Category Archives: Italy

Bella Italia, Act 2

After our intermezzo in Sardinia, the Chasing Summer Italy adventure continued in Napoli (Naples) in the southern part of the country.

It’s said that Italy can really be divided into two countries – southern Italy and northern Italy.  If you talk with a northern Italian, you’ll get the impression that all southerners are rude, crude and anarchistic.   If you talk with a southern Italian, you’d think that all northerners are pompous, arrogant and elitist.  Naturally, the truth is somewhere in-between.

Naples is certainly a bit rough around the edges.  Cars and scooters zip through the narrow cobblestone alleyways so fast that you’re sure the driver is running late for something (perhaps his 2 hour lunch break.)  The smell of exhaust is inescapable.  If you don’t watch where you step there will be dog poo on your shoes.

All that said, there is much to see in Naples and the 1 day that most travelers give the city isn’t nearly enough.  We were fortunate to find the world’s foremost authority on the city in the form of our hostel-keeper, Giovanni.   He has lived his whole life in Naples and is passionate about assuring that all travelers who find their way to his hostel have a positive experience there.

On our first night in his city, Giovanni marked up a black-and-white photocopied city map with various colors of highlighter.  The green marked the mafia-controlled areas… stay out of those.  The red marked the poor areas… stay out of those too.  The yellow line marked his recommended path through the city, with all the most important sites marked in pen.

Giovanni also showed us a video on his laptop containing security camera footage of pickpockets in action.  We thought that he was trying to warn us to be vigilant in Naples, as it does have a reputation for crime.  After exposing us to the videos he said with a twinkle in his eye, “All of these were filmed in Milano.”

We followed Giovanni’s walking tour of the city to the tee, which included various churches, museums, castles, and shopping areas.  It was all interesting to see, but what made the biggest impression on me (Jared) was the famous “Veiled Christ” sculpture by Giuseppe Sanmartino, which Giovanni said is the second-most important sculpture in the world behind Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”  We’ll include a photo of it below, but you really have to see it in-person to appreciate its sorrow, delicacy and strength.

Our walking tour also included Napoli Subterraneo, or the Naples Underground.  These were a serious of tunnels first dug by the Greeks and then expanded by the Romans, used as ancient underground aquifers and cisterns.  They were mostly abandoned with the advent of modern plumbing, except during WWII when they were used as bomb shelters (Naples endured heavy Allied bombing.)

Of course, no blog post on Naples would be complete without mentioning its pizza. The pizza was invented in Naples and nowhere is it better made.  I’m not sure how they do it, but the worst pizza we had in Naples was better then the best pizza we’ve had in the States.  Soft crust just barely charred around the edges, sweet fresh tomato sauce, perfected melted buffalo mozzarella…  ah, what deliciousness.

Naples lives the shadow of majestic Mt. Vesuvius, a volcano most famous for destroying the Roman city of Pompeii under millions of tons of superheated pyroclastic material in 79AD.  We visited the site of Pompeii’s excavation, along with that of Herculaneum, a less famous city that met its demise contemporarily with Pompeii.  Herculaneum was a much smaller and less important city than Pompeii, but because Vesuvius didn’t hit it quite as hard with the eruption, its remains are much better preserved.

What stuck with us most from both sites were the amazing well-preserved frescoes.  Ancient Romans didn’t care much for bare walls, so every home had floor-to-ceiling frescoes, usually painted by Greek artists and depicting everything from mythological stories to hunting scenes to whatever fruits and vegetables the homeowner preferred.  It’s a shame that we don’t decorate our modern walls with such richness.

In the video, you may notice some frescos painted with some slightly more, um, erotic scenes.  These photos were taken at the most-visited site in all of Pompeii, during both modern and ancient times:  it’s brothel.   Archeologists suspect that the frescoes served as a menu of sorts for customers…

You’ll also notice some plaster molds of a few Pompeii residents in their final repose.  In the mid-1800’s, an archeologist figured out that if he poured plaster in the cavity left by a decayed body, he could uncover the form of the victim at the moment that he became covered with volcanic ash.  The result is some haunting shapes.

