Italy's peeling, sun-bleached south is the country at its most ancient, soulful and sensual. Down here, the ruins are older, the lunches longer, and the landscapes wilder and more intense.
At the crossroads of civilisations for millennia, southern Italy is littered with the detritus of diverse and gilded ages, from Greek and Roman to Saracen, Norman and Spanish. Every carved stone and every frescoed palace tells a story, from fiery Carthaginian invasions and power-hungry kings, to the humble hopes of Roman slaves and gladiators. Here, ancient Greek temples are older than Rome, Byzantine mosaics attest to cosmopolitan encounters and royal palaces outsize Versailles. Southern Italy is home to no less than 13 Unesco World Heritage cultural sites, each laced with tales of victory, failure and ever-relevant humanity.
Italy's fertile south is a mouth-watering, belt-busting feast: bubbling, wood-fired pizza and potent espresso in Naples; long, lazy lunches at vine-framed Pugliese farmhouses; just-caught sardines on a Tyrrhenian island; luscious cannoli at a Taormina pasticceria. Should you go mushroom hunting in the wilds of Calabria? Taste-test your first red eggplant (aubergine) at an heirloom trattoria in Basilicata? Feast on fresh sea urchin on an Adriatic beach? Or just kick back with a glass of low-intervention Etna red as you debate who has the creamiest buffalo mozzarella: Caserta, Paestum or Foggia?
A Warm Benvenuto
You'll rarely be short of a conversation south of Rome. Southern Italians are naturally curious, famously affable and quick to share their opinion. Family and friends are sacred, and time spent laughing, arguing or gossiping is as integral to southern life as lavish Sunday lunches and long, sizzling summers. One minute you're picking produce at a street market, the next you're in the middle of a feverish discussion about who grows Italy's sweetest pomodori (tomatoes) – Sicily or Campania? No one is a stranger for long, and a casual chiacchiera (chat) could easily land you at the dining table of your new best friend.
Rugged mountains, fiery volcanoes and electric-blue grottoes – southern Italy feels like a giant adventure playground waiting to be tackled. Crank up the heart rate rafting down Calabria's river Lao, scaling Europe's most active volcano, Stromboli, or diving into prehistoric sea caves on Puglia's Promontorio del Gargano. If you need to bring it down a notch, consider slow pedalling across Puglia's gentle countryside, sailing along the Amalfi Coast or simply soaking in Vulcano's healing geothermal mud. The options may be many, but there is one constant: a landscape that is beautiful, diverse and just a little ethereal.