Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Italy’

The Mediterranean jewel that is Capri

What can I say about Capri? The two days spent in Capri, an island off Amalfi Coast in Italy stand out among all my travel memories like a clear teacher’s pet that the teacher keep’s comparing every other student to for decades.

The island of Capri, located in the Bay of Naples, is half an hour by ferry from Sorrento and about an hour by ferry from Naples. 

unnamed-2

Arriving in Capri by ferry

 

The day after we drove the length of the Amalfi Coast from Sorrento to Ravello and back, we took an early morning ferry from Sorrento’s Marina Piccola (the small Marina) to Capri. As the ferry sailed towards Capri, I could not help but notice that the sky was grey, brooding and overcast and it was depressing to think that we would spend another day next to a pale blue Mediterranean (see my post on our day spent on the aAmalfi Coast).

However, by the time we reached Capri and boarded a funicular for Anacapri, the sun was shining cheerfully upon us and we caught a glimpse of the glittering blue Mediterranean that was going to give us company for the rest of our time in Capri, ever-present in the horizon and peaking through the rugged cliffs, villas and lemon groves.   

img_8826

The brilliant blue of the sea against Capri’s cliffs

Without wasting too much time, we traded the big ferry that had brought us to Capri for a smaller ferry for a cruise around the island. The cruise boat neatly skirted the cliffs on waters that seemed to turn blue to green to blue again. Seeing Capri’s landmark Faraglioni rocks rising tall and majestic above the sea, and sailing right through one of them was particularly exciting. These famous rocks in the Bay of Naples, even have names – (from the left in the picture below) Stella, Mezzo and Scopolo!

img_8839

Capri’s Faraglioni rocks (Stella, Mezzo and Scopolo) as seen from the ferry

The clear highlight of the day was taking a chairlift up from the piazza in Anacapri to Monte Solaro, the highest point in Capri (I must confess – I am partial towards points of high altitudes such as mountains, buildings, towers and campaniles, which through elevators, funiculars, cable cars and the like are easy to scale).  

img_8830

Looking down from Monte Solaro

Once we reached the top which is spotted with cobbled-stone steps and shaded gazebos and looked down below at the perfect blue sea and the Faraglioni rock formations, I realized that this was the view I had been waiting for all those days that I had been planning this trip to Italy. It’s hard to say which spot provided the best view of the beautiful cliffs plunging below into the sea, because in all honesty, there was no such thing there as a bad view! 

img_8832

View of Bay of Naples from Monte Solaro

The next morning was a whirlwind of activity – checking out of the beautiful hotel San Michele in Anacapri, taking an open air taxi down to the Marina (an adventure in itself), boarding the ferry to Sorrento, retrieving our suitcases from our Sorrento hotel, and beginning the drive to Tuscany. 

But the day’s adventures had just begun, as I would realize later. 

unnamed-3

Sun rising in Capri

unnamed-1

The Mediterranean comes to life on our second day in Capri

A hilltop in Tuscany, Italy – New Horizon

SONY DSCA rolling hilltop in Chianti, Tuscany, which seems content and contained at the same time. This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge is New Horizon – where we explore something we want to achieve in 2017. For 2017, I want to find my happiness within and in the moment, instead of getting caught up in the loop of “I would be happy if only…..”. As they say, “Happiness is a choice”, and I want to consciously keep making that choice.

Here’s wishing everyone a very Happy 2017.

The Amalfi Coast drive – with gray hues instead of blue.

SONY DSC

On a regular Italian summer day, this should have been a stunning blue sea!

“Driving will not be easy in this rain.”

“Why don’t we take the SITA bus?” I say, referring to the big blue public transport buses easily identifiable on the road.

” That would not be any fun.”

“Fine, let’s go tomorrow then.”

“Oh-kayy (sigh) Let’s just go.”

This is the bizarre conversation that Sach and I had, on repeat for about 5 times, before we drove forth into the twists and turns of the Amalfi Coast. It did not help that our day had started at 4 am when we checked out of our hotel in Rome and we had already drove for three hours to get to Sorrento, a city near Naples which is the de-facto beginning of the celebrated Amalfi Coast drive.

Pick up any guide-book for Italy and tell me if you are not seduced by the jaw dropping pictures of pretty towns along the Amalfi Coast perched over cliffs overlooking the vast expanse of shimmering blue Mediterranean Sea.

a6

Driving down the Amalfi Coast

But the shimmery azure colors of the Mediterranean need one prerequisite – a sun shining overhead. As it happened, during the day we visited the Amalfi Coast, that too in mid-August, the sky was completely overcast with intermittent showers. And thus instead of blue colors, we drove alongside a sea which was pale blue bordering on grey. This was the case during the entire drive from Sorrento to Ravello.

