Monday, October 31, 2011

Changes Afoot in Napoli

It's finally happened. Naples has joined with the rest of the country in finally (finally, finally!!!) designating much of the historic downtown area as a limited traffic zone. Can you feel my excitement...and relief? Naples as a city has an incredible amount to offer visitors, both as a jumping off point for any number of excursions (ruins, cruise ship port, islands, Amalfi Coast, the list is long) and in the city itself. Centro, the downtown area, is full of absolutely gorgeous, historic buildings. And yet, the city has always been full of trash and unbelievable traffic, two things guaranteed to turn visitor attention away from the attractions and beauty. Centro's streets are one lane with almost no space for pedestrians, meaning walking around is was an exercise in three steps forward, one step to hug a wall for a car to pass, and repeat. I was thrilled upon finding out Naples had designated much of the Centro area a limited traffic zone. I envisioned leisurely strolls down the ancient streets and the chance to actually look at the architecture and study the hidden charms. What I found, for now at least, is the Naples version of a limited traffic zone, meaning the carabinieri (police) stood around chatting on their cells and smoking, while tons of motorcycles sped past and even a protest began with some men moving dumpsters into a four-way intersection to block all traffic, including pedestrian traffic. I do recall there were some rolling dates for the traffic limitations, so perhaps the motorcycle traffic has yet to be forbidden.

I hadn't planned on taking Ma downtown since the traffic truly is was a nightmare. I thought that the uneven, lava stone streets, the multitude of people who make no effort at all to share the limited pedestrian areas, the cars filling the tiny streets, and the motorcycles dodging and weaving, would not make for an enjoyable experience for her. But a limited traffic zone changed everything. We set off on the Metro, had to walk a few blocks in the non-limited traffic zone, then reached Piazza Dante, one of the larger piazzas in Centro. Unfortunately, Naples doesn't do a great job with their piazzas, at least not when compared with many other Italian cities. The utter lack of even trying to appeal to tourists has confounded me in our first year here. I get that some places have no interest in the tourist trade, but in a town with something like 40% unemployment rate, yet (1) located in a country consistently rated as the most tourist-visited in the world, and (2) in a location that rivals every other major city in said country, I really have no idea why there's seems to be such a disdain for tourists. [As an example, this weekend, we visited Caserta Palace, a huge, royal palace built to rival Versailles in France. It's gorgeous. It's major. We were near the town where the palace is located, so didn't turn on the GPS. We literally drove in circles around the town with all sorts of visitor information signs pointing the way to various churches and restaurants, but not a single sign pointed the way to the palace. Not one.]
Piazza Gesu Nuovo
However, in our first year here, we've seen massive changes, perhaps due to a fairly new, very progressive, mayor. The cruise ship port has been transformed, there are a number of extra metro stops in the works, bus lines have been added in the 'burbs, trash collection seems to be regular (at least recently), and now, the pedestrian zone. Incredible, huge, transformative changes in just a year. I can't wait to see what happens next. I have high hopes for the coming years and this city I will call home for at least two more of them.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pompeii At Last

We have officially lived in Naples for over a year, and yesterday was my first visit to Pompeii since our move. A place I learned about before the age of 10, one of Italy's major tourist sites, and it's located less than an hour's drive away. I visited Pompeii years ago and remember three things from that visit: (1) it is huge and takes forever to see, (2) there are phallic symbols carved into the streets pointing the way to the brothels, and (3) there are public toilets with no stalls in between the multitude of seats. That's what I took away from my visit to one of the Western world's greatest archaeological sites. That was then. Prior to her visit, my grandmother read Robert Harris's excellent book (fiction), Pompeii, and her only sightseeing request was to visit Pompeii. Since I really can't bear to visit Ercolano (Herculaneum) for the half dozenth time, I was fully on board to see Pompeii instead.

This time around, I found Pompeii to be large, but easily manageable, missed seeing the public toilet, and I didn't catch a single glimpse of brothel indicators. We didn't actually go into the brothel since the entire street that one of the excavated brothels is on was wall to wall tour groups waiting to go inside. Literally. We had to shove our way through just to get past everyone. While the rest of the city was fairly easy to visit without huge crowds, the brothel was definitely the place to see and be seen. Instead, we followed a walking tour out of our guidebook (Rick Steves - and the 2010 version wasn't that up to date with street closures, so we got lost in places) which hit all the highlights. We walked on original streets, marveled at the the stepping stones in various places which served as cross walks (so streets could run with water, yet citizens could walk without getting their feet soiled), learned that each street had indicators as to one way, two way, major thoroughfare, and got to see plumbing that looks pretty much like our plumbing today. We skipped the half mile walk to the amphitheatre, especially since the third largest amphitheatre of ancient Rome (after Rome's Colosseum and Capua's as the #2) is about an eight minute drive from my house.

Flour Mill and Bakery (see bread oven in back)
After this visit, I now know why I got the answer I did almost a year ago from Nathan and his Uncle John. They'd gone to Pompeii a few days after I'd taken Nathan's aunt and uncle to Herculaneum. I asked both men which was the better site, which was their preference. All I got in reply was, "They're different. It's impossible to compare." Now I understand. They are completely different, despite both being Roman cities destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. Pompeii is a fairly large city, and as my grandmother and I noted, it's about the same size as my hometown (where Ma currently lives). It's big. The devastation is complete with some walls remaining, but mostly, we walked down Roman streets and just enjoyed being there. Herculaneum is far, far smaller, and yet takes up as much or more time. Possibly because in Pompeii, one ruin looks much like the next, while in Herculaneum, many of the buildings are intact - meaning each building holds different mosaics, frescoes, and layouts, so there's a little more to explore, photograph, and inspire the imagination. And yet, Pompeii has a bit of magic filling the air, and every step is filled with a sense of the unbelievable...that I would walk the streets of this ancient city studied in elementary schools all over the world, that I'm standing there in the old Forum, looking up at cloud covered Vesuvius, thinking of those long ago school lessons. And for me, of course, my thoughts always turn to a bit of the morbid...what if it happens again, and soon...while I live here? What if I'm on my Roof Terrace one day and see the smoke and fire? What if, what if, what if...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Accessory Heaven

