Thursday 15 September 2011 - Friday 30 September 2011 30 °C
Since we had visited Cairo, Istanbul and Athens, it seemed obvious that we should include Rome as well to complete our exploration of the cities often referred to as the cradle of western civilization. However, despite its vast riches of culture, history, architecture and art, our true purpose for visiting Italy was… well… its food. We left Greece behind to undertake a culinary tour of Campania, Tuscany and Lazio.
We began our epicurean adventures in Naples. On our first day, we literally only made it 2 minutes away from our hotel before stopping for our first gelato. As we wandered the winding streets of the city, dodging scooters and tiny Fiats, we stopped often for an espresso or to sit in a piazza for a glass of wine and watch… life – kids playing football on the cobblestone streets, mamas yelling at their children, young and old whizzing by on Vespas, waiters carrying trays of espresso to their waiting customers down the street… Here, in the birthplace of pizza, we experienced an epiphany… an authentic margherita pizza - never had pizza tasted so exquisite! We managed to explore a few of the historic sites – ancient castles along the waterfront as well as high on a hillside above the city, which provided a stunning panoramic view of the city and Mount Vesuvius looming to the south. Our sampling included the most delectable mozzarella di bufalo, linguine alla vongole, limoncello and the most divine cappuccinos. Despite hailing from the Pacific Northwest, we have never been Starbucks fans and, after experiencing the best of the best in Napoli, we’ll never be tempted by Starbucks.
From Naples we headed to Pompei, taking a day off from our quest for food to experience a little history. Skirting our way around and through massive tour groups (literally herds of 30-50 people in a group!), we spent the afternoon exploring the remains of a city of 20,000 which was instantly obliterated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. What remains of the city shows what a rich, developed culture existed 2000 years ago. While North America and Australia had yet to even be discovered by Europeans, this thriving city flourished with art, restaurants, theatres and even sidewalk-lined roads. Our imaginations ran wild as we strolled the streets of the ancient city, stepping across the elevated “crosswalks”, and making up stories of daily life in Pompei. We spent the evening – which happened to be Saturday night – in modern-day Pompei, beginning with a glass of wine at outside a small bar on the corner of the main piazza to watch the passeggiata – teenagers, couples, elderly adults, families with small children… everyone was out enjoying the balmy Saturday night in the square.
Our next destination was Sorrento, which would be our base of exploration of the Amalfi coast. This peninsula is dotted with tiny villages which cling to the cliffs like barnacles to the hull of a ship. We spent time leisurely exploring Sorrento, climbing up and down the steep streets to the waterfront and observing the novelty of the Mediterranean seaside. After months spent enjoying wide, sweeping golden and white sand beaches sparsely dotted with people, we were intrigued (and somewhat amused) by the Italians’ determination to enjoy the sun. Tiny little patches of grey sand or pebble beaches and platforms built over the water were tightly packed with lounges and sun umbrellas and filled with sunbathers. We took day-trips to the town of Amalfi, traveling through Positano on the way, and a ferry to Capri – playground of the rich and famous. Each was unique and beautiful, with gorgeous views over the azure waters. We spent most of our time wandering away from the tourist centres, taking in the scenery, enjoying the scent of sun-warmed pine needles and wild herbs, and… eating and drinking, of course! Antipasto and wine, gelato and sfogliatelle, gnocchi alla sorrentina …
Leaving the sparkling coast behind, we caught the train and headed north to Siena. Tuscany, of course, is renowned world-wide for its fabulous cuisine. Siena is an amazingly preserved medieval city and, situated in the heart of Tuscany, seemed an ideal (although randomly selected) destination. We found a B&B in a lovingly restored 800-year old building just steps away from the Piazza del Campo in the centre of the medieval town. The Piazza del Campo is the site of the famous Palio – an annual horse race which has been run in the Campo for centuries. Entire books could be (actually, have been) written on the event and its history… suffice it to say that it defines the city and draws as much excitement as the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. We had missed the event (races are held in July and August), but much evidence remained – both authentic décor and tourist souvenirs. But we had not come for the Palio… we came for the food. We spent our days, as usual, wandering the streets, sitting in piazzas and people watching, drinking wine and cappuccinos. We did spend one morning touring the Duomo (the massive cathedral of Siena), its crypts and museum, and climbed the tower to enjoy a panoramic view of the city and countryside beyond. Our evenings we spent enjoying the wonderful Tuscan cuisine and one night, in particular, we had an amazing dining experience that we will likely never forget. We went to a small trattoria about which we had read good reviews, and we were totally overwhelmed. The service was excellent – attentive and friendly without being intrusive or pretentious. We were offered a complimentary amuse buche (fresh pea soup) while we considered the menu. We opted for classic Tuscan dishes, including the bistecca di fiorentina. The massive steak was presented for approval prior to grilling, then carved and served tableside. We were given complimentary glasses of prosecco while our wine was allowed to breath (a wonderful 2004 Brunello di Multipulciano). We were offered a complimentary cheese plate to finish our wine with as we considered the dessert menu and, finally, after tiramisu, espresso and grappa, we were presented with a complimentary bottle of wine to take home!! Wow! It was the Tuscan dinner of our dreams!
No trip to Tuscany would be complete without visiting the countryside and wine tasting. So, we booked a small group tour during which we drove through the Chianti region while enjoying the stunning views of rolling hills of olive groves, vineyards and oak forests studded with fields of sunflowers, old stone farmhouses and medieval castles. We visited two tiny villages and two wineries where, in addition to sampling fabulous Chianti wines, we were able to taste their amazing olive oils and locally produced products such as pecorino cheese, salame di cinta senese and prosciutto. It was a great taste of Tuscany… just enough to make us want to come back another time and experience more.
From Siena, we boarded a train once again and set off for Rome. Ahhhh – bella Roma! It truly is a beautiful city, filled with history, art, amazing architecture, vibrant street life, café and restaurant lined piazzas, fashion, cuisine… all that define "la dolce vita". We attempted to balance our culinary indulgences with some historic exploration and a LOT of walking. To say we covered all of central Rome by foot would not be an exaggeration. At the end of each day, we were tired and foot-sore, but bursting with wonder at the amazing sites and foods we had taken in. We explored the ancient ruins of the Forum and the Coliseum, and the magnificent splendor of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica; we window shopped along the boutique lined streets near the Spanish Steps; we wandered the tiny streets, seeking out hidden piazzas, in Trastevere; and, at a small trattoria a short walk from our hotel we savoured the best pasta we had tasted yet – pappardelle all’arrabbiata and pici cacio e pepe – along with a delicious starter of mozzarella and anchovy stuffed zucchini blossoms.
Rome is a very romantic city, and for us, it was more about just being there… soaking it in, feeling the energy, enjoying the food and wine, observing the fashions and gaining a sense of how the local Italians (sorry – Romans!) live on a day to day basis. We were pleased we had allowed ourselves enough time to take it all in and enjoy the experience without feeling a need to rush from once historic site to another. But once again, it was time to move on. As we keep saying, the world is a very big place and a year is not very much time to try to see it.
So we're switching gears from stylish sophistication to nature’s wonders… we’re heading to Tanzania to fulfill Lee-Ann’s lifelong dream of going on safari. Ciao!