There was a time on this trip when we carried a cooler everywhere we went to make lunch on the road and on the cheap. There was a time on this trip where we wore the same clothes for many days in a row. There was a time on this trip where we slept in questionable hostel beds, and there was even a time on this trip when we lived in a van. But that's all over now. Now beautiful, wonderful, ebullient Italia has welcomed us into her arms, like a cheerful Nonna welcoming us into her home.
Nonna Italia has fed us so well! We are already several pounds fatter in just a few days time. She has been so kind, introducing us to her friends and showing us her hospitality. Nonna's yard is full of beautiful flowers in bloom, from elegant purple wisteria to cheerful wild daisies and roadside red poppies. And Nonna's house is so clean! What a change from the rest of our travels. From the street to the kitchen, it all looks so pristine to us. We can even drink the water straight out of the public fountains (Nonna's ancestors the Romans built these things called aqueducts, and turns out they are still goin' strong today with clean, delicious acqua). Nonna Italia has been so tremendously welcoming, why would anyone ever want to leave? Ahhhhhhhh... and this is the secret so many Italian mothers know so well. Make life comfy, feed them well, keep things clean. Your kids will never leave.
First Stop: Rome! Now I'm sure many of you readers have been to Rome, as it's one of the most popular and spectacular cities in the world. But for Chris and I, this was a first-time visit! We fell in love immediately, as Bella Roma often seduces her first-time visitors.
We arrived in Rome after a 2-leg red-eye flight, each flight 6 hours. Kathmandu, Nepal to Doha, Qatar to Rome, Italy. Few travel experiences stink quite as much as a flight transfer at 2am. But, everything went as planned, and Qatar Airways is one of those amazing, lux airlines which made it all more palatable (if you ever can choose Qatar, do it!). We arrived to Rome at 7:30am, and after our last turn in the “Foreign Visitors” line at customs (sniff), we were promptly on our way into central Rome via a speedy and clean 2-story commuter train.
We had some time to kill before we could check into our Air BnB, so we decided to fuel up on our first Italian cappuccino and get acquainted with our Roman neighborhood, Trastevere. In this first half-morning in Rome, we visited 2 cafes and met 3 friends. The first new friend was an American writer named Jerry who has lived 4-5 months in Rome every year for the past 13 years. The rest of the time he's in Alabama. He was such a friendly and interesting cat, and we ended up running into him twice that day! On the second-run in, he invited us to his apartment for lunch the next day. Of course we accepted his gracious offer.
At our next stop, we met a fabulous American couple from San Diego named Jesse and Holly. They were on vacation for 2 weeks, with a similar-ish itinerary and so we chatted with them for well over an hour in another cafe about travel, music, American life, families and more. It's always so nice to meet new people who are just comfortable souls to connect with straightaway. They had to leave before we did, but later when we asked the waiter for our bill, he replied “Oh no, your friends paid your bill when they left!” These two were such gems, I immediately regretted not getting their contact information.
Our Roman pad was a little bohemian artist's apartment in Trastevere, which is a residential neighborhood in Rome akin to NYC's West Village. The charming cobblestone streets are lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. Our sweet little colorful flat was plenty of space for us, and felt positively palatial compared to the tea houses of Nepal. Of course the internet didn't work, but what else is new. We are used to this by now.
The next few days in Rome were a cyclone of art, architecture, history and pasta. We zoomed all over the city, exploring every neighborhood we could and seeing all of those “lifetime” Roman sights. There are but a few cities where the mega tourist attractions live up to the hype, and Rome is one of them. First we did the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill – strategizing our approach like a Roman battle so we could best avoid the crowds. We left early in the morning and headed to the deserted Palantine Hill entrance to buy our tickets. We spent the morning exploring Palatine Hill and the Forum, covering this huge swath of ancient city with the help of the FREE Rick Steves podcasts! (Very informative and highly recommended, though a touch cheesy. But loads better than the ones offered by the tourist office for 6 euros each.)
Lunch on Jerry (Soup is NOT a meal!)
