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The Best of Sorrento – Campania, Italy

A Grand Hotel and Unsurpassed Restaurant

The hazy outline of Mount Vesuvius dominates the view from the terraces of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. With mosaic floors, marble stair­cases, dwarf palm trees, hand-painted cherubs, and elaborate Art Nouveau frescoes decorating the hotel’s lofty interiors, guests feel as bathed in luxury here as the ancient Romans who once played in ancient Sorrentum. (Remains of the villa of Caesar Augustus are believed to have been found beneath the hotel.)

The Belle Epoque spirit of bygone luxury lives on in this grandest of Sorrento’s 19th-century hotels. Five acres of lemon-scented gardens and white-gloved service create a refuge from the clamor of the day-trippers who descend from cruise ships and buses on their way to Pompeii.

Its old- world, aging drama recalls the British travelers for whom the hotel was built atop the dramatic 150-foot cliff when Sorrento was still a small, genteel resort favored for its mild winters.

If Luciano Pavarotti never failed to put heart and soul into his signature rendition of “Return to Sorrento,” it’s because he often stayed here. Book the Caruso Suite for that same inspira­tion; opera’s greatest tenor, Enrico Caruso, vacationed here in 1921, just before his death.

In a food-enthralled country where cau­tious critics sing high praises only with great reluctance, Don Alfonso 1890 has long gar­nered recognition as possibly the finest restaurant in southern Italy. Its location aug­ments the experience, gorgeously poised between earth and the sparkling gulfs of Naples and Salerno.

The loyal clientele think nothing of driving in from Naples or Bari just for lunch. Alfonso Iaccarino and his wife, Livia, who have known each other since child­hood, are fanatic in their commitment to quality local ingredients and herbs.

Much of the seasonal menu is selected and produced at their nearby 10-acre farm overlooking Capri, and their olive oil has been ranked as some of the best in the world. But the cuisine at Don Alfonso is far from simple country cooking: Mediterranean at heart, it surprises with unusual and delicious, vaguely Asian influences, served in a cool and elegant atmosphere.

The restaurant’s noted wine cellar—a three-tiered cavern carved into the volcanic rock in Roman times—contains more than 30,000 bottles.

Paestum – Salerno, Campania, Italy

Some of the World’s Oldest and Best-Preserved Temples

Discovered by accident in the 18th century, Paestum was inhabited for 700 years before falling along with the ancient Roman Empire in its final days. On a flat coastal plain that Percy Bysshe Shelley called “inexpressibly grand” are some of the ancient oldest.

Of the two sun-bleached limestone world’s most glorious ruins, and possibly the pieces de resistance here, the Basilica is one of Western civilization’s earliest standing edi­fices. A temple dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus, it dates from the 6th century B.C and is one of Europe’s best preserved.

Next to it stands the famous Temple of Neptune, consid­ered one of the ancient world’s largest and most beautiful temples. Built around 450 B.C., it is one of the Mediterranean s most complete structures, with only its roof and parts of its inner walls missing and thirty-six Doric columns still vertical.

See Paestum in the late afternoon, when a less harsh Neopolitan light warms their golden stone. Then head to the nearby agriturismo farm and inn of the Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli Baratta, whose 400 water buffalo supply Italy with some of its best mozzarella di bufala.

Guests of her family-run Tenuta Seliano can feast on fresh mozzarella and ricotta daily, as well as a whole cornu­copia of products directly from the farm, prepared to perfection by the baroness herself and served family-style in the garden. This must be why Pliny the Elder referred to the region as Campania Felix—Happy Campania indeed.


Ravello – Campania, Italy

Where Poets Go to Die

Perched 1,100 feet above the tiny coastal town of Amalfi, Ravello has been described as closer to heaven than to the sea. Two irresistibly romantic gardens—the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone—justify its reputation as “the place where poets go to die.”

Hotel guests can hope to experience breathtaking views of the cerulean sea from the Moorish-inspired Palazzo Sasso. Constructed in the 12th century, now a deluxe hotel, Sasso is all about the view.

Richard Wagner found inspi­ration on this site in 1880, penning a part of Parsifal during a stay here. (Every summer an internationally renowned classical Wagner music festival takes place in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo.)

This clifftop aerie looks east along the dramatic Lattari Mountains and their wild, contoured coastline toward Salerno, filling guest rooms and guests’ hearts with warm sun and high romance. Its recent transformation into a modern-day hideaway left the spirit of the medieval structure unspoiled. Nine terraced acres of bougainvillea, roses, and mimosas fan out below the pink palazzo (sometimes overlooked by those hypnotized by the blending of the clear cobalt sky and sea beyond).

