Why I Love Southern Italy

Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with the modern
Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with modern

When I dream of Italy, I see myself wandering along the shimmering Bay of Naples.  A mountainous backdrop rises up to meet a baby blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. I inhale the salty sea smell mingled with driting aromas from restaurants passed along the way.  A gentle breeze tugs at my hair as I watch several white boats skim the water’s surface, leaving a bubbling trail behind them. An old castle fortress stands high on a hilltop, its many levels adding dimension to the landscape.

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My life has been blessed with the good fortune to travel to Italy several times, and I am passionate about every region. Italy never ceases to fascinate me and each time I visit, I feel myself pulled deeper into its history, culture, exotic beauty and genuine people. A return visit is always on my mind.

Although the south of Italy is poorer than the north, to me it is the real Italy. It is true that transportation by train or bus can be slower and sometimes undependable, but to really see Italy and experience the culture it is essential to leave oneself a bit vulnerable. Who knows what kind of adventures await you at a bus stop when the bus shows up late? A slow train provides the opportunity to meet the locals and strike up a conversation.

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It is the people who I have encountered along the way in the south that have put heart and soul into my experience in Italy. This young woman and her son ran a tiny restaurant next to my hotel in Naples. The hotel manager personally walked me over to her and introduced us. She wined and dined us with delicious home-made food and charged only a couple of euros. Of course we couldn’t allow it, but she staunchly refused to take any more. After the meal, she took out a laptop and brought up her Facebook photos. We had a wonderful evening even though it wasn’t easy to communicate as her English and my Italian skills were challenged.

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While spending time just north of Naples,  I spoke with the educational director (above) aboard the glass-bottom boat Cymba, which takes people out onto the shallow waters of the bay in Baia to see the underground ruins of the palatial palaces and statues of the rich and wealthy of the first centuries. When I arrived and found no excursion was leaving for the day due to murky water conditions, she brought me aboard and spent an hour educating me on the ancient luxury resort of Baia.

Happy Tummies, Great Company!
After I spent a morning walking through the wonder and grandeur of Naples, I stop for lunch at Pizzeria Da Michele. I shared a table with a young couple, who are both attorneys in Naples. They encouraged me to order Margherita pizza with extra cheese. I never imagined pizza could be so delicious. As you can see by our plates, not much was left. They were delightful to meet and spend time with. Now, when I order pizza, I usually ask for extra cheese!

Surrounded by Giovanni and his two brothers

 

Three brothers who own De Paola Cameos in San Martino, a neighborhood in  Naples, invited me in to see their art. Warm and talkative, they graciously let me observe them hard at work bent over lovely pieces of mother-of-pearl while they carved them into delicate cameos. Of course, they lured me in with intentions of selling a cameo, but I did enjoy a slice of culture that deepened my understanding of life in the south.

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I love the ‘passeggiata’, which means ‘walk’, on the waterfront in Naples during the early evening hours. The passeggiata is typical of most towns and cities in Italy. Families, friends, lovers, kids, all kinds of people from every walk of life enjoy strolling together as they intermingle with the crowd. It is warm, friendly and full of life. It signifies the shifting down from the hustle of the day and the beginning of a slower pace before mealtime, which is typically after 7:30pm.

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Where else can you stumble upon a Sunday crowd of locals and take part in rooting for the teams playing water polo? The splashing and fast action is thrilling, and I am welcomed into the group. We all pack together tightly and cheer on the players.

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The shops and street markets are abundant and colorful

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Crazy street markets sell everything you can imagine….at the most amazing bargain prices. I bring my bag and fill it up with fruits and vegetables. I love learning the ropes of bargaining.

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Morning street below my hotel balcony in Naples

I’d love to return to southern Italy and the culture I have come to understand more and to love. This time I’m excited to push further south and discover the ancient regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and forgotten Molise. They, too, have stories to tell, ones that go back to the early beginnings, developing a unique culture over time. Genuine, authentic travel among real people doing what they have done for centuries; simply live.

