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Bongiorno! Last week we left off in Venice, Italy. This week we travel south to an area of Italy most people have never heard of, let alone been to. So sit back, relax and grab something cold to drink as we visit this fascinating and relaxing hideout. Enjoy!
VENICE TO NAPOLI
In Venice it was time to say goodbye to my dad and his wife Nancy. They were headed back to the States, while I was nowhere close to going home. (Remember in March when I was in Italy for only four days, and said the next time I came back I would stay longer? Well, I made good on that promise.) I always hate to leave my dad, because he’s so cool and I never know when I’ll see him again. So we spent as much time as we could with each other -- up to the very second when I jumped in a water taxi to leave for the airport. Luigi (from VeniceGuideAndBoat.it) took me on a 30-minute, 80-euro ($100) ride to Marco Polo International Airport. There are not many places in the world where the only way to the airport is via boat. You gotta love going to the Venice airport on a warm, sunny day for that reason alone. But there’s more: The airport is clean, modern and easy to navigate. From the airport dock I jumped on a free airport shuttle (a bus with wheels) and headed to the domestic terminal. It took just five minutes.
There was no check-in line at Alpi Eagles, one of Italy’s low-cost air carriers. I learned about Alpi Eagles while surfing EuropeByAir.com, a website that sells $99 flight passes (one-way tickets) within Europe to non-European residents (tickets must be booked before leaving the States). But instead of booking with EuropeByAir.com I booked directly with Alpi Eagles, because it was even cheaper. EuropeByAir passes don’t include airport taxes, which vary by country. In addition, by booking directly with AlpiEagles I didn’t have to pay a shipping fee ($15 and up with EuropeByAir), because I got an e ticket -- not a flight pass. Don’t get me wrong: EuropeByAir is a great service, but I would use it only if I needed to be flexible (dates can be changed -- if seats are available -- for up to 120 days). My one- way Alpi Eagles ticket cost a total of $108. Like a knucklehead I read Alpi Eagles’ fine print only after I pressed purchase, and was shocked to discover that checked baggage must weigh less than 15 kilos (33 pounds), or passengers are charged 6 euros ($7.50) per kilo (2.2 lbs). I knew my bag was a few pounds over the limit, so when I lifted it for the agent to tag I pretended it was really light (that always works). The agent never weighed it, and I escaped without a fee.
The flight to Napoli (Naples) was on a Fokker 100, and took just 55 minutes. It was on time, smooth, and comfortable. The flight attendants served us drinks and a snack choice: either salato o dolce. I had no idea they were saying "salty or sweet," so I nodded yes to the first choice and wound up with saltine crackers, instead of the sweet-looking tasty cookies my seatmate ended up with. Now I will never forget the word "dolce."
Landing in Napoli was memorable. The view of the Bay of Naples, and the city of over one million residents, was spectacular. The sun was setting, and the colors made this historic and lawless city appealing. (Naples is known for being corrupt, and tourists as well as locals should not wear jewelry, to avoid getting it snatched by thugs.)
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see either Napoli or Pompeii. I was headed to visit my best friend Mike from Connecticut and his parents, who were kind enough to drive 90 minutes to pick me up. (They were probably afraid I would get mugged on the train). Mike’s parents live the good life: They split their time between Italy and the U.S. Lucky them! Before getting to their house, we made a couple of stops -- for food, of course. The first was at a gas station alongside the motorway. Inside their version of a mini-mart (store/café/restaurant) we bought some bottled water, and Mr. Manna had a shot of espresso. I knew we would have dinner soon, but after I spotted a tasty-looking slice of pizza there was no stopping me. I had to at least try it. It was one of the best slices of pizzas I have ever had -- and this was at a gas station! If mini-marts served pizza like that in America, I’d easily weigh 300 pounds.
Forty-five minutes later we were in the beach town of Casal Velino. We ate dinner on a patio at il Nido Country House. I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. I wished I’d had an espresso earlier. Mr. M ordered everything on the menu, and when I smelled the first course my palate woke my body up. I’m glad I got a second wind, because the food was so good and inexpensive (a dish of pasta cost 4 euros) that I wanted to pay, but of course Mr. M. wouldn’t let me. il Nido Country House, Loc. Portararo, 25, Casal Velino Marina – SA; tel.: 39-0974-90-91-08.
I don’t remember much of the 25-minute drive to the Mannas’ house, because I slipped into a food coma in the back seat. But the house is amazing. It’s located in the Cilento region, which became famous in 1997 when UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) made the area into a national park. The National Park of Cilento and Vallo of Diano is now the second- largest park in Italy. It stretches from the Tyrrhenian coast to the foot of the Apennines in Campania and Basilicata, and includes the peaks of the Alburni Mountains, the Cervati and the Gelbison, and the coastal buttresses of Mount Bulgheria and Mount Stella. Over 2000 years ago in classical times, Cilento formed a boundary between the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia and the indigenous Etruscan and Lucanian peoples. The remains of two major cities, Paestum and Velia, are ancient sites located in Cilento that provide a vast amount of history.
The Mannas’ house is in Moio della Civitella (Moio), a small (population under 2,000), quiet, tourist-free town southeast of Naples. Moio’s economy is entirely supported by agriculture (production of wine, olive oil and chestnuts). Its wines have been famous since the Middle Ages, and are sought far outside Italy. The Mannas’ brand spanking new house is bigger than some small hotels I have stayed in. The four-story monster had enough marble to make the folks over at the Hearst Castle jealous. The view of the countryside is killer. I spent three days there just relaxing, hanging out and of course eating. That’s what folks in Italy do best.
