05 SEP 2018: On a bright February day, just three weeks after we had arrived in Sicily, we again crossed the Strait of Messina bound back to Italy's mainland.  We planned to pause in the city of Reggio di Calabria, after which we intended to hug the coast around Italy's 'instep' and 'heel' before heading north.


 We first stopped in the large city of Reggio di Calabria in order to visit the Museo Archeologico, which, since the early eighties, has been home to two splendid statues, now the pride of Calabria. Known as the Riace Bronzes, or Bronze Warriors, these larger-than-life statues were discovered by a snorkeller - Stefano Mariottini - off the coast of Riace, a tiny village near Reggio di Calabria.  At a depth of about six metres, Mariottini spotted an 'arm' emerging from the sand which at first he though was a human body.   On looking closer he realized it was made of bronze, part of a large statue with another buried in the sand nearby.

After excavation and years of meticulous restoration, these magnificent bronzes were displayed in Florence and Rome, before being returned to the Archeological Museum of Reggio de Calabria, where they are now displayed in their own gallery atop anti-seismic marble platforms.  The statues are Greek, thought to have been lost overboard from a ship around 2,000 years ago.  They stand today as testament to the art and craftsmanship of those times and they alone make a visit to Calabria worthwhile.  (The statues were featured in the BBC series entitled 'How Art Made the World' [2005] as well as in many archeological and art magazines around the world.)

From Reggio di Calabria we headed out on the coast road, making short excursions on the scenic roads into the interior hills with their ancient villages, ruins, churches and cathedrals.  It's a wonderful, beautiful part of Italy, made all the more so by its comparative lack of tourists, although there are signs (hotels, road improvements etc.) that changes are in the works.  Several times we just pulled off the road and parked our motorhome beside the shore for the night; one morning waking to find an enterprising farmer parked in his little truck nearby, waiting for us to emerge and inspect and buy the fresh produce he was offering.  

On around the coast we drove, from Calabria through Basilicata and on to the province of Puglia.  The coast road around the tip of Italy's 'heel' is especially beautiful, crowned by the pretty town at the cape known as Marina di Leuca.  Puglia is fast becoming 'discovered' by investors and entrepreneurs, with a growing list of the rich and famous buying homes here.  We'd read about the region's famous round trulli houses, but thought they were little more than peasants' hovels.  But oh no, all over Puglia these ancient farmers' lodgings are being converted and incorporated into lovely homes, boutique hotels and charming shops.  However, holiday-makers should be aware that there are few beaches in this region; the coast is rocky.  Instead, prosperity has led to the creation of fancy 'day spas' where visitors can pay a fee and enjoy such amenities as swimming pools, 'false' beaches and restaurants.

North of the cape a beautiful coastal road, with a short highway leg into the interior, leads travellers to ancient Lecce, a Baroque city full of ornate churches and palaces and busy piazzas.  We were rather disappointed here as many of the buildings were shrouded in plastic sheets and scaffolding on account of much restoration.  However, this will pass and any traveller close by shouldn’t miss the city, full of treasures.

En route to Bari we made detours inland along scenic roads to visit Ostuni and Alberobello.  Ostuni is a pretty hill-top town surrounded by lovely farmlands with charming homes.  Alberobello is an entire town of white trulli houses, transformed into shops and restaurants.  Lots of them - it must be full of tourists in the summer months but it certainly is unique and worth a visit.

The international airport is at Bari where there's an Old Town, sweeping bay and a thriving modern section ... a much larger city than we had imagined.  On the coast nearby is the lovely restaurant-lined harbour in attractive Trani, where we found the well-heeled enjoying the mild sunshine on the many restaurant patios.

A detour from Bari to Matera, in the neighbouring province of Basilicata, is on the itinerary of most Puglia tours.  And for good reason.  This beguiling ancient city is a place of caves, grottoes and Renaissance houses and churches spectacularly set on a ravine edge. Until quite recently people lived in the caves and rock-cut hovels, but the entire population was rehoused in the middle of the last century by a government that was embarrassed at the poverty here.  It's poor no longer ... the dwellings have been renovated into restaurants, lovely little hotels, gift boutiques (not many) and museums showing the ancient way of life there.  Matera was one of the highlights of our whole Italian trip and should not to be missed.

For travellers who are already familiar with Italy's popular sites - the famous cities, Tuscany and so on - we highly recommend returning to the country to visit the southern regions.  A glance at the Michelin map shows that most of the roads here are scenic, passing through hills and national parks with the beautiful coast never far away.  Although being 'discovered', the region is still quieter than other parts of Italy, yet it has much to offer and has provided us with many outstanding memories.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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