Secret Basilicata ~ You Need To Know About The Orangery Retreat

I always talk about making your trip to Italy a mix of visiting the big sites and getting off the beaten track. My book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things to Do in Rome: Beyond the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps tells you about places to slip away and find absolute magic away from the crowds in Rome, but I am often asked about other places around Italy to put into a travel itinerary.

Today I want to tell you about a truly special place to add to your Italy travel plans.

A few years ago I fell in love with Basilicata when visiting the town of Matera. If you imagine Italy being the shape of a boot, Puglia makes up the heel of the boot, Calabria is the toe of the boot, and in between the two the instep of the boot is Basilicata.

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For centuries Basilicata was somewhat cut off from the rest of Italy, so it is lesser known than the other regions, and is possibly the least touristed of them all too. Which puts it at the top of my list of must see places!

This summer at the end of my June Glam Italia Tour I snuck off to Basilicata for a few days of rest and relaxation before coming home. While there I didn’t see a single tour bus, flag waving tour guide or t-shirt shop. Instead I met the local people, had fabulous food and wine and travel experiences, visited some amazing sites and made a friend who it felt like I had already known forever.

The Lovely Martine

bath inside a cave at the Bergamot, Orangery Retreat, Tursi
This bath though….

This photo caught my eye a couple of years ago, and haunted me ever since. It is from the Orangery Retreat in a town called La Rabatana in southern Basilicata. I became obsessed with the idea of taking a bath here, surrounded by candles. From the photo I couldn’t decide if it was in a cave of a giant fireplace, but it looked so incredible, so different, I just had to find a way to get there!

arriving at the Orangery Retreat in La Rabatana
Blurry selfie taken with Martine when I arrived at the Orangery Retreat. I was exhausted and had bags under my eyes, but so happy to finally meet her!

Through social media I tracked down the owner, a fun, gorgeous and incredibly inspiring lady named Martine, whose story is the stuff of dreams. We became social media friends, and funnily enough by the time I actually met her in person it felt like I had already known her forever. Some people carry that kind of magic in their pocket, the ability to immediately connect with other humans and make you feel as if you’ve always known each other.

Martine’s story is glorious. She is from the U.K, had a huge career in the wine industry as well as owning her own high end catering business, and gave it all away to move to southern Basilicata and pursue a dream.

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La Rabatana

La Rabatana, Tursi, Basilicata

Martine discovered the town of Tursi, and the mostly abandoned town of La Rabatana that sits above it. Built by the Arabs in the early 800s and abandoned by them 400 years later, this little town on the hill has had a fascinating history. Life unfolded across the centuries here, and at some point in the late 1960s/early 1970s the inhabitants moved down the hill to the new, modern town of Tursi, leaving most of La Rabatana empty and falling into ruin.

Martine fell in love with the place and bought an old house that was missing walls here and there, didn’t have all of the roof, and in some places had no floor. It was 1000 years old and was in need of some serious love and attention.

the courtyard and arab arches at the Mandarin, Orangery Retreat in Basilicata
The courtyard leading to the Mandarin apartment at the Orangery Retreat.

When I looked at the “before” pictures I just couldn’t see how Martine had been able to envision the home she went on to create. It is phenomenal! She keeps doing this over and over too, rescuing old, run down houses and turning them into vacation rentals and homes that are so special, so unique, so wonderful that it is impossible to only think of staying there once!

The Orangery Retreat

While her other properties are in various stages of restoration, Martine has two vacation rentals available, the Bergamot and the one I stayed in, the Mandarin.

Convent of San Francesco in Tursi
View of the abandoned convent/monatsery of San Francesco, seen from my balcony at the Mandarin as the sun is setting

Both share a breathtaking view across the gorge to an abandoned monastery and beyond that to the piercingly blue Ionian Sea. Both are a combination of modern convenience (dishwashers and washing machines, well appointed cook’s kitchens and chic bathrooms) with ancient history.

freestanding bath at the Mandarin Apartment, Orangery Retreat, Basilicata
The Mandarin apartment also has a freestanding bath.

Rough stone walls, floors made of centuries old local tiles, old fountains, very old concrete sinks, freshly plumbed and offset with faucets found in estate sales across the region. An attention to detail that I will never possess but was astounded by each day.

