Scenery for the Soul in Ravello

Ravello, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of. I’ve been to some breath-taking places, but Ravello is beyond spectacular. This hidden gem is a must-see, and its stunning scenery will leave you overcome. This post requires few words, because the photos say it all.

We were welcomed into Ravello by a parade of old-fashioned, luxury vehicles, whose drivers honked and waved at us as they passed. We assumed there had been some sort of car show that morning that was wrapping up as we arrived. This unique entrance foreshadowed a particularly special day.

We went for lunch at a hotel called Villa Amore. Tucked away in a stone alleyway, we didn’t know the amazing view that awaited us until we arrived. And then, there it was:

The lunch of a lifetime. This is the view from the “Terrazza sul Mare” (Terrace on the Sea) at the Albergo Villa Amore. One of the girls in our group actually cried because she was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was.

Later in the afternoon, we visited Villa Cimbrone, which offered more exceptional views:

Entrance to the hotel (“albergo”) at Villa Cimbrone.
View from Villa Cimbrone
Crystal clear waters below the Terrace of Infinity

Eighteenth century marble busts at the Terrace of Infinity.

Views from Piazza Centrale
Beauty in the small things

Are you ready to pack your bags and book a flight?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shock Your Dinner Guests: The Racy History of Tiramisu

Everyone knows and loves tiramisu. One of your colleagues probably made it for the work potluck, or your aunt brought some over last Christmas. There are many variations, but generally it consists of eggs, heavy cream, ladyfinger cookies, mascarpone cheese, cocoa, liqueur, and espresso. This seemingly wholesome dessert actually has a very raunchy backstory. Keep reading and you will never look at tiramisu the same way again!

Photo from our cooking demonstration, where we learned the truth about tiramisu

Here’s a breakdown of the meaning behind “tiramisu”:

  • The verb “tirare” has various English translations, including “to pull”, “to pick” or “to tug.”
  • The pronoun “mi” means “me.”
  • Su translates to “on” or “up.”

So tiramisu translates into something along the lines of “pull on me,” “pull me up” or “pick me up.” You might start to see where this is going…And if your mind is in the gutter, don’t worry – it belongs there.

Let’s go back in time to a northern Italian city called Treviso. Turns out that tiramisu was what “ladies of the night” used to keep clients going – and in turn, help them make more money. Full of energizing carbs, sugar and espresso, it was a pick me up to keep male clients awake and encourage them to purchase more services. Plus, it was just plain delicious.

In 1958, the brothels were banned by the government, but one woman preserved the recipe. She and her husband first served tiramisu at their restaurant, called Le Beccherie, in the 1960s. This restaurant is still open today, and is considered the birthplace of tiramisu in its modern day form. Treviso still capitalizes on tiramisu’s sexy history, apparently offering tours to former brothels where tiramisu was served.

At your next dinner party (or better yet, next date night), make some tiramisu and entertain your company with the truth about this Italian treat!

 

Pompeii: It’s Gettin’ Hot in Herre

Oleander – the perfect metaphor for Pompeii. Beautiful, but deadly.

In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the residents of Pompeii in layers of volcanic ash and stone, and killing thousands as a result of extreme heat and volcanic gases.

For centuries, the story of Pompeii was thought to be a legend. But in 1748, the city was rediscovered. Since that time, there have been ongoing archaeological efforts to uncover the city and its remarkably preserved display of ancient Roman life. You can visit the ruins, and walk the streets in the same way that Romans did thousands of years ago.

Mount Vesuvius looming in the background. It’s still active, and last exploded during World War II.

As part of the excavation efforts, plaster casts were made of the bodies of the dead.  Most of the casts and artifacts are not in Pompeii, but on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. With that said, they had a few small exhibits which contained some of the casts. It’s clear from the tragic images below that the people were in distress as they died:

Having a bad day? Not compared to these people
The posture of this person says it all – you can sense his or her complete hopelessness

Not pictured are the 5000 tourists around me taking the same photograph. These displays were behind barred gates, and you had to wait for a spot in the crowd and quickly stick your camera through the gates to get a photo.

