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GOOD EATING, staggeringly beautiful scenery, and hordes of other tourists characterized the last few days of my month-long Mediterranean sojourn, winter ’15 edition.
From Naples last Friday morning, my cousin Susan and I traveled an hour by train to Sorrento, our base for three days. A small, picturesque city with convenient bus and boat connections to other places we wanted to visit, exploring Sorrento itself, above, kept us busy for a day. The sights took some seeking, like the extraordinary Sedile Dominova, below, a 16th c. open-air loggia with trompe l’oeil frescoes, which we eventually found on an obscure corner in the city’s historic center.
We also hunted down a 1772 majolica-tiled wall, below, located in the back of what’s now a flower shop and event space, in a building called Palazzo Correale. We walked far out of our way, directed by locals to the Museo Correale instead, got caught in a rainstorm, and took shelter in a beauty salon. Finally we found the wall and marveled at its being there.
We crisscrossed Sorrento’s lovely, café-filled main square, Piazza Tasso, numerous times; stopped to look inside beautiful Rococo churches, including one with a 14th century ‘Paradise Cloister’ or planted interior courtyard, below; admired cliffside villas and, from many vantage points, the ring of mountains, including Vesuvius, that encircles the intensely blue Bay of Naples.
Our favorite viewing spot was the pergola at the luxurious Hotel Bellevue Syrene, above, where we were rewarded on our last night with an exquisite sunset, and entertained by seagulls trying to get at the bowl of nuts that came along with our Negronis, top.
Our time in Sorrento got off to a loud start when the rooftop room we were given at Casa Astarita, an otherwise delightful B&B, above, turned out to overlook the garden of a disco, making sleep impossible for much of the first night. The next day we were moved to an inner room whose thick walls made all the difference.
Above: Father and son restauranteurs at Le Grazie, Sorrento.
We ate well in Sorrento restaurants recommended in guidebooks, by our B&B hosts, or just stumbled upon. All had homey ambience, homemade pasta, pizza almost as good as Naples’, incredibly fresh seafood, creamy out-of-this-world bufala mozzarella (above, with cold tomato sauce, at Inn Bufalita, which specializes in it), and house wine as good as what we’re used to paying far more for at home.
Saturday morning we took a crowded bus an hour and 40 minutes to the town of Amalfi, whose glory days were the 8th to 12th centuries. The route was all hairpin turns and photo ops. Whether it was the clear morning light, or our first sight of Amalfi’s Moorish-influenced cathedral and bell tower, above, decorated with multi-colored tiles; or the choir we heard singing; or the fact that a festive wedding party was posing for photos on the broad flight of steps up to the cathedral, we found Amalfi magical. After exploring the cathedral’s sumptuous Baroque interior and courtyard garden, we trekked around back streets, going in and out of alleys and up and down ancient stairways, before settling down for lunch at Marina Grande, a seaside restaurant that has jutted out over Amalfi’s beachfront since 1935. Homemade breadsticks and octopus three ways, below.
We had the requisite mid-afternoon espresso at an exceedingly pleasant sidewalk café, above, while waiting for the bus back toward Sorrento. It stopped at Positano, below, a near-vertical, pastel-colored pile of houses often called ‘the pearl’ of the Sorrentine peninsula. It is astounding from the road, and we disembarked there, but after Amalfi, we found Positano in close-up a bit disappointing. It’s a thirty-minute walk from the bus stop down to the town, which seemed to have little to offer visitors beyond souvenir shops and a patch of gray beach, and we didn’t linger.
Above: Terraced farms near Positano, through a bus window.
We saved Sunday, our last full day in the area, for legendary Capri. A fast ferry from Sorrento’s port arrived at the rocky island, seemingly made for Hollywood, in 20 minutes. My chief memory of Capri from a brief visit there at age 16 was of over-burdened donkeys carrying tourists’ luggage up an impossibly steep hill. The donkeys are gone, I was relieved to discover, replaced by a funicular to Capri Town at the top. There we found outposts of Prada, Ferragamo, and the rest, amidst a group of five-star hotels. We bought ourselves some fragrance at Carthusia, the venerable fragrance shop, below.
We walked around until we found a public garden overlooking the rock formations that typify the island, below, and the vistas that make Capri the ultimate in scenic thrills.
