If you are making plans for the summer holidays, take a leaf from our experience in Italy

For our summer holiday last year, we were clear it wouldn’t be ‘Europe in ten days!’ or ‘Spectacular Thailand’ or ‘Go Goa!’ It had to be some off-beat place, some experience that was not tailored to our needs. We zeroed in on the medieval fishing village of Pizzo on the south coast of Italy.

A flight to Naples, a train to Lamezia and another train to Pizzo took us to a small railway station. What struck me first about the place was the deep azure sea, a colour that would make indigoes blush. A cliff extends by the sea, on which this old town is built vertically, guarded in the olden days by a castle. A book on the mafia, which governs south Italy, lay on the table of the apartment rented by our Swedish friends, with a detailed map at the end! Pizzo comes under La Rossa.

As you walk down the stone paths of the old city to the piazza, whiffs of garlic, wine vinegar and olive waft out from the low-roofed houses and tickle your senses. The old folks, enjoying the sun on their porches, don’t fail to greet you with Ciao or Boungiorno.

Ice cream surprise

The piazza has a surprise in store. The small town of Pizzo is an ice cream capital of sorts. It has more than 40 ice cream parlours dotted across the sea-facing piazza with seating capacities of more than 50 each! Tartufo, a special ice cream, is the size of a baseball and comes in sinful flavours of chocolate, hazelnuts, and fruits. Each parlour makes its own ice cream, even volcano ice creams, which have fire on top! The waiters and waitresses generally understand only Italian. An English-Italian dictionary or better, an app on your cell phone, can come in handy. There are many other tourists, but all of them seem to be Italian. If you’re looking for free wi-fi, a friendly host, some guidance in English (the Pizzo tourist information centre is mostly closed) and a tantalising tartufo, the ideal place is Bar Ercole Gelateria.

The piazza ends at the fort, where Napoleon’s brother-in-law Murat was kept and executed later. Lifelike effigies of soldiers, judges, executioners and prisoners are depicted in a story that runs across the fort, which is a museum now.

Pink and beige swanky three-wheelers can be hired to go around to places like the cave church, among the most unlikely of churches. With a whole story carved out of stone and various scenes depicted through stone statues in the many caves inside, this church stands on the sands of one of the best beaches of the area. The active volcano Stromboli in the sea, which can be seen from Pizzo, is another interesting experience. Day and night cruises take you around the volcano and give you ample time to swim and fish.

There are numerous beach towns along the southern coast. One of the more interesting ones is Tropea, a touristy town on a cliff. As you walk down the lanes bedecked with stalls selling souvenirs and spices, what catches your attention is a long ceramic face — smoking a cigar or wearing a pirate cap — with an oversized nose. The Big Nose is supposed to ward off evil; it sure doesn’t fail to attract a prospective buyer. The view from the end of the town is of unbelievably blue waters stretching along a beach that teems with people while another cliff juts out to sea with a church perched on it. A walk through the rustic city with its piazzas, buildings, churches and small romantic restaurants transports you to another, seemingly more pleasant age.

The standard tour

A trip to south Italy can’t be complete without a visit to Naples and Pompeii; one city alive and vibrant, another dead but telling. The historical centres of Europe are always charming and Naples is no exception. It abounds in churches, museums, palaces, pasta, pizza and Limoncello, being as much a culinary experience as a historical one. But it is considered by some as one of the filthiest cities of Europe with garbage and graffiti galore. We were told that the garbage is, or is rather not, taken care of by the mafia. But the lovely bay, Palazzo Reale, Castel Nuovo, Galleria Umberto and the underground tour make you overlook the parts that are not perfect.

Beneath Naples lies buried the old city, above which civilisation expanded vertically. Buried buildings of bygone ages are intact underneath. Among others, the amphitheatre where Nero sang a song, with a hired audience to applaud him, was discovered under the cellar of an occupied house. There is also a series of cisterns, filled once with subterranean rivers, which runs under the entire city. Guides carry jackets for tourists going down to these aqueducts, which served as bunkers during World War II, where the temperature is between 12 and 15 degrees centigrade. Each household had an opening to the cisterns below for water. There were ‘ghosts of the underground’, small-built people who cleaned the cisterns and also carried love letters from house to house, dirtying the water again if they were not paid on time!

Our last South Italian dinner was in a dreamy restaurant on the Bay of Naples to the accompaniment of a man singing about love and life in Italian and English melodies.

Returning home, the taxi driver overcharged us for the trip to the airport but we returned with imprints that no one can take away — the sapphire sea, folks nodding Buonasera, Mt. Vesuvius standing grand and daunting, the guide handing candles in underground Naples, the fragrance of rocket leaf pizzas, chocolate bursting from tartufos, the wild blue berries we plucked daily in Pizzo, and a glimpse of a Rome that was built not in a day, but in a dream.

(The article is co-authored by Adityavikram More)

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MUST DO

Piedigrotta cave chapel near Pizzo

Underground Tour in Naples

MUST BUY

Limoncello, the famous lemon liqueur

Big Nose, the good-luck charm

MUST EAT

Rocket leaf pizza at Pizzeria Decumani in Naples

Tartufo ice cream in Pizzo