A Travellerspoint blog

October 2009

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Six

A Dreamy Little Fishing Village: Praiano or Bust

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We skipped breakfast in favor of swimming (I mean, if they weren’t going to give me any cheese, what was the point?). Instead, Matt ran up to the dining room and came down with a steaming tray of espresso and cappuccino.

“I wasn’t sure which one you wanted….” He said.

How about BOTH???? Yummy. The espresso was like liquid chocolate it was so smooth. The cappuccino was warm and foamy, just like I liked it. Now that I was totally jacked up on coffee, we walked down to the bathing platform below Villa San Michele. It was early but the sun was already bright and warm in the sky.

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The sea on the Amalfi Coast practically glows…an unearthly blue that grows deep and cobalt in the depths and shifts to turquoise in the shallows. The water looks cold and clear, dark and full of secrets. We plunged in. We swam away from the shoreline and the water was so blue it was almost black. I looked back at the coastline and saw the mountains rising up in the distance, gardens and villas clinging to their slopes in a riot of golden hues, flowers and lemons contrasting against the green foliage, then melting into the kaleidoscope of turquoise, indigo and emerald of an ever-changing sea.

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Truly, this place must be the most beautiful on earth.

We spent the morning splashing and sunning, listening to the water gently lap, lap, lapping against the rock beneath our feet, watching the morning sunlight dance lightly on the waves.

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Eventually, we had to rouse ourselves from our sunlit stupor, clean up, and head out. We were leaving Villa San Michele to head back down the coastline to the small fishing village of Praiano. I had chosen to spend our last 5 nights in Praiano for several reasons: First, I had found the most beautiful villa imaginable….set right on the beach of Marina La Praia; Second, Praiano is described as sleepy, quiet, unlike it’s sister cities of Amalfi and Positano, few tourists wander into Praiano; Third, it calls itself "il cuore della Costiera Amalfitana" -- "the heart of the Amalfi Coast" –because geographically, it sits near the center, affording easy access to the rest of the wonderful coast. It seemed like the perfect location for the second half of our trip.

We couldn’t check in until late afternoon, so we chose to drive up to Ravello for the day. We had fallen in love with Ravello. She had spun her web and we had been caught in it. High on the mountain, eye level with the misty clouds and birds in flight, spending time in Ravello was like borrowing a few moments in heaven.

First, we drove down the coast and stopped to check out the towns of Minori and Maiori, just past Castiglione going toward Salerno. We turned around and headed up to Ravello.

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In Ravello, we did some shopping…a set of dishes had caught our eye before and we wanted to look at them again. Still unwilling to dish out the $75 per piece price tag, we looked, we lusted, and we left. We went into a small store selling limoncello and our new favorite, Liquore Crema Melone, to buy a couple of bottles to take home. Matt, curious about Grappa since he kept seeing it everywhere we went, finally gave in and decided to try it, with a little pressure from the shop owner.

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“Tastes like moonshine,” he said. I smelled it. It smelled like moonshine. Or lighter fluid. Must be an acquired taste.

We declined to buy the grappa.

Each time we’d been to Ravello, I had seen the same white cat, terribly thin, pitifully ragged, hanging around in the piazza, hoping for a bite to eat. We’d seen lots of strays on this trip, a staggering number of them really, but for the most part, they all seemed reasonably well fed and self sufficient. This cat, however, just wasn’t making it. I told Matt I wanted to go buy it some food.

“I may not be able to save it,” I told him, “But I can make sure it has a really good day today.”

He agreed, being a bigger softie than I am.

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We went into a little market, strewn with fresh loaves of bread, its counter stacked haphazardly with cheeses and meats. An enormous block of parmesan cheese sat behind the counter. The smells were delicious. I bought a can of tuna and he bought a few slices of ham for Aisha.

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We found the cat easily and it didn’t take very much persuasion to get it to come to me and eat. My heart aching for this broken little creature, I rubbed it’s crusty ears (admittedly wondering if I had any hand sanitizer in my purse….) and then said “Goodbye” wishing that my small gift maybe put a glimmer of hope in its sad and lonely eyes.

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We took Aisha her ham and Matt said “Goodbye” to her, knowing he wouldn’t likely see her again on this trip. I swear, I think he misted up a little! While he was furtively sneaking ham in through the fence, I stood watch, positive that at any moment, some little round Italian Mama would come running out into the yard with a broom, yelling things that only she and the dog could understand.

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We decided to have lunch at Cumpa Cosimo in Ravello before heading to Praiano. Although it’s a highly recommended restaurant, I had decided against it simply because I didn’t expect to be in Ravello enough times to actually eat there. This was a pleasant bonus. It’s a fairly unassuming little place, modest by the standards of some of the other Ravello restaurants with their expansive terraces and sky to sea views. We were the first lunch patrons to arrive (this was a trend…no doubt a product of my new piglet status that didn’t allow me to wait very long in between meals) and were taken into the warm little restaurant.

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Having skipped breakfast, swam and shopped, we were HUNGRY. For starters, we ordered the melon with prosciutto, hoping it would be as good as the one we had in Sorrento. It was. That was followed by the pasta course. Matt had cannelloni and I went for the Pasta Mista: 6 pastas on one plate. There was cannelloni, pasta with basil pesto, pasta with caramelized onions, a little pouch that was filled with creamy cheese and ham, pasta with tomatoes, and pasta Bolognese. Holy Ravioli, it was good. We then split an order of sausage with provolone (which yes, looks kind of perverted in the photo), and a side plate with tomatoes, salad, fried potatoes, and zucchini.

