The trouble with Italy is it’s really, really full. Not just with Italians but with tourists who travel from all around the world to swarm over the ancient monuments of Rome and Florence, along the canals of Venice and around the hairpin bends of the Amalfi Coast.
It’s still worth fighting your way through the crowds to see iconic places like the Trevi Fountain or the Roman Coliseum but for a sense of the real Italy you have to escape somewhere most tourists haven’t discovered yet.
I’m going to let you in on my Italian secret. It’s called the Costa di Maratea. Some people compare it to the more famous Amalfi Coast because it’s a series of villages linked by a winding coastal road with breathtaking views of the turquoise sea and the steep, bare mountains of Basilicata.
It’s less dramatic than Amalfi, true, but it’s also much cheaper and far less crowded even though it’s only two hours drive south of Naples.
The historic part of Maratea lies halfway up the northern slope of Mount San Biagio. This is where I like to go every morning to sit at one of the outdoor tables at the café in the piazza, drink espresso, eat sfogliatelle (a particularly yummy crisp pastry filled with ricotta cheese and candied orange peel) and watch Italian life going on all around me.
Here the shops close at lunchtime and don’t open again till about 5pm so mornings are busy. Everyone is out, shopping for fresh food, gossiping with friends or, like me, enjoying morning coffee. From my table I can see the man who owns the linen shop trying to hawk his wares, the butcher leaning in his doorway waiting for his next customer and a tiny old lady dressed in black enjoying the sunshine.
Life is lived out on the streets here and the locals, quick to spot a new face, are greeting me with a friendly buongiorno after just a couple of days.
But even I can’t sit around eating pastries all morning and anyway there are plenty of places to explore. Maratea was founded in the 13th century although most of its buildings date from a few hundred years after that. It’s a cluster of churches, monasteries and crumbling old houses built around steep, narrow alleyways.
Above the town itself is a white statue of Christ the Redeemer (like the one in Rio De Janeiro only smaller) that was built in the 1960s. You can drive up there and walk around its base enjoying the sweeping views down over the quaint Porto di Maratea and its small marina.
Or you can take a short drive south into the neighbouring region of Calabria. Here there is a bigger town called Praia a Mare that is home to the most amazing church I’ve ever visited.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna Della Grotta is built inside an enormous cave. The altar and pews sit beneath the dripping stalactites and, while it is amazingly beautiful, it’s so damp and chilly that I can’t imagine worshipping here would be much fun.
Tradition is still very much respected in this part of Italy and every Sunday afternoon the locals, young and old, go to “fare la passeggiata” along Praia’s tree-lined boulevard. This involves dressing up in your best clothes and walking back and forth stopping every now and then to greet friends.
The same thing happens at the same time in towns all around south Italy. In the old days it was the perfect way for Mamma to show off her daughters to potential husbands.
In many ways this part of Italy offers a glimpse of life the way it has been lived for centuries. Local farmers graze their cattle on the hillsides and you can often hear the clanging of bells the cows wear around their necks.
Old peasants cultivate fava beans and artichokes as well as a few rows of grapes for their own wine on their tiny holdings of land and families still cook the local Lucano cuisine robustly flavoured with spicy sausage and hot chilli pepper.
I like to visit in May when Maratea celebrates the Festa Di San Biagio, honouring its patron saint with processions, feasting, music and fireworks. Or in late September when the summer crowds are gone but it’s still warm enough to sit on the shingle beaches and swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
For me this is a special place. So much so that I stole it, gave it a thin disguise by changing its name to Triento, and used it in my novel Summer at the Villa Rosa (also known as The Gypsy Tearoom). And I’ve returned there again for other stories.
There are probably more beautiful places to visit in Italy and certainly there are many that are more famous. But there’s something about this secret little corner of the country that’s so charming I hope I’ll be travelling back there for many years to come.
I just have to remember not to tell too many people about it…