HIGHLIGHTS OF SOUTHERN ITALY

 

 

A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for  purchase.   Includes Places to Stay in proximity.

ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

Memories of childhood history lessons vaguely call forth such names as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum, yet, all too frequently, the urge to visit these jewels is lost in the misconception that southern Italy is a rather lackluster destination. What a mistake! Southern Italy has fascinating archaeological sites, appealing medieval towns, white sand beaches and the dazzling Amalfi Coast with its picture-perfect villages. Travelers who venture south from Rome are thrilled when they wander through the fabulous Greek site of Paestum with its splendidly preserved temples rivaling those found in Greece or discover the mysterious town of Alberobello with its twisting streets lined by cute, whitewashed, beehive-like Trulli houses.

Recommended Pacing: Spend a minimum of three nights in Rome. Then, choose one town along the Amalfi Coast and stay for a minimum of five nights so that you will have time to make an excursion to Capri. Your next stop, Maratea, does not have much sightseeing but is a perfect place to relax for a couple of nights. The final destination is near the “heel” of Italy. Choose one place to use as your home base in Apulia and plan to spend at least three nights so that you will have time to explore this remote, beautiful part of Italy.

This itinerary makes a circle of the south in order to suit the travel needs of a wide selection of tourists. Follow the entire route or select the portion best for you since this itinerary is particularly suitable for the traveler who wants to take only a segment. For instance, the journey from Rome to Brindisi is a favorite one for the lucky tourists on their way to Greece, while the west coast is a popular drive for the tourist who wants to visit Sicily and then return to Rome by air or ferry. Most popular of all is the segment from Rome to the Amalfi Drive. This itinerary allows you to custom tailor your journey and gives you tantalizing sightseeing along the way.

Rome is a most convenient starting point to begin a tour of southern Italy, since its airport is the destination of planes from all over the world. In Rome you can immerse yourself in a wealth of history, art, architecture, museums, and monuments-and build a foundation for the sights that will be encountered on your journey southward. For sightseeing suggestions in Rome, refer to the chapter Italian Highlights by Train & Boat-or Car.

If you arrive into Rome by plane, do not reserve your rental car until the day of your departure. Just take a taxi to your hotel or board the train from the airport that whisks you to the center of the city. When it is time to leave Rome bear in mind that the city has a monumental traffic problem. To guide you, look for strategically placed signs indicating that there is an expressway ahead. It might be quite a distance, but be patient as these signs lead you to the outskirts of Rome to the highway that makes a ring around the city with various spokes going off to different destinations. Follow the ring and take the exit for the A2, the expressway heading south toward Naples. Continue south for approximately 128 kilometers to the exit for Cassino where you leave the expressway. Actually, you can spot your destination from several kilometers away-the Abbey of Monte Cassino crowns the top of a large mountain to the left of the highway as you drive south. The road that winds up to the summit of the mountain to the Abbey is clearly marked about midway through Cassino. This abbey, founded by St. Benedict in 529 A.D., is extremely interesting both religiously and historically. For war historians it brings back many battle memories-this is where the Germans staunchly held out against the Allied forces for almost a year in World War II. When the mountain was finally conquered in May 1944, it opened the way for the Allies to move into Rome. As you read your history books, it seems strange that one fort could hold out for so long, but when you see the abbey you understand: it is an enormous building on the crest of a precipitous mountain. In the siege the abbey was almost destroyed, but it has been rebuilt according to the original plans.

NOTE: For those of you who for sentimental or for historical reasons are especially interested in World War II, there is another destination you might well want to visit in this day’s journey. Anzio is a town on the coast about 56 kilometers south of Rome and could easily be included as a stop before Cassino. It was at Anzio that the British and Americans forces landed in January 1944. The emotional reminder of this terrible battle is a few kilometers south at Nettuno where 8,000 white crosses and stars of David range-row after row across the green lawn. There is a circular drive around the beautifully manicured, parklike grounds where you also find a memorial chapel and small war museum. For those who lost family or friends during the invasion, there is an information office to the right as you drive in, where you can stop to find out exactly where your loved ones are buried-you will need help because the park is huge.

From Cassino return to the expressway and continue south for about 60 kilometers until you see the sign for Pompeii. Unless you have absolutely NO interest in archaeology, you must see the city of your childhood history books. This is where time was frozen in 79 A.D. for the 25,000 people who were smothered by lava from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. If you are a dedicated student of archaeology, you must also visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Etrusco (National Archaeological Museum) in Naples, which houses many of the artifacts from Pompeii.

Time slips back 2,000 years and you feel the pulse of how people lived in ancient times as you wander the streets of Pompeii and visit the temples, lovely homes, wine shops, bakeries, and public baths. Many of the private homes have been reconstructed so you can marvel at the pretty inner courtyards, sumptuous dining rooms in Pompeii-red with intricate paintings on the walls, fountains, servants’ quarters, bathrooms, and gardens. At the entrance to Pompeii there are souvenir stands where you can purchase a guidebook to the city, or, if you prefer, you can hire a private guide at the entrance. There is a nice terrace restaurant by the entrance and also a café inside.