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While we were eating, a really nice couple from Texas that had been seated next to us struck up a conversation. It was fun being able to talk to someone that 1) spoke the same language we did and 2) were just as excited about being here as we were.

After lunch, Mama Netta, exactly what you expect an Italian Mama to be, came out with a plate of grapes and proceeded to pretend to dicker with Matt over the bill, acting as though she wasn’t sure what we had eaten or what it costs. She laughed a rich laugh and patted him on the shoulder, giving us the actual bill which wasn’t much considering all that food!

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We drifted out of Ravello and headed back down the Amalfi coast toward Praino. We drove along the twisting road, past Amalfi, past the tiny pocket of Furore, and we neared Praiano.

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It was about this time that I pulled the rental agreement out and took a look at it.

“Please call at least 3 hours prior to check in.”

Uh-oh. We were only 5 minutes away.

I frantically began making calls to the numbers provided, but the cell phones were worthless in those mountains. No reception. I began to panic, as is customary for me, and Matt just said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll stop at the market and you can use their phone.”

We pulled up to the Tutto per Tutti market in Praiano and while Matt grabbed food, I tried desperately to communicate with the elderly gentleman behind the counter. He spoke no English. I spoke no Italian. He handed me his phone and I attempted to dial, but there were, like, 15 extensions on each number and I was too ignorant to even figure out how to dial! What an idiot.

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I went back to Matt in a fluster.

“I can’t get through. What if the numbers are no good? What if we can’t reach anybody? What if we don’t have a place to stay?” OMG…we were going to be homeless in Italy!!

Right about then, the sweet gentleman that worked there nudged me and handed me over to a young man who spoke English and motioned for him to help me. Pasquale helped me dial. No luck. Finally he said,”I know these people. You can’t get through because they are down at Marina di Praia and no cell phones work down there. Just drive to the house. They will be there. If they are not, you come back here and I will help you find them.”

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

I took him at his word. We piled our bags filled with grapes and pears, bananas, juice, bread, salami, cheese, tomatoes and olives into the car and headed toward the villa. It was easy to find because it’s literally the only villa at the Marina di Praia beach.

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We pulled into the one parking lot and a young man working the lot walked up to the car. We explained we were supposed to check into Villa Michelina and didn’t know where to find the people who were supposed to check us in.

“That is my villa,” he said. “My mother will check you in. Let me get her for you.”

Moments later I was being embraced and kissed warmly on both cheeks by a beautiful Italian woman who then walked us down to the most perfect little villa imaginable.

Villa Michelina was everything I hoped for: A beautiful villa, draped with ivy, shuttered windows and doors thrown open to the sea, surrounded by multiple gardens and terraces. The inside was filled with bright white rooms, ceilings delicately arched and large windows and doors letting in the bright sunlight. The furnishings were beautiful and fresh flowers filled each room. Beautiful artwork, pottery, and glassware filled the rooms – all from her private belongings. The kitchen was my favorite room. Decorated with beautiful tiles, a large wood burning fireplace sat at its center. Fresh basil and flowers were arranged on the counter and a doorway opened to an outdoor garden. Pink lilies filled the house.

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The owner, Michelina, gave us the royal tour and then sat us in one of the gardens. She brought us plates of cookies and cakes that she had made for us and poured us all glasses of her homemade orangecello. She sat there and drank with us while she told us about her family and her home. She still lived nearby and promised to check in on us.

We got settled and took a walk to explore our new home base. Marina di Praia is a tiny pocket beach on the lower part of the village of Praiano. In ancient times, it was where the villagers made fishing nets, built boats, and prepared cured fish and where boats from distant lands came to shore. It sits at sea level, well below the Amalfi Coast Road and is surrounded on 3 sides by towering cliffs and on the 4th side it borders the clear sea. It is home to several quaint restaurants, a smattering of colorful wooden boats, and several stray cats. There is a walkway carved into the cliffs that winds around one side, allowing you to walk to several more restaurants that are perched on the mountainside.

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That night, a storm blew in. We grabbed an umbrella and walked the short distance to one of the restaurants that sat in our little slice of Praiano. There were several restaurants to choose from, but Alfonso a Mare won that night because it was the only restaurant that had indoor seating!

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We chose an appetizer that had the English translation “fritters.” Expecting something fried, we were reminded that menu translations required a little flexibility. What arrived was a crostini covered with seafood, and squid. We slipped the parts we didn’t like discreetly under the table and fed them to the cats. Our first course that night was gnocchi for me and a spaghetti with shrimp for Matt. For our second course, I had ordered the swordfish, which came cooked in black olives, tomatoes, and capers (which seemed to be the way all my fish came!) and Matt had the grilled swordfish. We also had a side plate of mixed peppers. For dessert, we ordered something we never knew the name of, we just saw it on another table and resorted to grunting and pointing and nodding. When it arrived, it turned out to be cake, gelato, and chocolate sauce.

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The rain had slowed to a drizzle and we walked slowly back to Villa Michelina for our first night in Marina La Praia.

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

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Seven

Just Beachy: A Day at Marina di Praia

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Despite the rains of the previous night, we woke to a glorious, sunny day. We flung open the doors and listened to the sound of the waves pounding on the rocks and peeked off the balcony at the flurry of morning activity: wooden boats were being pulled toward the sea, brightly colored umbrellas began to open next to the rows of expectant beach chairs lined up at the water’s edge, old fishermen sat in chairs stringing nets, restaurants began to open their doors and the smells of fresh coffee and cake drifted out into the open air.

