Verona is a smaller city that often gets overlooked as it’s really only famous for being the fictional home of Romeo’s Juliet. But if you happen to be up north, it’s a really convenient destination for a few days, a mere hour train ride away from Venice.
We bought the Verona card for 15 Euros which really structured our days. The card is good for 48 hours and gets you into a variety of sites for free. This forced us out into the city in a way that we never would have gone on our own. (OK, I never would have gone on my own. My husband needs no excuse to look at several hundred year old structures. But for me, the combination of having a checklist and “free” made it almost an exercise in how much I could game the system. Plus, once you’re getting in for free, you don’t mind leaving a church once you’ve had enough and moving on to the next place.) This does make it a very historical trip, although there is a lot of shopping to be done in Verona, too, and if you go in April, you’ll be there in time for Vinitaly.
Verona has the largest collection of ancient Roman artifacts outside of Rome, with it’s own Coliseum and an old Roman theatre across the river. The Teatro Romano offers wonderful views of the city as well as houses an archaeological museum. The
Coliseum is known as the Verona Arena and dates back to the 1st century. It’s still in use today having a full schedule of opera and other performances. It was too early in the season to catch it when we went, but I recommend checking into tickets if you know you’re going to be in the area. It would be a stunning place to take in a show.
Museo di Castelvecchio is a 14th century fortress, whose bridge was destroyed by the Germans and then rebuilt to fit the period it was originally made in. They’ve also built onto it a modern sort of wing that is now a museum with old frescoes and statues. In addition to the ancient architecture, it’s fascinating to see how they’ve incorporated the new construction, bringing together the old and the modern in a way that isn’t garish and tries to honor the old without doing some soulless copy.
Likewise, Centro Internazionale di Fotagrafia Scavi Scaligeri combines modern art with the ancient. The photo gallery is actually housed inside the underground excavation of the old Roman street. I was there for a Giorgio Casali exhibit and it was a treat to see his iconic images of 50’s and 60’s Italian style set against ancient Roman cobblestones and aqueducts.
The big cuisine of the region is horse, donkey and red wine risotto. I couldn’t bring myself to order the horse or donkey, even though both smelled quite good, and I realized that makes me a gigantic hypocrite, especially as I had just spent 3 days in Emilia Romagna where you could often see dinner wandering around out of your bedroom window. But the good news is the risotto is delicious as is many of the other things I ordered while there.
I really enjoyed La Enoteca Segreta for dinner, especially when it came to dessert which was a shortbread cookie with grappa and powdered sugar on it that I still think about on the reg.
Another place that people talk about is Antica Bottega del Vino. This place was good, too, but big and packed and the front is also a bar with a small plates menu. As the name might indicate, they have an insane wine list.
Lastly, there was a place we went for lunch in Dante’s house. It was on the expensive side for lunch, but we just liked the guy. I don’t know. He had an 80′s playlist and was friendly. There was a fried egg with truffles that we enjoyed as well as the red wine risotto. And he had wines by the half bottle which is sometimes handy. Many places in Europe don’t really do wines by the glass and the ones they have aren’t that great. (Contrary to what you hear, I don’t think the “house wine” is all that great.) Ristorante Milio e Santa Anastasia.
And definitely stop into one of the cafes at Piazza Erbe for an aperitivo before or a drink after dinner. It’s also where I bought one of my favorite pairs of shoes ever.
Verona is in Valpolichella and Amarone country and if you can get out of the city and do a wine tour, I would recommend it. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend the tour we used. I thought it was overpriced for only taking us to two wineries, and the guides were a little stiff. In an industry already known for being pretentious, I find the people of Amarone country to be even more arrogant. The first place we went was Quintarelli which poured us thimble sized tastes with the seriousness of a surgeon opening a child’s heart. It didn’t put us in a mood to buy, nor did the price which had little to nothing under 3 figures and quickly moved into the 4 figured. We did however, have them take us to Valentina Cubi on a friend of ours recommendation and the family who ran this place was down to Earth and lovely.
If Bologna is the Boston of Italy, Puglia is the Cape Cod. I first heard about Puglia as a destination about 5 years ago when my friend told me that she heard it was great. “Italians are just starting to discover it,” she explained. Indeed when you go there, it has the feel, not of an International tourist destination, but as some place that local families have been going to in the summer for generations. I think we saw one other American couple there the whole time and our question when we met them was, “How did you hear about this place?”
Turns out they were students on an exchange program: he was in Rome and she was in Florence, or vice versa. They had been in Italy for about 6 months and were now traveling at the end of their school year. When the waiter, who spoke no English, brought them their check, the guy handed him a bill and asked for “twenty three” in change.
I looked at The Husband. “He’s been here six months and he doesn’t know how to say ‘twenty three?’”
The Husband shrugged, “I’ve been here a bunch and I don’t know that I know how to say ‘twenty three.’”
“What’s the largest size coffee at Starbucks?”
My judgment aside, the couple was on their way to Croatia. Puglia is the “heel” of the boot, in southeast Italy, across the Adriatic from Croatia and Albania. It may be too far south to conveniently fit into another itinerary, unless you’re doing a swing of Calabria and Basilicata, too. We broke up the drive down from Rome with a stop overnight in Campagnia to go to a winery but there is an airport in Bari, too, that you can fly into.
If you’re in the mood for a beach vacation, Puglia has some of the most dramatic
coastline I’ve ever seen: sheer cliffs bleached white with sea caves and clear blue water.
We stayed in two places while in Puglia. Polignano a Mare had all of that Cape feel that I was talking about. Your waiter from the night before would be getting drunk in the bar across the street. The beaches were populated with vacationers who would bring a chair and a sandwich in the morning and then hang there all day. Kids would snorkel and catch shrimp to cook later. After dinner one evening, we walked towards the main square. As we got closer we could hear a band playing “Volare” like we were in a movie about Italy forty years ago. The band was made up of people of all ages and in front of them was a quartet of baton twirlers ranging in age from about 5 to 16, too. (As we would later find out, it’s where the man who wrote “Volare” is from and in fact there’s a statue to him on the other side of town.)
Our hotel room was right on the street facing another smaller square, and we would go out at night with a glass of wine and sit on the steps and watch people walking around with gelato or also sneaking a beverage: groups of teenagers, twentysomethings on dates, older married couples, families. Everyone was out enjoying the night; no one was in a hurry.
Speaking of our room, we stayed at the Grotta Palazzese which I found through a list that circulated on Facebook. Yes, reader, it’s true! We already knew we were going to Puglia when I read a list of the most spectacular restaurants that you can’t believe are real or something and one of them was the cave restaurant at the Grotta Palazzese. We booked both dinner at the restaurant and 3 nights in the hotel. Note: not all the rooms are as amazing as ours. You have to be sure to ask for a room with a view and there aren’t many.
The restaurant itself is such a surreal location of breathtaking beauty that the meal is never going to live up to it, which is really too bad because you’re paying 37 Euros a dish. Which isn’t to say the food isn’t good: the seafood is very fresh and the tuna I had for my secondi was cooked perfectly. It’s just not going to blow you away. But that’s OK because the cave you’re eating in will.
Polignano a Mare is made up of bleached white buildings that create a maze of side streets of cafes and stores. A word about the beaches: they are rocky. Fortunately, you can get a pair of beach booties for 12 Euro in town and you’re going to need them. But once I had them, I was unstoppable. Also, rather than try to make camp with our towels on the rocky beach, we rented two chairs at a restaurant called Fly for 20 Euros for the day. Both the booties and the chairs were solid investments.
We had gelato every day, sometimes twice, and I highly recommend both Millennium and Caruso. We also had dinner one night at Pizzeria e Fichi which was cute and casual. And we also went to Villa d’Arancia. Eat outside overlooking the grove and gardens that you can also walk around. The grounds are beautiful and while the meal itself didn’t stand out, at the time I did think the octopus tasted fresh and was well cooked.
One of the reasons The Husband had been wanting to go to Puglia for years was that he had been reading about and seeing pictures of the town of Alberobello, a Unesco world heritage site famous for 1,000’s of 700 year old Hobbit house-like huts known as trulli. They are remarkable and many places will offer you the experience to stay in a trulli. Here’s my advice: visit the trulli, stay someplace else. We pulled into Alberobello around lunchtime and had a fantastic meal at Il Poeta Contadino . The food was the great kind of simple that was wonderful. We emerged from our meal with a carafe of the local white in us, only to find ourselves in the middle of downtown Disney. Up every street in the town were people trying to sell us tea towels and spoon rests and salt and pepper shakers, all with trulli on them. It was…overwhelming. Then I may have hit my head on one of Frodo’s low ceilings, with a crack so loud a stranger inquired as to my well being, while The Husband kept right on snapping photos of fucking trulli, and a spat may have ensued. Then some woman tried to charge me 50 cents to pee in a public restroom, which didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that I only had a 20 Euro note on me and she refused to both change it or let me pee which made me want to just pee right there. I should also mention that we were there in July so it was extra hot and extra crowded. An average day in April might be a little less fraught. If you’re looking for something a bit quieter, a friend says the drive from Alberobello to Martina Franca has the best trulli scenery and is truly idyllic. Plus once you’re there you can get some of the capicolla they’re famous for.