I had been planning this trip for almost 5 months and in these five months I had almost memorized the Amalfi coast section of the Frommer’s Italy travel guide. And thus I knew exactly what I wanted to see there – the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

All along the drive to Ravello as we passed the towns of Amalfi and the celebrated Positano, I was amazed at how the narrow 2 lane road was easily accommodating the blue SITA buses, cars and motor cycles with space to spare for vehicles to be parked on the side.

Once we reached Ravello, we could not find any Parking signs for about half an hour and then finally parked our Hertz rental where we saw some other vehicles parked. After this bit of confusion, finding Villa Cimbrone was easy. Seriously, the village of Ravello, where the Mediterranean plays hide and seek from behind scented lemon groves, is what an Italian dream vacation is made of. After having lunch at a cafe in cobbled stoned piazza devoid of any traffic, and stopping at a pretty souvenir shop selling all manner of lemon themed curios (did I mention that Amalfi Coast is the home of Lemoncello, a lemon liquor that has to be tasted to be believed?), we began the small hike to Villa Cimbrone.

SONY DSC

Lunch in Ravello!!

SONY DSC

Preponderance of the lemon motif in the Amalfi Coast souvenir shops

After stopping many a time to take in the views and passing lemon groves (yes, lemon groves… where else will you find lemon groves?), we finally ascended all the steps to the Villa. The Villa dates back to the 11th century and its charming cloisters and courtyards are reminiscent of the Venetian and  Gothic architectural style and are lush with plants and flower beds. Once in the Villa, you are immediately drawn to is its belvedere called the Terrazzo dell’lnfinito or the Terrace of Infinity. As the name suggests, the Terrace of Infinity really puts you front and center in the Mediterranean. The terrace is surrounded with really run down and broken marble statues which at least look good from a distance.

dsc05442

The cloisters of Villa Cimbrone

SONY DSC

wThe gardens leading to the Terrace of Infinity

dsc05408

The magnificent Terrazzo dell’lnfinito (never mind the run down marble statues).

a4

The Sea as far as you can see!

SONY DSC

Would you believe that this gray expanse is the Mediterranean?

 

We spent a few leisurely hours in the Terrace of Infinity and the pretty gardens of the Villa, admiring the sea from all vantage points, even though its hues were gray instead of blue, and then almost reluctantly started the drive back to Sorrento. The skies had cleared a little bit, and we stopped at Positano to admire its postcard-worthy perfection.

a1

Pretty Positano

SONY DSC

The drive back to Sorrento

And thus our cloudy-with a chance of dissapointment-day on the Amalfi Coast came to an end. When you plan your trip – pray for a sunny day (or not – it will still be a memorable experience!).

Practically speaking:

If looking for a place to stay on the Amalfi Coast, you cannot go wrong with Best Western – La Solara, a nifty and efficient hotel, with jaw-dropping views of the Mediterranean, and a frequent shuttle to the city center.

When in Rome…..

When you are in Rome as a tourist in the month of August, you would feel that you are in a mythical place where all the locals have disappeared and the tourists have descended in such large numbers that they are everywhere, and I mean everywhere…. You could go into the most narrow and sleepy looking alley, hoping that it would lead to a deserted piazza, but visitors would be there too.


Such was our experience in August of 2010, when we landed in Rome during the time when the locals escape to the seaside for their own vacations. But even with tourists everywhere, I found Rome to be hot, gleaming and amazing, because it was my first time in Europe (barring a 2006 trip to Ireland), and the beginning of a love affair with Italy.

Here are the happy memories of the Roman holiday:

– the Trevi Fountain is gorgeous, the crowds notwithstanding. Its enormous, really a fountain complex. There is some significance to the amount of coins you throw at its incredible Baroque architecture – one guarantees a return to Rome, 2 coins would lead to a new romance, and 3 coins would lead to marriage. And me, being married and on this maiden Italy trip with the husband, made it a point to throw just the one coin.


   

– I would gladly loose myself again in the sun-soaked piazzas in Rome. If you are a proponent of slow travel and not too keen on checking off all the touristy items in this very touristy city, just relax at the piazzas – there is so much beauty and history everywhere that there is nary a need to enter a museum or gallery. In the shiny but not glaring sunlight of late afternoon, these piazzas acquire the warm tone of a perfect Instagram filter.  A prime example is Piazza Navona with another beautiful fountain, Bernini’s the Fountain of Four Rivers (“Fontana dei Quattro Fuimi”). The four rivers personified in this very intricately carved fountain are the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges (or Ganga) and Rio de la Plata.

img_6804-1

img_6793-1

img_6795

img_6803

– When you are at Piazza Navona, why not visit the adjoining church of the martyr Saint Agnes in Agony? Another great example of Baroque architecture, this church is beautiful from the inside as well, without the long lines of the Vatican.

