Last summer, while on the way back from Florence to our apartment in Southern Italy, Chris and I stayed with some friends of ours in a villa in Montepulciano for a few days. While having dinner at a restaurant in the area, I noticed a nearby hill town silhouetted against the beautiful Tuscan sunset.
The following morning, the village looked even more intriquing from our villa, and we decided to visit it.
Pienza is just a few miles away from its better-known sister village of Montepulciano (which we had visited the previous day) and turned out to be a short 20-min. drive away from our villa.
The history of Pienza is fascinating. The village is in the beautiful Val d’Orcia area and was originally settled in the 8th century as Corsignano. The noble Piccolimini family from Siena had vast estates in the neighboring areas; Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born into that family in Corsignano in 1405.
After studying in Siena and Florence, Enea became a brilliant orator and scholar, and was elected Pope in 1458 as Pope Pius II. He had a dream of transforming his native village into an ideal Renaissance town, much like a smaller Rome. He enlisted the help of the architect Bernardo Rossellino to start work on the reconstruction of Corsignano in 1459. Pius II renamed the village as Pienza, after himself. Most of the work on the village stopped with his death in 1464.
In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site.
We found Pienza to be much less crowded than Moltepulciano and enjoyed walking through its narrow streets and visiting several shops.
One of the highlights of our visit was seeing the Palazzo Piccolomino, the main residence of Pope Pius II, with its beautiful courtyard, gardens, and views of the surrounding Val d’Orcia.
Pienza’s Cathedral is a masterpiece by Rossellino that combined Gothic style and new Renaissance ideas.
In Pienza, you can enjoy beautiful artistic and architectural beauty, in a peaceful setting away from the large crowds of the bigger Italian cities.
It is 7:00 AM and I am so comfortable. The antique bed holds me in its arms and refuses to let me go. The sun slants in my window tickling me awake.
From the edges of my consciousness I hear the sounds of the church bells reminding the faithful that it is time to get up and come to the church in the piazza. It is time come together to start a new day.
With my eyes still closed I smile because I am waking up knowing I am still in Italy.
The weather is warm and moist in my village, just up the hill from the seaside town of Scalea.
I toss on a light dress and head up to the piazza. I sit at a table just outside the little bar while the owner brings me a cappuccino and a freshly baked croissant filled with sweet cream, still warm from the oven.
The people buzz in and out of the bar tossing back bitter, black espresso and shouting to each other as they head off to work.
The lady who owns the flower shop across the piazza opens her doors and brings out her flowers. She stops and smiles, and we wave.
Seven years ago, my husband and I purchased a house on the top floor of an ancient building in the hilltop town of Santa Domenica Talao, Calabria, Italy.
After a short visit we decided that this is where we wanted to spend our best years. We wanted to wake up to the church bells, gaze at the sea from our balcony and laugh as the swifts dip, dive and buzz our heads.
And we have never looked back.
When travel guidebooks talk of Italy, they rhapsodize about the regions north of Naples. They completely ignore the South of Italy and in doing so, do a grave disservice to their readers.
There are so many reasons that Calabria is the dream destination not only for travelers but also for expats. It is tough to list just a few.
Southern Italy traditionally was considered the poor region. While this was true before the 1950’s it is not true now.
Nonetheless, the prices are ridiculously inexpensive compared to Rome or anywhere in Tuscany.
A cappuccino in Rome costs about three euros whereas a cappuccino and pastry costs one euro thirty in my village.
Hotel accommodations are almost half what you would pay for similar accommodations further north.
Most mornings I visit my friend Nunzia who owns the store in the piazza. Parked nearby is an ape, the little three wheeled truck that is ubiquitous in Italy. It is filled with whatever produce is leftover from family farms for Nunzia to sell.
Today it is peaches, still fresh and fragrant with their leaves still clinging to them. Tomorrow it will be tomatoes as big as your head, sweet and juicy from the Calabrian sun.
Every Tuesday the fish man comes through the village with his loudspeaker announcing the fresh catch of the morning.
Your dinner has just been pulled from the Mediterranean.
