THE CHARM OF AUTHENTIC ITALY

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The cliffs of the Adriatic Coast

As I left the heel of Italy to meander slowly home to Geneva I had a rich choice:  south-west to Sicily and a boat to Genoa; travel up the west coast of Italy through Naples, Pompeii and Rome; or follow the lesser known east coast for a while.  What do you think I chose?

Yes, it was the road less travelled.  I chose this route for several reasons but mostly because it is just that, an infrequently explored part of Italy for non-Italians and one which I could not easily get to another time.

It turned out to be immensely pleasurable to see the ‘authentic’ Italy, the local traditions and lifestyle largely untouched by eternal influences. This area of Italy is not wealthy, but it has a faded beauty and its run-down historical centres were all the more charming for being lived-in with a sense of community.  I accompanied few tourists and even if a town was a resort the visitors were overwhelmingly Italian and did not appear to affect the local culture adversely.

I was witness too to the ever-changing plant and land scape of the Adriatic coast as I drove up from the searing hot, arid, and flat Salento area.  Soon my surroundings were transformed into rocky outcrops, then mounts, up to high cliffs and then to green and forested regions.

This area has a vivid history of occupation and trading, traces of which litter the terrain and townships – ancient Greeks settled here in the 8th century BC, as did Spartan exiles, then the Romans dominated their land but later there were Norman and Spanish conquests… all leaving echoes of their passing.

In this part of Europe a woman travelling alone was apparently unusual and people were interested in my motivation and pleasantly surprised by my independence.  On one occasion I was approached by some curious young women who were amazed and enthusiastically impressed that I was driving through Italy on my own and cheered me on my way.  I felt disproportionately proud that, in some small way, I may have opened them to new possibilities about womanhood – and ageing too.

Clouds over Trani harbour

Clouds over Trani harbour

My first stop was Trani, the white, white so called ‘Pearl of Puglia’, though now past its best, with its half-moon harbour leading to a small old town and magnificent cathedral which stands alone on a promontory, a Titanic half at sea.   Not many tourists here, just locals coming in to buy the fishermen’s catches on the quayside.  Inside the tall cathedral the space seemed immense and cleanly simple.  Displayed to one side the original green bronze doors stood proud.  Set in such a wide open space by the sea the white cathedral impresses the eye, never more so when a young bride walked across the square to the church on her father’s arm.

Church 2

I travelled on to Vieste, reached by crossing a vertiginous cliff road with my heart in my mouth.  I passed Monte Sant’Angelo, a mountain-top pilgrimage site, where the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared to the Bishop of Siponto in a cave in 490 AD, leaving behind a sacred footprint.   The faithful have been travelling there for centuries ever since, and a busy complex has built up around the once isolated site.

Suddenly Vieste appeared like a mirage in the distance, another white city jutting out to sea on a peninsula surrounded by yellow sand.   Vieste was a good example of ‘real Italy’ and I loved this thriving town with the narrow alleyways of its old area full of washing hanging out to dry and good quality shops primarily for local use rather than tourists.

Approaching Vieste

Approaching Vieste

I stayed on a hill looking down on the creamy town and sparkling sea, perfectly positioned for tranquil evenings listening to church bells practicing melodic carillons below me, and being treated to a crackling firework display for the feast of the local saint, San Antonio.   I felt so happy in Vieste that I stayed longer than originally planned, pleased to have the freedom to do so.

Looking down on Vieste

Looking down on Vieste

Splayed beside Vieste are yolk-yellow beaches, and behind it stretches the extensive Parco Nationale del Gargano where fields of olive groves give way to thick woodland with the Harry Potteresque name “La Foresta Umbra” where I took a long, solitary walk under sun-filtered branches.

After seeing so many olive trees in southern Italy I was curious about two things . . .  how long does it take for an olive tree to reach such gorgeous twisted and noble maturity?  And does the world really have need of so much Italian olive oil?  The answers are centuries, even a thousand years in some cases, and probably yes as Italy is the second largest oil producer in the world (behind Spain, which produces by far the highest amount at 40% of the world’s yield compared to Italy’s 14%).   So when you admire a knotted, gnarled olive tree you connect with all those previous generations of people who have reaped its fruit and used its oil over hundreds of years, in some cases right back to the Romans, whose have left traces of their old ‘oleum’ presses around the region.

Frederic II's castle

Frederic II’s Svevo Castle, Termoli

After a second challenging but stunning cliff road drive I crossed from Puglia to the Molise area of Italy and my next pause was in Termoli – another busy, authentic Italian town which prides itself on sitting exactly on the 15th meridian which sets European Central Time.  Termoli’s long seashore is bedecked with hundreds of colourful parasols and sunbeds for its predominantly Italian tourists, and is overlooked by the 13th century Castello Svevo on the high ‘Borgo Antico’ walls.  The castle was built to defend the town and serves as its symbol.   Around the shore are attractive old fishing machines typical to this area called ‘trabucchi’, which spider out to sea on their long, spindly wooden legs and lower their nets by a system of ingenious winches.

One of Termoli's Trabucchi

One of Termoli’s Trabucchi

Trabucchi 5

The modern town of Termoli had a lively buzz and an infectiously friendly atmosphere and I temporarily became a regular at a sociable jazz-café.   On the headland the small Borgo Antico citadel is still lived in and was a maze of quiet, tiny alleyways, one of which ranks amongst the narrowest in Europe.

Termoli's old town or 'Borgo Antico'

Termoli’s pastel-hued old town or ‘Borgo Antico’

At the heart of this old town is Termoli’s simple but elegant 12th century cathedral, a peaceful space with an unusual open, square-shaped interior, an altar on a wide raised dais and beautifully engraved doors beside its ornate portico.

Termoli's Cathedral, dedicated to 'St Mary of the Purification'

Termoli’s Cathedral, dedicated to ‘St Mary of the Purification’

The cathedral is described as a masterpiece of Puglian-Romanesque style, and houses relics including bones said to be those of San Timoteo, a disciple of Christ.

A section of the Cathedral door

A section of the Cathedral door

In the square outside local people struck up easy conversations with this stranger and I felt the warmth of a close Italian community.   I had fallen for the charm of authentic Italy.  Journeying up the road less travelled had been the perfect decision.

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost :  The Road Not Taken

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Comments
4 Responses to “THE CHARM OF AUTHENTIC ITALY”
  1. apollard says:

    What a fabulous post! I felt like I was right there with you. I would like to travel all through Molise one day really soon so was particularly interested in reading about Termoli. And as for being a woman travelling alone, right there with you sister, let’s hope the Italian women emancipate themselves further all the time.

  2. Joannie says:

    I just love the background comments you have made, it makes it so much more interesting and the thought of seeing the colourful homes on the Italian coast was so delightful.

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