I took this trip in October 2018, just shortly after the hurricane. I have been on several trips since but am just now getting around to finishing this post!
We met up with the rest of the group in Dublin then traveled north to the Giant’s Causeway, a geological area in Northern Ireland. It’s also where a lot of The Game of Thrones was shot. Then we continued along Causeway Coastal Route to catch our ferry to Scotland, and ultimately the Isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, a group of islands off the coast of Scotland.
Our bus took us to Oban to catch the ferry Craignure on the Isle of Mull. There are mostly single lane roads on this island, but there were lots of places to pull out to let others pass. We headed to Fionnphort to catch our next ferry. This island is the second largest island in the Hebrides, so the one lane road was a surprise since we had to drive about 35 miles on it. Even though it is a large island the population is only about 3000.
Arriving in Fionnphort we got our first glimpse of Iona. A tiny island just a mile off of the Isle of Mull.
This island has been a place of Christian pilgrimage since the 6th century. It’s described as a “thin place” – there are lots of interesting articles about thin places here is one from The New York Times – and another – and one more. What is a thin place? “It is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily.”
Iona was the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. St Columba (grandson of the Irish King Niall) arrived there in 563 AD, built a monastery and converted the pagans to Christianity.
The island is home to the ruins of an ancient nunnery, a medieval abbey, and the burial ground of 48 Scottish kings. It’s a tiny island just 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. Over the centuries the monks of Iona produced elaborate carvings, manuscripts and Celtic crosses. Probably their most famous work was the Book of Kells, from 800 AD, which we saw at Trinity College in Dublin.
On the hike we crossed the most unusual golf course I’ve ever seen with grazing sheep on it.
We arrived at the beach where St Columba first landed and we picked up green serpantine marble – it is a traditional charm against drowning and the evil-eye. The stone is also called Iona greenstone or St. Columba’s tears. There are lots of different types of rocks on this island – some being the oldest rocks on earth – 3 billion years old. To read more about the geology of the area click here.
There is a rock labyrinth on the beach too.
Our days on Iona were spent going to a worship service at the Abbey at 9 am and 9 pm each day, visiting the craft shops, reading, hiking and thinking about life. It was a relaxing visit.
While on a hike across the island we saw spray shooting up out of a hole in the top of a cave, our guide said that only happens when there are big swells on the ocean indicating a storm in the North Atlantic, and in this case heading toward Iona, more about that later.
For such a tiny island with a population of only 175 there are about 10 shops, mostly craft shops. They get about 130,000 visitors each year which supports the shops and the few hotels on the Island. You’ll find lots of things made from wool, there is a potter or two on the island, weaving, paintings, and jewelry made from local stone.
The Abbey was beautiful, the few streets on the island were picturesque, and the view of the sound was lovely.
We intended to leave on Sunday but Saturday morning we were told if we didn’t want to stay until Thursday we needed to EVACUATE today!! Evacuating two times, just weeks apart was no fun but it did add to the adventure.
Since our tour guide could not get a bus around on such short notice to pick us up we had to take public transportation to get to Glasgow. That was a trip.
We took the ferry across the sound and waited for the public bus to leave. As we drove across the island we saw 11 individual rainbows!
We took that bus to the next ferry, which took us to the train, except they were working on the tracks so we took another bus to meet the train which took us to Glasgow. By arriving there a day early we got a chance to do a little touring there. I loved the architecture in the city, we went to the cathedral then we got to go to the Kelvingrove Museum.
Then back to New Bern to get back to the cleanup after the flood. To read part 1 of this trip click here.
We continued on to Alberobello, the home of a large concentration of Trulli. The trulli is a limestone dwelling of corbelled dry-stone construction, a prehistoric building technique still in use in this region. These structures, date from as early as the mid-14th century.
We stayed in an amazing Conference Center, Hotel, and Spa called la Chiusa di Chietri just outside of Alberobello. On their grounds are some of the Trulli. They have some that are restored that you can stay in. And some that are unrestored, we climbed up a precarious pile of stone to stand on a wall to see into what looked like a courtyard or stable.
