Visiting Italy was always a priority for me on this trip, especially since that’s where one side of my family came from. I’d spent basically a year trying to learn Italian on Duolingo in preparation, and I was relieved that we were going to Italy after the weather in Ireland started turning cold.
Our first stop was Naples, a city that has a special place in my heart since some of our closest family friends are Neapolitan, and…well I love pizza.
Vedi Napoli e Poi Muori
Our first RyanAir flight took us from Dublin directly to Naples, and we arrived late in the evening, taking a cab from the airport directly to our B&B in Sorrento. It was a little jarring going from Ireland to Italy considering how sparsely populated Ireland is – it turns out the population of Naples is about the same as the Republic of Ireland!
We were originally going to spend all of our time in Naples, but since we just couldn’t find accommodation in the city, we decided to spend a few days in Sorrento instead and then head into the city, which turned out to be a really great idea. The whole Bay of Naples is renowned for its beauty, so we were excited to see different parts of it. Attributed to Goethe, the phrase “Vedi Napoli e poi muori” literally means “see Naples and then die” since the area is so beautiful, and it’s worn proudly by residents for good reason!
After all the cloudy and colder weather in Ireland, the Amalfi Coast seemed perfect. The Bay of Naples is something special to behold - seeing the steep cliffs, the shadow of Pompeii, and the City of Naples across from you. Funnily enough, our first full day in Italy was Halloween, and seeing Italian kids dressed in costumes in the streets, getting candy at stores, surrounded by Christmas decorations was very strange!
The city of Sorrento was a ton of fun to explore, great food and culture all around. It was surprisingly easy to navigate, and since it’s very tourist-friendly, we didn’t have much trouble interacting with folks despite our broken Italian. Folks were super friendly, and I got a nice discount after helping an older shopkeeper hang her wares. The limoncello ain’t bad either! We ended up taking a short trip to Positano, which was postcard-picturesque. We took a bus, climbed lots of stairs, and the weather held out our harrowing trip back in the rain.
The food was incredible. Sorry Ireland, but Italy is where it’s at when it comes to food. We didn’t eat one bad meal in the country, and starting in Sorrento, I was consistently impressed. I’m not a coffee guy, but I admit that I enjoyed the morning espressos and pastries.
Fortunately, Pompeii was just a short light rail ride away (like 25 minutes). Man, public transportation in Europe is great. Pompeii was so much bigger and impactful than I had imagined! It’s a whole city with so much history that gives us a look into the past, 2000 years ago. Yet many things feel similar, from the shops and restaurants to the square and theaters. 11/10
Once we got to Naples, we met one of our friends in the area, who introduced us to the amazing world of Neapolitan pastries – do yourself a favor and look up the Babà Napoletano and Sfogliatella. We toured the city with him as our local guide and visited the Napoli Sotterranea, the city underground. In the evening, we shared a pizza in the world-renowned L’antica Pizzeria da Michele!
During our visit the next day, we walked around the historical city and Spanish Quarter, getting a sense of the city and its rich culture. Many people don’t realize that Naples was the capital of its own country for hundreds of years and has its own distinct dialect/language that was unfortunately suppressed for many decades. It gets a bad reputation for crime, but we felt safe during our visit to the city, and it turns out that other European cities like Barcelona and Rome are more dangerous.
Overall, it was refreshing to start our trip to Italy in the Bay of Naples, with nice weather, beautiful scenery, rich culture, and amazing food.
Americans in Rome
Our trip to Rome was a bit of a whirlwind. We did the stereotypical “Rome in 3 days” visit that many do, but it was a great experience nonetheless. Fortunately, taking the train from Naples was easy, and our B&B was just a couple blocks from the station. The accordion player in our carriage made the ride even more pleasant, though you could tell the locals were just not into it.
We toured the Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill, and Pantheon which were incredible. After listening to hundreds of hours of “The History of Rome” podcast, I was in heaven. My wife was not as excited about reading every historical plaque, but we both loved making the connection between the ruins in Rome and what we’d previously seen at Pompeii.