One of the things I adored about the Mandarin was in addition to an indoor bedroom there was also an outdoor one.

like a moroccan riad, the ooutdoor bedroom at the Mandarin apartment at the Orangery Retreat in Tursi, basilicata is completely beautiful
The outdoor bedroom at the Mandarin

Inspired by Moroccan Riads and painted in local colors, with a fountain and pink and white tiled floor, this beautiful space gives you the option of sleeping under the stars, under the beautiful Basilicata sky, the midnight blue of which has become the screen saver when I close my eyes at night.

dinner at the Orangery Retreat in Basilicata. Local tomatoes and deep fried cheese served with Primitivo
local tomatoes made into a salad with fresh basil, topped with fried cheese bites, served with fresh bread and Primitivo wine

Evenings at the Mandarin were spent enjoying fabulous local wines from an estate in nearby Montalbano paired with Martine’s divine cooking, looking out over the candlelit Arab archways on her property.

candlelit archways at night at the Mandarin, Orangery Retreat, La Rabatana
The archways lit with candles.

Morning coffee was sipped here too, as no matter how hot the town was below, the soft La Rabatana breeze cooled the patio and channeled its way through the arches.

It was like being in heaven.

So lovely in fact that Vogue has been there and featured it, weddings happen there and are photographed there, even advertising campaigns have been shot here. This place is unique.

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fresh fruit at the Orangery Retreat in Tursi
Apricots and nectarines from the neighbors gardens

Most days at least one of the neighbors would pop in to see Martine with a bowl of fruit from their garden, some wild asparagus, or even freshly picked wild capers from the surrounding hills. It was like living inside Under The Tuscan Sun or Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Everything we ate was local and fresh and in season.

olives, cheese and fresh sausage at the Orangery Retreat in Basilicata
Welcome snack of olives, local cheese and fresh sausage, served with Prosecco at the Orangery Retreat

The next door neighbor made homemade sausage for us to snack on when I arrived, another evening a neighbor dropped by with a bottle of Prosecco for an aperitivo and some of Martine’s fabulous antipasti. I think one of the reasons staying the Orangery Retreat has resonated so deeply with me is that quite apart from its staggering beauty and history, you feel like you are living inside the local life, not just observing it from the outside looking in.

On top of that you sleep your deepest, truest sleeps at the Orangery, the weight of the world falling from your shoulders long before you tumble into the most comfortable beds in the world. It isn’t hard to see why the Orangery has a 9.8 rating on Booking.com!

Reading through the comments in the guest book I saw that everyone feels the same way I do about the experience, and apparently all of us are planning our return.

There is so much to see and do in the area, some of which will find their way into upcoming blog posts.

Getting There

Although The Orangery Retreat and Martine had been on my radar for ages, I had somewhat stupidly put off going because I thought it would be tricky to get to. Not so at all!

Basilicata doesn’t have an airport or a major high speed train hub. Some guests arrive on regional trains and are met at the station. Others arrive by car.

In a quirky twist of fate my Glam Italia Tour ended in Venice instead of Rome, so I traveled from the north of the country down to the very south. In a different set of circumstances I would plan my Basilicata adventures to begin from the Amalfi Coast, Puglia or at least Rome!

My route involved flying to Bari and driving 90 minutes across Puglia and Basilicata on velvet roads that run between fields of olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old. It was so beautiful! My other thought had been to take the high speed train to Salerno and rent a car there.

Before you get panicked about driving in Basilicata – this is not at all like driving anywhere else in Italy! The roads are wide open, well signed and perfectly maintained, and it is a very easy drive. You won’t find much traffic as this is not a densely populated area. I was surprised at just how easy it was to drive there.

See more about the Orangery Retreat in Basilicata on Instagram here and on Facebook here. Visit the website and blog here. You can also find them on Booking.com

Orangery Retreat, basilicata
Leaving the Orangery Retreat feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and refreshed

Do you need help planning your trip to Italy? Or maybe just need some help when you get there? My first book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget) helps you with everything from finding great flights, deciding how long to stay in each location, using the trains, shopping tips and much, much more. It has become a best seller and has helped people all over the world create the trip of a lifetime. You can order your copy anywhere in the world on Amazon.com

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7 Reasons Why You Need To Visit Italy In December

Have you ever been to Europe in December? It is magnificent. From bundling up in the winter chill to the smell of chestnuts roasting on the street corners to the Christmas celebrations and decorations, it really is wonderful.

At one point I was going to be working in London at the beginning of December and had planned a quick romp over to the continent immediately after, but the job got cancelled and so this year I am sitting it out at home.