First stop of the week: Shoe Alley. Rows upon rows of shoes...and it's boot season. Boots are THE only footwear to consider for winter wear, and Italians wear their boots in all shapes and sizes - cowboys, stilettos, slouchy, thigh highs, wedge heels, flat. It seems that the style of boot is not important as long as boots are still on your feet. I had a goal. Black, knee high, and comfortable for lots of walking - these were to be my winter, travel shoe. I found them. Beautiful, black leather, comfort soles, cushion, the real deal...and one size too small. I just could not make it work. I'm still on the hunt, but Ma (my grandmother) found her boots and a few more shoes as well. And while I didn't find my boots, I never leave Shoe Alley empty handed:

After the dye process
Our real highlight though was a visit to gLOVEsim, a leather glove factory right here in Naples and being run by it's third generation of the Simeone family. Four of us toured the factory and got the chance to see how the lambskin leather is dyed, dried, pressed, buffed, measured, cut, and sewn, each step performed by hand by a member of the family. They make gloves for companies all over the world, including Armani and Talbots. We learned a little tip on how to tell quality leatherwork - ask the seller if the item can be ironed. Many factories spray their leather with something that covers the imperfections, and over time, the spray wears off, allowing the imperfections to show clearly. At gLOVEsim, the leather is inspected for it's quality so closely that they don't need to spray. This means the leather can have a quick press of the iron (no steam, of course) to make it look new again. The lovely Anna gave us our tour - she married into the Simeone family and now works at the factory only when Americans want to have a tour. She speaks perfect English and is so excited to share the family's work...and her enthusiasm is contagious. For me, getting to see the family's work in person, to see the dedication and handwork that goes into every single pair of gloves, is one of my best experiences - much like meeting Signore Mazzetti, the Coppersmith, in Montepulciano.
Stretching the leather, piece by piece
Americans here each find their niche - some love to learn about the cooking, some go in-depth with the archaeology, some take art and photography courses, some love the ceramics. While my interests are varied, and I have a little interest in everything, my favorite is getting to meet the people who produce handmade items, from wine to copper to leatherwork and all points in between...and then getting to purchase some of the finished product, having just seen just how much work goes into it. These purchases mean more to me than any other, and it's the reason I'm so drawn to street artists, to stores selling locally produced crafts, and to websites like Etsy. I love that a focus on artisan goods seems to be making a comeback and consumers are once again placing a value on the time, skill, and creativity of individuals.
Decision Time!
Ma will win Most Fashionable Grandma award
The leather factory produces mainly gloves and do so year round, but each season, they produce a limited number of leather coats - when those are sold, there are no more until the next year. Anna showed us beautiful jackets and gloves galore, each seeming more beautiful than the last. There were solid colors, two tone, detail trim in contrast colors, cashmere lined, shearling lined, fur lined, driving gloves, elbow length. Each time we thought there couldn't possibly be any more, Anna would say, "Oh, I didn't show you these yet." In addition to the current lines, we got to dig through bins of discontinued lines and final pairs, and as we searched and scoured, the air was filled with our "oohs" and "aahs" and cries of, "Look at these!" Ma came to Italy with some birthday money to buy herself a present, and gLOVEsim provided exactly what she wanted - and she got to see the hands that made her gifts. But none of us walked away empty handed, of course - that would have been impossible! Thank you, gLOVEsim, for opening your factory up to us and continuing a business handed down through the generations, and THANK YOU, Anna, for your time, patience, and passion.
Show me another 83 year old grandma who looks this good - actually, show me an 83 year old grandpa who looks equally as good; must be single, attractive, active, enjoy traveling, and rich doesn't hurt

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Olive Oil Hunt

On our drive out to the country
We wanted to keep our weekend light on activities, but not boring, mainly because we thought my grandmother might have some jet lag from her 16+ hour trip here (she did not). But still, we needed a light weekend ourselves. Nathan had to go in to work for half an hour or so, so we went with him and read our Kindles in the sun before heading out to the mountains to find an olive oil factory. I'd read about one on a Facebook group, so we thought we'd take a little drive. The address for the company (from their website, mind you) took us right into the center of a little, mountain town rather than to the actual store (this is why a GPS is only marginally helpful here). Naturally, we arrived during riposo, but eventually found three men hanging about - none of them had heard of the olive oil factory. Odd. So we finally found some carabinieri (police) and asked them. No luck again. We just drove on the main street of town and off in a vague direction the carabinieri suggested we try, and voila, olive hunt over. It turned out to be a coop, where farmers bring their olives, have them pressed, and take home olive oil. What we didn't figure out, and it was too loud to try to ask someone in our Italian (then actually try to understand the answer), was if the farmers were taking home olive oil from their own olives, leaving some behind as a "payment," or if farmers bring in olives, then just take home a payment of any old olive oil. Regardless, we were able to purchase a couple of bottles. We're developing quite a collection of olive oil, and since it really doesn't keep, we're going to have to get hopping on our usage. We're slowly developing quite a taste for particular items here that are going to be quite expensive once we return to the United States. Quality olive oil, good prosciutto, mozzarella di bufala (a specialty of Campania, our region surrounding Naples), the sweetest clementines on the planet that will be available for about .02 apiece in another month, and naturally, the gelato!