After our morning of sightseeing, we took a much-needed break with Jerry's sweet lunch invitation. We headed back to Trastevere and had a fabulous lunch with Jerry and his friend Michele on Jerry's sun-drenched roof-deck garden. We drank wine and feasted on a giant rainbow salad, and a superb pasta dish that Jerry made. For dessert he brought out a beautiful plate of red strawberries along with big hunks of hazelnut dark chocolate. To me, this was the perfect Italian meal from start to finish. Simple, fresh ingredients paving the way for good conversation and leisurely dining. Wine and sunshine made for a subtle seasoning.
Jerry himself is such an interesting person, I do hope we stay in touch. He told us delicious stories about his travels and his life as a writer. One of his books (about trekking along the whole of the Trail of Tears) was nominated for a Pulitzer some time ago, no big deal (!) A book about hiking and traveling and history? Sign us up, it's next in the Kindle queue. In addition to the fascinating dialogue with Jerry, we enjoyed his friend Michele immensely. Our communication was a bit belabored due to his rusty English and our practically non-existent Italian. But we all did OK. He taught us some new Italian words and we asked him about life in Rome. We learned that Michele has lived in Rome always, has six brothers and sisters but no children himself, his father was the former roommate of the Pope (we're not sure which one, but presuming John Paul II). We also learned that Michele had been a personal friend of Mother Teresa, and was once called on a trip to India for purposes we weren't able to deduce. We know this because we discussed our impressions of Nepal and he casually chimed in with his of India courtesy of his old pal, Mother Teresa. Who was this guy? We weren't sure, but we left with an invitation to Michele's house for dinner the next night.
As lovely as lunch was, we had to go because we still had to see the Colosseum! So we headed back up to the complex and spent the late afternoon and sunset exploring this amazing ruin. Ancient ruins of any sort rank very high on my bucket list, and I do have a lifetime goal to see all the major ancient ruins of the world. To be inside this ancient building, to imagine how great the Roman civilization was... to even attempt to understand the time and and generations of work that built these remarkable technological innovations... to contemplate the Romans' place in the history of the world as a whole... it's all pretty mind-boggling. Listening to the narration of the podcast about Roman life and politics, about their rise and demise, and about the factors that influenced Europe's eventual plunge into the dark ages, it's hard not to draw parallels to our world today and wonder what side of the historical arc we're on.
During our time in Rome we also strolled the Jewish Ghetto, people-watched on the Spanish Steps, attempted to see the Trevi Fountain (it's under construction), window-shopped in Rome's fancy fashion district, toured the Pantheon, navigated the insane crowds of the Vatican museums, provoked neck cramps while gawking at the Sistine Chapel (or Sixteenth Chapel, if Justin Bieber is reading this blog), marveled at St. Peter's Basilica, and climbed all the way to the top of its duomo for panoramic Roma views. It was an intense but absolutely fulfilling spell in Rome. And I call it a spell because that's what it felt like. A magic spell.
Our last day in Rome was a bit hectic and crazy. We started super early as we were attempting to shoot the last clip of a little video we made for my sister's birthday. Here it is, if you want to see it! But here's where the comedy of errors ensued. Terrible internet, rushed editing, a lost iPhone, a delayed check-out and an angry Air BnB host. It was not a great morning.
But, there was one bright spot... which is that we ran into Jesse and Holly again, it was also their last morning in Rome. Even in the midst of all this craziness, we slowed down and enjoyed a cappuccino with them and were able to exchange contact details. We've met so many people on this trip, but have exchanged contact details with relatively few. It's always so nice when you meet a kindred spirit, but strange when that spirit happens to live clean across the country from you. It seems unlikely that you'll stay in touch, but I always think you never know. My parents met one of their closest friends on their honeymoon. The story goes that “we met on the rim of the Grand Canyon, stayed in touch, and became lifelong friends.” Indeed, she was my “Aunt” Sandy and one of my favorite people in the world. So, you do never know.