There are two areas of Alberobello that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, here is what that website says about them:
These structures, dating from as early as the mid-14th century, characteristically feature pyramidal, domed, or conical roofs built up of corbelled limestone slabs. Although rural trulli can be found all along the Itria Valley, their highest concentration and best preserved examples of this architectural form are in the town of Alberobello, where there are over 1500 structures in the quarters of Rione Montcomprises six land parcels extending over an area of 28 acres. The land parcels comprise two districts of the city (quarters or Rione Monti with 1,030 trulli; Rione Aia Piccola with 590 trulli) and four specific locations (Casa d’Amore; Piazza del Mercato; Museo Storico; Trullo Sovrano).
The extent and homogeneity of those areas, the persistence of traditional building techniques, together with the fact that trulli are still inhabited make this property an exceptional Historic Urban Landscape.
Trulli were constructed from roughly worked limestone excavated on-site in the process of creating sub-floor cisterns and from boulders collected from nearby fields and rock outcrops. Characteristically, the buildings are rectangular forms with conical corbelled roofs. The whitewashed walls of the trulli are built directly onto limestone bedrock and constructed using a dry-stone wall technique (that is, without use of mortar or cement).
A doorway and small windows pierce the walls. An internal fireplace and alcoves are recessed into the thick walls. The roofs are also double-skinned, comprising a domed inner skin of wedge-shaped stone (used in building an arch or vault) capped by a closing stone; and a watertight outer cone built up of corbelled limestone slabs, known as chianche or chiancarelle. The roofs of buildings often bear mythological or religious markings in white ash and terminate in a decorative pinnacle whose purpose is to ward off evil influences or bad luck. Water is collected via projecting eaves at the base of the roof which divert water through a channelled slab into a cistern beneath the house. Flights of narrow stone steps give access to the roofs.
The tradition of building in this style has been in the region for over one thousand years. By the mid-16th century the Monti district was occupied by some forty trulli, but it was in 1620 that the settlement began to expand, when the Count of the period, Gian Girolamo Guercio, ordered the construction of a bakery, mill, and inn. By the end of the 18th century the community numbered over 3500 people. In 1797, feudal rule came to an end, the name of Alberobello was adopted, and Ferdinand IV, Bourbon King of Naples, awarded to Alberobello the status of royal town. After this time the construction of new trulli declined.
Between 1909 and 1936 parts of Alberobello were protected through designation as heritage monuments. One thing I found interesting is why this type of structure was popular originally.
They are quite simple buildings to erect because the building process involves no cement – just placing rocks on top of each other. That means they are also quite easy to dismantle.
Centuries ago, when the tax collector was coming from Naples to gather his dues from the locals, they all just took down their houses and so didn’t need to pay anything. Today when restoring trulli they do add cement for safely.
In addition to wonderful olive oil, ice cream, jewelry, wine and liquor, leather goods, and pasta, being produced in the area, there are a lot of weavers too. We came home with some pieces from Donna Lia.
There are symbols on the roofs of many of the trullo. Many are to guard against evil. The different groups are primitive, pagan, magic, Christian, and ornamental. The primitive signs go back to pre-Roman times.
The provided meals on this tour have been great. Of course I love southern Italian food, it’s simple. Our guide Alfredo said they try to use no more than 4 ingredients. It seems about every other night the evening meal is part of the tour, every breakfast is included. The tour company is GoAhead Tours. This is the third time I’ve traveled with them and all three tours have been great.
Masseria (Masseria means farm) Papaperta is a historic Apulian masseria of the 1700s surrounded by the green of the Itria valley near Alberobello. Even today, on the entrance to the main hall, is visible the stone that shows the engraving with the date and the name of its ancient founder: 1724 Nicolò Perta.
Another town with unusual architecture in this region is Matera. Matera is famous for its sassi – stone houses carved of of caves and cliffs.
At first sight, thesassi looks like a jumble of faded stone huts – where narrow alleys and stairways lead every which way and streets are sometimes rooftops – but behind the house-like facades are simple caves, inhabited since Paleolithic times – the Stone Age. They say this could be one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the world. Some of the dwellings are 12 stories high, the floor of one is the stone roof of another, cave upon cave.
