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Trip Report Trip Report: Tuscany, Amalfi Coast, Maratea, Matera

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I thought I had posted this trip report years ago, but I can't seem to find it, so I am reposting this along with one other Italy trip report, in case they are gone forever. Note that these are several years old, so prices will have gone up.

Finally getting the time to write about our two-week trip to Italy last May. The excuse for the trip (as if anyone really needs an excuse to go to Italy) was that two friends of ours were getting married in Cortona. So we built a vacation around it, booking a week in Southern Tuscany before the nuptials, and a week in Campania and Basilicata the week after.

I am not going to dwell too long on the time we spent in Tuscany. I think it has been more than adequately covered in this forum. Suffice it to say that the highlights included the “rehearsal dinner” (all 55 guests were invited). This was held in La Loggetta, the beautiful and historic restaurant directly across from the Palazzo Comunale in Cortona where the wedding was to be held the next day. We had a fantastic feast, which featured 2 antipasti courses, 4 pasta dishes, 2 meat dishes, and probably dessert, but I am not sure, as that was about the time that I think I passed out.

The wedding the next day was one of those really interesting cultural experiences. Because it was a civil service, it had a very bureaucratic quality to it; the bride and groom sitting at a large table, while the mayor (who looked to be all of 16) proceeded to fill out documents for them to sign. No “do you take thee”? No “till death do we part”?

Instead, the translation was something along the lines of, “Do you swear that, according to Article 27A, Provision 2C, you have never murdered your neighbor’s wife”?

Seriously.

The word “murder” was used during a wedding ceremony.

The other “interesting” reference was the plug for Cortona that the mayor made at the end of the ceremony, going so far as to reference “Under the Tuscan Sun”. The context was something along the lines of, “You know, Under the Tuscan Sun wasn’t that accurate of a film. They showed chickens running around in the piazza. We haven’t had that in 50 years!” While that may have been true, I was starting to wonder if this were a dare to see how many unrelated words he could work into the wedding cereomy. I started looking for the list: murder, chicken. What could be next…volcano…deodorant?

Anyway, the reception banquet put the rehearsal dinner to shame. I lost track of the variety of antipasti, and pasta dishes. There were 2 meat courses and 4 (!) desserts, including the wedding cake, which was a millefoglie, which is made from a thousand delicate layers of pastry dough filled with custard cream. Really, it just went past pleasure and circled right back into pain. I swear no more food for the rest of the trip!

After we left Cortona the next day, we stopped in the town of Anagni at our favorite place for lunch, for Il Timbalo di Maccheroni. (What was I swearing last night?) As I have mentioned in previous posts, if you ever saw the movie Big Night, this was the piece de la resistance that they brought out at the end of the meal. It was so good that I had it for my primo and another serving as my secondo. (I swear that I only weigh 140lbs).

After getting some much needed exercise, walking the 20 feet from the restaurant to the car, we then made a stop at Ercolano, to see the ancient site of Herculaneum. Although we had been to Pompeii, it was interesting to contrast the differences between the patrician palaces there vs. the middle class dwellings in Pompeii. Since it was after 4pm, we got a discounted ticket price, and given the size of the site, it is rather easy to see comfortably in about 2 hours. If you have seen Pompeii already, I recommend Herculaneum next time you are in the area.

Like all the other visitors that day, we parked illegally, half on the sidewalk half off, right in front of the entrance. It was really quite convenient. I really don’t mind driving in Italy, but I have to admit that the area from Naples to Sorrento can be a challenge. Somehow, I managed to wend my way back onto the Autostrada, not so much by retracing my previous steps as by the method by which a leaf or a toy boat is carried down a torrent. At one point, I could see the entrance to the Autostrada a block away, but between the entrance and me was a long portable barrier with a person in street clothes standing next to it. When I decided to just go around the barrier (in part just to see what would happen) the person told me that the road was closed. I replied that I was getting on the Autostrada. “OK” he replied, and off I went. I don’t know if this has any significance, but it struck me that, in a country that doesn’t seem short of civil servants, they seem to have volunteer traffic control.

