Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Italy - Campania Region

October 8 (Wednesday) – Our final home base in Italy was Salerno, a city and comune in Campania and the capital of the province of the same name. It is located on the Gulf of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian Sea. We had to take two trains - one from Lucca to Florence and another, a “fast” train from Florence to Salerno, with speeds of 300 kilometers per hour (187 mph) and stops in Rome and Naples.

Our rooftop apartment was small but offered amazing views of the sea, mountains and the moon setting over the mountains in the morning.

View of Salerno and Amalfi Coast from apartment

Dinner that evening was at the Pizza Club, dining at a small sidewalk table. Ahhh, this is Italy!

October 9 (Thursday) – We talked to a travel agent about trips to take outside of Salerno and then walked through the historical area of the city. Lights were being hung in preparation for a Luminary celebration to be held in November.

Luminary festival
A tradition: passeggiata, the nightly stroll through the old town

At the recommendation of the apartment manager, we walked around the corner to Mama Rosa's (#25 on Trip Advisor) for dinner. This was a family restaurant and no one spoke English. The menu was all in Italian too. Those language classes didn’t help much.

Mama Rosa greeted Jamey with a kiss on each cheek. It felt like they should be related. Mama wanted to serve us everything on the menu. The son of Mama Rosa seated and waited on us. We let him recommend dishes for us. We had pasta with mussels, clams and some long narrow shell fish we had never seen. Delicious! Then Jamey had a plate of fried (no batter) whole shrimp and calamari rings - very tender. Ken had four huge grilled prawns. Adding a nice finish to an already scrumptious meal, we shared dessert, a chocolate torte with whipped cream. All with red wine! Mama Rosa kept pointing to her Certificate from Trip Advisor and herself and chattering away in Italian. Kisses again when we left.

Dinner at Mama Rosa's

October10 (Friday) - Ken had to go to a TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) store to get a new SIM card for the cellphone. Then we walked to the train station. Protesting students carrying banners were marching down the middle of the street. We never found out what they were protesting. We purchased tickets to go to Pompeii today. Our scheduled train was canceled due to protesters sitting on the tracks in the Rome area, preventing trains from coming in. Fortunately, we were able to catch a later train. On arrival, we had to walk a mile or more to get to the entrance of the historical site. Needless to say, we did a lot of walking in Italy!

Pompeii was larger than we expected. We walked through much of the ruins which are still being excavated and repaired. There was also a lot we didn’t get to see – just not enough time.

Ruins of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background
Interior of one of Pompeii's buildings

Dinner was delicious at Il Tagliere. Again, no English spoken here and the menu was entirely in Italian. Trying to understand explanations from the waiters of the different menu items was challenging but we finally made choices, which turned out to be great ones. We were served two different kinds of bread, bruschetta and thin slices of prosciutto and a bowl of barley potato soup (all of which we did not expect) before our meals. Many different meats were served on their antipasto plates and the restaurant had their own hand-slicing machine out in the middle of the restaurant. We watched a waitress preparing a tables’ antipasto order, which included meat carved from the head of a pig. This made for interesting photography. We were contented and full when we left.

An interesting experience at Restaurant Il Tagliere!

October 11 (Saturday) - Stayed at home, rested and did laundry. Our dryer was Mother Nature. We hung clothes out on the rooftop.

October 12 (Sunday) – Today, we went to Sorrento, a beautiful city which sits on the southern end of the bay of Naples and attracts many tourists. There were incredible views from here and was the starting point of the dramatic Amalfi Road, one of the most famous drives in Italy. Our lunch was a plate of anchovies, fresh from the sea. Oh heaven in Italy!
The beautiful seaside town of Sorrento
Anchovies and bruschetta
Sorrento lemons
Limoncello, of course!

