Shipscook’s Italian Job – Salerno and Paestum

At last, I finally get around to writing up the last part of our Italian holiday.

After  brutally early start we eventually arrived on the outskirts of the cathedral city of Salerno. The scenery on the coastal drive from Sorrento had been very pretty, but as we approached the Salerno things were looking a bit grim, lots of quays with stacks of containers and massive ships betrayed the city’s main industry. It got a bit more interesting once we were in the centre and out of the coach. A brief walk through the narrow streets from the sea front, took us to the medieval cathedral or duomo.

The cathedral was founded in 1076 by Robert Guiscard the Norman mercenary who was appointed Duke of Apulia and Calabria by Pope Nicholas II.

Bell Tower Salerno Cathedral

From the outside the most striking feature is the 56 metre high,12th century bell tower which was built in the Arabic-Norman style. Inside, the cathedral was restored to something like it’s original medieval condition in the 1930s. Above the altar there is this rather beautiful domed ceiling.

Painted Ceiling above the altar

The duomo is regarded as one of the initial symbols of the Italian Renaissance because it is where Pope Gregory VII, who rejected German domination of the Holy Roman Empire is interred. Another famous burial is claimed for the crypt. Restored by Domenico Fontana in the 17th century this groin vaulted hall is said to be the last resting place of St Matthew.

Cathedral Crypt

Keeping St Matthew company is the column that was allegedly used as an executioner’s block when the Roman Emperor Diocletion decided to chop Matthew’s head off!

We carried on to Paestum by the coast road. The long narrow beach here is very popular with local people. In September 1943 this was where the British and American forces landed in Operation Avalanche. For some bizarre reason our guide told us that Ernest Hemingway came ashore with the Americans, but I’m pretty sure that ‘Papa’ was patrolling the Caribbean in his boat, Pilar, searching for U-Boats at the time.

Temple of Athena

Paestum (admission €6) was founded by Greek settlers in the 7th century BC and is one of the best preserved Greco-Roman sites in Italy. There are three major buildings on the site, generally known as the Temples of Hera and Athena and the Palace of Justice, although the discovery of an altar to the front of the Palace of Justice has shown it to also be a temple. the discovery of early Christian tombs cut into the floor of the Temple of Athena indicates that these buildings were probably converted into churches before the city was abandoned to malarial swamps in the early medieval period.

Temple of Hera

Paestum is a very large site and there are also some remains of later Roman buildings like the Forum and Amphitheatre.

Amphitheatre

Smaller items from Paestum are in a museum (admission €4) just across the road from the site. aside from pottery and metal items there are some rather lovely tomb paintings like this one of a symposium or drinking party.

Syposium or Piss Up - Tomb Painting, Paestum

Fully cultured out we boarded the bus for our final destination, Caseificio Barlotti, an ice cream parlour on a Buffalo farm.

Water Buffalo

The water buffalo is believed to have been introduced to the Campania region of Italy by the Normans, who first encountered them in Sicily, where they had been introduced by the Arabs. Buffalo milk is very creamy and is used to make the best Mozzarella cheese. It also makes phenomenally good ice cream definitely worth the €2 we paid for a cornet.

Water Buffalo Calves

Curiously, despite their similarity to domestic cattle, water buffalo are too genetically different to hybridise with them, unlike the bison which produces a zubron (European bison/cow cross) or a beefalo (American bison/cow cross)

Our trip was booked through Thomson and cost a whopping £32.50 for basically being driven around in a bus with a guide. No admission fees were included and a set lunch of pasta with more rotgut wine was an extra €13.

Shipscook’s Homemade Pizza

Not bad for a first attempt

Believe it or not I had never done the full Monty with a homemade pizza, sure I had made the topping for a shop bought base before, but this was something new.

So first the base. Having seen Jamie Oliver do it this way, I emptied 500grams of strong flour onto a board, created a well in the middle and gradually spooned in about 325mls of warm water with 10 grams of yeast dissolved into it, mixing as I went.

