A Travellerspoint blog


It was with some reluctance that we left Matera, and drove to this small seaside town on the Tyrrhenian coast in Calabria. Bustling in the summer, it is largely dead at this time of year, and many of the restaurants and shops are closed. It has a very attractive old part of town, with narrow lanes and pretty piazzas. Unfortunately there is a lot of ugly development that surrounds it, and much of the old town could use repair, some of which is going on during this slow time of year.





When we went to the tourist office to get a map,


there was a young woman from New Hampshire who was staffing the place. She has lived in Tropea for 16 years. After her parents divorced, she came to Italy with her Italian mother. She told us about an interesting pizza joint for dinner, not far from our little apartment, and later we decided to try it out.

Ali Baba is run by a very friendly Egyptian man, who spoke relatively good English after spending three years in London. Trained as an archeologist,he says he is content making pizza because he gets to meet people from all over the world. It is a tiny place, mostly take-out, but the pizza, with kabobs, was quite good, and he seemed to be doing a good business even during this slow time of year. While we were there a young woman, who looked to be in her mid 20's showed up with her father, Roberto. She had some English, and so we started talking to her. She has worked as a journalist for a regional Calabrian paper for nine years. Although she really likes the job, often several years go by before she gets paid for each article she writes. She is still studying in university, but feels she knows far more about journalism than any of her professors, none of whom have any journalism training or experience.

We asked if she was angry about not getting paid, and the answer,not surprisingly, was, "Yes."

"Why don't you get another job?"

"There are no other jobs."

"What if you went into something other than journalism"

"Well, I love my job, but it wouldn't make any difference. There are no other jobs."

"Even in other fields?"

"Yes. It wouldn't matter."

"Do you think it is the fault of the government?"

"No,not really. The Italians are lazy. It's in their DNA."

" So you mean they are really laid back,and easy going?"

"Yes, you could say that. They like the sun and the sea, and they don't want to work hard."

"Do you think anything can be done?"

"No, not really. I have my family, but I would like to get married and have children, and maybe buy a car, but there is no way I can afford that. There is nothing I can do."

She seemed resigned to a vicious cycle of barely being able to make ends meet, and living a very restricted life. This seems to be the fate of many young people here in southern Italy. The desk person at the Alpi Hotel in Rome, more or less told me the same thing. She was urging her daughter to learn English so that she could move somewhere else in the EU where there might be more job opportunities.

Soon after that, "The King of Ice Cream" walked into Ali Baba, or that is what the Egyptian proprietor said to us. Then this gentleman said, "No, not me, my father is the King." His father runs a successful gelato business, and has invented all kinds of different flavors, including sweet onion, cipolla, which is a local specialty here in Tropea. Not the ice-cream, but the onions. The following day we went to a trattoria for lunch, and although we did not have this dish, the man next to us insisted we try his frittata cipolla. Similar to a Spanish tortilla, it was delicious. At any rate, the son of the King of Ice-cream, or the Prince, as he called himself, makes a good enough living to be able to travel to the States, and has done so twice. However, he agreed with the twenty-something journalist that it is very hard for young people in today's economy, and also agreed that in southern Italy many people don't want to work hard.

On the surface, the roads seem good, the bathrooms are generally clean, though often minus toilet seats, there is not a lot of garbage everywhere, but at the same time, the cycle of poverty seems to take on a life of its own here. It seems quite difficult to escape what appears to be the southern Italian culture. It was disheartening to hear to the resignation, and to some extent the hopelessness, in our young journalists' words.

Stromboli Island

Posted by jonshapiro 09:59 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (1)


Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment

Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background

Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church

Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo

Basilica at the edge of ravine

Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side

Alley's about town. Nanette on right


There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set

Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman

A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.


Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.



We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea

Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.


Though on a few days we had sun.



We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.



We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.


Selfie from across the ravine

After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Sorrento and Pompeii

Sorrento 2/24/15

The drive from Rome was easy, but we got bad advice about the route and went first to Salerno, which is on the southern end of the Amalfi coast. This was 60 or 70K out of the way, and then we had to drive back the 50k up the narrow coast road just as it was getting dark. Though not quite as scary as some of the Himalayan roads I have been on, it was nonetheless extremely narrow, with many curves and steep drop offs to the sea, hundreds of feet below.



Unlike in India I was driving, but we made it, and then struggled to find our Airbnb apartment in the narrow lanes of Sorrento. Our host's English was poor, she couldn't understand our Spanish, and she didn't seem to recognize any of the landmarks we mentioned. Also, our phone GPS was useless, a harbinger of things to come while driving in Italy. Exhausted we were glad to arrive.

