A Travellerspoint blog

October 2009

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day One

When in Rome...

“Turn right on the Lungotevere Della Farnesina in 1 mile.”
“Turn right on the Via Anicia in 400 feet.”

As we made our way down the Viale di Trastevere, the cool, clear voice of the GPS lady was a calm in the storm that is the streets of central Rome. Even her Italian was impressive. Scooters whizzed by at maddening speeds, cutting in front of cars, driving on the wrong side, whipping up onto sidewalks; cars made their own lanes wherever possible – 2 lanes, 3 lanes, 5 lanes; small alleys the width of a compact car but intended for 2 way traffic popped up at every corner, some so narrow we had to pull the mirrors in on our sub-compact just to avoid scraping along the old stucco walls of the tall buildings on either side; but I was smug. We had this licked.

“Turn right on the Via Dei Genovesi in 200 feet.”

Sure, it was madness, but we had the GPS lady. So what if she had turned us the wrong way shortly after leaving the Rome airport and had taken us down a long dirt road that ended in a locked gate. Anyone can make one mistake. Right? Besides, she sounded so certain, so confident, so self assured.

“Turn right on the Viale di Trastevere.”

Uh-oh. Do you know what happens when you keep turning right? We chose to ignore the obvious and kept doing exactly what the GPS lady said. What else could we do? We were lost in a maze of tiny alleys in the middle of historic Rome.

When we passed the same statue for the 3rd time, we had to admit: Houston, we have a problem.

And so began our 10 day adventure in Italy.


Maybe we were overconfident. Maybe we grossly underestimated just how difficult driving in Italy can be. Maybe we hadn’t done a very good job mapping out our destination because of our ill-fated confidence in electronic technology. Whatever the reason, I spent the next 5 minutes cussing at the GPS lady while a fierce sweat broke out on Matt’s forehead as he tried to delicately maneuver our tiny car through even tinier streets having absolutely no freaking idea where he was going.

Through blessed luck or divine intervention, we finally saw it: our hotel. Santa Maria Trastevere was like a tiny oasis in a maze of confusion. An old cloister centered around a delicate orange grove, the little hotel’s gate welcomed us inside. We were here. We were in Italy.

It was late Monday morning. Having caught a 5:30 flight out of Knoxville after only 2 hours of sleep on Sunday morning, we had a 10 hour layover in Philadelphia that we spent with my best friend and her husband who live in the city. We then flew out of Philly at 6:00 p.m. and spent a miserable 8 ½ hours trying to sleep in a ridiculously uncomfortable airplane seat. After about an hour of the drift and jerk-- you know, when you drift off and your head dips forward…a little drool escaping onto your chest….and then you suddenly and violently JERK back upright and awake and sheepishly wipe the drool off your chin while you covertly look around to see who just witnessed your idiocy-- I just gave up and spent the next 7 hours with my eyes closed, figuring it was the best I could do.

But now, we were here. All the planning, the expense, the uncomfortable flights…it was all worth it as I looked around me at honey colored buildings climbing with ivy. It couldn’t really be this lovely, could it? We had chosen to stay in the Trastevere neighborhood, across the Tiber River from the historic center of Rome. With only one day in Rome, it was close to what we wanted to see, but just removed enough to also give us the flavor of a cozy Italian neighborhood. It delivered everything it promised.


Trastevere is simply a lovely little neighborhood. Old buildings in warm yellows and oranges rise around small cobbled alleyways and green vines and flowers seem to climb every possible surface. Fresh smelling laundry in bright colors spills out of every window and flaps quietly in the breeze. People stroll everywhere, men in aprons stand and smoke cigarettes outside a small pizzeria, a little dog stares out of a shop door, and women laugh and carry shopping bags across the piazza. The color and vibrancy of the place literally hit me like a wall. I was staggered and felt like I could scarcely take it all in.

We were afforded an early check-in (“Hallelujah!”) and trekked out to find our first Italian meal. We had identified a good choice in advance using reviews and guidebooks, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. After walking up and down the same block 3 times (and starting to feel like we did when we passed that statue for the 3rd time), we noticed a small sign in a window identifying a black, dusty little corner as what USED to be our restaurant. So, we just walked until we got to the next place.


We turned a corner and it was littered with happy little tables. Margherita Osteria Pizzeria in Trastevere was the grand prize winner for our first lunch. It was exactly what I imagined a little pizzeria in Rome to be. We were quickly seated at a warm little outdoor table on a cobblestone street. Within moments, we had water, the house red wine, and stuffed fried olives. We also had a fabulous pizza with mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, ham, and pecorino cheese. We were weary, but the wine went a long way toward making everything better.

The first lesson I learned in Italy: Everything looks better through rose colored wine glasses.

We only had one day to see Rome, so we headed across the Piazza Trilussa toward the bridge across the Tiber River. On the way, we stopped at Di Checco for some gelato. I chose caffe (coffee) flavor and Matt chose something he had never heard of: Nutella. And so began Matt’s Italian obsession with Nutella. We never did figure out what it was. Was it chocolate? Was it nuts? Who knew? It was spreadable happiness and that’s all we needed to know.


We sat in the Piazza Trilussa and ate our gelato, savoring every creamy bite, even licking the dripping runs off our hands. It was that good. We might have savored it a bit too long, though, because the next thing we heard was thunder. We only had one day in Rome…so we carried on. We managed to get across the bridge before the torrential rains hit. We ducked under an awning and laughed like kids in the rain until it slacked off.


We spent the next few hours walking through historic Rome and seeing as many wonderful things as we could. We walked down to Palatine Hill and walked around to the Coliseum. We walked under the Arch of Constantine, we walked past the Forum. I really can’t explain how we felt when we saw them. So much time. So much history. So much beauty in the architecture. It was incredibly awe inspiring.




We stopped at a fruit vendor and grabbed a bag of grapes that we ate contentedly as we wandered through the streets of Rome.


We walked down to the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona…it was all simply amazing. You could hear the voices of 1,000 ancient Romans whispering around you… “We were here.”