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Before breakfast, we decided to take a walk along the cliff path that wrapped around the shore. We watched all the comings and goings of the small group that seemed to inhabit this tiny slice of paradise. We stopped at Trattoria La Conchilia’s “bar” and I grabbed a delicious cappuccino that I sipped while we sat and watched the stray cats as they stretched themselves on the colorful wooden boats and hid beneath fishing nets to jump out at unsuspecting pigeons.

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My cappuccino fix in, we strolled slowly back to the villa to make breakfast. I was eager to make something in that beautiful kitchen!

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I whipped up Vicki’s Italian Style Breakfast and might have gotten a little overzealous, it being my first experience in an Italian kitchen and all. We had fresh juice; toasted bread; a platter of grapes, pears, and peaches; cherry tomatoes with fresh garlic and basil drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; salami; and cheese. Too much?

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Overzealous or not, we ate it all and then headed the short distance to the seafront. The beach at Marina di Praia is striking. The Marina itself sits in a ravine, so you are surrounded on 3 sides by towering cliffs. The beach is not sandy, but is instead covered with smooth gray pebbles, rounded by the friction of the waves. The water is electric blue.

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We rented two chairs for $5 each and settled down for a day of relaxation.

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We watched as fishermen came in and out with their tiny boats. Children stood on the shoreline, tossing rocks into the waves and laughing in that wonderful, carefree way that only children can.

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Men sat on chairs, stringing nets and repairing fishing equipment, surrounded by whitewashed buildings and bright blue boats.

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Restaurateurs swept their outdoor terraces with rustic straw brooms and sailboats sat lazily on the pebbly beach, waiting for someone to rouse them from sleep. I was enchanted by everything around me.

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We sunned. We swam. We drank in the beauty of the place until we were intoxicated by it.

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Lunchtime rolled around and we were paralyzed with indecision. So many choices. Do we go to Alfonso a Mare again for pizza? What about Trattoria da Armandino, right at the water’s edge? Or Bar Mare with it’s quaint little seaside tables? We decided on Il Pirata, which was just around the cliff…as short walk on the cliff path…It was elevated and the dining area sat suspended over the sea. It was too beautiful to pass up.

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Lunch today would be a lesson in semantics, once again.

Lunch started off wonderfully. We were seated at a romantic table, right on the cliff’s edge, the surf pounding the rocks below and the salty breeze blowing through our hair. We ordered a bottle of house rose and it arrived tableside in minutes, chilled and sweet. I looked out at the sea, tiny boats bobbing on the gentle waves, sparkles of sunshine flickering across my view. For starters, we ordered Pattatine Fritte, which we had noticed was an appetizer at nearly every restaurant. It sounds fancy, but they are just French Fries. I love French Fries. This was good so far: beautiful setting, delicious wine, the man I loved, and French Fries. Matt ordered a pasta course, linguine with clams, but I declined since I had an entire plate of fries to wolf down.

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The problems came in when it was time to order the main course. We had eaten a lot of pasta and were looking for something else. One item on the menu said, “Fried Fish Plate.” Fish. I like fish okay. Fried fish is even better. That sounded good. Sadly, Matt followed suit and got the same thing. It may have been the beautiful day that made us forget that “fish” doesn’t always mean “fish” on the Amalfi coast…or maybe it was the half bottle of wine we had consumed….maybe it was the sunshine…whatever it was, it was a careless mistake.

When our food arrived, we looked at each other over what appeared to be two plates of fried bait.

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“Seriously?” I said.

“It said FISH,” Matt whispered. “I thought FISH meant FISH.”

I looked at my plate hopelessly. It had a whole fried squid. Yes, whole. Lots of little squiggly tentacles and suckers. It had some of those scary-ass “prawns” with the crazy pinchers that we never did figure out fried in the shell. As for the fish, well, yes, it did have fish, but not one of them was over 3 inches long.

“We use this stuff to catch fish, we don’t eat it,” I whispered back.

Matt was pretty full after his plate of pasta, so he was content to eat the few fish that didn’t look like they came out of the pet section in Wal-Mart and called it quits.

When I was growing up, you ate what you got. It didn’t matter if you didn’t like it. It didn’t matter if it didn’t taste good. It didn’t matter if you didn’t want it. You ate it. So…I ate it. Tentacles, bait fish, suckers and all. Matt sat back and watched with a mixture of horror and amusement as I chewed, and chewed, and chewed on those tentacles.

Tasted just like chicken.

I had a little too much wine at lunch and Matt had a little too much sun, so we walked back to Villa Michelina for an afternoon of rest on it’s sweetly blooming patios. As we walked back, I thought about how perfect Marina di Praia was. It was so tiny, quiet, and quaint. The only sounds were the muffled laughter of a few beach goers, the occasional sound of a wooden oar hitting a rowboat as it headed in or out, and the magical sound of the waves.

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Late that afternoon, we cleaned up and headed into Positano. Positano is the “pearl” of the Amalfi Coast, a bit more glamorous than her fishing cousins. It sits in a valley, stacks of buildings in beautiful hues hugging the mountainside in a delicate curve. It is here that you can find the best shopping, the most elegant restaurants, and the most opulent hotels. “Positano bites deep", John Steinbeck wrote in the early 1950’s, "It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."

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While Positano was a feast for the eyes, strikingly beautiful and alluringly romantic, it was also very crowded. Parking was a bear, and because of our little “ticket incident,” we opted to park in a pay lot. To me, $10 parking was better than a $60 ticket.

