Thursday, November 19, 2009

Juliet's Breast in Verona

When we left for Italy, my husband Bill knew we’d be visiting my deceased husband Vittorio's family and friends. He thought maybe he'd meet five or six. By the end of the trip he'd met 24. The final batch of family members waited for us at the bus station in Verona -- Catarina, a fiery Sicilian beauty, who'd helped me connect with many of these relatives was there with her equally spirited mother Maria Rosaria. So, too was a pensive Livio (Vittorio's nephew) and his vivacious wife Marilena.

Perhaps it was the presence of the Sicilian faction that added the spice to our visit, making it one of the most memorable; perhaps it was the four women in Livio’ s life. Whatever the seasoning, the arguments, laughter, and singing that punctuated the time we spent in Verona that made it the day Bill and I recall with the greatest delight.

How Livio’ s family loved their “discussions.” Livio’ s women argued with Livio about what to see and how to get there with as much determination as Livio insisted on a different itinerary. Meanwhile, Bill’s camera panned from one event to the next, capturing the human interactions that so delight him. They continued to wrangle as we walked from cathedral to square – Livio proudly pointing out the restoration projects on which his son Alessandro (Catharina’s husband) was working – the women suggesting other routes. Arriving at the Casa de Giulietta. Livio insisted that Bill should pose for a photo with his hand placed strategically on the breast of her well polished statue, while I joined him. Note the dubious smile. Men and breasts. From babyhood to old age do they ever get over their love of the female breast?

Lunch at Livio’s was punctuated by more exuberant discussion about what to see next, Marilena—knowing exactly what he was up to with his camera--peeped over our heads, grinned at him and waved. With Torricelli as our destination, we headed off in separate cars: the men in one, we women in the other, both groups certain that they knew the way best. While climbing the steeply cobbled streets we met and, amicable that we’d both done “good,” proceeded to the top. From under the balustrades of the old Austrian castle at the summit, we viewed the city of Verona shimmering below us against a backdrop of golden dusk, lights twinkling from windows along the quay and bouncing in brightly colored streamers over the River Adige.

Supper that night, a succulent Sicilian veal, was punctuated with stories of the past. When memories touched on the years when Vittorio and I met and fell in love, Maria Rosaria leaned back in her chair and sighed, "Ah, Amore." I looked around the table at the family gathered there with my Bill and was flooded with gratitude that love wields such power in Italian families, embracing all the facets of life lived to its fullest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In lovely Sirmione on the Lago di Garda

We departed Trento on a cool misty October 22 and headed from the Alps down to the lake country. The drive along Lago di Garda thrust me back into the past, when I traveled there with my deceased husband Vittorio and our baby Thomas when we stopped for lunch at a small roadside trattoria. The owners, a lovely warm couple with a wide-faced smiling daughter told us they did not open until evening but, seeing the baby, told us to come back in an hour and we could share lunch with the family—a delicious minestrone with crusty bread, greens from the garden and wine. While we waited, we rented a small rowboat and floated happily offshore with the warm sun on our faces and our baby asleep in my arms.

Bill and I were spending two nights in Sirmione, a tiny lakeside town on the peninsula on the south-side of Lago di Garda. Villa Rosa, a lovely family run B&B only a mile’s walk from the heart of the historic town , was family owned and operated. One of the family actually spoke fluent English (the first such speaker we’d encountered on our trip), provided us with a map of the town on which she marked the route to the famed Terme Catullo, the thermal waters visited from ancient times for which the town was noted.

A lovely lovely tree-lined boulevard took us past the Rocca Scaligera, a medieval castle into the town which opens into an ancient arcade filled with small shops, many offering gelato. We succumbed, of course, having found a shop where the banana gelato was slightly gray rather than bright yellow – the sign of homemade vs factory produced gelato – and sat on a wall next to the quay savoring our cones. Having been totally seduced by the dark chocolate and coffee flavors we never did get to try the banana.

The Aquaria Spa was a mystery that unfolded experience by experience. We first had to learn to learn to use the moving lockers by swiping our magnetic watches over a screen. My locker, number 10, arrived on its hanger. Clothes and purse tucked sagely within, the door closed, and off it went--one of hundreds of such lockers on the mechanized rack.

