Italy and Switzerland

Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
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Trip End Jun 16, 2005


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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Italy is rich in glorious skylines and historic architecture. Steeped in historic monuments, ancient churches, awe-inspiring frescoes, and coble-stoned streets. Italy is a perfect combination of the past, present and future with cobblestone streets leading to small piazzas and courtyards strewn with bistro tables and people lounging over their espressos and small talk.


AMARONI, CALABRIA - ITALY

Our visit to Italy began in the small, forgotten, town of Amaroni. I say "forgotten" because you not only won't find it in any tour book, but the closest town of any "Lonely Planet" significance is 45km away. Entering Amaroni, with a population of little more than 2,000, is like entering a time machine. The town's streets are all so narrow that even the one-way traffic is limited to a speed barely above a crawl. The roads are all cobblestones and are lined with doors leading to narrow stone houses - side by side by side. The houses are all tall and narrow, with small windows and a large basement called a cantina where food is stored for the entire year. Cantinas hold the delights of Amaroni - from gallons of home-made red wine in ancient wood barrels, to home-made olive oil in stainless steel containers which look out of place in the dusty, dirt walled, basement cantina. Along the shelves in the Cantina are the foodstuffs for the year - bottled tomato sauce, flour, stored vegetables and whatever other offerings your individual farmland has sprouted up throughout the year.

Amaroni was the most special part of Italy for me. Even though I had a harsh cold even before we arrived, John's relatives made me feel right at home. I learned quickly to say "basta...basta..." when they overfed me, and "excellente...excellente..." when the food was exceptional - which was always.

When we arrived at the tiny LaMezia airport in Italy's southern region of Calabria, I was impressed with the smallness of the airport and the feeling, right away, of stepping back in time. We were met at the airport by John's Dad (also on vacation) and 3rd cousin or uncle Nathalie. Nathalie is a warm Italian man, as round as santa clause, with a heart as big as they get. His eyes sparkled with delight every time he pointed out something typical "Calabrese" to us like the gorgeous mountain landscape and beautiful blue ocean off the Calabria coast. Upon arrival in the small town of Amaroni, John and I were quickly separated into different homes since unmarried couples can't stay under the same roof. John stayed with his Dad in a small apartment near the main square of Amaroni. Really the only square. Containing a bar, a church, and two small necessity shops. I stayed 200 yards away with Nathalie and his warm and generous family.

Breakfasts consisted of espresso and bread/jam, while dinners which started at 3pm and ended at 6pm consisted of all sorts of treats from the cantina. Fresh cheese, delicious bread, green olives, sliced meat, and at least four other courses including pasta, veal, and glass after glass of red wine.

One day we joined Barbara on her weekly pilgrimage to the cemetery. Dressed in all black (as always) she carried a huge bunch of flowers - step side up - up the steep hill to the local, gated, cemetery. Once inside she went to work refreshing the flowers, and I presume, chatted to her deceased relatives. The cemetery was eery but quite lovely, with fresh flowers on many of the sites, and beautiful stone work around every corner.


On another day after an Italian church service, we joined Nathalie on a driving tour of the area. It was fun sputtering our way through local villages and back roads until we reached the beautiful beach, and striking views of the sea.

But, my favorite day was walking with John and his Dad to the family farm. After a 45 minute hilly walk through glorious countryside we ended up at the farm where we met up with Theresa who works the land daily. She offered us pomegranates fresh from the tree, grapes from the vine, figs, pears and even walnuts. All fresh from her land. After exploring the 1 acre area we stopped into her neighbor's workhouse (a small cement room with table and chairs) and devoured a bottle or two of homemade wine. Even with no Italian language skills, they made me laugh and laugh and laugh - as the men tried to break walnuts in their fists, and toasted to good health. After about an hour of true farmhouse enchantment, cousin Joseph showed up in his tiny car. I'm sure he could hear us laughing all the way from town. He drove us to his family's grape vines and taught John how to cut the grapes from the vines. Then we went with his family to the grape press, and had a hand at squeezing the grapes. What a day!

After three days in Amaroni it was very hard to leave. Barbara was in tears, and had loaded us up with treats for the ride including a huge bag of dried fruit (straight from the farm of course), handkerchiefs (his and hers since we were both sick), and the all important 2 gallons of fresh olive oil. Meanwhile, Nathalie and his family had loaded us up with throat lozenges, fresh honey, a photo album, a key chain, and a beautiful brown scarf which you will see me wearing in almost every Italy photo. Nathalie then drove us to the train station and waited with us on the platform until the train came. Huge hugs all around and we were off...to the Amalfi coast.

AMALFI COAST

From Amaroni we took a 3 hour train up the coast to Solerno. The sky started out dark and gray and turned to rain by the time we arrived. From the train station we caught a bus which would take us to Positano - where we had prebooked a guest house. The bus ride along the narrow road which overlooks a sheer drop along the cliffs to the crystal-clear blue waters below, is in itself a feat of road-building as spectacular as the views. For the faint of heart the drive along the coast is surely a white-knuckle ride, with hairpin bends, sheer cliffs, and overhangs that defy imagination and gravity. With John at my side (eyes tightly shut) I enjoyed the ride to Positano as if it was a rollercoaster ride, and even with a light drizzle overhead, the views were magical.

When we overshot Positano by a bus stop or two, we began the arduous task of climbing 200+ steps down to the town. Not easy with two large rollerbags AND a 2 gallon container of fresh olive oil. But we made it - down narrow alleys made of cobblestone, and through small footpaths. We eventually found the Villa Nettuno - our guest house for the next three nights. I quickly climbed into bed that night with a sore throat and head cold and didn't emerge until early afternoon of the next day after John had found a pharmacy and stocked us up on antibiotics and aspirin. But, I couldn't have picked a better day to be sick. The views from our room in Positano were glorious. You open up the French doors onto a small balcony overlooking the sea, and the beautiful villages along the cliffs in the distance. It was a rainy morning anyway, so when the sun finally showed its happy face in the afternoon - it was time for me to rally.

