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

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How To Get From Rome Airport To The City Stress Free

Are you traveling to Rome anytime soon? One of the questions I get asked all the time about traveling to Rome (and other parts of Italy) is how to get from Rome Fiumicino airport into the city.

Al Italia Planes at Rome Fiumicino airport
Al Italia planes at Rome Fiumicino airport

It can be nerve racking trying to figure it out by yourself if you haven’t been there before. But don’t worry – not only is it super easy, you have several options at a variety of price points. Assuming you will be overnighting in Rome, let’s check out some options:

1. Your Landlord or Hotel

The first thing to do is check if your vacation rental or hotel has a car or shuttle service. Most don’t have shuttles but in general they have drivers they work with and refer to their clientele.

The cost for a private driver to be waiting at the airport to greet you and bring you into the city is 50 euros. This is a standard rate, don’t pay more than 50.

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2. Private Car Service

If your accommodation can’t provide someone, check online for car service companies. I always, always double check them on Trip Advisor. They should have tons of great reviews across a decent stretch of time. Make sure you actually read the reviews, and check for details such as is there repetitive language (if English is not the primary language scammers will make the same grammatical mistakes over and over).

Two of the well know private car companies are Welcome Pickups and Kiwi Taxi. I haven’t used either as I have my own drivers from my tours, but both have a great reputation. Just make sure you read reviews before booking.

In Italy vendors take Trip Advisor very seriously. They proudly post stickers on their businesses and many will ask you to write a review for them. Honestly it makes everything so much easier!

Car service/private drivers are often (but not always) minivans. If there are several of you make sure you check at the time of booking. The standard rate door to door is 50 euro.

Don’t ever go with someone who solicits you at the airport. The legit companies, both private drivers and taxis, don’t have people approach people at the airport. Ever. Anyone who approaches you offering car service or taxi service is up to no good.

3. Taxis

Taxis at Fiumicino airport are regulated. Rome’s taxis are white with a taxi sign on the roof and the city taxi insignia Commune di Roma, and numbers on the doors and the back, as well as inside the car.

You pick up your taxi from the taxi rank outside the terminal. They are single file, and all look the same so you won’t make a mistake.

There is a flat fare from the airport to the city, 48 euros. This includes luggage.

taxis at Rome Fiumicino Airport
Taxis at Rome Fiumicino Airport

If you are not going inside the city walls then your fare will be metered and there will be a fee per bag, but 99% of the time you will be staying inside the walls. You need to make sure you are being charged the flat rate before you get in the taxi.

I here lots of stories about people getting scammed by taxi drivers, but as much as I use cabs in Rome I have never ever had a problem.

One thing to bear in mind with taxis is that most of them are small. If there are several of you, you will either need to take multiple taxis or use a car service.

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4. Uber

Unlike Paris where there are Ubers everywhere, in Rome they are fewer and further in between. I sometimes hear they are being outlawed but as far as I know they still exist. They don’t offer regular uber service though, and the fare from the airport into town is around 65 euros, making it the most expensive option.

5. The Leonardo Express

If I don’t use a private driver/car service I use a train + taxi combination.

From Fiumicino there is an express train inside the terminal that brings you into Rome to the main train station, Termini Station. The Leonardo Express departs every 15 minutes throughout the day and then every 30 minutes during the early morning and late evening. It takes 32 minutes and costs 14 euro.

Leonardo Express train at Rome Fiumicino airport

Once you arrive at Termini the main taxi stand is at Piazza Cinquecento, straight through the main doors of the station.

Another option is to turn right as you leave the platform area and walk through that entrance (which is what I do) and you will see a taxi stand on your left.

Again you will be approached by people offering car service and taxis. The legit taxi drivers can’t do that. They pull into the taxi ranks in the marked areas, in official Rome taxis.

One word of warning, last summer my flight was delayed and I arrived into Termini late at night. There were no taxis at the train station. I was on my way to Florence and missed the last train, so had to get a hotel for the night (thank God for the Hotels.com app) I was able to walk down the street to the hotel, but it could have been problematic had I been going further.

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6. Trains

When I fly into Rome but am heading to another city I take the Leonardo Express to termini and then pick up my next train. It is super simple and efficient.

New Train Service

In December 2018 a new train service started, taking you in one step from Fiumicino airport to Florence and Venice. I haven’t used it yet and haven’t spoken to anyone who has, so can’t review it. (yet!)

You can find it on the Trenitalia website. At the time of writing this post there were few direct trains per day, most of the options use the Leonardo Express and Termini station, but keep an eye on it – I am sure they will add more trains as the service gains popularity.

Local Trains

There are local trains that will bring you into the city very inexpensively (around 8 euro) but they stop at multiple stations and you will probably need to catch a taxi from the station. Also the small stations don’t always have elevators, so you may end up dragging suitcases up and down stairs.

7. Buses

There are bus companies that bring you into the city but again I haven’t used them. Once you are in the city you will still need to get a taxi to your hotel/apartment, so I’m not sure there is any good reason to use them. They take longer than other transport to bring you into the city, but at only 5 euros per person are the cheapest way in. The bus stops at two places, Piazza Cavour and Termini. Terravision is a well know bus/coach company that does the airport to city run. The coaches are nice and modern and store your luggage underneath.