We also went to the town of Lecce, which is supposed to be a cool baroque city, but the day we went it was 100 degrees and we ended up not having the best of experiences and a fight instead. I don’t remember what we fought about, but do you need a reason when it’s 100 degrees and humid? The weirdest thing about the day we spent in Lecce was that we got off the train and it was a ghost town, so much so that the two men who were on the street behind us made us nervous, and neither one of us are prone to get like that when we travel. We wandered through side streets, consulting the map for main streets, the whole time still seeing no one. It was 11, 11:30 on a Sunday morning, certainly late enough that you would see people at a café, or walking home from church or something. But we saw no one, save the two men who were going to rob us, for something insane like 20, 25 minutes. We saw empty wine bars, empty restaurants. It looked like a fun town. When we finally did see people it was on a particularly tourist friendly street, lined with shops that sold Pinocchios or whatever on the sidewalk. Admittedly, the desolation followed by the sudden and intense wave of tourists did little to encourage a feeling of excitement about where we were. We finally sat down in a small rustic café, wanting to get a little snack before lunch. The Husband had researched a restaurant that served amazing fried vegetables (and if you’ve read previous posts you know that he is a fanatic about his Italian fried vegetables) so he wanted to eat lunch there. But as I said, it was 100 degrees and we kind of needed to sit and put something in our stomachs and hydrate.
We sat down in the bar, where a friendly woman spoke to me in Italian while I ordered a bottle of sparkling water, a plate of local cheeses, and she helped me to select two glasses of local white wine for us. She then offered us capacolla from Martina Franca, which I declined because this was just supposed to be a snack and she was never nice to us again. I had no idea what we did wrong. I was speaking to her in Italian, she seemed to understand me fine and I her. She was absolutely lovely. Then I noticed the other tables who sat down after us were getting their food before us and she was a lot less lovely.
My Roman friend later told me that so much of the South had been poor for so long, if they have something and they offer to share it with you it’s considered an insult to refuse. “Sharing” seems like a strong word for something I was paying for, but I will assume he’s correct since he was born there and I wasn’t. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly encouraging me to stay in a town I was already having a bizarre time in, especially when I had a room in a beach town and a bikini waiting for me. We never even made it to the place we wanted to go for lunch. I don’t remember why. It may have been closed…? Honestly, I just remember heat.
But I’ve heard so many great things about it from friends who have been there that I would be willing to go again and give it a second try. And where else are you going to start fixing a toilet in a Trattoria and end up unearthing a tomb dating before Christ?
After three nights in Polignano a Mare, we drove up the coast to the more remote Gargano, which is an area of Puglia that I believe is some sort of protected National park. We stayed at the Baia dei Faraglioni, named for the rock formations sticking out of the water on the private beach where you will be swimming.
The grounds are beautiful and the hotel even has a spa that we never got a chance to try. As I said, this is more remote than Poligano a Mare: there’s no town to walk around and if you want to leave the resort, you have to get in your car to go someplace. However, the good news is that there’s plenty to do both on the grounds and off.
The hotel can arrange different tours for you. We did a tour of the sea caves in a boat that was spectacular, despite the surly Italian captain who brought his girlfriend along. (What is it with these Italian sea captains and their mistresses!?) There’s also hiking that we never had the time for, but would definitely do if we went again.
There’s also two towns to visit: Peschichi and Vieste, although we only went to Vieste
and all we did there was eat an amazingly fresh seafood meal with the most amazing fresh baked bread ever. I know, all we did. Vieste is known for it’s old town, but by the time we got going that morning the drive there was so beautiful so we stopped a lot along the way, then we had to park in town and find the centro storico, well, by then we were getting both hot and hungry which we realized after Lecce wasn’t a great combination. One of the managers at our hotel had recommended Il Capriccio for lunch and so we made our way there.
What’s funny is that it was a bit of a hike from where we were, then we got there only to find that men were doing construction right outside the restaurant, complete with a jackhammer and the smell of fresh tar, and then they closed the windows in the restaurant which didn’t help the heat even with the AC and didn’t do much to cut out the noise although we did smell less tar. However, it remains one of the best meals that we still talk about to this day. We lost our minds so much over the bread alone, that they brought the chef and owner out who told us that he had another restaurant, La Piana della Bataglia, where he let the pizza dough rise without yeast for 72 hours and we decided to go there for dinner, to the somewhat shock of the manager of the hotel who couldn’t understand why we wanted to drive 45 minutes to go to a “pizza place.” The “pizza place” was in the hills, in the middle of vines and an olive grove but still with a view of the water. The owner’s wife came out and met us, having already heard about us from her husband. (I’m guessing it’s quite shocking to Italians to have people so into your bread.) And we had an amazing wine, an Uva di troia that wasn’t even on the menu, but that the waiter recommended anyway and was sure to decant.
From Volare in the town square to finding a restaurant hidden in the hills, Puglia was kind of magical. Except for when I hit my head. And the fight in Lecce.
Somewhere in Boston there exists footage of me being interviewed about what it’s like to be a female comic. I was brand new and sharing the spotlight with two veteran female comics. Inevitably the question came up about how we were being treated by male comics. Me and my ponytail and signature plaid skirt sunnily said, “Some of my biggest support has come from male comics. They’ve been really helpful.”
I’d like to thank those other two women for not strangling me with my ponytail.
It’s not that male comics weren’t helpful to me; some did help me get gigs including the man I would later marry. And I never felt like sex was their motivation, even, sadly, with the man I would later marry. But thinking back on it I want to strangle myself with my own ponytail because I just didn’t get it. I didn’t know.
Of course male comics were very helpful to me. I was young, I was cute and most importantly, I wasn’t threatening.
Unlike the veteran women I was sharing the camera with, I wasn’t going to steal their weekend headlining spots, or their week night hosting gig. I was happy to do five minutes and I was sweating it if I had to stretch to ten. I wasn’t considered a pain in the ass yet, asking uncomfortable questions like why I wasn’t getting ahead as fast as my male peers or being paid as much or why there was always only one woman on the show, if we were lucky. All experiences these other women, who politely sat there and smiled at me, I’m sure shared; experiences that I would have my own versions of in the years to come.
What remained unspoken in my answer, the counterpoint to my “male comics have been really helpful” was of course, “female comics have not.” Again, I didn’t get it. And PS, I considered myself a HUGE feminist.
The truth is it is easier for a man to help a woman, than it is for a woman to help another. Again, I am not threatening to a man. I am not in competition with him. The spot I was going to be taking wasn’t his; it was the one allotted female spot. You know who that is threatening to? Every other female who was trying to get it.
Those women didn’t help me before and they didn’t help me after. Few women did. But I don’t begrudge any of them that. I am not bitter towards them. They worked too hard for that spot to risk losing it. I’m bitter towards the system that made it one spot.
If a man recommends a woman and someone doesn’t find her funny, it won’t be seen as a referendum on his entire career. However, if a woman recommends another woman who doesn’t do as well, it will be seen as a reflection of what she finds funny. Women are on thin ice in the funny department anyway. They don’t need another reason for someone to call her work, “Just all right” or “Cute;” for someone to question her judgment. Often a women’s recommendation doesn’t carry as much weight as a man’s to begin with. Men know what’s funny. But women can’t always back another woman who’s just as funny as the guys. You have to back a woman who’s funnier than the guys. Because just as funny as the guys isn’t good enough. She has to be undeniable. Otherwise you are wasting your cred. You might be looked at as unfunny. And women in general might be looked at as not funny. When a white man isn’t good enough, he’s not representing his entire sex or race. It’s just one guy who’s not funny. When a woman isn’t funny, it only adds fuel to the “women aren’t funny fire.”
I love having male allies and I have had some great ones. I just wish a male ally wasn’t more valid than having a woman saying the exact same thing. Especially when it comes to things that we have first hand experience of. I wish it didn’t take Hannibal Burress for people to start talking about the allegations about Cosby just as much as I’m glad that he did it. I wish people could have believed the women who came forward about him originally. And I wish more men could understand this conundrum. Because sometimes what the good guys who are helping women don’t see is all the ones who don’t. They think because they don’t see sex that their peers – guys they like and are friends with – don’t either.
It’s the same way I don’t always understand how insidious racism and homophobia can be because it’s not part of my worldview. During the 2004 election, I was so tired of hearing, “You just like Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman.” My mantra became, “You would never say to a person of color, ‘You just like Obama because he’s black.’” What I meant was, “I would never say.” The truth is, what the fuck do I know about what people of color are being accused of when it comes to supporting Obama? Had I ever asked? Nope. I just assumed because I wouldn’t say it, that these people wouldn’t either. The truth is that if they were comfortable accusing me of being some idiot who didn’t vote on issues but on gender, then they were probably very comfortable accusing others of something similar.
My heart was in the right place. Just like the hearts of many men I know are in the right place. Just like my heart was in the right place all those years ago in Boston. Our hearts are open; it’s our heads that need expanding. If the men had treated me badly I would have said something when I was asked. But I naively assumed my experience was somehow universal; that sexism was over or maybe even worse, that I was somehow special. I didn’t think there was a problem. I hadn’t had their struggles. (And by the way, I would see the ugly side soon enough. Date one male comic and you get to see all sorts of biases and double standards.)
Is it any better today? No. Like everything else it’s not linear. There are always good experiences and bad. Some of the worst sexism I’ve experienced has been in the last few years. I’ve met some women far more willing to put themselves out there for each other and I’ve also met some women who are very publicly “up with women” who, unprovoked, have behaved like total twats to me. If you believe social media there seems to be a rift – in my opinion manufactured largely by men and the media – between older and younger women and feminism is the battleground. While I prefer to not put myself in either category, I do know what I wish I could say to my younger self. “You don’t know what’s come before you. And you don’t know what’s going to come in your future either.”
