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Truth be told, I’d always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Italy. Whilst it may be home to fantastic food, the most numerous UNESCO world heritage listed sites of any country (50), and a rich and diverse history, it’s also often hot and humid, crowded, packed full of tourists, and let’s face it, just a little bit disorganised and messy. For these reasons, it has taken me over 10 years to return to this great and bountiful nation.
It has taken this current visit to Italy’s south to remove any last prejudices I have towards this beautiful country. Here, the people are warm and friendly, the produce sweet and flavoursome, and the cuisine delicious yet surprisingly light (and cheap!)
Yes, it’s been hot, but the long days also mean more hours in the day to take in all the amazing sights. I’ve also learned to work around the heat by doing as the locals do and taking a long lunch or a siesta during the hottest hours around midday. Many of the attractions are closed at this time anyway.
But who cares about opening times to museums and church interiors when the wealth of South Italy lies in its glorious landscapes, ranging from majestic peaks and vertiginous ravines, to rugged coastlines and the shimmering sapphire sea? All of which are enhanced rather than marred by the dwellings and other buildings that often seem impossibly carved into sheer rock faces. A visit to this part of the world is not for the faint of heart, for to get around easily, you’re likely to need to brave the narrow windy roads with your own car, not to mention the agility and energy you’ll need to traverse the cobblestone paths and many inclines.
It is precisely because of these facts that I loved my time recently spent in South Italy so much. It remains relatively free from international tourists at present, so do place it high on your list NOW before the word gets out.
So which towns and villages should you visit on your trip to South Italy? Here are 10 of the best that are sure to delight and capture your heart.
1. Polignano a mare
This seaside town has a more accessible beach and fewer crowds than the more well known towns studded along the Amalfi Coast, but you’ll find the water just as inviting and the views just as stunning. The historic old town is just a stone’s throw from the beach, comprising a delightful warren of twisty lanes lined by more unique souvenir stores than the usual tourist traps toting tacky trinkets. When you’ve had enough sun, sea and shopping, there are a myriad eateries lining the seafront, all serving up delectable food and vistas for very reasonable prices. If you have some money to spare, consider pre-booking a table at Grotta Palazzese, a romantic one-of-a-kind restaurant built into a cave.
Grotta Palazzese (Source)
It won’t take you long to walk through and around this small village, but it will surely be an experience to remember. The main reason to visit Alberobello is for the conical roofed buildings known as trulli (singular: trullo), perhaps best described as smurf huts. You can eat in a trullo, buy all manner of souvenirs at a trullo, and when the sun goes down, you can prolong the magic by laying your head to sleep in a trullo. It’s all very cute and unlike any other place I’ve been to before.
I was very fortunate to be in Alberobello at the time of their Starry Nights Festival honouring artist Van Gogh
Known as the White City, Ostuni is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of a series of white towns located throughout the Puglia region of Italy. The stark contrast of the white buildings against the deep blue sky and sea are quite a sight to behold as you enter and leave the town from vertigo inducing twisty roads built on the edges of steep cliffs. Take the time to wander through town and you’ll be rewarded with charming narrow streets and grand Baroque architecture.
The highlight of my trip! The characteristic sassi of Matera (literally “stones of Matera”) are cave-like habitations chiseled into the rock face of this small canyon carved out by a river that is now just a small stream at the base of town. The best vantage point can be found at the Convent of Sant’Agostino towards the northeastern edge of town. Standing here watching the lights coming on one by one as the sun set, the scene before me was reminiscent of a giant votive Nativity scene. It is little wonder that Matera has been the filming location for many Christian movies, including Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”. The historical centre is also a UNESCO world heritage listed site and the town has been named European Capital of Culture for 2019, so I would advise heading there soon!
My favourite view of Matera
5. Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa
Not far from Matera, there is a place where you can zipline between 2 towns nestled in plunging ravines. At just under 1.5km length, an altitude of around 1000m and a speed of up to 120km/hr, this is one for the thrillseekers for sure. For the rest of you, the colourful homes stacked against mountainous backdrops make for delightful views, making both of these cute little towns tourist attractions in their own rights.
Castelmezzano with the Flight of Angels zipline in the foreground
The narrow windy cliffside road leading up to this coastal town was nervewracking to say the least, but once we got there, the views made it all worthwhile! Be sure to wander through the enchanting old town centre, then continue your windy uphill course towards the Christ the Redeemer statue (Cristo Redentore). At 21.23m, it is one of the tallest statues of Jesus in the world.
Rivello is built upon a hilltop not far from Maratea. Although I didn’t have time to stop there this trip, you can imagine how much I wanted to when I caught sight of this scenically positioned medieval village on our drive north towards the Amalfi Coast!
This more inland town is less packed than the other towns along the Amalfi Coast, adding to its already considerable charm. Also a UNESCO world heritage site, the star attractions are the gardens of Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo, with their commanding views over the Amalfi coastline, described by American writer Gore Vidal as “the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen in the world.” For the more energetic, Ravello is also the starting point for a number of beautiful hiking trails linking it with nearby towns and villages.
The Terrace of Infinity at Villa Cimbrone
The pretty coastal town of Amalfi is reachable on foot from Ravello. We only had time to drive through this town, but what we saw convinced me that more time should be spent here in future, if only to visit the striking somewhat Moorish Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea.
If we were nervous about the coastal road leading to and away from Maratea, nothing could prepare us for the rollercoaster drive that is the Amalfi Coast! For this reason, and also because we were short of time, we weren’t actually able to stop at Positano, but boy, we sure wanted to! With its pastel coloured houses virtually cascading into the azure sea, it is easy to see why Positano is considered the jewel in the crown and playground of the rich and famous. And for those who enjoy a good hike, Positano is also the starting point of the Walk of the Gods.
Sadly, this was all I was able to see and capture of Positano
Have you visited any of these small towns and villages? What other south Italian towns and villages should I visit the next time I’m there?
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