Olive oil is a staple and the Mediterranean diet has been touted as one of the healthiest diets one could adopt. Italy as a country ranks among the highest for longevity.
When my husband and I first arrived in our village we must have been a sight. I am a tall blonde lady with wildly curly hair. My husband is of Northern European descent. In short, we are very different than the average villager.
Nonetheless we are accepted with open arms by everyone.
Our village is a giant family, I witnessed this one night as Nunzia and I took the passagiata (the evening walk). We stopped and kissed all the babies. We chatted with neighbors. We celebrated their joys and mourned their losses.
Throughout the piazza women walked arm in arm. Men played cards at tables outside the bar and everyone belonged. They are part of something bigger than just themselves or their nuclear families. They are part of the village.
I truly believe that the absence of mental health issues in our village stems from this vital fact. They all belong and everyone is loved and accepted, even a lanky blonde with faulty Italian.
The food is art
Calabrian cooking is becoming famous. Most Italian food you enjoy in the US has its roots in Calabria.
Since we are right next to the Mediterranean, seafood is king. Tiny anchovies dressed in lemon grace our plates while calamari, fried with impossibly light breadcrumbs, come next. Octopus, swordfish, cuttlefish, giant prawns, clams and other shellfish are plentiful.
Most of the restaurants in the hill towns serve house made products. The pasta is hand made, the sauces are crafted from old family recipes and the bread is as fresh as it can be, having come out of the oven that morning.
Traditional pizzas are baked in brick ovens and topped with a perfect sphere of mozzerella di bufula.
The wine is amazing
Most of the wines in Calabrian restaurants are locally created. Calabria is known as the Mezzogiorno or the “midday” region. The sun shines most of the year and the mix of sea air, bright sunshine and rich soil seems to be the perfect environment for wine grapes.
The wine is light enough to avoid interfering with the cuisine and you taste the fruit rather than just the alcohol. It pairs perfectly with Calabrian specialties.
It’s rare to see a Calabrian rushing off somewhere. The pace of life is softer and gentler than I am used to.
The focus in life is life. The joys and sorrows, the family times together and views of the sea are vital to my neighbors. Work gets done but it is given its proper importance.
Calabria is home to miles upon miles of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. The stretch of seaside from Scalea down to Reggio Calabria boasts of stunning beaches and picturesque seaside fishing villages.
Looking inland you see the dramatic, jutting mountains that turn from pink in the morning to grey to purple as the day progresses. The mountain ridges carry tiny hill towns on their backs while little farm houses dot the fields below.
My favorite pastime is sitting at the restaurant at the edge of my village, gazing at the 360 degree view first of the mountains, then the sun setting over the Mediterranean and finally the village glowing gold and looking so much like a fairyland that you have to look twice.
Everywhere you look in Calabria there is something jaw droppingly beautiful. The sea is crystal blue and warm, magnificent art and architecture are everywhere, and the people, so willing to smile and hug you are the most beautiful sight of all.
Calabria is home to some of the toughest and yet most warm and loving people I have ever met.
Not so long ago, these people eked out a living from farms and the sea. They withstood the horrors of two world wars, and yet when you approach them, they smile.
It is so easy to make friends. There are several expats in our village.We all get along and we all fit into this little village of disparate personalities and backgrounds.
Calabria is a great jumping off point for travelers
A short trip south on the train is Lemezia Terme airport. From there you can catch cheap flights to anywhere in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
From Santa Domenica Talao you can drive east to Bari, Puglia and take a ferry to Greece.
Or you can drive south to Reggio Calabria and take the ferry across the Straits of Messina and over to Sicily.
The travel possibilities are endless.
We are there
And we want to share this idyllic life with everyone we know.
Book your flight and head over. You too can wake up to the church bells and enjoy the healthy and beautiful Italian lifestyle. Your best years are ahead of you. Give yourself the gift of Calabria. You will never want to leave.
Call us. We can help you plan the perfect trip. Don’t miss this perfect destination.