So, we spent the next 3 days in Positano, doing nothing in particular. We stayed at the Villa Rosa, which was a nice place for the money, about 140 euro per night. I recommend one of the top two floors for the best views and the least amount of noise from scooters; however, no elevators. It was great to have breakfast served in your room every day and enjoy it along with your views from your balcony.

One day we took a boat to Amalfi, and the views along the coast are stunning. I have to admit that on our first trip to the Amalfi Coast in 1998, I was completely charmed by Positano and less so by Amalfi. I think it was the long line of tour busses that greet you as soon as you arrive into town. Also, because it gets a larger share of day trips than Positano, it has a substantial display of souvenir stands right along the main thoroughfare. This time, however, we decided to explore deeper into Amalfi.

Of course, there is the Duomo. Don’t miss the mosaic façade and the striking white cloister. But as we walked further up hill, and the crowds began to thin, we noticed a sign that said that, this direction to the Valle dei Mulini, or Valley of the Mills. We were intrigued and perplexed. Mills? What kind of mills? How far is it? We didn’t have a guidebook. Was this a short stroll or would we be bringing our repelling equipment?

As we walked, we passed over a grate in the street and I heard the sound of water. At this point the mountainside was very close to both sides of the road. “Huh”, I said, “This road must be built over a river.” As we continued to walk, we commented to each other how odd it was that the buildings were built right to the edge of the road. Why would they do that? We then noticed that some of the buildings had big, round indentations in the sides facing the road. What is that all about? Hummm…walking over a river…buildings with big round indentations built right up to the edge: what city boys we are! You could have to hit us in the head with a water wheel before we would have figured out that we had walked right over the river and into the Valley of the Mills.

It was then that we noticed the Museum of Paper in one of the last 2 remaining paper mills in Amalfi. It turns out that in Medieval times, Amalfi was the largest supplier of paper to Europe and the mid-East (maybe the world). Nearby, we discovered the store Arte e Carte. Inside, a grizzled old man with skin that looked to have seen one too many chemicals was making paper by hand. Over and over, in a giant vat of water, he explained to us how he used a combination of wood pulp and cotton, working the slurry into a form to create envelopes and sheets of paper, which would air dry. He said that it took 10 days to make one envelope. He was amused when I told him that I make envelopes as well (I work for a printing company). He asked me how many I could make in 10 days. He seemed impressed when I told him: millions, but none with the charm and beauty of his. We bought several packs of handmade stationary and envelopes, some with ferns picked from the local hillside embedded into the paper.

Still further up the Valli dei Mullini we found a shop that makes its own Limoncello. More interesting were the other liqueurs made from fruits such as madarins, and the laurel, a somewhat medicinal if not unpleasant flavor. It was here that we found ourselves drinking several varieties of spirits at 11am.

After 3 days in Positano, which also included a rather frustrating if ultimately rewarding drive to Ravello, we headed for Maratea, in the region of Basilicata, stopping first at Paestum for the fantastic Greek temples. This was among the first of the Greek colonies, and contains some of the best Greek ruins anywhere. We had lunch just outside the walls, at a place that makes its own mozzerella di buffula. We saw them making it and the process was fascinating. They gave us a rather large sample, but I am embarrassed to say that after our enormous lunch (which included some of the homemade mozzeralla) we just couldn't finish it. Hopefully, they won't be reading this and my secret will be safe with you.

We spent the next 3 nights at Maratea. On the recommendation of Bob the Navigator, we stayed at the wonderful Villa Cheta, and the coastline there is every bit as beautiful as the Amalfi coast, but without the traffic. This was supposed to be our relaxing beach part of the trip, but since it ended up raining every day, we found ourselves driving long mountain roads looking for things to do. We explored the charming town of Maratea, even taking the road to the very top to see the gargantuan statue of Christ, similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro. We were amused by the sign, spray painted on the road on the way up, “A destra per Christo”; to the right for Christ. We weren’t sure if that was a simple direction or a political statement, but on those winding mountain roads, if you take that right too sharply, you’ll meet your maker sooner than intended.

