You are currently viewing Exploring the “Heel and Sole of the Boot” of Italy

Exploring the “Heel and Sole of the Boot” of Italy

March 14th, 2023

Italy is a country in Europe located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and it consists of a peninsula delimited by the Alps and surrounded by several islands. Italy shares land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia as well as the enclaved microstates of Vatican City and San Marino. It is the third-most populous member of the EU, the sixth-most populous country in Europe, and the tenth-largest country in the continent by land area. Italy’s capital and largest city is Rome.

Italy was the native place of civilizations such as the Italics and the Etruscans, while due to its central geographic location in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the country has also historically been home to myriad peoples and cultures, who immigrated to the peninsula throughout history. The Latins, native of central Italy, formed the Roman Kingdom in the 8th century BC, which eventually became a republic with a government of the Senate and the People. The Roman Republic initially conquered and assimilated its neighbours on the Italian peninsula, eventually expanding and conquering a large part of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. By the first century BC, the Roman Empire emerged as the dominant power in the Mediterranean Basin and became a leading cultural, political and religious centre.

During the Early Middle Ages, Italy endured the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Barbarian Invasions, but by the 11th century, numerous city-states and maritime republics, mostly in the North, became prosperous through trade, commerce, and banking, laying the groundwork for modern capitalism.  The Renaissance began in Italy and spread to the rest of Europe, bringing a renewed interest in humanism, science, exploration, and art. During the middle ages, Italian explorers discovered new routes to the Far East and the New World, helping to usher in the European Age of Discovery. However, centuries of rivalry and infighting between the Italian city-states, and the invasions of other European powers during the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, left Italy politically fragmented. Italy’s commercial and political power significantly waned during the 17th and 18th centuries with the decline of the Catholic Church and the increasing importance of trade routes that bypassed the Mediterranean.

By the mid-19th century, rising Italian nationalism, along with other social, economic, and military events, led to a period of political upheaval. After centuries of political and territorial divisions, Italy was almost entirely unified in 1861 following a war of independence, establishing the Kingdom of Italy. From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, Italy rapidly industrialized, mainly in the north, and acquired a colonial empire, while the south remained largely impoverished and excluded from industrialization, fueling a large and influential “diaspora”. Despite being one of the victorious allied powers in World War I, Italy entered a period of economic crisis and social turmoil, leading to the rise of the Italian fascist dictatorship in 1922. The participation of Italy in World War II on the Axis led to the Italian surrender to Allied powers and its occupation by Nazi Germany helped by Fascists, followed by the rise of the Italian Resistance and the subsequent Italian Civil War and liberation of Italy. After the war, the country abolished its monarchy, established a democratic unitary parliamentary republic, and enjoyed a prolonged economic boom, getting a major advanced economy.

Italy has the world’s largest number of World Heritage Sites (58), and is the world’s fifth-most visited country.

Theories for the original of the name “Italia” are numerous. One is that it was borrowed via Ancient Greek from the Oscan Víteliú. Ancient Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus states this account together with the legend that Italy was named after Italus, mentioned also by Aristotle and Thucydides. According to Antiochus of Syracuse, the term Italy was used by the ancient Greeks to initially refer only to the southern portion of the peninsula. Nevertheless, by this time the larger concept of “Italy” had become synonymous, and the name also applied to most of the rest of the country as well. 

The Italian flag is a tri colour green, red and white.  The green symbolizes social equality, freedom and hope. It is also a nod to the lush green fields of the Italian landscape. Red represents love and charity and acknowledges the blood spilled in the formation of the nation. White traditionally symbolizes faith.

Diesel:  1.77 per litre – around $7.20 USD a gallon

EU License Plate Letter:  I

Currency:  The Euro

Beer:  Perroni

Preamble:  We have been to Italy before (Fran twice).  We did a 25 day vacation to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary back in 2006.  As we do not want to ruin the memories we had from that trip, we will not be visiting many of the “hot spots” that we’ve already been to on this overlanding journey so as not to spoil those memories.  So once we complete the southern part of Italy, including Sicily, we will make our way to the north rather quickly with just a few stops.

We disembarked the ferry from Greece at Brindisi, Italy without getting caught for having slept in our motorhome and as we reached the exit gate from the terminal, were stopped by the Italian Police.  They seemed to be checking identification from all the passenger vehicles as the large trucks were not being stopped.

They asked for our passports and took photos of them and at customs control, the officer asked to see inside and then we were actually on our way.  Our destination this morning was Lecce aka “The Florence of the South”.  Fran had found a free parking lot just outside the city centre and we parked, Fran had some tea (it was now ten am and she was suffering from a no caffeine headache) and we then walked into Lecce.