Having successfully found our olive oil, I turned my eyes toward dumpster diving. The countryside is the place for keen eyes to spot a discarded damigiana, very large glass jars used for storing wine or olives. They're most often in a green color, but can also come in a gorgeous, light blue or a smoky gray. Last year, you may recall, we found two while on vacation far south of Naples. Americans love these things, and the Italians here in Naples have caught on, so they're starting to sell them rather than drop them off at the nearest dumpster. Business savvy, wrought iron workers have developed lovely, candle holders that drop down into the center of the damigiana. People who have found sources of free or cheap demijohns (another name for them) keep those sources a closely held secret. The point is, finding a damigiana is a big deal. And we had success. We had double success except I made a rookie mistake. After I screamed, "There's one," and Nathan hit the brakes, executed a U-turn, and sped back to the spot, I hopped out and ran to my prize. My eyes had not deceived - there was a beautiful, huge, damigiana. One problem, there was a champagne bottle half in/half out of the neck. I, in my zeal, moved the damigiana before moving the bottle, thus shifting the bottle and causing it to drop inside...and shattered the damigiana's sides as well as my own excitement. I half-heartedly shifted a few bags of trash, and thankfully, was able to recover my error with a second find. This one was a clear, olive damigiana completely enclosed in a plastic basket with handles. It's five days later, and I have yet to actually take the top basket cover off in fear that this one, too, is broken.  As long as I don't look, I can revel in a successful treasure hunt.

Nathan's question as we drove off was a great one: "Why do we like these again?" His point was, do I like the demijohns just because it's the "thing to do." For me, no. I like them because they are so uniquely Italian. Maybe other countries in Europe use them, too - I don't know. But they are something that I won't find in the United States - at least not sitting by the dumpster. Much of what we can buy here as "souvenirs," we can get pretty easily back home. Our world is so global now that Italian ceramics are sold in T.J. Maxx, for crying out loud. But finding a beautiful, glass jar that some farmer used to put his homemade wine in after hours and hours of labor producing that wine, then sharing his wine with his friends and family, then discarding that demijohn for some reason or other where I find it, take it home, clean it up, put in a candle, then sit back and enjoy the glow - that's a connection to a practice, a life, a culture that I won't get in America. And that is why I love the demigiana.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Natural Beauty and the Flip Side

Capri is such an incredibly gorgeous island. At every head turn are incredible sea views, beautiful villas, soaring rocks, and gorgeous flowers.

And then there's the flip side of Capri. The side that includes locals born and raised on the island and now without the funds to remain on their home. Taking the chairlift can give you a little glimpse of tiny shacks tucked into the hills and underneath trees, people just trying to eke out an existence on an island where visitors routinely pay more for one weekend of meals than most people need to survive on for the month. While on our walk around the mountain, we happened upon this clever example of "reduce, reuse, recycle." I'm pretty sure the dweller did this out of necessity rather than environmental consciousness, but what a lesson in using what one has.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cold Capri

I think our two night, three day stay was perfect. We got to see everything, do everything, and still have some relaxation time. The only thing that could have made our weekend better was if (1) we'd packed blue jeans, closed toe shoes, and heavier jackets, or (2) the weather had actually stuck to the predicted sunny, 70+ degree F temperatures. As it was, we awoke to a bit of cold on our final day. And by cold, I mean that while I was on the terrace reading for two hours while Nathan continued sleeping, I considered ripping the fleece blanket he was using off of him so I would no longer be stuck shuddering under the half size one. Little kitty's little body did not cover up enough of mine to act as a living, fur blanket. As we paid Costanzo for our room, he showed me that the temperature, at 11:00am, was only 13 degrees C (55 F). [Nerdy conversion tip - the easiest way to convert C to F in your head and quickly is double and add 30; it doesn't get it exact, but is usually within a couple of degrees]. We set off, me wearing the clothes I'd been wearing for two and a half days since my other clothes were skirts and T-shirts. Had I known that I'd wear the same clothing all three days, I could have really lightened my backpack. Who knew I'd only need a toothbrush, change of undies, and some lip gloss. Heck, all that would have just fit right into my pocketbook.
Lovely Anacapri
The last site on our tourist list was Villa San Michelle di Axel Munthe. Axel Munthe was a Swedish doctor, animal lover, and writer who had a dream to live on Capri. Twenty years after his first visit, he bought a villa and later added surrounding land. This was in the late 1800s. The villa is beautiful, and there are several large write-ups about Munthe in both Italian and English. What I took away from the write-ups was that Munthe became the doctor to the Swedish royal family, in particular to the Crown Princess who later became the Queen Consort (wife of the reigning King, she held the title of Queen). Munthe and Queen Victoria (of Sweden, not England) were very close "friends," and she spent much of her time in Capri. Their close "friendship" lasted for decades, and she seemed very involved in life at the villa. In addition, Munthe had a lady who acted as his main servant. She was not paid, but he provided for her every need, which frankly, sounds a lot like slavery. What I did not learn, but later found out from Wikipedia, is that Munthe was married to an Englishwoman who spent her time living with their two sons in a villa he built for her back in Sweden. Villa San Michele, now owned by the Swedish state, describes Munthe as a devoted doctor, serving the poor and needy, an environmentalist, a dog lover, and the author of one of the bestselling books of it's time, The Story of San Michele. Now I'm not saying that Axel Munthe wasn't an all around straight up guy, but further research suggests there might be slightly more details to his story. Regardless, he built an incredible villa with views across the Bay of Naples, stunning gardens, and the Sphinx that is such a popular icon of the island of Capri, so I enjoyed our little stroll through his home.
After our visit to the Villa, we decided it was just too cold for further exploration given our clothing. We headed back to the B&B to pick up our stored luggage and then down to the port to catch the next ferry. We lucked out as we boarded an open air ferry, the first I've seen going between Naples and Capri. It was still one of the fast, jet boats, and it got us to Naples in under an hour, but with the joy of an open deck and fresh breeze. For the first time, the ride was enjoyable rather than an exercise in avoiding all interaction with any other passengers that might get seasick. Plus, all that cold and rain and wind had made the air so clear that we got the best view to date of Mount Vesuvius:.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Walking, Walking, Walking