We grabbed some gelato at La Zagara, drawn in by their front window filled with pastries and cakes. We wandered through the narrow streets, gelato dripping onto our hands as quickly as we could eat it, shopping for small treasures to take home, and simply enjoying the buzz of it all.

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We walked down to the beach area and stood in the course gray sand where we could look up at the color and vibrancy of Positano rising in row after row of pink and golden villas above us.

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The sun was setting and we chose to return to Praiano for dinner rather than fight the hordes of people in Positano. Besides, it looked like a fierce storm was rolling in and we didn't want to be trapped.

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We stopped in the main part of Praiano, just before getting to Marina la Praia, and found a parking space. This time we knew to pay the little box! We went up to La Brace, a local pizzeria where the pizzas are baked in a wood fired oven.

It was wonderfully warm and inviting. Pizzas were being tossed in the air as the fire in the oven glowed brightly, the smell of fresh garlic and herbs infused in the very fabric of the place. I loved watching them toss the dough, round and round, and then place it carefully on a wooden board, cover it with fresh toppings, and shove it into the fire to bake.

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We ordered an appetizer of smoked meat, rocket (arugula), and parmesan. Delicious.

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That was followed by a pizza with bacon, tomatoes, and parmesan. The bacon was thick and salty, with just the perfect amount of crispiness.

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After dinner, we walked next door to Le Fioriere bar. A beautiful bar, dimly lit and romantic, we had great mojitos that were served with a bowl of amazing, fresh olives and a bowl of “crisps” (potato chips!).

The day came to a sleepy close and we drove back down into Marina la Praia where I fell asleep in a cozy bedroom with the scent of pink lilies floating in the air and the sounds of the storm raging outside my window.

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

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Eight

Rain, Rain, Go Away: Shopping in Vietri sul Mare and Ravello

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When we woke to rain, rain, and more rain, we decided it would be a good driving and shopping day, since it wouldn’t be good for much else. Still unable to shake the lure of the $75 plates, but still unwilling to pay for them, we thought we might drive to Vietri sul Mare, a small town on the coast near Salerno that was known for its ceramics. This seemed to be a good day for it.

I made another monstrous breakfast in my ultra-wonderful Italian kitchen: bread toasted with olive oil, garlic, sea salt, basil, tomatoes, and parmesan; a platter of fruit; and sliced meats.

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We traveled the short distance to Praiano so that I could try a cappuccino at Bar Del Sole, because I had seen that they put a little “picture” on top of your foam with sprinkled cocoa and I am easily drawn in by stupid crap like that. After waiting behind a traffic jam caused by a mule train, we parked and headed to Bar del Sole.

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We were seated at a little table in front of a large window, the shutters opened and framing the beautiful dome of San Gennaro across the street. The bar sits in front of the cathedral so that if things get a bit too lively at night, you can commit your sins and then skip across the street to confess them.

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My cappuccino arrived and there it was…a little sun smiling at me:

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My inner child totally satisfied, we stopped at Tutto per Tutti market for more food and grabbed some fresh bread and fluffy croissants, jam, parmesan and smoked provolone, salami, olives, and milk before making our way up the coast road toward Vietri sul Mare.

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After passing the towns we had become so familiar with: Fuore, Amalfi, Castiglione, Minori, Maiori….the road became practically deserted. Jagged cliffs rose wildly to the sky, golden with grasses and shrubs. It was desolate, rugged, and beautiful. Eventually signs of life began to reappear. We passed a tiny lemon stand, where I saw the biggest lemon of my life. It was the size of a grapefruit. (Yes, I bought it. It was $3. It was totally worth it).

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We passed the small sea town of Erchie, so far below the coastal road that the boats looked like nothing more than colorful little dots scattered on the sand.

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We found ourselves in Vietri sul Mare, just before getting into Salerno. Vietri sul Mare is known for its wonderful ceramics.

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Ceramic shops were everywhere and we wandered in and out of them all morning. The city was a maze of little alleys and twisting lanes. Shops on every corner proudly proclaimed the best ceramics in all of the Amalfi Coast. We must have looked in every single one.

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We didn’t see anything that even came close to the beauty and detail of the dishes we had seen in Ravello, so we settled for a couple of hot rolls from a small bakery and started the drive back to Ravello.

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We wound our way through the maze of streets that took us to the small shop where we had fallen in love with the stupid, expensive plates. We eyed them, knowing good and well we were going to buy the damn things, but still unwilling to admit it, either to ourselves or to Salvatore, the shop owner.

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While we were puzzling over the decision, Salvatore looked at Matt and said, “Are you an actor?” I looked at the wall of his shop which was covered with photos of American celebrities posing with him as they bought their dishes. I laughed.

“Are you?” he said, “Are you that American actor?”

Matt shook his head, chuckled, and said, “No.”

“You sure? I will ask her,” he said as he pointed to a teenage girl sitting at the desk. “She will know. She knows all the American actors. Is he an actor?” he asked her.

She smiled and shook her head, “No,” she said.

I looked at him and said, “If I say he is, can I get a discount on these plates?”

He laughed and told us he’d make us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He did. We didn’t refuse.

And that is how I ended up with $75 plates from Italy.

(Well…that and the fact that I think they are one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen….)

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For the rest of the trip, whenever I wanted to get Matt riled up, I'd look at him, cock my head to the side, and in my worst Italian accent would say, "Are you that actor?"

Spending Matt’s money makes me hungry, so we headed to lunch. We went to Figli di Papa, and adorable little restaurant near the driving entrance to Ravello. We were seated on the beautiful terrace, flowers flowing in waves down the walls framing a beautiful view of the distant mountains behind them.

