Years ago, when I was living in Puerto Rico, someone asked me if I drove there or flew. I laughed, assuming the comment was meant as a joke, but as I soon learned, this person was dead serious – he had no idea that Puerto Rico was an island. I was reminded of this incident while making plans to move on from Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula to Sicily. When I told my Dad I was taking the train to Sicily he said, “You can’t do that, Sicily is an island.” In this case, I was not exhibiting geographic ignorance. From Naples, I boarded a train that took me to Villa San Giovanni, a small town at the tip of Italy’s boot. Here, after a brief wait, my train was loaded onto a ferry, which carried us across the narrow strait to the Sicilian town of Messina.
The journey is a little tricky, because the ‘official’ destination of the train is Palermo, which is on the complete opposite side of the island from where I was going. In actuality, when the train arrives in San Giovanni the individual coaches are separated as they are loaded onto the ferry. Upon arrival in Messina the cars are reassembled into two separate trains, one destined for Palermo on the northwest coast, the other bound for Siracusa on the southeast corner of the island. So when boarding in Naples it is extremely important to get on the right carriage, or you might end up somewhere you don’t intend to be.
It was a lovely ride through lush green countryside, punctuated by rolling hills and rocky escarpments, but the most fascinating part was at the ferry dock. I stood at the rear of my car and watched as it was uncoupled from the train and rolled onto tracks in the lower level of the ferry. Soon, we were pulling away from the docks for the short trip to Sicily. At this point, passengers are free to leave the train and go up on deck, but here again I need to offer a warning.
The song of the Sirens was too much for even Odysseus, so how could I be expected to resist? Some years ago I was raving about the beauty of Cinque Terre, five cliffside villages on the Italian Riviera in northwest Italy. Calmly, my companion turned to me and remarked, “If you think Cinque Terre is beautiful, you should see the Amalfi Coast.” That was all it took. One simple mention and the Amalfi Coast was permanently branded on my brain.
I had only a vague idea where the Amalfi Coast was (somewhere in southern Italy) so imagine my surprise when I stepped off the train in Sorrento and found buses lined up, waiting to whisk tourists to Positano and Amalfi. With only one day left before my scheduled departure for Sicily, I had no choice but to visit both cities in one day. Having spent too much time in Amalfi, I was forced to rush through Positano, nearly missing the last bus of the day back to Sorrento. I made no local connections and saw only the most popular tourist sights. It was ridiculously unlike my normal travels, when I stay in places for weeks at a time to soak in the culture of places and ferret out stories to tell. Still, after my short visit I was captivated. Read More
Luigi delivered the square, dark green bottle to my table, along with a basket of fresh-baked bread. From the unlabeled decanter I poured a quantity of extra virgin olive oil onto a plate, allowing it to spread languidly into a golden pool before sopping some up with a hunk of crusty bread. I closed my eyes and popped it into my mouth. The oil burst onto my tongue, at once fruity and fragrant, with a hint of acid. I nearly swooned; it was one of the most delicious varieties I’d ever sampled. But olive oil was just the beginning. Moments later, my table was covered with a selection of antipasti: beignets filled with artichoke and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, baked aubergine Parmesan casserole, polenta stuffed with artichoke and topped with smoked provolone, sauteed chard and green fava beans topped with sauteed calamari strips, and zappa di legume with fava beans and chickpeas.
Between bites, I gazed out picture windows to a panoramic view of Li Galli and Vitara islands, where Ulysses had himself lashed to his ship’s mast in order to hear the Siren calls without being lost to them. Seated atop a mountain on Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula, gazing out over a cerulean Mediterranean while surrounded by gourmet food, I suffered a similar seduction. I wanted to stay forever at Fattoria Terranova Farmhouse and Restaurant, a charming third-generation farm that has been converted to one of Italy’s popular Agritourismo accommodations. Read More
It would have been easy to dismiss Sorrento, Italy as just another attractive but over-touristy town. It offers the obligatory horse-drawn carriage rides, as well as a little white train that carries visitors from the upper level of town down to the beaches and marinas. Sidewalk cafes dot pretty piazzas that pop up around every corner and the town has its fair share of historic churches. And as with many tourist destinations, the main street is lined with upscale retail stores, while the narrow back lanes that wind down to the lower levels are chock-a-block with specialty shops.
