Friday, November 14, 2014

Off the beaten path

The beaten path is beaten for a reason. It's spectacular. It's unique. It's bewitching. Italy has some of the world's most beaten paths - The Colosseum, The Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain - and even whole cities like Florence and Venice. The five villages of the Cinque Terre have become beaten in the last few years and there are other hotspots looming, like Lecce and probably the whole of Sicily. With international travel getting cheaper, it is becoming harder to find those quiet places where tourists are few and Italian life goes on without them.

Many people ask the Trip Advisor forums for advice as to avoiding the beaten path. They are after the quintessential (some would say clichĂ©) Italian experience - quaint villages, cobblestone streets, local food and wine, stunning landscapes and maybe even the Dolce Vita lunch on the long table under the grapevine trellis. Ahhh...who doesn't want that? The thing is  -  it actually does exist and it is easy to find - if you do a bit of homework.

Places like Pozzuoli, Baia, Procida, Atrani - are they familiar? Probably not but it may surprise you to know that they are located right alongside the well beaten path. These places are in Southern Italy in Campania - in and around the Bay of Naples - but in every part of Italy if you just move off 'that' path - you'll find these. The island of Torcello is half an hour from Venice but you'll find just a couple of tourists visiting the 9th century church. Oh - and you'll have that lunch under the vine covered trellis with just the birds and a cool breeze for company.

Piscina Mirabilis (marvellous pool)
Tucked away in a Bacoli back street, this is a 12,600 cubic metre water reservoir constructed 2000 years ago to supply Augustus' naval fleet with fresh water. You will be the only people here as you have to phone ahead and the custodian of the site will let you in through a locked door at street level and surrounded by suburbia, then you descend about 50 stairs underneath the houses above - to this.... 'Surreal' is an over-used word but appropriate to describe this place.

The Tomb of Agrippina (the elder), Bacoli. Agrippina was the granddaughter of Augustus, wife of Germanicus (whose brother was Emperor Claudius), mother of Emperor Caligula and Agrippina the younger (who was the mother of Emperor Nero). Yes - that's some imperial lineage. Archaeologists debate whether this is the resting place of her ashes but I'd like to think it is. Many members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty spent time in Campania - it was a holiday destination for wealthy Romans.
(Above and below - Bacoli) Sandy beach (tick), sun lounges (tick), waves (tick), blue sea (tick), did one of my Australia photos sneak in? (nope). This is Bacoli, near Naples. Pliny the Elder - and Younger - would have seen this beach as would have many ancient Romans on their holiday. This beach is alongside Cape Miseno where both Plinys (uncle and nephew) observed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Pliny the Elder was a Roman naval officer who rowed across the Bay of Naples and attempted to help the victims of Pompeii - he died of asphyxiation on the beach at Stabiae (near Sorrento). His nephew Pliny the Younger documented his uncle's heroism and his ancient letters (to Tacitus) are the only surviving recount of the eruption of Pompeii. The term 'Plinian eruption' is now used to describe a type of volcanic event similar to Vesuvius.

The Flavian Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (near Naples). Where are the tourists?
The third largest amphitheatre in the Roman empire and no one is here!
The photos above and below show the underground area where you are free to walk without constraint - or until the darkness and eerie tunnels spook you back up to daylight.

The Temple of Serapis at Pozzuoli. Not a temple but a macellum (marketplace) where ancient Romans bought their groceries - meat, fish, vegetables. These days it's a victim of the unstable earth surrounding it -see how there is water at the bottom. In 1976 this temple had water halfway up - due to 'bradeyism' which is the undulating of the earth's crust due to flowing molten magma just below the surface.
Nisida - you can't visit this little island as its a prison - but its fame is everlasting. It was here that Brutus and Cassius plotted to kill Julius Caesar in 44BC.

Procida - everyone's heard of Capri but who's heard of this little jewel?
One hour on the ferry from Naples.
Come here to get away from Capri's tourists - you'll have it all to yourself.

Further down the coast from Naples and Pozzuoli lies the Amalfi Coast. Buzzing with tourists night and day and so over-supplied with an abundance of beauty you don't know where to look - but with that brings lots of crowds. Positano is one of my favourite places on earth and Amalfi is a close second, however on my last trip I was determined to visit Atrani. It's right next door to Amalfi and to get there, you take this winding ancient pathway (see below). Again - no one is there. You'll have the path, and Atrani, all to yourself.

