Road trip week four; Amalfi coast, lemons and lunatic drivers

The Amalfi coast, just those two words combined can conjure up images in your minds eye; sweeping curving roads, sunshine and elegance. For us, this was the area around which we had created our road trip of a lifetime. Looking again at Monty Don’s book on Italian gardens made our mind up that we should drive along the coast road and up into Ravello. Then we could visit any of the towns we fancied on the return leg, Amalfi, Praiano and Positano. Another early morning start, 7am, saw us pulling in the wing mirror of the car and me holding my breath for almost an hour and 20 minutes!

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They just drive straight at you!” roared J. Not that I can blame him it was full on. Scooters (and cars) overtaking cars on blind bends, buses creating spaces where there wasn’t any. We met a couple back in Modena and they gave us some advice when they heard what we were doing. “Remember you’re a pebble in a stream or a leaf in the breeze”. Basically, we had to let them all get on with their madness around us and try to keep on course. Amazingly we arrived unscathed and found a carpark, dazed we wandered into Ravello town to recover and grab an espresso before taking in some more gardens.

 

First, on the recommendation of our local rep, Gianni, we visited Villa Rufolo, in through the gates on the dot of 9am we had the place to ourselves for a while. The views over to Salerno were breathtaking, like a lot of the Amalfi coast is. Known as the “Garden of the Soul” we were able to feel that sentiment well, I think because of the early hour and lack of tourist hoards. Although a small garden, it has such beautiful detail on the two terraces that it will hold your attention. After we had strolled around and sat on a bench soaking in the sun and seascape we took ourselves off to find the gardens of Villa Cimbrone.

The garden was enticing from the moment we stepped through the huge wooden gates. Pathways led you onward with glimpses of vistas of to the left and right of you. But all the time you knew you needed to walk down the central gravel path and be awe inspired by the infinity terrace at the other end. It was all it promised to be and more. We were certainly getting our fill of beautifully spectacular gardens on this trip. It would be difficult to pick a favourite. Lunch was calling and so I braced myself for the return journey. Arriving in Amalfi I instructed J to turn into the harbour as Gianni had suggested a restaurant there. “We’ll never find any parking” J said pessimistically and as we slowly drove along the pathway (road) we saw the name we were searching for. “Ooh there’s a space” – in the reserved parking for the restaurant – we pulled in and the ‘valet’ said “have you reserved a table?“, “YES” says J, (we hadn’t) and determinedly parks the car and switches it off.  Nonchalantly we walk in and take a table on the terrace overlooking the harbour and have a fab lunch!

I think the glass of wine at lunch helped J’s Italian driving skills and he seemed much more at home on the roads now. We quickly stopped at a road side stall and bought some Amalfi lemons, that we’ve always wanted to see. They are quite amazing. Below, left to right: ordinary lemon, Sfusato lemon & Cedro lemon. The last one apparently you can eat whole. When we open and try it I will let you know!

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One of the trips recommended to us was a boat trip to Capri, Cap-ri not Cupri as we tend to say 🙂 It was a whirlwind tour with a taxi bus picking us up near our villa at 9am, down to the nearest harbour, Marina Lobra in Massa Lubrense, and off around the Sorrento coast and over to Capri. Our boat driver Giuseppe was great fun, showing us all the sights and with one liners that couldn’t fail to make you smile. Dropped off at Marina Grande we had 4 hours to ourselves. Straight onto a small bus we wound our way up into the hills and over mama mia bridge (yes really) and into Anacapri to get onto the chair lift to the top of Monte Solaro for stunning views over the island.

A quick lunch of the tomato and mozzarella sandwich the tour had given to us, we set off to catch the bus back down to Capri and walk through town to the Gardens of Augustus. This small garden only 1 Euro entry (which goes to local charity) has yet more stunning views over the bay and of a winding pathway, Via Krupp, (no longer accessible due to falling rocks) towards Marina Piccola. We then pushed our way back through the crowds (what must it be like in high summer?!!) and caught another bus to the harbour. Here J finally allowed me to catch my breath, sit on the quay side waiting for the boat with a well deserved gelato (lemon if you wanted to know! 😉 ).

In case we were in danger of getting fat, drinking and eating our own body weight each day we try to make sure we walk often. Gianni had one more local suggestion, a secluded bay to swim in, Campanella, you just had to walk 45mins to get there. Down hill, on a stone path. I was channelling my inner goat as I stumbled my way down the narrow steps. Boy was it worth it, glorious countryside and the sparkling aquamarine sea all to ourselves…

…for all of 20 minutes! Then an Italian walking group of about 25 people descended on us, it was funny. We spent about an hour swimming and people watching until we couldn’t put off the return uphill journey any longer. Puffing, huffing and sweating we climbed back up, it took us about an hour!

