Saturday, May 28, 2011

Torremolinos on $85 a Day – The Alhambra

Gaudy, overdone, elaborate, and stunning are adjectives David and I had heard to describe the Alhambra, but since it's one of Europe's most popular attractions and only an hour and a half drive from Torremolinos, we couldn't resist going for our own evaluation. Constructed over a period of many years beginning in 1237 until roughly 1391, this palace was home to the Nasrid princes. In these three separate palaces joined by walkways and gardens, the sultan's harem, including both male and female beauties, were housed.

At first, the unprepossessing red building (“alhambra” means “red”) appears austere, but the sumptuous palaces within belie the exterior. Room after room is covered in scroll work and lattice etching that seem to cover every surface while the floors are an intricate mosaic of tiles. One of the main rooms in one of the palaces took thirty years to complete! Much of the scroll work was completed in molds, but the guide showed us many wall details that were carved by hand.

Torremolinos on $85 a Day - South Beach Meets Sun City

A view from our balcony.
Sitting here on our apartment's glassed-in balcony, I can see six bars in the pedestrian-only, wider than-a-city-street-square that stretches for several blocks, but there are at least five more on the lower level beneath our Nogalera apartment complex, and probably forty more further down the way. No one ever need go thirsty in Torremolinos, Spain.

Benches line either side of the square and restaurants, including Burger King, have outdoor tables and chairs to facilitate people-watching. Birds soar through this man-made cavern, delighting in the fountains and circles of carefully tented grass, trees and flowers, but it is man who dominates the space

Backpackers stride through the area—the train station exit is 200 yards from our apartment entrance—while gray-haired men glide their wheelchairs across the marble tiles that make up the square. The first morning we were here, the music of native Americans playing Peruvian flute songs floated up to our seventh-story windows, and last night we watched a man juggling three sticks of fire in the dusky charcoal sky that comes to southern Spain late in the evening around 10:00.
Town of Antequara
While the local church just rang twelve bells to let us know the afternoon is officially beginning, there's little else here that is traditionally Spanish so it's not a spot we would have chosen if it weren't for our friends, former neighbors of mine in Ajijic, Mexico, who live here. We do have everything we need—three supermarkets within a few blocks, all the entertainment we could desire just outside our windows, and a view of the sea—but it is our friends who make this last part of our trip meaningful.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sorrento on $85 a Day - Sorrento's Siren Song

From our apartment overlooking the sea, David and I walk half a block to the steps leading down to another street of shops and alleyways in this cliff side town. Just down this street is a cleft in the earth where what appears to be a castle covered with vines sits, home only to the birds that soar through the canyon. A little waterfall plays over a bank and the stream winds through this Eden of ferns and trees. There are no paths leading to the cleft. No one goes there. It can only be seen from above, tantalizing everyone who passes with the promise of a Shangri-La* that can only be seen, never experienced.

This is a place of cliffs that march to the sea, of narrow winding streets, and a sea that beckons. We have listened to its Siren Song and been willing captives.

We will be sad to leave this enchanting place tomorrow.

*The cleft in the earth, with its own ecosystem, was caused, so the experts tell me, by the Phlegrean Fields earthquake in the 1800s. They say the ruins are a former paper mill and that more accessible parts of the cleft, closer to the marina, allow a road to double back on itself between the cliffs. Note the three vehicles in the photo.

The experts can believe what they like. I know what David and I saw every day when we walked to town--a castle in a private Garden of Eden.

Herculaneum and Pompeii Tips

You do not need to take an organized tour to see either of these remarkable sites. The Circumvesuviana Train, a local one that runs only from Naples to Sorrento, has stops at both places.

Herculaneum is the smaller of the two sites and better preserved.  Ironically, the volcanic mud which instantaneously killed the town's population almost two thousand years ago, preserved much of the town's buildings and artifacts by "freezing" things in a concrete-type sludge.  Pompeii, on the other hand, was covered in ash and therefore much easier to loot over the years.  Much more of Pompeii has been uncovered, but  you may not find it quite as interesting to see.

