Impressions of Italy – Part Six

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Amalfi Coast

Finally – here’s part six and the final installment of my impressions of Italy. Part five had us leaving Positano for the return to Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast. As magnificent as this drive is, it comes with a host of dangers. Besides the narrow lanes and sharp curves, there are those daring Italian drivers who are known for their reckless behavior; like the crazy guy on the moped who felt the need to pass our van on a curve. There was a collective gasp from those of us who saw him, then a sigh of relief when he swooped in front of us just in time to miss the on-coming car.

We were dropped off at our hotel, which for the next two nights would be the lovely Hilton Sorrento Palace. The hotel is perched on a hilltop above the Bay of Naples with plenty of outdoor seating overlooking the sea. Breakfast was always a delight in the roomy buffet area where a wall of windows allowed us to enjoy the panoramic view.

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Bay of Naples in Sorrento

After dinner the first night in Sorrento, we were warned that the windy conditions could possibly affect our morning plans for the Isle of Capri. It was suggested we eat a light breakfast since the passage across the bay would probably be rough. Sure enough, the wind was fierce – so bad, in fact, that our 7:30 departure was delayed an hour. On board, they handed out “sea-sickness” bags, and we were told to sit in the middle or back of the boat to minimize the chance of nausea.

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Fierce wind blows water onto the windows of the boat

I’m thankful the weather didn’t keep us from Capri! It was windy, but beautiful! We took the funicular railway from the port up the side of the mountain to the main town.  Our local tour guide led us through the streets to the flower-decked terraces of the Gardens of Augustus. The view from here was stunning as the rugged landscape seemed to fall into the sea. We had time on our own to explore the town which has been a resort ever since the Roman Emperors used to come here on vacation. We walked past dozens of upscale boutiques, many displaying handmade leather sandals like the ones the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis used to wear. We heard the famous Clock Tower chime on the quarter hour several times before taking the funicular back down to the harbor.

We had complimentary granita’s with lunch at an outdoor cafe, then walked along the water-front checking out the shops and taking photos before boarding the boat back to Sorrento. The water was still choppy, but everyone from our group made it back without getting sick!

Although Sorrento is not technically part of the Amalfi Coast (which lies on the other side of the mountains), the  challenging roads are much the same. For dinner on our last night in Sorrento, Giorgio drove our tour bus through the congested streets of the city, up into the steep and curvy hillsides – hairpin turns, crazy drivers and all – to an authentic farmhouse restaurant. We toured the agri-tourism operation then sat down to a meal featuring their own farm-fresh beef, chicken, cheese, olive oil, vegetables and wine. It was a wonderful meal served by delightful hosts. The bus ride down from the hills at night was an experience to remember!

The next thing I knew, it was our last day of sightseeing! The agenda called for a stop in Pompeii before returning to Rome for our final night. Strangely, it felt like we had been in Italy forever and like we had only just begun, all at the same time. This Globus tour had been all we could have hoped for.

Pompeii, the city frozen in time, was buried by volcanic ash and lava from Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  The entire city and its citizens were totally unprepared for the eruption and therefore, doomed. Volcanic debris filled the streets until nothing of the once thriving city could be seen. Pompeii remained buried for nearly 1700 years. Excavation began in 1748 and continues to this day. The sudden and complete devastation was haunting!

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Columns in Pompeii

We arrived in Rome from Pompeii with just enough time to dress for our farewell dinner. It was a special treat to spend the evening at Tanagra – an elegant opera themed restaurant. Not only did we dine on traditional Italian food and free-flowing wine, but we listened to famous opera arias as well, performed by professional singers from the Rome Opera House. Such a perfect way to enjoy our final night in Italy.

It’s funny how you remember the little things! We’ve been back from our tour of Italy for six weeks now and I can clearly remember every hotel and every breakfast. I remember the rush to set our bags out on the mornings we traveled. I remember trying to photograph something that hundreds of other tourists were taking pictures of as well. I remember how hot it was in Rome, Florence and Cinque Terre and how relentless the wind was in Assisi and Isle of Capri. I remember wanting more time to watch the sunset in the Tuscan Valley, to gaze at the moon over the peaceful lagoon in Venice, and to listen as waves tickled the shores of Lake Maggiorre. I also remember our fellow travelers and hope they enjoyed the trip as much as we did. On our very last night together, our tour director Anna said, “every journey tells a story”. Well, it was quite a journey and it made for a wonderful story… and even though this story has come to an end, the memories remain!

