During my first post about Italy I promised to write about the rest of the trip, and although this message is way overdue, better late than never I guess… (good New Year’s resolution: blogging more regularly!) Hopefully this post about sunny Italy can bring some light in these wet wintry days.
We left off in Orvieto, with its mighty cathedral and remarkable underground dovecotes. From there we went on to Napels: one of the noisiest, most disorganized and wildest cities on the entire European continent. I’d been there before to visit a friend studying abroad, but my boyfriend was quite bewildered at the sight of the vespas chasing each other through the Neapolitan streets. He pointedly remarked that even the Neapolitans, who seem to like living their life ‘dangerously’, put on helmets while driving their scooters – just goes to show. Once we’d settled in at our hotel and gotten our host’s talk of “don’t wear jewelry and shiny watches in the street” we decided to be adventurous and leave with just the map, no touristic guides (yeah, this is as adventurous as it gets…). We strayed around the city for a bit, walking in and out of shirt and suits shops (tailoring is a Neapolitan specialty – if you’re ever looking for a fancy custom-made suit, go there!) and taking in the rough beauty of the city. Unfortunately, the route we’d chosen didn’t really take us past any restaurants. We ended up having a spritz cocktail on a terrace at Piazza Bellini and then continued our search for dinner. We ended up at a restaurant called Leon d’oro, where we were forbidden to sit outside on the terrace for no obvious reason but decided to give it a try, anyway. Luckily, the politeness of the waiters was reversly correlated to the quality of the food. Delicious antipasti, pasta puttanesca, pesce spada, pizza and even dessert on the house came our way, accompanied by a good bottle of whine (what else?). Oh man, everything those waiters (literally) chucked onto our table was absolutely wonderful. And the bill was quite all right as well. Great!
The next day in Naples we explored Ercolano (Herculaneum), Pompeii’s less-known but equally grand sister. We ended at the archeological museum, which has, despite its tragic lack of funding, some great must-sees like the mosaic depicting Alexander the Great at Issos, the erotic cabinet or the Pompeii frescoes. Then we decided to take on a local classic and went for pizza at Sorbillo (after another spritz at Piazza Bellini). You have to stand in line outside for a while, but the pizza is cheap and very good. We amused ourselves by trying to calculate the number of pizzas the place bakes in one day, it must be a few hundred!
We then took off to Salerno, a modest (and frankly, slightly boring) coastal town about 40 minutes by train from Naples. We stayed at a hotel opposite the train station that breathed classical Southern Italian style, with personnel that takes your luggage into your room for you, soft carpet on the floor and extremely helpful receptionists. In Salerno, we had a simple but great lunch at a place called ‘Pizza Margharita’ (how original!). You can tell a good Italian restaurant when you see old ladies all dressed up, eating pasta with their granddaughters and entire families celebrating something with plates and plates of seafood and pasta… We then took the local train to Paestum, where we visited the museum with its impressive Etruscan remains and of course the glorious site of Paestum, the best preserved colony of Magna Graecia (the Greek colonization of Southern Italy). We concluded this absolutely wonderful day with a meal at Spunzillo by the seaside (if you ever go there, better make reservations – we arrived right before all hell seemed to break loose, customer-wise). We tried Salerno’s specialties; fresh seafood: I had risotto pescatoro and cassuola di mare (sea casserole).
The next day we set out to our most Southern destination: Taranto. Hotel Arcangelo, where we stayed, was excellent with a funny overly friendly receptionist and a lovely breakfast – they even upgraded our room. The poverty in this little fisherman’s town, once a glorious Spartan colony, was also very striking – as soon as we got there we were asked for money by a random passerby on the street (who wasn’t even actively begging but just happened to notice us and give it a try). We spent our first day visiting the stunning archaeological museum – an absolute must see – and sipping spritz on a sunny seaside terrace in a fancy chocolate/ice cream bar. The next day we went to the beach, where we were laughed at for being really white by bronzed Italians and experienced the social consequences of a car accident in Italy firsthand from the bus. The food was like the town: simple but glorious. We had dinner at Trattoria da Ugo, a fisherman’s restaurant that serves whatever the sea has offered that very day. So that night, we had mussels and squid, prepared with only a little parsley and lemon juice – fantastic. Just about everything at the trattoria cost 3 euros: the antipasto, the main course, the liter of wine… we paid 28 euros (and still had the impression they’d charged us too much) and left the place completely stuffed.
From Taranto we took the high speed train to Ravenna – all the way up at the shore side, a scenic view. The hotel, called Astoria, was not exactly the best we had all trip due to a noisy and malfunctioning air conditioning throughout quite a humid night. We explored the town a little upon arriving there and then sought out a good restaurant. We picked out La Gardela and were not disappointed. We tasted some excellent regional specialties like Squacquerone cheese, a very rich and creamy variation of mozzarella and I had risotto with bitter radicchio and sangiovese wine (oh great heavens!). Even though we were accustomed to Italian goodness by now, we enjoyed every bite of our dinner and had a bottle of local Prosecco to celebrate life in general and our very recent engagement in particular. The next day, we visited Ravenna’s great touristic sights: all the monuments from the glorious Byzantine era, like the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica di San Vitale, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo… Ravenna struck us as a quaint, cozy little town, quite like Salamanca in Spain or Leuven in Belgium, completely different from the laid-back southern style at Taranto. There were also some great shopping opportunities. In the early evening, we took the train to Faenza, where we met up with a friend who’s studied abroad in Italy, fell in love with the country and is half Italian by now, still going there for excavations and his archaeological research. We had aperitif (spritz, what else?) at Faenza and then he took us through the mountains to the quiet town of Brisighella, where he’d once been to a good restaurant. The restaurant was an absolute culmination of our Italian adventure, with an abundance of local specialties. Actually, even the word abundance is a complete understatement – the Italian family next to us had ordered two full meals for every three persons (smart, I must say so) and at one point we had fears of not being able to drive back just because we were too full… A merry evening indeed. I had the full vegetarian menu which was equally abundant but a little less heavy and showed once again how delicious cooking with vegetables can be – and the seemingly effortless Italian mastery of the vegetarian kitchen.
The next day, we stuck around in Ravenna a little longer, taking the time to shop, collect souvenirs for our neighbors who’d helped care for our plants and friends who’d borrowed us their touristic guidebooks and sip cappuccinoes while it started raining outside (it sort of felt like the circle was complete, after we’d started our vacation with rain and had several sunny days in the South). We then took the train for the last stop in Milan, which felt very cosmopolitan and big compared to cozy little Ravenna. We had dinner at a rather touristic pizza place after fruitlessly trying to get into a really good-looking restaurant (next time in Milan, we’ll have to make reservations…). We left early the next morning at the Milan train station and arrived in Brussels without any troubles that evening, after a train ride that took us past the breathtaking Italian lakes.