Sunday, May 11, 2008

We're Home and Italy Will Never be the Same

I know you’re all just dying to know the details of the trip, but before I get to it, I have to thank my in-laws, Bedstemor and Bedstefar. They made this trip possible in every way. They did all the legwork choosing the location, finding the rental house, and reserving the rental cars. They even brought the decorations for the birthday celebrations! The only thing we had to do was reserve our tickets, pack our bags and get ourselves to the airport on time. When we landed in Naples, worn out and tired, they were there waiting to drive us to the villa, which was about 2 hours south. Imagine going on a perfectly planned family vacation without have to do any planning. And did I mention this is like the third time they’ve done this? We really can’t thank them enough.

I think I’m one of the fortunate few who have a good relationship with the in-laws. Good thing too, because 2 weeks could have turned out to be a very, very long time (I’m thinking of the vacations I spent with my own family). For this trip we were 7 people: our little family of 3, Hubby’s brother and his wife (young, energetic couple), and the old fossils, which is what they’ve lovingly been nicknamed. Naturally, each contingent had things they wanted to do and see, but I think our collective appreciation of relaxation, good food, and stiff drinks got us through the two weeks without a hitch.

Okay, now would be the time to take a bathroom break or a cup of coffee because the rest of this post is going to be long. The first part is about general things and the latter half will be about food. So here goes…

Our home base was a town called Castellabate, located on the Cilento Coast (about 2 hours drive south of Naples). Sonny nicknamed our town Casta-la-pasta and I think that’s the name that’s going to stick in our memories for years to come. It’s one of those ancient, romantic towns built atop a hill overlooking the coastal towns of Santa Marie and San Marco. The streets are made of stone and the original tower from 1100-ish AD still stands. Walking around in the town is like being in a maze. It’s all narrow alleyways, steep steps and cool, breezy tunnels. The most amazing thing about the town is the gorgeous, unobstructed view of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the towns below. I could have sat on one of the benches at the edge of town and enjoyed the views and sun all the first day if it wasn’t for my rambunctious 5 year-old munchkin and the seemingly hundreds of lizards sunbathing nearby. (If you aren’t aware, I’ve got an irrational fear of the creepy crawly critters. I was on constant high alert. If you don’t have an intense fear of them, you’ll hardly notice their prevalence throughout southern Italy.)

Southwestern view of Castellabate from the town of San Marco di Castellabate.

View looking NW from the top of the town.

Now looking SW...

Looking inland from the eastern side of Castellabate.

You never know what to expect around each corner, but it's usually something charming and quaint.

Need some exercise? Try running up these stairs a couple hundred times.

The rental we stayed in was situated on the hillside below the town proper and equidistant to the coastal town of Santa Marie di Castellabate. To say the road from Santa Marie to our villa and the town above was winding is a gross understatement. For an American accustomed to wide lanes and orderly traffic flow it’s downright treacherous, made up of steep, narrow switchbacks. If there was oncoming traffic, both cars had to pull over as far to the side as possible while being mindful of not tumbling down the hillside to a fiery death. (Okay, that may be a mild exaggeration, but only mild.) Luckily, I was legally excused from driving and I think I even began to enjoy the drive after a few days.

As far as house rentals go, this one was perfect. It requires a leap of faith to book a rental online without ever seeing the surrounding area. Pictures and descriptions can be misleading, but in this case, my expectations were exceeded. The million-dollar view itself was enough to sell the house. The villa was built in the classic, rustic stone style and the grounds were large and private enough to sunbath in your underwear, if you happen to forget your bathing suit at home. Did I mention the view? The bedrooms were thoughtfully located so that those that are prone to obnoxious snoring could be isolated from the rest of the family. And how about those views? There were two adequate bathrooms with bidets. Sonny asked what the second toilet was for and I told him for cleaning feet. It seemed silly to try to explain what they were really for. The kitchen itself had everything we required to make several delicious meals, taste many a good wine, and mix many a delicious drink. Weather permitting, we dined outside on the terrace. Nothing like dining al fresco with a million-dollar view in the background.

Our villa in Casta-la-pasta.

Great place for taking in the view, if you don't mind lizards crawling on the wall behind you.

Steps from the terrace lead to a grassy garden area. BIL admiring the aparagus or artichoke or agave? Excuse my ignorance, but can anyone tell me what that plant is?

Northerly view of sun rising over Santa Marie di Castellabate from the terrace.

Ever play "knock over the half filled bottles"? It's a game requiring great skill, and I hear it's pretty popular in Norway.

Do you see the dilemma here?

I chuckled every time I saw this. And yes, people actually throw their trash in the town.

For convenience, we rented two cars to get around. It was necessary, really. The coast is dotted with small towns and it would have been too overwhelming to coordinate day trips using the bus system. Having two cars also allowed us to break up if people wanted to do different things. I’ll write more about the day trips in another post.