Yesterday we made the pilgrimage to Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the sun was out for part of the day. Pompeii was especially impressive as it goes on for what seems like miles, and gives you a real feel for what a Roman town of some 20,000 must have been like. However, having seen Angkor Wat and its vast ruins, we are a bit jaded.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in background

Long avenue in Pompeii

House details in Pompeii

Sport complex

Street Scene Herculenium

Today was spent wandering the postcard pretty streets of Sorrento in the rain, which lasted for the entire day. At one end of the Amalfi coast, the town still had it's share of tourists even at this time of year. The narrow lanes did not lend themselves to driving, and I was only too glad to leave the car at our little apartment. Even walking was difficult, what with the other traffic and the rain. Nanette went to a museum of wood inlay objects and purchased a couple of music boxes from the factory, and then we spent the remainder of the afternoon reading before I ran out just before dark to get more pasta and arugula for dinner.

Tomorrow we drive to Matera, and luckily will not have to repeat the coast road again.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:52 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (3)


Alpi Hotel-Rome 2/21/15

Ah Roma. We have spent four days here after our fly by night no name budget airline, Blue Panorama, got us here in one piece, albeit 3 hours late. It seems that many Italians visit Cuba, and so there is a direct Havana-Rome connection. We found our hotel near Termini Train Station without too much difficulty, and it has been a convenient place to stay. We have spent our days walking, and then walking some more in order to see the sights of this easy to live with city. I expected more buzzing scooters, but many parts of the city, and nearly all of the major piazzas, are blessedly car and cycle free, making for a much more enjoyable walking experience. Things have apparently changed in this regard since Nanette was here with our daughter 16 years ago. We have also been lucky with the weather, which up until today was generally sunny with temps in the upper 50's, warm enough to be comfortable outside.

The first day, and in some ways the best, we spent at the Colosseum and Palatine Hill viewing the oldest parts of the city.




We walked around the Colosseum and took in all the ruins on the hill and then made our way to the Roman Forum. Those Romans certainly knew how to build on a massive scale.




Day two was spent on an excursion to the burbs to see the new Maxxi Museum of Modern Art, which had an exhibition of architecture inspired by WW 2, but also some Iranian paintings and photographs, before and after the revolution. We then walked near some beautiful streets and piazzas near the Spanish steps,and climbed up a few of the other hills. Dinner that night was in a trattoria, Mamma Angela's near Termini. Good, but not quite as good as my own home-made pasta.



The following days we viewed the Trevi Fountain, now under renovation, Piazza Navona, and the not to be missed Pantheon, which seemed in amazingly good shape.




We went to Galleria Borghese, which turned out to be a much longer walk then we thought. The whole area is called Borghese, and we did not specifically ask for the Galleria. It is in the park above the Spanish Steps, but not right above them as the area is quite large. We got there too late for them to honor our reservation, and had to return at 5 PM to see the Bellini.

In between mad dashes across the park, we picked up Nanette's glasses, ordered the day before, and ate home made pasta at a tiny standing room only place that was recommended by the sales woman. Standing eating, or drinking coffee, seems to be a Roman, possibly an Italian thing. If you want to eat cheaply, this is the only way to do it. She also told us about a Jewish/Roman restaurant where we will go one evening for dinner. Should be interesting, but I doubt they will have Jewish Pepper Chicken, a la the Kochi, Kerala specialty. We shall see.


The Bellini statues were indeed beautiful, but by the time we got back to hotel that evening our feet were hurting.


  • *********************************

Today we ventured further afield to Appian Antica to the San Sebastian Catacombs. Before we arrived, I didn't make the connection, but San Sebastian is the saint who was shot up with arrows by the Roman pagans, and hence became a Christian martyr some time around the 3rd century. This San Sebastian is the very same one whose picture adorns 3/4ths of the paintings in Venice, and drove me crazy because there were so many them when we visited many years ago.

The catacombs were twisting and narrow,easy to get lost in without a guide, and although full of Christians, there were Romans cremated and buried there even earlier.


We also stopped to see the Carracola, Roman baths, built by the emperor of the same name. Taking up several city blocks with walls at least 50 feet high, the place could accommodate 6000 bathers at a time. Although much of it is in ruins today, many of the walls remain, and a few sections of the old tiled floors as well. Supersize me was obviously a Roman concept. Speaking of which, Mickey D's are scattered all over the city, but they have located them in buildings hundreds of years old instead of in something new, so they fit right in the current Roman scene




It has been an interesting form of time travel to go from the decrepit old buildings of Habana Vieja, to even older buildings, in many cases much older but in better repair, here in Rome. Of course, they don't have American cars from the 40's and 50's, but the architecture more than makes up for that.

People have been friendly, though not quite as much as the Cubans, many of whom seemed eager to talk with us and find out what was going on. Of course, they are much more cut off than the Romans, who have the internet and other modern accoutrements.