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Lunch for me was a first course of a rocket and tomato salad followed by cannelloni. Matt went for a plate of zucchini sautéed in olive oil and vinegar and a crespini, which appeared to be crepes, baked with ricotta cheese and ham.

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For dessert, I had an Italian cheesecake and Matt had profiteroles with chocolate sauce.

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After lunch, it was still drizzly, so we drove up the mountain to Scala, a town that sat higher than Ravello.

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The rainy day left swirls of mist wrapped around the hilltops and as we climbed higher and higher, we could look down on Ravello in all her beauty, sitting like a jeweled crown on the top of the mountain below us. It was hard to believe, but it was even more beautiful from here.

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We drove through farms and vineyards, past stone buildings wrapped in mist and dogs barking in the mud, beside Italian workers as they carried their loads on the slippery streets.

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When we arrived back at Villa Michelina, Michelina herself arrived with a plate of something like looked sort of like long pieces of fried dough covered with sugar and cinnamon. After a quick hug, she held them out to us and told them she had made them for us. Light and delicious, they went really well with an ice cold sip of her orangecello.

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We spent the afternoon curled up on the down sofas at Villa Michelina, reading and listening to the drip, drip, drip of the rain as it tapped on the widows, the scent of Michelina’s pink day lilies filling the room.

It was still drizzly that evening as we wandered through tiny Marina di Praia trying to decide where to stop for dinner. No one was around, as most of the restaurants have outdoor seating. I saw the warm interior of Petit Restaurant Bar Mare and saw that they had one indoor table. One. We walked in and were warmly greeted by the owner, a giant of a man with the warmest smile, twinkling eyes and gentlest voice. He seated us at his one little table, gestured at all his beautiful tables outside, shrugged, and said, “The weather.” We were seated, and as his only customers that night, we were treated like family.

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An older man (who we nicknamed “Grandpa” for the remainder of the trip), his face a maze of wrinkles, no doubt from a lifetime of warm sun on this very beach, stood behind the bar, smiling warmly as he poured wine from unmarked jugs into bottles. The house wine was literally something brought in by a local vineyard, unmarked, and delicious. A young woman sat idly at the hostess stand, her feet swinging slowly to the music. It’s a family owned business that has been passed down through generations. Another family member, a young man, was cooking in the kitchen. I felt more like I was having dinner at someone’s house than sitting at a restaurant.

Our host changed the music and in moments, Bob Marley was telling us, “Don’t worry…about a ‘ting…” as the rough waves outside grabbed the smooth stones of the beach with each push of the tide, creating a great “Swoosh….” sound followed by a gentle tinkling of the stones being pulled toward the sea, a sound like bells or glass.

“Grandpa” continually walked by our table, smiling and pointing to me saying, “Dolce, dolce,” and patting Matt on the shoulder. He didn’t speak a lick of English.

“What’s he saying?” Matt asked.

“I’m not sure…” I said. “He’s either saying I’m sweet, or he’s calling me a cake.”

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We ordered a ridiculous amount of food. Tuna Bar Mare, a rare tuna seared with (surprise, surprise) olives and tomatoes. We ordered sides of fried potatoes and peppers. We also ordered pasta primavera and a seafood pasta. We didn’t make a DENT in all that food.

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Despite the fact that we wussed out and couldn’t even finish our meal, the next thing we knew, our host was bringing us dessert on the house.

“No, no…” we protested and he gave us a mock look of hurt.

So we ate.

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I have never been a fan of Tiramisu. I think that is because I have never had REAL Tiramisu. This was delicious. Light and spongy cake filled with sweet cream and just a hint of a mocha coffee flavor. As we wiped the cream from our chins, I looked at Matt and asked him if he wanted to rub my belly for luck, since I was starting to feel a bit like Buddha at this point.

Before we knew it, our gracious host was lining bottles of liqueur up along our table.

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“You try,” he said. “We make it. Try them all,” as he set two little chilled glasses on the table. I thought my stomach would rupture, but who can turn down free drinks?

Let the drinking begin.

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We spent the night sipping orange and melon liqueurs with the warm family of Bar Mare as the rain fell steadily outside the open doors and Bob Marley serenaded us softly in the background…

…”Every little ‘ting gonna’ be all right…”

Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Nine

Path of the Gods: Hiking to Positano

The day started off a little gray, so we weren’t sure what to do. We only had 2 days left, and we really wanted to do another hike and we wanted to go to Capri. We had to make a choice.

It wasn’t looking like a good day for Capri, so we thought we’d wait a bit and see if the skies cleared enough for the hike. The last thing we wanted was to get caught on the top of a mountain in Italy in a storm. We headed down through the morning flurry of Marina di Praia, waved at “Grandpa” as he opened the doors of Bar Mare, passed the cats perched on the boats, and gazed at the fishermen preparing for the day. We walked over to La Conchilia for cappuccino and cake before breakfast.

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We had become like Hobbits. We ate cake and cappuccino for first breakfast. Second breakfast was bread and meat and cheese. We followed second breakfast with first lunch, a pizza maybe. Second lunch would be a pasta. Dessert? Sure. Then it was on to dinner….our days seemed to revolve around the flavors and smells of the savory dishes of the Amalfi Coast and we were loving it.

After a warm and foamy cup of cappuccino and a ridiculously moist slice of chocolate cake, we walked back over to Villa Michelina so that I could make “second breakfast.”

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After croissants with jam and the usual assortment of breads, meats, cheeses, and fruit, we saw that the skies were beginning to clear. It looked like a great day for a hike.

