There are 20 regions in Italy, some of which are household names – Tuscany and Sicily among them. There are also parts of Italy that, while not technically regions, are still familiar to everyone who has ever planned an Italian vacation. Southern Italy is one of those areas. Here’s an overview of Southern Italy to help you plan your trip.
As small as Italy is, it’s so packed with world-famous things to do and see that it’s impossible to cover everything in one trip. Most travelers, particularly first-time visitors, spend all their time in the northern part of Italy. For travelers who want to get beyond the usual Italy itinerary, though, there’s a long list of reasons to head for Southern Italy.
There’s a wonderful Rick Steves quote about Southern Italy that I keep going back to, more than a decade after I first read it (emphasis mine):
If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go further south. It gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves by the time you get to Rome, think twice about going further. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper.
Now, I’ve met people to whom I might not recommend a trip in Southern Italy, but they’re few and far between. Any travelers who are willing to do a little pre-trip research, who don’t mind learning and using some Italian (knowing the locals don’t always speak English), and who can embrace a real DIY sense of travel are well-suited to a jaunt through the southern part of The Boot.
And for those of you who read that Rick Steves quote and thought, “More intense Italy? Yes, please!” let me be the first to congratulate you on what is about to be an exciting and wondrous trip through Southern Italy.
The regions that are generally considered to be in Southern Italy are: Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia, and the two islands of Sardinia and Sicily. There are some for which “Southern Italy” also covers parts of Lazio – the parts that were once in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, one of the city-states that existed prior to Italian unification. Others question Sardinia’s inclusion, but the island gets lumped in with “Southern Italy” out of convenience (or laziness, depending on your perspective).
While the northern parts of what is now Italy were divided into several city-states, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies covered all of what is now considered Southern Italy. The population and trade centers were mostly in the north, with agricultural production primarily in the south. After Italy was unified, the regions in the south were less connected to the rest of the world through trade, making gaps between the two areas more pronounced.
Opportunities for economic advancement are a bit more evenly distributed today than they were a century ago, but Southern Italy remains poorer than the north. The lingering inequality manifests itself in obvious and more subtle ways, some of which actually keep the south from attracting more outside investment. (A perfect example of this is the network of efficient high-speed rail lines that criss-crosses the north but connects very few cities in the south.)
To many in the north, Southern Italy is known as the “Mezzogiorno.” The word itself just means “midday” in Italian, and the origin of the nickname comes from the Latin word meaning “south” – but more recently, the term has taken on negative connotations. There are politicians in the north of Italy who want to secede from the south (thinking they’ll keep more wealth that way), and I’ve heard it said that anything south of Rome is “more or less Africa” (a statement which betrays Italian xenophobia as well as regional arrogance).
All this is to say that Southern Italy has a complicated and troubled history even among Italians.
And? Southern Italy is full of exactly the kind of scenery, history, monuments, and “authenticity” that many travelers crave. It’s not as if you can’t find that in the north of Italy, it’s that when you do find it, you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with all the other travelers who “discovered” it right along with you.
For the intrepid traveler, then, Southern Italy offers perhaps the most elusive commodity in such a popular country – smaller crowds.
I’ll be the first to tell you that traveling in Southern Italy requires a greater sense of adventure than traveling in the north. Travelers in Southern Italy more often need to rent a car because the rail network isn’t as robust. Plenty of the people who live in the south don’t speak English, whereas people who live in the heavily-touristed north often do. And there’s less travel advice to be found on destinations in the south.
Of course, as is so often the case – the greater the investment the greater the rewards.
When you’ve already seen the “Holy Trinity” of Italy, as I like to call Rome, Florence, and Venice, Southern Italy can amaze and thrill you with astoundingly well-preserved ruins of ancient Roman cities, some of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples anywhere on earth, one of Italy’s most popular coastal areas, and cave dwellings that have been used as homes since 7000 BCE, not to mention unique cuisine, gorgeous beaches, lush forests and parks, and Europe’s largest active volcano. Plus, Southern Italy is usually less expensive than the north, which is a boon to any budget traveler.
Sound intriguing? I thought so.
Travelers in Southern Italy need to work a little harder to gather information before leaving home, since many guidebooks focus on the north. These days, it’s much easier to find reliable travel information online, so that’s incredibly helpful. Travelers also need to be prepared to drive around Southern Italy rather than rely on the trains or buses, and that means making sure you’ve got really good (read: detailed!) driving maps for the regions you’ll be in, as well as GPS if you can get it. Bring a phrasebook and be ready to pantomime. And, above all, bring your patience and sense of humor.
Note that those aforementioned beaches are sort of the exception to some of the rules. In the summer, they’re not only insanely crowded with vacationing Italians and other Europeans, but many of those beach resort towns get incredibly expensive. That’s when you want to book well in advance, just like you would for any other place during its high season.
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