Right don’t do this at home it creates an awful bloody mess, and I don’t have a bunch of people to clear up after me like Jamie does. Do it in a big bowl and don’t forget to add some salt to the dough.  Eventually I had a lump of dough, which I covered with a wet cloth and left to prove for however long it took to make the pizza sauce. Apparently this should be about ten minutes. but who’s counting?

So the sauce. Olive oil in pan plus a chopped red onion, chopped home grown chilli, four cloves smashed garlic, a slug of Worcester Sauce, grind of black pepper and what was left of a Sainsbury’s basic pack of tomatoes chopped up small after I had taken some slices of one of the big tomatoes for the topping. I fried this down till everything was nice and soft, then chucked in a can of chopped tomatoes and reduced the liquid by about a third.

Once this was ready I took my dough and gave it a good kneading, before squashing it down into my floured grill tray. Then I spread the topping over it followed by a liberal scattering of home grown basil leaves, some tomato slices, small chorizo slices, grated Cheddar, sliced Parmesan and some ripped up buffalo Mozarella.  It then went into a hot oven for about 12 minutes.

Anyway out it came and it looked great, the base stuck a bit to the pan, probably because I had squashed it down a bit too hard (lesson for the future), but it tasted brilliant. Is it the end for shop bought bases? Well in the words of Gordon Ramsey “They can f@*k off out of my kitchen.”

Here’s a Mozzarella buffalo we saw on a farm near Salerno.

Mozzarella Bufffalo - Salerno

Shipscook’s Italian Job – Herculaneum and Pompeii

Our second trip out from Sorrento was to the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in  AD79.

Herculaneum was our first stop and I was delighted to find that since our last visit it now has a new entrance and visitor centre, so you no longer have to dodge lunatic drivers on a very dangerous road and brave some of the very odd people who used to hang around the old entrance waiting for an opportunity to dip your pockets.

The first remains you encounter are the boat houses. These were originally on the sea front and like those on the rest of the site, are remarkably well-preserved.

Boat Houses at Herculaneum

This part of the town was only excavated in the 1980s and it was here that about 300 skeletons were found. Previously it was thought that Herculaneum’s inhabitants  had been successfully evacuated when the volcano began to erupt, but the people in the boat houses and the beach were caught when a 100mph pyroclastic surge of superheated toxic gas and ash swept through the town. Soft tissues were instantly vapourised by the 500 degree Centigrade heat, but the skeletons were preserved in their original positions and then buried by the volcanic deposits. This is of course very useful for archeologists as because the Romans generally practised cremation rather than inhumation we don’t have that many complete Roman skeletons.

Street Herculaneum

The rapidity with which Vesuvius buried the town under 25 metres of volcanic tuff has meant that many of the buildings have been remarkably well-preserved. The intense heat carbonised much of the wood used in the buildings so many interior structures of the buildings which might otherwise have rotted away, have survived,

Interrior of Roman House Herculaneum

along with much of the original fresco work. Herculaneum is believed to have taken its name from the Greek hero Hercules, who is featured in many of the frescos that decorate these seaside homes for wealthy Romans. He’s the one with the tan.

Fresco of Hercules

Along with the homes, shops, bath houses and public buildings have survived, but there is much more waiting to be found beneath the streets of modern Ercolano.

From Herculaneum we headed for it’s more famous neighbour Pompeii.

Forum Pompeii

When Vesuvius erupted Pompeii’s fate was to be buried under four to six metres of pumice. Most of the casualties here died from suffocation caused by toxic gas from the volcano. Their bodies engulfed by the falling ash eventually rotted away leaving a  hollow cast. It was the archeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli working in the 1860s who worked out that if you poured plaster into this mould and it would leave a perfect impression of the person who had been there and there are a few of these casts on display in Pompeii today.

Cast of Boy Pompeii

This fellow appears to be trying to protect his mouth from the noxious fumes. The archeologists still do this today only with clear resin so tat any material like bone or metal can be seen.

When the city was initially excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a lot of fuss and bother about some of the street iconography.

This way to the fun house?