When we simply couldn’t walk another step, we headed back over to Trastevere where things immediately became a little slower, a little quieter. We stopped at a neighborhood bar called Freni e Frenzione. We ordered up a couple of mojitos and learned that with a drink, you got a free buffet. This was not your American bar-style buffet of stale nacho chips and greasy chicken wings. No sir. The bar was elegant and was covered with baskets of fresh bread, bowls of spicy Mediterranean cous cous, marinated olives, tangy pasta salad, rich hummus with crostini, chick peas with marinated vegetables, fresh vegetable crudités, fruit, and bowls of wonderful creamy dressings like greek feta, pepperoni, or basil. After a few mojitos and a few trips to the buffet, we didn’t need anything more but a good night’s sleep.


I slept like a child with the voices of 1,000 Romans whispering in my dreams.

Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Two

Cities in Dust: A Visit to Pompeii

After a long night of much needed sleep, we woke to our first real morning in Italy. We had only been there for 24 hours, but already, the differences were noticeable. For instance, I was puzzled at first by the toilets. No, not the whole bidet phenomenon, which did create it’s own series of emotion ranging from shock to curiosity to an immature fit of the giggles, but rather the fact that the toilets were backless, the tank being located somewhere else in the bathroom. This left me with the question: how do I flush? There was no tank with a flusher. I noticed a panel on the wall behind my backless toilet that had two giant push buttons, one more giant than the other. What to do? What to do? I nervously bit my nails, uncomfortable with the thought that I might push a button that could cause an alarm to go off, or a wild bathroom sprinkler. Was that the flusher? Was it? What if it actually turned all the lights off or shut down the plumbing?

Do I? Don’t I? Do I? After a few nervous moments, I finally just went for it. I chose the smaller button. I figured if it did something loud or terrible, the smaller button might be less loud and less terrible.




Now that I knew the button didn’t actually summon an army of midget firefighters or sound a trumpet, I had to know what the bigger button did.



Oh. I get it. I giggled at a toilet that had a “small flush” button and a “big flush” button.

Next we came to the hairdryer. I saw a contraption mounted on the wall. It was a box with a vacuum cleaner hose attached. Surely not. It couldn’t be. Could it? It was. Again, my utter immaturity could not be held back as I laughed myself silly as I dried my hair with the vacuum nozzle.


Those things don’t work worth a damn, by the way.

Morning hygiene under control, it was time for breakfast….Italian-style.

I learned quickly that I like the way Italians do breakfast. Meat. Good. Cheese. Good. Pastries. Good. Cappuccino…..GOOD. The hotel had a very nice breakfast buffet of cold cuts and cheeses, pastries and breads with honey and jam. Cakes. Seriously…cakes. For breakfast. Vicki likes cake at any time of day. Cereals, yogurt, and fresh fruit as well as fresh juices like blood orange and pineapple. The coffee, however, was not at the buffet. I looked nervously at the Italian woman standing behind the counter next to the big, bad, cappuccino maker. I was going to have to ask for it.

It was time to order my cappuccino and I realized quickly that my shyness was taking over and all the Italian I had so carefully learned went out the window. I resorted to grunting and pointing. I pointed at the cappuccino maker and nodded. She nodded and held up a cup. “Cappuccino?” she asked. “Si.” I said. “Due?” she asked. “No,” I responded since I have failed thus far to make Matt into a coffee drinker. At that point, my two little Italian words had convinced her somehow that I was a fluent speaker of Italian. She rattled off a sentence and the only word I understood was “cioccolato.” I figured anything that had to do with chocolate had to be good, so I nodded vigorously. “Si, cioccolato.”

It was entirely possible that I had just ordered chocolate covered dog poo to go with my cappuccino, for all the Italian I knew, but I was winging it.

A few minutes later a creamy, frothy cup of foamy heaven arrived……sprinkled delicately with chocolate.



After a few croissants filled with chocolate and sprinkled with powdered sugar, I was on a supreme caffeine and sugar high and needed to walk off a little energy, lest I literally bounce myself out of the little car on the way to Sorrento that day. We took about an hour to walk around the Trastevere neighborhood, wandering through the Santa Maria Piazza and watching the hustle and bustle of the morning activities.


We had a long drive ahead, going from Rome to Sorrento, so the walk did us good. Tall buildings with chipped pink and orange paint and exposed bricks towered above us, reaching up to a beautiful blue sky. Ivy crawled upwards toward windows thrown open to expose fresh smelling sheets hanging in the early sunshine to dry. Tiny trucks made their deliveries, watched warily by shop dogs that were keeping an eye on business.


When it was time to go, we piled into our tiny car, armed with nothing but the GPS lady to get us out of Rome, onto the autostrada, and to our first destination: a small restaurant on a small street in the small town of Ercolano, just before Pompeii. Now that I had mastered the toilet flush, the hair dryer, and the ordering of the cappuccino, I was feeling like a world traveler. I was trans-continental, folks. I could do anything. Again, the overconfidence kept us from doing as much preparation as might have been prudent for our upcoming adventure.

Getting out of Rome was worse than getting in. Within 10 minutes, we were lost, confused, going in the opposite direction we needed to, and yelling at each other and the GPS lady. In Rome, lanes are merely a suggestion, not a rule; insane scooters reign; and streets signs are….well…in freaking Italian which we hadn’t bothered to learn.

“Turn right on the Viale La Spezia.”

That’s it. I yelled at Matt that his GPS girlfriend was stupid and I put her in the glove compartment.

We finally figured out the signage and made our way to the autostrada. Somehow, we got there without wrecking the car, killing a scooter driver, or throwing the GPS lady in the Tiber River. It was a boring 2 ½ hour drive to Naples. Just past Naples, our plan was to stop and eat lunch at a neat place I had read about in the small town of Ercolano. Ercolano was just minutes from Pompeii, so it seemed like a plan, right?

Matt had managed to sneak his GPS girlfriend back out of the glove box at this point and he forced me, against my will, to give her another opportunity to redeem herself. We found Ercolano without a hitch. It was a scruffy little town and Matt kept looking at me saying, “Are you sure this is right? Are you sure?” I am that person that God forgot to give a healthy dose of fear to. You know, that very good, self preserving kind of fear? I don’t have it. I generally remain blissfully unaware of potential dangers lurking around me. I was busy gawking up at the buildings and the kids playing in the streets, snapping pictures and looking around. What I was missing was Matt breaking out into another nervous sweat as the GPS lady took him into a maze of tiny alleys, eventually bringing us into what was as close to a slum as I guess we could find in Italy. Then, the road that the GPS lady told us to take ended up being closed for construction. Crap. We were on our own again, lost in a maze of confusion.


