Italy’s Mezzogiorno – an Overview of a Road Less Traveled
The Mezzogiorno (MG), translated meaning “midday,” is the south of Italy, roughly, below Rome. We will ignore Sicily, which is its own world. We love it and have been there four times, but not on this trip. Sardinia is more geographically and culturally separate and won’t be discussed. Broadly, the Mezzogiorno is less industrialized than the Yankee or Teutonic north.
The MG’s history diverges from that of northern Italy. Parts or all of it have been subjugated by Normans, Aragon, Spanish Bourbons, the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Moors, and more. It is also a more friendly place than the north, with a DNA mix that is darker, having influences from Greece, Turkey, North Africa, Albania, and elsewhere.
Any time of year is great to visit, but summer can be hot and crowded and winter can be austere. Shoulder seasons are wonderful for less congestion and better service. In particular, April and May provide the lush spring green color, but check the holiday calendar. Late Easter will cluster with National Day and Labor Day, when many Italians travel heavily, but at least it’s Italian rather than foreign tourists.
Your time in this region should be relaxed. There is no Colosseum or St. Marks Square or Uffizi Gallery that if you miss, people will ask “What were you thinking?” That said, archeologically, Pompeii, and then Herculaneum, are among the most important ruins anywhere. The Amalfi Coast, including the islands of Capri and Ischia, is among the stunningly beautiful and tony resort regions in the world. Lecce is a diverse city referred to as the Florence of the South. But if you do go to the deep south, there is one must-see. Matera, with its ancient history and modern cave dwellings, is a deserving 2019 Cultural Capital of the European Union,
Some people who are familiar with the region will insist that you have to go to this place and the other, but the truth is that there is a lot of commonality among most of the key destinations in the south. Most will have a storico centro (ancient town) with the obligatory cathedrale or basilica and probably a castle. There will certainly be commercial areas with restaurants and shops. Except for the dedicated Italophile, you may find yourself less motivated to do the historical thing as time goes along. But mostly what there is to enjoy is the wonderful seafood and comfort food of the region as well as the strolling among the locals.
For the foreign visitor, with the exception of the Amalfi, it is also much cheaper. Fewer foreign tourists will be encountered, and most will be European. One caveat about the cost of travel is that driving, even in small, fuel efficient cars, on the autostrade can cost $15 or more per driving hour between tolls and fuel (about $6.50 per gallon – and while self service can be over $1 per gallon cheaper, US credit cards without PINs are not accepted). Fortunately, distances are not great. Tolls don’t apply on local roadways, and there are no road fees below Bari on the east coast and Salerno on the west.
We used to think the greatest drag about renting a car in Italy to be the local drivers. They are actually pretty disciplined if a bit aggressive. The real drag is the parking. We rarely found a town big or small that didn’t pose a problem for finding parking. Legal parking varies from $0.50 – $2.30 per hour, but up to $3.50 in the Amalfi. If you plan to drive country roads, mountains, or old parts of cities, be aware of how little room for error that you will face. Small cars don’t offer the space or even the safety of larger ones, but they sure do handle tight spots well.
A GPS is a must. We had an unlocked cell phone and purchased a temporary SIM card at Fiumicino (Rome’s airport). We used Google Maps, which was so inaccurate, incomplete, and ambiguous at times that you want to find someone to throttle. It’s a mystery why it fails to recognize destinations that are clearly on their own maps or why you can find an address that it thinks is still two miles away. Yet, we couldn’t imagine being without it.
There are two types of roads outside the cities. Autostrade are beautiful, well kept, and well marked – a pleasure to drive on. The absence of billboard advertising is a relief, but the absence of placards for services and private places of interest at exits makes you dependent on formal service areas unless you have another resource.
Local roads are horrible. They are often extremely narrow, poorly kept, and poorly marked. Instead of route numbers being the primary means of providing directions, destinations are. This is common throughout Europe, but it is worse here. Often you will arrive at a roundabout, and your destination, which has appeared at previous ones, is absent. You take one of the options and find there is no indication of road number. What do you do? Other times, there are multiple routes indicated to the same town, but without indication of route numbers. Combined with the GPS issues, country roads in the MG compete with Portugal as being the worst in Western Europe.
Accommodations can be fun. If you want a particularly local experience, you may wish to stay at an agriturismo. Characteristically, these are working farms, but the accommodations vary from rustic to posh. Some have no special activities, but others may have the likes of petting farm animal experiences for kids or horseback riding. Language skills by the staff may be lacking, so a voice activated translator will be particularly valuable. An advantage to these stays is often the opportunity to have more personal interactions with the hosts, especially during lower seasons, and the disadvantage is that many typical hotel services will be lacking. Of course, they will be more remote and sometimes harder to find than city hotels.
Secure them through the usual booking sites. Most will have either agriturismo or masseria (farm) or tenuta (estate) in the name. There is also a specialized site, www.agriturismo.it , but rather than booking directly, it acts more like a VRBO or airbnb, where they put you in contact with the accommodation.
In most societies, traditional cuisine has been largely informed by its natural endownment. The MG is no exception. Surrounded by the Mediterranean and its associated bodies of water, food from the sea plays a large role in the local diet. Fish are prominent, and three species that we may see much less of at home are swordfish, anchovies, and sardines. Seafood abounds, and varieties like octopus and calamari that have crept into our diet have long been staples here. Most of the olive oil from Italy comes from this region, and both olives and oil are big in local eating. If you imagine southern Italian cuisine, all of the fruit, vegetables, grains, and nuts that are part of it can be found.
Be prepared to revisit the tomato sauce days of earlier Italian-American restaurants, because that style still dominates in southern Italy. Pizza is Neopolitan in origin, and perhaps the best tomatoes are from the area as well. But expect restaurant food to be fresh, tasty, and often organic. Excellent buffet breakfasts are common, and of course the coffee is the best. Espresso is the default, and it seems the closer you get to Naples, the smaller the portion – barely a thimble in some places, but a sumptuous thimble.
If you’re visiting the MG, fly into Rome or Milan and connect to destinations like Naples or Bari, but if you’re renting a car, Rome is the best starting point. Norwegian, which is a great discount carrier that flies beautiful Boeing 787 Dreamliners, flies non-stop from Oakland, and you may snare no-frills fares for under $600 round trip. It’s not always that cheap, but we’ve flown them four round trips to several other European destinations with great satisfaction. And for those who don’t know, Oakland is a lot more comfortable airport than SFO.
On our recent trip, written up in a separate article, our primary destination was the deep south. If you know the elegant boot shape of Italy, the emphasis was the heel, which is Puglia, the southeastern Adriatic coast of Italy. Our other targets were Basilicata, the arch, and Calabria, the toe. For something more elegant, we did opt for some time in the Amalfi in Campagna and at Tivoli, just outside Rome.
Note that an itinerary in the MG is not for everyone, but more for the seasoned or adventuresome traveler. We found it a rewarding cultural experience, but keep in mind that to engage locals and make those special connections is not automatic. However, if you demonstrate interest, respect, and humor, those behaviors will be returned to you by the host people. Enjoy!