Not being constrained by Christian morality, the Romans were a lot more up front about sexual imagery. It has been speculated that the phalluses cast into the walls showed the way to brothels, but they are more likely to be fertility symbols placed in the building for good luck. However Pompeii is famous for the lewd paintings in its brothels which acted as a menu of delights in that multicultural and mostly illiterate society, and up until the 1960s these were kept under wraps for serious students and people of the correct moral fibre only. I saw them back on our visit in 2002 and was disappointed that we didn’t have enough time to see them again.

Bronze Satyr Pompeii

However we did have a good two hours to wander the wheel rutted cobbles of old Pompeii seeing the many shop fronts, temples and public buildings. I even got a drink from a Roman fountain,

One of the few free drinks I got in Italy

though thankfully the original lead plumbing had been replaced. which takes me back to the skeletons found in Herculaneum. When these were examined significant deposits of lead were found in the bones, proving that although there was a lot to be said in favour of Roman plumbing, if you lived long enough the lead from the pipes that transported the water from the aqueducts to the drinking fountains in the town would eventually poison you.

We booked this trip online before we left. Thomson’s price was £37.50 plus entry to the two sites €20 for a joint ticket, plus the indifferent special lunch, an expensive €13 for a margarita pizza and some rotgut wine.

Shipscook’s Italian Job- the Soggy Gardens of Ischia

Before we left for Italy I had booked three excursions from Thomson’s website to make the best use of our time.

Our first trip was to the rather beautiful Island of Ischia where Ibsen is said to have completed Peer Gynt and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed Cleopatra.

Ischia emerges from the sea

The day didn’t start well though when instead of a Thomson coach a municipal bus turned up to collect us from the hotel. Now although we got seats by the time it had collected people from a couple of hotels people were hanging from straps which I thought was pretty poor at the price we paid for the excursion. The bus dropped us in the harbour where we would have paid our respects to the harbour master,

The Harbour Master

if he hadn’t been asleep. The catamaran  to Ischia is operated by Paul and Shark, fortunately we never got to meat Paul’s business partner on the 50 minute crossing.

On reaching the island it was getting a bit stormy as we were shown the Fungo in the harbour of Forio.

The Fungo

The rock is so called because it looks like a mushroom although as Nick remarked it could easily have escaped from one of Roger Dean’s Yes album covers back in the early 1970s. From the Fungo we were whisked up the mountain to the Oasis restaurant for lunch with an incredible view of Forio, complete with lightning,

View from the Oasis restaurant

before heading for Forio-San Francesco and the beautiful  La Mortella Gardens.

La Mortella Gardens

The La Mortella Gardens were founded by the composer William Walton when he settled on the island in 1946, although much of the design was created by Russell Page in 1956. The gardens are built into the side of the mountain and we managed to get about half the way to the top to the magnificent Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Sun

Reminding me of some of the monumental architecture of  Mexico’s Yucatan, the interior was full of wonderful plants including these pitcher plants.

Pitcher Plant Temple of the Sun

We then visited the bird house where the love birds and cockatiels where busy hiding from the threatening storm.

Lutino Cockatiel

Which duly arrived in quite epic proportions. Fortunately we were able to take shelter in the tea house, which is one of the few places in Italy where they are able to make tea properly. The rain sheeted down for ages and eventually we decided to brave the downpour to see the Victoria House with its giant water lily pads.

Lily pads Victoria House

Frankly the only thing that could have made this sight any better would have been some giant frogs sitting in the middle of them! Fortunately the rain then left off for long enough for us to get back to the coach for our return journey to the port.

So how much did it cost? Thomson’s trip was £55.50 but did not include entrance to the gardens (an extra €12) and a rather overpriced pasta lunch (a further €13), so quite an expensive day out for a family.

Shipscook’s Italian Job – Monnalisa Ristorante

Right in the heart of Sorrento’s ‘Drains opposite a very pretty church we found this place. It’s the Monnalisa Ristorante and is a great place for people watching while you eat.

Al Fresco dining at the Monnalisa

This has to be one of the best places to get a pizza in Sorrento. We ate there a couple of times and I really enjoyed the pizza picante, which is made with pepperoni and four kinds of cheese, including pungent Gorgonzola and a ball of fresh buffalo Mozzarella . Fabulous with a glass of chilled Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio white.

