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Italy 2005 Archives

May 5, 2005

Week 46 - Lake Como (Italy)

More photos from our week on Lake Como are posted here.

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Saturday, April 23

We planned to leave Oberammergau by 10 pm, as our trip to Northern Italy would be about five hours. I was up early to start packing the kitchen. Charley went out to the bakery one last time, and then all three of us were busy getting organized and loading up. We have so much stuff… no, we have way too much stuff: hiking clothes, winter clothes, summer clothes, food, wine, books, maps, a laptop computer, files. It will be interesting to see how we consolidate down to what we can handle ourselves on a train next Saturday. Some of what we are carrying with us today will need to stay behind at Lake Como.

We said goodbye to Frau Shuster, and she took our picture out in front of the house. She gave Kelly a little giraffe key chain and seemed delighted when Kelly gave her a hug. (I miss the French tradition of kissing!) We enjoyed this house and location. It was a beautiful day in Oberammergau again today… would have been a good day for hiking. We have to come back—in summer—so we can do the hiking we wanted to do on this trip. We made final stops at the bank, the gas station, and the grocery store… and then we were off. Charley really loves it here in the mountains. Despite the disappointing weather, this has been one of his favorite places of our trip.

I really enjoyed the drive today—in five hours we passed through four countries (!) and absolutely amazing alpine scenery. Our trip was less than 200 miles, but because we were on small mountain roads the entire time, it took about five hours to cover the distance. We drove south to Garmisch and then traced part of the route we took back from Hohenschwangau a few days ago along the river Loisach and the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany (over 8600 feet). Not far along this road we crossed into Austria. We had much better views on this sunny day than we did last week. At Lermoos we headed up through the Fernpass, a winding twisty road. Near the top we stopped at a restaurant/viewing area called the Zugspitzblick, looking out across a small blue-green lake to a beautiful panorama of the massive mountain. We stopped to get ice cream, use the restroom, and take some photos. We only drove about 40 miles in Austria, avoiding the motorway for one short stretch so we didn’t have to buy the special sticker. We had to stop at the Swiss border crossing to show our passports and even our car rental agreement. Where were we going? How long were we staying? The Swiss seem to be more serious about protecting their borders, perhaps because they are not members of the European Union. There wasn’t even a station between Germany and Austria—not a guard in sight. About 15 minutes later we came to another border crossing. Now where were we? Another Swiss guard looked at our passports, though this one didn’t ask for our car rental information. When I looked at the map, it seems that there is a little area where the border is very twisty and the road crosses between Switzerland and Austria a few times. We hadn’t even realized we had crossed back into Austria.

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May 16, 2005

Week 47 - Venice (Italy)

Our second week in Italy took us to the magical city of Venice, truly one of the most amazing cities in the world… a city built on the water, filled with art and architecture. We had a beautiful apartment in a 16th century palazetto and learned to find out way around the narrow canals, bridges, streets and passageways of Venice. We especially enjoyed our visits to St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace and a day trip to the Northern Lagoon islands of Burano and Torcello. Charley and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary with a concert featuring our beloved Four Seasons, written by Venice’s most noted composer—Antonio Vivaldi.

Saturday, April 30

We woke up early our last morning in Domaso… even Kelly was up by seven. We finished our final bit of packing and somehow managed to fit everything into two big duffel bags, two medium rolling suitcases (replacing the third big bag that we left in Provence), three backpacks and the computer bag. Somewhere buried in our luggage are 12 packages of ramen noodle soup, a variety of spices, our pepper grinder and supply of peppercorns, my olivewood herbes de Provence grinder, aluminum foil and plastic wrap, and a few other kitchen items. Kelly found a place for Charley’s jar of peanut butter, but I had to leave behind what remained of our big bottle of olive oil from Provence. The bags were incredibly heavy, especially my pack. Kelly and I are wearing our hiking boots to avoid having to fit them into our suitcases. And I have my jacket hanging off the back of my pack. We will definitely need to do another “purge” in Venice.

Gio came down to the apartment a few minutes after nine to return our security deposit and say goodbye. He’s been a very good host. We left him with a small pile of clothes to give to a needy family (including Kelly’s well-worn sneakers), two boxes of food, and a couple of books. We took Gio’s photo with Kelly out in the flower garden by the pretty swimming pool and hugged him goodbye.

Our morning route took us all the way down the west side of the lake to Como, a road we’ve now taken several times. It was another very hazy day and we could barely see the mountains and the other side of the lake. There were lots of cyclists out today, frustrating Charley as he tried to find the right moment to pass them. The motorcyclists then passed us… whizzing by at dangerous speeds. We drove through Gravedona and Dongo, Menaggio, and then Lenno. In Tremezzo we passed right by the Villa Carlotta where we’d been just yesterday, glimpsing the pretty azaleas and rhododendrons on the hillside and the little stone dwarfs at the far end. Just outside of Como—at Cernobbio—we swung away from the lake, passing right by the big mall where we had gone to the Spizzico restaurant with the two grandparents and Noami. At this point we took a motorway south toward the Malpensa airport, located almost an hour outside the big city of Milan.

