TIME Books

The Historical Truth Behind Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

As the fourth and final book comes out in English, a look at what it would have been like to really grow up in Elena's world

In the three years since My Brilliant Friend was first published in English, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have wooed many readers with their forceful elegance and unusual perspective on friendship. But, while the relationship between protagonists Elena and Lila is the story’s heart, there’s another character exerting a strong influence on their lives: the city of Naples, which is portrayed in gritty detail throughout the novels. When My Brilliant Friend begins, Elena and Lila are primary school students, born near the end of World War II and growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s. Though Elena escapes to a better life in other cities in the subsequent books, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Naples maintains a gravitational pull on her. In The Story of the Lost Childthe series’ final installment, out Tuesday in the U.S.—she finally returns to her hometown, where life is as turbulent as ever.

While Elena and Lila have their ups and downs, Naples is consistently depicted as a place of violence, poverty and social unrest. And, in large part, that’s for good reason: though Ferrante’s characters are fictional, her Naples is based on truth.

The 20th-century history of Naples was a particularly hard one, explains Rutgers University Associate Professor Paola Gambarota, who is writing a book about the city, and the devastation experienced during the war set it up to be a place of remarkable deprivation and struggle. Naples was bombed more than 100 times during World War II, and when the Germans prepared to evacuate the city before the Allies landed in 1943, “Nazis destroyed the whole port,” she says, “because they knew that this would be the main port of operation for the Allies.” When troops arrived, the water, gas and electricity systems had all been destroyed. Because the shipping system had been paralyzed, even American troops were at first guaranteed only 100 calories-worth of food per day. The destruction was so great, Gambarota says, “Maybe only Berlin in 1945 can be compared.”

While the Allied forces quickly restored the city’s infrastructure, problems remained: The black market was a powerful force in the port city, and as much as a third of the goods imported by the Allies were stolen and sold illegally. While wealthier Neapolitans had been able to flee to safer areas, like Sorrento or Capri, the poor and the petit bourgeoisie stayed behind to suffer the consequences, though some also benefited from the black market, like the Solara family in Ferrante’s novels.

The city had already been poor before the war—little was invested in the South when Italian Unification began a century earlier—but afterward, Gambarota says, “the socioeconomic situation in Naples…was worse than anywhere else.” Education was a luxury. While it was possible to be lucky like Elena and go on to advanced schooling, many children went the way of Lila, dropping out at a young age in order to earn money for their families. Nevertheless, as the daughter of a shoemaker, Lila would not have been truly impoverished by the city’s standards. “Poverty there [in the ’50s] meant you lived seven people to one room, and that there was nothing to eat. People with no shoes,” Gambarota says. “It’s not the poverty that we know here.”

Domestic violence, which many women experience in the books, “was a daily thing,” she says. This is thanks in part to the fact that until 1975, she says, wives basically had the same legal rights as children. Outside the home, violence was just as bad; Gambarota, who was born in nearby Avellino but moved with her family to Naples while she was still young, remarks that while the Neapolitan culture is rich, “it’s a tough town,” and even more so in the areas surrounding the city center, like Lila and Elena’s neighborhood.

American readers of Ferrante’s work (translated to English by Ann Goldstein) may also wonder about the sections where a character is said to have spoken “in dialect” rather than in proper Italian. Ferrante also uses that in dialetto designator in her original text, says New York University Assistant Professor of Italian Studies Rebecca Falkoff, with only a few exceptions in which dialect words are written out. The split between those who speak mostly Italian and those who speak mostly Neapolitan is one more indicator of the true difficulties of life in Ferrante’s Naples, in which less educated people have trouble communicating with the rest of the world. Even today, Falkoff says, though spoken Italian is widely understood, “for a native speaker of dialect who did not complete secondary schooling and had little experience beyond his or her local community, it might be very difficult to produce grammatically correct standard Italian.”

And to all the practical commonalities between Ferrante’s Naples and the real Naples, Gambarota adds one more intangible similarity: a certain longing to escape, especially among women. “In order to evade that daily violence, that daily force that you were subjected to—and there are some small things but really very difficult things—you just have to go away,” she says. “And this has happened to so many of us. You just have to get away. You just have, at a certain point, a feeling that there is nothing that you can change. And that’s another unchangeable thing in Naples.”