People lived in the sassi up until the 1950s when it came to the attention of the outside world what bad conditions people were living under. Large families lived with their livestock in the caves without running water, electricity or sewage. The government then relocated the inhabitants of the caves into new housing in the new town on top of the cliff.
Our local guide Brunella said her Grandmother – now 95 – lived in the sassi. She asked her granddaughter “What you do for a living I don’t understand, why would anyone want to see that, they should go see our mall.” Living conditions were pretty miserable for her and the others living there. Brunella also said that as a child – when the sassi was just abandoned and no one lived there, they would skip school and play there knowing no one would ever find them. Photos of interior below – doesn’t look too bad now but add animals, no running water or toilets.
They would often share a common oven somewhere in the Sassi to bake their bread. Each person “branded” theirs with an iron so they knew which loaves were theirs.
The area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993. People are moving back into the caves, having been restored and transformed into comfortable houses, restaurants and hotels.
The best way to experience Matera is to wander through the labyrinthine alleys and streets of the twosassi districts, Sasso Barisanoand Sasso Caveoso.
Matera was built above a deep ravine called Gravina of Matera that divides the territory into two areas. Matera was built such that it is hidden, but made it difficult to provide a water supply to its inhabitants. Early dwellers invested tremendous energy in building cisterns and systems of water channels.
The largest cistern has been found under Piazza Vittorio Veneto. With its solid pillars carved from the rock and a vault height of more than 50 feet and it is like a water cathedral, which is navigable by boat. Like other cisterns in the town, it collected rainwater that was filtered and flowed in a controlled way to the Sassi.
There were also a large number of little superficial canals that fed pools and hanging gardens. Later, when the population increased, many of these cisterns were turned into houses and other kinds of water-harvesting systems were developed.
From the Sassi we traveled over the Apennines to the Almafi Coast. I didn’t realize just how high this mountain range is. The highest point is 6500 feet which doesn’t compare to Colorados 14,000 footers but from here we are starting at sea level, not 5000 feet like Colorado. It was a beautiful drive, the fields of poppies were beautiful. I also loved the way they train their Pittosporum into trees. Might be a different genus than the ones I have in my yard but I might try to trim mine differently after seeing these.
We spent 2 nights in Salerno, not my favorite city but it’s on the water and we had a beautiful meal right across the street from our hotel. The owner brought the fish out on a platter for us to choose from. We even had our own private fireworks!
We drove to Amalfi and toured the town. The crypt of the Cathedral there is stunning. Surprisingly Amalfi was not my favorite, pretty touristy, Ravello was. We didn’t see all the towns along the coast but of the ones we saw Ravello captured my image of that coastline.
The images below are of Ravello
Ravello, like other towns along the Amalfi Coast were settled by Romans who built the amazing road along the cliffs, still in use today.
There are two fabulous gardens in the town. Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo. I’m sorry we never made it to Villa Cimbrone, we were beat by that time. A good reason to go back.
We stayed in Salnero for 2 nights to tour the Almafi coast, if I were to do it again I would stay in Sorrento or our guide suggested Praiano (near Positano but not as expensive). That being said we had a fabulous dinner with an amazing view and even our own (or so it seemed) fireworks. We were presented with the fish we might wish to eat. We had that along with broiled vegetables and yellow potatoes. Bobbi and I had a knack for picking memorable places to eat and the food was always fresh and yummy.
We had two stops on our way back to Salerno. One was in Minori at an amazing place if you like pastries.
They are most famous for their Delizia al Limone. Again not on WW but worth the points.
Eat dessert first – which we did – then our last meal of the trip was eaten at Ristorante San Pietro, Cetera. It was great. We started with a half dozen hors-d’œuvre’s each one tastier than the last. The biggest surprise was the pasta with a simple sauce which included anchovies, I’m generally not a fan but you couldn’t really taste the fish, it just added a slight tang. Delizioso!