Charley had called twice to confirm our appointment with the Renault representative to return our leased car. The man didn’t speak very good English, but he told Charley he would meet us at Gate 16 of Terminal 1. Charley had said we’d be there at 11:45 am, but we got there much more quickly than we expected and arrived at the airport about 11. We circled the airport to find a temporary place to park for a short time, then I went in the busy airport to use the restroom. We circled again and pulled up to the curb just outside Gate 16 around 11:30. We piled our luggage on the curb and Kelly and I stood watch while Charley went in to use the restroom. I’m particularly nervous about protecting our computer bag.

The Renault man arrived right at 11:45 am, and we turned over the station wagon that’s been our car since our trip to Barcelona over two months ago. We’ll be without a car for the next two weeks—in Venice and Rome—and will get another leased Renault for two months when we leave Rome. The man was very friendly and personally led us into the airport and then downstairs to show us where to catch the bus to the central train station in Milan. The bus was very economical—5 euro each for a 50 minute trip. We were able to store most of our luggage in the big luggage compartment underneath the bus, so even that was easy. Kelly and I read most of the trip—we’re both reading John Grisham. She finished The Testament and I finished The Summons.

We didn’t see much of Milan, and what we saw didn’t impress us much. We didn’t get to see the big Duomo, which is the main thing we would have wanted to see in Milan—that and Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper. We had two hours until our Eurostar train to Venice, so we found a bench where we could see the departures board and settled in for a long wait. Kelly and I brought back panini sandwiches while Charley watched the luggage and later brought back ice cream. Every time we got up, someone took our spot on the bench… a couple of them rather unsavory looking people.

Finally our train’s platform was posted and we hauled our luggage out onto the platform. When the train pulled in, we found our car and managed to get the luggage on the train and the heavy pieces in the luggage compartment. It was all relatively easy except for my aching back and shoulders. I’ve been having problems with my left shoulder for some reason. My backpack was way too heavy today, and I definitely need to do something different for next week’s trip to Rome.

The train trip to Venice was about two and a half hours. We read, had a snack, and watched the scenery. Our route took us across Italy, heading a bit further south, all the way to the Adriatic Sea. It was exciting when we finally saw the water and crossed the bridge over to Venice. The train arrived at the Santa Lucia Station; we went out the station and down some steps, coming to a big plaza overlooking the Grand Canal. It was extremely busy place with tourists coming, going and just waiting.

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June 2, 2005

Week 48 - Rome (Italy)

We really enjoyed our week in Rome… one of civilization’s most famous and influential cities. Kelly was the leader for our week of sightseeing, and did a wonderful job researching and planning our activities. She barely let us break for lunch, and we saw most of Rome on foot. It’s a very walk-able city, but we were glad we were in pretty good shape. We visited many of the sites of Ancient Rome (the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Trajan’s Market, Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus). We must have walked inside fifteen churches... filled with paintings and sculptures by the great masters. We also visited many of Rome’s famous squares and fountains—the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, and Campo di Fiori.

The highlight of our week was our day at the Vatican City. We were able to attend Pope Benedict XVI’s first public audience in St. Peter’s Square. We also toured the Vatican museums (including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel) and St. Peter’s Basilica. Kelly and I climbed up into the dome, and then I climbed all the way to the cupola for a wonderful view of Rome.
Saturday, May 7

I didn’t sleep well last night and neither did Charley. I think Charley was anxious about the logistics of getting the luggage to the train station on the vaporetto. I was excited about going to Rome, but also found myself thinking of Provence in the sleepless early hours. We’ve been gone for three weeks, and I still miss it a lot.

We got Kelly up at 6:30 am and finished getting her big blue bag and Charley’s big bag ready. Although we originally planned to take an expensive water taxi back to the train station, we settled on a better plan that cost us almost nothing extra. We used the 24-hour vaporetto (water bus) pass we’d bought yesterday mid-morning (it was still good till mid-morning today) and took the vaporetto to the station. Charley took the two big bags to the station first and put them in storage, rather than us trying to take all the luggage in one trip. Charley left on this first trip just before 7 am. After he left, Kelly and I took showers and finished our packing. We even had time to sit on the floor and play a game of double solitaire. Charley was back before 8:30, and his trip to the station had gone just fine. The Contessa came down with her little dog Webby at 9. We settled up on utilities and said our goodbyes. She’s a very nice person, and she works hard to run a first-class operation with her four apartments. I like the fact that she still lives in the home that’s belonged to her family for 400 years. We told her how much we liked Webby. She told a story about a bigger dog they had when she was a girl, a dog who normally lived at their bigger palace in the country. One day the dog was at the palazetto in Venice—in the room that’s been our living room—and saw a cat in a gondola on the canal below. The dog jumped out of the window down two stories to get the cat, but landed at the other end of the gondola.

We left the palazetto at 9 am, each with a backpack and one rolling bag (I had the computer bag.) It was tricky navigating up and down the steps of the several bridges we had to cross, so I can only imagine how tough it was for Charley with the two big duffel bags. I felt a little sentimental about making this now-familiar trip along the tiny streets one last time. We must have walked the same route least 10 times during our week. I saw the Italian mama from our Thursday night restaurant on the street (the one who I think we offended when Charley had a question about the bill) and I said “Buon Giorno” to her. She recognized me and gave me a big smile.