Herculaneum - Exit at Ercolano (Herculaneum) Scavi (“scavi” means “ruins”), and follow the brown directional signs toward town and down the hill. The walk is about eight blocks and then there is a very long sloping entrance taking you down into the site itself.

There are a few cafes in town right before the entrance and bathrooms and a bookstore near the ticket booths, but no facilities in the ruins themselves. If you go on a warm day, you will want to take plenty of water and a hat. Also, the walking surfaces at both sites is, of course, uneven so it's imperative to wear comfortable shoes.

Pompeii - The Circumvesuviana Train exit for Pompei Scavi deposits you very close to the entrance. It's only a few hundred feet, past a few open-air restaurants and tourist stalls, to the ticket/bookstore/bathroom area. The entrance to Pompeii is up a long hill covered in uneven paving stones. If you have mobility issues or heart problems, there is another way to access the site; ask at the front desk.

Both sites rent audio guides for 5 euros each or you can hire a personal guide.

A train ticket that is “good” all day so you can use it to go to Herculaneum and then Pompeii and back to your apartment, is 6.20 euros. Each site costs 11 euros admission or you can buy one ticket good for all the sites (There are five altogether: Pompeii, Herculaneum and three lesser know, much smaller, sites.) for 20 euros. Note that the 20 euro ticket can be used for three consecutive days, but will only admit you to each site once.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sorrento on $85 a Day – Pizza and Penises

Doorbells Used in Pompeii and Herculaneum
David and I both wanted to go to Naples. The National Archaeological Museum houses most of the art, floor mosaics, architectural details, and household items removed from Herculaneum and Pompeii, leaving, as David said, the lava/ash covered cities as simple shells while the true “life” of those cities is displayed and protected in the Museum, one of the world's best. Of all the magnificent places we planned to see on the trip, this is the one David anticipated the most.

I wanted to go to Naples for the pizza.

Not just any pizza. I wanted to taste the stuff Liz Gilbert rhapsodized about in her book Eat, Pray, Love. When her friend heard she was going to Naples for the day, he told her she had to eat at Pizzeria da Michele. No matter what happened or what else she saw in the city, she should not miss this pizza; if she didn't go, he wanted her to lie and say she did.

We're not the only people to make the trek to this unprepossessing pizza spot just a few blocks from the Napoli Centrale train station. Movie stills from Eat, Pray, Love of Julia Roberts, with slice in hand, decorate the walls, and diners have their photos taken with the owner. When we left, the line stretched across the street.

And the double-mozzarella Margherita pizza? It's runny and impossible to pick up and eat using your hands (Julia Roberts can evidently do things mere mortals cannot.), but it is good. I kept wishing we'd ordered two instead of splitting one order.

But it's not my favorite pizza. Liz Gilbert's preference is fine, but give me thick, Sicilian pizza that has some heft to it. It's weighty stuff with a thick, airy crust and a medley of tomatoes, spices, and cheese on top. The best, of course, is in Capri at the Salumeria Rosticeria. I first tasted it seven years ago and found it again on this trip. Pizza like this you don't forget.

I could have lingered at the restaurant, but David was anxious to see the Museum and it was immediately obvious why this place was so important to him. The mosaics and wall scenes are remarkably detailed and colorful. The sculptures and bronzes are impressive and varied with many of the gods and goddesses represented. I was in awe that people could have created such fragile, delicately hued glass vases and jars almost two thousand years ago, because many of the pieces are masterpieces of craftsmanship. But the area that really astonished me was the section devoted to erotic art.

Sorrento on $85 a Day – Amalfi Coast Drive

Note the road clinging to the cliff on the right side of the photo.
 Who wouldn't love a roller-coaster ride that whips around hairpin turns and sweeps down cliffs bordering some of the world's most picturesque white-washed villages while the ever-present sea waits patiently to claim any driver who makes a false move?
This hour and a half thrill ride, always in the top-ten of most beautiful drives in the world, is an inexpensive must-do for anyone visiting Sorrento.

