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Northern Italy for Nature Lovers/Crowd Haters

Northern Italy for Nature Lovers/Crowd Haters

Aug 31st, 2014, 12:52 PM
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Northern Italy for Nature Lovers/Crowd Haters

Is it possible? Family of 4 (mom, dad, & 16 yr old twin boys) want to venture to Europe. Have been all over US, CA, Carribean but have avoided Europe previously. We enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, kayaking) and nature primarily but are also interested in seeing historic old Italy, but not the really popular parts, i.e. Rome, Florence, Cinque Terra, Tuscany so decided on Northern Italy as most likely to work for us.

Since we are stuck with summer vacation, thinking of going as soon as school lets out in June and spending about 17 days altogether. Idea is to fly into Milan, rent car and primarily divide time between one of the lakes, Maggiore, Lugano or a less busy place on Como like Menaggio and then go to the Dolomites. I'd also like to spend 2-3 days in a smaller city with interesting history. Was thinking of Verona, Brescia, Vincenza, Padua but know little about them.

Questions/feedback wanted:

Should we do a city first using the train and then rent a car for the lakes/Dolomites or vice versa?

(Example: 6/21 fly overnight to Milan; 6/22 train to city; 6/25-leave city-drive to Dolomites; 6/30 leave Dolomites-drive to lake; 7/6 drive back to Milan airport hotel; 7/7 leave from Milan)

Thoughts about my city idea-Verona, Brescia, Vincenzo, Padua?

I'd love to see Venice but have not considered it because I assume it will be overrun with tourists-am I avoiding it unecessarily? Or should I save it for an off season trip once the boys are off to college?

Which of the lakes is the least developed and visited with less touristy towns and good access to nearby natural areas for hiking. Do people kayak on these lakes?

For the Dolomites was thinking of Alta Badia or Val Gardena as a base-good idea? How many days to explore the area? I was thinking of 5-6.

So, any help you can offer to someone with no practical experience in Italian travel would be appreciated!
Berkshiregrl is offline  
Aug 31st, 2014, 01:35 PM
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This might work for you:

Start in Verona and see the Roman monuments and the beautiful Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Stay for a few nights across the river so you don't feel caught in a tourist trap. Then take the hour train ride to the small city of Trento and visit its spectacular castle -- but then rent a car and head for Lago di Molveno or other lakes in the region (west of Trento) for a lovely rural stay that mixes castles and nature walks and cable cars plus an entirely local feel. These places are hosts to a great deal of Italian and Northern European outdoor nature tourism but almost zero English speaking tourism.

Here are some suggestions about where to stay:



After than head up to the Dolomiti. The Dolomiti are so spectacular it is hard to recommend avoiding them simply because the towns full of hotels are touristy. But if you base yourself in the Alta Badia instead of the val Gardena you can significantly lessen the crappy side of the tourist impact. I like the town of Pedraces and those headed in the direction of Brunico to Dobbiaco. They retain their agricultural roots and are not just ski resorts.

After visiting the Dolomiti it makes sense to head down toward Venice airport. You will get lost of wailing and teeth gnashing that you MUST see Venice but in the end it is your call. I know DOZENS of highly intelligent and extremely well traveled people who would prefer to spend a night in Treviso or Padova than Venice before returning home. It is really impossible to answer your question about whether you are avoiding it "unnecessarily." If you want to take a flyer on it then don't let me stop you. But don't be guilt tripped into seeing it either. A lot of people are not as rah rah about it as others.

