Please sign in to post.

Best of South Italy, April 2023

Here I go again

Here’s a report from my very recent (April 17-29) Best of South Italy tour, based on the travel journal I keep on Facebook, mostly impressions and photos rather than specifics. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We had great weather, not too hot, not much rain, great guides, and the itinerary is notable for its combination of the well-known (Rome, Pompeii, Naples) and unknown (Vieste and Maiori), two free days and minimal bag dragging. This was my second RS trip; the first was Village Italy in June 2022. I hope it’s helpful to anyone considering the tour.

I arrived in Rome very early on a Sunday morning. The city was quiet-ish and my ride to the tour hotel (Hotel Smeraldo) easy. I’m traveling as a single, which can yield anything from a big room with a view to barely enough room to turn around. That’s the case here, plus my window faces the street where lively, noisy crowds gather for takeout pizza from Roscioli (one of the city’s best bakeries) and it’s not yet AC season in Italy so temperature control relies on the cool outside air. Still, I’m in Rome!

Sunday afternoon I fought my jet lag (random, persistent turbulence on the flight made it hard to sleep) to visit Domus Aurea, the active archeological excavation of Nero’s palace. This meant a nice, long walk through Sunday crowds at the Victor Emmanuel Monument and then the Coliseum. Domus Aurea is fascinating, chilly and damp and only open for small tours on weekends; I’d read about it and booked in advance. There’s a neat virtual reality moment in which you can see a recreation of the gardens and palace at their peak. I walked back to the hotel, had something to eat that I do not recall and zonked out.

The tour didn’t start until 4 p.m. Monday, so I spent the morning walking up to the Janiculum hill (stairs and inclines) for quite a view and then walking through Trastevere for three hours with a photographer who showed me some favorite spots and taught me a lot about photography in general and my iPhone in particular. I booked this in advance through withlocals.com and would recommend it.

We gathered for introductions in the hotel breakfast room and met our guides – Sarah Corfield, an American who has lived in Italy for 20ish years and is a RS veteran, and Vanessa Nichol, who has guided other RS tours and is on this one to prep for leading it later. We chose buddies, reviewed rules, agreed to be prompt and not grumpy then took a walk through Trastevere and had a delicious dinner together, at which we were introduced to two iconic Roman pastas, cacio e pepe and amatriciana, and started getting to know each other. I hadn’t been to Rome since 2018 when my husband and I spent a week there and had forgotten how busy and vibrant and jammed with people it is. I kinda love it.

Tuesday morning, the tour began in earnest after breakfast that included lots of delicious crostata and other baked goods from Roscioli, across the street. We had an exceptional local guide (Francesca Caruso; she’s featured in some RS videos) for a walk through the Jewish Quarter to review its long, painful history and then continued to the Capitoline Museum, which I’d visited before. It’s so rewarding to walk through history with someone who’s passionate and knowledgeable, as you learn so much more than just reading a guidebook. The Capitoline is an excellent museum and usually not crowded but there were school field trips galore, which we’d see throughout the trip. Apparently there’s a lot of post-Covid pent-up demand. After the museum, a tour friend and I returned to the Jewish Quarter for lunch – it’s artichoke season and we wanted to try the famous carciofi alla guidia – and walked back to the hotel in a drizzle.

to be continued ...

Posted by
66 posts

I had a restful afternoon before heading to dinner at Trattoria der Pallaro, a nearby restaurant that once was an authentic if slightly wacky find and now is more of a gimmick in that everyone is served the same multi-course menu. The place is presided over by a very old lady owner who seems to have emerged untouched from the mid 19th century, judging by her dress. It was, well, an experience but not exactly delicious. The menu, fyi, is antipasto of fennel salad, prosciutto and mozzarella, room temperature (delicious) lentils, then little fried rice balls and a fried veal meatball, then two kinds of pasta, then a Roman style artichoke, a slice of roasted veal and homemade potato chips (!!??) and finally a sliver of custard tart and a tiny glass of very sweet orange juice.

