Italy is a treasure trove of art, history and culture. It has 45 World Heritage Sites -- "places of cultural and natural heritageâ¦considered to be of outstanding value to humanity." (whc.unesco.org/en/about.) That's more than any other country in the world; and it is one of the top five most popular tourist destinations worldwide.
Whether planning your first visit to Italy or a biannual excursion, below are some places that offer an unexpected experience along with a good night's sleep.
Just a short gondola ride from the Grand Canal, and close to Ponte della Libertà -- the bridge that connects Venice to mainland Italy -- Domus Orsoni, www.domusorsoni.com, offers an unforgettable experience. The private wing of a villa has been designed with five rooms, all with modern features and each showcasing exquisite mosaic and glass artwork by Italian artists using glass made at the Orsoni Glass Foundry (www.orsoni.com/). The Foundry, also on the property, has been producing glass mosaics since 1888.
In addition to rooms lavishly decorated with glass mosaics, the hotel provides a continental breakfast and guests can attend glass making workshops of one or two weeks or three days. (Workshops are also available to those who do not stay at the villa, but guests of the villa have 24-hour access.) Located in Cannaregio, the northern-most district of Venice, Domus Orsoni is close to numerous churches, restaurants and shops.
The Cannaregio district is more residential than Venice's other five districts, but it also includes many historical attractions including Ca' d'Oro (House of Gold), a gothic-style palazzo on the Grand Canal and the Venice Ghetto. Ca' d'Oro, built during the 1420s, has two ornate balconies and originally had a gilded faÃ§ade. The Venice Ghetto was a gated area established in 1516, where Jews were forced to live. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, Jews were free to live elsewhere in the city.
The home of librettist Luigi Illica, located in Castell'Arquarto (Piacenza, Emilia-Romagna), has been turned into a charming boutique art hotel. Illica worked with numerous Italian composers but he is most well known for writing the words to three of Giacomo Puccini's great operas, La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).
A boutique art hotel uses art and design to create warmth and add personality to a room. The five rooms of Casa Illica, www.casaillica.com/index, are named after operas and the décor features "Italian designer furniture and unique pieces of contemporary art." Each room offers stunning views of the countryside and includes the latest technical amenities; and the hotel also has a revolving art gallery.
The hotel is close to markets, churches and museums, and near the Castle of the Duke of Parma and Piacenza. The castle sits at the top of the hill and has a museum, gardens, and panoramic views of the town below.
Not too far west of Castell'Arquarto, a castle, with records dating back to the eleventh century, overlooks the Trebbia River in the ancient town of Rivalta (a locality of Gazzola). The castle and town are in the vicinity of the Battle of Trebbia (the exact location is not known), the famous battle fought between the Romans and Hannibal in 218 BC.
Near the castle, peasant homes and workshops have been preserved and transformed into restaurants, bars and local shops. Close by, Residenza Torre di San Martino (http://www.torredisanmartino.it/), offers rooms and cottages filled with antique furniture but also equipped with all modern conveniences. The castle is private -- frequent guests include members of the British Royal family -- but numerous rooms and a museum in the castle are open to the public.
The ancient hilltop village of Noepoli (Potenza, Basilicata) is located -- along with many other towns -- in Italy's largest natural park, Parco Nazionale del Pollino, Pollino National Park. Spectacular views, a natural environment, strong local traditions and a commitment to the community are the foundation for Palazzo Rinaldi, www.palazzorinaldi.com, an artists' retreat located on the hilltop.
Owned and operated by family members, the facility is open from the end of May to mid-September, has a minimum stay of five nights and a maximum of 14 and can accommodate individuals, couples, and small groups.
For the artist's residency, those interested in staying must submit an application and provide proof of their artistic abilities, which includes a wide spectrum of visual and performing arts. Palazzo Rinaldi also welcomes groups for cultural studies, and provides packages featuring workshops and courses that do not require an application.
Matera -- a short drive from Noepoli -- is well known for its cave dwellings, and some of the caves have been turned into luxurious accommodations. Hotel Sassi, www.hotelsassi.it/hsaing.htm, offers a wide choice of cave rooms, many with terraces and balconies, and provides a breakfast featuring local breads. Hotel Sant'Angelo, www.hotelsantangelosassi.it, has 23 historical dwellings that have been renovated for modern design, and a restaurant and lounge terrace. A deconsecrated church and numerous cave dwellings were combined for Locanda di San Martino Hotel, www.locandadisanmartino.it. The hotel also has an underground thermal pool. All these hotels in Matera offer a wide range of modern services and magnificent views of an ancient town carved out of stone.
Prompted by a petition with one million signatures, in 1996, the Italian parliament passed a law that allows confiscated property that was owned by a convicted mobster to be returned to the community for "socially beneficial uses." The signatures were collected by Libera Associazioni, a network of associations, groups and schools that work together against organized crime.
The produce grown on confiscated property is made into a variety of organic products including wine, olive oil, pasta, tomato sauce and marmalade; and -- to date -- two of the stone farmhouses have been converted into a bed and breakfast. Portella della ginestra, with an adjacent equestrian center, and Terre di Corleone, with a bowling green, are located near Palermo. For more information (only in Italian) go to www.liberaterra.it and click on "Agriturismo e struturre ricettive," then click on "Vai agli agriturismi."