Italy’s beautiful south – offering glorious beaches and pretty villages without the crowds
Every country has its forgotten corners, the regions ignored by visitors, the backwaters often blighted by poverty, history and geographical bad luck. Even Italy, among the most blessed of destinations, has such outposts, places that until recently were often seen only by well-informed pioneers.
Few of these long-lost lands deserve their obscurity, and certainly not in Italy, where some of the most overlooked regions make up the most southerly parts of the famous cartographic boot – Puglia, the heel and spur; Basilicata, the instep; and Calabria, the toe. A fourth, Campania, is barely known beyond Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.
Reputational reboots, of course, are slow in coming. In central Italy, for example, Umbria took decades to emerge from Tuscany’s shadow. Stars need to align: the word needs to spread, hotels need to improve, low-cost flights need airports.
Puglia has taken the lead in southern Italy. The raw materials were always there – the towns, the food, the landscapes, the coastline, and the ancient masserie, or fortified manor houses, ripe for conversion to luxury hotels.
From Puglia the ripples are spreading to neighbouring Basilicata, where the emergence of Matera, a European Capital of Culture in 2019, has drawn visitors and is encouraging the exploration of the majestic mountains, ancient Greek sites and coastal enclaves elsewhere in the region.
Calabria, too, is on the up, spurred by the arrival of direct Ryanair flights to the airport at Lamezia (only, for now, in summer). Tailor-made specialists now have a handful of fine hotels on their books in the region, and big tour operators such as Tui and First Choice are dipping a tentative toe in the waters of several coastal resorts.
In time, these coastal footholds should provide a springboard for exploration deeper into the interior, where the landscapes of the Sila and Aspromonte mountains are the equal of any in Italy.
This said, none of these regions will ever be a Tuscany, but if you wish to broaden your horizons, you could do worse than take a tentative step into the Italian boot. Read on for a summary of the regions’ highlights, along with ideas on how to see and enjoy them.
Basilicata is the least-known of southern Italy’s regions, hemmed in to the east and west by Puglia and Campania, and by Calabria to the south.
One of Italy’s poorest areas, it has recently become better known, thanks to the emergence of Matera one of Italy’s most alluring towns; a honeycomb of rock-cut churches and ancient cave dwellings – the sassi – that after decades of restoration are now a World Heritage Site.
The town is easily seen, with Bari airport close by, and is often paired with sights in nearby Puglia, but its rewards – art, culture, food and unique townscapes – make it worth a self-contained short break in its own right.
Beyond Matera, Basilicata’s most easily accessed reward is Maratea, the focus of several chic, mountain-framed beach resorts on the region’s Tyrrhenian coast. Fine little centres in its orbit include Acquafredda, D’Illicini, Macarro and Anginarra, all perfect for couples and families in search of small resorts outside the mainstream.
Across the region, the Ionian coast is low-key by comparison, but of appeal to archeology buffs for the partially excavated ruins of the Greek colonies of Metapontum – close to lovely beaches at Terzo Cavone – and Heraclea, once two of the most powerful cities in the ancient world.
You’ll find more historic sites in the towns of Melfi and Venosa – the 11th-century Trinità abbey close to the latter is a must-see – but Basilicata’s real glories after Matera are its landscapes, notably the verdant, volcanic slopes of Monte Vulture, renowned for its wines (visit winetourism.com to book tastings at six Vulture wineries), and the majestic Monte Pollino National Park, one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas.
You can explore the park by car – though roads are few – and better still on foot or by bike, from bases such as Rotonda or Terranova di Pollino, but this is country for serious outdoor enthusiasts, with few marked trails, so it pays to book a local guide (try Giuseppe Cosenza at viaggiarenelpollino.it) or join a guided walking holiday (see below).
Numerous operators offer packages to Matera, but this is a short break you can easily organise yourself. British Airways (ba.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com) fly to Bari (though some flights are seasonal), which is a 45-minute taxi transfer from Matera. One of the first of several hotels to be built into the old caves, the Sextantio (sextantio.it; double B&B from around £170), is still a standout. There are plenty of alternatives, but be sure to stay in the old town itself.
