Impressions of Italy: Naples, Amalfi Coast, Capri, Florence
By Anita Lum
Posted On August 30, 2020
We planned to stay in Naples and make day trips to the Amalfi Coast and the ruins at Pompei so off we went. We boarded an afternoon Italo train from Rome to Naples on Thursday. From the main train station, we hopped on the Metro to the Vomero area. Our stop was at Piazza Van Vitelli and from there, our B&B, Chez Anna (awesome place), was a short walk. That evening we met friends for drinks and then walked over to Trattoria Van Vitelli for dinner where they were proud to introduce us to some delicious Napolitan pizzas.
For Friday’s adventure, we booked a trip to Amalfi Coast with Naples Private Driver. We could have rented a car but having a driver familiar with those roads was a big plus. Fulvio Sergio picked us up at 8:15AM from our B&B in a very roomy and clean Mercedes Benz van. Our first stop was the charming town of Ravello where we had a few pastries (including a canolli of course!) and coffee for breakfast. We continued our drive along the beautiful coastline to Amalfi where we meandered around town and purchased a few ceramic souvenirs. Enroute to our planned lunch stop in Sorrento, we drove through Praiano and also made a brief photo op stop in Positano. By this time of morning, the fog had lifted and the views of the coastline were breathtaking. Sorrento is the only city in that area that can be reached by train – all others are only accessible along the coast, by car.
For lunch, Sergio had suggested Ristorante Donna Sofia but it was closed (it seemed many folks were taking their normal August vacation time earlier to escape the coronavirus situation). So, instead, he took us to Ristorante Tasso – you’ll know you’re at the right place if you’re greeted by these “interesting” ceramic donkeys. :)
The staff probably outnumbered us 1:4; it was clear they were bored. Aside from one other group, we were the only patrons in this restaurant. The service and the food were superb. We were told that normally there was a wait, even for lunch. The devastating economic effects of the coronavirus scare were becoming more and more evident on the faces of the locals.
After we were dropped off back in Vomero we again met up with our friends, Marina and Amadeo, for dinner. It seemed every day there was a new regulation that went into effect; this evening we witnessed the staff all wearing gloves. We also heard from Marina, a schoolteacher, that school was going to be closed for two weeks, starting Monday. She had already been working at the school preparing for an online-only presence for the foreseeable future.
On Saturday morning, we walked from Chez Anna to Piazza Van Vitelli and grabbed some coffees and pastries for breakfast. Marina and Amadeo met us at the newsstand in the piazza a short while later and we were off for a day, exploring Naples. We walked, mostly, but also took a few hops on the Metro.
My friend, Dalita, was not going to let us leave Naples without a ride on the Funicolare Montesanto so Amadeo made sure that this was worked into our private walking tour. We visited Castel Nuovo, Castel Sant’Elmo, and the Royal Palace, finally stopping at the Gambrinus storico Gran Caffe for a light lunch. This beautiful café has been around since 1860.
Marina and Amadeo wanted to take us to dinner to Pizzola in the town of Pozzuoli – this restaurant’s specialty is pizza dough bowls filled with seafood. Since the town of Pozzuoli was a bit inconvenient to access by public transportation, our hosts transported us in their two cars. Pizzola did not disappoint. Driving through the town was a bit odorous though – reminiscent of Rotorua with that pungent scent of sulfur escaping from the volcano steam.
