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Trip Report Travelogue of our trip to Southern Italy

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This is lengthy, but we were away for a good 2 1/2 weeks ;-)

June 19-July 6, 2017

Includes: Rome, Sorrento, Pompeii/Herculaneum, Amalfi Coast (Praiano/Positano/Ravello/Amalfi), Ischia (Sant’Angelo/Forio/Moranti Beach/Cavascura Thermal Baths/Negombo Thermal Baths) and Naples.

Note: Every room we stayed in had either a terrace overlooking the sea or a balcony with city views, depending on which town we were in.

Our first stop was ROME. After being delayed for three hours due to weather conditions in NYC, we arrived for our connecting flight in London Heathrow and arrived so late that our three hour window between flights meant we had to run through the airport at breakneck speed to catch our 2nd flight, making it by literally two minutes. We did make it, though, and happily arrived in Rome on time. Our hotel was My Secret Spagna, near the Spanish Steps in the Old City, and it was adorable. The hotelier and his staff couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. The excellent espresso machine in the room was a nice touch. During our three nights and four days in Rome, we went on the Metro pretty much everywhere, and it was easy. We went to the Vatican and Sistine Chapel (of course), the Villa Borghese (a MUST-SEE: a huge estate with beautiful grounds and an incredible museum where I discovered my new favorite sculptor, Bernini), the Colosseum, Piazza Navona (for the restaurants and gorgeous Bernini fountain), Trastevere (cool neighborhood), GELATO!!!, Trevi Fountain (we’d saved a few old lira especially for this!), Gay Village (a summer-only event held just outside of Rome for the gay community. Such fun!), and found some really nice restaurants, too. How could you not, when you’re in Rome?

Note: Buy the Roma Museum Pass. So worth it to avoid the 3-4 hour lines at the Vatican, as well as other museum lines, and the metro is included.

Next stop, SORRENTO. We took the speedy train (Trenitalia) to Naples, then switched to the local (Circumvesuviana) to get to Sorrento. While the first train was lovely, air conditioned and had cellphone charging stations, the regional train was quite an experience. Note to self: in the future, do NOT have a big heavy suitcase when trying to get through train stations. No lifts! Once on the slow-boat-to-China regional train, it was hot as hell (and we were in the middle of a heat wave to begin with) and very bouncy, but people-watching was fascinating and, along the way, we were entertained by a Gypsy family playing music. Quite the local experience! And I kept my eyes peeled for my first glance of Mt. Vesuvius, knowing somehow that its frightening place in history would be reflected in how it looked. I was not disappointed. When I spotted the black mountain, I immediately recognized it by how menacing it appeared. Sent a chill down my spine, but Vesuvius would factor into many memories on this trip. More on that later. We finally arrived in Sorrento, which was the biggest surprise of the trip. We absolutely fell in love with its charm and the people. We stayed at Marina Piccola 73, which was right on the water so that we could take a quick swim every day. Our balcony overlooked the Mediterranean (actually, called the Tyrrhenian Sea here). Shopping in Sorrento was amazing. We took the nearby lift up to the center of town and spent a lot of time just going in and out of shops, having coffee or aperitivos and people-watching. We bought gorgeous leather jackets, some shoes, and pasta-fixins. Everyone was so nice to us, and spoke enough English so that our rudimentary Italian didn’t embarrass us too badly ;-) One restaurant we loved (sorry, can’t remember the name) was in Sorrento proper (meaning “up” on the cliff) and it had its own gardens and was delightful and cool, even eating outside on a hot day. The highlight of the trip was our private tour to Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was led by Lello of Lello & Company, who we’d discovered on Tripadvisor (His company is listed as #1 of the tour operators!). He was absolutely amazing and brought the dead cities to life for us. Besides being a tour guide, he was an archaeologist. He was so enthusiastic and so knowledgeable, that by the end of the tour, we felt like we’d earned a degree! Pompeii was always on my bucket list, so I was so thrilled to not only get to experience it, but to experience it at its best. With a guide, you don’t waste time wandering all over, not knowing what to look for, and probably missing out on the best. And with someone like Lello, you really get a picture of what it was to live in that time, and to experience the Mt. Vesuvius eruption.

