A Hidden Treasure in Southern Italy




Anfiteatro, Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Campania...

Anfiteatro, Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Campania, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I originally published this post on my other blog, accidentally, since this is supposed to be my blog about travel meanderings. (Hey, I’m still new at this blogging stuff!)  So if it looks familiar perhaps you saw it there, earlier this week.  If there is a better way to do this (link to my other blog?) and you want to comment on how that could be done I welcome the tips.  Otherwise, if you’re considering a trip to Italy and are interested in history, read on …


If you’re ever on your way from Rome to the Amalfi coast, don’t miss a detour to Old Capua. Research and reading about ancient Rome as I prepared for my first trip to Italy I fell in love with Julius Caesar and Cicero and, in general, with ancient Rome. Many of the books written about that time mentioned Capua in one context or another, as it was home to gladiatorial combats and a famous gladiator school, and it was from this area that Spartacus came, back in 73 BC. The gate by which the Via Appia leaves Rome is even known as Porta Capena, as it leads to Capua.


When we told the Italian driver taking us from the Amalfi Coast to Rome that we wanted to detour to Capua, he thought we were crazy. “All my 17 years of driving people no one has ever asked me to take them to Capua,” he said. “Capua? Are you sure?” Assured that we did indeed want to pass by his suggested itinerary and go to Capua instead, he drove us up to the Santa Maria Capua Vetere amphitheatre, and it was one of the highlights of our trip. Santa Maria Capua Vetere amphiteatre


It cost a whole 2 euros to get in, and the old Italians in the ticket office were dismayed that there were two more of us visiting that day — they’d already sold tickets to at least 10 people, and couldn’t believe the crowd! While we were there we saw only two other visitors, and we were free to wander throughout the grounds to come and go as we wished. Which was great, but depressing as we thought about how this treasure was open to the elements and the whims of the visitors and lay unprotected. But the freedom to explore not only the upper seating levels but also to go underground in the passages where the gladiators waited their turn was fascinating and a never-to-be-forgotten experience.


I stood by myself underneath the amphitheater stage and imagined what it must have been like. As I closed my eyes to soak up the feeling birds started flying about and making mournful songs, as if the souls of the long-dead gladiators were speaking.


After exploring the subterranean passages and wandering the grounds, we visited the on-site Gladiator Museum, which had no English signs and was pretty hokey, but worth a quick visit. After wandering the grounds we returned to the ticket office and asked about the Mithraeum, which I thought was on the grounds, perhaps under the amphitheater. Our driver asked the man at the ticket office about it, and after an exchange in Italian none of which I could understand, the man closed the ticket office and headed to his car. We followed in our car, not sure what was going on. After a short drive into the town, the man parked the car near what seemed to be some old apartment buildings, opened a door in the wall and motioned for us to go inside.


We entered a small cave-like room with stairs. My husband and I started walking down, not sure where we were going or what we would see. After going down to the bottom level and turning the corner we saw a beautiful albeit faded fresco with faded but beautiful blue and red stars along the stuccoed side walls and a fresco in the center. The beautiful sanctuary dedicated to Mithras was discovered in 1922, and is believed to date from the 2nd century BC. It was small and there wasn’t much to see, but just the experience of being by ourselves in this ancient place of worship (it was used by followers of the mystery religion of Mithraism) was an amazing experience, and all for the price of 2 euros.


It helps if you speak Italian or have someone who can translate for you as the people who work there don’t seem to speak English, and there are no signs in English, but even without that it’s definitely worth an off-the-beaten-path visit.



Meandering Through Santa Cruz


After a relaxing morning at our beach house rental on 25th Street in Santa Cruz, my husband and I headed 2-1/2 miles away, to Capitola Village, a cute little beach area with your typical souvenir shops & restaurants along with hard-to-find parking.  After nabbing a great space due to my husband’s new-found parking karma, we grabbed a lunch reservation off OpenTable.com for Paradise Beach Grille, rated high for lunch spots on TripAdvisor.com.

Since I’m new to blogging I didn’t think to photograph our lunch for your viewing pleasure, but I did snap a shot from our table across a little inlet to a colorful beach hotel across the sand.

View from Paradise Beach Grille

After a refreshing glass of Chardonnay (I am on vacation, after all!) and a Turkey, Brie & Apple Panini we crossed the street for a delicious ice cream (caramel no sugar added is highly recommended as it was delicious AND felt virtuous) then walked down the beach and back up by the stores for a little shopping. At one store I found artistic items for the home but resisted all but a set of turquoise felt coasters and some handmade stone studs for my daughter.


