All Things Italy September 2022 

September 1, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Vico Equense, on the Sorrento Peninsula south of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance

Dear friends: 

Last month I promised info about the Bay of Naples and the Sorrento Peninsula in this issue of All Things Italy. But I begin with a confession. I’ve been back from my summer sojourn and research in Italy five weeks, and friends still pose the question, “What was the best part?” 

My quick response: “The day my husband arrived.” 

But wait—that could be about ANYWHERE—not just Italy, right? And what do those words mean to those of us who are single? Or who prefer to travel solo? How does that response help us know more about Naples and its surroundings? And how is it related to your research on American authors abroad??? 

The answers aren’t simple, but they do dip into Italian culture, present and past. Nineteenth-century women, like the three at the center of Engaging Italy, were not supposed to travel alone.

I am happy to travel alone—especially in getting from point A to points B, C, and D. In fact, I often prefer it. I move quickly. (Fast Etta was a high school nick name!) I cover a lot of ground. I am glad we have set many 19th-century modes aside.

But in Italy I slip into a different mode. I take a mid-morning coffee break. I take a long afternoon rest, out of the hot sun. And I love the evening passeggiata. That’s where my husband’s arrival enters the picture.  

Alone or not Alone? That is the Question! 

Everyone in Italy who can takes an evening walk—summer, fall, spring or winter. Some walk alone. But it’s during this time, seeing so many out strolling with others, or sitting on a park bench, taking an aperitivo or a gelato, that a solo traveler can feel the most alone. Whether it’s giggly teens gathering on the lungomare (the seaside path in almost every coastal town) or a piazza, parents pushing strollers, young couples (or elderly ones) strolling arm in arm – everyone seems to be with someone else. Going to eat alone can seem rather, well, sad.  

“I never expected to feel alone in one of the most sociable countries in the world.”

Mark Rotella, Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures In Calabria (2003)

Mark Rotella writes of this situation in his popular memoir Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria (2003):  

“I love the food, the wine, the communal evening strolls; . . . I never expected to feel alone in one of the most sociable countries in the world. Perhaps it’s precisely because Italians are so social, however, that the solo traveler, however outgoing, can feel an acute sense of loneliness.” He writes of wanting “to look out over the Strait of Messina” with his wife and to “feel,” with her, the physical experience of sea breeze. “Italy’s beauty is meant to be shared,” he concludes.  

And so, the best part of my summer sojourn was the day my husband arrived. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t love my two days hiking with friend Kelly Van Patter (see last month’s All Things Italy), dining with professor friends from the University of Pisa, or catching up with friends in Florence, Turin, and Milan. And I enjoyed making new friends in Viareggio and Genoa (see June’s All Things Italy).  

It’s not saying that I didn’t see new sights I found stimulating earlier in the summer. From Pietra Santa in Tuscany to Turin in the north, I took and posted pics almost every day. But sharing time with my lifetime traveling partner around the Bay of Naples was almost all a pure pleasure. The exception? The heat! More on that as we proceed. . . . 

Naples & its Environs: More than Pizza and Pickpockets 

One part of the pleasurable was that it was almost a complete vacation. For this part of the trip, I had planned to set historical research on nineteenth-century women aside. I would spend time with Neil (his first visit to the Naples area) exploring and re-exploring the “gritty” city (as my friend Kelly described Naples after her early July visit), Pompeii, Sorrento, and Capri. 

Some parts of the stay went as planned. I was able to take a salty sea swim every day I wished. I consumed good food and drink—and not alone. I had a partner for my evening stroll. I saw a few new sites; Neil saw many. Note: I resisted as much as possible telling him all about nineteenth-century American travelers’ reflections on these sites! 

The typical stops for a short stay in the area: Pompeii, Vesuvius, the national archeological museum in Naples, the island of Capri (with its Blue Grotto), and Positano (on the south side of the Sorrento Peninsula, better known as the Amalfi Coast).

Four friends and newsletter subscribers worked with this list as they communicated with me and planned their trips this summer. People make the area their own, of course, according to their interests. Some book a hike or a bike ride (e-bikes recommended!) around Vesuvius. Others do a citrus grove visit and learn to make limoncello. Others opt for a pizza lesson in Naples, the home of the now-world-famous pie. Still others choose simply to order a couple of pizzas on the Spaccanapoli, the ancient street that splits the city’s historic center, and stroll among the crowds.

Neil and I varied from the list as well. Our interests are more about history and being outside–although we like food and drink. They are less about shopping. Neil wanted to e-bike on Vesuvius. Since I have hiked it before, and the sun reflecting off the stony soil was brutal, we compromised with an e-bike tour outside Naples to the western point of Posilippo. I wanted to see this area associated with the classical poet Virgil (and which nineteenth-century travelers regularly visited). Yes, we negotiated Naples traffic on our e-bikes, closely following an expert on cycling in the city.  

