Naples Puglia Calabria

Southern Italy - Part I

Campania, Puglia and Calabria

May 23rd to 29th, 2022

This is the first part of an amazing 16 day road trip through Southern Italy. I began my trip with a flight from Munich to Naples, where I picked up a rental car and drove to my hotel, the beautiful Hotel San Francesco al Monte. The building is a converted former monastery, located on the hill to the west of the city. This is the view that greeted me at breakfast on the terrace, as the morning mist was rolling in over the Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius in the background.

In 470 BC Greek settlers founded a city they named Neapolis here at the natural harbor formed by the bay. The city retains remnants of the many cultures and empires that ruled over it during its eventful 2,500 year history. The Historic Centre of Naples is one of the largest city centers in Europe, and was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. I started to explore the city by foot in the afternoon. The streets in the historic part are incredibly narrow and crowded with people and mopeds. And since the buildings are quite high for an old city, most of the streets probably never get any sunlight.

The Galleria Umberto I, built in the 1880s, is a shopping area covered by a beautiful glass dome, which is reminiscent of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

Unusual for a cathedral, Naples cathedral is attached to the surrounding buildings, and so you can only see the front façade from the outside. Construction of the gothic building was started in the mid 13th century and was essentially completed by the early 14th century. One of the most beautiful parts in the interior is the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro with its frescoed dome, located to the side of the main nave.

The Piazza del Plebiscito is a large and elegant public square. It is flanked by the neo-classical façade of the Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola.

Naples has always been an important port city with its location in the protected Bay of Naples. The 13th century Castel dell'Ovo located on a small islet and connected via a causeway with the city, is the oldest standing structure in the city.

Since I only had two days in Naples, which is not nearly enough to explore everything, I had a big day on the my second day to try to see the three mayor sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Amalfi Coast.

Pompeii is obviously the most famous sight to see in Naples. Located just 30 minutes outside the city, the extensive ruins of the Roman city, which was completely destroyed and buried by the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, is an absolute must see.

The ruins of Pompeii together with Herculaneum are a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997. What surprised me most, was the sheer size of Pompeii. It is a huge city of hundreds of buildings, all laid out neatly in a grid. You could probably spend days exploring this site, and not get bored.

I would highly recommend getting a guide when you visit the city, since there are so many small and interesting things to discover, which you could easily miss if no one points them out. Examples of these are the fact that many of the houses have a small panel of penises carved in stone right above the entrance door. These were considered symbols of good luck. Another interesting detail are the deep grooves you can see in the roads, which were cut by years of cart wheels being pulled over them.

This beautiful mosaic at the front entrance of one of the villas is the world's earliest known "Beware of the Dog!" sign.

Many of the houses also contain remarkably well preserved wall paintings like these. (However, the best artifacts found in Pompeii are actually in the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which unfortunately I didn't have time to visit.)

Somewhat lesser known, but just as impressive, is the Roman city of Herculaneum. Located closer to Naples at the shores of the bay, Herculaneum was more of a holiday resort town, much smaller but wealthier, than the large commercial city of Pompeii. The town was covered in more than 20 meters of ash from the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, and thus remained hidden and well preserved for almost two millennia. Herculaneum was discovered in the early 18th century, several decades before the 1748 discovery of Pompeii. Only parts of the city have been excavated, and many unexplored areas of Herculaneum lie under the modern town surrounding it. 

Many of the wall paintings here are even better preserved and more exquisite than those at Pompeii.

The adjacent small museum had some very impressive treasures. Since Pompeii was destroyed a day before Herculaneum, the population of around 5,000 had largely been evacuated by the time the city was inundated. However, about 300 of the citizens, who fled the city with all of their most precious possessions, were caught and instantly killed by the pyroclastic flow, while they were waiting to be rescued at the harbor. As a result, a large amount of jewelry and other precious items were found together in the same place.

The Amalfi Coast
Another hour south of Pompeii is one of the most scenic places in all of Italy, the world famous Amalfi Coast. Named after the town of Amalfi, which is located near the center of the coast line, this has been a popular tourist spot since the 18th century, particularly for the upper classes.

The Amalfi Coast was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1997 as an area of outstanding natural beauty and cultural value. Along the coast there are both natural areas of steep cliffs and dense woods completely left untouched, and others where humans have adapted to the challenging terrain and built dramatic terraces to grow wine and citrus fruits. (The area is known for the production of limoncello.)

Driving along the Amalfi Coast is an experience in itself. This was one of the narrowest and windiest roads I have ever driven on, but the incredible views make it all worth it. I would not recommend driving it yourself, as you end up focusing more on avoiding onrushing buses than appreciating the dramatic scenery. And there are very few places outside of the towns where you can stop along the road to take pictures. The whole drive including stops took me about 3.5 hours. This is the view near the end of the coast looking out towards the tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula.

Leaving Naples the following day, I drove to Puglia on the the east coast of Italy. But before I made my way east, I wanted to visit one other very special site.