Noting that most people were wearing flip-flops, I thought them very wise. Those floors were slippery plus! Then I saw the posted notice requiring the use of flip-flops. Bill and I slunk along as unobtrusively as possible, managing to avoid being noticed by spa attendants while negotiating the large panoply of thermal options. A channel of heated water lead into a channel of icy water, from there to a sulfur-rich pool to another adorned with massage options of all sized and shapes: whirlpools, rolling beds, powerful jets that forced water over one’s shoulders and heads, another long channel lined with stone seats where we moved from seat to seat deluged by water from above.

Three hours later, our nostrils suffused with the scent of sulfur – an "aroma" my bathing suit carried back to the states where it hung around for several months thereafter, despite many washings -- we showered and walked through the spa gardens back into the pedestrian friendly cobbled streets. A delicious meal of fresh fish, grilled vegetables, wine, and crostini at a lovely outdoor restaurant in the town square, and leisurely walk through the gathering dusk back to our comfortable room at Villa Rosa, ended a very lovely day in Sirmione. Good choice, Beryl, I congratulated myself, realizing that we hadn't seen one other American family during the entire afternoon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trento in the Italian Alps

The Grand Hotel in Trento, is a classy old hotel smack in the heart of the city. Delicious room, tasteful décor, scrumptious breakfast buffet, great drinks in the piano bar, and my precious Bill enjoying i there with me.

Trento was on our itinerary, not only because it is a beautiful city in the Italian Alps, but because we wanted to visit with my deceased husband Vittorio’s niece Concetta and her family who live just above the city in Piano di Sopra.

Unlike Teresa, who seemed content to leave us on our own during the day, Concetta, immediately assumed the role of tour director. That afternoon we walk through streets lined with Renaissance palaces, visit the Duomo and descend to the recently unearthed early Christian church beneath it; then sit and sip espresso at a small café on the main square. That night, Concetta’s entire family comes for supper: her two sons, their wives and children fill her small home. It’s all Italian conversation in Trento but we manage to chatter away, and Bill, with his smattering of Spanish and German, fits right in.

The following morning Concetta wants to take us north to Bolzano, so we set off, presuming she knows the way. It is only when we’ve passed an important exit for Bolzano, that we learn Concetta does not drive. She peers over the top of her glasses at passing signs and shouts “Di La!” at the last minute. “Di la?” Bill asks. Concetta does not say “a la destra” or “a la sinistra,” so Bill has no idea in which direction to turn.

is a beautiful mountain town, with flowers everywhere, wooden balconies overlooking busy marketplaces bright with fruit, vegetable, cheese, and pastry stands. We have a lunch of beer and sausages in a German restaurant, then wander along the Lauben -- with its medieval arcades and expensive shops.

On the way back to the parking garage, I tell Concetta that I’m sure glad she’s with us because I was totally lost. “I think we are lost,” she moans. "I can't remember how to get back to the garage." The three of us burst out laughing and merrily inquire of passersby where that garage might be. Succeeding we return to Concetta’s house where she's prepared a feast: polenta with fresh fungi (mushrooms) grown by her son Lucca, local gorgonzola and Asiago cheese, and for dessert a chestnut and raspberry torte. Again, the entire family crowds round the table in her tiny living room.

Bill, who’d thought he’d only be meeting a few people in Italy, begins to count them. By the end of the trip he will have met 24 of Vittorio’s friends and relatives. Bless him!

© Beryl Singleton Bissell 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009

Forte Dei Marmi on the Italian Riviera

From Florence, we headed to Forte Dei Marmi, a lovely seaside town with exquisite villas tucked behind walls on tree lined streets. After settling ourselves at the Hotel Pigalle a simple, summery B&B only one block from the heart of this fashionable seaside town on the Ligurian Sea we headed to the town center where, at an outdoor café, s little girl of around four approached our table with a pad and pencil, and pretended to take our order. She set off for the table next to us where she encountered a baby in a high chair and decided she’d rather play with the baby.

