La Dolce Vita
A dream vacation in Italy means wine, wellness and wandering its historic sites
There are times when seeing a sign with your name held high in a rushing crowd is pure relief. That’s the case when we disembark from a train arriving into the pandemonium of Naples Central Station.
My mother, who is in her 70s, and I are on another leg of her month-long dream trip, en route to southern Italy’s scenic Amalfi Coast. For years, she heard rave reviews about the destination from friends who had been. They talked about the balmy weather, the Roman ruins, the Renaissance art and designer fashions, lively piazzas, lauded cuisine and exceptional wines served by flirty tuxedo-clad waiters, along with stunning beaches and pampering spas.
Trying to stick together, we pushed through crowds toward Cosimo, the tall, sign-wielding chauffeur arranged by our hotel in Positano for the private 1.5-hour transfer.
Soon, the forested slopes and flat caldera of Mount Vesuvius looms, the volcanic monster that smothered Pompeii. As the road begins to climb the Sorrentine Peninsula, views of the coastline along the Gulf of Naples and its craggy islands unfold, while sunbeams danced off the Tyrrhenian Sea flecked with boats. At higher elevations, fuchsia bougainvillea tumbles over centuries-old rock walls, and the aroma of luscious lemons drifts from roadside groves.
Crossing over the Lattari, the peninsula’s mountainous backbone, we descend via SS163. The skinny highway sandwiched between forested slopes and deep blue sea weaves around hair-raising bends to link to the 13 towns comprising the Amalfi Coast. It is one of the world’s most scenic coastal roads.
Rounding a tight hairpin, we gasp. Rising from the base of the mountain opposite is Positano, clinging to the vertical limestone cliffs. Once a humble fishing village, today celebrities roam its cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets.
Turn by turn, we make our way downhill until, at last, the road winds its way to a car park, where a bellman awaits. Wheeling our bags, he expertly helps us navigate our continued descent over a tight, twisting walkway. It’s covered with trellises draped in lilac wisteria and tangled green ivy, and lined with cafés and chic boutiques.
We enjoy cocktails at sunset under rustling palm trees and citrus boughs heavy with tangy fruit in courtyards near the Piazzetta dei Mulini in the town’s centre. We dine on traditional Campanian cuisine like Neapolitan pizza at cliffside eateries, reached by steep, carb-burning steps. Later, we sip local white wines or chilled limoncello, the region’s zesty lemon liqueur, on our tranquil balcony overlooking the yellow, green and blue majolica-tiled dome of the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, one of Positano’s oldest landmarks. Music wafts from restaurant balconies and lights flicker like fireflies from buildings perched on the cliff.
After lovely days exploring Amalfi, we board a train and head north. Tasty Tuscany awaits. When a good-looking man knocks on the door of Villa Gaia, a restored country estate on a Seggiano hillside nestled in the midst of organic olive groves, Sangiovese vineyards and medieval forests, mom and I exchange delighted smiles.
With a lopsided grin and a flick of his long bangs, the aptly named Romeo introduces himself as our guide for an immersion into Tuscany’s renowned food and wine. As we drive along sun-dappled country roads, the car becomes our classroom.
First, our companion, also a chef and sommelier, teaches us about the four main types of Tuscan olives and why they produce the best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) before moving on to lessons on wine.
Italians produce more varieties than anywhere, we learn. Tuscany is famous for reds including Chianti, Sangiovese and super Tuscans. Our heads abuzz, we are eager to apply our new knowledge to a taste test. Pulling into the farmyard of small, family-owned La Fornace Winery, we are greeted by Fabio Giannetti, a third-generation winemaker. After a tour of the flower bedecked, 4.5-hectare Sangiovese vineyards and bountiful vegetable garden, the cellar beckons, dominated by a hefty wooden dining table. La Fornace’s wines – including Brunello di Montalcino, the region’s specialty – are lined up ready for tasting. They accompany la cucina povera toscana, a typical rustic luncheon, featuring local products – a frittata, white Tuscan cannellini beans, grilled eggplant, bruschetta, salty Pecorino di Pienza (sheep cheese), bresaola (air-dried beef made with Tuscan white Chianina cattle), salami and prosciutto, drizzled with the farm’s EVOO. Akin to dining in a friend’s home, we immensely enjoy the conviviality, the vittles and the vino.
After overindulging, we take a wellness break at a thermal spa resort nearby in the Val d’Orcia, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its iconic Renaissance landscape of undulating conical hills dissected by rows of slim cypress trees. Luxuriating in healing, mineral-rich springs fed by dormant volcano Monte Amiata, we don’t ever want to leave. But a steam grotto dripping with stalactites and stalagmites and a rejuvenating facial with the juicy pulp of ripe Tuscan grapes await. It’s the perfect ending to our idyllic Italian getaway.