Coming back to Sorrento

Yesterday’s adventure, which included four hours of train travel, left us a little drained so we hung out at the hotel until around noon. We then walked to Piazza Tasso in the center of town and had a bite. It was a lovely afternoon. We strolled the back streets of old Sorrento finding some little ancient allies without too many people. This is the lovely cloister of the 13th c. church of San Francesco.

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Sorrento was founded by the Greeks 2500 years ago. Here and there you find a bit of ancient wall or a Roman column if you know what to look for. Our path took us down from the town through an Ancient Greek gate to the Marina Grande which is outside the old city wall. Legend has it that the Turks would plunder this part of town, raping and pillaging as pirates are want to do. As a result the people of Marina Grande are thought to descend from Turks. They say even the cats look different. The Marina has a totally different atmosphere from the town above. Though dependent on tourism it is still a working fishing village. It feels real and decidedly laid back.

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We went down there ostensibly to have a café and walk back up. But we liked it so much we stayed for several hours and had a delicious early dinner at a little trattoria owned by a group of fisherman.

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Needless to say the fish was great. Feeling stuffed and a little buzzed from the local vino bianco we ambled slowly home. Tomorrow we leave Sorrento for two days on the Amalfi coast.

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Buffalo cheese and more old stuff

Water buffaloes were accidentally introduced into the region south of Salerno sometime around the 9th c. C.E. from Asia by Turkish pirates. How buffaloes got on pirate ships nobody seems to know. They soon naturalized, becoming somewhat wild, living in the marshes formed by the Sele River near Paestum. Soon locals had redomesticated them and started making cheese from their milk.

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We know it as Buffalo Mozzarella. Today we took the train an hour south of Napoli to watch it being made at the Barlotti Buffalo Farm. Starting at four in the morning the buffalo milk from the day before is mixed with a curdling agent, shredded, mixed with hot water and stirred to a thick cream. Most of the water is then removed by hand in a large vat using a large bowl with a handle in a particular stirring motion.

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The resulting fresh cheese is then stirred more and squeezed in the characteristic balls we’re familiar with.

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The squeezer is a machine although they still squeeze some by hand. One fellow deftly twisted a piece into a braid.

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The cheese is ready to eat by 11 the same morning. Now that’s fresh! And the taste is amazing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Paestum also has three of the best preserved Greek temples anywhere? After visiting the buffalo farm we spent the afternoon with Silvia Braggio, guide and expert on the ancient history of southern Italy.

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From her we learned that the Greeks colonized much of this part of Italy from the 6th until the 3rd centuries B.C.E. The temples and accompanying museum are incredible. The best preserved temple,  dedicated to the goddess Hera and dating from around 450 B.C.E., is in better shape than the Parthenon in Athens.

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This temple has not been restored. Unlike most architecture from this time it is entirely original.

One of the highlights of the museum is a rare example of Greek painting from a box tomb. The inside of the top depicts a man diving over some pillars into a body of water. Archeologists believe this was a metaphor for the journey into the after life. The pillars represent the pillars of Heracles (the Straits of Gibraltar), believed to be the end of the world. The water represents the unknown world to come.

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Something we often fail realize is that Greek temples and statuary were painted to an extent that might seem garish to us. Red, white and black were the most common colors. This is a piece of the frieze from one of the temples with the original paint intact.

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The area around Paestum is pastoral, quiet and tranquil – a great break after Napoli and Pompeii. Following a train ride back to reality we dined on pizza and beer on our balcony overlooking Sorrento and the Bay of Naples. It was a good day.

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Once more into the breach dear friends

To say Pompeii is crowded is like saying Louis the XIV built a nice little chateau. Yet, despite the hordes of slack jawed tourists obediently following their masters holding aloft tiny placards and the fact that parts are, as usual, closed for restoration, the place is amazing. We all know the story so I won’t go into details. Simply put, it is the most evocative Roman site I’ve seen after the Forum in Rome. For me, seeing the chariot wheel ruts in the ancient stone streets and getting up close to a brick column, covered in fine aggregate concrete then marble plaster brought the place to life.

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However, a couple of hours of sun and hordes was all we could take so it was back to Sorrento, espresso and some down time. Tonight we’ll try a favorite of locals near our hotel for dinner, Ristorante Verdemare.

