I have lived in several cities around Europe and no matter where I go I always seem to meet someone from Avellino. I have therefore gathered a circle of friends from this town in the southern Italian region of Campania. With my family based mainly around Stevenage in England, I am well aware of the pride felt in a relatively small town which is slightly off the tourist radar. So for a long time I promised I would come to visit my Avellino friends and finally in spring 2016 I got the chance to take this trip.
One way to reach Avellino is by bus from Rome or Naples. I took the fast train from Rome down to Naples, and then hopped on the AIR bus at Napoli Centrale’s Metropark bus station, which altogether took just over two and a half hours. I then spent the next one and a half days touring the area with friends, guided by some experts from local news website Orticalab. We discovered hilltop villages, old abbeys, delicious rustic food and local wines including Aglianico and Taurasi (red) and Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino (white) .
The area was fascinating but it is not well-known abroad so I have prepared this itinerary to give you a taster of what you can do on a day out in the province of Avellino, and why it’s worth including in a holiday to southern Italy, perhaps as a day trip or night stop-over from a base in Naples, the Amalfi Coast, or nearby.
Avellino derives from the ancient Abellinum, a town founded by the Hirpini tribe a few km away from its present location. The Hirpini were an ancient Samnite people of southern Italy who lived in the mountainous region of Irpinia, and their name comes from “hirpus” or “wolf” in the Italic Oscan language. According to local legends, their original ancestors were guided to the area by a wolf.
View of Avellino’s clock tower, a key landmark
The town of Avellino was bombed by Allied planes in 1943 and badly damaged by a devastating earthquake in 1980 (for a slideshow of the aftermath of the quake in the area click here). Partly as a result, it is not overflowing with tourist sites, but it is a good start for a tour of the Irpinia area, and also offers several opportunities for good evening meals. And, if you look very carefully, you will find some precious gems, such as this first century BC memorial stone of a man in a toga, known as “Fabio Massimo”.
When I arrived in Avellino, my friend took me around the town and we had a coffee and delicious Sfogliatella Frolla pastry in the cafe Dulcis in Furno. In the evening we ate at Da Ciccio all’Agora, where you can try amazing pizzas and croquettes, and then we had a lovely glass of local Fiano di Avellino wine in the trendy Dejavu Winery.
Early in the morning we had a quick stop to see Avellino cathedral, and its Romanesque crypt underneath, parts of which date back to the original construction of the Duomo in the 12th century. It has three naves divided by elegant stone columns and its ceilings are decorated with 18th century frescoes by Angelo Michele Ricciardi.
After this we started our tour of the surrounding area. Towns in Irpinia are quite spread out so probably the best way to get around is by car. Our first main destination was the Abbey of San Guglielmo al Goleto, a site founded by St. William of Vercelli in 1133 which started out as cloister for the spiritual guidance of nuns. Due to its abandonment in the 19th century and a subsequent period of decline and pillage, a lot of the buildings fell into ruin. It now has the mysterious atmosphere similar to some abbey ruins I have walked through in England and Wales.
During the “Age of the Nuns”, between 1135 and 1515, the abbesses oversaw the construction of the chapel of St. Luke, which the site’s information described as the “jewel of the abbey”. The stair rail up to the chapel is in the form of a long snake with an apple in its mouth, and an inscription on the entrance to the church says it was built to receive relics of St. Luke. Inside the chapel you can still see the remains of frescoes depicting the abbesses.
When the last abbess died in 1515, Goleto was united with a local monastery, leading to the “Age of the Monks”, which continued until the King of Naples, Joseph Bonaparte, abolished it in 1807. Following a period of neglect, it was reopened in 1973, and the Piccoli Fratelli of the Jesus Caritas community arrived in 1989, according to the site’s leaflet. Wandering around the grounds of the abbey, you can find a medicinal garden and the Febronia tower, which is a rare example of a fortification in a religious complex. I’m planning a separate article on Goleto with more detail.
From the abbey we pursued our road trip further into Irpinia, surrounded by the lush green landscapes. The area is the largest water basin of Italy and Europe, according to this article by Italian news agency ANSA, and is also the source of the Ofanto river. This helps to ensure the intense green hues of the slopes and valleys.
