As summer rolls in, holidaymakers from the world over flock to the Mediterranean for sun, sea and sand. The region has a rich history that spans more than 3,000 years and terrain ranging from jagged mountains to rolling plains to arid islands—and some of the world’s finest wine and cuisine. It’s no wonder the area thrives on tourism.
Anyone who has visited will tell you it’s nearly impossible to take in Italy in one trip. However, many do and end up battling crowds at famous landmarks and spending nights at the same trendy spots in town. Veer off the path and you’ll discover it’s not hard to find some great adventures and the real Mediterranean experience.
While most visitors to Italy flock to Amalfi and Capri, locals escape to the quieter mountain villages and seaside towns of Cilento National Park, a two-hour drive from central Naples in southern Italy.
In 2010, Cilento was recognized as home to the Mediterranean Diet, a UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage. This diet was named by American physiologist Ancel Keys, who was studying the correlation between dietary patterns and heart disease. He eventually settled in Cilento after discovering the locals’ longevity and high quality of life due to their healthy diet and lifestyle choices.
To introduce the region’s outdoors and cuisine, Cilento native Luisa Cavalier started La Giacaranda, a bed-and-breakfast located in the national park. Standing little under five feet tall while filling up your plate with more pasta, Luisa Cavaliere may seem like your typical Italian aunt. But this enterprising 70-year-old is a renowned feminist columnist and a chef incorporating French recipes to Campania cuisine after training under famed French chef Alain Ducasse.
Named after the giacaranda tree in the middle of the courtyard, this B&B combines the best of Cilento. Located in Castellabate with its close proximity to the mountains and ocean, the B&B features a wide variety of programs primarily focused on farm-to-table experiences: cooking courses, guided hiking, olive picking (for olive oil), organic farm visits and sailing.
Genuini Cilento is located in the mountaintop town of San Mauro, just a 30-minute drive from Castellabate. It operates cooking and pasta-making classes out of a castle, making you feel like royalty as you sit down to eat your well-deserved meal. On special mornings, Michelin-star chef Renato Martino may take you to the fresh market. After selecting the catch of the day and local produce, he’ll teach you to cook a full-course meal back at La Giacaranda. The B&B is also close enough for day trips to World Heritage Sites Paestum, Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius and the Amalfi Coast.
To get to Cilento, you’ll probably fly into Naples, which has the region’s biggest airport and train station. While well-meaning relatives may tell you to beware of pickpockets and muggings, the reality is Naples is a bustling metropolitan town attracting artists and students.
The food choices are endless, with stand-up bars serving espresso strong enough to keep you running all day, bakeries on every corner and—as the birthplace of pizza—restaurants serving thin-crust pizzas oozing with fresh tomatoes and melted Mozzarella.
The densely populated neighborhood of Rione Sanità is said to have some of the most authentic Neopolitan pizzas. Pizzerias like Ciro Oliva Concettina ai Tre Santi maintain tradition and quality, only using ingredients approved by Presidia, the international slow food association. But more than that, it is part of its local community movement to gentrify Rione Sanità.
Like any major city, Naples has low-income neighborhoods where juvenile crime and drugs are a reality. The Cooperativa La Paranza project was started in 2009 to help struggling youth. Since then, it has created 50 jobs, social services and recreational facilities, run by the youth of Rione Sanità. Part of this program is the restoration of the Catacombs of San Gennaro and San Gaudioso, a major religious and archaeological site dating back to the fourth century. The catacombs can be accessed from the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, the district’s main cathedral. Travelers will be contributing to this project by visiting and can also choose to donate.
No Italian journey is complete without wine. Take a high-speed train from Naples up to Florence—the main hub of the Tuscany wine country—then jump on a local train to Pontedera, home of Castellani Vineyards. Family-owned since 1903, the vineyard and winery owns six estates across Tuscany. Fifth-generation owner Piergiorgio Castellani is a tanned, humble man of many hats: vintner, actor, traveler, producer and surfer.
While the Italian surf scene has gone mostly unnoticed, in 2012 environmentalist/artist Chris del Moro and filmmaker Jason Baffa flew to Italy to document Chris’ story as a surfer growing up between California and Tuscany. The next year, they released the travel film Bella Vita (“Beautiful Life”). The film blends surf subculture in its adolescence with Italian craftsmanship, family ties, art and wine.
As one of the producers, Piergiorgio appears in the film introducing Tuscan wine culture during harvest season. Surfing, wine and art connect him with Terra Mater and he keeps his vineyards as environmentally friendly as possible, adopting ways to minimize chemical usage. Wires laced with a natural “pesticide” from Japan (pheromones to disrupt insect communication) are placed along vines. Another vineyard thrives because it is built on land rich with calcium from natural shell fossils in the soil—even though the land is miles away from the ocean.
He has also applied his personal passion for surfing and art to modernize the Castellani brand and his neighborhood. A friend of the late mural artist Keith Haring, Piergiorgio collaborated with Keith to create Murale Tuttomondo, now the second most popular attraction at Pisa after the Leaning Tower. He also launched an artist residency program at one of his villas, where artists can stay for free, create artworks and hold an exhibition at the end of the stay.
“We wanted to keep the Bella Vita project living, to celebrate our friendship…so we decided to make Bella Vita in 4D!” laughs Piergiorgio. Named after Jason Baffa’s on-set nickname, Ziobaffa is an Italian-Californian collaboration between Jason Baffa and Castellani Vineyards. Inspired by surf and the environment, they currently produce a Toscana Rosso, Pinot Grigio and Prosecco. Crafted in a zero-waste facility, this organic wine maintains the region’s wine standards while staying affordable.
“We want this wine to be for everyone—and for people to think about the environment while drinking it,” says Piergiorgio. Ziobaffa’s main consumers are from the United States, but it has started hitting stores and the surf scene in Japan especially after the team visited Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka during the Bella Vita tour last autumn.
Visitors can follow Chris’ footsteps when they visit Pontedera by joining the exclusive Bella Vita tour, led by Piergiorgio himself. You won’t find this information online. To arrange a Bella Vita tour or stay at La Giacaranda, contact Sayaka Maniwa who organizes tours in September and October. If interested e-mail sayakamaniwa0831gmail [dot] com.