I’m on a boat! To Portovenere…

We stood in a single file line on a staircase against the rocks watching the boat come into Riomaggiore.  There was no dock to disembark from, but a small metal gangplank which bucked precariously on the waves. The boarding process was an impressive dance with a careful rhythm: wait until the waves calm for a quick instant, then dart on the boat fast as you can. This went on for 20 minutes or so as the crowd on the steps waited anxiously.

After the boarding excitement, it was a warm, breezy but exceedingly pleasant ride to Portovenere, another one of the Italian Riviera towns Liguria is known for. Our journey to Portovenere included a bonus tour of the surrounding small islands, so we stayed aboard for the scenic ride.

Back in Portovenere, I gained more appreciation for the Cinque Terre’s rustic beauty.  While lovely, Portovenere is just another tourist town in my eyes. We had some focaccia and beer as part of our focaccia sampling mission and shopped for olive oil before refreshing ourselves with a gelato and prosecco in the town’s main piazza.  I think the best part of the day for us was simply being on the boat on a warm day and seeing Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Corniglia from the water as we returned to Cinque Terre. If you have limited time in Cinque Terre, stick to the five towns and pass on Portovenere.

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2014.

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Cinque Terre Recovering

“Are you going to Manarola?” I asked, as the first mate ushered passengers onto the boat. “Not today,” he replied.  “Just Vernazza.”  Becky and I looked at each other and shrugged. “We will go to Vernazza. But we don’t have tickets.” “Well,” he said, “Give the captain a kiss and it will be okay.” 🙂  We had barely situated ourselves on the boat for the less than 10 minute journey from Monterosso to Vernazza when another member of the crew brought us a handful of sweet little yellow grapes. So we steal boat rides and are rewarded with a snack?!?! Only in Italy.

The wind tousled our hair and drank in the sun, spitting grape seeds over the side of the boat into the sea. Before we knew it we were navigating a tiny gangplank bobbing in the choppy breaking water, disembarking at what some consider to the be the heart of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza.

In October 2011 deluge rains had caused flooding and landslides across the region and one slide in particular nearly destroyed Vernazza and  Monterrosso. When we first visited in April 2012, six months after the disaster, only two restaurants and one gelateria were open while the community continued to dig out. Now, nearly a year after the slide, the recovery is remarkable. Nearly all of the businesses were open and the tourists are flooding in. Becky and I were both actually quite overwhelmed with emotion to see how much this beautiful town changed. We grabbed gelati at Il Porticciolo, home of the most incredible cinnamon (cannella) gelato I’ve ever tasted, sat on a bench near the main piazza and took it all in.

On our last visit, nearly every door to businesses and homes were boarded up, although most were brightly painted with murals. This was my first impression of Vernazza, beauty and art overshadowing the ruin. Today, only a couple of doors on Vernazza’s main street remain boarded but the city is no less colorful.

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2014.

Positano Favorites: Mediterraneo

“You be careful,” the English woman scolded, looking at me nervously. “You’re just the kind that these Italian boys love.”  “Don’t worry,” I replied. “They’re my friends. They’re taking care of me not hitting on me.”

I understand her concern given that when I arrive at Mediterraneo I often feel like I am disturbing the other diners with our antics. At this point, I’m hesitant to even call myself a customer at Mediterraneo; they are my little local crew.  I usually end up having multiple meals here and definitely drop by as well for a coffee or a drink.

The Esposito family owns the restaurant so their son, Lorenzo, is usually the first face you’ll see. And if you don’t see him, you’ll most certainly hear him, either singing along with Pietro Rainone, the regular musician, or shouting orders back to the kitchen and bar.

I dream in zucchini flowers and Mediterraneo has the best, so be sure to start your meal with those.  The mussels are also so fresh and flavorful, they are a standby as well.  The seafood risotto is a favorite and you can’t really go wrong with any seafood from this area.