Bright and early on Sunday morning, Amadeo picked us up and drove us to Pompeii. The plan was for us to spend the day there at the ruins and then catch the train back into Naples. As we approached the entry, we noticed a tour bus with a large group of teens standing around. There were also a few other folks there that were waiting to get in as well but then we suddenly witnessed the army posting signs informing of the closure due to the coronavirus. Of course, we were disappointed but not nearly as much, I’m sure, as the folks that had arrived by tour bus. Especially since our friend was driving us, we had the luxury of making a spur of the moment decision and we did: we opted for a day trip to Capri. Before we left Pompei, we walked through the town a bit, stopping at one of the famous churches, Pontificio Santuario della Beata Vergine del Santo Rosario di Pompei. Once we had confirmed that ferries were still running to Capri, Amadeo immediately drove us back down the mountain, to the Naples port. It was especially convenient that he happened to have a special pass for port entry due to his job. We didn’t have much of a wait for our ferry either. While there, we heard the large ship we could see in port had passengers on board that were all under quarantined due to coronavirus. The concern for this virus was growing quickly; when we boarded the ferry we saw that they had done their best to rope off sections of seats so that there would be at least a meter of distance from the next person. However, this social distancing exercise didn’t seem to apply when getting on or off the boat. It also didn’t stop people from smoking their cigarettes while in line to disembark – it didn’t seem to register with these folks that this virus affects the respiratory system. To say the least, rules regarding the coronavirus situation seemed to be evolving and changing by the hour and there was a whole lot of confusion about everything.
How can one adequately describe Capri? The landscapes and seascapes are just spectacular! We could not have asked for a more beautiful day. It was cool and sunny and clear. We found the ticket booth for Laser Capri open so we booked a one-hour, around-the-island boat excursion. With fewer vendors and less time slots open due to the COVID-19 situation, when we arrived at the dock, we found the boat to be quite crowded. Definitely no adherence of the one-meter distancing regulation here. Unbelievably, I managed to capture at least a good few photos even on that crowded little boat.
For our last night in Naples on Sunday, we decided to return to Trattoria Van Vitelli to share a meal with Marina and Amadeo and say our goodbyes.
We left Naples on an Italo train at 2:20pm on Monday, headed for Florence; we arrived three hours later. A short light rail ride took us to the main cross street where the AC Hotel Firenze (a Marriott property) was located. Unfortunately, the coronavirus situation was not improving and by this time, we found that there were many more restaurants closed for business. The hotel staff recommended at least three places for dinner but the only one we found open was Vecchio Carlino – a short walk from the hotel. Without much of a choice, we walked there for dinner and it was truly special to be the only patrons in the restaurant – we enjoyed every dish as well as the red wines from this beautiful region.
Two museums, the Galleria degli Uffizi and Galleria dell’ Accademia were on the agenda for Tuesday. But, by the time we were having our breakfast at the hotel, we had already learned that all museums in the country had been shut down by a government order. We set out on a long walk and headed out in the direction of the museums nevertheless. When we arrived at the Piazza della Signoria, there were a handful of visitors wandering around just like we were. At least there we were able to see the replica of Michaelangelo’s statue of David and a fountain depicting Neptune. This square was the center of the old Florentine Republic. The ticket office for the museums faces the square but it was not open so we could not even request a refund in person – something to be dealt with later. After walking around for some time, we opted to stop for some drinks and a snack at one of the few open-air cafes open at the piazza. From there, we took the long walk back to the hotel and at this point, all restaurants in Florence had closed so our only option was to have dinner at the hotel. As it turned out, it was pretty impressive. After all, no one travels to Italy to purposely eat at a hotel restaurant but in light of the circumstances, we were very grateful. The chef prepared some wonderful meals for us. By this time there was only one other couple beside us in the 118-room hotel.
This evening we were extremely disappointed to learn that our tour was cancelled for Wednesday, March 11th. We had booked a Walks of Italy Tuscany Tour that included walking and driving through Siena, San Gimignano and the Chianti wine region and lunch at a local vineyard. With tours, restaurants, museums being shut down, we made the decision to cut our trip short and head back to Rome. No Cinque Terre for us this time around! We spent the evening on long holds with Delta attempting to re-book our flights from Rome back to the US. Eventually we were able to confirm reservations out of Rome on the 13th, cutting our time in Italy by four days.