 

– One of the best things we did was visit the Vatican late in the night, where we were able to take photos of the very elegantly and romantically lit  San Pietro basilica and Piazza San Pietro. Not to say that you should not visit during the day, if only to take in Michaelangelo’s beautiful work of art – the Pieta.

 

– One gallery which would not be found in every tourist to do list is the Villa Borghese, which has a formidable collection of sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Alas, photography is not allowed inside the gallery, and thus I have no photos to show why even All-I-know-about-art-I-have-learned-from-the-movies person like me could tell that these sculptures were truly exquisite and thus the entry to the gallery made limited to a small number each day (Tip: book your tickets online in advance). The one sculpture that I loved was the “Apollo and Daphne”. The intricate details of Daphne turning into a tree to escape Apollo are quite simply amazing.

– We were quite smug as we passed the long line of tourists queuing at the ticket counter of the Vatican museum, as we had booked the tickets online in advance. However, there really was no research on my part going into the Museum, which was a rookie mistake. Other than knowing about Michelangelo’s pivotal Sistine Chapel ceiling, I entered this great collection of art completely clueless. It’s no surprise that I can only vaguely recall passing through an gallery containing very old maps, and being in a room covered from floor to ceiling by work of Raphael. But I still remember excitement when we saw with our own eyes the Creation of Adam, with the iconic two hands, on the ceiling inside the Sistine Chapel.

 

All in all, Rome turned out to be everything we had hoped for and then some. But after rounds of the museums, galleries and basilicas in the Italian capital, we were ready for the shimmering blues of the Amalfi Coast. But that’s another blog post for another day.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Reward

 

The view of Florence Cathedral from the top of the bell tower.

The view of Florence Cathedral from the top of the bell tower.

The stunning views of Brunelleschi’s  candy-cane dome and all of Florence and the surrounding countryside – this was our reward for climbing the 414 steps to get to the top of the adjacent bell tower. The steps were tall, narrow and at certain points, downright hazardous!  But the views from the top were a fitting reward. Now all we had to do was brace ourselves for the walk down the stairs….

See other entries for the weekly photo challenge here.

Florence and surrounding countryside

Florence and surrounding countryside

Another picture capturing Firenze taken from the bell tower.

Another picture capturing Firenze taken from the bell tower.

No twists, no glory – Weekly photo challenge “Twist”

You have done your research and have meticulously read and reread the guidebook. As you embark upon on the drive, full of twists, turns and hairpin bends, you try to fight the very last smudge of doubt – what if the whole experience, after all the twists and turns, is not worth it?

For this week’s photo challenge – Twist, I have selected the fruits of three drives full of twists and bends. While the pictures are idyllic, the drives along the twisty roads were far from smooth. However, in each case, the views were definitely worth the very interesting and adventurous road trips.

1. View of Positano, taken from the very twisty road along the Amalfi Coast in Italy:

SONY DSC

 

2. View of the Pacific Ocean, taken from the Road to Hana in the island of Maui, Hawai:DSC00470

3. Cabo Formentor, in the island of Mallorca, Spain:

DSC03343

 

Do you have any such experiences? A road full of twists and turns, but totally worth it? Please share, so that I can fuel my wanderlust with more twists 🙂

 

The hiking trails of Cinque Terre

“..The storybook journey, replete with fragrant wildflowers and colorful butterflies, is topped with uninterrupted views.. ”

When I read this article about Cinque Terre in the New York Times, the part about the paths being fragrant with wild flowers seemed like a bit of an exaggeration. But months later, as we climbed the many stairs in the hike from Monterosso to Vernazza , I remember thinking that the article was right – that the air was actually and nicely fragrant!

Often a comparison is drawn between Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre, and while both wear the Mediterranean Sea proudly like sparkling sapphire jewels, Cinque Terre has one thing that sets it apart from the beautiful Amalfi Coast near Naples – its hiking trails, that let you explore the beauty of this region closely and at your own pace.

There are five villages that comprise the Cinque Terre, and thus there are four trails. During our visit, the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia (the center-most town) and from Corniglia to Manarola were closed due to flood damage. So we really did not have to choose – we did the exhausting yet incredible hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, and the “walk-in-the -park” hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola.

