All posts by mlknoll

“Sicilia Bedda”

“Sicilia bedda”  is dialect for “Sicilia bella”. Perhaps when you think of Sicily, you picture old ladies dressed in black shuffling across ancient cobblestone streets in villages surrounded by bleak and dry rocky hills. That was the image I had after seeing a couple Godfather films.  My wife and I traveled there in April of 2012 before the heat and crowds of summer.

The images I had of Sicily were illusions and I was ready to experience a different reality. I found a cheapo flight (its a little more than an hour) from Rome to Palermo . We couldn’t  believe we got all our bags on with little extra charge. It must have been because Gianni our surrogate nephew and gate agent for Delta helped us check in.

There is a rail spur at the airport that connects to Palermo’s main rail station. Considering our load of bags and the pitfalls of navigating a large city, I had decided to sidestep Palermo. After wrestling the bags on and off the airport train and running to get the connecting train to Cefalu,  a couple of fellow travelers helped us heft the bags on board. We found seats on the steps at the end of our car. Yikes! that wasn’t fun.

Cefalu old town
Cefalu old town
Cefalu overshadowed by La Rocca (The Rock)
Cefalu overshadowed by La Rocca (The Rock)
Sea View from our studio apartment
Sea View from our studio apartment

Cefalu is a picturesque medieval town of about 14,000. Its a well known and well trod tourist destination, but it was just the right size and place for our first Sicilian stop.  We found a sea view studio a few steps from the old town center.

La Rocca, a massive rocky hill of over 900 feet, towers over Cefalu.  I climbed it a couple of times. It is a perfect place to escape the more crowded town. Most folks lack the ambition or motivation for such a climb. The views of the town, sea and coastline are stunning. Remnants of a Norman citadel cap the top and there is a Temple of Dianna ruin on the way up.

Cefalu from atop La Rocca
Cefalu from atop La Rocca
Temple of Diana (4th or 5th century)
Temple of Diana (4th or 5th century)
Cefalu and coastline from atop La Rocca
Cefalu and coastline from atop La Rocca

 

If the sights and atmosphere of Cefalu  with its narrow lanes and beautiful piazzas charmed us, the same could not be said about the restaurant scene. We didn’t find one that really pleased us. We ate off Styrofoam plates with plastic silverware at Trip Advisor’s top rated restaurant. The owners were friendly, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was being hustled.

Lonely Planets’ Sicily guidebook warned me that the place was pretty touristy.  We didn’t encounter any Americans, but
Germans were everywhere, large groups, small groups, couples and singles. What the Germans failed to do militarily, they have  accomplished economically. Outside of the Germans we encountered a smattering of French and English folks.

 

Cefalu's cathedral. 12th century Norman construction
Cefalu’s cathedral. 12th century Norman construction
Cefalu, typical street scene
Cefalu, typical street scene

The most outstanding landmark within Cefalu is the cathedral, a Norman  construction with outstanding mosaics within.  Like most Italian towns,  the piazza outside is the main open space and a very pleasing site. Considering its charms and picturesque settings its no surprise that the director of Cinema Paradiso chose Cefalu to films some of its scenes.

Old town street scene
Old town street scene
Cefulu old town bordering the sea
Cefulu old town bordering the sea

 

A couple of days was plenty to see and explore Cefalu. At this point I rented a car and we  were ready to explore the surrounding countryside.

 

Who needs a hotel?

Before the internet changed all the rules, you made a hotel reservation by phone, through a travel agent, or just showed up. Cancelation was a simple phone call. The choices were limited.

Nowadays things are not so simple. Choices and deals abound, but so do the pitfalls. I recently lost almost 50,000 frequent flyer miles because there  was  no cancellation option for a hotel reservation I made with miles on the internet.

Over the recent years, we’ve made quite a few trips, but with few or no stops in hotels. You might be wondering how we managed that. The answer is simple, the vacation rental apartment or house. There are quite a number of sites on the internet offering vacation rentals. My favorite is www.homeaway.com. There are many others including VRBO – vacation rentals by owner.