Arrivederci, Roma

We left Rome early Wednesday morning, hoping to avoid traffic (not entirely successful), heading for Vieste, a small resort town on the Garganus Peninsula in Puglia, stopping first for a wander through the beautiful grounds of Hadrian’s villa. There were a lot of people, including a bunch of architecture students from, I think, Croatia, but the place is big enough that you can find yourself alone, gawking at ancient mosaics and imagining the ruins in their prime.

In Vieste, our luggage was driven ahead to the Hotel Seggio, where I had a nice big room with a little balcony facing the Adriatic. Quiet and beautiful, it was a sharp and welcome respite after the noise and energy of Rome; I imagine it’s a different story in summer, when Italian families flock to the sea. Our group dinner that night was, to be honest, not very good; apparently the son of the previous chef-owner is now running things, and there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Thursday morning, we set off for a waterborne excursion, a chilly and windy boat ride to see the dramatic limestone cliffs and some of the grotto formations, the boat gliding in with inches to spare. It’s really stunning and humbling to see what time and wind and water create.

Later, I wandered through town before meeting a tour friend for a delicious and indulgent lunch at Osteria degli Archi – it’s a beautiful space and the chef-ower Giovanna creates elevated versions of regional classics – and then a wine-assisted afternoon nap. Our lovely hotel hosted the group for aperitivo, and I’d hoped to persuade a few fellow travelers to accompany me to a wine bar called Tutto en un Calice, or the world in a cup. What could be better? However, I decided I’d had quite enough to eat and drink for the day and opted for reading and an early bedtime.
Friday was a long ride from Vieste along the winding sea road and then inland to Alberobello, known for iconic trulli houses built of limestone bricks and distinctive pointed roofs. It has become a popular tourist spot, and most of the trulli are shops. Still, we had a fine food and wine tasting at a place that takes pride in its zero kilometers commitment, i.e. strictly local. There may be some wine heading to Raleigh.

We rode another 90 minutes or so to Matera, where we spent two nights. Our hotel, Locanda di San Martino, is carved from caves and it was really something. My space was huge – a lounge with twin beds along a wall, a big bedroom and a very very big bathroom reached by 16 winding steps down. This stop was notable for the offer of laundry done at 12 euros a bag and luggage transport from the bus to the hotel. Both are luxuries for an RS tour! We also had a splendid group dinner at a cave restaurant, the name of which escapes me.

con't

Posted by
66 posts

Matera, in Basilicata, is a Unesco world heritage site known for the sassi, or cave houses carved out of the limestone cliffs that dominate the geography. Unesco calls Matera “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history.”

It sounds romantic, but many families lived in them, enduring abject poverty along with no electricity or indoor plumbing, until the mid 1950s when the government was shamed into building new housing and relocating people over the course of a few years. Now, the sassi have been converted to hotels (there are five five-star hotels), restaurants, galleries, shops, museums and tourist attractions. There’s also a newer, much more modern upper town, where some of us had a very good pizza lunch at a restaurant at the top of a building.

The streets wind around, terraced by shallow steps, and the place is just breathtaking. It’s been in the movies, most recently the opening chase scene in the 2021 James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” and previously in the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” film. Fascinating, beautiful and rich in history — 9000 years of it, according to our local guide. The Matera dialect includes words from Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, Spanish and Italian.

That evening in Matera, I, possessing a little bit of Italian, had dinner at U’Ciddar across the street from the hotel and was thoroughly entertained. This little place is a cantina, so you step to the counter and the chef/owner lifts the lid from the day’s offerings, names them in Italian and you look and choose three, then agree to vino rosso and sit yourself down. I was early in the dinner cycle and over the next 90 minutes or so was captivated by the non-Italians wandering in, somewhat bewildered, and then the locals. At one point, the proprietor’s cell phone rang loudly, she answered, listened for a moment, said, “I don’t speak English” in Italian and hung up. The food was better than fine, especially the stuffed zucchini, and the experience one of those travel moments that make you marvel and laugh at having had it. Brava!

Onward!

