Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Viva Italia!" - The Perfect Place to Do Nothing

"A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it." (Robert Orben)

One of the advantages of traveling with a tour group, obviously, is that so many decisions are made for you.  No worries about "Where am I going to stay?", "What are we going to do?", "How will I be able to see what I want to see?, "How will I get from here to there?", etc.  I know from my solo travels that those kind of decisions, while at first exciting to make, become a tiring kind of drag. (sort of like the mundane decisions you're always making at home, just harder because you're now making them in a strange place, with people speaking a different language!).  So, it was a nice thing at times for Deborah and I to know that all we had to do once we made it to Italy was to "just show up":  Just follow the group to where we were going, show up when we were supposed to show up, "eat, drink, and be merry".

Ah, but as an ancient Roman said, "Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, ancient Roman notable).  After three days of being shuttled around like one big herd from one guided tour to another "excursion" (which usually cost us extra Euros!) with little chance to breath or relax, and three days of schedules dictated to us like we were in boot camp ("Bags outside the room at 645 am; breakfast until 730; on the bus at 745; wear your headsets; Everybody stick together - andiamo!"), we were ready for a "vacation" from our vacation.  We were tired; we were a little cranky.  And then, thankfully, we arrived in Sorrento.

Ah, Sorrento!  The first "jewel" of the Amalfi coast.  A town of 20,000 residents perched on cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius, and the Isle of Capri.  Deborah and I fell in love immediately with the beauty of this place.  And then we came to our hotel.

The Parco dei Principi hotel, Sorrento Italy
(We thought we had died and gone to heaven when we first walked into this place!  What a view!)

Unbelievable, right!  Well, yes and no.  No question the Parco dei Principi was a luxurious, beautiful hotel.  But it came with a "price" and some disappointments.  First disappointment:  We didn't get a room with an ocean view - instead were facing the  mountains and hills.  When Deborah asked if we could change, we were dismissed snobbily by the staff, "You're with Perillo?  No!  There's nothing we can do!"  (we would have other encounters with these "Parco prigs", but why ruin a good blog recounting them!).

The second disappointment was that our group's schedule seemed to leave us no time to simply sit and enjoy all of the beauty of this place.  We checked in late Tuesday afternoon; were scheduled to spend all the next day on the Isle of Capri, and then we were leaving the following morning.  While we wanted to see the Isle of Capri and its famous Blue Grotto, we longed for a slower pace and some time to ourselves.  Thank goodness, God, Life, was "listening"...

Due to high tides and a "bouncy" ocean, we were unable to get into the Blue Grotto Wednesday morning (will have to save that adventure for a return trip sometime!).  Instead, Deborah and I were "granted" an entire day to spend, just as we wanted.  No rush, no schedule, just the two of us alone to do whatever we wanted to do.  Perfect!  We decided to walk down the hill from our hotel into old town Sorrento - to do a little shopping, have some lunch, and soak in a little Italian culture and sunshine... Bellisimo!

Downtown Sorrento was a great place to explore.  The sun was shining and its old town was an enticing maze of narrow, medieval streets, lined with little shops, selling all sorts of wonderful wares.  Shoes, scarves, jewelry, glass beads, lemons the size of softballs, limoncello made that day, linen shirts and dresses, and shoes, sandals, shoes, sandals, and more shoes and sandals! (Deborah was in heaven!  Her head was spinning at all the beautiful pumps, slip-ons, and gladiator sandals!).  We wandered and shopped; laughed and pointed at all we saw; strolled hand in hand, happily and carefree.  Now this was a perfect place to "do nothing and take all day to do it."!

Here's a photo of the narrow little streets of old town Sorrento.  Very fun!

Here's Deborah pretending to shop for fruit (I just wanted a picture of the lemons and her :-)!)