After visiting Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum, we worked our way to Sorrento on the Amalfi coast.  Sorrento is a beautiful town hugging a cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples.  It’s quite picturesque although there isn’t much to do there except take a day ferry to Capri, so that’s what we did.  Sorrento was still a nice place to relax for a couple of nights while Jared fought off a cold, probably induced by the stress of navigating Naples.

The tiny island of Capri is one of the more famous tourist destinations in Italy and there were hoards of tourists there to prove it.   We overheard our first American accents there since arriving in Italy.  Despite its high prices and crowds, a day trip to Capri is still well deserved just because it’s so damn beautiful.  There are plenty of pics in the video below, some taken from the kayak that Jared rented for the afternoon.

Next on our itinerary was the small village of Castello delle Forme in the beautiful rural region of Umbria. Tourists don’t usually find themselves in Castello (population: ~80) and we wouldn’t have either if not for the hospitality of family friends Marty and Terri Lang.  The Lang’s, who live most of the year in Wisconsin, bought a second home in Castello and visit it twice annually for 10 weeks at a time.

They didn’t just buy a home though – they bought into a community.  The Umbrian people are famous for their warmth and generosity, which is especially acute in a village as small as Castello (which, as the name implies, was built within the walls of a castle.)

In our few days there, we saw neighbors gift to Marty and Terri several fresh vegetables, some watermelon, some coffee, and an invitation to a Sunday family dinner.  The guy who brought the watermelon asked Marty how he liked it, and Marty made the mistake of replying, “It was delicious.”  Several more watermelon arrived the next day.

Part of the reason that the Lang’s have been welcomed so warmly into the village is that they decided to live within the local language and culture, not above it.  They’ve taken enough Italian lessons to become conversational, they worked hard to learn the name of everyone in their village, and when they are in Italy they adopt the Italian pace of life.  We greatly admire their approach to living abroad, as Americans often tend to adopt a snobbish attitude to foreign languages and cultures.

We made a day trip from the Lang’s home to Assissi, a medieval Roman town most famous for being the hometown of Saint Francis, one of the most important men in Christian history, who literally changed the course of the religion by revolting against the then-decadence of the Catholic church by adopting a simple ascetic lifestyle focused on prayer and meditation.  He had many followers both in his own time and today.

After Umbria we made our way to Tuscany, a region famous for its food, wine, cheese, and its stunningly gorgeous countryside.  We weren’t sure if Tuscany would live up to its hype, but it did.

We based out of Volterra, an ancient city originally founded by Etruscans and sitting within a walled fortress atop a steep mountain.  Volterra is much better preserved than most Etruscan settlements, partly because they avoided Roman invasion for longer than their neighbors and partly because once Roman influence was inevitable, they made a special deal with their captors that allowed them to retain home-rule for several hundred more years.

We stayed at a convent in Volterra housed within a stoned medieval church, which was actually a great way to do it. It was safe, quiet and inexpensive.  We were just a bit bummed that the nuns didn’t have wifi.

One day we visited San Gimignano, which is arguably the most beautiful of all the medieval towns in Tuscany, due to both its views and its towers. While in other Tuscan cities, such as Bologna or Florence, most or all of their towers have been brought down due to wars, catastrophes, or urban renewal, San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen towers of varying height which have become its international symbol.

Wealthy residents built the towers in the 13th and 14th centuries, we’re told as both status symbols and for protection from invading armies.  The towers are mostly just hollow space with small living quarters towards the top, accessible only by rope ladder with a narrow doorway at the top (so an attacker would have to remove his armor before entering.)

After seeing a bit of Tuscany, we started making our way back to Milan to catch a flight the next day to Mykonos, Greece.   What should have been a 4 hour drive took closer to 8 hours, as our rented Fiat Panda was missing one of its cheap plastic hubcaps due to an ill-advised drive down a dirt road in Umbria.  To avoid an astronomical damage fee from the rental agency, we drove to just about every Fiat dealership in northern Italy to find a replacement.  After trying 4 different dealerships we finally found what we needed.  The final picture in the video is Jared in his moment of final victory.  Enjoy!