The trip was perfect. What were my favorite places and experiences? I’m used to traveling alone so was thrilled to have a totally compatible companion in Bobbi to travel with. Since it was our first trip together we didn’t know how it would be but it couldn’t have been better. And I’ll have to say it WAS more fun than alone. As far as the places we saw I guess I would say Lecce (love the over the top architectural decoration and our restaurant experience), Osterini (because of the beautiful restaurant we ate in and the art gallery with unusual pottery), and the old town Bari and Ravello. But every single place we went was wonderful. Ciao!
Lecce is in the heel of Italy’s boot, with olive trees as far as the eye can see. It is called the Florence of the South because of its baroque architecture. As we found in Bari the shops close from 1-3 for siesta! I don’t remember them doing this in other parts of Italy I have visited. And it might just be in the old part of town that this happens.
While the history of Lecce goes way back the period Lecce is most famous for is the 17th century when the Palaces and churches were built in the Baroque style out of soft local limestone. The Basilica di Santa Croce is the focal point of the old city with its amazing facade. But there are many other fabulously decorated churches in this small space.
You can still see ruins of a Roman amphitheatre which is at the dividing line of the old and new city. The amphitheatre is surrounded by buildings put up by Batista – Fascist architecture – which we saw a lot of in Napoli. It is partly buried because other ancient building were built on top of it. In its day it would hold 20,000. It is still used today for concerts and celebrations. Only the lower tier of seats remain. Near the square theatre there is a pre-Roman necropolis where Messapian inscriptions have been found.
There are a lot of beautiful shops with local art. I don’t recall seeing the pumi before. Pumi are decorative elements in a form recalling a bud that is going to bloom. Symbolizing prosperity and fertility, in the folk culture of the Southern Italy they defend from evil. Deeply rooted in the traditional culture of the ‘heel of the boot’, Pumi are very popular in Puglia, decorating magnificent palaces as well as simple balconies. I could do without the fertility but had to have one to take home.
We had a great time shopping in Lecce, both Bobbi and I met artists and purchased there work. We saw a lot of earthenware sculpture with a white glaze – love it.
This region is also famous for its papier mâché.
Scenes from Lecce.
We went to Otranto for a quick visit, and had a wonderful farm to table meal and wine tasting close by.
We left Lecce the next day and drove to Ostuni – the White City on the top of a hill. Ostuni is located in a region that has been inhabited since the stone age. It is believed to have to been founded by the Messapii, destroyed by the armies of Hannibal during the Punic Wars and then re-built by the Greeks – hence the Ostuni name meaning “new town.”
Its whitewashed defensive walls and houses in the old town with many winding streets, steps and beautifully decorated, colorful window frames can make you think you’re somewhere in Greece. Ostuni’s history is shown predominately within it’s architecture; with many buildings still standing dating back as far as 990 AD when the city was sacked by the Normans and added to it’s own county. The majority of buildings date from 1300 to 1463.
As I discovered the last time I was in Italy the further south I got the more I liked the food and the fewer people there were – well once you get away from Napoli.
My trip started by arriving in Naples, one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. Before I left home I saw a couple of videos and heard people talk about Naples, or Napoli as we were instructed to say (because Naples is in Florida) they said it’s chaotic, dirty, and crowded. It’s all of that but I’m glad I got to walk the streets. The architecture, the street food, the graffiti, the people, all were wonderful (well maybe not the graffiti). Driving from the airport to our hotel, just off Toledo, made me glad I was not driving, it reminded me of driving around the Arc De Triomph in Paris, or pretty much anywhere in Mexico City. You just go and hope others will not hit you, no street lights, hardly any lane markings through some of the city. You walk that way as well, we were told, cross at the crosswalk and be assertive, just step out and they will stop.
There are 60 museums in the city, we visited the Muse o Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli which has many artifacts found at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Some of our group went to Herculaneum, I had been to Pompeii on a previous trip so chose to stroll the streets.
We only got to see one of the Subway stations but Line 1 and Line 6 of the Napoli subway system have become an open-air museum with masterpieces between the staircases and docks. The stations are filled with colors, mosaics, installations, sculptures and photographs. Architects were chosen from across the globe to design each of the stations and international and Italian artists to provide the art. It has made a significant impact on the surrounding areas of the stations they say. Read more about it.