There are several advantages to renting an apartment or house. It can save you lots of money. Apartments and houses are almost always larger than hotel rooms and always include kitchens.

We usually rent one large enough to accommodate guests as most of our stays include visits from  family or friends.  Having a kitchen and being able to prepare meals, not only saves money, but  gives the stay new dimensions. Continually eating in restaurants is expensive and can become monotonous. Shopping for groceries puts you in the shoes of a local.

Instead of dealing with a large impersonal organization, most often you contact the property owner and develop a one on one relationship. I’ve never had a problem with a property owner in all the time we have been renting this way. Down payments are usually high, up to 50% with the remainder due upon arrival. If there is a delay in arriving you can lose a day or two of the rent. Remember its essential to deal with a reputable website.

For the budget minded, there are dozens of house exchange sites on the internet. Also one can find a place to stay for free in exchange for caring for the owner’s pets. Try trustedhousesitters.com.

This type of travel is truly independent. In many cases renting a car is necessary. If you are not comfortable driving look for something in a city or near public transportation.

We’ve stayed in a sea view house in Costa Rica, a language school in Panama (room with private bath @ $25 per night),  a 2 bedroom apartment in Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires, a Trullo (renovated rustic farm structure) in Puglia, Italy, a Scuderia (renovated stable) in a villa just outside of Florence, a huge 4 bedroom, 3 bath house in Umbria, a third floor walkup with  of view of St. Peter’s dome in Rome to name some of the more memorable.

If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture and or practice a foreign language, this is the way to go.

Language school in Boquete, Panama'
Language school in Boquete, Panama’
Dome of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome from our rental apartment
Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome from our rental apartment
Rental house in Samara', Costa Rica
Rental house in Samara’, Costa Rica
Twilight storm clouds over the Pacific Samara', Costa Rica
Twilight storm clouds over the Pacific
Samara’, Costa Rica

 

 

Rental Trullo surrounded by olive and cherry orchard in Puglia, Italy
Rental Trullo surrounded by olive and cherry orchard in Puglia, Italy

Abruzzo

You’ve been to Florence. You’ve been to Rome. You’ve been to Venice,  and Milan too. Now what? How about Abruzzo to satisfy your Italian appetite?

But where or what is Abruzzo? Answer – Abruzzo is one of Italy’s least know regions; it’s not even mentioned in some of the guidebooks. It’s only a couple of hours northeast of Rome, reachable by the auto-strada, bus or train.

Because my wife’s stepfather’s family lives there and because Abruzzo is one of Italy’s most diverse, beautiful and interesting parts, we decided to concentrate our visit there early this past summer. It was to be the best part of the best trip we ever made to Italy.

We stayed in Silvi Alta, a  medieval village overlooking the Adriatic Coast about 30 minutes northwest of Pescara, Abruzzo’s principle seaport.  The views of the coast with its tiled roofs and rolling hills were stunning and the beaches were only 3 miles down the hill.

On our first evening in Silvi Alta, I found a wonderful outdoor restaurant, Taverna Ferretti, overlooking the Adriatic Coast, a mere 100-yard stroll from our rental apartment. There were no menus, nothing written on a chalkboard, only an amazingly knowledgeable server named Alex who was there to guide the diners through several memorable meals. The cold and hot seafood “antipasti”(appetizers) were fantastic.

In the evening a couple of days later when we had just emerged from the passageway to the main piazza of Silvi Alta when I heard a voice call Mike, Mike. My first thought was that no one knows me here, it must be another Mike. I was wrong it was Marta and Toni, our grand niece and nephew by way of my wife’s stepfather.  Toni and Marta visited us in Arizona several years ago. They knew we were staying in Silvi Alta, but not where. This was the beginning  of a couple of weeks of intense feasting, touring and socializing.

Marta and Toni gave us personalized tours of the area. We  saw a World War II Canadian cemetery (Moro River War Cemetery)  and learned of our allies’ role in taking the Italian Peninsula  back from the Germans. We also took a ride up to the Majella National Park  with its forests and ski runs. The Majella is one of tallest peaks south of the Alps complete with wolves, otters and chamois.