I think Brescia is probably not what you are looking for and unless your family has a pronounced interested in Palladian architecture (or US military bases) then Vicenza will not be as rewarding as Verona or Padova.
sandralist is offline  
Aug 31st, 2014, 03:55 PM
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If it were my family, with your preference for nature and small crowds, I would be sure to include these destinations in the itinerary:

Orta San Guilio on Lago Orta[ an hour from MXP] with day trip to Lago Maggiore

Castelrotto in the Dolomites[ Gateway to Alpi Suisi hiking]

A Piemonte destination---perhaps Alba or Asti--see wine region

Good luck---sounds like fun !
bobthenavigator is offline  
Aug 31st, 2014, 04:35 PM
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<< I'd love to see Venice but have not considered it because I assume it will be overrun with tourists-am I avoiding it unecessarily? >>

Most tourists are found between Rialto and St. Mark's; the rest are on Murano and Burano. There is an entire city to explore where you'll scarcely see a tourist.
adrienne is offline  
Aug 31st, 2014, 05:15 PM
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If you're going to be there I wouldn;t miss Venice. Earlier in the year isn;t the worst of tourists and MANY come only for the day - so you have the evening and early parts of the morning without the hordes off of bus tours. Also - there are residential areas you can stay in quieter than San Marco. I would spend 3 days there - at least one visiting the out island - specifically torcello and perhaps Burano - less crowded - most tourists never get there.

Then head for the hills and the lakes.
nytraveler is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 12:35 AM
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I don't think your twin boys will find much to do in Piemonte apart from Torino which is a lot of fun. Combining Torino with the val d'Aosta would be much more interesting than combining it with the tourist wine country.
sandralist is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 01:53 AM
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Trying to avoid other tourists but going to Verona, Brescia, Vincenzo, Padua. I'm sorry these are full of people visiting.

Not sure if Northern Italy at the start of the holiday season really floats your boat and as for the lakes, you have to be kiding.

If you really want to get away visit some of the very small cities on the PO valley or head up to the ski valleys stretching into the Alps which will be converting to bike riding and mountain climbing in June/July

I think you would do a lot better heading down south so maybe Le Marche, Basilicata or Puglia will be empty of tourists for a few more weeks
bilboburgler is online now  
Sep 1st, 2014, 02:11 AM
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Another possibility, where you'll find very few tourists, is the Parco del Ticino, between Milan and Torino on the banks of the Ticino river. It's a fairly flat area, with a network of canals which were once used by well-to-do Milanesi to get to there summer homes. As a result, there are lots of stately villas in the area. The canals are biker's heaven, because they almost all have canal towpaths that have been converted to bike paths. We were based in the town of Abbiategrasso for a biking tour. It's a sleepy little town with a castle in the center, and a number of agriturismi in the area that cater to bikers. You can easily rent bikes in several places.

Here are some photos I took on that trip:


Relatives of ours often spend a week or more on Lago Maggiore, where they do a lot of hiking as well as taking excursions by car or boat. I've never been there myself, though.
bvlenci is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 02:43 AM
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I don't know where bilboburger has been in Verona or Padova but the tourism there is fairly isolated and you can very much enjoy the town away from the very few sights that get the most tourists during the day. I was recently in Verona in August and strolled around 90 percent of the town and saw no more than a handful of tourists in beautiful places. Most people who go to Verona see the Roman arena and the "Romeo & Juliet" sights and the piazza nearby and declare the town mobbed with daytrippers. But most of Verona is actually not that and can be a nice entry or exit point for a trip up to the nearby mountains of Trentino or the Ticino.

Hardly anybody ever goes to Brescia so I have to totally disagree that it is "full of people visiting" and Vicenza has quite limited tourism most of the year in only isolated spots.

As for the lakes-- in case it wasn't clear -- the lakes that I am referring to west of Trento like Lago di Molveno are practically unknown to tourists and in June are entirely without crowds of any sort.

I agree that anywhere in the Ticino is also a great way to see unknown but beautiful Italy and perhaps especially if you like vigorous outdoor activity.

One thing to watch out for is that some of the season for the Alps really doesn't get good until the beginning of July. Even if you are "stuck" with summer in Italy (oh what a fate!) if you want to go to the Alps you might plan on leaving a bit later in June.

I would not go to Puglia or southern Italy unless you are interested to do so for its own sake. I wouldn't go just on the premise it won't be crowded like the north. There are plenty of places in Northern Italy in June and July that are not crowded at all but are immensely beautiful and filled with fun outdoor activity.
sandralist is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 03:15 AM
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Le Marche is truly one of Italy's undiscovered gems, with mountains, sea coast, castles, and hill towns. Crowds of tourists are never a problem here, except perhaps along the coast, where there are summer visitors from northern Europe, mostly in July and August. The vast majority of the sun worshippers is Italian, though, and the numbers aren't as great as along the coast of Emilia Romagna.