Finding little else to do in Capri Town but shop, we hopped on another bus for the 15-minute ride to Anacapri, the island’s other, quieter town, and had lunch in the garden at Il Solitario, below, where, the waitress told us, New York City mayor Bill deBlasio dined with his family last summer.
Homemade linguine with clams “from today,” below, and escarole sautéed with olives and pine nuts made a very fine meal.
Above: A beautiful, simple church in Anacapri, outside and in; and an Anacapri street scene.
As I write this, I’m on the Frecciarossa, pride of Italy’s high-speed train fleet, on my way back to Milan to catch a New York-bound flight. A man pushing a cart with an espresso maker mounted on it comes through after every stop. He makes each cup individually; it’s free, in first class anyway, as are biscotti, chocolates, water, juice and newspapers (but only in Italian). We’re bulleting through some of the greenest and most satisfying scenery I’ve encountered from a train window.
It’s been four weeks since I began my trip in Madrid and it was only yesterday, on a bus in Capri, that I finally encountered another American woman traveling alone in Europe (from Colorado, for seven weeks, sans husband: “I told him, I’ll drag you through churches and art museums. You’ll hate it.”) The continent isn’t crawling with us at this time of year, apparently.
I’m glad I bracketed my solo sojourn with a visit to friends in Spain at the beginning, and a few days with my cousin, a stellar travel companion, at the end; and that I had the good fortune to make new friends for a three-day spell in the middle, because the best times have been with other people. Without this blog as a focus for reporting my experiences, knowing I have readers at the other end, this would have been a different, perhaps more lonesome trip, and I’m grateful, too, that you came along for the ride.
THE PIZZA. It really is that good. My cousin and I randomly entered one of many pizzerias near our hotel in Naples last night — here, they’re actual restaurants with a full menu and a wine list, not counters where you get a slice and a soda — and ordered a Margherita and another with provolone and basil. Best pizza of my life. It’s the water, they say, but it’s also the bufala mozzarella and the tomato sauce and the way they bake the crust, thin and crispy on the edges but chewy toward the center. We didn’t make a fetish over seeking out any particular place; Susan’s taxi driver had told her, “There’s no bad pizza in Naples,” and we took his word for it.
From our balcony at the Grand Hotel Saint Lucia, above, a grande dame perched on the Bay of Naples, the smell of the sea and the sound of the gulls is ever present. We can see Vesuvius to the left of us, shrouded in clouds, Castel dell’Ovo, below, a site with 2,000 years of history, straight ahead, and the city curving around to the right.
After Milan, Naples doesn’t seem particularly chaotic. Crowded, hectic, noisy, yes. Construction everywhere, yes. But mainly just full of life, as we discovered walking around today from the seaport area up through the center of town. We looked into churches and another Victorian iron-and-glass shopping center, Galleria Umberto; had a peek at Cafe Gambrinus where Oscar Wilde and other 19th c. notables hung out; stopped at the cafe/bookstore Intra Moenia on leafy Piazza Bellini for a glass of Prosecco.
Then we ran though the unparalleled National Archaeological Museum, below, where we took in the Pompeiian frescoes and whatever else we could manage to see in the hour we had before meeting Susan’s Neopolitan friend, who took over from there.
Massimiliano, a 28-year-old businessman in the fashion industry with a sideline as an aspiring pop star, steered us expertly to artisan shops to show us a creative side of Naples — small clothing and jewelry stores, an 80-year-old leatherworker’s studio, an art gallery with works made of concrete, resin and cork — greeting friends and acquaintances all along the way.
We had a memorable lunch at Pizzeria Mattozzi, but we didn’t have pizza; we had a variety of seafood dishes, including fried anchovies and fried calamari the way it ought to be, octopus in red sauce, tiny tasty shrimp you eat without peeling, then pasta with razor clams (no parmesean with seafood in Naples, ever).
We thought we would never eat again.
BY MY THIRD DAY IN MILAN, I started to feel like I was trapped in a giant shopping mall. Each name brand designer has half a dozen stores here, and every American chain is represented. Tonight, my last in the city, I walked up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of many major shopping streets, and have to concede that even New York doesn’t have that concentration of stores anywhere. It’s store upon store, along the side streets too, as far as the eye can see. This is Italy’s fashion, design and finance capital, and the spending prowess is here. I climbed to the roof of the Duomo today — an unmissable experience — and was surprised not to find a Dolce & Gabbana billboard up there.