The coasters are called Bierfilzl. Apparently, up until the late 19th century coasters made of wool felt were used in taverns across Bavaria to soak up not only any moisture but also to cover the beer glass while sitting in the beer garden on a beautiful summer day, to keep out unwanted flying guests. While the invention of less expensive paper coasters in 1880 marked the end of felt coasters, Bavarians to this day apparently call all coasters “Bierfilzl,” or beer felt. How could I live without them?

We loaded up the car and headed to Seacliff State Beach nearby. It’s a $10 day use charge but saving the $10 would have meant a long walk downhill to the beach so we handed over the money and headed down. There are plenty of bathrooms, a Beach Shack for lunch and snacks, lots of RV parking and a long beach with waves that looked good for boogie boarding but not surfing. It was filled with kids and dogs and folks enjoying the gorgeous day, as well as lots of folks making good use of the steep staircase up the cliff to run stairs, some even making use of the picnic tables for pushups afterwards. I got tired just watching them, and was more than happy to limit my exercise to a walk up and down the beach.

Seacliff State Beach is known for its fishing pier and concrete freighter which is not overly attractive except to the flocks of birds, apparently was good for fishing, but has since been closed to fishing but is in use as an underwater structure to support sealife.

It got hot, we were tired, and thus we headed back to our little house on the beach. Hubbie‘s on the couch & I’m in the shade on the ipad enjoying the sounds of the ocean and the nice cool breeze. It’s a tough life.

Tonight we’re dining at El Palomar — my favorite Mexican food restaurant in town — and then packing up to head home.

Florence, Day 2

English: Michelangelo's David (original statue...

Image via Wikipedia

Ponte Vecchio shops

A young Italian girl at our B&B, Le Stanze di Sante Croce, fixed us a wonderful Italian breakfast with bruchetta, cheeses, hams and bread, served in the inn’s terrace.  Afterwards Jack and Brittany met up with our B&B host for a morning walk to the local Farmers Market and a cooking class.  Though a cooking class would do me good, Austin and I instead walked down Florence’s cobblestone streets to Piazza della Signoria, just a few blocks away, to meet our Context Walk guide for a 3-hour tour of the Galleria degli Uffizi.  Along on the tour with us was a family of four from the Bay Area…I guess we Californians like Context Walks!  We started with the art from the 14th Century — mostly of Madonnas with Jesus and abundance use of gold — through the art of the 1800s.  My favorite painting at the museum was Botticelli‘s Primavera, pictured below.  Not only is it beautiful, it also shows the “circle of life,” reaching up to the heavens and the heavens reaching down for you.  A close second favorite was Da Vinci’s The Annunciation… but then I like almost anything by or about Da Vinci.


My son’s ill-timed cold was getting worse after three hours on our feet of art history, as was my jet lag, so as soon as the tour ended we headed for the only place we could find with seats, which was the very small museum cafeteria.  It isn’t the best choice for lunch, given that the selections are minimal and fairly expensive —  Coca Cola light (dt coke) was 5 euros– but at least it gave us the opportunity to sit and rest on the terrace and enjoy a beautiful day.  After a light lunch we headed to the Ufizzi’s first floor — the tour can’t cover the entire museum, and there were a few things on the first floor we had wanted to check out, despite our tired feet.  We didn’t really do the art on the first floor justice, walking pretty quickly through to get to the  Caravaggio paintings I wanted to see.   I fell in love with Caravaggio’s work a few years ago in Rome when we spent a Sunday afternoon at the Borghese Gallery, and now I look for his art in every City we visit.  After a short visit to his paintings Austin and I were more than ready to head back  to our B&B for a nap.  There, we found Jack, Brittany and my newly arrived stepmother, Anna Marie, sitting down to the meal they had shopped for and made in the terrace of our B&B.  They invited us to join them for some pasta with pesto sauce along with other dishes they’d created.  So Austin and I sat down for a 2nd lunch, this one much better than the first.

Cooking Class at Le Stanza di Santa Croce

To the left is a picture of Brittany rolling out the pasta on the terrace of Le Stanze di Santa Croce.  It was a long process but the results were well worth it!  She bought her Dad a pasta machine earlier this year she enjoyed the class so much, and Jack used it just last night to make he and I a wonderful meal with fettucine and homemade red sauce with herbs from our organic garden, complete with thin crusty slices of bread on which we had learned in Tuscany to rub garlic cloves and then top with homemade olive oil and a little kosher salt.  Delish!  To the right is the picture of Jack with the owner of the B&B, leading them in their cooking.