We rode on the vaporetto with two nice American women from St. Louis. We chatted with them the whole way to the station—they were headed to Florence and then Rome…what seems a typical itinerary for many Americans. The boat got quite crowded, but fortunately we boarded early in the route and had staked out our territory.

The train station was very busy on this Saturday morning. Charley retrieved our big bags from storage and we waited for our platform to be posted. Our train seemed totally full. I like riding on the trains, but getting on and off the trains is very stressful because of our luggage. It’s hard lugging the bags up onto the train and then finding a place to store them. If I were starting over again on this trip, I would definitely do our luggage differently. We have too much stuff, but it really has been hard to pack for such a long trip that extends over all four seasons.

Kelly and I were sorry to leave Venice, but Charley seemed glad to leave it behind and isn’t inclined to come again. I told Kelly maybe she and I will come sometime on a “girls trip.”

The trip to Rome took five hours. The train stopped at several places, including Padua, Bologna and Florence. I had hoped to get a good view of Florence, but the route didn’t show us much of anything. We’ll have to wait to see it up close in two weeks. I read a little, dozed off for a while, and looked at scenery. We ate some sandwiches that Charley and Kelly bought at the Venice station. The countryside was very beautiful, and we spotted several castles and hilltop villages. We were especially interested to get our first look at Tuscany and Umbria, areas where we’ll spend a lot of time this summer. Kelly was very busy almost the whole trip working on our Rome itinerary. She is the family “leader” for Rome and is taking her assignment very seriously.

We arrived in Rome (Roma in Italian) about 3:15 pm. Kelly was extremely excited—she is especially interested in Rome since this is “her” city. We let everyone else get off the train before us, which made it a lot easier with our luggage. We’ve rented our apartment in Rome through an agency, and I called from the station to let them know we were heading to the apartment. Kelly bought a Rome map at a newsstand, and then we took a cab to our apartment in the Trastevere area of Rome. We all looked eagerly out the windows during our drive across the city—our first time in Rome! It seemed an exciting and beautiful city with ancient history integrated everywhere. There were many more trees than I had expected—even palm trees. We drove along the famous Tiber river (Tevere in Italian), lined with big leafy trees on either side. At one point we passed a big limousine with a bride in the back—the man sitting beside her was considerably older. Was it her father or groom??

Our taxi ride to Trastevere took about 20 minutes. Trastevere (which is “across the Tevere”) is the Roman version of Paris’ Left Bank…kind of a bohemian neighborhood with lots of nightlife. Sounds just the place for the hip Wood family! We passed a couple of nice looking cafes with people sitting at the outdoor tables enjoying a late lunch. The driver let us off a few blocks away from our street—Vicolo del Bologna—since it’s a pedestrian area. The streets are dark and almost gloomy… very narrow and made of old cobblestone. Laundry hangs out the windows of the old, dirty buildings and tiny cars and motorcycles are parked wherever a spot can be found. The graffiti makers have been very busy in this area… it’s absolutely everywhere, and not especially artistic.

As we searched for number 20, a woman called to us from a window above the door. It was the owner of our apartment, a woman whose name I never quite understood—Dalu or maybe Daria. Her last name was Jones but also possibly Patane. She told us she had once been married to an Englishman named Jones. The mailbox had four different last names. Maybe her adult daughter sometimes lives here too. I decided just to think of her as Signora Jones. She seemed to be in her 60’s, perhaps even older… white/gray hair arranged in an untidy knot on the back of her head… an art historian who specializes in Islamic art. Her English was very good… that of a very educated person. It was difficult to place her accent—she said she was part Belgian and part Italian but had lived many years in London.

Our time with Signora Jones—perhaps thirty minutes—was quite frantic and somewhat confusing. She gave us a tour of the apartment and told us what we needed to know about various appliances. She gave us a map of Rome and made several suggestions of where to go, what to do and how to get there. She answered our practical questions about grocery stores and internet cafes, what to do with the trash, what to do when we leave next Saturday. She was clearly in a hurry to leave… her husband was downstairs somewhere in a car and they were headed to another house they own in the countryside—near Grosseto in Tuscany. Her cellphone rang several times. Her dog cowered in a corner of the hallway. Several plastic sacks and suitcases she was taking with her were scattered in various places. She was very interested in our trip and then—surprisingly and quite seriously—invited us to come visit them in Tuscany… even to spend the night. Finally she bustled out with the dog, in a flurry to meet her husband. Charley helped her carry down some of her bags. He shook hands with her husband downstairs and reported back that the husband seemed much younger. Ten minutes later there was a knock at the door—Signora Jones again, back to pick up several things she had forgotten.

The apartment—our home for seven days—was a tremendous shock to all of us, an enormous contrast to the refined and elegant environment of the Palazetto da Schio in Venice. I had looked at a lot of options in Rome and finally found this apartment through a rental agency website. I liked what I saw in the photos—a comfortable décor, lots of books in the living room, two bedrooms, and a reasonable price for Rome. The agency website noted that this was a “subrental,” which meant it was someone’s personal apartment… not an apartment that was only rented out to vacationers. I had e-mailed the agency representative to try to understand this, and he responded that the owner lived mainly in the countryside and that there would potentially be a closet with the owners’ clothes or most personal belongings.