Every Italian schooled in Italy has read Carlo Levy’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Eboli is a town just south of Salerno in Southern Italy. Once you go south past Amalfi, you enter the REAL Italy.
Carlo Levy was a doctor, a writer and painter who originally lived in Turin in the northern province of Piedmonte.
He was an outspoken opponent to the creeping Fascism during the time that Hitler and Mousellini were teaming up to unleash hell on the entire planet.
Because he was not quiet about his beliefs, he was sent into exile for two years to a tiny southern Italian hill town in the southern province of Lucania called Aliano.
It was not unusual at that time for people to be exiled. In Aliano there were a few exiles, They had strict rules of conduct that they had to adhere to.
The reason Levy’s book is so significant is that his writings went on to shed light on what was later called the Shame of Italy.
The Shame of Italy was the fact that the people of the nearby hill town of Matera lived in abject squalor. They had dug caves out of the rock and lived in medieval houses made from the white stone that is ubiquitous in that region.
Because the landscape in Southern Italy is arid, in the days before large scale irrigation, people lived on the meager fare they could scratch out on the farms and their livestock.
Many times the animals would live in the houses with the families for warmth in Winter.
Malaria was rampant throughout Matera and the conditions made it hell.
For these reasons the locals told Levy that “Cristo si e Fermata A Eboli”, Christ stopped at Eboli, north of them and not even Christ himself had cared to come this far south.
Levy’s book caused an uproar and finally the people of Matera were moved out and into government built houses. They were provided food and medicine and Matera sat lonely and vacant for awhile.
Finally in recent years, the beauty and history of Matera has drawn new interest and people have moved back and created a new and vibrant Matera.
Matera is now a cultural Mecca drawing not only tourists but musicians, artists and film makers.
Some of the scenes from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ were filmed here.
Last Fall my husband and I visited Matera and Aliano. We had read and reread Levy’s book and we wanted to see where this intriguing story had played out.
Aliano was fascinating to us as we coud see the actual location where Levy had experienced his exile. We watch his story spring to life.
Although being exiled there today would not be much of a hardship, back then it was a rough existence filled with illness, hopelessness, superstition and endless arbitrary bureaucratic red tape that made the smallest effort to make things better suddenly illegal.
Today Aliano is a lovely hill town springing up in the middle of arid land. It is sleepy and unhurried. Businesses thrive and the restaurants are good, even great.
Buses filled with school children file into the town and later, out again because the students are still studying Christ Stopped at Eboli and probably will for a very long time to come.
But superstition still dips its hat there as the restaurant we had lunch in was called “La Laconda Con Gli Occhi” or the “Inn of the eyes”.
The building itself sports the architectural design that when you look at it from the front, looks like a face with eyes. It is said that the eyes keep evil spirits away.
This seems to work fabulously as the food and service were amazing and we highly recommend it.
As we later arrived in Matera, we were taken aback by the modern buildings and streets. It was teeming with tourists despite the fact that it is a bit of a trek to get to.
We had booked an AIR BNB there overlooking the Sassi de Matera (the old town). This is where the people lived as illustrated in Levy’s book. Our balcony overlooked the Sassi and in the evening the gold lights came up making it look like a fairy town.
As dinner time approached we walked to the town center. Matera is a vision of white stone streets and houses.
The people were out taking the passagiata, the charming custom of walking and talking to each other that happens every night, eveywhere in Italy.
As you wander through the town you hear music everywhere. Matera, having elected itself a cultural center has several music academies there. On our walk we alternately heard jazz, opera and rock music filtering through the Sassi.
Matera has done a lot to cater to tourists. I had no trouble finding several gluten free restaurants and vegetarian dishes are available at many places. In fact the gluten free pizza and beer I had was way better than any GF pizza here in the states.
Before you go, read Levy’s book. Although his book paints a dreary but true picture of what Matera was like, you will see a true life happy ending when you arrive
The best time to go is during shoulder season. The weather can be brutally hot in Summer and cold in Winter. Spring and Fall are magnificent.
If you are interested in visiting Matera or anywhere in Italy, contact me.
IF you have seen Matera, please leave a comment about your experiences there.