Italy has always been the place I’ve wanted to go. Number one on my bucket list. The non-negotiable destination. Above all the rest, and beyond compare, that is what Italy was to me. In fact, I wrote a blog post recently that proclaimed I’d “hopelessly fall in love with all of Italy,” which is why I find it curious that once finally there, I found myself in a villa in the gorgeous hills of Tuscany, trying to figure out how to leave. Zermatt is only six hours away by train I tell my husband. We could blow this pop stand tomorrow and go to see the Matterhorn instead. Our room in Tuscany had already been paid for. My husband reminds me of this. I don’t care, I can’t stay here another night. It’s raining every day. It’s apparent we need a car to get around and we don’t have a car. The bed is like a rock, my pillow a sand brick. I woke up with a sore lower back earlier this morning. I am thirty seven years young with no prior back problems. The hotel bed in Florence had been almost the same, only a tad better. The bed is stiff! I had remarked, not understanding that every bed in Italy is stiff. That this, apparently, is a well documented thing.
I have a theory about what happens when you visit your number one dream destination, which is this: It’s not going to be your best trip. Not even close. It can’t be because you’ve doomed it by nursing the daydreams of how it will be, what it will look like, and which dress you will wear when you take a picture at that spot. The setting sun as it lights the Colosseum just so. The lounging by the pool on the Amalfi coast in the red bikini. Gelato and pasta every day! This is what people dream about. What you don’t dream about is waking bright eyed and bushy tailed super early in the morning on your first day, jazzed to explore by getting an espresso at the nearest coffee bar at 5:30am, which you’ve already patiently waited for since you got up at 4am, because HUGE time change, only to realize Italy isn’t awake yet. That Italy doesn’t wake up until after 7am. In fact Italy doesn’t open its coffee shops or drinks espresso until after 8am and closer to 9am. It’s not like the US where Starbucks is up and at’em and ready to serve. Italy is more like why would you be up right now you stupid American?
Wandering dark streets with nobody in sight for an hour looking for coffee before heading back to the hotel room defeated and having nothing else to do, accidentally falling asleep for 3 hours which results in nearly missing your appointment for “skip the line” tickets at the Accadameia Museum to see the statue of David, and then touring it all without coffee or breakfast or anything at all since you had to literally run to the Museum to not miss the appointment, is not what you dream about.
The bed was not the capital issue, it’s just the latest in a series of events that had taken the rose color out of my glasses until I was left with what Italy actually was. A real place, with real people. A trip that had taken me six months to plan, two whole weeks to prepare and pack for, and then nine hours on a plane to get to, only to be smacked with a royal case of jet-lag and time change that had me feeling out of sorts for a whole week.
“Italy smells like cologne and cigarettes” my husband Jeremy says to me, obligatory gelato in hand, on our very first day in the country. Struck by his keen observation I find my first impressions are less impressive. “I’ve noticed the men wear freshly shined dress shoes. With jeans, with slacks, with any and all pants” I say. Jeremy makes a frown, raises his eyebrows and cocks his head to the left to communicate fair enough. He’s won. Italy does smell like cologne and cigarettes. I wouldn’t have guessed that but it seems fitting. This at least, is one thing that matches my idea of what Italy probably is.
For as long as I could remember, I’d longed to see Italy. All of it. The Colosseum and Trevi Fountain in Rome, definitely. But I also grew up looking at pictures of the iconic Almalfi coast with it’s romantic terracotta, peach, and butter yellow buildings with bougainvillea lined balconies, cascading down the cliffside to pebble beach and sparkling blue sea. It called to me.
