Southern sojourn

Citrons (left), abundant on the Amalfi Coast, look like overgrown lemons and are tangy with a little sweetness. On the right is a vendor of freshly squeezed lemon and orange juices on the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

ITALY - I bite into a slice of dazzling yellow citron from an Italian roadside fruit stall on the Amalfi Coast. The citron perfectly resembles an overgrown lemon to me, and tastes tangy.

But it is also a little sweet and spongy, unexpectedly, and it is cut from a citrus fruit the eye-popping size of a pomelo.

My street snack is the less-relished citron and it carries a sensation of southern Italy, where life is like a fantastical lemon - zesty, with an extravagant appeal, and sometimes deliciously oddball.

That is clear in my six days on the road to the south, where I take a cliffhanger drive on the Isle of Capri, a celebrity hangout with a counterpoint of green, sequestered enclaves.

In less-explored Alberobello, I wander on streets of white, whimsical, conical trulli houses that look ideal for Italian hobbits, though real people live in these ancient abodes.

And Pompeii is a time capsule writ large, with a flourishing city and its people poignantly embalmed in volcanic ash the moment Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD (see facing page).

Our Trafalgar luxury coach trundles through such places that reveal the several faces of the south - sophistication, seclusion and wild beauty.

I think these southern attributes are best seen in the romantic Amalfi Coast and its string of Mediterranean towns.

We drive along this Unesco-listed coast on a stretch of the 80km-long Amalfi Drive (Strada Statale 163). Originally fashioned by the Romans, the curving road is built into cliffs or suspended heartthumpingly on mountainsides.

In a 1953 article for Harper's Bazaar magazine, the novelist John Steinbeck described the drive: "We hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing."

The road wraps around mountains that roll into the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea and it is a place that evokes myths. Homer writes that mermaids - the Sirens - lured Ulysses and his sailors with their enchanted singing.

Less ominously, citrus orchards dot the coast. We stop at a scenic spot and drink orange juice freshly squeezed by a vendor.

His cart is shaped like a colossal lemon, while limoncello liqueur is peddled everywhere in the south in fancy bottles. The limoni is king of fruits in these sun-kissed regions.

We linger in Positano, pearl of the Amalfi Coast. Positano, once a mercantile rival of Venice, is a layered confection of houses in sun-bleached pastels set on cliffs.

From the top of the town, we walk down streets and steps lined with little hotels and boutiques, and head to the dark-pebbled Marina Grande beach below.

It is winter, so the popular beach is uncrowded and I can find a seat in a cafe later to look at the sea.

On another point of the coast, the Isle of Capri, which we reach by ferry, has a stretch of road that condenses the thrills of the Amalfi Drive. Between its towns of glitzy Capri and verdant Anacapri is a "Mamma Mia" road, as our travel director Giacomo Giamboi dubs it.

At the curviest corners of the uphill road, our vans seem to dip over the low guard rails so that for a couple of seconds, I am staring vertically down at the beautiful Capri-blue sea far below.

My experiences at either end of this wily road are very sedate, however. Capri appealed to Roman emperors with one powerful visitor being Caesar Augustus (63 BC-14 AD).

Today, the rich and famous still descend on Capri. But we do not encounter Bill Gates, Mariah Carey or football stars - it is a celebrity-free winter.

Nevertheless, their photos pepper some establishments and I feel immersed in a movie set or a quaint version of Rodeo Drive, as I walk in alleys dotted with Miu Miu and Ferragamo boutiques, chic art galleries and hotels.

Other alleys I wander into have a more rustic appeal. In a tiny shop, a friendly elderly resident starts a conversation with me about fresh fish and shellfish, and I smile in incomprehension.

Elsewhere, I peek into a hidden garden and enjoy a tiny pear tart and espresso for €2 (S$3.50) in a pocket-sized piazzetta.

Anacapri, a sister town on the isle, is a refreshing contrast with its simple, green, quiet terraces. Where Capri is bling and vanity, Anacapri is a hidden gem.

Indeed, Trafalgar (www.trafalgar.com), which brands itself as a purveyor of guided holidays rather than package tours, tucks at least one Hidden Treasure into each itinerary, so guests tend not to think they have joined a cookie-cutter tour.