“Go down that one,” I pointed at a tiny alley.

“Are you sure about that?” Matt asked warily as he looked down the narrow street, littered with trash and boxes, abandoned cars, and lots of idle people.

“Yeah, go down that one. It points back to the direction we want to go.”

He turned. We rolled down the windows and pulled in the mirrors. The road was that narrow. We drove deeper and deeper into the bowels of the little city, the sun obliterated by the tall narrow buildings, laundry flapping in the windows, people staring after our car suspiciously.

I was happily snapping pictures and shouting, “Look at that little dog,” “Look at that pretty doorway,” or “Look at those flowers,” while Matt was sweating and near puking, having visions of the men we saw at the alley entry pushing cars in front of the exit to block the way of the stupid tourists that had stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time. My mind was in the movie “Roman Holiday” while Matt was starring in some dark and disturbing After School Special.

That was when we reached the dead end with no where to turn around. Matt gave me a look that spoke volumes and I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders. We had to back aaaallll the way back down that alley. I must say, though, the Italian people are so friendly and gracious. There were no cars piled up at the exit so that they could cut up our bodies and put us in the trunk. They did, however, smile and wave as we drove back by, embarrassed as hell.

It was at this point that Matt tried to put me in the glove box with the GPS lady.

We eventually made it to our restaurant. Viva Lo Re was a great little place, warm and inviting, the walls stacked with wine bottles, making it more like having lunch in a wine cellar than a restaurant. I knew we were in trouble when we figured out there was no printed menu and the waitress didn’t speak any English. It was hilarious. She was rattling off stuff, Matt was totally lost and looking at me mouthing “You order for me,” and I was trying to hear a word, any word, that I recognized. I heard ravioli and pesce (fish). Ah ha! Ravioli and fish it is. I nodded and said, “Due.”

See, so far I had only needed two Italian words: Yes and Two. I was rockin’ right along. I was AWESOME.

The waitress then came back and rattled off something I couldn’t understand. I looked at her and said, “Non capisco.” (I don’t understand).

“Oh,” she said. She scratched her head for a minute, obviously trying to figure out how to communicate to me. Finally she said, “Ravioli….finish.”

They were out of ravioli. Damn. She and I went through the whole menu again, with the associated nodding, grunting, and pointing and somehow we ended up with Fettuccini with seafood. What kind of seafood? I never did figure that one out.

Who knew ordering could be so hard??


The house red wine at Viva Lo Re was wonderful and after two glasses, we relaxed and let the stress of driving that morning roll of us in waves. We munched on a basket of fresh baked bread while the local lunch crowd around us buzzed. Two heaping plates of spinach fettuccini with tomatoes and cheese, as well as “mystery seafood,” were set down in front of us and all was right with the world. The wine made me warm and fuzzy, a haze of comfort settling down on me like a blanket.

We had decided to visit Pompeii that day because it was on our drive to Sorrento. The entrance was only a few miles from Ercolano and we managed to get there without a hitch. It was late in the afternoon, probably around 2:00 p.m., when we arrived and we had apparently missed the crowds. The dusty city was deserted for the most part with the exception of an inordinate number of stray dogs. I nicknamed them the “Dogs of Pompeii.” Their scruffy little bodies were sleeping everywhere.


The utter desertion of the place made it eerie as we walked down the stone streets. You could almost glimpse the city beneath the city as you walked past storefronts and homes. You could imagine the grandeur and bustle of the streets. You could hear the cries of the people as the ash fell and caught them where they stood.


One thing that surprised me about Pompeii was the color. Beautiful colors painted on buildings, in murals on the walls, and in tile mosaics. I was also surprised by the size of it. Pompeii is HUGE and the architecture of the place is remarkable for its time. I felt privileged to be allowed such a rich and beautiful glimpse into the past.


Most of the “people” have been removed and placed in a museum in Naples. There were a few, however. You could see them in terror, in agony, and couldn’t help but wonder what it had been like for them in those final moments. Looking at them, laying in desperation or fear, curled up trying to protect themselves, I couldn’t help but feel a heaviness on my heart. This was a person that lived here. This was a person that died here. This was a person.


We stayed for several hours, wandering through the maze of streets, running our palms along the rough stone columns and smooth marble, walking through the stately homes of the wealthy and the modest rooms of the poor. As the sun began to set, we said our goodbyes to the ghosts of the fallen city and headed toward our next destination, Sorrento.

Sorrento is a “larger” city compared to others on the Amalfi Coast, just after Naples and on the peninsula that sort of begins the Amalfi Coastline. We thought it would be a good starting point for our Amalfi Coast adventure. We drove into Sorrento in the dark, the hulk of Mount Vesuvius a shadow in the setting sun. The road began to twist and turn. We could see mountainous cliffs beginning to rise on our left side and plunges to the sea on our right.

We arrived at Hotel Mediterraneo Sorrento to check in and we were given a room in their sister property, which is right on the water, Hotel Caruso. They also offered us a free dinner in their restaurant that night, which we gladly took them up on since it was very late and we were very tired.

After minimal clean up time, we went to the restaurant where we were seated on the terrace facing the sea. A delicious breeze was blowing and the night air was cool. The waiter arrived and spoke blessed English. The menu was also in several languages, so ordering was easy. I chose to order from the menu but Matt asked the waiter to recommend something. Normally, this is highly recommended in Italy, as daily specials or fresh dishes are available and not on the menu.

However, instead of offering up a fresh Italian specialty, I am guessing the waiter sized Matt up, with his thick southern accent, and compared him to the closest American approximation that he could muster: John Wayne. He brought Matt spaghetti and a giant steak. Cowboy food…yee haw! The spaghetti was really good, though, just not very imaginative! I can see the waiter’s thought process: “Big American guy. He want steak. He want spaghetti. Good American type food.”