Almost barren crater of Vesuvius on an early summer hike a few years ago. Avoid this brutally sunny spot in July or August!

Reality check about short visits: there is never enough time to do everything. Plan a second trip. It’s always good to have a reason to return to a place of interest, right? 

So, in addition to setting aside Vesuvius, we set aside Capri. It hurts my heart to write and read these words! I fell in love with the enchanting island and Sorrento as an undergrad college student. As a result, I have returned several times since.  

Sorrento sits perched high on a cliffside, with views of Vesuvius and Capri, above a harbor where boats regularly deliver passengers to and from Naples and the nearby islands of Capri, Procida and Ischia. I wanted Neil to experience ALL of them.  

And I wanted him to hike to the height of Capri’s Villa Jovis, the largest home the Emperor Tiberius had built for his pleasures. (My friend Kelly loved it—and her whole Capri experience. Check out some of her lovely pics on Instagram). But we had stretched our limits with Pompeii, Naples, and the heat—and some similar excursions elsewhere before we arrived. 

We also wanted to enjoy the little town on the Sorrento peninsula which we had selected for our lodging: Vico Equense. 

Off the Beaten Path: Vico Equense and Castellammare  

Many of you know that I want to go where I will hear more Italian and less English—definitely less American English—and where locals will let me speak Italian. Because I had visited and lodged on the Sorrento Peninsula before, I knew it had options other than those thick with US tourists. My selection for our short stay: Vico Equense. I read about the hillside town last winter in Robert V. Camuto’s South of Somewhere: Wine, Food, and the Soul of Italy. (For my comments on the book, scroll down in the December 2021 issue of All Things Italy.) He visited family here as a child. Camuto’s Vico called to me. It did not disappoint. 

We arrived in Vico from the Naples airport with neither rental car nor private driver (both are easy options). We went for another easy option—super inexpensive and convenient. For 10 euro each, we took the Curreri bus service from the airport to Vico. (We traveled with little luggage, but even these carry-ons the bus driver stowed underneath for us, so we didn’t have to lift them overhead.) The comfortable coach was air-conditioned, and we sat high above the roadway, with good views of both thick traffic and the Bay.  

Our AirBnB host welcomed us where we descended from the bus and escorted us to our spacious apartment overlooking the town’s central square. From there we observed the evening chaos start around six, as it would every evening. Before that we also checked out the beaches, but only from above—a twelve-minute walk down in one direction to the Pezzolo and the same distance to the east for the other. Later, we would decide we preferred the former—slightly larger, with fewer boats and more options for both free and pay spots on the pebbly shore.

Drawn by the aroma and the surrounding customers, we stopped at the panificio for freshly baked picnic lunch items before heading down the long flight of stairs to the beach below. Often before noon we were ready to be out of the sun (arrive early for an umbrella and recliner or to find a slice of shade under the cliffside for your towel). After the swim and the climb in return, the afternoon rest had its appeal—an escape from the heat and sun.  

One highlight of our evenings: food and drink at the Gran Caffè Zerilli, a popular spot where we enjoyed aperitivi two evenings and dinner a third. Perhaps more popular with locales for the aperitivi—served with several options for snacks and small plates—the dining deserves equal recognition.

We asked Raffaele, the maître, for the chef Mario’s fish tasting option for a multi-course meal. We lost count of the courses, from two antipasti and two primi (for each of us) before the main course, all featuring fresh seafood, like lupini. These have the same name as a bean, but they a clearly “fruits of the sea” rather than of the soil. Only the light dessert did not include fish but, instead, featured local citrus. Raffaele also recommended Krato’s Fiano, a white wine of the region, to accompany the meal. An excellent choice! This evening and our others at this popular spot left us with fond memories of Vico and a desire to return. 

But we did not spend all our time in this lively coastal town. 

Around Vico with the Circumvesuviana 

A familiar sight during our stay: this sign at the Vico Equense station for the Circumvesuvian, the train around the Bay of Naples

One late afternoon we headed to Sorrento by train (11 minutes and less than two euro) for an evening there. One morning we took the train to Pompeii—24 minutes and a couple of euro. Another day we rode to Naples—a slightly longer ride and only a slightly higher price (still less than four euro).

And on another day we ventured to Castellammare, where we ascended the funicolare (gondola) and hiked through the Villaggio Monte Faito, originally a nineteenth-century visionary’s village designed for back-to-nature and back-in-time “get aways.” The mountaintop rural experience also would allow city dwellers to escape the heat. Certainly, that’s what we were trying to do this late-July day. 