Picante pizza with fresh Buffalo Mozzarella

Mind you I was surprised that I had much room left after the bruschette we had for our starters. The tomato bruschetta was really fresh and quite delicious, however

Your standard tomato Bruschetta

the Neapolitan bruschetta, with ham, basil and cheese, was really gorgeous and particularly filling.

Neapolitan Bruschetta with fresh Buffalo Mozzarella

Even the nibbles, that are customarily served with drinks in Italy, arrived in style on a delicate little stand with a pair of tongs.

Sophisticated nibbles

The Monnalisa has a well recommended ice cream parlor, but we were always too full after the main course to stuff anything else down.

So what’s the damage? Bruschette and pizza or pasta for four with wine, water and coffee between €90 to €100.

Monnalisa Ristorante, Via P.R.Giuliani,18/20, Sorrento.

Shipscook’s Italian Job – We take a Passeggiata through Sorrento

So after dinner we joined the locals in the ritual of taking a stroll around town, otherwise known as the the passeggiata. Naturally the first place to stop was an ice cream parlor.

We all scream for ice cream, especially mulberry and dark chocolate

Sorrento has quite a few to choose from and most of them offer a huge choice of flavours from the usual suspects like strawberry and chocolate to the more exotic such as English trifle or Toblerone.  Davide on the Via P.R. Giuliani was particularly good and it sat next to a pub that offered pints, large pints and extra large pints whatever they are.

The Bar Villa Comunale (Di Massimo Fiorentino) is a great place to watch the sunset from as it is right on the sea front, if you can call a cliff that overlooks the bathing platforms and Sorrento’s tiny beach, the seafront that is.It’s surprisingly affordable too with a round of four drinks coming in at €14.

No not Volare again please - Bar Villa Comunale

It’s also a great place for people watching as crowds gather for the celestial free show.

Sunset

Sorrento is a popular location for big weddings and since the front is very close to both St Francis and Antonino the whale killer’s churches, we’d also get to watch ‘creative’ photographers forcing young brides to pose in the most uncomfortable positions for their art, as the Sun slid beneath the Tyrrhenian Sea. There was also a good view of Vesuvius biding it’s time before its next eruption.

Vesuvius at Sunset

Vesuvius at sunset

Sundown we’d head into the drains for a wander around the shops and bars, occasionally stopping for a sample of Limoncello, just in case we’d forgotten what lemon scented toilet duck tasted like.

The Drains by Night

Back on the Corso Italia there was always lots going on. Amongst the blues guitarist who only knew how to play Sweet home Chicago and the human statues this lady stood out, with her glass harmonica. I’d never seen one of these before and the music was quite beautiful.

Glass Harmonica

So for a nightcap before returning to the hotel we tried a couple of bars on the Corso. We really should have expected The English Bar to be a bit odd, however it had a tempting garden terrace to the rear. Mab ordered an Amaretto which arrived in a tumbler – a full tumbler. OK it’s a very generous measure, but no one wants to drink that much Amaretto surely. Since the bill for the four of us only came to €18 I can only assume that the students running the bar were going to be for it when the owner compared his till roll to his inventory. The Cafe Latino (Corso Italia 4) was a bit more civilised. Set within a huge shady garden it was a very pleasant place for that final game of Uno before bed, even if the service was sometimes a bit slow when they were also catering for a wedding party.

Taralli Con Mandorle

These were the culinary discovery of our trip to Italy

Taralli con Mandorle

Sitting proudly in the bread basket is the last surviving Taralli con Mandorle of the evening. Somewhere between a bread and a biscuit they are flavoured with black pepper and poppy seeds. Apparently the dough is boiled before baking like a bagel, but where a bagel is soft, the Taralli is dry. They are great with drinks, so we bought a couple of packets to bring home.

Shipscook’s Italian Job – O Parrucchiano

One of Sorrento’s little treasures is this place.