We ate a late lunch at "Il Leone Russo" restaurant (The Red Lion):  risotto al funghi, a carafe of wine enjoyed al fresco at a sidewalk table - and then shopped and wandered some more.  Before we knew it, it was 330 pm, and so, bags in hand, we hiked back to the hotel.  We wanted to have some time to do some serious sun-bathing and swimming in the Bay of Naples.

We had had a minor setback while in Sorrento.  My digital camera broke, but we bought a disposable camera to take pics with, and then even found a camera shop and bought a new Nikon digital.  All was well. (or so we thought).  It wasn't until a few hours later that I was shocked to find that the new camera had been snipped off my wrist by a crafty local thief!  Rats!  But even that wouldn't spoil our time here!

We ended the day splashing around in the warm waters of the Bay of Naples.  We laughed and told stories with some of our "Perilloista" friends, shook our heads and said "Can you believe it?  We're swimming in the Mediterranean Sea!"  We felt like "jet-setters" for a little while and basked in the luxury of it all.

When we came back to the room to get ready for dinner, I discovered the loss of my camera.  And yes, I was upset...yes, I was distressed and anxious about not having a camera for the rest of the trip...and yes, the hotel staff were not sympathetic or helpful at all, but all ended well.  Our friend Diana loaned us a camera to take pictures with for the rest of the trip.  And another fun dinner enjoyed together, with the magnificent beauty of the setting sun on the Bay as a backdrop, helped put a smile on my face again.  After dinner, Deborah and I sat in a soft couch on the terrace overlooking the bay, snuggled close, enjoyed a cocktail, and soaked in the sweet summer night.

It was hard to leave Sorrento the next morning, and spend 8 hours on a bus to get to Florence (back to the "grind" of the tour).  But our best memories from our trip will definitely be of Sorrento.  We hope to return someday to this jewel by the sea!  I'm grateful for the fun we had and the beauty we shared at the Amalfi coast.  Ciao!

 "For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it's always ourselves we find in the sea." (e.e. cummings)

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Viva Italia!" - Falling In Love With Italian Food

"Un buon vino, un buon pasto, e una bella donna, la dolce vita!" (A good wine, a good meal, and a pretty woman, the sweet life!") - Italian proverb

I could write about piazzas and cathedrals, of fountains and ancient ruins, and Sunday morning strolls in Rome, but if you really want to know something I fell in love with in Italy (besides my gorgeous wife all over again! - the picture is of us sitting at the Cafe Perseo in downtown Florence), it would be the food and wine we had there.  "Mamma mia!" - Oh, my, was it heavenly!  So this entry is a celebration of all the pizzas and panini, croissants and ciabatta, tiramisu and tagliatelle, gelato and granita, vino bianco e vino russo, that we enjoyed on our trip.  I don't know how Italians stay so slim eating all these delights!

The Foods, Meals We'll Never Forget

  • Pizza in Italy:  Nothing like any pizza I've eaten in the U.S. (though I haven't been to New York).  Crisp, light crusts...not too much sauce or cheese...just one size (no "mini", no "large").  We ate pizzas in every Italian city we visited - always ordered our favorite ("The Margherita" - tomato, mozzarella, and basil - see above).  The most memorable piece?  The slice served us as an appetizer one night at dinner in Rome.  Swoon-worthy!

  • Risotto:  We ate this creamy, arborio rice dish in fancy restaurants and were even served it in a cafeteria in a highway rest stop! (I actually watched the cook prepare it right in front of me!).  Loved, loved, loved it!  Best risotto?  The dish we had for lunch in sunny Sorrento at "Il Leone Russo" (The Red Lion) restaurant.  Risotto al funghi (with mushrooms)... See above!

  • Gelato:  This is the true national treasure of Italy!  My biggest regret is not eating this 3 times a day, every day I was in Italy - just so I could've sampled MORE of the fabulous flavors of this icy, sweet, incredibly light treat!  Just looking at the case in a gelateri was a feast - I felt like a little kid, overwhelmed by all the choices - when asked "What flavor?", wanting to simply say "Yes!".  Deborah and I will always remember the "Death by Chocolate" gelato scoop we had at Moretti's Bar in the Piazza Navona in Rome.  Frozen yogurt in the U.S. will never taste the same!  So our hunt for gelato in the U.S. has begun (and we've actually found a place in Medford!  Can't wait to try it!)