While David and I sat on the chock-full, four people standing-in-the-aisle bus waiting either for last minute stragglers or for the driver to work up his courage, the Australians across from us warned that some people who sat where we were sitting—on the right side of the bus—became so frightened of the view and the realization that they were seconds and an eighth of an inch away from sure death—that they had to move to the other side of the bus.

We tried to laugh. I prayed the driver had gotten a good night's sleep.

We finally took off, swaying this way and that, shooting around corners beeping the horn as we went to warn other drivers there was a maniac on the loose.

I was in the window seat in the very last row of the bus and finally decided the only way I'd survive would be to take photos, pretending that I wasn't actually “there” but merely recording the scene passing in front of me.

Somewhere around Positano, David, who looked white and felt clammy joked that, If your stomach is queasy, this drive isn't easy.

We thought about getting off, but David decided he could make it if we moved to a different seat.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sorrento on $85 a Day - What's on the Menu

When David and I return to the States, I will have to find a twelve-step program for bufala mozzarella.

When we buy five or six of the little balls bobbing about in the briney solution that makes them special, David and I always pretend that "we" will enjoy the cheese on salads and in omelettes, but we both know that I'll be the one sneaking in the refrigerator to devour as many slices as I think I can get away with. Poor David doesn't stand a chance.

But he doesn't go hungry.  We eat extraordinarily well really.  On Saturday, when we moved into our apartment, we shopped the grocery store and discovered a pastry/take-out shop two doors away that has the best cannoli in Sorrento, as well as other delicacies that fill the need for a  quick, delicious supper. 

Here's an example of what one of our typical-vacation-suppers might be. 

This is a slice of pizza rustica from the pastry/take-out shop (It may have "pizza" in the name, but this is more like a quiche of ham and cheese. This is so good I could eat it every day, but then I'd need two twelve-step programs.), a generous handful of salad greens from the bag we bought at the grocery store tossed with an oil and balsamic vinegar dressing (We found the oil and vinegar in the cupboard when we moved in to the apartment.), a thick slice of freshly made bread from the bakery, locally churned butter, and a cannoli for dessert.   The total cost for this feast is 4.80 euro per person.

As I said, David doesn't get much of the mozzarella, but he really doesn't mind when we can eat delicious meals like this!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sorrento on $85 a Day – Capri and Anacapri

Capri Marina
This island about forty minutes by hydrofoil from Sorrento has so many tchotchke stands and tourists it is difficult to appreciate its beauty at first. All that clutter gets in the way. But get out of the marina area where someone is either asking you to take a tour for only 100 euros or eat here at his special restaurant, and you begin to appreciate the beauty of this magical place.

Seven-seater bus
David and I took the funicular from the marina up to Capri, walked around long enough for me to find my beloved pizza market, and then took what I'm sure is the tiniest bus in the world to Anacapri. It seats seven people. Yes, seven! Of course, most people end up standing in the center aisle and holding on while they sway around the hairpin turns. As you round a corner, seemingly suspended over a sheer drop down to the sea a thousand feet below, you experience one of life's greatest cheap thrills!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Italy on $85 a Day - Sorrento

Path to Villa Angiolina
David and I are in the land of the Sirens, the mythological beings who sang so beguilingly that anyone who heard their song would jump overboard and die in the rough sea.

When Odysseus passed this way on his twenty-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, he stuffed his men's ears with wax so they would not hear the Sirens' songs; he had his men tie him to the mast of the boat so that he could listen without fear of leaping to his death.

David and I haven't felt any urge to jump into the sea, but this land has played a Siren song for us nevertheless. If we had come here first on this trip, we may never have gotten to Rome and Florence!

On Thursday, the fast train deposited us in Naples in three hours flat. The clackety local Circumvesuviana Train got us to this bit of paradise just an hour after that, but the taxi driver had to drop us off 100 meters from our hotel. The “road” was too narrow for him to navigate.

It was the first time all day we didn't mind trundling along with the suitcases. From the moment we walked down the narrow path, a loggia, really, of overhead grape vines, blooming yellow roses, and profusions of pastel colored orchids to Villa Angiolina Relais, we were enchanted.