The city was bigger than we expected and we had a surprising pleasant stroll through the lovely narrow streets and alleyways, checking out some significant architectural sites.   There were alleyways in many directions and you could easily spend hours getting lost.

First off were two city gates:

Porto Napoli

And Porto Rubiae

The following pic is a closer up view of what we think was the year on it.  We couldn’t figure it out – can you?

We then made our way to a few churches, a piazza with a basilica and the Duomo with a convent before finding a Roman amphitheatre that was under restoration.

We walked by a large site that was under excavation/restoration.  Turned out to be a Roman Amphitheatre:

We ended up outside the large castle that had a large fountain.  There was no way to get a photo of the castle in its entirety so here’s the fountain out front:

By now we were hungry and craving some Italian made pizza and gelato.  (Back in 2006 we had pizza nearly every day and gelato EVERY day!) Enroute we saw the place where a piece of the Roman Road  (Strada Romana) was uncovered (it seems they have left it under there):

Doug checked out our mapping app and found us two pizzerias to check out.  We sat outside, enjoyed a Peroni, shared a Napoletana Pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, capers and anchovies on Doug’s half).

Then we backtracked a bit to a gelato place that had amazing gelato – dark chocolate for Doug; salted caramel for Fran – so, so, so yummy!

We returned to Minou, Fran tried to nap for our hour and then we spent some time looking at flights for the fall which was very frustrating because every time we found a good value one, something went awry – even calling United and asking them to do the search, didn’t work.  We had a quiet but windy night with some rain.  The day started out mostly sunny but the wind had picked up while we had lunch in town and got stronger as the afternoon went by.  I’s not as warm as the coast of Greece but we are somewhat further north now.

After a dry night except for about two minutes of rain before midnight, we awoke feeling very good; we’d both slept well and life is good!  After tea and some chores, we packed up and made our way south to the southern tip of the heel of the boot of Italy enroute stopping for groceries. Here the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea.  The sky clouded over with a few sunny breaks and a few sprinkles and the wind really picked up.  We drove as far as we could, parked and got out to take pics; there was a walkway further south right to the sea, but it was signed “military zone” and we couldn’t go down.

The nearby town of Santa de Leuca
the lighthouse at the point
The point

We made some lunch before carrying on.  As we had already driven over 80 km / 50 mi today we decided to not go much further.  Fran found a parking lot by the sea about 20 km / 13 mi north and we headed there.  As we drove down the narrow country almost one lane roads Doug spotted some signs and we stopped at the Necropoli of di Salve.  Fran got out and read the sign and then a car drove up behind us with no room to get around so Fran got back in and snapped a few pics as we slowly drove by.

These mounds date back to the 3rd and 4th century BC.  There are 90 mounds spread out over 100 hectares.  Eleven had been excavated and have been described as funerary and religious.  

We were very close to the road we wanted to turn down when it was closed for construction.  Of course, there were no signs, a worker just told us to “go back”!   We backed up and went down a rough rocky track to reach the road we wanted and found the spot.  The land here  is separated from the sea by a spit with a canal on this side.  There are several pedestrian bridges over the canal and we took the one nearest us to what is called “Seychelles” and took a look at beach.  It was beautiful; long, nice soft sand, nice surf and no garbage.

Our overnight spot by the canal

We got parked and then while Doug did some chores, Fran went for a walk on the beach barefoot – it was fantastic.

It’s still super windy especially on the beach, but it’s mostly sunny and maybe 19 C / 67 F.  We’ll take it.  The storm clouds seemed to be moving away from us and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon.   This afternoon we had better luck with booking our flights back to Europe in September.  Doug also managed to finally get a car rental for Malta.  We have decided to wing it hotel wise there like we did back in Iceland – it’s not high season yet and that way we can stop when we want, not according to a reservation.

Today our tunnel count was: five.

Thursday morning the skies had cleared by the wind was still strong nearly 40 kmph / 25 mph and that kept the air temperature from rising too much.  We left after tea time, showers and dish washing and made our way north to the seaside city of Gallipoli.  Here we parked on the mainland and walked onto the island old town where there was a castle, old city walls, an old Greek fountain and wonderful little narrow streets that lead to a small beach.

At one point we saw this female puppet hanging in a square – we’ll have to investigate what that is about.  (NOTE – we learned more about this in Ruvo di Puglia and will explain more in that post.)

We would have to say this is not a must see place but it got us out walking and it was pleasant.