The reality is that this is a very much lived-in apartment—a first floor apartment in an 18th century building. I think it’s possible that Signora Jones has had this apartment for 20 years or so, since it certainly seems like there are 20 years of accumulated possessions all over the apartment…. not just stored in a personal closet. I do like the living room—three very comfortable couches covered with pretty blue and white throws and bright sofa pillows, a square blue table with chairs. What was supposed to be a “balcony,” is just a tiny outdoor area—maybe nine square feet—holding the electrical box, a bucket and mop, a bunch of plants, and the large head of a statue. It does provide some natural light into the living room. As I had seen in the website photos, there really are lots and lots of books—not just in the living room but crammed into floor to ceiling bookcases both sides of the narrow hallway. There must be a few thousand books and even a ladder to reach books on the high shelves. We were all excited about the idea of new reading material, and I climbed on the ladder to look at the titles on the higher shelves. Unfortunately, almost all the books relate to Islamic art or Asian history. Although most of the books are in English, there aren’t any page-turning novels. There really isn’t a single book that I want to read and not anything for Kelly.

The apartment also has lots of “stuff” on the walls and shelves—personal photos, mementoes, and lots of Islamic or Asian type prints and objects. All the artwork seemed appealing on the website, but the theme hadn’t been evident in the small photos. There are two dresser drawers and a closet for our use. Every other bit of space is filled with Signora Jones’ stuff. Only the refrigerator was totally empty—and absolutely spotless—when we arrived.

I didn’t quite know what to do. Kelly was really turned off by the Asian theme for some reason… actually afraid of a few things. And Charley is so fastidious—I could tell he was almost horrified. Was the apartment going to be clean enough for him? I found myself apologizing and even asked if he felt we could stay here. He responded that I’d done a great job with all our accommodations throughout the long trip and that we could make it work. It didn’t make me feel a whole lot better about this particular place.

We also had a problem with the bedroom assignments. I had been so pleased to find an economical apartment with two bedrooms so Kelly could have her own room instead of sleeping on a couch as she did in London and Paris. The two bedrooms are off of the book-lined hallway, both with windows out to the narrow street. Neither of the rooms has a proper door—just curtains separating them from the hallway. One room has a queen-sized bed and the other room has a very small double bed. The second room should have been Kelly’s, but she was frightened by some of the Oriental art. The bed in this room is too small for Charley and I to share. We decided that Kelly and I would share the larger bed this week and let Charley have the smaller bed. At least he can sleep with his window wide open.

The kitchen and bath are next to each other on the other side of the living room. Both are very small and I could see Charley checking out the cleanliness.

It was too depressing to unpack. Charley and Kelly both seemed to plan to live out of suitcases for the week. We went out to get gelato, walked around the neighborhood a bit, and then went to get some groceries at a very small alimentari. There wasn’t much of a selection. Kelly had planned dinner at a pizzeria ( Dar Poeta) she read about in the guidebook that was actually on our street. We walked by, but it wasn’t open. It didn’t seem possible that there was a pizzeria worthy of being in a guidebook behind those closed doors.

We went back to the apartment for a while. I did go ahead and hang up a few of my clothes and used one of the empty drawers. At 7 pm we went out for dinner. The Dar Poeta pizzeria still wasn’t open. Some of the workers were sitting at one of outdoor tables and seemed very indifferent to us. The pizza must have been great, because the environment sure wasn’t. We walked on down the street and found an ideal place called Da Otello—a pizzeria and trattoria. The atmosphere was wonderful—just what we were looking for. It wasn’t expensive and the people were nice… and most important, the food was really good! There was a self-service antipasto bar that I ordered… at least 20 different bowls and plates of various vegetables, either marinated in olive oil or lightly fried in breadcrumbs—artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, white beans, olives. I had saltimbocca (veal with prosciutto, sage and white wine) for my main course. This is something I often order at Italian restaurants at home and one of my favorites. Charley had the menu turistico (lasagna, saltimbocca, and dessert). Kelly had a spicy pasta (arrabbiata) that she really enjoyed and then chicken. Two musicians came inside and played for a few minutes as we were leaving. We paid 41 euro for a good meal and a lot of food. We definitely will go back to this place later in the week.

Trastevere was very busy when we left the restaurant at 9 pm. The area is packed with restaurants and clubs—though fortunately our little street is mostly residential and very quiet. On the other streets and squares we saw lots and lots of people… sitting at sidewalk tables or just out walking. We heard music coming from several directions. This is kind of an unusual place for our family to be… we really aren’t hip! Charley said it reminds him of the French quarter in New Orleans. The apartment will take some getting used to, but I hope we can adjust and have a good week.

