Apes and flying farmers may face a steep hurdle

We met our first Ape at Ravello, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast – one of the most glorious parts of our planet

While exploring a hillside pathway – barely wide enough for two people – we were startled by a car horn.

The honking came from an Ape (roughly prounced ‘A – Pee’) a tiny vehicle used to haul lemons, chestnuts and vegetables from some terraced farms along the steep valleys above the Amalfi coastline.

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This three-wheeled vehicle complements mules and the farmers themselves – known as ‘contadini volanti’, or the ‘flying farmers’, who climb the steep heights to visit the groves.  

However, locals sadly pointed out that the efficiency of the Apes, mules and farmers is gradually proving no match for competition from cheaper, less aromatic lemons from abroad.  

For some years, this competition has been driving prices down and applying pressure to Amalfi’s vertical farmers to abandon terraces previously cultivated for generations.

Naturally, it’s feared that this could lead to the collapse of dry stone walls and an increase is erosion along a stunning coastline famous for its pastel-coloured villages sitting in narrow, V-shaped valleys.

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The dry stone walls were built stone-by-stone by the ancestors of today’s farmers who went on to plant and tend for many thousands of lemon trees.

However, some local residents now fear that, if maintenance is reduced, the walls may not last.

Add the inevitable summer bushfires in the Lattari Mountains, some clear-felling of land and the ageing of the remaining lemon farmers – and you have further problems for the terrace walls that have been a bulwark against erosion for centuries. 

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In September 2010, a fatal mudslide hit the enchanting Amalfi Coast village of Atrani.

In the aftermath, an early warning escape route was  established through the tangle of cobblestone lanes and streets in the ancient village.

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As we wandered through this unbelievably beautiful area on our most recent visit, we noted the ‘Escape route’ signs and the pedestrian-only routes to the sea through huge arches.

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There’s also talk of ground sensors and remote-controlled cameras in the hills.

The Amalfi Coast is one of the ‘must-see’ destinations of the world and, hopefully, the possibility of stone walls ever substantially falling into disrepair may remain just that – only a possibility.

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However, if possible, we can all probably help ward off problems by seeking out bright-yellow Amalfi lemons for our shopping basket.

Note: the writer was flown to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

Amalfi Coast Italy

Review: La Torricella Hotel, Poppi, Tuscany

Tuscany: the very name brings visions of Italian medieval hilltop towns; stunning cities; Renaissance architecture; great wine, food, beaches and art.

Over the years, we’ve enjoyed the splendours of Florence, Siena, Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano, so our latest visit took us instead to the scenic Casentino Valley.

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And there – about 25 miles east of Florence – we were taken to the La Torricella Hotel, overlooking the medieval hamlet of Poppi and the River Arno.

Here’s our independent review of the hotel and its suitability for people of all ages and fitness levels:

Q: Was the booking process simple and problem free?

A: Yes. For once, we didn’t book this accommodation online. Instead, we simply drove up to the hotel and asked if there were vacancies.

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Q: Does the La Torricella have street appeal?

A: Oh yes!!!. The farmhouse-style hotel sits high on a hill looking directly at Poppi castle and other ancient buildings.

La Torricella is surrounded by the National Park of Casentino Forest and everywhere you look is green and lush countryside.

Q: How did check-in go?

A: Smoothly. Reception staff at the La Torricella were efficient, professional and friendly. They spoke perfect English and were well presented.

Q: How was accessibility?

A: We drove right up to the free parking area, walked several paces to the main entrance of the La Torricella. The foyer was typically Tuscan,  inviting and modern – and the lift was nearby. We had no problems wheeling our bags.

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Our room was on the first floor and we caught the lift without a problem.

The hotel lifts had adequate space and the corridors were wide enough. The key to our room worked perfectly and was simple to operate.

Q: How was the room?

A: The entire hotel is built in the style of a traditional Tuscan farmhouse, with maximum use of stones, terracotta tiles, wood and wrought iron.

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Our room was classically furnished, with wooden beams on the ceiling, a queen-sized bed; modern tiled bathroom with a shower; plenty of wardrobes; and a desk.

The room was spotlessly clean.

There was also complimentary high speed wifi that worked well.

Q: Was the bed comfortable?

A: Extremely. The La Torricella’s country setting means the area is particularly quiet – and we slept well.

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Q: Were other facilities adequate?

