I am holidaying in southern-central Italy. My main lasting impression from this visit will be of the good-natured and gracious people of Italy – for example, strangers greet you in the street, are helpful and decent. Of course Italy has many natural/cultural and artistic assets – and a deep sense of history – that similarly delight me and which I write about below. Also too I love Italian food and the wide range of approachable rosso/bianco Italian wines. For a gluttonous wino like myself these are not unimportant incidentals. But the delightful people of Italy themselves are a good intrinsic reason to visit Italy.
Now for a less emotive posting!
I started in Naples Italy’s third-largest city with a serious, compressed, attempt to explore this vibrant and architecturally beautiful city with a reputation for crime, flawed rubbish collection services and (related) the Camorra. An initial excursion to the former Bourbon palace in the city’s north – now the Museo a Bosco di Capodimonte revealed a magnificent art collection – mainly 13-15th century paintings by numerous masters including El Greco – in a palace set in elegant gardens. The north east of the city has gorgeous, bourgeois suburbs and the startling Museo Nazionale San Martino with fantastic views over Naples – new and old. The city does have a compact modern CBD but is dominated by older much more aesthetic architecture. Mount Vesuvius is a landmark to the southeast and the Gulf of Naples to the East. The major city piazza are worthwhile aesthetically pleasing points of reference and it was a good choice to stay in the Piazza Bellini which has a convenient central location – close to shopping, major museums and a 20 minute walk to the Bay. The Capo di Posillipo in the south west of the city offers more bourgeois resident areas, dramatic rugged Mediterranean coastal scenery and fantastic views of the city and Vesuvius – it also houses a supposedly top-ranking Napoli restaurant about which more later.
An enjoyable visit was spent at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale – one of the world’s greatest archaeological museums. It has a wide-ranging collection but a central component is its collection of paintings, marble sculptures, bronze ware, tiled mosaics and household implements from 100AD Pompei. The scale and quality of the exhibition is overwhelming and a glimpse, preserved by volcanic ash and lava, of how Romans lived 2000 years ago – the richness of their culture and the central value their art placed on simplicity and beauty.
The food in Naples was traditional but I specialized by trying its famed pizza – it originated what has become a ghastly substitute for food in North America. The Napoli version is a vast improvement over overdone balls of grease. Sorbillo, a Napoli institution is one of the best pizzeria in the city. At opening time access involved locals and tourists jockeying to get a seat but a well-organized queuing system had me seated in 10 minutes or so and then, yes, pizza heaven with some local vino. A delightfully inexpensive meal of some of the best pizza in the world. A more elaborate meal at Al Faretto in Posillipo cost more and was less yummy. The numerous restaurants in the neighborhood of this latter fashionable vicinity seemed to all be doing poorly and there was an air of desperation in chatting with locals – no decent jobs, poor prospects.
The next day I left by train for Amalfi via Salerno. The bus ride from Salerno to Amalfi was terror -inducing. Sheer cliffs with a narrow road and a bus driver who drove with skill were ingredients. The spectacular rugged scenery made it worthwhile. There are elegant towns perched on cliff faces along this section of coast – Minori and so on. Amalfi itself is a tourism concentration but is architecturally unspoilt. It has the advantage of being close to Ravello – a must see sight. Boat trips to Positano and Capri are available and I took them. Both of these destinations are more commercial than Amalfi but are similarly unspoilt by the impact of mass tourism. Only on Capri were numbers of tourists so large that queues formed making tourist wanderings difficult.
Amalfi straddles the rugged steep coastline plummetting close to vertically to the sea. I am writing this while breakfasting in a restaurant about 300 feet above the Mediterranean staying in a 12th century converted convent – the Hotel Luna Convento Amalfi. Yes, and I did my best to refrain from ‘candle’ jokes – they wear! In front of me is the narrow Amafi Bay with tourist boats cruising in and out. To the right are steep cliffs that rise 1200 feet upwards and upon which are built spectacular hotels, churches and towers. The construction task must have been fearful. The result is iconic – I haven’t seen anything comparably magnificent. There are rocky outcrops and patches of green to give the area a natural feel although Amalfi itself has a long environmental history. It was a major prosperous trading port in the 12th century and was an early victim of deforestation. The ultimate impact has not been to produce an unaesthetic environment.
If Amalfi is beautiful then Ravello, founded in the 5th century and only a short altitudinal trip by bus from Amalfi, is exquisite. Fabulous views of the rocky coastline, lemon groves, vineyards and the Mediterranean from beautiful churches and gardens – Gore Vidal described the views from Ravello as the “most beautiful on earth”. That hyperbolic statement probably does not say much but Ravello is special. The Ravello Festival which runs for several months a year was operating during my stay so I went to a performance by a Palestinian Youth Orchestra (!). Excellent soloists and a (surprisingly) pleasant evening – the Italian audience warmed to the youthful Palestinian musicians.
Returning to Salerno after a week I took a train to Florence. Here staying at a castle – Castello Di Montegufoni – founded in the 12th century but substantially rebuilt in the 17th century it has been split up into luxurious apartments with surrounding views of olive groves, vineyards and iconic Tuscany scenery and only about 25 km from Florence.
Florence itself is of course a prime target for tourists. Indeed it is rather “too attractive” in the sense that tourists do seem to overwhelm the place. It is not architecturally or environmentally spoilt by tourism but the queues can be annoying. When I come again (and I will!) I will avoid peak season – I appreciate neither the crowds nor the heat! The magnificent baptismal chapel in the Piazza San Giovanni and the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore – construction began in 1294 – are must see sights but the queues detracted while waiting in the hot summer. Regrettably we gave up getting into Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Piazza del Duomo della Signoria and Pallazzo Vecchio – the Uffizi Galleries are beyond excellent – a museum of extravagant ancient art on a massive scale that is housed in a beautiful palace for the Medici family. Palazzo Pitti on the south bank of the Arno was closed when I got there as were the adjacent gardens. While wandering back from this area to the main train station I wandered in an externally non-descript though large church with an amazing atmosphere and filled with exquisite 14th and 15th century religious art – few crowds but it is a well-recognized gem – the 13th century Santa Maria del Carmine – close to the heart of Florence. It had a religious atmosphere in a religiously artistic setting. Beautiful artwork.
My full-day trip to Siena by bus was well worthwhile although again many key sites were simply overwhelmed by large groups of tourists. Better to visit at other times.
The best views of Florence are from Piazzale Michelangelo which is across the Arno a few kilometers past Palazzo Pitti. Cultural name-dropping an issue here as so man famous artists and musicians have made their home here– the place oozes renaissance culture.
A remarkable very old town close to Florence is Fiesole – this would be my place to stay should I return. Good hotels and restaurants, wonderful views of Florence and its surrounds and much lower levels of tourism pressure than in Florence. Indeed while the central parts of Florence are beautiful and include major museums and galleries of enormous importance the surrounds have a lot of rustic Tuscany beauty – old villas in a countryscape of olive trees and vineyards, Cyprus forests.
After 6 days in Tuscany I left for Rome where my travel log will probably finish.