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IT—Inside Traveler
By Jessie Johnston and Emily King

December 21, 2006:

Extreme Italy: Naples and the Amalfi Coast

After stops in Milan, Venice, Florence, and the Cinque Terre, IT revisits the boot with a post from Genevieve Contey so saucy we're running it alone:

"For many Americans, southern Italy conjures up emerald grottoes, cascading bougainvillea, capri pants, and Casanovas on every corner. It's all true. It's also true that Italians north and south are notorious for having made chaos cool, disorder fashionable and, as Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini discusses in his book, La Bella Figura, traffic lights negotiable. Many tourists never see this Italy from behind the rose-tinted tour bus windows. Guides, buses, and baggage handlers are their buffers against the unpleasant Italy. 

"To navigate southern Italy is to trek through a land of extreme opposites: Its geography, and its people, are as volcanic as they are disarmingly hospitable. It's the land of hot tempers and big hearts, of marathon meals and shapely figures, of reckless driving and languorous evening strolls. In the south of Italy, day-to-day life plays out like cathartic Greek tragedies and if you're lucky (and plucky), you'll take a front row seat—or join the chorus.

"Put a little south in your mouth
. No trip to Naples would be complete without savoring the city's world renowned Margherita pizza—a mozzarella, basil, and red-sauced flatbread, named for an Italian Queen. Naples was the site of the world's first pizzeria, where the heavenly peasant fare was first served to the masses in 1830. For authentic pizza, try Pizzeria Di Matteo or Ristorante Pizzeria Bellini. But buyer beware: pizzas are usually served whole, one per person, so plan to mangia molto

"If you're looking for a tasty, after-dinner liqueur (known as a digestivo), try a chilled shot of limoncello, a southern Italian specialty. The seaside resort town of Sorrento, a popular stop along the resplendent Amalfi Coast, is especially known for softball-sized lemons (found also on Capri Island). Check out I Giardini di Cataldo, a family-run citrus grove smack in the town center that makes sugary smooth liqueurs from homegrown lemons, mandarins, and oranges.

"Beach it like Tiberius. A quick stop at a postcard rack in Anacapri, atop Capri Island, turned into an obsession with finding the bejeweled islands known as the Faraglioni. These jagged, conical rocks, deep azure grottoes, and natural arches were once the favored swimming spot of Roman emperors, and still lie quietly off the beaten tourist track. Maybe that's because the steep serpentine footpath down from Capri town will test the resolve of even the most intrepid beachgoers (tip: make sure to go on a calm weather day when private skiffs will return you to the main Capri marina—or gird yourself for a tough climb back up to town). The beach fee alone (nearly $20 per person when we were there) stems the flow of tour-bus day-trippers, so it's entirely possible to find yourself treading water with the rich and famous (like we did with Francesca Lo Schiavo, who won a 2004 Oscar for set direction and art decoration on The Aviator with her husband Dante Ferretti). There are two beach club restaurants on either side of the peaks; we ate at Da Luigi, a casual, throw-on-your-pareu kind of place that served delectable regional specialties, like scarole (sautéed escarole) and insalata di mare (seafood salad).

"Get yourself some ceramica. Bypass the hoards of fake pashminas and leather belts; the real steal in southern Italy is the hand-painted ceramica—traditional kiln-fired pottery and mosaic tile—that adorns everything from murals to church domes to those expensive tile-topped kitchen tables. A haphazard right turn off the main piazza in the villa-rich Amalfi Coast town of Ravello led me and my sister Allison to Ceramiche Da Lena, a family-owned ceramica factory. We were greeted by the young and affable salesperson, Fulvio, who boasted that trend-setters Oprah Winfrey and Ralph Lauren had each bought several place settings of dishes. We weren't so sure about that, but judging from the fine craftsmanship and the prices, it was entirely plausible. For the hard-core pottery junkie, there's the seaside town of Vietri sul Mare, just outside of Salerno—a veritable mecca for the tile-obsessed. Ceramica is the town's cash cow, which becomes obvious the minute you stroll past charming tile-lined storefronts and marvel at the city's billboard-sized mosaics and ceramic-capped church dome.

"Christmas shop 'til you drop. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: the legendary trio are alive and well—and for sale—in the gritty heart of Naples' walled old quarter. Known around the world for its elaborate presepi (nativity scenes), the workshop-lined corridor of Via San Gregorio Armeno is ground-zero for Christmas. The hand-crafted presepi, in mind-boggling sizes and complexity, depict more than just the generic child-in-the-manger—we're talking whole villages, mountains, streams, and mechanized figurines. If you can't afford one, settle for any one of the hundreds of suspended angels swathed in flowy, colorful fabrics.

"Be naughty in Naples. Who knew that the ancient city of Pompeii had its own red-light district? I didn't, but thanks to an enlightening day trip with Context Naples, we learned exactly how much fun life was in this prosperous municipality before Mount Vesuvius' eruption on August 24, A.D. 79 turned the Roman party town into one big crematorium. Our guide, Dr. Marialaura Chiacchio, a Naples native and expert in 19th-century Pompeiian excavation, gently explained the great number of phalluses etched into stones that lined the city's streets; apparently the little guys symbolized fertility.The titillation continued as we ventured into the old center of Naples to visit the famed Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli. The national museum houses a stunning collection of mosaics unearthed from the Pompeii excavations, which still continue today. It's more known, perhaps, for its Gabinetto Segreto ('secret cabinet'), an enclosed gallery adjacent to the main mosaic exhibit that contains a risqué collection of Roman erotic art from the Pompeii period. Ditch the kiddies and venture inside. After all, when's the next time you'll be able to justify looking at porn (well, really really old porn) in the middle of the day?"

