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Trip Report Amalfi/Umbria/Roma May/June 2002

Trip Report Amalfi/Umbria/Roma May/June 2002

Jun 24th, 2002, 07:26 AM
  #1  
Ian
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Trip Report Amalfi/Umbria/Roma May/June 2002

Now that we have fully recovered its time for a complete trip report, so I fleshed out my earlier brief trip reports.
I tried to post this as one block, but the Fodor’s server seems to only accept smaller posts, so I will break it up.

Our Trip May 27 – June 7,
4 nites - Conca dei Marini (Amalfi Coast)
4 nites - Todi (lower Umbria)
3 nites - Roma

Arrived Roma (Fiumicino)- drove to Amalfi Coast
Rental Car: Nissan Primera (auto) from Auto Europe (Europcar) A long walk up & around from Terminal 2 Arrivals but easy overall. On return: The rental car return is on the arrivals level (the signage is poor).
Please note: If you drive an automatic at home, get one here. The price premium is more than outweighed by the lack of added stress. Believe me, for some areas you will need ALL your concentration to avoid hitting things or driving over a 300m embankment.

Autostrade

Easy driving (just like any major highway in North America) but the tolls will cost. From memory - Roma to Napoli 9 Euros - Napoli to Orvieto cutoff 12 Euros. The road is well marked & maintained with a good assortment of gas stations & eateries along the way. Average speed 110 - 120 km/hr. Fast drivers (and there are many) drive up to 150 km/hr+. As all the guide books tell you, keep to the right & use the passing lane properly – to pass. If only we could train North Americans now . . .
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:27 AM
  #2  
Ian
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Napoli (As another poster put it so well – Do Not Drive In Naples!!!)

We took a wrong exit off the Autostrade and were dumped into a maze of town roads in northern Napoli. We lacked detailed maps of Napoli because we never intended to visit (other than Pompeii). I jumped at the first opportunity for an expressway & ended up on an express road (no exits) to Bagni, a western suburb of Napoli. Not a good move. We finally got off & found ourselves in traffic chaos with busy streets, buses, motorbikes etc driving in pure pandemonium. Welcome to Napoli! With no map & no idea where we were or how to find our way out, we headed towards the sea to find a coast road. Every town on water has a coast road, right? We simply got more lost. This is the only time we yelled at each other during our whole trip. (“Get us the hell out of here!” “I can’t I don’t know where we are!”) No policeman, no gas stations, no fire halls, nowhere to ask – just chaos. We were saved by a kind Italian whose driveway we blocked when I pulled over to look at our very poor map. Using his few words of English, my few words of Italian & sign language, he figured out what we wanted. He got in his car & led us down a couple of blocks and pointed at the road we should take. Thank you, thank you.

Driving the Amalfi Coast

We finally got to the coast via Salerno & then over the mountains to west of Positano. When you get to the coast road SS163 (or use any of the over-mountain routes to get there - we favored SS366 thru Agerola) expect very slow driving. The roads are narrow & windy. Meeting a bus on a corner is impossible. They beep their horns as they approach, so keep a window open. There are mirrors placed on corners so you can see what's coming. Motor bikes will pass you at will & fast local drivers will beep & pass. After a day or two, you'll be doing it too. Due to the almost complete lack of parking in any town, we decided to park the car & bus/boat the coast. We used the car to hop to Pompeii & coming/going. If you do try to drive & park - Amalfi has parking at the waterfront, Positano, Praiano, Conca dei Marini all have no public parking, so you use the road coming into or leaving town which further complicates the driving issue. Ravello appeared to have decent parking.

