The first thing I did after deciding to come to Italy for my dual citizenship was look up the town where we would be staying. I located Rionero in Vulture on the Google map, turned the map to a street view, and saw the little piazza in front of the apartment we would be renting. I saw the row of buildings that housed our apartment—nothing impressive, just modest, a bit worn, 20th-century structures in need of some paint and repairs. I briefly showed David where we’d be living, and then I closed the computer.

I never expected anything from the area itself. Rionero in Vulture, as I told everyone at our farewell party, just happened to be the town where the consultant I was working with had a good relationship with the town hall clerk, which would help expedite the application process. I had zero expectations about the region around Rionero, and instead focused my pre-trip planning on side trips we would take to other parts of Italy like Emilia Romana, Toscana, Sicilia, Puglia, and Campania.

“You know there is world class wine there, don’t you?” my colleague in Lecce asked me before our departure. “Aglianico del Vulture is on par with Barolo and Brunello reds.” How could I not know that? Not only was I a trained sommelier, but I had been bringing guests on annual food and wine adventures to Southern Italy for fifteen years. I tucked that information away, thinking simply that some wine tasting might help us pass the time while we were waiting for my application to be approved.

A few days after settling into our apartment, as we walked around the town to explore, we noticed the Martino winery just a block from our apartment. We asked what looked like old man Martino himself if we could do a tasting but were told we needed to arrange an appointment, so we wrote down the phone number and left feeling a little disappointed.

The first ten days in Rionero were cold and gray and depressing, reinforcing my perception that this wasn’t really a destination to visit, just a place where I could get my citizenship application handled. We had no car so couldn’t really explore much beyond the circle we’d made on foot several times from our apartment to the supermercato to the train station and back home. We were a bit stir crazy and getting on each other’s nerves from spending every minute of every day and night together without anyone else to talk to. So when the fog finally lifted and the sun came out one day, I suggested we take a long walk.

We headed up the hill past the main street of the “financial district” of town—our joke about the short street that had banks and shops. At the top of the hill, instead of turning left by the train station and looping back around to our apartment, we crossed through the roundabout and continued walking outside of the town. The road turned downhill through olive groves and vineyards with sweeping views across the valley, and I could feel my stress start to ease. It had warmed up considerably, and we walked for a couple of miles, followed by some local farm dogs as we passed a shepherd with a herd of sheep.

“Do you think we can walk all the way to that town over there?” I asked David, pointing to what my phone showed was Ripacandida. I knew nothing about the town, just that after a couple of weeks in Rionero I was bored and itching to explore. Maybe this would be a diversion. It was tiny, perched up on the next hill over the green valley, with a classic white church steeple sticking up from the highest part of town.

“No way,” David said. “That’s another two or three miles from here—down into the valley, then uphill to the town—and then we’d have to walk all that way back.” So we continued our walk.

A little further down the road, we came to a winery set in the valley. The Notaio property had a large stucco house, in the classic burnt sienna color, next to the wine making facilities and was surrounded by pristine vineyards. I thought we might be able to go inside for a tasting, but the gate was locked, and the sign posted out front said to visit their tasting room in town. I took a picture of the phone number and address to schedule a tasting another time. We were growing frustrated that we were living smack in the middle of what was considered a world class, even though still largely unknown outside of Italy, wine region and had been unable to do any tastings.

The hike through the olive groves and vineyards had shown us just how out of shape we were after sitting around for two weeks, so just two days later I pulled up a hiking app on my phone and searched for a route up Monte Vulture, the spent volcano upon which the town of Rionero was perched. The trek was very steep up the street behind our apartment, the opposite direction of the Notaio vineyard, and quickly led to the path that entered the national forest on the side of the volcano. There was still snow higher up on the side of the volcano (we hadn’t considered the elevation when coming to Rionero), and the five-and-a-half-mile loop up and back through town, while beautiful, nearly killed me.

Throughout the walk, I grew more curious about the history of the volcano. I knew that the old crater was now the site of two lakes, I Laghi di Monticchio, but beyond that, I knew nothing about the volcano or how it had impacted this region. Since we were leaving the next day for a ten-day driving trip to northern Italy, I pushed all thoughts about Aglianico wine, Notaio, and Monte Vulture out of my head. At the time, these seemed like nothing more than ways to fill our time.

Soon after we returned from the north, we booked a 6:00 appointment at the Notaio tasting room in town. We were frequently trying to kill time in the early evening until restaurants opened, so this seemed like a way to occupy ourselves before walking to the nearby pizzeria that the barista near our apartment had recommended. We would have missed the building housing Notaio entirely if we hadn’t been directed there by the Google Lady, and as we pushed through the door of the nondescript building, we entered a small, unassuming front room.