With a name that conjures up mythical landscapes, the “Sentiero degli Dei” or “Path of the Gods” certainly lives up to all its name implies. A path connecting several villages high on the hillside, it was used in the days before the Coast Road was even a glimmer in some engineer’s eye. The path can be accessed from Praiano. From Praiano you go to the Convento San Domenico where you then take a trail that climbs until it intersects the path. The path crosses through grassy terraces that give way to an area rich with oaks, chestnuts, and bushes of heather, rosemary and rock roses. Following a winding route, with several ups and downs, you cross the imposing Vallone Grarelle and reach the tiny village of Nocella. From here you can walk down to the Amalfi Coast Drive at Arienzo (about 1500 steps) or continue on to Montepertuso walking first along a concrete path and then an asphalt road.

Croissants and jam heavy in our stomachs, we set out. Up at the road, we had seen a sign across the street from the entrance to Marina di Praia that showed a walking path going up the mountain. We had NO IDEA if this was the way to go, but the only other option was to drive to Praiano, so we blindly headed up. First, we had to make the STEEEEP climb up the drive from Marina di Praia to the Coast Road.

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Once we reached the Coast Road, we crossed it and headed up the mystery path. It was a mix of ancient stone steps (seriously, the steps were getting humorous) and gravel path. It went straight up. When we were high above the road (and even higher above Marina di Praia), the path flattened out and angled toward the center of Praiano. Soon enough, we found ourselves in the middle of Praiano. We patted ourselves on the back for being so smart.

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Unlike its rich cousins, Positano and Amalfi, Praiano is sleepy and quiet. It sits on the mountainside, a bundle of whitewashed villas, churches, hotels and restaurants miraculously clinging to the bluffs. For most tourists, Praiano is not considered a destination. It is a place that one merely drives through, admiring bright blue-and-gold majolica dome of the cathedral dedicated to San Gennaro set against the blue of the sea, and then moves on.

A misfortune for them. A delight for us.

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Praiano is peaceful and authentic. It is a place where people live and work and play. Like most of the coastal towns, it is a vertical landscape of colorful stucco connected by long, steep flights of stone steps and ribbons of sloping roads. We wound our way through steps and roads and more steps, following the signs for the Convento San Domenico. There were lots of signs on the roads for it, so we expected that this “convento” would be right at the street. Once we found it, we expected to easily locate the path that would skip right up to the Path of the Gods. No problem. “It’s easy…..jus follow the white house.” Right?

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Again, our initial success made us a little too smug to pay attention to fine details. We headed down a street that had a sign pointing “this way” to the Convento San Domenico. When we reached the dead end and saw no “convento” at the street, we were terribly confused. Wasn’t it here? Where was it? Little did we know, when I snapped this photo, that the “convento” we were looking for at street level was actually that building high on top of the mountain…..

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Certain that we had made a wrong turn, we walked all the way back to the head of the dead end street. A young Italian woman was out in her yard. Matt decided to ask her for directions, despite the fact that he did not know one single Italian word.

“Excuse,” he said to her, pronouncing it “excusay.”

What the hell? Was that a word in any language? It certainly wasn’t English and it certainly wasn’t Italian. I groaned and hid my face in mock horror.

Still, it got her attention. He looked at her and said, “English?” She shook her head no. Matt scratched his head. It was then that Matt invented what I would later call, “Matt’s Universal Language.” No need to learn another language if you use the Matt-Technique. After some grunting, pointing, made up words, and a few dramatic charades, these two actually understood each other and we knew where to go. I was speechless.

Freakish, but remarkable.

We went back down to the dead end and headed into the brush, following what could barely be called a path, as it kept disappearing in the shrubbery. We clawed our way through, still not realizing the “convento” was up, up, up, still thinking it was just a short distance along this wooded trail. After more than a couple of wrong turns, one taking us to a rubbish heap and another taking us to a water station, we finally saw a clear, definite trail, with railings and signs. Ah-ha! It was then that we saw the sign that said, “Convento San Domenico…..25 minutes.” Huh? We looked up and there it was….high on the mountainside…..the convento.

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Every 100 steps or so, there would be a wooden cross, maybe to urge our incredibly tired bodies and burning calves that God wanted us to continue. After climbing 10,000 steps, we saw a sign that said, “Convento San Domenico….5 minutes.”

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We pushed ourselves up that final set of steps and found ourselves at the Convento San Domenico. It was beautiful and remote and had views that swept the coastline. We had been climbing for hours and we still weren’t even at the Path of the Gods. This was an aggressive hike, for sure.

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We rested and refilled our now empty water bottle and continued pushing upward, now trying to find the trail that would intersect the Path of the Gods. Was it worth all this? We followed what was basically a goat trail, perched precariously on the very edge of the rocky cliffs. Matt hates heights and the sheer drop off on his left side was making him sweat. As we rose higher and higher, I could now look down on the convento. It looked so small. I could see Praiano, a tiny glimmer far below. I could barely make out Marina di Praia, now just a speck in the distance.

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Just as we were starting to wonder if we had gone the right way or if we were actually following a mule path to some farmers olive grove, we saw a sign marking the Path of the Gods. We had made it.

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The path stretch out before us, silent in the mountainous calm, a blanket of haunting panoramas, far from the coastal congestion and the asphalt highways. We climbed onto the trail and took in the panoramic view, feeling like we were sitting on top of the world.

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We walked through jagged cliffs, abandoned farmhouses, and grassy fields. We stopped for a brief picnic of leftover meats, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, bread and pears. We watching the changing scenery that stretched out before us, a view of mountains and sea that stretched all the way to the island of Capri.

