Oh (God almighty), the hills of Taormina

So, it’s kind of a funny story. Before leaving for Italy, my good, patient friend, Gabagol (who you may known as Andy–just kidding, you only know him as Gabagol)–gave me stick-shift driving lessons. We’d meet up in Westbury, Long Island on Sundays, and he’d hold his breath while I started, stalled, and stuttered around a parking lot for an hour. Afterward, we’d usually go to the big Fairway (NY’s best grocery store), where I’d buy him little tokens of my appreciation, like artisanal blood peach jam.

I had about four lessons in total over the course of two months. I got better and better with each lesson, but often failed at the same point, again and again. When coming off the highway, I’d always stall. The exit was on an incline, and there was a stop sign. I’d usually forget to switch from sixth gear back to first before starting again. And once the stall happened, there was no guarantee I could prevent the car from stalling again, as my brain became clouded and panicked. Luckily, Gabagol was always incredibly patient (did I mention what a good friend he is?), and never let his panic show. I’d yell, “Why does it keep stalling?!” “Because you’re still in sixth gear. “Oh, yeah.” “Why isn’t the car moving?!” “Because you’re still on the clutch.” “Oh, yeah.”

So I kind of got the hang of driving manual, but knew I had far from perfected it. Yet, I still opted for the manual transmission Fiat 500 when booking a car for our (my husband, Jared, and me) Sicily trip. I figured I had to go for a manual because, otherwise, what good had the lessons been? I needed to give it a try.

I’ve had worse ideas. And I’ve had far better ones.

So, with Jared’s cautious support (“If you feel confident…”), we picked up the manual Fiat 500 (“cinquecento”–much more fun to say than “five hundred”) from Europcar. I may have gotten into an argument with two European ladies on my way to the counter (they didn’t understand the merits of a “take a ticket” queue). Once that was settled, we found our way to our cute, white 500.

Amazingly, I was able to get the car moving, and off we went. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad? I didn’t even stall when going through the toll booth (I remembered to downshift this time!). And I was even making nice with the maniacal Sicilian drivers, who, by he way, speed like demons, never use their turn signals, are more than happy to tail you aggressively, and pay no attention to the concept of two separate lanes. All was going well until we got to our destination: Taormina.

Taormina is widely considered to be Sicily’s best resort town. We were scheduled to stay for two nights at the Hotel Villa Ducale, which sat upon a hill atop of Taormina, with a stunning view of both the crystal coastline and smoldering Mount Etna, who, at 11,000 feet, mostly had her head in the clouds. The funny thing about staying atop Taormina is that Taormina is already atop of another hill. So we were staying on a hill atop a hill. Double hill, double whammy.

Following the directions provided by the hotel proved to be tricky. With one wrong turn, we found ourselves traveling uphill straight into Taorimina proper, rather than around it. On the way up the hill, I had to stop to yield for traffic, and promptly stalled. Flustered, I punched on the hazards and restarted the car and tried to proceed. When the rollback spooked me, I stalled again. Then the honking from other cars commenced. I restarted the car, gunned the engine and quickly let off the clutch until we jerked forward. The 500 emitted a burning metal smell (poor clutch!), demonstrating its annoyance.

And the fun didn’t stop there! Once we surmounted that hill, we drove through the medieval wall into downtown Taormina, which was teeming with cars and people. I pulled over, in full panic mode, and I looked to Jared with an exasperated, “Now what?” The only way out was to drive through the town’s narrow, winding, uphill roads. My manual driving nightmare had been achieved.

I stalled the car again and again. Lots of honking, lots of hazard signals, and lots of deep breaths (let’s be honest: I was taking shallow breaths, sweating and swearing). Jared supported me from the passenger seat, and never once screamed, “YOU’VE MADE A HORRIBLE DECISION AND RUINED OUR LIVES!” Although I think that’s what we were both thinking (or am I just projecting?).

We finally made it to the top part of upper Taormina, and found Hotel Villa Ducale. It was all worth it in the end; the hotel was magnificent and the view was spectacular. And we were able to enjoy Taormina without driving! Instead of ruining the Fiat’s transmission, we walked down 300+ stairs to the bottom of town. Much better, if you ask me.

After two days in Taormina, we embarked in the car again. While I narrowly missed hitting a motorcyclist (I was too focused on getting the car to go), we made it down the hill without issue. I stalled once at a toll booth, but didn’t stall at all when yielding at the thousand roundabouts we encountered, so all in all, it was a successful drive to our current location of Siracusa.