TIME Libya

Up to 200 Feared Dead After Another Migrant Boat Sinks Off Libyan Coast

A view of the bodies of dead migrants that were recovered by the Libyan coastguard after a boat sank off the coastal town of Zuwara
Hani Amara—Reuters A view of the bodies of dead migrants that were recovered by the Libyan coast guard after a boat sank off the coastal Libyan town of Zuwara, west of Tripoli, on Aug. 27, 2015

The crammed boat had over 400 passengers

A boat filled with migrants mainly from Africa sunk off the coast of Libya while en route to Italy on Thursday. Officials on the ground were unable to confirm the exact number of casualties, but estimate that up to 200 people may have died, according to Reuters.

The crammed vessel had over 400 passengers and set off from the western Libyan town of Zuwara, a major hub for smugglers looking to take migrants to the Italian coast, Reuters reports.

The boat quickly capsized, leaving many of the passengers trapped inside. According to a Libyan official who spoke to Reuters anonymously, the Libyan coast guard managed to save up to 201 people from the sea, with around 147 of them ending up at a nearby center for illegal migrants in the town of Sabratha.

While many of these migrants understand the risks of taking these overcrowded boats, they are desperate to flee conflict, persecution and extreme poverty in their home countries. In this case, the boat’s passengers included migrants looking to escape sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco and Bangladesh, an official told Reuters.

On Wednesday, Swedish rescue crews discovered a wooden boat off the coast of Libya with 51 dead migrants left behind in the hull, the Associated Press reports. They were able to rescue 439 of the other passengers.

More than 2,300 people have died so far this year while making the extremely perilous crossing from Northern Africa to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration.


TIME Italy

The Mayor of Venice, Home of the Kitschiest Carnival, Wants to Ban Gay Pride for Being Too Kitsch

Umana Venezia v Armani Jeans Milano - Lega Basket Serie A
Arturo Presotto — Iguana Press/Getty Images Luigi Brugnaro looks over during the Lega Basket Serie A match between Umana Venezia and Armani Jeans Milano at Palaverde in Treviso, Italy, on Dec. 11, 2011

"There will never be a gay pride in my city"

Venice’s newly elected mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, wants to ban gay-pride parades in the Italian city because he thinks they are the “height of kitsch.”

“There will never be a gay pride in my city,” Brugnaro told La Repubblica, an Italian daily newspaper, on Wednesday. “Let them go and do it in Milan, or in front of their own homes.”

Italy, a largely Roman Catholic country, is one of the only Western European countries to deny both civil partnerships and gay marriage to their citizens, Reuters reports. The government is presently having trouble passing legislation to legally recognize same-sex partnerships.

Flavio Romani, the president of Italian gay-rights group Arcigay, told Reuters that his organization has hosted gay-pride parades around the country for years.

“Venice is not [Brugnaro’s] city. At the moment he is governing it, but he won’t last long given the fool he is making of himself,” Romani told Reuters. “Sadly in this country, some politicians listen more to what the bishops tell them rather than what society is saying.”

Brugnaro, elected in mid-June on a center-right platform, pulled 49 books featuring same-sex couples from school libraries in the city earlier this month.

Openly gay pop icon Elton John was quick to respond to Brugnaro’s books move. “Beautiful Venice is indeed sinking, but not as fast as the boorishly bigoted Brugnaro,” John said in a post on his Instagram account.


TIME migration

Italian Coast Guard Finds 50 Bodies on Migrant Ship Near Libya

439 surviving migrants were rescued from the same ship

(ROME) — Italy’s coast guard says some 50 bodies have been found in the hull of a migrant boat that was rescued off Libya’s northern coast.

Coast guard Lt. Claudio Bernetti said the Swedish ship Poseiden, which is taking part in the EU’s Triton Mediterranean operation, rescued 439 surviving migrants from the ship Wednesday.

The rescue was one of 10 requests for assistance that arrived at the coast guard’s operations center as Libya-based smugglers take advantage of calm seas to send boats overloaded with migrants to Europe.

TIME Italy

The Funeral of a Reported Mafia Boss Featured ‘Godfather’ Music and a Gilded Carriage

Funeral for alleged mafia boss
Massimo Percossi—EPA People attend the funeral procession of alleged mafia member Vittorio Casamonica, outside Don Bosco church in Rome on Aug. 20, 2015.

