, Florence, Rome, Naples and possibly Venice. You simply had to return home, usually to Great Britain or the United States, with watercolor sketches, copious diary notes, poems, even novels you had been inspired to create while visiting the royal palaces, archeological excavations, enormous museums and private collections of the cities. We owe fairly large subgenres of literature and painting to this fad.

Today, the obsession is with hill towns. Partly this is because so many of us have already visited the major cities and seen their renowned sites. It is also probably because there were no such things as the motorbike or the Fiat one hundred years ago. In those days, Italy's great cities were relatively calm, the broad streets were impressive rather than nervewracking, and the populations were far smaller. All that has changed since World War Two, and as a result we now find ourselves longing to get out of the cities, out into the country, to visit the small towns, eat real food, meet real people, experience the "real Italy".

Of course, if you stop to think about it, there's nothing to support the claim that small-town residents are any more "real" than big city denizens. What is likely, however, is that you will have more opportunity to chat with them for a few moments while you sip caffè or scoop up gelato. If you are on the street in the late afternoon, you will not only witness but actually become a part of la passeggiata, the ritual arm-in-arm stroll that brings entire hill town populations out of their houses. On the surface, it would seem la passeggiata serves no other purpose than to stretch one's legs and exchange the latest gossip. In reality it is also a much more subtle experience, a reassurance that one is indeed an integral part of the town's human fabric, and that one's place in that arrangement is exactly what it was yesterday and the day before and, for that matter, on any given day in one's local family history. During la passeggiata it becomes very clear to everyone that the main difference between small-town residents and big city denizens is that the latter are usually immigrants, whereas the former most likely live in the house their great-great grandfather once converted from a stall.

Of course, the other reason we are so enchanted by hill towns is that they look so great. Most of them have kept faithful to their original character, because their hilltop locations made it impossible for them to expand. The "new towns" had to be built in the valley, sometimes a mile or two away. This meant that as families expanded, especially in the past 100 years, the second-, third-, and fourth-born children would move down the hill and build new homes there. The child who remained in the hill town might make adjustments such as adding plumbing and electricity, but he would generally keep the building's exterior intact, giving us the quaint winding alleys, colorful flower boxes and impeccable shutters we see beckoning to us in posters and pictures.

We've put together a wide selection of hill towns for you. Most of them are rarely visited by foreigners, so you are less likely to find crowds, congestion or calloused local residents. Do try to peep into the tiny churches and ancient buildings while you're there, but remember that the most important experience in a hill town is to share in the life of the village. We suggest you carefully review the items on your "must-see" agenda, throw out at least half of them and replace the time you'd have spent there by just sitting at an outdoor cafe or trattoria, watching the people and making local friends. It's easy as pie in Italy's "unknown" hill towns.

by Kristin Jarratt

[Regions of Italy]