In the summer of 2005, we took a trip to Germany and Italy–first stopping in Ludwigsburg to meet up with Aron’s sister, Laura, and her husband, Roland, before driving into Italy and spending two weeks traveling around.
This was before we started writing travelogues, but for years I’ve been meaning to gather up all of the little business cards and magazine clippings I’d saved, and put together a trip report.
Itinerary (18 nights total):
May 30-31: Lufthansa (LAX 6:55pm to Frankfurt 2:25pm)
May 31-June 4: Ludwigsburg (Stuttgart)
June 4-6: Venice (drive via Innsbruck)
June 6-8: Cinque Terre (Town of Vernazza)
June 8-10: Florence
June 10: Naples
June 11-14: Positano (via Pompeii)
June 14-18: Rome
June 18: Lufthansa 3841 (Rome 10am to Frankfurt 12pm) / Lufthansa 450 (1:40pm to LAX 4:05pm)
The ride down the Grand Canal is unforgettable–simply stunning. We chose to take the Vaporetti (the equivalent of the bus) and skip the more expensive water taxis.
We were very happy with our hotel, just a few minutes away from Piazza San Marco, down one of the side canals; it was clean and affordable.
90euro w/toilet (Shower on Corridor)/80euro without bath; includes breakfast
We took a stroll around San Marco that evening before setting off for dinner. Venice is very expensive–so we stuck to suggestions in our respective Lonely Planet and Rick Steve guidebooks.
After stopping for some cicheti, lemoncello, and grappa, the four of us split up and Aron and I went about exploring as much of the city as we could. I had brought along a pedometer (because I’m such a dork) and we took nearly 20 miles worth of steps without even noticing! There were so many interesting sights down the many narrow lanes. We were constantly lost, but it didn’t really matter.
The restaurant we stopped into for dinner was good–and lots of fun. The hostess suggested every dish with lots of arm-touching and back-patting (ours) and tons of wild gestures. We didn’t dare deviate from her suggestions–and we were happy with the results. After dinner, we tried to have a Bellini (the drink was originally concocted at Harry’s Bar in Venice), but peaches weren’t in season. I was impressed to find that they’re committed to making them with fresh fruit.
VERNAZZA (CINQUE TERRE) via BOLOGNA
On our way to the Mediterranean coast, we made a pit stop in the town of Bologna to see if we could catch a glimpse of its legendary markets and taste some Proschiutto di Parma. We were a little late for the mid-day meal–we’ll just have to go back again (our friend Brian still raves about this town and its fare).
We stayed in the town of Vernazza, with its charming little natural harbour.
Albergo Barbara (Piazza Marconi 30) is the red building in the center–right on the water.
We reserved two doubles—one w/view and one w/out (45E/48E)
Aron and I ran to grab our bathing suits, but the water was very cold. With the sun going down, we decided to save swimming for the next day and instead take in the sunset from the rocks.
That night, we had dinner at one of the restaurants perched up the rock (behind us in the above photo).
Aron and I set out early the next morning, determined to hike between all five towns. You can take the train between each one, alternatively. We would meet Laura and Roland in Monterosso al Mare and ride the train back with them. We had only sports sandals (whereas most of the hikers had boots and even poles and gave us concerned stares), but–though it was strenuous–we found the trails to be well-maintained and not too hard on our ankles. The route from Riomaggiore to Monterosso is about 11 miles and took us around 5 or 6 hours with a few brief stops (we started out from Riomaggiore).
From a bench, looking back at Riomaggiore, we shared a dish of pesto and freshly baked focaccia. The fresh pesto was eye-opening–the best I’ve ever had and completely unlike the stuff you buy in the store. As we continued to seek out fresh pesto throughout our trip (to no avail), we learned that Pesto originated in this region and is a local specialty. We’ve made fresh pesto every summer since.
Many of the paths took us through groves of lemon trees and hillside vineyards.
The first portion of the trail, from Riomaggiore to Manarola was the easiest (often called the Via dell’Amore), with the last portions being steepest. The route from Manorala to Corniglia was a tad frustrating, only because we were halfway done before we learned that the path was closed and we had to backtrack to a higher, alternate route.
This is the view, looking toward our town of Vernazza:
Around Manarola, we followed directions to a private (for fee, clothing-optional) beach. As we walked (and walked) through the abandoned train tunnel to reach the water, we began to worry that we had made a mistake and grew apprehensive.