And then, there was the wine…Later that same day, my wife and I went to a vineyard, Cantina del Vesuvio. They’re an organic winery who make the famous Lacryma Christi wine mentioned in the movie “Three Coins in the Fountain.” What a heady experience, doing a wine and food tasting part-way up on Mt. Vesuvius itself! The wines were amazing and, of course, we spent waaaay too much money, and had two cases shipped home. How could we not? This was one of the best days of the trip, so filled with joy and exploration.

Next up: THE AMALFI COAST. Because we were staying in Praiano, a smaller village, we arranged for a car service through Jack the Driver, also discovered through Tripadvisor. Their driver was there not only promptly but actually early, helped us with the bags, and we were off! Once we hit the main highway of the Amalfi Coast, I was very glad I’d chosen the left-hand seat. The other side was cliffside with the dropoff, and not my idea of a fun time ;-) The driver stopped at a safe spot at one point, so we could take some pictures overlooking the beautiful coastline. We got our first glimpse of Positano as we drove past (gorgeous, as expected) and finally, Praiano, just after that. There are two sides of Praiano. One is the main town and the other is a little further out. We stayed at the latter, at Maresca Hotel. It was a lovely hotel and the room was very large and we even had our own lemon tree on the terrace!!! The only downside to the hotel was that it was quite a walk getting into the town proper (and a bit tenuous walking on the side of the busy main highway with no sidewalks), so my suggestion to anyone without a car is to stay on the other side, in town. Just easier to get around. Our hotel was near Marina Piccola, a lovely pebbly beach, which we went to a few times. You can rent beach chairs there, which we did. There are also some very cute restaurants.

The next day, we went into Positano by cab and spent half a day there, which was enough for us. Although it was absolutely a beautiful town, everything from shopping to meals was very expensive. We enjoyed it for what it was, but it just wasn’t our scene. The orange bus (non-SITA) that connects Positano with Praiano was how we got back to our hotel. It was one of those mad-rush-to-get-on kind of experiences that wasn’t all that pleasant. But the SITA buses were even worse, from what we were told. For those of you who like renting cars, we decided not to, although my wife loves to drive and has driven us through the Pyrenees and the Alps, as well as all through Spain. The Amalfi Coast only has one major road (one lane in either direction) with major twists and turns as it hugs the cliffs - and most foreigners don’t know how to drive it. In my opinion, it was better left to those who lived there and knew it well. Just a head’s up.

The next day, we went to Ravello and Amalfi, on a shared van through our hotelier. There were only two other people we shared with, who were headed to the same place, we had a/c and our driver knew just where to drop us. We started with Ravello, which was a jewel! The sky-high views of the sea were breathtaking, the gardens we went into (Villa Cimbrone) were beautiful, we checked out many art shops, and had an amazing lunch at a gorgeous place (Villa Maria) that made it seem like we were among the clouds. The views were stunning and the food was absolutely incredible. And to think that we just happened to wander into it! We only spent about an hour in Amalfi because we weren’t all that enamoured with it. There were shops we poked our heads into, but the only thing I really remember from that town was the incredible gelato. It was artisanal and probably the best gelato of the trip. Afterwards, we walked over to the Alilauro ferry ticket office to check on our boat to Ischia the next day. It was the only way to get from the Amalfi Coast to Ischia (unless we won the lottery), and booking online hadn’t been available until just before we left for our trip. We’d been sweating bullets for months, hoping it came together. So imagine our surprise when the woman at the ferry office told us they’d cancelled the ferry two days in a row because of rough waters!!! We were frantic. She said it would probably run the next day, but we’d have to call at 7am, to be sure. That’s when we had our car service reserved for! Fast forward to the next day, luggage ready, checked out of the hotel, the driver ready to take us to Sorrento instead (to catch the ferry from there if need be), but when we called, Alilauro said the ferry was on!!!! So, very excited, we took our car service to Amalfi (again through Jack the Driver – they never disappoint!), got on the hydrofoil when it arrived, and had a lovely water tour of the Amalfi Coast on our way to Ischia. Along the way, we saw Napoli in the distance, bypassed Capri, and finally, landed in Ischia Porto.

