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Episode #215: Discover Regional Italy Without a Car

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Discovering regional Italy without a car opens up a world of different and unique experiences for visitors. While the allure of iconic destinations like Rome, Florence, and Venice is undeniable, there’s a hidden charm waiting to be discovered in the lesser-known corners of the country. Using the public transport that connects the diverse tapestry of cities and towns in Italy promises a unique perspective, providing a deeper connection with the heart and soul of Bella Italia.

Show notes
The major tourist destinations in Italy are popular for good reason but when you get away from the crowds and must-see attractions you discover very different highlights, and ones that capture your heart. We welcome back Jo Mckay, the British owner of Bookings for You, an Italian villa and apartment rental company, to talk about exploring regional Italy without a car.  We know the Italian road system and rules can be a little daunting, not to mention some of the driving, so many people are put off renting a car. Even those (like Katy) who are happy to drive in Italy, would not happily drive in some places (we’re looking at your Liguria!). We discuss how you can experience regional Italy using public transport with Jo who has many years experience traveling and exploring Italy and has some great insights into the best places to go.

SPECIAL OFFER!

Jo’s company, Italy villa rental specialists BOOKINGS FOR YOU, offers listeners of the Untold Italy podcast up to 10% off villa and apartment rentals. Use code UNTOLD or mention the podcast when booking your stay at one of their beautiful properties across Italy.
(*Note – discount cannot be applied with other offers)

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Jo runs Bookings For You, an award-winning villa rental company that has approximately 250 villas and apartments to rent all across Italy, from the Italian Lakes in the north, right down to Puglia and Sicily in the south
  • It is great to have a little home base on a trip to Italy – it is something Katy has done quite a few times
  • Jo recently made a trip to Italy and stayed on Lake Maggiore to view some new villas and apartments there, some of which are still in the process of being built. Then they headed across to Lake Como for a day to see a couple more places there. Despite this being winter and Northern Italy, they got very lucky. It poured the day before they arrived and the day they left, but in between they had lovely clear blue skies and sunshine
  • Jo’s previous podcast, episode 72, was about Lake Maggiore, which is a place Jo loves and highly recommends. Maggiore is just not far from Lake Como and offers a little bit of a different experience
  • Lake Como is dramatic with the mountains rising up from the lake, but Lake Maggiore is really beautiful and special in its own way. It’s got a real authenticity to it. The most well-known area is around Stresa, but a lot of the lake is still relatively unknown
  • The Italian Lakes is proving very popular still with those renting holiday homes with Jo. In the past people have generally headed to  Lake Garda or Lake Como, which are the more well-known lakes, but now more and more are coming to Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta
  • Tuscany is still popular. Umbria is getting popular and Puglia and Sicily continue to grow in popularity. They are regions where people are discovering them for the first time still, whereas people tend to have been to Tuscany and are returning
  • There are lots of regions Jo’s company would like to get into where they are seeing demand increasing, but that they don’t yet have properties in, such as Emilia Romagna and further north getting into the Dolomites which is not popular just for skiing, but now all year round
  • You have a different experience outside of the major cities and tourist areas. This is where the magic of Italy really comes to life
  • These days, sustainable travel very much comes to the fore and a big part of traveling sustainably is also about discovering those quieter, off-the-beaten-track areas
  • Not everyone is tearing around Italy, just wanting to tick off all the major landmarks and go to all the major cities. Increasingly, people are wanting to go to the less well-known places
  • It’s more about traveling slower, just taking time to connect to a place, its people, its history, its culture, and its beliefs
  • We read in the media a lot about places in Italy and all around the world where tourism is starting to have a negative impact. We hear that in Venice and the Cinque Terre suffering from this. Heading to those areas off the beaten track and smaller destinations means rewarding those businesses and people that live and work in those areas – spreading the tourist income around more. There are huge benefits, not just to the traveler, but also to the location when you start visiting these less well-known areas
  • It’s so worthwhile staying and lingering in these places instead of rushing on to the next thing because you can get a different experience of the area. Going into the coffee shop maybe 2 or 3 days in a row and then suddenly they know your order, which is a peculiar Italian trait. It’s so nice to be able to have those personal experiences that you wouldn’t have if you were zipping around the country
  • The perception is, and it’s very true for a lot of areas, that you may need to rent a car and drive. The aim of this podcast is to uncover some places to stay where you can really soak up all that magic that regional Italy has to offer, but without needing a car
  • Italian public transport is superb. Italy has one of the most well-developed rail networks in Europe. It’s great value for money. The trains are high-speed trains. They’ll travel at 300 kilometers an hour. Italy has invested millions into their transport network. So it’s very easy to get out and about, even to some of the smaller places without having a car
  • For some people, hiring a car and traveling in a foreign country is stressful. It is great if you can eliminate that stress by using public transport
  • You don’t have to contend with those hairpin bends, work out the parking rules, the ZTL limited traffic zones etc. You don’t need to worry about the fines you can too easily pickup
  • Where you can’t necessarily get to all the smaller places by train, usually you can get there and then hop on a bus or if you’re in the lakes, use the boat network. There’s a whole range of options
  • You can have your own little villa or apartment and settle in and go to the market, go to the coffee shop and enjoy the longer stay
  • It can be great to find somewhere as a base that’s quieter than some of the tourist hubs, but that has enough so that you can stay there for a whole week or two weeks and then use it for day trips, with good connections to get you out and about