Even at this time of year, there are many European tourists here. They come over for a short holiday from Britain, Germany, etc., which are only a short and cheap flight away. For this reason, as well as its ancient history, Rome feels very cosmopolitan. The pace is much slower then New York, for example, and the city is obviously very walkable. It is hard not to ooh and ahh at every new vista and ancient building. Somehow I expected a greater hodge podge of old and new, but it has not seemed liked that. New in Rome, seems to mean something from the 15 or 1600's. There are some exceptions, but the character of the city seems to be all of a piece, old, and older for the most part.

We are lucky to be here at a time when the Euro is down. While things are far from cheap, they are more or less on par with major US cities. Our last meal, at the aforementioned Jewish restaurant, turned out to be a disappointment. The place was stuffy and the food not particularly good, but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm for Rome.

Tomorrow we leave for Sorrento in a rental car. That should be an adventure.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:45 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

Trinidad, Cuba

Hostal Margaritas, Trinidad

Picture postcard cute, Trinidad is an almost fully intact colonial city of about 30,000. It feels a bit like San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, with hills and cobblestone streets. Of course, that was close to 40 years ago. Plaza Mayor has been almost fully restored, and is the center of tourism in town, of which there are plenty. In seems almost everyone who comes to Cuba stops here, mostly Brits, French, Italians, Spaniards, and a smattering of Canadians. The are also plenty of Jinteros, touts, who seem more aggressive than elsewhere in Cuba. People are still friendly, but they are clearly a bit jaded with all the tourists around, and are quick to overcharge for agua and comida, especially around the plaza.




Step away from the center of town however, and life proceeds in typical Cuban fashion, with buildings in need of major repair, horse carts and bicycles, tiny tiendas and mercados, etc.





We have spent the last few days wandering around, sometimes with our friend Terry, and sometimes not. We have eaten a couple of tasty meals here at our Casa, and then last night, based on the advice of our casa's dueno, we found Restaurante San Jose. Excellent Cuban food at reasonable prices. We had to wait, but it was worth it.

One of the oldest churches in town, now just a shell

On one of the days we took a short hike up one of the colima's (hills) on the edge of town. We walked up to the cell tower/radio station, and got into a lengthy chat with the caretaker. He took us to the roof of one of the buildings for a panoramic view of the city, sea on one side, mountains on the other. As a largely self-educated black man, he confirmed the presence of racismo here, and was not sure that even if the embargo is lifted entirely, that the common people would benefit. Of course, the hombres de negocios, businessmen, will profit, he said, but probably not guys like him. He had similar complaints about the government as most of the folks we have talked to, but again, it was even handed. He told us about the free medical care, education, food allotments, etc. that the government provides. We spoke with him for quite some time, and he let us know that most Cubans are very interested in reading, and line up for books at the library or when there are book fairs. Although a compesino, he was very well informed about what goes on in the world, more than you can say about his counterparts in the United States.

Yesterday we took the 2 CUC tourist bus out to the Ancon beach. Said to be the best beach on the Caribbean side of the island, it was nice, though not perfect for swimming because of the seagrass which started close to shore.But no matter, as it was too cold to swim, at least for us. There were several large and expensive hotels nearby, but we spent an enjoyable day lying on lounge chairs, in the shade of umbrellas made from palm leaves.


After dinner, in my endless quest for rumba, we wandered up to Casa La Musica, which is an outdoor venue just off the plaza. not a casa at all, Although not strictly speaking rumba, which has been variously defined, it was a hopping place with a very good band, that had several congas and timbales, trumpet, singer, electric base and piano etc. We met a young Belgium couple there, intentionally, as we had run into them earlier in the day at the beach, and who we had previously met at Zunilda y Raya's place in Cienfuegos. It wasn't long before Nicholas and I were buying each other mojitos, with his girlfriend Caroline keeping up without any problem. Actually, they had a few rounds before we got there.

There were some incredible dancers in the crowd, almost all Cuban, who were moving in perfect sync to the music. It inspired me to consider taking lessons once again when we return to New York. It seems that Cubans know intuitively how to swivel their hips, and it is easy to believe, as the book I just finished reading about cuban music suggested, that Elvis had seen a Latin movie in the States, and copied his moves from the movie. There was one old guy there, probably in his 70's, who was dancing expertly with a few women less than half his age, and he had no trouble leading them around, twisting and turning them with his arms, sometimes more than one at a time. A placer para mis ojos. And then there were a couple of white folks, also our age, who knew how to dance to this afro-cuban stuff. Spaniards? Possibly.

After an hour or so, another group came on, all black this time, with even more drummers and singers, along with costumed dancers. They sang in a combination of Spanish and African, and although clearly done for tourists, they were damn good. I felt, really for the first time, that I was getting to hear some of the music that I was hoping for in Cuba, which until now has eluded me. It was a mixed crowd of locals and tourists with a very nice vibe. We stayed two hours before walking home. The music seems to start earlier here than in Habana, which is a good thing for us older folk, though I could have stayed even longer. Tomorrow it's back to Habana for a night before heading to Europe.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:55 Archived in Cuba Tagged churches buildings people postcards Comments (4)

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