We went on a Sunday when it is free to visit the grounds, which may have contributed to the crowds. When we arrived in the morning, it wasn’t too busy, but within an hour, the place was swarming. Tour guides were actually bickering with one another, angry if another group didn’t wait their turn to enter a packed room.

At one point, another tourist attempted to leech onto our private tour and listen without paying. When our feisty guide Lino called him out, the tourist fought back, claiming he was “just looking at a wall.” Lino told him he’d call security, and the guy disappeared pretty fast. Needless to say, Lino was a badass, and the entertainment was not limited to learning about history.

This man had the good fortune of taking a nap when everything went down, and remained oblivious to the end of his world. This would probably have been me if I lived in Pompeii. I love a good nap.
Pictured in the glass display is a small dog, contorted in pain.

The Romans knew how to live it up. They had numerous baths (a.k.a. spas) where they would go in the afternoons, sitting in tepid water while servants bathed them.

We toured one of the spas with ornate statues carved into the walls. It’s pretty amazing when you realize that the angel below was carved over 2000 years ago, yet still stands today:

Pompeii was much bigger than I thought, with streets that extended for miles. Pictured below is one of the long streets, engraved with lines from the carriages that passed through thousands of years ago.  If the streets flooded, the large stones allowed people to cross the street without getting soaked feet. Romans liked their liquor and they liked to party. Almost every other structure along this road was a former bar.

As someone on my tour pointed out, imagine trying to stumble down these streets after a night of drinking…

In addition to bathing, drinking, and partying, Romans also liked sensual pleasures. In ancient Roman times, Pompeii had its own “red-light district.” To ensure that visitors to the city could find it, the Romans carved some helpful signs into the roads to point people in the right direction. Look closely at left side of the photo below…

It’s in shadow because there were about 10 other tourists taking the same shot, but yes, that is what you think…My reference to that Nelly song is dual purpose.*

Pompeii also offered a display of food discovered amongst the ruins. The small sign in the photo below states that this is “Pane carbonizzato.” You don’t need to understand Italian to know this is some seriously charred bread.

I’ve baked cakes that look like this
This dog is too cute to be scary. I want to cuddle him.

Within the ruins of Pompeii, there are many beautiful tiled floors with various patterns and pictures. One of these floors contains the oldest known “Beware of Dog” sign. I didn’t get a photo of the floor (there were too many crowds and I was probably hangry), but it’s easily Googled. This tiled floor in Pompeii is the inspiration behind numerous ceramic “Beware of Dog” signs which Amalfi Coast residents affix to their front entrances. The ceramic sign above costs about eight euro ($12 CAN) – the perfect souvenir for dog-lovers.

Our tour finished at the entrance to the “New Pompeii.” People live outside the ruins, even though Mount Vesuvius could explode again. The streets are lined with vendors selling the usual souvenirs (tiny Pinocchio dolls, postcards, raunchy aprons, key chains, magnets, etc.). One lady aggressively tried to sell me a lava bracelet, saying it was made with lava from Mount Vesuvius. I’m pretty sure it was plastic.

Here are some final pics from inside the ruins:

*Note: The “Herre” in the title is not a typo. That is the official spelling of the 2002 hip hop song.

Lemon Farm Tour in Scala: When Life Hands You Lemons, Eat Them

The Amalfi Coast is known for its lemons. Walk through any of the small towns in this region, and you can find an array of lemon-themed souvenirs and treats – lemon candies, lemon chocolate, lemon soap, lemon ceramics, lemon kitchenware, etc. So it seemed fitting that on our last day on the Coast, Steph and I did a lemon farm tour.