On the beach
The beaches near Maratea are among southern Italy’s best coastal destinations, frequented by Italian families but still little-known to outsiders. Long Travel offers packages to the region, including seven nights’ B&B at the three-star Hotel Gabbiano, overlooking a pretty bay near Acquafredda, from £554 per person, including flights and car hire (long-travel.co.uk). Kirker Holidays offers flight, car hire and accommodation packages at the more upmarket La Locanda delle Donne Monache or Santavenere hotels in and close to Maratea (kirkerholidays.com).
Best foot forward
Exodus offers an eight-day walking trip around Basilicata and Puglia, taking in Matera and the Cammino Materano, a hiking trail that connects Matera to Brindisi, as well as seaside Ostuni and Alberobello (see below). It costs £1,495 per person including flights and accommodation in three- and four-star hotels and converted farmhouses (exodus.co.uk).
Inntravel’s self-guided four-night cycling holiday begins in Matera, serves up manageable distances (around 30 miles a day) and promises to reveal some of the Basilicata’s and Puglia’s quietest corners. It includes two nights in Matera and two nights in Noci, though more can be added. From £755pp including accommodation, bike hire and luggage transfers, but not flights (inntravel.co.uk).
Puglia is the best known and most broadly appealing of Italy’s southern quartet, a pastoral picture of low, dry hills, ancient olive groves, white-washed houses stark against turquoise seas and a rich medley of art, architecture, food, historic towns, good hotels and – increasingly – villa rentals.
It’s also warm-weathered – too hot in high summer for much more than lounging by the pool – but a place you can happily visit in March and April, when poppies are already blooming, or late into autumn, when the beaches are empty but the air is still balmy.
Avoid the plains of the north unless you’re en route to the Gargano peninsula, an anomalous enclave of forest, uplands and cliff-edged coastline noted for the pretty fishing villages of Vieste and Peschici.
South from here explore the medieval fortress at Castel del Monte and the towns of Trani, Barletta, Molfetta, Bisceglie and Ruvo di Puglia, whose Norman heritage has left them with some of Italy’s most beautiful Romanesque architecture.
The Romanesque also prevails in Bari, home to Puglia’s key airport, but it is the baroque that holds sway in the region’s most celebrated town, Lecce, whose streets are full of honey-stoned facades, intricately carved balconies and richly adorned palaces.
Between Bari and Lecce lies “trulli” country, a swathe of pastoral hills and sometimes rather touristy towns – Alberobello, Martina Franca and Locorotondo – scattered with the strange conical dwellings that are almost unique to this part of Puglia. Here, too, are some of Puglia’s loveliest small centres, among which Ostuni is the star turn.
South of Lecce, on the Salento peninsula, towards the tip of the heel, the attractions are fishing villages such as Gallipoli and Otranto, full of charm and appealing waterfronts. Wherever you are in Puglia, make time for at least a day trip to Matera just across the regional border in Basilicata.
The villa experience
Puglia has all the ingredients for a villa holiday: a range of properties, summer sun and enough diversions for when you want a day away from the pool. The Thinking Traveller has more than 50 properties here from £2,772 weekly for an eight-bed villa, plus a range of add-on experiences such as boat charters, guided hiking or biking trips on the Salento Peninsula, cheese-making in Alberobello and cooking classes and fishing in Gallipoli (thethinkingtraveller.com).
Hitting the hotspots
Titan Travel offers an excellent Puglian overview with its eight-day Puglia – Discover the Heel of Italy escorted tour that includes Lecce, Ostuni, Otranto, Castel del Monte, Trani, Alberobello and other towns, as well as a visit to Matera. From £1,835 based on a September departure, including flights from Gatwick, 12 meals and door-to-door transfers (titantravel.co.uk).