For the most part, we spent our days shopping for food (do you know how much food is required to feed 6 adults??), lounging at home or relaxing at a small, kid-friendly beach in Santa Marie. The terrace at the villa was large enough for Sonny to kick a ball around or practice catching and hitting. I rigged the outdoor umbrella stand to be the tee and he used a thick tree branch as the bat. Quite ingenious, if I may say so myself.

See Coach, he really did practice!

For the first few days, the weather was in the high 60’s, but afterwards it stayed consistently around 72 to 75. Sonny, being the rambunctious monkey-fish that he is, wanted to spend every day at the beach and I really didn’t mind. A common sight along some of the coastline was these large concrete blocks used as wave-breaking barricades. At first I felt they distracted from the view, but they worked very well to keep the water calm and safe for kids to swim. We felt very comfortable letting Sonny wade waste deep into the water. Was the water warm? I’d say no, but my Viking relatives would say yes. I was spared from going in because I didn’t bring my bathing suit and I was too cheap to pay for a suit in the town. I ended up wearing a cheesy beach dress over my undies. I know, sounds totally trashy, but really no one was the wiser. Nor would they have cared. One thing I noticed and loved about Italian beach culture was that people go to the beach to relax, play beach games and just have fun without all the snarkiness and oogling you’d see at an American beach. Every woman under the age of 70 wore a bikini no matter the shape of their body. And the bikinis were definitely cut smaller than what you’d see on an American beach. Some men wore the Speedo-type suits, but many also wore regular swim trunks. And then there was Bedstefar, who just pushed up his pants above his knees so he could wade with Sonny. Hey, whatever works, right?

Looking north on the beach in Santa Marie.

Looking south from the same beach.

Calm, cool waters.

Bathing suits are so overrated!

As I’ve said, everyone in our group enjoys good food and trying different things. BIL and I are both particularly very fond of food shopping and cooking, so it was a real treat for us to be able to experience the local specialties with our own hands. I really enjoyed visiting the different green grocers in our area and seeing what was in season. There were shelling peas, fava beans, artichokes, spring garlic, fresh garlic, asparagus, fennel, broccoli rabe, arugula (which they translate as rocket), several different tomato varieties, strawberries and citrus fruits. We tried all of these at home or dining out and they were wonderful. Full of flavor, like fruits and vegetables you’d get at a farmers' market. The one peculiar thing about buying produce, though, was that you’re discouraged from touching the produce with your bare hands. Either you tell the shopkeeper what you want or you put on plastic gloves. Of course I went around ignorantly for the first few days handling all the stuff, putting it up to my nose to smell and probably offending every green grocer in town. What can I say? I’m an obnoxious tourist.

Fava beans can be hard to find in the US, but are abundant in Italy. We used them to make a salad with tomatoes and sauteed spring garlic.

Sweet shelling peas. BIL made an excellent pasta dish using these with olives and cream.

We had a wonderful artichoke appetizer at a restaurant in town. It was served with baby potatoes and turned in herb oil.

Who can travel to the Campania region without trying mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk mozzarella)? It’s one of the things the region is known for. There seemed to be a lot of shops and producers as we traveled from Naples towards Castellabate yet it wasn’t always available at the local grocers in town. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on some the last couple days of the trip. It was really delicious; milky sweet, elastic and soft when served at room temperature (which we learned is how it should be served).

Another product in no short supply is the lemon, which is used to make limoncello, among other things. Limoncello can be sipped in small amounts, but I also like to use it in cocktails as well. Of course there was no shortage of olive trees and olive oil either. We were very lucky to find a small grocer located away from the more touristy areas that stocked locally produced, unmarked limoncello and olive oil. I felt a little dubious at first because there were no markings on the bottles, but both tasted fantastic.

Being on a coast means having access to fresh fish. There were no less than 6 fishmongers on our route from home to Santa Marie. Visiting one was a little intimidating at first because there were so many varieties of fish, most of which I’d never seen before. Or rather, I’d never seen as a whole fish since we are used to getting fillets here in the US. Generally, the fish that was laid out was not gutted, but once you pick what you want, they will do it for you. BIL bought 4 whole fish to grill for dinner one night and they were delicious. (Notice the pattern here? Everything was delicious.) He stuffed them with sliced lemons, oranges and capers and served them with a fennel salad. I think the fish were called spagole, but I’ve yet to find a translation for that. Anyhow, the fish kind of looked like trout on the outside, but had a texture more like perch with a little bit of a sweet taste.

If you didn’t already know, I have a deli fetish. It’s no surprise that one of my favorite shops was a deli located on the pedestrian shopping street in Santa Marie. Every time I walked in, I felt giddy, like a kid in a candy store. So many meats, cheeses and antipasti all under one roof! It was impossible to taste it all, but we certainly tried. The supermercato (DESPAR) also had a good selection in their deli. The deli man was very nice and let me try the selections before choosing. Mind you, he spoke only Italian and I only English, but he enthusiastically explained to me the different meats. I just nodded in agreement and shoved whatever he handed me into my mouth. It was great fun.