The Husband and I like to call Bologna “the Boston of Italy” which really sends the wrong message if you’ve ever met a drunk Red Sox fan, lived through the bus riots, or were the victim of a mass cover up by the Catholic Church. When I say Bologna is like Boston, I don’t mean the belligerent racist part that looks the other way at child molestation. I mean the part that has good museums and people who buy you shots at 2 am.
Like Boston, Bologna is a “second city,” one that is often skipped travelers’ first time around. I get it. It’s no Rome or Manhattan. But just a few hours away, it will sit there quietly for centuries, with its Universities and history and good food and good times. Known as “the red, the fed, and the learned” or (“La Rossa, La Grassa e La Dotta”) it’s home to the first university in the world and known for their food and left leaning politics. It’s also home to old churches, great architecture and majestic piazzas; a great place to sit outside with a glass of wine and plate of cheese and watch the people go by – most of whom when we went were Italian and therefore helped us to feel less like a tourist.
Our first night in Bologna we were returning to our hotel after dinner. It was probably close to midnight. We turned down the small street our hotel was on, and across the street was a small café that people were spilling out of, drinking and laughing on the street. We went to open the door to the hotel only it was locked. And that’s when one of the guys from the bar appeared. He was short and stocky, with red hair that had a flower barrette in it. I probably wondered at that moment if I’d had too much to drink. Clearly one of us had. He pointed out to us that we were at the wrong door; the main entrance was further down. We thanked him and went inside.
Once in our room, we realized we just weren’t tired. We were still jetlagged having only landed a few days before. We both looked at each other and were thinking the same thing, so much so that I can’t remember who said it. “You want to go to that bar across the street?”
We returned and drank for the next couple of hours. The man with the barrette got us our drinks and asked us where we were from. When we told him Los Angeles, he dragged us outside to meet a friend of his who frequently had business out in LA and couldn’t stop talking about medical marijuana while he openly smoked a joint
on the street and bitched about Bologna. Someone played Diana Ross. It was magical. It was the type of place where I felt comfortable doing something you should never feel comfortable doing: leaving my purse with both my passport and cash on a table while I drank and talked outside and drank and danced inside. (Author’s note: it was totally fine and all there when I left.)
While we’ve been to Italy a lot, we’ve never made friends before, but on this particular trip we would make a lot. I feel like the first night in Bologna set the tone. When we finally went to pay our tab, I don’t recall ever being given one. What I do remember instead is that when we asked for our check, we were given shots of vodka. We don’t drink vodka. But we just looked at each other again like, “Are we going to do this?” And so that night, after a day of drinking wine since lunch, we finished it with vodka.
No surprise, we slept until 11:30 the next morning, missing the hotel’s breakfast, which I would find out the next day was really lovely.
Speaking of: we were sleeping and missing breakfast at the Hotel Metropolitan which I can’t say anything bad about. The location was in the center of town, walking distance to everything. The hotel itself was decorated in a modern Italian elegance of all white. My favorite touch was what I came to call the blanket installation. It was a black blanket at the foot of our all white bed that every day would be artfully arranged in a different fashion.
The hotel can also help you with parking should you be driving. The center of Bologna has restricted driving and you will need to leave you car in a garage a few blocks away and then walk to your hotel with your bags. You will also want to ask about a form that you need to fill out so that you don’t end up getting ticketed months later when someone looking at traffic cam footage sees that you drove you car through the restricted area. I don’t quite understand it all. I was lucky that I have a husband who does extensive research on banalities such as this, because the guy at the garage was zero help and we would have left without filling out the form.
You can also reach Bologna by train. That may be preferable.
Perhaps my favorite part of Bologna was the modern art museum, MAMBO, which is such a treat because while Italy is home to so much great art, so little that you see was done in the last century. It’s a nice break from all the frescoes of the baby Jesus. There’s a lot of great pieces from when Bologna was a hot bed of political protests in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as more recent stuff. And also in the same structure is the Museo Morandi, housing the works of Giorgio Morandi, a 20th century painter from Bologna. My favorite part of this exhibit is the way they sometimes pair his works with more modern ones that have similar subjects or influences, including a piece called “Not Morandi.”
There’s a gigantic tower that you can climb for fantastic vistas of the city, or that you can send your husband to climb if that’s his jam and you hate heights. The good news here is that Bologna is a great walking city, even in the rain, being home to porticos on almost every block. The way I understand it, when they were looking for places to house the students of the University, they built out onto the second story of existing structures, this additional level now providing a sheltered walkway for everyone on the street. You can go blocks and blocks while it’s raining which will be useful if you want to shop for shoes while your husband is climbing stairs like a mountain goat with an expensive camera.
You can plot out your destinations – we went to the museum and the Church of the Seven Churches and The Husband climbed the tower – but we also had a lovely time when we just wandered around and discovered things, too. One day we made our way into part of the University that housed both one of the oldest autopsy rooms as well as a great exhibit of International illustrators. Afterwards we had a drink in a divey, rock bar called something about Infidels that was full of pornographic cartoons and the first of many somewhat indifferent and belligerent owners in Bologna.
Definitely research your restaurants beforehand. I say this because Bologna is known for having some of the best food in all of Italy (which is truly saying something) and I don’t think we gave it as much thought as we could have. Case in point: we had read about the popular Drogheria della Rosa, only when we went to eat there our first night, they were booked up. We made a reservation for the next night, but weren’t sure were to go after that. (NOTE: We did go back the next night and after a bumpy start we ended up sharing two bottles of excellent wine with owner! I don’t know what it is about that town, but again, Boston of Italy.)
We walked around until we came to Osteria de’ Poeti which to this day we argue
about how much we liked. Maybe because that was the night we drank vodka at 3 am. Looking back on my notes, the meal was lovely. The Husband got the passetelli in brodo and I had a tortellone stuffed with the most delicious, rich, creamy ricotta and then finished off with a truffle sauce. (Tortellini and the larger tortellone are the big pasta in Bologna.) They also asked if we wanted to sit in the “piano bar” which we said yes to without quite realizing it was actually more of a “synthesizer karaoke bar”, but it was fun anyway because it meant that actual Italians were eating there and that’s always a good sign.
Maybe the meal that blew me away the most was the cheese plate at Tamburini. We had already had lunch, but stopped at their outdoor café for a glass of wine, or maybe it was a bottle (we drank a LOT in Bologna, see Boston above) and we had to order a cheese plate because it looked so amazing and it was probably the best cheese I’ve had in all of Italy, and I was so mad that we’d had lunch and couldn’t finish it and I took what was left with us to our next destination the following day.
Tamburini is also a great place to buy fresh pasta, cheeses and meats to take back to your place if you’re staying in some sort of rental with a kitchen. In addition to
being a great way to save money, Bologna is one of the best places to do this, having a large outdoor market of fish, vegetables and other culinary treats.
Another great thing to do is to visit nearby Modena, where they make balsamic vinegar, including the balsamico extra vecchio, which is 25-30 years old and a real labor of love. We toured the Pedroni Acetaia and got to eat lunch there, as well, which was a wonderful experience. Il padrone doesn’t just make you turn your phone off while you eat, he then locks up everyone’s phone, as well. And heaven help you if your phone goes off while locked up. He will know you ignored his instructions to turn it off, and on the day we were there he went around to every table looking for the corresponding key to the offending box.
Also, turns out Modena is a great town! It’s cute and stylish with a thriving café and bar scene. And it’s home to a 12th century Cathedral that is a UNESCO world heritage site. But also, about 500 feet away, is San Francesco, a smaller church known for its terra cotta statues, that The Husband never would have seen if he hadn’t met a church nerd in the cathedral who told him he really had to check this one out.
We spent one night in Modena in a really charming place, Hotel Cervetta 5, that unfortunately seemed to suffer from a lot of street noise all night. And we ate dinner at Fantino, which is a meal we talk about to this day. The waiter who was probably also the owner said to me, “Sono la carta” “I am the menu” and gave us only two options for each course, which was perfect because we each chose one. There was a tortelloni in butter & sage and a tortellini in brodo. (I told you, it’s the big pasta there.) Our second courses were ribs braised in Lambrusco and a chicken cooked only in balsamic was amazing and perfectly glazed and I try to recreate at home to this day to varying results. And then potatoes! Always with those potatoes in Italy!
Bologna and Modena are in the province of Emilia Romana, which is also known for having some of the best food in Italy. (Again, how is this even possible?) If you want to get out of the city, we also stayed 3 nights at the Antica Corte Palla Vicina, an old castle turned hotel and Michelin starred restaurant, complete with a moat.
This is a great place for foodies, not so much vegans. At Pallavicina you will see and smell ox and other animals walking around outside your room and they may be dinner that night. Likewise, the chef here is world renowned for his culatello, a premiere prosciutto that is cured right in the basement of where you’re staying. In addition to touring the basement the hotel can also set up tours of local cheese factories and wineries, too. The restaurant at Palla Vicina is the most perfect mix of the old architecture with the modern and as a result you dine in a light filled room with views of the surrounding scenery on the banks of the Po River. The wait staff is impeccable. And the food is outstanding. In addition to having plenty of the culatello that it’s known for, we couldn’t get enough of the delicate soffiti, a small, delicate cheese dumpling, in brodo.
