Italia: Toscana e Amalfi

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With two more beautiful souls along side us, Paul, Patricia, Travis and I cruised out of Rome to start our little road trip. Our first stop was Sorrento, a beautiful costal town humming with people that is a major port for Capri Island, a tourist hot spot. We drove down the narrow winding streets, and may have driven into an alley meant only for mopeds as our side mirrors had to be turned in and even then they nearly hit. Thank god Travis was driving; his skills and confidence behind the wheel have always amazed me! Our hotel, Il Faro, was a beautiful little gem right in the harbour with beautiful views of the ocean and the boats coming and going. The owner acquainted himself with us and gave us lots of tips, including the suggestion to have dinner at his restaurant where we would get 10% off as hotel guests. Sounded great to us! Before dinner, the other three got into a bottle of home brewed wine we picked up from a fruit stand on the side of the road . It was covered in dust and without a label, and looked slightly suspect. But for a dollar how could you complain? When we headed down for dinner, the guys let the manager know they wanted oysters, but the restaurant didn’t have them on their menu. No problem, said the manager. He made a quick call and in speedy Italian, had it set up for us. Soon the massive platter of huge mussels arrived, laid delicately atop a bed of mixed greens, red cabbage, carrot and lemon slices for colour. We squeezed the lemon on and asked if they had tabasco.

“What?”

“Tabasco? Hot sauce?”

“Tabasco?” he asked us, incredulously, eyes wide with shock.

“One moment”. He returned with an oily red pepper mixture and said “Trust me, this is much better than tabasco”. I think he was slightly appalled that we were nearly going to ruin perfectly good muscles with tabasco! The mussels were absolutely divine and we all moaned in pleasure as they slipped down our throats, the tang of the lemon, the heat of the chilly pepper and the salty soft meat of the oyster – the perfect combination.

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Next came our Margherita pizzas as appetizers. At this point we were pretty full already, but still had our mains on the way. Patricia and I split two pastas dishes as we couldn’t decide between the gnocchi and the ravioli. Travis went with Lobster, and Paul for the seafood pasta. We were all stuffed and oh so satisfied. The serving staff had been exceptional and attentive. We felt like royalty. They were even kind enough to let us bring our own bottle of wine in and came to uncork it and constantly pour it, admiring the choice of wine that Paul and Patricia had brought from Tuscany. The owner stopped by our table to chat and ensure everything was to our liking. We raved about the food and thanked him.

We kept eyeing the large table to our left when we were done dinner as their food was just being brought out. A massive, steaming pot of risotto came out, nearly three feet across in diameter! The server expertly dished out each plate and we stared, drooling. Travis jokingly gestured to the waiter to bring us some, and without hesitation the waiter delivered a huge, steaming plate to our table! We all savoured each bite; it was sensational! Next came an unexpected plate of calamari to our table. We were so full, but the food was exquisite and we couldn’t stop ourselves from eating every bite! We weren’t charged for those two extra dishes, so we ensured to leave a nice tip for each of our servers. It was one of those dining experiences that blow you away, not just because the food was so good, but because the service was outstanding. The staff were so considerate and it was evident that each of them was passionate about food and what they did. It was so different from the restaurant experiences back home. You could really see the pride that they took in their job, the restaurant and the food.

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The sun sinking off Capri

We went up to our bedrooms, happy, full and the others half drunk, and hung out in the hallway together (that’s where the wifi worked best) until a french lady came out around 1am and suggested we got to bed. Oops! In the morning we met for breakfast and made plans to head over to Capri island for the day and do a little exploring. We didn’t end up leaving until around 1pm for Capri and the last ferry back was at 630pm so unfortunately we didn’t have much time. We took the funicular up to the top and then caught a bus from there further down the island. The plan was to try and find the Blue Grotto and check it out. We decided to walk the beautiful route back down to the coast in search of the cave. It was a lovely hour long walk, with beautiful sunshine and blue skies the whole way, and hardly another person in sight, which was nice after the bustle of the town. Eventually we found the Blue Grotto, but it was closed as it was late in the day and the tide was in. Defeated only in the slightest, we caught the bus back up and made our way back to the ferry that would take us back to Sorrento where we spent one more night. In the morning we walked around a little bit of the rest of the pretty town, the stores overflowing with bright yellow wares, lemoncello everywhere! We stopped in the small shops to get cheese and salamis, stopped at the bakery to grab desserts and gelato, and window shopped, ogling at the endless variety of beautiful goods.