A view of Castellammare from the funicolare ascending Monte Faito

From the top of the funicolare, after a short picnic, we headed on a clearly marked trail toward the Chiesa di San Michele, where we hoped for a panoramic view of the south side of the peninsula. It promised a peek at Positano, which we would not otherwise see during our short stay. As we walked along the easy ridge trail, we spied signs of sheep and tried to avoid sullying the soles of our shoes. Soon after we greeted a couple of twenty-first century shepherds, sporting tattoos and t-shirts rather than animal skins. They were wisely taking their afternoon repose in the shade, caring for their canine assistants. The dogs lounged as well but in the dirt, wanting as much as we did the water, shade, and cooler temps. The dogs and shepherds were smart enough to not hike in the afternoon heat.   

The well-marked, shady and easy path along the ridge of Mount Faito toward the church of San Michele

The view from the church and refuge we eventually reached was nice, but we realized we had misread the trail maps and markers and underestimated the time needed to reach the best point of perspective for Positano. The highlight, instead, was meeting a young Ukrainian boy, perhaps eleven or twelve, tending the small snack and gift shop. Through English that exceeded his Italian, we learned that he had been there only since the war with Russia began. How many of his family members had he left behind as he arrived as an exile here, I wondered?  

Once again Italy surprised me with reminders of how much things change, even as they stay the same. The Sorrento peninsula is still as beautiful as before. There are still shepherds in rural areas–though you might not recognize them as such, if you saw them riding scooters in Naples. And there are many more than Italians and tourists living in this diverse space. For centuries the peninsula has welcomed and harbored immigrants and visitors. I am fortunate to have been among them.  

PS. We hired a private driver to get us back to Naples for an early departure. It was worth the extra euro to not stress over a potentially late train and a missed connection. The driver delivered us directly to the door of the train station, and we arrived early enough for our last caffè doppio e macchiato (my choice), cappuccino (Neil’s choice), and cornetti (the southern Italian name for croissants, which are called brioche further north).  

Engaging Italy: A Few Connections to Naples

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering, what does any of this vacation around the Bay of Naples have to do with nineteenth-century American authors and my book Engaging Italy?  

All three women featured in Engaging Italy visited Naples and its environs. And they did not travel alone. (A section of the book discusses this topic). Most visited Vesuvius and Sorrento. Pompeii was not yet the excavated site that it is today—although excavations around Vesuvius had begun.

Anne Hampton Brewster lived in Naples for several months and wrote about it in her autobiographical novel, St. Martin’s Summer. In 1850 Caroline Crane Marsh traveled up the mountain to peer into its cone and a few days later saw it erupt. She considered the experience a highlight of her long life. Emily Bliss Gould also witnessed an eruption and wrote of it for a US periodical. And a book memorializing Gould after her death in 1875 includes a Preface by popular British poet Mary Howitt, written from where Howitt sojourned–Castellammare. (I’ll be giving a talk on Gould and this book next week! See events listed below.) 

Nineteenth-century travelers visited Naples and its environs in the winter, absorbing the culture, the delectable citrus, and the southern sun. What I should have noted from reading their writings—theirs were all winter sojourns! Next time, I’ll avoid the area in July and especially August.  

Until next time, I hope you’ll keep reading and dreaming about “All Things Italy” along with me. 

And do keep reaching out with questions and suggestions. You keep me going! 

Alla prossima, 

Hardcover copies of Engaging Italy (SUNY Press 2022), featuring Caroline Crane Marsh, Anne Hampton Brewster, and Emily Bliss Gould (clockwise from lower left)

Paperback version of Engaging Italy releases soon! 

Thanks to you who have purchased hardcover or e-editions of Engaging Italy. (Don’t forget to post a review, however brief, on Goodreads or Amazon. Those really help authors.) The paperback version, scheduled for release in early October, is available for pre-order now. You can do that directly through SUNY Press or through an online vendor.  

Upcoming talks 

I’ll be sharing more about these women and their Italian experiences in upcoming talks. These are tailored for specific audiences. I would be happy to work with you and any group you’re a part of on a tailored book talk.   

Revising Daisy Miller: The Story of Miss Jones
September 7 @ 11:00 am – 12:00 pm CDT

This online talk, drawn from Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks, will focus on Emily Bliss Gould, founder and fundraiser for an industrial school and orphanage in Rome.  The audience will be an online group–mostly academics–that focuses on “transatlantic” women writers. See the Transatlantic Literary Women website for more information about connecting, or you can email me and I will be sure you have the link.

Mr. Kate Cromo: News Correspondent Anne Hampton Brewster in Rome, 1869-1890
January 19, 2023 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm CST

This presentation, part of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Fireside Chat Series, focuses on Philadelphian Anne Hampton Brewster’s career as a news correspondent in Rome. This part of her life plays a significant role in my book, Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. Brewster’s personal library, papers, and several other items were left to the Library Company after her death in 1892. Research in these materials laid the foundation for Engaging Italy and for the talk. The talk will be streamed and recorded. Register for this FREE event here.

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Etta Madden