After our lunch we headed over to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David in all its glory.  We’d had the B&B owner reserve us tickets, which cost a few more euros but was well worth it.  The line for those who hadn’t reserved stretched around the block, and had to have taken 45 minutes if not an hour in the hot sun.  In contrast, we were able to walk right up to the lobby and wait only a few minutes for the crowd inside to clear before making our own way inside the Galleria.

Once we walked in and handed over our tickets, we turned to the left to go into the 2nd, main, room, and there, down a long hall lined with other sculptures, stands David, under a glass dome built especially for him.  It’s a majestic sight and well worth the visit.  We walked past the other statutes and stood, transfixed, staring up at David.  We took the guide’s advice and walked slowly around, looking intently at each portion of the sculpture.  The stone is so lifelike I couldn’t help but be amazed at how Michelangelo was able to carve life into cold, hard marble. The right hand is bigger than his left, thus drawing attention to the stone David is holding as he prepares to put it in his slingshot and slay the giant.  His expression looks different depending on which side of him you’re on.  After we’d all finished our walk around Michelangelo’s majestic work we heading back down the hallway and stopped at the various sculptures that line both sides, and then briefly toured the adjacent room, before heading off to dinner of pasta, pizza and red wine.  And, of course, a walk to get gelato for my daily nightcap.  I am somewhat obsessed with gelato when I’m visiting Italy, and insist on a cone after lunch and again after dinner as the perfect ending to the meals.  Yet despite that, and wine with lunch and dinner, and loads of pasta and pizza, I have never gained weight on my trips to Europe.  It’s all the walking, I suppose, versus all the sitting at my desk I do at home.  My perfect diet, then, would be to spend most of my life on vacation in Europe!  Definitely sounds like a good plan to me.

Firenze for the First Time

Our arrival in Roma was quick and smooth, other than our initial encounter with a rude shuttle operator who fought with our first taxi driver, led us back to the airport’s shuttle counter and seemed to want to force us to take a shuttle.  We found another taxi.  Since my husband ended up getting sick and having to stop the car during the taxi, that was an excellent decision on our part, and we negotiated down to 50 euro for the ride.

One arrived we lugged our luggage up two flights of stairs to the hidden doorway of the B&B Best Pantheon where our children had spent the night.  It is quite a find (from Tripadvisor.com) — very well located, well-priced, and, according to our kids, with amazing croissants for breakfast, along with a plateful of fruits and other goodies.

With a 10 a.m. checkout time we had no time for R&R, so it was on to the taxi stand near Largo Argentina — the only ancient Roman site I had time to visit before heading to the Termini station for our trip to Firenze.

Purchasing our tickets to Florence using the machines was easier than I feared.  Finding our train’s track was slightly confusing because Florence was only a stop, and Milano showed up on the boards.  But through the kindness of strangers and a more thorough examination of our ticket to find the train number we found it and were soon on our way.  Our seating companion, an Italian businessman, helped me hook up to the wi-fi on the train (you need an Italian phone number to get the passcode, but the wi-fi is free), so I checked emails during the trip, and the ride was smooth and painless.

It was a 10-minute taxi from the Firenze train station to our B&B, Le Stanze di Santa Croce.  The B&B is on a tiny road well-located for sightseeing.  Our kids shared the beautiful bedroom pictured here.

Our bedroom had a small balcony, though we never used it.  And although it was in the middle of the City, just off the Piazza di Santa Croce in one of the most happening parts of the centro storico, it was quiet at night.

We walked to Ponte Vecchio, where jewelry stores line the bridge with an enclosed hallway on the very top designed so the d’medici family didn’t have to mingle with the general masses, or risk assassination.  It is so beautiful that it was the only one of the bridges not bombed by the Germans … rumor has it that someone high up in the German army loved to watercolor, and didn’t want such a perfect watercolor of a bridge destroyed.

On the way to Ponte Vecchio we admired a boat race on the Arno River,

then stopped at the Galileo Museum for a quick tour (which wasn’t very interesting, probably because I had no guidebook to lead me through or explain what I was seeing).

After a long walk on the bridge, and a long day given that we hadn’t slept since our night in Atlanta, many hours before, my feet in pain, we headed for dinner at Baldovino, just a few steps from our B&B.  It was excellent — great pizza, good house wine, and a nice atmosphere.

Then to bed to get ready for tomorrow’s adventures!

