Getting to Italy wasn’t going to be easy from Japan, and we prepared ourselves for the 16-hour trip—starting in Tokyo, with a short layover in Shanghai before a final 13-hour haul to Milan’s Malpensa International Airport. Three hours on a plane wasn’t a problem from Tokyo; however, the 13 hours from Shanghai to Milan was an unreal experience for us. Going through three-cycles of airplane meals was something we wouldn’t want to do again. This was the first time claustrophobia set in for us. Thankfully the stewardesses were, accommodating making the flight from China to Italy agreeable.
Walking through Milan’s international airport was a stark contrast to the reserved and orderly Japan. Upon arrival, the kids were especially disappointed that Italian toilets were neither heated nor musical and had only one button to flush—boring they thought.
Looking back, our 10 weeks in Italy were some of our most memorable. We explored north to south, beginning in Cinque Terre and making our way south through Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and finally ending in Puglia, the heel of Italy. In lovely little Castro Marina, we spent four serene weeks by the sea. Italy is a place we still miss and hope to return back to re-explore areas we’ve been and explore new areas we missed on this trip.
We weren’t as exhausted as we thought after a 16-hour trip and decided to explore the town after unpacking at our hotel. The hotel made their bikes available to us, so we hopped on a couple and went to town. First thing on our list was to find a pizzeria. One was found, and the pizza definitely good, but to our surprise, the highlight was the rosso frizzante accompanying our lunch. Fantastic—a carbonated red Italian wine, served cool, not as sweet with a nice dry finish. The bottle went down too easily—la dolce vita!
The next day we explored Milan. It was easy enough to navigate the metro system to our stop at Duomo Station. Stepping off the subway, you’re met with grey granite walls with fluorescent lights cascading down. As we made our way toward the exit, ascending each stone step, more natural light enveloped us. At the last step, we crossed an invisible threshold: outside was Milan’s spectacular piazza, perfectly showcasing its grand Duomo as a centrepiece. The sparkling white glow of the Duomo was breathtaking and literally brought tears to our eyes. It was in that instant that we realized, after travelling so far, we had landed in Italy. We immensely enjoyed our short time in Milan and looked forward to beginning our Italian adventure.
Our first stop was Cinque Terre, a series of five connected villages along the Italian Riviera coastline. Getting there from Milan was a pleasant ride on Italy’s TGV, the national rail system. On the tail end of the train ride, we exited the interior countryside and started moving towards the Riviera coast. Our jaws dropped at the sights of beautiful coastal mountains and the shimmering sea below from the train tracks above. The sun was starting to set, casting a beautiful light, complemented by a pink and orange horizon off in the distance as we travelled into the “five lands.”
We settled into our beautiful Riomaggiore, the easternmost village, which provided scenic day treks to the other four westward towns making up Cinque Terre. Each day’s trek started with conquering a 45-degree climb out of the valley towards Manarola and beyond. There were also boat and train options on days where we were too tired to trek back, allowing us to enjoy the afternoon’s golden rays as they lit up the colourful homes in each village without rushing back. The kids got very excited and seemed appreciative when we took either the train or boat back to our village.
One day, we took a higher detour to Volastra and then Groppo to visit the local winery and try their specialty: Sciachetrà. It was served with crunchy biscotti for dipping in the wine. Chloe even liked it (it’s legal when in Italy, right?). Then we climbed down for a late lunch in the sun in Corniglia.
Another day, we took a boat from Manarola directly to Vernazza. There we had a lazy lunch on the rocks by the marina and explored the picturesque town while enjoying a tangy lemon gelato. With full bellies, we hiked back to Corniglia and took a train back to Riomaggiore.
One time, in Riomaggiore, we hiked up to Madona Di Monte Nero, offering panoramic views of the Italian Riviera. With no plans other than to enjoy the views from our location, we took a gentle climb back down to the town centre, picked up a few grocery items, and made a picnic lunch on top of larger granite <confirm the stone> boulders while we stared blissfully out into the blue Mediterranean sea.
We spent a lovely five days in beautiful Cinque Terre, hiking through colourful seaside villages, discovering the delicate taste of fresh anchovies, and dipping biscotti in Sciachetrà (we will try it with ice wine at home!). Next, we travelled to Florence for a few days, as we began heading south through Italy.