We’d come to Forte Dei Marmi so Bill could meet some of Vittorio’s good friends and enjoy the sea air and relaxed atmosphere. Giuliano took us and his wife and 12-year-old son to one of the exceptionally fine seafood restaurants in the area. Wanting to share the sea’s bounty with us, he ordered our meal. The first course, was also a first for me -- individual plates of raw fish: tuna, oysters, sea bass, and squid. Granted, the presentation was wonderful and I did my best to enjoy the “fresh from the sea” quality, but I much preferred the shrimp cooked in a delicate base of oil, that followed, a pasta with teeny, tiny clams (found only in the Forte dei Marmi area), flounder with artichokes, and pear, lemon and berry ice. We even had dessert, crème brulé with delicate cream-filled pastry shells.

The following day, in response to his question “What would you like to do tomorrow?,” Giuliano drove us toward the Cavi di Marmo -- the Carrara marble quarries -- stopping on the way at the old mountain town of Colonnata. The bells for Sunday Mass were ringing when we arrived, but we’d not come for Mass, though it was Sunday, nor for the famous Lardo di Colonatta (seasoned lard) produced there, but to view a large block of marble depicting the dangerous “lizzatura” system of transporting the immense blocks of marble down the mountainside via a series of wooden tracks that claimed the lives of many miners. The mines themselves were awe-inspiring -- a working mine more than a mile deep within the mountain, and the “blindingly white sunken amphitheater” where Michelangelo chose the marble for his famous Pietà.

At a restaurant near the Carrara seaport, Giuliano treated us to another feast, this one entirely of cooked fish: tiny octopus, a large fish with lacy red fins and great bulging eyes, varied fresh vegetables in herbed oil, and for dessert, seared strawberries and vanilla ice cream layered in paper thin pastry. When he dropped us back at the hotel, we were so stuffed that we fell onto our bed and slept until 3:30 that afternoon.

Having the evening to ourselves, Bill and I walked in the cooling dark along streets lined with high class shops and beautifully dressed Italian tourists. We bought fruit, bread, cheese and wine to eat in the quiet of our hotel room balcony and were savoring our rustic feast when the hotel manager, who’d been yelling (and I mean yelling) into the phone at the front desk came outside to cool off, noted our feast and the drying socks we’d draped over the terrace wall, shook his head in disbelief, and stormed back inside, leaving us convulsed in laughter and providing one more memory to savor at will.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Impressions of Florence

After numerous turns around a town square outside the walls of Florence, the GPS system leading us to the wrong building in a different section of town with the same address, and several phone calls to Donatella Mia, the proprietress, we finally arrived at Villa Malavolta B&B within walking distance of the city of Florence.

Rather than write about the city with its famous landmarks, I want to focus on my impressions of our stay there, memories that continue to enchant me six months later.

Impressions of our B&B: Donatella, tall and elegant and the exquisite walled villa that had been in her family for hundreds of years. Books piled on tables, on floors and nested in towering bookcases; walls rife with paintings; wooden floors supporting heavy antique furnishings; our blessed room – white and sun-washed, with its comfortable bed and little terrace overlooking an inner garden. On that terrace, accompanied by bird song and under the gaze of an ancient pine we ate chocolates and cheese and apples.

The city Florence with its narrow streets and darkened alleys, the frescoes and sporadic sunshine, people leaning backward to take photos of the wonders above them, students sprawled before the Chapel of St. Margaret, sketching the facade of the church whereDante was married and he first saw his beloved Beatrix. Bill is in his glory, his camera catching more than memorable buildings. He especially adores capturing the faces of the people, their gesticulations as they shop and talk, the arguments loud and often accompanied by laughter and gestures of apology. In Florence on our first night, we took the wrong bus and, at the insistence of a determined red-jacketed woman sitting in front of the bus – empty now of all riders save us – the bus driver turned the bus around and took us to a stop where we could catch the “correct” bus back to the Villa.

A plentiful breakfast of fresh pears and berries, coffee and brioche served in the 300-year-old kitchen launched our very long second day in the city where we visited the sites we missed the day before, sites our hostess said we shouldn’t miss. We walked to the artist’s quarter to dine where she told us the literati and artists ate – Trattoria Casalinga--and where we sat next to a portly, dark-eyed, dark-haired, boil-pocked man who slurped his food with immense gusto. We dined on Bistecca alla Fiorentina, served not in ounces but in pounds and we took the correct bus back to the villa late that night.