But there was–excuse the expression–light at the end of the tunnel (and great reward).
After a little break for sunning and swimming, we climbed back up the hill to resume our path.
We heartily enjoyed some well-earned pesto pizzas in Vernazza for dinner that night before leaving for Florence the following day.
We stayed near the Duomo at a lovely little guesthouse, run by our friendly host, Marco.
I believe it was around 70 euro, including parking
Gelato and other sweets were well-represented in our diets. The gelato, in particular, was incredible–it was here that pistachio became my benchmark flavor for testing all subsequent gelatos. It was amazing: nothing but pure, creamy pistachio flavor, made smooth with no detectable almond extract and none of that fake, pastel-green color.
We climbed to the top of the hill across the Arno river, Piazzale Michelangelo, to take in a panoramic view of the city.
To some extent in Venice, but especially in Florence and Rome, we relied on the May 2005 issue of Bon Appetit (a special issue on Venice, Florence, and Rome) and the March 2003 issue of Gourmet (a special issue on Rome) for guidance. We followed their advice–and our stomachs–for the remainder of our trip.
Case in point: Trattoria Sostanza was one of the Bon Appetit picks. And we had an unforgettable meal there before saying goodbye to Laura and Roland (who returned to Germany the next morning). Reservations are essential, so I was glad we were able to snag one for 8:30. They’re known for their Bistecca alla Fiorentina–which both Aron and Roland sampled–but I thought the super-buttery chicken was also incredible (butter, we were surprised to find, is more common than olive oil in Florentine restaurants). I will never forget the dessert: those teeny, tiny strawberries served with gelato and meringue–so light, so wonderful!
Following Bon Appetit‘s recommendations again, we found one of the most amazing treats in Florence–and went twice on our last day there: Procacci is a little truffle and wine bar serving the most decadent truffle-paste sandwiches. I don’t think either of us understood until then why truffles are so valuable. We’ll never wonder again why all the fuss. Aron often refers to the aroma as hitting you in the back of the head.
The feeling of eating these little sandwiches is one we’re continually seeking (like addicts chasing a high.)
I can’t recall the name of the place we stayed, but I can’t say we enjoyed our night in Naples–except for the brilliant pizza we had at the home of the Margherita, Brandi ristorante (they made the first Margherita for the Queen and our meal was delicious), and this little concert we happened upon. We too often found the atmosphere threatening–including thinking many times that motor bikes had it out for us–and felt a bit uncomfortable.
When it came time to leave and explore Pompeii (en route to Positano), we were happy to go.
The offending Mount Vesuvius forms the backdrop to Pompeii–which buried the city under 65 feet of ash and pumice when it exploded in 79 AD. Pompeii was buried for 1700 years, until it was accidentally discovered. Excavations reveal the city that was frozen in time, right down to the victims–whose decomposed bodies left cavities in the ash layer that were later injected with plaster or resin.
The ride to Positano, along the Amalfi coast was beautiful–and hair-raising!
And when the bus dropped us off at the top of the hill, we had no real idea of how to best reach our hotel; the directions we had were from the beach. Not wanting to pay the hefty price for a taxi, we began the long trek down, down, down the hillside until we reached the main beach. Then we climbed back up from a second, smaller beach, almost half as far back up the hill to get to our lovely little spot.
Pensione Maria Luisa
70 euro/nt for double with bathroom
Good value, lovely views, quite a hike, and lots of cats.
The view from the hotel’s roof deck gives one a sense of the hike required after a day at the beach. We were particularly mindful not to leave anything we might need for the beach behind when we left our room each morning.
Dinner at Lo Guarracino, overlooking the smaller Fornillo Beach.
We spent our days at Spiaggia Grande, the main beach. We’d pay for two chairs and an umbrella–getting there early for unobstructed views in the first row of chairs–and put together lunches like this one (of fresh tomatoes, pesto, caviar, beer, and yogurt). For breakfast, Aron sought after sfogliatelle–a shell-shaped pastry oozing with ricotta that had been flavored with candied citrus peel–at La Zagara Pasticceria. In the evening, we’d choose a restaurant for seafood and pasta. On our first evening, we splurged on glasses of Limoncello at La Buca di Bacco, a hotel and restaurant right on Spiaggia Grande.
When it was time to move on to Rome, we took a ferry to Salerno and then caught the train from there (a nice alterative to hiking back up the hill to catch the bus).
