This one’s for you, Nan.
If you dream of Italy, possess an explorer’s spirit, and enjoy immersing yourself in a foreign culture, have I got the vacation for you. Take a sledgehammer to your itineraries cast in stone, burn your vacation to-do list, and never again wake at an ungodly hour to catch a stuffy tour bus en route to crowded attractions. In Gaeta, you can’t help but fall into the rhythm of the natives, a rhythm steady enough to keep you on course but with breaks in the beat for some solo improvisation. Perfection.
Gaeta? Never heard of it.
This past October I fell in love with Gaeta, Italy during a two-week stay with a group of writers I met online. (For more on that story, click here.) Like many people, I wasn’t familiar with Gaeta, despite traveling north to south in Italy twice in the past. But I was familiar with two of the products Gaeta is known for…Gaeta olives and buffalo mozzarella. That was a good enough start for me.
It turns out this present-day fishing community was a renowned tourist resort to the wealthy, ancient Romans and its seaport had trade and military significance. In fact, its fortifications date back to Roman times. Who knew?
Driving with the Italians…and Michael Jackson
We flew in to Fiumicino Airport in Rome and found our driver Lucio, who would transport us the two hours to Gaeta. This was a less expensive and infinitely more comfortable option than lugging suitcases through stations to catch two different trains.
There’s no roller coaster that tops the exhilaration of driving with a real Italian in Italy. It’s a religious experience. And where else could we have enjoyed the endless Michael Jackson music that Lucio played for the length of the trip. I’m not sure if he was a fan or if he thought his American passengers were. Every once in a while his left hand would come off the steering wheel and do a little circular motion in the air, and the rest of us would erupt in a high-pitched “ooooo.” We joked we were singing along in the spirit of the great Mr. Jackson, but if I’m being honest, it was more a high-pitched squeal of terror—high speed, sharp curves, oncoming traffic, and a one-handed driver. Wait, I feel another “ooooooo” coming on…and maybe a wee, butt clench.
Two hours later, the music track was still playing, and Michael was instructing us to “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” Clearly, Lucio hadn’t. And I’d realized much earlier in the journey that screaming “Zio, zio” (the Italian word for uncle) at the top of my lungs did not translate as a cry of surrender. 😉
All jesting aside, Lucio was a wonderful driver and a charming man and I’d hire him again. Case in point, after a long train journey back to Gaeta after an exhausting day in Rome, we exited the station, not looking forward to the bus ride ahead of us. Standing outside, as if sent by an angel, was Lucio with his cab parked at the curb. We let out a cry of joy and rushed toward him. He looked a bit frightened and probably has his own blog where he tells of the crazy Americans and one English guy he once drove around.
Villa Accetta: A jewel on the Gulf of Gaeta
We finally arrived at Villa Accetta, which has been owned by the Accetta family for several generations and in existence even longer than that. In fact, it appears on an ancient map of Gaeta in the museum of Formia, a neighboring city. As I passed through the gates, I couldn’t miss the view of the blue-green Gulf of Gaeta, framed by fuchsia bougainvillea and swaying palm trees. According to Villa Accetta’s website:
“Built on Roman foundations, the property sits above the fresh-water spring called Artacia Fons that flows into the sea. Homer, Dante, Virgil and Ovid all wrote about this spring, where Ulysses and his crew found drinkable water after months at sea.”
The circular staircase leading to the various apartments has at its core a passage to this grotto, which supplies the property not only with water but also cool, fresh air. All of the apartments have views of the sea, from terraces, balconies, or oversized windows. The soothing ripples of the water lapping against the shore of the private, pebbly beach lulled me to sleep many a night. Once or twice, the sea turned angry and blasted the exterior walls of the villa with a violent spray. In the early morning, I’d look out at the calm water and think I’d been dreaming the night before.
We explored the property with rumbling tummies until a member of our party, who had arrived a few days early, led us to the old, handmaid table on the terrace, where she had set out a Gaetan feast so beautiful it could have been a spread for a photo shoot: fresh, and I mean fresh, balls of buffalo mozzarella waiting to be scooped from a pot of liquid; gorgonzola; olives; tomatoes; pancetta bread; cured meats like salami, capicolla, and prosciutto; finnochio (fennel); and wine. We were half starved from our journey and ate with relish, which is just a nice way of saying we inhaled our food like cafoni. With bellies bursting with joy, we returned to our individual apartments to take the customary afternoon nap. Boy, did we need it.
The Rhythm of Gaeta
The rhythm of Gaeta is a soothing ebb and flow. After a while, you suspect that the sea, and not blood, flows through the veins of its inhabitants. Before sunrise, the fishermen set out in their boats; before sunset they return to lay out their catch at the daily fish market. Day after day, I was drawn to that market to see what treasures had been pulled from the sea and what I might be eating at a local restaurant later that evening.
