Gems of Southern Italy

Apulia, Basilicata and Campania

I’ve enjoyed the glories of Italy during several excursions, yet I harbor a continuing, passionate yearning to see more. Learn more. Eat more. The quest to experience all that I possibly can in this vibrant country, from the top of the boot to its toe, is a work in progress.

People, it seems, travel to Italy for a variety of reasons. For me, it’s a way to connect to my roots. My mother’s maternal grandparents were from southern-most Italy. I grew up on feasts of marinara-topped pasta with such depth of flavor, it tasted like food for the gods, or the last meal requested by gladiators.

During my travels, I’ve been fascinated by nearly every street corner in Rome. Venice was transcendent, and Florence was everything this Art History graduate had dreamed. When I learned of the Umbrian jazz festival, hosted every year in Perugia, I knew I had a mission. My husband and I spent a month there and visited as many of the Umbrian hill towns that we could by bus or train.

But what of Southern Italy? We’ve been to Sicily and Capri. Our return to the Campania region this past November, was again memorable. With its astonishing vistas, Positano has to be the most romantic spot on earth.

What we had not experienced until recently was the region of Apulia (called Puglia by the Italians), and its neighboring region, Basilicata. Apulia is located in the boot heel of Italy, and Basilica is inland from there.

Traveling east from the lemon-kissed seaside town of Sorrento, we arrived in picturesque Trani on the Adriatic Sea. We settled in for a lunch of fresh-from-the-boat seafood and an exquisite view of its quaint harbor. In its day, Trani was an important trade center. It’s still known for its sweet dessert wine, Moscato di Trani.

Scholars opine that Trani’s Romanesque-era Duomo (cathedral), founded in 1097 and completed in the middle of the 13th century, is the most beautiful church in Apulia. It’s not often that you see such an imposing structure positioned on a seafront promontory. The contrast of its white-washed stone exterior and the azure Adriatic is stunning, as is the simplicity of the church’s interior.

Travelling along the Adriatic from Trani, you will discover Bari, a cosmopolitan city with art galleries and a grand opera house. Bari was founded by the Greeks and developed by the Romans. There are two important sections of the town, the Citta Vecchia, which is a labyrinth of ancient streets, and the Citta Nuova, or modern city, with wide boulevards and French architecture. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Murat, had a hand in laying out modern Bari on a grid.

Notable in old Bari is the church of San Nicola, founded in 1087. It houses the bones of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia. His remains were stolen from Turkey by 47 opportunistic Bari sailors. That bit of piracy put Bari on the trade map of the influential Appian Way. The town retains much of its old-world character. In the Citta Vecchia, we found women in alleyways making the region’s signature pasta, orecchiette (little ears). Of course, everywhere you go in Italy, the pasta is incredible, and the gelato is divine. A memorable culinary coup was scoring a delectable hot slice of focaccia in Bari’s old town. One hint: don’t go there at night unless you are good at directions. The secret to finding your way out is that the dark cobblestones lead to the area’s exit points.

A side trip from Bari down the coast, past miles of olive groves, is the UNESCO heritage site of Alberobello. Dotting the hillsides of this 13th-century town are trulli, which are conical-shaped limestone dwellings, constructed without mortar. Legend is that when the tax collector was coming to town, the citizens could take apart their houses and hide in the woods to escape paying tax. People live in the houses still. Stay in town until dusk. When tourists leave, you can sense its unique character.

If you’ve never heard of Matera, you are not alone. However, millions of people around the globe will have seen Matera in the opening scenes of the latest James Bond film. Nine civilizations have thrived here, dating back to the 8th-century BC. Quite recently, people lived in the town’s rock-cut dwellings, called sassi, that have origins in the Byzantine era.

Located in the very heel of Italy’s boot, between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Lecce is a stone’s throw from lovely beaches. Known as “The Florence of the South,” Lecce’s is famous for its Baroque architecture. The local sandstone is so soft, it can easily be carved and detailed. One example is the city’s Basilicata di Santa Croce (1549-1679). There’s also a well-preserved Roman amphitheater in the center of town that is fascinating. Arts and crafts are big here, so time for browsing and shopping is recommended.

We ended our trip in Naples, which has the best pizza and one of the finest archeological museums in the world. Many treasures from Pompeii and Herculaneum are found at Naples’ Museo Nacionale.

There’s much to do and relish in all of  Italy, and particularly in the south. Find a seaside town, sip on the perfect glass of wine and take in the beauty. “Il dolce far niente” — the sweetness of doing nothing — there’s a lot to say for that, too.

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