Thursday, September 19, 2013

Seeing Italy with New Eyes

As a son of Italian immigrants, my parents raised me to love and cherish Italy. I have lost count of how many times I have been blessed to visit, to see friends and relatives in Sicily and Genoa, and to enjoy the natural, artistic and historical beauty of everywhere in between.  At age 55, you would think that going to Italy would be old hat for me by now, but I can say without hesitation that my trip to Italy this year has been the most memorable by far.

Why?  Because it was the first time I got to share Italy with some dear American friends.  My wife Susan and I were joined by three other couples:  Gordon and Jean, Glenn and Donna, and Tommy and Jeanne.  We had been planning the trip for almost two years and everyone was excited, but no one as much as me, because I was looking forward to playing tour guide and showing off the land that I love.  Though I had seen many of the places before, I would vicariously be enjoying them for the first time as I saw Italy’s unmatched beauty through my friends’ eyes.

I was a little nervous at first, wanting more than anything for my friends to have the time of their lives.  The extended weather forecasts did not look promising, calling for unseasonably cool weather with the rainy season uncharacteristically lingering into late May and early June.  Wanting them to have a good impression from the start, I was also nervous about landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, which is not known to be traveler friendly.

Thankfully, when we landed, the sun was shining.  It was still May, and the chaos so characteristic of Fiumicino in July and August did not materialize.  Though we were exhausted from the trans-Atlantic journey and needing three or four more hours of sleep, it seemed to take very little time to make it through Controllo Passaporti [immigration], retrieve our baggage and rent a nine passenger van.  Before we knew it, we were on the Grande Raccordo Anulare (the Roman beltway) heading toward Highway A1- South.

After a good shot of espresso ristretto at the first Autogrill, I was all set to drive us to the Amalfi Coast while everyone else caught up on sleep.  Our destination was Praiano, a small town on the Gulf of Salerno side of the Sorrentine Peninsula, just past Positano.  The intention was to spend a couple of nights just to chill out and enjoy the scenery as we recovered from the jet lag.

Breathtaking views like this are all over the Amalfi Coast
By the time we took the exit at Castellamare di Stabia, everyone was awake and excited to get to our destination.  It was not long before the “ooh”s and “ah”s started as we hairpinned along the road that hugs the mountainside high above the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Of course we stopped at many of the scenic overlooks, taking way too many pictures of us smiling in front of the backdrop of the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius.

Driving the narrow, Sorrentine streets was not a new experience for me, but this was the first time I did so in a nine passenger van, so it took a little getting used to.  I eventually achieved a certain comfort level and was able to navigate without giving it much thought.  It was only later that I realized that my passengers were terrified.

“Did you realize that you only missed that wall by about two inches?” Tommy asked as he pulled in the passenger side view mirror to keep it from scraping.

“Well, I did miss it, did I not?”

The only other complication about the drive had to do with relying on a GPS for the first time.  It proved to be more trouble than it was worth, especially in mountainous areas like the Amalfi Coast, because it had trouble distinguishing the road we were on from the road 50 feet above us with almost identical coordinates.  At one point, we came to a dead end and the GPS squawked:  “Turn right onto pathway.”  Uh, no, I don’t think so, as that would send us careening down the mountainside.  With the help of a friendly resident guiding us through what seemed like a fifteen point turn, we somehow managed to turn the huge van around and get to our destination at the Hotel Holiday in Praiano.  We arrived exhausted, but we were jazzed by the new experience and the stunning views from our balconies.

The next morning, we wisely decided to leave the van parked at the hotel and took the bus to Positano.  Words cannot do justice to this lovely town of cobblestone streets, quaint shops with flowers everywhere, artisans showing off their handiwork, stone houses stairstepping up the mountainside, and the crystal clear waters of the Bay of Salerno.  We decided to have lunch at La Cambusa, relaxing at an outdoor table on a terrace overlooking the main beach.  I was skeptical at first, fearing it might be an overpriced tourist trap, but it turned out that the food was delicious and very reasonably priced.  We asked for their red house wine, and I was surprised when they brought out a couple of very good bottles of Aglianico. (I had only recently learned about Aglianico at the Italian Wine and Culture Seminars held at Casa Italiana in Washington, DC, that it was the prime grape of the Campania region and often called the “Barolo of the South.”  The wine lived up to its name, and we would enjoy many more bottles of Aglianico during our stay in Italy.)
Enjoying some appetizers and some Aglianico at La Cambusa. 

The following day, we were headed back north.  After spending a few hours touring the ruins of Pompei, we were on our way to Rome for three nights.   Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but the time in Rome was almost obligatory.  One does not come to Italy without seeing the Coliseum, the Forum and the rest of Ancient Rome, as well as St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican.  To bypass them would be--shall we say?--a sin.

In front of St. Peter's Basilica
After Rome, we were now ready for the main event.  We had reserved one week at a villa in the heart of Tuscany, where we intended to enjoy beautiful scenery, food and wine, rest and relaxation, peace and quiet, interrupted only by occasional day trips to Florence, Pisa, Lucca and the like.  But there was one more day before our reserved week, and I assured my friends that they absolutely must spend at least one day and night in Assisi.

A view of Assisi from the fortress of Rocca Maggiore
As we entered Umbria, it was raining, and my heart sank as I could barely make out the contours of Assisi shrouded in fog and rain.  This would not do.  But somehow, miraculously after we had checked into our hotel and had a light lunch, the rain abated and the sun started peeking through the clouds.  We dared to venture out on foot down the medieval cobblestone streets, and a few of us climbed the path to Rocca Maggiore, where we enjoyed a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of St. Francis’ home town and its beautiful churches, castles, and surrounding countryside.

The next morning, we were off to Villa Giardo, a spacious and elegant five bedroom villa nestled in the hills about halfway between the towns of Greve in Chianti and Figline Valdarno.  Here again the GPS  proved to be worthless, because Villa Giardo is so remote that the last mile is made up of unpaved “roads” that a GPS could only guess at.  The street address was “Via Case Sparse” (“scattered houses”), so you can imagine the setting.  The final mile ascending to the villa was somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying, but, having reached our destination, it was more than worth it.

The Villa is a restored stone building, parts of which date back to the year 1059.  The interior has every modern day comfort and convenience you could wish for, even while retaining an old world ambience.  It is surrounded by cultivated trees and gardens, vineyards and olive groves.  Many an evening was spent gazing at the stars and admiring the flora and fauna in this utterly peaceful setting while sipping on abundant wine, enjoying delicious food, and deepening friendships. 

Villa Giardo
All of us agreed it was the trip of a lifetime.  It was summed up most simply and eloquently when our friend Donna told me, “Leo, you have a beautiful country.”  I smiled with joy and satisfaction, so thrilled that our friends enjoyed Italy as much as I did.  Italy is indeed a beautiful country.