Puglia in private
Cox & Kings can tailor-make packages to Puglia but also offers an eight-day off-the-shelf tour of Puglia and Basilicata from £2,195, including flights, B&B accommodation, visits to Puglia’s key destinations and an excursion to Matera. (coxandkings.co.uk).
Perfect a passion
Flavours Holidays began life offering cooking-class holidays – availability remains on three seven-night cooking departures (June 17, July 1 and October 15), but now offers painting, Pilates, photography and Italian classes from a Puglian base. Trips cost from £1,899, with no single supplements, and combine classes with sightseeing. Most trips are full board and all include transfers, tuition and excursions but not flights (flavoursholidays.co.uk).
All things olive
The Awaiting Table, an imaginative Lecce-based company, offers the chance to learn more about Puglia’s rich rural bounty, with a range of hands-on experiences, one of which is a six-day castle-based course devoted to olives, olive oil and other aspects of Puglian life, including time in the olive groves helping with the harvest and replanting. Course-only prices start at €1,995 for departures in late autumn and early winter (awaitingtable.com).
There’s no escaping it – Calabria is a hard sell. The toe of the Italian boot has had a difficult time historically, often conquered, blighted by poverty and emigration, and hidebound by an unforgiving climate and the harshest of landscapes. And unlike Basilicata, it lacks a place like Matera to act as a catalyst for onward exploration.
Yet there are beacons, some on the sea, others in the region’s mountainous interior. Calabria’s finest stretches of coast begin at Pizzo, close to a bulge of land known as the Promontorio del Poro. Visit the area’s little capital, Vibo Valentina, for its churches and Norman castle, or head straight to Tropea, Calabria’s best resort, thanks to its long, sandy beaches and the picturesque cliff-top churches and cathedral of the old town. From here explore the rest of the promontory, which has more good beaches at Zambrone, Parghelia, Joppolo and Nicotera, as well as some sublime coastal scenery on and around Capo Vaticano.
Inland, Calabria offers a handful of little towns with historical and cultural interest: crag-top Gerace, for example, blessed with an ancient cathedral; Stilo, celebrated for La Cattolica, Italy’s best-preserved Byzantine-style church; and Rossano, whose Museo Diocesano houses the 6th-century Codex Purpureus, an illustrated manuscript of the Gospels, one of the earliest and most beautiful in existence.
Like Basilicata, though, Calabria’s chief glory is its landscapes, notably the Sila (parcosila.it) and Aspromonte (parks.it) mountains, both protected by national parks and both wildly beautiful and remote. A car – and a sense of adventure – are essential but the rewards are foothills swathed in jasmine and bergamot, which give way to high pasture, forest and villages, such as Roghudi, Roccaforte del Greco and Gallicianò, where the presence of the Greeks 2,500 years ago is still reflected in a dialect said to be closer to the language of Homer and Plato than modern Greek, never mind Italian.
Italy’s newest long-distance trail is the Cammino Basiliano (camminobasiliano.it), 864 miles (1,390km) across 73 stages through the great Apennine ranges – the Pollino, Sila and Aspromonte. Larger UK operators have yet to offer the Cammino, but Realitaly Travel can tailor-make self-guided or guided walks on sections of your choice, with excellent eating and other recommendations en route (realitalytravel.com).
Touring from Tropea
Options for visiting Tropea, Calabria’s most appealing resort, include an escorted group tour with Newmarket Holidays, which offers an eight-day trip from a hotel base just north of the old town from £800 per person, including half-board, return flight to Lamezia, transfers and excursions to key Calabrian towns, such as Gerace, Locri, Cosenza and Reggio di Calabria, and an optional boat tour to the Aeolian Islands (newmarketholidays.co.uk).
Citalia can tailor-make packages to Tropea and beyond, with a choice of two upmarket hotels in the town, one of which, the four-star Hotel Tirreno, is close to the fine Contura beach. Alternatively, Citalia offers two hotels at Ricadi, a quieter centre on Capo Vaticano to the south, including Baia del Godano Resort (citalia.com).