1 Comment

Filed under Italy

Bella Italia, Intermezzo

All great Italian operas must have an intermezzo, or intermission, to allow the audience to catch their breath.  We therefore scheduled an intermezzo into our Italian adventure in the form of a week of relaxation on the stunning Mediterranean island of Sardinia.  Few American tourists find their way to Sardinia, and we probably never would have included it on our itinerary if not for the advice of Jared’s good friend Alessandro (aka, Alex.)

Alex has been visiting Porto Cervo, a port town on the northeast coast of the island, just about every summer since he was a small child.  In recent years this town and the waters that surround it have become popular with world’s wealthiest yachters.   The downside of this is that prices have skyrocketed (everything costs 2x what it would elsewhere in Italy) but the upside is that glistening hundred-million-dollar yachts are around every corner.  Since Jared is obsessed with yachts, especially those with sails on them, he was like a kid in a candy store the entire week.

Not-so-coincidentally we found ourselves in Sardinia the same week as the Rolex Cup Maxi Yacht sailing race.  This famous annual race attracts the world’s largest and most advanced sailing yachts.  We rented a motorboat one day with a nice German couple that we met at our resort, Jan and Melanie, and perched ourselves near the starting line for the race.  Since Jared is a lifelong sailor, watching the race kick off from just a few meters leeward of the starting buoys was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After watching the first couple hours of the yacht race, we piloted our little motorboat to some beaches that Alex had encouraged us to visit (Alex had previously marked their location on a Google Map and Jared programmed the coordinates into his handheld GPS.)  Our favorite was definitely Isola Mortorio, also known as “Tahiti Beach.”   There are pictures of it in the video… you’ll know it when you see it.

We also enjoyed spending some time with Alex’s mother and grandmother, who have a beautiful home near Porto Cervo where they spend a few months every year.  They were like the Italian mama and nonna that we never had!  Alex’s mom cooked us some paradello (basically an Italian version of French toast) which we enjoyed eating while nonna knitted.  We were welcomed like family, which felt so wonderful being so far away from our own families.

Of course, we ate plenty of good food in Sardinia… the usual staples of pizza, pasta, and panini, plus some great local seafood, although it was so damn expensive that we tried to eat-in whenever possible.  Lauren managed to whip together some delicious insalata caprese , melon con prosciutto, pasta con pesto Genovese, and sautéed fish.

All-in-all it was a relaxing week and nice change of pace from the usual hustle of around the world travel.  We needed to rest to prepare for the next 10 days of our Chasing Summer Italy itinerary, a whirlwind tour through Naples, Sorrento, Capri, the Amalfi coast, and the Umbria and Tuscany regions, that is currently underway.  Details to come in our next post.  In the meantime, enjoy this video, “Bella Italia, Intermezzo”

4 Comments

Filed under Italy

Bella Italia, Act 1

With a flight from New York to Venice, Italy, the international portion of our adventure officially began.  Well, getting the flight itself was actually part of the adventure…

We arrived at JFK airport last Monday, intending to board a flight we booked to Milan, just to find that Delta had no record of our reservation.  We booked the flight online a couple weeks prior and still don’t know why it wasn’t in Delta’s reservation system.  It might have been a glitch in their system or might have been a “user error.”  In any event the flight was full, we didn’t have a seat, and there was nothing the ticketing agent could do about it.

Fortunately a friend of Jared’s buddy happens to work at Delta, and happened to owe said buddy a favor.   Less than 24 hours after our originally not-quite-scheduled flight, we were sitting on a plane to Venice, in business class, eating filet mignon and sipping prosecco.  Things could have been worse.

The next few days were a whirlwind.  Looking back, for nearly a week straight we never awoke in the morning and slept at night in the same city:

Monday: Awoke in Vegas, slept in New York

Tuesday: Awoke in New York, slept on a plane (kinda)

Wednesday: Awoke a plane, slept in Venice

Thursday: Awoke in Venice, slept in Verona

Friday: Awoke in Verona, slept in Genova

Saturday: Awoke in Genova, slept in Sardinia

Venice was beautiful – there’s really nothing else like it in the world, although we’ve ironically seen two of the world’s attempts to imitate in just the last couple of weeks (one in L.A. and one in Las Vegas.)