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We hiked in bliss, awed by all that surrounded us. Before we knew it, we were entering the tiny village of Nocelle.

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Our goal was to continue on to Montepertuso and then walk from there down to Positano. Directionally challenged that we were, of course we chose the wrong way and instead started the descent of 1500 steps to the Amalfi Coast Road. After a few minutes, we realized our error, and as we had already done so many times before, retraced our steps back up.

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We walked the ancient path that leads from Nocelle to Montepertuso. By the time we reached Montepertuso, we were TIRED. Seriously tired. Feet dirty with trail dust, brows damp with sweat, faces weary with climbing, we still had to walk the long way down into Positano.

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Finally, we saw it in the distance, Positano, beckoning like a mirage, wavering in the heat like an oasis in the desert.

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When we dragged into Positano, we had been walking for six hours, most of it straight up or straight down. We were dying for something frosty when we saw the Granita di Limone stand. Within moments, sticky frozen lemonade was dripping down our chins as we slurped happily.

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As a reward for all our hard work, we popped into La Zagara for second lunch. Or was it fourth breakfast? Pre-dinner?

After bellinis, caramel gelato, chocolate pie and chocolate cake, all was right with the world.

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Somehow, we figured out how to catch the bus and had a wild, stand-up ride back to Marina di Praia.

After resting our tired feet, we cleaned up and headed to La Conchilia for dinner. I was so tired, I forgot to take any pictures (now, you KNOW I have to be really tired for that to happen). Dinner was outside on their little terrace, facing the sea. The same sweet little man that made my cappuccino each morning, brought us an antipasto platter of meats, cheeses, and olives; a side of peppers; and a spicy penne all’arrabiatta for me and a ravioli for Matt. The house wine was unlabeled, no doubt brought in on one of the tiny trucks I had seen delivering unmarked jugs of wine along with bunches of grapes, lemons, and fresh bread that morning. It was thick and sweet and took the ache right out of my feet.

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Brought on by the sweet and heavy wine and way too many steps, sleep came quickly that night.

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Posted by vicki_h 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

The Amalfi Coast, Italy: Day Ten

All Good Things Must Come to an End: A Day on Capri

We knew we wanted to spend our last day on Capri and the sunlight peeking through our windows that morning let us know that it was going to be a good day for it. We hadn’t made reservations for one of the boats that left from Marina di Praia, so we got ready, ate a quick bite, and ran down to the water to see if we could squeeze onto one.

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The usual suspects were out bright and early, taking care of business in Marina di Praia. The net guy was by far my favorite. Everyone morning I would see him in his cap and suspenders, hands working quickly and deftly as he tied nets in the early light.

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We checked with both boat outfits and they were full. I guess advance reservations are important.

I grabbed a cappuccino from “Grandpa” at Bar Mare and tried to ask him if he had a bus schedule for the local bus. I saw that they had one for the coast bus, and was hoping they had one for the smaller Positano-Praiano bus. Communication was a challenge, since neither of us spoke the same language, but I managed to get my point across and he held up a crooked finger, nodded, and walked off.

I was sipping my hot cappuccino, watching the hustle and bustle of the waterfront when he walked up waving a bus schedule. He smiled a huge, genuine smile and patted me on the back and walked back inside.

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The plan was to catch the bus to Positano (to avoid paying for all day parking) and catch the ferry to Capri. It was a lot cheaper than the boats from Marina di Praia, just not as convenient. We saw that the bus we needed was in 8 minutes! I was quickly gulping my cappuccino, unwilling to waste a drop, when “Grandpa” came running out waving his hands.

“Cappuccino, tranquila! Cappuccino, tranquila!” he said to me, motioning for me to slow down. I pointed to the bus schedule and shrugged my shoulders, taking one last gulp.

“Ah,” he said, as he shooed us up the hill so we didn’t miss our bus.

We bolted up the hill as fast as our legs would carry us and we just made it.

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The bus ride was quick and uneventful and within minutes, we were deposited at the top of the hill that led down to the beach where the ferry was located. As we walked down the hill, Positano shone before us, the ceramic dome of Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta reflecting the early morning sunlight like a beacon.

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Chairs were lined up in straight rows like bright little soldiers on the beachfront in stark contrast to the haphazard jumble of boats littered along the sand. All were waiting for the people to arrive.

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The beachfront was busy with early beachgoers and hordes of people looking for the right ferry and the right line. Children ran and played at the water’s edge and young men washed boats, getting them ready for the busy day. Lemonade stands peddled their tartly frozen treats and the smell of baking pastries drifted out of the pasticcerias.

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We boarded the ferry and it pulled slowly and laboriously away from shore. Positano drifted away in the sunshine, becoming smaller and smaller as we made our way down the coast.

An hour later, we were pulling into Marina Grande on Capri. Yachts lined up in bright white rows beneath a harbor frantic with activity. Tourist shops jammed one against the other were stacked up at the entry, their brightly tacky signs proclaiming the best limoncello or the most authentic sandals.

Most people headed for either the bus or a taxi.

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We had something different in mind.

We walked to Capri Scooter. Four twenty-somethings were speaking to the guy renting the scooters. We sat down and waited our turn.

He looked at them and barked, “You ride a scooter every day?”

“Um…no…” they stuttered, looking at each other, confused.

“You EVER ride a scooter before today?” he practically yelled.

“N-n-no….” one of them said, timidly, wringing his hands.