Much of what you see today has been reproduced, but the reality is pure. Plaster was poured into molds formed by the lava that demolished the buildings and buried so many families that fateful day. Thus it became possible for latter-day archaeologists to reconstruct houses and make reproductions of people and pets. Walk through the town along the sunken streets crossed by high stepping stones, strategically placed so that pedestrians did not get their feet wet on rainy days. Be sure not to miss some of the reconstructed villas that allow you a glimpse into the daily life of long ago. The Casa del Fauno, a fine example of how the wealthy lived, has two inner courtyards and several dining rooms. The Casa del Poeta Tragico, a more modest home, has a sign in mosaic saying Cave Canem (beware of the dog). At the Villa di Giulia Felice you see the example of an entrepreneur-in addition to using it as a private villa, the owner rented out rooms, had shops on the ground floor, and operated an adjacent bathhouse. If traveling with children, you might want to go alone into the Lupanare (Pompeii’s brothel) where there are erotic paintings on the walls. At the Terme Stabiane you see a sophisticated underground water-heating system.

If you have time, visit the nearby ruins of Herculaneum which was also buried in the lava of Vesuvius.

Leaving Pompeii, head to the coast in the direction of Sorrento where the Amalfi Drive begins, tracing one of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline in the world. Be sure to make the journey in daylight because you want to savor every magnificent vista as well as safely negotiate this extremely twisty and precipitous road.

It is hard to recommend our favorite town along the Amalfi Drive since each has its own personality: Sorrento, is an old fishing town perched on a rocky bluff overlooking the sea. It makes an especially convenient place to stay if you want to make a side trip to Capri by ferry or hydrofoil. Ravello is a tiny village tucked high in the hills above the coast with absolutely dazzling views down to the sea. Positano is an especially romantic coastal town with a picturesque medley of whitewashed houses terracing down an ever-so-steep embankment to a pebble beach dotted with brightly painted fishing boats. Amalfi is a small harbor town nestled in a narrow ravine.

From whatever hub you choose as your hotel base, venture out to do some exploring. The traffic during the tourist season is staggering, with buses, trucks, and cars all jockeying for position on the narrow twisting roads. Prepare for much shouting, waving of hands, honking, and general bedlam as long buses inch around the hairpin curves. The best advice is to relax and consider the colorful scene part of the sightseeing. Also, begin your excursions as early in the day as possible to try to avoid the major traffic.

If you are not overnighting in Ravello, you must plan to take the narrow winding road up to this romantic clifftop town. When you arrive, leave your car in one of the designated parking areas, pick up a map at the tourist office, then walk along the well-marked path to the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone-both have beautiful gardens that are open to the public and enchanting views of the Bay of Salerno.

If you are not overnighting in Positano, by all means make this a day’s excursion. The town is a photographer’s dream-houses painted a dazzling white step down the impossibly steep hillside to a pebble beach lapped by brilliant blue water. To reach the small plaza dominated by a church topped by a colorful mosaic-tiled dome you have to climb one of the town’s many staircases. Today Positano attracts artists and tourists from around the

world, but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was an important seaport with tall-masted ships bringing in wares from around the world. When steamships came into vogue in the 19th century, Positano’s prosperity declined and three-quarters of its population immigrated to the United States.

If you have not been able to include an interlude on Capri during your Italian holiday, it is easy to arrange an excursion to this enchanted island as a side trip from the Amalfi Coast. Steamers and hydrofoils depart regularly from Sorrento, Amalfi, and Positano. Ask at the tourist bureau or your hotel for the schedule.

We also highly recommend spending a day in Naples, which, although not on the Amalfi Coast, is conveniently close. Since it is quite difficult to drive into Naples without getting lost, we suggest the following options: Train from Sorrento, boat from Sorrento, or boat from Positano. Naples, the third largest city in Italy, is well worth a side trip; it has many places of interest plus one of the world’s finest archaeological museums, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Etrusco, where most of the original artifacts from Pompeii are displayed. For more in depth suggestions for what to see and do in Naples, read the itinerary Italian Highlights by Train & Boat-or Car.

While exploring the Amalfi Coast, be sure to include the Emerald Grotto, located between the towns of Amalfi and Positano. After parking, buy a ticket and descend by elevator down the steep cliff to a small rocky terrace. Upon entering the water-filled cave, you’re rowed about the grotto in a small boat. Your guide explains how the effect of shimmering green water is created by a secret tunnel allowing sunlight to filter from deep below the surface. The cave is filled with colorful stalactites and stalagmites which further enhance the mysterious mood. There is also a nativity scene below the water which mysteriously appears and then drifts again from view.

When it is time to leave the Amalfi area, take the coastal road south as it twists and turns along the dramatic cliffs toward Salerno. At Salerno, join the expressway A3 for about 19 kilometers until the turnoff for Paestum which is located on a side road about a half-hour drive from the freeway. Magically, when you enter the gates of the ancient city, you enter a peaceful environment of a lovely country meadow dotted with some of the world’s best-preserved Greek temples. As you walk along the remains of streets crisscrossing the city, your senses are thrilled by the sound of birds singing and the scent of roses.