We arrived on Florence’s doorstep one hot afternoon at its central train station. Stepping off the platform was our return to a metropolis of loud noises, constant chatter, and, sadly, the sight of armed security patrols. However, this didn’t deter our excitement of this urban oasis—a distant memory of Cinque Terre’s tranquil lifestyle and laidback locals lingered from earlier in the day.
We couldn’t use our phone’s mapping app to find directions to our flat, as we hadn’t figured a way to activate our cellular account we purchased in Milan. Instead, we relied on hand-written directions and various screenshots to guide the way. No biggie, without deadlines or commitments, off we went into the afternoon sun. After what seemed like half an hour ambling in circles up and down main street, passing by armed security patrols, storefronts, buskers and all the life that make Florence exciting, the kids spotted a local tourist office and made a beeline to its entrance for directions to our flat.
Florentines are proud of many things; food and drink are the top of many locals’ list. Drinks we knew already. Food, however, was the other big thing we were starting to really appreciate with the locals. The dish they’re most proud of and take serious care in preparing is their la bistecca! And so we did! It’d been awhile since we’d enjoyed a wood-fired grilled steak, and that evening was a good enough reason to treat ourselves to a nice night out. We found a ristorante outside what we guessed was the main tourist area and added our name to its waitlist, which snaked through the front doors and outside. We were in for a treat; the last time we’d stood in line was in Tokyo for ramen noodles, and it had been worth the wait.
We got seated at 9 pm. By that time, we quickly ordered (without realizing the magnitude of the food to come) a 42-oz steak, side of oven-roasted vegetables, and another side of roasted potatoes. Our meals came shortly after the bread basket emptied. The bread basket and olive oil filled the kids’ stomach, and both drifted off to sleep shortly after. What a sight! The la bistecca was really three fingers thick in all its glory, served on a wooden carving board and done one way only: rare! That’s how Florentines have their steak, not that you had a choice in how it’s prepared. Even if you’ve asked for a “little more” well done, you’ll get la bistecca this way each and every time, accompanied by a frown from the waiter, of course. Our meal made us, and all the people around us, do a double take when it was brought to our table. The children were champs that night. Even though drowsy with sleep, both joined in for a few bites of steak and sides before calling it a night. That left almost all of the 42-oz steak for the two of us. Two hours later, accompanied by a nice red, of course, we slowly finished our meal.
The Uffizi Gallery symbolizes Florence’s decadent culture, food, drink, and architecture. The richness of all those Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures under a single roof was staggering. After passing the congested front desk, the gallery’s main lobby opened up to an incredible array of masters’ artwork. Our tour guide from the previous day had recommended tickets be purchased in advance to avoid long line-up queues. With prepaid advanced tickets, we got inside in a few short minutes, whereas the walk-in queue had line-ups two or three deep. Once in, we made our way to the audio guide pickup counter for our headsets. The kids were at first excited to hear each audio description but got tired and just admired artwork as we proceeded from one exhibit to the next that afternoon.
We wandered around Florence one afternoon looking for a lunch place and walked into one of the most enchanting food markets we’d seen so far on our trip. The Mercato Centrale is a foodies heaven. We’d been in Italy for a couple of weeks already and thought we’d found a few amazing kinds of cheese, meats, and wines already. The Mercato Centrale, however, is still one of our food market highlights. The mercato spans two floors in a renovated industrial warehouse. The side walls were lined with food, and in the centre were cafeteria-style benches and tables to
enjoy your meal. It was marvelous to join in with locals and tourists alike, so densely packed with delicious aromas wafting through the air, while savouring the food and wine. The kids selected two pasta dishes from an incredibly busy pasta food stall, where we preordered our pasta combination and waited with everyone else until our order number was screamed out—in Italian—for pickup. Once the kids started their meal, we explored other stalls to expand our palettes and, regrettably, our waistlines. We landed on one stall for its amazing salad of rocket, grilled mushrooms, and zucchinis, with fresh burrata and shaved truffle drizzled with olive oil and crostini as the topper. Piercing through the burrata flowed the ooziest creamiest cheese we’d ever seen. The shaved truffles and a generous pour of olive oil created something heavenly. The kids didn’t think much of it though, while they slurped the last of their pasta and sauce.