Most people I meet at Mediterraneo return at least once during their trip to Positano, and I have no doubt you’ll see why when you visit for yourself.  Even if you start with a quiet, romantic meal, I’m sure you’ll get drawn into the atmosphere quickly and be singing along with Pietro or greeting fellow travellers at the next table.

Say hello to Enzo, Lorenzo, Rodrigo, Antonio, Salvatore, Diego and the rest of the crew and tell them Lorenzo’s “cugina” says ciao!

Mediterraneo
Via Pasitea, 236/238
Positano, Italia
+39 (0) 89-8122828

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2013.

Positano Favorites: Le Tre Sorelle

“This isn’t mine,” I said confused as Paolo placed what seemed to be a giant calzone the size of a dinner plate in front of me. “Are you sure?” he said with a mischievous grin. “Look inside!” I peeped under a paper-thin layer of bread and my lasagne was nestled inside. Call me crazy, but I think the best presents are those that are edible. 😉

The wonderful staff (and my friends!) at Le Tre Sorelle always have little surprises like these to brighten my visit to Positano.  Usually, the meal starts with an amuse bouche of a heart-shaped pizza dough pocket filled with mozzarella and tomato and a little glass of prosecco. And the meal always ends for me with Paolo’s homemade limoncello.

After six years of visiting Le Tre Sorelle, my favourite waiter Gaetano knows my order by heart: For antipasto, the caprese salad made with cherry tomatoes.  For the main course, the fresh fish (ideally red snapper) cooked in the oven with potatoes, cherry tomatoes and capers. And washed down with my favourite wine from Campania, Taurasi from the Aglianico grape.  On this visit, my travel companion Becky chose the octopus salad with potatoes. Warm and tender, if you thought you didn’t like octopus in the past, you’d be wrong after trying this. And for main course, Becky chose the ugly to look at but decadent monkfish.

Situated right on the Spiaggia Grande in Positano, Le Tre Sorelle is a beacon of quality amongst what appears to be a tourist-trap dining scene. They take pride in their fresh seafood and will happily show you the selection and make a recommendation (like a sommelier for fish) before you choose your meal. They present it to you again when it’s cooked. Then again when it’s de-boned and ready to enjoy.

Service is paramount here and you can count on Gaetano, Paolo, Luigi and the rest of the Le Tre Sorelle family to make your lunch or dinner here truly spectacular. I look forward to my time here on every visit. 🙂

Le Tre Sorelle
Via Del Brigantino, 27/29
Positano, Italia
+39(0)89-875452

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2013.

Positano Favorites: Apertivo at Le Sirenuse

It was the most perfect prosecco pour I’ve ever seen.  Served table side, the manager confidently and expertly poured my prosecco from a fresh bottle until it bubbled to a perfect foamy dome on my Riedel glass.  All that was left to do was cheer, “Salute!”

Le Sirenuse is the most famous and iconic hotel in Positano and to be perfectly honest, it always intimated me a bit. But two years ago I was visiting Positano on a solo trip and I decided to embrace decadence and brave Le Sirenuse for apertivo. While admittedly elegant, the approachable and comfortable atmosphere throughout surprised me.  Great service is paramount here and you can tell that Le Sirenuse prides itself on it’s welcoming reputation.

The restaurant, bar and pool all share Le Sirenuse’s large terrace, and own some of the most spectacular and unspoiled views of Positano’s tiled duomo. It’s a great treat to sip a cocktail here while watching the sunset. Unhurried, you could sit for hours and still be catered to by the caring staff.  During the afternoon, you’re bound to share the terrace with sunbathers at the pool, so if you’re squeamish about that, save your visit for later in the evening.  At the bar, your cocktail is served with complimentary juicy green olives and warmed marcona almonds.  This has become my apertivo ritual before heading down to dinner at my favourite beach side restaurant, Le Tre Sorelle.

Thank you, Le Sirenuse, for a memorable experience every visit!