For an appetizer I ordered melon with prosciutto. The melon was at the perfect moment of ripeness, still firm but sweet, and the prosciutto was like none I had ever tasted: thick and so soft it nearly melted in my mouth. The saltiness of the prosciutto with the sweetness of the melon was perfect. I also ordered a roast salmon that was cooked with tomatoes, capers, and black olives. Topped off with a bottle of wine and fresh bread, it was enough to make my eyes heavy with sleep.


The night was so deliciously perfect, we just couldn’t turn in yet, so we wandered into the pool garden which was filled with tropical trees and flowers and softly lit. There was live music: a one man Italian show doing his rendition of your favorite 1970’s classics. It was awesome. Dancing Queen, I Will Survive, even a little Barry Manilow thrown into the mix. I sang, badly, and Matt laughed. People danced.


We enjoyed the night, the breeze, and the music until our heavy eyelids and tired bodies simply couldn’t take any more. We turned in with the waves crashing on the rocks below our window.

Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Three

Come rain, come wind, come dark of night: A Walk to Sorrento

We woke to a heavy rain. Our first glimpse of the Amalfi Coast in the daylight showed dark skies, a pounding sea, and fierce winds. We decided to head to breakfast and see what things looked like after we’d filled up on pastries and cheese.

The hotel had a very nice breakfast buffet, similar to the one we had at Hotel Santa Maria. There were sliced meats and cheeses, breads and pastries, cheesecake (oh yeah!), spreads, cereals, yogurt, fruit and juices. Really, who can’t fall in love with a country that serves cheesecake as a breakfast food? Again, the coffee had to be ordered, but I felt pretty sure I could handle it.


“Un cappuccino, per favore,” I told the waiter when he came by. He nodded. “Grazie,” I replied.

See? I was getting the hang of it.

I have to mention the Italian cappuccino here. To me, it was a thing of true beauty. You see, I love strong coffee. I make my coffee so strong that my office staff has forbidden me to use the communal coffee maker, insisting that I keep a private one in my office, likening my coffee to a “hot milkshake, it’s so thick.” I don’t like black coffee either. I like it strong with lots of cream and sugar. That is just what an Italian cappuccino delivers. A deliciously strong, fabulously hot cup with the perfect amount of milk and foam and always served with sugar. Perfection. Like Matt with the Nutella, I was developing an unhealthy addiction.

By the time breakfast was over, the wind was so bad the rain was literally blowing sideways! We chose to read for a while in hopes that the rain would slack off. After a few hours, the growing pizza monster in my belly was starting to grumble, wondering where the lunchtime cheese, wine, and bread-fest was, and the rain had stopped, so we decided to be brave and venture out into the ridiculous wind.


We walked the short distance to Sorrento center in gale force winds. It was CRAZY, but worth it. As we rounded a bend in the road, we saw the Lattari Mountains rising up behind the thin strip of coastline that was dotted with cliff hugging villas that looked as though they could simply slip into the Tyrrhenian Sea with one more gust of the wind. Sorrento sat, framed between mountain and sea, a little city filled with open air markets, beautifully crumbling buildings, and explosions of color that came in the form of climbing vines and flower boxes.


We did some walking and shopping with the wind whipping us at every corner. The weather didn’t detract from the loveliness of Sorrento, however. My favorite thing was becoming the small markets that seemed to exist on every corner. Italian markets are wonderful. Tiny little things that are overflowing with bins of fresh fruits and vegetables outside and hung with salty meats and savory cheeses inside. Shelves of fresh baked breads and rolls wrapped simply in paper or not at all filled the air with warm yeasty smells and strings of peppers and garlic dangled from the ceilings.


When the rain started back up, we decided lunch was in order. We popped into La Lanterna, a cozy and delightful restaurant and ordered what was now our usual: A carafe of the house red wine. We followed the wine with a pizza margherita. The crust was thin and crispy and it was topped with fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes. After the pizza, I had a ravioli caprese, which was basically a thick and creamy tomato sauce loaded with cheese, and Matt had the lasagna which was phenomenal.


After lunch, we walked around Sorrento for a while longer, Matt popping into a pastry shop to try out a chocolate filled cannoli. The wind was still ferocious, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a little down time.


That evening we decided to drive back to the little town of Piano di Sorrento to do a little shopping. We grabbed a bag of grapes from a market and snacked while we walked. The little town was alive with activity. People were everywhere, drinking at outdoor tables, wandering down the cobbled streets with shopping bags, or buzzing by on scooters.



We had driven there and as usual, found that parking was a supreme challenge. We had parked in what was obviously a legal spot but there were some signs we couldn’t read so we had just hoped for the best. Well…the best was not meant to be. We returned to our car to find a parking ticket. In Italian. Apparently the spot we chose had a little pay box down the street that we hadn’t seen. Um…because it was in Italian.

What the hell are we supposed to do with a parking ticket we don’t know how to read and don’t know how to pay? When things like this come up, it’s another time when Matt and Vicki think sooooo differently.

Matt: “Just throw it away. What can they do?” he says as he crumples it up and shoves it in the glove box.

Vicki: “We can’t do that. You have to pay it. It’s the rule,” I say as I get it back out and smooth it out to put it in my purse.

We agreed to ask the hotel what to do the next morning. I kept it in my purse because I knew Matt would try to throw it away when I wasn’t looking. I was convinced trying to leave Italy without paying our parking ticket would set off an alarm at the airport and an army of military guys with machine guns would come take us out of the boarding line, revoke our passports, and throw us in an Italian jail. Okay, maybe that’s extreme, but I like to follow the rules.

We returned to the hotel and cleaned up for dinner. We decided to stick close to “home” and chose Ristorante Moonlight, a very homespun little place just down the street. We walked to the restaurant and when we arrived, entered into a beautiful little garden. It was still cool and drizzly, so we were taken inside and seated. We were given a plate of fried bread puffs (think little doughnut holes with no sugar) and bruschetta. We ordered a bottle of house wine and a pizza diavolo (pizza with hot sausage).


It was my personal goal to sample as many pizzas as I could on this trip.

For dinner, I ordered a tuna salad because all the bread and cheese were making me crave something green. Matt ordered “Shrimp Scampi.”


What comes to mind when you think “Shrimp Scampi?” Probably something like this, right?