We ran into Jerry one last time, of course. Jerry has mastered the art of cafe life in Rome, and seems to know everyone in the neighborhood by way of his daily cafe rituals and his friendly nature. In fact, he's so good at this art form, that Chris coined the term to “Pull a Jerry”, meaning to make time to just... be. And maybe make a real human-to-human connection with a friendly face. In a cafe, over a cup of coffee, of course. Using this term goes like this... “What do you want to do today?”....“I don't know, maybe sight-see in the morning and Pull-a-Jerry for the afternoon?” This term of endearment needed some "Italianization" of course, so with the proper Italian conjugation for the "we" verb tense (yes, we're language nerds) and more accurate spelling, it has morphed into “Pullaggeriamo!” In fact, after this post goes up, it's Pullaggeriamo time! I highly recommend we all incorporate little slices of Pullaggeriamo into our life wherever we can. He is on to something.
Napoli: Heavenly Pizza and Roads from Hell
Next we picked up our car and headed out of Rome, down to Napoli, for a pizza pit stop. Anyone who knows about pizza lore (or anyone whose ever read Eat Pray Love) knows that Naples is the birthplace of pizza. And if you know anything about Chris and I, it's that WE LOVE PIZZA. I had planned a 3 to 4 stop pizza tour, depending on how our appetites held up, which featured the best and most famous of Napoli pizza. Unfortunately, things did not work out in our favor. Due to the video/iPhone crisis, we left Rome muuuuch later than we planned to. And the train+tram rides to the airport to pick up the car, which took less than an hour on the way in somehow took 2.5 hours on the way out. Then, we hit Naples.
If you ever go to Italy and rent a car, never ever ever ever drive through Naples. We later read that every guide book recommends the same thing, in fact one even said “A foreigner driving through Naples is suicide.” Suicide. That's the word this author chose to use.
Well, we're here to tell the tale, but let's just say it was pretty much automotive hell. Insane congestion. Barely any traffic lights. Mystery lanes. Zero parking. Buses, trucks, cars, pedestrians aggressively vying for position on tiny cobblestone streets, not big enough for two cars to pass. Poor Chris had to endure this mess as the driver, and I as the navigator. To say it grated on the nerves would be an understatement. But, with the help of questionable GPS, we did find an underground parking garage and were able to park.
Unfortunately all this delay and drama ate into our eating time. So the three pizza tour was narrowed down to just one.. but it was one glorious pizzeria. It is named Da Michele (and the angels sang!) Yes, this is the pizzeria from Eat Pray Love, but after much research, I found this place is, was, and always will be THE SPOT for real Neopolitan pizza. It's been around since 1870 with the same family recipe, and is beloved by Neopolitans to this day. Yes, 1870--that's 140 year of pizza expertise--they certainly didn't change the recipe because of some young American writer ate there once. So we went to Da Michele, and we devoured both of their two kinds of pizzas (Marinara and Margherita). Chris declared it as the best pizza of his life. We sat in silence, letting our stressful day melt away thanks to the most ooey gooey perfect pizza on earth. Everyone knows pizza is the best bad day remedy, so this was like the ultimate cure. All was right in the world again.
After Napoli, we drove to the Amalfi coast, arriving in the charming town of Ravello very late at night. Perched just up the mountain from the more-famous town of Amalfi, it was a twisty road to get there. Our B&B owner could not have been more friendly and welcoming, and we decompressed at the wine bar next door with some vino and local cheese (5 kinds, to be exact), and fell into bed exhausted.
We took this time in Amalfi to sightsee at a slower pace, and chill out. We took a beautiful bus ride along the famous, winding coastal road to Positano, the postcard-worthy seaside town perched on a cliff, with its cute houses forming a mosaic of peach, pink, yellow, and orange against the sparkling turquoise sea. We took an even more beautiful ferry ride as our return trip, seeing all the little Mediterranean towns from the water's view. Each town is cuter than the last, always with a church as the focal points of the skyline. These churches all feature a domed cathedral with a colorful majolica tile roof, from afar which look like gingerbread churches with candy roofs made of Necco wafers.