Atrani is less than 1 kilometre from Amalfi but look at the beach - no one there. It takes about 25 minutes of slow walking and stopping for photos. Sam and I saw two other people on the day we walked this path and around the corner Amalfi was packed with tourists.

 The path between Amalfi and Atrani - where is everyone?

FINALLY....not in Campania - this time we're in Venice for a last look at taking a side step off the beaten path. Every time I go to Venice I am entranced. How could they built THIS on a marshy island?

To get a little look at the rural - and marshy - aspect of this, head to Torcello. Way off the beaten path it's a sleepy little place but surprisingly, was once a Byzantine metropolis of 20,000. The church below is Santa Maria Assunta which dates back to the 7th century and is full of shimmering gold mosaics (no photography allowed inside unfortunately).

One of Torcello's quiet canals - no gondolas...just peace

And here is the vine covered trellis. Yes, we had lunch here and enjoyed the peace of Torcello before taking the vaporetto back to Venice - a half hour trip but a whole world away from the the beaten path. 

These examples of the 'path beside' show that you just have to detour a little way and you'll find a Procida or a Pozzuoli or a Baia - and even Venice. They say Italy is overrun with visitors but all you need do is turn left or right off that beaten path - and you'll find your own little slice of unspoilt Bella Italia.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Languid, seductive, alluring - Positano and Amalfi

According to myth, the sirens that attempted to lure Odysseus were located on the Amalfi Coast. Their home was apparently the three tiny islands you can see if you are high on the escarpment in Positano, whilst looking out on a view unimaginably beautiful. The little islands are located off to your right and are a curiosity. I've often wondered what they are called. They blend in with a coastline that is impossibly beautiful. Odysseus had to plug his crew's ears with wax to avoid their temptation by the Sirens - he was probably also trying to avoid their being tempted to jump ship and take up residence in this part of the world that can only be described as heaven on earth.

October 2014 was my third stay in Positano (my fourth visit as I did a day trip in January 2013). Again, I stayed at Pensione Maria Luisa as I'll take a 90 euro per night stunning view over somewhere three times that price. That way I can spend my saved euro on food, sun lounges, ceramics and shoes.

Our trip was originally three nights but we extended it to four to wallow in the extended summer and blissful weather. The first three days were simply beach, food, swimming, cocktails, spaghetti puttanesca at Saraceno D'Oro, limoncello and savouring the view. The view that will never fail to leave me grappling for enough words to explain. Take a look.


 Above and below - views from the terrace
 Room 1 at Pensione Maria Luisa, Positano
Taken just before sunset as the golden light illuminates the south

 Above and below - Fornillo Beach - pure emerald water - dive under, pop up and really are here

The day we arrived, we headed straight down to Café Positano. Some breakfast and THAT view was just what we needed after four hectic days in Paris and London. can feel the stress leaving your skin and floating away into the atmosphere.
Sam's second trip to Positano. How lucky for a 14 year old Australian kid from the South Coast of NSW (we are two hours south of Sydney and live in a very quiet seaside village). Sam settled in to Positano like an old hand. All over again he loved the view, loved the food and loved the beach.

Above and below - sunrise. I dragged my tired butt out of bed and snapped these on the iphone before disappearing back under the covers. Well...Positano beckons you to marvel, relax, eat and sleep. Who am I to argue?

And this is the 'classic' view - as seen in postcards, movies and everyone's imaginings. This was taken from Bruno - a restaurant perched on the side of the road but take your glass of wine, sip and revel in the bliss.

(Above) This is Spiaggia Grande - in other words 'Big Beach'. Positano's main beach which I've yet to swim at - as I've been spoilt by the cosiness of Fornillo. But hey - look up and check out that VIEW!

From Pensione Maria Luisa to Fornillo Beach there are 436 of these - yep - 436 stairs.
Don't count. Just stop and rest like Sam did.