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Isle of Capri and the Mediterranean Sea

A beautiful sunset at the airport welcomed us home!

Impressions of Italy – Part Five

DSC02856 (4)When we left for our tour of Italy, I knew I’d fall in love with Venice, and I was sure I’d like Florence and Rome; but I was not prepared for Assisi! I knew nothing about the place before our trip, so the peaceful charm of it took me completely by surprise! Assisi is the most picturesque little town I’ve ever seen and comes in at number two on my list of favorite places in all of Italy!

Assisi is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I don’t just mean the Basilicas, or the castles, or the tombs – I mean the whole TOWN is a UNESCO site! It is the birthplace of St. Francis, Italy’s patron saint. I was not aware of just how important St. Francis is to the Catholic Church. According to our local expert, Maura, he is second only to Jesus. He renounced all his possessions and devoted his life to helping the needy and he founded the Franciscan Order. For centuries, his followers have come to Assisi to visit the Basilica where he is buried. It was over-cast and extremely windy the day we were here – perhaps St. Francis had something to say! I was listening and I could feel his presence!

St. Francis’s Basilica consists of two churches, one on top of the other, with a crypt below containing the sacred tomb of the Saint. Construction of the Basilica began immediately after St. Francis’ death in 1228 and was officially completed after the addition of the upper church in 1253. It is a massive structure with the upper church being a celebration of life and beauty while the lower portion reflects the simple spirit of St. Francis and his Franciscan order. Both sections have incredible frescoed walls.

We were cautious of cars as Maura lead us down the narrow streets to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare). This church was built in the Romanesque style and is dedicated to (and contains the remains of) Saint Clare,  another figure who deeply influenced this hallowed town. She was a follower of Saint Francis and the founder of the Order of Poor Ladies.

The Piazza in front of this church offers sweeping views of the Umbrian Valley… no doubt lovely at all times, but especially gorgeous at sunset!

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy the beauty of this captivating town. If you’re tired of visiting churches, you can always explore the medieval castles that preside over the valley, or simply stroll the cobblestone streets and admire the soft pink and yellow hues of the best-preserved medieval town in the world!

Even though Assisi has its share of touristy souvenir shops and a few hotels (ours was the Windsor Savoia), they each conform to existing urban design, leaving the entire village virtually untouched by modern architecture. Every turn of the head is a picture begging to be taken—and I took plenty!

Note to self: don’t research every little place before traveling. A surprise or two along the way can be oh, so nice; like Assisi was!

IMG_0855 (3)IMG_0862 (3)Because of a late start the next morning, tour director Anna and bus driver Giorgio were concerned about the traffic; but we arrived in Sorrento with enough time to drop off those not going on to Positano, then we set out for the Amalfi coast. The Amalfi coast was another agenda item I specifically looked for when choosing our tour, so of course we took the drive down the coast which Globus gave us an opportunity to do.

am10The road between Sorrento and Positano follows the physical coastline of the Mediterranean Sea and has mountain walls on one side and sea cliffs on the other. It is very narrow and full of hairpin turns, so instead of our regular tour bus, we rode in passenger vans operated by drivers with experience on this stretch of the road. The challenging route made it difficult to stop along the way, but we were able to pull over at the Madonnina photo stop for breathtaking views of the coast.

The landscape here blends impressive engineering with the stunning natural terrain. Throw in some vineyards, lemon groves and vibrant blue water—and you have all the splendor of the Amalfi Coast!

Quaint and famous Positano is known for its terraced Mediterranean-style architecture, vertical staircases, and regional products like limoncello, painted pottery and lace. It’s a fun town to walk around in if you don’t mind an incline. We took a steep pedestrian-friendly street from the parking lot down to the beach, past unique little shops, restaurants, monuments and churches.

At the base of town is the Marina Grande beach which has unusually dark sand – a striking contrast to the deep blue water. Looking toward the mountain from the beach, the tiled dome of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta prominently stands against a backdrop of colorful houses clinging to the cliffs above the sea. Just amazing!

DSC03170 (2)DSC03164 (2)We left Positano for another nail-biting drive along the coast back to Sorrento. More about that in Part Six – Sorrento, Isle of Capri, Pompeii and conclusion. Arrivederci for now!

