The rest of 'The Boot'

This 'boot' is made for walking ~ and driving, and exploring, and tasting....

Many people say that the most southerly part of Italy resembles a boot. In fact it would be difficult to liken it to anything else. To add to the illusion there's Sicily, too, like a three-cornered soccer ball kicked out into the sea.


The final part (or perhaps we should say the final 'leg'!) of our Mezzogiorno odyssey took us around the entire southern Italian coastline, with a few forays into the interior, finally ending up in Abruzzi on the east coast - roughly where a long legged boot would, at the back of the 'knee'. From there it was a very short trip across to Rome where we had begun our journey a month before. It still remains one of the best trips we have done, full of surprises and precious memories. Please join us for these final parts.


Olive growing is vital to Italy and its people. Although machinery is used to harvest olives on the bigger groves, many believe that handpicked olives are superior to machine harvested ones because the fruit is not bruised. This mural outside one village celebrates the community picking which once was an annual occurrence throughout the country.


On any drive through southern Italy, in particular, you will pass trees with their picking nets rolled up in the lower boughs ready for the next season, late in the year, when they will be laid out at the base of the tree ready to catch the ripe fruit as eager 'shakers' send the fruit tumbling from the branches. Some olive farmers still employ bruciatura, a hand harvesting using a tool with comb-like teeth.


We actually hear this lad before we see him. As we round a corner in Santo Stefano in the wild Aspromonte region of Calabria, the sound of a bright wheezing jig catches out attention. The boy is surrounded by a few admirers, mostly proud family I guess, and he is belting out his music. 

He could as easily be dressed to ride a skateboard in Sydney, yet here he is on a sunny Saturday afternoon having fun entertaining half the town. He plays on and on - it's a long piece - and when he finally winds it up, squeezing out the last breath of air and sound with a raucous da-DUUUUUM!, we clap until our hands hurt.


In many parts of Italy funghi are wonderfully nutritious 'found' foods ranging from simple button mushrooms through these exotic specimens through to the rarest white truffles. This vendor was a relentless in his sales pitch.


With no kitchen in which to cook mushrooms, I appeased him by buying some walnuts - which turned out to be dreadful!


Basilicata, the region in the 'instep' of the boot, has long fascinated me. Once called Lucania, Potenza is its capital. Note the sign for an 'agriturismo' property selling prodotti tipici (typically local foods). These places are always worth visiting and we have stayed at many.


I have long ago given up believing in fairy stories, but a steeply twisting road in the Lucanian Dolomites south of Potenza delivered us to this magical place. No photograph can really do justice to Castelmezzano's surprising situation tucked in amongst the rocks that were ancient even when the town began as a Lombard fortress. It was later occupied by the Saracens, destroyed, then passed on to the Normans a thousand years ago with the building of a castle. No wonder all craved it. It occupies, after all, the ideal defensive position. Yet Castelmezzano presents itself more like a child's play town, full of winding steps and hidden stairways, hiding spots and hollows.

It is inhabited by fewer than a thousand people who possibly never think twice about it. Their families, most likely, have lived here forever. Yet its unique attraction sees it on Italy's list of I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia, the most beautiful villages of Italy. We chose it for the cover of my book, Just a Little Italian.


But we discovered the surprises were only beginning. At the unassuming Hotel Dolomiti we go looking for food despite it being a little late for lunch. We meet Giovanni who serves us this as a starter (yes, those are shaved white truffles, no doubt gathered locally) followed by handmade fusili, prepared by rolling the fresh dough around thick wires, al dente and sublime, paired with a tasty sugo studded with chunks of local sausage.


He wouldn't let us stop there, though and brought this round of pecorino cheese and half a dozen purple pickled onions, the size of olives. The cheese has been heated just enough to render the centre meltingly liquid, the outside slightly crusty. The acid-sweetness of the onions provides a perfect foil.


...and this - crostoli, wafer-thin fried pastry strips anointed with a drizzle of honey. And fresh FIGS!


Also in Basilicata, but further east and close to the Puglian border is another discovery. Matera is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site and a must-see stopover for tourists. We are not surprised to hear that Matera has been inhabited since the Stone Age. It's still a stone city, hacked from the rock.

In an area often rocked by earthquakes, a cave made sense as the safest place to be. In hundreds of these sassi around the two major ravines, large families shared their home with flocks of animals. It seemed a sensible economical idea, although disease was endemic and child mortality incredibly high, reaching over 50 percent. 

It was only in the late 1950s that the government, acknowledging it as a 'national embarrassment', forcibly evicted the last 23,000 residents of the sassi and relocated them into clean new premises.


Some of these same cave dwellings now have For Sale notices on the door. It has become trendy to do them up - artists and writers being prime buyers - and we dine in this one that has found new life as a restaurant.




Italian street markets are found in every town and city. The housewives shop daily and carefully - and sometimes require a little sales talk as well.


In Italy as in France, horsemeat is appreciated. And as in France the shop, sometimes bearing a carne equina sign, is separate to the ones selling other meats.


Finally reaching the eastern coast lapped by the Adriatic Sea, we can indulge again in seafood, discovering that Puglian fish and chips is a little different to what we had expected. Particularly when we paid for the fish by the etto or 100 grams. This fish was 3 etti and more expensive than we had originally thought. Perfectly cooked, too.


One part of Italy I have always wanted to see is Alberobello, another fairytale place full of trulli . Their conical stone roofs, often with occult-looking signs painted in white on them, and round whitewashed walls add to their bizarre look. Best of all I discovered that our accommodation, booked on the internet in Italian turned out to be in this delightful little round house. 


Inside, we could have been in a cosy cave, but the furnishings were comfortable and I fell in love immediately with it.



And yes, Alberobello and the surrounding villages are tourist-oriented. Who could blame them for capitalising on this?

UNESCO added this town to its World Heritage List in 1996, justifying its inclusion, as "an exceptional example of a form of building construction deriving from prehistoric construction techniques that have survived intact and functioning into the modern world". This seems such a comprehensive yet weighty explanation of a place that could have been simply lifted in its totality straight from the pages of a children's picture book.


Puglia's landscape is much flatter than the western regions of the south. The ground is much stonier and fences are often created from the still-rocky fields and there are wide plains and broad acre farming.


No one seems to know why, in the 13th century, Frederick II needed to build Castel Del Monte visible for many kilometres across the Puglian plains. Its unusual shape, and the number eight prevailing inside the castle with eight rooms on each of the two storeys is still a puzzle. Controversy continues over the possibility of a mystical or obscure mathematical reason for its precise plan. Maybe astronomy played a part.


Trani, on the Adriatic coast is a delightful fishing port with the 11th-century cream stone cathedral of San Nicola Pellegrino and one of the many places we would return to in an eye-blink



We travel north, extending the time as much as possibly, not wanting to leave this land. So much to see and taste, so little time left.


Turning westwards at Chieti in Abruzzo we head once more into mountains. When we stop halfway up there's the smell of mint in the grass, and the sound of cars on the road far below is already muffled




These sunny relaxed pictures are particularly poignant for us as this is the market square of L'Aquila, Abruzzo, where we stopped on our last full day on this trip and ate a simple meal of pasta with chopped black truffles. On April 6, 2009, the city was the epicentre for a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that claimed 308 people and made 65,000 people homeless. 


This sign sums up Italy - local products abound everywhere, and ....


... this sign  proves that NOT all roads lead to Rome!
Grazie mille, Italia!

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