Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Trulli interesting…

Thursday, September 20th, 2007


After Matera, we headed northeast to Alberobello to see other unusual dwellings. Centuries old, the Trulli homes were originally made without any mortar. Stones were angled slightly inward resulting in a beehive-like structure that could support itself. It could take as little as a few hours to assemble the stone homes. The stone kept the inside cool in the summers and warm in the winter. The trulli homes can be seen scattered all along the region of Puglia, but in Alberobello there are about 400 trullus clustered closely together.

IMG_2893We stayed the night in one of these, and the next moring as we were leaving, an elderly woman right next door invited us into her house. She showed us around, requested we take photos. And told us her mom lived in the same house before her. She’s 87. (mind you, she only spoke Italian and didn’t seem to mind that we didn’t.) Then she asked us for some money. Lucky for her she was so cute.

Sassi “stone” houses

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007


We heard about the towns Matera and Alberobello three weeks ago while flying from Marseille, France to Porto, Portugal. The complimentary magazine provided by Ryan Air mentioned these two cities as “must see” places. We figured, why not.

So after the Amalfi Coast, Pompei and our trip to visit the water buffalo, our first stop was to check out the Sassi homes in Matera. Apparently, the first inhabitants of Matera (and Italy) date back to the Neolithic era, sometime around 5000BC. These settlers lived in caves and were the first to begin farming with copper tools.

IMG_2831Interesting as that might sound, this is not why we drove to Matera. We came to check out the more modern Sassi (which means “stone”) houses. These houses were carved into the tufaceous rock, and built literally on top of each other. The roofs of some houses became the road over head for another house. In the 1950’s the Italian government declared the Sassi were an embarassment to the country due to the poor living conditions. These days though, the Sassi are experiencing a revitalization. UNESCO declared the old town a world heritage site, the government stepped in with financing, tourism began flooding in, and many movies were filmed here giving the town international acclaim.

As we were driving into the city limits of Matera to check out the Sassi houses, things didn’t look any different than any other modern Italian city we’d been to. Wondering where these homes we’re hiding, we kept driving through the city. Just one turn, and it was like walking back in time. The view was spectacular. I doubt we captured the full sentiment on digital. Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of Christ, was filmed here. Maybe his cinematographer got the shot, in which case you can rent the movie to see more of the Sassi homes.


Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

streets of pompei

We’ve seen A LOT of ruins in our travels so far. It seems like everywhere we go there’s some old rocks to look at. Roman rocks, Greek rocks, Moon rocks…who can keep track? The guide books say that they all are “must see” attractions, but in all honesty, many of these historical sites require quite a bit of imagination to feel like what you’re looking at is anything more than…well, a pile of rocks. We even suspect that in a few cases the locals just arranged a few stones, put up a plaque and started charging admission.


bath house in pompeiIt was with that attitude that we almost decided to skip Pompeii. Now granted, we are terrible at history, so we usually like to pass the time at these kind of places coming up with our version of events. Using the only dates we know with any degree of certainty…
– The birth of Christ: 1 AD
– Columbus Discovered America: 1492
– The Declaration of Independence: 1776
– Christine and I were born:1971

…we have developed a quite interesting timeline of what we imagine has transpired throughout the ages.


grafitti from 79ad

We naiively had no idea how incredible Pompeii was. This is no pile of rocks. These rocks still look like stuff! When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, (thank you Wikipedia) it covered the city in 20 feet of volcanic ash until it was excavated a few hundred years ago. What remains is an unbelievably preserved Ancient Roman city. When you walk throught the streets and enter the buildings, you feel like you have gone back in time. There are houses, baths, temples, corner bars and brothels. There is even still graffiti on the walls. Apparently someone named Phileros is a eunuch, and Epaphra, you are bald! (Man are they going to be pissed when they read that)

victim from explosion of Mt. Vesuvius
Probaly the eeriest thing, besides the feeling you are walking in a ghost town where everyone has just picked up and left, are the plaster casts of the voids in the ash left by the victims bodies. You see them frozen in time in their last moments. Not much need for imagination.

we smelled them, long before we found them…

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

This muddy little beastie almost licked Mike while I took the photo.

where the buffalo roam…

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

IMG_2702Our dive master, Paolo said we should go to Battipaglia, the home of the buffalo mozzarella.