We travelled to Siena by bus, a short two-hour ride, moving through the small villages and rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside after our goodbyes to Florence earlier that morning. As mist turned to rain, we reached the city border, transitioning from the angular modern buildings lining the perimeter to a more historic centre lined with stone structures that were hundreds of years old in the UNESCO protected village. The bus entered a beautiful parkade, steps away from the town square. We ran for cover underneath a large tree to get our bearings before departing for our new home, a short 10-minute walk, as the rain started to let up. It was wonderful. Making our way past narrow cobblestone paths and historic buildings still left us in awe—not so much the kids. We felt transported back in time, centuries ago, walking the same paths when the Etruscans ruled Siena.
Siena was intended to be a longer stay; the feeling of unpacking all our gear (not that we had much to start) gave the place a homely feel. Our accommodations were in old town, right off main street, and the flat was outfitted with all necessary modern touches. The kids enjoyed their rooms, situated in a loft above the living area, with us in the first-floor bedroom with ensuite. The internet connection wasn’t too shabby either, a blessing as it provided time to catch-up on blog writing and, more importantly, backing up the few thousand pictures stored on our cameras.
Out the front windows stood a small café that turned out to be very popular. All seating was outside, under a building arch showered by the glow of street lamps in the evening. The night we ended going out to the cafe felt like the dead of winter in April. The cold didn’t deter us, as dining under the stars with a charcuterie platter made up of local vegetables, meats, cheeses and plates of local pasta made the evening very special. By the time the kids finished their pasta, they made a solid argument to head back. With our flat so close, we relented and let them go, while we stayed a little longer to enjoy being adults.
Siena’s old town is a maze of cobblestone streets crisscrossing its main Duomo and city hall. Our flat, situated centrally, provided plentiful opportunities to explore the many small alleys and narrow streets. We dropped into gift shops, gelaterias, pizzerias, and bakeries as we tried our best to blend in with locals. It didn’t work as well as we thought; the town offered too much history and culture to appreciate as tourists.
On another day, after the kids finished their assignments early, we spent an afternoon in the centre of Palazza Pubblico, city hall’s plaza. The piazza was full of tourists and locals alike, enjoying the afternoon warmth while resting on top of cobblestone grounds warmed by the sun
all afternoon. The kids ended up walking to a gelateria to pick up gelato on their own. To us, this was alone time, but to them, it was another opportunity in commerce and building their independence. They bounced back with gelato in hand (and on face) to enjoy the late afternoon sun with us. By the time we were done, we walked to our local store to purchase our evening wine.
Our last few days culminated in a significant religious holiday in Siena. Easter weekend at the main Duomo was the place to be to observe a full Catholic Easter mass with all pomp and pageantry. And so we did! The intimacy and serenity lasted for about 30 minutes tops before the children began getting fussy in the pews. To their credit, they toughed out a two-hour Sunday mass curated in Italian without a tear shed. After mass, the sun and blue sky were out, and all were ready to walk back home. At home, we put together a tasty spread of cheeses and meats—accompanied by Prosecco, of course. That weekend marked the end of our stay in Siena as we embarked on our next adventure to see more of Tuscany under the sun.
Tuscany: Belforte & hilltop towns
Seeing friends again after so many months away was very special for us all; this gave our children an opportunity to tell stories and adventures to their friends from their perspective. That evening we shared a lovely slow dinner, accompanied by wonderful Tuscan reds of course. Paired this with close friends made for a memorable evening reminiscing old and new stories from back home and abroad.
Choosing a home base for our ten-day stay in the heart of Tuscany was difficult, as each region is dotted by historical and beautifully preserved hilltop towns representing a different wine-growing area. In the end, we chose a place that comfortably accommodated our group. We settled on a beautiful villa, located in a small hamlet called Belforte, perched high on top of rolling hills central to the regions we wanted to visit. Belforte is a tiny hilltop village—as in one convenience store (the owner, we guessed, spent most of her day sitting outside chatting with other ladies), one bakery, and a fantastic restaurant called Café la Mura that made excellent Margherita pizza and a hard-to-rival ragu du cinghalie—a Tuscan classic and a new favourite of ours.
A memorable part of staying in Belforte was its manageable size. After finishing dinner, the kids (all five) could walk back to the villa while we stayed to finish our meals. Another aspect of its relative size was that it made jogging around its cobblestone streets a breeze. By the third circuit around town, a sweat would bead if you tried hard enough.
