Rich history and breathtaking views await those who venture to Italy

San Pietro in Casale is a town of about 12,000 that is less than a half-hour by train north of Bologna, Italy. Just off the town square, Sans Pietro e Paolo Roman Catholic Church looks like it was built 600 years ago, but actually was reconstructed in the mid-19th Century.

Tourists always enjoy visiting the Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica di San Petronio, the main church in Bologna. On the façade of the structure, marble rises only part way, as it was left unfinished when the bubonic plague ravaged Bologna in the mid-17th Century.

Inside are the dome murals and elegance of older Italian churches on a smaller scale. The original church dates back to the 1500s and the fixtures are a blend of old and new. Matteo Lopez, a student of Milan photographer and artist Olivo Barbieri, created a beautiful Altar to the Madonna, a recent addition.

While Florence, Rome and Venice clearly are the crown jewels of Italy, hidden gems like San Pietro in Casale can be found. These places offer glimpses of Italian culture without the swarming crowds of tourists.

Michelango’s David, museums and the Renaissance art of Florence, the Vatican in Rome and the romance of the Venetian canals top tourist must-see lists. That also means they have crowded piazzas and long ticket lines.

The intricate architecture inside the Sans Pietro e Paolo Roman Catholic Church in San Pietro in Casale can only be described as breathtaking.

We may have been the only American tourists in San Pietro in Casale that day and several old men sitting around the town square eyed us curiously. We came to meet distant relatives, who graciously drove with us for a meal at Trattoria Wilma, a fine restaurant in the countryside.

Besides Italy’s crown jewel cities, Sienna, a city with steep, narrow streets and one of the largest and prettiest central piazzas, is a popular tourist destination. We visited a few days after one of two annual horse races that draw tens of thousands and pitted 17 neighborhoods against each other. The mud horse track around the piazza was being removed when we arrived.

San Gimignano, a mountainside city of towers in the heart of Tuscany’s wine region, is another popular tourist attraction, as is “The Last Supper” mural in Milan.

Day or night, Italy offers many spectacular views.

Other cities offer tourist opportunities without the crowds. Parma is a city of Romanesque architecture known for Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. Balsamic vinegar and opera are the mainstays of Modena, which also hosts the Enzo Ferrari Museum. Renaissance buildings can be found on the streets of Ferrara and Ravenna is known for its colorful mosaics.

On Lake Como, where actor George Clooney has a home, Belagio has one of the most beautiful views of a mountain lake in Italy. But the view from across the lake at Varenna or several other small communities is just as impressive – with fewer tourists.

Also with fewer tourists, Bologna, a university town and commerce center, has two impressive churches and a reputation for the best food in Northern Italy. The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is one of the world’s oldest universities.

From the Ponte Vecchio to the Duomo to Renaissance art, Florence offers plenty of things for visitors to enjoy while in Italy.

For a while during the Middle Ages, Bologna was the largest city in Europe.
On the facade of the Basilica di San Petronio, marble rises only part way. The church was left unfinished when the bubonic plague ravaged Bologna in the mid-17th Century.

Back in the quieter San Pietro in Casale, a church plaque memorializes a bombing on Sept. 9, 1944, during the final year of World War II. The bomb destroyed an adjacent building, but by the grace of God, the church was unharmed. The church also survived a 2012 earthquake.

Like cafes in small-town America, Pepi’s Bar and Caffe is a popular spot for both tourists and those who live in San Pietro in Casale.

A few steps away on the town square, regulars filled the front room at Pepi’s Bar and Caffe early one morning, bantering in Italian with the proprietor working behind the counter. We strangers found seats in the back room.

It reminded me of similar cafes in nearly every small town in America where people gather for coffee and pastries. At 10 a.m., the front room cleared as the regulars left to face the day.’s Marv Balousek recently took a trip through several cities in Italy while visiting Europe.