The most popular times to visit Italy are summer and early fall. The weather is lovely, all the restaurants and sites are open, and the fresh produce is at its prime. You can hop from beach to ancient city to airy terrace all in a day’s work. But we’re discovering the benefits – and, indeed, challenges – of exploring Italy in the off-season. It might be chilly, and we might miss out on an opportunity here and there, but we feel like we have the country to ourselves.
This past weekend, we took a little trip down to Sorrento. We hopped on the train to Naples, sought out some of the best pizza in the city, and rented a little Fiat 500 for the cruise down the coast. Side note: it turns out that Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not a seasonal establishment – there was a sizable crowd waiting to get in even in mid-December.
As we got settled in Sorrento and set out to wander around the town, we started to realize just how quiet it was on a random Thursday afternoon. We admired the extensive holiday lights hanging over virtually empty streets, tasted winter beers in a tiny bar (by ourselves) while befriending the bartender, and basically crashed family dinner time at Torna a Surriento up on the hill.
But even more magic happened when we ventured outside Sorrento…
Pompeii: ancient ghost town
We drove up to Pompeii on a chilly, blustery, threatening day, umbrellas and scarves at the ready. The city was infamously destroyed by the catastrophic eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, and sort of remained frozen in time until it was rediscovered and excavated. I was fully prepared to trudge through the enormous site bracing against cruel rain and wind. But somehow we got lucky. The rain held off and the temperature stayed in the low 50s – perfect sight-seeing weather.
Walking down those ancient, stone streets lined with innumerable shops, taverns, houses, and other buildings was even more magical than I remembered – especially since we were frequently the only people on each street. We were able to study the beautiful mosaics, colorful frescoes, delicate graffiti, and extensive architecture in peace. Two young ladies wandered the Villa dei Misteri with us, but I hardly saw them throughout its many, dimly-lit rooms.
And after strolling through Pompeii and examining its many features of daily life, we decided to venture into the nearby modern town to see how the 1% lived. At this point, we weren’t that surprised to have the lavish, 1st-century BCE Villa di Poppea mostly to ourselves, either. One small group descended into the site midway through our self-guided tour, but we hardly saw them – I mean, the villa is absolutely enormous. And it’s not even entirely excavated. But the parts that are were dug by the University of Texas at Austin! It was pretty cool seeing UT’s stamp on that poster.
Quiet time on the Amalfi Coast
Our other primary adventure took us up and down the dramatic Amalfi Coast – a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997 – in our zippy little Fiat. I can only imagine the sluggish line of cars that must clog this winding, narrow road in the summer time. But during our trip, we only encountered the odd car or bus.
We wound our way along until reaching the turnoff for the small, hillside town of Ravello. Well, actually, we passed it while cursing at one of the few slow drivers we encountered during the drive. And let me tell you – turning around on that road is an adventure, to say the least. Nevertheless, we made it back to the correct turn and headed straight up the mountain. At certain points, the road wasn’t even wide enough for two vehicles to pass going opposite directions – which we discovered when the van in front of us had to inch past a sedan traveling downhill. The driver of the vehicle behind us had to help, in loud, expressive Italian.
Once we made it to Ravello, we quickly realized that many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the winter. But after a little poking around, we found a casual cafe that served nice salads, fresh calzones, and cheap house wine.
On our way back up the coast, we could tell the sunset would be spectacular. In the absence of an open cafe with a good view, we stopped at a little roadside mini-mart, grabbed a couple Peroni beers, and drove until we found an empty turn-off overlooking the sea, cliffs, and sinking sun. Apparently we were the only drivers who had this brilliant idea.
Minor challenges – but so worth it
Even though our weekend getaway was mostly seamless, we did encounter a few little challenges along the way. The weather wasn’t perfect, and we certainly weren’t basking in the sun on any beaches. Our restaurant of choice in Ravello was long closed for the winter, but flexibility is one of the best skills you can have while traveling. And while one winery we wanted to visit was closed for the month of December, we found another that was welcoming and delicious. So you see – it all worked out! We even got a little sunshine and a bright blue sky on our last day.