On our final morning, I was privileged to accompany the B&B proprietress Donatella – a well-known artist whose works have been exhibited worldwide -- to her artist's studio located on the other side of the garden where she not only paints but builds incredible three dimensional works with neon lights and Lucite. We left our car at the Villa and climbed the tree-lined Via del Monte delle Croce to catch the best views of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo. We visited the starkly beautiful interior of the Basilica of San Miniato and walked through its terraced cemetery of family vaults and ornate tombs accompanied by music emanating from the basilica as a middle-aged monk drew beauty from the great organ within.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Assisi: parking ticket and all

We came to Assisi seeking St. Francis and Clare. We found them. We found, as well, a greeting from the Assisi police: a parking ticket. Parking in Assisi is limited to residents only.

Unaware of the ticket that awaited us on our return to the car, we blithely visited the Basilica of Santa Chiara and knelt before St. Clare's “miraculously preserved” body which, though blackened from its exposure to air, is in much better condition than poor St. Lucy, whose "in-corrupt" body I’d viewed years earlier in Venice.

a chapel at the Carceri on Monte Subasio

We then set off for the Basilica of San Francesco, and happened upon a side alley leading to a small shrine I’d not been to before. The Chiesa Nuova is the home where Francis once lived and where his father – a wealthy cloth merchant -- once imprisoned him.

Francis, as the story goes, had been praying in the rundown chapel of San Damiano, when the crucifix spoke to him, requesting that he “rebuild [Christ's] church which is falling into ruin.” Francis, believing he was meant to rebuild the decrepit chapel where he received the message rushed back to his father's shop, sold an expensive bolt of cloth, and gave the proceeds to the priest to use to restore the chapel. Francis’ father, duly enraged by such profligacy, had imprisoned and repudiated his son.

While on the way to the Basilica of San Francesco, I was reminded that people actually live in Assisi when we encountered a small group of Italian toddlers dressed in checkered pinafores and linked hand and hand that wavered like tiny butterflies across the Piazza Comune.

To get to shrine, which very immensity would embarrass the saint were he alive, one must traverse many narrow, winding, cobbled streets that, without a map, could totally confuse the traveler. But the view as one walks downhill toward to Basilica from the city makes it, in my estimation, the best way to approach the shrine. The sweep of the Cathedral before us, the wide boulevard and sculptured lawns, made getting lost well worth our confusion.

Beryl on the walk down from the city to the Basilica of San Francesco

I'd hoped that in visiting Assisi, Bill would encounter some of the spiritual aspects of its heritage that had led me, as a teenager, to enter the Poor Clare Franciscans. The Basilica is famed for its art depicting Francis's life, so while he moved thoughtfully from one Giotto fresco to another, I sought the lower level, drawn by the knowledge that there I’d find the tomb of St. Francis.

The lower Basilica is a place of dim light and silence. There, away from the voices of guides and pilgrims praying in large groups, one can kneel or sit quietly, to contemplate the mysteries of a life so filled with love of Jesus that its light still radiates throughout the world.

I’d named my daughter Francesca after this beloved saint, and while kneeling there, bathed in the light of a hundred or more flickering candles, my heart was filled with thoughts of her. I asked for a mass to be offered for Francesca who’d died nine years earlier, praying that she'd found the peace she'd been unable to find in life. I lit a candle for my son Thomas. On the way back to the upper Basilica, I passed a modern day Francis: a young pilgrim in torn sweater and ragged pants, kneeling, arms cruciform at the back of the chapel, his face uplifted in prayer.

There is much to see in Assisi and we packed as much of it as we could into one day. We visited the convent of San Damiano, the birthplace of the Poor Clare Order, where St. Clare had lived and where bouquets of flowers marked the place where she'd sat in the refectory and the floor where she'd died.

The refectory at San Damiano

We walked the paths of the Carceri on Monte Subasio. We visited the hovels at Rivo Torto. We stood within the tiny chapel of the Portiuncula where Clare had dedicated her life to God and where Francis – marked with the wounds of Christ – yielded back to God the life he’d lived for love of God.