  • Pasta:  Of course, we ate lots of pasta.  The biggest and best surprise about this was the fact that Deborah (who's gluten sensitive) enjoyed it all!  We knew we could easily get gluten-free meals in Italy (we learned Italians are experts on dealing with this food malady), but we never had to.  So we ate penne and farfalle, tagliatelle and tortellini, lasagna and ravioli to our heart's content.  But never did have just spaghetti and meatballs - or Deby's favorite pasta dish, Pasta a Aglio e Olio (angel hair pasta, tomatos, cheese, and a simple oil and garlic dressing).  Don't know how we missed that - but we loved being able to eat pasta to our heart's content - and no tummy ache!
So, we clearly enjoyed the food and the wine we had each night.  But we also had to adjust to some interesting "oddities" while eating in Italy.  Such as:
  • Water brought to the table was always in a bottle.  And we'd be asked, "Still or gas?" (flat or mineral)
  • No ice with the water either.  We sometimes wondered why asking for ice was treated by Italians as such a "luxury".
  • Salad dressing was only olive oil and vinegar (which I grew to like, plus it made ordering from a waiter much easier - no long recitals like in the U.S., "We have ranch, honey mustard, 1000 Island, French, raspberry poppy seed, creamy Italian, blue cheese, etc.")
  • Wine for breakfast?  Why not!
  • "Beef or fish"?  That was the choice we had at every dinner when it came time for the "secondo platti" (second course).  Deborah wasn't a big fan of either - I ate some tasty sea bass - but nothing memorable.
  • Ever seen a lemon the size of a softball?  We did in Sorrento! (And loved our 1st taste of limoncello, the powerful, but sweet liqueur made from such lemons)... Want proof?  See below!

OK.  I've had a lot of fun writing this, but it's time to call it "finito".  I could rave about Italian food for a long, long time!  Don't want to "linger too long" over the memories, or I might feel like the guy in this classic TV commercial - see if you remember it :-) (Click on the link below)

Buon appetito!  Ciao!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Viva Italia!" - Listening For Whispers Among the Ruins

"There is a history in all men's lives." (William Shakespeare)

How could a visit to Italy be complete (especially for a "grizzled" history teacher, like me) without touring some ancient ruins?  I have seen my share of castles, cathedrals, and chateaus in my previous trips to Europe, but here was my chance to actually walk among some legendary Roman ruins:  The Colosseum, the Forum, Circus Maximus, and the city of Pompeii, unearthed from the ashes of Vesuvius.

Deborah and I were both excited about the opportunity to walk on and in these ancient places.  We love feeling the presence of history; smelling it, hearing it in the echoes of the dusty places we've seen together (like the centuries old Catholic missions in California).  It's possible to feel a sense of sanctity in places like these - to feel history come alive in the "whispers" heard among the ruins.

On Monday the 4th, our group was taken into ancient Rome and we toured the Colosseum.  It was warm and sunny, even though it was still morning.  It is startling to be sitting in a bus, driving down a modern city street, and then turning a corner and seeing a building or monument that is 2000 years old!  It happened a lot as we neared the Colosseum.  I wanted to get out - to look - to walk around and touch some of what I was seeing, but we only drove by.  Finally, we arrived at the Colosseum - perhaps Rome's most famous historical structure.

I felt at first a certain awe at seeing the massive, and familiar circular stone walls, rising in front of me as I approached.  But surprisingly, the awe faded as I neared.  And as our group walked in and out and around the Colosseum for over an hour, I felt a little detached.  So why was that, oh Mr. History Teacher?