There wasn’t much choice about it, we had to stop and check it out…served on a bed of arugula, the mozzarella was nearly the size of a softball.  The skin on the outside was thick, but when cut into, was milky.  Very tasty.  And with prosciutto, even better.

Tomorrow we hope find a farm that offers mozzarella tours and see the water buffalo.

planes, trains, and automobiles…

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

well… not exactly, but many modes of transportation. One of the minor set backs we have encountered from booking last minute travel, is that things get sold out. Because the mountain guides in Stromboli were booked, we ended up skipping the hike up the volcano.

IMG_2469And instead we took a hydrofoil from Ustica to Palermo. (For those of you wondering, this is a hydrofoil.)

IMG_2489Then we took an overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples. We ended up with “deck passage” tickets, because the cabins were sold out.

IMG_2490 Fortunately, we were one of the first passengers to board, so we snagged a couch in the lounge– which is where we slept. (or I should say where Mike slept, I ended up on the floor on my yoga mat. At least, now I’ve used my yoga mat.)

IMG_2499 We arrived in Napoli at 7am, stiff and sore from a poor nights’ sleep, only to board a train, then a bus, and finally a taxi to our final destination in the Amalfi Coast.

IMG_2577 Again, because it’s still “high season,” hotels in Positano and Amalfi-proper were sold out, completely. Instead we stayed in Nocelle, a hiker’s paradise. But who wants to hike?? most people are looking to relax, eat, shop, admire the dramatic coastline and the incredible mountains from under their umbrella, laying on their beach chair, like me.

IMG_2566 Nocelle has only one restaurant, which was closed. This meant we could either eat the remains of our potato chips for both lunch and dinner or hike somewhere to get food. We didn’t have a map but we did see the sign to Positano–ugh. Today I didn’t even want to walk, the back of my calf’s hurt so much.

Scuba dooby doo…Profondo Blu

Friday, September 14th, 2007


We wrapped up our week at Profondo Blu Diving in Ustica and can honestly say it was one of the highlights of the trip so far. Their motto is good diving, good food and good company and they definitely provide all three. Paolo and Ann are the most gracious hosts you can imagine, sharing their knowledge of diving during the day and Italian food and culture during the evenings.  I’m not sure what took more out of us, the 2 dives a day, or the massive home cooked meals courtesy of their fabulous chef, Maria.  One of the best meals was fresh jackfish, so fresh we saw it earlier that day when a local fisherman sold it to us as we got off of the dive boat.  Fresh tuna, fish soup, rissotto, meringue with fresh cream, homemade limoncello…it’s a wonder we even needed weight belts to help us sink in the water!

swimming with the fishes, Sicilian style

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

I grew up in Michigan on Maple Lake and Lake Michigan was only a half hour drive from where I lived. In the summers during grade school, my parents would enroll my brother and I in swim lessons. My dad grew up practically in the ocean, but for some reason my brother and I ended up land lubbers, like my mom.

DSC05059 So, what would possess me to take scuba diving lessons?? With scuba, I thought how hard can it be? Even with out being able to swim so well, with scuba you have a respirator and a bcd (floatation vest).
Well…unlike most people, my first dive was in the Mediterranean jumping from a boat, rather than wading into a pool. Let’s say, it wasn’t so easy–in fact, I nearly panicked my way back out of the water. Especially since once geared up, I had another 50 pounds on me (with the tank and weight belt)–which in my mind equates to going straight down to the bottom and staying there.
The first ten minutes for me were sheer terror, my gut reaction once in the water was clutch onto my instructor Ann, but I thought if I did I would fail the class. It wasn’t until Ann told me we were only in water 6 feet deep that I felt a little foolish–i could almost touch the bottom!