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June 11, 2005

Week 49 - Ravello (Amalfi Coast, Italy)

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May 14, 2005

Charley said he woke up during the night to the sounds of partying on the streets of Trastevere… people singing in our normally quiet little street at 4 am. This morning he was up early to buy breakfast pastries. The bakery is so close he can make the round trip in five minutes. We had our quick breakfast, and then Charley and Kelly walked to the post office to mail a box home while I finished packing. They were gone an incredibly long time, and the cleaning woman arrived while they were still gone. She started a load of sheets in the washing machine… I had no idea how she would dry them in this small apartment. Many people in the Italian cities hang their wash outside their windows or string clotheslines between two windows. Clothes dryers seem almost non-existent in Europe… I’m not quite sure why. Maybe there’s no room for dryers in the small apartments or maybe there are economic or energy issues. I have a whole new appreciation for my big clothes dryer at home.

Charley and Kelly finally rushed in from the post office. They said they had the slowest postal clerk in all of Italy—a trainee. They decided not to try to deal with the two smaller packages for friends, and so we crammed them in our luggage. Five minutes after they returned, we were saying “ciao” to the cleaning woman and heading out the door, carrying our luggage down the narrow steps.

We pulled and carried our luggage along the rough cobblestone street to the Piazza de Trilussa. When we were at the Vatican last Wednesday, someone handed us a flyer about a transportation service to the airport. I waved the man away, but Kelly took the flyer and thought it was something we might be interested in. Charley called for information and decided it was a good deal. We were considering taking a tram to the Trastevere train station and then taking the train to the Rome airport. This would have required hauling our bags a long way to the tram stop and then dealing with our luggage on the tram and train. The van service was normally 32 euro for three people, but we paid 40 euro because of our extra bags. A few minutes after we arrived at the square, we were in a very nice van with two women from Boston who were returning home after two weeks in Venice, Florence and Rome. It was a 30 minute trip to the airport, stress-free and well worth the 40 euro… far better than dealing with lots of walking, hauling luggage, a crowded tram, and a train.

We went to the airport to pick up our third and final car of the trip, another leased Renault. We arrived at the airport about 10:30. Our appointment to pick up the car wasn’t until 11:30, so we found a table in a nearby snack bar and had drinks and shared a small sandwich. Then Charley called the Renault office, and we waited at a designated place for the person. Near where we were waiting there were at least ten men in ill-fitting suits… there to meet people coming off the international flights. They were all holding big cards with names… drivers taking people to the countryside and tour group representatives. Finally our person arrived and fifteen minutes later we were leaving the airport in a brand new Renault station wagon… just like the car we returned in Milan two weeks ago except for a slight difference in color.

The drive from Rome to the Amalfi Coast was about three hours, mostly on a very good motorway (toll road). We stopped for gas a few exits after the airport and then stopped to use the restroom and have some lunch at one of the motorway service areas. We got pizza at a Spizzico, the same chain restaurant that the people we met at Como owned. This was probably the cheapest lunch we’ve had in our three weeks in Italy—11 euros for three big pieces of spicy salami pizza (a quarter of a pie each), two drinks, and a bowl of fruit. Charley said that it was the best pizza he’d had in Italy, but Kelly and I didn’t think so…. his piece was piping hot and our pieces had sat there for a while.

The scenery changed dramatically very quickly. Thirty minutes after leaving the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino, we were in the Italian countryside… mountains, hilltop villages, farmland, vineyards… even some sheep and cows. Initially we thought the countryside was very pastoral—quite different from the ruggedness of Provence—but then we passed near some rocky little mountains in Abruzzo that reminded us of the Luberon. It was very hazy today and the hills were fuzzy. I’d love to make this drive on a perfectly clear day. We’ll actually travel back up this same road next Saturday, so maybe I’ll get lucky then.

Our itinerary in Italy may seem strange, because we’re doing some backtracking. I did have a logic when I put it all together…. though it’s hard to remember now. We visited Venice and Rome back-to-back because we didn’t need a car in either place. Also, I wanted to visit Venice and Rome in the spring (what turned out to be the first part of May), to avoid the heat and crowds later on. And I wanted to get down to the Amalfi Coast while the prices were still lower. So our 11-week itinerary in Italy has been: Como, Venice, Rome, Amalfi Coast (the southernmost place), then back up to Florence, Tuscany, and Umbria. We considered going all the way down to Sicily, but decided instead to spend a full month in Tuscany.

I had considered not having a car on the Amalfi Coast because the driving is supposed to be so difficult. I worried that Charley’s fear of heights would make it difficult for him to drive on the steep and narrow coastal roads. But he thought he would be fine and was hesitant to entrust his safety to bus drivers… and having our own car made it easier—and probably cheaper—to get here. It will be interesting to see how we end up getting around the area.

We took a route that bypassed the big city of Naples. At Nocera we exited the motorway and started picking our way over to a big mountain range that separated us from the Mediterranean Sea. In some places the route was well-marked—blue signs that said Ravello and brown signs that said Costiera Amalfitana—but we got confused in several places. We passed through a few depressing towns. It was hard to believe this route would lead us to the glamorous destination of the Amalfi Coast. Finally we spotted the signs again and turned up into the mountains. The little road went quickly up the steep hillside, passing fields of lemon trees and other crops. I saw one field of small artichokes. The narrow road twisted and turned, and Charley navigated carefully. Several buses passed us going down the mountain. We reached the top with a choice of two directions—another place where things weren’t clearly marked—and we had to ask for help… just eight kilometers to go. We headed down the Valico d’Chiunzi past the peak of Mont Cerreto at 4343 feet. Finally we were rewarded with a sweeping view of the bright blue sea and houses clinging to the craggy hillside. It was absolutely lovely.