We also took a day to visit Vatican City. There’s so much to see inside that I’m sure you could spend a decade inside and still miss plenty. It was an amazing collection, but does the Catholic Church really need all of that? It was drinking from a firehose, and I’d love to have more time in the future to go back and really appreciate it all. Highlights for me were the map room and The School of Athens.
Like I said, Rome was a whirlwind, and while I feel like I got a ton out of it, it’s a city I’ll have to go back to – so much history and culture. But one thing I need to bring up is toilet seats. Who hurt you, Italy? Why does every restaurant bathroom lack a toilet seat? Seriously, even nice places will have a fully stocked bathroom but a missing toilet seat. Is someone stealing them!? What is going on!?!?
Our next stop was Tuscany, where we’d spend 3 weeks housesitting/dogsitting, and it was a TRIP. We rented a car and drove out of Rome – and wow, after driving narrow Irish roads, the highways felt like like magic, amazing.
We got to our new pad, a small villa in rural Tuscany, and met our host quickly as he packed for an upcoming trip. We also met the three dogs, our Ragazzi – 3 Thai street dogs our hosts had brought with them on a move, slightly feral, cute, and a bit of littermate syndrome. They were definitely a different kind of dog than we’re used to, and we’d learn all about their quirks soon enough.
After our host left for his trip, we settled down and spent some time bonding with the dogs. As if channeling Under the Tuscan Sun, my wife was immediately pooped on by a bird, a harbinger of a challenging few days. For context, we absolutely love dogs, but this situation was a real stretch.
Things escalated after one dog jumped the fence. We were told this could happen and we shouldn’t worry, but it was still distressing to know there was a loose dog that we were responsible for, one that looked like a fox in the middle of hunting season. Things came to a head when we tried luring her back with the 2 other dogs but one of them wriggled out of her harness after seeing a deer and crying like a banshee. At that point, we’d lost 2 out of the 3 dogs and found out one had worms. This was the lowest point in the trip so far.
Fortunately, we got both boogers back thanks to the help of our amazing neighbors, Italian farmers who laughed at our terrible Italian and supplied us with fresh eggs and smiles from then on (we repaid them in wine). My wife helped me through my exasperation, and looking back on the situation, I learned a lot about myself and how I deal with uncomfortable situations – as well as the generosity of others to help you out, even if you’re a bumbling American who has no idea what they’re doing in rural Italy.
After we got on better terms with the dogs and shored up the fencing, we started exploring Tuscany, and man is it beautiful! Southern Tuscany in November reminded us of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, with its colorful trees and winding hills. In the mornings, the flog would slowly burn off as the sun shone through to wake us up.
We visited incredible medieval towns like Pienza, Viterbo, and Orbetello and could visit the local hot springs in just a few minutes. It’s amazing to see just how much is preserved in the region and the connection you can feel to the past in these places. It was a truly special region, and getting to spend weeks there allowed us to make day trips to small, authentic towns that welcomed us, even outside of the tourist season.
Food. Food in Tuscany was amazing. From the markets to the restaurants to the shops. Italian food has always been one of my favorites, but eating here was a trip highlight for sure. The dishes are simple, but the recipes are just right, and the ingredients are super fresh. Maybe the beautiful landscape helps, too.
This portion of the trip taught me patience and understanding. It was also an opportunity to discover a culturally rich area with world-class cuisine and practice my Italian with the training wheels off. We’ve already started talking about our next trip to Tuscany!
Back to my Roots in Abruzzo
The last stop on our Italian leg was going to a small town in Abruzzo, going back to my roots. My great-aunt had recently sent me over some family history updates, so I was pleased to find out she’d located our ancestral family village in Italy, San Benedetto in Perillis.
With about 100 residents, it’s more of a hamlet. Located up a hill from the closest town and currently in the middle of some major restorations after a large earthquake, it’s definitely not a major tourist destination, but I was elated to find out we could drive there easily from Tuscany.
After our dogsitting stint was over, we started an Italian road trip to get to SB in P. Fun fact: if you miss your ticket on the highway you get to pay the tolls for the whole thing – about $100. We arrived in the rain, and despite my wife’s warnings, I took a shady road up the mountain, where we could finally make out the village in the distance. With the rain and clouds, it seemed like we just needed a few lightning strikes and some spooky music to set this up as a horror film intro. All I had to go on was a list of family names, a very brief history on my family story, and a level of Italian that was barely intelligible. I…started to wonder what I was doing here.