The best regions are that you can travel around by train

  • Some regions are definitely better than others, but don’t be put off by any region. It’s just a case of some requiring more planning than others

Umbria

  • Umbria is fantastic for traveling by train – a great region to discover smaller places using public transport. 
  • Katy is always keen to champion Umbria. It is so beautiful and it’s untouched in a lot of ways. The people are so excited to see you because they’re not jaded by thousands of thousands of visitors. They’re just genuinely happy to see people coming to see what their lives are like and take part
  • In comparison to neighboring Tuscany, Tuscany has got the larger cities, like Florence, Pisa and Siena. Umbria has much smaller hilltop towns, that can be reached using the train network very easily. Orvietto and Spoleto, for example, they’re hilltop towns, but the train comes to the bottom of those towns, but then there are elevators or funiculars taking you up to the historic old part of the town. Really easy to do
  • Spello, famous for its flower festival, is one of Jo’s favorite places in Italy. You can walk from the train station into the historic part of Spello very easily
  • Assisi is probably Umbria’s most well-known town, but it is a little harder to access as you get dropped at the bottom, and you would need to get a bus or taxi up unless you’re feeling fit – it is quite a walk. Certainly in the summer, it can feel too hot to attempt that walk
  • You could base yourself in Spello and then cycle across to Assisi or even walk across if you’re a keen walker
  • Bookings For You has got a number of properties in Umbria, with about half a dozen just in Spello. All the properties in Spello are within the historic center, so you can walk up from the train station to stay there, and you are then within easy walking distance to all the restaurants, bars, cafes and shops
  • There’s an E-bike hire shop in Spello, so you can hire E-bikes to enjoy a beautiful cycle route from Spello through vineyards and olive groves to Assisi. It’s mostly flat, although when Jo and her family did it a couple of years ago and they decided to take a different route on the way back which involved a hill that became a mountain – so stick to the easy route!
  • Spello is a beautiful town. It’s got some incredible Roman remains. There is a museum with some remains from an ancient villa and some amazing mosaics.
  • There are wonderful restaurants and it is the kind of place where after a few days they start to remember your order. Breakfast for a family of four, you can get for under €10