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From December 19, 2006:

Tricks of the Train

Despite its high prices, Amtrak's ridership is up and it's easy to see why: It's much less hassle than schlepping out to the airport and waiting forever to board (as Jessie will tell you about really soon, we promise), and lots roomier and rather more reliable than the dirt-cheap Chinatown buses.

Here are some tips for getting a good seat on the train:

1. Reserve ahead by phone (+1 800 USA RAIL) or online. If you call you'll have to talk to the annoyingly cheerful Julie but you can get around that by staying silent, saying "agent" or pressing 0, and she'll connect you to a real reservations agent. They'll hold your reservation without a credit card if you don't want to buy over the phone.

2. When you get to the station and only need to pick up your ticket, don't join the long lines at the ticket counter—that line is for losers. It's usually much faster to go to the little Quik-Trak self-service machines that let you purchase or print out tickets. Be sure to wait for the machine to spit out your second ticket if you're traveling round trip.

3. If you sit as close as possible to the gate in the waiting area, then when the line begins to form, all you have to do is stand up and you're already on line. (Little-known tip for boarding in Penn Station: Don't stay upstairs with everyone else near the giant departures board—also for losers. Go downstairs and watch the Amtrak, not NJ Transit, departure screens on the wall at the bottom of the stairs. In our experience, they post the track number on the screen before they announce it on the PA system, so you get a head start. Familiarize yourself with the locations of the tracks so when your track is posted you'll know where to go. On the platform, walk to the farthest car to avoid the crowds. You'll be sitting comfortably in your primo seat when the passengers from the main waiting room finally arrive.)

4. Enjoy the view. If you happen to be sitting on the right-hand side of the train (facing front) on the way from New York to Washington, and it happens to be night, you'll get a treat when you look out the window after the New Carrollton stop in Maryland as the train approaches Union Station. There's a tall, square warehouse on the right, with a large sign on the roof that says "SELF STORAGE" in big blue neon letters, except the S in SELF is burnt out (something like this). This is particularly heartwarming during the Christmas season, and nice to think there's a place for elves in this busy, serious capital.

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Holiday House Swap

National Geographic Traveler magazine covered the trend months ago in our "Trading Places" article (April 2006), but only now is Hollywood tackling house swapping, in Sony Pictures' recently released film The Holiday. The movie tells the story of two women—played by Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz—who swap their homes in England and Los Angeles as a way to take a break from their faltering romantic relationships. As luck would have it, they both find new men (and true love) in their temporary homes.

While IT can't promise such happiness (we've had both good and bad experiences in others' homes—none of which included romance), we do think house swapping is an interesting and generally inexpensive way to travel. The characters in the movie coordinate their swap using Home Exchange (see below), but what other companies offer such services? Here we post Ingrid Ahlgren's profiles of seven leading agencies—originally printed in last April's print issue:

Digsville Home Exchange entered the world of online home exchanges in 1999. Today the company has home listings in more than 53 countries. Founder Helen Bergstein and her family have had approximately 15 swaps of their own, most recently a trip to Ottawa to skate the Rideau Canal during Winterlude. The cost to join Digsville is $45 for one year.

HomeLink International, which claims to be the "largest and most respected home exchange organization in the world," has almost 14,000 listings worldwide. HomeLink has been in business for more than 50 years. The organization has representatives in most major countries. A Web-only membership costs $80 per year. A full membership, which includes two full-color directories, is $125.

Intervac has been around since 1953, when members of teachers' unions founded the company. It now has about 10,000 members worldwide. Most members (about 75 percent) are in Europe, and about 25 percent are in North America. Almost 80 percent of Intervac's listings are outside of the United States, and they have staff in over 30 countries. Intervac also has a blog where members can share their swap stories. A one-year membership costs $50 for U.S. listings and $70 for international membership.

Home Exchange was created in 1992 and now has over 8,000 listings in over 85 countries. Featured listings include houses and apartments in Paris, Sydney, and New York City. Four home exchange enthusiasts with a combined 36 years of home-exchange business experience own and operate the company. The cost for one listing for one year is $50, or $100 for three years. There is an additional charge ($25 for one year, $50 for three years) if you want to list more than one property.

International Home Exchange Network, which has been around since 1995, is unique because it allows nonmembers to respond to listings without paying a fee, although there is a $40 annual fee to list your own property. Sample listings include a 3,900 square foot ultra luxury four-bedroom house in Buenos Aires; a villa with a pool in Phuket, Thailand; and a flat in the center of Berlin, Germany.

Seniors Home Exchange describes itself as "The Only Home Exchange Company Exclusively for the Over 50 Age Group." In addition to home listings, the site also features travel-related discussion forums. The cost is $79 for a three-year membership or $100 for a lifetime membership.

Craigslist, an online community of classifieds and forums, was started by Craig Newmark in 1995. The website is known for apartment listings, but it also has a housing-swap section. Examples of some recent swap listings include Maui for Sonoma and Barcelona for Manhattan. Unlike the other sites, Craigslist is free, but you need to do the vetting yourself.

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Traveler researcher Jessie Johnston keeps promising to share her Thanksgiving tale of airport woe on this blog, but has yet to spill the beans. Assistant to the editor Emily King wishes she'd spit it out already.

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