Top Experiences in Southern Italy

Edenic Gardens

“What nature gives you makes you rich,” they say in Campania. One look at Capri’s perfectly tonsured palm trees, Sorrento’s frangipani, and Amalfi’s lemon trees laden with fruit, and you’ll know what they mean.

So it is not surprising to learn that one of the major joys of this region is the abundance of spectacular gardens. Many of the most celebrated were created by English “green thumbs,” such as the Romantic, exotic Eden created by Lord Grimthorpe at his Villa Cimbrone or the even larger horticultural extravaganza laid out by Sir Frances Neville Reid at the spectacular Villa Rufolo, both located in Ravello. From La Mortella in Forio, Ischia, to the Orto Botanico in Naples to the Villa San Michele in Capri, Campania’s gardens are incomparabili.

Pasticceria Siciliana

Cannolo, setteveli, cartoccio, cassata, and diminutive cassatina: it sounds like the list of characters from an opera, but these ricotta-filled delights can be found in any self-respecting pasticceria (pastry shop) on the island of Sicily. The top performers cluster around Palermo and Catania. Massaro and Cappello, both a short walk from Palermo’s Porta Nuova, have been delighting palates for more than a century, while Savia’s pedigree in Catania stretches even farther back. The secret lies in the freshness and simplicity of the ricotta made from the whey of ultrafresh sheep or goat’s milk, and, depending on the recipe, studded with chocolate chips, liqueur, or candied fruit.

Fiery Landscapes

Volcanoes have long fascinated people on the move. The ancient Greeks—among the first sailors around the central Mediterranean—explained away Etna as the place where the god Hephaestus had his workshop. Millennia later, northern European visitors to Naples in the 18th and 19th centuries would climb the erupting Vesuvius or cross the steaming craters of the Campi Flegrei west of the city. Farther south, in the Aeolian Islands northeast of Sicily, Stromboli performs a lightshow about every 20 minutes, ejecting incandescent cinder, lapilli, and lava bombs high into the air. To add to the fascination, several of the Aeolian Islands rise sheer out of the Mediterranean, and beaches are black with volcanic fallout. Though stripped of their mythology by generations of geologists and deprived by local authorities of even a frisson of risk, Italy’s volcanoes are still terrifically appealing.

The Great Summer Performances

Exploiting its Mediterranean climate and atmospheric venues, southern Italy lays on an impressive range of cultural events in the summer. The ancient theaters of Segesta, Siracusa, and Taormina in Sicily are used for anything from Greek plays to pop concerts, while in Campania the Greek temples at Paestum serve as a scenic backdrop for opera and symphonic music. The 18th-century villas near Herculaneum at the foot of Vesuvius have also joined the musical act in recent years. With time (and money), visit Capri for a sunset concert at Villa San Michele. For the most gorgeous setting, head to Ravello. Here, at the Villa Rufolo, the Ravello Music Festival (089/858422 www.ravellofestival.com) takes place, on a breathtaking terrace set over a Cinerama vista of the bluer-than-blue Bay of Salerno.

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