After four children and seventeen years of either babies or toddlers in the house, my youngest was finally five years old. This meant Jeremy and I could, for the first time in forever, fathom leaving the kids at home for a two week Italian extravaganza. Rome and Positano were at the tippy top of my must-see list but I remembered my Aunt Colleen, an experienced world traveler, had lived in Florence when she was in her twenties after finding herself an Italian boyfriend named Fabrizio. Her stories always sounded so glamorous to my I-haven’t-traveled-anywhere-ears and so I decide to tack on more destinations. Our official itinerary starts with two nights in Florence, and four nights at Greve in Chianti in Tuscany. From there, we’d board a train to Naples, where we would grab lunch at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, the rumored birthplace of pizza and the very first thing to ever make it onto my bucket list—pizza in Napoli—before heading down to Positano for another four nights and finally ending in Rome.
I turn back to Jeremy. We are still standing beneath the Duomo in Florence takings selfies. “I’ve also noticed the people here seem curiously invested in whether or not you thoroughly enjoyed your meal to the very depths of your soul” I say. It’s true. The waiters ask us many times if we are happy with the food and then, they sincerely try to read how excited you seem regardless of the answer. If they suspect you are less than blown away they become concerned. We ordered a Bistecca Florentine with carmelized potatoes at this one place, and when it came, discovered it was enough to feed a mammoth. Since it was just Jeremy and me, we didn’t even eat half. Mostly because we had just consumed a Parmigiano, prosciutto and flat bread platter not two hours before and then gelato because, when in Rome…or Firenze…We try to explain this to our waiter. We tell him it was excellent, that we are just full, but he doesn’t speak much English, an anomaly here, so he sends another waiter over to inquire again about why we hadn’t eaten more of the steak. When he understands nothing is wrong and we really are happy, he still insists on brining us icy cups of homemade limoncello on the house. He feels bad, assuming the portion size had gotten lost in translation.
After a full day of trying to convince myself that Florence, Italy was everything I thought it would be—better even, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had not experienced Florence to be the wonderful place everyone had said it was. It was fine, in the way that all of Italy is fine, but because visitors tend to stay in the neighborhood around the Duomo and where The Statue of David resides, it feels like a bunch of tight, maze like streets among relatively tall buildings on each side, cars driving inches from your toes, where graffiti excessively graces the buildings, all of which causes a slight feeling of clausterphobia that you don’t notice until you reach a Piazza (read: open space) which causes you to breathe a long sigh of relief.
This is what had me trying to convince Jeremy to head to Switzerland in the middle of the night. Surely Zermatt would do us better I thought, what with all the ideallic, sweeping mountain majesty, wildflowers, and charming fondue restaurants. There would be plenty of room to roam in the mountains. Maybe the beds wouldn’t be so hard. Maybe Zermatt would be exactly what I had envisioned. I checked the weather in Zermatt. Snow was forecasted for the next few days. The Matterhorn is shy, one review said, and when it is cloudy you will not see it. You can go several days and not see the Matterhorn. I was not traveling all that way to not see the Matterhorn. Italy it was.
Play me a tune on your tiniest violin?
It wasn’t Italy’s fault. That’s what I keep telling everyone. Italy was everything you hear Italy will be—charming, historic, good food and wine—I’m not suggesting it’s not those things. I’m only suggesting it’s not only those things.
The thing I most appreciated about Florence? The food. It is good most everywhere you go, but the best meal I had was across the Arno river, which lended a nice view of the Ponte Vecchio, in route to our ultimate destination, Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco. I have four words: The wild boar pasta. I snapped a picture of my half eaten plate and posted it to social media with the caption “I can die a happy woman now.” I’d eat there night after night, but it’s time to leave. I have other places to be.
Thoughts on Florence:
Our next stop, Villa Bordoni in Tuscany. Upon arriving here, I realize everything I’ve always heard has been spot on. Tuscany is drop dead gorgeous.
When I say Tuscany, you have to understand what I mean because Tuscany is huge. Florence is in Tuscany, for example, but is a big city. What I mean to tell you is that the picturesque hills, rows of vineyards and quaint country landscape everyone dreams about? That can be found in the small hill towns of Tuscany, in villas perched up high, that one can only get to by venturing up long windey roads, and those are the areas that are drop dead gorgeous. I’d been warned we would need a car while staying in a hill town but nobody could explain why exactly. It’s too spread out, some reviews would say, but being someone who needs to grasp what this means for me, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here is what to expect, dear traveler: you must either get comfortable renting a car from one of the cities in Tuscany (Sienna, San Gimignano or Florence) and navigating the roads by yourself, or plan to schedule a driver for day trips in advance. The latter might result in a little car sickness, eating at your own villa every night, and resentment at having to be somewhere at a certain time each day. Consider yourself warned.