“Then you no rent my scooter. The first time you ride scooter, you think you ride MY scooter? No.”

With a flip of his hand, he sent them on our way.

He looked at us. “Scooter?” he asked. Uh-oh, it was our turn with the Scooter Nazi.

Despite the fact that we do not ride a scooter every day and have, indeed, never ridden a scooter, we were sitting proudly on a bright yellow rent-a-scooter in minutes. In addition to being able to use charades to find conventos and bearing a remarkable likeness to come American Actor, Matt is also a master of BS.

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We cruised up the steep hill, making the curving switchbacks across the slope, heading toward Capri Town. I loved it! Sitting on the back, holding onto Matt with the wind in my face made me feel like I was flying across Capri. We stopped at the top of the hill and looked down at the view of Marina Grande. Capri stretched out before us, a bright emerald jewel encased in a sea of aquamarine.

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We skipped the over-touristed Capri Town and made our way to Anacapri, the quieter, slower paced town on Capri.

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Once we pushed past the maddening throng of tourists that seemed to swarm around the shops right at the roadway, we found a sweet and silent little town, dressed in whitewashed walls and riots of flowers. There was almost no one around as we wandered through the tiny streets and perused the quaint shops of Anacapri.

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Not sure where to grab a bite, we stumbled on a beautiful setting. Il Saraceno Di Cafiero Celestini was a beautiful little restaurant way off the beaten path. The restaurant used to serve as a convent between 2 churches that are 1000 years old. It has served as a restaurant for 100 years. It’s not a place many tourists find, generally being recommended by locals, so we were extremely lucky that we simply bumped into it.

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The pizza was so good that we ordered 2. The first was covered with ham, olives and mushrooms. The second was a four cheese pizza layered in mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola, and pecorino. The crust was light and crispy, perfectly chewy at the edges. The cheese was hot and savory, bursting with flavor. Even their bread was the best we had on the trip, crusty on the outside but extremely dense and moist on the inside.

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After our pizza and vino, we roamed the maze of alleyways that eventually led us back to our scooter. We hopped back on and were airborne once again.

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Our post-lunch destination was Lido del Faro beach, the most beautiful on the island. When we reached the dead end of the road, we knew we had arrived. A happy little lighthouse sat perched high on the rocks pointing the way.

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We had learned that Italian beaches weren’t what we were used to, and Lido del Faro was no exception. Unexpected, but stunningly beautiful, it consisted of multiple levels of dark, smooth rocks and cliffs surrounded by cold, clear, blue water.

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Bright wooden boats and colorful towels lay scattered about as golden sunbathers, swathed in oil, soaked in the glorious rays.

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We plunged our bodies into the deep blue of the sea. The water was cold and crisp and saltier than we were used to. We were suspended in the sparkling blue waves, diving under again and again, floating buoyantly on the surface, feeling like we were birds drifting deliciously in a watery sky.

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Before we pruned, we headed up to the patio where we grabbed two chairs and ordered some cold drinks. Frosty mojitos full of fresh lime and mint arrived with a bowl of firm green olives and crispy wafers.

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We spent the afternoon oblivious to anything but the blue sea and the clear sky and the sweet taste of the drinks in our hands.

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We had a ferry to catch, so we eventually broke the spell of the sea and pulled ourselves out of our sunsoaked stupor. We hopped back on the scooter and zipped our way down the streets of Capri back toward the marina.

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With a few minutes to spare, we took a side street down to Marina Picolo. From there, you could see I Faraglioni, three giant rocks that sit off Capri’s coast. We soaked in those last few sweet moments and then hopped back on the scooter to head back.

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Riding back, sitting behind Matt and holding on, I felt such a sense of peace and contentment. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine feeling any happier than I did right then. The world was a beautiful and magical place and I had been blessed to see so much of it. I rested my head on his shoulder, hugged him tight, and sighed.

Our day on Capri ended uneventfully, if you don’t count when I tripped over my own feet and scraped most of the skin off my toes as we walked back to the ferry. We rode in silence, drifting in and out of a light doze with the rocking waves, and headed back to Positano, the hulking shapes of I Faraglioni just shadows against a sparkling silver sea.

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As we arrived in Positano, the sun was setting, but the beachfront was still a flurry of activity.

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Tables were being set out for dinner, the smells of roasting garlic and fresh bed reaching out of the restaurants. Chairs and boats were being put in for the night. Shoppers laughed and wandered from store to store with bags of purchases. We grabbed a Granita di Limone (Matt had developed a little addiction...) and headed for the bus.

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With this being our last night, a dinner choice was a very big deal. It didn’t take a second of thought, however. We weren't even tempted by the smells of Positano. We both knew our last night had to be spent at Bar Mare.

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We were greeted with big smiles, like family, when we walked in. The night was beautiful so we were able to sit at a candlelit table outside under the stars. We ordered sides of zucchini and eggplant (which I now loved) and a plate of gnocchi and rigatoni with swordfish. Everything was as wonderful and delicious as it had been the last time.

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For dessert we tried both cheesecakes: a regular cheesecake with pears and a chocolate cheesecake. It’s tough to say which one was better.

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Our warm and gracious host again brought glasses of limoncello for us before he would let us leave. “Grandpa” smiled and waved as he sat drinking wine at a nearby table. We sipped the strong, sweet liquid letting it warm us from inside. When it was time to go, we gave and received warm hugs and said our goodbyes.

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The night was bittersweet, a beautiful day to bring a beautiful trip to a close, but the end of something so special and magical I could scarcely believe it had been real.

Posted by vicki_h 07:22 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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