A Slice of Italy

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hi everybody!

Chris and I recently took our first two week vacation (other than Christmas vacations) since coming to Europe and spent it driving down the western coast of Italy and back up through the center of the country. It's a 14 hour drive to Cinque Terre, our first destination, so we stopped in Luzern, Switzerland, on the way down and in southern France on the way back. We drove over 5400 km (>3500 miles) and saw beautiful scenery (including plenty of lemon trees!), amazing historical places (Pompeii and Paestum)and ate the best pasta and gelato imaginable. We did a lot of hiking and walking so luckily the impact of the gelato to our waistlines was lessened!

Along the Italian Riviera sit 5 small former fishing villages which make up the Cinque Terre. It is a beautiful place with clear blue green water and hiking trails between the villages which are nestled into the rocky coastline shared by olive groves and wine vineyards. We spent 3 nights and 2 days here, enjoying the hiking and relaxing into vacation. We took one 6 mile hike high into the vineyards and olive groves on the rocky hills above the towns. It was difficult, but the views were beautiful.

Getting to our Cinque Terre town - Vernazza - was a bit of an adventure as well. One access road was closed due to being washed out during the winter. A scary drive on another narrow winding road that often was not quite 2 lanes wide, but did have 2-way traffic, finally got us to within a kilometer of the town. A short bus shuttle from the parking lot put us smack in what seemed like another time. The town was a former fishing village. Wedged in between cliffs with a small port on the Merditeranian was a village with pastel painted houses, old ladies sweeping their doorsteps and small boats bobbing in the water. The food here, as in all of Italy, was amazing. Pesto was created in this part of Italy so we ate a lot of it including pesto pasta and pesto pizza. The local specialty is fresh anchovies served the day they are caught. We had the anchovies in lemon juice and olive oil - surprising delicious given that neither of us are anchovy fans (Chris usually doesn't like seafood). There are lemon trees everywhere, so lots of foods and desserts are made with lemon. As with all of Italy, the coffee was great...but there was something to be said for enjoying a cappuccino next to the sea:

There are more cats per square foot than we've seen anywhere else in Europe. We think the cats must like all the fresh fish brought in by the fishermen daily.

The pace of life in the Cinque Terre area is SLOW. One cannot visit here and expect to go to museums and enjoy gobs of night life. The only thing to do is absorb the atmosphere.

From one of the Cinque Terre towns we took a boat to Portovenere,where poets such as Lord Byron settled down to write romantic poetry. We only had an hour after arriving before we needed to catch the last boat back, so it was a very fast visit, but worth it for the view of beautiful snow-covered mountains behind the bay and a stroll around the old fortress. Fishermen were getting their boats ready for the summer.

It was a long drive from Cinque Terre to Sorrento. Sorrento, just south of Naples, was our base for visiting Naples, Pompeii and the Island of Capri. The traffic is much easier in Sorrento and it is an easy train or hydrofoil ride to the other sights.

Naples reminded us of a very dirty NYC with lots of energy and business going on. It's fast and gritty and known for pickpockets as well as more aggressive thieves. Our guidebook pointed out that red lights are considered decorational rather than directional in Naples. Traffic was crazy (we took the train, didn't drive in), but no worse than NYC and certainly not as bad as Bangkok. The highlight of Naples is the archeological museum where many of the Pompeii artifacts are displayed. We visited the museum, which had an extensive exhibit of silver that was found in Pompeii. Many of the mosaics and other important works weren't there however. We think they are at the traveling exhibit currently at the Field Museum in Chicago! Everyone living in or visiting Chicago should definitely go see the Pompeii exhibit while it's at the Field Museum.

There is one display called the "Secret Closet" which requires a reservation. It is purported to have lots of erotic art from Roman times. What a joke - it's a small room that contains nothing that can't be seen out in the open in other European museums.

Pompeii itself is amazing. It is a complete Roman city that was buried in volcanic ash in AD 79 only to be rediscovered in the 17th century. Excavations have been ongoing ever since and a third of the city is still buried under fields of crops. We spent an entire day walking the streets of this ruined city. It is surprisingly big with a sports park, amphitheater, restaurants, temples, graveyards, and houses. There are many frescos and mosaics which have survived since Vesuvius' eruption in 79AD. What remains is incredible considering how old it is and that things are completely out in the elements.

In this picture you can see the ruts in the stones which were made by carts that traveled over them nearly 2000 years ago. The raised stones were used by pedestrians to cross the street when it flooded during heavy rains.

The Island of Capri is a 20 minute ferry ride from Sorrento. From the Capri harbor it is a crowded funicular ride to the town of Capri. Once there, one is confronted with lots of fancy-dancy shops and small winding pedestrian-only roads. It's a place to relax, hike and admire the views - particularly if shopping isn't your thing. Villa Jovis was Emperor Tiberius' home from which he ruled the Roman Empire during the last decade of his life (about 30AD). It is now in ruin, but it is a great 45 minute hike from town and is very interesting to wander through. We were in Capri a bit early in the season - it was hot in the sun, chilly in the shade and cold at night - so we didn't get to enjoy swimming or snorkeling. It was beautiful and relaxing nonetheless. And, no, we didn't go to the Blue Grotto. It just didn't seem all that interesting to us. One of the locals told us there are actually several other grottos that the tour boats don't go to that are even nicer but are less accessible.