Palla Vicina is outside of Zibello, near Parma, which in addition to being famous for the cheese, is reportedly where all the chefs train. There’s actually 2 Michelin star
restaurants in the tiny town of Zibello, that’s how good the food is. We went to Stella D’oro in the off season and the chef himself waited on us. Yes, the Michelin starred one.
Our trip broke down a little bit here. After waking up early the first morning to a decadent breakfast so that we could tour the cheese factory and the winery by lunch (The cheese factory had to be done early because of the cows, the winery, well why not? We were already up.) We overslept the next day so egregiously that they had to wake us up after noon because the maid couldn’t get in to the room. (To be fair this was after our lost weekend in Bologna.) After that we were at a loss for what to do. We borrowed bikes to ride into the next town only when we got to the restaurant that we had researched and wanted to eat lunch at, it seems we had failed to research that they would actually be closed the day we went. So we rode back to the hotel. The chef himself (again – Michelin starred) had brought the bikes out for us with explicit instructions to not lose the lock or the key and so of course what did we do, we lost the key! I don’t know how it happened. The Husband and I suffer from a crippling amount of OCD so when someone tells us not to lose something, we really go out of our way to make sure we don’t. And yet, the key was gone. We road up and down the same stretch of road looking for it, thinking that perhaps it had bounced both out of the lock, out of the bag and then out of the basket we were carrying it in. No luck. We had to go back, hanging our heads in shame, and tell a Michelin starred chef we had lost his key, and missed lunch, (and we already slept through breakfast) so could his staff prepare us a plate of cold meats and cheese and, oh yeah, a bottle of wine wouldn’t go undrunk. Feeling like losers who had to do something useful we then drove into Busseto to go to the Verdi Museum.
There was a church across the street that we walked into and fairly quickly walkedback out of, being a little churched out at this point of the trip. Outside of the church was an older man, cutting herbs in the garden outside of it. He said to me in Italian that we hadn’t spent enough time in there, that we had missed the terracotta
statues. I know, what is it with these terra cotta statues? Well, they’re amazing. It was the scene of Christ’s death, only two of the statues were modeled off of actual patrons and the realism is scary. They’re over 600 years old and look like a photo. It was a unique experience, not just the statues, but having the man who pointed out to us what we were missing.
My husband and I have similar careers. We’re both writers and while our careers have take different trajectories at times, we both write for TV and even more specifically, comedy/variety.
As a woman, I have often been in his shadow and have worked hard to earn my own reputation as being a good writer. A few years ago I thought I had achieved this: I had sold a book, had a screenplay optioned and been steadily employed on the same show for over seven years. And then I got my first job after that. The Executive Producer called me up and said he had read my jokes and thought they were good. And then he said, “Did your husband write them?”
Was he joking? I don’t care. I pretended he was because I wanted the job and I was trying to make nice. But the fact that he made it at all speaks to a bigger problem: the belief that women can’t be funny on their own and that a woman in the same career as her husband hasn’t earned it by herself.
It’s why I hate hearing how Hillary Clinton feels “entitled” to the nomination; that she’s gotten where she is “just because of who her husband is” and that you don’t want to live a life with just Clintons and Bushes in office. (Neither of whom have been there for the last 8, by the way.)
Hillary is a woman who has been accused of driving her husband to cheat, faking a brain aneurism and having cankles. Trust me, she doesn’t feel entitled to shit. She knows because of who her husband is she’s had to work twice as hard just to be considered half as good and the sad thing is she’s actually twice as good. The New York Times called her “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history,” and that’s still not enough. No, the day Bill won that election Hillary’s internal monologue was like, “FUCK! Now nothing I do or achieve on my own will be seen that way.” His failures are her failures but his successes are her opportunism. And the fact that she’s still taking this shit means that she has the strength to actually do this job. I’d be on a goddamn island somewhere.
I’m done trying to “make nice.” You don’t have to like Hillary, but if you’re saying she’s just where she is because of her husband, you’re part of the sexist problem. Because if it wasn’t for her husband, she’d probably be President already. And I’m tired of making nice about it. If you’re saying she thinks she’s entitled, you’re no different from the asshole EP who looked at me suspiciously because I had the audacity to be in the same career as my husband and be good at it. If you think she thinks she’s entitled, you can unfriend me. Because if you look at her like that, that’s how you look at me.
And PS I’m not voting for a Clinton. I’m voting for a Rodham.
Cinque Terre roughly means the 5 towns, which is exactly what it is: 5 towns on the Ligurian coast between Genoa and La Spezia. The towns are famous for being connected by a series of hikes ranging from the very intense to a mere stroll. It’s rocky, dramatic coastline, not unlike Amalfi, where the individual towns seem to rise up out of the sea level and the buildings appear to be stacked on top of each other.
Other than hiking between towns, they can also be reached via ferry, car and train. But do you homework. I’m not sure how often the trains run at night and the ferries are sometimes cancelled due to rough seas. Most, if not all of the towns, don’t allow you to bring a car inside of it: instead you have to park outside of town which can affect how much driving you want to do, especially at night as the roads are dark and winding and parking can be hard to find and a bit of a hike itself. In fact, I recommend just taking the train from La Spezia.
We stayed in Manarola, the fourth town down, at a really charming hotel called La Torrettas. The rooms were beautiful and modern and there was a patio area with a view of the surrounding terraced hills of grapevines where we ate breakfast and every afternoon they held a great cocktail hour. This was a wonderful place to meet travelers from around the world, some of whom I still keep in touch with to this day.
The town is small, with one main street, and a rocky area that is referred to as a beach. I remember the day we arrived there. It was the end of June, hot and humid, and I was worn out just from the walk from our car to lunch. I was looking longingly at the water as The Husband was trying to plan our activities for the afternoon, and I thought I had made my wishes clear when I walked into the sea up to my waist with my clothes still on. Still, he didn’t get it and I had to say, “I’m going to the hotel, putting on my bathing suit and coming back down here. You can do what you want.”
The cuisine here is mostly fish. Heads up, literally, your prawns will be served with heads and tails and legs and eyes still attached. (As is the custom in the rest of Italy, too.) In the interest of full disclosure, it’s not my favorite food in all of Italy: I found it a little bland at the time but that also may have been a product of it being high season. The seafood however, was very fresh.
We had dinner at a fun place in town called Trattoria da Billy. Billy was like 80 years old and still waiting tables. Billy was his nickname or nicka-namay, as he put it, having been a fan of Billy the Kid as a child. He brought us a bottle of grappa after our meal to use as we saw fit and was all around delightful. We were there in 2009 so I hope he’s still around.
The major activity here is hiking and most people ask me, “Can you do all the hikes in one day?” to which I answer, ”Why would you want to?” You’re on vacation for fuck’s sake! The first hike alone is about an hour and 40 minutes, the first 40 minutes of which are just steps! The second hike is about the same length and the 3rd clocks in at a quick 60 minutes. The trails are littered with German hikers stripped down to their bras it’s so hot and I don’t think I need to tell you that as a race the Germans are tough, stoic motherfuckers. My advice, do one hike (if you must) have a two hour lunch full of cold acqua frizzante and even colder white wine, and then go to the beach with a book and your thoughts. Do this for 3 days, or just do it for 2 and tell yourself you’ll get to the third hike next time.
(If you’re a math wiz, you’re thinking, “But aren’t there 4 hikes?” Technically, yes. But the last one between the bottom two towns of Manarola and Riomaggiore is a paved walkway that will take you 20 minutes. We walked it to and from dinner one night in sandals.)
Ask at your hotel about the Cinque Terre card. We purchased one which allowed us to both get on the train as well as the trails, which was convenient as we didn’t know we needed a pass to get on the trails. In trying to research that for this post, I found the actual website for the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre to be “non funzione” and another website that says you do not need the card to get on the trails.
The top town, Monte Rosso Al Mare, is a literal and figurative sea of James Bond movie type beach umbrellas, which look really tempting when you’re about to embark on a 100 minute hike in the humidity of June. In fact, there was an American couple who we met on the trail and who hiked up ahead of us at some point. Awhile later we met them as they were coming back down. They had given up. The woman looked at us and said, “I just really want a beach day.” I looked on in envy as they headed back down to their umbrellas and drinks. I wasn’t even through with the fucking steps yet. There should be a grindr for couples on vacation to hook up men who want to torture themselves and women who just want to relax and swim in the sea.
My bitching aside, the hike was spectacular! The trail followed the water, which gave you a bird’s eye view of the coast and the sea. I had never seen water so blue and so many shades of it! We continued through grapevines, hills, and across stone bridges that went through trees and across creeks.
Eventually we made it to Vernazza, the second town, where we ate at a restaurant called Gambero Rosso. (There’s those shrimp I was talking about) I remember the
waiter making fun of us that we had elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as our governor. I couldn’t argue with him.
Our second night we went to Ristorante Dau Cila in Riomaggiore for dinner. It was much more modern than the other places you’re going to get in town. I don’t remember much about it, I think I was trying to eat healthier and only got the tuna, which was fine, but it was certainly no pasta with truffles. In retrospect, I should have just gone for it. Regardless, The Husband remembers it as being very good.
We only stayed 2 nights in Cinque Terre. We could have easily stayed a third and always talk about going back, but we haven’t been able to do that yet. As much as I loved Manarola and La Torrettas, I think for a longer trip, I may try to stay in Monte Rosso al Mare as it’s bigger and may have more to do.
