Nick and I met in February of 2007 and knew from the start that we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. Both divorced, with a combined 5 children ranging in age from 15 to 23, I was the Yin to his Yang. Although we had only known each other for weeks, we booked a trip to Italy for Easter and off we went on our first big adventure together where we discovered our mutual love for travel and that set in motion our grand plan to retire abroad.
We kept a journal on the back sides of the various confirmations and itinerary information that we had printed out for the trip. The journal starts when we leave the house and ends abruptly on the 9th day of a 12 day trip. Although we have taken many trips since, we didn’t keep a journal for any of them, and I regret it.
So here is that journal. It was unintended for publication and has only been lightly edited for this post.
Tuesday April 3 – Left Saratoga Springs, New York for the airport in Newark. Drank a bottle of Montepulciano at the airport bar and took some Tylenol PM to prepare for the red-eye flight to Rome. The plane was full of Italians heading home for Pasqua (Easter). One more glass of wine on the plane and I was out like a light. It took Nick a little longer to fall asleep, but we both got about 4 hours of sleep before we woke up to see the first lights of Europe out the window and the sunrise.
Wednesday April 4 – We arrived in Rome at 8:30 AM on Wednesday morning. Nick found a driver at the airport for us, a handsome Italian named Claudio Sivestri, “like Syvester Stallone” Claudio explained. We arrived our flat on Via de Monserrato and met Chiera, our hostess. We quickly unpacked and set out on foot to explore and find Campo de’ Fiori. Jet-lagged and disoriented, we found ourselves in Saint Peter’s Square with thousands of people listening to the Pope welcoming the pilgrims. Pretty amazing that we had only been in Rome an hour and we were in Saint Peter’s Square with the Pope!
Exhausted, we made our way to a small restaurant and ordered a half bottle of the house red, a cheese plate, Risotto with Shrimp, and Pasta Con Vongole. People kept streaming into this tiny restaurant and disappearing into a back room. The food was good but all we really wanted to do was sleep. We returned to our flat and giving in to our exhaustion, slept for several hours in spite of the street noise right outside our bedroom window.
We woke up in the late afternoon, got cleaned up and set out again to find Campo de’ Fiore to experience it at night. We settled in at the Ristorante Campo de’ Fiore for dinner, probably the most expensive one on the piazza. It was surrounded by potted plants and covered with huge umbrellas. Fresh flowers decorated the space. We dined al fresco on Baccala with Onions, Lasagna and Osso bucco. Our waitress’ name was Lucia. We introduced ourselves as Nicolo and Lina, the Italian versions of our names. Lucia told us that she came from the heel of the boot! We finished up our lovely meal with Limoncello and Tiramisu. The soccer fans were cheering at the bar across the street. The atmosphere was wonderful, but even with our afternoon nap, we were anxious to get some sleep. It was nice to get back to our cozy flat and tuck in for the night.
Thursday April 5 – We got out of the flat at 9:30 AM and went looking for coffee. Nick ordered 2 cappuccino at a nearby café and we drank them standing up with our Italian neighbors. Then we proceeded to Campo de’ Fiori on a beautiful sunny Italian spring morning. It was just as we imagined, booth after booth of beautiful produce, flowers, cheeses and meats. We wandered through all of the booths and at our first two stops we bought strawberries, spring peas, a pepper, dandelion greens, parmigiano cheese and some green olives. And we learned a valuable lesson, count your change! It would not be the only time we were marked at tourists and short-changed on this trip. The Campo is surrounded by little shops where we bought olive oil, red wine, coffee, cream and butter. I was so proud to use my (limited) Italian language skills to buy stuff! Finally, we went in search of bread and purchased a beautiful loaf, along with some broccoli pizza. Loaded down with our booty, we walked the short distance back to our flat. We couldn’t just put these groceries away! Of course we sampled them.
After our snack, we headed out to look for the Parthenon, but it is hard to find your way in Rome. Oh well, it’s not about the destination, the joy is in the journey. We ended up across the river in Trastavere, a very old section of Rome. Nick wanted to find the Basilica di Santa Maria, a place he had been before and wanted to share with me. We walked a lot, but couldn’t seem to find it. Finally, we spotted the bell tower and made our way to this beautiful church. We passed through the doors into the ancient church. People were gathering inside for a funeral, crying and comforting each other in the front of the church. We sat for awhile in the main part of the church, too beautiful for words, it was an overwhelming, emotional experience. We made our way to the back of the church where Nick lit a candle for his Mom and I lit one for Steve. We prayed and cried. I’ll always remember it.
