Italy


I moved from Italy to West Virginia in 2004.  Many, many people assumed that I would have a huge culture shock problem.  They didn’t realize that West Virginia was far more like Italy than most people think.  In fact, in every major way, Italy and West Virginia were similar.  They didn’t look alike, that was true.  West Virginia is range after range of low, rolling mountains.  Italy has a ridge of mountains down the center of the “boot,” volcanoes in southern Italy and Sicily, a forbidding range in Sardegna, and the striking, spiky Dolomites in the north.  They’re mountains, though, and they help define Italy’s amazing variations in cuisine, culture and tradition.

 Here’s the comparision I promised a few days ago.

West Virginia

Italy

Lots of small towns connected by winding roads

Lots of small towns connected by winding roads

Most residents of small towns are related, at least distantly

Many residents of small towns are related, at least distantly

Everyone knows what you’re up to

Duh

Everyone knows your plans, often before you do

See above

Gorgeous mountain scenery – plan a visit to Seneca Rocks and find out for yourself

Gorgeous mountain scenery – been to Trentino/Alto Adige lately?

Geocaching is a big deal

There is a geocache in the Pompeii excavations, and several other caches are stashed around the countryside

Mountains define the state

Italy is far more mountainous than you would expect; the entire center of the country is a mountain range, and then there’s Vesuvio and the Dolomites up north

 When I explained my Italian experiences to my new West Virginia neighbors, they understood.  Some of the things I truly loved about Italy – the close family ties, the small towns with their unique traditions, and their fierce pride in their heritage – really resonate with West Virginia’s mountaineers as well.  I learned as much from my two years in West Virginia as I learned the previous two years in southern Italy.  It’s all to the good.  I grew up near the mountains of southern California, and I gloried in every day near Il Redentore in Lazio and in every sunrise and echo of Evening Colors on our base in West Virginia.  Time in the mountains is always time well spent.

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Returning once again to searches that bring readers to this blog, I’ve noticed that many people are looking for information about California (Route 1) and Italy (mountains, ancient Rome).  Since I grew up in one place and lived twice in the other, it’s only natural that they both occupy special places in my heart.  I got to thinking about their similarities, and here are some of my ideas.

California Italy
Mediterranean climate Mediterranean climate
Wine culture (brought from Spain) Wine culture (exported throughout Europe)
Famous highways (Route 1) Famous highways (Via Appia and other Roman roads)
Long history (when you consider the age of the USA) – native culture and Spanish exploration are only the beginning Amazingly long history, well worth reading about.  Documented by Caesar and his colleagues as well as contemporary historians
Volcanoes (fortunately inactive) Volcanoes (active…)
Famous for its automotive culture (traffic, driving habits) Famous for its automotive culture (Ferrari, driving habits)
Friendly people Friendly people
Food from everywhere Distinguished local cuisine
People from everywhere People who can trace ancestry back 2000 years
Huge variety of scenery, from natural wonders to mountains to beaches – try Yosemite, Big Sur, Death Valley Huge variety of scenery, from natural wonders to mountains to beaches – check out the Dolomites, Golfo di Gaeta and the unspoiled hills of Le Marche
Why not visit some day?  There’s more to California than Hollywood and the Golden Gate Bridge. Why not visit some day?  Rome, Venice and Florence are only the beginning.

The two places are more alike than you’d think, and vastly different as well.  It’s a matter of looking into things a bit more carefully, rather than just doing the guidebook glance-over.

Some day in the future I’ll compare Italy and West Virginia.  They, too, are more alike than you’d think.

Keeping up with my running theme of search engine terms that lead folks here…

I lived across the Golfo di Gaeta from the eponymous city (Gaeta) for two years.  Perched high on a hill in Maranola di Formia, I woke up each day to a stunning view of one of Italy’s most beautiful coastal cities.  Gaeta doesn’t have a train station – it used to, but now the station’s site makes a great parking lot for Atratino’s – so it’s off the event horizon for most travel guidebook writers.  Lucky, lucky me.  Two years of living near a charming town that backpackers miss.

There are still plenty of foreign tourists in Gaeta, but they arrive courtesy of the U. S. Navy.  As the Navy draws down its presence there, we’ll eventually get to the point where the only Americans who go to Gaeta are people who were formerly stationed there, travelers who knew people formerly stationed there, or historical die-hards who love religious history and cool Italian church architecture. 

If you’re Catholic, Gaeta has special religious significance, because it was from Gaeta’s Golden Chapel that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed in 1853.  This teaching, which means that Mary, mother of Jesus, was conceived without Original Sin, was accepted and understood to be true by the Church long before the official proclamation date.  Still, it happened in Gaeta.