The Italian Lakes

  • The Italian lakes are also great to access by train. The trains go along the Eastern side in both Como and Maggiore, but once you’re there you can use public transport and get around by boat. A couple of hundred years ago, the roads wouldn’t have existed in the way they do now around the lake, so it would have been everyone getting around by boat
  • You can go to Como City, which is a favorite of Katy. It’s one of those small Italian cities that’s got a nice, local vibe to it. You can also get to Varenna, and up to Lecco
  • There are direct trains from Milan that go to Como and Lecco. Then the railway spans the whole length from Lecco up to Colico with a number of stops. The train line doesn’t always skim the lakeside, but you can certainly get up to Varenna and then use the other stops or  get the boat across to the other side of the lake, to Menaggio etc
  • Traveling by train can mean some stunning views. You are able to sit back, relax, have a drink, and enjoy the view rather than worrying about cars on the road
  • In Lake Garda, you can get to Desenzano and Peschiera by train quite easily. The trains don’t go all the way around the lakes, but they don’t need to because again you can just just hop on a boat. So you use a combination of public transport options to get you around
  • You can get a train to Lake Orta, though the train station Orta Miasino Station is a two-kilometer walk along the lake to get to the main piazza in Orta San Giulia, which is the main town on Lake Orta. Driving to Orta San Giulio is a nightmare because the parking is limited and roads limited, so it’s a more relaxing way of getting there, certainly in peak season

Tuscany

  • Tuscany can be a great one to do by train but that tends to be for the larger places. The transport links are fantastic for Florence to Lucca, Siena, Cortona, Arezzo etc
  • Some of the hilltop towns aren’t as easy to access as they would be in Umbria. You often have to add a bus journey on or a taxi ride. But for the larger/more well-known places, then the train in Tuscany is great

Liguria

  • The train line in Liguria runs from La Spezia up to Genoa with lots of cute towns and villages along the way
  • Katy refuses to drive in much of Liguria because she finds it a little scary so it is ideal that the train’s are so good there
  • The train is a great way to explore the coast and you can get a really different taste of coastal life in Italy – in places that are not rammed with tourists
  • The last time Katy and her family were in Liguria, they stayed in Levanto. It had a less English-speaking and more European tourism-based – with more Dutch, German, French, Belgian etc tourists
  • You can spend time at the beach club, eat well, of course, and take a boat tour at sunset when all the day trippers and cruisers have gone
  • The Cinque Terre is very well connected by train which is probably partly what has led to the huge numbers of day trippers.If you go up out of the villages into the countryside just a bit behind the train stations there, away from the masses of people, it will be a nicer experience and we suggest visiting the Cinque Terre villages themselves either early in the morning or late in the day before/after the day trippers. There’s so much beauty in the areas around that people miss

The Adriatic Coast

  • The Adriatic Coast, with the Marche and the Emilia coastline, are areas that Jo doesn’t know so well but is sure will be opening up more and more over time – and will take off at some point with English-speaking travelers wanting to explore further
  • Jo has villas in the beautiful Marche region. It’s one of those regions that if you mention it, most people will not have heard of it
  • There are some fantastic beaches and the most incredible countryside, an amazing history – it ticks all the boxes. Everyone thinks of Florence for the Renaissance, but there is also incredible Renaissance art in Marche

Puglia

  • In Puglia, even though the train is pretty slow once you are down there, there is a fast-speed train from Rome to Bari, which takes about 4 hours
  • The train then from Bari takes you to Monopoli and Polignano in around an hour and is pretty easy. Ostuni and Locorotondo both have train stations as well
  • If you’re spending a large chunk of time down there, it’s not as easy by train. It requires a bit more planning, but it’s certainly possible – it tends to be slower so you need to allow for extra time and maybe avoid planning anything on Sundays when service is minimal

Amalfi Coast

  • The Amalfi Coast is not well connected by trains, though you can easily get a train to Sorrento, and use Sorrento as you base
  • The only train station then is at the far end of the Amalfi Coast in Vietri sul Mare, but you can use the buses and ferries to get around from Sorrento. Sorrento is a lovely base
  • Salerno could be another option, at the very Southern end of the Amalfi Coast. They’ve got a good train station with trains from Naples and Rome. There are a lot of things to do around there – not least because nearby is the home of Buffalo mozzarella. Katy recently celebrated her birthday with a big get-together down there on the Cilento Coast

