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A Travel Expert's Diary: Exploring Southern Italy's Timeless Charm and Beauty


(The following daily travel blog was posted for RLX Travel Group social media fans to follow along. Please enjoy!)


Italy is one of the top travel destinations in Europe that offers many unique experiences for visitors. Along with the famous delicious food and wine, it has a rich history with many ancient ruins and beautiful places to explore. The country is also known for its romantic atmosphere and stunning landscapes that attract visitors from all over the world.


 

As someone who has already explored the beautiful city of Rome, the famous Trevi Fountain, and enjoyed the breathtaking scenery of the Amalfi coast, I'm excited to share my tips and advice on all the luxury experiences for anyone planning a trip to Italy. 

 

When in Rome…


After taking a forty-minute ride from the airport to my hotel, I checked into the new Sixth Senses Hotel, located a short distance from the Spanish Steps and nearby Trevi Fountain. The temperature was an ever-pleasant 75F, and the humidity was low. What a great way to begin my experience in Italy. 


Two huge highlights rounded out my day in Rome.


1. An Exciting Tour of Rome in Antique Automobiles

This afternoon, I joined a small group tour comprising five Americans and an Aussie. Our first highlight was a tour of Rome, cruising around in antique automobiles. Friends, these cars were show-stoppers! We zipped around town and hopped into a different auto each time our group stopped for a fun photo opportunity.



Okay, the experience was fun, but seeing the faces of onlookers as we approached made it even more exciting. Young and old whipped out their cell phones to record the moment, and many waved. Who doesn't love the wind whipping through your hair in a convertible car?



We zipped up to Aventine Hill for a scenic photo of Rome. Aventine Hill is one of the Seven Hills on which ancient Rome was built. The orange grove was lovely, and the trees had fruit on them. Unfortunately, the oranges weren't ripe. (I wish I had one to taste right now). At the end of our ride, the drivers delivered us safely to our next activity.  


2. Learning the Art of Authentic Italian Pizza-Making with a Local Chef

Is anyone up for a pizza-making class? ME! It was time to learn how to make authentic Italian pizza with a famous local chef! Now, let me say this: she was very, very serious about her dough. She told our group about the length of time she lets every batch of focaccia and pizza dough rise - 24-36 hours!



Next, she demonstrated how to hydrate focaccia, sprinkle it with seasoning, salt, and rosemary, and prepare it for baking. When the focaccia came out of the oven, we sampled it with some local meats; it was fantastic!


The chef detailed why she believed Americans make our pizza incorrectly. She proceeded to tell us the Roman way. Honestly, it didn't hurt my feelings at all. I attended the class to learn how to make authentic styled Italian pizza. 


Interestingly enough, I learned this: Most meats and cheese are not to be placed on the pizza until the last 2 minutes of cooking. Yes, you heard me right! While baking it, prepare your meats and cheese. Two minutes before the pizza is done, pull it out and put on the meats and mozzarella. Pop it back in the oven until the cheese is bubbly.  


My pizza turned out to be very tasty, and so I deem the class a success! Yay!


Day 2

We are on an outing to visit an often-overlooked treasure on the outskirts of Rome. It's time to walk through the ancient ruins of Ostia Antica. (If you decide to visit, wear great walking shoes.)



This morning, we met our fantastic archeologist and tour guide, Roberta. She provided a brief overview of what we would learn on the tour. Roberta was a passionate presenter, and through her enthusiasm, she introduced us to ancient Roman life and its many experiences. (As someone who participates in a ton of tours, Roberta's excitement was a breath of fresh air.)


As I walked through the ruins, I was amazed at how much had been preserved from the Teatro (theater), laundry, public toilet facility, the restaurant that served the servant class and poor, and the home of a well-to-do citizen. I would highly recommend visiting Ostia Antica if you plan to visit Rome. 


Now we are off to lunch. The staff at Hotel Dinghilterra hosts the lunch meal. This hotel has hosted Gregory Peck, Ernest Hemingway, and Stanley Tucci. The meal was fantastic! This hotel hearkened back to an older Italy and was a delightful change from the modern vibe of Sixth Senses.