October 13 (Monday) – To get to Vietri Sul Mare, one of the small villages next to Salerno, we took a bus. When we purchased the ticket we were told what bus to catch and that the driver would just let us off on the road and we would have to walk down to the village. We weren’t sure where to get off and a woman, speaking only Italian, motioned for us to follow her off the bus and down some steps. Was she a helpful Italian? Where was she taking us? We kept trying to ask if we were in Vietri Sul Mare. She just kept talking and motioning for us to follow her. We did until she pointed to another set of steps leading down to a dark building. We think she was directing us to a tourist office in there but weren’t sure so we thanked her for her help. Not knowing where we were, we saw a young girl and asked her if she spoke English. Happy days, she did and told us we were in Vietri Sul Mare, known for its ceramics. We popped in and out of the many shops with beautiful ceramic pieces. We would have loved to have purchased some but kept reminding ourselves we didn’t have luggage space to carry them back. Note to selves – pack an empty bag for bringing back souvenirs or take less clothes.

Vietri Sul Mare
One of the many ceramic shops

Vicolo della Neve, a fantastic restaurant serving traditional foods in a traditional style, was recommended by the tourist agent we talked to about sites to see in and around Salerno. Ivano, our waiter, spoke no English but was wonderful and very animated. The foods - eggplant parmesan, pasta fagioli, peppers stuffed with anchovies, and other dishes, were in large pans in a glass case. The diners would choose their meal and the waiters would spoon out large portions into a pan to be taken to the kitchen and reheated. Baskets of bread were provided for soaking up sauces and juices.

October 14 (Tuesday) – Another train trip, passing through some gorgeous countryside, to see the Paestum ruins. The main features were the standing remains of three major temples dating from the first half of the 6th century BC. These were a basilica and temples of Neptune and Ceres. The local National Museum featured painted tombs from both the Greek and Lucanian periods. This is the only example of a complete Greek fresco from the era around 470 BC. Buffalo mozzarella was made here in the traditional manner.

The Greek ruins of Paestum

From Paestum we went to Agropoli where nothing was open because we arrived during siesta time. Shops wouldn’t reopen until 5 p.m. A medieval castle was perched on top of a hill but we did not go up. After enjoying Italian beers at a seaside bar, we caught the train back to Salerno.

The sleepy town of Agropoli on the Cilento Coast

La Botte Pazza, #5 on Trip Advisor, was our choice for dinner. A fantastic dining experience that included the chef describing the evening's menu and free, red or white wine!

The chef presenting the menu at La Botte Pazza

October 15 (Wednesday) – We took the ferry to Positano, a small Amalfi Coast seaside village west of the town of Amalfi that is built on the steep hillside which leads to the sea. It was a cloudy and overcast day which helped to keep the heat down as we wandered the steep and scenic streets. There is a church which contains a black Madonna icon with an interesting, although untrue, legend. As the story goes, pirates had stolen the Madonna from Byzantium. Their ship was hit by a storm off the coast of Positano and they heard a voice telling them to leave the Madonna behind. The icon was dropped off at Positano and the storm abated. Sounds like a good pirate story for the locals to tell the tourists.


Canolli - yummy!

October 16 (Thursday) – A stay home to rest my weary body day. Got laundry done and had pizza for lunch and Greek food at Mythos restaurant for dinner. This was our first non-Italian meal.

October 18 (Saturday) – One more Amalfi Coast village to see before returning home. We took the bus to Amalfi, known as the most scenic village along the coast. From here, we hopped another bus which wound its way up the very twisty road to the beautiful hill-top village of Ravello. The views here were breathtaking. No ferry could reach this village.


A lunch of mussels and sardines

October 19 (Sunday) – Sadly, this was the day to pack for our return home.

October 20 (Monday) – Planes, trains, and automobiles. It was time to start our journey back home. Walk to train station, towing luggage behind; train to Naples then scary taxi ride (driver was a maniac, making three lanes out of two, regardless of oncoming traffic) to airport.

First leg was a flight to Stuttgart, Germany; next flight was a turboprop to Dusseldorf where we overnighted at a very comfortable, clean and cute inn, Hotel Destination 21. We took a taxi from the airport to the inn and the inn’s owner drove us to the airport the next morning in his Mercedes.

After six weeks of eating Italian food, we enjoyed a dinner of schnitzel, french fries, and German beer at Ikaros restaurant.