South Tyrol

  • It’s really an up-and-coming area in terms of tourism. People now visit all year round, not just for the skiing, with lots of hiking and things to see
  • You can go to Bolzano by train, which is connected to Rome on the fast-speed train network and then the bus network from Bolzano is really good. Being Northern Italy, things tend to be more efficient and on schedule

Our guide to using the train in Italy

Lengths of stay in rentals

Lengths of stay in rentals

  • Increasingly, Jo is seeing property owners happy to be more flexible with their rental times. Some still in July and August will have a  night minimum stay but off-season, you tend to get more 4-night options
  • With a self-catering property, a 1 or 2-night stay doesn’t typically work very well. They don’t usually work well for the property owner economically, and it’s not really worth their while with the amount of cleaning required and the turnover
  • Most off-season are a minimum of 4 nights and then peak season, anything between 5 and 7 nights but there’s definitely more flexibility. In the past, properties tended to definite Saturday to Saturday in peak season, but there’s more flexibility now which is good news for travelers

Types of property

  • You can rent a variety of different types of villas and apartments. On Bookings For You there are lots with pools, which is a treat in the increasingly hot summers
  • There’s everything from small, cozy cottages to stunning, sleek villas with infinity pools
  • The intention of Bookings For You is that whatever your budget there will be somewhere really nice to stay. Whether you’re spending €1,000 or €10,000
  • They also make sure to cater to different group sizes. They recognize that some people are traveling just as a solo traveler or a couple, so there are smaller property options,  as well as much larger places for multi-generation trips or people traveling in larger groups
  • They see a lot more people traveling in large groups these days – maybe the grandparents traveling with the children and the grandchildren or multiple sets of couples traveling together
  • You do tend to get a lot more value for your money when you do travel in a larger group. It’s not for everyone but if you’re sociable and happy to travel with others, or family-orientated, it can be a great way of getting good value accommodation
  • Katy was browsing the website and spotted one in Puglia which is in a Trulli house surrounded by Olive trees and seems an absolute bargain. You look at the total cost of some of these places, and you might think, ‘Oh, that’s high’, but, when you break it down per person, it can come in at €50 a night for a spectacular place to stay
  • In Puglia, the way they do their decoration and stamp their style onto things – is very particular. It’s very elegant and modern, but it still has a nod to their past
  • You get modern versions of Trulli too, but they’re done so tastefully that you struggle to tell that they’re a modern build and not a Trullo that’s been there for 200 years
  • Italy is known for its design, but Puglia are definitely nailing it when it comes to interior design
  • There is such a difference between the regions in terms of style, architecture and design. It’s like holidaying in a completely different country. The food’s different, the landscape’s different, the design and where you’re staying has a completely different feel. Those regional differences are what make Italy so wonderful

Advantages to this kind of accommodation

  • If you’re going to Italy for an extended period, you should consider taking advantage of this style of accommodation. You can still eat out and go to restaurants, but if you want to have a day off from eating out. No matter how wonderful the food is, eating out every night can feel a bit much, especially if you have had a busy day
  • You can just buy a few little bits from the market – a bit of cheese, some delicious salami, perfect fruit and vegetables and chill out in your property
  • Buying from the market in itself is experiencing Italian life and culture. You would be buying food that’s been grown usually within a 10-mile radius and tastes incredible. The smell of the market is amazing
  • You don’t need to do any fancy preparation. You just eat exactly what you bought, and it will taste wonderful. Cooking at home is not hard work in Italy because you’ve got these fantastic ingredients. Katy calls this assembling rather than cooking
  • To find out how things work/how to behave at the market, check out our previous episode 211 on food etiquette. But basically, the main rule is Don’t touch the produce! Let them do it for you
  • There are so many opportunities to go and stay in a lovely Italian village or a town and feel like you’ve stepped into the Italian life for a little while
  • The Bookings For You blog at bookingsforyou.com/blog has loads of information and practical tips on traveling in Italy (like ‘don’t touch the fruit at the market’), as well as guides to smaller cities, towns and villages
  • If you’re looking for a smaller base, they are likely to have a guide on somewhere ideal for you to stay. They’ve even got a guide to  villas you can rent if visiting Puglia by train
  • You can reach out to them on Facebook or on Instagram
  • If you’re looking for accommodation, do say that you heard Jo on the podcast or through Untold Italy, to get a discount on your stay

