Amalfi Coast, Italy: The winding road from Rome to Maori
Updated: Jun 1
We arrived in Rome for our honeymoon and learned lesson #1 about Italians - they don't believe in queueing in an orderly fashion. After departing our flight, we found ourselves in a crush of passengers funneling toward passport control in a way that neither of us understood. A total free for all! Welcome to Italy.
We were so excited to begin exploring Rome, but first...food!! We hung a left out of our hotel and selected an outdoor table at a pizzeria around the corner. Our Italian wasn't great beyond caio, grazia and buonasera, so we picked a pizza with something called aubergine, crossed our fingers and waited. We picked well because the pizza was amazing, even if we couldn't quite figure out what the sliced things were on top of the cheese (turns out, it's eggplant, which totally makes sense!). Stomachs full and ready to go, we continued down the street and were completely awestruck when we saw what waited for us just ahead - a building so grand and so completely Roman that it was crazy we had no idea how close it was to where we were staying.
The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument looks like an ancient building, but we soon learned that, although its neoclassical design is an interpretation of the Roman Forum, the monument was actually constructed from 1885-1935. We didn't care if it wasn't an ancient relic, it was gorgeous, with sweeping stairways, columns and fountains that fulfilled every expectation of what Italy would hold for us. Rome was already more amazing than we'd anticipated, and we'd just begun.
We decided to take this opportunity to pause on the steps of the Victor Emmanuel because it was super hot. Lucky for us there was a truck selling gelato right beside the monument...and next to that a truck selling ice cold beer. Double score! This was our first time having gelato but it wouldn't be the last because we fell completely in love with this delicious discovery (and it would lead to even more gelato adventures, but more on that later).
Turns out, ancient Rome was all around us and we were just steps from the Forum and within eyesight of the Coliseum. Everywhere we turned there were columns and stone structures and reminders of all the history that, unbeknownst to us, was just down the street from where we'd be sleeping. It was the greatest surprise, and we were actually glad that we hadn't over-researched this trip because with every step it was like unwrapping a new, unexpected gift.
I even managed to get a shot of two Roman gods snapping selfies. Our first day was one amazing sight after another, but the next day would be something entirely different, as we'd be viewing Rome through the eyes of a local.
Joe had a colleague who lives in Rome, and he'd offered to take us around. So the next morning after a breakfast experience that had Joe firmly convinced that Italian morning meals were truly a thing sent down by the gods, we set out to meet his colleague at the gardens of Villa Borghese. Villa Borghese and its public gardens were once a vineyard, but in 1605 Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, began transforming the vineyard into an extensive garden. In addition to the beautiful plantings and trees, there are several former villas that now house museums.
But that morning, we didn't visit the museums because what we found when we arrived was Joe's friend in the driver's seat of a golf cart. Yes, we were going to be transported all around Rome in a golf cart. On the streets, through piazzas, and even up Aventine Hill, where we'd overlook Rome while enjoying a truly authentic and loooong outdoor lunch of the richest, most decadent carbonara ever served (at least it tasted like that). I have to admit, the idea of weaving among the scooters and cars around Rome's ancient streets while hanging off the back of a golf cart was a tad intimidating, but his friend assured us it was just fine - he'd done it a million times! So there we were, Joe in the front next to our friend and me in the back facing the drivers barreling toward us (me) from behind. It was interesting, to say the least.
We climbed aboard for our open-air ride, the two of us enjoying the historical commentary and stories from our host. We rode to St. Peter's Square, through piazzas, around fountains and along the Tiber River before heading up the hill to lunch. Stuffed and ready for a nap, we ended our day at the Pantheon, a former Roman temple and one of the best preserved Ancient Roman buildings in Rome. Today, almost 2,000 years since it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. When we arrived, our host bypassed the line and exchanged some secret Italian small talk with the guard before ushering us inside to experience this amazing place. After this final stop, we said goodbye to our host and enjoyed some cocktails in the Piazza della Rotonda, listening to the bubble of the fountain in front of the Pantheon while recounting how insane it was that we'd spent our day traipsing around Rome in a most unusual manner.
Something we learned that day, other than that you can, in fact, really ride around Rome in a golf cart, is that Rome is the city with the largest number of obelisks (of course, there is one in the center of the fountain in the Piazza della Rotunda). This divine symbol of the Pharaohs was a prized trophy for the Roman emperors who conquered the land of the Nile. They brought them back and set about placing them around the city - basically, they stole them and then displayed them. Not super nice of the emperors, but the obelisks are pretty cool to look at...and they seem to be everywhere! Lots of conquering going on back then.
After a few days in Rome, it was time to pick up the rental car and begin the road trip portion of our vacation. Onward! We headed south to Pompeii to view the archaeological site before stopping in Castellammare di Stabia for the night. Pompeii was very cool and massive, and something everyone should see to connect the dots between everything we learned in school about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the subsequent ash and pumice that buried the settlement in 79 A.D. That said, after what felt like the hundredth stone foundation of a home, I was ready to check the box for Pompeii (although the fabled amphitheater was super cool). Joe could have spent several more hours, but thankfully he was ready to see what the next stop held for us.
The short ride to Castellammare di Stabia was uneventful except for the fact that GPS could not find the hotel. Over and over again. It got to the point where we finally pulled over and tried to ask directions, but this was a tiny town and non-English speaking. I was actually beginning to think that I'd booked a hotel that didn't exist!
We tried one more time, ignoring the GPS directions and continuing up the road even after it told us to turn around... and then I saw it! The hotel, La Medusa, is like an oasis in an otherwise non-descript town. On the Sorrento Coast with a view of the Gulf of Naples, La Medusa is a neoclassical styled eighteenth century Bourbon palace surrounded by park-style gardens filled with citrus fruits, centuries-old trees and flowers of every color. Fountains and sculptures complete the picture, it's like landing in a different world.
It was amazing to finally get there (and I was grateful it did actually exist, since I was the one who made the reservations). Joe even made a new friend in the garden (although he was the stony silent type) where we capped our day with cocktails and dinner on the terrace. It was a far cry from the dusty, sad remains of Pompeii.
Next stop: Sorrento. This lovely town on the Sorrentine Peninsula faces the Bay of Naples and has amazing views of Mount Vesuvius, Capri, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. It's also where the Amalfi Drive connects Sorrento to the towns along the Amalfi Coast.
We'd been invited to lunch at Villa Massa, the enterprise of the Massa family, who have been creating limoncello from their homemade recipe since 1890. When we made it to the address we'd received, we found ourselves at the side of a hill covered with lemon trees. But these aren't any old lemons, they are Ovale di Sorrento, a lemon that only grows in the Campania region.
In 1991, brothers Sergio and Stefano Massa wanted to share the liquid soul of Sorrento with the world, and the Villa Massa brand was born (it was the first company to produce and sell limoncello in Italy and all over the world). We couldn't wait to learn more about limoncello, but what we didn't expect was a private lunch prepared for us on a veranda built high into the side of the hill. We climbed up the steps winding through the lemon groves while our hostess explained how they pipe in classical music for the lemons to listen to all day in the sunshine - because it makes the lemons happy! And happy lemons make superior limoncello. It also made us happy to hear the music as we passed by happy lemons basking in the sun. We were immediately sold on both limoncello and the idea that music helped make lemons happier.
After an incredible pasta lunch under the branches of the veranda, in the middle of the lemon grove, we were taken to the factory to learn about the limoncello process. And, of course, we got to taste the results of the production. It was all so cool. To this day, we always have a bottle of Villa Massa limoncello in our freezer to enjoy after a meal.
We bid farewell to the kind folks at Villa Massa, who were kind enough to present Joe with a tie dotted with lemons and me with a lemon charm, and headed to the harbor to catch our ferry to the isle of Capri, where we were spending a few days.
We were staying in Ana Capri at the Caesar Augustus. The hotel practically hangs off the side of a cliff 300 meters high, which, needless to say, affords an amazing view across the Bay of Naples. The town of Ana Capri is built on the slopes of Monte Solario, the highest point of the island, and the little town is filled with adorable shops and restaurants.
We decided to eat dinner at the hotel our first night and were seated at a table set on a tiny little strip of terrace that jutted out over trees and seemed to hover there, suspended in mid-air. It was both beautiful and a little disconcerting when we realized that one false move and we'd be swimming with the fishes way down below us in the sea.
The next day we explored Ana Capri and took the chairlift 589 meters above the water to the summit of Monte Solaro, where we could see across the entire island of Capri as well as across the Bay of Naples and as far as the mountains of Calabria.
This is a single chairlift and pretty old fashioned, but you rise above the homes of Ana Capri and eventually feel like you're on top of the world, such a great, unexpected thing to do!
We also took a boat to visit the Grotta Azzurra (blue grotto), a natural sea cave that's 60 meters long and 25 meters wide inside, but only two meters wide at the mouth where you enter so it's only accessible by small rowboats. The grotto's brilliant azure color is due to the sunlight entering the cavern through an underwater opening. The red reflections are filtered out so only the blue shines through, lighting up the cave from below.
After an afternoon by the pool, we decided to venture out to eat in Ana Capri.
We'd read about a waterside restaurant just outside of town that we wanted to try. Only thing was, the concierge told us it was closed. Closed! It was early October, and the tourist season was over, so the restaurant was done until the Spring. Well, Joe refused to believe it. So, we went to find the elusive restaurant on our own. We walked up and down small, dark streets toward the water, never passing another person or car (we hoped we were walking in the right direction, but we didn't know for sure).
Eventually we were crawling along a rock wall, in the pitch dark under a spattering of stars in the navy-blue sky. It was completely silent except the sounds of the water crashing beside us, when we saw it...the CLOSED restaurant. Turns out, the concierge knows more about restaurants on the island than Joe. Still, we had so much fun exploring the nooks and crannies of the island in the dark, it was totally worth it (thankfully we never actually considered that running around Capri in the dark might not be the wisest thing to do, but we figured that if the lemons are happy around there, it was probably a pretty safe place).
At that point it was getting late, so we ended up at a little restaurant in town where we chatted with the owner while watching the chef make our meal, and, at the end of the night, we all ended our time together with a communal toast of house-made limoncello. Salut!
Next up: Praiano by way of Positano. After a few days on Capri, we took the ferry back to Sorrento, hopped in the car, and started our treacherous ride to Praiano, a small town just south of Positano. Joe was white-knuckling the cliff-hugging road the entire way as scooters zipped around us oblivious to the fact that we were mere feet from skidding off the side of the cliff and landing in the ocean. Large busses would suddenly appear around hairpin turns, and I think we both wanted to scream. But we made it! Of course, we had to stop in Positano for lunch, some seafood pizzas by the sea, and to put our toes in the water. The town is everything we'd expected, with colorful homes clinging to the sides of cliffs above the water.
Less than 20 minutes later we reached Praiano and our hotel, Casa Angelina Lifestyle, a place that is the opposite of every traditional-style hotel we'd stayed in so far. The hotel is all white and glass, reflecting the blue of the water it overlooks. And I mean everything is white - all the walls, the furniture, every room - with the only splash of color coming from the vivid artwork and sculptures around the property. To get there we took our lives in our hands (or, more accurately, I put my life in Joe's hands). The driveway is steeeeeep...with a series of sharp Z-shaped turns. It was harrowing enough on the way down - on the way up in a manual transmission car I literally almost got out and walked rather than sit in the passenger seat wondering if this was the turn where we roll backwards to our death off the cliff. Once we arrived, though, it was easy to forget the drive down because the place is stunning, like staying in a museum of modern art. To reward ourselves for making it alive, we spent the afternoon at the beach club down below enjoying some cocktails and the sound of the water lapping against the side of the mountain.
On our way to Amalfi, our next stop, we stopped to visit the emerald grotto, pretty much the same as the blue grotto on Capri but a different color. At this point, we don't ever need to visit another grotto, regardless of the color (we forgot this pledge and did visit another blue grotto on a trip to Malta, where we officially decided we have done enough colored grottos to last a lifetime).
In Amalfi we were staying in a former convent, the NH Collection Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi. Originally a 13th-century monastery, the hotel is a 5-minute walk to Amalfi’s harbor and town center, so we checked-in and went to explore the town, including the medieval cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. Later on, we parked ourselves by the pool, which seems suspended between the cliff and the sea. There are lots of olive trees leading the way to the pool and Joe decided to taste an olive right off a branch...big mistake and one he will not repeat any time soon! The green ones off the tree are not ripe and apparently the most bitter bite ever known.
That night we ate on a terrace at the hotel and were serenaded by local musicians. The video is dark, but it's not what you need to see that matters, it's the music the musicians are making. Take a listen. After dinner we went back to our room (which once housed monks) and enjoyed a bottle of wine under the full moon that seemed to have parked itself right outside our window.
At this point, we couldn't imagine leaving the Amalfi coast and heading back to Rome, where we were supposed to end our trip. Maybe it was the wine or the moonlight, but we decided to cancel our Rome hotel and make one more stop on the Amalfi coast. After some quick research, we picked the town of Maiori, just past Ravello.
We visited Ravello on the way, a charming mountaintop village that's referred to as the city of music because of its annual Ravello Festival and the Ravello Concert Society. When we reached Maiori we ran into a snag, however, when we, once again, couldn't find our hotel. It shouldn't have been that hard - it was the only hotel that you need to take a funicular to get to! The only way to reach the Hotel Botanico San Lazzaro is to take a glass box tram up to the top of the mountain - so why couldn't we find the spot to take the funicular?
We decided to have lunch and try after that, which we did (and asking directions from the local bakery was also really helpful). We found the funicular and made it to the top of the mountain and the hotel.
We were winding down our trip and neither of us was ready to say goodbye to Italy. This vacation was the beginning of our love for the country, its people, the culture, and, of course, the food (if not the roads and driving style of Italians).
Our last meal on the Amalfi coast was the perfect way to end ten days of amazingness. Torre Normanna restaurant is in an ancient watchtower from the thirteenth century - the oldest on the Amalfi coast.
The watch tower juts out into the sea and has a panoramic terrace that allows you to look up the entire coast and toward the twinkling lights of the town of Maiori. And the food, fresh from the sea, was exactly the meal we wanted to remember long after our honeymoon was over.
Eventually we'd head back to Rome to catch our flight home, but it wasn't the end for our love affair with Italy. The first city we have an apartment in for our Quattro 90 plan is Florence, where we'll finally have the time to settle in and experience Italy at a pace that's best suited for la dolce vita.
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