Another thing to do in Tuscany? Cooking classes.
Private cooking classes are a big deal here. We went to La Quercia Estate run by mother daughter team, Veronika and Margherita. The cooking lesson was held in a charming house that had been in their family for generations.
Veronika told us stories about how the space we were standing in had been her grandfathers art studio while teaching us the secret to real, fresh tomato sauce. Stick a bunch of quartered tomatoes—I think the official measurement was “a bowl full,” with one quartered raw red onion, some basil, sea salt, pepper, and a few glugs of olive oil into a small to medium pot. The key is not to cook it in too large a pot. You want it snug. Then cook this over medium-low heat until it renders juices and becomes liquid. After the sauce cooks down, run it through a food mill and finish it off by adding plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese before bathing homemade gnocchi in it. The sauce will be thinner than what you are used to. No one will die from thin sauce. You will die from how wonderful it tastes but something tells me you won’t be angry about that. Perhaps my favorite dish was when Veronika had us shell a huge stack of fresh fava beans. We stuck the beans raw, into a bowl before adding an equal amount of cubed Romano cheese, a large handful of mint and tossing it in a simple lemon and olive oil vinaigrette with plenty of salt and pepper. She instructed us to put the bowl on the table and let it sit out at room temperature to marinade for an hour before we ate it. Then, she said, right before we did, she’d add in a splash of Vermintino, a crisp white wine from Sardenia, to really send it. We also made meat balls in a lemon scented sauce over pancetta peas, and her grandmother’s recipe for apple cake with pine nuts and golden raisins with liquid cream on top— you know, just to make sure we had enough food.
Thoughts on Tuscany:
After our stay in Tuscany, we hoped on the train that would take us to Naples and that pizza lunch to which I had been so looking forward. When we arrived at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, our lively driver John Franco, hopped out and escorted us to the front where we were met with dozens of people standing outside waiting to get in. John Franco walked up assertively, said a few words to the man calling out numbers, then walked back to us and said “you are number 50. I tell him we have to get going soon and he said ‘for you, John Franco, I will make an exception’ so you don’t wait in line, eh? He will call your number in a few minute. He’s on number 48 now, si? You understand?” I looked around at all the the hungry people waiting for their lunches and felt bad. I hadn’t asked for special treatment. But just then, they call out our number and we’re being ushered in when the smell of pizza dough with sweet, creamy mozzarella and fresh basil hits my nose and I don’t feel that bad.
The lunch is exquisite. My brother-in-law asks me later “was it actually that great, or did you just expect it to be great and so it was?” I tell him I was aware of this, but that I went in willing to be disappointed. I am happy to report to him later that bar none, this was the best pizza I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I have a picture from that day, pizza in front of me, and a smile as big as you’ve ever seen in your life. A kid in a candy store, and I hadn’t even taken my first bite. The edges blackened in places, crisp on top but tender and bite-y underneath, and was a match for the center of the pizza which was so soft, that most people used a fork and knife to get through it. I preferred to cradle a whole slice with both my hands, cajoling it to my mouth as it weeped beneath it’s own weight. Perfetto! It’s the happiest I’ve been in Italy. Things start to turn around.
After leaving Naples and passing the great Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, which was surprisingly located just to the left of our highway (isn’t it funny how that happens? Oh, this famed place here? It’s just past this congested bus stop beyond the weed patch yonder) the car started snaking its way through the Amalfi coast. First Sorrento, then after a while our driver points to two large rock islands in the sea to the right “these are named for the prima ballerina! Very famous!” he boasts.