For years I have been trying to convince my son that we need to have Christmas in San Gimignano, but he won’t have it. To him (understandably) Christmas is something that happens at our house, so if I am lucky enough to get over there it is a trip squeezed in between his school events and pre-Christmas parties. I didn’t do any December traveling while he was little, but the past few years it has worked out perfectly.

Christmas in San Gimignano, Italy. Learn about Christmas traditions in Italy, and why you need to visit Italy in December
December in San Gimignano, Tuscany

If you are in a space in your life where you can duck away for a week or two, December is a glorious month to travel to Italy for an entirely different experience. It is also a great time to take advantage of your airline frequent flier miles and get an off-season trip for next to nothing. The closer you get to Christmas the more tricky the flights get, with people flying home in each direction for the holiday, but the middle weeks of December can be a brilliant time to travel.

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Why You Should Visit Italy In December (at least once in your life!)

1. The Crowds Are Gone

Florence at night in December. The tourists are gone, it's just the locals, the Christmas lights and the Christmas spirit
Strolling the Corsa in Florence in December, the tourists are gone, it’s just me and the locals

This alone makes it worth the trip! Your Italian experience is so different when the crowds are gone. You can walk freely everywhere without the streets being full of tour groups, which lets you really appreciate the beauty that to a degree gets lost or minimized when you are hustling through a crowd. I’m in love with Florence at any time of year, but December there is just incredible. When you can wander around and see the streets only populated by the Florentines and yourself you get a whole new appreciation for the city. It’s the same with pretty much everywhere.

2. You Don’t Need To Wait In Line

With the crowds gone there are suddenly no lines to get into the big attractions. Instead of trying to look at The Birth of Venus over someone’s shoulder you have it all to yourself.

Florence Duome from the tower in Palazzo Vecchio on a hazy December afternoon
The view from the tower at Palazzo Vecchio on a December afternoon with no crowds. I never do this in the summer because there are just too many people

When you’re not wasting hours of your vacation time standing in lines waiting to get in, you can wander at leisure through as many museums and churches as you want. It’s quite remarkable just how much more you can see and do when there are no lines. I find I do double or more, but at a relaxed and leisurely pace.

Humans are not supposed to be herded like cattle, and it wasn’t until I was meandering through museums unfettered that I realized just how stressful it can be when you are at the same place while it is crowded!

As much as I love the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s I never go with my Glam Italia Tour groups – I hand them off to my local guide and meet back up with them at the end. During the normal travel season more than 25,000 people go through there each day, so it is always packed, which can be quite stressful. In order to move that many people through the guards have to keep hustling everyone along, so much of the time you can’t even look at all the things you want to see. Rather than stop and really have a good look at the tapestries, art work and treasures, you are in motion, moving on.

I learned along the way to plan a few hours of downtime after the Vatican tour for my groups to decompress.

One of my friends sent me photos from the Vatican Museums last December. She was strolling around, taking everything in at her own pace, with very few other people there.

3. The Prices Go Down

I love a bargain, so I extra love traveling to Italy in the off-season. The cost of everything goes way down. When the cost of accommodation drops you have far more money for shopping! Between using frequent flier miles to get there and then having fabulous accommodation for a fraction of the price, the trip becomes really economical.

4. You Can Escape The Heat

As much as I adore spending my summers in Italy with my Glam Italia Tours there are some places that I don’t go to because the heat gets overwhelming. For example I normally don’t take my groups to Pompeii during the summer months because it is just so very hot and dusty. The last time I took a tour group there was in September a few years back. It was so hot and humid that I actually started feeling sick and thought I might pass out.

In December though it is amazing! You can spend much more time there just wandering and really taking it all in. It’s the same with the Valley of the Temples just outside of Agrigento in Sicily. I don’t want my travelers passing out from the heat and I don’t want to get heat sickness, so I seldom go there in the summer. December though is perfect! You can be there for as many hours as you want, not only seeing everything but also really enjoying the more temperate weather.

5. The Food!

Frankly, the food is reason enough to go in December! The pre-Christmas foods, the hearty winter soups and the heavier meals that are too much on hot summer days are fantastic in December.

Christmas Markets in Italy, Sicilan cookies at the Christmas markets in salerno, Italy
Sicilian Christmas cookies at the Christmas markets in Salerno, Italy

Every region has its own Christmas specialty foods, from meals to pastries and cookies, things that only show up at this time of year. You can eat them all too, because calories don’t count in Italy!