There were only three people inside, and I saw very little evidence of anything wine-related except for a couple of old wine making tools and a funny piece of art using corkscrews in various positions with a caption that read “Wine Aerobics.” We introduced ourselves, thinking we’d have a few tastes, maybe buy a bottle for the apartment, and be on our way to dinner shortly.

The young woman who would lead the tour and tasting welcomed us. “Buonasera! Preferite che io parlo in italiano o in inglese?” she asked, looking at me. I had been trying to communicate solely in Italian since arriving in Rionero, so had written in Italian to book the tasting, but since my email signature included my address, she would have known I was American.

“Io parlo italiano, ma non David, quindi preferiamo in inglese,” I told her. Throughout the evening she would look to me to help translate Italian phrases into English for David, and I was both surprised and tickled that I was able to help.

“Please follow me,” she said. “We’ll start the tour in the caves.”

The caves? The building looked like any other house or apartment building on the street, and we were completely confused by what she was suggesting, but we followed her, down some stairs and into a network of seven shockingly large, interconnected caves filled with wine barrels and bottles underneath the building. We were blown away that this existed in the center of Rionero, and stayed close to her as she began to explain the history.

“In 1464 a group of Albanian refugees fled to southern Italy and settled in Melfi,” she began, referring to the small town ten minutes away. “Then around 1477 more refugees from Albania fled to southern Italy, trying to escape the Turkish campaign to capture Albania.” We learned that King Ferdinand I of Naples received these exiles and assigned them to the region of Basilicata—not only in Rionero, but in the communes of Ripacandida, Melfi, Forenza, Lavello, Venosa and Atella. Our interest piqued—these were all small towns very close to where we were living.

She went on to explain that the stone left behind from Monte Vulture’s volcanic eruptions thousands of years earlier was easy to carve, so the Albanians had used hand picks to dig caves for their homes and shops. I ran my hand along some of the pick marks I saw on the walls in the caves, and it was hard for me to fathom making this into a home. For 200 years, she explained, they dug 1200 caves under the town of Rionero. I had seen the doors of these caves, it turned out, on our daily walks about town, but thought they were just rusty old garage doors or weathered wooden storage room doors. I had no idea that so much history lay buried beneath the town behind these doors.

She went on to explain how these caves had become part of Notaio’s wine business, and during the tasting she covered what I’d heard many times in wine tastings all over the world—percentages of varietals in each bottle, what types of barrels are used, how long maceration takes, how long the wines are aged, and so on. The wine was good, and I listened politely as she told us about each wine we tasted, but my mind was stuck on the history. I hadn’t taken the time to learn anything about Rionero or the many surrounding towns before coming to Basilicata, and now I was thirsty for much more information about the history, not just of Rionero, but of this entire Vulture region.

I sent a text to my colleague from Lecce to let him know we’d finally managed to schedule a wine tasting. “I’m falling in love with Basilicata just like I fell in love with Puglia,” I told him.

“Much of the world has huge misperceptions about Italy. It’s not about the big tourist places like Rome or Venice, it’s about every tiny Italian village, each packed with history and art, filled with wonderful Italian people serving up delicious food and wine, anxious to make a true connection. That’s the authentic Italy,” he explained. I had been visiting Italy for 25 years, but now that I was living here, I finally understood.

I had purposely left our last week in Rionero completely open, knowing we had to pack and say our goodbyes. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the history I had learned at the winery, and we were both curious about the nine villages set inside the Parco Naturale Regionale del Vulture, a protected natural area of 57,496 hectares in the Province of Potenza that extended to the slopes of Mount Vulture. Our base in Rionero was the heart of this collection of villages.

“None of these towns are that far away,” I told David. “How about we take a couple of days to drive a loop through them all? Make it our swan song before leaving Rionero?” I didn’t really know what we’d find in each town, but this sort of exploration had been David’s favorite part of our two months in Italy. So I mapped out a route, starting with Ruvo del Monte in the south and continuing to San Fele, Atella, Ginestra, Ripacandida, Barile, Rapolo and Melfi. We spent our last two days in Basilicata exploring these tiny hill towns, meeting local Italians in each place, soaking up every bit of history we could.

Before our trip, I’d had very low expectations about this region of Italy. I had never been to Basilicata before, but as I drove out of Rionero, I was determined to come back. What was originally just a place to get my citizenship became a place I would call my second home.

As we drove away from Rionero, I knew I would miss the windmills dotting the green hills, the farmland dotted with cows and sheep in the valleys, hiking Monte Vulture, Sunday lunches at Laghi di Monticchio, and shopping in the piazza in Rionero. I knew I would thirst for more history of Basilicata and more sips of Aglianico wine. I wanted to return to see the progress on the building we watched being constructed from the ground up in front of our apartment, to watch the sun set again over Rionero’s steeples, and to laugh over one of Francesca’s old fashioneds at Alter Ego. I left Italy knowing I would always feel a connection to this special region of Italy that taught me how to be Italian.