Le Sirenuse
Via Cristoforo Colombo, 30
84017
Positano, Italia
+39 (0) 89-875066

http://www.sirenuse.it/en/13/deafult.aspx

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2013.

Honorary Mayor of Positano

“We saw you down in the street kissing a handsome guy hello,”  said one of my new American friends.  “Well, that was a friend of mine,” I laughed in reply.  “After all, I’m basically the mayor of this town.”

A couple of days earlier, I met said Americans while waiting in line for the SITA bus from Sorrento to Positano.  English-speakers flock to each other when traveling I’ve found, so it’s not surprising that two couples from Kansas City heard me talking to my friend Becky while waiting for the bus and decided to strike up conversation. First it was to ask me if they were getting on the correct bus.  This being my sixth trip to Positano in as many years, I confidently gave them directions and chatted a bit about the town. Then when I asked them where they were staying in Positano, they told me, “We have to go to the Mediterranean restaurant and ask for Lorenzo.”  I rolled my eyes and started laughing, and they looked understandably shocked when I said, “Lorenzo’s my friend. I’ll take you there.”

Positano itself has less than 4,000 residents which is about twice the size of my high school, except that instead of four years together, the residents here have more often than not spent their entire lives together. Everyone knows everyone, and if you visit as often as I have, everyone knows you too.  Which in all honestly is why I love it so much.  When I arrived to my Pensione Casa Guadagno, the lovely Vanda greeted me in Italian telling me how good it was to see me again and how happy I looked.  And when I went to my standard Mediterraneo for dinner, my friend Antonio hugged me tight, saying, “Welcome home.”

Positano is a bit of a resort town, often depicted in movies like “Only You”, “Under the Tuscan Sun”, and “Nine” because of its idyllic landscape and views. And while I love a little taste of luxury, like apertivo at the bar at the iconic Le Sirenuse hotel, I find this town much more wholesome and authentic in its every day and spend much of my time there living like a local. Incidentally, I find traveling this way leads to the best adventures and stories, right Emily and Becky?!?!? 😉

This time, I planned my trip around the Festa del Pesce, Positano’s annual fish festival held on the Fornillo beach.  For five Euro you can choose a plate of fresh seafood prepared by the local vendors. There’s live music, dancing and fireworks to round out the evening before the young folk head to the town’s one and only club, Music on the Rocks. After scarfing some fried fish washed down with crisp Nastro Azzuro, Becky and I decided to check out the band.  It was as if every little nonna and nonno in town decided to go dancing that night.  Our favourite was a little signora clapping her castanets and dancing for hours at the very front of the stage.  She saw us swaying on the side, grabbed Becky’s hand, and pulled us out to dance with her.  Becky described it best the next morning, “It’s as if they are saying, ‘This is our town and we love it here!’ They want to show it off.” And living in a place like this, why wouldn’t they?

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2013.

From the Vault: Winter in Venice

Enchanting.

That’s the first to mind and most appropriate adjective I can use to describe Venice.  I’m convinced that those who say Venice is smelly, horrible and crowded with tourists have only seen it in the height of summer.

Because when I went, as a little pre-31st birthday trip at the end of January just before Carnivale, enchanting is all I experienced.  The city itself was amazingly quiet, and I rambled the streets and tiny alleyways in peace the entire weekend.

I think most everyone who has travelled to Venice gives the same advice: allow yourself to get lost and enjoy it while it’s happening.  The best parts of the canal are not the broad waterways you enter on filled with boats, water taxis and gondolas like a bizarre super highway, but the tiny aqueous pathways winding and snaking their way through the neighborhoods, carving paths that look entirely different in the day than shrouded in moonlight.  One evening after dinner, it took me what felt like hours to find my way back from San Marco to my hotel only just behind the piazza, but there are that many little streets that lead the impatient to confusion. Trust me, just go with it. What’s the hurry?  You’re in Italy after all!