Me in O Parrucchiano's lemon grove

Well I say little treasures, but the O Parruchiano restaurant is actually rather large, consisting of a kitchen, whacking great conservatory and lemon grove garden that reputedly can sit up to 1000 diners. The place was founded in 1868 by Antonino Ercolano a trainee priest who had been caught misbehaving with one of the local ladies. Fortunately his training in the seminary kitchen meant that he had another trade to fall back on so he set up a trattoria in two rooms just off the Corso Italia.  O Parruchiano, which stands for parish priest in the local Neapolitan dialect, was a great hit and gradually the restaurant expanded back from the Corso Italia to it’s present extent. Thankfully, despite its size the food is not institutionalised, but good Neapolitan home cooking and the waiter service is friendly and not intrusive.

Aside from being probably the best restaurant in Sorrento it’s also famous as the birthplace of Cannelloni.

Invented here - cannelloni

It was in 1907 that the chef  Salvatore Coletta hit upon the idea of rolling a sheet of pasta very thin and wrapping it around a stuffing of ricotta cheese, various minced meats and spices. O Parrucchiano’s cannelloni are truely delicious and we ate rather a lot of them during our stay, but there were plenty of other great pasta dishes like the Neapolitan Lasagna to try. I liked the lasagna because it wasn’t drowned in Bechamel sauce, but topped with aubergine, also good was the seemingly never ending pot of gnocchi.

For a starters there were a number of options including this brilliant antipasto plate

Antipasto

with ricotta stuffed courgette flowers, prawns cooked in lemon and orange leaves, deep fried squid and a ricotta stuffed pastry or the antipasto rusticano, a plate of buffalo mozzarella, Parma ham, braesola and pancetta.  While for desert, if you had any room left the raisins cooked in wine and served in a lemon leaf parcel,

Raisins in lemon leaf

were rather like a Christmas cake without the cakey bits.

Wines kicked in at about €15 for a bottle of Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) del Vesuvio, a rather lovely wine that comes in white, red and rose varieties, grown on the fertile volcanic slopes of the local volcano, but for a special treat it is difficult to resist the wine with peaches, which double up as a delicious desert.

Wine with peaches

So what’s the damage, for a three course meal for four with wine, water and coffee expect to pay about €110, but your holiday operator may offer a 10% discount voucher which the restaurant will only honour for cash transactions.

O Parrucchiano, Corso Italia 71 – 80067 Sorrento, tel +39 081 8781321

Shipscook’s Italian Job – Out and About in Sorrento

So after being woken by the fog cannon that went off every half hour to celebrate St Anne’s name day, we got taken on a free walk around Sorrento by the Thomson rep.  Actually it was more of a wander around their preferred retailers, but there were free drinks involved, so off we went. Taking our lives in our hands we crossed the Via del Capo outside the hotel, to the side of the road that actually had some pavement and carried on downhill, until we arrived in Sorrento’s main street, the Corso Italia. The Corso is where you will find all the flash shops are, along with loads of ice cream parlours, restaurants and even a peaceful lemon grove.

Corso Italia

It’s also where the locals go arrayed in all their pomp to passeggiata after dinner, when the Corso is pedestrianised.

Fantastic Brand ID for National Police - Corso Italia

After a brief snifter at O Parrucchiano – the birthplace of cannelloni (more on that later) we were led towards the city walls.

Originally built by the Greeks who settled in this part of Italy during the seventh century BC, then rebuilt by the Romans, the present walls were engineered by the Spanish, to keep Saracen pirates out, during Spain’s rule of Naples in the 16th Century.  Taking the brief walk along the top of the conserved walls is great at night, when it is lit up with flaming torches and best of all – it’s free. Close to the Wall is the Parco Ibsen. Suzy, our rep, proudly showed us the Thomson information desk and a furniture shop, but neglected to mention the Norwegian playwright that it’s named after. Ibsen stayed in the nearby Hotel Tramotano, where he wrote parts of Ghosts (1867) and Peer Gynt (1881).

Sorrento is famous for its lemons

Lemon Grove off the Corso Italia

which get made into stuff like soap, confectionery and the region’s local drink Limocello. In the oldest part of town, known as “The Drains“, because it’s where the rich people’s sewage used to flow through on it’s way to the sea, we got to sample some at one of the many shops that specialise in all things lemony.

