Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mountains, sea

It's not unusual for my trips to Rome to include side trips to other cities. Mostly because my fabulous friends are also adventurous travelers in addition to being incredible hosts. It is also not unusual for these trips to be motivated by food.

Last time I was in Rome we went on side trips to Tuscany (amazing steak and gnocchetti with truffle sauce), Montalcino (wine) and Montevarchi (Prada - ok, so sometimes these trips are motivated by shopping). This time we side-tripped to Arcinazzo (bistec alla brace and a taverna serving incredible lamb) and Ischia (Naples style pizza). Somehow Ale has come to know the location of the best restaurant in each Italian town/city/sweeping countryside and he appears to take great pride in sharing this knowledge with me when I come to town.

Well, darn.

Arcinazzo is one of those towns, perched on a picturesque mountaintop that could only exist in Italy, that makes you question it's authenticity just for the unrelenting beauty of it all. This is where I started my "I can't believe this is real" mantra. Because, still, I can't believe it is real.

Take for instance the view from the terrace:

That can't be real, can it? It seems possible that I've been ruined by one too many Disney crafted attractions in my day to look at something like this and be able to accept it at face value. But there it is, incredible as all get out, just sitting right outside the shutters of Ale's family's mountain home. And, apparently, it's looked just like that for, oh, a thousand years or so. Another concept I have a hard time wrapping my American brain around when in Italy. You know, since everything there is incredibly old, historically significant and utterly gorgeous. You just don't see places like this in the US that aren't crafted by some salivating, hand-wringing evil corporation trying to capture the bank accounts of luxuriant billionaires.

And if all that weren't enough, we wandered down to Subiaco during the day to look around the Benedictine monasteries. These are from, oh you know, the middle ages. They are wildly beautiful with intact ancient frescoes, gardens originally planted by Benedict himself and seated atop a lush mountainside that had me gaping with bug-eyed wonder. It's no wonder Benedict holed himself up here for three years. I had a mind not to leave myself.

Once all my shameless gawking was satisfied, we went on to have lunch. Now, I don't know about you, but rustic Italian fare in an old mountaintop taverna sounds just about my style. And when they keep bringing more local wine in hand-sealed bottles, well that is just an invitation to kick back, relax and indulge until teetering drunk and grotesquely full. Bless our waitress who was also tending to a busload of awnry Italian tourists who chose to indulge a little too heartily in the local vino and were thus making enormous asses of themselves. She was close enough to sainthood to have moved across the valley to the monastery herself.

Once finished with our extravagant lunch (or made to throw our hands in the air in surrender) we headed back to Arcinazzo to find dinner and partake in the lovely fall ritual of roasting chestnuts by the fire. Dinner we found, in the form of two enormous steaks reminiscent of those enjoyed by the Flintstones family, but the chestnuts were a whole other story.

As it turns out there is a local phenomenon known as Giovedi (Thursday) which means that you can not and will not be able to find any particular type of produce on this day of the week due to delivery schedules and the like. So, we drove through numerous mountain towns, in ignorant disbelief that an entire region would adopt such an inconvenient routine, until we'd visited every produce market within a 25 mile radius and received only one response to our chestnut inquiry: Hands folded across ones chest and a knowing nod followed by, "Bah! Giovedi."

So much for our foray into the timeless tradition of roasted chestnuts. Good thing we still had the steaks to capture our curiosity. Just try to tell me that the sight of these doesn't make you want to saw a giant hole in your cars' firewall and go running out for a brontosaurus burger.

Ischia was a new one on me, since it involved sea travel, something we hadn't included in any of our previous out-of-Rome jaunts. Before we could get to our presumably sea-worthy vessel, however, we had to pass through the towns of Pompei and Naples, which appeared to be some sort of pennance. Pompei is inaucuous, as far as towns known historically for being buried beneath lava flow can be, but Naples was another story altogether.