I stayed at the lovely little Hotel Becher, and I got an upgrade to a canal view room on my arrival.  While my double room was tiny and really only appropriate for one person, it was clean, beautifully decorated with a vintage vibe.  Every evening around 4pm I opened my window and listened to gondoliers and musicians serenade tourists as they floated serenely by. Just outside the front door of the hotel is my now favourite shop in Venice, the leather workshop of Davide Desanzuane.  Beautiful journals, photo albums, bags and accessories made with hand pressed patterns made from metal stamps. Some of the most beautiful keepsakes you could ever ask for – make sure you find it!

For eating, take a little adventure and try the cicchetti bars.  These rustic little spots are Venice’s answer to tapas bars serving wine by the reasonably priced glass (2-3 Euro) and small plates of bruschetta and little panini on crusty bread. My favourite was Al Merca, in a little piazza just steps away from the canal and between the Rialto food market and the bridge. Great for apertivo but it really gets lively in the evening before the locals go out.  Dig out your restaurant Italian and give it a try!

The Rialto market itself is a great tourist destination – beautiful colors and fresh food you can gather to have a little picnic.  Make sure you explore, take pictures and at least feast your eyes.

It’s fairly common in winter for Venice to flood with the canal water coming up to the piazzas right to the tourists feet.  Venice’s answer to this is to put up temporary walkways elevated about 2 feet above the ground, no wider than to allow single file each way. A sight to behold for sure, but don’t get caught out if you visit in winter without boots! 🙂

For a day trip, most tourists take a water taxi out to Murano to explore the eponymous glass on the island.  I felt it was cursory to go out to Murano but it was quiet when I was there with the museum closed for renovation and there wasn’t any glass in the shops you couldn’t find in Venice proper. The real treat was to continue on the vaporetto route to Burano, known primarily for handmade lace.  Now, lace is all fine and good, but the real reason to head to Burano are the array of colourful houses lined up on the canal.  A photographer’s dream and a beautiful sight reflected in the canal waters.  Probably my best meal in Venice was in Burano actually at the lovely Il Gato Nero.  I had spaghetti with tiny little clams and some red wine to warm up on the sunny but chilly January day.  Great service and definitely a favourite among tourists and locals alike.

Osteria Enoteca San Marco just near my hotel was a great standby for dinner.  My fresh fish with shaved truffles on top was special but the tiramisu was epic.  I went back twice!  Another favourite in the center was Trattoria da Mario alla Fava.  You need reservations as this little place always seems to be busy but I squeezed in and had a lovely little half portion of orecciette. Yum.

For culture, the Peggy Guggenheim collection was truly wonderful, housed in a beautiful villa right on the canal.  If you like modern art, it’s a perfect culture stop on your Venice tour.

Take the vaporetto up and down the canal, drink in the sights, and get lost in Venice!

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2013.

Thunderstorm at the Duomo

After the Paradiso Rustico that is the Cinque Terre, we ventured to Milano.  It was my gateway back to London while lucky Becky continued on to Verona and Venice. (Um, color me jealous).

We knew we would arrive in Milan in the late afternoon and therefore had limited time to explore, but the number one on our lists was the duomo.  The weather was temperamental that day, but we arrived in Milan, checked into our hotel and booked it immediately to the duomo before it closed.  We took the elevator up to walk the roof terrace.  My first reaction was that there would be no way that you could do something like that in the U.S.  While we were definitely safe, we were essentially walking the edge of the roof of the duomo as clouds rolled in threateningly.

The sky opened up to a fantastic thunderstorm just as we were straddling the center rail of the roof.  We were pelted with rain and quarter-sized icy hail, but we were enthralled by the sight.  Black clouds surrounding the center of Milan but views to the alps in the distance through slices of sunshine.  It was one of those moments I knew while it was happening that it would be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2012.

