The small town of Matera, in southern Italy, is home to the Sassi di Matera (ancient cave dwellings), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. © Francesco Iacobelli/Corbis
Originally published in January/February 2016
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Vencenzo, the pizza maker, works in the kitchen at Pizzeria de Maria in Amalfi, Italy. © Jonathan Blair/Corbis
Italy is a collection of many diverse traditions, cuisines, landscapes and dialects. That’s what the author learned as she headed south, toward the Amalfi Coast.
By Theresa Potenza
Visiting Italy as an art history student a decade ago, I sought the tastes of my childhood. I was in Florence and it was Christmastime, and I expected to find restaurants serving the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve tradition that my grandmother from southern Italy started with her children when she emigrated to the United States, and one that my cousins continue with their children. Yet no one in Tuscany’s capital had ever heard of it.
Little did I know then that Italy, as a unified country, is younger than the U.S. Each region is like its own separate culture, with its own traditions, cuisine and dialect. While Rome, Venice and Florence are thoroughly Italian, these cities differ from my ancestral home in southern Italy, near the Amalfi Coast.
Amazed by Italy’s diversity I continued to live in Rome. I dated and travelled and pursued higher education, but was still curious about my ancestry. Finally, as the 100-year anniversary of my grandparents’ emigration to Ellis Island approached, my then-fiancé, a native of Rome, took me on a weekend road trip to discover my family’s roots—an area of Italy that American travelers sometimes overlook, and an area that still remembers the Feast of Seven Fishes. We would travel first to the jagged Amalfi Coast, then to the mountainous Matera.
We rented a Hertz car and began our journey from downtown Rome at 8 a.m. The highlight of that day: a 35-mile (56 kilometer) coastal drive between Naples and Salerno, passing though the towns of Amalfi, Sorrento, Ravello and Positano. The trip offered breathtaking views of sparkling sea and kaleidoscopic towns, accompanied by the sound of crashing waves and scooters buzzing by at every dramatic curve of the road.
We arrived at our hotel by lunchtime. There we imbibed a strong aroma of lilacs and a melody of flowers. The next morning, we boarded the hotel’s yacht, which takes guests for charters around the coast and to the town of Positano. I thought about how many emigrants from this area a century ago boarded instead the crowded vessels that would take them to a new life in America, and how ironic it was to be with fellow Americans exploring the beauty of this land and surrounding islands and grottoes that so many loved ones had left behind.
The yacht took us to two protruding cliffs reachable only by boat, where we found a seemingly undercover seaside feast, overflowing with locals. There I heard a familiar dialect, so I asked a local about the Feast of the Seven Fishes. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “Steamed mussels with lemon and black pepper, sautéed clams in olive oil and garlic, octopus with beans in tomato sauce, deep fried cod and calamari…” and his list went on. That day, I tasted my favorite memory of Christmas—mussels.
In the evening, we enjoyed organic products prepared with innovative recipes. This is a region famous for San Marzano tomatoes and Bufala mozzarella cheese—ingredients imported to America by several high-end pizzerias in Boulder.
The region is famous not just for pizza, but for its pizza ovens. Some are works of art, with hand-painted terracotta tiles from a factory at Vietri sul Mare, a few towns down the coast toward Salerno. We decided to visit the famous Solimene ceramic tile factory the next day. There we entered through a large, glass garage door and encountered a floor-to-ceiling stockpile of discounted “second choice” ceramics. We sifted through piles of vibrant terra-cotta mugs painted with animal figures and water creatures, and striped plates, and polka-dot bowls—carefully selecting gifts and kitchenware for our new home. Our car now loaded with treasure, we ate a mouth-watering caprese sandwich on a bench overlooking the sea and resumed our journey to the Basilicata region.
Known for its mountain ranges, referred to as the “Dolomites of Southern Italy,” Basilicata spreads across the Italian peninsula to the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas with beach towns complete with temple remnants of its earliest ancient Greek settlers. The history, climate and geography of the region is what makes it one of the best and largest producers of olive oil and wine in Italy. The Aglianico wine made in Basilicata and Campania is world-renown, made from Greek grapes no longer grown there, attesting to southern Italy’s favorable growing conditions.
Cathedral of Sant’Andrea and Cathedral Square along the Amalfi Coast in Campania, Italy. © Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo
The 2.5-hour drive from the Amalfi Coast delivered us to Matera, known for its white cave dwellings called sassi—“districts built into the rocks.” After such a colorful sojourn by the sea and through the mountains, it was impressive to see an entire city built exclusively into and out of calcareous white rock resembling chalk.
