The lesser known Italy

credit-Didier-Descouens.-Piazza-dei-Signori

Incredibly, for such a visited country, there are regions most people don’t know much about.

When people ask me for advice on traveling to Italy, they are usually asking about Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice. That’s it. There are, according to the masses, no other parts to explore.

Personally, I like to travel as much as possible like a local and try to experience life as they would. Go to the restaurants where the menus aren’t available in eight different languages, if they are even available at all, and go to churches that are tucked away from the foreign crowds and wander down narrow paths that aren’t on maps. If you open your mind and are willing to try places other than the well trodden, you will discover a whole other Italy.

Our first stop will take us to the heel of the boot…

PUGLIA

In recent years, Puglia has received more attention. Being surrounded by the ocean, (actually by three seas, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea) it is, obviously, a perfect beach destination. Puglia has stunning cities on the water, like Gallipoli and Polignano a Mare, and is one of the most beautiful regions in Italy with so much to see and explore.

One of my favorite places is Alberobello, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and home to the Trulli,  traditional Apulian huts with a cone-like limestone tiled roof. They were generally built as temporary, dry stone accommodations that could be dismantled in a heartbeat… usually when the tax man came to town. Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live in a little cottage like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? That’s just me? Well, wandering through this town, you feel like you are stepping into a fairy tale.

One of the last times I was in Alberobello, I came across a procession of traditional Italian folk dancers, doing the Pizzica. The Pizzica, or Taranta as it also known, is a traditional popular dance of the city of Taranto and the Salento region. This dance was created by women, demonstrating their desire to be free from the oppression of a strict and patriarchal culture.

There are various types of Pizzica, danced between two women, or a man and a woman, all ancient in origin, often bound with the cult of Dionysus. You feel the music in your soul — when I heard it for the first time, I felt a rush of blood through my veins. Walking through Alberobello, surrounded by the Trulli and seeing dancers in period costume, you could have been mysteriously transported to the sixteenth century.

Be sure to check out Trullo Sovrano, the only two floor Trullo in the area, now a small museum. Also see the Sant’Antonio Church, and Casa d’Amore, not, as it sounds, the House of Love, but derived from the surname of its owner Francesco d’Amore, who took part in the insurrection of Alberobello against the feudal tyranny during the 18th century.

After an uphill walk through the Trulli of Alberobello, be sure to stop for lunch at Gli Ulivi and order their classic antipasti. This is enough for two people as a meal, trust me. Up to fifteen small plates are presented at your table offering Pugliese specialties and seasonal vegetables. A silky burrata, fresh garlic scented bruschetta, polpette di pane (bread meatballs), fried fava beans, beet salad, roasted asparagus and more. Enjoy with a carafe of their local red house wine, which is great, and call it a day.

Polignano a Mare is built high on a cliff and surrounded by the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic. Its origins date back to the 4th Century BC when Greek settlers founded the city of Neapolis. This tiny ancient town, reached through the Porta Vecchia gate, combines beautiful winding, white washed streets with very old churches, such as Chiesa Matrice. Meandering through the streets, you come across panoramic terraces with stunning views of the Adriatic and the coastline. It will literally take your breath away.

This area is famous for a few things — one being cliff diving. So, if you’re the adventurous type, grab a friend, a negroni to give you some courage and jump! Polignano a Mare is also famous as the home of Domenico Modugno, the voice behind the classic song “Volare.” Take a gelato break at Gusto Caruso and then burn off calories by walking along the pebble lined beach, Lama Monachile. Finish the day with a visit to the extraordinary Pino Pascali Museum Foundation, a must if modern and contemporary art are your thing.

If you’re really looking to go way off the beaten path in Puglia, I suggest taking a look at Noci; a town in the region of Bari, with a beautiful historic center, filled with whitewashed old buildings and a charming mix of restaurants, galleries, shops and cafes. On a walk through the town, you will come across Piazza Plebiscito. To the right you will see Chiesa della Nativita di Noci, and to the left, a beautiful coral washed clock tower, watching over the quiet piazza and gently reminding people that time can stand still in this small town.

Noci is a perfect base if you want to explore other parts of Puglia but stay someplace tourist free. Every Tuesday, there is a large market along the perimeter of the town center. After strolling through the market, grab a seat at Bar Pace in Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi and people watch. Order a fresh, warm chocolate brioche and a glass of their homemade almond milk. You can thank me later.

The resorts throughout the region are just as vibrant as the rest of Puglia. The 5-star heavy hitters are sister properties Borgo Egnazia and Masseria San Domenico. Both are within walking distance of the Adriatic Sea. Borgo Egnazia has its VAIR Spa, Due Camini Restaurant, which takes a gourmet approach to simple, traditional Italian dishes, and world class San Domenico golf course. Masseria, originally built as a watch tower for the Knights of Malta, features several rooming options, including four on the water that the hotel markets as the pied dans l’eau suites. For those looking for a more cozy option, there is the Trulli and Puglia Resort. Entirely built of stone, Trulli is in the center of Alberobello. Locando Don Ferrante brings us back to the seaside, in the heart of Monopoli, uniquely squeezed between the Adriatic and the historic buildings of the old town.

BASILICATA

The region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy, is filled with forests and mountains, and not filled with tourists, even most Italian tourists, because few people really know it and most foreigners have never heard of it. Wedged between Campania, Puglia and Calabria, it is pristine, has a small but exquisite coast beneath steep, sheer cliffs, and the unhurried peacefulness of Paradise. And the food, not surprisingly seafood-centric, is phenomenal. For the wine snobs among us, the Aglianico del Vulture of Basilicata is superior to the more commonly known Aglianicos of Calabria, because Basilicata’s grapes are grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vulture and have a deeper, richer complexity.

The most famous city in Basilicata is Matera, another Unesco World Heritage site and recently designated one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2019 by the EU, which means it won’t be “lesser known” for much longer! The ancient city — one of the longest continuously populated on the planet — is chiefly remarkable for its sassi, its grottoes carved out of limestone. Buildings cover the hillside, houses piled one on top of the other, a unique and exquisitely beautiful site to explore on foot. You wander through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, dead ends and steep stone stairways. There is something quite literally hauntingly beautiful about Matera — it was once a ghost town, only recently revitalized.

On top of aimlessly wandering around Matera, which I have to admit is my preferred way to travel, with no set schedule, there is a lot to see. The Museum of Contemporary Sculpture houses modern sculptures scattered in the little nooks and crannies of a 17th century cave palace. Explore Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, where families of up to six people, plus their animals, lived in caves in the 18th century. At the end of a day of sightseeing, I recommend heading to Ristorante del Caveoso, a lovely trattoria with a wide range of offerings — especially for vegetarians. Start with a beautiful antipasti plate with seasonal fresh vegetables, polenta, focaccia and cheese. I love that the antipasti plate constantly changes to include what is fresh and made in house that day.

There are a surprisingly high number of great places to stay in Matera. There’s the SassiSuite Hotel, in the middle of the Sassi Barisano section, where stone houses are mingled with grottos and caves, and the hotel itself offers a mixture of gorgeous sunny rooms and top floor suite and an excavated, massive cave suite, which is actually in a cave. The Corte San Pietro is constructed out of cave houses, and has the design aesthetic of the most elegant Aman hotels. Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita was a cave church, turned into 18 gorgeous, sumptuously detailed rooms. Breakfast is served in the crypt. On the other end of the scale of dwelling options, the Palazzo Viceconte is a spectacular private baronial residence turned into a luxury hotel, without a single cave on property.

LE MARCHE ...

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