After a while we arrived at our next destination: the town of Calitri. This is best admired from below, a colourful labyrinth of houses perched on the hillside, an ideal view for artists.
Archeological remains such as utensils found around Calitri point to a settlement here dating back to the Neolithic age. Historians trace its name back to the Etruscan Aletriom (Greek Aletrion), which was an important commercial hub mentioned by Roman author Pliny the Elder (who lived around 23-79 AD).
After the fall of the Roman empire, Calitri changed hands several times, coming under the control of several invaders including the Longobards, the Normans, and the Swabians. Its castle, dating to before the 12th century, made it an important defensive post. It saw its most vibrant period under the Gesualdo family (from the 14th century), who transformed the castle into a sumptuous noble residence. In subsequent years however the castle was badly damaged by earthquakes, as was the town in the 1980 earthquake.
We took a wander through its narrow stone streets, peering in at some abandoned cave-like houses. These would be great places to set up little businesses like wine bars or craft shops one day maybe.
I spotted these unusual faces on the corners of the colourful buildings that I liked.
You could also peer out through the houses and lanes at the pretty mountain views.
For lunch we ate at the Osteria 3 Rose in Calitri, which brought us delicious soppressata spicy salami for starters and local pasta called cannazze, which have been produced here since 1749. Served with ragu, they came in a big bowl placed in the centre of the table that we spooned out between us. The meal, like many others in Irpinia, was very reasonably priced. So if you are looking for a bargain holiday, look no further.
I’d like to come back to Calitri when one of its festivals is on, such as the feast of its Patron Saint Canio on May 25, the festival of the birth of Virgin Mary on September 8, or the big summer music festival called the Sponz Fest. I would also like to return to see the caves where they make caciocavallo cheese (see here). My research also led me to some interesting legends of magical characters around Calitri, such as scazzamauriegghij, a type of goblin who had the power to become invisible and enter into houses, where he would hide in the most obscure corner, preparing to surprise their inhabitants.
After lunch we circled back because we had an appointment with a wine producer in the village of Tufo, north of Avellino. Trying the local wine is an essential part of a trip to Irpinia, and we chose to visit the Cantine di Marzo, which dates from around 1648 and was the first ever to produce the “Greco di Tufo”. I was very excited about discovering the roots of this crisp white wine as I have been a firm fan since I randomly bought a bottle of it that caught my eye back in Rome.
Upon arrival in Tufo, we met winery owner Ferrante di Somma, a descendant of the Di Marzo family, who took us on a tour of the old winery and the Di Marzo fortifed villa and explained the history of Greco di Tufo wine to us. Having spent some of his childhood in England, Di Somma has impeccable English, so his winery is a very good option for people with limited Italian who are keen to learn about the history of local wines. In the photo below you can see part of the Di Marzo villa, which was damaged in the 1980 earthquake.
Greco di Tufo apparently gets its special characteristics such as its mineral qualities and slight saltiness from the sulphur-rich soil of the region around Tufo. When large sulphur deposits were discovered in the 19th century, an extensive mining operation was opened, which fuelled economic development in Tufo, until its decline in the 1960s and ultimate closure in the 1980s. Here’s Di Somma showing us a lump of brimstone (sulphur), with photos of the old sulphur mine on the wall, which included a picture of concerned people waiting to hear about relatives following an accident in the mines.
He then took us on a tour of the winery. It was particularly interesting to see the equipment they used in the past to make a sparkling Greco di Tufo wine, using a traditional method that involves a second fermentation in the bottle which creates the bubbles. The villa and winery, which Di Somma hopes to restore, are full of hidden corners and doors that lead down into mysterious tunnels, caverns and a former chapel.
We ended the day with some wine tasting. Di Somma talked us through the Greco di Tufo varieties he produces, as well as Fiano di Avellino, Aglianico and Taurasi. I particularly enjoyed the sparkling Greco di Tufo.
After this whirlwind tour, I realised this was just the start of all the experiences Irpinia has to offer. There are also several Norman castles to visit, for example, and traditions of hazelnut and truffle production. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back soon to discover more. When is it going to be your turn to enjoy the hilltop towns, rustic food and special wines of the Avellino province?
By Italian Gems