There was even a low-flying helicopter dropping red rose petals on the crowd below

(ROME) — Romans aghast at a spiraling mafia probe found new reason for outrage Thursday over the Hollywood-style funeral of a purported local crime boss: It was replete with a gilded, horse-drawn carriage, flower petals tossed from a helicopter and the theme music from “The Godfather” playing outside the church.

Hundreds of tearful mourners paid their final respects to Vittorio Casamonica, 65, at the San Giovanni Bosco church on Rome’s outskirts. Police identified him as a leader of the Casamonica clan active in the southwest part of the capital but said he was “on the margins” of organized crime and hadn’t emerged as a suspect in recent mafia investigations.

“You conquered Rome, now you’ll conquer paradise,” read a banner affixed to the entrance of the church. “King of Rome,” read another, featuring Casamonica’s image, the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Mayor Ignazio Marino called Rome’s prefect demanding to know how such a scene could have taken place and tweeted that it was “intolerable that funerals are used by the living to send mafia messages.”

The parish priest, the Rev. Giancarlo Manieri, said he had no control over what happened outside the church and that inside, the funeral was celebrated normally, the ANSA news agency reported.

Lawmakers expressed outrage at the scene, which played out on TV newscasts all afternoon and evening: Six black horses pulling an antique, black-and-gold carriage to a stop in front of the church as a band played the soulful tunes of “The Godfather,” and mourners tossing bouquets of flowers as the casket was carried into the church.

At a certain point, a low-flying helicopter dropped red rose petals on the crowd below.

The funeral came just a day after a judge set Nov. 5 as the start date for the trial of some 59 people charged in a spiraling mafia investigation in the capital, in which local criminal bosses allegedly managed to cement ties with city politicians over lucrative public contracts.

Rosy Bindi, president of the parliamentary anti-mafia commission, said it was “alarming” that a funeral for someone purportedly caught up in the mob could be “transformed into an ostentatious show of mafia power.”

She said it was proof that the mafia had firmly infiltrated Rome and called for a redoubling of efforts to rout it from public administration.

Rome’s corruption has long thrived on the connivance of city politicians, administrators and local gangsters, who have no formal ties to the traditional southern crime syndicates. A prosecutor famed for combatting Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been enlisted to help root out City Hall corruption. The Mafia-fighter was enlisted following dozens of arrests since late last year of city politicians and businessmen with links to the political right and left.

On Thursday, several commentators noted the irony that a reported mob boss was allowed an elaborate funeral at the church while the Archdiocese of Rome refused to allow a funeral at the same church in 2006 for Piergiorgio Welby, then the symbol of Italy’s right-to-die movement.

Welby, who had muscular dystrophy and was unable to eat, speak or breathe on his own, got his wish to die in December 2006 when a doctor disconnected his respirator. His case split the overwhelmingly Catholic nation but the local church defended its decision to deny him a Catholic funeral, arguing that allowing it would have legitimized attitudes contrary to God’s law.

TIME Italy

Italian Police Mystified After Discovering a Severed Leg With an Enigmatic Tattoo

Lazio's supporters shout slogans before their Serie A soccer match against AS Roma at the Olympic stadium in Rome
Alessandro Bianchi—Reuters Lazio's supporters shout slogans before their Serie A soccer match against AS Roma at the Olympic stadium in Rome, on May 25, 2015.

The left leg was tattooed with, “Today is a good day to die”

Italian police are mystified over why and how a severed left leg, tattooed with the words “Today is a good day to die,” ended up in a river outside Rome.

The limb of the victim, identified as Gabriele di Ponto by Italian newspaper Il Messagero, was found by a fisherman last week in a tributary of the Tiber river, north of Rome. Investigators believe it was in the water for less than two days.

An electric saw was used to sever the leg above the knee, according to findings from a post mortem examination. Police believe Di Ponto was murdered and dismembered, but the location of the crime has yet to be ascertained.

Di Ponto has a criminal history of drug dealing and violence, having carried out his first armed robbery at the age of 18, according to Il Messagero. He was also a member of the far-right ‘ultra’ supporters of the Rome soccer club Lazio

The tattoo “Today is a good day to die,” is a motto for a group of Lazio fans called the Mister Enrich Legion, named after a British cartoon character that was also tattooed on his leg, reports Sky News.

It was these markings that helped the 36-year-old’s relatives identify the leg. DNA tests are being carried out to confirm his identity.

The soccer fan was married to an Italian-Tunisian woman and, according to her father, she left him after a month as he was abusive. “I have never come across anyone as nasty as him,” her father told Il Messagero.