After a day of hiking up and down the town’s hilly streets and long staircases, I sat down to rest inside the Church of Saints Felix and Baccolo. It was in no way exceptional. The church had a few nice paintings on its walls and the ceiling was covered in frescoes, but the marble floor was an uninteresting back and white diamond pattern, two rows of austere wooden pews provided the seating, and the altar was a common wooden table backed by brocade draperies strung across the back of the chancel. I’d caught my second wind and stepped outside, stopping to take a photo of the equally uninteresting exterior, when a a nicely dressed man interrupted my efforts. Read More
After a week spent traveling around the Bay of Naples, I was still somewhat baffled by what I had seen at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa di Poppaea Sabina at Oplontis. To visit all these sites I’d ridden the Circumvesuviana, a privately owned train that runs around the base of Mount Vesuvius. At each, the collapsed cone of the volcano loomed over the ruins, but the sites were miles apart. I simply could not wrap my mind around the idea that a single eruption could wreak such devastation in cities so widely scattered. There was only one thing to do – go to the top of the volcano for a birds-eye view.
Though going up to the crater rim became a necessity, I would have made the trip even if I hadn’t needed to better understand the 79 AD eruption. Several days earlier I’d called my Dad to tell him about the Roman ruins I’d been visiting.
“Are you going up to the top of Vesuvius?” he asked unexpectedly. “I flew over that volcano in 1945.”
Dad was a ball turret gunner in a B-17 bomber during World War 2. After the end of the war their plane was converted for aerial mapping of Italy, Germany, and Austria.
“They cut a hole in the floor of our radio shack and mounted a camera over it. We’d turn the camera on, fly straight for a long time, then turn and do the next strip. Back and forth all day long. We were on a training mission in Italy and our route took us near Mount Vesuvius. We weren’t supposed to do this but the pilot said we had a chance to see it and he grabbed the opportunity.”
Vesuvius had erupted just one year earlier and the volcano was a scar on the landscape. “We were flying through really green areas and all of a sudden everything was black, like a burned out area after a fire. We flew all around the edges and the pilot tipped the plane so that everyone could see down into the crater, it was a big smoking hole – black and totally barren.” Read More
On a fine afternoon in 1752, word reached King Charles III of Bourbon that his royal archeologist, Karl Weber, had discovered a treasure trove at Herculaneum. Sometime earlier, his excavation tunnels had brought to light the luxurious residence that would later be dubbed the Villa of the Papyri, however on that particular day his tunnels broke into a long porticoed garden in the villa that was filled with statuary. In the dim underground light, it was impossible to see details, but the architect dutifully sent word of his remarkable find. The king and his party, who happened to be hunting in nearby woods, rushed to the scene and set to picnicking while they waited for slaves to carry pieces to the surface.
In her book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery, author Judith Harris relates what occurred next:
“Amidst a flotilla of courtiers in silks and befurred velvet finery, Charles and his Prussian wife Queen Maria Amalia arrived in a rustling, stately procession and took their seats on folding chairs. From the bowels of the earth the carved white marble group of two embracing figures, which Weber had found in the Great Peristyle, appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, borne upon a litter carried by prison labourers. A shiver of excitement rippled through the court. Already the dainty turn of that horn revealed the prized Greek look. When the whole sculpture group hoved into view two heads could be seen and two bodies. One seemed to be a man of sorts, though at closer look he wore two small horns on his head. He gazed fondly into the female’s languid marble eyes. For locked in his embrace was a female goat, surely the prettiest in the flock, whom he was in the act of penetrating.”
The king was horrified by the marble sculpture of the half-human, half-goat god Pan engaging in sex with a she-goat. He hastily led the party away from the site, ordering the sculpture to be locked in a cabinet at the Herculaneum Academy in Naples, where only those with express written permission from the King were allowed to view it. Read More