So we left the west coast of Basilicata and headed east to Matera, the UNESCO World Heritage designated city, immortalized in Carlo Levi’s book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. However, first there was lunch to contend with.

We had not planned to stop in Potenza, Italy’s highest regional capital city; but it was 12:30 and our stomachs were grumbling, so it was time to be spontaneous. When we arrived in the center, it appeared that the entire town had job exited from Sunday mass and was parading up and down the main street in their Sunday best. The excitement was palpable. Little kids, kept quiet in church too long, could finally run in circles, chasing pigeons. Teenage girls could primp and ignore teenage boys obnoxiously swooping by on scooters. Friends and families caught up on all the latest gossip.

However, we had a mission. We found a restaurant, walked in, and it was empty, except that every table was meticulously set for a precise number of people. One was set for 18, another for 8, still another for 6. There were a couple tables for 2, so in a few minutes, when the proprietor accidentally passed by and found us standing there, we asked if he had a table for 2. He did. We sat.

Within minutes, hordes of people came streaming in for what was apparently their Sunday ritual: dinner at Mimí Ristorante. It was a family affair with Mom, Dad and the adult children all running the business. And it made for a very homey and comfortable experience. We didn’t get menus, nobody did, just food, and lots of it.

There was the antipasto of braised fennel, tiny meatballs, grilled eggplant and marinated vegetables. Then they presented the signature pasta of the area, strascinati, in two different sauces, one a tomato and the other with fennel and anchovy. By this point, we had to beg not to be served a meat course. They tried to give us dessert. No thank you. They offered a liqueur or coffee, explaining that it was included in the fixed price, but we just could not eat any more. We told them how much we really enjoyed the meal and they presented the bill, for 15 euro each, including service and tax! Imagine, we could have spent four hours there and then skipped dinner. I don’t know how they do it.

Our last day and night in Matera was incredible. It is like taking a time capsule to the past. We stayed in the hotel Sassi, which resides in a series of caves carved into the ravine called the Sassi. This area was notorious in the 1960’s for being one of the most squalid places in Italy. People at that time still lived in these caves with no running water and or sanitation. Cholera was still an ongoing problem. The government finally had to step in and relocate the inhabitants to the modern town. The historic center was virtually abandoned until 1992 when UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. Since that time, hotels and restaurants have started redeveloping the old cave dwellings, and the Sassi are now about 25% occupied. We did walking tours and saw at least 10 churches which had been carved out of the living rock, most with frescos intact that were painted in Medieval times. It really was a magical place.

Hotels and restaurants:

Going through my cards of all the places we stayed and ate brought back some of the fun and interesting encounters that we had with some of the owners and other travels along the way,

We discovered Anagni driving to the Amalfi Coast about 6 years ago. Located about 20 minutes off the A1 autostrada, in the southern part of Lazio, south of Rome. We noticed that the town’s name on the map was underlined, and one could assume that its claim to fame is the duomo, which is opulently decorated, especially the crypt. It turns out that 4 popes in the Middle Ages were from Anagni. It was obvious who held the Papal purse strings during those years. But I digress.

What puts Anagni on the map for me is Ristorante del Gallo - Via Vittorio Emanuele, 152 Tel. 0775.727309. And what gives it an extra bold underline is the Timballo, a pasta dish baked in a drum shaped pan. Taking a bite, the first thing you taste is the crunchy, salty crust of prosciutto. The tangy sensation hits your mouth like a mild, but pleasurable version of touching your tongue to a 9-volt battery. This is immediately followed by the soft but dense pasta, which is firmly held together by the grated cheese, moistened and flavored with olive oil and just the barest minimum of tomato sauce. Fans of gooey, cheesy, eat-with-a-spoon lasagna might feel it is a bit dry, but I like to taste the pasta, not have it overpowered by the sauce. The occasional tiny meatball, baked randomly into it, might then add some additional variety to this slice of paradiso on a fork.