It’s a city build on a lagoon, supported entirely by ancient wooden pile-ons.  Amazing, construction began in the 5th to 8th century AD by Romans trying to avoid repeated attacks by the Huns and Goths.  It later became the headquarters of the very wealthy and powerful Venetian empire.  As you can imagine it has a ton of history, and more marble and art per square kilometer than just about any place on Earth.   Walking, vaporettos (motor boats) and gondolas are the only form of transport – there are no cars in sight – which makes it incredibly quiet and romantic.

Although one can easily spend a week wandering the streets and canals of Venice, eating pizza, sipping Italian wine and admiring its art, we only stuck around for 24 hours given the high-priced food and accommodation.  That gave us enough time to see all the major sights though:  the Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, the Rialto bridge.  We also browsed some Murano glass shops, took a vaporetto through the Grand Canal, toured the fresh food market, and ate some fantastic pizza, pasta, panini, and gelato. The food is at least 30% of the Italian experience – Jared’s friend Alessandro argues 50%.

From Venice we took a train to Verona, most famous for its very well-preserved Roman arena and as the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliette.”  The arena was built in the 1st century AD and is still in use today, mostly as an opera house.  Over the years it’s seen countless gladiators, plays, operas, and concerts.

Apparently Italians are just as shameless as Americans when it comes to building tourist traps.  There is a house in Verona dubbed casa di Giulietta (Juliette’s house) where you can pay 4 euro to walk to the balcony.  Never mind that Shakespeare’s play was completely fictional.  We walked by the house and it was packed with tourists… we didn’t have the heart to tell them.

It was a pretty little town, and Lauren studied there for a semester during college so was anxious to show Jared around her old stomping ground.  We made an attempt to visit a bar owned by Lauren’s Italian ex-boyfriend, which appeared to be closed down much to Jared’s delight.

From Verona we boarded another train to Genoa, a “gargantuan port town with a seedy underbelly” as our Lonely Planet guidebook says.  Like most tourists who find themselves in Genoa, we were just passing through.

It was our intent to just to eat a quiet early dinner and go to bed, as we had a 10AM ferry departure the next day.   However as sometimes happens during travel, we had a surprising fun and eventful evening.

While looking for a restaurant we stumbled upon a festival sponsored by the Italian Democratic Party.   We were surely the only foreign tourists there.  Our first of order of business was to find dinner, and fortunately Italian fair grub is much different than the American staples of corn dogs, cotton candy, and funnel cake.  Our dinner consisted of zuppetta di cozze con crostini (mussels with toast), testaroli al pesto (a flat bread-like pasta with pesto sauce), baccalà al forno con porcini (baked cod with mushrooms) vino bianco (white wine), and acqua minerale gassata (sparkling mineral water.)  It was served informally but as delicious as you’d find at any fine restaurant.  Even at fairs, the Italians take their food seriously.

Dinner was served in a giant tent, so packed with Italians that tables had to be shared.  We were seated next to a local Genovese couple around our age, Daniela and Paolo.  Neither of us speak much of the other’s language, but we managed to communicate decently well between broken English, broken Italian, and a few Spanish and Portuguese words thrown in for good measure.

Daniela and Paolo welcomed us warmly to their city and even walked us around for a couple of hours after dinner.  Only afterward did we realize that they showed us about every main attraction in the city, including the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and several magnificent cathedrals and palazzos (palaces.)  Now we’re all Facebook friends.

We’re writing this post from the beautiful Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where we’ll probably stay put for the next week or so.  After traveling non-stop for the last several weeks, we’re both looking forward to this little vacation from our vacation.

In our next post we’ll tell all about our activities in Sardinia, which may be quite few.  In the meantime you can enjoy this video titled “Bella Italia, Act 1”

4 Comments

Filed under Italy