Italy was going to be indulgent for our stomachs. This was just the beginning of our food journey, and knowing this ahead of time made our conscience feel better of course.
The kids were on homework hiatus for the next three weeks. We didn’t have the heart to give homework assignments while their close friends from Canada were visiting.
Belforte was central to most of the towns we wanted to visit in Tuscany. The drive each day to a different town was made especially beautiful and thrilling as we crossed the many rolling hills and our car would make sharp s-curves up and down the hillsides.
- Volterra: rugged and not as touristy as the others. Famous for alabaster carvings and sculptures and a beautiful main road leading through the town centre.
- San Gimignano: beautiful hill town, with towers reaching up to the sky. We arrived just before sunset when the light was golden and the town was still busy with tourists streaming in.
- Montepulciano: geography and landscape are ideal for underground cellars. Wine tasting in one of these cellars made it even more special.
- Montalcino: famous for their Rosso de Montalcino and Brunello, we couldn’t resist a tasting and a lesson about their many types of wooden casks used in wine production.
- Italian casks are the traditional method of aging. They are large and made of Slovenian oak.
- French casks are the modern method. French oak is not as dense, so the casks are burnt on the inside to provide another layer to reduce evaporation of the wine. The wine tends to be darker, with notes of various flavours from the cask.
- Chianti: beautiful, on a vast hillside. We had lunch in Panzano and gelato in Castellina. Lunch was spent on a terrace overlooking the Chianti vineyards on a patio covered with blooming wisteria.
- Rodicondoli: largest nearby town in Belforte, only 10 minutes away. It had nice dinner spots and beautiful views of the sunsets and olive groves.
It was hard not to enjoy 10 days under the Tuscan sun from our central perch in our tiny village of Belforte. We made daily commutes to these lovely hilltop towns along the Tuscan rolling hills, exploring the many and varied vineyards along the way. Being able to share this with our close friends was another highlight. Next, we all changed gears to prepare for life in the big city of Rome, encompassed by its magical presence and historical past.
We left Belforte in the early morning for the large metropolis of Rome. Driving through the scenic countryside was our last tranquil memory of Tuscany before immersing ourselves in Rome’s big lights and big-city feel. Getting there was an adventure in itself. For one thing, we “fixed” our phone’s cellular data and mapped our way straight to Rome from Belforte to avoid late charges on our rental. However, our phone settings were set to “avoid toll roads,” and, as you may have guessed, the resulting directions took us on the scenic route instead of the fastest route. Turning lemons into lemonade, our misadventure brought us to roads abutting oceans and through picturesque small towns instead of highways and freeways full of cars to Rome’s international airport. After returning the rental cars, we boarded our waiting private shuttle to take us to the doorstep of our new neighbourhood of Trastevere, where we planned to make our Rome home base.
Our research for our top wants (not touristy, traditional, lots of great restaurants, central walking distance, grocery stores, and all-around cool vibe) for a Roman neighbourhood kept pointing to Trastevere. It was also a place a friend stayed and absolutely fell in love with. As an added bonus, our place was up a street from a community playground the kids just loved. The game of Grounders became a daily tradition. While the kids worked hard at Grounders, we relaxed in the early evening sunshine with an aperitivo of rosé and snacks from a nearby enoteca or ristorante—everyone indulged in their favourite wind-down activity.
The days were spent exploring various landmarks throughout the city. We divided Rome into neighbourhood pockets and conquered one each day. Even with our strategic approach, Rome’s is such a massive metropolis that ten days wasn’t enough to see it the way we wanted to. We agreed a longer visit to each pocket was more meaningful than visiting as many places as possible. This prevented seeing everything Rome had to offer, but it provided a much more impactful visit, we found. A side benefit to longer visits was more walking for everyone! This helped burn extra calories so we could increase our vino and pasta consumption. All the kids complained of course, but not as much since they saw everyone else walking alongside.
Across the street from our flat was a small forno (bakery), which wasn’t hard to miss, especially when the door opened and a big waft of fresh pastry aromas drifted out. We found out later that the forno’s owner specialised in both French and Italian pastries, which made the place even harder to avoid. We did our best to resist in the morning; however, one time, Jeff hand-delivered a “little” breakfast treat—light-as-air, flaky, buttery croissants with a Nutella centre. It is safe to say, we lost the urge to moderate and instead indulged in each treat without regrets—day or night.