We took a public bus to the town of Amalfi, and then waited for our tour bus to arrive. There was no mistaking which one was our bus:

We drove through Amalfi, and up the long, winding road through the Dragon Valley to the small town of Scala.  Scala is the oldest town on the Amalfi Coast,  and also the most appropriately named – “scale” in Italian means “stairs.” And if you’ve ever been to the Amalfi coast, you know that there’s A LOT of stairs. Scala is nestled in the hilltops, and even on a cloudy day, offers stunning views of neighbouring Ravello:

We arrived at the lemon farm, and were greeted by one of its residents, a charming octogenarian who was busy peeling chestnuts:

Every autumn, Scala hosts the Festa della Castagna (the Chestnut Festival). Posters were plastered around town advertising the upcoming event. When we were in Rome, chestnuts were a common street food, roasted on a hot grill and served up in paper cones.

Every corner of this farm was beautiful. Here are some pics of the scenery:

Growing lemons takes a tremendous amount of work, and it is a year-round endeavour. As we learned, there are actually three harvest seasons in a year for lemons.

Fun fact: Lemon trees have the same lifespan as humans – 90 years.

While there were plenty of lemon trees on this farm, there were also endless amounts of other fruit and vegetables.

At some point, we came across the BIGGEST zucchini I have ever seen in my life. I got so excited trying to take photos that I almost tripped on a rock pile (usually vegetables don’t prompt that kind of reaction in me). So hopefully you enjoy these pics:

These bad boys were about a metre long.

Just some low hanging fruit

Mid-tour, we were greeted by a delightful ball of energy named Pluto. He was very happy to see us and basked in the affection of our tour guide.

Pluto’s face is similar to how I looked every time I saw gelato on this trip – slightly deranged and full of joy.

But let’s go back to the scenery…

Future delicious olive oil

Can you guess what these adorable fuzzballs are?

Answer: Chestnuts!!

In the middle of the lemon farm was a villa, apparently owned by a Canadian guy who comes here in the summer to write. I must find this man and marry him.

Here is the view from the villa:

In case you wondered where your kiwis come from…
Pomegranates aplenty
Not a good place to trip. Steep drop off on one side of the path, 800 cacti on the other.
More stunning views from the farm

Toward the end of the tour, we were offered fresh figs plucked from the tree.

Best fig of my life

Below is the view looking back toward the farm. The white house at the top is where we started. The farm extended all the way down to the bottom of the cliff, with many interconnected tiers.

We then walked back into town. On the way, we spotted a beautiful miniature nativity scene. Throughout the Amalfi coast, you can find many nativity scenes nestled into the rocks.

I tried to grow cherry tomatoes on my balcony once. They did not look like this:

Our visit to the farm ended with delicious lemon treats, including fresh-squeezed lemonade, babas (limoncello-soaked pastries shaped like mushrooms), lemon bread, and…lemons. As alluded to in the title above, you can actually eat the lemons whole because they are so sweet. Even the rinds. And I did. This plate was devoured:

When the food comes out, so do the cats:

Joining us on the tour were two couples from Quebec. This offered the chance to try out my French, but my brain was so saturated with Italian, that I’m sure they seriously questioned the quality of French-language education in Ontario. I managed to muster “Il y a beaucoup des chats ici” in a poor effort to make conversation.

Side story about the cats of the Amalfi Coast: We took a snack break while hiking the Path of the Gods, stopping to eat in a small village en route to Positano. As the group began unwrapping homemade muffins, three cats appeared out of nowhere, meowing loudly. The cat lovers in the group ensured they were well-fed. I kept my muffin to myself.

Once we left the farm, we thought the tour had come to an end. Fortunately, we were wrong. We piled onto the bus again, and found ourselves heading toward Ravello, where we arrived at the factory where the lemons are packaged and processed.

The lemons are massive

Next, we watched a demonstration where we learned how to make limoncello, and were offered sample shots of different kinds of liqueur, including chocolate, fig and strawberry. You could then purchase various liqueurs or jars of babas.

