For the past few years, my wife Becky and I have made an annual trip to Italy, to the wonderful International Journalism Festival in Perugia, which is about two hours north of Rome in Umbria, not far from Assisi and a little east of Florence. The conference is in the old city of Perugia, most of which dates back to the 13th century — and the old city is built on top of an even older city, the ruins of an Etruscan capital dating back to the year 275 or so.
Every year, we take a few days either before the festival or afterwards to see some of Italy — one year it was Rome, then Florence, then Venice, then Sorrento and last year we hiked Cinque Terre. This year, some of our friends came along for the trip, and so we had nine people in all on a wonderful vacation to the Amalfi Coast.
Becky and I spent the week in Perugia, then took the train from Perugia to Rome on Saturday the 14th to meet up with Becky’s brother Dave and his wife Jenn, our friends Marc and Kris and another friend Sandra. All of them had gotten in from Canada that day so they were quite jet-lagged, but we met for dinner at a restaurant near the train station and then headed to our nearby Airbnb, which was in the neighborhood known as Monti, near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The remainder of the group, our friends Barb and Lori, showed up the next day and had their own Airbnb.
We spent the day touring the Forum, the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, where we had what they call the “belvedere” tour, which gives you access to the upper levels of the amphitheatre. And then we walked north along the Via dei Fori Imperiali — which happened to be closed to traffic — to the Pantheon, and then to the Palazzo Navona. We stopped for some gelato at Grom, which makes some of the best gelato in Italy, and then headed to the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to see the famous Caravaggio paintings that are displayed there.
Then it was off to dinner at a great little restaurant called Renato e Luisa, and on the way home we walked past the ruins at Largo di Torre Argentina (home to a colony of cats) and then back down the Via dei Fori Imperiali past the lit-up ruins of the Forum and back to the Colosseum, then back to our Airbnb — after stopping at a little grocery store to pick up some essentials like coffee, salami and some bufala mozzarella.
In the morning, we headed to the Rome Termini train station to get the rental cars we had reserved. Barb and I had signed up to be drivers, and I got a VW Passat wagon and Barb wound up with an Opal wagon (I got standard and she got automatic, which drove her crazy because she loves to drive standard). We picked up the cars at the parking garage near the station and headed out — and almost immediately managed to lose each other in traffic.
We made it out of Rome and on to the highway without too much trouble (once we got used to the dozens of scooters and motorcycles zooming in and out of traffic at all times), and after a couple of hours decided to pull off into a small town called Ciprano and look for somewhere to have lunch. Through some sort of bizarre coincidence, the waitress at the trattoria we chose turned out to have been born in Canada, so Becky gave her a Canada pin she had brought with us.
After another hour or so, we made it to the small town of Massa Lubrense just south of Sorrento, where we found our Airbnb without too much trouble in the even smaller hamlet of Annunziata. The owner’s father, Salvatore, met us and showed us the house, then asked for a volunteer to drive with him to see where the store and other essentials were — so I went with him and he showed me the small grocery store run by his friend Orestes, and the family restaurant called La Torre, run by an elderly gentleman named Tonino.
Then it was into town, where we went into the pastry shop and Salvatore showed me all the cream pastries, describing each one. Then he started ordering them. “No, no — thank you, we don’t need pastries,” I said, but he wouldn’t hear of it. And when I tried to pay, he said “You stay at my house — I buy you dessert. When I stay at your house, you buy me dessert.” Then he asked if I wanted a coffee, and of course I said yes, so he got two espresso macchiatos, and proceeded to drink his in about three seconds, and I burned my tongue trying to do the same.
The Airbnb was an amazing place that Salvatore and his family (who live in Naples) use as a summer house — the main floor has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a small kitchen, and the lower floor has two more bedrooms and bathrooms and another small kitchen. And then there’s a free-standing oval “cottage” building with another bedroom and bathroom. Outside there’s a huge deck, an outdoor barbecue/oven and a covered area with a dining table, plus a small yard with a swing and an outdoor shower. The kitchens are small, but the deck on the front of the house was worth the price all by itself.
Not only was there seating for six or seven people on the lounges, there was a sunshade that could be rolled out mechanically for when it was hot, a small table and chairs and enough room for a medium-sized dance party. From the deck we could see the whole bay of Napoli, with the island of Ischia, the city of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. Not only that, but a small circular staircase up the side of the house led to another deck on the roof, and from there we could see the island of Capri. I would have slept on the ground just to have a view like that every morning and every evening. Watching the sun set over Ischia was magical.
The first day on the Amalfi Coast we headed to Pompeii, because it seemed like it was going to be cool and we thought that would be good weather to hike around the ruins. We got a little lost on the way there, unfortunately — we were using Waze, and we put in Pompeii but we got diverted to something in the town of Pompeii and later figured out we should have followed the signs for what is known as Pompeii Scavi (or ruins). Once we got there we got split up somehow, and went in two different entrances to the ruins, so we didn’t get a tour guide, but one group had some audio headsets with a tour, and the others had an app that you could download that told us all about the ruins.