The Faraglioni
Our Sunday in Capri dawned with clear skies, freezing weather, and blowing winds. But the blue sky was gorgeous. As much as I love Capri, I hate the bus ride between Capri Town and Anacapri. It's wicked crowded, even in the off season. I don't even want to think about the summertime. I'd actually consider the 800 step pathway between the two towns rather than brave the bus in the summer. Since Sunday was our only full day, and thus, the only day to be totally backpack free, we decided to head into Capri Town. I'm sad to report that the gelato I've been in search of at Lo Sfizzieto was once again elusive. Third time was not the charm. The shop was actually open on this trip, a first for me, but by October, they've switched over to hot food items. I have no idea why. Good gelato is a valuable commodity even in January.

Even Capri's palm trees are cool.
We set off on the two kilometer walk to Villa Jovis, which I recalled from my research as a "short" walk that would take "20 minutes" or so. What seemed like an hour later, as we huffed and puffed up the walkway, and had to stop for a fruit juice and bathroom break at a cafe, I realized that the "we like to walk" phrase had done us in again. Although in this case, there was no other option. Perhaps there is a small trolley that navigates the narrow paths, but we never saw one.

Villa Jovis is the former palace of the Emperor Tiberius, who succeeded Caesar Augustus in 14 A.D. and ruled until 37 A.D. You Christians reading this blog will catch on to the importance of all these dates and names. Tiberius took a liking to Capri and ruled the Roman Empire, sort of, from there for the last 10 years of his life. He mostly left the empire running bit to bureaucracy back in Rome. There are all sorts of terrible rumors about what a horrible person Tiberius was. Another version, though, says that Tiberius was holed up on Capri grieving the death of his son, and all those other, nasty rumors were started by a rival trying to take over political control. After 30 years of marriage to the love of his life and mother of his only son, Caesar Augustus had forced (wonder if there should be quotes around that word?) Tiberius to divorce his wife (around 11 A.D.) and marry his [Augustus's] daughter, a loveless marriage with lots of bitterness and only one child who died in infancy. Tiberius supposedly pined away for his first wife. Then, Tiberius's son died in 26 A.D., at which point Tiberius moved permanently to Capri. Fun factoid: Tiberius discovered the source of the Danube river, although one could argue that the people who lived in the northern Danube region probably already had a pretty good idea of it's source. An interesting little note for us, living in the Campi Flegrei region, is that Tiberius, on his way to Rome, died in Miseno - Miseno is just down the road from us and in view from our Roof Terrace. Sometimes, when I walk in the steps of these guys, I feel their presence. I find myself talking and thinking about them as if they live today.

From Villa Jovis, the walk back into town was very quick. And from there, we started our real walk of the day. From Capri to Arco Naturale, beyond it and along the coastline to come up on the back side of Capri Town. After a short walk down to the natural stone arch, we backtracked up the path to head down to La Grotta di Matermania, a huge, natural cave that was used 2000 years ago as a nymphaeum (a natural grotto used as shrines to water nymphs). Supposedly the grotto still holds mosaics on the walls, but I couldn't find them. After this, the stairs headed down, down, down. I stopped counting at 200. We met no less than three groups of people headed up who stopped us to ask how much further. Sadly, for all groups, we had to report that it was much, much further. They apparently did not have the guidebook that clearly stated "for a tougher walk, do it in reverse" (thank you, Lonely Planet). Since we had the guidebook, we did not do it in reverse. After countless steps down, the walk then became a gentle stroll on a well paved path along the coastline. The views were much like the Path of the Gods hike on the Amalfi Coast (from back in April...Easter weekend...remember?). We had phenomenal views of the water and the Faraglioni, the three rock protrusions off the coast of Capri that grace most photo albums, websites, books, and brochures about the island (see my own photo above, which was taken from the top of Monte Solaro, not from the hike).

The M&Ms aren't in the picture because I've already eaten them
Finally reaching the backside of Capri, we passed gorgeous hotels, fancy shops, outdoor terraces that made me realize how miserably I have failed in setting up swanky lounge furniture on our own Roof Terrace, and loads of tourists. The original plan of sitting in a piazza with a glass of wine did not work out, mainly because the main piazza was like a wind tunnel and the sun had disappeared behind heavy clouds. Instead, we hopped onto the next bus back to Anacapri, stopped off in a salumeria for prosecco, prosciutto, cheese, olives, and M&Ms and headed back to the hotel and that lovely, open air terrace. Kitty did not follow us to warm our laps.