Matera has been continuously inhabited for almost 10,000 years. Several districts’ ruins are older than those found in Rome. Across the canyon is a view of the Paleolithic cave dwellings. In our part of town, inhabited continuously since the Roman times, we walked on staircases that were on roofs of houses and houses opened deep into performing arts centers and to water cisterns below. Much of the historic and physical depth of the city is hidden behind the Baroque white stone facades of buildings. Recently excavated caves include my favorite—the 14th-century church of Santa Maria de Idris, with its Medieval and Renaissance fresco paintings.
On our trip back to Rome, we asked an elderly man for directions. He had been tending his figs, drying on the roof of his rusty Fiat. With the street directions he sent us away with homemade fig jam, and boasting about Matera winning the competition for European Culture Capital for 2019. My soon-to-be-husband and I agreed that it was important that we visited there before it becomes as renowned as Venice, Florence and Rome.
Theresa Potenza is a freelance writer reporting on art, events and travel in Italy. Follow her blog, italywiththeresa.blogspot.it. She specializes in private walking tours of Rome’s lesser-known curiosities. She married her fiancé in Rome on Dec. 28, 2014, and celebrated with a compromise of fried fish and Rome’s traditional mortadella, porchetta and pecorino cheese.
The knowledgeable travel agents at AAA Colorado can help book your Italian dream trip. Visit one of AAA Colorado’s 11 retail locations for sweet deals. Or discover the many tour options available from AAA Vacations.
The Ring Road
Fjallsarlon glacier lake and Oraefajokull volcano are located on the south coast of Iceland. © Eric Lindberg
By Eric Lindberg
With a Nordic-flavored culture, epic Alaska-like landscapes, and the volcanic rawness of a Hawaiian island, Iceland may be vaguely reminiscent of places you’ve been before. But spend a few days here and you’ll discover a land unlike any other on earth.
All visits begin in the capital city of Reykjavik. After exploring the lively downtown area with its cafes, restaurants, and shops, wander into the surrounding residential areas. Lose yourself for an hour amid the gardens, courtyards, murals, yard sculptures, and brightly colored houses. It’s a slice of Icelandic city life you won’t find along the retail thoroughfares.
The well-known Ring Road circles the island and is the classic route to many sights. For a deeper Icelandic experience, spend a few extra days exploring the side roads leading to coastal fishing villages and fjords. Roads are good and easy to navigate. Pretty churches, colorful houses, and weathered cemeteries are part of most towns. Watch for elegant Icelandic horses in the fields; they’re friendly and photogenic.
If your time is limited, consider focusing on just a few areas and seeing them well. Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Westfjords, and Trollaskagi Peninsula are several hours from Reykjavik. Each one offers stunning scenery and authentic local culture away from the popular tourist stops.
Siglufjordur on the Trollaskagi Peninsula with its mountainous fjord setting and boat harbor is quintessential Iceland. Among the town’s highlights is the acclaimed Herring Museum. Three historic buildings recreate life here during the industry’s frenzied boom years from 1903-1968.
Perhaps it’s the mythical sweep of the wild landscapes that touch people so deeply. With its glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, volcanoes, and tundra, this is a country in the making. Iceland’s elemental beauty and the warmth of its people are two reasons that many visitors vow to return.
By Clark Norton
For a while a decade or so ago, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, was the European city that everyone wanted to visit, or live in, especially before it got discovered by everyone else. But Prague did get discovered, in a big way, and it’s no wonder: it’s a splendidly preserved city dating from 1,200 years ago, complete with hilltop castle and cobbled Old Town Square, one of Europe’s finest public spaces.
Now that Prague attracts hordes of tourists and expats, a number of other European cities—Budapest, for one—are laying claim to the mantel of the “new Prague,” just as Prague was once lauded as the “new Paris.” Among trend setters, it’s almost taken for granted that everyone has already been to Prague and it’s time to move on.
But even for those who have seen Prague, repeat visits can yield new discoveries around every corner.
One such place is the city’s old Jewish Quarter, which is now mostly a monument to inhumanity—namely the Nazi occupation during World War II. Prague’s Jewish Quarter remains intact for a chilling reason: unlike in many other cities, the Nazis spared it because they wanted to preserve the Quarter as a “museum to an extinct race.” The Nazis brought items looted from Jews around Europe to Prague to serve as part of this “museum.”