Di Ponto had a limp, which was caused by gun shot wounds. It was his handicap that help police identify him as the perpetrator of a spate of robberies. He boasted about his time in prison on Facebook, writing, “better to be in a cell, silent, than to be without honour,” Il Messagero reports.

TIME migration

Sicilian City Cancels Annual Fireworks Out of Respect for Recent Migrant Deaths

Italy Europe Migrants
Carmelo Imbesi—AP Migrants disembark from the Norwegian ship Siem Pilot at Catania harbor, Italy, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015

As a replacement ritual, Catania will release a white balloon for each migrant

The Sicilian city of Catania canceled its annual fireworks show after the bodies of 49 migrants were discovered inside the hold of a fishing boat. They had apparently died of fume inhalation.

An additional 300 passengers were also rescued from the fishing boat as part of a larger rescue operation by the Italian navy and were transferred to the Norwegian container ship the Siem Pilot, which was helping with the operation, the Associated Press reports.

Along with the 313 people rescued from the fishing boat and the 49 bodies, the Siem Pilot was also carrying 103 migrants from a separate rescue by a German ship, AFP reports.

Deputy Mayor of Catania Marco Consoli told the AP on Monday that the show would be canceled out of respect for the dead and that a white balloon would be released for each of the victims instead.

More than 2,300 migrants have died at sea so far this year as they sought to escape violence or persecution. More than 100,000 migrants have been rescued and brought to Italy this year, the AP reports.


TIME Italy

At Least 40 Migrants Dead in Mediterranean Sea

More than 320 people were rescued

(ROME)—At least 40 migrants died at sea and more than 320 others were rescued Saturday by the Italian navy from an overcrowded smugglers’ boat in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, authorities said.

The navy said because the rescue was still ongoing it couldn’t give exact numbers of dead.

“They are still counting the victims,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters after giving the figure of 320 rescued.

RaiNews24 TV, reporting from the navy rescue coordination center in Rome, said the dead migrants were found in the hold of an overcrowded smugglers’ boat.

Some 2,100 migrants have died at sea this year trying to make the crossing from the shores of Libya, where human traffickers are based, to Italy. They are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is on track to hit a record this year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.

Greece has reported 134,988 arrivals from Turkey this year, the group said, while Italy has rescued 93,540 newcomers through July. Along with migrants landing in Spain and Malta, 237,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, the agency says — compared to 219,000 for all of 2014.

TIME Travel

Here’s the Best Way to Explore Europe’s Secret Villages

These destinations include medieval churches, cobblestoned streets and endless olive groves

A few winters ago, my family and I checked into a restored 17th-century estate in the tiny town of Lower Monferrato, in Piedmont, Italy. Our bay window looked out onto rolling hills covered in grapevines and, far, far in the landscape, the snow-topped Alps. No cars passed the cypress-dotted landscape; each morning we sat down in total tranquility to a breakfast of fresh-baked bread, soft cheeses, and blood orange juice. The experience was one that many modern travelers are searching for: a few nights hidden away in a European village, experiencing the traditional culture and soul of a destination.

What is the allure of these small towns with their meandering streets, lunch-only cafés, and intimate shops? “Perhaps it is the scaled-down size, the greater ease of catching a shopkeeper’s eye, the colorful flowers hanging in a window,” says Travel + Leisure A-List travel agent Marjorie Shaw of Insiders Italy, a Rome-based agency. Writer David Farley agrees: “In a time of creeping globalization, villages offer a look into the past as well as a clearer sense of the country or region, including its food.”

So for your next European getaway, take a detour to a tiny town. Ullastret, in Spain’s Baix Empordà, is a notable Slow Food mecca: at the four-room Hotel El Fort, owner Lola Puig serves locally grown vegetables, homemade bread, and organic goat’s cheese on a lantern-lit terrace that overlooks a field of mulberry trees.

Further off the beaten path, in Arild, Sweden, the artist Lars Vilks built Nimis, a public art installation with a maze of 300-foot aboveground tunnels and a 45-foot-high climbing tower. The fishing village itself is just a two-hour drive and ferry ride from Copenhagen.

This type of experience can fulfill many expectations. According to writer Sylvie Bigar, who researched these secret places to come up with the best ones, “A tiny town offers adventure, novelty, beauty, as well as a sense of history. Knowing that some of these gems have been there for so long and have not been ‘discovered’ yet calms the spirit and brings a sense of peace.”