As a parting gift, everyone was given a lemon to take home:

There was still one last surprise on this delightful tour. Steph and I opted out of lunch, which was an additional cost. So rather than taking the tour bus home, the tour company provided us with a lift back home in a “Ferrari.” It was kind of the best.

Approaching the town of Amalfi
Views from the backseat

This was one of the highlights of our trip. The lemon farm represents what makes the Amalfi Coast one of the best places to visit in Italy – wonderfully hospitable, and full of delicious food and breathtaking views. More posts on this land of sea, sun and lemons coming soon!

 

 

 

 

Italian Hallowe’en Decor: Witch Dolls to Haunt Your Dreams

On our last night in Rome, Steph and I went to a restaurant in the Trastevere neighbourhood. While I was downing a basket of bread, Steph left in search of the bathroom downstairs. She returned with a cryptic smile, “You should check out the bathrooms.” She wouldn’t give me any clues about why, and I completely forgot about her suggestion while I ate my way through a delicious bowl of pasta.  But eventually nature called, and I made my way to the basement stairs. I was not expecting what came next.

I burst into laughter when I turned the corner and began walking downstairs. I knew exactly why Steph hadn’t spoiled the surprise. This was the CREEPIEST BASEMENT IN ALL OF ROME. Lining the walls were dozens of super weird witch dolls.

Which witch doll is the scariest? Answer: ALL OF THEM.

Ok, this witch doll is kind of cute. But those hands…
This witch doll is absolutely terrifying. No redeeming qualities here.
Where did they even find these dolls?!

Note the miniature rat.
I love the juxtaposition of the dolls and the artwork on the wall.

Needless to say, while Hallowe’en may not be as big in Italy as it is in North America, you can still find some pretty spooky displays if you visit in October.

You can also find Hallowe’en themed gelato (which is only scary to your waistline):

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN, EVERYONE!!!!

 

9 Things You Should Know if You Travel to Naples

The first stop on my big Italian adventure was Naples. This is a much less touristy city, with lots to offer if you’re willing to look past its rougher edges. If you love Italy, and you want to feel fully immersed in southern Italian life, this is a fascinating place to go.

I travelled with my long-time friend Steph. Eight days of the trip were part of the Gadventures “Local Living Italy – Amalfi Coast” tour, while our first night in Naples and last four days in Rome were independently planned by us. This was an amazing tour, and I cannot say enough good things about it.

We were only in Naples for two nights, which is not nearly enough time to experience Italy’s third largest city. So my observations in this post are based solely on first impressions, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert.

Tip 1: Look in all directions. There’s an old saying about Naples – “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!” or in English, “See Naples and die.” The intention is that after you’ve seen Naples, you can die because you’ll never see another more beautiful city. In the modern day, you can interpret this phrase literally. If you don’t watch where you are going, you might get run over by a scooter. You have to be constantly vigilant. Even on a side street. There’s no such thing as a relaxing stroll through this city.

With that being said, the city is a visual feast, showcasing Italians’ daily lives. We watched families piled on a single Vespa – young kids without helmets, clutching mamma’s waist – unfazed while zooming down busy streets. Look up and see laundry hanging from almost every balcony, often with pulley systems going up multiple stories. You need not wonder what kind of underwear your neighbour is wearing – it’s on full display. Shopkeepers stand outside their stores, smoking cigarettes and watching the world go by, or gesturing while having animated calls on their cell phones.

Particularly delightful are the street shrines in almost every alleyway. One such shrine even had a life-sized Jesus (alas, not pictured). Here are some examples:

Graffiti in Italy often contains love messages or in this case, an adorable painting of a llama:

Tip 2: Don’t expect a peaceful night’s sleep. The night air is punctuated by the sound of accelerating Vespas, children wailing, men arguing in rapid-fire Italian, horns honking and dogs barking…all night long. On our second night, at around 4 am, a series of loud banging sounds went off. We were reassured the following morning that this was fireworks, and not a shoot-out. Apparently, Neapolitans believe in fireworks for all occasions – holidays, birthdays, Mondays.