After, we sat in the piazza, ate some gelato and set out to explore Trastavere. Of course, we found ourselves in at a shoe store (Black high heels and a pocketbook for me!) and a grocery store. We had to control ourselves since it was a long walk home, but we picked up some fresh pasta and some more wine. We made our way back to “our” flat, kicked off our shoes and enjoyed our strawberries, parmegiano, wine, olive and bread while we watched some Italian TV. Nick cooked a meal of carbonara with piselli, red pepper, and speck. Dinner and dishes done, we are off to find the Trevi fountain.
Friday April 6 – Good Friday. Last night’s dinner was molto bene! Nicolo did amazing things with the stuff we bought, under primitive circumstances. It was really nice to eat a home-cooked meal. We took off on foot last night to find Piazza Navona. It was beautiful, although the central fountain is under repair. And it looked so close on our map, but the walk was very long. After our long walk to Piazza Navona, we decided to take a cab to the Trevi Fountain. Once we arrived it was a sight to behold – a beautiful fountain overrun by tourists! It felt like the Bronx. We had our photo taken by an Asian gentlemen and took another cab ride back to “our” Campo de’ Fiore. We found a bar with available tables outside and Nicolo ordered a bottle of Prosecco . As we sat there it occurred to us that it was the Roman version of “The Stadium”, our local sports bar! Young Italians surrounded us, talking on their cell phones and enjoying their beer, a soccer game on TV, and each others’ company.
We slept very late, this morning, 10 AM! Got up and out as quickly as possible, back to Campo de’ Fiore. We decided to take a walk to nowhere, absolutely no destination, no plan. Of course, after 5 minutes we found ourselves in Piazza Navona, the same place we had walked endlessly to find the night before. We walked on and found ourselves in a beautiful French church, then on to the Coliseum. Our feet were aching and our tummies were grumbling. We spotted an osteria and stopped for wine, caprese salad and eggplant parmesan. Not Lenten, but they didn’t have any Lenten options on the menu. After lunch we walked around the Coliseum and on to via Capo d’Africa to scout out the car rental place for the next morning.
We took a cab back to our flat, and got dressed up for a trip back to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastavere for mass, Nicolo in a suit and I wore slacks and heels. (Note to self – no spiky high heels in Rome!!!) We arrived just in time. The Basilica was filling up and we were lucky to get seats. Many of the worshipers were Nuns. You could tell that they had come from many countries to be in this church for Pasqua. The service was beautiful.
When it was over we walked around Trastavere a little before returning to the piazza to dine at Sabatini’s one of the finest restaurants in Rome. We ordered the Zuppa de Pesce, Grilled Bronzino, white wine and Aqua Minerale con gasso. The Zuppe had a lot of different shellfish and fish in a little bit of rich broth. Our waiter made quite a show of filleting the fish at our table and presenting our plates. It was lemony and delicious, served with potatoes and olives. We finished up with tiramisu, and walked home, back through the Piazza Farnese and Campo de’ Fiori, which we had come to consider our neighborhood. Our last night in Rome had been wonderful.
Saturday April 7 – Neither of us slept well last night, anxious about having to get up in the morning, get out of our flat and get out of Rome. Also, there was a lot of street noise, pedestrians going to and from Campo de’ Fiore. Up early, Nicolo successfully calls a cab (in Italian) and we are on our way to Capo D’Africa. We get there early before the car rental agency opens and play on the motorcycles for rent parked outside. An old Italian woman is peaking out her window watching us. Next door is a hardware store, and neighbors are bringing in their broken things to find parts and have things fixed. In the window is a dusty display of many things including coffee pots, an immersion blender and …faucets!! Gleaming, very European and cheap!! We decide to wait until our luggage is loaded into the rental car to go inside the local version of Home Depot which we dub “Casa Stazione”.
The car place opens promptly at 9:00 AM with 3 employees. As I am standing at the counter with my documents, one of the employee carries in a smashed up bumper from a car that had been hit by a truck on the street. Apparently it was the car that I was supposed to rent! We examined the car, and Nick cautioned me against renting it as he left for the hardware store to buy some of those cool faucets. I explained to them in my limited Italian that the car (a Ford Escort station wagon…what happened to the Alfa Romeo I requested?) was not acceptable in the damaged state. After much discussion between themselves, and my repeating that I would not take the damaged car, they offered me an alternative. A Smart car for 4 with a manual transmission was available at the train station. We completed the contract (110 euro less than the Escort) and one of the employees drove us through Rome to pick up our car at the train station. We were so excited – it was a real European car! Finally we were on our way out of Rome. Nick must have radar, or at least a finely tuned sense of direction because after one exciting and undoubtedly illegal U-turn we soon found our way to the Auto-Strada.