A Missed Flight = Atlanta, Not Rome

The backpack with my passport stood forlornly on the asphalt driveway of my North Poway home as we, oblivious to its cries, sped to the airport for our flight to Rome.  So while my kids went through security to wait at the gate, my husband rushed home to rescue the forgotten passport and I waited anxiously at the gate, fingers crossed.  Our late start left us enough time to make it through had we remembered everything, but cut it dangerously close given that we had not.

My backpack ... the one holding my passport, wallet, money... just a few things I might need in Italy

Along with my passport, computer, ipad and kindle, my wallet, money and iphone also were in the forgotten bag, and I had no watch, could find no clock, and had no means of communicating with either my kids at the gate, my husband rushing home, or the airlines or travel agents.  I’m not good at waiting, and I worry, a lot.  It was not a great 45 minutes but, showing more maturity than I knew was in me, I did quite well.  I stayed calm, and kept my eyes on the escalator that, hopefully soon, would bring my husband up from the car, backpack in hand.

At some point the check-in agent paged me to let me know my stepdaughter and son were boarding the plane.  A few minutes later, she paged to inform me that the flight was boarding.  I didn’t realize at the time that meant — “We have given away your seats, and you are now without hope.”  Nope, I still held out hope that we could make it.  A few minutes later my husband appeared, clutching the bag to his chest, running, anxiously, to me and the check-in counter.  And that’s when the agent said our  flight had left.  But we knew it hadn’t left, because our daughter, on the flight, was on the cell phone with my husband and telling us they hadn’t yet taken off.  That pissed off my husband because he felt they were lying to us — they were saying it had left when he knew it was still on the ground.  But eventually we learned it didn’t matter, since they had given away our seats.  But that wasn’t the worst news.  No, that came when they told us that the LAX-Rome flight they had mentioned earlier, that would put us in town only two hours later, was not available because we were flying on frequent flier miles, so we could only get on it by paying $7,000.

My husband had AMEX on the line, I was pleading with the agents, trying to tell him what I thought he should tell AMEX, shouting out every option that came to mind — other airlines, other flights to Atlanta to meet our connecting flight.  It was only 7:45 in the morning, surely there were other flights that day leaving for Rome?  Ultimately, it was all to no avail.  Had we taken the next flight to Atlanta — the one that gave us only 15 minutes to get across the Atlanta airport and to our flight — we might have made it given that it turned out they sat on that flight from Atlanta to Rome for 3 hours on the tarmac due to weather.  But it’s likely we would not have made it, anyway, as they boarded on time, and so our seats, again, would have been gone before we could have made it on.

It’s times like this that you wish you were Someone Important.  Someone they might hold a plane for, even though they insisted We Do Not Hold Planes For Anyone.  You know they do.  Just not for us.  And since it was our fault, we had only ourselves, ultimately, to blame.  Why did I not check that all the bags were in the car?  Why had we not left home  20 minutes earlier, so we’d have had time to go back home and get back and still make the flight?  Why, with all the flights on all the airlines crisscrossing the planet, was there not one that could get us from San Diego to Rome at any point that day?

Ultimately there was nothing to do except book the same flight, the next day, and more miles out of our account.  So my stepson drove us back home — after having woken up before dawn for the first airport trip, then rushed back home and back to the airport with the missing backpack, now driving us back to Poway again… and he didn’t even complain.

We’d been awake since at least 4 a.m. in our last-minute rush to make it for our 7:30 a.m. flight, and now, tired, depressed, and anxious about our kids unexpectedly ending up in Rome by themselves for a day.  Since we had assumed we’d be with them we hadn’t set up their ATMs for international withdrawals, given them spending money, or shared our maps or plans for Rome.  And the vouchers for our Underground Colosseum were in the binder with me, though given our new flight they would be the only ones who could take it.  And it was non-refundable, non-changeable.

Ultimately after we’d been home only an hour we realized we were better off flying to Atlanta later that day even though we couldn’t make it all the way to Rome– at least that way we wouldn’t have another early wake-up call.  So my poor stepson had to make yet another trip from Poway to the airport, to drop us off for what was now a 1:30 p.m. flight to Atlanta.  The good news was my daughter was at the airport by now, as my ex-husband had dropped her off there for her 2:00 flight to London with her school group.  I thought at least maybe I could see her while we both waited on our flights.  But she was at the end of a long security line and didn’t make it through in time before my Atlanta flight boarded.

We made the best of the situation, telling ourselves it would be a good bonding experience for the kids and a good break in the long flights for ourselves.  The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast, caught up on some work, and flew out, finally, on our long-delayed flight to Roma.  Italy, here we come!

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