Sorrento; or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the tourist

Sorrento was by far the most touristy place that we visited. Just across from the island of Capri, which has been a vacation getaway since the time of the Roman emperors, you might say that tourism is in the blood–or the soil, I suppose. The area has been a destination for English lotus eaters for at least a century as well. The reason for that is obvious: take a look around!

View from the B&B. That is actually looking over a pub/disco that was a bit loud on Friday and Saturday night.
View in the other direction. The whole town is built among some pretty dramatic slopes.
Closeup of said dramatic cliffs, complete with gawking tourists (like us).
Every building angles for a view of the ocean. Given the steepness of the hills, it’s not a problem.
Marina Grande. It’s actually the smaller marina; the ferries go to the other one.
The middle marina. I forget the name–Marina Piccola? The big one is on the far side.
A pier. Not sure how much use this guy gets.
Sunning spots at Marina Grande. You actually have to rent the deck chairs there. Go figure.
Vesuvius! We’ve rotated our view of the volcano by 90 degrees or so, having taken the (aptly-named) Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento.

One final note, if you are ever in Sorrento, go to Inn Bufalito, a restaurant and mozzarella bar.  We ate here maybe four times and each time was amazing.  Yes, Anna may have a mozzarella problem.

Pompeii + Food in Naples

On the last day of my astronomy conference, the organizers rented a bus and took us on a tour of Pompeii, a quick 40 minute ride from downtown Naples.  The ruins were fantastic, in a humbling sort of way, where you are constantly impressed by how long certain architectural designs have been around.  Sliding doors?  Complicated heated floors for the bath house?  Intricately carved ceilings and arches?  Brightly colored murals on the walls?  I wasn’t quite prepared for just how vast the city is either.  You can look down the main streets and see the remnants of shops and houses for as far as the eye can see.  The whole city is of course overshadowed by Mt. Vesuvius, a chilling reminder of why Pompeii was deserted in the first place.  To add to the drama, dark clouds threatening rain gathered on the horizon during our tour and finally unleashed a downpour just as we were heading back to the bus.  Here are some pictures to give you a better idea of the beauty and scope of Pompeii, and as a treat for making it to the end, there is a list of restaurants and shops that Peter and I enjoyed visiting while in Naples.

Here are some favorite food-related places in Naples:

  • Limone: they make their own limoncello in the back of the shop and not only will they give you a tour (including a sniff of a large vat of lemons soaking in alcohol), but you can try a variety of the limoncello flavors.  We bought 4 bottles of booze there in total, some limoncello, creamy limoncello, and arugula/walnut liquor (rucola) for drinking on the balcony, as well as a large bottle of limoncello to take home.
  • Scaturchio: a pasticceria that sells delicious ministeriale–chocolate medallions filled with a top-secret ganache–and sfogliatelle.
  • Il Presidente Pizzaria: the best pizza we had in Naples.
  • Pintauro: another pasticceria, this one right at the end of the street of our first hotel. Delicious sfogliatelle and baba.
  • Gay Odin: A famous, small chain of gelaterias. The dark chocolate was especially good.
  • Cafe Bar Al Professore: on the Piazza Trieste e Trente, great for people-watching. They also have good sfogliatelle and great espresso (and nocciolato).

Naples again

I know what you really wanted to see was more photos from my Neapolitan meanderings. First, let me give you an idea of my typical day: see Anna off in the morning; decide on a destination (e.g. the monastery on top of the hill); get a pastry (usually a sfogliatella) from a recommended pasticceria; walk to my destination and enjoy it; stop by a gelateria on the way home, and then go for dinner with Anna and colleagues. Not a bad life.

And now the pictures:

A hazy view of the Bay of Naples. That’s the Sorrentine Peninsula on the left (our next stop!) and the Isle of Capri on the right.
Another view of Vesuvius. I don’t recall where I took this one from, but Vesuvius dominates the skyline from just about everywhere in Naples. Apparently the second peak is a result of one of the many eruptions over the years (about once a century).
Bella Napoli. See if you can count the number of church domes. I can’t.
The central altar of the monastery on the hill. I don’t know if these monks individually had to take vows of poverty, but the order as a whole most certainly did not.
Central courtyard of the monastery on the hill. The skulls were supposedly “a lighthearted reminder to the monks of their own mortality”.
Vesuvius and the port from the monastery. It was quite a hike to get all the way up the hill, but the monastery grounds and museum were fantastic. I strongly recommend it to all travelers.
Panorama from the monastery. I can only imagine the holy thoughts that these views must have put into the heads of monks.
Our hotel room, from the monastery. The main dome is the gallery, the smaller one the church. The building immediately in front of the church has three windows/balconies on the top floor. Our room was the leftmost. (This is the maximum zoom of the camera!)
General Lee. I guess you really can’t escape the South, even in Naples.
Il funicolare. Normally I’d just hoof it up the hills, but one day I went for a ride on all the metros, trains, and funiculars that Naples had to offer. (Well, some of them, anyway.) The funicular is basically a subway/tram at a tilt; an idea that they should consider adopting in San Francisco.

Naples, Day 2; or, look out, photos ahoy!

The conference is in a building directly across from the waterfront. While Anna can only look out over the water, I am free to range up and down the coast.

Anna is at a workshop. I am on vacation. A good deal for me, no? To make up for it, have some pictures.

