Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Minori, Amalfi Coast - Authentic village life

After spending four nights blissfully soaking in the treasures and wonders of Santorini, it was hard to imagine that any of our following locations could muster up the same kind of emotional and awe-filled response. Yet, we were still giving Italy a good go to try and come close to it. We jumped on a plane from Athens and very quickly arrived in Naples.

Leading up to our stay in Italy, I had been in correspondence with our hosts for our accommodation. After many translated messages, and some interpreting of mismatched words, I had a good idea of the warmth and friendliness of our first host in Minori. He had always been very joyful and enthusiastic in his communication, something I myself try to convey when conversing with strangers. However, no amount of words could have prepared me for the absolute bundle of joy this man was. When we finally arrived in Minori, after an hour of swerving and winding through the mountains, we arrived in our town and waited to meet our host. It was easy to spot him down the road, with his enormous smile blocking the street, along with his outstretched arms inviting us all in to not only his town but also a piece of his heart. When he finally finished the 20metre walk of outstretched arms, he enveloped me and planted two typical Italian kisses on my cheeks before holding them in his hands like he was welcoming in a close relative. He then proceeded to do this ceremony with the rest of us, breaking down any discomfort of not speaking each other’s language very well. We felt like we had arrived home.

Speaking of home, after dragging our bags up another steep 100-something stairs, he opened up the big, blue doors to his holiday house. The sight of it instantly evoked a sigh of awe and relief as we fell in love with the interior that so aptly suited this Italian, smiling, sunny man. The detailed tiles carried through into the large, open kitchen and then into the living room and bedroom. The doors that appeared to be cupboards opened up to a cosy bathroom, again decorated in stunning, detailed tiles. The big finale of his presentation of the house, the “ta-da” moment, was when the balcony doors were proudly pushed open to reveal a brilliant view; the town’s church steeple could be seen at eye level with a backdrop of the sea. Perfect!

After sharing a quick espresso on the beach with our friend, he left us to bathe in the serenity of Minori and have our first dip in our local beach. It really did have such an authentic, local feel. There were no tourists to be seen, and the beach was covered with passionate Italian-speaking families, couples, soccer-playing kids, tanning grandmas and bloated grandpas. The temperature was immaculate and the sunset wasn’t all too bad, either!

Our time spent in Minori was incredible. Each morning we would wake up to Dave’s breakfast spread; his morning walk usually involved him climbing the hills to find fresh figs (the best I have ever tasted!), juicy peaches and nectarines, and of course a pit stop at the local pastry shop for assorted goodies. Following breakfast, we would frequent the corner café to pick up our coffees, and then start the day.
We decided to visit the town Amalfi, which was accessed via ferry. We were able to get the coastline views from the boat and agreed that this heavenly place could not disappoint, despite the high standards that Santorini had previously set. Whilst Amalfi town was wonderful, it only confirmed to us that “our” town was the absolute best place to set up camp; Amalfi was brimming with tourists, souvenirs, trinkets and bustling streets. We ventured up to the looming Cathedral and we were absolutely stunned with the architecture, art and beauty of it all. So much fun was had roaming through the shops and checking out the local goods displayed in every window. However, I must admit, it was lovely returning to our colourful, tiled home. I can’t mention the return to home, without telling you about our beautiful neighbour, a miniature, but incredibly sturdy Italian woman whose smile revealed a lifetime of beautiful stories behind her eyes. Trying to keep a conversation with attempted translation took a lot of time, but she was incredibly persistent in keeping us company in the hallway for as long as she possibly could. I absolutely adore her.

Our next day was one of the most memorable days I have ever had. Dave, in his cleverness and practicality, organised us two motorbikes for the day to roam the hills of the infamous coastline. I’m sure it was a combination of many things, but this day was just entirely amazing. The sun danced with the fresh breeze all day, whilst our bikes smoothly curved along the winding roads. It was exhilarating as well as nerve-racking at times! Every ten minutes we passed the local buses, except that the buses were about the size of 10 gigantic elephants walking along a tightrope!!! It was so tight, but the drivers were so nonchalant about skimming around the cliff-faced curves, courteously tooting their horns every now and then.

We managed to pass through the towns on our bikes, eventually reaching sweet Sorrento. After enjoying lunch by the water, and stretching out the cramps in our bums and legs, we jumped back on the bikes to enjoy the thrill of doing it all over again, with the sunset competing with the first leg of our journey. It was so easy to take a million pictures, yet still, they couldn’t do the picturesque beauty any justice. A place I would easily go back to, people I would easily fall in love with, again and food I would so very easily consume, every day!

It tends to always come back to food, for us! But in finishing I must reminisce on perhaps one of the best meals I have ever had! One of the nights we spent in Minori, we meandered through the streets to come across a beautiful, little, hidden restaurant, only evident by the glow of tea-light candles upon the stone walls when walking past. When we enquired for a table for four, two small-framed ladies swiftly put together a small table for us to squeeze in. Their smiles instantly won us over, before even tasting the food. With the entire menu written in Italian, one of the ladies so graciously translated it all for us tourists, pointing out and strongly suggesting her own favourites. We asked a couple of questions which then elicited the response “don’t worry, I make you something special, off the menu”. With no idea what to expect but curious taste buds, we closed the menus and awaited our meals. To begin with, the wine was brought out in clay jugs, hand painted with olive greens and sea blues. The starter of bread and oil had Tim’s mouth watering, but it was the Zucchini soup that had Maree and I in hysterics over such a flavoursome, unique and warming entrée. I could have stopped there, in complete satisfaction. I’m so glad I didn’t! We were then treated to freshly made pasta lightly covered in incredible, bursting-with-flavour sauces and herbs. I can’t even try to describe this culinary journey to heaven. The gorgeous little waitress stood next to us, smiling with complete satisfaction knowing what magic she had just performed and walked away winking at us. To follow, we devoured a dessert of what I can only describe as a light, lemon cake covered in a layer of chocolate. A delicious, melting, sweet, scrumptious moment that I will never regret, despite the fullness of my stomach caused by overconsumption of real Italian food.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Oia, Santorini - Blue skies, blue seas and blue domes