Located about 2 hours south of Naples, Paestum is not a well-known but truly amazing site. It is part of the UNESCO world heritage award given to the Cilento cultural landscape in 1998. Paestum was once a major Greek city, and the three monumental temples, built successively between 550 and 450 BC, are among the best preserved ancient Greek temples in the world. The city was completely abandoned in the early middle ages, and left undisturbed for centuries, which is probably the reason these huge temples have remained in their remarkable state of preservation.

The second Temple of Hera is the newest (460 to 450 BC) and best preserved of the three. All of the outer and inner columns are intact, and it has an almost complete frieze and both cornices. I am always left in complete awe when trying to imagine, how something this monumental and durable was constructed 2,500 years ago.

The third temple, built around 500 BC, was dedicated to Athena.

The adjacent museum (the entrance tickets to the ruins also allow you to visit the museum) has many outstanding pieces of Greek pottery and beautifully preserved wall paintings, including this one of a swimmer diving into a pool. The Greeks clearly knew how to have fun too.

From Paestum I drove 2 hours further east to Puglia, which is the region that forms the heel of the boot of Italy.

Ostuni, known as the White City of Puglia, is a small town built on top of a hill. The entire historic city center is painted with bright white lime. While the origins of the city go to back to ancient times, it reached its peak when it was under the control of the Spanish Empire of Isabella of Aragon in the 16th century.

Alberobello is a small town in Puglia, famous for its trulli, which are a type of limestone dwelling with a distinct conical roof. Using a prehistoric building technique, trulli are built without any mortar using roughly shaped, flat limestones collected from the surrounding fields. The 'Trulli of Alberobello' were awared UNESCO world heritage status in 1996.

Trulli are found all over Puglia, but nowhere can you find a more concentrated or better preserved collection of these beautiful buildings than here in Alberobello. There are more than 1,500 trulli across two separate quarters of the city. Some of the oldest trulli in Alberobello date from the mid 14th century.

The city of Matera in Puglia is among the most fascinating and beautiful places I have ever visited.

This ancient city, which sits on top of a steep cliff above the Gravina river, is famous for the Sassi of Matera, which are a complex of a huge number of cave dwellings, which had been carved into the rock walls over millenia. This area has been occupied since Paleolithic times, and the first cave dwellings are considered to be among the earliest human settlements in Italy. There were over 1,000 cave houses cut into the rock, including several churches. Rain water was collected inside the caves in cisterns.

This is a recreated and rather sanitized version of what life inside a Sassi would have been like. In fact even by 19th century standards they were most notable for the abject poverty, poor hygiene, lack of sanitation and rampant disease, particularly among the many children living in incredibly cramped conditions together with pigs, donkeys and chickens.

The last of the Sassi of Matera were evacuated in 1952 and inhabitants were moved to modern housing developments. After being left empty and neglected until the 1980s, today, many of these cave dwellings have been turned into hip bars, restaurants, art galleries and even hotels. The Sassi of Matera and its Rupestrian Churches became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993.

Before leaving in the morning I drove over to the other side of the ravine, and got some great pictures with the drone.

Calabria is the 10th largest of the twenty regions of Italy, with a population of just under 2 million. It consists of a fairly narrow peninsula, which forms the toe of the boot of Italy. Unlike its neighboring regions, Calabria does not have a lot of famous cities or important archeological monuments. It is more known for its nature, amazing coast line and beautiful beaches. Since I had scheduled only two days for my drive from Puglia to Sicily, I picked two places to visit in Calabria. My first stop, after a two and a half hour drive from Matera, was the city of Cosenza. Cosenza is an ancient town located at the confluence of two rivers and surrounded by steep mountains. The historic city center lies in the shadow of the Swabian Castle on the top of the hill and is separated from the new town on the other side of the river.

Cosenza is not one of the major tourist destinations in southern Italy, and many buildings in the old town look like they are in need of some restoration, but the city is well worth a visit. I enjoyed walking around the narrow, steep and totally empty streets. The Duomo stems from the early 12th century, but was extensively rebuild in the 13th century, after an earthquake destroyed much of the earlier structure.

From Cosenza it was another two hours drive Scilla, a small town located at the northern entrance to the Strait of Messina. The name of the town comes from the sea monster Scylla in Greek Mythology, whom Odysseus encountered at the entrance to a narrow straight. The city is composed of two parts, the old downtown, which sits on top of a ridge between two bays, and Marina di Scilla, which is the busy beachfront part full of restaurant, hotels and bars. To get from the beach to the old town you can either walk up a lot of stairs, or take the city elevator, which is an elevator literally built into the cliff face.

Since I got there on a Sunday, the beautiful and wide beach was crowded with people during the day, but suddenly got very quiet in the evening, as it seems most beachgoers were day trippers.

The imposing Castello di Ruffo sits on a steep promontory jutting out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The first fortifications built on this strategically important point go back to the 5th century BC. The current structure is mostly a 18th century reconstruction of a 13th century fortress that was destroyed in an earthquake. Here is a spectacular shot from above, which I managed to take flying the drone out over the sea the next day very early in the morning.

From Scilla it was a short drive to Villa san Giovanni where I took the ferry across the Strait of Messina and continued my trip in Sicily.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful scenes and descriptions of the part of Italy where we will be heading in April!