ISCHIA – this island was a dream of ours from the first moment we started researching for the trip. We fell in love with the idea of thermal baths, just how beautiful every picture was, the gorgeous volcanic sand beaches…and then we discovered the town of Sant’Angelo. It seemed that everyone all over the internet said the action was in the towns of Ischia Porto or Ischia Ponte. And if you went to the other side of the island, then Forio was the town to be in. But Sant’Angelo appealed to us because it was a little more remote (although right on the water), it wasn’t a given that everyone spoke English (and we love a good challenge), there were no cars allowed in town, and it was more laid back. We were not disappointed! It was everything we thought it would be, and more. We stayed at Casa Celestino (first recommended by Caroline from Scotland, with lots of help from ekscrunchy, both right here on Fodors). Carla, the owner, couldn’t have been nicer. All of her staff were warm and friendly, but the most helpful to us were Pierre-Carlo and Francesca. They pretty much did anything we asked of them, and we weren’t all that fussy. There is a restaurant connected to the hotel, but it is not owned by Carla, but rather, the space is rented. Too bad, because the service was almost non-existent. When we needed an extra plate, having waited fifteen minutes for one, I stood up and got it for myself! And the food was nondescript. So avoid the restaurant. Pizza at Da Pasquale was very good, and people have said it may be the best on the Island. That being said, we didn’t really have outstanding food on the island, so I’d say that simple fare is probably the best way to go. Our room, of course, overlooked the water and our balcony was private. There was a common balcony for some of the other rooms, but if you want to stay here, ask for the room we had. The privacy was an added bonus. We took the local bus many times, and it was easy to navigate. The buses circle the island, clockwise or counter-clockwise. You know the difference by the letter on them. But beware! You MUST punch your tickets with the ticket machine on the bus, or you run the risk of being fined. Apparently, it’s a huge thing. We took the bus to Negombo Thermal Baths and back, and also to our evening in Forio, where we had dinner and saw a beautiful sunset. Negombo was interesting with all the different experiences with pools and water, but, for some reason, it didn’t knock me out. Maybe it just wasn’t my thing. We took a water taxi for 3 euros to Maronti Beach, near Sant’Angelo, and it was such a trip!! You get into the boat in the town square, just walking into the little open boat, but when you arrive at the beach, shoes off! because you have to get out in the surf! It was quirky and fun. Maybe the most beautiful beach on the island, we enjoyed it very much, renting chairs for the day. We had lunch at a nearby beach restaurant and it was quite good. We decided to go to Cavascura for the ancient mud baths after our beach time, which was just a short walk away. What an experience, as the man literally paints you with mud as you stand there, with everyone watching. And yes, you get to keep your bathing suit ON ;-) Once the mud was showered off, my skin felt like a bambino’s! So soft. They also have saunas and other things you can do, but we just wanted the mud baths. We bought some lovely soaps, as well as some mud to bring home. Unfortunately, the mud didn’t make it through security (they considered it a liquid!), so if you ever travel with mud, make sure to put it in your checked luggage. We also found a private beach area (meaning with the chairs, that you pay for) in Sant’Angelo, down at the end of Chiaia di Rose beach, right near our hotel, that we spent half a day in, when we needed some time to just relax and not move. Oh, and they delivered drinks to us. Perfection.

