David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Two rainy weeks near Rome, Jan. 2010

Temple of Athena at Paestum
Etruscan tumulus

The Roman Forum in Rome

Proseco at the Hassler Hotel Bar

We left Nice early in the morning of Sunday, Dec. 27, heading towards Rome. We stopped in Lerici, a lovely town, complete with its own castle, on the coast for lunch at the Jolly Bar. The pasta zucca served simply with olive oil and parmesan cheese was wonderful. After Lerici, we ran into a bit of trouble - the roads were closed due to the terrible rains. We had to head east toward Lucca, then took a long local road south to Pontedera to find a road west back to Livorno and then south to Cecina. By then it was dark. We couldn't find a hotel in Cecina - closed for the season or for renovation, so continued south to the little town of La California. Still nothing. We drove on a ways but there was nothing so went back and headed east towards Siena. Stopped in a little town but there was no hotel; stopped at the police station and he mentioned a hotel in La California. We returned there and asked at a couple of places but when we finally found it, it too was closed for the season. Headed south again and immediately south of town we saw a lighted sign (that hadn't been lighted before) for rooms! Down a dirt drive to a big old house: would it be "Psycho"? No, it was a very nice young Italian woman and her mother (or grandmother?) living there. They turned on the heat in our simple room and we headed into town for an evening snack served by a young fellow who "loves Americans". Then back to bed. What a relief!

We were on the road by 8 AM, stopping for breakfast along the way. Arrived in Fregene by 11:30 to find the villa locked. We'd told Picci and Sandro that we would be there before noon, so waited until noon and then called them - they were at the Monday market and would be there soon. They showed us around again (we had seen it in November before our cruise) and showed us how everything worked and they left. We went out for a cafeteria-style (tavola calda) lunch at Luna Rossa, owned by Massimo and Gabe, where we were to eat quite often. Then back to unpack and settle in. It was pretty cold in the villa. Villa sounds quite large but this is not: it's 3 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and 2 bathrooms, but all the rooms are tiny. Fregene, of course, is not high on the list of towns to visit in Italy, but it is a very nice seaside village where Federico Fellini used to have his vacation villa. There are many restaurants along the beach, but most were closed at this time of year. There is a beautiful pine forest, planted at the direction of Pope Clement IX in the 1660's. The forest is surrounded by narrow, crooked streets with grand and not-so-grand villas. A block and a half away is the bus to Rome.

Because of the rainy weather and more in the forecast, we decided to head down to Paestum where we wanted to again visit the wonderful Greek temples. We found a decent hotel in Paestum - I'm pretty sure we were the only guests - and immediately went out to find an open restaurant. It's nice to travel off-season because one avoids the crowds - on the other hand many hotels and restaurants are closed. But we were successful and enjoyed our grilled salmon and a side of grilled vegetables that the Italians do so well. Then on to the site in the light rain. It was worth the trip - the temples are magnificent. And there were more Roman ruins around them than we'd remembered. The Temples date from around the VI century BC; the Romans had taken over around the III century BC. We also visited the excellent museum, which I'm sure we didn't visit the last time. The artifacts that were recovered are wonderful. Then back to the hotel for a glass of wine (which they served with about 8 pieces of marzipan; I'm sure they were leftovers from some wedding held at the hotel).

The drive "home" was in the rain and dark. We headed right up the block to Luna Rossa for lunch again. Later in the afternoon the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day so we headed up the block to the wine bar where we sat outside and enjoyed the weather. Walked to the beach for the sunset.

We had read in the New York Times about a tiny perched village, Calcata, that was "rescued" by artists and artisans, both Italian and foreign, and we were eager to visit it. The town had been condemned in the 1930's and left to crumble until the late 60's and early 70's when the artists arrived to patch it up and open galleries and shops. Our exchangers had recommended a drive around Lake Bracciano, so we combined the two for a day's outing. Calcata was a bit of a disappointment: the setting is spectacular but the shops were nothing special and the one decent restaurant in town was closed for lunch. We drove back to the Lake and headed for Anguillara Sabazia where we chanced on Il Vecchio Salus. No tourist joint, this! Many locals were there, enjoying a New Year's Eve Day meal. David ordered the pasta con vongole (clams) which was spicy and delicious; I had thought to order a pasta also, but saw an antipasta tray go by and changed to that. It was local cured hams, grilled vegetables (eggplant, peppers, zucchini), and several cheeses: mozzarella, "formaggio stagione" (literally cheese of the season but a kind of pecorino), and ricotta fresca "fatto a casa" (made in house) that was delicious. I spread the ricotta on everything! We enjoyed a local white wine with the meal and then were offered a "crema di limoncello", also "fatto a casa", or a grappa. I loved the limoncello. Buon Ano a Tutti!

When we got home we again walked to the beach to see the last beautiful sunset of the year. There was heavy rain later and we decided against going up to the wine bar as we had planned; we stayed home and read and had wine and fruit tart for supper. The next day it rained all day and was very cold. We had more fruit tart for breakfast and spent the day reading, going over maps, and so on.