For dinner, we picked another restaurant with a shuttle from the piazza. You may, at this point, be crying out, "Use the shuttle." But we like to walk. So we put the address into my iPhone navigation and set off into the dark night. It looked easy and fairly close but as it turns out, Droid users get the last laugh because I couldn't use my navigation and my flashlight at the same time. Darn it. We found the location where the restaurant should have been, yet could not find it for the life of us. We walked up and down that road forever before Nathan finally called the restaurant. Chiuso. (Closed.). Will we never learn. Seriously, the theme of this weekend should be "Call for the shuttle!"
On our walk, we passed this dilapidated, falling down, humongous, gorgeous villa. While there was no for sale sign, surely a deal could be struck. By our best guesstimate, we only need us and approximately 89 of our closest friends to pitch in and share a Villa on Capri.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Misadventures on Capri

We had three days and decided to stay close rather than trying a big trip with air travel or long drives or lots of planning. So off we went to Capri (pronounced CAH-pri, not Ca-PRI, like you'd say "capri pants"). While Capri is fairly close, it's not that easy of a journey. Rather than leaving our car at the port parking lot in downtown Naples, we use the metro line closest to our house, a 30 minute trip into town and then a 20 minute walk (if we move fast) to the port. Then the ticket buying process, waiting for the boat, and jockeying for position in order to the snag best seat - which for me, is as close to the front, but next to a window, as possible. The boats are typically fully enclosed, so there's no fresh air. While the front may bounce around more, the back is where all the sickos head when the vomiting starts. As long as I don't see, hear, or smell it, I'm golden. I always forgot just how very happy I am when that infernal ferry ride is over.

We'd booked a hotel room in Anacapri, the "other" town on the island. Most people visiting Capri on a daytrip don't ever make it to Anacapri. And I can see why those folks are not inclined to visit the island again. However, a hair-raising, 15 minute bus ride during which you see only open ocean out your bus window as it edges along the cliff takes you straight into lovely, quaint Anacapri, so adorable with it's brick streets, white buildings, and cats running amuck that you're sure you've landed on some Greek island instead. Since the town itself has virtually no views of the ocean, we'd picked Monte Solaro B&B up the mountain a bit with a lovely, ocean view terrace. Key word in that last sentence: "up." Now our booking instructions said the hotel had a shuttle from the piazza. But we like to walk, we're light packers, and I had cleverly printed off GoogleMap instructions. So we walked up and up and up. Then we thought we were off track, so down, down, down. And called the B&B to ask where exactly they were on the road. Turns out, my Googlemap instructions were offbase - as is so common here in Italy. It's why the GPS hardly ever works efficiently, too. As Nathan puts it, "Perfectly good, Italian maps were produced 200 years ago. Why do they need new ones?" After some discussion with our good-humored host, Costanzo, he walked down to get us and escorted us to the piazza where his father then drove us, in about 90 seconds, up to the hotel. Thankfully, one look at our front terrace pulled me out of my funk of a plan gone awry. The small B&B has several rooms in a row, each opening onto a stunning terrace with sweeping views. What a winner! The building itself is three stories, with a pool on the 2nd story (way too cold to use it) and on the 3rd, an open air terrace with a swanky lounge set and even more picturesque views. It helps that the B&B sells bottles of wine! We immediately added "sit on terrace with wine, prosciutto, cheese, olives, and M&Ms" to our weekend's itinerary [I'm currently craving peanut M&Ms nonstop].

The afternoon was gorgeous, so we headed to the chairlift up to the top of Mount Solaro. For those of you who've been following this blog awhile, you'll remember this chairlift from two prior Capri trips - yet neither of those included Nathan. I also wanted the chance to hike down from top, about an hour's walk. We wandered around enjoying the views before settling into a couple of lounge chairs to soak up the sun on top of the world. After a little lounging, we began the hike down. We only had one false start by following a faint, barely there path rather than the clearly marked sign. Easy mistake.

Things were going well until we reached a T in the path, the right path heading to a hermitage. We couldn't figure out how long a detour it was, but as we stood there, a guy on a tractor full of wood and another guy passed by, telling us it was only five minutes' walk. We decided to take a peek, and a few minutes down the path, we passed the tractor fellows...and some of their friends, all carrying guns. Lots and lots of guns. And I might have seen a chainsaw and some knives. This explained that "car backfire" I'd heard and then proceeded to marvel at how sound carries on an island. I faltered a bit, remembering the guy's enthusiasm that we visit the church. Was it a trap? A plan to lure unsuspecting tourists into the woods? Kill Nathan and sell me into some sort of slavery ring? Wait, I'm too old to be of any use - so we'll both be killed. Or kidnapped. Held for ransom. Accused of spying...wait, this isn't Iran, it's Capri. I'm overreacting...and hyperventilating. We passed by with big smiles, making eye contact and loudly saying "Buona sera!" with way to much enthusiasm. They probably thought we were on crack. We could see we were approaching the church, and just at the bottom of the hill was a pretty, little picnic area, filled with more men, guns propped everywhere and a couple of dogs running around. By now, we had reached the hopeful, and much more obvious conclusion, that these were hunters, not kidnappers. But I was quite disconcerted to know they were hunting this close to a walking trail, especially since I was wearing a black jacket. Nowhere in the Capri Tourism literature does it say, "Don't forget to bring your neon orange vest." Nathan kept insisting they were just maintaining the trail. Which then begs the question, if they need that many guns to maintain the trail, SHOULD WE BE WALKING ON IT? Frankly, the hermitage of Santa Maria a Cetrella was much less interesting. I haven't seen that many guns since I moved out of my parents' house in 1996. [My dad "showing" Nathan his guns after our engagement is a story for another day.]. Anyway, we saw the hermitage, took the picture, and got the heck out of there, heading back through the gauntlet, with increased smiling and over-enthusiastic greetings. I might have jogged a little bit once we were out of sight.

Back on the original path, we continued down...and then noticed a disturbingly ominous cloud. We'd diligently checked the forecast on three different weather sites (yep, majorly OCD), and there was to be no rain. We watched that cloud sail on by, only to have a worse one follow it. Despite our positive attitude, "It's not going to rain; those clouds are going to pass us," and the like, we soon realized that we were about to be in the mother of all thunderstorms. Now there was actual, full out running. Thankfully, as the skies opened up, we ran past a familiar looking building. It turns out, Monte Solaro B&B is so named because it is ON Monte Solaro, and our hiking path went right by it. Awesome! Just in time to avoid a soaking, we grabbed fleece blankets from our room, a bottle of red wine from the B&B offerings, and our Kindles, and then settled on our terrace to enjoy the show. Shortly thereafter, a pretty, little kitty appeared and jumped straight into Nathan's lap. This kitty was so confident that we would offer love that it just settled right in for a comfy nap, and there it stayed for the duration - pretty much for our entire weekend.