Naples: Santa Chiara has a “Secret Garden” of Majolica Tiles

The old looming Church of Santa Chiara in the heart of Naples is well worth a break in your day. Built between 1313 and 1340, this Provençal – Gothic structure is a religious complex that includes a Franciscan monastery, tombs, an archaeological museum and a very unusual cloister garden. If you can work your way through the busy Piazza del Gesu just outside the doors, you will be well rewarded. King Robert of Anjou lies buried behind the main altar. Fragments of Giotto’s frescoes decorate the choir walls. But the real treasure of Santa Chiara is the “secret garden” tucked away behind the walls.

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The contrast between the outer world of noise and confusion with the serene and tranquil cloister garden is immediately noticeable. It is a sanctuary of incredible and unusual beauty.

Majolica tiles decorate the octagonal columns in a pergola-like design. Impetuous colored floral decor climbs up the sides and along the bench-lined walkways. Benches contain tiles that depict life scenes of boar hunting, dancing, country life, scrollwork, and grapevines.

These 18th-century Rococó style tiles were hand painted by ceramists Donato and Giuseppe Massa and added to the garden after it was transformed in 1742 by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. From that time up to 1925, the Order of the Poor Clares lived a cloistered life here. Since the sisters lived in complete seclusion the tiles were not seen by outsiders for nearly 200 years. I personally can’t imagine maintaining a prayerful mind among the liveliness and bold colors of these majolica tiles.

But in 1925, the neighboring Franciscan monks traded living quarters with the sisters. Since the monks do not have the cloistered vow, it became open to the public.

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So what exactly are majolica ceramics? It originated in the Middle East during the 9th century and was imported to Italy through the Isle of Majorca in the 13th century. The Italians called it “miolica” thinking it was made in Majorca. But Majorca was only the headquarters of trade between Spain and Italy at the time.

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In time, Italian artisans created their own majolica ceramics depicting their own traditions and creativity. These ceramics became very popular and reached their peak of artistic quality throughout central Italy during the Renaissance (late 15th to early 16th century).

 

 

Italian majolica tiles are tin-glazed pottery that is fired a second time. The tin glazing makes a brilliant white opaque surface for painting. They were typically decorated on a white background depicting historical and mythical scenes. The ceramics are also called “istoriato” wares which mean “painted with stories.”As you look at these majolica panels, you can understand this idea.

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Santa Chiara is located along the famous “Spaccanapoli,” the straight, long and narrow main street that runs through the old historic city center of Naples. It is actually one of the three Greek-Roman east to west streets (decumani) used while the city was known as “Neapolis.”

The cloister garden of the Santa Chiara Monastery, in Via Santa Chiara 49C, is open every day from 9 am to 1 pm and from 2.30pm to 5.30pm (www.santachiara.info).

5 of My Favorite Places in Italy

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I loved this candle lit outdoor restaurant in Trastevere

Italy is like Santa’s bag full of all my favorite toys! It’s difficult to choose just one or two when I want to play with them all. While recently re-living my photos of Italy, I chose 5 places that were especially good memories. Each of these is worthy of a visit at least once.

While exploring Trastevere on a friday evening for the first time, I was surprised and impressed by the active nightlife. Caught up immediately by small street bands strumming guitars and singing while strolling past clusters of candlelit tables of outdoor diners, I was ready to join the throngs for a veritable feast. I stumbled onto Grazia & Graziella at the corner of Via della Paglia by chance. The ambience was irresistible and so I cubbied in with those already gathered around the tables.

Amid the lively chatter, I enjoyed a glass of delicious white wine. Soon the handsome dark waiter brought me a gourmet thin crust cheese pizza embellished with lemon slices and sprinkled herbs. Large slices of tenderly grilled eggplant traced the side of the plate. It was all delicious. My evening in Trastevere was a swirl of lamp lit cobblestones, smiling faces, exotic smells of grilled meats and basil, all encased in a spirit of romance.