Ravello sits high up on a rocky spur separating two valleys, looking across the Gulf of Salerno. We’re renting our villa directly from the owner, a lawyer who lives in Naples. I looked at a lot of options on the Amalfi Coast and considered several different locations. It’s expensive to stay here and would be even more expensive a month or two from now. I thought Ravello seemed more like us—less glitzy and touristy than Positano or Amalfi, famous resort towns which are right on the sea.

Parking in Ravello is complicated and the logistics of getting to our villa were challenging, especially with our luggage. Ravello is a pedestrian village with tiny cobblestone streets. The main square in front of the Duomo (cathedral) is very attractive… leafy shade trees, big terracotta pots of bright flowers, and groupings of tables under umbrellas. Well-dressed guests were just arriving for a wedding in the Duomo. We parked in an expensive pay lot below the square and followed our directions to the villa. We carried our backpacks and the computer bag on this first trip. Because my shoulder is still bothering me (not helped by the hauling of luggage this morning), Charley carried my pack. Kelly thinks I’m faking this, but I’m really hurting. This is very unlike me as I rarely have any kind of physical issue.

Our villa was a good ten minutes walk from the parking lot, including a fair number of steps, both up and down. It was a tough walk, and I know Charley was thinking about how we would get the rest of our luggage along this route. We passed several wonderful ceramics shops that Kelly and I can’t wait to explore. At one point we passed under the portico of a very old church, the Chiesa di San Francesco. We followed the signs to the famous Villa Cimbrone, which is located just next to our villa.

Finally we turned down a steep path (more steps), arrived at a black iron gate, and entered our villa through a pretty garden. Stanislao Frigenti was an attractive man about 40 with a nice smile and a very pleasant manner. His English was very good. He told us his family has owned this house for 25 years, and he showed us some pictures of the ruin the house had been when his father bought it. We had exchanged several e-mails about our rental, and he was interested to learn about our trip. He commented that he knew of several Americans who had done a long trip like this and that this is not something Italians would ever do. I said I thought that was because Italians have a lot of vacation every year, but Americans have relatively little time off work and must be a schoolteacher, retired or leave their jobs in order to have a trip longer than two weeks.

Stanislao’s eight-year-old son was with him, and the little boy slipped away brought back ice cream cones for he and Kelly. Very sweet! There is apparently a porter in Ravello who has a motorized cart for transporting luggage from the main square, and we talked about possibly calling this man to help us with our heavier bags. Stanislao thought it might cost 20 euro, so Charley decided to deal with the luggage himself. Charley set off back to the parking lot while Kelly and I were still getting the tour of the house and talking about Ravello. Charley returned 20 minutes later with two of the bags, sweating profusely.

While Charley was gone, the gardener came by—Signore Panteleone—an older gentleman who speaks absolutely no English and is missing about two thirds of his teeth. I know this because he gave us a very big smile. I smiled back, using one of my few Italian phrases (“Buon Giorno, Signore”), and I shook his hand, very brown from a lifetime of working in the dirt. We’ll leave the key with Signore Panteleone when we depart on Saturday morning.

After Stanislao left, Charley was anxious to get the rest of the luggage to the house and move the car out of the pay lot to a free spot somewhere in the village. I think we will end up leaving our car in this spot for much of the week and using buses and ferries to get around. The three of us walked back to the car and retrieved the other two bags—the large blue bag and the smaller red suitcase. Charley took the bigger bag and Kelly and I took turns with the red bag. A big set of stairs went right up from the parking lot—(equivalent to about a three-story building), followed by the long walk through the village, including several steep places where there was a choice of ramps or stairs. Kelly was happy to take responsibility for our bag when the route was downhill, which it was part of the way. We did see one of the little motorized carts, possibly belonging to one of the hotels. It was a strange mix of a lawnmower, a tank and a sled.

After we got the rest of our bags to the villa, we walked back to the center of the village again. The wedding was just ending at the cathedral and the guests were spilling down the steps. Tourists were watching, hoping to get a look at the bride and groom. Charley moved the car while Kelly and I started some grocery shopping. There are several small shops in the village but not a big supermarket. We went to a macelleria (butcher’s), an alimentari (small grocery shop), and a fruttivendola (fruit/produce shop), buying some staples and food for the next two days. At the alimentari, we had to ask the grocer to get many of the items that were behind his counter. Other people were waiting in the crowded shop, and I found it an awkward shopping experience, especially because of our limited Italian. The butcher was very nice and gave Kelly a scrap of meat to feed to a little dog outside. Charley joined up with us (he had been quite successful getting a parking spot), bought two bottles of wine at an enoteca (wine shop), and helped us carry our purchases back.

