Six years ago I came to Florence from my home in Boston for a short stay that turned permanent after I fell in love with my now husband, Rami, a Florentine.  I fell for the country, too, and still find it breathtaking.  

But the beauty isn’t the only thing that makes me gasp.  Sometimes it’s the effort needed to get around—while climbing the streets in Tuscan hill towns, scaling towers without elevators or navigating the throngs of tourists in ancient cities.  

Yet if you explore beyond those crowded, hard-to-navigate destinations, you’ll find quiet villages with unique personalities.  It feels like discovering the “real” Italy (particularly in the off-season). These are two of my favorite easy getaways north of Tuscany, places where just getting around doesn’t wear me out.

Parma

This small town in the Po Valley—just two hours north of Florence (between Bologna and Milan) — is, in winter, often enveloped in a delightful velvet fog.  The cuisine is exceptional. Having a plate of freshly sliced Parma ham and Parmesan cheese is a heavenly decadence I haven’t been able to replicate elsewhere.  My favorite piazza, Piazza del Duomo, boasts the cathedral of Parma, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and featuring lavish frescoes and a beautiful pink-marble octagonal baptistry.  The peaceful streets are flat, nicely paved and easy to stroll.

Bolzano

Drive a few hours north of Parma and you’ll start to see the Dolomites looming in the distance, then the city of Bolzano, nestled into a valley about an hour from the Austrian border.  

The South Tyrol region has roots in Germanic culture, so when Rami and I crave wurstel, beer and an Alpine experience, this is where we go.  Bolzano’s Italian-style pastel houses offer a tinge of Austrian architecture, creating a fairy-tale feel. The mood is especially magical during the holiday season, when the piazzas transform into a sprawling Christmas market, wooden stalls overflowing with handcrafted ornaments and hot mulled wine.  Bolzano, like Parma, has no steeply inclined streets to contend with.

And you don’t have to go on a hike to get a view of the gorgeous region from above; take a cable car for a panoramic overlook of Bolzano and the nearby mountains.

(written by Lisa Harvey for AARP Magazine, February/March 2020)