It has always been a desire of mine to take a trip to Italy especially after seeing the 2003 film “Under The Tuscan Sun”, multiple times. I didn’t get to Tuscany but I did get to the charming town of Positano. No, I wasn’t swept off my feet by a handsome Italian man, but a gentleman on my tour took pity on me one day and helped me down a particularly steep and treacherous path. I almost slipped and nearly swept both of us off our feet.
Physically it was not an easy trip. Not only were there stairs, stairs and more stairs and uneven pebbled paths and cobblestone streets to challenge our knees and steep hills and mountainous terrain to maneuver, it was hot hot, hot. Parts of Italy were experiencing a heat wave and drought and a severe water shortage. Temperatures were in the mid 30’s Celsius. However this trip was worth every step and every huff and puff. Interestingly before my trip I was experiencing all kinds of aches and pains– possibly because of the extremely wet weather we were experiencing in Toronto, but once in Italy, whether attributed to the dry weather or just from the euphoria of being in this beautiful country, I was virtually pain free.
I was on a bus tour with Insight Vacations–“Country Roads of Puglia and the Neapolitan Riviera” featured in their 2017 summer brochure. I highly recommend this touring company, and our very knowledgeable and attentive guide, Elena Terminiello. Our bus driver also deserves kudos. He adeptly maneuvered the narrow winding roads that had to be shared with two way traffic, motorcycles and the ever increasing number of scooters joining the traffic flow. Drivers are very animated and vocal. Lots of swearing, yelling and hand gestures ensued. We witnessed some near misses, but amazingly no accidents.
Our vacation started and ended in Rome. I along with my friend and travelling companion missed the shuttle from the airport to the Kolbe Hotel by 5 minutes. We took a taxi to our destination and had some time to explore around the Colosseum, imperial Forum and Roman Forum before gathering to meet with our group for a reception and dinner.
The entrance to the hotel room was with a card inserted into a slot. I didn’t realize that once inside the room this card was to be placed in another slot inside the room to prevent the lights from turning off after a few minutes. I guess this is a good way to conserve energy and cut down on hydro. I was getting ready to take a shower when the lights went out. The bathroom was pitch black and I had difficulty finding the door. Once I found the door I had difficulty opening it. It was a frightening few minutes. And not a good beginning. From then on the first thing I did when entering the room was to insert my card in the slot and leave it there.
At the reception that was held in the hotel lobby, we learned that we were the only Canadians on this tour. Over half the travellers were from Australia and the rest from the United States. Their ages varied. One thing they had in common was everybody was friendly. We had name tags and briefly introduced ourselves and said a few words. I warned them that I had a broken arm still in the healing process and that occasionally I would get a sharp unexpected pain that might inadvertently cause me to yell or utter obscenities. I told them to ignore me. After a lovely dinner, we took an optional tour –Rome by night.
The next morning after a satisfying buffet breakfast we boarded our luxurious and comfortable bus and headed southeast across the Apennine mountains and past beautiful landscapes to the region of Puglia. This mainly rural area is resplendent with olive trees. The tranquility of the country roads was a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Rome. We arrived at our home for the next three nights–the” Grand hotel la Chiusa di Chietri” in Alberobello. This wonderful resort is a little known and fairly new tourist attraction. The grounds are lovely, complete with gardens and patio furniture. and the hotel boasts a large magnificent swimming pool.
Many Italians come from Rome and other cities for a vacation or weekend getaway. They can stay in the main building or even rent a Trullo. A trullo? What’s a trullo? you ask. A trullo is the singular form for trulli. But what are trulli?
Trulli are white washed huts with a conical shaped roof, built of limestone without any mortar. The original Trulli date back many years. They were used as stables or shelter for the peasants who worked the land. They were built without mortar so that they could be knocked down quickly in case the tax collector was in the area. A cluster of trulli could be classified as a village and thus command high taxes. Today the trullis still house some poorer people. Large number of them have been restored and are popular with tourists from England and Germany. They can be bought and restored but the purchaser must adhere to strict regulations because Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the trull are protected.
The village boasts many narrow streets comprised of multiple trulli– a truly breathtaking sight. Trulli have one room under one cone or chimney. Multiple cones mean multiple rooms. We had free time in Alborobello. Like most of the villages everything closes from one to four. We took advantage of the swimming pool in the afternoon and in the evening we went into town for dinner and to explore, browse and buy souvenirs from the boutiques along the narrow cobblestone streets. The main area is shut down to traffic at night and becomes a pedestrian mall with music and attractions. We found the food to be exceptionally good.