Where we live, about 20 km from the coast, a lot of people from Milan come to stay for a month or so in the summer, but I wouldn't call them tourists, because they mostly own homes in the towns their ancestors came from.

We spend part of the summer in our house in southern Le Marche; there a lot of Romans come to stay a month or so in the summer. There are also lots of summer visitors from Luxembourg, whose ancestors emigrated from this area to work in the mines.

In fact, most of the towns in rural Italy were sources of emigration, either within Italy or outside. Those who live close enough to visit their ancestral homes often still own the family homestead. In our case, the house were we spend part of the summer hasn't been occupied by permanent residents for over 100 years. The family emigrated to northern France, again to work in the mines, in the early 20th century. Their children returned to Le Marche, but to a city, about 70 years ago.

There are very few places in Le Marche where you'd find more than a smattering of tourists, except along the coast. One city that deservedly gets a fair number of tourists is Urbino. Ascoli Piceno also has a certain number of tourists, but in any other part of inland Le Marche, you'd be the only foreign tourist in most places at any point in time.
bvlenci is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 03:26 AM
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Agree Le Marche is uncrowded and has lots of outdoor possibilities with access to the Sibillini mountains and the gorge area around Furlo. This is one area you definitely need a car and I beleive it might be easier to fly into Rome if Le Marche was the target. But maybe not depending on where you are coming from.
sandralist is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 04:44 AM
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Sandra, one year in June saw bus loads of tourists in Padova etc, June the year before only one other tourist in the whole of a 2 week Puglian trip, often the only guest in hotels etc.

Venice does get crowded, but the evenings and mornings are wonderful
bilboburgler is online now  
Sep 1st, 2014, 06:52 AM
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There is some wonderful hiking in the Sibillini, in southern Le Marche. Here are some photos from one of my favorite spots:


Acona airport (AOI) in central Le Marche has international flight links either with Lufthansa/United or Alitalia/Delta. This is the airport we usually use when going to the US. However, we sometimes use Fiumicino in Rome, taking the train from there. To northern Le Marche (Cagli, Urbino) or southern Le Marche (Ascoli Piceno, San Benedetto del Tronto) there are buses from Rome. All of these options involve a fairly long trip from Rome, so my first choice would be to fly into Ancona, unless the flight involves a long layover in Rome. (I can sleep on the train or the bus, but not in the airport!)
bvlenci is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 11:46 AM
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Wow! So much great information. I have been going over it all with Google maps as I really lack knowledge of where all the places mentioned are located.

Sandra, yes, that sounds like a good plan. We will just avoid the lakes I mentioned as they seem too busy. Plus, we would be more interested in mountains and hiking than lakes. I do like lake/mountain photography but it looks like there are other lakes in the Dolomiti region to visit.

Good to know Verona is a good choice. I was a little concerned by all the focus on Juliets Balcony which just seemed like a weird touristy thing.

I think Alba, Torino, the Piedmonte in general is best left for another trip. We don't like to move around a lot and prefer to make a base from which to day trip. So, seeing a couple of cities, Verona and Trento and then spending several days in the mountains seems ideal. We may skip a lake stop altogether and concentrate on the Dolomiti region.

We really like to get to know an area rather than going from place to place for a quick look. Maybe we are just lazy travelers!

We could end up at Venice for a couple of days. (I'm watching "Don't Look Now" as I type this)but I would prefer to go there at a different time of year.

bvlenci, Le Marche does look nice. Some of the photos remind me of where I live except for the old buildings of course. But it looks like rolling hills. I loved all your photos actually as they gave quite an overview of many different places. But I think Le Marche is probably too far away for this trip.

In terms of lodging we normally rent a house through Homeaway as we have a vacation home we also rent out through that site. But it looks like Italy has the type of lodging that Sandra linked to, argriturism, which i assume is similar.