In the mornings, we’d have sfogliatella and cappuccino for breakfast at Triestina, our favorite café. You may be familiar with the flaky, clam shell-shaped version of sfogliatella. But there is another variety I have never seen in New York called sfogliatella frolla, which has a smoother dough but the same filling. You’ll never find a cappuccino in the States like in Gaeta. Perfect every time. And even if you do, you’ll pay at least $4.50 for it rather than 90 cents or a Euro. For all you “bacon and eggs” people, fuhgeddaboudit. Not gonna happen. I suppose you can improvise with groceries bought at the PAM supermarket in Gaeta and cooked up in the villa’s kitchen, but isn’t it more fun to have a reason to eat pastry for breakfast? And there’s no need to worry about your figure. The terrain is so rugged with its ancient stone pathways, steep hills, and long stretches of beach that I didn’t gain a single pound and came home with a few new muscles.
After breakfast, we’d take in the sights. There are castles, churches, beaches, shops, outdoor markets, ancient paths to walk, mountains to climb, legendary sites to visit, and neighboring towns to explore. But don’t lose that rhythm or you’ll find yourself hungry and locked out of shops when the entire town closes for its big meal of the day and siesta. After all, this isn’t Rome with its tourist restaurants and menus written in 37 different languages. The first day, we walked through the streets a bit stunned, realizing what had happened, and stared longingly through screenless windows at families sitting down to their pranzo. You don’t make that mistake twice. And so, just before 1 PM, we’d stop at the salumeria or caseificio to pick up some fixings and head back to the villa for a leisurely lunch and siesta.
Sometimes, before that afternoon nap beckoned, we’d stroll on the villa’s beach, collecting shells, beach glass, unusual stones, and what I like to think is some kind of ancient Roman building material. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 😉
After naps, we’d freshen up and add a layer to our outfit since the October nights can be a bit cool. Then it was on to the passegiata, the pre-dinner stroll that is an Italian tradition. We’d pass the fish market to marvel at tender octopus and tiny clams, and then walk on to the piazza along the waterfront path. No one was in a hurry. Dinner doesn’t happen before 7 PM.
On that unforgettable afternoon when we realized we hadn’t planned for lunch, we wandered through the deserted streets until I spotted a statue of Padre Pio, a much loved saint in Italy. Padre Pio has a list of credits to his name, but he is now officially my patron saint of finding food in Italy when everyone has closed up shop and returned home for their big meal of the day. That’s because he sat at the entrance of La Saliera da Mario, the only restaurant open for business, it seemed. We ordered platters of bruschetta, fried calamari, gnocchi, seafood salad, and cheese and cured meats and passed them around the table. After lunch, the proprietor brought bottles of amaro, an herbal liquer, and grappa to the table to finish off the meal. Nice touch.
When the scent of the wood-burning brick ovens called to us, we headed to Da Emilio for pizza. I enjoyed the quattro stagione, which featured salami, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and Parma ham over a crisp, evenly cooked crust. For appetizers, we sampled the mixed seafood appetizer, fried calamari, and fried alici (whole, pan-fried anchovies). Let me tell you, Gaetans know how to catch a fish and fry it up in a pan.