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Basso living

Vesuvius broods over the the Bay of Naples like some great beast. Even at night it is visible as the absence of light on the otherwise brightly lit shore. We arrived in Sorrento around ten-thirty last night after 3 hours on the high speed train from Florence, another hour plus on the creaking Circumvesuviana line and a twenty minute walk. The hotel bar was open! Need I say more.

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We’re in seventh heaven, literally. Our hotel is the Settimo Cielo which translates as, wait for it, seventh heaven. It hangs on the side of a cliff above the Marina Grande in Sorrento.

We lolly gagged around this morning heading out for Napoli around one in the afternoon. The rickety excuse for a commuter train held us in the station for half an hour with some sort of mechanical problem. The doors would repeatedly open, shut and open again. Each time hope rising that the thing would actually start to move. Finally some unintelligible squawk that I can only assume was Italian came over the address system and everyone, including us, ran for another train that was sitting on the next track. At this point I swore I was through with Italy and would never return. Despite having the contents of two trains packed into one, once we were moving I thought better of it. You gotta love Italy.

Our first stop in Napoli was the Archeological Museum containing the best of Pompeii’s treasures as well as Roman statuary known as the Farnese Collection, mostly discovered at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The place is a bit overwhelming and completely amazing. One of the highlights is the Farnese Bull, a massive, marble 3rd c. C.E. copy of a lost, bronze Greek original depicting the sons of Antiope tying Dirce to a bull in revenge for stealing their dad, Lycus, from their mom. Michelangelo helped restore the work when it was uncovered during the renaissance. Those Greeks really knew all about payback. If you look carefully through Dirce’s flailing arms you can see Antiope looking on coldly.

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The museum visit took it’s toll so we headed for Café Mexico and the best espresso in the known universe. This place is old school, no tables, you stand at the bar. For one Euro you get a glass of water and a shot of espresso that is the strongest, smoothest, tastiest coffee you’ve ever had. Thus revitalized, we went deep into basso living down Spaccanapoli in the heart of old Naples. The streets are tight. Scooters careen through crowds of locals and tourists. Laundry hangs from the balconies. People yell, laugh, cry and gesticulate as only the Neopolitans can. What a scene.

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Near the end of our walk we dropped by L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. They’ve been wood firing their pies since 1870. Da Michele makes two kinds of pizza – marinara with tomato sauce, oregano and garlic, and Margherita. Pizza as we know it, tomato on flat bread, can be traced to the 18th c. in the Napoli area. By the 19th c. it was a popular street food among the poor. According to legend, in 1889 chef Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi created Pizza Margherita in honor of the newly unified Italy’s first queen representing the country’s new flag – tomato for red, mozzarella for white and basil for green. It must have been shortly after that when Michele Condurro incorporated it in to his limited menu. A document signed by Queen Margherita hangs on the wall of da Michele attesting to the authenticity of their pies.

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We sat next to a delightful Neapolitan couple who spoke about two words of English. Despite this and our limited Italian, the gentleman taught us the proper way to eat such a pie – cut the 18 inch disc into quarters, fold a quarter in half lengthwise forming a narrow triangle then in half again. Once folded eat with our hands, using a fork only in case of eminent collapse. Repeat for the other 3 quarters. Oh so good. Like I said, you gotta love Italy!

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A food day in Siena

Yesterday we went on a “Taste of Siena” walk and class offered by The Tuscan Wine School. It was great fun. We walked to some great shops tasting Pecorino cheese, various cured sausages, fantastic coffee, pastries, olive oil, chocolate and, of course, wine. We visited Bini Pasticeria operated by the same couple since 1944. Theirs is the only shop still making Paneforte, the gooey Sienese version of fruit cake, in the shop the old fashion way and only selling it there. After food, wine and coffee, the event was topped with Aqua Vitae and Lemoncino. I have no idea how we staggered home for a well earned nap.

October third, day before yesterday, was the twentieth anniversary of our first date. We celebrated last night at Traverna di San Giuseppe, rated number one in Siena according to Trip Advisor. Yet another peak culinary experience, of particular note was the traditional Sienese bread soup with black cabbage and cannelloni beans. We put away a bottle of great local red topping a day of Tuscan food.

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This morning we took a bus to Florence where we were to catch the high speed train south. With a few hours to kill we had hoped to see a couple of sights we missed when we were here 17 years ago. Alas the Museum of the Duomo was closed. We knew they were working on it but thought parts would be open including Lorenzo Ghilberti’s famous bronze doors to the Bapistry, the work that kicked off the renaissance. Still it was good to wander the streets in the shadow of the Duomo and see the Arno river – great memories.