To illustrate how hairy it can get, at one point near Positano, I was leading a small lineup & met a bus on a small straight part of the road, in a village with motorbikes & cars parked on one side. I couldn't backup & the bus couldn't either. I angled toward the buildings, blocking people coming out of a store & an inch or two from the parked cars. I folded my side mirror in (the bus did too) & he inched by me with about 2 -3 inches clearance. Not too fun.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:29 AM
  #3  
Ian
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SS366 (from just west of Amalfi to Castellammare di Stabia - near Pompeii) is a really fun drive until you reach the town of Castellammare and then suburban Napoli drivers run amok. Motorbikes/scooters are EVERYWHERE & there are virtually no rules. You pass wherever you want & dodge everything that gets in your way. Four-way stops are a test of nerve. It is dog eat dog, but it can be kind of fun too if you have a slightly crazed mentality. Signage is poor and/or confusing & you have to drive by feel. Expect to get lost & have to circle around. In Castellammare, we survived by following the (very) infrequent signs for Pompeii. These also will get you to the Autostrade. Trying to reverse this route is guaranteed to get you lost in Castellammare, but just do a big circle & take the main road heading south (up) towards the mountain. This should be SS366. Watch for the signs to Agerola.
Note: I needed gas on the coast & the only station west of Amalfi was at the Grotta Smeraldo, one of the major tour bus stops on the coast. I paid 75 Euros for a fill up, so fill up before you get to the coast.

Hotel Belvedere - Conca dei Marini 183 Euros (double per night)

This hotel is right on the coast road on a promontory about 4 kms west of Amalfi. It has stunning vistas. We stayed on the upper floor in RM 2 which shared a very large balcony with 2 other rooms. Patio chairs & lounges were supplied. The view from this patio towards Amalfi (with Ravello up above) is worthy of a postcard. Other rooms in the floors below us had a view of the sea, but this was truly spectacular. A big chunk of their clientele were British, on packages from London. The staff all spoke English and were extremely helpful with directions, reservations etc. The restaurant was good (but not great) with 3 primi & 3 secondi choices every night & people seemed to secure a table for the week. The bar area seemed like an English club, with little groups congregating for polite conversation and after-dinner drinks. Overall, highly recommended.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:30 AM
  #4  
Ian
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Visiting the Towns of the Coast

We used the blue Sita Bus (standing room only) to visit Positano (0.93 Euros) from the bus stop in front of the Belvedere. Positano is a hilly maze of shops, hotels and restaurants with little to no parking (you use the highway SS163 in & out of town) but certainly aimed squarely at the tourist trade. After 1 ½ hrs, we had seen enough shops & we hopped on the shuttle boat which took us along the coast (with great photo opps) to Amalfi (I think it was 6 or 8 Euros one way pp).

Amalfi is a larger town & the immediate downtown Duomo area is reasonably flat. Again, it is rife with cafes & shops catering to the tourist trade. It also has a public & private beach area (as does Positano, but Amalfi looked better). Also a good collection of pharmacies, liquor stores, bakeries etc. We tried to take the SITA bus back to Conca dei Marini, but it was mobbed & filled up, so a 14 Euro taxi ride was our only option. BTW taxi from Amalfi to Positano is 50 Euros.

On another day, we bused to Ravello (2-3 Euros from Amalfi). Ravello sits 300m above the coast & is also on the tour bus route. We went late afternoon, as they were leaving. A nice piazza with several cafes & astounding views from the Villa Rufulo (the view is all you pay for here, because the villa ain’t much & you can get the same view right before you go thru the tunnel) and Villa Cimbrone (into the wallet again) but here you get nice grounds that lead up to the awesome view. This one was worth the euros. On the way back to the piazza, we stopped for pre-dinner drink at a hotel on the left, the Villa Maria & listened to the church bells tolls across the valley in the growing twilight – simply magical.

Dining

We had dinner at Cumpa' Cosimo in Ravello, with the owner Netta taking orders and circulating amongst the other patrons. The food was excellent & everyone in the place seemed to be having fun. Fish, meats, wonderful pastas & a nice selection of local & general Italian wines (we had a Chianti Classico that was 45 Euros on the wine list, but she refused to charge me more than 40). I took Netta’s picture & she insisted on giving me a free Sambuca. This restaurant was our culinary highlight on the Amalfi coast. Our hotel arranged for a car pickup (not cheap 50 Euros) because the buses stop around 8 PM. 30-40 Euros (excluding wine).

We also ate at Al Pesce d’ Oro on the western outskirts of Amalfi. Very good local food & feel. Complete with a slightly surly waiter. Only 2 choices of wine – red or white. Fish, meats & pastas. Our hotel arranged free pickup & drop-off. 20-30 Euros (excluding wine).

