In 2008, I brought my first group of guests to Italy to attend The Awaiting Table Cookery School in southern Italy and I loved it so much that I began to bring a group every year. We start in Rome for a couple of days and then take the high-speed train from Termini in the center of Rome to Lecce, way down in the heel of the boot of Italy. The ride starts with some lovely scenery as we leave Rome heading south, but about midway through the trip, the route turns to the east across some flat and nondescript landscape in the middle of the country, eventually hitting the Adriatic Coast, and continuing south to Lecce. The train stops briefly in several southern Italian towns along this route, including Caserta, Benevento, Bari, Monopoli, and Brindisi, before arriving in Lecce.

I’ve traveled on the Frecciarossa train fifteen times, and never once thought there was a reason to get off the train in any of these cities. I had never seen an article in a travel magazine about going to any of these places, and from what I could see from the train window as we pulled into and out of each station, they were just run down, industrial cities filled with ugly, high-rise apartment buildings covered in an astonishing amount of graffiti. Why would anyone want to visit?

The problem for David and me was simply that we had so much time on our hands. Having exhausted all there really was to see in Rionero proper, we wanted to spend time exploring somewhere else. These towns were all close to us, so it was only logical that we’d visit them—even if we didn’t expect them to offer much. It was just a way to fill our time while we waited for the next step in my citizenship application process.

Bari is less than two hours from Rionero by car, and I had heard about the pasta ladies making orecchiette in the back alleys of the centro storico of this seaside town from a food blogging colleague in Rome. I had even seen that Stanley Tucci included a visit to Bari in his Searching for Italy series on CNN. David looks like Stanley Tucci and has been confused for him on more than one occasion, so after watching Tucci’s show, it seemed serendipitous that we should plan a trip to Bari while we were in Southern Italy.

Although we arrived in the late afternoon in the middle of a torrential storm, our B&B was on the edge of the old town and our balcony had views of the perfectly intact Castello Svevo di Bari. The B&B location made it equally easy to walk into both the historic Barivecchia and the newer part of the city, known as the French Quarter or Murat. When I asked our B&B host Martino about that newer part of Bari, which was filled with architecture similar to New Orleans, he said it was from the French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars of early 1800s. Then he joked, “The Barese like to say if Paris only had the ocean, it would be a quaint Bari.” He smiled at me. “Yeah, we’re kind of proud of our town,” he said.

As we walked around, I could see why. The old city had all the charm you would expect of an historic center, with small, winding streets closed to traffic that we wandered through for hours. David posed near the pasta ladies making orecchiette and we wondered if anyone thought Tucci was back in town. We made sure to visit the famous churches—Basilica di San Nicola and the Bari Cathedral—and walked leisurely along what is one of the longest and most beautiful waterfronts in all of Europe. We window shopped in the Murat, had lunch at our host’s favorite restaurant in the French Quarter, and bought olive oil and ceramic gifts for family in the newer part of the city.

How could my impression of Bari have been what I previously thought? Bari was a cosmopolitan city full of charm with so much to offer. And if I was this wrong about Bari, what about all the other cities along that train route? After that trip to Bari, we started making plans to see more.

We spent an afternoon in Monopoli before flying to Palermo. The centro storico was small and we walked through every tiny, winding street. The whitewashed buildings looked gorgeous with the Adriatic as a backdrop. Brightly colored fishing boats bobbed in the small harbor, and the pretty lungomare around the old fortress led us on a leisurely stroll to the other side of the harbor. The shutters on the buildings were bright blue and green and even though it was still winter, plants draped many of the balconies. The town was deserted, partially because it was a weekday in the winter, but also because this was one of those undiscovered gems of southern Italy that tourists just didn’t know about.

We added Benevento to our itinerary before heading north to Caiazzo to meet Franco Pepe of Pepe in Grani pizza fame. We started by exploring the ancient ruins which included a completely intact colosseum. There was a large section of ruins dating back to the Roman Empire that had been excavated and the city had built walkways above and around the ruins to make viewing easier. The more modern part of the city was lined with well maintained, attractive buildings, and we walked past all of these to reach the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chiesa di Santa Sofia. Parts of the old castle walls melded into newer buildings, and at the top of the hill there was a small park with sweeping views over the newer city in the valley below. We didn’t see a spec of graffiti or garbage in this meticulously maintained city, which was the opposite of my impression of Benevento from the train.

After our overnight in Caiazzo, we spent the day in Caserta where we visited Reggia Caserta. This Royal Palace was constructed by the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies as their main residence for the Kings of Naples. It was the largest palace erected in Europe during the 18th century, and we spent hours walking through the palace and grounds. We also spent time in the town of Caserta itself. We sat in the park in the center of town and enjoyed some pastries and coffee in the morning when we arrived, and we walked through the town and had lunch before departing. We passed lovely shops and restaurants and bars in this lively city, and again I wondered, how had I not known about this place?

