Back on mainland Italy; back in Gaeta, Berkeley East's winter marina for two consecutive years. We never imagined a return to our beloved Italia, but COVID thought otherwise, which presented us with an opportunity to revisit some of our favorite places in Italy. And a visit from Chris and Donna gave us the chance to share a few of those wonderful sites with good friends.
When Chris and Donna first talked about joining us on Berkeley East, we assumed we would be in Greece, so we spent much time discussing options in the islands. But when their work dictated an August vacation, Southern Italy became their destination. They had no preference where they went on their trip, they were coming to see us, wherever we were, wherever we were going.
It was a bit daunting to plan someone else's holiday, but we've known the couple for more than 40 years, and traveled with them extensively, so with the help of "What's App" we charted a whirlwind tour, on land, and sea. "What's App" is an app highly used in Italy (much of Europe in fact) as an alternative to texting. Whenever we would call a hotel, restaurant, car rental company and ask "parla inglese?" the reply would be a simple, "What's App me". And we did. Perhaps when we retire from cruising, we will become travel agents. How hard can it be?
We picked up our guests at the Rome Airport, in our newly rented (through "What's App") Mercedes Benz, and the adventure began. So much to see, so little time; 15 stops in nine days. Our stay in any one location would be very brief, but we hoped the memories would be lasting.
#1 - Orvierto - One of Umbria's loveliest towns, Orvierto is just a two-hour drive from Rome. The region known as the green heart of Italy, Umbria is recognized for its many medieval hill towns, lush landscapes and local cuisine, particularly truffles and Sagrantino wine. We had a quick walk around town, past the stunning 14th-century gothic cathedral, Orvierto's crowning glory. Under the town is a maze of Etruscan-era tunnels and grottos, some 2,500 years old, but there was no time to visit. A bite to eat, and we were off on a scenic drive through the hillside.
#2 - Adanti Winery - A winery that we have known for years, Azienda Agricola Adanti is one of the historic cellars of the Montefalco area in Umbria, famous for the production of protected wines such as Sagrantino and Montefalco Rosso. A sampling of some of Umbria's finest vinos and olive oil perked our jet-lagged passengers up. We quickly learned that food, drink, and naps in the car, kept them going.
#3 - Spello - Our arrival in our most loved Umbrian town, Spello, got our sleepy guests' attention. The entrance to Spello is a very narrow road between an ancient stone gate (knowing we would be driving in Spello, we learned how to fold the mirrors in on our rental vehicle in advance). In the gate, up the hill, through a mass of unexpected tourists. Comments from the back seat included "you can't drive up there". They were quite familiar with our driving escapades in foreign countries.
Spello sits in the foothills of Mount Subasio, a walled town, with seven ancient gates. Its winding streets and crumbly old churches attract tourists, photographers, and cruisers from around the world. Nearly every doorstep is adorned with plants and flowers, as if the residents are in a competition for who can have the most, or prettiest, arrangements. The town is also famous for the Church of St. Maria Maggiore and its frescoes that recount episodes from the life of Mary.
After check in at our favorite Spello hotel "Albergo il Cacciatore" there was time to relax. But just a few minutes, as our travel itinerary called for a 'Welcome to Italy" prosecco and dinner at our chosen restaurant, Enoteca Properzio, with Roberto.
#4 - Tili Vini - A good nights' sleep and we were off to Tili, a boutique organic family winery, for a winetasting brunch and comedy show. Maria and her daughter are not only amazing winemakers, chefs, and hosts, they are hilarious with their stories. We could have spent the entire day there being wined and dined and entertained, but Assisi awaited.
#5 - Assisi - While we had plenty to eat at Tili Vini, gelato and coffee were required to keep our California friends alert. Assisi is the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. The main site here is the Basilica of St. Francis, built in his honor. A massive, 2-level church, consecrated in 1253, it remains an important Christian pilgrimage site to this day.
#6 - Spoletto - Up early for the drive back to Berkeley East with a stop in Spoletto, a tangled medieval town in the foothills of the Apennines. Snug cobblestone streets, bright piazzas, and crumbling churches, much like the makeup of every Umbria hill town, but each has its own individual charm. A stop at the church for sodas and snacks to keep everyone awake for the road trip.