Excurision: Pompeii

We broke away from the coast & drove to Pompeii (1 ½ hrs from Conca dei Marini)– without getting lost! For parking, we used a restaurant’s laneway for 5 Euros (or was it 10?) just down the hill & opposite the entrance to the main gates. I heard (?) that they give you free parking if you eat in their restaurant, but we grabbed a quick sandwich from the pizza/sandwich shop (the one with the lemons) across from the gates of Pompeii ( 6 Euros - it was OK). Pompeii, of course, is a major tourist zoo. But quite spectacular. You can wander & find some nice remote areas in the ruins that let you absorb the history in reasonable solitude. I do have a beef about tour groups – when you meet a tour group the massed people absolutely refuse to give way. Their herding nature is very strong. They act as if it is their RIGHT to bowl you over in their need to follow their particular umbrella wielding tour guide. Moo . . . outamyway . . . moo.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:31 AM
  #5  
Ian
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Weather: End of May

We arrived at the same time the sun did, according to those we talked to. Temperatures were 22 – 28 (72 –80) with moderate humidity. There was always a breeze from the water. Very, very pleasant with no AC necessary.

Conclusion: The Amalfi Coast

In our opinion (both my wife & I), the Amalfi coast is THE MOST beautiful area we have ever visited (our list includes most of Canada & the US, Caribbean, Panama, France, northern Spain). If you have not been there, go. Try to spend a couple of days (or more) to really enjoy the beauty.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:32 AM
  #6  
Ian
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To Umbria

Since EVERYBODY is going to Firenze, Assisi etc we decided to veer a bit to try to avoid the tourist hordes and make a hill town in Umbria our base.

Todi

This ancient hill town was everything we had hoped. Large enough to have a variety of restaurants, yet small enough for roaming. It has good tourist savvy, yet it is not overrun. Easy to reach, either via twisty road from the Orvieto Autostade cutoff or via the Terni/Perugia expressway (watch for carabineiri on this road!). Todi has a central piazza (surprise!) and our hotel was in a secondary piazza that was a small block away. The town had numerous sites: 12th century Duomo & palazzas, several very nice churches of different sizes & vintages. It also boasted Etruscan, Roman & medieval walls & gates. The views from numerous points on the walls were tremendous & the medieval feel of Todi’s streets was just what we wanted. Saturday night, the whole piazza filled up with cars as the social scene in Todi erupted. Everybody came to town to see & be seen. Sitting on the steps of the Duomo Sunday night: a band played in the piazza as a small car show (Maseratis, Fiats,etc) wrapped up and the parishioners made their way to a special mass – what a great scene. This was followed by a religious procession thru the streets that we watched from our perch on our balcony. Multo cool.

Hotel Fonte Cesia 186 Euros (mini-suite with balcony per night)
The Fonte Cesia is a modern 4 Star hotel whose lower public rooms used to be a convent. Our room was very large (RM 111) with a large balcony (5m x 6m) that looked over the hotel’s La Palme ristorante and the Piazza Fonte Cesia further below. Our view was roof tiles, with mountains far off in the distance. A very nice room – we loved it. The builder had a thing with strange light switches & the shower doors took some getting used to. Highly recommended. Excellent location, The staff spoke English & were very accommodating. They parked our car every day for us (off-site private parking) & were very helpful with every request.

Dining:

La Palme – our hotel restaurant was very good with a good selection of Italian wine. Our meats were good & the rare-ish Sagrantino di Montefalco wine was very good. Extremely nice locale – nestled in an upper courtyard with palm trees of course. 30 -40 Euros (excluding wine).

Ristorante Umbria – the ‘other’ restaurant in town. Wonderful view from their outside patio right on the Roman Walls looking east. Go for lunch, or early dinner so you can enjoy the view. Good Umbrian food, wild boar (very good) and lots of truffle dishes. 30 -40 Euros (excluding wine)

Cavour Ristorante/Pizzeria – Good food, lots of pizzas, pastas (I did order a truffle pasta which convinced me that I didn’t like truffles). Good wines. Service was so-so but he was really friendly (& busy). Make sure you sit outside in the back for a great view of the countryside. 20- 30 Euros (excluding wines).