Hopefully, our luck will continue and I’ll avoid stop-and-go traffic on hills here on out. That’s likely, right? Haha, yeah right. Wish us luck!

Stefania con Lecce

Oh, Puglia. What a fantastically beautiful place. It’s sandwiched in between two glorious seas (the Ionian and the Adriatic), and is filled with olive groves and vineyards in the middle. And there are remarkably few tourists here. I’ve spent most of my time in Lecce (pronounced like the Spanish word for milk, “leche”, hence this post’s title).
 
Lecce has a lot of nicknames (“Florence of the South”, “Italy’s baroque pearl”), but to me, Lecce is the city of light and dark, hot and cold. In the historic center (centro storico), the streets are as narrow as alleyways and weave around white stone buildings set with flowered terraces before opening up into piazzas. These buildings, however beautiful, cast thick shadows. I often feel like Goldilocks walking down the street here. One minute, I’m trapped beneath a shadow, shivering, and the next, I’ve been spit out onto a sweltering piazza, heated up like a pizza stone. It’s tricky to find the spot that’s just right. Luckily, jackets can come off as easily as they go on.
 
I spent a decent amount of time lost here, too. The streets curl around tightly, so you’re never sure if you’ve walked into a dead end until you’ve nearly hit the wall. On several occasions, I’ve wandered around helplessly while trying to find my way back to the flat, eyes glued on the blue dot in Google Maps. Usually, I’m just meters from my front door. I’ve accepted how silly I look. No one has offered to help me, at least.

I can’t speak much about the food in Lecce. I haven’t actually gone out to eat here, besides having a couple of kebab sandwiches. I haven’t had a kitchen in a while–and won’t have one again anytime soon–so I’ve been taking advantage of being able to cook for myself (and by cook, I mean boil amazing pasta and make caprese salads). My landlady did bring me a Salento specialty for breakfast, though, and it blew my mind.

It’s called fruttone (thanks, Google!), which is a small, oval cake topped with dark chocolate and filled with almond paste and fruit jam (I think mine had figs in it). The crust, which is made with lard, reminded me of what shortbread would taste like if it were chewy, soft and delicious. Fruttone is technically a variation of pasticciotto, which is only topped with egg white (to help it brown) and is filled with custard. I wish I could buy hundreds to send home to you all. I am about to run over to the Cin Cin Bar to buy myself one or two as souvenirs (if they last beyond breakfast tomorrow).

I haven’t done as much traveling around Puglia as I would have liked. I blame Rick Steves’ absence (there’s no Puglia section in his guidebook) and my shyness when it comes to asking for help. I did get out yesterday, though. I took the local train service (Ferrovie del Sud Est) to Gallipoli, which is a city on Puglia’s Ionian coast.
 
The train ride alone was worth the €8.50. I saw huge olive trees, with thick, gnalry trunks, and vineyards full of floppy-eared vines. And there were silvery fields dusted with yellow and purple wildflowers, and abandoned stone buildings surrounded by crowds of red poppies. I wanted to jump out of the train (which looked like this, by the way) and pick all the poppies I could hold, walk under the dappled shade of the olive trees and feel the crunch of the Pugliese dirt under my shoes. But I didn’t–mostly because trespassing is illegal.

Gallipoli itself was meh. The sea was gorgeous – you could see clear to the bottom, and I saw lots of fish. But the city itself was merely a tourist trap with not much to do other than walk around the old part of the city. Admittedly, I went during siesta, but still. I stayed long enough to walk around the perimeter of the old city before dashing back to the train station. 

If I had another day in town, I’d travel to Otranto–I probably should have gone there instead of Gallipoli, but I was spooked by the number of train transfers. I do hope to come back to Puglia one day, and Otranto will definitely be on my list. Why Otranto? I think this video says it all

What else happened in Lecce? When I get back to the States, I’ll tell you about how my first Airbnb flat was a total disaster, and about how a drunk guy harassed me in Italian throughout my entire donner kebab purchase (a long process because they have to shave the meat off the spit, let it sizzle on the griddle, toast the bread, add toppings, etc.). on my first night in Lecce. I won’t go into those things here, because they’re still too annoying to think about. Let’s let them age into funny stories.

Tomorrow, I’m heading back to Sorrento to see the Amalfi Coast and tour Pompeii. After four nights there, I’ll triumphantly return to Rome for two nights before picking up Jared Castello, my husband, from FCO, with great relief. I cannot wait to share Italy with him!

Ciao for now!

Ciao from Parma! And Cinque Terre Highlights.