October 21 (Tuesday) – Compared to the Italian airports, especially Naples which was very confusing and people were rude, the German airports and countryside were neat and clean. People were very friendly and helpful. We boarded our plane for an eleven hour flight to Miami.

The airplane hit bumps often, trying to dodge a hurricane/tropical storm sweeping up into Europe, bringing wind and rain. Evidently, we had gotten out of Europe just in time since we had had fantastic weather during our 6 weeks.

Crazy thing was it was still October 21, Tuesday, when we arrived in Miami. We gained back those six hours we had lost. With the Ebola and Islamic State concerns going on, it wasn’t easy re-entering the USA. It took over an hour to get through Customs, get our luggage, and get our rental car. After a four hour drive, we made it home, dropping the luggage, and quickly going to bed.

Italy was definitely amazing. We were going to miss it but it was good to be home. Facing the realities would have to wait until tomorrow though.

Remember... "Enjoy life, it's not a dress rehearsal"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Italy - Tuscany Region

September 24 (Wednesday) Today, we took a high-speed train from Venice to Florence. Why is it called a high-speed train? Because it travels at a higher speed than the regular trains and arrives ten minutes earlier. The bathroom on the train was high tech. I was challenged to find a way to flush the toilet, dispense the soap, turn on the water and the hand dryer.

The toilet on the high-speed train wasn’t my only challenge. On the train to Lucca, I got stuck between two cars and couldn't figure out how to open door. I frantically pounded on the door and, luckily, Ken heard me and told me to push a button. Whew!

Even with the GPS on Ken’s phone, we took the long way from the train station into the city of Lucca. Ken wanted to go through the medieval wall surrounding the city, but I took him up and over. This wouldn’t have been so bad except Ken had to lift and carry the two large, heavy suitcases. He was not a happy Italian tourist!

A portion of the Lucca wall

Our apartment was on the fourth floor. To get to it, we took the elevator to the third floor, walked up ½ a flight of steps and had to go through a gate and then go up the last ½ flight. There were many security measures to get in and out. On our first time trying to get out, we forgot how to open the gate so we could go downstairs to the elevator. Fortunately, some other guests were coming up and showed us.

The view from our apartment

September 25 (Thursday) – The bakery chimney was only 50 feet away from the apartment. We could look out our kitchen window and see the smoke. But best of all, we could smell the bread baking. Yummy!

The bakery is making bread!

Narrow roads provided a maze throughout the old city, shared by cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycle riders. It could get a little tight sometimes but everybody seemed to make it through – or did they? We heard the ambulance and police sirens all day long and often wondered if some cyclist got side-swiped. (Click here to play sound). They were the same everywhere. They made me think of the Keystone Cops.

A street in Lucca

September 26 (Friday) – The top of the wall surrounding Lucca was a beautiful relaxing place to walk, bike, or sit and enjoy the views. On one of our walks, we stopped half way around and exited back down into the city to enjoy lunch at the #2 place on TripAdvisor in Lucca, La Tana del Boia. At the shop owner’s suggestion we tried a fresh raw pork sausage with smoked ricotta sandwich. It was different and we did not get sick! I would not try this in the US.

A portion of the path atop the wall
La Tana del Boia

September 27 (Saturday) – Sometimes an organized tour is the best way to go. We opted for one to visit Cinque Terre (five lands) where all towns slope down to sea-level except for one. Rio Maggiore was first, the southern-most of the five towns. Our van let us out at the top of town and we meandered down the steep hill, stopping for a coffee so we could utilize the free toilette. From here, we boarded a ferry to our next stops. Of the five villages, we were only able to visit four. Corniglia was perched on top of a tall cliff, not accessible by ferry.

Rio Maggiore

Manarola was the smallest village and had only one street. The street was lined with boats, at least on the lower part of it. I would hate to have to move those boats up and down the street to the sea and back.


Vernazza was also a one-street town with a church by the water, remains of the old wall which protected them from pirates, and a castle.