As we drove, or more accurately, flew low, on our way to Naples, Ale regaled me with horror stories of Naples and it's citizens. Many stories that had the underlying theme of anarchy, lawlessness and, well, horror. At this point in my Italian travels, I was not ready to accept that in a country that had such beauty as seen in Tuscany, Rome, Arcinazzo, Montalcino, etc that there also existed a town buried in garbage, half on fire and willing to block entire thoroughfares for the sake of a soccer game that didn't provide adequate parking.

Oh, for my innocence.

I won't go into extravagant detail, and I won't even include photos (in case you're trying to eat lunch right now or something) but Naples is something of a dump. Specifically, it's people treat it like one. At one point, mercifully toward the end of our trek through town on our way to the pier, we paused briefly before making a left turn and I watched Ale wrinkle his nose and roll up his window. Why? Oh because we had pulled up alongside a hillside of garbage that was approximately 10 car-lengths long, shoulder height and ON FIRE. Oh, and there was a burnt toilet seat topping off the whole mess.

And were people screaming, bosoming their children or calling the attention of the authorities? No, they were going about their daily business, not even pausing to gag softly at the buzzing mound of nasty stewing plague on their city street.

So we got on the ferry and went to Ischia, where I can assure you that there were no roadside garbage heaps, despite the city's allegiance to the Naples region.

Ischia is an island draped with winding narrow roads that make Lombard street look tame. Oh, and these streets are also steep, parked up with tiny cars on either side and driven by madpeople on scooters who are traveling the earth with absolutely no fear of being crushed by a cement truck. Thankfully Ale was behind the wheel to expertly navigate the dicey streets so that I could close my eyes and pretend we were actually alone on a six-lane freeway with wide open pasture land on either side.

Of course we made it to our first nights accommodations without incident, stealthily avoiding schoolchildren, oncoming cars unaware of the two-lane status of the streets and one hundred poorly manned scooters. While the views and surroundings were stunning and beautiful, our accommodations turned out to be a bit less than what we'd imagined. For a full recount of this one night adventure into Residence vacationing, please pop over to Shelley's blog for a top ten retelling of it's more repellent attributes. She outlines ten things that you never want to find when happening upon your vacation rental.

What I will say, since Shelley has left it to me to explain, is that in addition to the laundry list of laugh-so-you-don't-cry disappointments we encountered, my patio indeed had "dog issues". I coined this term when I wasn't sure if Shelley was going to laugh or cry under the circumstances. What I really wanted to say was that my "patio", while having a scenic view of a rickety tool shed, overgrown palm and a dozen other "patios", was also a dog donut factory and that I would require the most industrial sized pooper scooper if I had a mind to go outside again. But I didn't want her to cry, so I simply said that my patio had "dog issues", so if we wanted to hang out that evening, we should perhaps do so on their patio, or anywhere else on the island. Alessandro thought this was amusing and said, "Well, as long as they're not human issues!" and we went on our way.

Needless to say, we made it through or first day/night on the island in a drunken haze, stopping briefly to enjoy some natural thermal baths at the base of the "convenient" 200 step staircase. After booking our following night's lodging at "the most scrumptionest" hotel we could find, we wandered off for apperitivos and dinner in the charming harbor town of Forio.

For comparison's sake, here's a look from our balcony in Forio, notice the lack of dog issues.

As for the rest of our time in Ischia, it was blissfully spent alternating between luxuriating poolside and eating the most incredible Neapolitan-style pizza a girl could hope for. A little poofier and chewier than Roman pizza, it's pretty awesome with the best ever mozzarella melting on top. To harken back to my previous post where I gushed over the Mozzarella di Bufala (see, I am really making good on my promise to loop back) the cheese they have in Naples is really a superior product. As Ale put it, so perfectly as always, "this is not Old Grandma Cheese, it's the good stuff."

In addition to not-grandma mozzarella, tasty pizza, tubs of Nutella, plenty of shopping and fancy-pants accommodations, we also fully enjoyed my favorite custom, apperitivos. I know we have Happy Hour here in the States, but I don't feel it accurately compares to an Italian apperitivo. At least not the way we were rolling in Ischia. Our apperitivos were generally observed ocean side, with multiple interesting snacks and a menu that went on and on. Moving from cocktails to dinner was my favorite time of day, enhanced by my rising blood alcohol level and the promise of another good meal. This is also when my Italian was at it's best, mostly because I was too drunk to care if I was using the wrong tense/verbs/language.