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That afternoon we were heading to drive the Amalfi coast! People warn about this drive being insane and dangerous and stressful. While I wasn’t driving, Travis agreed that there was nothing to it! We were there in mid October, which was shoulder season, so we encountered far less traffic I am sure, than there would be between May and September. Yes the road is narrow, yes it’s incredibly winding, but it’s not dangerous at all if you drive slowly, which you will want to do anyway, to enjoy the scenery! We weren’t lucky enough to have a bright sunshine filled day; it was grey with a little rain now and then, but the drive was still remarkable. The road was carved high into the cliff like mountainside, the same bizarre way the towns were carved into the rock. It was indeed a strange place to decide to build towns and roads, but the result is a unique and dramatic landscape.

We saw a sign for a grotto along the road – Grotta Della Smeraldo – and decided to check it out. For the minimal fee of five euro each we could hop in a small rowboat with a guide and have him paddle us around inside the small grotto and explain the history and the blue phenomenon to us. Due to a hole in a section of the cave underwater where the ocean water came in, it refracted and let bright light into the cave, which made the water look as if it were glowing iridescently! Our guide splashed his paddle, creating the illusion of the water sparkling. There was a nativity scene submerged below in one section of the cave that we could clearly see that had been there since the 1950’s. The only down side to the little tour was that our aging guide had the audacity call me “beautiful lady so very beautiful”, right in front of Travis as he assisted me in and out of the rowboat, winking wildly all the time, and holding my hand for just a little too long! While it wasn’t the Blue Grotto, it was our own little version of it and I think it may have been ever better, having had it all to ourselves! 

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We pulled into the picturesque town of Amalfi in the late afternoon, parked the car and walked into town. We stopped at a restaurant on the harbour for lunch of pizza and pasta and vino (surprise!) with a beautiful view into the harbour. It was raining the slightest, but with a canopy it was still lovely to eat outside on the deck and listen to the rain patter down on the canvas. I was instantly enamoured with Amalfi. The buildings all clutched to the mountain side precariously, climbing it steeply. The ocean waves crashing against the piers which were littered with strangely shaped concrete breakers that looked as though the child of a giant was playing jacks one day and left them to rust in the ocean. The rocks jutted out to a peek into the ocean and the colourful buildings, though subdued in the gloomy weather, dotted the coast line, climbing ever upwards. We headed off the coastal roads and deeper into the city, and my love for the place only increased. The cobblestone streets were filled with locals and tourists, and the city lights were just beginning to glow with the last of the daylight fading fast. The yellow haze against the navy sky, the smell of salty ocean in the air, the bright displays in the windows of Italian lace, decorated bottles of limoncello, whole pigs heads in butchers shops, hundreds of strings of chilli peppers, every flavour of colourful gelato, and the vast arrays of beautiful ceramics; it was like an Italian fairy tale. The small narrow streets were filled with people holding high their umbrellas to shield them from the light patter of rain, but the rain didn’t seem to dampen anyones spirit. In fact, it only enhanced to romance of this place. The mood was cheery and the folk were kind and merry and I found myself wishing already we had more time here.

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The newlyweds getting lost in the corridors of Amalfi

We decided to walk down a random street, which led through a little passage, and onto another street, up some stairs, across the church entrance, down some stairs, through a tunnel and we found ourselves suddenly at a football (soccer) field! How they managed to hide that inside this steep town, I haven’t the foggiest! Travis was beside himself, and stood under the umbrella and watched as the young Italians kicked the ball on the turf. We continued on our desultory walk through the narrow passages getting wonderfully lost, and as a mother called out from her home window loudly, “Marrrrcooo!”, I couldn’t resist and responded with “Polo!” We stopped at a little market store and picked up some salami, olives, bread, cheese and vino and headed to our guesthouse which was a 15 minute drive from the city center. The sweetest little old Italian man ran the place and didn’t speak a lick of English, but with my Spanish and some hand gestures we were able to figure most of it out, and then another guest who spoke both Italian and English helped us further. He saw us to our rooms and we settled in with our delicious dinner, spreading it out over the bed in our room, chatting and chowing down, reflecting on the last three days of delectable eats and beautiful scenery.