Wednesday morning we made our way back to the train station and headed for Rome. Concerned about the restaurant closures, we opted to avoid booking an AirBnB and focused on finding a place that would have amenities for our last day in Rome. We settled on Le Méridien Visconti Rome. It worked out well for us. After a walk around town, on our way back to the hotel, we came across the Casaprati restaurant. They were actually closing down for lunch (3PM) but allowed us in. Good thing for us because it was the last time restaurants would be open in Italy while we were there. We later learned that as it turned out, they remained closed for over two months – opening back up on the 18th of May. The staff and food as Casaprati were excellent. We will be back!
Thursday, March 12th was our last full day in Italy. With no place to eat or drink outside of the hotel, the only thing left to do was to walk. We were informed by the hotel front desk folks that we had to carry around a paper indicating where we were staying and identifying ourselves. I couldn’t help but to think of Nazi-occupied Germany when she told us this, I just couldn’t. Anyway, she helped us fill out the forms and we started out on our very long walk after breakfast.
First, we headed to see the Spanish Steps which we had missed in our first few days in Rome. There were only a handful of tourists around but no one was allowed to actually approach the steps – so we were able to actually see this iconic site unobstructed as well. We couldn’t stay long because the Army and the police (by this time occupying all major tourist areas) started to shoo visitors and locals away. Except for the media – they were everywhere.
There were no strict stay at home orders yet but law enforcement and military folks were out on every street to suppress crowds from gathering. We also witnessed at least one person with a clipboard in hand – presumably a government employee – checking to see if restaurants were indeed closed. After leaving the Steps, we roamed through town, walking over 1 ½ miles to St. Peter’s Square where we again witnessed the army and police shooing away folks. Another few miles’ walk and we were back at the hotel to prepare for an early morning departure.
We spent a great evening together in the hotel restaurant enjoying drinks and a wonderful meal and also, great conversations with our doting hotel staff. With 242 rooms and with us only occupying two rooms, the 18 persons on staff were all going to be off work for a while due to coronavirus. We were told that after our driver picked us up at 6AM for the trip to the airport, the hotel would be shut down for an undisclosed amount of time.
Check in at the airport was a little chaotic with most people seemingly very agitated and confused – both travelers and staff alike. Lines, even that early in the morning were long and crowded; and no one was abiding by the one-meter distancing recommendation. Eventually, we boarded the first leg of our flight home, an Alitalia flight to Amsterdam. Although boarding was congested, once seated, they separated even folks traveling together. They had my husband and myself move one row away from our friends who we were traveling with. Then they had us each separate from each other by one seat. But then, just before the plane doors closed, nonsensically, they sat a stranger right behind us.
Upon arrival in Amsterdam, they asked us if we had been in China. We said, “no, just Italy” and they waved us on. Once in the gate area, there was a woman waiting for the same flight as we were – she was coughing non-stop. It seemed odd that she was permitted to board the flight in that condition. When we arrived at our layover in Minneapolis, they announced no one could leave the plane because CDC would be boarding. We all thought, “here we go…” but, surprisingly, CDC personnel walked on board and went straight to the back of the plane and escorted the coughing woman and a younger female, possibly her daughter, off the plane. Once they were whisked away, we were allowed to deplane. Now on US soil, no one at Customs asked us where we had been and simply waived us through. When we arrived home we contacted our physician to make arrangements for testing but we were refused because we had no symptoms. All the while the media coverage had our families and friends convinced we would be forcibly quarantined for two weeks and tested. We weren’t; we just hunkered down at home like everyone else. Restaurant closures and social distancing rules now seemed to be changing constantly at home but we had already experienced this while in Europe so it all felt a little deja vu-ish.
Our plans to visit museums in Florence, explore the wine country and Cinque Terre had fallen apart but we were flexible and made the most of the days that we did have and truly enjoyed ourselves. We felt thankful to have visited so many famous sites with so few other visitors around and to return in good health. We’re all anxiously awaiting “Italy Part 2”. Arrivederci Italia!