That night we explored more of Positano and ended up having a most wonderful meal right on the beach in a castle. We knew we were going to enjoy it when we walked in, and they poured us each a glass of champagne. It was all uphill from there! The views, the food, and the ambiance. Perfect.

The next day we took a local bus back to the small town of Amalfi. There, we enjoyed lunch at a small café, in one of the off-the-beaten-path piazzas. From there we grabbed another local bus up the hill to Ravello. Ravello is a town way up on the hill overlooking Amalfi and the coastline. Even by local standards Ravello's views are breathtaking. After exploring Ravello on-foot we took the bus back to Positano for our last supper along the coast.

Then...it was onto Tuscany.

TUSCANY

We awoke in Positano and dragged our luggage a mile or two down to the beach for the boat ride to Naples. Once again the views of the seaside towns were amazing, defying logic and gravity as the homes are built one on top of the other along the cliffs. We arrived in Naples, and after asking a few locals for directions we grabbed a local bus and headed to the train station. With minutes to spare we jumped on the train to Florence (4 hours) and then once in Florence grabbed another train (2 hours) for Siena. By the time we arrived in rainy Siena I was feeling sick and exhausted. But we rallied and headed out in the rain for dinner. I was unimpressed with Siena that one night - but grew to love it on our return visit a few days later (what a difference the weather makes).


After one restless night in Siena we dragged our bags the 1 1/2km to the Hertz Rent A Car office and zoomed away in a tiny "SmartCar" for our exploration of Tuscany. Although we had visions of wine tasting dancing through our heads, in reality we both were never really healthy enough to indulge ourselves. So, the wine tasting portion of Tuscany was a flop, but the trip through the country side and small medieval towns and ancient abbies was breathtaking.


One night we stopped into a random Agritourismo or working farm with guest rooms. There we ended up with a very comfortable two bedroom, stone house complete with full kitchen. A good place to visit on a return trip.

Via car we reached the explorable towns of San Gimignano (an enchanting village with tall medieval towers), Volterra (perched high on a rocky plateau with well-preserved medieval ramparts), the abbey of San Galgano (one of the country's finest gothic buildings in the 13th century and now in ruins), Montalcino (a pretty town perched high above the lush Orcia valley - a town best known for it's Brunello wine) and the abbey of Sant Antimo (a beautiful, isolated, Romanesque church).

Driving through the countryside was a little depressing at first. The weather had turned cold and rainy and I felt a chill through to the bone. But after a day of shopping for warmer clothes (and ending up with, ironically, a sweatshirt from Nepal) the sun finally peeked out and the green of the hills was so beautiful it nearly reflected neon,.

After a few days in the country side we spent a full day in Siena and enjoyed the typical tourist sites like the churches, the cathedral, and the famous Piazza Il Camp where the spectacular "Il Palio" horse race takes place twice a year.

From Siena we hopped a 1 ˝ hour bus to Florence where we ate dinner before taking an overnight train to Switzerland.

THE OVERNIGHT TRAIN TO SWITZERLAND

After surrendering our passports to the train concierge we joined four other people in a small overnight train compartment no bigger than a broom closet. Upscale by Asian standards the room was tiny but included sheet and pillow for the night. The room was hot as a sauna and overstuffed with baggage. I guess that's where it's different than Asia. In Asia people have one bag - at most. Here, the old woman in the bunk next to me had no less than 3 rolling bags and two duffels. Ugh. But, John and I made it through the night and woke up amid the beautiful mountains of Switzerland.

LUCERNE

Lucerne - in a word, is a fairy tale. Or is that two words? OK. How about "enchanted"? Lucerne is what fairy tales are made of. A beautiful blue river running through it, mountains on both side, and a village complete with wooden bridge, cobble stone streets, enchanting piazzas, beautiful architecture, 15th century exquisitely carved buildings and warm people. Within five minutes of arrival I was squeeling "I want to live here"! Not only is the town wonderful, but the beautiful weather of the day put the small town over-the-top. We spent the day exploring on-foot, shopping a bit, and enjoying the sun. That evening we were met by Salvatore and Simone - more relatives of John's. They took us to a typical Swiss dinner and we devoured our meals.

The next day Simone came to get us and gave us the driving tour of Zug (their home town) and Zurich (where they work). It was another glorious sunny day and Simone took the back roads so we'd have a chance to enjoy the untouristed parts of the country and the amazing views of mountains meeting lakes.

That night we went to dinner with the rest of Salvatore's family - his darling parents, his brother, his brother's wife, and their new baby Victoria. These, too, are far off relatives of John's and they were a delight to spend time with. And, once again, we parted ways with out packets, hands, and bags full of treats including a typical swiss cake (made with Kirsch) and ten chocolate bars! And, yes, I did bring them all home with me!

On our final morning in Lucerne we spent an hour shopping and then headed to the train for the ride to Milan. We tried to stay awake to enjoy more of the glorious views of Switzerland but both had a rough time since sleep seemed to be a necessity once safely on the train.

In Milan we met up with Rocco (another of John's relatives) and Gianni (a friend of mine who I met last year on the Intrepid tour in Bali). Gianni was a great tour guide of Milan and even though we were only in Milan for 20 hours, we got to see almost everything (and them some) that most tourists see. But, since it was already nighttime we didn't get to go into anything - so...I guess I'll need to return to Milan! Actually, I would love it. From what I saw in Milan, it's a very livable city. Complete with hopping nightlife, great restaurants, parks, historic buildings, and great shopping.
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