A plugged-in agent can help to coordinate this type of getaway. Or just put the guidebook aside, head into the countryside, and explore on your own. The return on your investment? A rewarding and unique experience and, once you return home, priceless memories and bragging rights.

  • Bolgheri, Italy

    David Cicconi

    The Viale dei Cipressi, a three-mile road flanked by over 2,500 cypress trees (the only vegetation local buffalo don’t eat), leads straight into Bolgheri, which is set amid the vineyards of southern Tuscany’s Maremma. There’s more to this village than just the dramatic arrival, however. Stop in at Caffé della Posta, on the main square, to try one of Bolgheri’s reds: first produced in the 1980’s, these wines now rival French Bordeaux. In nearby Bibbona, five miles southeast, you’ll find the Relais Sant’Elena, a 15-room estate with canopy beds, stone fireplaces, and pasta-making classes.

    How to Get There: Bolgheri is a 40-mile drive south from Pisa.

    Where to Stay: Relais Sant’Elena (doubles from $182).

    Where to Eat: Chefs Omar Barsacchi and Gionata d’Alessi serve Tuscan-Maremman cuisine (ravioli stuffed with pappa al pomodoro) at Osteria Magona (Piazza Ugo 2\3, 011-39-0565-762173).

  • Kotor, Montenegro


    In the fall, a mist settles into the hills surrounding the bay of Kotor, so thick you can hardly see the blood-orange trees in front of you. That hasn’t stopped the tide of wealthy Europeans: British expats are selling real estate, Russians are buying farmhouses in the hills, and the dark-haired, green-eyed people of the black mountains (how Montenegro gets its name) have opened restaurants to introduce visitors to the tastes of Montenegrin stewed meat. Beaches are not yet overrun, but this wild side of the Dalmatian Coast won’t stay undeveloped for long.

    How to Get There: Kotor is 50 miles from Podgorica, the capital.

    Where to Stay: Palazzo Radomiri (doubles from $143) was built from Croatian stone.

    Where to Eat: Stari Mlini, on a mountain stream.

  • Staufen im Breisgau, Germany

    Christian Kerber

    This enclave on the edge of the Black Forest, in southern Germany, is the ideal destination for a wine weekend. From Strasbourg, you’ll pass hills covered with terraced vineyards; the statue of a fat, naked Bacchus signals that you’ve arrived at the tiny downtown. Main Street’s pastel houses lead to the market place, which is crowned by the Town Hall, with a gothic inscription relating local history back to 770 on the façade. Join the businessmen in pinstripes at the outdoor wine bar, though a word to overindulgers: legend has it that any reveler who falls into one of the (sparkling-clean) irrigation ditches that run through town is destined to marry a local.

    How to Get There: Staufen is 75 minutes by car from Strasbourg.

    Where to Stay and Eat: Hotel-Gasthof Kreuz-Post (doubles from $136) has five rooms in patterned fabrics. Try duck breast, savory mushroom crêpes, and blood-sausage risotto at its restaurant.

    Local Take: Pick up a bottle of cherry or plum eau-de-vie at theAlfred Schladerer distillery, run by sixth-generation vintner Philipp Schladerer.

  • Lavenham, England


    Lavenham, in Suffolk, may just be the prettiest town in England. It boasts more than 350 heritage houses and its high street is lined with the kind of bric-a-brac shops and teahouses (serving scones and clotted cream) that are on the endangered list throughout rural England—and all but extinct in glossier reaches, such as the Cotswolds and West Dorset. Sarah Townsend, former owner of the superchic Palazzo Terranova, in Umbria, was so charmed by the region that she just opened a small inn in nearby Buxhall.

    How to Get There: Trains depart London’s Liverpool Street Station several times daily for Stowmarket, 14 miles away. Or, get off at Colchester and take the Chambers 753 bus line into town.

    Where to Stay and Eat: The contemporary Great House Hotel (doubles from $162) is in Lavenham’s town center. The Great House Restaurant, with its gastropub take on English fare, is one of Suffolk’s finest.

  • Aberdour, Scotland


    The train from Edinburgh stops at a Victorian station next to a riot of neatly planted flowers in a hidden glen in the shadow of a medieval castle. Aberdour is not car-friendly, but why should it be when anything you would want to see is in town and connected by well-kept walkways? In August, this hamlet serves as a tranquil base for visiting the Edinburgh International Festival, but for the rest of the year, it is a working village with a general store, four cozy pubs, and even a shop dedicated to Wiccan supplies, situated provocatively equidistant from the Churches of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church.