The instruction book says to stay calm and relaxed, which is what I forced myself to do. And it worked. Once I stopped trying to breathe through my nose and trusted the respirator, things got much easier. And being underwater is pretty incredible. Looking at all the different sealife, and being a part of it feels just amazing. I’ve taken 4 dives now, and I prefer the feeling of being underwater to wading at the surface. It’s incredibly serene.

IMG_2443 I only have one more dive before I get my PADI certification card. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed. Our stop over in Ustica has been terrific. It’s towards the end of the summer, so it’s a bit quiet, which means I lucked out with private lessons. We are staying in our own bungalow that our dive masters own and run. Our hosts, Paolo and Ann are entertaining and passionate about what they do; diving, eating and drinking. They have their own cook that has made our evenings very special. And we’ve made several new friends here.

Tomorrow we leave the island, back to Palermo for a night then we take a ferry to Stromboli island, to climb a volcano and see lava flow.

!photos to follow

Will the creepiest museum on earth please stand up…Not so fast, Mutter Museum…

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Capuchin catacombsI used to think the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia was the the weirdest tourist attraction I’ve been to. The soap woman, the giant 5 ‘ colon, Siamese twins Chang and Eng’s conjoined liver, and everyone’s favorite, the drawers of items swallowed, inhaled or ingested. All kids stuff I tell you. May as well be spaghetti in a bowl as fake brains and grapes as eyeballs at Halloween. Move over Mutter, the new heir to the throne is the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.

We had some time to kill in Palermo waiting for our ferry so we took a short ride out to check out the catacombs. The monks at this monastery started keeping their dead friars here in 1599 when they outgrew their cemetery, and kept the bodies on display for religious purposes. Turns out they were so talented at preserving bodies, that the local townspeople wanted in on the action. Being entombed there became quite a status symbol, and people would state in their wills the position they would like to be placed in and what clothes they wanted to be wearing. Capuchin catacombsSome would even have their clothes changed each season. (Can’t be caught dead wearing white after Labor Day) As long as your family kept their contributions up, you were able to keep your spot. But as soon as the money stopped coming, it was up on the shelf shelf for you along with all the rest of the deadbeats. (Pun regretfully not intended) The 8000 or so bodies are in various states of decay, or non decay, as many are still with some hair and teeth, fully dressed and posed sitting for tea or just hanging out on the wall. The party stopped in the 1920’s so now its mostly an odd tourist attraction.

it’s the Sicilian way…

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

We arrived in Palermo on the Flaminia ferry without a hitch. As I said before, it was an overnight trip sleeping in bunk beds in a 5×6 room. Although the sleeping quarters were small and cramped, we clearly had no problems sleeping. By the time we woke up, there was no one left on the boat. The boat was docked, the passengers disembarked, the cabins cleaned out and we were literally the last passengers left.

We stopped in Palermo as a layover. Arriving at 9am, and departing at 5:15pm by hydrofoil to Ustica, our destination to go scuba diving. With 8 hours to kill, we decided to buy our onward ticket, and spend a lazy day exploring Palermo for the day. Ah! but that was not to happen…you would think buying a ticket would be simple. First, we went to the Marine dock asking about the hydrofoil, but no one knows a thing about it or if they do, they don’t say. Then we ask information, and we are sent to the Siremar office. We go there, but no one is there, by now it’s 10am. We decide to walk around, have breakfast and return to the ticket office. It’s 11am now, still no one. We take a taxi ride to the Capuchin Catacombs, then walk back to the ticket office. Still no one. We ask the shopkeeper next door about the Siremar office. They say, it will open at 4:30– 45 minutes before the hydrofoil leaves. It’s 12:30. We decide to walk back to the book stores we passed earlier to get more travel guides, but the stores are all closed for siesta. We decide to check out more sites and eat, again and wait it out. We go back to the office, someone shows up at 4pm, we buy the ticket. Ask where to find the boat, and he tells us to the left of the main building.