And at the end of the day - or after taking on those 436 stairs - one is in need of some refreshment

Of course Positano is popular! I stay in a quiet part where you see the odd tourist but mostly locals. This is the busy reality of the pedestrian area of Positano where Via Pasitea dips and then rises to join the main road to Amalfi. This tour group are on their way to see Santa Maria Assunta (Positano's church) and the beach - with some shopping along the way

But hey, you gotta stop for GELATO. Sam is making his selection from the gelataria. See the above photo - see the Tabacci store? The gelataria is next door.
Positano is so exquisite that I simply have to search the thesaurus to find words that describe how it makes me feel. I can't get enough. People ask me why I keep returning. See above photos. Maybe you can answer them for me.
Kathy 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

Rome in one day

This 2014 trip was bookended by only two days in Rome - which boiled down to essentially 24 hours as I was arriving and departing on the other day. What can you do in Rome in just one day and one night? If you're organised and plan ahead you can do plenty. Some ideas are on my other blog posts (see Colosseum Underground and Bella Roma) but here is a list for you to ponder:
- Colosseum and the Underground tour
- Roman Forum and Palatine
- St. Peter's Basilica and Vatican Museums
- The Pantheon
- Trevi Fountain
- Spanish Steps
- Piazza Navona

Now before you head off and plan your day with that list....It's simply the most popular sights in Rome and highly frequented by visitors. There is no way you could do all of those sights unless you have the stamina and energy of a mountaineer and marathon runner combined. It's simply too exhausting. Pick one heavy hitter (e.g. the Vatican Museums) and then take a walk around the other sites - Pantheon, Trevi, Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona are all free and mostly viewed from the outside. Stop somewhere along your path for a drink, something to eat, gelato or just to rest your feet.

On the other hand, if the well-worn path is not your thing, try these options:

- Borghese Gardens - bike riding through 'Rome's lungs' and while you're there - check out the view from Pincio over Rome's rooftops toward St. Peter's
- Largo di Torre Argentina - which has nothing to do with Argentina the country but is four temples dating back to the Roman Republic and only discovered in the 1920s. The Curia of the Theatre of Pompey is here - which is where Julius Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44BC.
- Capitoline Museums - The oldest museum in the world, planned by Michelangelo and packed with ancient treasures and works of art. See the courtyard with the remains of a colossal statue of Constantine, the interior atrium which contains the original equestrian bronze of Marcus Aurelius and Caravaggio's 'Gypsy Fortune Teller' to name a few.
- Bernini's Elephant Obelisk - carved to Bernini's design and carrying a miniature 6th century BC Egyptian obelisk. It stands in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva - Rome's only Gothic church and the resting place of the body of St. Catherine of Siena.

Rome wasn't built in a day - nor was it seen in a day. Rome is meant to be savoured. Don't despair if a day is all you have - make the most of it and ensure you pull up a chair and watch the world go by.

A side view of the Pantheon facing Piazza della Rotunda
Above and below - Bernini's elephant obelisk

Piazza Navona and the Fountain of the Four Rivers

Above and below - Largo Argentina

 Arch of Constantine - in front of the Colosseum
 The Colosseum
Piazza del Popolo from Pincio
If your travel plans DO include the well-worn path - and there is nothing at all wrong with that - take a look at these - some of Rome's Top Ten.

Castel Sant Angelo from Ponte Sant Angelo. This bridge is lined with Bernini's angels (see below) and the castle was originally the mausoleum which housed the ashes of Emperor Hadrian. The views from the rooftop terrace are unmissable especially at sunset.

St Peter's Basilica

 St. Peter's Square (taken very early in the morning)
The Pantheon

 Trevi Fountain in October 2014 (minus the water). It is under restoration and expected to take a year to complete. The walkway brings you closer to the sculptures of Neptune taming the ocean - as represented by the horses - one calm (calm seas) and one raging (rough seas)
Above and below - the Spanish Steps -  Bernini's Baraccia fountain has been restored as at October 2014 but the Trinita dei Monti (the church at the top of the steps) is still undergoing restoration. There is Sam on the bottom right of the fountain (in the Batman shirt)
Close your eyes - is this how you imagine Rome's streets to look?
Open your eyes and take a walk to Via Margutta just down from the Spanish Steps. It really IS like this. No wonder Fellini moved in.

After you've done all of this - you deserve one of these.
Rome is about people watching and savouring the atmosphere.
Relax, enjoy, fall in love
(This photo taken on Via dell Orso - a tiny street a few minutes walk from Piazza Navona)