    How to Get There: Aberdour is 30 minutes by train from Edinburgh.

    Where to Stay and Eat: Great Value The Woodside Hotel (doubles from $140) offers rooms decorated in individual tartans. The bar, whose paneling came from a 19th-century passenger ship, serves local Highland beef.

  • Norcia, Italy


    In this eastern Umbrian citadel, artisanal culinary traditions endure. Pecorino cheese is aged for two years, trained dogs sniff out black truffles in the woodlands, and honey is sourced from the red wildflowers that bloom in the plains. But it’s the cinghiale that takes pride of place. Throughout the centro storico, the scent of spiced wild-boar salumi carries from the norcineria (delis) into the traffic-free roads. Step past the prosciutti hanging in storefronts to find shopkeepers curing cuts of the pork with methods perfected over the past 800 years. Ask them to slice up freshciauscoli, and bring it to the Piazza San Benedetto, where villagers celebrate the Festival of Saint Benedict in the spring.

    How to Get There: Norcia is 69 miles northeast of Rome.

    Where to Stay: The 24-room Palazzo Seneca, set in a 16th-century palace.

    Where to Eat: Il Granaro del Monte, for plates of black-truffle strangozzi pasta.

    Local Take: Fabrizio Marini, director of the food shop Norceria Brancaleone da Norcia, recommends visiting during the Black Truffle Festival, in February and March.

  • Roundstone, Ireland

    courtesy of www.discoverireland.com

    No blackberries could taste better than the ones picked along the winding lanes of Roundstone. But even the berry-averse will find reasons to love this 19th-century fishing village. Climb Errisbeg Hill for a clear view of Connemara National Park’s Twelve Bens: a mountain range rising over a vast peat bog. In case of rain—always in Ireland’s cards—head to Malachy Kearns’s shop, which sells handmade bodhran (Irish drums), or dry off by the fire at O’Dowds bar with a kit (a pint of Guinness and a shot of Irish whiskey).

    How to Get There: From Galway, it’s a 76-mile drive.

    Where to Stay: Family-run Cashel House Hotel (doubles from $220), on 50 acres, is just a few miles east of Roundstone.

    Where to Eat: Join anglers in the bar at Ballynahinch Castle Hotelor at O’Dowds.

  • Chassignolles, France

    Myriam Roehri

    Several years ago Harry Lester (formerly chef and owner of London’s Anchor & Hope gastropub) and his partner, Ali Johnson, set their sights on France’s Auvergne and bought a thirties-era stone inn in tiny Chassignolles. The village, popular with Marseilles’ elite in the 1950’s, promises dormant green volcanoes and winding streams assumed to have healing qualities. At the restored auberge, guests look out toward the 12th-century Romanesque church and can enjoy inventive meals made from local ingredients.

    How to Get There: Chassignolles is halfway between Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy-en-Velay.

    Where to Stay and Eat: Great Value At the Auberge de Chassignolles (doubles from $58), white rooms are decorated with French antiques. At its restaurant, specialties from Auvergne like pounti (a pork, Swiss-chard, and prune tartine) and tarte aux cèpes are often on the menu, which changes daily.

    Local Take: Try the meandering, 90-minute walk to Durbiat, an even smaller village with a crumbling castle. The chefs at the auberge will pack up a picnic basket.

  • Folégandros, Greece

    Grand Tour Collection

    There’s no mistaking it, this tranquil spot in the Cyclades has nothing in common with neighboring Santorini: no building stands above two stories, no cruise ships pull into port, and there are no boutiques or fancy restaurants. Instead, on this remote island in the Aegean, waves crash on pebbled beaches, goats scurry up the hills, and an old wooden windmill twists in the salty breeze. It’s a delightfully quiet escape for those who have grown tired of Greece’s more trammeled getaways.

    How to Get There: Fly to Santorini or take a ferry or a hydrofoil from Piraeus, just outside Athens.

    Where to Stay: Great Value There’s a nautical theme at Anemomilos Apartments (studios from $131), on a cliff with easy access to the village of Hora. Anemi Hotel is a modern newcomer with cube-shaped rooms near Karavostasi port.

    Where to Eat: Irini’s, a grocery that turns into a restaurant at night, is the place for a home-cooked meal.