Our souls surfeited, our legs aching, we went in search of food and found it across the street from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli where the Portiuncula sits like a precious gem within the great vaults of its interior. Legs rested, appetites satisfied, we headed back to the Hotel Delfina in Foligno for a night's rest before heading to Florence on the morrow..

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On the way to Assisi: Foligno

We ate breakfast on the terrace in Amalfi, served by skinny Renaldo who buzzed and hummed about, making an occasional nervous foray into conversation about his marriage to a Russian woman from Eastern Siberia, his three year old child, how he works all night and goes home to play with his child before sleeping in the afternoon – all in Italian mind you. The young man who helped Bill carry our bags to the car, down the numerous flights of stairs, was not nearly as affable.

“For one night in this hotel you need all these bags?” We didn’t bother to explain that bringing all the bags into the hotel wasn’t our decision. The young woman who helped us unload informed us that “Your car will be parked in a public garage,” and insisted everything be removed before giving it to the attendant to park.

Even our GPS had a hard time finding the Delfina Palace Hotel in Foligno where we would spend two nights while visiting Assisi. A new 4-star hotel, the Delfina was a sprawling but mostly empty hotel set in a formal landscape of gardens in a rural setting along the Via Romana Antica outside Foligno. It was the only place we stayed that had an abundance of empty parking spaces – unusual in a country with too many cars and too many tourists. During our first night visit, we saw only five people -- two men and a woman in the lobby bar, the girl behind the desk and the waiter in charge of the breakfast room but our room was spacious, making up in comfort what it lacked in activity.

Deciding that we did not want to eat in the sprawling empty dining room, we headed into Foligno to find a place to dine and got hopelessly lost in a tangle of dark streets. A young woman in a still open flower shop personally took us to Lassame Lento, a tiny, hidden, and unimposing little trattoria where we feasted among single working men on varied antipasto selections, tagliatelle with tartuffe (truffles), house wine, and for desert a delicate panna cotta with fresh berry sauce.

Our evening in Foligno came to a close as we walked back to our car, preceded by three Franciscan Friars in their habits, laughing and eating ice-cream cones as they walked.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Positano and the wine of memory

Bill and I woke to our final morning in Piano di Sorrento to the sound of children's voice emanating from a small school one block away: the Scuola Via della Acacha -- A public elementary school with a choir of little ones that sang like angels.

As if the Pied Piper were leading a group of singing children down the streets of the town, I felt the pull of that music. The children were still singing as we pulled away from the Maison de Titty and began our trip to Positano.

I know it sounds extreme, but Positano holds the wine of my most potent memories. It was there, many years ago, that the sight of small school children dressed in blue smocks and pinafores skipping home for lunch, brought an ache to my heart. There where we ate freshly caught fish on the beach and bought baskets of strawberries and wine. There in a hotel overlooking the sea --where the bougainvillea-covered patio shielded us from the sun as we ate breakfast, where in a room filled with the scent of blossoming lemon trees and soft afternoon breezes -- that we made love for the first time.

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As in all the towns along the Amalfi Coast, one does a lot of climbing in Positano. Cars cannot negotiate the town proper and we considered ourselves lucky to find a parking space way, way, above the town. We descended via a narrow stair-and alleyway down the cliffside, arriving at Fornillo's Spiaggia, a beachside hotel where Bill drank espresso and I sipped a frosted glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (which one finds all over Italy, even at highway rest-stops) under a lovely open gallery.

I was surprised by the number of tourist in the town proper. By October the crowds have usually thinned. Thirty-five years ago, if my memory serves, there were no crowds. It was just a small fishing town clinging to the Amalfi Coast. High-end shops didn't cluster under its arcades, and I remember only a few small restaurants. But as then, the town was radiant with flowers cascading from every balcony and terrace and adorning windows and stairways.

No longer there, was the plaque on the wall outside the cathedral telling the story of the miraculous statue that had washed up on the beach, but within the Cathedral, behind iron gates a statue of the virgin stood to the left of a side altar. I'd never seen the statue. When Vittorio and I were there the cathedral was closed, so I can't verify the statue's existence behind those gates.