A: Although we didn’t use them, there was a flat-screen TV; cable radio; telephone and a minibar.

Q: Did the room have adequate charging points?

A: The La Torricella room boasted several charging points and we were able to keep our seven devices operating with the use of our multi-cable charger.

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Q: Was the bathroom to the expected standard?

A: There was an en-suite bathroom with modern shower and fluffy towels.

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Q: Did you get breakfast?

A: Breakfast was included in the room rate. The room was easy to find and breakfast at the La Torricella was extensive and included local cakes.

Q: Were there any problems with the hotel?

A: No. the La Torricella provides comfortable accommodation at an attractive price in a beautiful Tuscan setting.

Age-Friendliness Rating

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8/10. The Casentino Valley is a glorious part of Tuscany away from the traditional tourist trail.

And, the La Torricella is an ideal base to explore the walled fortress hamlet of Poppi, with its castle that towers over the countryside.

Although we believe it is possible to take a train from Rome to Arezzo, and then a connection to Poppi, the remote location means that the La Torricella is probably best visited by car.

Once at the hotel, it is a simple matter to use use the reception, rooms and facilities. There are few steps; our room was spacious; and the bathroom was accessible to all. The breakfast room was clearly marked and the floor was generally level.

In our experience, the La Torricella is suitable for visitors of any age. It is a small(ish) family-run hotel with 21 rooms.

The hotel is situated on the top of a hill which offers the visitor a wonderful view of Poppi castle and surrounding medieval buildings.

Featured hotels Italian hotels travel Tuscany

A gem in an authentic Italian mountain hamlet

“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life” – Anna Akhmatova

Choosing a favourite part of Italy is almost impossible

We’ve visited the northern lakes of Lombardy; the north-eastern glories of Venice; awesome Tuscany and Florence; the southern Amalfi Coast; the Italian Riviera; the Isle of Capri; the Emila-Romagna region of Northern Italy; ancient Rome and the Vatican City – to name just a few.

Each is a treasure in its own right.

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Courtyard view

However, one of our favourites is Tramonti, a collection of 13 hamlets scattered among the rugged hills above the Amalfi Coast.

These hamlets largely retain a traditional Italian way of life. Here you’ll find vineyards, chestnut woods, olive trees, grazing sheep and scented lemon groves, set in a stunning landscape just eight kilometers from the sea.

Tramonti’s communities offer a buffer from the crowded Amalfi Coast and a glimpse of rural life just a short distance from hectic tourist resorts.

Regional products like Limonchello, the area’s famous liqueur; home-made cheeses, jams and pastries and other specialty foods are still produced there.

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Church Paterno Sant’Arcangelo

In one of the hilltop hamlets, we were introduced to Casa Cavo 15, a 200-year-old olive farm.

Perched on a steep mountainside, this charming house – the word Casa means ‘at home’ in Italian – is an ideal way to immerse yourself in traditional atmosphere largely untouched by today’s mass tourism.

We love the authentic Italian experience – and now you can too.

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Traditional terraced Italian gardens

Casa Cavo 15 is located in Paterno Sant’Arcangelo, a quiet and unpretentious hamlet, where gardens stagger up the hillsides, bursting with vegetables and citrus trees.

Traditional in every sense of the word, Paterno Sant’Archangelo is like a step back in time, with a clutch of narrow streets, the scent of flowers and plants and terraced hillsides.

And all around is the breath-taking majesty of the Lattari Mountains.

There is a small grocery shop in the hamlet – and only seven kilometres away through the mountains is the coastal town of Maiori with its retail facilities.

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Authentic Italian lifestyle

Casa Cavo 15 has been renovated to provide you with today’s conveniences.

On the top floor, the house has two standard double bedrooms – one with air conditioning – and a third room where mattresses can be placed on the floor if needed.

The authentic Italian feel continues down the stone steps to the ground floor where there is a big dining kitchen with an old fireplace and a table capable of seating about 12 people.

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The kitchen

Modern facilities to allow self-sufficiency include a cooker, oven, kettle, dishwasher, crockery and cutlery, utensils, drying rack and washing machine.

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The library

We were able to can relax on the sofa and watch TV, browse the Internet on the free wifi or take in the panoramic mountain views from the cosy courtyard under its spreading lemon trees.