I think it was because it was harder for me to hear the "whispers" of history - to feel the history in this historical place.  Instead, my senses were overwhelmed:  by the fake "Legionnaires" flexing and flirting with the tourists; by the sheer crowds that we had to wade through just to get in, and then fight through as we paced the inside; by the constant chatter in my ear from our guide, Mauro - about the history of the Colosseum - interesting at times, but leaving little time for reflection.

In the end, my visit to the Colosseum became a "been there, done that" experience - don't know if I'd do it again.  Or perhaps the next time, I need to work harder at listening for the "whispers".  I'm sure they were still there.

Our visit to Pompeii the next day was much the same.  We left Rome by bus (delayed by a silly "tax crisis" at the hotel - people (members of our group) made mountains out of an 18 Euro "molehill"!) - rode south for 5 hours - ate lunch - then spent the afternoon walking through the ruins of Pompeii.  Again, I found it hard to enjoy the history of this place I had read about so often.  Our guide, Guido, droned on and on (sometimes never noticing that no one in the group was listening!), and the crowds of tourists "seeing Pompeii" again made the experience something that I felt like I endured, more than I enjoyed.

In the end, I'm glad I visited these places - even if the visits weren't what I had hoped for.  "Veni, vidi, video"...I came, I saw, I took pictures. :-)

But there was one Roman voice from the past, whose whispers did come to me, as I was writing this entry.  It was the poet Horace (65 - 8 BCE).  Here's what I heard:

"Carpe diem!  Rejoice while you're alive; enjoy the day.  Live life to the fullest; make the most of what you have.  It is later than you think." 

So, it is.  Thanks for the reminder.  "Seize the Day!".  I will try to remember that lesson from my trip back into history.  Make the most of my day - don't waste time complaining, or regretting, or looking forward to "the next time".  Remembering to do that would be a "pearl" of real value...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Viva Italia!" - Piazzas and New Friends

"After a day's walk everything has twice its usual value."  (George Macauley Trevelyan)

Our Walks In Rome
Walking, walking, walking... Deborah and I were determined to walk as much as we could while on our trip.  Walk to explore - walk for the exercise - walk to be by ourselves - walk to simply experience the Italian people and culture.  Luckily, our hotel in Rome put us in a perfect spot to do that each day.  Within a 30 minute radius, we could hike to many beautiful piazzas and "touristy" sites, and dozens of restaurants, gelateri (an Italian word for "ice cream paradise"!), and shopping, shopping, shopping!  And so we did.

What were some of our most favorite walks and destinations?  Funny how when I think back on these, they were more enjoyable to me than all the Roman ruins and Papal splendors that we would see later!

The Piazza del Popolo
We loved walking to this giant public square, just across the Tiber River, 20 minutes from our hotel.  We first walked to it on Saturday afternoon.  It was vast and beautiful:  Rome's tallest obelisk in the center; surrounded by churches; filled with tourists taking pictures, and enterprising vendors "giving away" roses to "the pretty lady" (then peskily following us around until I gave them a euro and shooed them away!).  Three avenues radiated out from the square:  one leading to the famous Spanish Steps, and one, the Via del Corso, leading into one of Rome's most fashionable shopping districts.  The streets were bustling and crowded; the sidewalks narrow.  Our heads were constantly swiveling as we window-shopped and ducked in and out of the crowds.  People, people everywhere! 

Two pictures:  The Spanish Steps and Strolling down the Via del Corso

But the best memory I have of our walks here was the one we took Sunday morning.  It was quiet when we entered the Piazza del Popolo - the sun was gently shining on us and a troop of joggers circling through the square.  And then the church bells began to ring.  The beauty of the morning and of the chimes brought tears to Deborah's eyes, and made me smile.  "Bellisimo"!

Piazza Navona
The Piazza Navona was another memorable destination for our walks in Rome. Piazza Navona was once the site of a Roman stadium, built for games and contests - but now is the home of three beautiful Baroque fountains, sidewalk cafes, and a bustling vendors' market.  It was here at "Moretti's Bar" that I found my first friendly Italian waiter, who patiently allowed me to practice some mangled Italian while ordering - and it was here that we ate our first heavenly piece of pizza, and THE BEST chocolate gelato in the world!