I’m the worst blogger! Would you believe me if I told you that my lack of posts is due to lack of time? Seriously! Whenever I have WiFi and a desk to sit at, I’m usually planning the next stage of my trip. And then the days pile on so quickly, and I want to share so much, but want to do so in chronological order, which then creates more lag, because what I want to say isn’t immediately on the top of my head. Excuses aside–here’s a blog post!

I’m sitting in the creepiest hotel room. Italians have a beautiful knack for creating the smallest hotel rooms for single guests, and this one takes the prize for saddest and smelliest. My first hotel room here at the Astoria Residence Hotel smelled like old mayo packets. My latest room smells more like old beef, which, for whatever reason, is better than old mayo packets. I can’t explain this exactly.

But I’m only here for a night, so it’s not the end of the world. I left Vernazza in Cinque Terre this morning for Parma to begin the next leg of my journey: Puglia! Tomorrow, Trenitalia will whisk me away on a nearly 8-hour train ride down to the heel of Italy’s boot. Puglia isn’t a popular tourist destination. It isn’t even mentioned in my Rick Steves’ Italy 2014 guidebook. But I know it’ll be great. I’ll be staying in Lecce, which is sometimes called the Florence of the South and is known for its baroque architecture. I’ve also read about how incredibly hospitable southern Italians are, too. Plus, the Adriatic coastline is nearby! I’ll be there for six nights.

But before I embark on this next journey, let me mention Cinque Terre. It was a big highlight of my trip so far. What a magical place! These teeny tiny towns positioned just off the sea (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) are built on top of the ravines that originally carved out the space each town now sits on. While walking through town, you can hear the gentle and steady “whoosh” of the stream running underneath the main street. And each town has its own charm and vibe. 

And each town’s buildings are pastel-colored, and are set off by the complementary blues and greens of the Ligurian Sea. I visited all towns but Corniglia (pronounced “Cornelia”). Check out my Instagram (widget to the right) for pictures of each town (including selfies). A quick roundup of highlights for each town:

  • Monterosso: Climbing to the top of the hill, peering off the cliff side cemetery just in time to see the rain clouds move west and the sun light up all of Cinque Terre. 
  • Vernazza: Sitting on the “New Beach” (formed after a landslide and flood in 2011), watching the waves chase children up the beach. And I had some great meals there, and even spotted Rick Steves shooting a segment for his PBS show.
  • Manarola: Walking along the hillside vineyard terraces and lemon groves, and looking back on Manarola’s harbor from Via dell’Amore. 
  • Riomaggiore: Joining the Italians in line at Il Pescato Cucinato to buy a small cone of fritto misto, which included whole anchovies (fresh from Monterosso) and another local, whole fish. While I’m a bit grossed out by anchovies in a can, I’ll happily eat fresh anchovies any day.

Do take a few minutes to check out my Instagram feed to see the visuals that complement these highlights. 

And before I wrap this up, I want to give a shout-out to Ristorante San Barnaba here in Parma. I just had dinner there, and my primi was out of this world. It was tagliolini served in a fresh tomato cream sauce with strips of prosciutto di Parma on top (because it’s Parma!), and a healthy sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano (because it’s Parma!). Easily one of the top three pastas I’ve had so far in Italy. 

With that, ciao for now! 

Ciao from Roma!

Holy shit, I’m in Rome! Sorry for swearing, Mom, it’s just so surreal to be here. I’ve always dreamed of visiting Rome, and I never thought I’d make it. And now I’m here for 16 nights: three nights down, and 13 more to go. So what have I been up to?

I’ve given up my US phone number for now in favor of an Italian one. I’d tell you what it is, but neither of us can afford the phone call.

I’ve seen some sights: the Fontana di Trevi, Quattro Fontane, the Pantheon, the Altare della Patria. I saw Largo di Torre Argentina, the spot where Caesar was assassinated (“Et tu, Brute?”). It’s now a cat sanctuary. It smelled like a cat lady’s house, but I do love i gatti romani (who are we kidding, I love all cats).

I’ve eaten good food. My favorite meal so far was last night’s in Trastevere, where I had the best spaghetti carbonara I’ve ever tasted. The pasta was so chewy–thicker than the spaghetti you’d find in America–and they weren’t shy with the cheese. And my God, has bacon always tasted that good?

There’s still lots to see and eat, so it’s good that a very dear friend from Chicago is arriving tomorrow to help me see the sights and eat il cibo.

Ciao!

Originally written Sun, April 6, 2014