The highway was pretty crowded and the Italians drive like madmen, but we made good time to Naples and on towards Salerno where we were to pick up the local coastal road. We had heard that the road along the Amalfi Coast was treacherous and that was not an exaggeration. It was pretty much 1 ½ lanes wide, but with cars going both ways, going too fast and tailgating. What made it really interesting was the steady stream of buses! Throw in pedestrians and motorcycles and it was truly a thrill ride. That is, until it completely stopped. And I mean stopped. A car had hit a bus on a hairpin curve. I am sure that there was much discussion between those drivers! People got out of their cars and were drinking, visiting and taking pictures. After 20 minutes things start to move again. Before we knew it, we were taking the turn for Ravello and looking for Villa Rosa, our rental.
Oh no!! We found it. The driveway was little more than a sidewalk, steeply pitched down with 180 degree turns. Nick creeped the little car down the hill (more like a cliff) and was happy to park it. We got out of the car and were pretty much standing on a precipice. The surroundings were staggering. Overwhelming. Across from us we could see caves carved into the mountain where we imagined ancient people buried their dead. Down below was the little town of Atrani, very small and rustic. Our rental, Casa Sesta at Villa Rosa, was tucked into and balanced on a cliff.
We had called the caretaker, Nicola and told him when we would arrive. I was proud of myself for that phone call, since Nicola did not speak English). He met us, showed us the Casa and the gate to the stone staircase (down to Atrani, up to Ravello). We filled out some rental documents, handed over a 200 euro deposit and asked about church. A few minutes later, Nicola returned with some fresh lemons, and some literature about Villa Rosa, He also brought Trana who lived in Casa 8 in this collection of houses and spoke English very well, (although it is more fun for us to have to speak Italian).
Nick prepared some pasta for us, we rested a short while and then walked down the stone stairs to Atrani for groceries. We knew that there would be no grocery shopping on Easter and no place to eat! We found a small store and bought some local cheese, a dry mozzarella, and a salami made especially for Pasqua (Easter) which we promised not to eat until after the fast was over on Easter Sunday. We also bought milk, sugar, bread, eggs, ricotta, butter, pasta and salt. The young woman at the store “Valeria” was very concerned that we understand and keep the local customs and traditions. We asked her about church and she told use where it was and to listen for the Church bells for Easter services to know when the Mass would begin. This conversation was pretty much entirely in Italian, and we were proud that we were able to have a real conversation! Next stop was a little store that had pastries and local red wine. Finally up a little side street to a produce shop where we bought onions, and eggplant, fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes for 4 euros, much less expensive than Campo De’ Fiore prices! We walked up the many stairs back to our casa, sat on the porch a little while and then went to bed. The house is chilly but we are warm under the covers. Overwhelmed by the primitive beauty, it is as if we have been transported back in time a thousand years or more….very disorienting and exhausting.
Easter Sunday April 8 – Buona Pasqua! We wake, drink coffee, shower and get dressed for church. Nick fries up some eggs and grills the sweet rolls that we bought the night before for our Easter breakfast. Nick in his suit and I in black slacks (heels again…stupido!) , we are off to find the church. We arrive early and take seats in the back of the church.
We are one of the first to arrive so we have a chance to look around. The church is beautiful, an ornate alter, pictures of the suffering virgin, the ceiling is pale blue. An older gentleman approaches us to proudly show us the bronze doors that were on the church in 1057 AD. The doors had carvings of icons and crosses. The church fills with women, lots of children and finally the men. The women in the choir wore black slacks and jackets and ruffled peach colored shirts. The men in wore suits. Everybody knew everybody else in the church, in this community. It was restless and noisy and wonderful. The mass began – I love the smell of the incense, the sound of the choir. Sometimes I understand every word. Other times I struggle to catch a few familiar words. The priest is scolding those who come to la chiesa only on Easter. The children are restless, their mothers watching them and gesturing them to be quiet. What an amazing way to celebrate Easter on this sunny, spring morning in Atrani.
After church we wander down to the water and to our surprise find an open restaurant. We are early and the first ones at the restaurant, and are seated right by the water in the full sunshine. We order wine and water and study the menu, settling on the Zuppo de Mussels, Pasta with Anchovie Sauce and grilled local shrimp. Sitting in the blazing sun, the meal is leisurely and the wine is flowing.
