Once one has descended from the great barrier that gave rise to the pejorative “Ultramontanism” for the unacceptable influence of Rome on those countries to the North, it is possible to begin the pleasure of traveling through the original landscape, cities, and cuisines that were constituted into the Kingdom of Italy (1861) and then the Republic (1946). Fortunately, a political unification does not mean cultural uniformity, certainly not in Italy.
Although I have been traveling to Italy for business purposes for decades, there are always places and plates I have not seen or tasted. This year I wanted to do things differently. I took a month to mix the familiar with the unknown and drive to the very tip of the well-known Boot-shaped country.
The Beginning of the Journey
The first stop after the Alps was Milan. Relaxation begins when walking past the Duomo toward the Galleria Vittorio Emanuel Duo. I find comfort in the Navigli district, my home away from home, during the business trips of the past two decades. Navigli is just south of the city’s center. It is an ideal place to experience the authentic Milanese lifestyle. I usually sleep in the same place and dine at the same restaurant. But I don’t name it to keep my “home away from home” private. Risotto Alla Milanese is my staple meal when stopping for a day.
After Milan, I headed for Altamura, where I collected some linen suits for my summer wardrobe. Although I was driving a high-performance Mercedes-Benz estate car, I have moderated my pace to accommodate the narrower and uneven roads typical of the south. While my sarto Signor di Bernadinis takes the fittings, I lodge in a private villa and feast on the local cuisine. I am now well below the northern rice belt and can wade through the wheat and outstanding pasta of the south.
Lecce in the Salento peninsula (the heel) is often referred to as the Florence of the South. Rich in Baroque architecture with captivating historical and culinary monuments. I walk a few yards from my residence for lunch at “Restaurant La Torre di Merlino”, where the chef, Signor Antonio Torre has prepared an excellent pasta dish, “Tagliatelle ai funghi cardoncello su fonduta di parmigiano” (Pasta with mushrooms on Parmesan cheese fondue) for me. An espresso finishes the joy of lunch.
The few days I plan to spend will be for exploring for gems – a precious lunch and dinner experience. Already my Italian friends have given me insider recommendations. Lecce is definitely the place for divine pastry breakfasts and lazy lunches followed by a stroll through the city’s charming streets. Dinners are even more enjoyable with the cathedral luminance at night. A “caffè con latte di mandorla” (espresso with ice and almond milk) on the Piazza Sant’Oronzo offers an opportunity to admire the majestic stone Sedile, another landmark of Lecce’s past.
I am already seeing the beautiful Valle d’Itria from Gallipoli, Ostuni, long before I arrived. This is the “White City” rising high above the ocean of olive trees that sweep through this verdant area of Puglia – built on a hill to protect from invaders, Ostuni is a certifiable labyrinth, a maze of alleyways, staircases, and arches. Houses were built upon houses. Narrow Medieval streets and historic archways lead into small piazzas bearing hundreds of years of history.
There are no maps to explain or capture. It is a city for historians and explorers, those who remember, and those seeking to capture spontaneous Italian moments. This old town rises on the top of three hills that have been covered for centuries with hundreds of white houses, Gothic and Baroque churches, and white defensive walls encircled by panoramic streets overlooking a stunning landscape.
No film directors invited me to Matera, nor are there any stars with me now. Matera is an ancient southern Italian town that has gone from decrepit squalor to becoming one of Europe’s cultural capitals. It sits in the quiet terrain of Basilicata. Matera’s restaurants boast classics of the region. My lunch is a type of Lucanica sausage seasoned with salt, pepper, fennel seeds and paired with bread. The bread was made with local grains. After the sausage, I’ve had pork ragu with handmade orecchiette pasta, shaped like little ears.
I will have an espresso on the way to see where Mr. James Bond, aka 007, drove his high-speed car chase through its winding streets in his iconic Aston Martin DB5. As a Bond fan, I am looking to pinpoint where the film’s most remarkable scenes took place. Matera’s distinctive landscape has featured in several international productions in the past. Surely there will be more in the future, too. After tracing the route first, I found the place in Matera where Bond quenched his thirst. Even if shaken, a dry Martini cocktail in Matera is a stirring experience.
It was my one month of experience through the beautiful landscapes and historic cities of Italy. I let the images speak from now on. Thank you for reading through my journey. If you haven’t read my article about Pitti Uomo yet – make sure to check that too. You can learn more about me on my website.
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