The major nearby town is Vallo Della Lucania (Vallo). You won’t find any chain stores -- just mom-and-pop shops, including a few travel agencies (gotta love that). That made walking around feel like I was back in the 1970’s -- but it was a good thing. No one rushed, everyone smiled, and there were very few outsiders. My only problem was a lack of high-speed internet access. The one place I found was a hidden store called the Computer Lab. It wasn’t an internet café; however, the owner was very friendly (just like at all the other stores), and let me share his desk with him while I fired up my laptop and downloaded 1,200 emails. I offered to pay him but he said (in Italian) that would be an insult. I only had an hour to work, because the whole town (including the Computer Lab) was closing down for siesta. Like most of southern Europe, folks take a three-hour break (lunch, nap and maybe some nooky) from 2 to 5 p.m. They go back to work, usually from 5:30 to 9 p.m. (times vary for each store). Now that’s living!
My first morning at the Mannas’, I rolled out of bed around 10 a.m. For breakfast we went to a magnificent little pastry shop in Vallo, where I watched each Manna order a cappuccino and a pastry that most people would only eat for dessert. I looked at them and said, "Are you for real?" When they looked at me like I was from Mars and nodded yes, I said, "Now that’s what I’m talking about!" I gave each a high five, and doubled their order. On the outdoor patio I sipped my cappuccino, ate my chocolate cannoli, leaned back and rubbed my Buddha belly. During "breakfast" Mrs. M gave me a hard time for not being married. When I told her I just haven’t found the right one, she got a look on her face like Thomas Edison probably did when he discovered electricity. She said, "I have the perfect girl for you! I met her the other day while shopping." Then she dragged me into a small bedding store, and instructed me to pretend I was shopping while checking this girl out. When I gave Mrs. M the thumbs up from across the store, she grabbed a pillow and made a beeline for the register. When I asked later why she bought the pillow, she said she needed a way to break the ice, and it was the cheapest thing there. Unfortunately, the Pillow Girl turned out to be very nice, but in a relationship.
Mr. M took me to many surrounding towns, including Cardile where he grew up. It’s nice and small, up in the hills. From there we traveled to Gioi, which has really nice views. On the way down we went to a charming country restaurant (cows roamed the street in front of the driveway) called La Montanara. It served homemade pasta, and again the prices were inexpensive. What I like about this area is that instead of using dried red pepper flakes to spice up the food, they use red pepper oil as a condiment. Too cool -- I mean, hot! La Montanara, tel.: 0974-65366.
THE OLD RANCH
Another notable restaurant was the Old Ranch, which according to Mr. M has the best pizza in town. We each had our own pizza, though one could easily have been split between three hungry football players. They were so good, we each polished them down ourselves. The best part: They cost between 2.50 and 5.50 euros ($3.10 -$6.80) apiece. Is that crazy? In Venice, pizzas were four times those prices. The Old Ranch, 26 V. N. Lettiero, 84078, Vallo Della Lucania; tel.: 0974-75288.
Every day we went for a walk in the mountains (thank god, because I was about to burst). We didn’t hike in the woods, we just walked (wobbled) on the side of the paved road. We had the whole place to ourselves -- only a couple of cars passed us. On the way back to our car Mr. M grabbed a bag out of the trunk, filled with empty plastic bottles. We walked down a small path on another piece of his property to a pipe with water gushing out. I helped him fill each bottle to the rim. The man had his own spring… and it is good! How awesome is that? BTW: Did you know Italy is one of the largest bottled water producers in the world? The country has over 175 mineral water sources, and more than 280 brands of bottled water.
One of the highlights was driving 40 minutes to Mount Gelbison (also known as Holy Mountain), on a windy road. From the parking lot we walked a few hundred yards up a steep hill. Mount Gelbison is one of the most famous and popular shrines in southern Italy. It dates back to 1300, and people come from all over to pay respects to The Shrine of Novi Velia Holy Mary. At the top sits a historic sanctuary open only from the last Sunday in May to the second Sunday in October. Mount Gelbison sits 5,593 feet above mountains covered with many kinds of trees, including chestnut, wild elm, maple and pear. This place is higher than Zermatt, Switzerland, and on a clear day visitors can easily see the Gulf of Salerno. In August, when all of Italy goes on vacation, the place is packed. Sundays are also very popular. We were there in the middle of the week, and had the whole place practically to ourselves (I counted 12 visitors). We arrived just as Mass was beginning, and the bells were so loud they could probably be heard in Vallo. I had no idea we were going to mass, and was dressed in shorts (Mr. M said it was cool). Mass was in Italian so I didn’t understand much, but I appreciated the fact it was nice and quick. They didn’t pass a collection basket around; instead at the end they opened up at door behind the altar where the famous small statue of Madonna sits. Everyone lined up (no one skipped town) to put money down and kiss her. It was quite an experience. Afterwards we had lunch at Trattoria Zio Michele -- the restaurant up there. The owner wasn’t very friendly, but the 9-year-old waitress and the chef (probably Aunt Michele) made up for him. Even at a touristy spot, prices were inexpensive. A prix fixe meal (pasta, meat, salad, bread and fruit) cost only 10 euros ($12.42). Trattoria Zio Michele.
Another day Mike and I took a 20-minute ride down to the beach. The closest one to his house is Palinuro, which is quite famous because it’s rich in history and is the longest in Europe. There were a bunch of tourists, but they were almost all Europeans (I heard one American). Most people go there to check out the natural coves, underwater caves and grottos. We skipped that, because we didn’t want to deal with other tourists and the long wait. Instead we just kicked back and swam in the clear refreshing water -- a perfect way to cool off from the hot sun.
Of course, I didn’t want to leave. But I knew if I didn’t get out then, I would have to be rolled onto the plane. Besides, I was booked to check out a killer hotel on the isle of Capri. We’ll visit it next week.
Here’s a 1 minute video of my trip to the Mannas’.
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