There’s a reason Tuscany is one of the most talked about destinations in Italy. Tuscany is a unicorn; a mythological creature that doesn’t exist except in fairy tales, but part of us still holds out the hope of finding one some day anyway. Tuscany is like a hot guy who’s also smart and good in bed and likes to cook. Tuscany is sort of perfection.
In a country of world class wine, the wines of Tuscany are my favorite. In a country known for amazing food, the dishes of Tuscany are among the best of any trip I’ve taken. In a country known for it’s stunning beaches on the coast and its picturesque undulating hills of vines inland, Tuscany has both. It is literally all that and the David.
I’ve never had a bad meal in Tuscany. And some of the best wine in the world is local and very affordable. You go here to eat and drink and life is good. Tuscany is a fairy tale, right down to the castles that crown the top of each hill town.
Speaking of hill towns, Tuscany is lousy with them. And I strongly encourage you to get in your car and drive around to the smaller ones for a meal and some tourist-free walking around. Be open. One rainy Sunday in May we arrived in the town of Poppi which we knew zero about. It was lunch time, and I was worried we were going to miss the lunch hour if we didn’t find someplace to eat. Italy has very specific hours for lunch and after that restaurants won’t open again until dinner. My fear was compounded by the fact that at the moment, Poppi was a ghost town. There was no one walking around in it at all. Perplexed, we walked up street after street looking for a place to eat. Finally we heard the sound of silverware on plates. It was faint but we followed that sound until we found a small restaurant where 6 Euros bought you a plate of homemade gnocchi in the sauce of your choice. It was the perfect rainy day meal and for $28 we each got a pasta and a 1/2 litre of wine, as well as the pleasure of watching the owner yell at her son and daughter after explaining to me in Italian that she was trying to teach them the family business and they didn’t care. Authentic and delicious!
Montalcino was my first ever destination and as such, still one of the closest places to my heart. With the major part of the town more or less two streets, it may be too small and sleepy for you, but to be fair I was there in March so in high season when the major destinations are overrun with tourists, it may be just right.
We stayed at Il Giglio, a nice little hotel in the middle of the walled city, where they will give you a parking space and even park your car for you, which is helpful because the streets are very narrow and you will scrape your car on more than one wall. (I recommend getting car insurance with a zero deductible.) And speaking of cars, I always use AutoEurope when I travel. You may be able to get a cheaper rate, but I like that Auto Europe is an American company and therefore the prices quoted are in dollars which is handy and every customer service issue I have can be dealt with someone in English. This is a huge help as plans change and get thwarted. Most Auto Europe cars are rented through Europcar locations, so once you get over there, you won’t have the luxury of dealing with some kid in Maine. Still, I’ve never had a problem.Also you can get the no deductible plan for insurance. Take note, last I checked all those fancy features on your AMEX like automatic rental car insurance DO NOT apply in Ireland and Italy. Last I checked. So make sure you have that covered before you go. And FYI, you do not need an International Driver’s License to rent the car, but if you get pulled over by the Polizia they will want to see it. So it may be prudent to get one before you go. AAA can help you there.
Montalcino was the beginning of our travel philosophy, “Follow the wine.” We figured when in doubt, go to a place known for their wine and we couldn’t go wrong.
The home of Brunello, there are many wineries in the area where you can either set up your own tastings, or to make things easier, arrange a guide to do it for you. I’ve used Very Tuscany Tours a couple of times and recommended several friends to them too, who’ve always been happy with the results. Andreas will pick up, drop you off, and help put together exactly the experience you’re looking for in between.
If you decide to strike out on your own, I recommend Caparzo which is on the larger side that your probably used to in the states and for smaller, family run placesthere’s Sesta di Sopra and Stella di Campalto.
The day we went Stella herself took us around and we got to barrel taste wines from the various fields and it was amazing how the same grape (Sangiovese) was transformed by the minerals or the clay or how much sun and wind it got.
You can also taste plenty of wines without getting in a car. There are many smaller tasting rooms around the town and a the Enoteca la Fortezza you can both taste wine and get your culture on. And old fortress, you can tour it to see some amazing 360 degree views of Montalcino and the Val d’Orcia below and the once inside you can taste as many as 10 Brunellos at a time as well as local cheeses, olive oils, meats and honeys. We went there three times in the two days we stayed in the town, often forgoing lunch for a plate of pecorino cheese and wild boar salami. Then a few days later on our way to Pienza we stopped by with friends who had just gotten to the area. We ordered so much food and wine they had to put some of it on a separate table, especially after we ordered two 10 Brunello tastings and rather than bring us the same 10, they offered to bring us 20 different wines to try. It was magnificent.
If you don’t forgo lunch, I recommend Il Grappolo Blu. I’ve eaten there twice, both for lunch and dinner, and still think about their wild boar and polenta and tagliatelle with truffles to this day. Speaking of, get ready to get your truffle on. That’s going to be a theme throughout Tuscany.
Just outside the town is the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, a former Benedictine monastery dating back to the time of Charlemagne, where you could still hear the monks holding mass in Gregorian chant which will send shivers of peace up your spine no matter what your faith. Unfortunately, when researching this I just learned that the monks were departing to go back to France and there was no word on whether or not they would be replace with a new order, let alone one that chanted.
Close to Montalcino are the towns of Pienza and San Quirico. An entire side of Pienza overlooks the Val d’Orcia and everyone in town gathered there at the end of the day to grab an appertif from a local café and watch the sunset. San Quirico had a charming and authentic main square where we enjoyed glass of wine along with the locals who were sipping Campari before eating dinner at Trattoria al Vecchio Forno.
Also not too far away is Montepulciano, a larger town that is a little more touristy, but also may be a preferable base for you as it just has more to offer in the way of places to stay and eat. It’s also closer to A1 and from there you can day trip to Cortona, Florence and even Orvieto in Umbria. The town itself is lousy with tasting rooms where you can taste cheese in addition to the wine and also wander the tunnels and caves underneath the town where much of the wine is stored.
For food I recommend, Godimento DiVino, where I had some excellent gnocchetti with pecorino and truffles. (This is also pecorino aka sheep country.)
And if you’re feeling adventurous, about 10 km outside of Montepulciano, is a little town called, Montefollonico, where we ate at a restaurant called Ristorante 13 Gobbi. We had been sent there by someone at a tasting room in Montepulciano and we didn’t exactly have what you would call directions. Plus, even though there were only 5 of us, we had 2 cars. We followed the first car for awhile before we pulled over because they were lost. Then our car took the lead, but for awhile we weren’t sure we were headed in the right direction either. We had no cell signals, therefore no GPS, and when we finally got more than 1 bar again everyone jumped on Facebook to upload the pictures from the day which made our driver (my husband) rather annoyed. Eventually we found the town, parked and hurried to the restaurant only to be told they were completely booked up for that night. Disheartened we walked away completely at a loss for what to do. That’s when I saw the window of 13 Gobbi and said, “I’m eating here.” The Husband, never one to make a quick decision, prevaricated with a lot of talk about reading the menu and looking for someplace else and I said, “You do what you want. I’m eating here.” In the window I could see the owner tossing plates of hot pici pasta inside a gigantic pecorino cheese wheel. That was all I needed to see.
Likewise there’s also a small town near the Umbrian border called San Casciano di Bagni where there’s a tiny restaurant called Ristorante Daniela that had amazing pigeon ravioli. I know. Just go with it. It has a rich flavor like a buttery turkey that was on my lips for days. There’s also supposedly a hotel with a great spa in the same town.
Cortona is famous for being the setting of Under the Tuscan Sun, but don’t hold that against it. It makes a great base of operations from which you can go to Montepulciano, Orvieto and the Province of Umbria and even Florence. Plus there’s a couple of days worth of things to do there, with a Fortress being all the way at the top and some Etruscan ruins being at the bottom. Also, I got a great pair of shoes there.
The town is also full of tasting rooms. Unlike the rest of Tuscany which only has eyes for Sangiovese, Cortona is trying to push Syrah. We stopped at the tasting room for Romeo, a winery that is actually based out of Montepulciano, and had such a fun time with the other tourists who were sheltering from the rain and the outgoing woman who ran it. And from the reviews when you google “Romeo Wines Cortona” other patrons seemed to agree.
Speaking of Under the Tuscan Sun: one year we did the thirtysomething right of
passage and rented a Tuscan villa with friends. We used Rentvillas. While looking we also had an excellent experience with Emma Villas. Ultimately Rentvillas had the property that most suited our needs for that trip, but Emma had both excellent customer service and properties.
Siena is a popular tourist destination, almost too popular. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still Tuscany. The food is excellent, the Duomo stunning in scope and it’s in the chianti region if you want to do wine tasting. But I found it lacked a personality and charm that I find in other Tuscan towns. In addition to the food and monuments, I’m looking for something authentic, a place or experience. It seems everywhere else I’ve been I’ve wandered into someplace unique: an artist’s studio, a gallery, a local made jewelry store. Sometimes it’s an enoteca with a chatty hostess or a boutique with something special and a friendly owner. I’m looking for something that I can’t get in America or in every other city in Italy. We wandered all over Siena for two days and I never really found it. The stores were hopelessly generic: the exact same stores you find everywhere in Italy. There were no hidden gems and as such it lacked a personality to me.
Some will argue that Palio, the twice yearly horse race held in the center of town where representatives from 10 of the 17 neighborhoods compete, is plenty of personality. It just doesn’t quite resonate with me. I feel badly for the horses.
