I have been to the mainland of Southern Italy quite a number of times now, visiting Lecce, the hometown of my mother in law. It’s a city that is in the region of Puglia. Puglia, a main jumping off point for travel to Greece, has been touted for a number of years as the next big Mediterranean/Adriatic hotspot, and gradually some tourists weary of crowded Tuscany or Rome, make their way down and stay in Puglia. It’s a beautiful area that really has been left pretty undiscovered by large masses, but seems on the cusp of large-scale discovery at any moment. When people mention Puglia, however, they usually talk about the cities of Bari or Brindisi. It’s still pretty rare that you will hear American voices as you walk through Lecce, even though it’s a drive of just an hour or two from Brindisi or Bari. Periodically I hear English and German tourists in the restaurants or shops. It seems to me that the regions south of Naples are unknown by Americans and are primarily visited only if people have an ancestral connection. The beautiful north and central regions are beloved and are rightfully American favorites: Venice, the Lake region, Rome, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Florence where there is definitely an abundance of beauty and history to explore. But I think one misses out if the cities and villages on the heel and the toe of the boot are overlooked.
No mistake about it, if you end up in Lecce, it’s because you intentionally wanted to go there – it’s a long drive from Florence or Rome, way down on the heel. But when you get there, you’re rewarded with Lecce, often called “The Florence of the South”, because of its rich history, magnificent baroque architecture and beautiful beaches . It is said that what Florence is to the Renaissance, Lecce is to baroque. Then there is the unpretentious, mouth-watering cucina povera, peasant food. The gnocchi, the olive infused focaccia, tarallini and yes, I’m told, fresh sea urchin. And the olive oil that is a shade of green and a flavor not often seen or tasted in the U.S.
We love that our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren now visit every time we do, and they’ll have a tradition and memories that, I hope, will stay with them a lifetime. They love the beach at San Cataldo just outside Lecce and will experience it again this year.
Besides the beaches, the many churches and cathedrals, museums and the culture of Lecce and the surrounding towns that are a few hours drive away are very much worth exploring. I would love to revisit the sassi caves of Matera, in which many impoverished inhabitants lived until the 1960’s when the sassi population was resettled in a burgeoning new town higher up on the gorge. Since we last visited the town, a new interactive museum, called Casa Noha, has been built that chronicles Matera’s desperate past and its emergence as a film-making location, a draw for tourism and a designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Matera has also been named the 2019 European City of Culture. Another historic place to visit would be Alberobello, home of neighborhoods of cone-shaped stone homes called trulli, another World Heritage site. And we almost never leave Lecce without a trip down the coast a bit to Otranto, almost at the base of the heel, a town marked by its amazing cathedral with its medieval mosaic floor and where the bones of 813 martyrs are displayed in a glass case behind the altar.
One thing I have been eager to do for a very long time during my stays in southern Italy is to go to Sicily, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother, specifically the town of Santo Stefano diCamastra. I can’t believe that in the thirty or so years since I first visited Lecce, we have never made it over to Sicily, the Italian island just 25 miles off the toe of Calabria. I am grateful to have a cousin whose husband has been to Santo Stefano di Camastra many times since his ancestors also come from there. He was kind enough recently to send me a detailed email about sites to see, friends of his to look up and points of interest relative to our heritage. One of my goals is to try to find out more about my family, if at all possible since my grandmother came to America about one hundred and ten years ago. Her maiden name was Serio and I know there are Serio’s still in Santo Stefano, so we’ll see what I can find out. I feel blessed just to visit the the area and walk the streets that she may have walked. Also Santo Stefano is known for its pottery and ceramics – how cool would it be to bring back a piece of art from her home town!
Whether you go by the ferries or hydrofoils that cross from a number of southern mainland towns, or fly, as we are doing, it’s a bit of a trek to get to Sicily. Our flight will leave Brindisi, fly north to Rome and then south to Palermo in Sicily, where we will pick up our car for our drive to three major places on the island: Cefalu, Taormina, and Agrigento. Sounds like we should have taken the ferry, you say? Well, first you need to get to a town from which a ferry leaves and then sail over. Reggio di Calabria is the shortest water route (35 minutes) but to get to Reggio from Lecce is a many hour car trip. From Naples, also a number of hours from Lecce by car, the water trip is anywhere from seven to eleven hours. So we decided to fly.
We will finally travel around for six days to some of Sicily’s major attractions, about which I will report back in a blog post after we return. We’ll see how my pre-visit expectations and impressions will measure up or are changed. Universally, anyone I know who has visited Sicily has come back ebullient with praise for the beautiful seas surrounding the island, the resorts, the beaches, the architecture, the culture and, of course, the food. I expect that Sicily will be somewhat primitive, less developed, particularly in the central areas inland from the coasts – like stepping back into time in some ways. On the other hand, popular resorts like Taormina and Cefalu have been characterized to us by friends and our guide books, as magnificent, lovely historic centers with beautiful beaches catering to a long tradition of tourists who have been coming back to these cities for years. We will also be going to Agrigento, site of the Valley of the Temples, where ancient Greeks once built the city of Akragas. It is apparently Sicily’s pre-eminent travel destination. We’ve hired a private guide for this and also for a tour of Mount Etna near Taormina.
As one of my travel books characterizes it, Sicily is “overloaded with art treatures and natural beauty, undersupplied with infrastructure…” and unfailingly boasts that the people are wonderful and the local cuisine is authentic and of the highest quality. The main complaints that I have read are that the island is badly maintained, signage is poor, and there is a lack of care about its antiquities. My husband and I have traveled around much of Europe, and enjoy the freedom of being on our own. Will Sicily prove to be too much for us or just right? Book after book and article after article advise visitors to enter Sicily with an open mind and a healthy appetite! Will do!
Arrivederci! Fino alla prossima volta (Until next time)!