In Amalfi we met some lovely travelers, also Americans. These two couples from Hartford, Connecticut were some of the coolest folks we've met on the trip. A jeweler and her travel writer husband, and an architectural photographer and his business-partner wife. We chatted with them until late over several rounds of limoncello, until the restaurant was closing (though no Italian restaurant would ever tell you it's time to leave, we just got the hint since were were the dead last table in the joint.) The super-social atmosphere of Italy is clearly rubbing off on us, making our earlier travels in Asia feel practically reclusive in contrast.
Our time in Amalfi was wonderful, and we were so glad that we chose the quieter town of Ravello as our base. Set atop a cliff, it is a little more removed and far less touristy the other Amalfi coast towns. It's still a tourist town (they all are), but it's less populated and less veneered, and felt a little more quaint and charming. Another huge Amalfi treat was that we happened to be here during the peak wisteria season. Everywhere you turn, the gates, roofs and gardens are draped in gorgeous purple cascades. Being that wisteria is one of my favorite blooms, this coincidence made me utterly ecstatic.
Ruins and Ash
After Amalfi, we did a quick two-day stop to explore the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This was perhaps more fascinating than the more-famous Colosseum and Forum, because of how well preserved it all is. Pompeii is sprawling and impressive... with real amphitheaters and basilicas, you can truly see the outline of Roman life how it once was.
But the smaller Herculaneum is every bit as engrossing for several reasons. First of all, it was covered in volcanic mud (versus ash and lapilli) meaning a wet seal was formed on the town and artifacts were more well preserved. So well-preserved you can even see two-thousand year old wooden beams, scorched and blackened from the high temperatures. We reveled at the beautiful art and architecture of this ancient time, from the detailed mosaics to the stunning frescoes.
But the craziest part is that only a fraction of Herculaneum is excavated! The rest of it sits underneath the present day town of Ercolano. We have no idea what treasures and precious ruins lie underneath thousands of years of soil sitting atop this volcanic mud. There are homes and buildings and roads and train tracks that all cannot be compromised for the sake of these potential discoveries. It's really amazing to think about... I want to know what's under there! But I also understand that this entire real, living community doesn't want to lose their home to dig up some bones and artifacts. What a conundrum.
During our overnight in Pompeii, we made the rash decision to hop a train into Naples to get one more taste of the beloved Da Michele pizza. We spent roughly 2+ hours navigating the local Napoli train lines to get it, but it was well worth it! During our 2 hour jaunt in Naples, we consumed 3 pizzas, including a stop at another pizzeria (La Brace). It was tasty, but no Da Michele. This time at Da Michele, we ordered our pizza "Doppia Mozzarella" or double cheese, which we learned is how all the locals order it. In fact, the next morning we mentioned that we went to Naples to the owner of our B&B in Pompeii, she declared “Da Michele, number 1!” Reinforcing, indeed.
Now you're probably wondering if we only subsisted on pizza thus far? No way! There will be a whole post dedicated to food later on, but in a nutshell, we're eating our faces off. Every restaurant is divine, and the portions are huge. I'm terrified of what a month of this is going to do to us, but we're under such a food trance, who could care? There will be plenty of time to go to the gym later, but for now, pasta-eating and and gelato-sampling are our competitive events.
Ciao, for Now
After this post, there will be a little blog break for a while until we return to the States in a few weeks (sniff). We were blogging about every two weeks anyway, but we're officially using the end of our time in Italy to disconnect and be e-free. We want to enjoy Italy as we feel it's meant to be enjoyed.... with food, wine, conversation, books, and strolls. These last few weeks are the sauce left in the giant pasta bowl of our travels. We've enjoyed every bite. But fewer distractions mean we can really sop up every last saucy drop with a big, crusty piece of bread.
We will report on our travels in Puglia, Florence, Tuscany and Milan when we return. And we have some cool wrap-up posts in the works as well, like food posts, facts & stats on our travels, and some cultural posts about personal observations we've made. And of course, some reflection on what this trip has meant for us personally. We hope you'll stay tuned for all that, and until then...... Pullaggeriamo!