Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eat your heart out, Samantha Brown!

Do you ever get Travel Channel envy?  You know, where you are watching some cute young thing prance around visiting gorgeous sites with beautiful views and, even if you have been there, it looks better than anything you have seen?  Where you are watching a movie, like Under the Tuscan Sun, and you are sure that it is impossible to find spots so lovely, just waiting to be discovered?
I often feel that my photos are never truly representative of what we have seen; that they either look way better than what we saw while visiting a place, or that they can never capture the beauty and majesty of what we have seen.  But a couple of weeks ago, while touring around with my sister Mary and her husband Bill, we found some places of such extraordinary beauty and simplicity that we had to pinch ourselves to be sure we were really there.  Some of the photos I am attaching to this piece may give you an idea of what a treat we had.
When Mary and Bill landed at Capodichino Airport after a very long series of flights from the States, we headed immediately down to the Sorrento peninsula.  They wanted to take advantage of every moment they had here in Italy and so we wasted no time in getting them into tourist mode.  We arrived at our hotel, the Ulisse Deluxe Hostel, after an adventurous drive from the airport and were immediately pleased with our accommodations.  For 79E a night, including breakfast, we had lovely rooms with large bathrooms, AC, and free wi-fi. 
Our first meal was memorable in that we prepared it in our bathroom!  Mike and I had stopped at a mozzarella shop on the way to the airport and bought a kilo of the good stuff, some rolls and some tomatoes, that we sliced up and garnished with evoo and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Mary and Bill were ready for something to nosh on but were totally unprepared for our little feast.  It really hit the spot.  Our first evening in Sorrento was spent walking through the lovely narrow streets that have been trod upon since the Greeks first came and settled there.  We stopped for photos at the Villa Comunale, a public park with fantastic views of Vesuvius and the beautiful Bay of Naples.  A visit to the cloister of St. Francis and Santa Chiara was restful and restorative.  We finally stopped for drinks on a roof-top garden and then supper sitting in a piazza in the center of town. 
Tuesday morning  found us on a boat to cruise the Amalfi coast.  We were picked up at the hostel and were escorted to our port in Massa Lubrense and were immediately boarded onto a nice boat for our day-long excursion.  We have driven the Amalfi coast highway several times but had never done it from the water.  How lovely it was to be able to relax and enjoy the view without any white-knuckles on a steering wheel!  We stopped in Amalfi for a lunch break where we rented some umbrellas and lettini and enjoyed a nice swim and our sandwiches.  We also had a stop in Positano where we indulged in more sightseeing and some fresh pistachio and peach gelati.  After that it was back to the hotel.
So, where does the travel channel envy come in?  We have seen beautiful coastline views before, we have swum on nicer beaches than we did in Amalfi, we’ve eaten great gelato all over Italy.  Well, of course, it involves food!  And water views!  And great wine! 
La Tavernetta Restaurant was recommended to us by our hotel, and Trip Advisor had a majority of positive reviews, so we decided to give it a try.  We were picked up by their shuttle service at 7:30.  On the website, there is a picture of a modern van with lots of seating, but in reality?  The car that met us was reminiscent of a cab ride we once took in Cairo.  It was none too roomy, no AC, quite rickety and gave me pause.  If this is the ride to the restaurant, what will the place be like?  What will the food be like?
No worries!  I understood the need for the tiny car when we headed down to Marina di Puolo, a seaside section of Massa Lubrense.  There was a series of switchbacks such as I have never seen before.  At one point, even our tiny car was unable to manage the turn, so we just went down that stretch in reverse!  After a 10 minute trip, we arrived at the scene and we knew that every part of the trip was worth it.  There lay in front of us a sheltered little cove with white sandy beaches.  There were several restaurants that fronted up to the lungomare, and la Tavernetta was one of them.  Tables were set up right on the sand by the waterfront, but after some discussion we opted to sit on the terrace where we gazed out at the most beautiful sunset imaginable.  Soft music was playing in the background.  A couple of young boys were frolicking in the water, enjoying the limpid, warm sea at sunset.  It defined perfection.
Toninio, our waiter, was helpful in picking out our choices, which were fresh and delightful.  Whenever  we go to a small, family-run restaurant like this one, we just ask them to bring us what’s good.  And boy, did he ever!  We had sea-food salads with octopus, squid, fried sardines, clams….every kind of seafood imaginable.  We then moved on to a variety of seafood based pastas; every one of them was out of this world.  After desserts, out came the limoncello, homemade of course.  Accompanying the sweet liqueur was a cutting board full of roughly chopped dark chocolate.  This wasn’t a combination that I would have thought of myself, but it was so good!  When my brother-in-law asked to buy a couple of the restaurant’s shot glasses as a souvenir, Toninio presented them to him gladly, at no cost.  He also brought out another round of limoncello and chocolate as we waited for our shuttle home!  We rolled out of there, fat and happy with the choices that we had made.
So often, we watch something on TV and are never able to duplicate what in our mind’s eye must be a perfect spot.  That night, Mary, Bill, Mike and I experienced a spot just this side of heaven, and we will never forget it.  So, when you are in Sorrento, forgo the tourist-area restaurants and search out something out of the way and more interesting.  Make it La Tavernetta for a night you will long remember, and then, as we did, count your blessings that you too were able to have a Travel Channel moment!