Follow the aroma of simmering tomato sauce and roast lamb that lead you to Cumpa Cosimo, the town’s best trattoria. When most foreigners think of good, full-flavored Italian food, they think of Neapolitan cuisine, and that is what you’ll find here.

Ingredients grown in the rich volcanic soil around Naples, honest wines, and the deft hands of Netta Bottone (daughter of the original founder, Cosimo) make any meal here delicious. There is usually a marathon sampling of seven dif­ferent pastas.

Day-trippers don’t often hang around Ravello for dinner, leaving the hare-bones Cosimo’s to the local folk, who enjoy the excellent pizza and inexpensive conviviality.

Positano’s Hotels – Campania, Italy

Bastions of Elegance and Luxury

In 1953, John Steinbeck described the Hotel le Sirenuse as “a dream place . . . not quite real”—and so it remains, perched above the terraced homes of Positano and draped in fuchsia, bougainvillea, and honeysuckle.

Vines insinuate themselves everywhere, the floors are paved in cool, hand-painted tiles, and a min­gling of precious antiques enhances the hotel’s elegant but comfortable personality. Run by a family whose summer villa this once was, a special feeling of welcome sets Le Sirenuse apart.

So does a narrow lap pool-with-a-view and a small but exquisite spa and gym designed by the famous Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. The Pompeiian red 18th-century building was named for the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, those alluring demi-women said to have inhabited the small Li Galli islands, which you can see from your terrace.

Slightly east of town, a tiny 17th-century chapel alongside the fabled coastal drive dis­creetly signals the presence of the Hotel le Sirenuse’s longtime friendly rival, the multisto­ried San Pietro, carved into the precipitous cliff below and one of the world’s most dramatically situated hotels, a triumph of human ingenuity and sheer extravagance.

An elevator cut into solid rock whisks guests down to the airy lobby, terraced guest rooms, and, ultimately, the vest- pocket-size cove where guests can swim and sunbathe, even play tennis.

Nonguests can idle away an afternoon at the bougainvillea-covered restaurant, 300 feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea, open to the breeze but protected from the sun. At sunset, have a leisurely drink on the tiled terrace: the view up and down the coastline is heart-stopping.

The Amalfi Coast – Campania, Italy

Italy’s Dream Drive

It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road while zipping along the dazzling landscape of the vertiginous Amalfi Drive, an improbable 30-mile stretch of hairpin curves south of Naples. After visiting the Amalfi coast, a giddy Andre Gide wrote in The Immoralist that “nothing more beautiful can be seen on this earth.”

Vertical cliffs plunge into an impos­sibly blue Mediterranean, as a coastline of seaside towns unfolds among terraced olive and lemon groves, oaks, and umbrella pines. No longer as remote as when arrival was pos­sible only by sea or pack animal, the cliff-hanging town of Positano is still the ulti­mate refuge.

Mercifully closed to traffic, the town’s jumble of converted whitewashed and pastel fishermen’s homes spills down a maze of narrow alleyways to the pebbly umbrella- lined beach, the only flat strip in town.

It is here that tanned, handsome Sergio will pick you up and spirit you away to Da Adolfo in his family’s motor launch (look for the boat with the big red fish), far from Positano’s crowded beach scene and past the Hotel San Pietro so you can revel in an after­noon of sybaritic indulgence on a secluded slip of a beach.

This is the region that gives the world fresh mozzarella di bufala; imagine how heavenly it tastes when it is grilled on a fragrant lemon leaf and served under the warm Neapolitan sun. Things only get better with the exquisite simplicity of spaghetti made with a sauce of plump baby clams and mussels.

Getting to Da Adolfo is half the fun; lingering well after lunch in a sun-induced torpor prolongs this outing’s delight. Pull up a beach bed and umbrella, and order an ice-cold limoncello liqueur squeezed from the area’s uniquely sweet lemons, the size of grapefruits. It’s enough to make you ignore the next boat back into town.

Hard to believe that tiny, picturesque Amalfi was once the heart of Italy’s oldest and one of its most powerful maritime republics. As early as the 9th century, this microharbor at the mouth of a deep gorge was dominating commerce with the Orient, which helps explain both the Moorish influence and importance of the town’s duomo, the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea.

Planned and built during the peak of the republic’s independence, it stands at the top of a steep flight of steps. The Baroque interior is reached through 11th- century bronze doors cast in Constantinople. The 13th-century Chiostro del Paradiso is a lovely Byzantine and Moorish cloister whose intoxicating aura of Arabian fantasy once infused much of the city’s, and coastline’s, architecture.