We have just over an hour to find the boat– no problem. After walking around in circles, asking dock workers about the boat, we were sent back to the main building. The police officer says its on the other side of the building. No boat. I go inside and ask around, some one tells me that the hydrofoil will dock somewhere around the building, but it’s different every day–so just keep a look out for it. O-kay, but what does a hydrofoil even look like? what kind of boat am I looking for?? it’s a fast boat, that’s all I know.

So, we sit outside, waiting with another English speaking couple, who are just as frustrated by the process. Their day was spent much like ours, running around back and forth trying to figure out where to go. If it were simply a matter of language barriers, I could understand. But it’s not. There’s nothing logical or organized about the process. Lucky for us that we had 8 hours to figure it out, as it was we were the last ones to board the hydrofoil. Once we arrived in Ustica, and explained the situation to our hosts, they said, “well, it’s just the Sicilian way…” as if that answers it all.

It keeps getting better…

Friday, September 7th, 2007

IMG_2249 From Cinque Terre, we took a train down to Civitavecchia then boarded a ferry to Olbia, Sardinia. From there, we went to Cala Gonome on the east side of Sardinia. Cala Gonome is home to the Grotta Bue Marino, which are these amazing caves accessible by boat. The caves are reportedly 23kms or so long, we only saw about 1km. It’s amazing, but we were not allowed to take photos, due to “issues of copyright”??? and because picture taking could possibly hurt the stalagmites and stalagtites, which apparently only grow about 1cm every hundred years. Even with these crazy reasons, we observed the rules and didn’t take any photos inside.

IMG_2279 While driving around, we ended up on a dead end road. From there a small pathway led down a small cove. We climbed down the path, and ended up in a fairly quite and picturesque beach. Free climbers surrounded us, taking advantage of the natural cliffs. Which reminds me that I want to go rock climbing, again. Mike and I tried it in Thailand, and again at an indoor gym in Philadelphia. Anyone out there want to go rock climbing? There are tons of places to rock climb around the Mediterranean, but I found a place in Slovenia that looks pretty good. We’ll probably be in there towards the end of September.

IMG_2290 After a picnic lunch on the beach, we drove to Barumini, to check out the ruins of Su Nuraxi which are these circular, castle-like structures built by the indigenous people of Sardinia back in 1750BC. Apparently the Nuraghe people built about 10,000 of them all over Sardinia, only a few are as well-preserved as this one.

IMG_2350 We are now in Cagliari, spent two nights here. Currently waiting for a ferry to take us to Palermo, Sicily. It’s an overnight trip–our first ever, sleeping on a boat. Once we get to Sicily, we’ll take a hydrofoil to Ustica a tiny, tiny island north of Sicily, for scuba diving lessons. It’s a five day course on an extremely small island. Mike’s not sure if we’ll have internet for 5 days; so it’s potentially going to be torture for him… personally, I’m more worried about the swim test.

Cinque Terre

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

IMG_2033Overnight in Milan, and a three hour train ride later we arrived in Cinque Terre, a unique group of towns that are perched on the cliffs of the Mediterranean Sea. Trains easily connect the towns to each other and to major cities such as Genova in the north and Livorno in the south. I heard about Cinque Terre from a friend who raved about the place, so I thought we should check it out, too. There are five towns, thus the name ‘cinque’, that are nestled into the mountainous terrain each with it’s own stunning beauty. We stayed two days in Manarola at a cute B&B, and two days in Vernazza, but we explored all 5 of the towns. The towns were formerly farming and fishing towns, but have long since been catering to the American tourist.

IMG_2045Aside from the quaint towns, Cinque Terre boasts a national park that has many hiking trails, and mountain bike trails. On two separate days we hiked 4km; hiking between Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza on the first hike, and Vernazza to Corniglia the next day. In addition, we spent an afternoon lounging on the beach in Monterossa al Mare.

Even with the mobs of tourists, this is definitely a vacation spot to visit.  And, yes, I know, it’s the pot calling the kettle black.  And the food is definitely worth the carbs! Italy is quickly becoming my favorite country.