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Recommended

You need to remember that chances are you will arrive to Fiumicino airport exhausted from your international flight, so you want to make your arrival as easy as possible. It can be well worth your while to book a private car service to take you door to door, especially if there are more than one of you. The cost of the Leonardo Express for 2 people is already 28 euros, add a taxi at the other end and you will have spent more than 50 euros anyway.

Even though I have traveled in and out of Rome more times than I can even remember and know the city pretty well, if I were arriving at night I would have a driver meeting me at the airport.

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Why You Need To See Palazzo Valentini In Rome

This is one of my absolute favorite things to see in Rome.

You can stand outside the door and look at thousands of tourists in the vicinity of the Forum and Colosseum, then walk back inside and only have a small group of you waiting to go on the tour of the Palazzo. This one is on the list of places in Rome that most tourists don’t ever hear about, and don’t even realize is right there in front of them. It’s pretty fantastic. And now you are in the know too…

Why You Need To See Palazzo Valentini In Rome

Palazzo Valentini is a beautiful Renaissance palazzo, with an interesting history. At one point it was owned by an incredibly handsome fellow by the name of Giacomo Boncompagni, Duke of Sora, Aquino, Arce and Arpino. He was a feudal lord and also happened to be the illegitimate son of Pope Gregory XIII. Those Popes were a raunchy bunch – celibate to the world but with mistresses and wives and children. I find it fascinating!

What’s Below Palazzo Valentini?

In 2005 while renovations were being done on the palazzo, the remains of two magnificent Imperial Roman homes and thermal baths were discovered underneath. Archeologists spent years working on it and now the 20,000 square foot space is open for viewing. Let me tell you, it is amazing!

2000 year old mosaics on the floors of the Domus Romane underneath Palazzo Valentini in Rome

2000 year old mosaic floors still in perfect condition, in the Roman houses underneath Palazzo Valentini in Rome

Buried for centuries under the palazzo, the Domus Romane (Roman Houses) are incredibly well preserved. You will see the original ancient staircases, mosaics, frescoes, inlaid marble floors, all dating back to around the 3rd century.

Frescoes lining the wall at Palazzo Valentini in Rome

Ancient frescoes lining the walls at Palazzo valentini in Rome

You walk across a glass floor, with ancient Rome lit up below you, so rather than observing from the sidelines you feel as though you are in it.

Glass floors at the Roman Houses under the Palazzo Valentini in Rome allow you to see the homes from directly above rather than from the sidelines, giving you a more inclusive experience

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The thermal baths give you an idea of how wealthy this family must have been, and the location alone speaks to their importance – right outside the roman forum.

There is a glassed off room full of ancient Roman trash – plates and cups and kitchen gear that had been thrown away.

A multi media installation at the Domus Romane at Palazzo Valentini Rome lets you see how the houses would have looked back in the 2nd century

It keeps getting better too, because this museum has a multi-media element to it. While a taped narration explains what you are seeing (in clear English, over a speaker system so you don’t need to wear headphones), the lights go down and the multi media part lights up, letting you see how it would have been back then, completing rooms and walls and ceilings.

The multi media installation at the Roman Houses at Palazzo Valentini in Rome shows you how the houses would have looked back in the 2nd century A.D.

The multi media experience lets you see how the homes would have looked in the 2nd century

A multi media show in the Domus Romane at Palazzo Valentini shows you how everything would have looked back in the 2nd century A.D. It's fantastic!

Part of the multi media experience at the Roman houses underneath Palazzo Valentini in Rome

One part that I really loved was looking down onto the remains of a Roman road. A laser lights up the stones and shows you how clever they were with their construction and how the shapes of the stones were repeated and not random, making strong roads that lasted for millenia.

An ancient Roman road underneath Palazzo Valentini in Rome. During the tour a laser lights up the ptterns in the stones

The remains of a Roman road run between the two houses. A laser lights up the shapes of the stones and you learn just how clever the Romans were when building their roads. They are a variety of sizes and shapes making up a repetitive pattern. It’s incredible!

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The final part of the tour takes you into a video room where the stories on Trajan’s Column are explained (it’s brilliant). When the video is done they walk you to a private viewing area that looks out at the column, immediately in front of the palazzo.

This is one of Rome’s treasures that I will keep returning to. It is just fascinating and fabulous.

Ancient mosaics on the floors of the Roman house underneath Palazzo Valentini in Rome. These mosaics are 2000 years old!

2000 year old mosaic floors, still intact, in the Roman houses underneath Palazzo Valentini in Rome

You can only go through the Domus Romane with a guide and they have set times for each tour. The tour lasts around 90 minutes and is in English. The Domus Romane are closed on Tuesdays.

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Make sure you book ahead. You can get dates, times and online tickets at the Palazzo Valentini website. You have to arrive 30 minutes before your tour to turn your voucher into a ticket.

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On the On the secret Rome list this is an absolute must see! Two roman houses from the 2nd century, underneath Palazzo Valentini

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