The South of Italy is where Italy comes for its own holiday, Puglia, in particular, for over a decade now. If you want to see Italy like Italy sees Italy, you’ll need come South and here is the best way to do it.
Southern Italian tips and tricks.
Most international travellers make all the right moves, they just do them in the wrong order. Flipping what comes first and what comes last will give you the trip of a lifetime. Or, more likely, will introduce you to your favourite new part of Italy.
The whole world is online and when it comes to destination travel, you’d be smart to spend two seconds to follow and interact with the hotels, restaurants and cooking schools that you’ll be attending, long before you leave home. Facebook. Twitter. Instragram. Pinterest. Trip Advisor. Didn’t know the hotel had a pool? They’ve been posting pictures of it on facebook everyday for years. Didn’t know your Bed and Breakfast owner is actually from the city that you’ll be visiting next? She can help you plan, call ahead, explain the local culture to you over your morning pastry. Want to walk into that Southern Italian restaurant and be treated like a visiting dignitary? Follow first, even if still only in the planning phases. All of these platforms are free, accessible from every electronic device, and yet still radically underused in regards to tourism.
• Smart travellers understand that travel over land in Southern Italy is often slow and leisurely, and thus, treat the act of travelling as part of the trip, rather the miserable and stressful bits that interrupt it. The ‘5 days in Venice, 3 in Sicily’ mind set seems absurd to those that attempt it. An hour with a guidebook while waiting in your dentist office would have taught this lesson earlier versus later. As a rule, figure a week per Southern Italian region. Longer if your focus is experiencing the lifestyle rather than ticking off lists of museums and the embarrassing richness of UNESCO sites.
• Learn about the food before you depart. Ordering the ‘Caprese salad’ out of season in the wrong part of Italy only because you didn’t recognise anything else on the menu will happen until you get to know the local specialities and inherent cultural fixations. There is no Italy in Italy. It’s only region. Most tourists return home informed but real travellers arrive in Italy that way. 3 minutes on Google will give you thumbnail sketched insights into ANY cuisine. Put ‘la cucina di‘ in front of the city or region on your space bar. Can’t read Italian? Hit the ‘images’ key. You’ll learn a lot in seconds.
• The same with wine. No one drinks wine from other regions in Europe and Southern Italy is no exception. Ordering Chianti on Etna, Barolo in Puglia or Falaghina in Calabria is not only foolish as a consumer, it’s sad that you’ll be missing out on such world-class wine experiences.
Learn varietals and locations versus brands and houses, as many brands only sell domestically or internationally. Google this on your smart phone on the way to the restaurant. Put ‘autochthonous varietals of x’ in your search bar. Your waiter and sommelier will be tickled to discuss these too. (Mentally flip the tables and have them arriving in your town, asking about something local to you that you love, to feel the same emotion).
In general, restaurants in Italy mark up wine 5 euro over retail, with the base price already much lower than in your home country. The days of ‘vino della casa’ are going away, as Southern Italian wine has moved from a bulk product, made by many people at a low level over a large land mass, to high quality, from a very specific place by a single house. If you want to really get a taste of the place….really get a taste of the place. And that happens only when wine is crafted at an artisanal versus agrarian level.
* In general wine tourism is still underdeveloped in the south. If you are able to visit a winery, use your time visiting as the consumption of information versus that of the beverage. If a bucket is present, spit when tasting. If the guide is painting too many portraits of pretty flowers (ex. heritage, quality, luxury, the good life, etc.), ask harder questions, such as problems with mould, rabbits or blights. He or she will quickly move into the real information, about making wine with those specific historical grapes, in that specific location, which is why you’re there in the first place. And as always with real wine education, those that are learning the most will have the most wine still left in their glass. Isolating the learning from the consumption will make both much more effective and enjoyable. And nothing will distinguish you more from those that follow the guide with the stick back to the bus.
• Don’t fear car hiring /rental. Driving between Southern Italian cities is easy and you can use your smart phone as a navigation device, borrow one from the car agency or even bring yours from home (all are smaller than that paperback you’re not likely to read). Most experience intimidation only upon driving in historic centres. Park outside the historic centre and walk in. Most of the time that involves walking no more than a few hundred paces. Most car trips through the south are gorgeous. And you would have missed out singing along to the Italian pop music on the car’s radio. Not all of the South is downtown Napoli or Palermo. Most of it is expansive, open and too pretty to miss.
• Keep in mind that Italy has other train systems, beyond the national service. Take Puglia, as an example. There is a private system that extends far beyond. Those trains are not listed on the national site. Ask around
• Most people over pack. Most bed and breakfast’s will do your laundry for you, or let you use a machine for free. Rewashing your socks and underwear and rewearing a garment a few times will allow you to move freely, checking in and out of wherever you’re staying. And again, reverse the order of your trip. Think about what you didn’t even use once on your last trip and leave that at home. And if you buy cloths here, wear them as soon as you buy them. If they are souvenirs, nothing will link them to Southern Italy quite like seeing yourself in them in your pictures while here.
Many travel companies offer wrinkle-free black shirts or little black dresses, both that can be folded up into nearly microscopic proportions. Pulling these out for dinner a few times during your trip is often antidote enough to the sensation of struggling with a very limited wardrobe.
• Consider starting off your trip with a resource heavy venue. A well-informed agriturismo will have maps and lists of resources that you’d never find by yourself just driving around. Visit them first. Students that visit our school first have better trips than those that visit us after their southern Italian travels. Reversing the order again will give you the trip you’re after.
• Know when the horses are too far out of the barn. Ask around. Trip Advisor. Google. There ARE cities in Southern Italian that experience 8,000 tourists for 3 hours every day, the kind that descend from cruise ships, famished for refrigerator magnets and little bottles of lemoncella (SIC), shaped like Italy. While we don’t mean to criticize this form of tourism, it’s not likely for you (It wasn’t likely for them either, but they didn’t read enough before their trips). They probably said things like, ‘I don’t want to take a trip, I want the trip to take me’.
• Bear in mind that much of the world’s knowledge of life in Southern Italian life comes from a 40-year old film about a fictionalised period 70 years ago, written and directed by Americans, for Hollywood. If that ever existed it certainly doesn’t now and asking about it will endear you as much as, say, if Japanese tourists wanted to discuss at length those that they saw shooting hard drugs down by your bus station. ‘I know your cultural and history because of all the police stings on your local paedophiles in the 1930’s’, would have a similar sensation on you. It’s not that they are not to be mentioned, it’s that they are not the cultural short hands nor insights that you might be thinking. Expect them to build a wall, not make it lower to the ground.
• The days of ‘my grandmother was from Calabria so naturally we’re going to Tuscany again this year’, are, thankfully, over. Odds are good you have some Italian background and odds are even better your relatives were from here. Find out the town or region and follow them on Instagram (put ‘Igers’ (short for In—sta-G-ramers) and that city or region and you’ll be shocked how much you can see, long before your flight). Plus, social media is composed of real people with cell phones rather than tourist boards. Send the mayor of your ancestral village an email, the tourist board (google ‘proloco’ in front of the name of the city of region). While there are no guarantees that they’ll meet with you, it is guaranteed that they won’t if you don’t.
• The world is opening up and everyone wants desperately to connect. Doing that before your trip rather than afterward will make all the difference. Be in a place to reach over the local wall versus insisting that Southern Italian bend to reach over yours. It will allow you to see Southern Italian as it was intended. In person. Intimately. Humanly. With a heart as big as a pumpkin.