In Italy they say that all roads lead to Rome. My roads in Italy, however, lead to old villages that there are so many of. At least I always find myself looking for Italy’s prettiest villages, every time I travel through the country.
Italian villages exist on mountaintops, on the plains and by the sea. Historic medieval villages, well taken care of and in a perfect condition.
Brisighella and Dozza in Emilia Romagna, some of Italy’s prettiest villages
Italy loves its historic villages that have become tourist attractions in their own right. It’s traditionally domestic tourism but international travelers are finding Italy’s villages as well.
Italians travel to their villages for a weekend break, Sunday lunch or glass of bianco, and they really enjoy the atmosphere of their villages, I borghi piu belli.
I Borghi piu Belli d’Italia
Castell’Arquato, also one of the prettiest villages in Italy
Italy’s prettiest villages, i borghi piu Belli d’Italia are listed by a local association, the association of small Italian towns.
The aim is to preserve and maintain villages with a remarkable heritage. All towns on the list have a high quality building heritage and most of them also have a phenomenal location.
The Borghi piu Belli d’Italia list is my treasure trove and I always let it guide me when traveling in Italy.
The list of Italy’s prettiest villages covers almost 300 towns or villages in all parts of the country. 13 of them are in Emilia Romagna, the region this article is about.
For the list of Italy’s prettiest villages see the I Borghi piu Belli d’Italia website. As most old villages were built around a castle the Italian word borghi also means village.
But there’s another listing as well, the Orange Flag.
Italy’s Orange Flag Program
Castell’Arquato, a village on both the Borghi piu Belli and Orange Flag lists
The Orange Flag program by Touring Club Italiano also lists villages. To be listed, a town or village must have an important historical, cultural and environmental heritage, but also offer tourists a quality welcome.
The Touring Club evaluates the villages from the traveler’s point of view and look at things like signposting, traffic connections, accommodation, restaurants, renewable resources and waste management.
Over 2000 towns have applied for the Orange Flag (Bandiere Arancioni) of which some 250 have been accepted, among them four of the Emilia Romagna villages we visited.
You can find the whole list on Touring Club Italia’s Bandiere Arancioni website.
This is Italy’s Emilia Romagna on the map. Emilia Romagna is a province in North Italy, covering the Po river plains, almost from Milano and Genova to the Adriatic coast.
Map of Emilia Romagna. The pretty hill towns we visited are marked on the map.
The north part of Emilia Romagna is a vast plain with huge grain and sunflower fields. On these fields they provide Italy with food.
The old Roman road Via Emilia cuts through the plains. The Romans wanted a straight road from the west to the Adriatic in the east.
Today however there’s a new road, the three-line motorway A1 side by side with the Roman road. Then there are two railway lines, one for regional trains and the other for fast trains. All this makes it super easy to get to places in Emilia Romagna.
Yet the traffic lines don’t dominate the plains. It’s the fields, and the long row of interesting cities.
Cities of Emilia Romagna
When the Romans built Via Emilia cities stood up along it. The cities are from west to east Piacenza, Fidenza, Parma, Reggio nell’ Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Faenza, Ravenna and Rimini.
They all specialized in what they were good at. Parma got famous for its prosciutto and parmigiano, Modena for its Ferraris and Masseratis, Faenza for ceramics and Ravenna for mosaics. And Bologna and Modena got a great architecture and became foodie towns.
Bologna, the main city and capital of Emilia Romagna
I have a separate post on Emilia Romagna’s capital Bologna. To learn about Bologna check out Bologna: Arcades, History and Mediterranean Colors.
Emilia Romagna’s Villages
Castles and small villages dot the Apennine Hills
Yet Emilia Romagna has more than the plains and the cities. The province has a huge number of castles, palaces and fortresses from the days when aristocratic families ruled the country.
Most of these castles and fortresses are in the hills south of the plains, in an area next to Italy’s biggest mountain chain the Apennines. So all Emilia Romagna is not flat, the south is hilly.
As the Apennines sounded nicer for us than the flatland, we left the motorway and off we went, to pretty hill villages.
We left the plains behind and took the winding road to the Apennines
And the first village in the east was Castell’Arquato.
Italy’s Prettiest Villages: Castell’ Arquato
Looking for Italy’s prettiest villages: Castell’Arquato
The hill-town Castell’Arquato is on the Borghi piu Belli list and has the Italian Orange Flag (Bandiera Arancione) award as well.
Castell’Arquato is not a small village, it’s a lively town. There is a lower town by the river and a hilltop upper town. All my photos are from the upper town where the building style is very uniform, no new buildings exist.
Everything is medieval, even the huge Rocca castle from 1343 that you enter through a drawbridge. The name of the hilltop main square is Piazza Alta.
Castell’Arquato in Piacenza Hills:
Photos of Castell’Arquato, Italy
Click on the small photos to open them all up in a slideshow.
Italy’s Prettiest Villages: Vigoleno
The castle town Vigoleno
The next village is Vigoleno. To get there from Castell’Arquato you will need to drive up and down some hills and the drive is scenic.
Up on the Vigoleno hill you will see a fortified castle, and just a few quiet cafeterias around the square. This is pretty enough but not the old town. To get there you will have to walk through the castle gate, behind which all the beauty will open up.
This is an Italian borgo bello, in its real meaning, a town inside a castle.
Vigoleno is on the Borghi piu belli list and also has the Orange Flag award.
Vigoleno in photos
Like each Italian town Vigoleno has its piazza. This is the castle town’s tiny piazza with its small fountain.
