Hi all, it took a while for me to put this report together because right when my wife and I got back, we were closing on a house, and then work got busy... anyway, hope this helps someone out there. Our Italy trip was for 2 full weeks, and it included the cities of Rome, Naples, Sorrento, and Positano.
Our journey began in Bellingham International airport, where we took a quick 40 minute regional flight to SEA. We had packed light - 2 carry-on sized bags - in anticipation that we might need luggage space for souvenirs on the way back. In Seattle, we went through US customs, which was not a big deal. Our flight from SEA to Heathrow was with British Airways Boeing 747-400. The flight was around 9 hours. The food was nothing to write home about. It was below average for international flight in my opinion. I have flown to Asia with Japan, China, Singapore, Asiana, and Korean Airlines, and their food was way better. The flight was pleasant enough. There were plenty of new release movies to keep us occupied, and there weren't a single peep from babies the ENTIRE flight, which was great. A brief stop in London - going through security again - and we were off to Rome. Heathrow Airport was impressive by the way. The airport was very clean and modern, with every high end shops you can think of. The airport is more impressive than a lot of the malls here in the US with respect to shops.
Once we landed in Rome, going through customs was a breeze... and I do mean a BREEZE. The guy didn't even look at my passport! I still had it in my hand and he just waved me through. Next thing I knew, we were outside where a taxi service picked us up. Needless to say, we didn't get a passport stamp. The drive from the airport to Hotel Fellini took about 40 minutes, and let me tell you, the drive was entertaining. It seems to me lanes and speed limits were mere suggestions on the road. During traffic, Italian drivers can fit 5 cars on 3 lanes on the freeway. People just go as if it's the other driver's responsibility to not hit YOU. As long as you get the nose of your car through, you're good to go. Another thing I noticed was that there are smart cars EVERYWHERE. That is the standard car size in Italy. We got picked up in a BMW 5 series, and it felt like a giant car on the road compared to other cars. Once off the freeway, mopeds everywhere. Everyone's
out for themselves on the road. I could never drive in Italy. The road signs are not clearly marked anywhere, there are 3, 4, 5 way intersections with side streets coming from every direction. No thanks. Cobblestones on regular streets was interesting.
Hotel Fellini was nice, mainly because the location was awesome. It was within 10 minute walk to the Trevi Fountain and 15 minutes from the Pantheon. The staff was very friendly. The room was sufficiently nice. Kinda cramped but I guess that's normal for Europe. As long as we had a clean room, AC, and hot shower, we're good. Complementary breakfast was good enough: toast, cheese, croissants and some ham. I tell you, Italians LOVE their Nutella! It was EVERYWHERE. All the hotels we stayed at in Italy offered Nutella.
Another nice thing about our hotel was that it was very close to the metro stop. We went to the Vatican on our first full day there. From our metro station it was very easy. You can buy metro tickets from the machines there. It had options for other languages, and English was just fine. We had bought admission tickets for the Vatican Museum ahead of time, so we didn't have to wait in line like everyone else, which was nice. We bought the audio guide at the museum, and it was ok. In hind sight, if I was to do it again, I probably would use a guided tour. Audio guide is just not the same as real life person. And audio guide doesn't use your time wisely and bring you to see the high yield things. We had no idea where to go to see the high yield things, so we just wondered around - and it was a lot of walking. The Sistine Chapel was very impressive. There are 3 things that I took away after being there for 20 minutes. 1. The paintings were very awe inspiring. I couldn't believe that the new pope was just elected a month ago right there in the chapel, and I was standing right where he had been. 2. Tons of people in a confined environment. 3. The incessant "SHHH!!" that happened every 12 seconds. There were like 7 people working in the chapel and their sole purpose is to SHH people. I found that ironic because they were louder and more obnoxious than anyone in the chapel.... One warning if you decide to eat at their cafeteria... the pizza I ate there was the worst pizza I had anywhere any time. Domino's is way better. It was cold and disgusting.
That night we wandered to the Pantheon and ate directly across from the Pantheon at Napoletano's. It was one of my favorite meals of all time. The ambiance was incredible and the food was delicious. We had the front row table so the view of the Pantheon was unobstructed. There were street performers playing the accordion and the guitar to us as we ate delicious food. The feeling can't be described. It was very romantic eating delicious al dente pasta dishes, drinking wine, have the Pantheon in front of your face, people walking by on cobblestones, street performers playing "when the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie..." Awesome. When in Rome, do as the Romans right? So we took our time and enjoyed a 3 hr dinner. We never asked for the "conto" and the "conto" never came. Great conversation with great company... I hope this will be a flashbulb memory that I will never forget.