Another famous Catholic site in Gaeta is harder to find.  It’s Montagna Spaccata (“Split Mountain”) a formation of two high rocks, with a sharp cleft between them, that juts out into the sea.  You can only see this from a boat or by hiking up Monte Orlando to the monastery, which is now run by the missionary order of the P. I. M. E. Fathers.  This international order took over the monastery when the local diocese could no longer support it.  There’s a trail that leads out to the rock formation.

Local legend has it that Montagna Spaccata was formed on Good Friday, as Christ died on the cross.  This is why Monte Orlando is swamped by pilgrims every Easter Monday (“Pasquetta” in Italian), which is a holiday in Italy.  They trek up to the monastery to pay their respects…and kick off official Italian beach season with another type of family journey, later in the day.

Gaeta has a local pride that both typefies Italy and defies classification.  Gaeta’s ancient history ties the city closely to Rome.  Linguistically, the residents might be closer to Naples, but they cling to their status as residents of Lazio (the Italian region that includes Rome) with tenacity and what a non-Italian might call chutzpah.  They may sound like Napolitans, but they aren’t.  Quite.

This, to me, is Italy in microcosm.  Each town, each region, is special, unique and distinct.  When your history dates back over 2500 years, you have a right to local pride.  Gaetani have been fishing and sailing in their gulf for centuries; they’ve passed on family traditions to dozens of generations.  Their beautiful city is well worth a visit, I promise.

Hat tip and grateful thanks: Monsignor Bob Sable, who introduced me to the P. I. M. E. Fathers, their love of Oreo cookies, Gaeta’s history, and Rome’s presepi (Nativity scenes).

Once again I’m having fun reviewing the search terms that bring folks to this blog.  The lamb spiedini thing keeps popping up; guess I’ll have to do some additional research when time permits. 

 Yesterday, someone dropped by the blog, apparently looking for good restaurants in Gaeta, Italy.  I have to be honest; I ate a lot of restaurant meals in Italy (and have the waistline to prove it), but my favorites weren’t in Gaeta.  Nevertheless, there are a few places we ate at pretty regularly, and here they are:

 Calpurnio, in old Gaeta, Vico Castani, 4.  This restaurant is a wonderful summer evening stop because they have dozens of outdoor tables, with shading.  Their pizzas are excellent.  They also serve good seafood pasta.  Their menu looks the same all year ’round, but you may find that some dishes aren’t available because they’re out of season, or because…it’s Italy, and that’s how things work.  All menu items aren’t necessarily available all the time.

Flamingo, in Hotel Flamingo, on the corner of Corso Italia and Via Bologna.  Another great summertime stop.  Excellent pizzas.  You don’t have to be a hotel guest to drop by for a pizza.  Spinning (stationary bike) classes are offered some evenings and contribute loud music to the atmosphere.

Atratino.  Via Atratina, 141.  Atratino serves Gaeta’s best lasagne.  Service is attentive and many waiters speak English.  Quality is uniform, and the staff is accustomed to large groups and families.

Now I’m hungry.

Walk off your dinner!  Get inspired by reading my newest travel Hub, Explore Baltimore’s Waterfront Promenade.

The Via Appia Antica’s no exception.  It leads you into the town of Ciampino, just outside Rome’s G. R. A. (like a beltway).  You can drive through the town or get onto the SS-7 past the airport.

I really like Ciampino Airport; it’s small and friendly, with low-cost, safe parking.  The only drawback is the lack of subway service; you have to take a bus into central Rome if you don’t have a car.  (And, trust me, you don’t want a car in central Rome!)

Once past Ciampino and the onramp to the G. R. A., you’re headed into Rome itself.  If you want to get onto the real Roman road, you’ll need to drive up SS-7 to one of the parking areas in the regional park now dedicated to the Via Appia.

Perhaps the most interesting place to stop is near the catacombs, which were ancient meeting places and burial sites for the earliest Christians.  There are a couple of different catacombs you can visit (one’s currently being restored and is closed), and you can also visit the churches of St. Sebastian and Domine Quo Vadis, where Jesus appeared to Peter.  You could spend a couple of days in this regional park, visiting monuments, exploring footpaths and riding bicycles along the Roman roadway.  The Via Appia Antica is closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, and families come out to hike and bike along Rome’s most famous roadway.

Although the Via Appia originally ended at the Roman Forum, you can’t get to that terminus by car nowadays.  Most people who explore the Via Appia Antica from central Rome out to the countryside begin in or near the Forum’s Palatine Hill, walk down toward the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla, and head out on Via di Porta San Sebastiano to the Via Appia Antica.

I’m planning to head back to the Via Appia Antica on my next trip to southern Italy.  Although I’ve visited some sections of this famous highway many times, I am endlessly fascinated by the history, technology and natural beauty that surrounds the “Regina Viarum.”  (Yes, the Romans called Via Appia the Queen of Roads.)

I confess to being entirely biased when it comes to travel in Italy’s Lazio region.  Not only does my favorite road, Via Appia Antica, run through Lazio, I lived in southern Lazio for two wonderful years. 