After this wonderful meal, the climb up the stairs to Villa Rosa is much harder this time. I collapse into bed, Nick joins me and we fall into a deep sleep. When we wake up, it’s late. We take a stroll around the compound where our Casa is located. There are lemon trees everywhere loaded with fruit and the smell of ripe lemons is strong and sweet. We exit the gate to the stairs and head up the hill this time, towards Ravello. It feels like it is much further to climb to Ravello than to descend to Atrani. We decide we would not want to live on this path, but the gardens are very well tended and the lemon groves are lovely. Perhaps we could terrace our yard this way. Back to our house. As I’ve been writing this, Nick made a magnificent eggplant parmigiana. We are going to enjoy some tea and go to bed. Tomorrow we plan to get up early and either go down the stairs and check out Amalfi, or up the stairs to Ravello. Buona sera.
Monday April 9 – Another beautiful blue-sky day. Got up and decided to hike down to Amalfi. We were concerned that it was going to be a long walk, but once you get to Atrani, you simply walk on the Amalfi Coast highway through a narrow tunnel with lots of speeding cars and you are in Amalfi.
Amalfi is much larger than Atrani with lots of shops for tourists, but all the people here today are Italian, on holiday for the day after Easter. It has a nice feeling. We walk down to the shore to check on fares and schedules for boats to Capri. There are small colorful wooden fishing boats, larger fishing boats, private water taxis and pleasure boats. People crowd onto the rocky beaches. The piazza is full of gorgeous young couples. The Italian girls are beautiful and stylish, the men all dressed up by American standards.
No visit to an Italian town would be complete without a visit to the Duomo. Just as described in our travel guide, the exterior is a mis-mash of architecture, dominated by a gleaming mosaic. The pictures don’t do it justice. We admire the intricate mosaic peacock which symbolizes a beautiful life.
On to the Piazza and up the main street to do some shopping. Our first stop is a jewelry store. The proprietors were determined to show us gold necklaces until we found one that we could not resist. I saw it before they even pulled it out of the jewelry case, and held my breath as Nick negotiated the price. It was troppo caro (too expensive) but he bought it for me anyway.
For the next stop, we had to find a coffee pot. The one at Casa Sesta was very small. We found a shop that sold dry goods and household items and settled on a classic Bialetti 6 cup expresso pot (or 2 American-sized cups). We shopped at another store for limoncello, candles, and honey. We also bought more wine (of course) and olives. Finally, we purchased a backpack to load all of our purchases in.
The walk back to Atrani along the busy coastal highway and then up the 300 plus stone stairs to our house was definitely harder, but good things don’t come easily, do they. Once home, we relaxed on the rooftop terrace with a glass of wine and some olives. For dinner, Nick made pasta with last night’s eggplant parmigiana, enhanced with spicy red pepper flakes and some of our Pasqua sausage. Tomorrow we are going to get up early and catch the 8:40 AM jet-boat to Capri!
Tuesday, April 10 – Up early and back to Amalfi to catch a boat to Capri! When we buy the ticket we must also purchase our return tickets. We pick the 4:30 PM boat back to Amalfi, the earliest return trip available. Once we get on the boat, we both express our concern that we picked the wrong boat for our return trip, that we will want to stay in Capri longer. It takes about an hour to reach the Island. We hug the coast, stopping in Positano to pick up passengers. The jet boat is quiet and the scenery is beautiful.
When we land in Capri, we head right for the ticket booth for the funiculare to Capri town. 1.30 Euro each for the funiculare, which saves us a long walk up a steep hill. Capri town is full of designer shops, at least near the piazza. We walk around a little, and follow a path into a lovely neighborhood. At the end of the path there was a view of the famous rocks of Capri. The water was an incredible shade of blue and we had a birds eye view of the spectacular rock. We enjoyed this view by ourselves, having left the other tourists in the piazza.
We found a cab to take us to Ana Capri, which we hoped would be more appealing. The cab ride was breathtaking in a scary way as it wound along the edge of a cliff. We thought we were up high in Casa Sesta! The cab dropped us of in a very touristy piazza and we headed off to see the Duomo.
The floor of the Duomo was made of tile that had been painted in Napoli. The tiles told the story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. There is a wooden path that rests on the floor around the perimeter so that people aren’t stepping on the tiles. The scene includes many exotic animals. On the walls were paintings of the Archangel, Michael. It was lovely. We walked through a neighborhood and then back to the main piazza and found a restaurant full of tourists where we had a mediocre meal. We were not loving Capri. It felt like the Disney version of itself. By 2 PM we were ready to go and very glad that we had booked ourselves on the very first boat returning to Amalfi.
