Italy’s Mezzogiorno – Some Touring Highlights
Having been to Italy numerous times, but never to the peninsula’s deep south, we decided it was time, and that time was April/May 2019. After an 11 hour flight from Oakland to Rome, we didn’t want to tax ourselves too much on arrival. We decided to get to the east coast directly by autostrade, and that put us in the lovely province of Abruzzo, crossing the Appenines, which we were surprised to see heavily snow capped in late April. Its capital, Pescara, is a relatively newly developed coastal city, a modest city with a nice lungomare, or seaside drive.
Seeking convenience for our first night, we stayed at the Hotel Plaza Best Western. It is well located, off Via Vittorio Emmanuele, and just on Corso Umberto, the central street in the pedestrian only zone. Fortunately, you can drop your bags before moving the car to the private lot 100 yards away. We arrived the evening of Good Friday, just when mass had let out, so the streets and restaurants were crowded. Looking for a quick bite, we strolled in the pedestrian area and had our first Italian pizzetta experience. These round personal-sized pizzas typically cost $3-4, and they are everywhere. Breakfast was the first of many fine buffet breakfasts, and we rate BW’s the best for breadth, quality, and a favorite heavenly almond torte.
Like Pescara, Bari has an extensive lungomare, but whereas the former’s is dedicated to beach activities, Bari’s is more urban, with a port, major governmental buildings, and old churches and castles. It is also adjacent to the old town. Night time brought masses of people on foot to this area. It’s almost like there’s a law that everybody has to be out socializing on Saturday night. Adults, teens, and tots promenade and enjoy comfort food like pizza and fried polenta.
Arriving in Bari on Saturday night, we headed to the center of town. Like Pescara, it has an extensive storica antica. Part of old town is a labyrinth of limestone buildings and walkways. The limestone reflects light so well as to create a reverse Las Vegas effect. While casinos like the Venetian have vast interior spaces with ceilings painted like the sky, creating the effect of being outdoors, the limestone piazzas at night created the sense of being in a huge indoor space.
***** Aside – In Bari, we had dinner and watched the dynamics of the restaurant. We both love Italy and France, and in observing, we agreed on a notable distinction between the two peoples. Italians really appear to enjoy eating, downing their food with gusto. French appear to appreciate it. And this seems to be reflective of their cultures altogether – the more earthy, uninhibited Italians versus the more ethereal, structured French. Interestingly, one of us leans a little more toward preferring Italy and the other France (that is for the culture of the people rather than food) which also seems consistent with our respective personalities. *****
The central tourist destination is Lecce, known as the “Florence of the South,” in the heel of the boot. As mentioned in the Mezzogiorno overview article, like other towns of its ilk, Lecce has all of the old town sites of interest. But in addition, it possesses a fine Roman theater. It also has more restaurants and bars than elsewhere. Lecce has a couple of typical eats of note. First are the local pannini. A disk of bread is stuffed with all matter of veggies, slathered in a rigotta sauce, and heated in a panini iron. The other local treats are the cupcake-like pasticciotto that are filled and topped with ingredients like creamy Nutella and pistachios. Yum!
We stayed at an agriturismo, Tenuta Solicara, a few miles from Lecce, and it was a great time. The digs were Spartan yet functional, and the owner family, led by the meeter-and-greeter Jusi, was inviting and accommodating. We were there for Pasqua (Easter) and Pasqueta (yes, the day after is a holiday), and they had a big special event business, with 100 guests for lunch each of those days. Though we were the only staying guests, we were still treated to breakfasts and dinner with full effort on their part. Except for the tortes, the food was local rustic. They make their own cheese, and we had flights of their creamy rigotta, crumbly farmer’s cheese, and semi-hard pecorino. Delicious.
Geographically, the key tourist towns in the heel comprise a diamond. Lecce is the northern point, Gallipoli the east, Santa Maria de Leuca the south, and Otranto the east. In Gallipoli, the storico centro (ancient town) juts out into the sea. We circled the town on foot in howling winds that almost knocked us off course, so we retreated to a nice all seafood 3-course lunch at Isole de Pirata. Leuca is noted for its attractive appearance and as the southernmost point on the Italian mainland, where you see Africa on a clear day. As it was hardly a clear day, and as we had a late start, we skipped Leuca and crossed to Otranto, where we enjoyed the castello largely because of a photographic exhibition on, of all places, India. The photographer was present, and his personal annotations added to the pleasure.
A little further north, the area around Martina Franca is unique for the abundance of trulli, gray/white rural buildings of limestone with stone conical roofs having a look akin to beehives. Some houses may have 6-8 of them. It’s a striking sight to see them dotting the countryside. We wonder why we were unaware of them as they are so charming and unique architecturally. Only Alberobello has trulli in the town itself, which is worth a visit for that.
We had a great meal at I Templari (the Knights Templar of the Crusades had a history in this region), which is a restaurant situated below grade, but way above standard. In addition to great veal and orechietti (“little ear” pasta, originating in Bari) with local cardoncelli mushrooms. We also had our only contact with other Americans there, an interesting couple from – where else? – the Bay Area. Another memory was wine tasting at I Pastini. The tasting facility is small and basic, but it was the only tasting open to the public that we learned of. The wines are modest but tasty and priced around $10 per bottle, though they compete in a higher price range where they are distributed in the U.S. But even for those who prefer more upscale wines, this it is a local experience, and you can learn about the processes and unique grapes that go into their product.