Click to enlarge the pictures:

Monterosso-al-mare to Vernazzza

Our trek began by purchasing the Cinque-Terre passes from the tourist center at Levanto, a village adjacent to Cinque Terre. This pass, costing EUR 10 allows you to travel between Levanto and other villages in Cinque Terre by train, and also contains the entry fees for the Cinque Terre trails.

After disembarking from the train at Monterosso,  we started walking in the general direction of the crowd and soon found ourselves on this epic trail. Depending on how fast you walk and how many stops you make, this hike can take anything from 3.5 to 7 hours… we completed it in 5 hours. I would suggest making lots of stops, because the views would definitely be worth your while. About half an hour into the hike, looking back, we could now see a beautiful view of Monterosso from a distance. Then came the steps, oh the torturous and all too many steps (any reservations that people might have of this trail are on account of these steps). But, after making adequate rests, we got through the steps, and the rest of the trail was not hard at all.

The village of Monterosso-al-mare

The village of Monterosso-al-mare

Looking back at Monterosse

Looking back at Monterosso

Along the trail we found lemon groves, terraced vineyards, streams, butterflies, lovely little bridges, wildflowers in myriad colors, and of course, the surreal beauty of the Mediterranean stretching as far as the eyes would go. Also marking the trail were hand-written signs pointing to Vernazza. We took our time, navigating the twists and turns, partly to enjoy the views and take pictures, partly because rest was absolutely needed, and partly to make way for other tourists doing the same hike from Vernazza.

Along the trail

Along the trail

Making our way through the bridges and pathways..

Making our way through the bridges and pathways..

The hills beckon..

The hills beckon..

Signs guide you on..

Signs guide you on..

When we saw the beautiful village of Vernazza ahead of us, we knew that this trek was coming to an end. In Vernazza, we found a small cafe by the sea and celebrated our wonderful trek with some equally wonderful vino-della-casa (house-wine).

The sight of Vernazza towards the end of our hike

The sight of Vernazza towards the end of our hike

Riomaggiore to Manarola

Compared to our hike of the previous day, the walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola turned out to be a veritable stroll in the park. The tiled path is called the Via dell’ Amore (the path of love), and you could definitely love this path for its ease of passage. This path also comes with grand vistas of the Sea, and lest you forget the dedication to love, a statue of 2 people joined in a kiss. A tiny part of us wished that our hike would last a little longer, as we covered this trail in less than half-an-hour.

On the Via dell' Amore..

On the Via dell’ Amore..

Falling is love would be easy here - the kiss at the Via dell' Amore

Falling is love would be easy here – the kiss at the Via dell’ Amore

Ligurian Cuisine

Come for the hiking trails, but I daresay, stay for the Ligurian cuisine. If you love pesto sauce like I do, you will find culinary heaven here, as the Italian riviera is the birthplace of pesto, and the pesto sauce is best served with the signature trenette pasta! We had one of the best meals in Italy in a tratorria in Levanto, Le 3 Cantine. The waitress only spoke Italian  and the only Italian we could speak was “non-parlo-Italiano” (“I do not understand Italian”). But she was well-versed in the universal language of good humor and good cheer, and we were well taken care of.

More pictures of Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera can be found here:

Getting to Cinque Terre

Getting to Cinque Terre

For sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea, as you make your way through meandering hiking trails at the very edge of lush green mountains and intercept Italian villages that seem lost in time and natural beauty, there is no better place to go than Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre, which means “Five Lands” in Italian, stands for the Italian Riviera villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.  The villages are as  quaint as their names.

Cinque Terre seemed hard to get to after a first read of the travel guide, because it is not possible to go from one village to the other by car. But like a lot of things in life, getting to Cinque Terre in the Italian region of Liguria, turned out to be easy when we actually set about doing it.

Looking back at Monterosso, as we progress on the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza.

Looking back at Monterosso, as we progress on the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza.

The journey started with an  EasyJet flight from London to Pisa. The car-ride from Pisa to Bonassola, a town adjacent to Cinque-Terre, took a little less than two hours. We stayed in Bonassola for 3 nights. Bonassola was a few minutes and some narrow turns away from Levanto. Levanto, with its train station, was our gateway to Cinque Terre.

We travelled the distance from Levanto to Monterosso by train. We then did the epic and five-hour long hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, and then took the train back to Levanto. By this time, we were fully submerged in the beauty that is Cinque Terre.

If you had to choose one hike, choose this one - Monterosso to Vernazza.

If you had to choose one hike, choose this one – Monterosso to Vernazza.