I tend to spend a lot of time in Tuscany and I love the chilly afternoons and early sunsets in December. One of my favorite things is wandering in to a little trattoria at the end of the day and ordering a bowl of chunky tomato and bread soup. It’s one of those things that loses its magic on a hot summer’s day but is so perfect in winter.

I also love all the Sicilian Christmas cookies and pastries that show up everywhere. I bring home bags of them – they are so unique and wonderful.

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6. The Christmas Spirit and Atmosphere

Can I just say I am so fed up with all the Jingle Bells, Ho Ho Ho and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town songs blasting out of every shop, elevator and parking lot loud speaker, from the split second Halloween is over?? The holiday season has become more commercialized than ever and the effort to separate me from my money is exhausting.

When I spend time in Italy in December I fall in love with the Christmas season all over again. Christmas over there isn’t about Santa Claus, it’s about the birth of Jesus, so the decorations, the music, the celebration is completely different.

Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas or are not particularly religious, it is completely charming, and well worth experiencing. I love learning about the different Christmas traditions around the world. I grew up in New Zealand where it is summertime in December, so my childhood Christmas memories are quite different.

Last year I was in Barcelona in December, and their poop based Christmas traditions blew my mind! Read about them here: What The Hell Is Caga Tio??

Italy has wonderful Christmas traditions, and the way the community pulls together to celebrate them is just gorgeous.

7. The Christmas Markets

Christmas Markets in Italy, the market in Trento
Just like a fairytale! The Christmas market in Trento, Italy

European Christmas Markets are spectacular. Anywhere you go they are wonderful, but I particularly love the markets in Italy. Visually wonderful, especially up north where the towns turn into fairytale winter wonderlands, every city, town and village hosts Christmas markets. The atmosphere, the smells, the foods, the decorations and crafts to purchase – it is like every Christmas dream you have ever had.

Some have live nativity scenes, some have carousels and acrobats. All have local delicacies, hot drinks, booths filled with Christmas treasures, and the backdrop of the incredible beauty of Italy. I just can’t get enough of them!

Bonus Info:

Want to know which are the 10 Best Christmas Markets in Italy? This post is already too long, so I have made a separate PDF that you can download, listing the best Christmas markets in Italy, where they are, what they are famous for and why you need to go see them. Each market has photos attached so you can see how beautiful they are!

If you have already signed up for my newsletter this list will be in your email inbox today, so keep an eye out for it! (and you don’t need to request this PDF to get it)

If you are not on my newsletter list and would like the 10 Best Christmas Markets In Italy PDF CLICK HERE.

Hidden City Flights – What you Need To Know Before You Buy

When I fly to Europe I always start my trip in Los Angeles, where I don’t live, instead of Phoenix, where I do live. It saves me as much as $800 on my round trip flight. I will fly to L.A on Southwest airlines for around $50 each way and with no checked luggage fee (yay Southwest!) which means my total flight cost goes up, but I still end up saving $650+ on my airfare.

Sometimes as stupid as it may seem, my flight from L.A routes back through Phoenix on its way to or from Europe.

But it costs me massively less money to not start or finish my air travel here. I can’t just get on the plane in Phoenix and I can’t just get off it here either, unless I want to pay hundreds of dollars more.

Last year my flight from Rome to JFK got delayed and so I missed my connecting flight. The fabulous person from Delta Airlines told me “Honey this is just plain dumb. I’m putting you on a direct flight to Phoenix!”, saving me hours of extra travel time.

Theoretically I could have just deplaned at Phoenix anyway (if I didn’t have checked bags), making it a hidden city flight, but I had bags checked through to Los Angeles, so that tactic wouldn’t have worked. So God bless the Delta Airlines transfer desk staff!

But it brings me to what I want to talk to you about today, and that is Hidden City Flights, or Hidden City Ticketing, and what you need to know about them.

What You Need To Know About Hidden City Flights

Hidden City Flights

What Is A Hidden City Flight?

So what exactly is a hidden city flight??

Say you want to fly from Los Angeles To Philadelphia and the ticket costs $795. (I’m making up prices for the sake of the example). Then when you dig a little deeper you find a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago that routes through Philly, for $375. You could buy the cheaper L.A – Philly – Chicago flight and just get off at the Philly stopover, saving yourself $420. Philadelphia would be the “hidden city”.

Hidden city ticketing or booking a hidden city flight in this example would be booking that flight to Chicago, but not continuing past Philadelphia.