(Note: a click in each grouping of photos allows you to see each one individually)

Impressions of Italy – Part Four

IMG_E0565Venice is old and decaying, has major pollution problems, is prone to flooding and is crowded with tourists brought in on cruise ships that sail dangerously close to the banks, but I love it anyway! I love it because Venice is also a city of canals and bridges, palaces and cathedrals with little piazzas tucked in here and there simply for show. It is a unique place filled with history, captivating scenery, priceless art and impressive architecture; and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits on over 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no streets—just a maze of canals filled with boats and barges and the sleek black gondolas that have become a symbol of the city.

DSC02446 (2)We arrived by boat, of course, and checked into our hotel, the SHG Hotel Salute Palace. It is located on a canal in a picturesque neighborhood where you can easily walk to many enjoyable sights. Our only problem here was not resisting the temptation to throw open the shutters and windows in our postage-stamp sized room for an unobscured view of the famous roof-tops of Venice. I suspect we let in a half-dozen mosquitoes. When I got warm in the middle of the night, I refused to kick off the covers for fear the mosquitoes would attack me while I slept!

The only way to get around in the city is by water or on foot, so on our first evening out in Venice, we traveled by water taxi along the Grand Canal to a chic Venetian restaurant for a fabulous dinner.

We walked back in the romantic atmosphere of Venice at night. It was an evening to remember… peaceful, luminous and a little chilly.

The next day, our tour included Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square),

St. Mark’s Basilica,

the Gothic masterpiece known as Doge’s Palace,

and a glass blowing demonstration by a skilled Murano Glass artist. We opted to include a gondola ride because, seriously—why go to Venice and not experience that?

During our free time we had lunch at a lovely sidewalk café. To our credit, we did not get lost! We panicked briefly until we noticed that at each crossroads, painted or etched in stone was always an arrow pointing the way to St. Mark’s Square.

Another optional tour was a lagoon cruise from Venice to Burano Island. Burano is a cross between Cinque Terre, Venice and Pisa. It has brightly painted houses like Cinque Terre, but instead of being stacked on hillsides, they are built along canals like in Venice; and the ancient Church of San Martino has a leaning bell tower just like Pisa.

Lace-making is popular here, so the shops offer lace products like linens and clothes. We had dinner (my least favorite dinner of the trip) then sailed back to Venice as the sun was setting. When we got off the boat, the moon over the lagoon was pure magic!

Venice is a city like no other, and in case you hadn’t guessed, it was my favorite city on the tour. I’d like to go back for just a day and be the only one there; to hear the sounds that were muffled in the crowds. Surely, I’d hear water lapping at the foundation of centuries-old buildings, I’d hear the gulls and pigeons cry as they fly from piling posts to roof tops and back again, I’d hear classical music from Vivaldi and Puccini, and I’d hear the echo of fisherman, artists, famous Italians and common residents who – over the last two thousand years – once called this city “home”.

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Next up is Part Five in this series – Assisi, Positano and the Amalfi Coast. Arrivederci for now!

Foto Friday #16

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When dead trees fall in the damp, dark woods – strange things begin to grow. Fungus settles in on lifeless bark and eats away at the remains. The fact that fallen trees are alive with fungi may be a perfect example of how the ecosystem works, but it sounds a bit creepy to me – like a Halloween story!

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Impressions of Italy – Part Three

DSC01417 (3)When we began researching options for a guided tour of Italy, I was drawn to the ones whose agenda included Cinque Terre. The on-line photos of the five little villages by the sea were so charming, it seemed a shame not to see them if we could. It was one of the main reasons we chose the Globus tour. So, after two nights in Rome and two nights in Florence, I was excited to be on our way to Cinque Terre.

We left Florence by bus and headed to the coast, then north to the Italian Riviera. At La Spezia, local tour guide Marcella joined us for commentary as a boat took us up the rugged coastline to the northern-most of the 5 towns, Monterosso. Four of the five villages slope down to the sea while the fifth one sits perched on top of a cliff. All have vineyards clinging to terraced hills, layers of pastel-painted houses and picturesque harbors filled with fishing boats and bright blue water. The villages are linked together with hiking trails and a railroad, but not with easily navigable roads. As we passed each village by boat, getting a good picture was nearly impossible because of the distance to shore and the constant movement of the boat.