Experience Amalfi or any of the neighboring towns along the marvelously scenic coast when they are not besieged by tour bus caravans and sense something of the lingering Middle Eastern influence.

Spaccanapoli – Naples, Campania, Italy

Joyously Chaotic Everyday Life, Neapolitan Style

Dive into the laundry-festooned back alleyways of one of Italy’s most vibrant and spirited cities for a glimpse of the histrionics and brio for which Neapolitans are known. Once an enclave of monumental palazzi and magnificent churches, the quarter called Spaccanapoli now bustles against a backdrop of time-battered tenements and workshops.

The city’s busiest neighborhood is slowly undergoing regentrification as Naples enjoys a cultural resurgence, and it is no longer dan­gerous to wander alone here. Narrow streets throb with local vendors, who hawk everything from contraband cigarettes to fried pizza and the mussels and clams brought in live from the Bay of Naples.

The city’s famous San Carlo Opera House may be one of Europe’s largest and most splendid, but Spaccanapoli delivers the spontaneity of street opera, and the curtain never comes down. Enrico Caruso was born here and kept an apartment in the historic waterfront Grand Hotel Vesuvio from 1905 until his death in 1921.

The hotel’s rooftop Ristorante Caruso and its views of the marina and the 12th-century Castel dell’Ovo may well have been the setting where someone first exclaimed, “See Naples and die!”

National Archaeological Museum – Naples, Campania, Italy

A Fallen Empire’s Spoils

If you wondered where all the precious sculpture and artifacts excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum wound up, they’re here. One of the richest treasure troves of Greco-Roman antiquities in the world fills this large 16th-century cavalry barracks.

An invaluable collection of antiquities amassed by Pope Paul III of the Farnese family during the excavations of Roman ruins are exhibited on the ground floor; Heracles is here, 10 feet tall, with an anatomy that would have made Michelangelo cry.

The section dedicated to mosaics excavated from Pompeii reveals fas­cinating, intimate vignettes of life in that thriving, sophisticated city before it was extinguished forever by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The museum’s Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Gallery) opened to much fan­fare in 1999. Contained in two rooms are more than 200 frescoes, mosaics, and statues whose erotic attributes explain why they were never before made available to the public.

Capri – Campania, Italy

Glamorous Outpost of Roman Emperors and Modern-Day Sybarites

This floating rough-cut gem of an island has been a favored summer play­ground since the Roman emperor Tiberius made it his ruling seat in A.D. 26. Almost every artist, designer, movie star, diva, politician, writer, royal, and financier of consequence since then has made an appearance in the island’s stage-set Piazzetta, described by Noel Coward as “the most beautiful operetta stage in the world.”

An aphrodisiacal climate, lush Mediterranean gardens, and dramatic views from the car-free towns of Capri and Anacapri sustain the rep­utation of this 5-square-mile island Eden surrounded by emerald waters.

The sun, the sea, good wine, and great food come together gloriously on a sun-dappled terrace beneath the bamboo roof of La Fontelina. The view of Capri’s signature faraglioni, three needlelike rocks—the tallest is almost 400 feet high—towering just min­utes off this casual restaurant’s coveted position on the rugged coast is unparalleled

La Fontelina also serves as Capri’s most pop­ular bathing spot, where diners can sunbathe and swim, before and after a lunch likely to include many rounds of the restaurant’s signa­ture fruit-filled sangria. Lunch may be a simple insalata caprese, the island specialty of superfresh mozzarella and sweet sliced toma­toes; it won’t resemble anything you have ever tasted before.

Despite the endless roll call of glitterati, this is not a fancy island, and simplicity is valued. Pretensions are kept in check at the Hotel La Sealinatella, Capri’s hideaway in excelsis. Demure sister of the far more extrav­agant Hotel Quisisana (and owned by the same family), La Sealinatella is intentionally understated but in many ways more stylish. It has the feel of relaxed luxury of a privately owned villa.

Dine at Da Paolino, one of Capri’s most delightful restaurants: It’s set in a lush lemon grove, where lantern-size fruits drip from the branches above your table. Those lemons have been adopted as a leitmotif; stylized ver­sions appear on the plates, on the waiters’ vests—and the real things garnish the fresh fish that swam in the local waters just hours before.

Simple, good cucina caprese is served here in an ambience of festa and the celebra­tion of the departure of the day’s last boat back to Naples. Don’t head back to town for the obligatory late-night dalliance in the Piazzetta without sampling Paolino’s signature dessert—you guessed it, a scoop of home­made lemon sorbet.

Alberobello – Apulia, Italy

Welcome to Trulliland!