We took the funiculare back down to the port and waited for our boat. And this time it was a boat, not a jet-boat. It felt like a city bus, slow, noisy and full of tired people. In Positano, we picked up some new passengers including a very loud woman and her three unhappy children. She spent the rest of the trip loudly scolding them, in the seat directly behind us. If this had happened at home, we would have been aggravated, but spoken in Italian it didn’t sound so harsh. Nevertheless, we were happy to get off the boat in Amalfi, where we stopped at a small grocery store to pick up some things for dinner before walking back to Atrani and up the stone staircase back to our house. We agreed that Capri was not our kind of place. Too many shops, too many tourists. I am glad that we went, but I don’t ever need to go to Capri again.
Wednesday, April 11 – We have what we affectionately call “Atrani TV” in our Casa . It is a large picture window looking across the Valley of the Dragon. Everyday a different story plays out. One day men were installing wire netting to prevent rocks from falling on people and homes below. One day a storm. One thing was the same in every episode of “Atrani TV” – the crow of the Rooster! No, not just at dawn! Not just at 2:30 a.m. or 3: 30 a.m. or 4:30 a.m….the cock-a-doodle-do went on incessantly until we just wanted to make a nice chicken broth out of that bird!
Today is the first day that we took the car out since our arrival. The car has a manual transmission and the driveway is seriously steep and narrow with lots of hairpin turns. We make it up to the top of the driveway and head up to Ravello, and I mean UP! More steep curvy narrow roads. Casa Sesta felt like it was perched on the top of the world and I hadn’t noticed that there was so much terrain above us.
In Ravello, we find a parking spot, catch our breath from the perilous drive, and find ourselves in the prettiest piazza yet, with 3 cafes and a Duomo. It’s another beautiful blue-sky Italian morning, so we enjoy a cappuccino in the piazza and then head to the Duomo. This is one of my favorites, with huge bronze doors and the pulpit raised up on lions. But my favorite part was the “Iconomatica”. Put in 1 euro, push a button and get a plastic card with your favorite Icon on it! What will they think of next?
Our next stop was Villa Ruffalo. You can’t enter the Villa, but you can tour the gardens and enjoy the amazing view. It is as if we are in heaven, we are so high up and it’s so lovely.There is a concert scheduled for this evening and we buy tickets.
As we walk through Ravello, we stop in one of the many ceramic shops and introduce ourselves to the young woman in the store. She enjoys practicing her English on us, and tells us about the family ceramic business. She encourages us to go see Villa Cimbrone, so off we go. And she was right. This is one of my favorite places ever, with elaborate gardens, incredible views and a gorgeous villa. We sat in the garden and ordered wine an olives, served by a beautiful Italian girl with an angelic face. Nick and I both felt a wave of bliss in that garden. If I could freeze a moment in time to live over and over again, that would be it, Nick and I in that place.
We strolled back to town, in a happy daze, stopping to buy several hundred dollars worth of bowls from the young woman in the ceramic shop. They are shipping them home for us and I can’t wait to get them.
Driving downhill to Casa Sesta seems way less dangerous than the uphill trip. Why is that? And the rooftop terrace on the Casa which seemed so dangerously high seems much lower now that we’ve spent the day in Ravello. We also notice that it doesn’t matter what language people are speaking, English or Italian, we can’t understand it. It’s as if a switch in our brains is fried out from living in a different language. But we both feel so happy and at home in this place. I could stay forever.
Nick cooks chicken, sausage and pasta for dinner, using up just about everything in the fridge. We shower and get dressed up to return to Ravello for the concert at Villa Ruffalo. Only this time, we decide to take the bus. We hike up the driveway to the Villa Rosa gates and within moments a bus comes along. Only we don’t have bus tickets. The driver lets us climb on board anyhow and what a ride to Ravello! These roads are treacherous. This is a bus! The driver is flying the bus up the road while showing another passenger the many cool features on his new cell phone. He’s not paying any attention to the road with its cliffs on one side and rock wall on the other at all! I thought Nick was going to faint.
And that’s where the journal ends. I don’t know why I stopped writing it, as we still had a few days left before heading home. I’ve gone back a few times over the years and reading these words transport me back to that magical time and place.
So as Nick and I embark on our grand retirement adventure, I’ll be documenting the journey. This time in the form of a blog that we hope people will enjoy reading.
Until next time….Ciao!!