We were approaching National Liberation Day (April 25), celebrated as the end of the Fascist regime and Nazi occupation during World War II. Trip Savvy offers in understatement: “Since the May 1 holiday of Labor Day falls less than a week later, Italians often take a ponte, or bridge, to have an extended vacation from April 25 through May 1. Therefore, this period can be very crowded in top tourist destinations.” Lots of traffic and lots of people!

Anyway, we left Matera en route to the Amalfi Coast, driving again across the peninsula. But first! We visited Tenuta Vannula, an organic farm that raises water buffalo, pampering the beasties with self-serve massages and DIY milking machines, and producing fresh mozzarella and ricotta for local, daily consumption only. Lunch was excellent. (However, it does smell like a farm. Two hundred-plus buffalo produce a lot of manure.) How the buffalo got to Italy is disputed, with some saying they were brought by the Goths, others that Normans brought them from Sicily, where Arabs introduced them. The place was packed.

On we went to Paestum, the archaeological site of amazingly well-preserved Greek ruins, discovered in the 1700s, which we explored on our own with lots of other people. Paestum is stunning; it was a beautiful sunny day, with a cooling breeze, and many people strolling among the temple ruins.

con't

Posted by
66 posts

From Paestum, we drove to Salerno, where we boarded a boat to take us to Maiori, one of the less famous towns of the Amalfi Coast. Once again, our luggage was jenga-ed into the bed of a truck and taken ahead to the Hotel San Pietro, and Sarah helped orient us as we walked along the main pedestrian drag to join it. Maiori reminded me a bit of Levanto, where I stayed last year on the Village Italy tour, in that its location is great, it’s very pleasant and not flashy at all. That night, a bunch of us wound up at a restaurant near the hotel for pizza, seafood and vino.

The next day, some people in our group got themselves to Amalfi and Positano by ferry for the day, but that sounded ambitious to my travel-weary self, so I set off to walk the Path of the Lemons with a few people. The path goes, via about 400 steps, to the next town over, Minori, passing terraced lemon trees nestled under black nets that conveniently double as cat hammocks. We also were passed by a man leading two mules, purpose unknown, but maybe to haul stuff back up from town. The views are stunning.

It started to rain when we reached Minori so we settled under umbrellas at a cafe for a spritz and a snack, including the famous lemon cake featured by Stanley Tucci on his TV show. I managed (in Italian!) to ask the nice man at the cafe to call a taxi for the six of us, so we didn’t have to walk back in the rain. After that, a nap, a little laundry, and then dinner with a couple from California at a restaurant by the sea.

Pompeii, with the populi

On Tuesday, we left Maiori very early for Sorrento, riding in a smaller bus to navigate the famous narrow and twisty roads, and met our big bus and driver, Massimo, at an AutoGrill and proceeded to Pompeii. Obviously it’s amazing, made more so by the dramatics of Gaetano, our third-generation local guide, who started our visit with a detailed explanation of the spa, which stands for Salute Per Acqua, or health through water, and was available to all of the merchants, traders, etc. who came to the city. We also learned that the Romans had a thing for phallic imagery and there’s a fair bit of fresco porn here and there. Not exactly what I expected to learn, but wow.

Francesca, who was our guide in Rome, is fond of saying, “The more you know, the more you see,” and that’s certainly true of Pompeii. The city’s layout, infrastructure (pipes to carry water, blocks of stone placed to keep some streets free of carts), use of slopes to carry water away, when described by a knowledgeable guide, make the life of the city, not just the eruption that covered it, come alive. The place was packed (National Liberation Day) and we were glad we’d gotten an early start.

After lunch, we drove on to Sorrento, took a walk to get oriented and visited an award-winning gelateria for a lesson and demo and, of course, gelato. We also made a stop at a former church that’s now an intarsia (inlaid woodwork, a Sorrento specialty) workshop. Beautiful work. For dinner, many of our group were wiped out so bought wine, cheese, etc. from a Carrefour market near the hotel and picnicked on our balconies while watching the world go by.

We stayed at the family-run Hotel Mignon, which has a great location and exceptional breakfast featuring pastries baked by two ladies. I’m longing for another slice of the ricotta tart, memorably delicious.

con't

Posted by
66 posts

A second free day!