I have a billion more pictures I could share, but this post is now the longest in Finny history and I've managed to bypass the short bit of jet lag from 5:30 this morning. So, I'm going back to bed, but will be back to go on about more food, the scariest possible situation for a non-native speaker, a small miracle in the town of Trastevere and my best gardening assignment ever.



  1. I lived this and yet you still manage to have me laughing out loud in front of my computer screen. I read the longest post in Finny history from start to finish...I think my favorite is the photo from really caught a special moment!

  2. Stumbled upon your site looking for pictures of Italy. Love the pictures... What a great site! Have a super day.


  3. Shelley - Ok, so I'm glad we can still laugh about this. What an experience! I think this is an alls well that ends well kind of thing, right? And, it certainly ended well.

    Nigel - Thanks! Welcome!

    Yes, I tend to take hundreds of photos while I'm in Italy. I'll be posting more this week - Rome, etc. It's hard to take a bad shot of the place.

  4. What great pics, and yes, I'm still jealous.

    The only thing that has me puzzled is the drunk Italian tourists. There seems to be an agreement amongst Italians that appearing drunk in public is a no-no and if you see someone really drunk in public chances are they're American or British.

    Keep the gorgeous pics coming!

    I'm secretly hoping that the permitting and construction onmy new place down in Georgia drags on past April so I can take a quick trip to Italy and get my fix.

  5. Steven - You know, I was a little surprised, too. First, because they were Italian tourists in Italy (which, I guess makes sense since we have American tourists in American cities, too), but also because they were so wild. Who knows!

    Put up some posts on the construction of your new place - I'm sure you already have stories. ;) And since it's bound to drag (it is construction afterall) you should have time to run off to Italy for un cafe e coronetti. Mmmmmmmmm, and maybe some Nutella ;)

  6. The new place probably won't get blogged until after Christmas. The lot is being cleared this week and the architect has sent a site plan, but the actual plans are still being worked on.

    Pasqua in Prati, Baby!

  7. Steven - Well, sounds like your construction is coming along without any snags so far. That's good news!

    Not sure if you were around to read my contractor nightmares from earlier this year, but let's just say, having your contractor call you from the slammer is not good news.

    I hope your plans go smoothly and the house goes up without a hitch - then you can get your garden in the ground by spring! Because DirtSunRain has to live on!

  8. If it were only a house.. No, it's worse, the first restaurant my business partner and i have built from the ground up. We usually go into space that's been built-out already, but this time we're doing it the hard way. Much wine will be consumed before this is finished.

  9. Steven - Oh, not as fun I'd guess. So, does this mean you're moving to ATL or no? I had imagined a new brand of DirtSunRain gardening involving racks of preserved peaches and the like.

  10. There will still be gardening, I'll just be posting erratcally like everyone else.

    The only difference is I'll be living in a condo down in ATL, so all my gardening is going to integrated into the landscaping at the restaurant until I can find a piece of land close enough to the condo.

  11. I am so happy that you left the comment on my blog today so that I can drool over the amazing beauty of your photos and swoon over ... well, just about everything.

    Why is it that I want to get on a plane and fly to Italy RIGHT NOW? ;-) Your photography and writing about it is fantastic! Oh goodness.

    I have a lot to read, but I *will* be here. Oh goodness, I will be here.


[2013 update: You can't comment as an anonymous person anymore. Too many douchebags were leaving bullshit SPAM comments and my inbox was getting flooded, but if you're here to comment in a real way like a real person, go to it.]

Look at you commenting, that's fun.

So, here's the thing with commenting, unless you have an email address associated with your own profile, your comment will still post, but I won't have an email address with which to reply to you personally.

Sucks, right?

Anyway, to remedy this, I usually come back to my posts and post replies in the comment field with you.

But, if you ever want to email me directly to talk about pumpkins or shoes or what it's like to spend a good part of your day Swiffering - shoot me an email to finnyknitsATgmailDOTcom.