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Ancient staircase that connects San Martino to the lower city of Naples

San Martino is an attractive neighborhood above the old city of Naples. It has a monastery-museum and castle that I wanted to see, so I took a funicular up from the city below for the afternoon. After visiting a cameo shop along with the museum and castle fortress, I was encouraged by Giovanni from the cameo shop to take the stairs back down and enjoy the gorgeous views. I was not disappointed. Mt. Vesuvius stood in the background, it’s top contours blurred by the pinkish rays of the setting sun. The Bay of Naples joined the sea in a shimmering blue expanse. Old buildings and short leafy palms lined the stair. Apartment buildings with open windows let out the sounds of family activity. Fragrant smells of food preparation followed. So much life was happening behind these old walls, so much activity. But I was having a memorable moment in Naples all to myself.

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Magnificent breakfast and castle wine tour at Verrazzano winery in Chianti

Captain Verrazzano was born in this castle winery estate in 1485. A Florentine navigator who explored New York harbor and most of the east coast in the 1500’s, New York immortalized him by naming their double-decker suspension bridge the Verrazzano-Narrows in 1964.

The castle wine tour, lead by a playful young man by the name of Mateo, took us through a dungeon lined with cells. I discovered not only the Captains wine, but also hanging racks of prosciutto, small barrels of aging Balsamic vinegar, and large terracotta pots full of golden olive oil. The spirit of the Captain, who met his untimely death on an island of cannibalistic natives, was strongly felt. We all enjoyed an excellent tasting afterwards of delicious wines, thick balsamic vinegar and fragrant olive oil.

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Italian Riviera walk along Santa Margherita on the Mediterranean

The Italian Riviera is famous for so many things from exotic yachts, famous people, gorgeous views and rich ambience. But it is always the promenade that attracts me. I love to walk along the ocean while simultaneously viewing the town. The promenade is a public walkway that is especially fun during the passeggiata, where throngs of people traditionally meet for an early evening stroll.

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Piazzas and backstreets of Rome

Rome has a maze of piazza’s and back streets that are so much fun to explore. Cozy outdoor restaurants and cafes bring a feeling of community that I love to get lost in. Sipping a glass of cold white wine while people watching at one of the tables is one of my favorite ways to spend an hour or two mid-afternoon or just before dinner, and a perfect way to relax.

There is no end to my list of favorites and great memories of Italy. Each time I visit, I wonder how I can bring a bit back home with me. The most effective way I know of is to keep the memories alive and safely tucked away to revisit over and over again. My photo collection has become my treasure box.

Naples Roman Resort of Baia

Baia, Naples and Vesuvius
The Bay of Naples ~Baia, Naples and Vesuvius

Just north of the city of Naples lies ancient Baia. It is a quiet little town on the Mediterranean with a small bay of sailboats and motor yachts. Life is laid back and simple here. Families gather at the waterfront park to cheer on a game of water polo while friends and couples share a meal of pizza and espresso at a small cafe. The single lane roads wind up and down over the hilly terrain accompanied with walkers more often than cars. A mecca of peace. But this wasn’t always so.

Did you know that Baia was the playground of the extremely rich and wealthy from the first to the third century AD? Baia far surpassed Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Capri as a desirable resort full of hedonistic temptations. Rumours of scandal and corruption filled the palace halls and baths. Julius Caesar, Nero, Hadrian and Caligula had spacious pleasure palaces built along the shoreline. Much of the town was considered imperial property under Augustus.

What was the big attraction to Baia? To begin with, Baia sits on an active volcanic area known as the Phlegrian Fields. During the Roman empire, engineers constructed a complex system of chambers that brought heat beneath the surface into bathing facilities that became saunas. These baths were used for medicinal purposes as well as relaxation. Remains of a thermal bathing complex can be seen today close to the water where the land rises on a hillside.

Remember the Trojan Horse? It was Baius, also known as Oddysseus, who came up with the whole strategy of building and hiding his Greek warriors inside the wooden horse. After they entered Troy, they came out from hiding and fought. Baia was named after this heroic figure, who is believed to be buried there.