We also did day trips from Alberobello. We took a tour to taste and learn about the robust red wines of Puglia from a local expert. We spent some time in the city of Ostuni where all the buildings are painted white.
We also visited an olive oil factory and had tasting of different olive oils.
It was time to leave Aborabello enroute to Sorento. However before we arrived we had a very busy day of touring. We visited Matera and the city of Sassi di Matera famous for its ancient cave dwellings, churches, staircases etc. carved out of the stone and cliffs. This was declared a World Heritage site in1993 and is believed to be 9000 years old and the oldest inhabited cave city in the world. Our local guide is well acquainted with how life was in the caves. Her father lived in one of them when he was a child. This area was once the poorest in Italy. Writer Carlo Levi revealed in his book, “Christ stopped at Eboli”, published in 1945, the hardships and struggles and the deplorable conditions that the inhabitants were living in. The large families lived alongside their livestock without running water or sewage. Because of public pressure and outrage the government relocated the cave dwellers into modern housing in the new town on top of the cliff. Roadways are often the roof tops of dwellings. We visited the inside of a cave dwelling and the monastery. A few inhabitants have moved back into the original caves that have been restored and converted into cosy housing. There are also restored restaurants and cave hotels.
Matera was the biblical backdrop for Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”.
We enjoyed beautiful and hair raising views of mountains and rolling hills while travelling along narrow curvaceous roads heading toward the Tyrrhenian Sea. The scenery reminded me of the Canadian Rockies and the weekend trips I took as a child to Banff. Over the next few days we passed through many mountain tunnels. I was always relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We experienced some much needed rain for the area while on the bus. We were in a desolate area and at one point our bus driver took a wrong turn due to the fact that the roads were under construction and there was no signage.
We continued along the coastal road to Sorrento where we stayed for three nights at the Michael Angelo hotel.
However before arriving at our hotel we made a stop at Notturno–an inlaid woodworks factory and showroom. Our tour guide, Elena grew up in the area. Her parents and other members of the family still reside there. When the bus was parking in the parking lot, Elena looked out the window and spotted her Mother. She brought her on to the bus and introduced her. Her mother claims she just happened to be there to buy some groceries in the adjacent shop. Ya Right! Being a mother I know better. She didn’t just happen to be there– she was waiting eagerly for the bus to arrive to see her daughter. When we pulled into the hotel parking, you guessed it — her father was there to greet her. Her family is lovely.
But back to the wood works factory. We saw beautiful furniture created by old world artisans and enjoyed demonstrations and a lesson from the proprietor. A few people bought some lovely pieces and had them shipped home with no delivery charge. While we were at the Factory, Elena slipped out and arrived back with delicious treats from her friend’s bakery down the street. I am gluten sensitive and Elena even brought me back gluten free treats.
I had no problem eating Gluten free in Italy. At every meal I was presented with special dishes. Every morning at breakfast at our Sorrento Hotel a tray appeared at my spot at the table laden with gluten free cereal, buns and three delicious and decadent gluten free chocolate tarts. Every morning, i ate not one, not two but all three of those tarts. I brought every one home with me around my waist. For dinner we had a choice of three restaurants. All were reported to be good.
Our touring from Sorrento continued the next day. We boarded the ferry to the island of Capri. We were disappointed by the beach. It was composed mainly of rocks. However we took a taxi up to Capri Town where a local expert escorted us to the beautiful gardens which we found to be breathtaking and definitely not disappointing. Perfume stores and factories made use of the abundant aromatic flowers. Different varieties of local scented body creams and colognes were sold. We had a terrific view of the famous Faraglioni rocks and we were treated to a refreshing lemon granita, a speciality of the area which can best be described as a very delicious lemony lemon slush. We browsed in the shops of the Plazetta white walking down the street leading to the funicular ride which took us back to the port.
After returning to Sorrento we had time to swim and enjoy a coffee on our small cute balcony before walking to the main square, Piazza Tasso. We had some spare time which we used to browse the narrow lanes with little stores on each side, mainly selling jewellery, souvenirs, and anything lemon. We bought lemon candies, lemon chocolate, lemon soap and lemoncello and merano glass pendents. Pretty local ceramic pottery was also popular selling items. The shopping reminded me of markets and the Shook in Jerusalem. There were also some lovely stores. We didn’t have too much time to shop and not much room in our cases to take extra things home. We dined and wined at one of the many delicious open air restaurants before heading back to hopefully getting a good nights sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventures–day eight of our tour.