When Bill and I sought a place to eat lunch, none resembled the simple trattoria where Vittorio and I had eaten. We had a fine meal, though, at a restaurant called La Cambusa where we sat on under a bright orange awning above the beach and watched the artists below at work. I had mixed feelings about having to leave the town so soon after lunch. I wanted to do more exploring, but more of the gorgeous Amalfi Drive lay ahead of us and one doesn't want to miss one curve or one view by driving in the dark.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hot Dog Rolls for breakfast and a day in Capri

As if she'd been awaiting the exact moment of our arrival on the patio for breakfast the next morning, Rita –Titty’s mother (of La Maison de Titty), hurried out with tiny éclairs with Nutella, coffee, and . . . of all things … hot dog rolls. These rolls tickled our funny bones. We’d hoped for the small hard rolls we’d slathered with butter and jelly in Rome but had gotten hot dog rolls. We did have prosciutto and cheese, however, and I found that these together with jelly (don’t cringe) on dried tostini (melba toasts) made a satisfactory breakfast.

Michele, Titty’s father, was waiting for us when we emerged with our cameras and carry bags from our room to drive us to the port in Sorrento. After showing us where to wait for the ferry to Capri, he disappeared, reappearing again suddenly with two bus tickets for our return trip to Piano di Sorrento that evening. Touched by this generosity, we found it easy to forgive La Maison de Titty the hot dog rolls for breakfast.

Determined to do Capri by bus, we waited for half an hour in the hot Capri sun before Bill, bless him, decided to hire one of the open-topped cabs waiting to ferry the more spend-thrift tourists around the island. I felt like a movie star with my sun glasses and straw hat as we cruised up and down Capri’s lush roads on Luigi’s tour. First stop was the Blue Grotto, where with Bill tucked between my legs, and a sweet Canadian woman tucked between Bill’s legs – her husband in front behind the oarsman, we ducked simultaneously as the small boat surged into the luminescent cave, our boatman’s tenor shimmering off the rocks and echoing throughout the chamber.

From the Blue Grotto, Luigi took us to Anacapri where we spent a wonderful hour wandering through San Michele, the roman villa that famed physician and author Axel Munch built with what remained of Emperor Tiberius’s old palace. Though crowded with tourists, the site elicited in me a great sense of inner quiet as I roamed about taking photos of the columned porticoes, exquisite gardens, and magnificent views. From there it was back to Capri via Marina Piccola, the exquisite bay with its amazing pinnacled rocks.

Back in Capri, having paid Luigi too much, we went in search of the Gardens of Augustus with views of the surrounding terrain and sea, and then – seeing from that vantage point what looked like a monastery – down to the Cloisters of San Giacomo, which were unfortunately closed by the time we reached them. From there we wandered through narrow alleys and side streets back down to Capri – a walk which could have been called a Tour of Capri Cats because kitties were everywhere: tucked under bushes and into the niches of walls, lying on columns and stairways, or leaping after flies.

My favorite memory of this trip, however, is not of the scenery or sites, but of Bill’s laughter as he watched the dynamics between a couple nearby.

“Give me some water, will you?” the wife demands of her husband, turning to chat with a group of tourists. Her husband gets a bottled water from the sack he’s carrying and holds it out to her. She keeps on chatting. He keeps on offering the bottle. For a good five minutes he stands there, lifting the bottle toward her, until he finally gives up, shrugs, and puts the water back in his bag. Charlie Chaplin could have made hay with this seedling.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Piano di Sorrento, Le Maison de Titty, and Ristorante Betania

Having raced at speeds of over 160 kph on the autostrada the night before, I find it amusing that I should greet that very same autostrada with relief the following morning. Escaping the snarled suicide rush of autos, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, and pedestrians around the Naples Termini felt miraculous. We were finally “out-a-there.” (Apologies to all Naples lovers.)

Photo L to R: Michele, Rita, Titty, Beryl, Bill

The drive to Piano di Sorrento, where we would spend the next two nights at Le Maison de Titty, was gorgeous with fantastic views of the bay. Finding Piano di Sorrento was another matter. We drove right past the small sign announcing that town and were well on our way to Salerno when a phone call to the owner got us back to the town of Piano di Sorrento, north of the city of Sorrento. The hidden backstreet where the B&B was located continued to evade us. Unable to connect again with the owner, whose phone was busy) we asked a motorcyclist waiting next to a small church. Rather than giving us verbal directions, he led us to Via Legittimo, a narrow cobbled street where the number 38 identified the B&B's location. As we rang the bell in the wall, a solid metal gate opened slowly to reveal a lovely secluded garden. Titty, a exuberant young woman with that wonderful fly-away curly hair I’ve noticed on so many Italian women welcomed us and after showing us our room, settled us at an outside patio and served us coffee with a torte made by her mother Rita while her dad Michele presented a host of siteseeing options and suggestions for places to dine that night.