You know, peeled shrimp in a delicate butter and garlic sauce…maybe a little parsley sprinkled on top…..

What Matt got was this:


I laughed and laughed and laughed as he stared at the little hard shelled, clawed creatures laid out in a line on his plate.

“What the hell are these?” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” I said, “Crawfish? Baby lobsters? Sea monkeys? I have no idea, just eat them.”

We were beginning to learn that English translations on Italian menus required a tad of interpretation. The English word they used for something might not actually mean what we thought it meant.

The good news is that they were super tasty…..just not what was expected. I still am not certain what those little guys were. Crawfish, I think. They tasted more like lobster than shrimp.

We followed dinner with a couple of drinks at the hotel bar which we took outside and enjoyed on the patio that overlooked the sea. The wind and rain had given us a reprieve, and we thought maybe the storms of the day were over.

Late that night, terrible storms blew through. We heard trees shaking, shutters banging, and glass breaking. When the worst had passed, I fell asleep and dreamt of sea monkeys and hurricanes.


Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (3)

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Four

Where the Mountains Collide With the Sea: The Amalfi Coast

Years ago, while flipping casually through a travel magazine, I saw a photo that took my breath away. It showed a ragged mountainside, lush and green and covered with golden hued buildings that seemed to crawl slowly down the mountain toward an incredible blue sea. The beauty of it was staggering. I read the caption: The Amalfi Coastline.

I knew I had to go there one day.

Before this trip, I had never been to Italy before. I had never been to Europe before. This was my first trip across the Atlantic and I hadn’t chosen the standard first trip places: London, Paris, Florence, Dublin. I chose the Amalfi Coast that I had dreamed about for years…and today was the day I was truly going to see it. Could it possibly be as beautiful as I imagined? Nothing is ever what we dream it will be. My eyes popped open that morning with so much excitement I could scarcely hold it in.

Today we would drive the Amalfi Coast Highway, one of the greatest drives in the world.

But first things first: Cappuccino!

The fierce storms of the night had blown out the rain (and some of the windows) and we had a bright and beautiful day in front of us. Because whenever there is a Matt-Vicki dispute, Vicki usually wins, we first went to pay our parking ticket. We checked out of Hotel Caruso and were told that parking tickets were paid at the Post Office. Yes, the Post Office. Somehow, without speaking any Italian and while dealing with a postal worker who spoke no English, Matt managed to pay the parking ticket. Either that or he mailed it to China, we still aren’t really sure.

We had decided to dedicate the bulk of our trip to the area between Sorrento and Ravello on the Amalfi coastline. We really wanted to do the Amalfi drive all at once, so we chose to go from Sorrento to Ravello first.

We’d spend the next 2 nights in Ravello. As we left Sorrento, we began to climb, higher and higher, past emerald terraces filled with vineyards, Mount Vesuvius a dim shadow hulking in the background and Sorrento a jumble of stucco below us. We passed this gentle little man who was out clipping grapes, the grapes falling in fat, thick purple bruised bunches into his bucket. When we slowed to take his photo, he held a juicy clump of grapes out to us, a sweet offering still damp with the dew.


Have I mentioned how warm and gracious the Italian people are?

You have to understand why were were so excited about the drive. If you have never heard of the famed “Amalfi Drive,” let me fill you in. This narrow and twisting road is most definitely one of the world's most beautiful and thrilling sightseeing drives.

The Amalfi Coast road is a ridiculous feat of engineering that narrowly clings to a mountainside and drops off into the sea below. Very few tourists opt to drive it (except for the fearless or the stupid), most take the bus, for good reason. I tried not to hyperventilate, instead looking at how the Mediterranean, a sheer 500-foot drop below me, twinkled in the early sunlight. As we drove, villas cling to the vertical landscape and beautiful pebble coves peeked from far below and out of our reach.

Not only is the road itself a thrill ride in its own right, add to that the HUGE tour buses that fly up and down it, literally scraping each other as they pass and brazenly encroaching on your lane as they speed along. At every hairpin turn, you feel like your car could plunge into craggy, breaker-washed sea boulders far below.


At each turn there was a sight more beautiful than the last. Cobalt seas with washes of greens and blues splashing up to pastel villages perched on the cliffs sprung up around the curves. Tiny coves with ancient fishing cottages and sandy beaches littered with brightly colored wooden boats lay hidden beneath us…blink and you could miss them. They were there for as beautiful glimmering moment and then vanished as the road twisted along. Golden domes and colorful ceramic mosaics beamed on proud churches that stood sentinel over the small towns.


I could scarcely take it all in. It was phenomenal. It was all I had dreamed and more. I couldn’t believe I was really there.


With Matt doing his best Mario Andretti, we cruised along, feeling like we were on top of the world. I was getting a little thirsty when I saw a little truck on the side of the highway. A handpainted sign proudly proclaimed they had “Granita di Limone.”


Frozen Lemonade.

We pulled over and I used my eloquent Italian to say, “Due.” The little farmer opened a huge frosty vat and poured two luscious cups for us. This is not your frozen Minute Maid, folks. This stuff was on a lemon tree just a day or so before, so fresh it still had seeds in it. It was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. We sucked them down so fast I got a brain freeze.

Obsession #3 (falling in line with Nutella and Cappuccino): Granita di Limone.

We made our way through all the coastal towns: Positano, Praiano, Fuore, Amalfi, Atrani…and then we arrived in Castiglione.


Castiglione sits at the sea level where Ravello is located. Ravello is a village at the mountaintop straight above. We had decided to sleep at the sea while we stayed in Ravello…and we had made a wonderful choice.

Villa San Michele was like stepping into a slice of heaven after several confusing and hectic days. The small inn was literally carved into the mountainside. It had multiple levels and each one seemed like it should simply crash into the waves below. I got almost dizzy looking down at the azure waters below. The stairs wound round and round and round eventually reaching the sea where you could plunge yourself into the refreshing water below. Bougainvillea spilled out of every crevice and lemon trees let in the dappled sunlight as Emiliano took us down to our room.


Our room had a small balcony and when we threw open the doors and stood on it, we felt suspended over the water. Waves crashed on the rocks just feet below and the views of the coastline swept all the way to Sorrento.