Since we have many days until we fly to Malta we are taking our time and today we just drove another 40 km / 25 mi to make a total of 80 km / 50 mi and went into the small town of Torre Lapillo that has parking spots for motorhomes just off their town square that are free from October to May.  There was no one else parked there and hardly anyone around.  It’s flat and there are no services but we had a quiet, not so windy night as we are somewhat protected.  The nearby beach is pretty but it was far too windy to walk on it today.

No tunnels today.

This part of Italy is pretty flat and very agricultural.  One thing we noticed that often in the fields are these round short tower like structures; sometimes in shambles, other times with grass growing on top and some have windows.  The best we can figure is that they are old watch towers.

Friday morning after exercising etc. we continued north up the inside of the heel of the boot and stopped for propane before the city of Taranto (does not look like Toronto at all, wink wink!).  We skirted the city afterwards

And drove inland passing the picturesque village of Locorotondo:

making our way to the small city of Alberobello – a UNESCO world heritage site for its trulli.   What is a trullo (singular) you ask?  Check out below:

As we approach the city we begin to see some of these unique homes:

The trulli, limestone dwellings found in the southern region of Puglia, are remarkable examples of drywall (mortarless) construction, a prehistoric building technique still in use in this region. The trulli are made of roughly worked limestone boulders collected from neighbouring fields. Characteristically, they feature pyramidal, domed or conical roofs built up of corbelled limestone slabs.

These structures, date from as early as the mid-14th century.  Although rural trulli can be found all along the Itria Valley, their highest concentration and best preserved examples of this architectural form are in the town of Alberobello, where there are over 1500 structures.

There are many theories behind the origin of the design. One of the more popular theories is that due to high taxation on property, the people of Apulia built dry stone wall constructions so that they could be dismantled quickly when tax inspectors were in the area.

It seems this town does not like motorhomes and campers so parking is difficult.  Thank goodness for park4night!  There are a few pay lots in the south part of town and they are not cheap – like €20 just to park for the day!  Fran found a couple just outside the main part of the city and we went there and walked into town – less than 2km on foot.  It was a sunny but rather cool day – we are up higher in elevation and here today’s high was only going to be 11C / 52F and again rather windy though not as strong as the past two days.

We first went to visit Trullo Sovrano – the only two storey trullo in the city that has also been converted into a small museum.  For €2 each we could explore the house seeing the two kitchens, dining area, courtyard, master bedroom and many small alcoves.

Then we walked over to the trullo style church of Saint Antonio and nearby there was a more “normal” home but it had some conical rooftops incorporated into its design:

the church

Before walking down a cool street just full of trulli.

Apparently the fixture atop the cone used to indicate the architect of the structure; we saw tops with spheres, stars, crosses and more.

We ended up at a square with great views and we stopped for lunch ordering focaccia sandwiches made with mortadella and provolone cheese – super yummy!

Above was the place we ate at as well as the view we had.  Sitting in the warmth of the sun protected by the wind was very pleasant indeed.

Our last stop was Casa d’amor – a two story brick and mortar building in town.  It seems it is a small hotel and was not open to view.

We returned to Minou and decided not to spend the night here as we were not at the place Fran had found, but another small lot where it was unclear if we could actually spend the night.

Fran found a seaside parking lot in nearby Monopoli and we drove the 22 km / 13 mi quite quickly and actually found a spot to park.  It looked like this town had its own “old town” and we ventured in to see the city walls:

And stroll around gawking and taking pics.

On the way back to Minou, stopped for a small gelato each and sat on the boardwalk enjoying this sea view.

This coast reminds us of Croatia being on the Adriatic.

No tunnels again today but Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you all!

This morning we awoke in Monopoli with clear skies and no wind!  Yeah!  It should begin to feel warmer now.

We left after tea time and drove to the most northern point we’ll go until we leave Sicily.  We wanted to see the octagonal castle of Monte.  It was about 100 km / 60 mi and we also found a campground to spend tonight in on this side of it.

The drive was very pleasant through the countryside.

We arrived at the castle area, saw some “private parking”, paid €5 for it and walked up.  This castle is in the top twenty to visit in Europe so we had decided to pay the entry fee of €6 each to go inside.

Castel del Monte (Italian for “Castle of the Mountain”) is a 13th-century citadel and castle situated on a hill in Andria in the Apulia region of southeast Italy. It was built during the 1240s by King Frederick II, who had inherited the lands from his mother, Constance of Sicily. It has neither a moat nor a drawbridge and some considered it never to have been intended as a defensive fortress.  However, archaeological work has suggested that it originally had a curtain wall. Described as “the most fascinating castle built by Frederick II”, the site is protected as a World Heritage Site. It also appears on the Italian version of the one cent Euro coin.