Not on WW but had to have a sfogliatella – The sfogliatella Santa Rosa was created in the monastery of Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini in the province of Salerno, Italy, in the 17th century. Pasquale Pintauro, a pastry chef from Naples, acquired the original recipe and began selling the pastries in his shop in 1818. Yum!
We left Napoli and drove to the city of Benevento –A UNESCO World Heritage Site . They know the Romans were here in 298 BC, there is a large Roman theatre here and the Arch of Trajann. The Arch of Trajan is one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the Campania (as this region of Italy is called). The church we visited was built in 760 – The Church of Santa Sofia, it’s circular of Lombard design. It was severely damaged in an earthquake a while back but has been restored. It’s interesting that in the construction they used artifacts as building materials, some from the Roman times. They also have a lot of artifacts from that period on their grounds. The church has a cloister from the 12th century. The church interior was once totally frescoed by Byzantine artists: fragments of these paintings, portraying the Histories of Christ, can be still seen in the two side aps.
The Appian Way is one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic. And it ran right through this arch.
From Benevento we headed east and stopped at an interesting Castle Castel del Monte or Castle of the Mountain – built in the 13th-century it sits alone on a hill, no need for a moat because being the highest point in the area you could see the enemy coming, even from the sea. It was built by the Emperor Frederick II, who had inherited the lands from his mother Constance of Sicily. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of 54 in Italy – of the 1092 sites worldwide, Italy has the most of any country.
The Between Benevento and Bari were miles and miles and miles of olive trees and vineyards. Bari is on the Adriatic Sea. Again – reading about Bari on the internet people kind of pan it. But we were entralled. The ancient part of Bari – Bari Vecchia – is a maze of narrow alleys. It is fascinating. The homes are tiny and much of their living is on the street.
St Nicholas is the patron Saint of Bari. They were preparing for the twice yearly celebrated festival when we were there. If you go on a tour in Europe you invariably go to dozens of churches, the Basilica of San Nicola, is a treasure built in 1087 to house the relics of the patron saint of the city. Today it is a popular destination for pilgrims from all over the world, devoted to St. Nicholas, but especially Russian Orthodox citizens, with whom the city of Bari has important relationships. Putin had even visited there recently.
There is a pasta that they make here – the women sit in their doorways and cut and twist the pasta into shapes called orecchiette – little ears. Click here to see a video of them cutting and twisting the pasta.
From Bari we headed to Monopoli – a town with heavy Greek influences. The Agean sea is less that 70 miles wide at this point with Albania and Greece being the closest countries to the east.
Our last stop of the day was to visit an olive farm – Masseria Brancati – This is the oldest masseria (fortified farmhouse) in the region. They gave us a tour of their ancient underground oil mill used throughout the Middle Ages and up until 1800. We saw olive trees that were 2000 years old. There are some in the region that are 4000 years old. The oldest trees are given a number and are protected – read about the Millenari Di Puglia. We tasted their oil and learned about the different qualities of them. The first press is the extra virgin and has the most antioxidants and is the strongest. Whether extra virgin or virgin has to do with the time the olive is harvested. Here in this region (maybe everywhere I don’t know) they are harvested first in October, then 2nd in November and 3rd in December. The December harvest is the mildest and the one you cook with. The October is the strongest flavor and most healthy. The November oil falls somewhere in-between.
We had some rain in the area of Italy “that it never rains” but it didn’t dampen our spirits or slow us down.
Next stop Lecce – called the Florence of the South – in Road Trip Southern Italy Part 2
Janet Francoeur is a painter, a tile maker, a wanna be writer, an ok photographer, a gardener, she has wanderlust and not enough time to do everything she wants to do! Jan, as she likes to be called, has been a professional artist her entire adult life. She started with drawing in pencil, then ink, then watercolor, clay and now oil and mosaic. For 25 years she did house portraits in ink and for the past 15 years she also does them in watercolor. Jan and her husband Michael moved to New Bern, North Carolina in 1989 from Aspen, Colorado, where they had lived for 6 years. They were both born and raised in southern Michigan not far from Ann Arbor.