Southern Comfort
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As we boarded our plane for Rome I realized I was really nervous. In the weeks leading up to this trip, I'd immediately opened every Italian guidebook we had come across to the Safety and Security section, to see if my unease was justified. I wanted to find out if our planned trip - self-driving around southern Italy - was foolhardy.

Privately I thought it was.

I'd even quipped to friends: "So long as we get back with our bags and passports, I'll be happy." Then I'd add, "And the car!"

The plan was to drive south from Rome, where (good sign) it turned out the rental company had upgraded us to a natty little navy blue Alfa Romeo, then south to Naples, heeding warnings galore about pickpockets and worse.

From there we planned a quick lap around Sicily (watch out for the Mafia, friends said) then back to the mainland, outlining 'the boot' of Italy and the back of the leg, crossing back from a point on the east coast, level with Rome.

A month, we'd given ourselves, to do all this. That's if we lasted the distance. Word was the locals weren't too fussed about tourists. That was yet another thing, and I wondered why I wasn't simply packing up and heading for Paris. My mood was as black as a Calabrian widow's dress.

In the four weeks we spent in southern Italy - privately I call it our 'month in the Mezzogiorno' - we travelled roughly 6000 kilometres through eight of Italy's 20 regions (about half the country in area). We dipped our toes in four seas, sighted three volcanos, set foot on three islands (four if you count the one in the Tiber, five if we add in Ortigia) and the Italian peninsula itself.

We'd inched our way up more mountains than we can number, complete with enough hairpin bends to make us chronically dizzy, in order to visit the precarious villages built at their summits. We'd eaten countless plates of pasta, too, truffles in unexpected places, gelati everywhere, and figs as often as possible - and no doubt ingested a litre of olive oil overall.

We laughed with the locals, then cried (well I did) when we had to leave. Gordon took thousands of pictures as I knew he would.

Just a little Italian was all we arrived with, but we leave with much more. In fact my vocabulary has expanded to the point that I feel on the brink of a breakthrough by the end of the trip. If I could only stay another month (or two) I think ... Gordon, too, had begun to bravely buona sera people, and his prego with a perfectly rolled "r" is so much better than mine.

As we hoped, we discovered the southerners are not at all as they've sometimes been portrayed. They are warm and welcoming, good-humoured and impossibly generous. Somehow we all managed to navigate our ways around the language barrier. The food has been often simple, sometimes sublime, and always fresh and nourishing.

And as far as the supposed crime rate of the south? People ran after us to return things we had dropped in the street!

While I won't miss the rubbish and graffiti - Italy, you have to pull your socks up there! - the things I'll miss are many. Like being able to enter a cafe or restaurant or hotel lobby almost anywhere, and ask "please, may I use the toilet?" (permesso, la toletta?) and then to have my request granted with a smile and no thought of asking me to buy anything to justify the courtesy. Is it a respect for their mothers and nonnas that makes this the norm rather than the exception as in Australia? It's such a small thing, but a boon for (women) travellers, and I love the place for it.

Too soon, it seems, it was time to go. We check in at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, appropriately at mezzogiorno - midday - to fly home again with Thai Airways. After takeoff, the inflight map on the screen shows us banking out wide to the west above the Mediterranean, before looping back over Napoli and the Amalfi coast, slanting across to exit Italy somewhere over Brindisi.

Highlights of the trip? Too many, but here is a fistful - Erice, a stunning medieval hilltop town on Sicily's north-east corner, home to the best almond cakes in the world; over-touristed Alberobello in Puglia with its quaint conical-roofed houses that still manages (somehow) to be utterly captivating; Greek ruins in Selenunte and Agrigento in Sicily standing high and mighty still after two millenniums; and gelati - I tried them everywhere.

But that's another story.

 

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