The storm gave us an incredible sunset.
After the storm and our long bit of relaxation, we decided on TripAdvisor's top rated, Anacapri restaurant for dinner. Now the restaurant information indicated they offer a shuttle from the main piazza. But we like to walk. Famous last words...actually, not last words. Because we already made this very same mistake...this very same day. Thankfully, the night was beautiful, the air was fresh and clean post-rain, and Anacapri is magic at night. This went a long way towards helping salvage the evening as we walked in the newly freezing air in our completely inadequate, summer clothing, for about half an hour and dodged speeding motorcycles on dark, narrow roads in pitch black darkness. Incredibly helpful was my handy, flashlight app on the iPhone - bless you, Steve Jobs.
Oh...the dinner was excellent, and the shuttle ride back up  into town just as delightful. And this time, we walked the appropriate route up to our hotel and met Costanzo there, asking why we didn't call him for a ride. After explaining that we'd needed to walk off our large meal, Nathan headed into the lobby for limoncello and soccer watching, while I collapsed into bed with mental exhaustion.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Missing Autumn

Nathan's aunt and uncle were here during a heat wave. One of the worst in several years. We had temperatures that were daily in the high 90s F. We sweated it out in shirts and T-shirts until the day they left, September 19th, under rainy skies. And overnight, our temperature dropped 20 degrees F. I've come to love somewhat enjoy early fall - the time to pull out capri pants and 3/4 length tops. Maybe throw on a light sweater in the evening. The air is so fresh and clean after the oppressive, summer heat. We missed all of that this year. We had about two weeks in the 70s before Nathan and I spent a wonderful three days on Capri (more on that little getaway this coming week!). We packed at the last minute, having checked the forecast to see sunny skies and 70 degree weather - perfect for our weekend of walking the island! We arrived, sat through several hours of an afternoon thunderstorm, and then the temperature dropped to the 50s. There it stayed for the next two days. I'd packed a light rain jacket, light sweater for the ocean breezes, and sandals all around! We absolutely froze! The mainland was a little warmer, what with having all these wonderful, insulating mountains around us, but still, for me, the near instantaneous drop from high 90s to mid-60s has sent me scurrying for the winter clothes and huddled under my winter blanket on the sofa...and dreaming of those days of wearing shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. I think it's going to be a long winter.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Photo Wrap-Up

They really did go cycling...see!

Beautiful views of the region
Time to harvest is near
And by special request - a photo of my plate from Florence.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Final Days

Nathan and I had the goal of restocking our cantina (wine cellar) with wine and oil while in Tuscany. Since we'd noticed a number of "Vendita Diretta" (direct sales) signs on the Radda to Castelnuovo Berardenga route, we took a day to retrace the steps, with stops including Poggiobrandani (a winery that has been owned by the Brandani family for eight CENTURIES - that is not a typo!) and the Barone Ricasoli winery (owned by the Ricasoli family for nine centuries - yowsa!). Baron Ricasoli actually came up with the original formula for chianti classico wine in the 1800s. Barone Ricasoli is the world's oldest, running winery still in original family hands, so what a treat to visit. Our winery day was a lot of time in the car, more than we'd expected, but we definitely added to our stock. No olive oil purchased, but our final stop was at a winery with the best balsamic vinegar I've ever tasted. At the time, I coughed up my taste at mention of the 40euro per bottle price tag, but now, I have to admit to regretting that we took a pass. I have dreams about that balsamic vinegar.
Castello di Meleto - a winery we visited with a swanky tasting room
A visit to Monteriggioni made the lists of both Aunt Lisa and me, so after our wine tasting extravaganza, we headed over to this walled town to take a gander at their towers still standing. I was looking forward to comparing this town of 14 towers to San Gimignano, with it's 17. Dante speaks of Monteriggioni (in Inferno), and, for those more up to date with modern culture, I've recently learned that Monteriggioni is a town featured in a video game called Assassin's Creed. I do not know anything more about this video game, mainly because the last video game I played was on an Atari - the first model. Monteriggioni is an easy town to visit, with parking outside the walls, a nifty money-making set up wherein visitors pay too much to walk on a pathway that parallels the top of the walls to take some nice, pictures of the countryside, and a couple of cafes staffed with waiters tired of tourist season and ready for us all to go home. Still, there are several shops with more interesting wares than the usual tourist fare, and I got to sit and watch an older couple who live in town sit on their front stoop, the woman knitting and the man hailing his friends as they walked by. Monteriggioni was a quicker visit than expected, so we headed on to San Gimignano, where everyone in our group could make the comparison.

For me, San Gimignano wins, hands down. Monteriggioni is quaint, charming, and probably deathly quiet by 7:00 pm. San Gimignano is a town for the tourists nowadays. Everything seems to be geared toward the almighty tourist euro, but that doesn't detract from the power of wandering through the hilly town, tall towers coming into view with every curve. And the views (free) from the fortress wall at the edge of town are divine!