Now that my disclaimer’s out of the way, let’s return to the Via Appia (SS-7).  From Minturno, the road veers inland, away from the ancient cobblestoned street, and into the city of Formia.  Just past downtown Formia, Via Appia passes the tomb of Cicero, ancient Rome’s most famous orator, and heads inland toward Itri.  If you slow down and pay attention, you’ll notice a couple of stone markers along the SS-7.  These are real Roman milestones, built when the Roman soldiers made the road.

Off to the left of the modern paved street, a few stretches of Via Appia Antica’s cobblestoned surface parallel the SS-7.  You can walk along these old roadways, provided you can find a safe place to pull your car off the road.

Itri, where most Gaeta olives are grown, makes a great lunch stop.  Itri’s 9th-century castle perches on the side of the steep valley wall, and the small town below boasts some good restaurants and pizzerias.

Fondi, the next town you’ll pass on the Via Appia Antica, is another interesting town.  Fondi’s 14th-century castle is more substantial (OK, it’s downright bulky) than Itri’s.  Fondi’s weekly market is popular with shoppers from all the neighboring towns.

Terracina is one of my favorite Italian cities.  In ancient times, travelers complained about the incredible traffic jams.  People passing through Terracina usually stopped at the temple of Jupiter Anxur on the hill overlooking the city and sea, and the roadway leading to the summit was, and is, quite steep.  Eventually, things got so bad that the locals built history’s first recorded bypass around the base of the hill.

Nowadays, the Via Appia and Via Flacca (SS-148) converge and then split in Terracina.  From here, Via Appia becomes the straight, flat road of my imaginings.  In fact, it becomes pretty boring.

Via Appia Antica gets interesting again near Albano.  Here, in the hills outside of Rome, lies Lago di Albano (“Lake Albano) and Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of Catholic Popes since the late 1500’s.  It’s easy to see why.  The lake’s surface is incredibly blue, and the local towns sell delicious porchetta (roast pork) in restaurants and from roadside stands.

Via Appia heads downhill from here toward Ciampino Airport.  I’ll write more about Rome and the Via Appia Antica next time.

…besides the one I’m driving on, that is!

In my opinion, Italy’s Via Appia Antica (the ancient Appian Way) wins, hands down.  I used to live at the end of this famous road, in the city of Brindisi.  There, an ancient column marks the end of the first of Rome’s famous roadways.  I love standing next to that column and thinking about Octavian landing at Brindisi, his first Italian stop on the road to Rome, as he raced home to claim his inheritance from his assassinated great-uncle, Julius Caesar.

View from Brindisi's Via Appia column

With my family, I’ve traveled most of the Via Appia Antica – now replaced by the SS-7 paved road – by car.  I was working on a Girl Scout special interest patch about the Via Appia and ancient Roman life, and decided the best way to get to know the road was to experience every centimeter of it. 

I had no idea what I was getting into.  I envisioned a straight, flat road, covering the historic paths once walked by the Roman legions.  Roman soldiers built the Via Appia as they marched; they brought along tools, surveying equipment and plenty of manpower.  They quarried their materials locally.  You’d think they would take the most direct route from Rome to the Adriatic.

My analysis failed to include the mountains that run down the center of Italy.  They’re quite an obstacle, and the Via Appia Antica twists up and down their slopes.  I gained a new appreciation for those legionnaires as we trundled up hills and through narrow valleys.

The Via Appia Antica winds through Matera, where people lived in cave homes until just a few decades ago, better known now as the place Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ.  Past Matera, you travel through endless fields and up into the mountain city of Potenza, Basilicata’s regional capital. 

To me, the most fascinating part of any Italian journey is contemplating just how a group of people decided to build in a particular place.  Along the Via Appia, you can find towns stuck up against the sides of bleak mountains as well as villages in heat-blasted plains.  You’ll see regional parks with cool, dark forests and modern cities like Avellino.

One must-see stop along the Via Appia is Benevento.  This city boasts an ancient Roman arch, built by the emperor Trajan, and a theater that has been used for performances since the days of Hadrian.  Weary travelers will enjoy the gelato sold near the arch…it’s delicious.

Beyond Benevento, the road snakes past several towns and dumps you into Caserta.  If you watched Star Wars: Episode I, you’ve seen Caserta’s royal palace; George Lucas used it as Queen Amidala’s stately residence.  The Via Appia then passes through Capua, which looks quite run down but is conveniently near the ancient town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, where you can visit the ruins of a Roman amphitheater.

The road takes you over yet another mountain range and down toward the sea.  Just as you cross into the Lazio region, you’ll pass the town of Minturno.  Minturno’s worth a stop, because you can see part of the real Via Appia Antica (the ancient cobblestoned road) in the archaeological dig area near the sea. 

Next time, I’ll take you up through Lazio and to the Eternal City itself.