After lunch, my companions and I returned to the Sixth Senses Rome hotel to participate in sound therapy yoga and the Roman baths. Sound therapy yoga… I didn't even know what this was, so I had to roll with the punches. (In case you are unfamiliar with it too, you lie on mats with an eye mask on your face while the yogi plays relaxing sounds on a cymbal, gong, and specialized music box.)



The goal of the class is to create relaxation at specific frequencies to help promote relaxation and good health in participants. Some of my travel companions fell asleep. After the session, we went directly to the Roman baths. Friends, it was such a pleasure to lounge in the pools. It was a great place to soak my achy body from all the daily activities.



As a side note, I truly want to get a photo of Trevi Fountain without a million heads in my picture. Every time I walk by the fountain, the area is swarmed with tourists. 


Me to the hotel concierge: I want to get a photo of Trevi Fountain with no one in my picture. Is that possible? 

Concierge to me: Ah, madam, you must go very early. 


And early I went! I was successful!! No heads in the photo. 


Melissa at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy

After this fun pic, it was time to meet up with our private driver for a ride to Naples. (This gentleman was made of patience!) As we arrived in town, the heavy rain greeted us. Our schedule today? A short walk around the Catholic church and then a yummy food tour. 


The street vendors sold us umbrellas for a couple of euros. We went off to sample the coffees and espresso, pizza, mozzarella cheese tasting, Sfogliotella, gelato, and other sweet baked goods. 



Who knew I would love buffalo mozzarella cheese so much? Cheese, cheese, and more cheese. And let's talk about the espresso. Before arriving in Italy, I read that locals only drank espresso after 11 am. Well, I'm here to tell you that is not true. My tour guide and her friends knock off their first cup each morning at 8–9 am and drink more throughout the afternoon! Our guide was apologetic for the rain, but I'll never forget Naples because of it.  


From Naples, we drove to Positano. Yes, the rain continued, but there are no bad pictures when visiting Positano. Upon arriving at Le Sirenuse Hotel, we were warmly greeted and taken on a hotel tour. What a gorgeous place! This is a 5-star property. The service is impeccable.

After checking in, I decided to walk along the narrow road through town (yes, it was uphill. Everything is uphill!)


My view from patio at Le Sirenuse in Positano
My view from patio at Le Sirenuse in Positano

This evening, we met the owners and their families and enjoyed a meal fit for a king. Beef tartare, plated cheeses, veal cooked to perfection, shrimp and sea bass, and so much more. When fine dining in Italy, you must plan for the experience to take a few hours. There are multiple courses served. You dine at leisure with your companions. The attendants and servers watch to see if you are enjoying the fare.



Europeans love food and enjoy the process of the meal itself. During dinner, we were charmed by musicians roaming casually around the restaurant. What a pleasure to hear them croon while enjoying great food and excellent company. 


Tomorrow, on to a mozzarella cheese-making demonstration, lunch at an off-the-beaten-path restaurant, and then to Amalfi!


Day 3

Today, our private yacht tour of the coast was canceled. While it wasn't raining, the waters were still rough, so there was no yacht tour for us.  


However, our hosts quickly adjusted and called their friends for a private tour of their lemon farm, an olive oil tasting class, and to see mozzarella cheese being made before our eyes. I'm a garden geek, and the lemon tree farm was such an amazing learning experience.



Next, it was time to see the mozzarella cheese being made. I've eaten lots of mozzarella cheese since I've been in Italy- seriously a lot of it. Buffalo mozzarella, cow's milk mozzarella - YUM! Mr. Benedetto provided a thorough presentation and made the cheese before our eyes. (I say this because he knew I was making a video, so he let me see it up close and personal).


The milk and ingredients congealed quickly. He showed how the cheese was pinched off to create the small pearls and braids. It was entertaining and great information for those interested in making their own cheeses at home. 


From here, it is lunch time then onto Amalfi.