Mr Giamboi shows our group, two dozen Asia-Pacific journalists and travel agents, the Hidden Treasure he has planned for us in Anacapri.

We enter Villa San Michele (www.villasan michele.eu; admission: €7), a villa built on Roman ruins by a Stockholm-born doctor, Dr Axel Munthe.

I love the villa's tiny, white-marble courtyard that has terracotta tiles - Roman remnants - artfully embedded in walls. Even lovelier is the prize-winning garden, which has a trellised corridor curving around the hillside. At one magic spot, I peer down at the clear turquoise sea that Capri is famous for.

In the garden, there is a winged Hermes, a chapel built in 900 AD and an avenue of firs.

I rarely travel in a big group, but in a garden designed with many tiers, I am soon alone with my thoughts and the wintry silhouettes of pomegranate trees and wilted hydrangeas.

While the Isle of Capri and the Amalfi Coast are ruggedly gorgeous, Matera and Alberobello sweep the visitor into the past with their extraordinary dwellings.

The 2004 movie Passion Of The Christ, produced by Mel Gibson, was filmed in Matera, a city perched on a massive rock.

Wreathed in fog, the city, with a myriad of grottos cut into the rockface, looks mysterious and ancient from a distance.

When we move to a vantage point closer to Matera, we see a multi-level city of two millenia, built of soft yellow limestone. It makes me think of a faded fairy tale. A local guide helps me to zoom in on the big steps where Christ, in the movie, walked.

Up to 1968, families lived in the overcrowded grottos, till the local government coaxed or compelled the last of the cave dwellers to leave for hygienic quarters.

For an admission price of €1.50, we pop into a domed grotto which once housed 11 people, plus barnyard animals and a wine cellar.

Instead of grottos, the denizens of Alberobello prefer whitewashed houses in beehive shapes topped with a roof of pointy cones.

I expect a gnome to emerge from one of the 1,500 trulli houses any moment. But these buildings house families, tourists and merchandise.

I spend a sunny afternoon walking around the Unesco-listed abodes, which were built between the 14th and 18th centuries.

In the evening, we visit the Panoramici family farmhouse (www.trullipanoramici.com), where we have fun making taralli. This is a small, hard, circular biscuit with a finger-shaped dent, concocted from flour, vinegar and green, peppery olive oil freshly harvested from the farm.

After the puffs of flour have settled and our light-hearted labours are over, our hosts, 21-year-old chef Marianna and her family, serve dinner at a long communal table.

Made with local ingredients, one dish after another arrives - eggplant stuffed with mortadella ham, baked ricotta squares, gratinated zucchini, proscuitto slices, fat olives and more.

Along with dessert and coffee, our chef presents us with calendars in which she appears as a lingerie model, perched incongruously on the antiquated roof of a trulli house.

In the south, I discover again, life is lived with zest.

siewhua@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by Trafalgar Tours.

Getting there

I fly to Rome on Qatar Airways via Doha. From Rome, a 40-seater Wi-Fi-enabled Trafalgar luxury coach whisks us to southern cities over six days, including Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano and Matera.

From Sorrento, we board a ferry to the Isle of Capri. Only vans and not big vehicles can navigate the winding road to Anacapri on the island.

Trafalgar embeds Insider Experiences in all itineraries - their travel directors have the freedom to give each tour a personal touch. For my trip, one highlight is the Be My Guest dinner with a local Puglian family in their farmhouse, where we enjoy a traditional dinner. For our Unique Insight, we ascend the spiral Bramante Staircase, generally not open to the public, in the Vatican.

Our travel director Giacomo Giamboi has a Hidden Treasure planned for us in Anacapri - a visit to the museum and tiered garden of the Villa San Michele, which is less known.

Local experts are on hand in most locales, including Pompeii, Matera and Rome.

My six-day trip was customised; Trafalgar runs longer trips with similar itineraries. The 11-day Italian Concerto starts from US$3,165 (S$4,011). The 17-day Grand Italian Experience starts at US$4,175. An early-bird discount of 7.5 per cent a person is available till April 30.

For more information, go to www.trafalgar.com or call 6922-5950.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

SERVICES