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Relaxing and rustic courtyard

This courtyard is a wonderful space; shady and comfortable with an awe-inspiring view over the hamlet, gardens and across the mountains.

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Stunning mountain view

Studio flat

As an added attraction, the top floor of Casa Cavo 15 can be configured to offer a self-contained studio flat, with its own entrance from the garden; a kitchenette; bathroom and incorporating one of the bedrooms.

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A double bed

Behind the house, there are sweeping terraced areas and walking trails where you can either explore or just relax beneath the trees.

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Second room with a double bed

Casa Cavo 15’s location in a traditional mountain hamlet with narrow streets means that only tiny vehicles can drive to the front door.

Most guests park on the ancient street and then walk about 50 metres – including a section of very steep stone steps. For this reason, there is no real disabled access.

Exploring the mountain hamlets and coastal resorts requires a car. For example, the nearest supermarket is on the coast at Maiori, where there are also restaurants, beaches, playgrounds and other shops.

Maiori has been a coastal resort since ancient Roman times and boasts the longest stretch of beach on the Amalfi Coast

The house is also about 50 kilometres from the city of Naples and its airport.

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Room with a view ….. but most have!

Annette, the delightful Danish owner of Casa Cavo 15, lives only about 30 minutes from the house and couldn’t have been more helpful.

With her guidance, we were able to feel part of the community when we attended celebrations to mark the Feast Day of the village patron, Saint Michael the Archangel.

Enjoying Italian life

And, judging by the comments of previous visitors in the Guest Book, we certainly weren’t the first to enjoy the Italian way of living; Annette’s friendly hospitality and crucial advice; and revel in the more traditional values and lifestyle of the mountain hamlets – while within easy reach of the Amalfi Coast.

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Grand entrance

Casa Cavo 15 is normally let for holidays during the summer months between May and November. The rent is 2,500 Danish kroner (about 335 Euros depending on exchange rates) a week, plus an 80 Euro cleaning fee.

Annette is prepared to talk to prospective tenants during other months, but even in such a beautiful part of the planet, winter tends to dampen spirits.

If you are interested, Annette can be contacted by email at casacavo@ohl.dk.

Tramonti

An encounter with a brazen lady

Naples: the skin tingles.

Description: chaotic but edgy and sensual.

Question: How could we have avoided her for so long?

Answer: In past visits, we’d stuck to the well-worn tourist trails leading to Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula, Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

Result: I was always curious about Napoli and its reputation for being exactly the opposite of elegant Florence, tendy Milan and stately Rome.

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My curiousity increased with tales of cruise ship tourists refusing to disembark there, apparently rattled by fears of pickpockets, mafia and drug wars.

This city had long intrigued me. It is often described as “beautiful chaos”. But, what exactly did that mean?

Sorrento and the Amalfi, I was told, were like the southern belles of Italy – alluring in their pastel colours and genteel manners. Naples flirted openly – suggestive and gritty.

Yet, intriguing or not, we never found our way to the city under Mount Vesuvius until Gert’s car GPS experienced problems on the way from the ruins of Herculaneum.

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Suddenly, we were tangled in the urban canyons of suburban Naples – and our senses were on overload.

Street drama

The area was the very epicentre of Neopolitan life played out on crowded and dilapidated streets, with just a hint of danger.  Sue gently pushed her handbag out of sight beneath her car seat.

It was in-your-face and overwhelmingly loud – a warren of narrow roads and lanes, confusing street signs, poverty, drying laundry, rubbish and graffiti.

Neopolitan men in sweaty singlets, trucks overladen with fresh fruit, kamikaze motorcyclists on footpaths; women in traffic-stopping tight shorts and heels, road signals that no one seemed to obey – all wrapped in the smells of coffee and pizza.

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The streets were a bewildering maze of traffic, charging heater skelter everywhere, without  the semblance of order or marked lanes.

We’ve survived the craziness of New York City taxis; the insanity of downtown Bankok; the wall-to-wall vehicles of Los Angeles; and the free-for-all that is Paris traffic, but we’d never seen anything like the streets of Naples.  This was a whole new league.

The streets were  a knock-down, winner-takes-all competition, where the first person to blink lost.

How, I wondered, could anyone be indifferent to this raucous streetscape. Surely, it was either appalling or captivating!

Either way, it was a remarkable experience and, unlike those cruise ship tourists, I was excited by the intense, heaving humanity around me – and keen to see more.