Oh, Amalfi… what a beautiful place you are! We checked into the Santa Caterina Hotel for one night. The staff welcomed us, and we received a hotel tour to view several rooms. (This part of my job I really enjoy! I am able to sneak a peek into the Presidential suites or specialty rooms to envision how they would fit my clients' needs.) 


Beautiful view from Hotel Santa Caterina of Amalfi
Beautiful view from Hotel Santa Caterina of Amalfi


This evening, the chef prepared a special meal for our group. I don't eat seafood, so he prepared a special meal for me - a perfectly cooked medium-rare sirloin. 


Tomorrow, we drive to Matera. I don't know much about the area, but I will share my findings with you!


Day 4

Today, we skirted the coast for a scenic drive into the Italian countryside to the city of Matera. While the rolling hills were beautiful, it was a challenging change of scenery after spending time in Positano and Amalfi. The rocky coasts were stunning, and now I was in a bland-looking city set in the countryside. 


Matera, the city of caves
Matera, the city of caves

Friends, I was so wrong about Matera. Let me share. 


Emanuel, our driver, dropped us off for a city walking tour. Our guide greeted us warmly. He was a very soft-spoken gentleman who shared the 3 major professions in the area—shepherd, farmer, and tour guide. He took us on a leisurely stroll around the city square and showed us the lovely church built into the limestone hillside. Then he suggested that we follow him down the stairs…. And that is when I saw the historic portion of Matera called Sassi. 



The hillside flowed with cream and rust-colored limestone caves, and entrances overflowed with bougainvillea and greenery. Our guide explained the area's history as we wound our way down the hill using the worn steps of old. Residents lived in the caves until 70 years ago when Mussolini made them build dingy gray-colored apartments and move out. (Hence the dingy, gray-colored apartment buildings I saw when we arrived in town).


In the 80s, the UNESCO World Heritage organization did a site survey and determined Matera needed to be preserved. The area is slowly beginning to be resurrected. Over the years, drug users and vagrants considered Sassi their preferred place to meet and misbehave. Now, the caves are being cleaned. Restaurants have moved in, and a hotel is located there. 


Sassi de Matera
Sassi de Matera

Now, I thought this would be a walking tour of a city, but I was wrong. Sextantio hosted our group, and the hotel was built into caves. That's right, I would spend the night in one of the historic caves!! I was speechless (I know, hard to believe if you know me, right?)

(I'm posting the video tour of my cave room. Check it out!)



As we walked around Sassi, I looked down the hill and discovered a group of people hiking and crossing a swinging bridge. If you visit Matera (Sassi) and feel you need extra exercise, be aware you can take a 2-3 mile hike across the opposite side of the canyon. 


After walking up and down what seemed like thousands of stairs, it was time for lunch. We entered the hotel restaurant , and our jaws dropped. Candles lit up the tables and brightened the farthest corners of the cave area. Platters of food were laid out in charcuterie style on the table , and each of us was seated at the lovely table. 



Our restaurant host greeted us. She also happened to be the cook who prepared the amazing fare of the day. What made the lunch even more memorable was this: our host's mother lived in one of the caves until Mussolini deemed it unfit. She recalled many of her mother's tales about living in Sassi. What a wonderful connection point! I'll never forget our host or Sassi because this lovely lady shared about her life and family with us.


For our evening activity in Matera, we hopped in motorized Tuk Tuks for a spin through town to view the city while it was illuminated. My driver, Antonio, was quite animated and made the ride even more enjoyable. We zipped up and down hills and paused occasionally for photo opportunities.


In the city square area, there was a guitarist playing. He was very good, and I loved the Italian flavor his music added to my videos. Italians truly come to life in the evenings, and the crowd surrounding the musician was large.


And then dinner… food, food, and more yummy food! 


Now it is time for lights out. Caves can be dark, but I quickly remedied the problem. I went to reception and snagged a few extra candles, and wah-lah! All is good!