Wednesday, we had a free day to explore Sorrento or go to Capri (say it CAP-ri, not cap-REE) by boat. About half our group had booked a day-long tour but I decided to wing it and took the 8:30 a.m. ferry to the island to poke around on my own. The famous Blue Grotto was closed because the water was too choppy, so that decision was made for me. Instead, I took the funicular from the harbor up to Capri Town, then rode a very crowded bus up very winding roads to Anacapri (meaning High Capri). The merchants and restaurants were still sweeping and setting up, so I had a lovely ramble through mostly empty streets, visited a church, admired some gardens, did a little shopping.

Then I bought tickets to ride the chairlift to Montesolaro, where there’s a broad patio with gorgeous views, an outdoor bar and restaurant. The ride up took about 12 minutes and was surprisingly peaceful — birds chirping, breeze rustling. Fabulous experience. The ride down was uneventful, as was the bus ride back to Capri Town, which had filled with people. I strolled around streets filled with designer shops — Gucci, etc. — then had a sandwich before taking the funicular back to the harbor and the boat back to Sorrento, where I rode an elevator from the harbor to the upper level of town. So much transportation!

That evening, our group had dinner with a local family, and it was glorious. Delicious, home-cooked food, lots of wine, great conversation with Luigi and his wife Teresa and son, who joined us at the long table. A memorable experience, to be sure.

On another note, one of our group members tested positive for Covid and was feeling unwell; he and his wife isolated and did not continue with us. Italy has virtually no Covid restrictions at this point, but Rick Steves does, so they were helped with arrangements until they could fly home.

Now, Naples

From Sorrento, we headed to our final stop, Naples, a buzzy, busy city that was especially lively because everyone (really) was over-the-moon excited about the soccer team’s Series A championship, its first in 33 years. That’s when Diego Maradona (now referred to as the god of Naples) led the team to victory. His face is abundantly present on banners, posters, T-shirts, etc.

After landing at the Grand Hotel Oriente, which is a big, business-oriented hotel, we had a fabulous introduction to Naples’ age-old blend of religion and superstition with our guide Antonella, who told us of 52 patron saints and many many miracles brought about by praying on schedule. San Gennaro is the primo patron saint, and his miracle is the liquification of the blood. There’s also the Pious Mountain of Mercy, or Pio Monte della Misericordia, a famous (really big) painting by Caravaggio. It’s all A Lot. We took a walk with Sarah and Vanessa to get our bearings, and after that a tour friend and I took a strolled through the city to the waterfront, where we had a lovely spritz and nibbles, then strolled back to the hotel. I had a peaceful and delicious solo dinner at the rooftop restaurant, from which you can see Mount Vesuvius!

Friday, our last day in Naples, was busy: a visit to a private chapel to see the famous sculpture The Veiled Christ then a walk to the National Archaeological Museum and a very comprehensive narration by our guide, an archaeologist. The highlights for me were seeing the mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii (removed by early excavations) and the famous Farnese Bull, the world’s biggest sculpture formed from a single block of marble. I was dragging a bit by the time we finished and happy to find lunch with a few others at Osteria da Carmela nearby. It’s small and staffed at lunch by a single, smiling waiter who was patient with our halting Italian and brought us pasta with seafood, gnocchi Sorrentino and other regional specialties. We agreed the food was excellent.

con't

Posted by
66 posts

Late in the afternoon, our group took the Metro to a former taxi garage for a house concert by a group of talented musicians devoted to uplifting and sustaining traditional music. They were great! Then we walked to a delicious, relaxed farewell dinner, talked about the highlights of our two weeks together and toasted our guide Sarah and apprentice Vanessa before making our way to the hotel.

Homeward bound

After breakfast on Saturday, with the tour over, I took the train to Rome for a few hours of wandering in Monti; I waited until the last minute to book, out of indecision, and paid the price. In Rome, I stashed my luggage near Termini, had an excellent lunch at Ristorante Broccoletti (casarecce with lamb ragout, vino and caffe) then schlepped via Leonardo Express to the airport. The Hilton, where I spent the night, is fine, more than a bit dated, and very busy. I had a better than decent hamburger for dinner and a half bottle of chianti.