After a 45 minute drive we have arrived.
The streets down to the beach in Positano are lined with an assortment of gelato and jewelry shops, and all things lemon—limoncello, lemon candles, lemon candy lemon lotion, and even perfume. Jeremy and I both come home with a fetching bottle of “Acqua di Positano” both which smell like lemon but his is blended with a hint of sea salt to make it more masculine and mine with flowers. Upon arrival, Jeremy and I drop our bags at the hotel and plop ourselves in a chair in the sand that faces the water and order a large Aperol spritz and plate of fresh fried calamari. This is all you do in Positano. Shop, eat, behold the view. Jeremy snaps a picture of me doing just that. It’s a candid of me cranking my neck around, having just arrived, mouth slightly open looking up from the beach at the view behind. I post it to my Instagram with the caption “today I made it to the place I always dreamed of going.” I feel especially content that it’s happened. This always seemed like one of those places people said they wanted to get to, but never did.
While sitting here, staring down the sand, you cannot help but notice the most obvious thing, which is that women line the beach, some in elaborate outfits with what look like real live photographers, huge camera lenses and all, while they shamelessly strut and strike ridiculous poses.
Case in point:
You might wonder if it’s a magazine shoot, but you’ll quickly realize it is not. These are just normal people being photographed. It was the most epic people watching I have ever seen. Endlessly entertaining.
The next day, Jeremy and I decided we needed some beach costumes and so we headed off to one of the local shops to pick him up a blue linen shirt that showcased some of his chest hair and an impossibly chic, boho powder blue and white gypsy dress for me.
Positano is best enjoyed while staying put but it’s also a fabulous home base to discover nearby places. We had a marvelous time taking the ferry to Capri—well, we had a marvelous time in Capri—the ferry was a bit hard for Jeremy–aka–“Captain Sea Sick.” Capri is a must see while in this neck of the woods. The view from the town of Capri is so beautiful, no picture I took could do it justice. I’m conflicted about posting them here because it just doesn’t translate. But you know imma go ahead and post some anyway…
My favorite day in Positano was our last. This was the day we had nothing planned other than soaking up the sun, and eating linguine and clams poolside, with a nice supply of limoncello spritzes to wash it down. I find it hard to leave, but I pull up my big girl panties and head to Rome because we can do hard things.
Thoughts on Positano:
I find Rome to be a surprise. Florence, in the main areas, had been a bit cramped with narrow streets and tall buildings, but Rome was more spread out, with trees and grass with the great Tiber river running through it. Some of the reviews I read had alleged Rome was “just a dirty city.” Well, I thought looking around, those people clearly haven’t been to Naples. Our driver, before dropping us at our hotel asked if we’d ever been in Rome before. When we said no, he pointed casually to the left at what appeared to be a sunken park. “This” he told us “is where they had the chariot races.” Excuse me? Did you just say, THE CHARIOT RACES?
Forgive me, I knew we were in ancient Rome, but for some reason I was not prepared to hear they held chariot races in the park across the street from our hotel. You know, as if it was completely normal.
The theme of astonishment over expected sights continue on our walking tour of the city as our guide said things like “and this was the temple of Julius Caesar” or upon walking into the Panthenon, “this grave is for the queen. You will see her name is Margherita and this is for whom pizza Margherita is named” or when standing in the Roman Forum, our guide pointed to the stones we were standing and said “see these linear scratch marks? These are from the chariots” and my jaw would fall to the floor each time as if I had no idea I was going hear these sorts of things. These stones are marked by chariots and we are just WALKING ON THEM?
Thoughts on Rome:
After returning from a place like Italy, where everyone dreams of going, people tend to ask “what was the best part?” On my flight home, I ask myself this very question but don’t immediately find an answer. I’m conflicted about how much work it took to get here, something I was not eager to repeat again anytime soon. I’m upset about how much effort and emotional strength it took for me to get on a plane for nine hours across an ocean and then back again. Flying has always been a huge fear of mine. Never-the-less she persisted…I might add…with great tumult and stress, she persisted. I was tired a lot of the time that first week due to the time change. I have two videos from our trip where I am sitting in gorgeous places talking about how it is my farewell tour. That I will never be back to Italy. It was just too hard to get here for what you get. It’s very funny.