We also ate in a restaurant right across the street from the hotel in the Piazza Jacopone (the name is gone, but it’s hard to miss). Good Umbrian food, slightly offhand service. Good wine selection. 20 –30 Euros (excluding wine).

For cafés in Todi, try the one in the Palazzo dei Priori on the south side. Good expresso & gelato. If you buy it at the counter rather than the outdoor tables, you can feel like a local & say $s.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:34 AM
  #7  
Ian
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A note on wines in restaurants. I know that all the guide books tell you to order the local wine wherever you are. Just remember, that’s what you get. Cheap local wine. For real wines (Chiantis, Barolos, Brunellos etc) expect to pay a price similar to wine store prices in the US & Canada. They don’t give it away locally when they can export it for big $s.

Roads in Umbria/lower Tuscany

The roads were a breeze after Napoli & the Amalfi coast. Of course by this time, I was starting to drive “Italian”. You can drive right into Todi (& many hill towns) but the roads are one-way only and often a tight fit & of course, parking is an issue. Navigating hill towns is easy: Up is into the main piazza & down is out. The rural highways were great & a fun drive. Expect some twisty roads & switchbacks near any of the towns. The hardest thing when driving in Umbria/Tuscany was identifying the correct route. At a junction or a ‘T’, there is always a list of towns in each direction. It is very difficult to identify your direction from a list of 12 options. Especially if you can’t stop & study the list (which you NEVER can).

Excursion to Montalcino

As a wine fancier, one of my favorites is Brunello di Montalcino. I have an over 20-year love affair with it, so I could not pass up the opportunity to visit Castello Banfi for a gourmet lunch. A 2 ½ drive - Autostrade then thru Chianciano Terme bypassing Montepulciano & right by the castle in Montalcino & south to the Banfi estate. Great food, stunning wine (the 97 Brunello is amazing). Of course, I bought some (31 Euros, as well as a bottle of their new 1997 Poggio Alle Mura (38 Euros). Yum, yum. On the drive back we skipped the parade of tour buses along S146 and went south via S2. A great highway with no traffic to speak of, but we were pulled over by Uzi toting carabineiri in the middle of nowhere near Mount Amiata. I was speeding, of course, but they waved us on after a peek in the windows – maybe it was Be Kind to Tourist Day.

Excursion to Carsulae

Only 20 minutes south of Todi, just off the Terni/Perugia Hwy is this partly excavated roman town with the Via Flaminia as the main street. Quite impressive & very quiet with a brand-new visitor’s center. An amphitheater, several temple foundations & a cute little medieval church. Worth a visit if you’re anywhere nearby.

Excursion to Deruta

Shop for ceramics from 20 – 30 factories, artist’s studios and vendors along the main street of the new town. Warning: You will spend money here & then have to cart the stuff around for the rest of your trip! All prices & qualities from cheap souvenirs to very fine dinnerware. Many outlets offer shipping to North America.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:35 AM
  #8  
Ian
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Weather: End of May/Early June

Very warm - temperatures were 26 – 29 (75 –85) with moderate humidity. Very pleasant summer-like weather.

Conclusion

We had a really great time in rural Umbria & Todi was very, very special. It is an unspoiled hill town that is big enough & small enough & off-the-beaten-track enough that it retains its charm. A late night walk in the medieval maze of streets is enough to spook anyone. The Umbrian countryside is wonderful, with every hill crowned with another village. I hope that this will only be our FIRST trip there.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:36 AM
  #9  
Ian
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On to Roma:

We dropped the car at Fiumicino and took the train. Doing a train with baggage is not fun, but it was cheap. 18 Euros for 2 one-way. The downside came at Termini, where we had to walk (OK they did have moving sidewalks) what seemed like miles to get to the taxis.

Hotel Carravaggio 186 Euros (double per night)
I chose this carefully on the net but obviously, not carefully enough. It was a dump, but well located one block from Via Nazionale, near the Quirinale. The lobby was dismal (and not like the pictures in the brochure). The breakfast room was worse (and not like the pictures in the brochure). The actual rooms were next door thru an entranceway that needed sandblasting or something & the elevator was obviously built before either World War. Another deserted but antiqued lobby was on the second floor at the start of the maze that they called hallways. The room was small & decrepit with peeling wallpaper that desperately needed help (and not like the pictures in the brochure). The satellite TV seemed to work better with the antenna & the AC was shut off because “no one in Roma uses AC this early”. Oh well, it was well-located, only 15 minute walk from the Trevi, the Foro & 20 minutes from the Pantheon. I have to admit though, the staff was excellent. BTW Via Nazionale is lined with mid-priced clothing boutiques for shopping.