Pesto and Seafood (but maybe not together)…

I was in T.K. Maxx last weekend, buying home goods for my new flat, and I felt compelled to buy a mortar and pestle.  Not that I’ll be making my own pesto from scratch in it rather than say, in a food processor, but I like to know that I could.

Pesto is one of the great triumphs of Liguria and we ate it in abundance while in Cinque Terre.  Another regional specialty is “trofie” a short pasta twisted in a spiral so the pesto will cling to it.  The best trofie di pesto I had was in Manarola, followed by a Nutella tiramisu (yes, you read that right).  The pesto was delicious, the tiramisu probably better looking than it tasted but that’s why there’s the old standby of gelato if your restaurant dessert goes wrong…

The seafood in this region is also special and we had a feast on our last night, dining in Monterosso at Via Venti.  We had a delicious meal including sardines and crab gnocchi along with some beautiful wine.  After dinner, we had a glass of wine at a chilled out bar in the center, then found the much more happening bar on the main drag that just reopened a week before our arrival following the October 2011 flood.

We stayed at the bar a bit too long, making new friends, and just missed our train – literally, we ran to the platform and could only touch it as it pulled away.  Since it was the last train back to Riomaggiore and we had no where else to go, we walked back to the bar in the rain and drowned our sorrows in White Russians.  Still, hard to get into too much trouble in a town with a population of only about 2,000.

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2012.

Paradiso Rustico

Sometimes you just need to crash someone else’s vacation.  And enable them to drink heavily.  And calm them down when you miss the last train back to your town…

GoodTravelerKarma readers know that I am completely fascinated by Positano in Italy’s Amalfi Coast.  I have a beautiful picture I took of Positano on my computer desktop and I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked, “Is that the Cinque Terre?”  and then gone out to tell me a story about this beautiful place.  Both of these idyllic destinations lie on Italy’s western coast, one south and one north respectively, and are built into the hillsides.  When I found out via the power of social networking that my best friend from college’s sister, Becky, was heading to Italy and Cinque Terre, I had to invite myself along to see them.

Cinque Terre is part of what is often referred to as the Italian Riviera, the jewel of which is Portofino.  We didn’t make it to see the glitterati in Portofino but we did explore all five towns in the Cinque Terre, a much more rustic and humble place than the Amalfi Coast that lives in my heart.

“Cinque Terre” means “Five Lands” and the region is actually a national park encompassing the five towns and the surrounding hiking trails.  In years past, most tourists to the region hiked the trail that connects all five towns: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.  Tragically, on October 25, 2011, floods and landslides devastated the two largest towns, Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza, after days of torrential rain.  The trails are now closed between Corniglia and Monterosso and the towns are busy rebuilding.  When we visited at the end of April, there was still a lot of work left in both towns, Vernazza in particular.  But this is a hardy region and one that I have no doubt will come back from tragedy.  A tribute to the spirit of this beautiful place is the art that now covers so many of the boarded doors of business, pensiones and apartments in Vernazza’s main drag.  There were two restaurants open when we were there and a gelateria with the most incredible cinnamon gelato I’ve ever tasted.  To find out more about the region and how you can support the rebuilding effort, visit http://savevernazza.com/.

Becky and I stayed in Riomaggiore, at the opposite end from Monterosso, in a little apartment run by the fabulous Ugo.  Our favorite feature was the tiny bathtub that we affectionately called “the birdbath.”  Needless to say, after a few days in the birdbath, the power showers at our chic hotel in Milano enthralled us. 🙂

One day as we explored Corniglia, the smallest of the five towns with a population of only about 300, we discovered the epitome of paradise. At the end of the main drag of the town, there was a huge terrace with a panoramic view of the sea.  We sat, drank red wine from gelato cups and watched the sun go down until we again had to hike it back to the station to catch the last train to Riomaggiore. 

That was the night we did make it back.  The last night, we weren’t so lucky… or maybe we were. 🙂   More on that later.

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2012.