Most travelers think that they have Italy covered after visiting Rome, Florence, Venice and maybe a brief sojourn on the Amalfi coastline or in the countryside of Tuscany. In fact, these destinations, although stunning in themselves, are a fleeting glance at Italy and only provide an introduction to a country that is as diverse as its many regions, people, traditions, and culinary delights. Get off the beaten track and you will discover another side to Italy and the perfect place to start is in the south, in the regions of Puglia (or Apulia in English) and Calabria.
Calabria is the southern most region of Italy, the toe of the Italian boot, whereas Puglia, on the east coast is the country's heel. Both boast incredible scenic beauty along the rugged Ionian, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic coastlines, and seafaring settlers, pristine beaches, and a barrage of historical and archaeological sites.
Here you will experience a relatively tourist-free Italy, where there are no English fixed-price menus, people are genuinely welcoming and, if you're lucky, there'll be no semblances of the outside world to adulterate your authentic Italian adventure. Granted, tourism infrastructure in most of these regions is minimal, but that also means no huge tour buses trying to maneuver around historic sites, no money change booths on every corner and no fast food restaurants -- just pure Italian charm. Things are a little slower paced, too, an afternoon siesta is taken seriously, with businesses shutting down for several hours, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single store open on a Sunday.
Whereas Puglia is relatively well-off economically, Calabria is comparatively poor and people there lead a less-materialistic life than their northern neighbors. Don't expect to hear Dante's grammatically perfect Italian down south -- the dialects can be quite acute, so even if you fancy yourself as a bit of an Italian language pro, you may have trouble understanding the colorful expressions and pronunciations. Hand gestures and facial expressions abound. Although mainstream English-speaking tourists are yet to discover the "deep south" of Italy in large numbers, interest is growing and there are a few travel companies that are doing their bit to introduce the world to life Calabrese and Pugliese style.
Australian travel company Calabrian Affair Holidays (www.calabrianaffair.com.au) runs several Calabria tours from July to September each year. Its ten-day, land-only "A Calabrian Affair" trip takes in the highlights of Calabria, Sicily, and the Aeolian Islands and is priced at A$3,350 per person (approximately $2,223). The price includes nine nights' accommodations in three- and four-star hotels (five at the Grand Hotel Victoria in Bagnara on the Violet Coast near Reggio and four in Vibo Valentia), airport transfers, most meals, transportation by bus and ferry, sightseeing with an expert English-speaking guide and all entrance fees to museums and historical sites. The tour commences in Reggio Calabria and visits Pentedattilo, an ancient town built into a rocky mountainside; the ancient Greek city of Locria Epizephyrii; the Medieval town of Gerace; Taormina and its Greco-Roman theater; Palmi, a former French-ruled city; the ancient Greek city of Hippomian; Stromboli and Lipari; the resort town of Tropea; the Byzantine town of Stilo; the picturesque village of Bivongi; and the 11th century Carthusian Monastery.
Girosole Italy Walking Tours (tel. 720/989-9732; www.girosole.com) slows down the pace with a six-day "Walking in Calabria" tour priced from $1,590 per person based on double occupancy in a group of six people. Explore the lands and coastlines where Ulysses once roamed, discover Byzantine monasteries and picturesque towns, and visit isolated villages where ancient Greek dialects are still spoken. Highlights include daily walks along the Calabrian coastlin and exploring the towns of Reggio di Calabria, Locri and Gerace. Visit the fishermen's village of Scylla; Cape Vatican on the Gods' Coast; the Pentedattilo, an abandoned village settled by the Greeks; the Aspromonte mountains; the Byzantine churches and monasteries of Gerace; and the Byzantine areas of Consolino and Bivongi. The trip price includes five nights' accommodations; breakfast and dinner each da; a full-time tour leader; guided walks each day; wine and specialty foods tastings; paid entrance to all included activities; all land transfers to and from tour area, and during tour; and all taxes and service charges at hotels and restaurants. If you would like this to be a private tour for two to three people, the price is $2,350 per person, in which case you can schedule the tour to start on any day of the week, all year long.
Puglia is home to the beautiful Baroque city of Lecce, dubbed the "Florence of the South," as well as the stunning white-washed town of Ostuni, and Alberobello, known for its trulli -- thousands of iconic stone houses with conical roofs. Experience Puglia (tel. +39/335-681-4139; www.experiencepuglia.com) has put together a six-day tour that provides first-time or repeat travelers with a unique Pugliese experience. The tour begins in Gioia del Colle, about 27 miles from Bari and the first three nights are spent based in a family hotel in the historical center of the town. Highlights of the trip include a visit to Gioia's Norman Swabian castle, the best-preserved in Puglia; a wine cellar tour with tastings; the UNESCO world heritage listed city of Matera; an Apulian beach; the cobblestone streets and white homes of Polignano; Castellana Grotte with its complex of caves with amazing rock formations; and the Baroque city of Lecce. The six-day tour is priced at €1,400 per person based on two people sharing a room. The price includes transport from/to Bari-Palese airport or from the train station; six nights' accommodations; daily breakfasts, six lunches and one dinner; guided tours; entry to the castles, museums and archaeological sites; a cooking course; transportation; hotel taxes and service charges; and tips for the private guide and driver. Shorter two-, three-, and four-day tours are also available.
Their four-day Pugliese Cookery course trip is priced at €890 per person plus there are discounts for groups of four or more adults. The price includes airport or train station transfers; breakfast daily, two dinners and four lunches in select "slow food" restaurants; five nights' accommodations in a four-star historical residence in Conversano; four mornings of cooking classes; afternoons of guided tours; admission to castles and museums; wine tastings; transport to each location; hotel taxes; service charges; and tips for the private guide and driver. Cooking classes feature instruction on how to make focaccia; traditional taralli cookies, oven-roasted lamb, and fresh cavatelli pasta.
Italian Visits (tel. 888/860-5558; www.italianvisits.com) has a guided seven-day tour of the Puglia region priced at $2,250 per person with a single supplement of $625. This trip offers an opportunity to encounter Puglian culture, history, art, and cuisine. During your stay you will enjoy relaxing days and discover the history, traditions, and modern culture of this relatively unexplored corner of Italy. Encounter cities like Gioia del Colle, Polignano a Mare, Matera, Altamura, Alberobello, and Ostuni. Walk through ancient buildings and UNESCO world heritage-listed sites, bike ride through the countryside, and marvel at the remains of historic castles that date back to Greek and Roman settlement. The land-only tour price includes guided sightseeing; a multilingual tour guide; transfers to and from Bari airport, train station or bus station as required; breakfast daily and five lunches; six nights' accommodations in three- and four-star hotels, and hotel taxes and service charges.