We had a glass of wine, relaxed on our terrace, and enjoyed the evening view of the hillside. Charley says this is probably the prettiest spot that we’ve had—and we have had some wonderful spots. We can’t see much of the sea from here (just a glimpse from the two terraces), but we have a spectacular view across the Valle del Dragone to the hillside (mountainside) rising steeply. The small village of Pontone is just below us on the other side of the valley, and there’s another village or two up much higher. The hillside is terraced most of the way— Stanislao said they grow lemons, grapes, and olives—and we can see a tiny road winding its way up through the terraces. Most of the lemon trees are still covered with a black nylon netting to protect them from the wind. It’s really quite spectacular.

Our house is just wonderful—especially the stunning views of the valley. After last week’s disappointing apartment in Rome, I was very nervous about what we would find. Charley said I’ve redeemed myself with another great location. Our house is spacious and spread out over three levels. And we have three outdoor spaces to enjoy as well. On the lower level there’s a big outdoor garden with a covered eating area, lounge chairs, a barbeque and even a wood-fired pizza oven. Stanislao showed Kelly and I how to use the outdoor oven to make pizza, though I’m not sure I remember the instructions. The little yard has beautiful shrubs and flowers, a small vegetable garden, and a big lemon tree that grows up through the pergola shading the outdoor table. Signore Panteleone has done good work!

The first level of the house has a large outdoor terrace that extends the length of the villa with a sitting area and eating table. Inside there’s a small dining room and an adjacent kitchen. The first bathroom (with the washing machine) is off the next landing of the stairs. The stairs then lead to the second level and the main living room—bright and spacious with wicker furniture. There’s a comfortable seating area and another dining table. Kelly’s room—with two single beds—is off the living room. Double doors lead from the living room to another big terrace. This terrace has a tightly woven ceiling of vines. Narrow spiral stairs lead up to the third level—a big master bedroom and the second bathroom. The master bedroom is in a cave-shaped room with sloping walls and big double windows at the end. It’s very clean, spacious, comfortable and light. There’s not another terrace, but there is a beautiful view looking across to the other side of the valley and a partial view of the sea.

I fixed a quick dinner of kind of a beef stroganoff (I didn’t end up with enough beef once I had cut off all the fat), pasta with butter, and asparagus. I got pretty stressed out while cooking since the stovetop is very small and I couldn’t have all three of my pans over burners at the same time. It took a really long time to get water to boil over the smallest burner. (I had this same problem last week in Rome.) The small kitchen got very hot, and it bothered me that both Charley and Kelly hovering around the stove.

“I don’t need any help,” I said. I might have even said, “Leave me alone!”

“Calm down Mommy,” Kelly said as I was stressing out over the cooking. It infuriates me to have an eleven-year old tell me to calm down.

“You’re never allowed to say that to me again,” I told her tonight, though I really did need to calm down. I just need to plan simpler meals while we are here.

We ate our dinner outside and watched the lights flicker on across the valley. We could hear the church bells echoing from the villages of Minuta and Scala on the other side of the valley.

I unpacked my things, but Kelly and Charley both begged off unpacking tonight because it was so late. Charley doesn’t want to maneuver his big bag up the twisty stairs, so I’m not sure what he’ll do. I don’t want his suitcase and piles of clothes in the nice living room. He really hasn’t unpacked his suitcase since we’ve left Provence. I personally don’t want to live out of a suitcase for the next several months, and have made a point of really unpacking each week. Ideally I would even like to hide the suitcases. We were sloppy in Rome last week. I think because the apartment was so cluttered, we just let ourselves be cluttered too. I have asked Kelly and Charley to help me keep this pretty place in Ravello looking neat.

We read until bedtime. Of course, Charley wanted to sleep with the windows wide open. We don’t have the street noises of Trastevere here… just fresh breezes and the smell of wisteria, jasmine, and (could it be possible?) lemon trees. We already love being here.

Continue reading "Week 49 - Ravello (Amalfi Coast, Italy)" »

June 20, 2005

Week 50: Five weeks in Tuscany (Cooking in Florence)

Cooking in Florence.jpg

We stood inside the busy Florence train station, waiting for the arrival of the 9:21 am train from Rome. It was our third day in Florence and a day we had looked forward to for almost a year.

Kelly held a handmade sign with elaborate decorations. “Libbie Griffin,” her sign said in big black letters. “We are the Woods.” There were pictures of an Italian chef, a pizza, and a bottle of wine.

We were at the station to meet my friend Libbie who lives in North Carolina. Libbie is one of several “travel friends” I’ve made on the internet, and I was about to meet her in person for the first time. I had a giddy sense of excitement… like being on the Dating Game and waiting for the bachelor I had chosen to come around the corner. Libbie had responded to one of my very early postings on Slow Travel in the summer of 2003, the one where I first expressed my dream to spend a year in Europe. She not only shared that dream… she and her husband had lived it a year or two before, spending a year traveling around Europe after his retirement. As I began to inch toward our life-changing decision and then to plan our own trip, Libbie was a source of encouragement, advice and great information. I confided with Libbie about our plans long before we told our family and friends. She was a kindred spirit. Now we found ourselves in Tuscany at the same time. Libbie was taking the train up from southern Tuscany to meet us in Florence, and we were all going to a cooking class together, a cooking class with the famous “Diva,” also a regular contributor to the Slow Travel message board.

