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Patrick's trip report --part 6: Italy's Heel and Toe

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After spending two nights in Taormina (we had promised ourselves not to repeat anywhere we'd been on this trip, but we were so close, we couldn't pass up a return to Taormina), we took the ferry across to the mainland at Villa San Giovanni. The whole operation was quick, efficient, and painless. After being on islands for nearly a month (Corsica, Sardinia, Lipari, and Sicily) it was nice to be on "real land" once more. We stopped at Scilla for lunch. What a quaint and interesting little stop. Had a great lunch at Grotta Azzura, and then set off to the hill town of Altomonte. Our reason for the stop there was the little hotel we had found on the internet -- Hotel Barbieri. The town of Altomonte sits up as its name would suggest on quite a high hill. We drove around looking for our hotel, found some signs but kept getting lost. At last we found someone to point the way, and there it was, on another hill across a small valley facing the town itself. We pulled into the drive and were greeted with a "just leave your car there. Sit and have a glass of wine with us." So we did. Then another glass. Finally we insisted we should unload the car and see our room. The hotel is a family run place -- several generations, and is a work in progress. They have added a second tower of rooms (not maybe 40 in all) for the many regular visitors they get, often from Rome or other cities who come down for the weekend to "get away". The rooms are simple and plain, but most have a balcony which juts out and faces the spectacular view of the town, just out of arm's reach and the endless valley beyond. We reminded them we wanted dinner that night, and with shock the owner said, "well, of course" as if why else would we be there. He was right. At nine we went downstairs and sat at a table out on the huge terrace. There was probably 8 or 10 feet between each table -- incredibly spacious (perhaps to allow room for what we were about to eat). The owner said there were no menus or wine list. We discussed the kind of wine we like (big, robust, earthy!) and out came a wonderful bottle. He asked if we liked mushrooms as the porcini were fresh in. Lee, not a huge mushroom fan, nodded approval, and I (being a mushroom freak) nearly drooled on the tablecloth. The food was "typical Calabrian". We started with no less than 15 different appetizers -- nearly half of them contain porcini -- sauteed with herbs, tossed with wilted arugula, fried with cheese, stuffed with everything imaginable. There were also eggplant dishes, ceci beans, proscuitto, salami, croquettes in a variety of tastes, and four different spreads for the wonderful chewy bread. This should have been the meal! Next came pasta -- pappardelle with tomatoes, cheese, and porcini. Heaven. We thought that was the end of that course, but then out came gnocci in a meat broth, tomatoes, and cheese. We were stuffed. They offered choices of lamb or pork, but we passed. We were truly stuffed. But we sat a while and they brought out plates of tiny desserts, biscotti, and various pastries, along with dessert wine. We spent about three hours eating all this, and realized we never had a main course. We had no idea what the price of all this was, and no bill came, they said they'd add it to our room. We were pleasantly surprised in the morning when we checked out after our huge breakfast with an incredible assortment of fresh pastries (some filled with hot, melting chocolate) and wonderful fresh peaches, that the entire dinner and spectacular wine cost 79 euro. This was added to the cost of the room -- 78 euro. What a find this place was.

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