Nathan in thought
Our final day, we realized that we still hadn't spent any reasonable time in Siena - the closest, real city to our hamlet! We headed in that direction, first stopping at the Parco Sculture del Chianti. This place had been on my list all week, and little did we know, it was only a five minute drive from our rental apartment if we took the dirt road short cut. All wheel drive tires are awesome. The sculpture park was the brainchild of an art-loving couple who purchased their country home and proceeded to create an outdoor art park featuring the works of artists from all over the world. Some of it is neat, some weird, and some I just plain didn't "get," but I love their vision. Finishing the outdoor park, we headed across the street to the "gallery," which turned out to be the couple's home. Their home is an art lover's haven, with gorgeous and/or interesting work at every turn, all in a home filled with light pouring in from windows overlooking the countryside. I fell in love with a particular painting, which may become our "Italy" art piece...even though the artist is from South America.

Gorgeous Baptistry in Siena
Our final, Tuscan adventure took us into Siena, where Nathan's aunt and uncle explored the Duomo, and Nathan and I got gelato while walking around, enjoying Siena's atmosphere. Heading back to the Duomo to meet them, I realized that I'd never been into the Baptistry. Our timing was perfect since we saw them walk into the entrance as we walked across the piazza, so I popped in as well. The Siena Duomo's baptistry is a riot of frescoed ceiling work, black and white striped columns in marble, a bronze font, and inlaid marble floors with several designs, including a Celtic knot pattern that took me straight back to Ireland. I marveled anew at the sheer volume of priceless treasures that fill Italy's towns, from the smallest of villages to the largest of cities. We ended our day and our Tuscan trip with a final walk through Siena's Il Campo - one of the best ways to end a week in this beautiful, magical region that calls so loudly to authors, artists, movie-makers, historians, and travelers.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Driving through Chianti

If only they'd been for sale...or free, by the dumpster
Our time in Tuscany passed, at the same time, at a snail's pace and faster than I ever imagined. It was an interesting feeling to have at once a feeling of endless time and not enough. Nathan and Uncle Ted fit in one more ride, this time from Radda in Chianti to Castelnuovo Berardenga. Aunt Lisa and I followed, parking in our "secret," free parking spot in Radda to explore while the guys put their bikes together and took off on their ride. Radda is a nice, little town, and on the day we visited, filled with Americans. The streets were filled with the sounds of Americans chatting. That may not sound that unusual in such a heavily visited region as Tuscany, but Radda itself was all of one main driving street and one pedestrian street. But big with the American contingent. Although on our subsequent visit the following day, French...French people everywhere, almost as if the town has some sort of underground list of assigned days to various nationalities.
We drove from there to Gaiole, trying to follow the route the guys were cycling. We got to Gaiole during riposo, but took a short stroll down the small, pedestrian zone. Like Radda, a nice, little town - not necessarily a destination, but a good stop on the way. From there, we drove up, up, up the mountain to Vertine, a walled, mountain top village that sounded interesting. And it was. The village looked like it hasn't changed a bit in the last 400 years or so. We parked outside the walls, then walked through the enormous opening cut into the stone walls. To walk the town was about a 10 minute loop, assuming one stops for some photo ops. We didn't go into the church, but did sit at the small cafe near the entrance for a lunch of a panini and meat/cheese platter. Our view was of the old, stone buildings and the quiet village, but the surrounding countryside outside the walls filled our eyes with Hollywood worthy, Tuscan views.
Post ride in Castelnuovo Berardenga - too bad we didn't notice the mural before they changed out of cycling gear
We traveled on through the countryside, past a small river, through the woods, and over the mountains, finally reaching the guys in Castelnuovo Berardenga. While they changed and loaded bicycles back into the car, we walked around the town - still during riposo, so our walk had no real destination - just a chance to explore yet another lovely town. To continue our more relaxing day, we decided on a casual dinner in our apartment and ended our day with some cotolette di pollo (fried chicken cutlets), pasta, cheese, salami, olives, and wine. Yumm!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Visiting the Big City

After our days spent in quiet, Tuscan hilltowns, we opted for a city day in Florence. For Nathan, Florence was a big let down - one of those situations where your imaginings don't live up to the reality you experience. Unfortunately, September was still high season in Florence. To make matters worse, we were driving into town from our beautiful, quiet village in the hills. This sounded so easy, but we hit traffic snarls going into the city, and then unwittingly entered the limited traffic zone while trying to get to the parking garage near the train station. When the camera pinged our car, we were already on a one way street going deeper into the zone. Oopsies.

After finally reaching a garage, getting parked, and taking a breather, we popped right out into the San Lorenzo zone, one of my favorites. And there we were, Florence. Gorgeous, history-rich Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance, ancestral home of the Medici family, the place that holds one of mankind's greatest sculptures in Michelangelo's David - we were actually there, walking the streets...along with what seemed to be every other tourist in Italy at the same time. Shoulder to shoulder crowds - but that wasn't as bad as the shoulder to shoulder tour groups. Crowds are one thing, but congested streets of tour groups in packs is a completely different beast. Nathan and his aunt and uncle had reservations to enter the Uffizi, and we had just enough time to grab lunch before they had to pick up their tickets. From there, two of them were heading on down to the Accademia and David before our group reconvened in front of the Duomo in the afternoon. Interestingly, my favorite sandwich shop in Florence was completely empty. Located only a block from the Uffizi, it's a great place to grab a quick lunch on your own time schedule rather than your waiter's (that's another blog post, I suppose - eating in Italy).