Next day we went to the Coloseum. Again, we bought tickets ahead of time, and so we didn't have to wait in line. We did the underground tour, which provided us with an English guide. It was very entertaining. He took us "behind the scenes" and to the highest level of the Collisseum. You can feel the history as you walk the grounds. Gives you goosebumps. That night we ate at Il Presidente and let me tell you, it was a very bad decision. This place just looked like a tourist trap with large outside sitting area and tons of tourists. We ate there by mistake because my fiance thought this restaurant was recommended by her travel book. She remembered wrong. The food was pedestrian at best, but it was by far the most expensive meal we had in Italy and it wasn't worth it. Tons of people smoked all around us also. Not a good meal. Afterwards we walked around and hung out by Trevi fountain again. What surprised me is how Italians just don't seem to have a lot to do - all they do is hang out, eat, and drink wine. We were walking around 11 pm on a Sunday night, and there were TONS of Italians hanging out... don't they have to go to work or school the next day?
The next day we traveled to Naples via Trenitalia. We took the subway to Roma Termini and there we bought the fast train tickets, second class, through the automated machines. It was quick and easy; everything can be translated in English. There was this shady Italian guy that came up to me and tried to "help" me buy the tickets, but the Polizia showed up and he disappeared. The train cart had compartments and overhead areas to put our luggage. The trip was around 2 hours and it went by quickly. Once we got to Naples, we went to the tourist information booth, and were told that it would be "easy" to take the "R2" bus to our destination area. Taking the bus to our hotel was one of the ballsiest things I've done in a while. We bought our bus tickets in the tobacco shop (tabacchi) and walked outside. Found the bus parked idling, and just got on. The reason why this bus ride was "crazy" was because we had no idea where to "get off", and as we were driving along, I didn't see any street signs anywhere. I figured out where to get off based on the # of roundabouts we were passing. After the 3rd round about, we made a U turn, and that was our signal to get off! Once off, we asked for directions and found the Golden hotel without problems. My initial impression of Naples and the "historic district" was one word: Gotham. If Gotham existed, it would be in Naples. Building structures were old, dark appearing with Goth feel, and... graffiti on EVERY WALL of Napoli. Unreal. Riff raffs everywhere, at ALL times of the day, everyday.
Golden Hotel looks like someone bought an entire floor of an apartment building and turned it into a hotel. It was nice, clean, quiet, and had a very friendly staff that was very helpful. That night we walked around the historic center. The streets were incredibly narrow - what looks like pedestrian streets - for cars! Mom and Pop stores on every narrow street, sprinkled with vespas and cars. We stumbled upon Limone and bought some lemoncello, and on the way back, we found... Gino Sorbillo's pizzeria! We ate there every night we were in Napoli except one night. Best pizza I ever had. I never really liked pizza to begin with.. they all tasted the same to me. But for whatever reason, Sorbillo's pizza was WAY better than any pizza I ever had. Their pizzas were very large, but thin crust; crust not crunchy but a little doughy. Ingredients were very simple, not a whole lot of anything, but so fresh and well done. Nothing was overpowering. In the states, pizza is all about the toppings. The more toppings the better... not Sorbillo's. Again, their pizzas weren't overflowing with ingredients, but it was done very well, with fresh ingredients. Also, their pizzas don't come pre-cut in pie shapes. They just give you knives and forks and u do the rest. The place was packed every night - certainly with a lot of tourists, but I would say the majority of the crowd consisted of locals. If you want to eat here & not wait for an hour, get there right when they open.
Walking in Napoli is "exciting" because there are streets where cars constantly come and go - so how do you cross the street? Just go. The cars will stop - like magic. A good analogy is the game frogger. You literally have to speed up, slow down, speed up again in the street after each passing car just to get to the other side of the street! Amazing. And also at night, as we're walking back to our hotel, we had to constantly look over our shoulders... there are riff raff everywhere. at 11 pm on a weekday! Don't people have to work the next morning? Guess not.