We got to see Palm Sunday traditions on Capri. The town church is quite small, so services were held on the main square where everybody gathered carrying palms and olive branches. The olive branches were decorated with bread, cheese, eggs and other decorations. There were so many people - the square was completely crammed. Several people handed us olive branches - we imagined because they realized we didn't have any. However, when we asked an Italian friend later we learned that people exchange olive branches with each other as a symbol of peace. Unfortunately we didn't know and didn't have any to exchange.

More food notes: Some claim that Italy has the best pizza in the world. Naples reportedly has the best pizza in Italy. Antica Pizzeria da Michele reportedly has the best pizza in Naples. Therefore....well, you get the idea. You take a number and wait for a table. Only 2 varieties are available: mozzarella and tomato or tomato, garlic and oregano without cheese. A 10" pizza and a beer is 4 Euro - a bargain. And....the pizza is awesome! Back in Sorrento, just up the road from our hotel, was an amazing restaurant with fresh homemade pasta, a seafood pasta dish, great pizza, and an amazing chocolate almond torte. We ate there two nights in a row. Da Gemma, in Capri, is a family restaurant with a huge antipasti bar, more great pasta, pizza and another amazing chocolate torte. We ate there two nights in a row as well! Finally, the absolutely best gelato of the whole trip was on Capri at a place where they made fresh waffle cones on site. The gelato was very rich, creamy and delicious.

Here Mel is waiting with hungry Napolites for pizza at the aforementioned Pizzeria da Michele:

The Amalfi Coast is Italy's version of the U.S. Highway 1 - only even more narrow, more steep, and more miles of beauty. The road winds along the cliff sides, overlooking the ocean and the small towns that have been built into the cliffs. Around each curve things are more beautiful than the last curve.

We had bought picnic fixin's and had intended to find a place along the coast to eat. We didn't stop at the main tourist town, Positano, and in the town of Amalfi we couldn't find a parking space, so we followed the directions of our Rick Steves' guidebook and went to the next town, Atrani. There we found easy parking and ate our lunch on the beach listening to the waves coming in. The town itself was really empty... we were probably the only tourists. After lunch we started to walk to another town, but after 30 minutes realized it was further than we expected and, since Melanie had decided to wear driving shoes instead of walking shoes that day, we returned to the main square. While having a coffee, a familiar face entered the square - the author of our guidebook and host, writer and producer of a public television series on traveling Europe - Rick Steves! See the photo album for the picture of us with him.

We ended our Amalfi drive by continuing south along the coast to Paestum, a place in the middle of nowhere with the only well-preserved Greek temples known north of Sicily. In addition to the temples, many well-preserved artifacts, such as pottery, bronze vases, a rare Greek painting, and wood carvings are on display in the museum. There is absolutely nothing else around except for buffalo farms, but it was worth the drive to see these amazing temples and artifacts. Also, we stayed in a terrific agriturismo that would almost be worth the trip alone. It was a working farm with great rooms, 700 buffalo and a dinner option that included fresh buffalo mozzarella and ricotta cheese made from the buffalo milk. Yum, yum!

We arrived in Assisi late in the day after driving from Paestum but decided to walk into town and have a dinner at La Fortezza Restaurant, where we had yet another amazing meal. After dinner, we practically had the entire town to ourselves. Assisi is a very well preserved and maintained medieval hill town in the Umbria region of Italy. It is a hilly town so walking in, out, and around it can be fairly strenuous, but we enjoyed it after a day of driving. Plus there were plenty of pastry shops to help keep our energy up! The next day we visited the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, completed R. Steves' self guided walking tour of the town and bought bread and wild boar salami for a picnic lunch before continuing our northward drive to Ravenna.

Ravenna is a low key sort of town that has beautiful Byzantine mosaics that are over 1500 years old. If you are in this part of Italy, you should definitely visit it to see the mosaics. At the first church we visited we were looking at the mosaics on the floor when we noticed the beautiful "frescoes" over the alter.

As we got closer we realized that the "frescoes" were really the mosaics that we had come to see. They are so beautiful and detailed that they look like paintings. It is incredible to think about how old and well preserved the mosaics are. There are several churches and a mausoleum filled with them. The mosaics themselves are made from very small pieces (about the size of a fingernail) of marble and colored glass. The colors remain bright and vibrant through the centuries.