From Paestum return to the A3 and continue south until you come to the Lagonegro Nord-Maratea exit. Do not be tempted by some of the short cuts you see on the map that lead to the coast, but stay on the main road 585. In about 25 kilometers the road comes to the sea where you turn north at Castrocucco, following signs to Maratea. Plan on spending several days in the Maratea area.

Not well known to foreigners, this lovely section of coast, known as the Gulf of Policastro, is a popular resort area for Italians. The loveliest section of the road is between Maratea and Sapri where the road traces the sea along a high corniche, providing lovely vistas of small coves and rocky promontories. This is not an area for intensive sightseeing, but provides a quiet interlude for several days of relaxation.

From the Gulf of Policastro, take road 585 back to the A3 and continue south for about 75 kilometers, turning east at Frascineto-Castrovillari toward the instep of Italy’s boot. After about 25 kilometers you near the coast. Here you turn left on 106 to Taranto. Stop to see this ancient port, which is connected by a bridge to the modern city. Even if you are not interested in ancient history, it is fun to see the Italian naval ships-giant gray monsters-sitting in the protected harbor.

From Taranto take 172 north and continue on for about 45 kilometers following signs to Alberobello. You are now in the province of Apulia, not a well-known destination, but all the more fun to visit because it is off the beaten path. Choose a hotel in the area as your hub, venture out to explore the fascinating sights that follow:

Trulli District: Trulli houses (whose origins date back to at least the 13th century) are some of the strangest structures in Italy-circular stone buildings, usually in small clusters, standing crisply white with conical slate roofs and whimsical, twisted chimneys. Outside ladders frequently lead to upper stories. Often several of these houses are joined together to form a larger complex. What a strange and fascinating sight-these beehive-like little houses intertwined with cobbled streets form a jumble of a small village that looks as though it should be inhabited by elves instead of real people. The heart of the Trulli region is Alberobello where there are so many Trulli houses (more than 1,000 along the narrow streets) that the Trulli district of town has been declared a national monument.

Trulli houses are not confined just to the town of Alberobello though this is where you find them composing an entire village. In fact, the Trulli houses you see outside Alberobello are sometimes more interesting than those in the town itself. As you drive along the small roads, you spot gorgeous villas cleverly converted from Trulli houses, now obviously the homes of wealthy Italians. Others are now farmhouses with goats munching their lunch in the front yard. Occasionally you spot a charming old Trulli home nestled cozily in the center of a vineyard. But most fun of all are the Trulli homes of the free spirits: their homes, instead of displaying the typical white exteriors, have been painted a brilliant yellow, pink, or bright green with contrasting shutters.

Grotte di Castellana: As you are exploring the countryside near Alberobello, take the short drive north to see the Castellana Caves-the largest in Italy. In a two-hour tour you see many rooms of richly colored stalagmites and stalactites.

Coastal Villages of Apulia: Be sure to include in your sightseeing some of the characterful towns along the coast. They look entirely different from the colorful fishing villages in the north of Italy. These are Moorish-looking, with stark-white houses lining narrow, alley-like streets. The Adriatic looks an even deeper blue as it laps against the white buildings, many of which rise from the sea with small windows perched over the water. Besides Monopoli other coastal towns to see are Polignano a Mare and Trani.

Castel del Monte: On the same day that you explore the coastal villages, include a visit to the 13th-century Castel del Monte. Built by Emperor Frederick II of Swab, it is somewhat of a mystery, having none of the fortifications usually associated with a medieval castle. Nevertheless, it is dramatic-a huge stone structure crowning the top of a hill with eight circular towers, which stretch 24 meters into the sky. There are stunning views in every direction.

Matera: Plan one full day to visit Matera, an intriguing town of stark beauty (so extraordinary UNESCO has listed it as a World Heritage site). As you approach Matera, you can’t help but wonder what is so special-it looks like quite an ordinary, modern city. But, continue on, following signs for “Sassi.” Upon arrival, park your car and go to the central plaza in the heart of the old city. From the plaza, steps lead down to a secreted town beneath, hugging the walls of a steep canyon laced by narrow alley-like lanes and ancient houses. These dwellings, called Sassi, have facades fronting cave-like homes. The scene is haunting with a jumble of monotone houses and churches clinging to, and blending with, the hillside. There is not a hint of color to liven the scene. Some scholars think that this site, which began thousands of years ago as cave homes, might well be the oldest inhabited place in Italy. The city had been almost totally abandoned by the mid-1900s, but it is being rediscovered and, as a result, art galleries, restaurants, shops, and a few places to spend the night are reappearing. Mel Gibson is responsible for some of the most recent interest in the town, since he filmed here for his movie, The Passion of the Christ. The only way to explore this ancient part of Matera is on foot (the tourist office provides maps with various suggested routes).

When it is time to leave Apulia, you can breeze back to Rome by an expressway. Or, if your next destination is Greece, it is just a short drive to Brindisi where you can board the ferry for Corfu, Igoumenitsa, or Patras. Best of all, if you can extend your holiday in Sicily (see Exploring the Wonders of Sicily itinerary).

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