Having several hours of daylight at our disposal, Bill and I set off to explore the town and find the waterfront. We needed exercise and Piano di Sorrento gave us plenty of that. We never did find the waterfront but instead got wonderfully lost in a maze of narrow alley’s frequented by motorcyclists and residents in their autos that flattened us against the walls and ornate gates behind which hid beautiful homes and magical gardens. In one such garden -- abandoned -- a striped tabby-cat lolled in the dappled sunlight a top a broken pillar.

A steep climb back toward the B&B to find the restaurant Michele had praised so highly required more detective work as we made our way past a park, church, and into and up another narrow alley.

Don’t let the pizza-kitchen-entrance to Risorante Betania deceive you. Behind that deceptive façade is a wondrous cave-like room – dark and candle lit – with only a few tables and a handsome young waiter.

And, for love of God, don’t miss dining at Ristorante Betania either. Our meal there stands out as one of the VERY BEST of all the wonderful meals we ate in Italy. An artistic masterpiece of an antipasto -- fresh buffalo mozzarella, puff pizza, crusted rice balls, melon balls, prosciutto, grilled zucchini, and carrots in balsamic vinegar – preceded the melt-in-your-mouth fall-off-the bone shank of lamb and roasted potatoes. Served with a great house wine and thick crusty bread to sop up all the juices. For dessert crème brulé and panacotta.

Sated and wondrously relaxed we made our way back to the secret garden at Le Maison de Titty and our lovely, secluded room.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

At a loss in Naples

The center of the city and not the Docks at Naples was what we were looking for when we arrived in Naples late the night of October 10, my 69th birthday. The docks are a poorly lit jungle of dead ends and warehouses that we escaped only when a kindly policeman came to our rescue and told us how to get back onto the highway and what exit to take.

Described on its web page as "situated next to Piazza Garibaldi, in the heart of Naples, only 200 meters from the central railway station," the Hotel Garden on Corso Garibaldi. should have been easy to find but the area around the railway station was such a confusing tangle of dim and dirty streets that it took three phone calls to the Hotel receptionist before we found the modest little hotel situated within a block of buildings on one side of the Piazza.

Though "parking" was listed as a hotel amenity, we could find no hotel parking lot so we pulled into an empty place across the street. “Oh you must not park there,” we were told. Another employee drove with him to show him the way to the public parking lot located several blocks away.

When he returned he looked a bit pale. “Did you notice that the Kalos has a vicious scratch along the passenger side?” he asked. I hadn’t noticed it. It must have happened while we were checking in, I suggested. This scrape was to worry us for the entire trip as we were not sure what to do. “We’ll ask Giulio,” I suggested and so we put off reporting the scrape.

My birthday had so far been a combination of both highs and lows. Our room, sparely furnished and decorated in a 50s style was not exactly a “high” but it was clean, spacious, and had a bidet (we were to become very fond of these wonderful cleansing devices throughout our trip and found them in every home or hotel we visited). Things were beginning to look up. When the receptionist told us that despite the late hour we’d find restaurants open, our situation brightened substantially.

Starving (it was by now after 9:30 p.m.) we went in search of dinner. I was about to walk over what I thought was a dirty piece of cardboard when I saw a foot sticking out from under it. “Bill, there’s a person there,” I whispered, grabbing his arm. There were other pieces of cardboard similarly inhabited in the lot where we’d first parked. Who were these poor unfortunates I wondered, and in what kind of a neighborhood was the Hotel Garden located?

When we found the Ristorante de Mimi on the street directly behind the hotel my impression of the neighborhood went up several notches. So did seeing a bright red Ferrari parked nearby.