In the little-known but fascinating region of Apulia, the heel of the Italian “boot,” is Alberobello, a town with a charm so peculiar that it’s difficult to remember which country you’re in, or which planet you’re on. The city’s zona monumentale of conical whitewashed trulli takes visitors inside a child’s storybook: imagine Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as interpreted by Tolkien.

There are more than 1,000 of these unique beehive structures in Alberobello and the rural area immediately surrounding it (twice that, by some accounts, in the area’s Valle d’ltria). They crop up like clusters of mushrooms among the abundant olive trees.

These whimsical, rather eerie hallmarks of Italy’s southernmost region are found nowhere else in the country. Their primitive shape gives the impression that they are ancient, when in fact the oldest date to the 18th century.

Today the trulli are used as homes, stores, storage space—even the local church of St. Anthony (Sant’Antonio) is in the form of a trullo. If you fancy eating in one, look no further than II Poeta Contadino, oddly formal for a centuries-old trullo but offering one of the area’s best renditions of cucina pugliese (Apulia, or Puglia, is one of the country’s richest agricul­tural regions and home of some of Italy’s finest j olive oil production). The wine selection at Il Poeta is one of the finest around.

Venice – Top Ten Sights – Venelo, Italy

“When I went to Venice, my dream became my home.” —Marcel Proust

Here it is, the Venice of your dreams, wooing, intriguing, disorienting, and exhilarating visitors like no other city on earth. Misty and mystical bridge between East and West, straddling both yet belonging to neither, Venezia is like a faded, once great queen that still manages to enchant and beguile. The never-ending stream of tourism began well over 1,000 years ago, and no wonder: As Henry James said, a visit to Venice becomes a perpetual love affair.

Gallerie Dell’Accademia—Venice’s largest museum, the Accademia contains the most extensive collection of Venetian masters in the world, spanning the 13th to the 18th centuries and all the major painters, including Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Veronese, Bellini, and Carpaccio. Viewing 15th-century depictions of the city, it’s amazing to see how little has changed.

Ca’ d’Oro and the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti—Created by early-20th-century philanthropist Baron Giorgio Franchetti, the Ca’ d’Oro comprises two joined palaces (the opulent 15th-century Ca’ d’Oro—one of the city’s most famous and beautiful canal side palazzi—and the smaller Ca’ Duodo) and contains the baron’s private collection of paintings, sculpture, and furniture, which he donated to the Italian government during World War I. Among the masterpieces on display are Titian’s Venus and Mantegna’s St. Sebastian.

Chiesa dei Frari (Church of the Friars)—In a city filled with churches, this immense Franciscan bastion—built in the 13th and 14th centuries—stands out as the home of several masterworks, including Titian’s Assumption, depicting the ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven; Donatello’s wood-carving St. John the Baptist; and Bellini’s 1488 triptych The Madonna and Child Enthroned.

Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni and Paolo (Church of Saints John and Paul)— Also built during the 13th and 14th centuries, this massive Gothic church—the largest in Venice after St. Mark’s—contains the tombs of twenty-five doges, plus works by a number of Venice’s greatest painters, including Bellini and Veronese, whose ceilings depict New Testament scenes.

To the right of the church is Andrea del Verrocchio’s famous 15th-century bronze statue of the mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni astride a horse, one of the great masterworks of early Renaissance sculpture.

Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)— Between the Basilica di San Marco and St. Mark’s Basin sits the palace from which the dukes ruled La Serenissima (the Most Serene Republic) and much of the eastern Mediterranean for 1,000 years, with each doge elected for life.

Filled with paintings by the greatest Venetian artists, including Veronese and Tintoretto, the present pink- and-white marble structure is the cumulative work of many architects over the centuries, meant to impress Venice’s wealth and power upon visitors arriving by ship.

Highlights include the doge’s private apartments, the assembly room of the Council of Ten, and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri), which links the palace with the Palazzo delle Prigioni, where prisoners were held after being judged by the council.

The Romantic poets gave it its name. Take an English-language tour or a self-guided audio tour to really understand the palace and the maritime empire that was governed from its halls.

The Grand Canal—Venice’s Main Street, its 2-mile aquatic thoroughfare, is lined with hundreds of weather-worn Byzantine and Gothic palazzi and abuzz with canal life.

