The South of Italy has so much to offer travelers, although most don’t seem to venture any further south than Naples. We all know Campania is famous for its impressive coastlines and magnificent sites but as you dip further south you will experience the rugged beauty and intricate history that the “deep south” has to share.
So, let’s shine the spotlight on some other “stars” of Southern Italy.
Sassi di Matera (Stones of Matera) in Matera
Nestled in the mountainous interior of Basilicata, close to the border of Puglia, you will find the city of Matera and the “Sassi di Matera”. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sassi, cave dwellings that are carved directly into the rock, are believed to be home to some of the first human settlements in Italy going back to the Paleolithic period – the oldest period in human history and the end of the last Ice Age.
The Sassi are without a doubt a “must-see” in Basilicata. The ancient town crawls up one slope of a ravine with homes carved one on top of the other and the rooftops used as sidewalks or roadways. You can spend hours wandering through the labyrinth of alleys and streets. Along with the historic cave dwellings, you can also visit the chiese rupestri or cave churches. Inside, you will find faded frescoes going back to the eighth century.
The Sassi are enchanting and spectacular, taking you back in time and leaving you speechless. You will understand instantly why this site was chosen as the backdrop for Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.
Often called “the Pearl of the Tyrrhenian”, Maratea is the only town of Basilicata on the coastline. Maratea is definitely a gem with its gorgeous beaches and medieval village. The center of the town, founded in the 13th century, is perched on Monte San Biagio. Also known as the town of 44 churches, you will find many religious buildings, monasteries, churches and chapels.
From the town center, there is a scenic road that takes you to the Sanctuary of St. Biagio, built on top of the remains of an ancient Minerva temple. Within the Sanctuary are the relics of St. Biagio, the patron saint of the town. Overlooking the shore there is a panoramic viewpoint with a towering statue of Christ the Redeemer (second in size only to the one in Rio De Janiero). From here you have a breathtaking view of the Maratea coast.
This small town in the province of Bari is famous for its “trulli” houses. These unique limestone carved houses with cone-shaped roofs painted with white pagan-like symbols are like something out of a fairy tale. There are many theories as to how the trulli came to be. One of the most common theories involving the tax laws in the 17th century. The trulli were constructed by peasant families using a simple design that could be quickly and easily dismantled at a moment’s notice to avoid paying the high taxes imposed on permanent dwellings.
The most touristic and commercialized part of Alberobello is Rione Monti, home to around 1,000 trulli. Many of the trulli in this area have been converted into tourist shops, cafes and local artisan shops. The other part, Aia Piccola, is less commercialized and has only about 400 trulli however the quiet residential streets make for a wonderful experience. Make your way to the Church of Santa Lucia, located next to the main town square, Piazza del Popolo. From here you will get a fabulous view over the trulli.
This ancient town, originally of Greek origin, is Italy’s most eastern point. Given its close proximity to the east, it needed a defensive stronghold against the Turks. The impressive Aragonese Castle, surrounded by a large moat, encloses this historic town rich with charming picturesque white-washed homes, pretty piazzas and narrow alleys just waiting to be explored.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata is beautiful with its rose shaped window typical of the renaissance period mixed with Gothic influences. One of the most interesting things about this cathedral is the 700-square-foot floor mosaic of the “Tree of Life” supported by two elephants. Some of the images you see within this mosaic include parts of the Old Testament, signs of the zodiac and months of the year. Once you are able to tear your eyes away from the floor, look behind the altar and you will see the walls adorned with glass-fronted cases containing the skulls of 800 martyrs who were beheaded in 1480 by Ottoman soldiers for refusing to renounce their Catholic faith.
It’s not just its many architectural gems that make Otranto a star, but also its beaches and isolated coves, in particular Porto Badisco with its incredible crystal-blue waters.
Chinalea in Scilla is the oldest and most interesting district of Scilla, located in the province of Reggio Calabria. It is said to be the home of the six-headed sea monster “Scylla” of Greek Mythology that lived on one side of a narrow channel (believed to be the Strait of Messina) opposite “Charybdis” (a whirlpool). According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the channel. He chose to pass by Scylla instead of taking the risk of losing his entire ship in the whirlpool. It is most likely where the English metaphor, “between a rock and a hard place” came from.
This small fishermen village with its narrow streets and pastel colored houses is a magical place; especially as the sun sets with the village’s lights reflected in the water. The Ruffo Castle stands on the highest point of Scilla looking down on the beach and village below and giving you a fantastic view of the Eolian Islands and the Sicilian coast.
Tropea, the most famous name in Calabria travel and one of the best-known seaside resorts in Southern Italy, is known for its sparkling blue-green waters, white sandy beaches, awe-inspiring views and quintessential historical village draping over the side of a sandstone cliff.
According to legend, Hercules founded Tropea and was so taken with it that he settled the land and named it after himself – Porto Ercole. The village’s historical center is charming with its winding cobblestone streets and ancient medieval stone buildings. Within the historical center, you will find Piazza del Cannone, recognizable by the canon perched on the edge facing the sea. From this overlook you can take in the picturesque panoramic view of the sea and coastline as well as the sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola, built on a large cliff overlooking the sea. Have a seat and soak it all in, it is something quite spectacular.
Agrigento, originally the Greek city of Akragas, is an old town on the southern coast of Sicily. It is also home to The Valley of the Temples, or Valle dei Templi, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Sicily’s oldest tourist site dating back to 582 BC. This magnificent archaeological park is the site of eight Greek temples. Here you can see some of the largest and most well-kept ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece including the well preserved Temple of Concord (Harmony). This ancient Greek place of worship was built in fifth century B.C. and in the Middle Ages was transformed into a church dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Although the other temples are mostly ruins from the passing of time and earthquakes in the area, you can spend hours wandering around and imagining how incredible this city was at the height of its time.
Situated close to Messina and Catania, Mount Etna is Europe’s tallest active volcano. It isn’t uncommon to see Mount Etna smoking in the distance and eruptions occur frequently. Mount Etna is open daily unless the eruptions are deemed to be too severe. There are many ways you can visit the volcano. For the athletic types, you can hike up from the refuge post at 1,800 meters. If walking isn’t your thing, you can take a cable car from the base and then hop on a bus to the 2,800 meter point. Whichever way you choose, be prepared for chilly weather and wear layered clothing.
Not that adventurous? Don’t worry! You can gaze at this marvelous wonder from afar. Some of the best views of Etna can be seen from the town of Taormina (just under an hour by car from Catania).
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