We did manage to get into the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, former home of the ruling Medici clan. A young Michelangelo lived and studied here. Leonardo would entertain on the viola de gamba and Donatello studied the classical sculptures in the garden. In the private chapel the frescos depict the coming of the Magi. But the scenery and clothing is all 15th c. Florentine complete with the Medici clan in the procession.

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After wearing ourselves out walking we are now on the aforementioned train. Tomorrow we go deep – Napoli!

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Siena’s biggies

After breakfast on il terrazzo at our hotel (with the aforementioned view) we headed for Il Campo and the 300 plus steps of the Torre del Mangia (tower of food). The immense medieval tower is so called because the keeper of old literally ate up all his wages. After climbing to the top I can understand why. But the view was worth the effort.

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We then hit the Museo Civico in the town hall. The highlight was the fresco by Lorenzetti titled The Effects of Good and Bad Government. The good side depicts a benevolent ruler overseeing happy citizens enjoying music and dance, conducting commerce and bringing in a bountiful harvest. On the bad government side we see a satanesque ruler, corrupt officials, crime and violence in the streets. Siena’s civic government was one of the first to emerge from the feudal chaos of medieval Europe. These frescos, in the halls of local government, sent a clear message.

Hunger stricken from our effort we hit a local deli and grocer for a picnic at our hotel.

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After a well earned siesta we visited the Duomo and accompanying museum. The Duomo is in my top ten in Europe. The style ranges from late romanesque to early gothic.

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Treasures abound, Donatello’s John the Baptist, the incredible floor mosaic of the Slaughter of the Innocents, Pisano’s 13th c. marble pulpit, Bernini’s Saint Jerome.

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But for me the pièce de résistance was Duccio’s Maestá in the museum. This altar piece of Mary enthroned with baby Jesus is one of the most sublime paintings I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a few. Unfortunately photos in the museum are verboten so you’ll have to goggle it to see for yourself.

Still in a state of grace, we trekked through the back lanes of medieval Siena to our hotel and a little break before a light dinner at some local trattoria.

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Sad to say goodbye

After a low key “day off” from our vacation yesterday, we had another epic meal, this time at A Cantina de Mananan in Corniglia. All I can say is I ate an octopus and like it, no, I loved it. The pasta con pesto was also top notch.

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This morning we had to say goodbye to our new found friends, the Barrani family. After breakfast Signora Elena gave us each a hearty handshake and a warm smile. When Angela translated to her that we were heading to Siena, Elena said what everyone says “ahhh Siena.” When she learned we were then on to Napoli she shook her hand at the wrist in an ay-ay-ay expression. It saddened us to leave. We will never forget them.

Four trains and four hours later we were in another world rolling through the hills of Tuscany. The afternoon found us sitting on one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe, Il Campo, Siena, sipping a cold beverage and munching antipasti.

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Our hotel, Albergo Bernini, has just ten old school rooms and one hell of a view. Tomorrow we hit the sights in Siena.

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One to remember

Every traveler hopes for a peak experience, some connection to the places we visit that goes beyond the museums, cathedrals and restaurants. If we are lucky we get at least one on each trip but it doesn’t always happen. This morning we had such an experience. It began last night after dinner. We have been sharing our B&B with a group of German travelers. We’ve gotten to know a couple of them and they are a fun loving bunch. Last night as we were leaving the dining room Kay mentioned that we were musicians and that I was a pretty good guitar player. One of the fellows jumped up and said “we have to find a guitar.” Within minutes he had quizzed the Barrani family and learned that the daughter in-law, Angela, was a guitarist and had one I could borrow. He arranged for her to bring it to breakfast the next day and I was to entertain them. This we did and it was great fun. But that wasn’t the magical moment. It happened after the Germans went on their way. Only Kay, Angela and I were left with Signora Barrani (Elena) in the kitchen across the hall. I asked Angela if she would play something. She had been reluctant to play in front of the larger group. She said “I only play for Paolo and the family, but we are family now.” She sat down and played three finger style tunes beautifully: a samba, a bossa nova version of Fly Me to the Moon and a wonderful version of Dust in the Wind, playing the melody as well as the finger style accompaniment. She was very good! At one point Signora Elena came in and sat next to me with a gentle smile and look of great pride in her daughter in-law. Angela was too shy to perform in front of strangers but we were no longer strangers.