It was a toss-up between which view was best: that of leaving Positano behind us…
…or that of approaching the sun-bathers congregating on the rocks in Salerno.
In Rome, we stayed at
Hotel Navona (Via dei Sediari, 8–Piazza Navona)
and felt perfectly situated for exploring.
135 euro/nt for a double/with AC; Breakfast included
(but our three nights were a gift from Aron’s parents!)
Via Margutta—where Gregory Peck slept in Roman Holiday–and took Audrey Hepburn–and where Fellini lived. Lined with ivy-covered galleries and antique shops, it makes a nice detour. We walked by and heard piano being played inside one of the apartments. Apparently, there’s a cooking school being run out of the Roman Holiday home.
Would-be paramours on the Spanish Steps.
The Pantheon, built in 126 AD (after the original structure from 27 BC).
Lunch at Costanza; we arrived early to snag a table under the brick arches of an ancient theatre. We were drawn by the promise of zucchini-blossom risotto (heavenly!), which we split along with wonderful funghi risotto. You can tell–just look how happy Aron is!
In between lots of wonderful food, we toured the Colosseum (perhaps the most famous sight in Rome) and visited the ruins of the forum (perhaps the most stunning).
Another highlight was an audio tour of Domus Aurea, the excavated ruins of Emperor Nero’s “Golden House.” After Nero’s suicide, the extravagant palace was seen as an embarrassment and was stripped of its marble and gold and filled with dirt and built over. The rooms and frescoes were left buried from the 4th to the 15th century–when they were rediscovered. An ongoing excavation site, Domus Aurea was partially opened to the public in 1999 but closed again in late 2005 due to the threat that dampness poses. We felt fortunate to have visited.
We went early in the morning to Vatican city to visit St. Peter’s (on two separate mornings as it was closed the first day we went).
Being there early, we were rewarded with light crowds.
We were fascinated by how they change the lightbulbs in the basilica (and by the bulbs’ size).
A climb through the sloping walls of the duomo and up narrow staircases leads to great views.
Aron and I marked up a map of the city with the stops recommended in Gourmet–we were assured we wouldn’t miss out on any choice delicacies.
Some food highlights:
‘Gusto in the Trastevere district—ristorante, pizzeria, and cookshop—we went for a late dinner and had the best plate of proschiutto and Buffalo Mozzerella ever. (You’ll notice there’s a pattern of superlatives used for the food on this trip.)
Pizza Bianca at Forno Campo de’Fiori—you specify how large a piece you want cut.
Gelato at San Crispino (lab-like, serving flavors like Fresh Pear, licorice, and blood orange)
Marrons Glaces at Giuliani—where candied chestnuts from Serino have been sold for 60 years.
Castroni—known for regional lemoncellos and grappas and coffees. We bought licorice, delicious gelato, and browsed the ample cookie selection.
Trattoria Monti, a roman trattoria, where lunch meant Onion Flan with Cheese Sauce; Ravioli with Butter, ricotta, spinach and sage (a plate-size ravioli oozing egg yolk and ricotta); and a pear dessert.
Piazza Navona–just around the corner from our hotel.
In the morning, we had Nutella-filled Cornetti at Sant’Eustachio.
The “black gold” (espresso) from this place is legendary and, indeed, the latte and gran caffe we ordered were both delicious.
We’ll try to fit Aron into one of these to drive around the countryside next time. (We passed by here on the way to Liliana Michilli, known for faithful copies of fancy ring designs. Aron got me a Pomellato reproduction that was well-loved for the year it lasted.)
Volpetti Salumeria offers delicious samples–in the Testaccio neighborhood.
Biscottificio Artigiano Innocenti sells cookies (many featuring almond) by the kilogram in the Trastevere neighborhood.
La Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth), in the portico of the Paleochristian church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
(We both thought to quickly whisper “I love you” and left with our hands in tact.)
Aron looks impatient, waiting for his baccalà frito (fried salt cod)…
…and ecstatic over a Nutella-ricotta Calzone. (We shared this dessert after eating a tasty mozzarella, pumpkin sauce, and bacon pizza, outside Dar Poeta pizzeria on some steps.)
A long trip home, with a stopover in Frankfurt, took us back to Los Angeles–where I was detained for a few hours apart from Aron because an alert had been placed on my recovered (once thought lost) passport.
Fortunately I was issued a new passport so that our travels could continue–because any day now I’m stuffing Aron into that little red car in search of Italian truffles.