Next stop on our itinerary: NAPOLI. This was the only part of our journey we hadn’t been 100% sure of. We’d read that it was a sketchy town, that parts weren’t safe, and we weren’t exactly sure if we’d vibe with it. After the ferry ride from Ischia, upon our cab stopping in front of our hotel’s address, we were bewildered and filled with dread. It was in the Chiaia section of Naples, and supposed to very safe, charming and upscale, but everything was off. The building was dilapidated, and even though it was supposed to have seaviews, they were almost completely blocked by construction. Seems they neglected to tell us the city was building another metro stop there, and had been, for close to TEN years!!! Reluctantly, we put our bags in the elevator and went up to the 2nd floor (Hotel Micalo). We were pleasantly surprised by the hotel itself, though. They had completely redone the entire floor into a lovely artsy space. We were relieved and brought our bags into our room, which unfortunately, had terrible air conditioning which never got better. We had to argue with the front desk to switch rooms, to a lesser room that at least had some a/c happening. The next day, they were supposed to move us to the other “seaview” room, when the current occupants checked out. They did eventually move us in, and it was still really hot. We got no help whatsoever from two of the women at the front desk the first part of our stay, but thank goodness for the one (Ilaria) who was on the desk that particular day because she made all the difference for us. When we were out, she brought an electric fan in and turned it on, so that when we came back, the room was cool. She suggested going to one of the seaside restaurants in Chiaia for dinner, and that’s when we got to see what this section of Naples was supposed to be like: lovely, fun, trendy, safe. Too bad our hotel was on the outskirts and sketchy! Ilaria was also our guardian angel when I noticed something on the map and it turned out to be a public beach. She directed us instead to a beautiful private beach with chairs and facilities, in nearby Posillipo, which was a bit of a walk, but totally doable. It had been so hot that we were used to taking two showers a day. The coolness of the sea and a day of rest at Bagno Elena was just what we needed. Who knew that Naples had beaches?!

Other things we did in Naples: had two of the best pizzas (at Pizzeria Port’alba, on a side street near Piazza Bellini) and Peppino L’oro di Napoli, not far from Piazza Bellini and Museo Cappela Sansevero). There’s also a little deli/food store next to Peppino where we bought the most amazing spices (for gifts) and had a great experience sharing olives and cheese with the owner and his son. The Architectural Museum is a must-see (where we saw the original paintings and antiques from Pompeii and Herculaneum, not the replicas!), as well as the Museo Cappella Sansevero, with The Veiled Christ sculpture (OMG, the attention to detail was dazzling!). For our last night, we wanted a real local place for dinner where tourists didn’t go, and got a great recommendation from our hotel. At Ristorante Salvatore Alla Riviera, that’s exactly what we got! Really really local cuisine at a place that was owned by family. We ordered off the menu. In Italian. And they understood us! They were lovely to us there, and we wound up talking to the owner’s son, our waiter, and the chef – pretty much all in Italian.

Something to be aware of in Naples: the motorcyclists. The bikers come at you from seemingly out of nowhere, don’t obey any rules of the road, and crossing a street can be akin to taking your life in your hands. Be careful!

Overall, Naples is a city in transition. It does have some lovely pockets here and there, but needs plenty of sprucing up. There don’t seem to be any pooper scooper laws and some areas are very dirty and rundown. It seems as if they need to realize how spectacular their city can be, but aren’t quite there yet. I’d give it another ten or fifteen years before I’d check it out again. The things that are good are really good, so I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.

Flight home: beware the Naples airport. We’d flown into Rome, but our return flight was messed up by British Air and we wound up flying home out of Naples…where they couldn’t find our reservations (although they’d been booked the night before), and made us so late, we almost missed our flight and had to run barefoot through the airport. The woman at the BA desk was so nonchalant about making everyone on our flight late, that she kept saying, “Don’t worry, it’s fine.” Meanwhile, she was so unprofessional that she never checked through one of our pieces of luggage, and it arrived five days after we did. Oh well, could’ve been worse, losing it on the way there!!! Anyone else use FF miles with connecting flights when flying internationally? I highly doubt we’ll ever do that again, with trouble both coming and going.


NOTE: We heard about transit strikes throughout Italy just before we left the States and were a bit concerned, because it was one of the few big trips we’d taken that didn’t involve a rental car. Apparently, they announce in advance when they’re going to have a strike, and it can be local, regional or national. And it’s usually in the summer. So be aware. Google before you book anything and you’ll see if any of your dates are involved.

We absolutely adored our trip to Italy, and over six weeks later, we’re still daydreaming about it. There are always bumps and surprises along the way, and those usually make for the best stories, don’t they? Hope you enjoyed my travelogue. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me here!

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