The other end of the bay of Naples.
Clouds over Naples. It threatened rain all day, but in fact the intermittent protection from the sun was a boon to this city-walker.
Somebody’s tomb. Giacomo Leopardi, apparently. I think it was the guy who restored Virgil’s tomb.
The view from Virgil’s resting place. (In truth, it’s actually a bit better than this; the railroad tracks are not as prominent as they appear in this picture.)
Virgil’s Tomb. Traditionally the urns with the cremated remains were placed in the holes in the wall (so it said). The stand in the middle has written offerings to Virgil (mostly in Italian, so I don’t know if he can read them). While it looks run down and depressing, it’s actually quite calm and restful. The location up and out of the way of the rest of the city is probably the best part.
Entrance to the Roman Tunnel. This is the oldest or longest or something-or-other-est Roman Tunnel ever. It was built to ease communication between Neapolis and whatever is on the other end of the tunnel. It was also apparently a favorite of Virgil’s (hence the burial location).
Vesuvius! More attractive and quaint than threatining, at this point. That will all change soon, I’m sure.
Vesuvius! Again! This time looking over part of the marina. There are a lot of fancy yachts round these parts.
A Neapolitan street. I don’t remember where or why I took this picture, but it gives a pretty good flavor as to the look of the city.
Pistacceria di Scaturchio was recommended both by Anna’s Italian advisor and my guide book. I had a ministeriale–bottom left–a ganache-filled chocolate medallion whose ingredients are top-secret.

And then there was Naples

Well, I can now say that I may have discovered a hotel in Europe that I would gladly return to: Attico Partenopeo, in Naples, Italy.  Why, you might ask?  Well, as you may have realized by now, I have this thing for plants, and our hotel room, in addition to being decorated in a modern minimalistic style (yet still colorful, if the orange with black polka dots tiled bathroom is any indication), has a balcony filled with climbing vines in bloom that looks out over a busy Neapolitan street with views of a majestic building on a hill in one direction and Mt. Vesuvius in the other.  There’s also the fact that I will be able to eat breakfast out on a similar balcony filled with even more brilliantly blooming plants.

I was just telling Peter how exhausted I get when I’m in the state of mind where it’s boring and depressing to spend time in our hotel room, since I wear myself out finding excuses to stay outside.  Well, I seem to have gotten my wish, because I foresee evenings with a bottle of limoncello out on the balcony after an unbelievable margherita pizza in my future (actually, all I lack tonight is the limoncello).

One Day in Rome

The colosseum, although we didn’t go inside because the line was what seemed like infinitely long, and it was way too hot for pants

Well, I didn’t think we could get through half the list of recommended restaurants and see many of the main attractions (at least from the outside, as I’m terrible about waiting in lines) during our first full day in Rome, but I guess I’ve outdone myself.  That or I’m going to wake up next morning unable to move, as we spent literally the entire day walking or eating (10am to 10:30pm).  Here are a couple shots we squeezed in between meals.

Random ruins overrun by homeless cats (I counted at least 6). This partially made up for not waiting in line to see the Fora.

Now where did we eat, might you ask?  You probably shouldn’t ask such questions in person, by the way, or you might never get a word in edgewise.

  • Lunch: “da Giggetto” in the Jewish Ghetto. Great carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichokes), and because I can’t help myself when it comes to cheese, we also ate a ball of buffalo mozzarella; it wasn’t quite as good as the buffalo mozzarella I had in Florence last year, but I expect the quality will improve as we go further south.
  • Best coffee in Rome: “S. Eustachio” near the Pantheon.  Order a “gran caffe”, it’s probably the only espresso-like coffee I’ve ever really enjoyed.
  • Some of the best gelato in Rome: “gelateria del teatro” down a lovely mostly pedestrian street.  We tried basil white chocolate, tiramisu, and tartufo (translated as “four chocolate”, although I ordered it because of the candies of the same name that my adviser sometimes brings back from his trips to Europe).  I wanted to order pistachio, but they ran out just as we were ordering, which is extremely cruel, but gives me a convenient excuse to go back.
  • Dinner: “Bir and Fud” in Trastevere (also known as the place where I saw all the young people hanging out).  We ordered pizza (margharita with San Marzano tomatoes and more buffalo mozzarella, you know, just to take full advantage of the situation) and some rare microbrewery Italian beers (a very nice IPA and a porter flavored with tobacco that was much more delicious than I expected).
The view from Piazza Navona, you know, in case you were worried that with all that walking and eating I wasn’t gawking at enough stunning architecture.

Next week I’ll be at a conference in Naples, but more updates after that (unless the talks are unbearably boring… just kidding).

The View from Tuscany

The rest of the details of our July trip to Europe are long overdue.  To begin, a couple more photos of Italy.  My real reason for being in Florence was to do a bit of work with an astronomer there.  The view from the observatory where we worked was lovely; on one side Florence was spread out below, including the omnipresent Duomo (the feature that guarantees you don’t get lost while walking around the city). And on the other side, the Tuscan countryside rolls all the way to the horizon, complete with ancient monastery in the distance and a recreation of a middle ages castle being built by rich Americans on the next hill over.  I could have stayed there forever.

The view from the observatory with telescope domes in the morning sun.

For some reason, on the road up to the observatory, there was a tent surrounded by 5 or 6 cats. Every morning they were there, sunning themselves in the bright light, and every afternoon when I walked down the hill again they were gone. I like to think it was an orphanage for abandoned kitties, but I'm really not sure what was going on there.

View from the observatory in another direction, including olive trees, old Tuscan buildings, and far-away hills in the blinding morning light.

There is only one thing I regret from our entire trip in Europe: not having enough time to return to the fanciest restaurant we dined at in Florence to have another dish of fresh buffalo mozzarella.  This mozzarella was beyond words.  We were served two round soft-looking white pieces, each about the size of a child’s fist.  The outside of each mozzarella ball had a thin skin that kept the whole magical creation together, but the inside melted into a creamy heaven.  Somehow the creaminess was light enough to eat plain, and for once the perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes didn’t steal the show (always a risk with me).