Villa Angiolina breakfast room
We cannot get into our apartment for two nights, so we'll stay in this lovely B&B until then. We'll enjoy exploring the gardens here as well as this land of the Sirens, a place of soaring mountains, crayon-blue sea, and clusters of houses clinging to the cliffs.

Friday we're going to Capri and Anacapri, sister towns on the same island. I'm hoping to find the little market where I bought true Sicilian-style pizza seven years ago, but, if not, the scenery will be food enough.

Practicalities -
We used the Trenitalia website before we left the States to reserve our tickets.  This is, I think, the only way to get discounted tickets (called MINI) and the best routing.  The Ron in Rome! website has an excellent step-by-step guide to purchasing tickets.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Florence on $85 a Day – The Duomo Up Close

David and I waited in line for about ten minutes today to finally see the inside of the dome that dominates every view in this town. It's easy to understand why the architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, is considered a genius. Even Michelangelo was said to be in awe of it.

As beautiful as the Duomo is, there's an interesting surprise waiting downstairs. In addition to Brunelleschi's tomb and the inevitable gift shop, 3 euros earns you admission to the excavation of Santa Reparata, the original cathedral of Florence. This cathedral, which is seen as proof that Christianity existed in the 3rd century, was named for Saint Reparata, a virgin who was martyred when she was twelve years old for refusing to denounce her Christian faith.
We enjoyed seeing this early cathedral that seemed to serve as the footprint for the more modern Duomo as much as the Duomo itself. A one-euro video/audio presentation (There are two of these “stands” in the excavation with one screen and two hand-held earphone sets per stand.) told us about the history of the cathedral and its importance to Christianity.

Florence on $85 a Day – The David

No matter where you walk in Florence, you'll not only see the Duomo peeking around every corner, but David and his slingshot seem to follow you wherever you go. Replicas of him are everywhere—in piazzas, at souvenir shops, on T-shirts. Although he hasn't actually started riding the bus yet, I imagine that idea is being considered!

Of course, it's no wonder Florence is so proud of this most famous statue in the world. Michelangelo took a piece of marble that another artist had rejected and formed a masterpiece.

The David, in the Academia Museum, is housed at the end of a long hall. Lining both sides of that hall are statues that symbolize Michelangelo's theory that the art of sculpting is simply a matter of removing the superfluous rock material to free the statue within. A great master is simply one who can wield a chisel to reveal the inherent statue; the works lining this hall seem to be half-completed. The figures literally seem to be “coming out of” the rock.

Then, to maximize effect, there at the end of the hall, in a rotunda all by himself, is the giant David. And it IS impressive. But you'll have to take my word for it because no photos are allowed.

We sat on the conveniently placed benches for several minutes studying the great statue, noticing that his hands seem huge. I'd read somewhere that Michelangelo made David's hands larger than normal to show that God favored the young boy and that, with Him, anything, even slaying a nine-feet tall giant with a stone, is possible.

As wonderful as it was to finally see the “real” David, we also very much enjoyed two slide presentations offered on the second floor of the museum. The first showed the history of clothing and armor through the ages, and the second explained the steps –I lost track after the first six—an artist goes through to create triptychs or paintings on wood.

If you think you'd enjoy meeting David and gaining some insight into Renaissance art, consider ordering your tickets in advance to avoid the lines. We paid 21 euros for two tickets from the Firenze Museum site.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Florence on $85 a Day - The Duomo Is Everywhere

This is the view of the Duomo from our front door, but no matter where you go in centro you will see it peeking from behind the ancient buildings, tantalizing you with a glimpse here and there.
There it is again.  And when you turn the corner and go down another street

you'll come across it yet again.  It almost seems like a giant being playing
hide-and-seek.  Dwarfing everything around it.  Hiding in plain sight. 
                       Until, finally, there is the masterpiece at last. 

Florence on $85 a Day - Best City View

For the most sweeping views of Florence, take the # 13 bus from the central city area (the tourist area) to Piazzale Michelangelo. 
 This is a well-known viewpoint with lots of kitschy tourist stands and over-priced food and drink, but the view makes up for all of it.