Seems smart, right? Maybe not…

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Are There Restrictions?

If you were to book a hidden city flight there are some restrictions you would need to be aware of.

Cabin Bags Only

You can’t check bags if you are doing a hidden city flight. When you check luggage it gets checked through to your final destination, so in the above scenario the suitcase would go to Chicago and you would be in Philly.

Taking carry on only can be tricky too – if the overhead bins are small or if they are full the gate agent may have to check your bag before you can get on the plane. They don’t check it to the next stop, they check it to the final stop.

One Way Only

You can only do this on one way flights. If you miss a leg of your flight it cancels out the entirety of the rest of your ticket. So with the example above had you purchased a round trip Los Angeles to Chicago flight you would forfeit everything after that first Philly stop.

No Frequent Flier Miles

You can’t use your frequent flier miles when you do this. There is a chance that the airline will invalidate your frequent flier account if you do.

If There’s An International Connection

If you are part of a flight plan that is international you will need to have your passport and any required visas for the final destination.

Here is an example, and again I am making this up. If you wanted to go from Seattle to Chicago and the airfare was $725 but you found a super cheap flight from Seattle to Iceland for $300, and the flight plan was Seattle – Chicago – Rekyavik you would have to show your passport at check in, even though the flight to Iceland was departing from Chicago. Technically once you landed in Chicago you would be walking to a transfer gate, and not passing back through airport security.

Even though we don’t need a travel visa for Iceland, for the sake of the example let’s pretend that a US passport required an entry visa for Iceland, you would had to have acquired it prior to going to the airport.

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Is It Legal?

A website called Skiplagged uses this technique to get cheap flights. Both Orbitz and United Airlines have filed federal lawsuits against Skiplagged, but lost due to a technicality. The contract is between the passenger and the airline, not Skiplagged and the airline. Sooooo you could be the one on the hook.

As far as I know (and I’m not a lawyer) using this loophole is not illegal. It is controversial, is probably unethical, and can have consequences.

Airplane

Consequences

The Visa Application

There is a chance that you could be breaking the law with your visa application. I haven’t had to do one for a while, but last time I did I had to specify the dates that I would be in the other country, and provide a reason for my travel. You could be opening yourself up to a world of trouble. Without knowing the specific legalities I would emphatically advise against it. You just don’t know when something like this could come back to haunt you.

Re-Routing

Planes sometimes get re-routed. There can be many reasons why, from weather to a passenger getting sick during the flight, to an airplane issue, to a terror threat, to who only knows what else. If you fly often enough you will at some point run into re-routed flights.

Using our L.A – Philly – Chicago example you could find that there was a maintenance problem with that plane so now all the Chicago passengers are being put on a plane that is going from L.A to Dulles to Chicago, and the Philly passengers are being put on a later flight. You would have no recourse in this situation, and the airline would not have to get you on a plane to Philadelphia.

Global Priority and TSA Pre-Check

Everything you do is tracked now, so you have to question whether you are jeopardizing your Global Priority or TSA Pre Check status, or perhaps making yourself ineligible to get them down the line. Just because you don’t have or want them now doesn’t mean you won’t in the future.

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Ethics

There is an ethical question involved with this too, and this is what really bothers me with the concept. If the airline hasn’t been informed that you are not getting back on board, the plane will sit there on the tarmac while they try to find you. There are layers of follow on problems that can cause for other passengers.

Those who are on their way to an international connection can miss that flight, causing them to lose the first day/days of their vacation.

Passengers with a tight connection to another domestic flight can end up missing it because everyone is searching for you.

Airport security now has to find a missing passenger inside an airport terminal – just think for a minute as to how much chaos that can create. In a post 9/11 world I have zero patience or tolerance for any airport hijinx.

The plane can’t take off until they are certain that you didn’t have any checked bags and that you haven’t left anything on board.

These days most of the flights that I go on seem to be full, which means that there is a good chance that someone else needed that seat that you disappeared from.

Conclusion

I fly a lot and would not be willing to take the risk of doing a hidden city flight. I am always working the angles, looking for cheaper ways to fly and looking for the best possible deals, and although this may initially sound like a good idea I don’t think it’s worth it.

I am also a huge advocate for on-time flights and air travel safety, so although I get that its a money saving concept, it doesn’t sit well with me. I wouldn’t do it.

What are your thoughts?

Have you read my book? Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy is available worldwide on Amazon.com


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