We had six friends come out to visit this month. We spent four days in Sicily, then a week in Puglia (the southeastern most part of Italy), a couple days in Florence, and a couple days on the coast visiting our friend Liz’s family.
The few days in Sicily were really fun. We had wonderful weather, and with seven people we had to hire a driver, which made things a lot easier on me. Our first day we spent on Lipari, one of the Aeolian Islands. We were almost foiled by a strike by the boat company (and here I’d been worried about the weather cancelling the boats), but they ended the strike the day before our trip, so we were good to go.
The day on Lipari was nice and much more relaxing than planned. I’d arranged for us to take a boat around some of the islands, but due to a miscommunication between me and the tour company (this time it wasn’t my language skills at fault, the guy had the date wrong), our trip was cancelled, our “quick” lunch before the boat trip was extended and wine was ordered. We spent the day exploring the town and relaxing by the pool, and then had a lovely seafood meal to end the day.
The next morning we set out on a hike up to one of the peaks on a point of the island. The day was perfectly clear, and the views from the hike were spectacular. All the wild flowers were in bloom, which made everything so colorful. It was so clear we could even see Etna, which is 50 miles away.
The next day was spent in Taormina, where we were upgraded to an ocean/volcano view room. We wandered the town, shopped, and ate. That evening as we got back to our hotel, Etna had started erupting and we could see it from our room. It was far away and my camera skills suck, but it was pretty amazing. The following morning, it let off a big cloud of ash, that one I was able to photograph:)
From Taormina, we came back to our house and spent the evening in Catania before our flight the next morning to Puglia. I didn’t really have a lot of expectations for Puglia, but it is a very beautiful region of Italy. It didn’t seem to be touristy or crowded at all, everything was really affordable, and it has a lot to offer. There are tons of darling little towns with a lot of interesting history, they make great olive oil and wine, and they food is spectacular. They’re known for their mozzarella and burrata cheese (my fave!), and have wonderful meat and produce. We saw quite a lot in our week there, but I’ll talk about a few of the highlights.
Our hotel was in Gioia del Colle, centrally located in the region and known for their mozzarella cheese. Gioia is a pretty small town, but had some really wonderful restaurants and quite a few churches and sights to see.
The first place we visited was the city of Matera, an ancient town known for the “Sassi”, cave homes that are carved into the rock. People lived in these homes up until the mid 1900s, at which point the government deemed them uninhabitable and people were given new homes and forced to move into the modern city. It turned into the slums for a while, but is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We also saw the town of Alberobello, which is famous for it’s Trulli buildings. Trulli homes are built from stones, but no mortar, in order to make them easy to dismantle. They were built this way to avoid property taxes – if a tax inspector came, the home could be easily knocked down and claimed to be just a pile of rocks. People still live in some of the homes, but the rest are converted to shops or hotels for tourists. The town looks like something from a fairy tale.
We also visited a massive cave that was 3 km long, a huge octagon shaped castle, whose use is unclear, old Roman towns, and beach towns.
Being the food-oriented person that I am, my favorite part of every day was lunch. Our guide had a stellar restaurant picked out for us every day with the full Italian meal. A dozen plates of antipasti, pasta, meat or fish, all the wine you could drink, and followed by digestives (aka more booze), dessert, and coffee. The staff at each restaurant was wonderful, and at one we even got to tour their garden before the meal. I don’t think there was a single bad thing we ate. If you ever go to Puglia, make sure to ask me for restaurant recommendations!
From Puglia, we took the train to Florence. We had planned to fly, but the airline “delayed” our flight by 48 hours (some delay), so we opted for the train instead. The ride was beautiful, all through the Italian countryside. Florence was beautiful, though rainy. We saw a few museums, toured the Duomo and some of their other churches, climbed up to Piazza Michelangelo, and ate some wonderful food (and gelato!)
Sean had to go home after Florence (thanks for making money!) but the rest of us rented a big van and drove toward the coast to Massarosa, where Liz’s family lives. They run a cute little bed and breakfast that we had all to ourselves. Her family is typical Italian – outgoing, funny (I think, I only understood about 30% of their words), and incredibly welcoming. They fed us wonderful homemade food almost every night, which was such a treat.
Our first day in Massarosa we went wine tasting in the Chianti region. It was a wet overcast day, but everything was green and beautiful.
We also went to Lucca, a medieval walled city that is really well preserved. We visited Liz’s cousin’s wine and food shop down near the beach, and became regulars at the local cafe that had wonderful appetizers included in your drink purchase.
Our last day in Italy we spent at the Cinque Terra, a string of five towns perched on the water. Access to the towns is very limited, you either have to take a train, a boat, or hike in. We started in Monterosso and hiked south to Vernazza and Corniglia. The trail is beautiful, and the town are colorful and darling.