The Colosseum is such a beautiful, ancient construction. Our tour guide described the most amazing endurance battles that took place inside: 100 days of battles, 10 am to 4 pm—5,000 animals killed each day. Such gruesome brutality was enjoyed by the masses. When that wasn’t enough, the Romans flooded the inside of the Colosseum with water and replayed each battle while on board ships in the flooded battlegrounds. Thousands perished in these spectacles of human brutality and legendary fights inside the walls of this beautiful stadium.
Travestere is such a lovely and diverse neighbourhood and is mixed in with restaurants, enotecas, panini shops, coffee bars, and small and large grocery stores, all coexisting together and offering anything and everything Italian. We spoke to a lady one time who guided us to the best cheeses, in particular, buffalo mozzarella and gave us directions on how we could find an even more exquisite selection than this store, right in our neighbourhood. In the days spent with friends, we got ourselves into a routine and enjoyed both our days and evenings together. After eight days living as Romans, we reluctantly said goodbye, as their time in Italy was up for a flight back home to Canada. However, before leaving, we promised a return to Italy would be in the cards. Eight years of planning ended with hugs and kisses. After spending two weeks together, they left a void that was easily noticeable by all of us. The game of Grounders wasn’t nearly as fun for the kids.
After our goodbyes, we had a few more days in Rome, mostly spent revisiting places we thoroughly enjoyed. Spending a few extra hours at the Vatican, in particular, Saint Paul’s
Cathedral, was especially memorable, in a new light. Enjoying meals at our favourite restaurant, albeit as a smaller group, brought us back to how lucky we were on our year-long trip together.
We left Rome when the skies were grey, with light rain falling down, and boarded an Uber to the central train station. Even numerous train transfers, between national and local lines, didn’t deter us from the very easy and relaxing train travel on Italy’s TGV rail system. We were excited to continue making our way down south to Puglia, but before that we dropped into the Amalfi Coast in Positano for more blue sky, showering sunshine, and big views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Positano is perched alongside the Amalfi Coast. For the unfamiliar, like ourselves, the coast straddles the mountainside, and connecting the town is a shared two-lane road lined by numerous hairpin switchbacks reminiscent of mountain roads found in Ooty, India. Protecting you from imminent death is a shabby three-foot guardrail, conveniently located at blind spots, otherwise, there was nothing but a thin shoulder on either side of the road. One too generous turn along a switchback would guarantee a hundred or so foot plunge into the sea below. This wasn’t such a big deal as we had encountered these in India; however, being on a large tourist-type bus navigating switchbacks without knowing what was in front of the bus or around the bend other than a warning honk made the drive exciting, to say the least. However, the bus drivers were all deftly skilled, including ours, and timed each turn at the right moment to avoid oncoming traffic. The sheer stunning beauty of the Mediterranean coast kept us preoccupied through most of the rollercoaster journey into Positano.
After a three-hour train ride to Sorrento’s main train station, we transferred onto the Amalfi inter-city bus to Positano and onto our final destination: a small local bus. We were instructed to let our bus driver know to stop at the “Mediterranean restaurant.” We loved it: no formal bus stop required. The small bus itself was a throwback to the 70s. We travelled down switchbacks, yet again, to our villa, something the larger buses dared not do as the roads narrowed significantly as you moved down the mountainside.
As an aside, surprisingly everyone’s stomach was fine as we arrived at our meeting spot without experiencing any significant motion sickness until Elliot complained of feeling sick right as we got off the last bus. We didn’t think much of it, as he had championed sailing on the Whitsunday’s turbulent waters in his room below writing in his journal with half the guests on deck doing their best not to get seasick. As soon as we stepped off the bus, Elliot threw up, minutes before the owner was supposed to come out to meet us—reminiscent of a similar passage up and down the mountains of Ooty, India. He’s marking his spots all around the world!
Positano is a lovely town, a more glamorous version of Cinque Terre; it’s a honeymooners delight. As we lived our life here, the majority of visitors were from North America on their honeymoon; everyone seemed so happy as we passed them by on our way to grocery stores, beaches, or just meandering through town in the evenings each day. Another aspect of a small seaside town built on the side of a mountain is numerous stone steps spreading up and down the main road. Steps were everywhere, and you were always either walking up or down. No wonder locals were all fit. On our first couple of days, we got concerned
due to the numerous 1,000 steps walked each day, but after the third day, we all took it in stride (pun intended).