On our first full day in Napoli, we walked to Chiaia area. All on foot. From the historic district! Chiaia area reminds me of Shanghai. Shiny, large, beautiful hotels lined the waterfront, catered to wealthy tourists. Chiaia is not like the rest of Napoli. It was very clean, elegant, and pretty, with a view of the bay. As we walked there, the America's Cup was going on and US came in 2nd! We walked everywhere, trying to find "Da Dora" the restaurant. That was an undertaking because it's impossible to find small streets on the map, and asking directions in Italy isn't very easy most of the time - they're just "too cool for school" in my opinion. After walking through the park, we found Da Dora off a tiny, narrow street - lined with clothesline and private homes. There I must have had my second favorite seafood meals of all time. Their Da Dora seafood pasta dish was worthy of an Italian saying "mama mia". Seriously, the Italian guy right across from me got the same dish, and that's what he said when they brought it to him: "mama mia! mama mia!" Again, their seafood pasta dish is not too busy - it's just so simple: fresh ingredients, al dente pasta, and an incredible sauce that is not overpowering like most American Italian food dishes. Their sauce brings out the taste of the seafood. It was of a light olive oil base with fresh tomato accent. Incredible.
Next day, we went to the island of Capri via hydrofoil. Took us about 10 minutes to walk to the marina, bought tickets and off we went. Prior to boarding one of the Italian workers went up to my wife Stephanie and asked her a question in Italian near the boarding area. She had the deer caught in the headlight look on her face - with a slightly dropped jaw and everything... unforgettable and cute at the same time. Once we got to Capri, within the marina there is the blue grotto tour. We were excited to go on the tour, but after it was over, we wish we didn't go on the tour. Not worth the money in our opinion. The tour boat took us half way around the island, to an area where many boats were queued, and there are these little row boats waiting for you. You get on these row boats, which costs extra ("entrance fee"), they then take you into the cave. Inside you indeed see the water as bright blue - I guess it's from the reflection of sunlight through the opening of the cave, causing the water to appear really light blue - almost neon blue. But that's it. They row you around for 3 minutes (while navigating and preventing to hit other row boats), then they come out. That's it. Oh and they will ask you for a tip at the end!! Seriously? You just rowed around for 3 minutes and you want a tip?? I paid for that 3 minutes of rowing already - it's call the entrance fee.
For the rest of the day we just walked around the island. We walked all the way to the top of the town of Capri on foot! In hind sight, we should have taken the tram! But in a sense it was good for us to walk that, because it gave us a great sense of the island, as we were immersed in the tiny, windy, cobblestone streets; it felt like we saw a piece of the real Capri - away from just the touristy areas. We ate at Buca di Bacco (not related to the one in Positano that we went to), and again, the food was delicious. After that we just walked around and enjoyed the scenery and did some shopping.
The next day we went to Pompeii / Mt Vesuvius. We took the circumvesuviana to the Scavi station. Right there at the station is the tourist information office. There we booked an English tour, which in my opinion, was well worth the money because our tour guide concentrated on the most interesting and popular places to visit, and spared us the time we would have spent being lost. The grounds are very large, and we've talked to people who just got the audio tour and they said it was not entertaining at all, and didn't get nearly as much out of the experience as we did. Walking on the grounds of Pompei was amazing. You could actually SEE the history as you walk the grounds. It's an amazing site because this is one of the best preserved historic sites in the world - pristinely preserved by ash. You can easily imagine how life was back then; carriages, horses and people roamed these small, cobblestone streets filled with shops and houses... and yes, there were even prostitution houses. Inside the prostitution houses there are pictures of sexual positions painted outside of the rooms; that way customers knew what was offered in that room! And on the streets there are phallus road signs "pointing" to these houses! After a quick bite for lunch, we took the bus up to Mt Vesuvius. The bus station is literally across the street from the Circumvesuviana Scavi station. The first bus takes you to the foot of the mountain. There, you get on another "ATV" type bus all the way to the top of Vesuvius. The ride up is very bumpy but it was nice because of the view, which was amazing. Once we made that drive, they gave us a couple hours to walk to the crater and back. The walk up to the crater seemed to have taken about 25 to 30 minutes, and it's kinda steep - along the cliff! Loose gravel and rock type terrain makes this climb even more interesting. There, at the top of the crater, there was a guide that spoke a little about the volcano, how it is the most monitored volcano in the world, and the history of its violent past. The striking part of this trip was obviously the crater, and also the view. Your can see Pompeii all the way to the bay of Naples, including the islands of Ischia and Procida.