We will also always remember the Piazza Navona because it was here that we bought some art to bring back home with us - what better way to remember Italy!  The square was full of artists, all offering water colors, charcoal drawings, oil paintings, and "instant portraits".  Deborah spotted a beautiful oil painting of flowers in a window box in the Piazza (kind of like this photo)

And after some haggling and bargaining with Piero Pugnalini (the earnest artist), we bought it (Prices were often "soft" when shopping in Italian squares - especially when the shopper was a bright, beautiful blonde Italian herself!)

I also convinced Deborah to sit for an "instant portrait".  She was at first reluctant, but then agreed to sit for the grizzled artist.  I strolled away and let him work quietly, sketching away with his charcoal, as he gazed at my wife.  When I returned and peeked over his shoulder, what he had drawn brought tears to my eyes.  Such a regal, proud, and beautiful image - a true Italian princess!  I snapped a picture of him finishing.

I know I will treasure this portrait, and this moment. :-)

Finding Some New Friends
Unlike the tour I went on 7 years ago to France, there never was a formal "meet and greet" introduction of all the tour members to each other (too bad!).  Our group was large (40 people); almost everyone was from the East coast, and Italian in descent (with last names like "Crusco", "Delia Fratto", "Ciliberti", "Materasso", and "D'Amico"!  I was glad to be traveling with a "DeMattia", so this German could blend in a little!).  So, when we all sat down for our first formal dinner together, I was curious (kind of like the first day of school):  Who would we meet?  Would they be "nice"?  Would we "get along" and "have fun"?  There were three empty seats at our table, and by chance, a group of three sat down across from Deborah and I.  Lo, and behold, it was three "westerners" (Texans):  Mary McGrew Cunningham, her 85 year old father Lloyd, and her best friend, Diana Baker Freeman.  What an amazing seating "assignment", divinely provided!  Mary, Lloyd, and Diana and us had a wonderful evening, laughing and getting to know each other!  Mary and Deborah acted like they had known each other all their lives; Lloyd with his patience, quiet stoicism, but surprising wit, always made me smile; and Diana, full of life and stories and big laughs - all made for the perfect dinner partners and travel companions.  We also loved meeting Angela Delia Fratto, who joined us the next night, and added even more laughter and fun to our merry table. We would enjoy their company every night, and are happy to continue to be in touch with them as new friends!

Our fun dinner table group (Angela, Lloyd, Mary, Diana, Deborah, and me)

Time to end this chapter.  I found this quote from a famous Italian actress that made me smile.

"Everything you see (about me) I owe to spaghetti." (Sophia Loren)

Italian food definitely made me "more beautiful" too :-)... Ciao!

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Viva Italia!" - Our Summer Trip to the Land of Sun, Style (and gelato!)

"You may have the universe if I may have Italy." (Giuseppe Verdi)

Though summer seems like it should be a time filled with lazy lounging, sunny siestas, berries and BBQs, and fooling around in flip flops and shorts, my summers always seem to also include at least one grand adventure.  And this year the adventure was unforgettable.  Deborah and I had the chance to travel to Italy - the homeland of her ancestors (thanks to her very, very generous Dad!).  We recently returned from our wonderful 10 day trip, and there were so many unforgettable experiences and memories that we shared that I just had to record them here!  It'll probably take me a few entries to cover all of them, so stay tuned! :-)

"Buon Viaggio! - Our Trip Begins

"I feel about airplanes the way I feel about diets. It seems to me that they are wonderful things for other people to go on."  (Jean Kerr)