In Vigoleno you can’t get lost, all streets begin from the piazza and end to the defensive wall.
Vigoleno on the list of Italy’s prettiest villages
Thermal baths of Salsomaggiore, Italy
Further east in the Parma Hills is the spa town Salsomaggiore Terme. It’s a valley town between green hills dotted with castles and palaces, yet only 35 km from Parma. The area is called castle country and there are over a hundred castles, many of them ruined and others still used.
As this part of Italy is a thermal area there are many spas in Salsomaggiore and around. The spas get fresh, healing waters from underground wells, from the depth of 800 to 1200 m. The underground water is very salty and its temperature is 16 C.
Some of the spas are in Tabiano Terme, a smaller resort in the hills.
Salsomaggiore’s stunning landmark is the old-style Berzieri Thermal Spa that you see in my photos. A charming place both inside and out where taking baths and treatments must be a fantastic experience.
We only had time with our hotel pool which was lovely as well, like the whole hotel. As Salsomaggiore has been a tourist town for ages there are fantastic older hotels with lovely gardens.
The Apennine spa town of Salsomaggiore Terme
What else did we do in Salsomaggiore Terme? We took a loop in the hills to find some of those one hundred castles and that’s what we found. Samples of Pienza Hills castles in my photos.
Rocca di Fontanellato, Italy
On the Parma flatlands, the small town of Fontanellato has literally grown to surround a castle. The castle Rocca is in the middle and the town’s streets radiate out from into all directions.
Rocca is different in style from the small hilltop castles. It’s massive, thick walled and stands steadily in the deep green moat. The castle is from the 15th century but has an exceptionally well preserved interior and many beautiful halls with fantastic decoration.
Rocca di Fontanellato really is worth to visit, and the town itself is like from a postcard.
Fontanellato in photos
Fontanellato surprised us, not being on the list of pretty villages. It does, however, have the Orange Flag.
The Rocca and the moat
Fontanellato was the last in the cluster of historic towns in the Parma region. More places to visit will follow on the other side of Bologna. To read about Bologna check out my post Bologna: Arcades, History and Mediterranean Colors.
The first of the eastern Emilia Romagna towns is Castel San Pietro Terme.
Castel San Pietro Terme
Street in Castel San Pietro Terme, Emilia Romagna
Castel San Pietro Terme soon after Bologna on the Roman road is worth a short stop. The town a lot smaller the Bologna but looks a bit same. Both towns are on the plains, yet almost in the Apennines and they have colored houses and arcades. As the name says Castel San Pietro Terme is a spa town and it also is a base for outdoor activities.
To get to more hill towns you can turn into the hills now or drive on to Imola and turn there. Imola also is a city to drive through as its center is pretty.
Yet I recommend the hill roads, even if you probably will get lost a few times before reaching Dozza and Brisighella in the east. Apennine roads are winding but it all looks so fantastic.
Castel San Pietro Terme, Emilia Romagna
Italy’s Prettiest Villages: Dozza
Dozza, one of the prettiest villages of Italy
Then we have two more towns to go from the Borghi piu Belli d’Italia list: Dozza and Brisighella in the Apennine Hills.
The medieval hill town Dozza has vineyards on all sides, the products of which you can taste in the town’s wine cellars or in the massive hilltop castle Rocca. Yet Dozza is not most famous for its tasty wines but for wall paintings.
Surprise! A historic hilltop town where paintings cover most houses, gates and doorways. All surfaces are full of paintings. The works of art are in different colors and styles, yet they all match so well together. These paintings really make medieval lanes shine. But who made them?
Dozza wall paintings in a photo gallery
Dozza wall paintings are a result of a painted wall (Muro Dipinto) event arranged in Dozza every two years. In the event famous Italian and international artists work together to decorate Dozza’s medieval facades.
Dozza is a work of art!
In Dozza even flowers are like paintings
The next village Brisighella is further away in the Apennines where more forest and olive trees exist. The first thing you will see at arrival might be the Monastery of Monticino, this one:
The Monastery of Monticino, Brisighella
Or, if you arrive along another road, you might first see La Rocca, the hilltop castle, or La Torre, the tower. Those are the three hilltop constructions Brisighella has. The town itself is in between them, lower down the valley.
Italy’s Prettiest Villages: Brisighella
Brisighella, a pretty Italian village
Brisighella is famous for this super long townhouse which in fact is many houses in a row. As the hilltop castle is right above, the house almost looks like its defensive wall – which it actually was.
And the defensive wall had a secret road inside, to get up to the hill. In the place where you can see the arches on the house wall is a hidden walkway along the whole length of the house. It’s Via degli Asini, Donkey’s Road. So this arched road high up in the building has been walked by donkeys!
You can see the donkey’s walkway in these photos:
Brisighella in photos
This 12th century village deserves its position on the list of prettiest villages and it also deserves its Orange Flag.
One more look from the secret walkway before we have to leave this fairy-tale place. We have seen so many villages now and will end the tour, via Faenza.
Looking out through a 12th century arch
Ending the Tour in Faenza
There’s one more city to go, a big one on the plains and known for its ceramics.
For more than 500 years Faenza has produced blue, white and yellow ceramics that is famous all over the world.
Faenza is not on the list of Italy’s prettiest villages but has a pretty central piazza with great old buildings. And Faenza has a Museum of Ceramics.
Faenza ceramics, a product of Emilia Romagna
I hope you liked reading about the villages. For me this kind of villages mean so much that just had to tell about them. Hope to see you in an Italian village, one day!