Tip 3: Get ready to speak Italian. Naples offers the perfect opportunity to test out your Italian. Unlike northern Italy, our driver to the hotel explained that southern Italians often study Spanish instead of English in school. So if you start speaking Italian to a Neapolitan, they will respond accordingly.                       

Tip 4: Bring a map (or have one saved on your phone). The photo below perfectly illustrates why you will get lost in Naples:   

                                                                             

Tip 5: Must love dogs. We saw so many pooches – hanging out the windows of Fiats, peering down over balconies, or running through the cobblestone streets. Neapolitan dogs live free and die young, unneutered and often unleashed. There were almost as many pet supply stores as gelato shops.           

Tip 6: Watch life unfold in a piazza. Get some gelato, sit on a bench, and take in this city. As though from another era, children still play in the squares, kicking around a ball or throwing food at the pigeons, squabbling with each other and getting scolded by their parents.

Piazza Dante

Italy also takes its national security seriously. Every large piazza has at least two heavily armed military personnel with an accompanying jeep. This is a change from my last visit to Italy 9 years ago, but you can take in the view while knowing they’ve got your back. No, you cannot take pictures with the soldiers.

Tip 7: Take the stairs. To enjoy the view, expect to sweat. Steph and I decided to check out Castel Sant’Elmo. We didn’t realize just how many steps would be involved in this venture. According to the fitness app on Steph’s phone, we climbed 53 flights of stairs. My legs were literally shaking by the time we reached the top. But check out the view:

Upon reaching the top, you can find some family run cameo shops, with beautiful jewellery – perfect for souvenirs or gifts. Fortunately, there are also places to grab food, and more importantly, water – because you will definitely need some. There’s also nothing like eating pizza in Naples (the birthplace of pizza) while looking out over Mount Vesuvius and the coast.

Steph enjoying the view during the climb

Steph and I went to Certosa e Museo di San Martino (Charterhouse and Museum of St. Martin). There was an interesting display of nativity scenes inside, from miniature to life-sized, as well as beautiful garden views and an ancient courtyard. Here are some pics:

Lemon tree in the courtyard

Tip 8: If you order fish, no part is spared. I learned this the hard way. If you order a fish dish, it will come with the whole fish, eyeballs and all. They do this so that you can see that it is fresh. It also affords you the opportunity to look your meal in the eye. You can ask for it to then be skinned and deboned, although there will still be many tiny bones in the body of the fish. No, I (regretfully) don’t have a photo of the shiny fish I downed. No, I did not eat the eyeballs.

Tip 9: Drop the paranoia. So many blogs and articles make it sound like you will inevitably get mugged while walking through Naples. As with many large European cities, you want to exercise caution, and this might not be the city to walk around with a huge camera around your neck. With that being said, Steph and I felt relatively safe while walking around the city centre and had no unfortunate incidents, nor were we harassed.

We had to wait in the train station for a couple of hours while en route to Rome and were impressed by how modern the station was. There are multiple cafes and gift shops, including a large bookstore (very similar to Indigo) and clothing stores.

In hindsight, I wish I’d taken way more photos of this lively city and its exuberant inhabitants, but I was spending too much time dodging the scooters.

To finish off, here are some pics from our artsy hotel (Hotel Correra 241). This place had a delicious breakfast included. I had figs and prosciutto in combination for the first time, and haven’t stopped craving it since. They also offered delicious sfogliatelle, a pastry native to the region.

Breakfast area
The reception area. The captions on the hanging artwork say “I love eating fruits” and “How I’d love to sleep till noon.”
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” The walls had various quotes on them.
The hotel terrace was adjacent to someone’s private balcony, where a small German Shepherd puppy resided. He is barely visible in this pic, but was keeping an eye on us.