Calabria is a fair way south; not far enough south for winter sun, perhaps, but certainly at a latitude that provides for warmth when autumn’s chill is beginning to grip in the UK. Average temperatures in October, for example, are 73F (23C). Tui offers packages to seven Calabrian coastal centres, including seven nights’ all-inclusive at Pizzo, on Calabria’s Tyrrhenian coast (30 minutes from Lamezia airport), from £780 per person, including flights from Gatwick on October 7 (tui.co.uk).
The Romans called it Campania felix, or the happy land, inspired by its beauty and fertility, but visitors to Campania today know, and see, virtually nothing of the region beyond the well-worn round of Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.
If anything, Amalfi and Pompeii have too many visitors, though Naples is often shunned by those happy to indulge Rome, Florence or Venice, deterred by a reputation – less deserved these days – for being busy and occasionally blighted.
In truth, it’s overflowing with character, fine food (it’s the birthplace of the pizza, after all), sublime baroque churches, the Palazzo Reale (palazzorealedinapoli.org), with masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli and others, and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (mann-napoli.it), one of Europe’s greatest museums.
In short, perfect for a city break or as part of a longer trip, though if you must visit the Amalfi Coast, around an hour away by road, rail or ferry, stay in quieter villages such as Vettica, Praiano or Maiori, and spend time away from the crowds in the Lattari mountains above the coast. And visit the islands of Ischia and Procida rather than over-indulged Capri.
Better still, branch out into the farther reaches of Campania, most of them untouched by UK tour operators. Find time, especially, to see the majestic complex of temples at Paestum (museopaestum.beniculturali.it), 55 miles south of Naples, also at the heart of an area known for producing Italy’s finest mozzarella. Visit the local consortium’s site (mozzarelladop.com) for details of makers you can visit or contact a producer like Barlotti (barlotti.it), a stone’s throw from the temples. And if you’re happy to rent a car, then make for the Cilento south of Paestum, which combines fine mountain landscapes, notably the Alburni uplands, with some lovely coastal scenery, small resorts and pretty villages.
Head onwards to the superb scenery of the Monti Picentini – the roads around Acerno are spectacular– and nearby Monti della Maddalena, with Montesano as a base, staying at the Palazzo Cestari (palazzocestarihotel.it; doubles from around £60), for a trip to the Certosa di San Lorenzo, one of Italy’s greatest abbeys.
Solo in the Cilento
The Cilento’s compact size lends itself to independent exploration – fly to Naples and hire a car – but if you prefer a package Sunvil offers one hotel in the region, L’Approdo, on a pretty bay overlooking a small sandy beach. Prices for seven days’ B&B, including flights, start at £1,239 per person (sunvil.co.uk). Or solo traveller specialist Just You has an eight-day Cilento-based escorted tour from £1,699, including half board, flights from Gatwick, Edinburgh or Manchester, transfers and some excursions (justyou.co.uk).
Pompeii is easily seen independently or with one of the countless Amalfi Coast holidays organised by numerous UK operators. But the region has a host of other Classical sites rarely seen by casual visitors, many of which can be experienced on private visits through cultural specialist Andante Travels. Departures on its eight-day Pompeii, Herculaneum & Classical Campania tour cost from $3,575 per person, including most meals, accommodation, entry fees and flights (andantetravels.co.uk).
Campania on two wheels
Exodus offers an eight-day cycling tour starting in the unspoilt Cilento and finishing in the more popular and lively Amalfi Coast. The going is hilly to begin with, but distances are short and speeds are slow. From £1,979 per person, including flights and most meals (exodus.co.uk).
If you’re a first-timer to Campania, the chances are you’ll want to see the obvious highlights in one go, easily done with Voyage Jules Verne, which has an Amalfi, Pompeii & Sorrento tour (from £1,145) offering a good overview of the key sights from a base in Sorrento, with a free day for trips to Naples, Paestum or beyond. Prices include B&B and flights from Heathrow (vjv.com).
Tim Jepson is the author of ‘The Amalfi Coast, Naples & Southern Italy’.