After seeing the mosaics and having a picnic lunch in the park we continued on to Lake Como, stopping in Bologna for a quick look and another gelato. Bologna is a very big city with lots of one way streets and streets that are not open to cars. We somehow had a knack for getting on the tram-only streets during the few hours we were there. The first time we didn't even realize we were someplace we weren't supposed to be until somebody on a motor scooter clued us in. Once we finally found the old center we enjoyed the main plaza with it's Neptune sculpture and fountain (see pics). Bologna is Italy's "food city" which is really saying something. Off of the main square there is a street that has one deli after another. Hams hang from the ceilings. Cheeses fill the coolers. Fruits and vegetables of all shapes and colors sit in crates outside. It has a very "old world" feel of local butchers, cheese makers, and produce markets all sitting side by side on a very narrow street. We bought some parmesan to bring back to Amsterdam and then continued our drive to Lake Como.

Just as we began our vacation with a bit of relaxing by the water, we decided to end the vacation the same way. We spent two nights in Varenna, on the eastern shore of Lake Como. Our hotel was up a single lane road and built on the side of a steep hill, so we had a great view of the lake from our little balcony. We spent our time on Lake Como wandering Varenna, taking a ferry across the lake to Bellagio for some shopping, and otherwise relaxing. On the day we were supposed to leave, there was a rock slide which "trapped" us until mid-afternoon. At about 5:00 a.m. Easter morning several rocks broke loose and came tumbling down the hill, breaking main water line, gas line, train power and bouncing off and crashing through the sunroof of a BMW 7-series parked on the main road. The small access road between our hotel and the main road was closed due to a fear that more rocks were loose and would come crashing down. However, after several hours we learned that people were being permitted to walk the road "at their own risk" if escorted. We decided that if it was safe to walk it was probably safe to drive, so we loaded our luggage into the car, drove to the roadblock, and begged to be let through. We were permitted to drive QUICKLY through and thus were able to continue on. We didn't leave until around 3pm, however, so we were very late getting to our B&B in France. In fact, by the time we arrived all of the local restaurants were closed except for a pizzeria where we were able to have salads and pasta. Being in France, we noticed the pasta was served in butter instead of olive oil.

Here, fog had settled on the lake and was just starting to lift from Varenna on Easter Sunday. On the top right, the ruins of the castle can be seen.

Another reason we arrived late is that we took an alternate route through Switzerland which went over the Alps instead of through them. The major passes are tunnels through the rock, but this was a traditional winding road around the rocks. The road was deserted, surrounded by the remaining winter snow, and slow due to all of the curves. The reward, however, is that along the way we saw some beautiful scenery which we would have missed otherwise.

We know that it can be dull to read one description after another of hotels and B&Bs where we stayed and yet sometimes they really are interesting and can also provide a resource for others who are traveling. So, for those who are interested, we've provided a listing and some commentary below. For all others, this is the end of the trip. We really loved Italy and are looking forward to going back again sometime.

Happy Travels!
Melanie and Chris


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Places we stayed:

Luzern, Switzerland: Hotel Goldener Stern. Convenient stop-over for drivers. Easy walk in to the old town and easy parking close to the hotel. Clean, basic rooms at fair price. Elevator.

Cinque Terre: If you want a room with a sea view or a balcony, reserve in advance. Rick Steves has a good listing. We didn't reserve and ended up in a 5th floor walk up overlooking the busy main street of Vernazza. Not the most desirable, but it was clean and convenient and we were happy to be on vacation.

Sorrento: Hotel Desiree - very helpful staff who really know the area and can provide guidance on local sites. For a larger room with balcony it's best to reserve ahead. We had room #6 which was large and had a good balcony. Upon return from Capri our (different) room was much smaller. Breakfast is only bread, pastry and coffee so if you want any protein or other nutritionally worthwhile foods bring your own. We did.

Capri: Thanks to Chris' years of loyalty to Marriott, we spent two nights at the Marriott Tiberio Palace Resort and Spa. Unfortunately the spa was closed, but it was still a beautiful setting and great service - including free poolside massages for guests.

Amalfi Coast: We didn't stay here, but next time we need a relaxing splurge, this is where we'll go. We saw it from the coast road and stopped in to gawk. Absolutely BEAUTIFUL!!! Il San Pietrodi Positano

Paestum: The Agriturismo Seliano was the best! A working farm with 700 buffalo and at least 5 friendly dogs. The rooms are new and clean rooms containing old, homey wooden furniture. Take the dinner there (20 EUR including wine). Ours included freshly made braided buffalo mozzarella (made from fresh buffalo milk), fresh ricotta, breads, ham, buffalo meat, lemon cake, local wine and, of course,limoncello to finish. The day we were there the owner - who speaks 5 languages - ate with the guests and was a perfect host.

Assisi: Basic lodging on beautiful grounds with friendly cats. Downhill from the old town of Assisi. Country House

Ravenna: Family-run B&B with friendly, big golden Labrador, Wally. Minimal English spoken, but extremely friendly people. Good breakfast. Bed & Breakfast Casa Masoli

Lake Como (Varenna): Up a winding single lane road on a hillside in Varenna is Eremo Gaudio. The setting is beautiful and taking the Funicular up to dinner is interesting. Beware the fancy showers - they don't really work properly.

Alsace, France: Lovely little B&B in the Alsace countryside just outside of Basel, Switzerland. Really nice people and fresh, clean rooms. Click here for link

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