I love Italy and I love UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so combining the two is always a personal treat when I travel the country. And there’s plenty from which to choose, not surprisingly Italy has more UNESCO designated sites than any country in the world; confirming its place as the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Not every site is as well known as Rome or Florence though. No, in fact many of the sites listed in Italy are ones most of us have never even heard of, much less thought about actually visiting. Last year though I had the chance to visit several of these “smaller” sites that also encompass cities and what I learned is that they are no less interesting than some of the bigger names on the list. In fact, visiting them was more enjoyable than the larger cities because they weren’t teeming with tourists like in Florence or the center of Rome. Not only are these fun UNESCO sites, but they’re also nice cities to visit in their own right meaning that your overall experience won’t just be educational, it’ll be a lot of fun too.
Located near Milan and Bergamo in Northern Italy, I was surprised by this small, planned city in nearly every way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialists around the world created what became known as ‘company towns.’ These small communities centered around a particular company gave workers everything they needed, from housing to stores and even cemeteries. Many of these towns were nothing but a way for the company owners to further control their workers, keeping them under their proverbial heels, but some became enlightened examples of proper labor management. Crespi d’Adda is one such enlightened community and instead of seeking to subjugate their employees, the town was created to provide them with a better quality of life. This small town is on the UNESCO list because it still exists mostly intact and looks like it did nearly a century ago. While the company has long since shuttered, people still call this town home and walking through the planned community it’s easy to imagine the well-ordered life that once existed here. Crespi d’Adda is easy to reach from Bergamo and if 20th century history is your thing, then this is a must visit site.
Not far from the bustling city of Mantua is a far different town, one that when I visited was oddly quiet but captivating thanks to the unique lines and angles of the architecture and public spaces. I was in Sabbioneta, an early example of urban planning from the 15th century. More fortress than town, Sabbioneta was built by the powerful Gonzagas and the thick city walls and ramparts are all still completely intact. It was more than the defenses that interested me though, the grid pattern of the streets and the impressive squares and monuments are all what drew my attention almost immediately. Meant to impress, the Duke’s palace, the theater, churches and more are all on a scale and designed with a level of beauty that may have been representative of the era, but which are rare to find today. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot of time there, but if you’re in Mantua definitely spend an afternoon or even a day exploring the strange little town of Sabbioneta.
Capo di Ponte
The train ride from Milan through the Italian countryside, past lakes and vacation homes was well worth the trip to Capo di Ponte by itself. But as I left the train station in what is really a sleepy mountain village, I knew that the best was yet to come. People have always lived in this spot along the River Oglio in the valley known as Valcamonica. Hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs dating back more than 10,000 years can be found around the valley, which is why it isn’t just a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it was the first UNESCO designated site in Italy. One of the best places to see these drawings left by our ancient relatives is the small town of Capo di Ponte, as picturesque a mountain village as you could ever hope to find. Walking through town I noticed that everyone seemed to wave hello to everyone else, undoubtedly the residents all know each other by name. Colorful homes and shops line the river as I followed the path through town and up to the rocky outcroppings to see those famous drawings for myself. I love ancient history, to feel connected to people and communities long since gone from the face of the planet is a thrill. I always wonder what their lives were like, what they did every day and what their fears and worries were that occupied their waking thoughts. That’s one reason why these petroglyphs are so very important. They offer clues to not just another era, but a completely different way of living that we have practically no comprehension of. Add to that the fact that the petroglyphs are situated in a beautiful field, encircled by trees and when enjoyed on a sunny summer’s day, there was no better place in the world to be.
Italy has so much to offer from its towns and cities to those world famous UNESCO sites that it would take years, decades to experience them all. But you have to start somewhere and for my money these three cities, each important in the flow of world history, are also a lot of fun to explore in their own right.