I enjoyed it so much I was really struggling with whether or not to order it again for my second course. I knew they would think this very odd, the cultural equivalent of going into a U.S. restaurant and ordering Lucky Charms for dinner. As I was getting up my nerve to ask, I starting telling the proprietor how much I enjoyed it, so he said, “order more if you like”, and saved me from embarrassing myself. By the way, they don’t have it on the menu every day, however, the owner made a point of telling me that if you call the day before, they will be sure to make it, even for 2 people. I don’t know if any English is spoken, so good luck. (Lunch for 2, with 2 courses each, 1 side dish, carafe of wine, water, and service, 44 euro).

In Positano, we went back to a favorite spot on our first night “Lo Guarracino” Via Positanesi d’America, 12. This is on the footpath that runs above the sea, past the dock. A small ristorante/pizzeria, it has mostly typical local dishes and lots of seafood. We split a mixed seafood appetizer; followed by penne in a sauce of tomato, eggplant and mozzarella and spaghetti alle vongole, water and wine for 38 euro. Our unsmiling waitress, who was also the proprietress, seemed a little harried and brusque, but I was determined to find out what Lo Guarrancino meant. Her reply was “an ugly fish”. Surprised, I said, “but it a good tasting fish”? “No”, she said, “it tastes terrible!” With that we three of us shared a laugh, and we enjoyed a delicious meal at the ugly, bad tasting fish. The rest of the evening she made a point to stop by the table to see if we were OK, smiling every time.

The second night we went more upscale, eating up the mountain at Il RITROVO, Via Monte 53, Montepertuso, 089 811336: dinner for 2 at 59 euro. We each had an appetizer and then shared a cioppino for two, with enormous shrimp, lobsters, clams and mussels. It could have easily fed 4. But most enjoyable was the couple that we met at the next table on their honeymoon. We bought them a congratulatory after dinner drink and were honored to introduce them to Limoncello, and they told us about their wonderful Italy adventures thus far in their trip.

We discovered that they were staying in the room just below us at the Villa Rosa, so the next day when we saw them on their balcony we made plans to have dinner together. We decided to take them to Lo Guarracino, and the evening could not have been more perfect to be sitting on the terrace overlooking the calm sea, with a warm breeze and a full moon - one of the best evenings of the trip.

We had booked the Villa Cheta hotel through Slow Dreams at http://www.slow-dreams.com/villa-cheta.htm before we left. We liked the website and the selections of hotels in the area, and they gave us some great itinerary advice as well. The style of the hotel is beautiful, built in Italy’s version of Art Nouveau called Liberty. We had a beautiful view of the sea and mountainside from our second story window, which was 18 euro additional per night.

The Villa Cheta was the highest rated hotel of our trip, a four star, and the only one that required booking half board, so we had all dinners on the property. Each morning at breakfast we were given the menu and asked to select for that evening, which was a little odd to be deciding if we wanted fish, meat or fowl at 8am over coffee and pastry. Overall the food was excellent, if a bit fussier and formal than Italian food usually tends to be. The clientele tended to be northern European retirees on vacation who have been going there every year for 15 or 20 years.

I have already described Mimí Ristorante in Potenza in detail above. You can find it at Via Rosica, 22, by the chiesa di S. Michele, tel. 0971 37592.

Our favorite meal in Matera was at Oi Marì, set in a magnificent series of caves dug into the hillside. It was interesting to imagine that at one point, these rooms housed families and even stables of animals, all living together. We each had a selection of vegetable antipasti and then shared the tagliata di manzo, which is nearly 2 pounds of filet, grilled to perfection and seasoned with herbs and spices. Dinner for 2: 44 euro.

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