In almost three weeks with family and friends, we barely scratched the surface of Abruzzo. I’m sure we’ll be back.

.

Silvi Marina and the Adriatic Coast from Silvi Alta
Silvi Marina and the Adriatic Coast from Silvi Alta
Outdoor seating at Taverna Ferretti
Outdoor seating at Taverna Ferretti
Mike & Ada at the edge of Ada's stepfather's village of Acri
Mike & Ada at the edge of Ada’s stepfather’s village of Acri
Mike, Marta (out Abruzzese grand niece) and Ada
Mike, Marta (out Abruzzese grand niece) and Ada

On to Sorrento

The Faraglioni under the clouds and mist.
The Faraglioni under the clouds and mist.

The day we left Capri it was overcast and threatening rain. I climbed Monte Solaro one last time and got some views with clouds. The atmosphere presented a brooding mood. It gave me a whole new perspective.

The ferry carried us to Sorrento in less than half the time it took from Naples. We stayed in a B & B in Sant’Agnello, the next town east of Sorrento on the way to Naples. There is a convenient and useful commuter line, The Curcumvesuviana , that runs into the heart of Naples with a stop at Pompeii . We planned three nights in Sant’Agnello which effectively gave us two full days. One for Pompeii and the other for a tour of the Amalfi Coast. Alas, the best laid plans —-.

Our B & B served us well, even if it was somewhat nondescript. The breakfast and coffee were good and our hostess helpful.  She advised us to go to Pompeii the next day as it was a national holiday and the entrance would be free. We set out for Pompeii with great expectations of a day of discovery and wonder. When we arrived at the gates, they were closed. It seems the Italians who worked there decided they deserved a holiday too. These kind of events are common in Italy and include spur of the moment rail strikes.

Plan B was to travel back towards Sorrento and get off at Castallammare di Stabia where a cable car was to whisk up to Monte Faito . The mountain offers hiking and spectacular views of the Bay Naples as well as both sides of the Sorrento Peninsula.

We were packed and stacked on the Circumvesuviana mostly with a large group of  Slavs. To me, all their languages sound almost the same. Upon getting off the train, I felt relieved to be free of the crowd. The platform was almost empty when I started down the steps that led to the underpass of the tracks. I heard a voice from above asking me in English if I could help him out. He was standing on the platform with his wife and toddler in a stroller. So I started up the steps and when I arrived he explained to me that there were two thugs waiting below to mug us.

Since I was facing the young man, I didn’t see them when they appeared at the bottom of the steps cursing the lot of us. My wife saw them gesturing. Yikes!! We missed a very bad time by seconds. If that guy and his family hadn’t been there, we would have lost all our valuables and been roughed up badly. The young Italian explained that these guys were drug addicts who hung around the station waiting to prey on unsuspecting tourists. He said they had been in and out prison.

We got on the next train with the young family and rode all the way to Sorrento marveling at our good fortune. and breathing sighs of relief. Plan C was to wander around with the holiday crowds in Sorrento. We visited the Giardini di Cafaldo, a wonderfully restful and relaxing orange and lemon grove which produces  lemon liquors – Limoncellos.

As we were stepping off a curb in the middle of Sorrento, my wife Ada stumbled and started to fall backward, only to be caught by the wife of the young man who had rescued us from our near mugging. Upon righting Ada, she said in Italian  “How many times do I have to rescue you. That day we truly had some guardian angels.

The Village Church in the main piazza of Sant'Agnello
The Village Church in the main piazza of Sant’Agnello
Cruise ship anchored just off Sorrento
Cruise ship anchored just off Sorrento

 

 

 

Capri by water

 

 

Unless you suffer from riding in a small boat on a slightly rolling sea, no visit to Capri is complete without a boat trip around the island. A 2 1/4 hour circuit costs about 15e and if you want to enter the Blue Grotto its an additional 12e. There is a stop along the way where you transfer to a small row boat and duck under the low entrance to the grotto. Try to pick a sunny day as the brilliance of the blue is much more intense with bright sunlight. The reflected light in this semi sea cave is spectacular. When the seas are too rough small boating activities are cancelled.