Down a vicolo off the Via Indipendenza we happened upon L’enoteca di Luigiraschi. A lucky find since that was their last night serving dinner before closing up for vacation. The steamed mussels and clams were tender and sweet and the garlicky broth was quickly sopped up with bread. The seafood salad was fresh, as all seafood is in Gaeta. As delicious as it all was, one dish really stood out—the seafood risotto. We all had a taste of it and then kept eyeing it as our friend ate his meal. Some of us were bolder than others and I have the fork marks in my wrist to prove it. (Located in Gaeta, Via Indipendenza, Vico 1, 15)
There’s a traditional pizza in Gaeta called tiella, and Nari is the place to go for it. I only wish that these restaurants had websites so I could link to them. Tiella is a stuffed, pan pizza. I adored the zucchini/calamari tiella. I also sampled the one stuffed with onion. (Located in Gaeta, Via Duomo 11/17)
In the best gelato category, Il Molo wins. We ordered multi-flavor cones and sampled each other’s flavors so we’d know what to order next time. There were many “next times.” Nutella and bacio were good. Pistacchio, coffee, and coconut—excellent. (Located in Gaeta, Piazza del Pesce, 1)
Finally, if you happen to take the bus into Formia, the city next to Gaeta, you must have lunch at La Cucina della Nonna where Italian homecooking like your grandma used to do it is what you’ll get. Here, you grab a tray and point to the things you want if you can’t speak the language. We had stuffed peppers, pasta with eggplant, and potato stuffed with prosciutto. And then I saw the little chunks of golden, roasted potatoes and had to have them, too. The couple who run this restaurant are entertaining to say the least. I knew enough Italian and the man knew enough English to share some conversation while we ate our meal. The woman, recognizing that I was American, automatically threw packets of ketchup and mayonnaise on my tray, which I returned to her unopened at the end of my meal. She practically hugged me as she beat her chest and complained in Italian about the Americans who come and put mayonnaise on her food. I assured her that this American, raised by Italians, would never do such a sinful thing. She complimented me on being one of the few sane Americans that she had met. Like I said, entertaining. (Located in Formia at Via Nerva, 14)
Before you leave Formia to head back to Gaeta, be sure to stop at Pastacceria Troiano pastry shop, where we ordered one sfogliatella and one sfogliatella frolla and they wrapped them as if they were a gift for a king. The pastries happened to be delicious, as well. Truth be told, we never made it back to Gaeta. We parked ourselves at a park bench overlooking the sea and ripped into that beautiful packaging for a taste. (Located in Formia at Via Vitruvio, 76)
Places to See
You’ll discover many delightful sights as you wander the streets of Gaeta and travel to neighboring towns. Here are a few of my favorites:
Via Indipendenza – This narrow, stone street will have you believing you stepped back in time. Shops, stores, and restaurants line the way. Be sure to stop and stare into the kitchen of the man who bakes the sfogliatelle and cornettos for the local cafés and shops. If you’re a local kid, he has a just-from-the-oven pastry for you. If you’re not, no cornettos for you.
The Wednesday outdoor market – If you can’t get it here, it doesn’t exist. Fruits, veggies, meats, pastries, housewares, clothes, shoes…even pets. (Located in Corso Cavour, near the old Station.)
Old Gaeta – How I loved strolling along the sea and winding in and out of the old, narrow streets. Check out the Angevin-Aragonese castle and the old Sant’Erasmo bell tower.
Serapo Beach – When you leave the villa early in the morning and think it’s a bit chilly, turn yourself around, go back inside, and put your bathing suit on under your clothes. I’m glad I did. By the time we’d made our way into town and had our breakfast cappuccino, it was beach weather. We stopped and bought some panini and a bag of taralli (lightly sweet, anise flavored cookies) for a picnic lunch and ended up lying on the pristine sand of Serapo. The water was a bit chilly for me, but then my pool has to be 85 degrees before I venture in. So, stick a toe or two in and see for yourself.
Sperlonga – Ah, how I wish I could be back in Sperlonga for more than just one afternoon. Next time, I’ll rent a place there for a few days. When you get off the bus at sea level, you are in the center of a small town on a beautiful beach. If you stand on the beach and look up at the mountain, you’ll think there are a few houses up there. But when you start hiking the uphill roads, you’ll find a complex maze of alleys that lead to a hidden “city” of restaurants, shops, a piazza, sea views, serene shrines, and an ancient church. Oy, I could weep. Apparently, there’s a lot more to see. So plan to spend more than just a few hours. And have an alternate plan to get back to Gaeta since the buses don’t run between the two towns in the evening.
Annunziata Church – I happen to love churches and this one didn’t disappoint. Be sure to check out the paintings inside. It is said that Pope Pius IX, while living in exile in Gaeta, formulated his ideas on papal infallibility here.
Montagna Spaccata – Legend has it that this mountain split upon Christ’s death. Visit the church, see the tiled Stations of the Cross, and be sure to take the 200+ steps down to the grotto (Grotta del Turco). Also check out the handprint seared into the mountain wall, said to belong to a Turk who did not believe in the legend.
Rome, Naples, and Pompeii – If you want to visit “big city” sights, take the train from Formia station. Gaeta is about halfway between Rome and Naples, and depending on which train you take, it’s about an hour and a half to a two hour trip.
The Last Night and Day
For our last night, we stayed at the Hotel Malù in Rome, a more relaxing option than racing against time to get to the airport from Gaeta. I’m not even convinced it can be done. Disregard the warnings about staying near Termini Station. It’s a bustling area of shops, restaurants, cafés, churches, and fountains. Hotel Malù is owned by a lovely family and operated in a building with other apartments and hotels. Security was tight, prices were reasonable, the room was immaculately clean, well-decorated, and comfortable, and there was free wi-fi in the common areas, helpful for last minute travel inquiries. The delightful Ivan suggested Le 2 Colonne restaurant and I ate my final meal listening to the bells of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Heavenly.
Some Additional Links
Slow Travel Italy
The “Riviera di Ulisse”