Prior to Hitler’s rise, 120,000 Jews lived in what was then Czechoslovakia. Two thirds of them died during the war, many of starvation in concentration camps.
A 500-year-old Prague synagogue now serves as a stark memorial to all the Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The names of thousands of victims are inscribed on the walls, covering several rooms. They’re a haunting reminder that mass-scale genocide flourished in the mid-20th century.
It’s also a reminder that great cities can survive terrible occupation and oppression—and flourish, just as Prague does today.
Warriors and royalty
By Janna Graber
With its majestic fjords, quiet rural villages and sophisticated capital, Norway has become an unexpected favorite destination for many – including me. I start each visit in Oslo, the capital city, which has a beautiful location along the Oslo Fjord. Oslo is home to half a million people, including the royal family. The daily Changing of the Guards ceremony at the Royal Palace is a must-see.
Norway hasn’t always had such a regal history. It was once the land of Vikings. The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo celebrates the country’s fierce warrior past, and has some of the best preserved Viking ships in existence.
The Norwegians have long since given up their warring ways, but they are still explorers at heart. Many of the world’s top polar explorers have been Norwegians. Oslo’s Fram Museum houses the vessel used by early Norwegian explorers to the North and South Poles.
My favorite stop is the Norsk Folkemuseum, an open-air museum which brings Norway’s traditions and culture to life. Historic homes, barns and a stave church have been carefully preserved here.
You can’t visit Norway without exploring some of its natural wonders. From Oslo, board the Bergen Railroad, which winds through the rich farmland of central Norway. Continue on the breathtaking Flåm Railway, a steep journey that winds past spectacular waterfalls and through dramatic mountain ranges. In the village of Flåm, board a boat for a cruise through the Sognefjord, one of the world’s longest and deepest fjords.
After cruising the Sognefjord, it’s just a short train ride to the port town of Bergen. The Bryggen District along the wharf dates back to 1360, when it was a center of the Hanseatic League. Today, its brightly colored wooden houses are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Whether you visit the cosmopolitan streets of Oslo, the historic harbors of Bergen or the majestic Norwegian fjords, Norway is one destination that you’ll want to return to.
Food and wine
By Larry Olmsted
By definition, “wine country” is found in the countryside, evoking images of hillsides terraced with vineyards and majestic chateaus among the grapes. But not in Porto, or Oporto to the Portuguese, the namesake home of the port wine industry, all of which comes from here. Porto is a wine city, not wine country, and as such, offers a much different take on the tourism experience: without ever getting in a car you can visit some of the most vaunted names in winemaking, all a short stroll from your hotel. Interspersed with these are wonderful restaurants, shops, and bakeries dispensing Portugal’s famously addictive sweet custard tarts, pasteis de nata. This layout makes Porto user friendly and unique among all wine destinations.
Grapes grow along the Duoro River Valley, which meets the sea at coastal Porto, and barrels of wine arrive here at the city’s “port houses” in traditional open boats that look like Viking ships, a sight to see. One venerable port house after another is lined up along the waterfront on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, across a footbridge from downtown Porto, names like Graham’s, Fonseca and Dow’s, and almost all welcome visitors with tours and tastings. Because port is a fortified wine, made much differently than others, it’s worth seeing the complex process and sampling the four main styles: white, tawny, ruby and vintage. Production uses more than a hundred regional grape varieties, and the Douro Valley was protected as an appellation in 1756, making it the world’s oldest official winemaking region.
Barcelona’s Boqueria Market is even older, dating back roughly eight centuries, with the impressive structure as it appears today built in 1840. One of the world’s most acclaimed public markets, this compelling, must-visit attraction in Spain’s most popular city sits on the equally popular La Rambla, the nearly mile-long pedestrian street that links the city center with the waterfront. It’s the top stroll in Barcelona, making the ornate market entrance with its colorful tile covered arches and wrought iron gates impossible to miss.
While much of the market is aimed at locals who cook, there is plenty of grazing to be done, with a few tapas stands and prepared foods. Don’t miss Spain’s famous cured meats, such as the coveted Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, arguably the world’s finest ham, made only from pata negra, black footed Iberian pigs raised on a diet of acorns. But while most European cities have a central market teeming with produce and meats, the thing that surprises visitors the most here are the fresh fruit juice vendors, several of them, turning virtually any fruit you can imagine into fresh squeezed—if you’ve never had a delicious glass of watermelon juice, this is the place. Or papaya, mango, Valencia orange …