Have you heard the legend of Baia? It was in 39 AD that the new emperor Caligula ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built from Baia to the neighboring port of Puteoli. Roman historian Suetonius states that the bridge was over three miles long. Sand was poured from various ships in the area to make the bridge passable. It is said that Caligula, clad in a flowing gold cloak, crossed the bridge on his horse in defiance against the Roman astrologer Thrasyllus who predicted that he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baia.”

Whether the legend is true or not, what became of Baia? Where are all those luxury palace ruins? Because of the volcanic activity of the area, most of Baia is now underwater in the Bay of Naples. Very little is left of these palaces, but a glass bottom boat operates regular excursions out to view these ruins in shallow water.

Today Baia is an archaeological playground. It was here the renowned Roman writers Virgil, Cicero and Horace hobnobbed with the wealthiest. Baia, the metropolis of hedonism, washed away by the waves of time.

Bitter Lemons on Capri

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Oh welcome gentle sea breeze and bright Capri sunlight! Oh rest and beauty, come to me…

Experiencing Capri with my husband for the first time.  Great expectations. Weather looking questionable…will it rain or shine?

The days have been filled with non-stop dashing, bustling, climbing, darting, hastening and scurrying through the gritty grandeur of Naples.  We are ready for a warm retreat.

We dock with the ferry, gather our backpacks, and wind our way through Capri’s Marina Grande. All is white everywhere…white buildings, white clothing, even a white sky….but the sky over Capri should be blue!

As we climb the steps toward the village, I watch the wind gently tease the little white sails on the harbor boats. Small whitecaps begin to form on the green-blue sea.

We check our map to mark our route, then cram ourselves onto a tiny overcrowded bus that will take us up, up the winding little back streets to Anacapri, the smaller of the islands two main villages.

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After getting off the bus, we begin our fifteen minute hike through orchards and lemon groves. As we pass a spattering of small country homes, our pathway brings us to our lodgings for the night. The building was large and spacious, with rooms off the hallway. All was quiet as we seemed to be the only ones there. The clouds begin to hem us in like the batting of a quilt.

Our Cloudy Retreat
Our Cloudy Retreat

We awake the next morning to the sound of wind blowing against the glass. Stepping outside, my heart sinks. No warm exotic weather for us! The wind has changed from playful to billowing.

“When life hands you a lemon….”

We decide to brave the storm and walk down the winding pathway to the little village. The rain begins its banter, giving expression to the swirling wind. My cheeks feel its cool sweep as I lean into it, determined to make our destination.

Pathways through Lemon Orchards
Pathways through Lemon Orchards

“Know’st thou the land where the pale citrons grow…thither with thee, O, thither would I wend!”  Goethe’s ‘Mignon’s Song’

Lemon Trees on Capri

Finding shelter under the lemon trees was sweet!

Passing through an orchard we find ourselves in the open, taking in the tumultuous sea. The thick-set heather and myrtle was all around us, frisking in the wind along the open terrain, holding tightly onto their plot of earth like rocks. Cypress trees sway and dip. My hair quickly morphs into a tangled mess.

We find a small store and buy bread, prosciutto, cheese and gherkins to make sandwiches back in our room. Choosing a couple of books on display, “The Story of San Michele,” and “The Twelve Caesars,” we retrace our steps back through the elements of the raging gods. Heads down, enduring the pelt of rain and buffeting of wind, our pilgrims bodies once more find the comfort of ‘home.’

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Safely home!

We dry off with warm showers, make our prosciutto, cheese and gherkin sandwiches, and find hot chocolate from the kitchen. Tucking ourselves into our magnificent bed with airy white comforters, we begin to cherish the simplicity of the day. It was not what we had hoped for, but better than we could have imagined. Our sandwiches were the best, the hot chocolate delightful, and our books kept us engaged with some of Capri’s most illustrious former residents–the generous Axel Munthe (click for my article on this amazing man) and the unforgettable Caesars of the early Roman empire.

We made lemonade….

In the land where the pale citrons grow.

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