We drove to our B&B and found it locked as we’d arrived too early, so did a little exploring despite some soggy weather. The village seemed pretty bare, so I was surprised when one of the two roads was blocked by a car. I waited for a minute before getting the courage to use my broken Italian and ask whoever it was to move so I could drive around.
When I called out, a woman answered from the top floor. Embarrassed, she came down and apologized for moving the car – I told it wasn’t any trouble at all and that we were just trying to explore the village to learn more about my family’s ancestral home. Lo and behold, I find out she’s distantly related to me! She was happy to share recommendations and directions to the different areas of the village.
At that point, the rain had died down, and we explored the local cemetery, where we found the other distant relatives, and a mausoleum from a branch of my family. It turns out there’s a ton of folks still in town with the same last name, including the B&B owner!
As we were running around the village, I tried to peek at the local Abbey, but it was undergoing renovations, and only construction workers were allowed. As I was looking around, a local said that we weren’t allowed to park so close to the construction. My Italian wasn’t working as well as I’d hoped, so we ended up somehow speaking French to clarify that I was a tourist. This was our first meeting with Roberto, the foreman.
While the village is extremely small, at its peak just a century ago, there were 10 times the amount of residents. Unfortunately emmigration and earthquakes caused many folks to leave the area. The village is known for its wooden locks, which are very pretty and still adorn many garages. There are also many grottos (or large basements) that people have carved into the rock - lots of those are undergoing renovations currently. It’s a charming place, and I’m confident that the renovations will bring some new life to it soon.
That evening, we drove about 25 minutes to the main town since there are no restaurants in SB in P. When we arrived, we weren’t sure if we were at the right place since there wasn’t much happening. However, when we walked around back, an older server smoking a cigarette asked if we were looking for food and motioned toward a door. Bingo!
It was the most authentic local trattoria experience of the whole trip. While we came in a little early for Italians, local folks flowed in once the soccer matches started. As we wrapped up another delicious pasta meal, we noticed someone next to us dipping his hands in a bowl and making something. As we stared, he smiled and offered us some homemade mozzarella, and damn was it good.
A group of older men crowded around, each taking knots of fresh cheese from our new friend. One of them was Roberto, the foreman from earlier! Now that he’d seen us a second time, Roberto was even more curious about us, asking about our journey and my family. When I told him how excited I was to see the village, he offered to give us a special tour of the grottos, which I hastily accepted. When I asked him where to meet him the next morning, he just said “mi troverai”…we’d find him.
After a cozy stay in Charme in Perillis, we woke up to clear skies and a beautiful view of the valley below. After an excellent home-cooked breakfast (with our choice of multiple cakes!), we asked if there was anyone in town who might know more about my family or town history and were directed to the barista/manager of the cafe/bar/post office in town, Luciano.
When I walked in, 3 older men and the barista looked at me, and I asked if there was anyone here by the name Luciano, and the barisa’s eyes lit up. He cracked a smile and said let me know that he was in fact the famous barista Luciano. When I told him about my family, he and the men shared a few stories about the town, and then Luciano flagged down a woman walking outside. It turns out she’d grown up in New York City and actually moved back to Italy. She told me about my family’s branch in New York as well as another one in Canada – she shared that many people left the village for fortune and to get out of a small town starting around 1930. We also ran into the woman whose car had blocked our way the day before who joined in on the conversation – small world!
I noticed that we would have to leave soon and wondered about Roberto’s invitation, and just like I saw a car pull in. Yep, Roberto. He took me and my wife up the street to look at some of the renovated grottos, which were fascinating. He motioned to his team to get us some espresso, and when they returned I recognized the face of the guy who handed me coffee – our mozzarella-making friend from the night before! We thanked the team for a fun tour around the village and bid farewell to the little village of SB in P, the perfect end to our month in Italy.
From there, we jumped into the car to make our flight in Rome. Next stop – Barcelona.