My genteel hotel, Gran Duca di York, while tucked away in a quiet back street, is a few minutes’ walk to Piazza del Duomo, top, with all its hawkers, buskers, street artists, shoppers, students, tourists, locals. (I think I finally figured out what the latest street vendors’ product, a three-foot-long long metal stick which holds an iPhone or camera on the end, is for: taking better selfies.)
Starting May 1 and continuing through the summer, there’s going to be a World’s Fair here, Expo Milano. So there are street repairs and construction going on everywhere, adding to the chaos.
Above: The entrance to the Galleria, the Victorian-era shopping mall, is currently enshrouded in scaffolding and wrapped in a billboard.
As an antidote, I needed some culture. I paid a visit to the Museo del Novecentro (Museum of the 20th Century), below, opened in 2010, and loved it. The five-story museum’s architecture is outstanding, its ramps, escalators, and glass walls always visually connected to the historical surroundings. Almost exclusively Italian works are presented in order of their execution, from Futurist painting and sculpture of the ‘teens and ’20s through conceptual installations of more recent decades, like rooms empty of anything but moving laser beams.
The climb to the top of the Duomo was the equivalent of nine floors, according to my iPhone’s pedometer, via a narrow twisting stair. (There’s also a lift.) Emerging onto the roof, face to face with all that intricately carved marble, you marvel at the fact that it took only 500 years to put together. The view is astounding in all directions.
From the top I spotted Torre Velasca, below, the 1958 skyscraper whose top floors are cantilevered over the rest, an idea never to be repeated. It remains a unique symbol of venturesome Milanese design. I later walked underneath it in my quest for lunch.
I walked and walked, taking in more of the city, including the area around University Statale, below, full of bookstores, cafes, motorcycles, and of course, high-spirited students.
My eventual lunch spot, Cantina Piemontese, below, in the same location on via Laghetto since 1908, is a find — I loved the ambience and the food (that’s my starter, artichoke hearts with bufala mozzarella). All that bread’s for me?! (They charge for it, and I keep forgetting to tell them not to bring it.) As usual, I was early, but the place soon filled up with well-tailored businessmen and ladies who lunch. All locals; I was the only non-Italian-speaker within earshot.
I walked and walked and walked some more. Since my first evening in town, when I was afraid I wouldn’t find my hotel, I’ve been comfortable walking around the city after dark. There are people everywhere.
Milan is a complex, exhilarating place. It’s stressful to navigate, in the same way midtown Manhattan would be for a newcomer. But I’m not opposed to spending more time here at some point, particularly as it is often the least expensive European city to fly in and out of. After three days and four nights, I know I only scratched the surface.
I THOUGHT I WAS RACING THROUGH EUROPE until I met a young California couple in Milan’s central train station, consulting their Eurail map. They are doing nine countries in three weeks. By that standard, my trip — three countries in four weeks — is leisurely. Yet my three-and-a-half hours in Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its medieval architecture, was ridiculously inadequate.
I had braved the Metro for the first time, taking it four stops from the Duomo station near my hotel to Milano Centrale, and found it very civilized. Not crowded, well-marked, 1.5 euro/ride. My intention was to take an 11:35 train to Verona, but I needed a reservation. I took a number (#741) and waited to be called to one of a dozen windows. They were up to #687 when I got there about 10:45, and the line wasn’t moving fast. At 11:38 I had my reservations — on the 12:05 to Verona, with a return to Milan later (but not late enough) the same day.
When I got off at Verona after an hour-and-a-half in first-class comfort, I couldn’t spot a tourist information stand or a billboard with a map on it or anything. So I approached a limo driver who was holding a placard outside the station. “Scusi, signore, dove il centro?” I think I fooled him with my perfect accent. He gave me some rapid-fire directions accompanied, fortunately, by clear hand gestures. After 10 minutes of walking along a busy boulevard, I came to an arched gate, above, clearly the place where the old city began. And just beyond it, yet another Roman arena, huge and so intact it’s used for a summer opera festival. (At this point, I’m blasé about Roman arenas.)
Verona is a very pretty town, After an earthquake in the 12th century, the city was rebuilt in Romanesque style. Much of that, especially church architecture, remains. The pink and yellow buildings, with peaked windows, turrets, towers, and balconies, reminded me somewhat of Venice, less than two hours away.