If you’re looking for a town with numerous restaurants providing romantic and picturesque views of the Mediterranean, it is without a doubt Positano on the Amalfi coast. We tried a couple on the first few days (some with views, others with atmosphere) but kept going back to our very own terrace in the villa. We really enjoyed our villa with its panoramic views of the glimmering sea and fishing boats out in the horizon. We had many memorable meals out there, from breakfasts to lunches to dinners, just admiring the views and the company. The kids loved it as they got to enjoy their meals and go back to what they were doing before, while we got to enjoy our new favourite Italian salad (rocket, tomatoes, basil, buffalo mozzarella, with generous amounts of olive oil) and an ever-expanding selection of Italian reds. For the remainder of our stay, we naturally had most of our meals on our terrace. The evenings were wonderful and romantic when we had candles lit with a glass of wine, either talking about our day or just staring out at the water lit up by the evening stars and moon.
For Mother’s Day, we took a day trip to Ravello, a neighbouring town, higher up on the mountain than Positano. It’s safe to say, Elliot didn’t fare well on the climb up. By the time we stepped off the bus, however, we were greeted with another beautiful sight again. The elevation and views were out of this world. Chloe wanted a drink from the fresh juice stand by the town entrance and got a fresh-squeezed lemon juice—with no sugar or water added, that was it, and we leisurely finished it while staring out to sea. After walking through Ravello, we found another perfect spot in the gardens of Villa Cimbrone, the idealistic spot for a Mother’s Day lunch. The place couldn’t have been more perfect; under a clear blue sky with shade provided by a century-old tree, we enjoyed a nice and peaceful lunch.
One of our favourite outings while in Positano was the small beach closest to our villa. It was definitely smaller than the town’s crowded main beach, with a great feel. You could easily find a spot on the pebble beach to relax or jump into the sea. The water was incredibly clear and refreshing; we could swim far out to into the sea and back again without effort as the water was incredibly buoyant. Another favourite outing was going to the local grocery stores to pick up lunch or dinner items, and we would intentionally pickup up enough for one meal. It allowed us to walk up and down the steps to not only admire the views but have a cold drink before coming back home. On other occasions, we would just walk through town in the evening to the main beach, grabbing a snack and a drink and watching the evening set in and close another magical day there.
It was tough saying bye to beautiful Positano. We loved our days there. Most of all, we’ll miss our favourite activity of just sitting on our terrace gazing at the sparkling Mediterranean with a coffee in the morning, white wine in the afternoon, red wine in the evening and more red wine at night.
Next, we travelled to the other side of Italy, for one of our longest stays, to really immerse ourselves in southern Italian culture along the Puglia coast. Getting to Castro Marina was fun; we rented a car and drove down south through spectacular coastal roadways and small villages. To get there, we forewarned Elliot our initial travel out of Amalfi would be more of the same nauseous paths that took us here. Luckily for us, and Elliot too, the drive back to Sorrento wasn’t as bad as the first time getting to Positano. We walked through Sorrento’s main street to pick up our rental car, and we even helped ourselves to the lemons from the trees along the
way. We were all psyched for more food, drink, and swimming in the beautiful azure Adriatic Sea this time.
We took a small token with us to remind us of the sweet life in Positano: a 1-kg bag of Amalfi sweet and sour lemon candy. It added a little weight to our luggage but not as much as Maya the Elephant from India, which we took with us by air and bus. Slider: Ravello Gardens of Cimbrone. the terrace of infinity with eighteenth-century marble busts.
Our day began on the Mediterranean in Amalfi and ended up on the Adriatic in Puglia six hours later. We moved from steep mountainous terrain in Sorrento, where we picked up a rental car and cruised through countryside towns along freeways and highways to the coastal town of Brindisi. Seeing the ocean again was breathtaking, as we all anticipated jumping back into the ocean, but before this could happen, we took a final bend south passing Lecce to Castro Marina, right into Italy’s “boot.” After greeting our wonderful host, we were itching to explore this new home for the next four weeks. We caught a dramatic sunset. The sun’s slowly sinking glow over a shimmering ocean below was an incredible welcome to this part of Italy. Even after the sunset, the limestone seabed became a stage for the crystal-clear water’s dancing show. Seeing this was magical, like nothing we’d ever seen anywhere else on our travels. The water’s reflection was something we hoped not take for granted, as we planned on many more evening walks to remember this sight.