Day 5

On my way to the Italian Adriatic region of Apuglia

From Matera, our small group boarded the van and drove toward the glimmering waters of the Adriatic Sea with a much-anticipated stop at a renowned olive grove. This incredible farm included over 800 trees planted by the Romans well over a thousand years ago.



In addition, several trees were aged between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. The oldest tree was knarled, curled, hobbled over, and propped up. I photographed the tree, and you will notice the pic showing the inside of it. The Romans planted trees sixty feet by sixty feet from each other to supply ample light and moisture. Nowadays, the olive trees are certainly not afforded as much space. 



You should expect to taste olive oil if you are lucky enough to visit an olive tree grove. You bet! And we did. From peppery-flavored extra virgin oil to a light virgin oil perfect for cooking, we sampled and learned more about preparing our favorite dishes at home and the medicinal properties of the golden oil. 


After a wonderful tour of the olive grove, our driver zipped us off to lunch. Our host eagerly welcomed us at Masseria Torre Maizza, an elegant hotel located a stone's throw from the coast.


Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia
Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia


Our lunch was a multi-course feast for the soul. The fragrance and taste of each plate was delightfully delicious. After our meal, we walked around the property to take a peek at several suites. The hotel offers simply gorgeous accommodations and I would heartily recommend this hotel to anyone visiting the area.





After this, we drove to the town of Lecce for a two-night stay in the city center. As the sun sets, the dainty lights intertwined throughout the tree branches begin to twinkle. Shopkeepers gently sweep the cobblestone patios in preparation for the evening patrons. Baristas move extra chairs outdoors so espresso sippers can enjoy the views. The city comes alive between 10 pm-12 am each evening.


My final day…

After a short drive from Lecce, we arrived in Salento. Our driver expertly navigated our van to a small village called Sternatia e il Palazzo Granafei, also known as Sternatia. So, what makes Sternatia special? Let me count the ways :)



First, the small village residents speak an ancient Greek dialect called Griko.

Sternatia is one of nine towns in the Salento area where the language is spoken. I asked my Italian hosts traveling with me if they could understand the language. They answered emphatically, "No, not at all." Our local guide provided printed handouts of Griko phrases to assist us when greeting the locals. I certainly appreciated the printed prompt sheet!


Second, the town serves as a special living area for older adults. 

Residents are encouraged to work and stay active; many volunteer and continue to work. 


After a brief walk, we entered a great hall and received a hearty welcome from our interpreter and two gentlemen in Sternatia. One man was 91, and the second was in his late 70s. One of them recited a poem to help us hear their language when spoken. I loved this! What a beautiful way to share.


Afterward, we sauntered to the olive pressing area and walked down many stairs. This visit was significant to me because the older gentleman shared tales of the living conditions where the men and their donkeys spent months underground pressing and filtering the oil for lamps. Yes, friends, he lived here when he was a young man. 



And then, it was time to meet our local grandmothers for the day. What a greeting! At 6 am, they ventured into the castle's kitchen to begin cooking for our group. (We had lunch at 2 pm.)


While they continued to cook, we toured the castle's living quarters. From the frescos painted on the ceiling of the living room to the ingenious water delivery system designed to make water available for all (servants and owners of the castle), to the children's room and toys, and on to the servants' quarters, the tour was so interesting.


And now to the lunch prepared by our two nonnas. It was simply fantastic! Small bowls of vegetables and pasta were placed on the tables at various stages, allowing us to dine at leisure. It was by far one of the best meals I had in Italy, and I loved the ladies' energy and enthusiasm. We felt like a part of their family! 


After I gorged myself on the food, it was time for some exercise. Our group met up with a tour guide for a city walk in the town of Lecce. 



Allora, we took a walking tour of the Old Town of Lecce. We saw many baroque-style buildings and churches and had a wonderful experience. The town comes alive in the evening. 


If this trip sounds like something you would love to experience with your friends or family, let's chat! I partner with world-class Italian hoteliers and tour operators who make it their business to make every dream come true when traveling to Italy. From weddings in a castle, private shopping trips, tours of the Ferrari museum, Modena tastings, you name it and they can make it happen.




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