After Pompeii we headed back to the Airbnb and bought some food to cook for dinner, and spent the night dancing on the patio overlooking the bay. The following day we had booked a boat tour on the Internet with a local chap named Guglielmo, who took us from the harbour at Massa Lubrense over to the island of Capri and showed us all of the various grottoes (the white, the green and the blue) as well as the Faraglioni — huge rock stacks rising out of the ocean off the coast of the island. One of them has a hole in it large enough to drive a boat through, and lovers are expected to kiss as they pass through to seal their love. We didn’t do the tour of the blue grotto because there was an hour-long wait (it is definitely worth it if you can get in without too much waiting — Becky and I did it a couple of years ago and it was spectacular).
After circumnavigating the island, Guglielmo let us off at the marina in Capri and said he would meet us at 5 pm. We headed off to the main square of Capri, but unfortunately we couldn’t take the funicula up because it was broken, so we had to take a bus. We walked around town for awhile and saw some of the sights, including an ancient Carpathian monastery, and then stopped and had lunch. After that, we got another bus up to Anacapri, which is at the top of a hill on the island. Barb and Lori wanted to hike up to the top of the mountain and then take the ski lift down but the ski lift was also out of commission, so they hiked up and down. The rest of us went to see the Villa San Michele, a beautiful villa built by a Swedish doctor named Axel Munthe who designed it in such a way as to have an amazing view from almost every window.
After taking a couple of taxis back down to the harbour, we realized that Marc had left his phone in one of the cabs, so we spent a while trying to call the company and talking to cab drivers and ultimately realized it was probably gone for good. That was a little depressing, but we made our way back on the boat and then had a great dinner on the covered patio at a restaurant in Massa Lubrense called Il Cantuccio.
The next day, we headed off to Mount Vesuvius. We got to the foot of the walking trail, and even though it was early in the season we had to park our cars about half a kilometre down the road and walk back to the trail. We decided to catch a bus rather than walk the whole thing (from where we started it would be about two hours), and that took us up to the start of the main trail, where the tour buses were parked. And then it was up the gravel switchback trail to the top, which probably took about 45 minutes. We looked into the crater and saw some steam coming out, and of course there was a hut right at the top selling espresso and cappucino. We had a bit of a snack and then headed back down.
After leaving Pompeii we drove to Sorrento and had a few drinks at a bar, then drove downtown to walk through some of the shops in the alleys near the main square. And then it was off to the grocery store to get some food to make for dinner, and back to the Airbnb.
The following day we met Guglielmo at the harbour for another boat tour, this time down the Amalfi Coast itself to the famous sea-side towns of Amalfi and Positano. It was a beautiful sunny day, and in the mid-20s Celsius, so we sat on the deck of Guglielmo’s boat and he pointed out the Saracen forts dotting the coast, and the villages clinging to the rocks, the private islands and so on. And along the way he provided pastries for breakfast and then later fresh fruit and glasses of Prosecco. He dropped us in Amalfi for a couple of hours and we toured the church there, as well as some of the shops, then it was back on the boat and up to Positano, where we got off and did much the same thing — followed by a dip in the ocean.
The next day was a somewhat more relaxing day, in that nothing major was planned. Jenn and Sandra hiked to a local farm and got a tour of their operations and then found a place for lunch, and the rest of us went for a long hike out to the very southern tip of the peninsula to a place called Punta Campanella, where there was the ruin of an old Saracen or Norman fort and an incredible view of Capri. Hiking back up the trail (which was actually an ancient Roman road) was a bit of a slog, but we managed it — and then were met at the top of the road near the town of Termini by a young man eager to convince us to sit at his family’s outdoor cafe and have some lemon ice or “granite,” which we did. It was probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.
That evening, our last on the Amalfi Coast, we found a restaurant not far from Annunziata called Nastro d’Oro (Golden Ribbon) — a small family restaurant hanging off a cliffside overlooking the bay of Naples, with an amazing view of Capri. We ate some of the amazing local food that Francesco and his family prepared for us as we watched the sun set over the bay, and the clouds enveloping the peaks of Capri, and it was the perfect way to end our stay.
The next day, we all drove back to Rome and stopped for lunch in a small town called Anagni, which has a fascinating history — it calls itself “city of the popes,” because four successive popes in the 12th and 13th century came from the region, and it was sort of the summer home of many popes and emperors. Apparently it peaked in the 13th century or so, but still a lovely little town. In Rome we split up into two groups — Marc and Kris stayed at a different Airbnb because they were staying longer and going to Florence. The rest of us got a nice three bedroom apartment in a lovely old building in Trastevere, right by the Tiber river, and had dinner with a friend at a fantastic trattoria called Da Bucatino, across the river in Testaccio. And the next morning, unfortunately, it was off to the airport and back to reality. Too soon!