Getting home on Sunday was a process – a delay in Rome to switch aircraft, a very crowded security experience at JFK and two hours in the plane on the runway waiting for the weather to clear for take off. The flight from Rome was the retiring pilot’s final flight, so there were banners on the plane and announcements and several rounds of applause. A neat experience.

Overall, a splendid trip

We had an exceptionally convivial group, ranging in age from 25 to 80, mostly skewing toward 65-plus, mostly well-traveled. Sarah was a lovely calm presence who clearly loves and understands Italy and conveys that beautifully. Vanessa, who is half Scots and half Italian, has a different energy and was a fun addition to the trip.

After my second Rick Steves trip, I’m understanding why his tours are so popular — logistics are handled so you simply get a key and room number upon arrival at the various hotels; the bus is fine, with plenty of room to spread out and frequent breaks; the special experiences such as the mozzarella dairy and the boat ride into grottoes would be super-hard to arrange on your own; the local guides are usually very good, and the RS guides add so much context, not just history but sharing music, language lessons and cultural norms.

A few notes:

Before the trip I bought an esim from Orange ($49 for 20GB, a French phone number, calls and texts that I can top up for future trips, delivered by QR code in an email) and was happy with the choice. Once I figured out the settings, it was great – no worries about $10/day to Verizon or limited data speed. I was able to use it as a wifi hot spot with my iPad on the bus and use google maps as much as I wanted when exploring. I could still get texts and emails through my US account. I also have and use WhatsApp.

Italian hotel bathrooms are great (bidets, etc.) but restaurant and public toilets are not; I was glad to have a package of paper toilet-seat covers in my little crossbody purse. I didn’t use a day pack on this trip and didn’t miss it.

I loved spending two weeks in South Italy and would recommend this trip, especially in cooler weather; Pompeii and Matera in particular would be blisteringly hot in the summer sun.

I'm happy to answer any questions, and if you've read this far in my South Italy term paper, grazie.

Posted by
2844 posts

Felicia, thank you for a wonderful trip report. It brings back great memories of my first RS tour in 2019.

Posted by
6352 posts

Thank you, Felicia! We took this tour last year and loved it. It's one we would consider doing again.

Posted by
2210 posts

Your excellent report brought back great memories. Thank you for taking the time to do this. These reports are so helpful to future travelers.

Posted by
7377 posts

Felicia, I REALLY appreciate your detailed trip report! I am wanting to go to Alberobello to see the trulli homes (wish you could overnight in one!) and Matera. I was thinking this tour would be too much duplication because I’ve been to Paestum and the Amalfi Coast, but I’m happy to hear you did different activities in the Amalfi area, so that wouldn’t be too much overlap.

I’m adding this tour to my short list for 2024!

Posted by
582 posts

Excellent trip report of a RS tour we loved. If going to the Amalfi coast again, I highly recommend taking the bus up to Ravello and spending the day up there.

Posted by
105 posts

This trip report brings back wonderful memories of my first Rick Steves trip in April 2019.

Posted by
8484 posts

Oh no! Now there is yet another RS tour that I want to go on..... Great trip report. I loved the detail and feeling that I was traveling with you.

Posted by
447 posts

Thank you so much for enlightening me--I had no idea that SPA is actually an acronym! Wonderful description of your trip.

Posted by
3287 posts

Thank you so much for this very entertaining trip report. We were in southern Italy at the same time, and this report brought back many pleasant memories. I think trip reports are extremely useful for trip planning.

Posted by
1 posts

Hi, Felicia. I was on this trip with you (and made your review as the one who got Covid). Your writing helped me relive a great journey. Although it ended badly for me, my memories are overall very positive. Thanks
Rich

Posted by
1 posts

Thanks so much, Felicia, for the excellent report. When you left Vieste, where did you go for wine and food tasting?

Posted by
66 posts

Thanks for the nice remarks on the trip report. To answer the question about the wine and food tasting, it was in Alberobello at a shop called Tholos, on the main street through the old part of the town.