From Piazzale Michelangelo, you can see the Otrarno area where Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace are located. 

To get back to centro, take the #12 bus. 

Practicalities -
Buy your ticket at any Tabacchi store. After you stamp the ticket in the machine on the first bus, you have 90 minutes more in which to use it again (no need to re-stamp), so you should only need one ticket to go to, and return from, Piazzale Michelangelo.

Tabacchi stores, dotting every street in Italy it seems, are very important spots for tourists.  This is where you buy transit tickets, phone cards, and stamps.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Florence on $85 a Day – Sunday Supper

We didn't eat here.
Dinner Sunday night would come from the open-air market a few blocks away from our apartment.

At the butcher stall, we saw what looked like chicken that had been marinated in spices. It looked enticing but what part of the chicken was it? Or was it even chicken?

The first butcher gave up trying to understand our fractured Italian and called his partner over. The partner couldn't understand us any better, but at least he was willing to go the distance. We struggled through several more sentences trying to guess 1.whether this was chicken and 2.what part of the chicken it might be.

After another lengthy discussion in which neither side understood the other, in desperation, I finally pointed to the delectable looking marinated chicken and then to my body. Before I got too graphic, the butcher grabbed a raw whole chicken, pointed to a spot somewhere between the leg and the back, and said, “Si, si.”

We frowned. Ah, so it was chicken. Just not the part we wanted.

Somehow, after five minutes of seemingly meaningless discussion and gesticulation, the butcher finally pointed to another area of the case where what looked like chicken breasts were nestled. He stabbed his finger at the appropriate spot on the raw chicken clutched in his left hand and then pointed back to the breasts. David and I nodded our heads, gave a thumbs up, and almost hugged the guy. We had our main course at last.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Florence on $85 a Day – A Room with a View

The view from the desk where I'm typing.
The last time I visited Tuscany, I was fortunate enough to stay at a cousin's villa a mile or so outside the ancient hilltop town Colle di Val d'Elsa. The guest house with three upstairs bedrooms, each with its own balcony providing sweeping views of the countryside, was surrounded by vineyards for the villa's signature wine production. The only noise my cousins and I ever heard was the soothing sound of the men calling to each other as they moved through the vineyards in the early morning; our isolation allowed plenty of time to enjoy the views over the pastures and to ponder the rationale for the towers of San Gimignano off in the distance.*

The five of us were quite content to stay on the grounds most of the time, especially because every time we ventured anywhere we promptly got lost, but we did go several times to Florence. The drive that was supposed to be 45 minutes stretched to two hours every time because we found new ways to get lost each trip. Getting lost was made more bearable by telling ourselves that we were seeing different areas of Tuscany, but, still, getting lost was always a frustration, and we were always relieved to return to our peaceful paradise where we could sit on the terrace at night watching the stars and hearing only the very occasional rustle of a wild boar in the distant woods.

David and I are not staying in the country on this trip to Florence.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Florence on $85 a day – Uffizi Museum

I can get lost in a hotel bathroom, but David has GPS built into his DNA. He was determined to lead us to the Uffizi Gallery, no matter what. And there was plenty of “what” to get in the way.

Our apartment fronts on a little piazza with two open-air dining areas and a flower stall where folks sit along the perimeter benches or stand in knots to discuss the day's events. We thought they'd go home when midnight rolled around, but all night we heard shouting, breaking glass, cursing and the occasional police car careening through a side street.

When we set off the next morning, we saw carabinieri on the corner of our piazza, and hundreds of people clogging the street with their red flags and banners. It seemed to be a loosely organized parade of some sort, but David, not to be deterred, pushed on. We came upon the Santa Croce Church and there was no denying that something big was happening. The entire piazza was packed with people. We snapped some photos but kept walking. We had an appointment at the Uffizi, and we'd come a long way to see the world-famous art collection.
Entrance to Uffizi

We finally learned what was going on when we got to the museum. Italy's unions had organized the biggest all-day work stoppage in twenty years, and Florence hosted the most protesters of all. There would be no live TV broadcasts, no newspapers, no train, bus, taxi, or airplane traffic for the next eight hours.