Our second day in the Cinque Terre saw us taking the boat to Porto Venere, a town beyond all the five Cinque Terre villages.  Porto Venere, while not a part of Cinque Terre, is a beautiful seaside village and deserves a place in every Cinque Terre itinerary. On the return boat ride, we stopped at the last village, Rio-Maggiore. There, the stage was set for the second and easier hike, to Manarola. From Manarola, we did our last train journey, back to Levanto. 

One last picture of Levanto, as we were driving away from Cinque Terre.

One last picture of Levanto, as we were driving away from Cinque Terre.

We could not walk the trails to and from Corniglia, the village in the middle, as these were closed for repairs after some flooding. I take this as a sign that there is more than a slim chance that we will be going to the Italian Riviera again.

A more detailed post of the hikes in the trails of Cinque Terre to follow! Meanwhile, here are some  more pictures.

Give Milan a few days.

While I was going through the Frommer’s Italy travel guide few years back to figure out our itinerary for a 16-day and first Europe trip, I stopped at the page that showed the Duomo (cathedral) in Milan. It was one of the most amazing architectural works I had seen, well, on paper. However, Milan did not seem to offer much else, so Milan was dropped off our Italian itinerary. Milan does tend to get bumped off in the trifecta of Rome-Florence-Venice that primarily mark a tourist’s Italia vacation.

I did visit Milan though more recently and it turned out to be a revelation! Thus, when you are planning an itinerary for Italy, I would strongly recommend giving Milan atleast 2 days for 2 very specific reasons. Please read on.

Reason number 1 – the Duomo:

The cathedral or Duomo of Milan is stunning. It took my breath away the moment I entered the Piazza del Duomo. The gothic towers and the triangular and marble-checkered facade with countless intricately carved  apostles and the large stained-glass windows make this cathedral very unique. Some details from Wikipedia – this is the fourth or fifth largest church building in the world, and the largest in Italy after St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City. Its construction began in the late 1300’s and took around six centuries to complete.

The awe-inspiring Duomo of Milan

The awe-inspiring Duomo of Milan

The Duomo - even more spectacular in its three dimensional view

The Duomo – even more spectacular in its three dimensional view

On paying a small ticket price, you can take the stairs or the elevator to the roof of the Duomo (I confess I am partial to monuments that have the option of the elevator). Even before I reached the roof, I found myself in a passage of gothic architecture. This interaction with the Duomo’s architecture at such close quarters was quite intriguing. The interior of the Duomo is equally impressive, with massive floor to ceiling windows adorned with stained-glass paintings.

The roof of the Cathedral

The roof of the Duomo

Looking down from the Duomo roof

Looking down from the Duomo roof

Reason number 2 – The Last Supper

Many people don’t know (me included..until I did) that the Iconic masterpiece, “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci is actually a large-sized mural and not a painting and it resides not in Rome or in Florence but in Milan. The Last Supper which depicts the moment when Jesus Christ announces that one his disciples is going to betray him, is full of enigmas and mysteries and numerous interpretations have been made of the hand gestures and facial expressions of the disciples and even of the items lying on the table.

Seeing the original Last Supper in Milan was nothing short of exhilarating. This is perhaps due to the mural’s extremely precarious existence through its history – painted in the 15th century by Da Vinci on the refectory wall of convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, the mural has survived (albeit barely) a doorway cut through its center-base (you can still see this in the mural) in the 17th century, the desecration by anti-church soldiers in the 18th century, a bombing during World War II, and numerous botched restoration attempts. A final 20 year restoration was completed in 1999 when the mural was opened for public viewing under a sealed climate controlled environment. Only 20 visitors who have booked in advance are allowed in the room for a total viewing time of 15 minutes.

What can I say, just staring at this piece of art only for 15 minutes made the trip to Milan worthwhile.

The convent of Santa Maria della Grazie where the Last Supper resides - photo taken from across the road and tram lines

The convent of Santa Maria della Grazie where the Last Supper resides – photo taken from across the road and tram lines

Not the ORIGINAL - no photography allowed of the original mural, but this reproduction is in the room outside, for pictures.

Not the ORIGINAL – no photography allowed of the original mural, but this reproduction is in the room outside, for pictures.

More reasons to visit Milan:

Visit Milan for the marinara pizza (mouth-watering combination of marinara sauce, olive oil & oregano) and the celebrated gelatos. Also, Milan is only a few hours’ drive to Lake Como and other gorgeous lakes of the Italian Alps. I don’t know much about it but apparently you can get some steals on the very high-end Italian brands, many of which have flagship stores in the landmark Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  And there is a piazza dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci (with his statue of course) that made the art and history geek in me jump with joy!

Here are some more Milan moments:

%d bloggers like this: