Friday, October 18, 2013

Eating our Way through Calabria: From Crotone back to Salerno and on to Pompeii

Eating our Way through Calabria: From Crotone back to Salerno and on to Pompeii

Thursday, October 10, 2013

We began the day in Crotone with a tasty breakfast overlooking the Ionian Sea. Soon we were on our way along a coastal road. Our journey today was less than 100 kilometers so we were really able to take our time and stop along the road to take a closer look at anything that interested us. We soon found a side road that led us right into the heart of some market gardening countryside. Hundreds of acres were planted with fledgling plants with very fernlike leaves. We were curious what the plant was since their seemed to be an inordinate number of them growing. They had mostly been newly planted although some seemed to be a little more mature. We surmised that in this climate there might be several plantings so as to always have fresh food on hand.

Not far down the road we encountered a team of people who were busily planting the fields. A tractor was pulling a planting device on which there were three apertures to plant three rows at a time. A person sat behind each aperture loading it with tiny plants which were pressed into the soil at regular intervals. And, the plants all had ferny leaves. We approached the driver of a truck loaded with palates of the tiny plants and asked. Fennogia he told us. Hmmm ….. Later when we googled translated we confirmed our suspicions that it was indeed fennel that was being planted in such abundance. Does the fennel we buy at Zehrs come from Italy? It must be exported because the people of Italy could not possible consume the amount of fennel being grown here.

We were travelling high on a plateau for several kilometres. From there, we were able to see green valleys, all neatly planted with fenochia (fennel) and other vegetables. One the hillsides were amazing groves of olive trees. And on the plateau itself there were freshly ploughed fields that most likely had produced grain and corn crops during the summer months. This is a great location to graze sheep and goats before the fields are ploughed. And indeed, there they were, a substantial mixed herd, the goats all wearing bells and clanging their arrival at the edge of the road. But they did not stop there. The shepherd and the dog that were with the herd guided them across the road. We are glad that we had already stopped the car and were taking in the landscape. We happily watched as each animal crossed the road, except for a couple which the shepherd went back to collect (as every good shepherd should).

We drove along some pretty little roads and admired the wonderfully straight rows of a variety of crops that were in various stages of development. Something we noticed was the interplanting of broccoli (we think) and lettuce.  The lettuce will mature much more quickly than the broccoli and when harvested will give the broccoli enough space to expand as needed. A great way to utilize the same land twice.

All the while that we were exploring the agriculture in the area, the glistening blue/green waters of the Ionian Sea were within our sight. At times we were at sea level on wide plains where crops were planted and at other times the road rose into the mountains and clung to the edges as it weaved its way across the landscape. All the while the sea was there. At one point, even today, we travelled through a lengthy tunnel and when we emerged, the sea was there.

Like a magnet, the Ionian Sea finally drew us to its shore. We found an entry to a long sand beach where the water lapped the shores and was easily accessible with a short walk to paddle in the water and feel the strength of the surf on our feet and legs. Jim remained fully dressed, hat and shoes included, and waited for the wave action to bring the water to him. It finally happened and he was able to get his hand in and feel the temperature of the water. I was somewhat braver and kicked off my shoes and chased the receding waves down a shallow embankment to a place where the new waves would break and immerse me feet and legs in the water. It felt delightful. I love the sensation of the water receding, feeling the pull of the tide and the current as it flows back toward the sea. The water was remarkably warm and certainly worthy of a swim. Maybe tomorrow if the sun cooperates.

We drove into a coastal town and were amazed to find a large market in operation. Sadly, we were just a bit late and by the time we parked the car, many of the vendors were packing up their wares. We wandered along the market stalls long enough to realize that it was primarily a merchandise market and not a food market. Food markets are far more interesting and colourful from our perspective.  We did happen upon a little deli where we were able to buy some delightful meat, cheese and bread for lunch. Sandwiches made on a park bench by the seashore have a flavour all of their own.

We continued along the road toward our destination enjoying the landscape. We reached our hotel in Soverato about 3 pm and settled into another new room. The hotel was clean, friendly and the internet worked well. All the important components taken care of!

And now all we had to do was wait until 4:30 when the town would wake up again after its afternoon siesta. In the meantime, we enjoyed a beautiful sea view from our window and sat out on our balcony and watched life in the village unfold.

Much later, we headed out for dinner in a highly acclaimed restaurant. Tuna carpaccio to start, followed by sea bream for me and white fish in a tomato sauce for Jim. A wonderful bottle of local red wine washed everything down. A delightful meal all round.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Our room affords a wonderful view of the sea so when we awoke this morning, we were quick to move to the shuttered window and open it wide. Imagine our surprise that an enormous market with hundreds of vendors was underway right below our hotel. It was not long before we had joined the throngs of people who were examining the products on offer from various vendors.

The market nearest our hotel was a goods market similar to the one we had encountered yesterday. In fact, we wondered if some of the vendors were the same ones at both markets. This market seemed much larger though and extended along several blocks on several streets. We walked and walked and walked.

And then, by chance, we came upon the food market. It was also very large, several more blocks of stalls displaying the broadest range of local foods that we have seen at any market anywhere. Fruits and vegetables were in great abundance as the harvest season is in full swing. Everything from artichokes to zucchini were on offer. Nuts – filberts, walnuts, chestnuts – were displayed in large baskets. Olives of every variety imaginable. Mushrooms galore, many of which were new varieties to us. Fish – fresh, salted, brined, preserved in oil. Sardines were particularly common, available by the kilo from the open cans at the fish stalls. All sorts of deli meats and cheeses were on display, often hung on strings from the awnings of the stalls. Sun dried tomatoes and all manner of other tomatoes were available from large bins. Hard fruits (apples, pears), soft fruits (Peaches, plums, nectarines), citrus fruit (oranges, lemons) and, of course, several kinds of grapes were all available and all grown locally. Zucchini flowers and cactus flowers were available as were all sorts of bedding plants for those who wanted to plant their own gardens. It did seem odd that these gardens would be planted in the fall season instead of spring but the climate here remains mild all through the winter.  Suffice it to say that we spent much time at this market and did not leave empty handed!

Following the market, we took a drive into the countryside with no particular destination in mind, simply a drive. It was a lovely day and we thoroughly enjoyed meandering along new roads. Much of the time we were either travelling up a mountain slope or down a mountain slope. If not up or down, then we were on a road that was clinging to the edge of a mountain and closely following its contour as we made every bend and twist. Only occasionally did we see another vehicle on the road. It was a very pleasant drive.

Along the way, we passed through some wonderful country villages with their churches perched on the highest point and the bell towers reaching far into the sky. Some of the villages had roadways that would only allow cars in one direction to pass through at a time. Traffic signals controlled which direction cars could travel at any given time.

School dismissed as we passed through one town and we observed a universal phenomenon. Parents in cars were lined up on both sides of the road as well as side streets to pick up their children from school. Amazing!!

We stopped for lunch in a tiny children’s park in one village. We had packed a picnic of items purchased at the market earlier and we enjoyed the meat, cheese, bread and fruit that was in our bag. It was pleasant to sit under the trees and enjoy the fresh air and the view across a valley. What luxury to have time and opportunity to relax in this way.

We made our way back to Soverato just in time for me to go and have a manicure. The aesthetician spoke only Italian so it was pretty quiet as she worked on my nails. We communicated when necessary but otherwise we were both lost in our private thoughts. A happy smile and a gratuity at the end was enough for both of us.

Just after I returned to our hotel a big thunderstorm passed through. The wind blew and the rain fell. It was pretty wild for a while. We simply remained in our room and watched from the door onto our balcony. It was quite dramatic and fun (as long as we were inside and dry).

It was still raining when we went for dinner. We chose a nearby restaurant, Don Pedro, because it served seafood. I had a mixed seafood grill that included swordfish, large prawns, crab and calamari. Delicious, especially the crab! Jim ordered a seafood soup which turned out to be a rich tomato based broth filled to the brim with calamari. He said it was also delicious.

And now here we are preparing to leave here tomorrow morning and head around the bottom of the ‘toes’ to Reggio Calabria and then a bit further north to a resort town, Pizzo, where we will spend the next two nights.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

We left Soverato right after breakfast and enjoyed a leisurely and beautiful drive along the waterfront all the way to Pizzo where we arrived several hours later. This route took us from the ball of the foot, around the toes and onto the top of the foot by the time we reached our destination.

Along the way, we were charmed by the towns we passed through. How quiet they are early Saturday morning. Shops do not seem to open until at least 10 and only then do the streets become a little more active. It appears that errands are mostly done by women and men occupy benches and café tables all along the street fronts. It rained intermittently this morning and it was comical to see small groups of men gathered in doorways and under awnings for protection from the passing showers.

In the town of Roccella Ionica, we came upon two sites that became highlights of our journey. The first was the vision of a medieval castle and an ancient church, Mother Church of Saint Nicholas of Bari, rising high above the landscape on a very, very steep precipice. It held court over all the land from its position of prominence. A bit incongruous was the crane that rose beside the ancient building. It seems the restoration of the castle is underway. The entire area was identified as an historical site and the gates were locked so we were not able to explore more fully.

What we did have a chance to explore, also in Roccella Ionica, was a community cemetery. Due to the proximity to the sea, all burials were above ground in a structure resembling a sarcophagus. These tombs are engraved with the name of the person along with the dates of birth and death. Most graves also had a framed photo of the person who was interred there. Often fresh flowers were placed in vases on top of the grave as well as other momentoes of the person’s life, even years after death. As with cemeteries in Canada, sometimes these fresh flowers are not changed often enough and dry out in the vases.

Something that we found quite interesting was that, as the land gets used up in the cemetery, new multistory family plots are available. We were fascinated by the design of these structures, often house-like in appearance with several layers of graves enclosed in each one, often up to 18 – 20 graves. Each structure had a ‘house like’ appearance and several designs were available in each cemetery. Truthfully, the collection of buildings took on the appearance of a community of miniature homes with a variety of landscaping, colour, roof lines and overall design. It was also a statement of cultural expectations that families over several generations would all be buried together in one location.

We have noticed that many businesses here in Italy are family affairs, whether it be a shop, a hotel, a restaurant etc. Often generations of the same family fulfill various roles within the business. Thus, families do seem to remain in close proximity over a long period of time.

What was most beautiful about the route we travelled today was the proximity to unspoiled stretches of waterfront. Calabria, the area of Italy right at the toe of the country, has not yet fallen prey to commercialized tourism. That may change over the next few years as attributes such as beautiful seasides, wonderful landscapes and delicious cuisine are more aggressively marketed within Italy and indeed, the travelling world. But for today, Calabria remains an undiscovered gem. Long expanses of beautiful beaches were unoccupied. We travelled along mile after mile of aquamarine water, unsullied by condos, hotels, restaurants, theme parks or any other element of tourism. An undiscovered gem!

We stopped for a coffee just outside of Reggio di Calabria and were delighted to have happened upon an incredible patisserie where the array of sweet morsels to tempt us was amazing. We each had a cappuccino and a single cookie. But before we left the shop, we had relented and purchased a few more for the road ahead.

Early in the afternoon, we arrived in the larger city of Reggio di Calabria. Because it was siesta time, there was very little traffic and we enjoyed our drive through the centre of town and down to the port area with very little worry about traffic. Siesta really means that you are not open for business and you are not on the streets. We are still not sure where everyone goes. We parked the car along the promenade on the waterfront and munched on a picnic lunch of Calabrian salami and cheese while we enjoyed the view of Sicily across the narrow straight separating the mainland from the island. So close, but Sicily does not fit into our plans this time.

We left the coastal highway and took the autostrade the rest of the way to Pizzo. What we expected to be a rather mundane trip turned out to be another part of our Italian adventure as the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains and we passed through a myriad of tunnels along the way. The longest tunnel was more than 2.5 kilometres in length.

Something that has surprised us about Italy is just how much of the terrain is actual mountains. I think I have mentioned this before but it continues to astound us. Tall rugged mountains make up most of the landscape from the north all the way to the south. We have encountered very little land that would be considered flat (a few coastal plains) and very little land that would be considered gently rolling valleys. For the most part, the landscape is rugged, the valleys deep and steep and the seaside is peppered with sheer cliffs falling to the shore. Agriculture in all areas is eked out on whatever bits of land are arable with the potential of cultivation, often by hand. No wonder Italians pride themselves on their food and its production. It is a very challenging task to grow food successfully in Italy. Calabria is a place of great variety and and great success in agriculture and the range of foods available is a testament to this.

We arrived at the Marinella Hotel in Pizzo in the late afternoon. We were warmly greeted by the staff and settled into our very comfortable room. One of the mundane tasks that lie ahead of us here was to do laundry. Jim approached the man at the reception desk to inquire about a nearby Laundromat. Jim was told to put his money away … that the man would put our clothing into the hotel washing machine and do the laundry in house. We were surprised at the offer and only offered up our laundry bag after the man came and knocked on our door to ask for it. We went to have dinner at the hotel restaurant and by the time we returned to our room, our laundry was washed, dried, folded and back in our room! You talk about amazing service. We had heard that about this hotel but that was over the top!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Breakfast and then into the car. We were taking a drive today on some of the byroads of Calabria along the eastern coast. We thoroughly enjoyed our drive south to Tropea, a town set high up on a cliff overlooking the sea.

We had not been on the road long when we encountered our first event of the day. It happened that today in Pizzo, there was a reenactment of a battle based on Napoleonic history and we were able to see a sailing ship being readied for battle by sailors and soldiers alike who were all dressed for battle in period costume. Great crowds of onlookers had gathered for the event and, nestled into the castle turret high above the town square, was a guardsman equipped with bayonet ensuring that the crowd remained orderly and well behaved.

A short time later, we drove from Pizzo along the coastal road to Tropea. It was a lovely drive, mostly at sea level although no drive in Italy is entirely flat. You can always expect some up and down along the way. Tropea is a popular tourist destination that has several lovely sand beaches, well used even in the middle of October. The main part of Tropea is nestled high on the cliff that overlooks the sea. From far below, the railing and the umbrellas that are a part of the main piazza entice the traveller to climb the cliffside and join the throng of people in the village. The choice is a long slow walk to the top or, in our case, a long winding drive up narrow streets often on precipitous cliffs.

Once we arrived in the centre of Tropea, we parked the car and meandered among the myriad of tourists who had reached this destination before us. Shops were open and offered all the trinkets you would expect to find in a beach/tourist town.  None of this was of much interest to us. What we did want was a cappuccino at a table under an umbrella overlooking the beach far below.

We found a shady spot with a wonderful view and were served a very good cappuccino. Standing nearby was another couple speaking English. We engaged in a conversation with them (they live less than an hour away from us in Canada) and spent the next hour comparing notes of our experiences in Italy. All of us were very happy to be speaking English for a short while.

We finally parted ways just in time to see a wedding parade come through town. Several cars filled with happy and jubilant wedding guests followed the bride and groom as they honked their way up streets and down, inviting others to acknowledge and celebrate their special day with them. It was quite fun to see them.

And now, back into the car to continue our tour of the backroads of Calabria. I must say that on this leg of the journey, Jim did manage to find some very, very backroads!!

We were exploring some points of view, some lookouts high on the cliffs. In order to get to each one, it was necessary to wind our way up and down the mountainsides along roads that would not be considered main thoroughfares by anyone’s standards. There was also a train line that passed through this landscape and we needed to cross it several times. Sometimes there was a level crossing; sometimes there was an overpass. But on one occasion, we needed to drive through a short tunnel that was only inches higher than the car (a truck could not have used this road) and only inches wider. We stopped to take a photo because it seemed so unbelievable. Little did we know what was ahead for us on the rest of this journey.

There were times that we were on roads so narrow that we could not have passed by another vehicle if we had encountered one. Happily, no one else was crazy enough to be on these roads as they climbed higher and higher into the mountains with no end in sight.

One road was so steep that we could hardly get out of first gear. There was no place to turn around but we truly did not know where we were going to end up or even if the road would reach an intersection at the other end. And then, we ran upon the boulder that had fallen from the cliff above us.  There was no way to tell if it had fallen today or a month ago. Either way, it was blocking our path and causing some concern lest another boulder come tumbling down. Jim tried to move the boulder to no avail. It was huge! And since we could not turn around, we had no choice but to create an off road trail that would enable us to get past the boulder and carry on our way. It was an adventure to be sure! My biggest fear, other than another boulder coming down, was that the road would have no exit and we would have to reverse our course and pass by the boulder again! There was a happy ending when we finally came to an intersection with another small road …. But by contrast the second road looked like a major highway and we gladly turned the corner and carried on. That we successfully found our way back to the hotel goes without saying because here I am writing about the tale. Whew!

Once I had recovered from driving on that road, I delivered an ultimatum that went something like, “Take me back to the hotel!” And so we found the coastal road again and had a very pleasant drive down, a long way down, to the seashore again, enjoying the wide range of agricultural land and crops along the way and looking forward to being back in Pizzo.

When we arrived in Pizzo, we followed the instructions on the GPS (Garmin) to take us back to our hotel. We did not expect Garmin to find a shortcut that took us down a steep cliff road, through a bus parking lot, up a steep narrow passageway that was filled with pedestrians headed to the busses, and then onto a narrow one way road system that led us right into the main piazza of the town. Nonetheless we made it through this entire obstacle course and happily found our hotel again. What a maze!

Before long though, we headed out again, this time in search of a reward. Pizzo is the town where tartufo (rich chocolate ice cream infused with a decadent chocolate sauce) was invented and we were on our way to the best gelateria in town to enjoy this tasty treat. We found our way … only to learn that our destination was in the very piazza that we had passed through only an hour earlier. We decided this time to park elsewhere and walk to the café. What a great idea! The piazza was crowded with people enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the sun and sea air. We joined the throng and were soon enjoying a delicious, decadent dish of tartufo. It was wonderful.

We finished out the day on a beach near our hotel watching the sun set over the Gulf of Santa Eufemia.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from Scalea, everyone!

Immediately following breakfast, we left our hotel in Pizzo and headed to Statti, the headquarters of this family owned company that produces both olive oil and world class wine. Under ordinary circumstances, tours are not available for independent travellers but today there was a Swedish tour bus booked to visit the facilities and Katia, the local tour coordinator invited us to join them. Happily, the tour was to be conducted in English.

The tour began in a grove of ancient olive trees, many of them more than one hundred years old. Their gnarled trunks and widespread branches surely held many tales of times past. They still produce an abundant crop of very large olives which would be harvested within the next three weeks.

For harvesting, nets are spread under the olive trees and a machine gently shakes each tree so that the olives fall to the ground. The olives are then gathered in the nets as quickly as possible and taken to the production facility where they are put through an olive press to extract the oil within a very few hours from falling from the tree.  Katia, our guide, assured us that this is how to ensure that the olive oil is very fresh virgin oil of high quality.

We continued our walk to the winery about a kilometer down a lovely farm lane. From the winery, which is perched on the edge of a hill, we were able to see much of the estate owned by this family business. Over 1200 acres, much of it filled with olive groves, citrus groves and vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see. Fields where corn, grain and hay are produced were ploughed and cultivated ready for the planting of next season’s crop. The harvests from these fields are used to feed the large milking herd of cattle that lives on the farm. The cattle produce 6600 litres of milk each day.

We entered the wine production facility and the process of labeling and packing the bottles was well underway. The grapes are harvested in late August and put through a grape press from which the resulting liquid is placed in large tanks where the fermentation process begins. After several days, the fluid is transferred to wooden barrels made from French oak where it is aged for a number of months (up to 18) depending on the type of wine that is being produced. Interesting to note that each oak barrel can be used three times for wine production and then must be retired and sold for other purposes. Each barrel costs approximately $1000.00 when it is new. That is quite an investment in barrels over the years.

When it has reached the appropriate maturity, the wine is bottled and then passed through an automated labeling machine which attaches two identifying labels to each bottle. The bottles are then hand packed in boxes of twelve and packaged together on pallets ready for shipping.

It was great to learn that several wines from Statti, this producer, are available in Ontario at our local liquor stores.

At the end of the tour, we were offered the opportunity to taste three varieties of wines produced in house. Of course, we enjoyed each of them. What we also enjoyed was the lunch that was served with the wine – Calabrian cheese, meats, bread and olive oil accompanied by a lovely rice salad. What a treat!!

After we left the winery, we headed along the coastal road on our way to Scalia, a bit further north along the west coast of Italy. The road was good, the traffic light and the views of the sea were magnificent!

We arrived in Scalea about 3 pm and checked into our hotel. Another great find, Jim! With a sea view room and close to the pool. We skyped with our family and then it was not long until we were in our suits and on our way to the beach.

The beach here is a pebble beach, the rocks well worn by the wind and waves. It was surprisingly easy to walk on. The water was as smooth as glass and so clear that the every pebble on the bottom of the ocean floor was visible. We gingerly entered the water which was actually surprisingly warm. The seafloor close to the shore had a gradual slope but then it dropped off much more quickly. We were floating! The salt water certainly helped to support Jim! And we stayed in for a long time.

We watched with fascination as a boat was launched at a nearby marina. The boats here are all stored on dry land. When one needs to be launched, a crane moves into position and lifts the boat from its ‘parking spot’ with two large canvas straps and carries it to the water’s edge. The boat is lowered to the ground and the passengers climb on board. Then the crane lifts the boat again and extends its arm out over the water. The boat is gently lowered to the water’s surface with the motor on the deeper side. The straps are loosened and the boat gently manouevers free and heads out to the deep blue sea. When the boat returns to shore, the reverse process occurs and before very long, the boat is safely back in its original ‘parking space’.

We reluctantly left the sea just as the sun was beginning to set in the western sky. A brief stop at the pool completed our water journey for the day. (The pool water was somewhat warmer than the sea water.)

Back to our room to watch the sunset (quite obscured by clouds today) and to get ready for dinner. We planned to go to a local restaurant, La Rondinella, that was highly acclaimed in Trip Advisor. We were very happy that we chose this place. The service was wonderful; the food amazing (all local Calabrian dishes) and we learned that this family run restaurant actually owns a farm just outside of Scalea where they grow most of the foods used in the restaurant and even raise the animals there as well. It is open to the public so guess where we are going tomorrow morning!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Breakfast and then into Scalea to have a look around. It was a very quiet town, clearly attuned to tourists with a café at every turn. Although they were all open, there were not many customers as tourist season is well and truly over in this part of Italy. We did pause to indulge our penchant for cappuccino and stopped for a few minutes.

And then, into the car and out of town, on our way to find La Rondinella, the farm! Very soon, we met with success and drove down the long farm laneway until we reached the parking area and the home of the owners.

La Rondinella is a working farm that is part of the growing agri-tourism business that is being developed in Calabria. Food and food production is a major element of the culture in this part of Italy, in large part because the climate is so conducive to a wide wide range of crop production. Everything from citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, mandarins, limoncedro (large green fruit tasting something like a lime but about 8 times the size) ) to fruits found in more temperate climates (apples, pears, peaches, strawberries, melons, grapes, persimmons, pomegranates); vegetables galore, many of which thrive in all seasons (beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers of all kinds, onions, potatoes, fennel, eggplant, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, licorice and herbs of all kinds); animals of many varieties (pigs, cattle, rabbits, chickens, fish (especially swordfish), wild boar); breads and rolls in many shapes and flavours, rice, corn for polenta; nuts (hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts, almonds). You get the picture. Food is plentiful and delicious and local recipes have been developed to use the fresh produce in many tasty and unique ways. Some of these recipes have evolved into alcoholic beverages, especially wines and liqueurs. Many households have their own house brands of these precious liquids. Many restaurants also serve locally made wine, grappa, limoncello and vecchio amaro del capo (a rich licorice liqueur). No LCBO here!!!

Now, back to La Rondinella. We were invited to go on a lovely walk among the vineyards, the olive groves, the citrus orchards and the vegetable gardens, all of which were in high production. We were also given a tour of the animal compound where we saw chickens, newly born piglets, rabbits, and geese. As well, we were allowed a peek into the building where the array of preserves is kept. An amazing feast of colour and containers appeared before our eyes – melons hung from the ceiling, peppers clinging in bunches from hooks on the walls, jars and jars of preserved fruits and vegetables, as pesto, as jellies, as salsa, as relishes, and, of course, the large barrels of house wine and other fruit ‘juices’. It was a sight to behold.

Set high on a hilltop, this farm offers stunning views of the countryside and the sea in every direction. High mountains rise to the east and the Tyrrhenian Sea glistens in the west. Steep valleys provide texture to the surrounding terrain and the red roofs of Scalea cascade down the distant hillsides to the sea. It is truly an exquisite setting.

Following our delightful exploration of the gardens and orchards of La Rondinella, we were invited to be seated at a table in the covered patio area where our lunch would be served. It was a dining extravaganza, to say the least. I am still not sure how we managed to consume so much food.

We started with the house red wine (vino rosso) and a basket of home made bread. Soon dish after dish of beautifully prepared foods began to arrive. First came the tempura zucchini. Roasted and filled eggplant  was followed closely by an eggplant and pepper dish. Then came potatoes mixed with tomato and herbs and a delicious dish of zucchini greens with peppers and grated parmesan. At this point we indicated that we had had enough to eat and would be happy just to nibble on the bread. A look of surprise and disappointment came over the face of the young woman serving us and she asked us if we would prefer not to have the antipasto platter they had prepared for us. What could we say?

An amazing platter of antipasto (parma ham, dried green tomatoes, pickled onion, black olives, salami, fresh ricotta cheese, peccorino cheese) arrived at the table and we ate every bit of it! Were we finished yet? We certainly hoped so …. But they had picked some tomatoes from the garden (we actually saw this happen) and prepared them specially for us. So the tomato dish arrived – tomatoes seasoned with fresh herbs and garnished with salted and herbed sardines. Once again, we suggested that we were totally satisfied (truly stuffed to the gills) but were again overridden because the freshly made pasta and sauce was already prepared and in dishes to be served. So, we indulged in fresh homemade pasta with tomato sauce accompanied by an array of garden fresh peppers (picante) and fresh grated parmesan cheese. Truly amazing!!!

Would we care for some fruit now? Yes!!! A sensible dessert!! And a platter of apple, melon, mandarins and persimmon was delivered to us. Delicious! But wait …. That was not dessert. No …. Another dish had been prepared in the kitchen, just a teeny-tiny portion. We demurred and out came full servings of delicate sponge cake with strawberry cream topped with fresh currants. Surely we were finished now. Well, yes, in a way …. But the limoncedro (not to be confused with limoncello) was brought to the table, clearly straight from the freezer with two very cold glasses. We were left with the bottle and the glasses and encouraged to indulge … which, of course, we did. Jim did have more than I since I was driving. And finally, the coffee. Two excellent cappucini (plural of cappuccino) truly finished the meal!!

Now you may be wondering what a meal such as this would cost …. And so were we!! We had not seen a menu and had simply accepted whatever they offered us, knowing that is would be high quality and extremely tasty. We were not disappointed with any of the dishes we devoured. And the total bill? Including wine, liqueur, appetizers galore, pasta, fruit, dessert and coffee? It was 50 Euros (about $70.00). We were astounded at how reasonable the price was considering that all the food was fresh and prepared at the time in the kitchen.

After copious thanks and praise, we waddled back to the car and simply sat for a few minutes before we had the energy even to turn the engine on. We already knew there would be no dinner tonight!

A continuation of our country drive took us to the village of Santa Domenica Talao , high in the mountains to the east of Scalea. When the roads began to get a bit treacherous as they narrowed and steepened, we decided it was time to turn the car back toward Scalea and head for our hotel.

Sadly, the weather today was not the best so swimming was not very appealing this afternoon. I am really happy we took advantage of the perfect conditions yesterday. Maybe tomorrow ….

In the meantime, we are happily settled in our room, organizing photos, writing this diary, catching up on email and generally relaxing. No worries about where to have dinner tonight. Our small bag of fruit was more than enough to satisfy us. Not even the thought of gelato could entice us out of the hotel.

Tomorrow will be a new day!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013.

Well, the weather did not improve overnight. The view from our balcony was beautiful nonetheless with the Tyrranean Sea stretching as far as the eye could see. But the sky was grey and the air felt like rain was not far away.

Today was a travel day for us. Scalea to Salerno along the coast road for much of it. We deliberately chose that route rather than the freeway so that we could be close to the sea and meander through all the small towns along the way.

The road along the coast turned out to be spectacular! One of the best we have driven so far. I might even say that this coastline rivaled the Amalfi coast for beauty and breathtaking moments as the road twisted and turned high above the water, descended and ascended at eye-opening angles with only a small retaining wall separating the car from disaster. At one point, we passed a sign that indicated we would be descending on a 12% grade. Yikes, that is steep! The thing that made this road more fun than Amalfi was the absolute lack of traffic. Being free of other vehicles along the road allowed us to savour the scene and soak in the beauty of what we were experiencing. We stopped at each pull out along the road, took photos and drew our breath in in awe of the scene. The dark clouds in the sky overhead and on the horizon only made the scene more dramatic.

We finally reached the end of the ‘good road’ along the coast. Once again, we chose the local road over the freeway but for the next stretch of the road we would be travelling through the coastal mountain range. It was just as dramatic as the coast road was. We climbed higher and higher, travelling along mountain edges looking down into steep and deep valleys below. Occasional villages appeared and the road narrowed as we made our way along tiny passages between age old buildings. In some cases, traffic signals were used to effectively create an alternating one way road system through these mountain towns. That the towns stretched out along a single road was testament to how steep the mountain slopes were. There was simply no space to build a second road.

As we climbed higher and higher, we finally reached the low lying clouds. Hmmm …. Driving through the clouds feels a lot like driving through fog! Not much visibility on this very precarious road punctuated with sharp corners and astounding changes in elevation. The trip was a lot less fun at the moment.

And then the rain came!! Not just a little rain …. Torrential rain!! Sufficient that we actually pulled off the road for a short while so that it might pass. What we realized though was that the rain was unlikely to stop while we remained at such a high elevation and were surrounded by clouds so we gingerly continued along our way. After what seemed like a very long way, we had descended enough that we were at least out of the clouds and the rain abated somewhat.

But there was a new phenomenon along the road now. Chestnuts! Yes …. Chestnuts!! This climatic zone clearly supported the growth of chestnut trees – hundreds and hundreds of them. And that was just what we could see from the road. Who knows what the rest of the forest held? And, it is autumn so the chestnuts were maturing and falling from the trees. Large fuzzy burrs that protected the cherished nuts. The road surface was littered with thousands of these burrs, making it a bit slippery to drive on and noisy as well. As we passed through the chestnut area, the tired crunched on the burrs and made the sound that is familiar to those of us familiar with driving along newly graded gravel roads.

So …. Clouds, rain and now chestnuts. All unexpected components of this road trip. Yet they all added to the texture of the day as we made our way through the mountains. Amazing scenery …. And lots of chestnuts to be collected by the local residents and presumably, roasted by the open fire.

At long last, we made it back down to sea level and stopped in a charming seaside village for a much needed coffee. And then pressed on toward Salerno in somewhat improved weather and greatly improved road conditions.

We planned to make a stop at Paestum, a town close to our destination. Paestum is worth a visit because it has three of the best preserved Greek temples anywhere in the world. Prior to Roman rule, there was a large Greek presence in the south of Italy. These temples were built in approximately 500 BC. 2500 years later they are still standing. Remarkable.

In fact, there was a very large Greek town here, most of which remains buried under the current town of Paestum. What has been excavated is now in a protected site that covers many acres of land. Along with the three amazing temples, there are the outlines of several streets and the buildings that lined them along with an amphitheatre and other public gathering places. It must have been a lively place in its day.

We completed our drive to Salerno along the coast at sea level, once again enjoying the views of the vivid blue/green water. The weather had improved by this point and we were enjoying sunshine once again. (Salerno is described as Italy’s sunniest city.) The wind was strong though and the water in the sea was restless. Whitecaps were churning on the surface and boats in the water were bobbing with the rise and fall of the waves. We were happy to be on terra firma.

In Salerno, we returned to the same hotel we had enjoyed the first time we were there. We were even given the same room with the same wonderful sea view. Pizza for dinner and our day was complete.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

We spent the morning in the old section of Salerno, enjoying meandering along the old cobbled streets and admiring the displays in the store windows. We were actually headed for two museums that hold precious works of art.

The first was the Museo Pinacoteca Provinciale di Salerno. It was there that we were able to view a piece of art, among the earliest created by Andrea Sabatini.  It was in the form of a polyptych, a panel of painting consisting of three or more sections that are hinged together and can be folded up for storage or to be moved from one place to another. Painted in 1512, this work featured Madonna and Saints. We sat for a long while on a bench soaking in the beauty of this painting. The entire work seemed cloaked in a gold hue which added to the aura of the moment.

We then moved onto the Museo Archeologico Provinciale di Salerno. This museum is housed in an ancient monastery which creates a wonderful sense of history simply by entering into it. The museum is filled with artifacts from the earliest days of life in the area. Many of these have been retrieved from burial crypts, personal objects of value buried with the person who died. The museum was well organized, manageable in size and the displays provided insight into life in the area over a long period of time. It was a delight to spend time in this museum. One of the most important pieces in the museum is the bronze sculpture of  the head of  Apollo. This sculpture was retrieved from the Gulf of Salerno in 1930, caught in fishing nets, where it is estimated to have been for almost 2500 years. The sculpture itself has remarkable detail including beautiful facial and hair features. It is amazingly well preserved. It does cause one to wonder where it came from and how it had avoided being found over all those years. Astonishing!!

And now it was time for us to leave Salerno, a city we have come to enjoy very much. It is geographically beautiful and wonderfully hospitable. It offers a range of points of interest, everything from natural habitat, to historical settings to wonderful art. This city will remain a favourite for us.

Next stop – Pompeii! We said farewell to the sea for the last time as we headed inland. It was a fairly short distance to Pompeii from Salerno and we made the trip without getting lost.

Jim once again found a terrific hotel, not far from the Scavi di Pompeii. We checked in and proceeded directly to the ruins of Pompeii. One is immediately overwhelmed by the size of the vacant city. And it is said that only a small portion of it has been uncovered, that most of the original city of Pompeii remains buried under the city that now exists.

We meandered along the streets and entered the buildings that were open for visitors. We were astounded by what we saw in each one. Life in Pompeii in the first century AD was very sophisticated. Homes were mostly 2 stories tall with several rooms within for specific purposes. Homes were designed around central courtyards, many of them made from marble. Frescoes remained visible, though, faint, on the walls in many places and the original paint colours of red, orange and blue were visible on many walls. Some of the painting even had decorative effects embedded in the colour (eg white stripes used as a border effect along some walls). Columns were a design feature in many households and the plaster was applied in decorative and artistic ways. Gargoyles resided on the edges of roofs and decorative flowers and other designs adorned the top of the columns. Design was also evident in the layout of the homes; the central courtyard often lined up with windows overlooking the garden. Light flooded in and the beauty of the garden was visible from many angles.

Roads and streets were well laid out and, in many cases, ‘paved’ with stones. Sidewalks paralleled the main streets, somewhat higher than the road surface to enable people to embark or alight from carriages that were travelling through the city. Large stones, strategically placed across the streets provided level crosswalks for pedestrians. The flat stones were positioned in such a way that the wheels of the carriages could pass between them and make their way along the streets without impediment.

Public services were available at various places throughout this lively community. Snackbars were common along the main streets, set up and run by the families in the homes where they existed. Ovens and large ceramic pots for hot dishes were embedded into countertops, often decorated with ceramic tile. Public baths were available. The facility we visited was amazing in it beauty and size. Laundry facilities were centrally available. It was considered unsavoury to do your own laundry in your home due to the fact that urine was the primary stain removal agent of the day. Large tubs and running water were all built into the laundry area, operated by the lower class members of this community.

A large central square for public events was located in what might have been the centre of town at one time. Columns rose along the edges to the sky; a stage dominated one end where one could imagine opera and other presentations occurring. The east side of the square was a large market area and the west side was a granary.

The buildings that have been uncovered are in various conditions. Some, other than the roofs, escaped the disaster relatively intact. Details in the homes such as storage areas, layout of rooms, kitchen organization and decorative features were as they had been 2000 years ago. Gardens have been recreated in some locations, using the same holes for the plants as were used in the original city. Archeologists have managed to map these gardens using cement pucks to mark where each plant had grown.

The entire ancient city of Pompeii is astounding in so many ways. And yet, disaster struck. It was almost incomprehensible to imagine the fear, the bewilderment and ultimately the suffering of the entire population of this city as the Mount Vesuvius erupted and its ash fell with such force that it buried the city and everything in it alive. An entire city snuffed out in a few short hours. To ponder the strength of this event, the volume of ash, the impact of the poisonous gasses causes deep sadness and, I have to admit, a little fear. What an astounding event in history!

Vesuvius rises above the city even today, looking benign in its presence and its beauty. Its power is awesome to imagine. And, although it last erupted in 1944, it is still considered a highly volatile and active volcano. When …. And what if?

This finishes our road trip through Italy. Tomorrow we head for Rome where we will spend our final week. We will return the car to the rental agency and be on our feet or public transit for the next seven days. When in Rome ……

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