Later, we sat in a quiet hillside coffee shop where a shrine to the Madonna looked down on us from a roadside tree and the city spread out below – from the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius and the Lattari Mountains.

Admittedly, the cityscape was somewhat blurred by a soupy smog not uncommon in Naples.

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Young boys kicked a football on the concrete beside us and the rich sound of Italian voices provided a soundtrack that was somehow perfect.

We had been thoroughly enjoying the solitude and intoxicating traditions of the Lattari villages. These are our type of places.

However, the contrast of Naples and its gritty excitement also touched something inside us – possibly a yearning for a long-passed youth.

I made a mental note to return if possible – to ‘See Naples and Live”.

Note: the writer was flown to Europe by Scoot Airlines

 

 

Anti pickpocket products Naples

Life in a traditional Italian village

Some travel experiences are special.

Our time in a tiny southern Italian mountain village was certainly one of them.

As the road winds up from the Bay of Naples through Italy’s Lattari Mountains, it passes through a wonderland: a place that magnifies much that has been lost to the world.


Before reaching the tourist bustle of the Amalfi Coast, there are small mountain communities where traditional Italian customs have changed little over decades and long-held values are obviously cherished.

In the few days we spent as honoured guests in the village of Paterno Sant Ancangelo, we marvelled again and again at the simple life in the mountains and its many imperfections that, together, seem to bring perfection.


We revelled in a village where few vehicles moved on the ancient streets; where little noise disrupted the stillness of the mountains; where people gathered for siesta under shady lemon trees; where the only store operated to ‘Italian time’; where households often raise goats, sheep and chickens – and grow much of their fruit and vegetables; and where there is minimal contact with the outside world of petty arguments and politics.

We walked lonely mountain paths with solid stone steps; drank home-made red wine and limoncello; watched awe-inspiring sunsets; and felt awkward because the entire village spoke only Italian, with a local dialect.

Thanks largely to our hosts Gert and Annette – who has a traditional Italian villa in the mountains – we were accepted warmly into the community and, in our few days, grew to understand and appreciate its sincerity, warmth and family values.


We watched the community come together to celebrate a Christening; saw the people pulling together to get the grapes off the vines; watched the old women trudging along roads to collect chestnuts and mushrooms; and admired the way their faith and community spirit intertwined practically.

On September 29, we were privileged to participate in one of the most important days on the local calendar – the feastday of St Michael the Archangel, patron saint of the village,


People of all ages gathered at the old stone church for a sunset procession through the village.

Holding aloft a statue of St Michael, and accompanied by a brass band, we walked through the narrow streets, which villagers had decorated with coloured paper and lanterns.

At certain points on the procession, the parish priest stopped to offer prayers for the prosperity and safety of the village and its people, before the valley erupted into a crescendo of church bells and fireworks displays. It was the loudest noise we heard in our time in the area.


It was an honour to be accepted into such a traditional custom and particularly heart-warming to see how the people – young and old – came together for the sake of their village.

Amidst it all, however, you couldn’t help but wonder how much longer these villages could remain largely untouched – and whether the influence of travellers like us was helpful or not.

As you move closer to the Amalfi Coast, the impact of big tourism – both positive and negative – is increasingly apparent.

For example, at nearby Ravello, the stunning coastal scenery seems to have forged an industry in wedding tourism.

On one hand, this continues to produce new jobs and secure income, greatly welcomed, it seems, by the bulk of the community.


But, for traditionalists, the face of the Italian town has also changed forever. We watched hordes of tourist buses battle for space on roads that were probably designed for mules – and parking space in the town is at a premium.

For now though, it’s possible to experience both sides of Italy – the traditional communities with their endearing customs and the Italy of the tourist books and travel agents.

As well as Ravello, we journeyed to the popular coastal centres of Maiori and Atrani where the coastal road is lifted on arches right in front of the village.

And we walked down a gruelling 1,500 stone steps carved into the mountains to reach the coastal resort town of Amalfi, for dinner and a few beers by the seaside.


But, in the village itself we found wonderful moments: sitting under the lemon trees watching the sun on the mountains; trying to communicate at the village store (on her first attempt, Sue stunned the storekeeper by ordering a kilo of dog meat); listening to the chatter of children and the sound of church bells echo around the valley; watching the grapes being carted from the fields; struggling with steep stairs; and drinking limoncello around the table each evening.