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July 1, 2005

Weeks 51-52 - Five Weeks in Tuscany (On our Tuscan Hilltop)

I’m in Kelly’s spacious and sunny room, reclining in my favorite spot on the chaise lounge next to the wide double window that looks southeast. The windows are wide open and the light breeze is relaxing, almost hypnotic. The bell tower of the old village church is just below me. The bells ring every half hour, even through the night. Four bells, a pause, then two peals of a different bell. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and we’re halfway through our laid-back month in the Tuscan countryside.

Our little house… an apartment really… is one of several built into the old castle walls in the tiny hilltop village of Chiusure in an area of Tuscany south of Siena called the “Crete”. (Chiusure is pronounced “key-zur-ray,” which I never seem to get right, much to Kelly’s frustration.) Our neighbor Gary told us that Chiusure was likely an ancient village founded by the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization that dominated central Italy from about the 8th century BC until the 1st century BC. He said our building probably dates back to the 10th century, which means it’s over a thousand years old. The 10th century… that’s 900-something. The three of us can hardly comprehend this thought. In Knoxville I worked in a 100-year-old “historic” building that I proudly considered old. But in the 900’s—five centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed across the sea—America was undeveloped, a vast wilderness inhabited by primitive Indians. Meanwhile here in Chiusure there was a castle and someone was living inside these same walls where we’re spending our month, cooking their meals on the huge stone fireplace, perhaps even daydreaming by this same window looking out across a view that has changed little in 1000 years. Once America was discovered, progress came quickly. But here in this part of Tuscany, the modern age has developed more slowly. Life is simple on our Tuscan hilltop.

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July 19, 2005

Weeks 53-54: Five Weeks in Tuscany - Places and People

Our Leisurely Life

Other than our six-and-a-half months in Provence, our time in Tuscany is the longest stay of our trip. We haven’t settled down as residents in quite the same way we did in Provence, but we’ve been able to explore Tuscany in a much more leisurely fashion. We’ve enjoyed being able to take the days more slowly, relaxing from the aggressive sightseeing schedule of the previous six weeks.

Tuscany covers an extensive geographical area in central Italy, and our base in Chiusure enabled us to reach much of the region. We’ve gotten to know many of the neighboring towns and villages of Southern Tuscany well: the wine towns Montalcino and Montepulciano, Pienza known for its sheep cheese, the old walled town Buonconvento where we do our grocery shopping, the smaller villages Montisi and Monticchiello. One afternoon we visited Sant’Antimo, a beautiful 12th century church set in a peaceful valley below Montalcino, and watched the age-old ritual of the monks’ Gregorian chants.

Kelly and I especially like Bagno Vignoni with its beautiful views and hot springs. We’ve spent a couple of lazy days at the Hotel Posta-Marucci, occasionally dipping into the two pools (one hot and the other even hotter) while Charley reads a book in the shade. The whole environment feels like something from another era… older men and women in big white bathrobes stepping into the hot bath to take some kind of cure, everyone (men and women) wearing the mandatory bathing caps.

With the advantage of a full month, we’ve also been able to make several longer day trips… to Siena (twice), Pisa and Lucca, Volterra, San Gimignano, Chianti (twice), and Cortona. We visited San Gimignano late one afternoon, arriving in this town of 14 towers after most of the tour buses had left for the day. Chianti is one of our favorite areas, the lush green countryside and manicured vineyards such a contrast to our base in the barren clay pits of the Crete. Outside of Castellina in Chianti we visited a large Etruscan burial mound that dates back to the 4th century BC…. now sitting unattended (and fortunately empty) off the main road.

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July 25, 2005

Weeks 55-56: Umbria (Italy)

We knew very little about Umbria before we arrived for our two-week stay on June 25. I knew it was adjacent to Tuscany and similar in some ways, but I hadn’t really done any research and didn’t even buy a guidebook. Other than Assisi, I’m not sure I could have named any famous towns or cities in Umbria. But a few Slow Travel friends had highly recommended the area, several even preferring it to the more-popular Tuscany. At some point in our trip planning I decided to look into spending a week in Umbria.

In part we ended up in Umbria because I fell in love with a rental apartment I found on the internet. I never even sent out any other inquiries for Umbria rentals. Once I saw this place, I knew I wanted to stay there and that we would go to Umbria… in fact, we would stay there two weeks.

Umbria was an unexpected delight, the apartment even better than I had expected.

We traveled only two hours from our month-long base in the village of Chiusure, in an area of Tuscany called the Crete, to reach our new home in Umbria. Our route took us through familiar territory near Cortona, the landscape changing from rolling hills to rocky, more mountainous terrain. We passed into Umbria on a modern freeway, along the north shore of Lake Trasimeno. Charley was interested to be at the site where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC. Our route took us past Perugia, the capital of Umbria, a large city that blended the ancient and the modern worlds. As we traveled south down the freeway, picturesque towns clung to the sides of mountains—Assisi, Spello, then Trevi. The steep mountainside around Trevi was covered with olive trees, quite unlike anything we had seen in the olive-growing regions of France. We later learned that some of the best olive oil in Italy is produced in this area. Huge fields of sunflowers seemed to be everywhere, in full bloom… masses of vibrant gold. I felt happy just to be around so many sunflowers. We liked what we saw of Umbria.

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