Our next stop was Sorrento. We checked out of our hotel early on Sunday. I walked around looking for a tabacchi store to buy the bus/circumvesuviana combo... turns out that they are closed on Sundays. Mental note. So I found a newsstand and bought a bus-only ticket. Returned to our hotel, got our bags, and caught the R2 by running 1/2 a block chasing down the bus. Once on the bus, our ticket wouldn't be taken by the machine... guess what, Sundays bus rides are free. Awesome I wasted 1/2 an hr looking for tickets that I didn't need. So we got off the bus at the train station, walked to the Circumvesuviana station and found out that our train to Sorrento was literally getting there in 4 minutes, and the next one was an hr later. Just as we were at the ticket window, a lady tried to inconspicuously cut in front of us... until I boxed her out. As Italian words were coming out of a bystander at me, we already got our tickets and were on our way to the platform. As we were walking down the stairs, the train pulled up. Perfect timing. The train ride didn't seem long. It was crowded until the Pompeii Scavi stop. Sorrento was the last stop of the line.
Finding our way to our hotel was a breeze. There is a tourist information booth at the front of the train station. There, we got a map, and since Sorrento is not really a big town, it was very easy to find where out hotel was. Literally took us 8 minutes to walk to our hotel. We stayed at the Grand Hotel de la Ville, which was the nicest hotel we stayed at for the entire Italy trip. It was quaint and elegant. It has a nice garden, and the dining hall is very grand and nice. We must have had the best room of the hotel. Top floor, and our room is probably the only room that had a great view of the mountain and the garden from our balcony. One of our favorite discoveries of the entire trip was the lemon grove we found just steps away from our hotel. It's called I Giardini Di Cataldo. It's a slice of heaven on a nice day. It's a very tranquil place, lemon and orange trees everywhere, very beautifully manicured, it has a nice walking path, it smells amazing, and there is a lemoncello stand right inside the garden. Best lemoncello we tasted in Italy. It's literally impossible to be in a bad mood when you're taking a walk there. And at the end of the walking path, across the street, there's a gelateria that is owned by the same owner as the lemon garden. Awesome gelato. The lemon is amazing, of course.
Sorrento was our favorite place in Italy because it doesn't have the hustle and bustle of big cities like Naples and Rome, it has great restaurants, it's very charming, and it has great shopping. The main drag where all the shops are is the Corso Italia. And if you veer off the main street into the narrow side streets, there are even more mom and pop shops. As far as restaurants go, Inn Bufalito was our favorite. As a matter of fact, our meal there was probably among the top 5 meals I've ever had. We had the assorted cheese plate with fresh mozzarella and assorted cured meat... very impressive. Then for the main course, my wife had the sea bass, which was delicioso! So fresh, juicy, and well cooked. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. I had the buffalo stew - unbelievably tasty. You can taste the freshness of all the ingredients, and they complement each other very well. Nothing is over powering, and the entrées are full of flavor.
Another favorite place of ours is the Marina Grande area. Most tourists don't venture down there; they just stick to the main drag for shopping. At the end of Via San Nicola there is a narrow, residential-looking walking path called Via Sopra le Mura. Take it all the way down and you will walk to the water's edge, with Mt Vesuvius in your face. As you make your walk down, the cobblestone steps and small but quaint bridges make great photo opportunities. We ate at Ristorante Delfino for dinner one night, and at Trattoria da Emilia for lunch. Both were very good. Ristorante Delfino was quite a bit pricier than Emilia's, and Emilia's was right on the water's edge. I had the seafood pasta, which was, of course, amazingly fresh.
As far as shopping goes, even though there are so many desirable things, we didn't buy much. A pair of leather shoes for myself, some lemoncello from Cataldo garden, a couple leather purses for our parents, a few arts and craft items, and Carthusia parfum for my lovely wife.