A range of local liquors - many made from lemons

If I ever wondered what lemon scented toilet duck would taste like I think I now know. There is also a cream version which tastes as I imagine lemon scented Jif would. The Drains are a regular rabbit warren of little alleys, full of shops (mostly full of tat) , restaurants, bars and little churches.

The Drains

One of the larger churches we were shown is dedicated to Sorrento’s patron saint, St Antonino.

St Antonino and his whale

He reputedly rescued a child that was being eaten by a whale, by killing it (the whale not the child). The whale on the statue looks like a dolphin to me, but the church has the alleged whale’s jaw bone nailed to the external wall and I’d say it must have been a much bigger creature, the sort that eats tiny fish and krill, but not children.

St Antonino's Whale's Jawbone

We found this charming fresco of the event, above the door of one of the nearby apartment buildings.

St Antonino - Whale Killer

Personally I think there is a touch of the mythical hero about this, with the saint taking on the role of a former pagan demi-god like Heracles. Close by is another church, this time dedicated to St Francis. It has really gorgeous cloisters that are popular for weddings and classical recitals.

St Francis

I could not help but notice the offering room, where believers could buy votive objects to leave in the church – much the same as in pagan times so nothing changes.

Our final stop was the Foreigner’s Club, overlooking the sea. Very useful place this as it has a free public loo and an information centre. The Foreigner’s Club was used by British and American soldiers during World War I, hence the name. at this point Suzy left us to our own devices so we high tailed it back to O Parrucchiano to try some of that cannelloni, but that is another story.

Shipscook’s Italian Job – Welcome to our Sorrento Hideout

The Grand Hotel Capodimonte is built into the hillside just above Sorrento. It’s labyrinthine construction meant that to get to our room on the third floor, we had to get a lift up five floors from the entrance, then walk through the reception area to find the right set of lifts, travel two floors down, set off down a twisty corridor, go down a small flight of stairs, turn the corner, go up two bigger flights of stairs and there it was at the end of the corridor. Yes I did get lost on my way back to reception at least once and it was up to a friendly chambermaid to send me off on the right track.

Pool area at the Grand Hotel Capodimonte

Our room was a marvelous confection of fake Empire style furniture, with ceramic floral light fittings and a flat screen TV for the maid to watch quiz shows on while were out. The truly stunning gardens are landscaped in terraces down the side of the hill with the seven pools arranged one above the other, so that twice a day the water cascades  down from one pool to another.

View from Bougianvillea Restaurant

The terraces looked even more enchanting at night when the pools were illuminated.

Pool terraces by night

We were on half board. The breakfasts were epic thanks to the very excellent omelette chef, who cooked to order before our eyes. Otherwise it was a choice of lunch in the Bougainvillea Restaurant overlooking the pool terraces and the Bay of Naples or an evening meal in the main restaurant which also had an open air terrace. Lunch turned out to be the best option as the main restaurant service in the evening could be very slow, while the food, although nicely presented, had a touch of institutional cuisine about it despite it’s pretensions to grandeur. Having said that, the pastry chef was very good at creating myriad little temptations.

Lots of lovely cakes

And he was an imaginative sculptor with a sliced loaf to boot.

Bread Castle

After dinner there were drinks on the cocktail bar terrace with it’s gorgeous view.

Ships that Pass in the Night - View from bar terrace

Mind you we did have to share a room!

This is Squeak

Squeak the Gecko

He’s a room gecko and most of the time he could be found on our bathroom ceiling. His friend Bubble liked to hide behind the beading around the wardrobe in the bedroom. I had no problem sharing our room with the geckos as they ate some of the mosquitoes that had been eating me. On our last morning though, the daft creature got stuck in our bath, so I rescued him with a glass from the mini-bar and a piece of card.

So was it expensive? Er yes, a round of drinks for four people was €20 to €30, while a bottle of indifferent wine with dinner was €15. Internet connection was €4 for 30 minutes and a room safe cost €3.5 a day.  Our trip was booked through Thomson, more on them later.