It was early and we wanted to spend the day in Ravello. I had read so much about it. Ravello sounded like the stuff dreams are made of and I wanted to see if it was too good to be true. Ravello is touted as one of the most romantic and beautiful small towns in southern Italy. Described as “suspended between sea and sky,” Ravello sits perched on steep, terraced slopes high on a mountain and is filled with lush gardens, sleepy cobbled lanes, and whispery sun-drenched corners. At its heart lies an 11th-century cathedral and two famous old villas, Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. In my mind, I imagined Ravello would look like heaven should.


You can drive up to Ravello but not into Ravello, so we thought it easier to just leave the car behind and walk. I asked Emiliano at Villa San Michele if the walk up was bad. I mean, it was 1200 vertical feet up from where we stood.

“It’s easy,” he said in broken English, “No problem. Easy. See the white house?” he pointed hiiiiiigh up on the mountainside. “Jus go up the steps…you cross road…go up more steps…all the time jus follow the white house….it lead you to Ravello….it’s easy.”

I looked at Matt. “It’s easy,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders. We decided we would walk.

We found the steps easy enough and up, up, up they went. There were so many of them. It was so hot. They were so ridiculously steep. If I learned one thing in Italy, it was that the Italian philosophy is: If you can build steps to it, you can walk to it.

Maybe I was too excited by the online photos I had seen of the path to Ravello, with its uninterrupted views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, or the description of Ravello as a dreamy little paradise sitting high above Italy's Amalfi Coast. Or maybe it was the descriptions of Ravello as a place not many tourists found their way to…like it was as special little secret hidden in the clouds. Something must have distracted me from the part about the steps -- endless, unrelenting steps -- that I'd have to climb to gain entrance to my private piece of paradise.

I am toned and fit. I go to the gym. I run. I do walking lunges. I wouldn't let a flight of steps deter me, no matter how ominous they looked.


Sixteen thousand six hundred steps later under the heat of a blazing September sun -- I arrived in Ravello, a more humble person . . . with tighter buns.


For the rest of the trip, when something proved really difficult, we’d look at each other, shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s easy….jus follow the white house.”

Despite being hot and exhausting, the walk had taken us through what appeared to be terraced farmland. We passed vineyards so thick with grapes that they hung over our heads in juicy bunches. We passed lemon trees bursting with bright yellow fruit. We walked by fig trees laden with ripe figs that sent a sweet smell into the air all around us. Olive trees rustled in the light breeze. We saw small stucco buildings that looked as though they had been there for eternity. If we looked behind us, the valley swept down the mountain and fell to the blue sea.


As we neared Ravello, Matt met a new girlfriend. Her name was Aisha. She was young and blond, beautiful and full of energy. She had honey colored eyes and a sweet smile. He stopped to scratch her ears. She whined with pleasure. Aisha was a lab mix that sat in a yard just before the entrance to Ravello. She was sweet girl. If she would make him forget his GPS girlfriend, I might just be willing to put her on my back and carry her back down those 70,000 steps.


We finally entered Ravello. It has to be the most beautiful city on earth. Perched in the clouds, plunging to the sea, filled with gentle faces, sunwashed buildings, and spilling over with flowers, it welcomed us with very soft, gentle arms. Ravello wrapped itself quietly around us like a cocoon and we immediately fell under its spell. We were enchanted.


We knew Ravello was famous for its ornate ceramics so we did some shopping and bought 3 bowls: one for me, and two for our moms. I kept trying to pick a cheaper bowl and the owner kept steering me back to the very expensive one I really loved and saying, “But it’s for mama. You can’t buy mama the cheap bowl.” He had my number. “Besides,” he said, “You get it back one day.” He made a good point....


We had lunch at Da Salvatore which had a staggering view of the coastline. We were late for lunch and the last patrons were just leaving as we arrived. We were seated on the garden terrace and had the place entirely to ourselves. The waiter brought the house red wine (what else?) and an appetizer that was a fried anchovy filet. It was surprisingly good. He also brought a basket of mixed breads.


Matt ordered a dish of spaghetti with clams (or some similar shelled creature). Not a huge fan of things from the sea, I opted for a baked pastry shell filled with ricotta and ham and served with parmesan crisps on the side. It was melt in your mouth good. Because we had hiked up 92,347 steps, we felt entitled to dessert. I had a chocolate and banana mouse with a center of brandied bananas and Matt had a frozen nougat with caramel sauce. Worth all 92,347 steps.


After shopping and lunch, we went through the villas and gardens of both Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. Their beauty was mesmerizing.



The walk down to Villa San Michele was better than the walk up. When we got back to the hotel, Matt took a quick plunge into the sea and then we headed to dinner at the hotel dining room.


For the first course, I had a pasta filled with cheese that was baked in a terra cotta dish and Matt had prawns (yes, he went for the little clawed critters again now that he was no longer afraid) over linguine with cherry tomatoes and garlic. For our second course, I had the local catch with cherry tomatoes, black olives, and capers and Matt had a chicken baked in a wine sauce. Everything was delicious, particularly through my wine haze.


We headed to our room where Matt watched Dances With Wolves in Italian (a sure sign that someone was missing the T.V.).

When I heard Kevin Costner say, “Balli con i lupi,” I knew it was time to call it a night.


Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Five

A Walk in the Clouds: Hiking to Ravello-Pontone-Amalfi

We woke to a beautiful day. I lay there in bed, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks below and watching the sun turn the sky deepening shades of orange and rose. When the sun finally pushed its way into the sky, it beamed inside brightly, nudging us and saying, “It’s time to get up.”

We rolled lazily out of bed. My calves were a little tweaky from the previous day’s climb, but I would get plenty of opportunity to stretch them back out today. We had planned an aggressive hike: Up to Ravello, then over to the village of Pontone where we would hike out on the trail to the Valle delle Ferriere which would carry us down to Amalfi. We’d then walk from Amalfi back to Villa San Michele in Castiglione.


We wanted to fuel up with a good breakfast, so we headed to the dining room. We wound up several flights of stone steps, each affording breathtaking views of the sea and climbing flowers. The dining room had a wall of windows facing out into the sea and the windows were draped in pink bougainvillea. It didn’t even look real. They gave us coffee, fresh squeezed OJ, and a basket of rolls and croissants with jam (and of course, Nutella).