The last stop for our trip was Positano. We took the Sita bus from the Circumvesuviana station. The bus ride made the trip to Positano VERY memorable. These bus drivers are very skilled in driving a full sized bus on narrow, winding highway that hugs the edge of a very high and steep cliff. Just looking down from our window gets my knees weak. There are areas high on the cliff where oncoming cars need to veer off to the side, or even reverse just to make room for the bus to pass a tight turn! And a lot of the time the clearance of the bus cannot be more than a foot from the cliff, and less than a foot from the oncoming car! Amazing. Apparently there are 2 stops in Positano, and we were instructed to get off on the second stop, which was closer to our hotel. And once we did, we had no idea where to go. We literally looked at each other and said, "alright, got any idea how we're gonna find our hotel?" There were no information booths to hand you maps, and our map in our guide book is not even close to being sufficient because the streets in Positano are so small, winding, and pedestrian-only that the map doesn't even mention any street names. After asking 5 people for directions, we finally found our hotel. Mental note: hand carrying luggage in Positano is not a very good idea. From the bus stop to our hotel must have been around 10 minutes - but carrying all our luggage while going down hills and steps and narrow streets was not very easy. In hind sight, we were dropped off on highway 163, at the junction of Via Cristoforo Colombo. Then, we walked down that hill and hit Via dei Mulini, which eventually led us to our hotel Villa La Tartana. It was a nice location with friendly front staff. The price is reasonable too. But we would never stay here again. The downsides are 1. the walls are paper thin. The family staying in the room next to us were extremely loud, or at least it sounded like it. They had kids who made a lot of noise and the dad was just as bad. We could hear them moving chairs and talking like they were right in our room. We stayed in a room downstairs & we could hear everything above us which was the hotel lobby. We asked to be moved, but there weren’t any other rooms available. Luckily, the family left the next. The other downside was breakfast. It consisted of bread & nutella basically. No cheese, meat or anything substantial. If we go to Positano again, we will stay at the Hotel Buca di Bacco. It is right on the water & has a great restaurant.
Positano is obviously a very unique town. It sits along a mountain cliff, right next to the ocean. It's a very quaint town with lots and lots of shops, with lots and lots of steps. There's the beach, and lots of restaurants on the beach. ... And that's pretty much all there is to do in Positano. We found that there is proportionally way more Americans in Positano than anywhere else we went in Italy. From what our waiter says, this is because of our past involvement here in Positano during WWII. We didn't do much for the 3 days in Positano. Hung out at the beach, shopped around, and just relaxed. We took a cooking class at Buca di Bacco, and that was very fun and informative. I highly recommend anyone to do it. The class was small, just my wife and I, and 2 other people from Texas. The entire class must have been over 3 hrs long, and we cooked our own dinner from scratch, of course. We cooked eggplant parmesan, gnocchi pasta, homemade pasta with homemade pesto and lemon profiteroles for dessert. They were incredibly delicious of course. We had a great time; our chef was very attentive to us, walked us through everything from cutting up ingredients to making our own marinara sauce to making dough for the gnocchi to making fresh pasta... etc. Oh and there was a ton of wine during class to lighten things up. We had a great time with our classmates. Our class started around 4, and after bottles and bottles of wine (which were free, by the way), we didn't part ways with these Texans until around 11. Again, highly recommend the class.
Positano was our last stop. Time to go home. We caught a ferry from Positano to Salerno, which was very scenic along the Amalfi Coast, and from Salerno we took the train to Rome. Salerno is a very large port. I'm not sure if it compares in size to Naples, but it sure is a lot cleaner and more organized. Oh and I didn't see any graffiti anywhere. There were nicer cars on the streets, the traffic is not NEARLY as crazy as Naples... Salerno is just more pleasing in general. One guy told me that Salerno is becoming the new Naples in terms of port usage, mainly because people in shipping are staying away from mafia-run Naples and coming to Salerno for business instead.
In general, we got incredibly lucky for our entire trip. We traveled by almost every mode of transportation (plane, taxi, bus, train, metro, boat), and we never got lost, there were never any delays, our bags never got stolen/misplaced, and our personal belongings never got stolen. We never got sick from food or caught any sickness. Both legs of our long transatlantic flights were extremely smooth without crying babies. During the entire 14 days that we were there, it only rained for a total of a whopping 2 hours - when we were in Sorrento. The rest of the trip was sunny and 70's! Amazing weather. Again, we got incredibly lucky. In hind sight, if we could do this trip all over, we would not have stayed in Positano for 3 days. A day trip from Sorrento would have been just fine. Other than that, it was a trip of a life time. Even though Italy is well traveled by many, and hence not as "cool", there is something to be said about the history, romanticism, and great food that is unparalleled to anywhere that I've ever been.