There were first impressions to take into account. Florence, our first city, wasn’t my favorite—something I will say is a personal thing. Our friends who also traveled to Positano and Rome found Florence to be their favorite. Different strokes for different folks. I found the graffiti in Italy to be gratuitous. I expected it though. I knew it was part of the culture. I didn’t think I’d care all that much. But I did. It made me sad to see buildings that were run down and in need of a fresh coat of paint, literally everywhere. The cities of Italy—at least the parts I visited, left me with the impression that everything needed to be fixed up (Rome less so). It felt as if additions to buildings and decks were just haphazardly thrown together in the houses of Positano—not resorts or hotels, but private residences? Janky. Like maybe the Italians, who I have loved the idea of my entire life, in all their laid-back nature, couldn’t be bothered by timely construction or proper repairs. They are like “eh, lets throw a tarp on it and call it good, yes?” Jeremy kept looking at the balconies and decks in Positano and—a builder himself—kept saying “I don’t think they have building codes here. This deck looks like it’s going to fall down.”
Then there was the food. You hear the food will be extraordinary wherever you go. I really hate to burst your bubble but did not find this to be true. The food was good everywhere we went, but I only had three really extraordinary meals. So the best part? I don’t know. I was kind of upset about a lot of little things. And then upset that I was upset. I WAS FINALLY IN ITALY for goodness sake. What was wrong with me? I guess dear reader, that I was coming to discover the thing you have already noticed:
I am not the world traveler I believed myself to be. And I am quintessentially American.
This last thing became glaringly obvious when I got annoyed that our bill at restaurants didn’t come after we’d been sitting with empty dessert plates for thirty minutes already. I hated having to beg the server for il conto per favore? over and over again. Couple this with how I couldn’t have coffee for hours after I’d woken up because Italian cafe’s don’t open until 8 or 9am and I wake up at 6am? I don’t know…
I hate myself for saying this. I went to Costa Rica and loved it. I went to Anguilla and loved it. Mexico? A blasty blast. Hawaii? Fo sho! But I go to the one place I have always wanted to visit, to experience the one culture I’d always felt such a connection to, only to discover that I was like hmmm, I mean it’s great and all, but I’m still so “I don’t know” about it. And it was really hard to get here.
I know. I’m booing with you.
It was wonderful wasn’t it? That’s the weirdest part. It was so wonderful.
To witness the Roman Forum:
To walk on stones the chariots marked:
To eat fresh, simple food:
To visit the Leaning Tower, a quick hour train ride from Florence:
To see the Tiber river in Rome:
To see these things? The things I’ve always wanted to see:
To drink wine at lunch, and wander the Tuscan countryside. To be with my husband for two weeks in one of the most romantic places in the world. To have had a dream vacation fulfilled. To get to know Italy for what Italy is. Wasn’t it glorious?
It was. It was glorious and confusing. It was both those things, and I think that’s okay.
When we get home, I start writing a list of the Italian dinner I will make my family. I always do this. I visit a place and then come home and make the food I experienced for the people I love. I decide I’ll serve both a Aperol spritz and Chianti for drinks, Castelventrano Olives and nuts for an appetizer, something that was on the table of every restaurant we dined. The gnocchi and fresh tomato sauce with the fava bean salad. The apple cake and some good gelato for dessert. We will top it off with limoncello we brought back straight from the freezer, of course.
I find myself in the kitchen, not too long after, showing my youngest daughter Ellie, how to make tomato sauce. Next, we sit down to feast. It’s then I realize, as I look across the table at food being shared and passed, that I know that the answer to the question, for me is obvious. The best part of Italy is not the Colosseum or anything else in the country itself. The best part of Italy is bringing it back to the people I love.