However, we did stay in a fantastic hotel, Palazzo Ravizza, where I would go back to in a heartbeat. There was a gorgeous garden overlooking the countryside where you could have breakfast or just a glass of wine. Speaking of wine: they had the most amazing wine dispenser in the lobby where you could purchase fantastic glasses of wine for a couple of Euros.
We ate dinner one night at La Taverna Giuseppe, which was big and crowded and felt a little like a factory, and the waiter tried to talk me out of ordering the Canonau I wanted in favor of an overpriced local wine, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the shit out of some cocoa pasta in a wild boar ragu, the chicken liver fegatini, or a quail egg and sausage on polenta.
If you’re looking for a smaller and more intimate place, we had a delightful lunch at Antica Osteria Stelloreggi the type of place that has a handwritten meny and a friendly waitress who is happy to point out what is actually better than what you want to order. She wasn’t wrong: my homemade tagliolini with truffles was delicious.
Osteria Da Divo was on the fancy side and claimed to be Tuscan “with a twist” but still was very solid meal of porcini stuffed rabbit, stuffed pork and more gnochetti and truffles. We ate downstairs in what appeared to be a “cave” – whether it was real or fake was unclear. I remember the wine being good, but overpriced compared to the rest of Tuscany, a common thing in Siena, I found.
There’s also a lot of tall stuff to climb in Siena. There’s the Porta del Cielo at the Duomo, the Panoramic View next door and the Torre del Mangia.
The Duomo itself can be overwhelming: there’s more overdone things to look at than a Kardashian Christmas card. Pace yourself. You don’t have to see everything. In fact, I think it’s better if you don’t. I much prefer to enjoy one or two paintings or chapels fully, then to try to squeeze it all in and in the end not know what I looked at. There is a beautiful library there filled with hand painted pages of old books. And crowded into this library were people with their iPads out, mindlessly recording everything in one big sweep. I wonder if they took any of it in, and I doubt they ever looked at those videos again. But I remember the one illustration that particularly captivated me. And you can always spend 1E on the postcard if you want to take that memory home.
Capalbio is a charming hill town in the Maremma, the wine region known for Morellino di Scansano wine and its proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea. We ate at Il Tullio our first night and I was so blown away by smoked chianina carpaccio, baked pecorino with truffles, and rabbit braised in red wine, that we went back 2 nights later.
Capalbio is home to French sculptor Nikki di Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, as well as some of the warmest beaches I’ve ever experienced. While I’ve become a fan over the years of the “refreshing” waters in Italy, the warm sea near Capalbio was pleasant and may be more to your liking. There’s also actually sand there, unlike many of the Italian beaches which are rocky.
About 30 minutes from Capalbio is the Argentario, an island-like promontory connected by a roadway to the mainland. The Hamptons of Italy, it is perhaps most
famous as the place off of which the Costa Concordia went down. We stayed at a hotel right on a cliff called Torre di Cala Piccola. Everything you read about the hotel is true. The wifi is spotty. The rooms are OK. The service is “eh” especially at the overpriced restaurant which you will have to eat at if you don’t want to brave some really treacherous, unlit driving at night after a few glasses of wine and don’t want to spend money on a taxi. But the view is spectacular. There’s a wonderful bar area where the food is actually pretty good, although unfortunately not open at night, and it’s on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the water and magical at sunset. And the beach, while a walk from the hotel and nothing too fancy, is pretty great, too.
If you do go to the Argentario, I recommend I Due Pini for lunch. Right on the beach it has really fresh seafood and is a great place to have linguini with more of the delicious bottarga that is available all over the seaside and a Maitre’d who wore an apron, but no shirt or shoes. Come on! How great is that?
This is one of those more touristy towns, but the year I stayed there it felt like all of the tourists cleared out by evening and the streets were quieter when you walked to dinner. There’s two gigantic towers to climb, if you’re one of those people, and I was even able to have a few more authentic experiences, talking to a man in a jewelry store and going into a gallery of local artists. We stayed at Hotel Leon Bianco which was right off the main piazza and had a charming view of the cisterna and ate dinner that night at La Mangiatoia, which came recommended by two locals and lived up to the expectation. In my notes, I wrote that it was the best meal of my trip. We enjoyed a crepe with pecorino and truffles, pasta with wild boar ragu, artichokes which were in season, white beans, a venison cooked with porcini and Vin Santo, and cheese with truffle honey for dessert. And of course, Brunello.
Also, at one point The Husband and I stopped for a glass of wine at a café in the main piazza. We walked in, the down some stairs, then across the bar and then down some more, until we came out onto the edge of town. Despite the fact that it had looked dark and small when we entered, when we eventually sat down, we were sitting on a sunny terrace overlooking all of the Tuscan countryside. That’s the wonderful thing about travel: sometimes you just don’t know until you walk in.
About five years ago we planned a trip to the Amalfi coast. Technically we planned it six years ago. When figuring out where to go on our 2009 trip, we thought we would be really clever if we split up the research. What that meant was that I would go ahead and look into a Northern trip (Rome/Piedmont/Cinque Terre) and The Husband would research a Southern destination (Rome/Amalfi Coast/Pompeii.) Can you see the problem here? Italy being so wonderful, we both fell in love with our separate itineraries and no one wanted to give theirs up. The only solution? We would have to agree to go again the following year. I told you, we have a problem.
The great news about this itinerary is that you can do it all by train. You can catch a high speed train from Rome to Naples and be there in just over an hour. From there you can spend a few days in Naples, which we have yet to have the time to do, or you can catch the Circumvesuviana, a local train which will take you to Sorrento in about an hour.
The Amalfi Coast is so breathtaking, we went again the following year. We found Sorrento, which is larger than the other towns on the coast and can feel at times touristy, was nevertheless a great base of operations. From there we took day trips to Pompeii, Amalfi, Ravello, Positano and Capri. Pompeii is a short distance on the Circuvesuviana and the other towns can be reached by car or boat, although I recommend the latter if the waters cooperate.
The roads are winding if you drive yourself and cabs are expensive. But the ferry ride is lovely and you get the added benefit of being able to view the towns from the water, which is how they look their best.
h/t to Kissy Dugan who recommended our hotel in Sorrento, the Grand Hotel Ambasciatori. In addition to being a fantastic location – it was walking distance to the train, ferries and the rest of the town – it was also beautiful, like one of the old grand hotels of Europe you’ve always dreamed of staying at.
The grounds were lovely, too, with a pool, an outdoor café and a dock at beach level where you could swim and sit in the sun and drink a Fiano or some other crisp, white, local wine. And if you get a room with a view you can see Vesuvius from your balcony.
Our hotel being on the edge of Sorrento, we walked the 1 km into Sant’Agnello one night just to get away from the crowds.
We had drinks at a hotel on a cliff overlooking the water before finding a small, local place to have dinner, where we shared our table with a cat.
O Canonico 1898 was probably our favorite place for dinner in Sorrento. It’s right on the square so your instincts want to tell you to stay away, but we enjoyed a ’99 Taurasi along with an appetizer of potatoes, calamari and balsamic that was outstanding. Also, our waiter was a great deal of fun pretending that our card was declined and I got to joke back in Italian with him so now I can be turned down for comedy writing jobs in two languages.
The ancient Roman town that was destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD is a quick ½ hour train ride from Sorrento. I recommend a guide if you don’t want to walk around several football fields worth of dust and ash wondering just what you’re looking at. We had a great (albeit expensive) guide who got us into places that most of the public couldn’t get into. Totally worth it if your husband is an ancient history freak and studied Latin like mine.
Here’s a good place to talk about traveling snafus and rolling with them. When we headed out of Pompeii and went to catch our train we were told there was uno sciopero, a strike. We were also told the strike would be over at 2:00. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in Italy, neither the striking, nor the pre-arranging of when it’s over. We had an hour or so to wait and that wasn’t factoring in either a. the train having to first originate in Naples at 2 or b. all of the other people who would be waiting to get on this same train at all of the other stops.
No one likes to throw good money after bad, but sometimes you have to know when spending money is saving you money. What do I mean by that? We spent a hundred dollars on cab ride back to our hotel. A hundred dollars is a lot of money. But had we not done that we would have spent the majority of our afternoon sitting in a train station and trying to fight our way onto a train, instead of enjoying our vacation that we were already spending our hard earned money on. Sometimes you are delayed and there is nothing you can do about it. But if you can do something about it, by all means, do! Don’t be noble or stoic. Will you care on your death bed that you saved that hundred bucks? Expenses like this that come up while traveling can be hard to swallow, but I have never once looked back and thought about how the bill got paid. It got paid, just like you always pay your bills. What I do remember is the experience.
And our experience was great. We had this crazy cab driver who seemed like he was about 80, which was also the speed he drove even on a bridge, in the opposite lane, with traffic coming at us. The drive from Pompeii to Sorrento was gorgeous: we saw a part of that country that we never got to view from the train. And despite having negotiated a flat rate for the trip, the driver insisted on stopping along the way so he could take our picture at these various vistas. He then proceeded to tell us that he had 8 sons, (my Italian being what it was I couldn’t figure out if he had 4 sets of twins or 2 sets of quadruplets, both seeming equally impossible) and then try to sell us books and photos that he pulled out of every compartment in his van. (We bought a great book on Pompeii and he threw in the photo for free.)