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A happy, nostalgic boy!

The next day, Travis and I were cruising all the way North to Tuscany. We dropped Paul and Patricia off in Pompeii on our way and said our goodbyes, wishing them the best of times on the rest of their honeymoon. While I would have liked to see Pompeii, it was pouring rain and we wanted to spend the remainder of our time in Tuscany and Venice. It was a long cruise of 500km up through the country to Siena, but luckily we were on the Autostrade which has a suggested speed of 130km so we cruised along making great time. It poured rain the entire day so it was the perfect road trip day. Along the way we stopped at a roadside stop in Ceprano called simply, ‘Snack Bar’ to grab an espresso and hopefully a bite to eat. It didn’t look hopeful when we stepped inside as we didn’t see any food, but after ordering our espresso we asked if they and any food, to which he replied, “Panini?” (which I learned is simply Italian for sandwich!) to which we excitedly responded, “Yes please!”.

“Maria! Panini!” he called, and moments later, Maria emerged from the back. She went behind another counter, opened a big cooler and asked us, “Formaggio?” -si – “salami?”-si- “pomodoro?” -si! and a minute later we had a fresh ciabatta sandwich with salami, cheese and tomoato! We added a touch of mayo and our eyes widened as we chewed on our first bite. It was heaven! We devoured the sandwiches moaning in delight the entire time. We just couldn’t get over how delicious they were – and so simple! Once again, the simplicity and freshness of Italy’s food blows us away. 

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Panini e espresso in Ceprano – the perfect pit stop!

A few hours later, we checked into our beautiful bed and breakfast that evening and went in search of somewhere for dinner as we were famished, the sustenance from our panini having long worn off. Our host had suggested a pizzeria that was a local favourite so we headed there. The place was packed and it was 9pm on a weekday! We waited for a table and were squished into a two seater smack dab in middle of a room that was booming with loud Italian’s out for family dinner. Children were screaming loudly and running around, parents were emphatically scolding, and staff were running around wildly with orders. We sat down, took it all in, looked at each other and said, ‘this is awesome!’ at the same time. We had found a local hot spot for family dinner and were thrust right in the middle. It was loud and boisterous, obnoxious and chaotic – and we absolutely loved it. We each ordered a pizza, one with truffles, truffle oil and mozzarella, the other – The Tritan – with Italian sausage, mascarpone cheese, mushrooms and mozzarella. They were massive but thin, and came with  – get this – scissors!!! To cut your pizza! This was a first for me and I absolutely loved it! We cut up our pizza and let me tell you – scissors for pizza cutting is genius! The truffle pizza was too strong for me – I’m not a huge fan of truffle as is, but Travis is, so we tried it out – but the truffle was too strong even for him! I felt like I could smell the truffle a week later after that pizza! However the Tritan was divine – the mascarpone was such a perfect addition to the spicy sausage! We rolled ourselves home and wondered how many pizza’s we had eaten on this trip so far…

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The magnificent Duomo di Siena

The next morning, I opened the shutters to the room to let in the sunlight and gasped at the view before me. Welcome to Tuscan country indeed! Having arrived in the gloomy evening, we hadn’t really seen much of it yet.  But here, as I stared out the window, birds chirping, nothing but rolling green fields spread out before me, a brick building on the hill in the distance, a grove of olive trees to the east all dappled in the bright morning sunshine, I was utterly content. The rain had left and the sun was back in all his glory. I was so excited to see more! After breakfast at the guesthouse we drove deeper into Siena and parked just outside the old city walls. We walked in and let ourselves wander about with no real rhyme or reason. The streets were narrow and cobblestone, signature of Italy, and the brick walls of the buildings soared above us. We stopped in at shops, picked up a few souvenirs and gifts- some magnets, a print, some soap- and carried on through the streets. We wandered into shops and markets, ristorantes and gelaterias, just to admire and smell the delicious food! We eventually found our way to the city’s main square that the town is famous for. It was filled with people, many laying about on the ground that slanted ever so slightly downwards. The huge clock tower soared above it all. The sun was especially bright after his banishment from the clouds and rain that dominated the days before. We explored some of the buildings and looked at some of the bizarre art that reminded me dearly of Colombia artist, Botero, with his tendency towards larger than life figures.

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A little downward dog!

We were more interested in the countryside of Tuscany than the cityscapes, so we hit the road with the sunshine on high, windows down, music cranked and took to the windy roads through chianti country. It was simply beautiful. Ever since I saw Under the Tuscan Sun, I’d fallen in love with Tuscany vicariously through the movie and knew I had to visit it some day. I loved the narrow windy roads lined with olive trees. Every hill you crested brought into sight another vineyard spread out far below you for miles on end. It was lush and green, nothing but rolling hills, vineyards, olive trees, brick houses, and tiny little towns dotting the hillside. We stopped in at Castello Chianti and Travis grabbed a box of wine (he’s classy like that, buying cheap boxed wine in chianti country!) for six euro and we went down to wander the cobblestone streets of the town. It was quiet, only a few others milling about, and we slipped in and out of the shops admiring the goods. We found a little shop and sampled some of his cheeses and salami’s and the kind man helped us pick up everything we needed for the perfect lunch – some sharp sheep’s cheese, the most delicious home made pesto, a loaf of fresh, well seasoned focaccia , huge fresh mushrooms, slices of salami, and some mandarins with the leaves still attached as if they were just plucked from the tree this morning.  Did I mention how FRESH everything was in Italy?!

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We continued our on scenic drive until we reached the small town of Impruneta, and found our hotel just outside the city. It was tucked away in the woods, surrounded by olive trees and nothing but the sounds of the birds. We opened our mock balcony doors and spread our loot of todays lunch across the bed, poured wine from the box into the plastic cups from the bathroom and feasted, the sunshine spilling into the bedroom through the large open windows, the fresh breeze blowing in and the birds singing us songs. It was dreadfully romantic. After lunch we decided to walk into the town. Hand in hand, we walked through the forest, the cool late
afternoon air crisping up as the clouds obscured the sun. We walked the long way and encountered hardly any people, and then, suddenly, encountered all of the of the people! 

“Maybe church was just let out?” I suggested.

A couple of minutes later we had our answer.

We walked around a corner and walked right into a full blown carnival. The sun was just setting and the place was packed. The usual small town carnival rides whirred and whirled, spun and bounced, the cotton candy was spinning in its tub, people tried their luck at shooting games, music blasted from several different areas all at once and the sweet smells of candy, frying meat, and deep fried dough filled the air.

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“Oh my god!!!!” I exclaimed!  We looked at each other, eyes wide, the child inside of us coming alive and we high five’d, awestruck at our good luck. It was one of those special travel moments, like the time I stumbled across a tiny carnival in costa rica (check it out!) that are the best because they are so unexpected. Everything we saw and did that night was that much better because we hadn’t been expecting it. We walked the entire grounds, taking in the sights of an Italian carnival, pointing out the similarities to each other and noting the differences. Carnivals in Italy, as you may have guessed, have many food booths dedicated solely to cheese, wine and meats! It smelled like heaven in that town square and we nearly drooled as we walked by each booth trying to decide where to start. An entire pig lay atop the counter of one of the booths, having been cooked into Travis’s new favourite Porchetta. The attendant offered us each a slice to try. Then he offered us a little slice of the skin to try. And then slices of some strange liver concoction to which I gave mine to Travis, being a little out of my comfort zone! Travis ordered up a bunch of porchetta and I grabbed some focaccia. The man sent us off with a glass of wine each, free of charge. I cheers’ed Travis and tipped my glass into his – one of the many reasons he loves me – he gets all my booze! 

As we walked down the line, we came across a massive grill – ten feet by ten feet. A huge bed of blistery coals covered the bottom and across the top were grill racks holding whole chickens and racks of ribs. I wiped the drool from the corner of Travis’s mouth and we got in line. The men working this stall had to be in their late 60’s and 70’s, clearly seasoned pros with grilling meat. They worked as a team to pull the grill racks off the coals, transfer the meat into the tubs up front, hack it up and reload the racks. A woman took orders and money as two other men grabbed the hot, greasy meat with their bare hands and manhandled it, hacking it this way and that, to their customers preference and order size. “Mezzo pollo!”, he would cry out as his machete size knife came crashing down and hacked a chicken in half, bones and all. He threw the chicken into a paper bag, the grease immediately seeping through, turning it translucent. Watching this team work was half the fun and we stood in line, smiles wide, excitement in our eyes. We grabbed our order of chicken and ribs and didn’t make it 10 feet before we just decided to sit on the curb and dig in. I’m not a big meat eater but I decided to try a rib, and boy, am I ever glad I did! Whatever magical spice mix those men had up their sleeves, it took the Colonel’s to shame! It was absurdly greasy, and oozed flavour. I went for a second, to Travis’s surprise. We were both in disbelief at how delicious these ribs were. I pulled out the focaccia and the salami and cheese as well and we feasted curb side.

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I had spotted something on the way in and dragged Travis over to it as soon as we had finished eating. It was the Italian version of the elephant ear, or beaver tail as we call it in Canada. A ball of dough, rolled out and then deep fried. Back home we usually put sugar and cinnamon on ours, but here… here they rolled them in sugar on one side and slathered the other with none other than Italy’s own Nutella. (side note- I’m no longer a Nutella supporter due to learning about palm oil being a major ingredient and the destruction the slash and burn agriculture techniques farmers have been using in Indonesia to produce palm oil causes, and the destructive harm it’s causing to the precious orangutang population – learn more about it here!) I think I may have had some sort of out of body food orgasm experience as I devoured that little (okay, it was huge) piece of heaven. Travis had tried his usual ‘I’ll just have a bite of yours’ line and he didn’t even get two words out before I shut him down and told him he was getting his own because I was NOT sharing!

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We headed home, walking in the dark, and decided we could spend one more night here in Impruneta. We had looked into a wine tour, but they didn’t have any space on the day we wanted so we told ourselves we would just have to do it another time when we came back to Italy, because trust me, we would be back! Since I didn’t drink, we didn’t want to pay the hefty price of some of the better vineyard wine tours, as it wasn’t worth the price for non drinker. We had been moving at a pretty brisk pace the last week and were looking forward to a day with no plans, no driving – just relaxing. We spent the next day sleeping in, making love with the rain pattering against the windows, and snacking on our carnival leftovers. We headed back to the carnival in the evening, and the rain had driven the crowds away. We grabbed some more ribs, another elephant ear and went to play some games.

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Side street in Sorrento

One of the things I love most about Travis, and why we get along so well, is he is still a little kid at heart. Both near the age of 30 (a little over, a little under!) we have never let the child within us disappear or be even dimmed down by the world around us, or the idea that 30 years old should act like grown ups. What fun is there left in life if you stop looking at the world with the wonder that a child does? We went to a small roulette game and the coins came pouring in! I got so excited thinking these were dollars we were winning, but turns out they were just tokens and with our big win all we got was a mini combination board game of checkers, chess and Chinese checkers. Next Travis tackled the shooting game and with his expert aim took down every target but one (the game was rigged, I counted and the game said he missed three – what a surprise!). He won me a cute stuffed animal and I picked out a young child in the crowd and asked Travis to go and give it to him. The boy looked bewildered that a stranger was giving him a toy and hugged it appreciably and smiled huge as I waved to him .

“Gratzi, Gratzi!” his parents thanked us profusely

‘Bueno notte!”, we waved and made our way back to the hotel feeling warm inside. A curving drive through the Amalfi coast, the stunning landscapes of Tuscany, and an Italian carnival – what more could one ask for?! But there was one more stop on our journey… Venice! Stay tuned!

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