For a nominal fee, jump on the number 1 vaporetto (water bus), which plies the full length of the S-shaped “Canalazzo,” for a cruise through 1,000 years of local history, dodging errant gondolas and delivery boats. Starting at either Piazza San Marco or the Santa Lucia train station, savor it once by day for rush-hour stimulus and once at night for the quiet, unmatched romance of it all.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection—One of the world’s great collections of modern art, housed in a palazzo on the Grand Canal that was once the home of Peggy Guggenheim, patron to many of the greatest 20th-century artists, including Jackson Pollock and her husband, Max Ernst. Her collection includes works by Duchamp, Picasso, Leger, Klee, Magritte, Rothko, Chagall, Mondrian, and many others. A sculpture garden contains works by Giacometti, Claire Falkenstein, and Mirko.

Interestingly, Ms. Guggenheim’s palace is an unfinished work, begun in the 1750s and intended to rise two stories taller than it ended up.

Basilica di San Marco—Sitting at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco, the basilica was originally built as the final resting place of St. Mark, whose body was smuggled by two merchants out of Alexandria in 828.

The current structure is the third church built on the site, and dates from the 11th century. Byzantine, almost mosque like in style, it is one of the world’s most richly embellished and distinctive Roman Catholic churches, surmounted by replicas of the Quadriga, the four famous bronze horses looted from Constantinople in 1204. (The originals are currently in St. Mark’s Museum, inside the basilica.)

Other “appropriations” from around Venice’s once huge merchant empire decorate the structure inside and out. Byzantine mosaics cover the dimly lit ceilings of the interior. The sarcophagus of St. Mark sits beneath four columns in the presbytery, while behind the altar is the Pala d’Oro altar screen, one of the basilica’s greatest treasures, comprised of more than 2,000 precious stones and enameled panels.

Piazza San Marco—The heart of Venice then and now, St. Mark’s is one of the world’s most beautiful public squares, full of cafes, shops, tourists, and, of course, flocks of overfed pigeons. At its wider end, the not- so-square square is crowned by the beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica (see above) and the famous Campanile, the tallest structure on the Venice skyline.

The current tower is a 20th-century re-creation of the 8th-century original, which collapsed without warning in 1902. Ascend to its summit for a miraculous view. On a clear day you may be able to see the faint outline of the Dolomite Mountains.

When Napoleon arrived in 1797 he called the square “the finest drawing room in Europe,” and so it may very well remain today, with its throngs of visitors staring in wonderment at the elegant colonnades and at the Basilica’s ornate facade, sipping espresso at the Caffe Florianor Caffe Quadri while the orchestras play, or simply sitting in the sun, chatting. Every sixty minutes, two bronze Moors atop the 15th- century Torre dell’Orologio strike the hour.

To get the full effect, go several times: in the early morning to have it all to yourself, in the afternoon for the spectacle of the crowds, and at night for intense romance.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco—Built in 1515 as the home of a religious and social confraternity (one of many in Venice at the time), this structure is by far the most renowned of them all, gaining lasting fame because of its collection of works by Tintoretto, who painted some fifty works for the scuola over thirty years from 1564 to 1594. It’s the largest collection of his dark and dramatic work anywhere. The top floor contains scenes from the New and Old Testaments, including the enormous Crucifixion, considered Tintoretto’s masterpiece.

Other Must Do’s

Gondola, Gondola!—Yes, they’re touristy and overpriced and the Venetians won’t go near them, but they’re also the most enjoyable and romantic way to see the hidden comers of this unique city whose streets are filled with water. The gondolier won’t sing, and can often be taciturn, but it’s best anyway to glide in silence through the enchanting web of more than 150 sleepy back canals, immersed in your own fantasy of traveling back 500 years to the heyday of the Most Serene Republic.

Torcello—You won’t want to follow Katharine Hepburn into the waters of a Venetian canal (as in the 1955 classic Summertime), but find a Rossano Brazzi lookalike and head for the green, quasi- deserted island of Torcello for an idyllic picnic, far from the crowds of tourists and pigeons in the Piazza San Marco.

Forgot your picnic hamper? The country-cozy Trattoria al Ponte del Diavolo is the best option among slim dining pickings, its garden tables promising a perfect lunch. Let dessert be a viewing of Torcello’s ancient cathedral and its breathtaking 12th- and 13th-century Byzantine mosaics, some of the most important in Europe.

Vivaldi’s Church—Officially called the Church of La Pieth, this was the site where local Baroque maestro Antonio Vivaldi worked as choirmaster for an orphanage arid conservatory from 1703 to 1741, while composing some of his masterworks. Today, those works (and others, by the Red Priest’s contemporaries) are performed here by candlelight on a regular basis. There’s nothing like hearing a performance of Le Quattro Staggioni (The Four Seasons) beneath Tiepolo’s luminous ceiling fresco. Or is it the excellent acoustics?

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