Our meal was the high of our trip to Naples. While we sipped wine and savored a delicious dinner, a Romeo seated near us in a red sweater-vest nibbled on the hands and arms of the blond with him, interrupting his meal only to kiss her passionately; while next to us the owner of the restaurant fawned over a table of big sated-looking men. The supposition that only corrupt politicians and/or Mafiosi would be accorded such ongoing constant attention (we did not see any money offered in exchange for the food and service) brought a sense of intrigue to the end of our day despite the realization that this section of Naples was not what we'd have chosen had we known better.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Don't do Naples on your birthday

On my 69th birthday, we left Rome for Naples. This was not a wholly good idea, unless one thrives on travel tension.

October 10, 2008 started off innocently enough. We took a taxi to the Termini station where Avis has a rental pick up. Easy right? The taxi ride yes. Renting the car anything but.

Walking several blocks from the rental desk to the pick-up garage would not have been a problem if the carts we rented worked. But they didn't. When the first cart's wheels locked, we got another. When this also refused to move, we complained. The response? Termini’s luggage carts were not allowed outside the building. Their wheels lock automatically. So much for luggage carts.

Our largest suitcase, which handle broke at Fiumicino airport the night we arrived, together with our other medium- and small-sized suitcases, made a do-able situation difficult. When Bill's attempt to transport three bags collapsed onto the sidewalk, I turned back to the desk.

"We need to have the car dropped off HERE," I told the clerk, reminding him that I’d seen a car delivered to another couple. Ten minutes later a languid young man in a red jacket drove up in our Chevy Kalos, double parked it in front of the station and disappeared. Getting our bags into the car was easy. The tiny trunk actually held the two largest bags, and the rest fit easily onto the back seat.

Like shedding a heavy wool coat, we shrugged off tension and relaxed as our Garmen directed us out of Rome toward Ostia Antica, which we'd been told we "must not miss." A lovely lunch at a small restaurant in the nearby town followed by a leisurely walk midst the wondrous pines and ruins of the ancient port city put us in a celebratory frame of mind, which began to unravel by the end of the first half hour of what was a three hour traffic jam outside Rome.

Once out of Rome, however, the reverse occurred. The drive to Naples on A1, the autostrada leading to Naples, tested our nerves and our Chevy Kalos to the limit. The Kalos was not built to drive at 150 km an hour, neither were our nerves. The autostrada is a misnomer. Raceway would be a better term.

It was very dark and very late when we finally reached the outskirts of Naples, whereupon our trust Garmon failed us. It told us to turn when we were already well beyond where we should have turned (at such speeds, who could blame the poor machine) and so we got lost in Naples's Harbor, where as we drove into one dead end after another we felt like the foreigners we were.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Those gorgeous Italian women

At the small restaurant on Via Mario Fiori we checked the prices for breakfast -- 25€ ($38) for an American breakfast, 35 € ($53.20) for an English breakfast, 18€ ($25.70) for a continental breakfast.The cheapest breakfasts are eaten at a café bar – standing up. Order your coffee and biroche, pay the cashier, eat at the bar. Sitting down costs more. At the open air café on Via Frattina, we decided to sit anyway. I wanted to watch the people on that busy street, especially those gorgeous women of Rome who make jeans and a button down shirt look glamorous. Of course those jeans are often worn with high boots or stiletto heels (how they manage to stride so elegantly in those ankle-breakers is beyond me). The jewel-toned scarves they’ve tossed loosely over their shoulders or about their necks add just the right touch as do their shiny leather bags large enough to hold computers.The men weren't so bad either! These police in formal dress certainly cut an impressive swath along Via Frattini.

One of those gorgeous women is Vittorio’s niece Teresa who looks as lovely today as she did the last time I was in Italy 30 years ago. We had dinner with her companion Giulio in a hidden treasure of a restaurant, Osteria Casa Della Ioria (Chacco er Carettiere) which is tucked between a brick walkway along the Tiber and a bridge. This description of the Osteria's location might be colored by my imagination as I don't have a photo to refer to. I do, however, remember the antique cart in the entrance from which the Osteria drew its other name – Chacco er Carettiere. Perhaps Chacco means warehouse in old the Roman dialect. Carter's warehouse? Can anyone help here?

Missing Gather

In an era when the internet spawned networking communities like geysers in a desert, was one of the first to appear. When it was ...