The circular boat tour will ferry you up to and past all the main attractions including the Faraglioni, Green Grotto, Blue Grotto, the lighthouse, the Picola Marina. In between hundreds of hillside villas look out over the blue waters of the Bay of Naples. The cruise delivers scenic delights as well as informative narrative of the history and life of the island.

For the more adventurous, kayaks can be rented for 15e and hour. The Rough Guide suggests that a circular tour takes about 5 hours. Given the nature of wind and waves, that seems like an optimistic estimate.

Probably the most unpleasant locale on Capri is the Marina Grande. Its unavoidable unless you can afford to hire a helicopter to carry you back and forth. The marina is the main arrival and embarkation point between Naples and Sorrento as well as the start and  ending point for most of the boat tours. Large ferries come and go during the day unloading hoards of day trippers who swarm mostly over the lower part of the island and Capri town.  The cafes and restaurants that face the marina offer overpriced and tasteless snacks.  By late afternoon or early evening the crowds leave making Capri a much more relaxing and enjoyable place. On can stroll the lanes of Capri town without bumping into groups of unruly sightseers.

 

 

The Green Grotto
The Green Grotto
The Faraglioni from water level.
The Faraglioni from water level.
The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse
The Grotto della Maddonna
The Grotto della Maddonna
Looking back across the water
Looking back across the water
The Marina Grande
The Marina Grande

Capri – Revistied

There are two main centers on Capri, Capri town and Anacapri. Capri town or Capri is better known, a bit more picturesque and much more trafficked. It is full of upscale shops, cafes and restaurants. On the other hand, Anacapri (the prefix Ana in Greek, translated loosely, means an elevated place), is 300 meters higher than Capri. To get there you ride a bus or taxi up a hair raising narrow road full of switchbacks. If you are afraid of heights close your eyes or don’t go there. In any case, its worth the trip as is a good place to explore the upper island and avoid the crowds at the lower elevations.

We spent three nights in a Bed and Breakfast just above Anacapri. In addition to Monte Solaro (the highest point on Capri) , we visited Villa San Michelle, a nineteenth-century Neo Classical Mediterranean Villa built and dwelt in by Axel Munte, a Swedish nineteenth-century physician, psychiatrist, philanthropist, naturalist and writer.   Wow!! what a wonderfully preserved villa with all the original furnishings. We wandered through the spacious rooms and then made our way to the beautiful and peaceful gardens. The whole place was built on the top of a precipice overlooking the Marina Grande (the main embarkation point of the island) and the ever present blue sea. The views amazed and mesmerized us.

Entryway to Villa San Michelle
Entryway to Villa San Michelle
Kitchen Stove - Villa San Michelle
Kitchen Stove – Villa San Michelle
In the garden of Villa San Michelle
In the garden of Villa San Michelle

07-08 110

Marina Grande from Villa San Michelle
Marina Grande from Villa San Michelle
View of Marina Grande from Villa San Michelle
View of Marina Grande from Villa San Michelle
Close-up of Marina Grande from Villa San Michelle
Close-up of Marina Grande from Villa San Michelle

 

I climbed Monte Solaro several times during our stay just above Anacapri. On the way down from my first assent I got off the trail on to some rugged rocks and upon my return to our B & B, I noticed my cell phone was missing. Yikes! it was a loaner from a friend back in the States. I guessed I must have dropped descending over rough and rocky terrain. The next morning the owner’s wife lent me her cell phone in hope that I might hear it ring when I neared it. So up I went not expecting any positive outcome. To my great surprise someone answered the phone on my first try.  Expecting a native, I tried Italian. No luck with that. The lady on the other end spoke very fluent English.  As it turned out, she was a Norwegian psychologist attending a conference on Capri. As the Italians say “Che cullo”- what luck. I was saved from buying a new cell phone. After profusely thanking this kind and alert lady and with the cell phone firmly buttoned in one of the pockets of my shorts, I continued up to the top of the mountain.