Our trip home from Italy started with an evening flight from Bari to London with an overnight before flying home the next day. The day before we were to depart, I was still scrolling for what to see in southern Italy that we had missed. My colleague from Puglia had recently spent the day in Trani and told me it was one of his favorite towns.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said to David. “Trani is only thirty minutes from the Bari airport, and our flight isn’t until 7:30 tomorrow night. Why don’t we get out of here early tomorrow, drive to Trani for the day, and then head to the airport from there?” I wasn’t ready for our adventure in Italy to end and was trying to squeeze in as much as I could in our final twenty-four hours.

I had been mapping out our travel adventures for nine weeks by this point, and neither of us had been disappointed. Our planned, longer trips had been as wonderful as we had anticipated, and our unplanned day trips had been surprising and fun. While I was the one who would determine a general plan for the day, David had often taken the lead when we were exploring in a town. He had an eye for details I might have missed, and I loved that about traveling with him. I knew he was also not ready for our adventure to wind down.

The drive to Trani was an easy ninety minutes, and we found a very large public parking lot right next to the Castello Svevo di Trani. The castle was built by Frederick II in 1233, and Charles V later strengthened the fortifications. The castle was used as a prison from 1844 all the way until 1974, so the building had changed structure and purposes over the years. We wandered through the various sections, reading about the nine lives of the building. The castle hosts a moving art exhibition, and we were able to see some gorgeous paintings from Margherita di Savoia’s personal art collection. We ended by walking all the way around the castle along the sentry walls on top. It was a blustery, but sunny and warm day, and the views of the turquoise blue Adriatic from this vantage point were spectacular. On all my trips to Italy, I’d never even dipped my toe into the Adriatic, despite knowing that this was where Italians came to vacation. How could that be? And how soon could I return to do just that?

After the castle we went to the cathedral, a UNESCO site with three levels of impeccably maintained crypts. From the outside, the church was crystal white—like so many other towns in Puglia—and everywhere we looked they were preparing for the Easter service the next day, the scent of lilies wafting through the air.

From the church, we continued our walk around the harbor in search of food, and I instantly spotted the place I wanted to eat. The outside tables were covered in white cloths and each one had a pumo, the symbol of good luck in Puglia, set beside the salt, pepper, and olive oil. We sat down for lunch with views of fishing boats bobbing as the sun sparkled across the water in the marina, and shared tuna tartare on orange slices with glasses of rosato, my favorite wine of this region. David had what he declared was his favorite pasta of the trip—mussels cooked like we do at the cooking school, mixed with tubetti pasta, small yellow and red tomatoes, and basil—and I ordered ravioli stuffed with burrata, that decadent cheese from Puglia. On the way out I told the waiter that we had been in Italy for two months for my dual citizenship, and that this was the best lunch of the entire time. He was beaming when we left. “Grazie mille e buon viaggio,” he said after shaking our hands.

For many years, friends and friends of friends have sought out my advice to help plan a trip to Italy. For most of them, it would be their first time in Italy. Before, I would have shared my list of hotel and restaurant recommendations in Rome, or Florence, or the Amalfi Coast, the typical tourist sites that most of these people were hoping to see. But after our two months in Basilicata, I really struggled with what to tell people. I knew it was inevitable that a first time visitor to Italy would want to see the much touted tourist attractions—how could you come to Italy and not see the Ancient City in Rome?—but I wanted to tell them, you’re missing the best part of Italy. I knew after my experience that it wasn’t the view from the train, but what was waiting outside the train station that was so special.

I wanted others traveling to Italy to experience the authentic small towns of Italy like I had. I want them to understand that Italy has nearly 5000 miles of coastline on the Adriatic Sea, Ionian Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, Ligurian Sea, Sea of Sardinia and Strait of Sicily. Along those coasts are too many small towns to count, each with their own charming center, food and wine specialties, and history, not to mention unbelievable water views. Ninety percent of Italy is made up of small towns oozing with character, I had come to understand, and I want others to find the joy in discovering the authentic Italian lifestyle that’s found not in tourist sites, but rather in these undiscovered, off the map places.

I knew others might not have the luxury of traveling to Italy every year like I did, so I decided it was probably best to bite my tongue and just help them plan the trip they had envisioned. But for David and me, it would always be different after this journey. We will make it a priority to visit more places like these undiscovered gems on our return trips to Italy, because it was in these places that I experienced the authenticity of Italy and where I learned the most about being Italian.