At around 2:30 I noticed the time and realized we would just be getting on the train now if we were lucky. Instead, we were back in Sorrento, enjoying a delicious lunch, having already been back to the hotel and washed the 2,000 year old dust off of us. We were eating at a wine bar called The Garden where we had shopped the year before. The bottom floor is the wine bar and also sells honeys and oils and other foodstuff while the café is above. We always love the service there and the food was great. I had a pacheri with porcini, scampi and fresh herbs and my husband had what he refers to as “the best” Pizza Napoli with fresh capers.
By the way, this is a great place to save that hundred bucks. Don’t go to Capri. Capri is like Rodeo Drive meets Coney Island. The ferry pulls into a crappy little port area with a bunch of cafes and tourist shops that all look alike. We then walked up to the Capri Town which is where the Rodeo Drive comes in. A street filled with expensive stores, most of which you can shop at in America. The walk up, while steep, is beautiful and full of photo opportunities and I did have a very good lunch once I got there. But as I said here, if you have the choice between one or the other, I much prefer Ischia. I’ve heard the other parts of the island are better, but I don’t know how much time you’ll have for those if you’re day tripping.
Also, if you’re going specifically for the Blue Grotto, know this is scheduled like a military operation. My husband, being someone who reads and does research knew this. Unfortunately our traveling companions did not. To get to the Blue Grotto you have to take a boat. And then you have to get on a smaller one to row inside the cave, hence the grotto. This means that the water around the island has to be calm enough to navigate and the boats can only go into the grotto at certain times, because of the tides. My husband tried to explain this to our companions who didn’t want to go to the grotto right away because it wasn’t sunny. When they deemed it sunny enough and we went back, the boats were no longer running because the seas were too rough and we couldn’t go later because of the tides. Do your homework, kids.
Positano is the town you see on all of the brochures, the one that rises out of the sea with all of the houses stacked one on top of each other, and it’s the one you see at the top of this post. It’s home to the expensive Le Sirenuse hotel, boutique shops and many stands selling limoncello and lemons as big as your fist.
Ravello overlooks the actual town of Amalfi and can be reached by a bus from there, but of course there was a strike that day and we had to take a cab instead.
There are stunning views from the town, as well as from Villa Cimbrone which dates back to the 11th century. Now a hotel and restaurant, the villa and gardens overlook the sea and are open to the public during the day.
Afterwards we had a wonderful locally grown lunch with an equally wonderful view at another restaurant also called The Garden. It must be a thing there. Fresh mozzarella from Salerno and cherry tomatoes and Basil from a local garden, a gnocchi pesto, and prawns with mint which I wouldn’t have thought to do in a million years but was great! Also 4 glasses of Greco di Tufo.
When we were planning our Amalfi coast trip, we were looking for a place to spend our last couple of nights and thinking of the island of Capri, in keeping with our Crowded/Less Crowded/Remote plan. A friend of ours said, “Go to Ischia.”
Ischia is an island about an hour ferry ride off the coast, past Capri. Everyone knows Capri. They’re famous for those pants. Capri is like Coney Island meets Rodeo Drive and I would personally skip it. But fewer people have heard of Ischia, so we were intrigued. We were further intrigued when we saw pictures of our hotel, Punta Chiarito. It looked like paradise. We were in.
However, the day we were supposed to sail to Ischia, our ferry from Sorrento to the island was cancelled due to rough waters, these being the waters that Odysseus was tempted by the Sirens to crash in. Instead, we had to take a ferry to Naples, then get one from Naples to Ischia.
The ferry from Sorrento to Naples was pretty rough, begging the question, “Just how bad was the crossing to Ischia?” I had never been seasick before, but I was plenty seasick that day. We got to Naples and had about an hour and a half until our next ferry, during which time I was able to restore my stomach to it’s previous condition, aided in part by a panini that we picked up at the very non-descript, ferry station café. In fact, I was sitting there, staring out at Vesuvius, having not spoken for fear the contents of my stomach would spill out if I opened my mouth when I turned to my husband and said, “This sandwich is unbelievable!”
He said back to me with equal enthusiasm, “I was just thinking that!”
Christ, I love Italy. The bread was fresh, the cheese moist and full of tangy flavor, despite the rather no frills, worn looking nature of its place of origin. In America it was the equivalent of a gas station sandwich and would have tasted like sawdust and worn tires.
But then it was back to rougher waters. The ferry to Ischia was like something out of a horror movie. Women were screaming while men rubbed their backs and fanned them. A man wandered the aisles with a roll of plastic bags in his back pocket that he would rip off and hand to vomitting people. I remember thinking, “We’re going to die!” and then felt so miserably sick I thought with relief, “Oh, good, we’re going to die.”
In the midst of all of this, one man next to me sat there with his briefcase on his lap and just nodded off to sleep.
I looked at my husband who was already studying the map, looking for a landing strip so that perhaps we could helicopter back, and said, “You better enjoy this, because we are never coming back here.”
We returned twice in the next two years.
(Just so you know, the ferry ride back to Naples was without incident, as was every trip we took in subsequent years. And my stomach did return to normal, although I was unable to finish my wine at lunch that day. I’m happy to say I didn’t have that problem at dinner.)
I count that first full day in Ischia as one of the best days I’ve ever had in my life. After breakfast in the hotel, we walked the 3km to the next town over, Sant’Angelo. We passed grape vines and signs that said “Wine for sale” but only in Italian and German and made friends with a cat. Because it wasn’t a straight 3 km – the road meandered up and down and around, and because we were pausing so The Husband could take photos, we arrived in Sant’Angelo just in time for lunch.
We stopped at a restaurant right on the edge a cliff, overlooking the water, and had pasta with fresh fish and a crisp, white Campania wine.
After lunch we walked around the town which was quiet, it being only May, and across the isthmus that connects the town to a lush green island, although it’s not an island because it’s connected by land. (Geography nerds, help me out.) We made friends with another cat.
We walked back to our hotel where we were able to enjoy the thermal baths both there, and at Sorgeto Beach, a couple hundred steps down from there. Ischia is built on volcanic soil, the evidence of which you can see in the steam coming out of fissures in the island from the ferry. The volcanic soil means hot natural thermal springs and great wine and vegetables. At Sorgeto Beach, there’s a café and lounge chairs, which are available to you if you patronize the café, which is not a problem. At the time, eight Euros got us both a glass of wine. Despite it being May, people were in the water, thanks to the thermal activity. I immediately went to check it out. There was a sign right by one small inlet that I really should have read because it would have stopped me from sticking my foot in, right by the fissure in the rocks the thermal water was coming out of, and nearly burning the flesh off my bone. It said, “bollente” or “boiling.” I’m happy to say the further away from that spot the less bollente the water got. But those hot springs are no bullshit.
The room itself wasn’t fancy but the sliding glass door that was our entrance looked right over the bay and the beach below and it was private from guests or other traffic walking by. I had the feeling of being on the edge of the Earth where no one could find me, which was nice. Both nights we had dinner at the hotel. It was simple, yet delicious, much of it being “fatto a casa” homemade. They made their own olive oil, their own wine and grew their own produce. At one point a man came in with handfuls of greens he had just picked, so fresh I could smell them across the dining room. “Biologico!” he boomed proudly. Organic.
We finished the night watching old black and white American movies dubbed in Italian on the small television, with the doors open, letting in the night air.
Our day was simple but there are plenty of other things to do on the Island. There’s great hiking, including Mt. Epomeo, which is in the center of the island. I have to say I had less than a super attitude about this the year we did it; I was still jetlagged and think I had bit off more than I could chew. When we reached what I thought was the top I saw this Matterhorn-like peak behind me and realized there was still more to go. It was worth it, providing 360 degree views of the island. And it wasn’t as difficult as my whining may make it seem. There were dozens of octogenarian Europeans kicking my ass on the trail, aided only by a walking stick or two.
If you’re a history buff or just a Game of Thrones fan, you probably want to check out Castello Aragonese which I’m told is just like King’s Landing. You can spend a few hours touring the 2500 year old fortress which also has a restaurant and café with a beautiful view of the other islands.
Many hotels have thermal baths and spas. We’ve stayed at Mezzatorre, which has a gorgeous facility. It’s more expensive, but not as far as Punta Chiarito from the next town over, which in this case is Lacco Ameno.
All of that volcanic soil means there’s great wine on the island if you want to go wine tasting. Our hotel set it up for us but you could contact them directly, too. We spent a lovely afternoon at Casa D’Ambra , the terroir of Ischia being shown off in their earthy reds and Aglianicos.
We also had a lovely afternoon that became about six hours at Pietratorcia. We arrived for our wine tasting and were greeted with a plate of cheese, salumi and bruschetta, all of which was local and one of which was actually made by the owner.
In between the generous tastes of 4 wines we wandered among the vines and started to think of dinner. The man who was pouring our tasting has mentioned that they had reservations for a dinner service later that evening, and when we saw women in the garden cutting fresh herbs we knew we wanted to stay. To this day, it is one of the best meals I have ever had.
Speaking of restaurants…
Il Giardino Eden, is worth it for the boat ride you take to get there. You get in a small boat and if you go after dark, you go past Castello Aragonese all lit up, and you feel like you’re in Harry Potter. I remember we liked our food, our waiter not so much. But these things happen.
Peppina di Renato is a wonderful authentic place that specializes in Flintstone size portions of grilled meats if you’re tired of eating fish. The antipasti, which included a speck that the owner made himself, is almost enough for a meal itself, so you might want to split an entrée. I recommend the chicken under a brick (Pollo Sopra Mattone) which might be some of the best I’ve ever had. We made a reservation early enough for sunset, which is early for dinner in Italy, but gave us a spectacular view.