POSITANO HERE WE COME.
Day eight proved to be a delightful day as we traveled along the Amalfi coast. There were stops for photo opportunities of the terraced houses of Positano. We continued into the resort town and we were mesmerized by its beauty and romantic atmosphere. The beach area is lovely, far superior to the beach on the Isle of Capri. Our big regret was that we couldn’t spend more time here.: more time at the beach and more time to meander along the pedestrian only streets, visit the art galleries, experience eating at some of their fine restaurants and browse through the boutiques that sold lovely linen clothing, pottery and other goodies.
Positano was a port in medieval times and became a poor fishing village. Shortly after John Steinbeck published an essay in the 1950’s that was featured in Harpers Bazaar extolling the beauty and virtues of this town, it gained popularity and became an expensive sophisticated resort and popular holiday destination.
We returned to Sorrento where we hung out at the hotel, spilled coffee in the elevator, broke the balcony door and before we could do more damage we returned once again to Plazza Tasso, the main square We meandered around the area, had another delicious dinner at an outdoor/indoor restaurant. We were thoroughly enjoying the present, but we were also looking forward to the next day when we would delve far into the past on our excursion to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.
Due to such a mountainous terrain, Italy is home to many volcanoes. The most famous volcano is Mount Vesuvius that was responsible for burying many Roman settlements in 79AD.-the most well known being Pompeii and Herculan. Virtually all residents of Pompeii were buried alive under the molten ash or succumbed due to the high heat. A young man who observed the volcanic activity from across the Bay of Naples recorded in letters what he saw.
The volcano is still active. The last eruption was in 1944 and still poses a danger to the surrounding areas especially Naples. Geologists and scientists who study volcanoes believe that Mount Vesuvius is overdue for a major explosion. Because of the perhaps imminent and unpredictable threat the government has devised an evacuation plan in case of an emergency. In 2004 the government set up a program to try to persuade the population to relocate outside the danger zone. Very few accepted the offer of financial aid and have opted instead to stay where they are.
When the 79AD disaster occurred the Roman Empire was at its height.The buried city was forgotten for 1700 years. Excavations began in 1748 and what a multitude of treasures were discovered and so much insight and knowledge gained about the Romans and their way of life. Elegant villas were found with furnishings and artifacts intact, Moderate housing and peasant dwellings were also prevalent. Roman frescoes and paintings, an amphitheatre, temples and the skeletal remains of people and a life frozen in time were all uncovered. Excavations and repairs are still on going.
We took a tour of the ruins with a local guide named Joe. He carried a big blue umbrella so we wouldn’t lose him and he had a sense of humour. As we traversed the steep cobblestone streets, he told us that this building was once a McDonalds and the building across the way was a Prada store. He told us that the men and women were separated because women were trouble makers. We had to separate fact from fiction. He actually was quite knowledgeable and we learned a lot.
Many of the streets turned into rivers when it rained and boulders were placed across the road to allow the residents to get back and forth from their homes to the common areas. The poorest people bathed in public bath houses, the middle class in private bath houses and the very wealthy had water pumped into their homes. We went inside private houses a well as numerous public buildings. A building of interest to many was the brothel. It looks like it was a popular place because the stones were well worn. There were bedrooms and sexually explicit colourful frescoes painted on the walls. Important streets had white stones placed strategically among the grey stones. This was for decoration and the white stones also reflected the moonlight to light up the paths in the evenings.
It was very very hot and very very crowded and there were numerous tours. My pal of many years and my travelling companion to Italy was fascinated with ruins. She was so mesmerized that at one point she started to follow the wrong umbrella and was about to join the wrong tour. Luckily I saw her just as she was making the wrong turn and I summoned her back. Who knows where she would have ended up and what on earth would I have told her family when I arrived home without her?
After Pompeii we headed back to Rome for our last evening in Italy. It was a lovely last evening some sightseeing from the bus, a walk in the warm evening air to Piazza Navona.
A photographer took a group picture. The evening culminated with food and wine at a fine restaurant and a private performance of an operetta.
A nice ending to a wonderful trip. I wish it could have been a little longer.