Our traditional Italian village stay was priceless indeed.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

Italy

What’s 2,771 years to an Eternal City?

One of the world’s most enduring cities is again marking its long and astonishing history.

Rome, the wonderful Eternal City on the Tiber, is said to have been founded in April 753 amid seven hills.

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But, the anniversary is more than just a reason for the Romans to party: Some historians revere the date as the birthday of Western Civilization itself.

For example, we recently saw this explanation about why Rome is so special:

Rome was for hundreds of years the captal of the largest empire Europe has ever seen, stretching from Portugal to Iraq. It was by far the largest city on earth at this time, with piped water, apartment blocks and flushing toilets. Many buildings from that time still stand. Rome was an early centre for the Christian religion and there are jaw-droppingly famous artworks around Rome sponsored by the Church.

To us, that seems to sell Rome short: overlooking the fact that modern English owes its origins to Latin, as do legal and medical terminology and today’s military organisation is based to an extent on the roman army.

And, it is just a gorgeous city, with beauty, grandeur and majesty at almost every turn.

Birthday festivals

 On the anniversary each year, citizens and visitors step back in time to mark Rome’s birthday  – decorating the streets and staging festivals
The city’s streets become a stage for troupes of actors dressed as denizens of the ancient city as they celebrate the birth of the Eternal City.
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Photo courtesy Pexels

Italy Rome travel

Pompeii: extraordinary and unforgettable

When visiting the ruins of Pompeii, our advice is to watch your step.

Pomeii’s excavated streets are narrow, with massive cobblestones waiting to trip the unwary.

But then, the city is thought to date back to at least the First Century – and the streets were made ruggedly to withstand heavy traffic from the nearby sea port.

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In places, the roadway is also astonishingly rutted with wheel tracks made by ancient carts and chariots.

However, if you are mobile enough to safely make your way around the excavations, a visit to Pompeii is unforgettable.

It’s quite sobering to wander among the ruins of a city utterly destroyed by a massive fire storm of molten rock and gases?

Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were cities under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, near modern-day Naples in the Campania region of Italy.

Already well established before the arrival of the ancient Romans, the area became prosperous in part because of its location around a seaport and on the fertile slopes of Vesuvius.

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However, something of a premonition of tragedy occurred in 62 AD, when an earthquake left large parts of Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum in ruins.

Reconstruction was still underway on August 24, in 74 AD, when all hell let loose.

The mountain unexpectedly awoke, submerging much of the surrounding countryside under a hurricane of ash and cinder.

The eruption was apparently so violent that the top of the mountain collapsed, sending deadly rivers of lava and mud down its sides.

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After the eruption, Pompeii remained buried under a layer of ash more than six metres deep.

This suffocated the city, but also protected evidence of life at the moment of the tragedy – evidence that came to light more than two centuries ago.

We entered the excavations through the Porta Marina or Sea Gate, which faces towards the sea. There are two stone arches at the gate, one apparently reserved for people and the other for animals.

In front of us unfolded the Forum Plaza, an open area from which narrow streets lead off in a grid-like pattern near the sites of the temple of Venus and Apollo.

From here we wandered past the area where the Basilica stood to signify the centre of the city’s economic life.

Many of the excavated pillars of these former substantial buildings are quite eye-catching and hint at the glory that once was Pompeii. So do the Forum and Central Baths and the many residential areas.

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As we toured the various sections of the ruins, from time to time, we came across plaster casts of victims of the volcanic eruption.

These remarkable casts were created by excavators who poured liquid plaster into the spaces left in the layer of ash by 1,100 human bodies, as well as trees, animals and wooden objects.

This ingenious method of excavation – which worked for just about everything organic that was imprisoned in the ash – apparently began in 1860 and continued into the 20th Century.

Our all-too-brief visit to Pompeii showed not only public buildings and breathtaking villas, but also humble town block with houses, shops, and the bits and pieces of everyday life at the time.

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The darkness that descended from Vesuvius may have snuffed out an era in Pompeii, but it also preserved a slice of Roman life for people to explore.

The buildings, art, artifacts, and bodies forever frozen offer a unique window on this ancient world.

Pompeii is close enough to Rome to be reached in a day trip. See details.

We wholeheartedly recommend a visit.

Pompeii