Neptunus is a great lunch place in Sant’Angelo. I’m sure it’s great for dinner, too, but the view is gorgeous for lunch. There was a man wandering around with a guitar playing traditional songs, which seems like it would be annoying but was really very charming. And after lunch they brought us 4 bottles of local made liquors like limoncello and told us to help ourselves.
One last word about transportation…
Ischia being an island, you can’t really take your car there so your transportation options are limited when you do get there. There are buses that I am totally unfamiliar with. I know you can also rent a car once you’re on the island, but if you’re not an adventurous driver, keep in mind that you’ll be on narrow roads that someone sometimes has to back up on to let another car pass. We either walk someplace or we take taxis. It’s an added expense that you may want to factor in before you go, but I find it’s nice to not have to find someplace on an island in the dark, especially after you’ve been drinking.
When people tell me they didn’t like Rome, it’s like they told me they don’t like sunsets or puppies or Elvis Costello. Sure on the cuddly scale, Rome is less puppy and more Costello, but like the musician, Rome has a large body of work that encompasses a wide variety of eras over a long period of time.
Where else can you be walking down the street and look up from a fantastic pair of shoes only to see a two thousand year old structure just standing there like it’s no big thing? WHERE ELSE? OK, sure, perhaps, Turkey, Greece, Israel, and a few other places. But where else are you going to also eat a two hour lunch with some of the best wine in the world for a fraction of the price? Where else are you just going to stumble upon the ruins of Largo Argentina, just sitting in the middle of the city, and find out it’s not just an ancient temple, but also a present day cat sanctuary?
No matter where else I go in the country I always return to Rome. And each time I go I discover a new attraction that delights me and fills me with wonder. Rome is like a piñata and there’s still plenty of candy left to fall out.
I should say here that The Boot Camp is not a travel guide per se. These are just places I’ve been that I can personally recommend. It’s the places I tell friends when they ask, “What should we see?” So there will be many more hotels and restaurants and things to see in all of Italy that I can’t possibly know anything about, many of which I’m sure are wonderful and I’ve been missing out on all of these years. Likewise, your mileage may vary. You may not be as excited by my favorite places, some of which it’s been a few years since I stayed there so they may be different now for better or for worse. If you want to see something more up to date, start a kickstarter to fund my travel guide.
I prefer to stay in the centro storico, the old city. There you’re walking distance to all the major attractions as well as great restaurants, cafes and bars. Rome is an incredibly walkable city. You can have breakfast at the Pantheon, walk through Largo Argentina and the Jewish quarter, across the river to Trastevere, eat lunch, and then keep going down the river to the Vatican or up the Janiculum Hill if you’re so inclined.
However if budget or other needs must, there are great places to stay all over the city: apartments for rent, fantastic Air BnB experiences, and other hotels that may offer more modern conveniences than the ones built into several hundred year old buildings.
In Piazza al Pantheon, I’ve always enjoyed the Sole Al Pantheon.
The rooms vary as do the rates, but if you’re looking for a splurge, there is a suite with a window overlooking all of the Piazza with a terrific view of the Pantheon.
Last summer I got a fantastic last minute deal at the Pantheon Royal Suite. The rooms are quite small, but nice, with robes and Molton Brown toiletries. Also, the bed is motorized to lift up, revealing a Jacuzzi underneath. Where else are you going to see that?
Both locations can be noisy as they’re right in the middle of a square with cafes serving until late. But you’re on vacation and you only live once: go be part of that noise.
I’ve also stayed in Campo di Fiori at Hotel Lunetta, which, like the Pantheon Royal Suite, has a spa in the hotel. The Lunetta has a roof top bar which is a great place to stop by on your way out or make it the last stop before you go back to your room. It’s on a side street off the Campo, so my experience was that it was less noisy that my stays near the Pantheon.
Years ago we also stayed at Hotel Smeraldo, which was a fantastic location and very affordable.
Don’t leave Rome without ordering Cacio e Pepe somewhere and if you see fried zucchini flowers (especially if they’re stuffed with ricotta) get them. The Italians do fried food like no one else. It is very lightly battered and fried, not dunked in batter and then served up like a heart attack. Also, get the potatoes. Something about Italian potatoes….they’re just roasted in olive oil, salt and pepper, that’s all, but I can’t make them taste like that in my kitchen at home no matter how hard I try.
One of our favorites in Rome is Ditirambo, right in Camp di Fiori. Get the truffle potatoes!
Also a few years back a Roman friend introduced us to La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, near the Colosseum in what was explained to us as the “Echo Park” of Rome. (Right coasters, think Brooklyn.) They had 2 specials that were amazing: burrata with anchovies and cacio & pepe with truffles. Ask for the English menu. The chicken liver bruschetta is great, too. I’ve also had the pork with truffles which was crazy good. And the potatoes that came with it were great! (SEE POTATOES, ABOVE)
Gusto near the Piazza del Poppolo has a pizzeria, a wine bar and a fancier osteria. The pizzeria is known for their fried vegetables and zucchini flowers which my husband has been talking about being the best he’s ever had for the last 3 years. And the enoteca around the back serves wine by the glass if you’re looking for a mid afternoon break. Wines by the glass have traditionally been harder to come by, unless you just want the house wine, which isn’t always so great. But they have a wonderful selection here.
There’s another great wine bar in Campo di Fiori called Rosciolo. It’s not right in the square, but on a side street. They also sell gourmet food items like aged balsamic vinegar and truffle salts and do tastings of cheeses and meats, as well.
If you’re across the river in Trastevere, we’ve eaten twice at both La Scala as well as Olimpio al Drago and they were both fantastic! Drago is a little easier to find than Scala but we loved both meals. The carbonara and cacio al pepe was great at Drago as were the grilled mussels with burrata. Scala has oysters that were the least expensive I saw the whole trip, as well as more burrata and anchovies, and a raviolo with truffles. And both places have super cute bathrooms! (SEE “A WORD ABOUT TOILETS” PART 1)
Aroma was a great place for drinks, with a patio that overlooked the Colosseum and was a great place to watch the sunset as the night lights came on around it. Unfortunately, now that side is reserved for the restaurant. The food there was very good, too, but it was on the expensive side and fancier than you get at most Italian restaurants. Which is fine, but not why I go to Italy. I liked it better than my husband. Aroma is also a 5-10 minute walk to Fori Imperiali if you want to go for a drink before eating there.
And before you leave, get a granita con panna at Tazza d’Oro near the Pantheon
Now that you’re fed and rested it’s time to actually see the two thousand years of history I’ve been going on about.
The Colosseum and forum are must sees, but I think it helps to have a guide point out what you’re looking at and tell you the history. The ruins being ruins, it’s hard to tell your rostrum from your Temple of the Vestal Virgins.The Husband is a huge ancient history enthusiast; he actually studied Latin. He used this company and loved the tour, which had a grad student or Phd as his guide.
Even if you decide not to do the tour, look into getting tickets online ahead of time. And there’s always an audio guide.
We both really enjoyed it. It’s on the smaller, more manageable side so you’re not overwhelmed with gallery after gallery that you feel you have to get through and appreciate even though you have jet lag. It has a ton of Bernini sculptures that are really amazing to look at up close. We were in awe of the detail and texture he was able to put into the marble, like the way a hand presses into the flesh and makes it dimple.
This is an interesting museum with more ancient artifacts not too far from the Colosseum. I don’t think you need to be worried about tickets ahead of time and it could be a great alternative if there’s bad weather and you don’t want to be outside in the rain or cold.
I’m going to say something really controversial here: skip the Vatican. Look, if it’s your second or third time or you have 5 days or like you’re super Catholic, then by all means go. But I don’t recommend the Vatican museum. It’s crowded and the tours are inefficient and chaotic and overpriced. Our tour guide went so quickly and so far ahead that she lost us and several others and this was the tour that came recommended. And they will tell you that you have to cover your knees and your shoulders and men can’t wear pants and you will show up in the dead of summer wearing pants with shoulders covered only to be surrounded by a sea of people wearing shorts!
Instead I would recommend taking a lovely walk through the Jewish ghetto, across the bridge to Trastevere, have lunch, and then keep going along the river to St. Peter’s Square and seeing the gigantic plaza that is the Vatican before walking back across the river to the Ara Pacis or the Villa Borghese.
This place is great and totally flies under the radar. It’s all frescoes, mosaics, coins and sculpture from ancient Rome and in remarkably good condition. Very un-crowded the day we went and the ticket also gets you into the Baths of Dioclesian and a church across the street. No need to buy tickets ahead of time or anything.
This is church near Piazza Navona with 3 Caravaggio paintings inside, just hanging there. Just walk right in! Another great alternative if all you have the bandwidth for that day is 3 paintings and a glass of wine near the fountains in the Piazza.
This is the home of an ancient Roman altar dedicated to the Goddess of Peace. It’s a gorgeous sculpture made out of marble, and situated in a light filled modern building. Another great thing to look at when you don’t have the bandwidth for observing ALL of ancient history in day. The basement is also gallery space. The day we were there it featured an exhibit on Roman food that was the perfect length. We came. We saw some beauty. We learned some things. And then we went to Gusto for a drink. Perfect Italian afternoon.
Lastly I’ve never done this food tour, but a friend of mine just did the Trastevere twilight tour and raved about it.