Sunday, July 1, 2012


As lovely as it is in Cervinara, we are always happy to have to opportunity to get away to visit new spots or revisit favorites from the past.  This week, with the arrival of my sister and her husband, we were able to get away for a nice time in Sorrento, just south of Napoli.  While I've been to Sorrento many times in the past, it is always a treat to see the beautiful old town, the gorgeous scenery and the lemon trees.
I booked a couple of rooms in the Ulisse Deluxe Hostel, just outside of the old city center.  At our ages, we don't usually consider hostels as an appropriate lodging solution, but I trusted Rick Steves' recommendation and went with it....a very wise decision.  We had lovely rooms (no views, no balconies, but spotlessly clean and comfortable), very large bathrooms, and a good hearty breakfast included for 70 euros per room per night.  Parking was available and we were a very short walk to all the action.
Our first day was spent strolling around this beautiful old town, tasting limoncello samples, gazing across the bay to Vesuvius, and checking out the many vendors of overpriced souvenirs.  We enjoyed some quiet moments in the 12th century St. Francis cloister just off the Villa Communale.  Our first meal consisted of mozzarella di buffala sandwiches made in our bathroom!  Supper was a search for some fresh sardines for the fellows.  After a couple of false starts, the sardine restaurant was located and everyone was happy.
The next day we were picked up at our hotel at 8:30 am and were escorted to a port in Massa Lubrense for a daylong tour along the Amalfi Coast.  We have driven the Amalfi Coast highway a couple of times before, but it's never fun for the driver, so we decided to go for a boat cruise to see the sights from the water.  For 35 Euros we had door to door service, stops in Amalfi and Positano and some lovely views from the boat.  Our stop in Amalfi lasted for 3 hours, time for us to settle in on the beach for a nice long swim, then enjoy the sandwiches we had packed for lunch.  It was very hot, so our rental umbrellas and beach "beds" were most welcome.  For 10 euros we had a changing area, umbrella, two cots, and a shower for as long as we wanted.  The water was warm and limpid, although unfortunately littered with the occasional apple core or cigarette butt.
After a nice time on the beach we moved back onto our boat for the 45 minute trip to Positano.  This is a jewel of a town, with no streets and no cars allowed.  Dropped off at the water front, we walked up and down the alleyways and stairs, window-shopping and looking for gelato shops.  Bill found a great shop where they packed up a nice Styrofoam box for us to enjoy.  Peach and pistachio were an inspired mixture!  We enjoyed a sit-down at a shady spot and made short work of that gelato!
After a couple of hours in Positano, we reboarded the boat and headed back to Massa Lubrense for our trek back to the hotel.  A quick shower to cool off was all that was needed before we headed out again, this time for dinner.  We had made reservations at a little waterfront restaurant and by the time we were back in the hotel lobby the shuttle car was waiting for us.
This little restaurant, called La Tavernetta, was in an idyllic spot.  The shuttle service is necessary because it is near impossible to get to the restaurant without it!  To get from the highland areas of Sorrento down to the waterfront of Marina di Puolo required a hair-raising trip down narrow little streets with very tight switchbacks.  One of the turns is so tight that it was impossible to manoeuvre and we had to go down that stretch in reverse!  The shuttle car was a tiny little Fiat that the four of us could squeeze into, and it certainly wasn't a comfortable ride, but it was a far cry better than trying to get there ourselves!  The ride was worth it, because we shortly found ourselves in a semi-deserted little seaside town, with a couple of restaurants on the beach and a very short board walk.  The food was spectacular, with seafood antipasto, seafood pasta, pear and ricotta desserts, and some very good wine, all for a most reasonable price.  The crowning moment was the limoncello accompanied by a cutting board full of lots of dark chocolate.  The lemon and chocolate combination, while unusual, was surprisingly delicious.  Bill wanted a souvenir of the restaurant and the waiter satisfied him with the gift of two limoncello shot glasses, accompanied by more liqueur and another platter of chocolate!
Our dinner was memorable for so many reasons; the view, the food, the fun chatting with our waiter Tonino, and of course the ride home!  If you find yourselves in Sorrento, you must visit this quaint spot.  It was like something out of a cheesy, romantic movie, complete with pink sunset, little boys splashing in the calm sea, sailboats in the distance, and Italian music playing softly in the background.

So, if we hadn't had the opportunity to share this spot with my sister, we never would have found this quiet corner of very busy Sorrento, and we wouldn't have these wonderful memories to stay with us.  I am looking forward to the possibility of bringing other folks here, and am glad to have been able to share this with Mary and Bill.