King Frederick was responsible for the construction of many castles in Apulia, but Castel del Monte’s geometric design was unique. The fortress is an octagonal prism with an octagonal tower at each corner. The towers were originally some 5 m higher than now, and they should perhaps include a third floor. Both floors have eight rooms and an eight-sided courtyard occupies the castle’s centre. Each of the main rooms has vaulted ceilings. Three of the corner towers contain staircases. The castle has two entrances, an unobtrusive service entrance and an ornate main entrance.

It is in great shape and we wandered through the rooms on the ground and second floor.  The walls are very thick and the views are great from the windows.

We then drove back south 20 km / 13 mi to the small city of Ruvo di Puglia where Fran had found an aire for camping.  This place is run by an RV Club and they offer secure parking with power and water, a toilet, 2 showers and dumping facilities.  You have call the number on the gate, they give you the gate code and you park in whatever spot is free all for €15 a night.   Compared to so many other campgrounds this is quite inexpensive and we were happy to find it.

We got parked, Doug dumped the cassette, filled our water, plugged us in and Fran got breakfast ready.  Afterwards we went for walks around the city which was very close by.

Here Fran saw one of those “female puppets” hanging in two different piazzas (squares).

Leaving old town, she saw tourist information and asked what this was about.  It has to do with Lent and Easter.  The puppet has four feathers on her person and one is removed every week before Holy Week.  On Easter Sunday she is blown up!

We spent a quiet afternoon in the campground after that reading in the sunshine and then catching up online.

Sunday we pushed on to Matera – a city of ancient dwellings in caves in the mountain.

Spring has already sprung in this part of Italy with green grass and the trees are more then budding and those that flower are in bloom.

We weren’t sure what to expect (maybe like Capadocia?) but we were happy we went.  As the town’s street looked windy and narrow on the map, we opted to park outside the main part of the city and we were glad we did!  We walked less than 2km into the main part of the old town and walked through the main square where you could go “under the square”

to be inside some of the old structures and then if you so desired, pay to walk through some tunnels; we declined that part and continued to walk up, up, up to the Duomo for views over the city:

Then we after navigating the narrow alleyways we came to a viewpoint over this:

It was a lot of alleys with stairs but worth the climb.

We returned to Minou and decided to head back to the coast for the night.  This time it the coast on the south side of the “arch” of the boot and the beach was pretty deserted.  It was a grey sand with smooth stones and it while it wasn’t super windy, it was not warm enough to want to sit on the beach.

After checking out the beach, we returned to Minou and called Joshua to wish him a happy 36th birthday!!! It’s hard to fathom how he got so old!

The parking lot was pretty empty and we had a quiet night.

Only two tunnels today.

Monday, we left the beach under a cloudy sky and pushed on for a long drive – not much to see in the rest of the toe of Italy that we were interested in and we did a nearly 300 km / 177 mi which brought us about 20 km / 12 mi from the ferry to Sicily.  Crossing the middle of the foot part of the boot of Italy took us up to over 600 m / 2000’ to the other coast mostly on major highways with good speeds and much of the time, four lanes.  Some of the mountains in the distance were over 2000 m / 6500’ high and a few still had snow. (sorry phone picture!)

We saw orange and lemon orchards and many vineyards.

We stopped once for diesel (btw gas stations have payment stands for credit cards beside the pumps but we have yet to have one accept any of our credit cards so we either have to pay inside or have the attendant use his card and pay him cash) and brekkie and found a free parking spot in a small parking lot in Bagnara for the night.  We walked around the town, which is rather old, sad and ugly looking but the view out to the sea was wonderful.

Today we passed through a whopping 35 tunnels – reminiscent of our days travelling Norway!

Did we mention how we love the sound of Italian?!  As you all know, we are still learning Spanish which we think sounds so pleasant but have to admit, Italian’s lovely sing-songy lilt is beautiful.

Fran woke up early onTuesday morning, and realized a market was being set up around us!  She woke up Doug just as someone came and knocked on Minou.  Doug scrambled into his pants and drove us out of the lot and out of town to a small pullout next to an abandoned building.  Here we did our morning ablutions and he went for his run while Fran exercised and did some chores.  The sky was still overcast but we hope it will clear as the day progresses.  It had rained most of the night so we hope that’s over with.

We drove the final 20km to Villa San Giovanni to catch the ferry to Sicily.