I joined the throngs of visitors dodging each other’s cameras. With limited time and zero advance prep, all I could do was walk, and look, and eat.
I had lunch outdoors in Piazza Erbe, below — a cold seafood salad followed by the best spinach tortellini in memory.
Then I retraced my steps, more or less, to the station, and tore myself away from Verona, having had no more than the merest glimpse of a potentially enthralling place.
WITH MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Milan’s central train station, top, a Mussolini-era monument that gives the Roman builders a run for their money, I realized I had plunged from a gentle pastel resort town into the heart of a big, brusque, muscular business city, with a frantic energy not unlike my hometown of NYC.
But like all European cities, it seems, dense flocks of humanity congregate in just a few places. Wander down an ancient side street and you are by yourself.
Piazza del Duomo on Saturday night, in front of the jaw-dropping cathedral that looks like dripping candle wax and took 450 years to build, had Times Square crowd levels, as did the 1865-67 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the universe’s first shopping mall, an iron and glass wonder of the early Industrial Age. I had to see that pulsing shopping heart of the city straightaway, to get my bearings and know I was really in Milan. Below: chocolate shoes.
This is a city made for shopping, and I did in fact, buy myself some dangly earrings (in a pharmacy!) I went briefly into Rinascente, a brightly lit modern department store, which has all the charm of Bloomingdale’s (if you think Bloomingdale’s has any charm; I don’t). The first thing I was drawn to was a skirt with a unique funnel shape; it turned out to be DKNY. I moved on to the top-floor food court, thinking I would forage for supper, but couldn’t handle the mob scene.
So my first meal in Milan was take-out from Peck, below, a temple of gastronomy since the 19th century: a farro and vegetable salad and chicken with black beans (quite delicious), to be happily eaten later in my hotel room with a glass of red from the little bar in the hotel lobby. See how they wrapped it!
I love my hotel, the yellow-ochre Gran Duca di York, below, perhaps the most cheering sight in a city of mostly gray edifices. My room is slightly larger than a breadbox, with an airshaft view, but comfortable and pretty, and intensely central — a few blocks from the Duomo, yet, as I said, a tranquil world away.
Few would say Milan is a beautiful city. I might disagree. The architecture in the historic center, much of which is 500 years old, is forever intriguing and often gasp-worthy. But there is an almost complete lack of greenery and color. It is drab. The sight of an orange tram going by is a vivid shock.
Sunday was Leonardo day. The city is milking the da Vinci Code phenomenon, which endures in crowds from all over the world. There are several Leonardo-based exhibitions going on, and the sounds of German and Japanese fill the air. Right around the corner from my lodgings is the Pinoteca Ambrosiana, below, and that’s where I headed first. It’s a 16th century cardinal’s library with an exquisite art collection (27 rooms in all). Most of the paintings are religious and sumptuously beautiful, making one realize how many masters there were besides the relatively few well-known names, but there are also landscapes, Dutch paintings of the era, and even a room devoted to Milanese impressionism of the late 19th century. In the final room, a two-story library, 45 pages at a time of da Vinci’s original drawings, called Codex Atlanticus, are mounted under glass; they rotate every three months.
I had tickets for The Last Supper at 4:15, bought months ago, and time to kill, so I walked toward the Brera section, said to have small shops and cafes — but it being Sunday, everything seemed closed. I had lunch at a dramatic high-ceilinged restaurant called Convivium, below, drawn into it simply because it looked nice. It was quiet when I entered, but soon filled up with Italian families eating pasta for Sunday lunch.
Followed it with coffee at one of those dowdy old-fashioned cafes you find in Italy, below.
At Santa Maria delle Grazie, below, where da Vinci painted The Last Supper (unfortunately in quickly fading temperas) in the late 15th century, when the church was new, we were given 15 minutes to view the masterpiece. I was taken with the dynamism of the figures, how each of the 12 apostles reacted to Christ’s news of his impending betrayal with uniquely expressive body language; it seemed very modern in that way. I also loved how a chunk of the painting was removed in later years by monks who wanted to create doorway into the kitchen next door
So the transition from bonjour to buon giorno has been made. My time in Milan so far has been gray and drizzly, but I haven’t been chafing against the bad weather as I did in Nice. It seems to suit this city.
Above, a peek into the courtyard of the archaeological museum.