Forget Romeo and Juliet in Verona – Umbria, Tuscany, Puglia and Sicily are Italy's most romantic spots. Read on for their love story if you're looking for some Vacation inspiration with your loved ones...
Think of it as the Med spiced by the East. From the medieval hubbub of Palermo’s markets to the punchy flavours of Sicilian cuisine and the theatricality of Stromboli smoking against a blackening sky, Sicily’s your dream Euro-island getaway with added pizzazz.
First trip? Fly into Catania for the cheapest fares, or Palermo for a choice of times and routes. But don’t book your digs in these gritty cities. Instead, explore the east or west coasts of this large island, staying in or near crowd-pleasing, pastel-coloured Taormina and Siracusa in the former, or the hidden gems of Cefalù or Trapani out west – you’ll get the even better live-like-a-local value away from the coast.
A perfect week means a day padding around the otherworldly salt ponds and Phoenician ruins at Saline di Trapani, or climbing Mount Etna; another exploring pretty hill villages such as Erice; and, of course, languid afternoons in the sea. Dry off on a lemon-scented terrace over pasta with sea urchin and a chilled glass of citrussy Catarratto wine.
Italians find our fixation with Tuscany strange when crowd-free Umbria next door is every bit as enchanting – at a fraction of the price. True, Italy’s ‘green heart’ lacks big-hitters such as the romantic cities of Florence and Siena, but who needs them when you’ve got Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi? Clustered close together, Umbria’s hill towns are a more intimate, accessible bet than their put-upon Tuscan neighbours, and a seductive incentive to abandon the villa sunlounger.
Food is Umbria’s other star turn: Michelin restaurants pop up like porcini on the forest floor, while every small town – Norcia is a truffle-scented favourite – seems to boast a clutch of superb restaurants and Formica-tabled trattorie serving Umbria’s trademark cucina povera (peasant cooking).
But Umbria’s real USP is its silence. This is an ancient, untrammelled land, covered in woods and olive groves, crisscrossed by trails you can hike and bike.
Villas and Tuscany go hand in hand like Campari and soda. You want a perfect view for your sunset snifter? Tuscany’s traditional farmhouse conversions hug the ridges, gazing out across cypress-edged slopes and hilltop villages.
You want a church or two, a cobbled village square, just in case the pool begins to pall? Say Buongiorno to Florence, Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca – and a string of ludicrously lovely medieval villages and towns in between – ideal for a lunchtime mooch, with gelato bribes for the kids.
Throw in beaches (Tuscany has about 400km of coastline, and the southern beaches and seaside towns of Maremma are as lovely as anywhere in Italy); hill-walking in the Alpi Apuane; and a 30°C summer climate, and it’s little wonder the region has become a byword for villa bliss, calling to Brits like nowhere else in Europe.
Forget what you’ve heard about Italy’s romantic cities and swap Rome’s Trevi Fountain and Florence’s Ponte Vecchio for peace, quiet and falling in love in Puglia. It’s the ‘high-heel’ on the map of Italy – though in terms of character, it is anything but. More of a wellies type, Puglia produces most of the country’s olive oil and is agricultural to the core: you can drive for kilometres through bucolic farmland and not see a single development, while locals aren’t the English-speaking pros you find on the Amalfi Coast.
This is Puglia’s power: a ravishing but under-the-radar beauty that spells fewer crowds and diverse digs. Fall in love with its ancient towns (Adriatic-lapped Otranto, Baroque Lecce, trulli-strewn Alberobello, hilltop Ostuni) – they’re as dramatic as the countryside is quiet, and in-the-know Italians are opening up stylish hotels within defunct masserias (fortified farmhouses), so this serenity won’t last for long.
Meanwhile, its beaches are gorgeous (especially on the west coast, south of Gallipoli), and some canny folk have set up a handful of casually cool beach clubs and restaurants. Star-crossed lovers, keep it secret, please.
No, you’re not going mad – you’ve probably seen this village before, even if you’ve never been to Italy’s Basilicata region. Mel Gibson cast Matera as ancient Jerusalem in his blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. So did the teams behind the Ben-Hur remake, and the Mary Magdalene epic starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, who shot countless scenes in the cave-like Sassi district. Sassi has also stood in for Bethlehem on screen, its Palaeolithic dwellings the perfect back drop for away-in-a-manger moments.