Normally, this would be more than enough for my breakfast, but instead I sat there thinking…. “Where’s the cheese? Where’s the salami? What, no cake??”

It was official: I had become a piglet.

After our “light” snack, as I was still mumbling about “no cheese,” we grabbed our stuff and headed back up the Steps of Death to Ravello. Whenever Matt gave me a look that said, “I don’t want to climb any more…” I looked back, shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s easy, jus follow the white house,” and grinned.


The air was cool and filled with the scent of lemons. Thick mist clung to the mountain tops in the distance. We could see the villages of Scala and Pontone suspended in the clouds.


As we walked through the terraced farms, two men were out in the early morning dew picking lemons. I looked at the beautiful crate of fat, juicy fruit. I noticed that the Amalfi lemons are much bigger than the lemons I was used to. They have a very thick, bumpy skin and the smell is out of this world, fresh and pungent. I asked them if they minded if I took a photo and they nodded. When I was finished, one of them held out a lemon, “For you,” he said. They also handed one to Matt.


You’d have thought I had just won the lottery or gotten everything I wanted for Christmas. I was so excited. They gave me a lemon! I scratched the surface of the lemon, closed my eyes, and drew in the delicious smell of it. The lemon trees around me rustled and I sighed with pleasure.

Have I mentioned how warm and gracious the Italian people are?

We continued up through the thick vines and trees, our path twisting up the mountain and through the farms. We stopped occasionally to sample a fat grape that was bursting on the vine or a fig that was bruised with ripeness. Everything was so sweet and so fresh.

Soon, we saw Aisha and we knew we had made it up to Ravello…again. At breakfast, I had hidden some biscuits in my pocket and I pulled them out for Aisha. Her entire body wiggled with happiness.


We only lingered in Ravello long enough to grab a hiking map from the tourism office, then we were off to find the way to Pontone. We identified the right set of steps (yes, steps, are you surprised?) and started making our way down. Down, down, down we went and we reached a road. We had no idea which way to go. Afraid we had “missed our turn,” we went all the way back up. Up, up, up. When we got to the top, we did it all again and ended up in the same place, but at least this time we knew it was right (at least that is what I said to Matt when he scowled at me). Because the map didn’t really show where to go, we picked a direction and walked. We had a 50-50 shot. Soon, we saw more steps. We followed them down and around and up and over. Having no idea if we were actually going to end up in Pontone or if this was a shortcut to Switzerland, we just walked on faith.


We came to another road and followed it up and around….and there it was: Pontone. Pontone is a tiny little town that sits near Ravello. The town was literally deserted as we walked into the small piazzetta near the San Giovanni church tower. A small bar, the Blu Bar, had its doors open wide and had a welcoming committee that appeared to be a small Chihuahua. “Bars” in Italy were interesting things: one part bar, one part snack shop, and one part coffee house. I found them very curious things.


Our plan was to eat lunch in Pontone before heading down the trail through the Valle delle Ferriere. There are a few good lunch options in Pontone, despite its small size: Pizzeria San Giovvani or Antico Borgo were both good choices. We opted for San Giovanni and drifted inside.


No one was in sight. When someone showed up, it was obvious we were a little early for the lunch crowd, it was only 11:30. He muttered something in Italian that sounded like a question, so I assumed it must be something like “Can I help you?” With my limited Italian I said, “Pranzo?” meaning “lunch” and phrased it as a question. I was getting very good at communicating using one word at a time.

“Si,” he said and pointed at the clock, “Mezzogiorno.”

“Lunch is at noon,” I told Matt.


We walked around the quiet little town and then sat in the piazzetta, which had views to eternity. Matt was doing what men do and was ripping his lemon apart with his bare hands and squeezing it into his water bottle. He then went over to the little fountain and filled it with water.


I sat and ate what was left of his lemon. It was plump with juice still and I couldn’t bear to see it go to waste. I ate it like an orange and it was delicate and tender, tiny pieces of pulp bursting with tart flavor in my mouth.

When noon rolled around, we wandered back down the sleepy streets and into San Giovanni. We were taken across the street and seated in a garden setting that overlooked the valleys below. We were alone and had the terrace to ourselves for our entire lunch. We tried a pizza with anchovies. The anchovies were very different than any I have had here, and although I am not a huge fan, they were light and salty and delicious. We also had a caprese salad which arrived as a platter of tomatoes scattered with fresh balls of buffalo mozzarella and very fresh green olives. The main course was a pasta that was thick and rich with tomatoes, mushrooms, spicy sausage and fresh parmesan. Of course we had a bottle of wine….I can hike while inebriated, don’t you worry about that.


When we were finished, the waiter brought over two frosty glasses and filled them with limoncello, a very strong liqueur made with the peel of the lemon and lots of sugar. It was incredibly strong and sweet.

Let the drunk hiking begin!

Our goal was to find the trail that led through the Valle delle Ferriere all the way down to Amalfi. The trail gets its name from an ancient ironworks factory that lies in rubble in its middle. The area is now a natural reserve and is a place that, sadly, few tourists make it to. We headed through town and eventually saw some stairs (“surprise, surprise, surprise,” I say in my best Gomer Pyle voice….) and a sign that said “Amalfi.” Not sure if this was the right way…we asked a young man which way to Amalfi. He pointed down the stairs.


Down the stairs we went. Down, down, down. We looked below us and could see Amalfi and the blue sea sparkling like a jewel in the sunshine. Down, down, down. Cats curled themselves around our legs and we saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk, stringing brightly colored peppers. Down, down, down. As Amalfi loomed closer, I looked at Matt and said, “This isn’t right. This is taking us all the way to Amalfi by steps. We are supposed to be in a forest.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he sighed. “We have to go back up?”

“Yes,” I whined, “But I’m not sure I can, I mean, my legs are SHAKING.” I wasn’t lying. My legs were trembling slightly with the effort of so many steps in so few days. Or maybe it was just that they weren’t yet accustomed to carrying my newly acquired bread and cheese weight.

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

“I guess we should go back up. We came so far, we can’t miss it, can we?” I said, trying to sound pathetic, hoping he’d suggest we just go on down.