We disembarked at Monterosso and could finally snap some photos during our free time. Monterosso is the biggest of the five towns and has the most amenities; a few hotels, a public beach, restaurants and steep, crooked streets with hole-in-the-wall shops. Nothing is large in Monterosso except the view!

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We walked the narrow paths that snaked through town and found a tiny place that served the BEST gelato. It was a very warm day so when it was time to leave, we all sought what little shade there was while waiting for the group to re-assemble. With Anna’s help we made our way through crowds of tourists from the waterfront to the train station. We rode the rails away from the coast to meet up with Giorgio and the bus.

On August 14, just one month before our trip, Italy suffered a major tragedy when a bridge near Genoa collapsed. The 51-year-old bridge was on a heavily traveled highway. With the bridge out, the traffic had to be re-routed, sometimes adding hours to a normal commute. That’s the situation we found ourselves in on the way north to Lake Maggiore. While stuck in stop and go traffic, I thought sadly about the 43 lives lost and said a little prayer for their families.

We reached Lake Maggiore in time for a late dinner at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Bristol. After dinner we strolled the beautiful grounds of the hotel and walked across the street for a panoramic view of the lake and mountains, much the same lovely view as could be seen from the balcony of our room.

The next morning, we joined the optional excursion to Isola Bella, a privately-owned island on Lake Maggiore. We enjoyed a guided tour of Borromeo Palace, a baroque style mansion with private gardens that encompassed most of the island. The elegant palace is strikingly furnished and includes underground rooms with shell-covered walls and ceilings, and stunning views out of each and every window.

It was the Italian gardens, however, that impressed me the most! Massive overlapping terraces are embellished with statues, fountains, and exotic plants.

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The wild, white peacocks roaming free and the breathtaking views of the lake made this excursion a spectacular experience and one of my favorite optional tours of the trip.

We finished the afternoon with a stroll around the town of Stresa and a leisurely walk by the lake on our way back to the hotel. That evening we took another boat cruise, this time to Isola Dei Pescatori where we dined on local favorites. The white wine and pesto pasta were particularly delicious. It was a beautiful night, and the lake looked gorgeous in the moonlight.

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On the way back to our room to pack, we stopped in at the Grand Hotel et des Isles Borromees. In 1918, Ernest Hemingway checked into room 106 at this hotel then headed straight for the bar. He spent most of his 10 days here talking to the bartender, playing pool and taking boat trips to the island of Pescatori (where we had dinner). He fictionalized these experiences in his novel A Farewell to Arms. In a letter to his parents, Hemingway wrote “I’m up here in Stresa, a little resort on Lake Maggiore. One of the most beautiful Italian lakes.” I’d have to agree with Hemingway about the beauty. I tried to see the lake through his eyes knowing he had found inspiration to write here.

The next morning, we crossed the border into Switzerland. The town of Lugano sits at the base of the Alps on the shores of a glacial lake. Lake Lugano measures 50 square kilometers in size. Just opposite the lake front is a popular shopping area known as Via Nassa. You can find everything from designer boutiques, department stores, chic restaurants and wine bars to fresh produce, meat and flower markets. It’s the perfect place to shop if you’re into that sort of thing, but other than a few Christmas ornaments, we buy very little when we travel. We find our best souvenirs are memories and photos… and they are so much easier to pack! But who can resist buying chocolate in Switzerland? We certainly couldn’t, so we bought several boxes at the market to take home as gifts.

With Swiss chocolate in our pockets, we boarded the bus to Venice! I couldn’t wait! My impressions of Venice and Burano Island are Part Four in this series. Arrivederci for now!

Foto Friday #15

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I’m taking a break from travel writing to talk about the weather!

Several weeks ago, it rained for six days in a row where I live. The ground was completely saturated and squished in minor protest beneath my feet. Temporary puddles thought they had found a permanent home. After a week, there was a pause for a day of sunshine… then it rained again. It even briefly snowed! I feared we were going from summer straight into winter with only a short-lived Fall.

More than rain fell during that period of time. Autumn leaves came down too, some prematurely forced from the trees while they were still green. Others were dead and ready to fall anyway, the progression of life returning to the ground from which it came.

We’ve had no new moisture for a couple of days, but a distinct chill lingers in the air. I’ve noticed colorful leaves now float in the puddles that remain, replacing the dull, monotonous leaves from a few weeks ago. Today I caught them swimming in a reflection of beautiful blue sky. Maybe there will be a Fall after all!