Amalfi, we have enjoyed how full on your region was but we are ready to hit the road again and discover another new area, Puliga, arrivederci!

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Road trip week two; city stop, hilltops and gardens, gardens, gardens.

Florence was never on my must do list. The way this trip gradually came together it made sense to take a few days and “do it”. Well there is the Boboli gardens to look at we thought. Driving through the city centre was ok until the sat nav tried to take us up a street that was blocked with road works. With the the “sat bitch” telling us to “make a u-turn” J did his best to navigate us out the other side and to our hotel which was on the outskirts of the city. The Hotel Mulino is on the river and it was nice to come back to after a day in the tourist packed city. Shuttle bused in, we walked towards the Ponte Vechio. “ooh it’s not that nice to look at is it?” we both thought. The glamour was to be found on the bridge not looking at it, as the bridge now houses jewellery shops. One after the other. J quickly walked me on with mutterings of “this is like the lanes in Brighton only worse”. We arrived at the Pitti Palace where the Boboli gardens are. Walking around we had a sense of disappointment, perhaps it was the rain dampening our mood? But we felt like we were somehow missing the good bit, maybe it’s round the next corner? It wasn’t. The highlight/central feature of the fountain on an ‘island’ surrounded by lemon trees in pots was even unsatisfying. There wasn’t any water flowing through the fountain! We walked on to see the Bardini gardens (included in the ticket price), which were small but gave more somehow. A beautiful rill of water flowing around the garden and 15th century steps with a stunning view down into Florence.IMG_0043

The pick up point for the shuttle bus was outside the sister hotel of where we were staying – they had a roof bar (and roof-top swimming pool!). So we decided to wait for the bus up there, with a glass of wine, of course!! Wow, what a view.

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For us two full days in Florence was enough. As we didn’t want to queue for any of the main attractions like the Duomo, it was enough time for us to walk our feet off and soak up the vibe.

IMG_0045The hills were calling. Off to Tuscany. 12 years ago we went with my parents, how can it be that long ago? It makes me feel soooo old. We wanted to do a quick trip down memory lane, revisiting the highlights. Montepulciano, Montalcino and Pienza. All up hill, down hill, except one. It sure got the glutes working! We managed to do a few new things as well, including a natural hot springs, Bagni San Filippo, with stunning calcium formations and the pungent smell of sulphur!!

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Sitting in the grey pools of warm water, I tried not to be too British as the soft yet oozy sensation of the mud beneath my bottom and hands made me feel slightly squeamish. It was pleasant and disgusting in equal measure. Hand washing our bathers in the hotel sink later was interesting! Eating dinner in Montalcino that evening we had the best meal/ pasta of the trip so far. It was a local pasta, pici, which is like a thick spaghetti, but hand rolled, served with a ragu sauce. The taste was immense and we are still talking about it almost a week later! Simple fresh ingredients, done well.

The weather was starting to turn and we were having to make sure we always had our umbrella with us. Leaving Tuscany heading further south beyond Rome we arrived in the region of Lazio. It rained constantly and heavily the whole day. Tired, over dinner at the agriturismo (B&B), we tried not to notice just how loud Italians can be when grouped together. Anything over 4 people and wow the volume goes up and up! When we went up to bed a group of children arrived for a party, it was gone 10pm! Earplugs is all I have to say.

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Ever since we saw a programme that Monty Don did on Italian gardens we have wanted to see the gardens of Ninfa. The gardens are built on the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. Billed as ‘the most romantic garden ever’ it had a lot to live up to. It was stunning. Even with the tour in Italian (we missed the one english tour that morning) it was gorgeous. You can only visit with a guided tour but they make sure that you saw each notable vista in your small group. So it can still feel semi-private and you can get a good photo without crowds in the background.

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Next on our list of gardens was Villa d’Este in Tivoli. However after re-reading Monty’s book we decided to visit Hadrian’s Villa first (Villa Adriana) as he comments ‘To understand any of the gardens of Italy made in the 16th century – you have to visit Hadrian’s Palace and the Canopus. This is where those gardens came from.

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It was a shock to see how vast the 2nd century AD UNESCO world heritage site was. Roman ruins and olive trees on a scale never seen before. We walked and we walked. Almost 2 hours later we were ready to see the high renaissance gardens of Villa d’Este. Again guided by Monty we rushed through the villa and out into the garden and tried to make our way to the bottom of the gardens without looking at too much. As the garden was originally designed to be seen from the old road from Rome and make your way back up the steep hill. With over fifty different fountains in the garden the water is the repeating theme.

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Some overwhelming in how loud it was, the Fountain of the Organ ,

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some peaceful like the 3 rectangular fish ponds and some that you will never see repeated in another garden,

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the 130 meters of the Hundred fountains. This is one garden that is definitely worth visiting if you can in your lifetime.