As the one behind all the organising and all the booking of the finer details for the trip, I quickly gained the title “Tour Guide” that would stick around for the next 3 weeks. It was a title that I didn’t take on lightly and it came with an immense amount of pressure. On approach to each destination I inwardly started to panic in fear that we would turn up to accommodation hosting nothing but walls of peeling, stained paper, located hundreds of unimaginative streets away from any kind of attraction, and beds of paper-thin mattresses. On the ferry ride to Santorini, this was playing on my mind and once we boarded the taxi bus at the port on the other side, I started praying that the photos were even slightly similar to the reality of where we were staying in Oia.

In hindsight, it would have been near impossible for me to get this one wrong, but I can’t express the relief I felt after greeting our host near the Oia post office, and making our way towards the town. We suddenly walked into what seemed like a movie set of a typical Greek island, clichéd with white buildings resting big blue domes on their fresh, reflective walls. Our host, already sweating from his day’s work, quickly and assertively walked us through the crowds of people and down the myriad of stairs to our apartment. He smiled telling us that there 90 steps to the apartment. We laughed, until we realised it wasn’t a joke.

Once getting down the unending stairs, trying to keep up with our swift host, we lifted our intent, watchful eyes from the narrow steps to see the doorway to our Greek home. A blue picket fence led us to our terrace, which conveniently looked over the glistening water. To our right was a mountain range of stunning little homes, artistically giving texture and colour to the landscape. To our left was the naturally beautiful, earthy-red cliff face, topped with more white, blue and pink structures. I was assured that I did not let the team down with our accommodation, despite the hesitation to climb back up the stairs anytime soon.

However, the stairs were unable to inhibit us for a second, as we were so excited to explore this island, not to mention get some lunch!! We pretty much walked into the first restaurant we stumbled upon and ordered from the fresh menu; tomato and mozzarella cheese salads, grilled fish, pasta, big green salads, all accompanied with the standard basket of bread and local olive oil. It’s hard to believe that one of the things that stunned us the most about the food here was actually the tomato. Tim and I don’t even really like tomatoes! But, shivers, I have never tasted such plump, juicy, sweet and tantalising tomatoes before!!! From this day on, there was not a meal that we indulged in that did not involve the wonders of Greek tomatoes.

Oh man, thinking about the delicious food we enjoyed makes me want to try and recreate every mouthful for you. It’s impossible to do so, but the memories of the food will always be intricately detailed in my mind. One particular meal that was impressionable on me was when we came across a homely little restaurant with blue checkered table-clothes scattered under a big awning. We sat down and instantly worked out that the waiters were the sons of the grey-haired gentleman, who was arranging the oil and vinegar bottles on the tables. This older man’s eyes were framed with deep, friendly and tanned wrinkles and his grey curly hair sat joyfully atop his gentle face. He instantly reminded me of my own grandfather who had passed away only a few months earlier. I immediately loved this man, and whilst he didn’t speak a word of English, I really appreciated the hard work and family culture that was invested into this restaurant.

Whilst it’s hard to believe that we did anything other than eat – we also managed to enjoy many other things on this picturesque island. With the hustle and bustle of the tourists visiting Santorini, there were such a vast amount of shops riddled amongst the houses, displaying stunning art, fashion and souvenirs. We spent a lot of our time going through the streets and just admiring the gifted crafts that were on display. Maree developed an obsession for linen, which was available in abundance in Oia, and both her and Dave managed to purchase some amazing items.

Visiting Santorini means a definite viewing of the sunset, which Oia is enormously famous for. I have to admit, it was an incredibly gorgeous sight, yet a giggle couldn’t be helped, as we watched bus loads of people file, push, shove and queue their way towards the end of the town, to view the going down of the sun. We were spoilt with a prime spot in a restaurant and from here we could see the sky change to warm, romantic colours until it finally fell dark. However, from here we also watched the spectacle of people as they flocked, in hundreds, to do the same. The castle perched on the hill, was covered with silhouetted figures enjoying the beauty of nature.

For me, the highlight of the trip was being on the back of a quad-bike, holding on to the back of Tim, with an enormous grin on my face. My legs felt the warmth of the sun and the fresh wind made the heat bearable. It was such a load of fun and I couldn’t help myself from singing into Tim’s ear, every song I could recall about sunshine and summer. He smiled and laughed graciously despite the repeated choruses wringing in his ear.

Any lack of vitamin D was made up for in our four amazing days in Santorini. We no longer showed the evidence of 18 months spent in the UK, as our skin no longer betrayed our Australian and New Zealand origins. Our legs bulked up with the amount of stairs travelled, but the amount of food we consumed made up for the calories burnt. Absolute bliss!!!­