Travel highlight: Giardino di Ninfa

Travel Highlight: Giardino di Ninfa

*click photos to enlarge

These beautiful gardens were the perfect Saturday afternoon getaway with friends. Classified as a natural historic monument, they’re located about an hour and half from Rome in the province of Latina. An oasis of exotic plant life, these English-style gardens are home to the remains of the ancient city of Ninfa, which was a rich community on the Appian Way during the Middle Ages.

The nearby town of Sermoneta is the definition of classic medieval charm and well worth a walk-through, regardless of whether a visit the gardens is on the agenda. We’ll certainly be back when we have more time than just for a quick lunch. And apparently it’s not all that well kept of a secret, judging from the generous amount of fancy Nikons snapping away… As usual in Italy, there’s always another unique town around the corner worth discovering.

Travel Highlight: Monte Argentario, Tuscany

*click photos to enlarge

Ah, Tuscany… Land of picturesque hilltop towns, rolling landscapes, romantic vineyards – and a surprising coastline that hardly gets the attention it deserves.

What most tourists don’t know about Italy’s arguably most famous region is that in addition to its fabulous countryside, it’s home to a notable and particularly beautiful Costa d’Argento, or Silver Coast. The touristic section is called Monte Argentario, a mountainous area surrounded by quaint seaside towns.

In Italy, the quality of the water determines the popularity of coastal locales. Monte Argentario may not be at the level of Sardinia or Puglia in terms of crystal clarity, but it’s certainly above average and attracts its fair share of Italian vacationers. It boasts a bandiera blu, or blue flag, which is the national beach/ocean ranking system that signals the cleanest, least polluted water around the boot.

The charming town of Porto Santo Stefano is the main attraction, with its countless restaurants lining the waterfront, where the fresh fish is caught and practically delivered directly to your plate. There are also some shops, scuba rentals, a marina and an aquarium, but the overall vibe is still remarkably tranquil and very local.

This area made international news last year when the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off the coast of Isola del Giglio, a small isle accessed directly from Monte Argentario by boat. More than a year later, the Concordia still sits just off the island’s coast, toppled on its side in the distance, an ever-present reminder of Captain (coglione) Schettino and one of the biggest fails in maritime history.

So next time you think Tuscany, remember: there’s more to offer than just stereotypes. Head toward the coast for the best of both worlds. Doesn’t wine taste better with an ocean view anyway?

Christmas Market in Piazza Navona

This year, since we ended up staying in Rome for Christmas, I couldn’t wait to take in as many sights and sounds of the season as my increasingly-large pregnant belly would allow (parking is a nightmare, therefore a simple visit can involve a lot of walking).

During the holidays, seasonal markets fill piazzas across the city. But Navona is home to one of the largest and most popular – especially because of its vast selection of artiginale (hand-crafted) nativity scenes, ornaments, and decorations. Aside from being an obvious attraction for the holiday tourists, a visit to the Christmas market in Piazza Navona is also a significant part of the holidays for many Roman families. In fact, I ran into one of my colleagues there with his family who told me a jaunt through the market on Christmas morning is part of their tradition each year.

This morning was a bit grey and dreary, but the atmosphere was nonetheless bustling and upbeat: a maze of colorful balloons, street musicians, carnival games, and ciambelle (donuts) as big as your head. ’Tis the season.

Buon Natale a tutti!

Falling in Love, Neopolitan Style

Falling in Love, Neopolitan Style

It’s hard not to fall in love with the Amalfi Coast.  I remember the first time I was there: I was fourteen years old and completely overwhelmed by the beauty around me.  Each incredible vista gave me feelings and ideas I’d never had before – and it was then I knew Italy would be a part of my permanent future, in some way. I was immediately addicted to that sensation.

These days, every time I visit another new, beautiful place in Italy I always have the urge to say it’s my favorite place of all, until I go back to the Amalfi Coast and remember that it can’t be beat – not by Lake Como, not by Taormina or the Cinque Terre, not even perhaps by Sardegna (which are all my votes for the most beautiful places overall in Italy).

Why the Amalfi Coast can’t be beat is a simple question of location, as far as I’m concerned: it happens to be right next to Naples, which automatically makes it more dramatic, passionate, and over the top. It’s the land of mandolins, romance, old-world culture, and traditional Italian slow food (before anyone even knew what “slow food” was). Naples has its problems, and perhaps the proximity to the urban grime of Italy’s “bad boy” city is precisely what gives the Costiera its literal diamond in the rough mystique.  

Aside from its obvious natural beauty, the people who inhabit the Costiera are living characters. They share the same exaggerated, gregarious personalities and dialect as their famous Neopolitan neighbors. The food is ridiculous, the atmosphere is total relaxed sophistication, and the scent of lemon trees and fresh sea air are utterly intoxicating. All of this, combined with the staggering backdrop of rocky bluffs plunging into the sea creates a drama and stunning grandeur beyond compare. All in all, it’s much more worth experiencing than talking about.

So, Amalfi Coast, I may cheat on you every now and then – but you’ll always be my first true love.

*Click on the photos to enlarge – enjoy.