Up, up, up we went. We passed the pepper stringing woman. Up, up, up. We passed the cats. Up, up, up. When we reached the top, we wiped the sweat from our brows and headed down the only direction we hadn’t gone yet. Within moments, we were on the path that led down through the Valley. We had missed it by mere feet.

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

The path first wound it’s way across a ridge to the saddle of the valley. Before us were majestic peaked mountains framed by a clear blue sky. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn I had been airlifted and set down in Montana. I felt so small in front of such grandeur.


When we reached the saddle, the path took us down into a rich, green forest, cool and dense with ancient trees and bright ferns, across bridges and beside rushing streams. Deep into the forest, we saw some great rock arches and walls, ruins left from a time long since passed. It was then that we heard the rushing water….a huge waterfall poured down the mountainside and collided into a beautiful pool of water.

Before you could say “Granny, grab your drawers,” Matt was stripping down to his shorts and plunging into the cool water. I followed suit. Well, except for the stripping part.


The water was COLD. So cold that if you stood still in it, your feet began to ache like they were buried in snow…but it was refreshing and delicious. I splashed it on my face and neck, the coolness so inviting.

We sat on a rock to dry, staring in amazement that we had such a blessed place to ourselves. It was like a special gift from God, a treasure to be held for a moment in time.


When it was time to go, we pulled shoes back onto tired feet that were no longer gray with trail dust and made our way deeper into the valley. We walked beside a stream filled with mossy green rocks and little waterfalls. We walked passed ancient buildings that spoke of times long gone when this place was filled with the hustle and bustle of an iron mill and a paper mill. We heard nothing but the rush of the water and the crunch of stones beneath our feet.


The forest began to open up and we saw we were deep in a gorge, sheer mountain cliffs rose dramatically on either side of us. Stucco buildings dotted the green landscape in the distance. My heart literally caught in my chest. My heart hurt, it was so beautiful. I paused for a moment just to soak it in.


Dirt paths gave way to gravel paths which gave way to old stone paths and we began to see farm houses, piled high with crates of lemons and grapes, clean sheets hanging outside the beautifully crumbling windows. Farm houses gave way to shops and before we knew it, we found ourselves wandering into the afternoon activity of Amalfi.


Amalfi was ALIVE. Packed with people, shops and restaurants and bakeries lined the streets while cars and scooters fought for the tiny lanes that snaked in between. We stopped and went into a small leather shop where two gentlemen were busy making belts and purses. The rich smell of leather filled the air. I got a beautiful belt for my dad and snapped a photo of the wonderful little man that made it. “Grazie,” I said as I hugged the belt to my chest and wandered back out into the bright afternoon sunshine.


We walked past the windows filled with delicate pastries and colorful boutiques of silk scarves. We stopped in a small liquor store and browsed through the bottles of limoncello and other local liqueurs. We picked up a bottle of something that was a creamy orange. We couldn’t read the label, so we had no idea what it was. We assumed it was orange.


Our purchases made, we strolled through the lively piazza and gazed up at the incredible beauty of the duomo. It was magnificent. Decorative tiles and stone set against a backdrop of the bluest sky imaginable. Again, my heart hurt with the beauty of it all.


We made the short walk along the coast road out of Amalfi. We passed pebbled beaches littered with bright umbrellas.


We passed the golden dome of Atrani. Eventually, we drifted back into Castiglione and down the steps of Villa San Michele.


We decided to sample our orange liqueur and rest our weary feet for the rest of the afternoon. We opened the tiny bottle and sniffed….what was that smell? It wasn’t oranges. We each took a sip and our eyes widened with the unexpected and absolutely wonderful taste. It was exactly like eating a ripe cantaloupe! Amazing. The afternoon was spent relaxing in our quiet little seaside room with the balcony doors flung open to the salty sea breeze.



Dinner that night started off well enough. Just like the previous night, Villa San Michele offered a first course and a second course with two choices each. Just like the previous night, Matt and I decided to get one of each so that we could sample everything. For the first course, I got the pasta with eggplant and Matt got the pasta with fish and tomatoes. Let me say that, for my entire life, eggplant is one of the few foods I don’t eat. When the pasta was set down in front of me, it smelled wonderful. It tasted wonderful. Italy made me a fan of the eggplant. Delicioso!! The pasta course went well. For the second course, they offered a beef with peas and a “mixed fried seafood” plate. I am not a huge seafood fan, so I went for the beef. I talked Matt into the seafood.


When it arrived, it was pretty much a plate of squid. I don’t mean delicate little calamari, I mean nice big, chunky pieces. There were also some shrimp and some tiny little fish.


I felt so bad for talking Matt into it that I gave him my plate and I took the frightening plate o’seafood. At least there was a side of stuffed zucchini and that was really good.

We had tickets to a concert that night, so we cut dinner a little short and headed up to Ravello. We drove this time….hallelujah! Ravello is called the “City of Music” and is famous for its annual music festival, held on the grounds of the beautiful Villa Rufolo. We were attending the concert that night. We arrived in Ravello with about 30 minutes to spare and they weren’t letting anyone inside yet, so we stopped at a tiny bar in the piazza for a drink.


The night was glorious and the piazza was softly lit. The tower of Villa Rufolo rose high into the night sky, illuminated softly. I sipped on a limoncello while Matt had something a little more tropical until it was time to go.

The concert was inside the villa, which felt like a castle. The music that night was classical guitar and when he began to play, I closed my eyes and felt carried away on the notes of the music. Somehow, the music went perfectly with the setting…it conjured up images of walking down the stone path from the Valle delle Ferriere as it opened up into the gorge heading into Amalfi….I could see the sea glinting in the distance as the white stucco buildings glowed brightly in the sunshine….the green trees rustling secretly in the wind….and my heart felt full enough to burst. My heart was so full it ached.

When the concert was over, we walked dreamily back to the car, the music still playing in our heads. We had a moment of panic that turned to a moment of hilarity when we got to our parking space and it was empty. We were sick. Our car had been stolen. Oh crap. What do we do? We were in a panic trying to figure out how to even contact the police when we remembered we had parked in a different lot.


We drove back down the mountain with the beautiful music of the night still playing in our minds. What a beautiful lullaby to bring a beautiful day to an end.


Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (3)

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