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The rest of the day was wonderful by ordinary travel standards. We hiked an hour and a half to the next village, Vernazza. It was a great, moderately difficult hike with breathtaking views, cool olive groves, and many stone stairs.

Corniglia:

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It was market day and Vernazza was packed with locals and tourists alike. After Corniglia this town of 500, with an equal number of tourists, felt like the big city. We strolled the town and the waterfront then had a delightful lunch at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, run by twin brothers from Sicily – great bean and pesto soup, wonderful salad and the best bread we’ve had, including in France! We washed it all down with the local bianco and topped it off with great coffee. Ah Italia. One of the brothers berated a tourist who came in, used the rest room and left without as much as a by your leave. He wasn’t angry because the guy didn’t order anything. He was mad that the fellow hadn’t even bothered to say “Buon Giorno.” He was right!

Vernazza:

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Italia!

Yesterday, after a mind numbing, back breaking six and a half hours on trains, we landed in the Cinque Terre (five lands), five villages clinging to the cliffs over the Mediterranean just south of Genoa. The towns are connected by rail, boat and foot path. Along with the surrounding, terraced vineyards, low brush and cliffs they comprise a national park. As a result development is strictly controlled maintaining the old charm of the villages. The place is well discovered and pretty full of tourist. Nevertheless it feels real. The old timers still sit on the bench in the town square, begrudging the visitors, but no doubt glad for their money. The church bell still rings loudly every half hour through the night as if to say “this is still our town, you are just guests.”

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Corniglia, our home base, is the middle of the five and the only one without a harbor. As such it is slightly less touristed than the others but only slightly. We’re staying at Barrani Agritourismo, a B & B connected to the Barrani family farm. Signora Barrani is an acclaimed chef. Last night she cooked up an amazing feast for her guests. The antipasto was fresh anchovies in olive oil with bell pepper and olives – not the extreme, salty canned stuff we’re used to – these were mild and delicious. The secondi was penne with a sauce of tomato and eggplant that was melt in your mouth. Signora Barrani makes the pasta from scratch! I’d been craving pasta with a tomato sauce and this was perfect. The primi consisted of thinly sliced, lean, roast pork in a reduction with onion, pepper, carrot and zucchini. The pork was tender, the sauce was to die for. The meal was perfectly matched with a local vino bianco and topped with a small glass of sciacchetrà, a local desert wine. We were served alone on a third story balcony over looking the town’s tiny chapel and gardens of the upper town. Molto romantico.

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Today we took the train to the south most village, Riomaggiore. From there we took the ferry to the north most, Monterosso al Mare stopping briefly at Manarola and Vernazza, the other two towns with landings. The Mediterranean sparkled. Gulls hung on the updrafts against a clear blue sky. The towns clung like crystals of amber, red and peach to the blue-gray cliffs streaked with white, thrusting out of the sea. Between the towns and cliffs, ancient terraced vineyards cascaded towards the water.

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We lunched in Monterosso on shrimp and avacado salad and took the train home. Tonight another feast from Signora Barrani.

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A day in Nice

After a long uneventful travel day we are enjoying the Riviera in Nice. Blurry eyed tourist mix with rough locals, North Africans and beautiful people wannabes in this resort town with an edge. This morning we visited the Marc Chagall Museum. Chagall donated many of his greatest works and helped design the building. Kay and I are huge Chagall fans and the museum did not disappoint. Despite being loaded with people some of whom could not have cared less and some of whom were down right rude, the magnificent huge canvases of biblical themes took my breath away.

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This is the birth of Adam. Notice the image of Jesus on the cross in the upper right. Although Chagall was Jewish he repeatedly depicted the crucifixion which for him symbolized the sacrifice and suffering of the Jewish people.

After lunch and a little siesta we walked down the Promenade des Anglais, so named because it was built for English tourists on the grand tour in the late nineteenth century. A few of the great old hotels survive. One can imagine the upper crust of Northern Europe strolling the walk, covered in marble so they wouldn’t get there shoes dirty. The marble is gone but the tourist are still here.

We walked on into Vieux Nice, the old town, to Cours Saleya, a traffic free square where there is a daily flower market. As luck would have it there was a band playing traditional French dances and 50 or so people dancing – not a tourist show, just locals changing dance steps as the band leader called them out. The band featured three accordions, pretty scary!

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Here’s a example of the nineteenth century architecture.

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This building is across the street from our B&B. Tomorrow we leave France for Italy and the Cinque Terre!

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