Monterosso al Mare was the most northern village and was actually two towns, an old town and a newer one, connected by a short road tunnel, for pedestrians only. This town was not as steep as the others. Because of their close proximity to the sea, fresh anchovies were a must to eat! For lunch, we enjoyed anchovies Laguria style with tomato sauce and anchovies marinated in lemon. This was also white wine country and they grew lemons and small black olives used for olive oil.

Lunch of anchovies & wine in Monterosso al Mare

September 29 (Monday) - To get to Siena we had to change trains in Pisa & Empoli. Less English was spoken here than Venice. When Ken asked a girl if this was the Pisa stop, she said yes. It was one of them but not the one we wanted. Luckily, we were able to get on the next train to Pisa Centrale and then to Empoli and then to Siena.

A view of the countryside surrounding Siena

The heart of Siena was its central piazza, Il Campo, where a Roman forum used to be. Il Campo is known worldwide for the famous Palio run, a horse race run around the piazza twice every summer. Watch the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, to see Siena and the Palio.

Il Campo in Siena
Siena's Duomo (Cathedral)

Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome. You could see Siena’s emblem, the she-wolf suckling Remus and Romulus, throughout the city.

Siena's emblem

September 30 (Tuesday) – Venturing outside the walled city of Lucca, we walked around. That evening, back inside the walls, we had dinner at Trattoria Ubaldo, a funky place to eat. This was our first non-pasta, pizza, or antipasto meal. Walking home after dinner, we stopped at the store and bought food and wine for Wednesday. It was predicted to be a rainy day and we wanted to be prepared.

Piazza Anfiteatro at dusk

October 1 (Wednesday) – Sure enough, we awoke to thunder, lightning and rain. This was a stay-in day. I read and got two loads of laundry washed. Ken had cabin fever by the afternoon so he went out and got a haircut.

Thursday was another day of rest.

October 3 (Friday) - Today we visited Florence. Because Florence is a large city with so many historical sites, we opted for a walking tour. Our guide was great. She was young and definitely knew her history. She spoke excellent English (she grew up in FL). When not leading tours, she did some acting and this just added to the flair of her tour presentation. After the tour, we found the central market and walked around. It was similar to others we had visited in Latin American countries, but it was much cleaner. We walked along the Arno River and crossed the Ponte Vecchio. There was so much art outside that we did not have to venture into museums and pay the high admission fees.

There are many scooters in Florence!
One of the many statues in Florence
The magnificent Florence Duomo
Florence's Ponte Vecchio (old bridge)

October 4 (Saturday) – Today was a beautiful day. We took a morning walk to the Lucca Wednesday/Saturday market for photos and bought a roasted chicken and potatoes for dinner. Then we walked again in the afternoon before coming home for dinner. Ken was able to get the TN/FL football game on his tablet.

October 5 (Sunday) - I washed a load of clothes in the morning and we went out for a walk. We bought a sandwich and took it to the top of the wall for a picnic. We had dinner at Restaurante Antica Drogheria, well-known for their pizza.

October 6 (Monday) – It was almost time to leave this wonderful area of Tuscany, and we still had more to see. We took the train to Pisa which was not very crowded at all. It seemed we took a zillion photos of the leaning tower. It leaned in all of them.

Pisa's Duomo and leaning tower
The Arno river in Pisa

Having had a good dinner at Ubaldo's in Lucca, we decided to dine there again. Yummy!

October 7 (Tuesday) – How many people get to go to Italy and celebrate their birthday? I did! Today was my birthday. We began the day packing because we were moving on tomorrow. During our Italian language classes prior to our trip, our instructor had mentioned a must-have steak while in Tuscany. This is what I chose for us to eat for my birthday. Every picture we saw and every description we had read described the Bisteca alla Fiorentina as being a 3-inch thick T-bone steak served rare and ordered by weight. Sharing was a must! We found a restaurant, Baralla, that served it. These steaks must come from the Chianina or Maremmana cattle raised in the Tuscany area. We ordered 800kg, the minimum weight, which, according to our waitress, would be enough to share. What a disappointing meal after all the hype. When we were served, the steak was thin, rare at the bone and medium toward the outside. But my birthday was still a happy one.

Happy birthday, Jamey!