Friday, April 26, 2013

Suitcase Stories: On road trips, Italy, and one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten…

So in the spirit of preparing for a long period of travel and adventure, I’ve decided to share a handful of travel stories from past trips afar… little tidbits that over time have come to impact both how I travel and how I view the “art of exploration”, if you will.  I’m sure a few themes will present themselves… road trips, incredible strangers, phenomenal food, and doing things on a whim.  And perhaps they’ll be a bit entertaining as well.  Enjoy J


It was after an international ultimate frisbee tournament in Rimini, Italy, called Paganello, that I found myself in a tiny (yet spacious) rental car with three other Americans and a Brit, en route to the Amalfi Coast.  Our only rule of the trip:  we can’t decide where we’re going until we get in the car.  This trip would prove the basis for all future road trips, pretty much in life. 

After setting out from Siena one evening, we knew we wanted to venture towards Pompeii, but we weren’t exactly sure where to stay the night.  Our guidebooks indicated that Pompeii can be a bit… skeazy… at night.  So, we wouldn’t stay there.  Perhaps Naples?  Same conclusion.  We consulted our maps and spotted a “medium sized dot” in between Naples and Pompeii.  Surely that would be okay! 

A highway stop along the Amalfi Coast a bit further south from where this story took place, circa 2005.

We pulled off the highway around that magical hour in Italy (around 8pm) when all the shops are closed but no one has gone out to dinner yet, everything was quiet, dark, and rainy.  We drove through the streets searching for a place to stay, and finally happened upon a restaurant that appeared to be open.  We went in to enquire about nearby hotels, using broken Italian and hand gestures to communicate with the waitstaff in the empty restaurant. 

 “You have hunger?” …well, yes, yes we do.  “Buffet?”  I mean, sure, why not.  We sat down and almost immediately began receiving platters of food.  The descriptions were lost on us – we had no idea what we were eating, but it all tasted incredible.  Antipastis, pasta, meat, fish, all served family style.   House wine served in unmarked, reused green glass bottles.  When we were too stuffed to eat anymore, a chilled bottle of limoncello for the table. 

By the time the limoncello was served, the restaurant was packed with locals.  Men in suits, speaking loudly, gesturing wildly, enjoying their multi course meals.  Through more gestures, broken English and even more broken Italian, and a roughly drawn map on the back of a napkin, the staff directed us to an inn around the corner, above a local pizzeria.  We paid our bill (the cheapest of the entire trip), and graciously thanked our hosts for the amazing evening. 

The entire group after the most incredible meal in all of Italy.
 Our experience didn’t end there… we arrived at the pizzeria / hotel with bottles of wine and playing cards in hand – sure, rooms are available… eh, just pay in the morning when you leave, no worries… of course you can play poker in the restaurant and drink your own bottles of wine.  We were amazed at the welcoming spirit of this tiny town.

After a night of wine and poker lessons, we awoke to discover the beauty of the place we had arrived at the night before.  Right at the base of a mountain, a winding, scenic drive away from Pompeii.  A perfect breakfast of baked goods and the richest molten hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted capped off the incredible experience of the little town on the side of the road… en route to Pompeii.

Outside the pizzeria / pensione the next morning.

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