It's hard to describe how excited we both were about taking this trip.  Though I have been overseas a number of times, it had been 7 years since I had last gone to Europe.  And this was Deborah's first trip abroad.  Work and school had kept us both so busy that we really hadn't seriously thought about the trip until the final week before we left.  Then it hit us - "OMG!  We're going to ITALY in 4 days!" - which triggered a madcap, anxious week of packing, repacking, and scurrying to get the house, our pets, and everything else ready before we left.  Deborah read list after list of "What to Wear in Italy (if you don't want to look like a tourist!)", and counseled me accordingly:  no shorts, no sneakers, no baseball hats; For her: lots of dresses, no bare shoulders in churches, etc.  I tried to act "non-chalant" and "know-it-all" (being the "world traveler" that I was), but I worried a little too - especially about "packing light" - since we wanted to carry on all of our bags - not wanting to trust them being lost in the "catacombs" of some airline.

And so our trip began.  It began - as do all trips to Europe from the West coast - VERY EARLY!  Up at 3 am on Friday July 1st - no time for coffee - just grab our bags and head to the airport for our transcontinental, then trans-Atlantic flights:  Portland to New York to Rome.  I remember the first time I flew some 20 years ago, and how I thought it was such an adventure.  Now, flying seems to have become something to be endured:  waiting in long lines, take your shoes off, put your shoes on, show your passport, your boarding pass, "Did you pack your own luggage?  Has it ever left your sight?", ad nauseum.  All for the "privilege" of being crammed into a metal tube with 200 other anxious people for hours and hours - not to mention the "fun" of eating mediocre meals, "crocodile-arms" style and barely being able to cat nap... Ah well, the price to be paid for an adventure!

Our flights that day were thankfully uneventful.  The highlight (at least for Deborah) was boarding the Alitalia flight in New York and being greeted by the pilots.  It would be the first (and not the last time!) I heard my beautiful wife say, "Oh my God!  I LOVE Italian men!" (thankfully she married a kinda tall, not so dark, but romantic, German/Finn!).  On Friday morning, we were in the "City of Roses" - on Saturday morning, we landed in "The Eternal City", Rome.

Culture shock slowly seeped in as we walked through Rome's airport.  We were definitely "no longer in Kansas anymore".  We were hungry, thirsty, and we had two hours to kill before our shuttle from Perillo Tours would be there to take us to our hotel.  So, dragging our bags, we schlepped around the airport to find an ATM machine to get Euros, and then to find a seat somewhere, anywhere (a recurring theme later in our trip!) and order something to eat.  We finally found a deli-style cafeteria, and a friendly waiter, who spoke English, and had our first meal in Italy:  a prosciutto panini, Caprese salad, Coke (for Deborah) and uno vino bianco for me.  Mange!  As we ate, we began to see other Perillo tour groups starting to show up ("Perillo-istas" we would call them), so we knew we were in the right place.  But we waited, and we waited.  Periodically, I would get up and walk around looking for our shuttle - this is what I would see.

Dozens of shuttle drivers, all holding signs, waiting for groups and individuals - a whole "cottage industry" connected to tourism in Italy.  

Finally, our tour guide appeared.  His name was Raffaele D'Arino:  a middle-aged Italian, dressed stylishly with sunglasses on top of his head, who with a musical voice, summoned us all and led us to our waiting bus.  "Allora", he said, "Follow me.  We will walk slowly, slowly to the bus.  This way, follow my newspaper", which he held high over his head as we walked.  And so the thirty of us, tired and benumbed travelers straggled along behind him, like a group of school children, eager to find our new home in Rome.

We arrived at our hotel in central Rome, the Hotel Cicerone.  It was a beautiful hotel, 1/2 way in between the Vatican City and ancient Rome - perfectly situated.  Raffaele encouraged us to take a little walk around Rome before we collapsed into our beds for a nap, and gave us directions for a nice walk to see our first sights in Italy:  the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps.  After unpacking, Deborah and I groggily, but eagerly set off on our first hike.

Deborah and the Tiber River

Our adventure had begun!
(and so had our love affair with this beautiful city!)

The story will continue... come back for Chapter Two!

Entering the Piazza del Popolo