Again, thanks so much. The forums here as definitely the best travel forums I've come across with so many knowledgeable and generous people. I will definitely keep reading.
Berkshiregrl is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 12:47 PM
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This is a good website for the Trentino area all around Trento in every direction. In includes some totally untouristy lakes plus accommodation options and lots of info on the Dolomiti themselves


You can easily avoid the Romeo & Juliet stuff in Verona (which is totally invented for tourism!). One of the niftier aspects of Verona is that you can see a Roman colosseum and other Roman ruins plus a great medieval castle plus a really beautiful Renaissance garden and piazza all in the same town.

The great castle in Trento is worth seeing as is the historic center with its terrific fountain.
sandralist is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 03:18 PM
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We loved our rental in Verona: http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p1007072. You can also read our trip report of that area (our kids are 11 and 13), we went to the Dolomiti as well. http://rovingrichards.com/travel/italy-2014/
MonicaRichards is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 03:54 PM
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Sandra, thx, hadn't seen that website. Was happy to see canoeing mentioned and also references to hiking trails from Lago di Tovel.

Verona sounds good as I was attracted to the Roman colosseum as my boys wanted to see the one in Rome. I nixed that idea but told them there was one in Verona. I did have second thoughts after seeing the Romeo & Juliet related attractions. I want to see true historical sights. The boys are also interested in castles and ruins, really all the aspects unavailable in the US that accompany a city founded in the 1st century, so I think there will be plenty to satisfy us if we do Verona and Trento. That will probably enough city for us, although I still leave open the possibility of Venice at the end of the trip if we decide to use the Venice airport rather than the Milan one.

One question I did have is about whether we'll be able to obtain a rental car in Trento as easily as we would in Milan and whether we should do so far in advance. I like the idea of not using a car initially and visiting the two cities that won't require one. I have to admit to being somewhat nervous about driving in Italy after reading about the restricted zones and ticketing systems. But I definitely want a car for the mountains as we do like to go exploring and are used to doing so by car.

Thx again for all your very useful assistance.
Berkshiregrl is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 04:07 PM
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We picked up our car to visit the Dolomiti as we left Verona at the Verona airport and dropped it off at the Venice airport.
MonicaRichards is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 04:41 PM
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"Good to know Verona is a good choice. I was a little concerned by all the focus on Juliets Balcony which just seemed like a weird touristy thing." I guess some folks just love the pivotal scene in one of Shakespeare's favorite plays.

"We will just avoid the lakes I mentioned as they seem too busy."

Wow, you really do want to avoid crowds I see. But I must say that the Italian Lakes are among the most beautiful spots in the world in my view - shimmering lakes, majestic mountains, and lovely villas. True, the season is short and crowds are large, but that would not deter me from seeing this fabulous area.

You have been given useful advice above so I hope you all have a great time in northern Italy...
latedaytraveler is offline  
Sep 1st, 2014, 05:53 PM
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Monica: That rental does look nice. I always like to get a recommendation from someone who actually used a particular rental. I like that it is on one of the oldest streets in Verona too. Usually we want rentals outside a city but in this case we want to be in the midst of it and that looks like a good spot with enough room for my husband and sons who are all well over 6 ft. Nothing worse than trying to share a hotel room with the 3 of them.

I love your trip report! Too funny. The hair-dos in Verona-can't wait to see that. I can see us ending up in Germany unaware of it too. Hey, go with the flow right-Germany, Italy, what's the difference? Except we all hate German food.

Can't believe your girls sat through the Opera. That's impressive. I don't know if I could but I have thought it would be cool to go the coliseum to see an actual show. I didn't realize there were restaurants in the Dolomiti meadows-that's convenient since 16 r old boys need enormous quantities of food regularly. Tell Genevieve she definitely nailed the Maria look.
I saw that you did Venice at about the same time we'd be doing it next year. Sounds like it wasn't so bad. I'm still deciding about ending the trip there. We'll see.

Thanks so much for your response and the link to your site. I've bookmarked it and will certainly refer to it again.

Berkshiregrl is offline  

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