#7 - Gaeta - Apparently the backseat of our rented Mercedes was so comfortable, sleep was almost instantaneous for Chris and Donna. The drive from Umbria to Gaeta is mostly highway, an uneventful path, or so we thought. But a break for a bite to eat presented us with our first request for the Italian Green Pass, Italy's proof of COVID vaccine status, but only available to Italians. When we showed our CDC vaccine cards, which are supposed to be acceptable, the server just shook her head and told us to leave. Luckily boss man knew the rules and let us eat our sandwiches in peace. Back on BE, a quick tour of Gaeta, and we tossed off the dock lines.
#8 - Ponza - Dubbed by some as "Capri without the tourists," Ponza is off the beaten path, popular with Italians but without mass international visitors. Ponza is our absolute favorite island in Italy. Berkeley East and crew have spent more time anchored in Ponza than any other island. It was the perfect spot for a short breather from our hectic travel schedule.
#9 - Procida - The long passage (seven hours) to Procida gave our passengers time to catch up on sleep, day five and they were almost adjusted to European time. A tiny spot of land (under two square miles) in the Bay of Naples, Procida might be best known as the island between Ischia and Capri. We did a drive by of Ischia, but we prefer the slow pace of Procida and love the view from the harbor, a cluster of traditional houses, each one painted in vivid colors that light up with sunset.
#10 - Capri - Perhaps Italy's most famous and most visited island, the Isle of Capri is packed with tourists in summer, and its bays are littered with super yachts, charter and tour boats. The atmosphere is chaotic, but it is still a magical place. The origin of the Caprese Salad, one of our tastiest Italian meals, we stopped at the island for lunch (a Caprese Salad), and a swim, under the Faraglioni, three towering rock formations jetting out of the sea.
#11 - Amalfi - The town that gives its name to the Italy's most beautiful stretch of coastline, the Amalfi Coast, Amalfi was the first of the Four Maritime Republics of Italy, and for a long time had the monopoly of trade with the East. Clusters of white houses that cling to rock are linked by covered alleys and steep staircases.
Taking Berkeley East into the tight marina in Amalfi requires the special skill of the proprietor, Giulio. Typically, with one hand on the wheel, a cell phone or cigarette in the other, looking around while talking, Giulio swings boats into small spaces with expert precision. One day we came back to the marina to find BE in a completely different place than we had left her, with no idea how Giulio had gotten her there, as he didn't have the key.
#12 - Positano is one of the best-known places on the Amalfi Coast, recognized for its picturesque staircases and whitewashed houses. A fast ferry ride from Amalfi, we had a few hours to explore and take in the breathtaking panoramas before moving on.
#13 - Ravello - Having seen the Amalfi Coast by sea, we hired a car to experience it by land. The views are stunning, along the coast road, and from up the hill in Ravello, home to one of the oldest music festivals in Italy. But just as we turned towards Ravello, a "water bomb" exploded, the sky opened to a most unusual August torrential downpour. It was the kind of storm that you read about with flash floods, cars being washed from the road. And you wonder what the people were thinking, why were they out in weather like that?
#14 - Mt. Vesuvius - While we had been to every other stop on our itinerary at least once before, we always wanted to go to Vesuvius, so we added another Italian wonder to the plan and drug our guests up to the famous volcano's crater. During the two-hour drive from Amalfi to Vesuvius, we enjoyed the mountain road view as our driver/tour guide "Super Mario" shared the area's history. Mount Vesuvius is one of only two active, and one of the largest, volcanos in Continental Europe, towering about 1281 meters tall, with a symmetrical central cone and steep wooded slopes. Sadly, its claim to fame is the eruption in 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii and the surrounding ancient cities of the Roman Empire. A walk around the crater revealed the sheer power of that eruption.
#15 - Pompei -When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it engulfed two flourishing Roman towns, Pompei and Herculaneum, as well as the many villas in the area. While the lava from the eruption flowed to Herculaneum, Pompei was smothered in ash. Since the mid-18th century, the ruins have been continually excavated and as the ash was removed the vast expanse of the commercial town of Pompei became visible in its well-preserved buildings. It is the only archaeological site in the world that provides a complete picture of an ancient Roman city. On this visit to Pompei, we splurged on a private, guided tour and learned many little-known facts about the town. Our guide pointed out things like speed bumps in the road to slow the chariots, and signs which indicated what "services" were provided by the ladies.
One more quiet night enjoying Berkeley East and Amalfi brought Mary and Larry's "Excellent Adventure" Tour to an end. Designed to give our friends, Chris and Donna, 15 reasons to love Italy in nine days, it was exhausting, but we believe even fleeting moments are worth the effort in this fantastic country. And there was an added benefit of the tour: good friends enjoying each other's company and creating new memories. A big thanks to Chris and Donna for making the trip during a difficult time.