So many meats, so little time!

Hubby didn't think I could get one of these through customs.

If you’re in the mood for fresh meat, you’ll probably want to go to a butcher. Some supermercati may have fresh meat, but the selection may be very limited. Like with the fishmongers, we had a few options. We choose to buy steaks and sausages from a shop on the pedestrian shopping street. The butcher was very friendly and helpful, even though he didn’t speak English. (Notice another trend? The communication barrier never stopped the Italians from being friendly and helpful.) I think we ended up paying about 15 Euros for about 1.25 kg of tasty ribeye steaks. The sausages were very coarsely ground compared to what we’re used to here in the States, but I didn’t mind. I like to know I’m eating real meat. I would imagine some might be unaccustomed to the texture though.

BIL preparing the ribeyes for grilling.

And lastly we ate a lot of pasta. In the States I usually buy De Cecco brand. The selection of this brand here in the US is a fraction of what can be found in Italy (as you’d expect). Did you know they make spaghetti noodles that are like a yard long? And some long, hollow ones that look like drinking straws. I will post some of the recipes for the different pastas we ate. BIL, who has worked in an Italian kitchen, made a pasta dish with fresh peas, olives and cream. If you told me that combination, I wouldn’t’ have been particularly excited, but it was a surprisingly good combination. Slightly salty from the olives yet sweet from the cream and peas.

The last supper, so to speak. Linguine with eggplant and tomatoes topped with mozzarella. Yum.

Before I end this post, I should mention one of the reasons we had this family vacation was to celebrate the recent family birthdays, especially Bedstefar’s. He came up with the ingenious idea of having a 100-year celebration, which is what the ages of the birthday boys added up to. Since none of us could speak Italian well enough to procure a cake from a bakery, we made our own. We bought ready made cake layers, ice cream, bananas, hazelnut syrup, chocolate and cream at the supermercato. SIL gets all the credit for putting it together.

The infamous birthday cake. It's common to use the Danish flag as a decoration at celebrations.

The birthday boys, also known as the 3 stooges.

He got a Lego set from the old fossils.

Bedstefar loved the present we got him. He loves all things golf and lawn ornaments, so we combined the two.

I guess I should give ya’ll a break to eat and sleep. I still have to gather my thoughts on eating out and throw in something about the day trips so you don’t think all we did was eat and laze around all day. Not that there would be anything wrong with that when you’re on vacation, right? I also need to catch up on the last two episodes of Top Chef and a stack of mail. If there’s anything you’d like to hear about in particular, let me know. Want to keep this somewhat interesting to other people besides myself and the other 6 people on the trip.


Manggy said...

Welcome back Darlene! I went only to the more cosmopolitan parts of Itlay, so these pictures were quite refreshing and captivating :) It's like something out of a 60's movie. (I dunno, Come September or something. I'm not old.) I'd love to see more of the pics on the next update.

That plant is indeed an agave-- the giant infloresence is unmistakable. Although if it were an asparagus, think of the village-wide celebration that could be had!

My obsessive-compulsive heart just crawled into my skin on seeing the deli-- how does one find anything under all that? Hahaha. I've also never seen so many mozzarella balls at one time! Yum!

Re: friendliness-- it looks like you had a very different experience from Graeme (something to do with the rurality? Dunno). I'm glad you enjoyed your trip!

Dee said...

Thanks Manggy! Still trying to get over the jeglag and the pile of mail our neighbor delivered to us on Sunday. I'll try to get more pics up somewhere. First I have to sort through hundreds of them from 3 different sources.

I thought that was agave as well, but I didn't realize they could be found in Italy. I thought they were only found in Mexico.

Marvin said...

Welcome back! It didn't even seem like 2 weeks, but I guess it has been hasn't it?

It looks like you guys had a great location with the rental. Oooh and that deli!

Btw, I tried to add you as a friend at Foodbuzz, but it says you aren't registered yet.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Welcome back! Looks like you had a fabulous time. I know I'm going to look at this post again and again. More! More! I want to read about more! :)

Dee said...

Marvin, I'll check up on foodbuzz and try to figure out why you can't find me. Now if only I could remember the password??

WC, be careful what you wish for! I could talk forever about this trip. I'll still have to sort out the pictures I got from BIL and Bedstefar, but I'll get them up once I do.

Anonymous said...

Hi Darlene, WOW. What a trip. It looked absolutely gorgeous. I love Italy so much and your photos and descriptions make me what to go back NOW! Thanks for sharing all the details.

tigerfish said...

You are back! And you brought us beautiful scenery :)
I enjoy the vast green open and blue waters. I'm now feasting on everything with my eyes :O