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 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!

Impressions of Italy – Introduction

Italy! A land of ancient urban sprawl,DSC00940 (3) colorful villages,DSC02607 (2) quilted rolling hills,DSC01348 (3) well-weathered charm,DSC02471 (3) pristine alpine lakes,DSC01832 (3) and the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, DSC03241 (3)where vibrant dwellings cling to the cliffs above the shore.DSC03199Italy is home to vineyards, olive trees and lemon groves DSC03264 (3)and cypress trees so tall they seem to hang from the heavens on invisible string.DSC02885 (3)In Italy, the indulgence of good food and wine,DSC01908 (2) priceless masterpieces,DSC02250 (2)magnificent displays of architecture,DSC00641 (2)and postcard-perfect scenery is an everyday occurrence.DSC03298 (3)IMG_0856 (3)DSC03038 (3)DSC01517 (3)No wonder Giuseppe Verdi is quoted as saying “You may have the universe if I may have Italy”.DSC01417 (3)

We had the pleasure of visiting Italy in September on the Globus “Italian Mosaic” tour. We have only good things to say about the 13-day experience. Our tour director Anna, and bus driver Giorgio, were both excellent at what they do; and the local tour guides at each stop were knowledgeable, easy to understand and very pleasant. Our 42 traveling companions were awesome too!

While Globus did not disappoint us, Air Canada certainly did! They are no longer on our list of acceptable air lines. The delay of our departing flight caused us to miss our connection to Rome and eventually cost us over seven hours of sightseeing time and two nights without our luggage. But let’s not dwell on the negative!

Written details and photos of our Italian travels will be presented in 6 parts over the next several months:

Part One – Rome and Pisa

Part Two – Florence, San Gimignano and the Tuscany Region

Part Three – Cinque Terre, Lake Maggiore, and Lugano, Switzerland

Part Four – Venice and Burano Island

Part Five – Assisi, Positano and the Amalfi Coast

Part Six – Sorrento, Isle of Capri, Pompeii and conclusion

Arrivederci for now!