SPECIAL OFFER!

Jo’s company, Italy villa rental specialists BOOKINGS FOR YOU, offers listeners of the Untold Italy podcast up to 10% off villa and apartment rentals. Use code UNTOLD or mention the podcast when booking your stay at one of their beautiful properties across Italy.
(*Note – discount cannot be applied with other offers)

Click for more on our Italy Trip Planning Services

About our guest – Jo Mackay

In her ‘past life’ Jo used to work in Sales and Marketing for Procter & Gamble. However, she always knew that corporate life wouldn’t allow her the time and flexibility she wanted to spend with her children and so, after attempting to make part-time hours work, she stepped off the career ladder in between the birth of her first and second children.

She then had a few years out but always knew that she wanted to work rather than be a full-time mum, particularly when both started school. During the time she spent with her children in the pre-school years, she and her purchased a property in the Italian Lakes. They always purchased it with a view to renting it out which they did very successfully. They went on to purchase the adjacent villa and rented that out too. When her children started school, she set up Bookings For You, renting out properties in the same area for others. It started as a bit of a hobby to be honest but grew quite dramatically and soon we had villas all over Italy!! If she’d set up her dream business at the time, it would probably have been to set up something related to food but this seemed the next best thing!!! This was all back in 2010 / 2011.

Bookings For You have properties all over Italy including Lake Maggiore, Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast, Marche, Puglia, and Sicily.

You can find Jo on these channels:

SPECIAL OFFER!

Jo’s company, Italy villa rental specialists BOOKINGS FOR YOU, offers listeners of the Untold Italy podcast up to 10% off villa and apartment rentals. Use code UNTOLD or mention the podcast when booking your stay at one of their beautiful properties across Italy.
(*Note – discount cannot be applied with other offers)

Places mentioned in the show

  • Lake Como and Lake Garda – the 2 most famous Northern lakes. See our comparisons guide here
  • Lake Maggiore – Northern lake, less famous than Como and Garda, but equally lovely
  • Stresa – town on the shores of Lake Maggiore
  • Lake Orta – magical lake near Maggiore
  • LeccoColico and Menaggio – towns on Lake Como
  • Desenzano and Peschiera – towns on Lake Garda
  • Spello – Umbrian town famous for it’s flower festival
  • Orvieto – Umbrian hill top town popular as a day trip from Rome or a stop off on the way to Florence
  • Assisi – Umbrian town famous as the birthplace of St. Francis
  • Liguria – the region on the east coast of Italy, home to the Cinque Terre
  • Genoa – the capital city of Liguria, a major port city
  • Sestri Levante and Porto Venere – costal towns in Liguria
  • Le Marche – Italian region on the Adriatic coast
  • Urbino and Ascoli Piceno – towns in Marche
  • Polignano, Monopoli, Bari, Ostuni and Locorotondo – towns in Puglia. Read more about them here
  • Sorrento – charming town just outside the Amalfi Coast which makes an excellent base
  • Vietri sul Mare – pretty town famous for its ceramics. One of the last stops on the Amalfi Coast
  • Salerno – city at the bottom of the Amalfi Coast, connected to Naples by train
  • Bolzano – city in the northern  in the South Tyrol area

Resources from Untold Italy

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