Cross planted on top of Monte Solaro
Cross planted on top of Monte Solaro
Chair lift to Monte Solaro
Chair lift to Monte Solaro – The easy way up
I Faraglioni - The signature rock formation of Capri - Close up from a top Monte Solaro
I Faraglioni – The signature rock formation of Capri – Close up from a top Monte Solaro
Sea View from Monte Solaro
Sea View from Monte Solaro

More on Capri later

 

 

Capri – The world’s most beautiful tourist trap

Looking North towards Sorrento and Mt. Vesuvius
Looking North towards Sorrento and Mt. Vesuvius

Bella Capri!!  Haunt of the rich and famous, place of sexual excesses from Emperor Tiberius to the Marquis de Sade. Hold on, there is a lot more to Capri. Rising from limestone cliffs and surrounded by the deep blue waters of the bay of Naples, it has many quiet refuges far from the maddening crowds of day trippers that infest it.

Capri was to be part of our tour of the region in and around Naples  including  Sorrento  and the Amalfi Coast. I was determined not to be trapped, planning the trip for early May to avoid the summer crowds and heat.  Although there is plenty of information on the internet, I almost always purchase a printed guide for the region we’re planning to visit. Some are better than others, but  I have never found one I didn’t like or one that wasn’t very useful.

“Know before you go” is some of the best advice one can get when traveling. I never undertake a trip without doing a lot of research. Its as much fun as the actual travel and it pays off big time in avoiding common pitfalls.  If you plan on traveling independently, it pays to do your homework. If you have neither the time nor inclination, finding a travel planner/designer is money well spent.

After spending several days sight seeing in and around Naples, we took the boat to Capri. A side trip to Caserta to meet my wife’s cousin and family left no time to see the Palazzo Reale or any other point of interest in Caserta.  Alas, having family in Italy is a two edged sword. That being said, the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks.

Looking back across the Bay of Naples toward Napoli.
Looking back across the Bay of Naples toward Napoli.

 

The trip across the Bay of Naples was sunny and pleasant. Upon arrival at the Marina Grande boat dock on Capri we got in a long line for the bus ride up the hill to Anacapri (its much quieter, less hectic than Capri and has stunning views). After about a 1/2 hour wait in line for the bus, we opted with another couple to split the cost of an open topped taxi.

Looking East towards the mainland. The Faraglioni are on the lower right.
Looking East towards the mainland. The Faraglioni are on the lower right.
The signature Faraglioni
The signature Faraglioni

Our  B & B was situated just above Anacapri at the base of Monte Solaro, the highest point on Capri. The views were fantastic, the room comfortable and the breakfast adequate. The bathroom had beautiful blue tiles, but was not vented properly and consequently, there was always a slight odor. I was to climb Monte Solaro several times before we left. There is a chair lift to the top for those who unable or unwilling to make the climb. I used my legs both ways and saved the cost of a ride, 7e up and 10e roundtrip.

More on Capri latter.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to my blog

DSCN0213

The Possibilities are Limitless

Welcome to anyone who has stumbled upon my blog site. Some of the best things that have happened to me have been seeming accidents.  So if you have gotten here by accident, it is my hope you will return in the days and weeks to come. I intend to share with you some of my more salient travel experiences as well as provide practical information on how to get the most out of travel.

Over the years I have logged a lot of miles to some very interesting places. I’m sure there are many who have greatly surpassed me. No matter, its the individual experience that counts. My mind holds a treasure trove of sights, sounds and experiences which bubble up from whenever I summon them. The most treasured are the connections I’ve made with people I’ve met along the way.  For me, there is no greater joy than discovering and getting to know a fellow human from a distant land. When we scratch the surface, we realize we are basically similar with the same wants and needs.

Again, I hope you will visit soon and enjoy my stories.

Connector