  • Giornico, Switzerland

    age fotosotck/Alamy

    The charm of Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of southern Switzerland, is the not-quite-here, not-quite-there, lost-in-time feel of the place. To fully appreciate it, drive north 35 miles from the popular lake resort towns of Ascona and Locarno and find the turnoff for Giornico, a stone relic of 14th-century Europe hiding off the main road. Descend into the valley and arrive at a trickling little river crossed by two arching stone bridges. The family-run restaurants of the region are called grotte. The best, Grotto dei due Ponti, serves dishes like spezzatino (meat ragoût) with polenta and tart local Merlot.

    How to Get There: From the lake resorts, drive north 50 minutes on the A13 and N2.

    Where to Stay: There are no hotels in Giornico, so stay in nearby Ascona at the pink Hotel Giardino (doubles from $400).

    Where to Eat: Grotto dei due Ponti has a shaded terrace that overlooks the river.

    Read the full list here. This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure

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TIME portfolio

Meet Italy’s Ghost Hunters

“Maybe we want to believe that after death, there is something more.”

Not far from Milan, in the bedroom of a haunted house, the ghost hunters were holding a séance. “If there’s someone here,” they called into the darkness, “can you please give us a sign?”

Photographer Barbara Leolini had gone alone into the kitchen to load a new spool of film into her camera, when suddenly, unmistakably, a chair scraped along the floor near her. Everyone heard it.

“I was freaking out,” she tells TIME. “I slept with the lights on for two weeks. We were all there. You just have to believe it.”

It was her very first ghost-hunting trip. Even if she’d been skeptical at first, Leolini now insists on the existence of the paranormal. And she is far from alone—according to a study by Italian magazine Focus, 76% of Italians believe in ghosts, and half of them claim to have seen spirits of the deceased with their own eyes.

The high figure, she presumes, comes from a culture of superstition and Catholic influence. “People believe in the weirdest stuff,” she says. “Maybe we want to believe that after death, there is something more.”

Ghost-hunting, like bird-watching, is motivated by the desire to experience and prove the existence of the supernatural, rather than capture or scare it away. Across Italy, groups like the Ghost Hunter Team (GHT) visit cemeteries, abandoned warehouses and old buildings to collect evidence.

It’s more than just a hobby. Leolini was impressed by the intense passion of those she followed, some of whom had been hunting for as a long as a decade. She noted that ghost hunting demands courage, patience and dedication. “You also need a sense of humor,” she says, “because otherwise it’s just too heavy. I was really scared at certain points.”

Enthusiasts conduct thorough research before venturing to far-flung sites in the middle of the night. They also invest large sums of money on equipment designed to detect potential hoaxing devices, read changes in air flow or energy fields, and even record electronic voice phenomena. According to a member of the GHT, a complete basic kit costs about 4,000 euros—more, of course, if you want the very best.

Determined to visualize the invisible, Leolini interviewed and took portraits of more than a dozen people with their own ghost stories to tell. One of her subjects, whom she was meeting for the first time, greeted her by saying, “Your grandfather, Simone, says hi.” Leolini’s grandfather had been dead for 15 years, and she could not fathom how her subject, a self-professed medium, could have known his name unless she’d communicated with him in the afterlife.

Leolini also photographed notoriously haunted locations around northern Italy, each with an unsettling history. Her project, Echoes, is a combination of portraits, eerie landscapes, abstract mood images and investigation photos provided by the GHT. All of her own photographs were taken on an old Olympus point-and-shoot camera that cost five euros at a flea market, using special effects film handmade by Revolog.

“I was looking for a moody, magical film that could help me find the right feeling for the story,” says Leolini. “And when you shoot this kind of film on a point-and-shoot, you don’t have any control at all beyond pressing a button.”

The result is a series of images bathed in a dreamy palette, with mysterious details that invite viewers to question how they may have occurred.

Echoes, which Leolini completed as her diploma project for the Danish School of Media and Journalism, is just the first chapter of a wider project on paranormal beings. Her next work will focus on witchcraft.

Perhaps there is no concrete proof that the invisible world exists, but for Leolini, there’s also no concrete proof that it doesn’t. “Facts are the sole criteria of reality,” she says. “In the absence of facts, the wise man suspends his judgment.”

Barbara Leolini is a photographer based in Florence, Italy.

Jen Tse is a photo editor and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter @jentse and Instagram.

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