I had an ambitious few hours of touring to do alone. Since I visited both the Uffizi and the Accademia back in February, I skipped them this time around in hopes of seeing the Scuola del Cuoio (leatherworks school) at the Basilica di Santa Croce, the Medici Chapels (reputed to hold the greatest of Michelangelo's works), the San Lorenzo market to pick up a few gifts, and possibly the Pitti Palace Gardens for some relaxation. I'd intended to add the Ferragamo flagship store just to see the shoe museum as well. I made it to Basilica di Santa Croce before realizing that I, too, had just about had it with the crowds...and the heat. I don't think I've mentioned that the last few days had been ones of record breaking heat. Skipping the leather school and doing my best to walk back alleys over to the Medici Chapels, I changed course. And happened upon the most beautiful ceramics store. Absolutely gorgeous work in the window just called me into the shop. I spent an enjoyable 20 minutes or so visiting with the artist and hearing about her accidental find of the color she was using on a current collection, one of which came home to Naples with me. Even better, when my friend came over to visit after our Tuscany week, she noticed my plate displayed on an easel and was so excited that I'd found the same artist she also loves in Florence. Good things come from haunting back alleys in Italy. (If anyone's interested, the shop is a few doors down from the Dante Museum.).

San Lorenzo Market & Basilica di San Lorenzo
I happily arrived at the Basilica di San Lorenzo, my next stop being the Medici Chapels. "Happily" because this place is right next to the San Lorenzo market, which was my one and only absolute "must stop" in Florence. One would think I would have guessed that these two places were near each other, both being named San Lorenzo and all, but it's a testament to the crowds and the heat that I had no clue until I popped out of an alley facing both the church and the market. By now, I'd reached the point where I was ready to find a quiet piazza and a glass of wine to sit with my Kindle. I quickly took care of my market business and headed into the Basilica after paying my 4euro entry. And then I couldn't find those darn chapels anywhere. You know why? They are behind the church at a separate entrance...with a separate entry fee. Annoooooying...but I was on the trail of those Michelangelo sculptures. The ground floor of the chapel is filled with ornate, intricate reliquaries with bones of saints fit into extravagant, filigree work in silver and gemstones..."dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'"...everyone sing it with know, the old, southern spiritual song..."the head bone connected to the neck bone" and so on. Anyone? Anyone at all? Okay, enough of that, time to head upstairs to the sarcophagi topped with Michelangelo sculptures. I have to say, they just didn't speak to me. They were nice. But not nicer than, say, a glass of wine and a quiet piazza.

And that's exactly what I found. At time to meet up with the group at the Duomo, we lucked into a table located front and center in front of that glorious dome and enjoyed some rest time catching up with each other while gazing at one of the western world's most famous churches. With everyone all Florenced out, we headed out of town to go to dinner in Siena...and see the gorgeous Campo at twilight. Living in Italy can be challenging, frustrating, exasperating, and exhausting...but then we get a reward like getting to see the treasures of Florence by day and walking Siena's romantic streets by night, all in the same day. Life can be pretty good.
Is there any prettier sight in all of Italy? Maybe, but Siena's Il Campo at sunset is pretty awesome.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Italy Highlight

Check out the totally awesome, orange Cinquecento...must-get-one
Our second day of vacation brought one of my all time favorite moments in our year in Italy. It all began when we dropped the guys off in the town of Cortona, with their plan of cycling to Montepulciano. Cortona turned out to be a trip to Abilene (family joke, but taken from an actual phrase - Wikipedia it if you really want to know), but on our way into Cortona, we'd passed through a massive market going on in Camucia. Camucia is a fairly modern looking town at the base of the hill heading up into beautiful Cortona (best known today as the setting for Under the Tuscan Sun and still home to author Frances Mayes, at least for part of each year). There seems to be no real reason to stop in Camucia on one's way to Cortona...unless this market is happening. As it turns out, this was their annual festival, and the market went on for streets and streets. Lisa and I didn't even cover the whole market before getting the phone call from the guys saying they were already near Montepulciano. Having not found a whole lot of things to interest us, we got on the road to fulfill our chase car duties.
Recycled Etruscan and Latin stones at base of a palazzo - see...recycling = good
Montepulciano was a town we'd stopped into back in May and loved; however, we visited during reposo...or what I refer to as "that darn reposo." I decided then that this was a place we had to revisit. Montepulciano is also the town, for those of you who are Twilight movie fans, used in New Moon - when Edward is about to step into the sunlight to commit vampire suicide by forcing the Volturi to kill him, then Bella runs across the piazza to stop him...all that was filmed in Montepulciano. Just in case you were wondering.

But all of that is not the real reason we wanted to visit Montepulciano again. Actually, we wanted to return to one specific shop, a copper shop. We'd purchased a piece from this shop back in the spring, and as we walked through the rest of town, carrying our shopping bag, a man standing in a doorway looked at our bag, then said, "I made that." He was the coppersmith. We smiled, waved, thought how neat it was, and continued on our way. We wanted to revisit the shop. This time around, after making our purchases, we headed straight to the coppersmith's workshop, poked our heads in his door, held up the bags and began speaking in our pidgin Italian that we'd bought something in the spring and had returned for more, that we loved his work. And thus began our visit with Cesare Mazzetti, an amazing artisan who made the copper topping on the Duomo in Siena, also made a copper platter presented to the Pope and which is now a holding of the Vatican Museum, and an all around nice guy. Signore Mazzetti, after a short conversation, seemed to recognize our interest in his work, so he closed up his workshop and took us next door to his private museum, holding some of his first molds, work done by his father and his grandfather, and his collection of ancient copper pots. The chance to visit with Signore Mazzetti one on one, hear about his craft, listen to his stories of his family history, and just have that connection with him was one of the true highlights I've had here in Italy. So often, our interactions are superficial at best. I have such enormous respect for artists, especially those who are keeping alive the "old ways," in a world that has increasingly turned to inexpensive mass production with the accompanying loss in quality. And what a rush to have a real conversation in Italian, something beyond our standard two or three sentences! If you're interested in learning more about Signore Mazzetti and his hardworking wife who runs the shop, please check out their website - even better, visit the Montepulciano shop in person to pick out your own Italian souvenir.