We stayed at Relais Villa San Martino and recommend it. It is upscale with attractive grounds and a full service spa. It has the classic old European elegance but doesn’t have the level of amenities that would be expected in an exclusive contemporary hotel. The most unique and noteworthy experience of the whole trip occurred in Basilicata, which is among Italy’s poorest, least populous, and least known regions. Our destination was Matera, whose unusual old town went from “the shame of Italy” to a UNESCO world patrimony site in the space of several years. On first inspection, the cream colored, hilly town is striking, but what is not appreciated is that conventional looking building facings front sassi (caves) that the residents live in. There are also churches from Norman to Byzantine to Baroque. Across a steep canyon, there are also a number of unobscured cave dwellings.
While the town’s history predates the written word, the current treatment comes from the last few centuries. Remarkably, around 1950, the town was so derelict and the people so poor that evacuation was forced and some politicians wanted to raze the eyesore. Thanks to UNESCO’s inspection, not only was the town saved from destruction, but two decades ago, successful repopulation began, and it’s hard to imagine that it was a ghost town for 50 years. Indicative of its historical appearance, over 80 Italian movies have been filmed in Matera, the biggest being Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.
Lodging was very expensive in Matera, perhaps because of the holidays, so we chose to stay at the very pleasant B&B, Masseria La Gravina near Palagianello, a 30 minute drive from Matera. Gravina means canyon, and it is the same canyon of the many caves in Matera. The very gracious Franco is the owner and host of this grape and olive farm. He also grows 60 different species of fruit and nut trees and has a garden for student activities. Franco arranged with Perrini vineyards for us to have a private tasting at their facility, which was a great time that is discussed in our article on wine and personal asides. One further comment we will make is that Perrini’s 2018 Salento Rosso, a red blend, won a New York Times Best Buy designation.
For our day and night in Calabria, a region of hot chiles and cool bergemot citrus and perfume essence, we stayed in Altomonte, a beautiful mountain top setting with lush 360° views. We lunched at the primo hotel in town, the Barbieri, and stayed at Castelo del Altomonte, which was a charming renovation whose construction started with the Normans in 1056! We were shown large spaces in the castle that had been converted to event rooms that were awesome with historical artifacts and art. We enjoyed perhaps our favorite dinner of the trip (headed by roast lamb, sautéed baby goat, and mushroom pizza) at Agora in the small town of Civita. Because we were met in Altomonte by Vic’s Sicilian cousin Pino, our brief experience in Calabria was atypical, dominated by associations with the Arbëreshë community (15th century Albanian immigrants to southern Italy) from which they descend. This will be described in our companion article “Mezzogiorno – Wine, Tivoli, and Personal Asides.”
The UNESCO designated Amalfi coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia have been famed vacation getaway destinations for centuries. Land and sea are stunningly beautiful, and with great weather and tourist facilities, it has much to offer. We stayed in Ravello, a charming town up the mountain from the town of Amalfi. It is noted for its musical activities, and its Villa Rufolo was the inspiration to the staging of Wagner’s Parsifal. It and the duomo are from the 1270s. We stayed at Torre del Ziro B&B outside of town. It is a classic of its kind, and the owner Rafaela (whose jewelry is on display at the Naples Modern Art Museum and is for sale at the B&B) and the major-domo, Enza, were very gracious. Although only a sliver of the sea is visible from the property, the mountain views are great.
This area suffers from its popularity. The best time to visit is shoulder season during weekdays. Spring and fall weekends will be full of Italian tourists, and summer will host an abundance of foreigners. Choose your accommodations well, because in crowded periods, movement from one town to another can be brutal. Even in quieter times, you must contend with mountain roads and a number of one-lane roads with alternating flow in either direction. Parking is $3.50 per hour; it is hard to find; and you will still probably have ¼ mile or more to walk to your destination.
We gave short shrift to Naples on this trip but recommend it for its location and historical importance. In addition to the typical large city religious sites, Naples is home to Teatro San Carlo, which offers tours. Opera buffs will know this as one of the most important originators of operas historically, and in fact, it is the oldest operating theater in Europe. Also it has notable underground labyrinths that can be toured. For us, one thrill is enjoying delectables at the source. Three essentials start with pizza, where it was founded and still revered. The margherita is the classic red, white, and green pizza of tomato, mozzarella, and basil, but some will find Italians stingy on the cheese. Sfagliatella is a dessert of candied rigota or other goodies stuffed in a finely ribbed shell of millefeuille pastry – Naples’ answer to Sicily’s cannoli. Finally, you will find espresso where it is served at its most intense flavor and smallest volume anywhere.
Day trip opportunities are great. The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are less than an hour away. While the former is better known, we did Herculaneum this time and recommend and prefer it. It is smaller but much better preserved and detailed because of the different manner in which it was covered with volcanic debris. The 18th century Caserta Royal Palace, residence of the monarchs of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, is also very close. With 1,200 rooms, it is one of the largest palaces in the world and a UNESCO designated site. And if you want the fancy holiday fix, take a ferry to Ischia, Capri, or the Amalfi.
We had a wonderful time in the Mezzogiorno. While it lacks many “essential” tourist haunts and the world famous museums in major cities elsewhere in Italy, it is rich in old towns, historical architecture from the Greek and Roman periods forward, beautiful houses of religion, a rich and convoluted history, hearty food, culture, and friendly people. We recommend it to those travelers who wish to get away from the madding crowd of foreign visitors and find our descriptions inviting.