No wonder the officials let us in the museum early. The usual number of tourists was absent because only foot-traffic had been able to navigate the streets. David and I were grateful we'd traveled by bus, train, and taxi on Thursday. If we'd tried to leave just one day later, we'd still be in Rome.
View from Uffizi Window

We were, I confess, feeling a bit smug about it all and congratulating ourselves on our timing as we wandered the halls of the great museum. We were not allowed to take photos, but the art left an indelible image in our minds.

Just as we were about to see the Rubens, the guard told us to get out. The museum was closing because of the strike.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rome on $85 a Day - Our Apartment

view from apartment window
In just a few hours David and I will catch the fast train for Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance.  But, as much as we're anticipating our week there,  we will be sad to leave Rome.

Our apartment here in Monteverde, just a twenty-minute tram ride from the city center, has been a refuge from the crowds that practically knock you off the sidewalk downtown. 

It's probably the largest place we'll have on this trip because we've practically rattled around in the three bedrooms, two baths, and generous living/dining/kitchen area.  There was one glitch as we didn't get English BBC on the TV until yesterday, but otherwise we felt as though we were living in luxury.

La Ristoreria di Frontoni
We have loved the neighborhood too.  One of our greatest pleasures has been either sitting in the little outdoor area of our favorite restaurant across the street or getting take-out for a dinner in our own dining room.  And I'll confess, I am truly addicted to the lasagna--it's a good thing we're leaving before it gets out of control. 

Don't even get me started on Tony's where our daily 2 euro cup of gelato has been ample reward for fighting the tourist crowds in Rome.

And in the market, where we regularly buy groceries, the deli man has gotten to know us and offers a special taste treat every time we stop at his shop.

Ah, we will miss it all....but Tony, deli man, and Frontoni Restaurant, we will be back.  We will definitely be back!

Practicalities -

We found this gem of an apartment on  number #282276

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rome on $85 a Day – Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel

St. Peter's Basilica from Vatican Museum
 A tremendous amount of information exists about the smallest country in the world where 829 people live in .17 square miles, so there's no point repeating what you can learn in any guidebook or Internet site. What I will tell you are three tips that are not so widely available.

Can you see why this is the Goddess of Fertility?
 The most important advice is to get your tickets ahead of time from the Vatican Museum site. (Other ticket services exist, but they charge a hefty commission so there's little point in dealing with anyone but the Vatican itself.) David and I were at the Vatican on one of the slowest days of the week, Tuesday, (The other day is Thursday.) but the lines were long and the crowds claustrophobic-inducing. If you order tickets in advance, however, you avoid the lines altogether, and whip right into the museum in just minutes instead of hours. We paid 31 euros each for a guided tour, which I highly recommend as you learn quite a bit about the art collection from the docent, but you can buy a ticket for 19 euros per person to explore independently if you prefer.

Rome on $85 a Day – Ingenious Italians

David and I have enjoyed our penthouse apartment where the expansive windows make eating a meal a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. And I know it will be with a sigh that we'll leave the neighborhood where the daily market has contributed to our culinary delight (along with Tony's across the street for the best gelato in Rome), but it is a cupboard in the kitchen that we'll miss most of all.
The cupboard over the kitchen sink consists of two shelves of racks with grates underneath. Although we have a dishwasher, we've had more fun washing the dishes by hand because the ingenious Italians have so simplified the process. We can wash a dish, put it up to dry, and put it away -- all at the same time. The water from the drying dishes falls back into the sink; the dishes don't have to be touched with a cloth; and they're cleaned, dried, and put away all in one move!
Aerial photo of Monte Testaccio
As clever as this modern-day invention is, the Italians have been practicing ingenuity all along. They were among the first recyclers, or, perhaps it's more accurate to say, re-purposers because they built a mountain out of a rubbish heap. This is how Monte Testaccio came about.