Restaurants:

Al Bric (Navona area)

A nice restaurant, noted (in the guide books) for having a great wine selection - & they did. The food was very good too. A great meal. The waitress was very kind & helped us decode the menu. A bottle of Barbaresco bit the dust here. 40 –50 Euros (excluding wine)

Il Bacaro (Pantheon area)

Another from the guide books. This one was crowded & the owner took forever to wander over for wine advice. The food was very strange combinations – maybe a little too strange. My wife went to the washroom, which didn’t flush & she got locked in! The staff seemed indifferent to this. Another patron, from North Carolina got locked in too. Give this restaurant a miss unless you can sit outside. Make sure you go to a washroom before you come. 40 –50 Euros (excluding wine).
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:37 AM
  #10  
Ian
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Weather: Beginning of June

It was getting warmer by the time we hit Roma. Temps were 26 – 29 (75 –85) with high humidity in the AM. We had our only rain in Roma, on the last day, after the last piazza. Perfect. It’s amazing how umbrella vendors are on the street everywhere on the street as soon as a drop of rain falls.

Conclusion

After Amalfi & Todi, Roma was dirty, noisy & a disappointment. Think New York City, without a grid-like street pattern & put everyone under 18 on a motor bike & give them some crack & a cell phone. (Even worse than Boston!) Yes, the Vatican Museums, San Pietro, the Foro, San Pietro in Vincoli, the Coliseum etc were must-sees. But now we’ve seen them & we don’t need to go back to Roma. But Umbria or the Amalfi coast . . . now that’s a different story.

Overall Conclusion - Italy

We felt that our timing was very good. It was a good time of year (May/June) & we stayed just the right amount of time in each center (4 nites). After our initial day, driving was not difficult but it did get crazed in any urban area. Our lack of Italian was never a big problem. We managed to communicate with everyone we needed to & didn’t have any real problems. The Italian people we met along the way were friendly and accommodating. We will be back. Ciao.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 07:39 AM
  #11  
Julie
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Terrific report. I'm jealous of your opportunity to taste the '97 Brunellos at the source.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 12:54 PM
  #12  
Ian
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Julie: Yes. It was a thrill for me. I timed it perfectly: the ’97s were just released & the vines were in blossom with bouquets of flowers tied at the ends of the rows to attract pollinators.
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 03:46 PM
  #13  
Dorothy
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Excellant trip report. We are going to
Italy in october and will do 3 ngts Radda,2 ngts pienza and 3 ngts positano. Planning to drive in/out of rome. I'm interested in the wines also.
Did you need a reservation for Castello Banfi? I cant wait to take in the views from Amalfi. We are spending our last night in Rome and dropping the car at the airport like you did. I've read this can be difficult.Was it for you? I see that autoeurope has a drop off in ostia di lido which looks close to the airport, thinking of doing that and taking a car service into rome. Anybody have any thoughts on that idea?
Thanks
 
Jun 24th, 2002, 05:06 PM
  #14  
Ian
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Re: Banfi - Yes, you must reserve ahead. See http://www.castellobanfi.com/ for details. They have lunches & dinners in a smaller dining room, separate from the wine shop. All the staff spoke English, so you can email, fax or telephone reservations.
The car drop-off at FCO was good, once you found the entrance. As another poster pointed out, there are only small signs exiting left from the arrivals (lower) level roadway. If you miss it, just loop around again. Put it this way: It's a lot easier than trying to find the Budget lot at LaGuardia.
 
Jul 29th, 2002, 04:14 PM
  #15  
Ian
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Just a correction for future perusers.

Substitute Sorrento for Salerno in my trip report. My apologies to the masses.
 
Jul 29th, 2002, 06:03 PM
  #16  
m
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Oh Ian, what a terrific, pithy report. You restored my faith in Fodors for a bit - thanks!
 
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