Before going to bed that evening, we emptied our packs and placed them into drawers and closets. Each person had their own space without needing to share storage. This felt oddly satisfying after many countries living out of our backpacks or ensuing arguments because one had more room than allotted. After the kids went to bed, we grabbed our bottle of wine and enjoyed the evening outside our terrace overlooking the sea underneath a clear evening sky with an almost full moon illuminating the water.
Castro Marina is a seasonal town that sleeps in the winter and wakes up again in June when northern Italians come to vacation. When we arrived on May 19th, we were caught up in this, where locals were busy renovating, adding fresh coats of paint and slowly opening their shops for the approaching summer season. This was akin to sprucing the cottage on the May 2-4 weekend back home in Canada. Seeing this spring cleaning from the sideline, be it visiting a grocery store, spending time in restaurants being done up, or visiting shops restocking merchandise, allowed us to be in the privileged crowd. The four weeks we called Castro Marina home, we didn’t hear a sentence of English spoken by people around us. It felt like we’d found this place by accident, as all tourists were Italians, arriving in a very beautiful part of their own country to spend their vacation. Perfect!
The apartment in Castro Marina was right on the water, without grocery stores nearby. The largest grocery store was in the heart of Castro up on the hill above us, which made for a challenge to get sustenance. After Positano’s endless up and down climbs blanketing the town, we felt sufficiently confident to conquer daily uphill climbs for fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, rocket greens and our ever expanding Italian rose wine palette. There were local bakeries for bread, a pastry shop for sweets, and constant battles deciding on which of the many gelaterias for an afternoon heat retreat. It was the latter where we discovered some fantastic gelato, rivalling those of Rome. The gelaterias also served Noccilino, a fantastic afternoon treat made from Italian espresso and nocciola gelato. The kids enjoyed their gelato and we indulged in our nocillinos whilst sitting outside under the shade of umbrellas with the Adriatic in the foreground.
Visiting the local markets became our guidebook to fantastic suggestions for bread, gelato, cheese, and regional wines. Sometimes, speaking to the same person on different days would result in a different recommendation. Life is so easy when everything around you is so good.
Another discovery was the local friggitoria, which happened to be right on the water—the very same waters where the fish were caught the evening before. Our favourites were deep-fried tiny little bite-sized pesche and calamari, best accompanied by a cold <what’s that beer again? Not peroni>. One time we took out and sat directly over the water on the large boulders with the kids to enjoy the afternoon sun and cool azure water in front of us. Not only did the owner neatly package our meal, but accompanying this was a bag of ice for the white wine and two plastic wine goblets. As we became increasingly comfortable in our Puglia lifestyle, we incorporated a daily aperitivo, a late afternoon drink accompanied with small snack plates of olives, chips, pickled vegetables, and tiralli atop a café overlooking Castro Marina.
The water along the coast is so incredibly sensational. Whether there was sun or cloud the water remained a perpetual brilliant blue that seemed to glimmer endlessly. The shoreline along Castro is lined with smooth rocky boulders, similar to the ones we’d seen in Hvar on the other side of the Adriatic.
While in Castro Marina we had our second visitors from home. This was extra special, as we were looking forward to seeing family again, with kids counting sleeps for nine months to see their babcia and dziadzia. The kids were excited to see familiar faces again, displayed by large hugs as we greeted family. After a couple of hours catching up, we met up again for dinner at our favourite seafood restaurant just outside the main piazza by the bay. That night walking to dinner reminded us of how great it felt re-exploring a new town again. In the next couple of weeks together, we would discover more places, taste more wines, eat more food and dive together into the beautiful sea.