Saturday, Jan 2, was still grey but promising so we took the 8:40 bus to Rome and the subway to the Villa Borghese. We walked through the park to the Villa Guilia, the museum dedicated to the Etruscan culture. WE spend a couple of hours visiting the museum with its amazing artifacts - luckily half the museum was closed or we could have been there all day! Afterwards we got on Bus #3, the only one nearby and it took us in strange directions; finally got off and on another that took us to Termini, the Rome train station. We walked to Trattoria Monti, which had been recommended by so many, only to find it closed until Jan. 6. But there was a nice looking alternative just across the street so we went there. Very nice, with white linens, pleasant atmosphere. We started with verdure (vegetables - broccoli, spinach, cabbage), this time steamed and served only with olive oil; outstanding! Then roast lamb for David and pasta, fatto a casa, served simply with parmesan and black pepper. Molto buono. Just made the 3:10 bus back to Fregene.

Sunday, Jan. 3: Another decent day, with the sun actually shining! We headed up to Santa Severa to visit the 14th century castle there. The castle was under the control of the Anguillara family from the 15th century. It is under renovation but there was a gentleman who showed us around the grounds and through the collection of fossils and rocks, mined locally. Then, one of the highlights of our trip, on to Cerveteri to see the Banditaccio Necropolis, with tombs dating back as far as the IX century BC. I was expecting a couple of tombs, but instead we found tumuli (conical earth mounds) stretching on for over a mile. The mounds stand on rock bases, often decorated with moldings, and with stone supported entryways. Inside there is a burial chamber, often with stone funeral "beds", and other chambers or nooks for storing household necessities; the tombs are meant to echo their homes. One tomb still has paintings of household items on the columns, showing the tools of everyday life of the Etruscans. The area is very peaceful and is dotted with graceful Umbria pines. This area was a center of Etruscan culture, named Caere (present-day Cerveteri); it's 'golden age' was the 7th-6th centuries BC. These people traded with cultures as far away as Egypt, Phoenicia, and Syria; their ports were by Santa Severa.

Monday, Jan. 4: My dear friend (college roommate) Barbara Myers and her daughter Melissa were to be in Rome for a week; they arrived on Sunday and today we went in to the city to meet up with them. We sat in the bar opposite the Spanish Steps and watched for them; when we spotted them, I raced down and brought them inside, out of the rain (again!) and cold. We enjoyed a few cappucini and by 11:30 the rain had stopped. We went out to find the free walking tour to the Forum and Colisseum, which we all enjoyed. Then lunch. It was getting late so David and I headed to the Metro to catch our bus but we knew we would be too late for the one we wanted. We stopped in at St. John Lateran, one of David's favorite churches in Rome, and then to the Metro. Got out at our station but the next bus had already left - we had the times wrong! Had to wait more then another hour for the next. Home late and tired.

We met up again with Barbara and Melissa on Friday to celebrate Barbara's birthday. This time we took the train into the city and a cab to the Hassler Hotel where we all met in the beautiful, dark wood paneled bar for a glass of prosecco. Very nice. Then on to Trattoria Monti where we had lunch. David and Melissa were very happy with their meals but Barbara and I were not. For a place recommended by Fred Plotkin and in the NYTimes, and even by friends Bruce and Roxanne, we were expecting something excellent. But so many things were deep fried - even my lamb chops, even the artichokes! - that is was disappointing. Even the radicchio flan and the parmesan flan (they are known for their flans) I found to be too rich; nicely flavored but too much of a good thing. I couldn't even finish mine, which is very unusal for me. Dessert of amaretto ice cream with decadent chocolate sauce almost made up for everything else.

David and I drove one day up to Fiano Romano, north of Rome, to search for the Roman ruins at Lucus (meaning 'sacred wood') Feroniae which we finally found. There's a small museum of the recovered artifacts and an overgrown area of the exposed village. There must be dozens if not hundreds of these places around Italy where there isn't enough money to continue to dig and not enough importance to draw a large audience; but there were two people "manning" the museum! Afterwards we drove across the countryside to Morlupo where we found a very nice restaurant Il Campanaccio - a little off-putting as it is right next to a gas station, but inside it is very attractive with nice white linens, beamed ceilings, and walls hung with copper and brass kitchen implements. For an entry David ordered the pasta with peas and sausage; I had the brasaole with bitter greens and parmesan. Then David had the branzini (fish) and I had veal scalloppini with wine, each with a side order of artichoke (carciofi), prepared in a way we'd never seen: we each had one whole one that looked like a sunflower, roasted to a dark brown with crisp outer leaves. Excellent! For dessert we shared a "millefeuille", which turned out to be three flaky biscuits layered with vanilla cream, and drizzled with dark honey. A wonderful meal!

We ended up heading home a day early, on Saturday, Jan. 9. We'd had enough of the cold and rain, David had come down with a cold, and we were tired. Not that the weather was any better in Nice - it was even colder! The drive home was long (8 hours) through at times heavy rains and very dark grey skies. A long day. It's good to be home!