On one of our explorations, we visited a local winery that produced small-batch wine releases. Their most famous customer was Mick Jagger, who would apparently buy pallets full of their negroamaro to deliver to his chateau in France. We picked a few bottles after a fun wine tasting on the estate, the owner showcased a few of his favourites and proudly described each wine to us. After a fun mid-morning wine tasting, we asked if he could suggest a place for a late lunch, as being mid-afternoon in a small Italian town, all eating establishments were closed for the afternoon. However, at the last minute, he called a friend and brought us to a nondescript corner in the middle of his village. We said our goodbyes, and we entered through a side entrance up to a dining room. With each stepped we climbed, we felt we’d passed through a time machine to a 70s Italian dining room. The room was filled with Italian movie posters and other decorations of that era. We met the proprietor and she explained something in Italian. We looked blankly at each other, and only when she brought glasses and started to pour red wine
did we understand food was on its way. Everyone got red wine, even the kids almost, but they declined and got their sodas. All of this was accomplished without a comprehensible dialogue between us. It didn’t matter, we conversed in our made up impromptu sign language and our butchered Italian words. The lady knew we were hungry, which was our first mistake. She came back with a fairly good-sized casserole of pasta and Bolognese sauce. It was fantastic, and everyone dug in and cleaned the casserole dish quite well with our appetite. The dish was further wiped down by bread and olive oil. The food was fantastic, and not a second later, she returned with more dishes, one after the other. I think we had at least five courses before she asked if we were ready for dolce. All of us looked at each other and gracefully declined; we ended with take-out goodies instead from her. With an exorbitant expanse of wine and food in our stomachs, no one wanted to drive back to Castro Marina, so instead, we decided to walk through the small village in an effort to work off our impromptu feast. The epitome of an Italian home-cooked meal was something we experienced first hand. Seeing is believing and being able to experience Italian hospitality was a lasting memory we would share for a long time.
Near the end of our stay, we took a day trip to Santa Maria de Leucca for an afternoon swim in another part of Puglia at the most southern reach of the Italian coast, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful drives we’d been on so far. The infinite Adriatic Sea was on one side, blooming flowering trees on the other, and us in the middle as we cruised along this spectacular coast one magical afternoon. Our goal was to have an afternoon swim here, but secretly we knew our swim spot in Castro Marina was still tops in all of Italy.
Our final day in Italy was in Bari. We spent an afternoon meandering through Bari’s narrow streets. Of all the town we’d visited, it seemed the most lived in by locals, with laundry drying on the balconies hanging above as we crisscrossed the cobblestone paths in the old quarter. Kids playing along the street was a perfect visual for us to remember all sides of life in Italy. We ended our last night in a beautiful side street café, enjoying the most delicious meal and drink before we departed to our next and final country. It was bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter, as the lasting memories of our Italian adventure lived up to our imagination.
Our ten weeks in Italy were incredible. From north in Milan, down the coast through Rome, leading us to Amalfi, and then a four-week stay in Puglia’s Castro Marina on the Adriatic in the heel of southern Italy.
The food was an absolute highlight and delight to our stomachs. The Italians are very proud and very unique in each region we stayed: from heavy stews of wild boar in Tuscany to fresh seafood along the coast. Pasta along the way would melt in our mouths, comprising of each regions own type to compliment with the local sauces. In Tuscany, there was pappardelle (long flat wide noodles typically mixed with while ragu), while Puglia was known for their orecchiette (little ear-shaped pasta). The sauces were fresh and always simple. Key ingredients were paired perfectly: never too much (meaning never too many ingredients in the sauce—always too much food, but somehow our stomachs adjusted nicely).
The wines flowed, from robust Tuscan reds in Chianti, Montepulciano and Montalcino to the bold sweet primitivos, negroamaros and roses in Puglia.
We were lucky enough to see Italy in bloom; the spring brought wonderful flower bouquets overflowing stone walls, highway barriers, and town walls. The patios were covered with wisteria in Milan, and along the trails in Cinque Terre were wildflowers and many more wisteria. We saw bright red poppy fields in Tuscany, fuchsia pink bougainvillaea in Positano and fragrant jasmine and honeysuckle in Castro Marina. Our trip through Italy was centred on our stomachs, but just as important, the culture, architecture, and religious places of worships were just as spectacular. The kaleidoscope of senses was so strong on their own, and put together they made for an unreal experience.
Italy was an incredible visit, made more so by seeing our close friends and family on this part of our year-long journey. We were sad to leave Castro, as it meant a short layover in Bari for an early morning flight to Nice via Rome. Nonetheless, our souls and stomachs satisfied, we boarded a plane for Nice, our next city and country on our 12-month journey. France would be the last country on our trip, a place we looked forward too.
Buongiorno Italy. Bonjour France!