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A Mother and Son's Felliniesque Adventure From Puglia to Naples

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“I just can’t do a lot of stairs.”

My mother tells me this on our first afternoon in Puglia as we’re munching on eggplant-stuffed Panzerotti in Ostuni’s sprawling town square, the kick-off to what will be a two-week journey around Italy. Unfortunately for her, that fateful plea was the equivalent of trying to avoid sand in the Serengeti. We eventually walked up and down, and up and down, so many countless unavoidable steps over the next 14 days it was almost as if the vacation Gods heard my poor mother and giggled as they multiplied them. I’m now certain that “Positano” itself translates to “land of lots of blisters.”

Whenever I'd tell people I was going on a trip with my mother, I’d get the same wide-eyed reaction: “That’s so cute!” Is it, though? I guess guys around my age are supposed to embark on honeymoons in Italy. But we embody the clichéd closeness of an Italian mother and son, and I’m enough of an old soul that we meet in the middle. Plus, who better than my mother to visit the land of my ancestors with?

My late grandmother Olga immigrated from Naples to New York during World War II and barely looked back. And while I’ve visited our homeland a handful of times, my mother has only been once, two long decades ago. I was with her on that Globus bus tour around the country’s most iconic sights, just a kid with nary an understanding of my heritage. Today I have a deeper appreciation of what it means to be Italian American, and wanted to show my mom that overseas excursions don't have to be once-in-a-lifetime endeavors. We’re a duo because my father is in a better place: back home in the US. Traveling for him is as enjoyable as getting a double root canal, so he’s just as content participating through FaceTime.

beachclub at Borgo Santandrea
beachclub at Borgo Santandrea

On the Amalfi Coast, centuries of stories prevail, from those of Odysseus to Sophia Loren.

Our next stop after Puglia was her request: a train and a car down to the Amalfi Coast to Praiano’s seaside Casa Angelina, where we’re met outside by the charming staff who lead us to the check-in desk. “You’re booked in our Romantic Suite,” the front desk worker coos in a charming accent before catching herself. “I mean, we’ll put you in a different room.” (I’m pretty sure we remained in the same room and they just stopped calling it romantic thereafter.)

That afternoon, we skip down to the pool, perched on a terrace overlooking a picture-perfect vista of the Amalfi. As lemon groves dangle above us, we sip Aperol Spritzes and Pellegrinos and take turns taking pictures of each other: me to make my friends jealous on Instagram, and her to make her friends jealous on Facebook. Or as we liked to say with a wink, to let everybody know we got to Italy safely.

But as the saying goes: “If you think you are so enlightened, go and spend a week with your parents.” Each time we’d return to our suite at Casa Angelina, my mom would give me groundbreaking advice like: “Don’t forget to charge your phone.” She also mercilessly packed her suitcases to the brim, including full-size heavy glass containers of whatever moms need when they travel. To this day, I wake up in a cold sweat with visions of myself hauling them down the narrow corridors of Trenitalia train cars. In fact, I say that one hasn’t truly lived until they’ve successfully navigated crowded Anacapri while wheeling heavy luggage over cobblestone streets in the relentless sun, another stop on our journey after the trademark ferry ride to Capri.

The view of the Adriatic Sea from Caesar Augustus, one of several stops on the writer's Italian tour
The view of the Adriatic Sea from Caesar Augustus, one of several stops on the writer's Italian tour
Courtesy Caesar Augustus

But for every strenuous afternoon there were tranquil evenings, like spending one night at the Caesar Augustus overlooking the turquoise blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. It's here that we begin to find our travel rhythm. As she gets ready in the morning, I trot down to the hotel’s cliffside gym. Later, we spend the afternoon at the iconic hotel’s idyllic pool (me taking in the sun reading The Godfather, my mother under the shadow of an umbrella on her trusty iPad.)

The main entree of our trip is a handful of days in chaotic Naples, where a cavalcade of cousins kindly host us. While many of them barely speak English, somehow we all communicate just fine thanks to a mixture of Google Translate and the fact that hand gestures are as much the language of Italians as words themselves. “It’s many hot,” one cousin would moan while fanning himself, alluding to a European heatwave that was making national headlines at the time. Our first night is dinner at a long table out in their humble, paved courtyard flanked on all sides by apartments. It's a Felliniesque scene as me and my mom find ourselves caught in an Italian crossfire of passionate conversation of which we can only catch one out of maybe fifty words. It was confusing. It was sweaty. I never wanted it to end.

While my mom bonds with my cousin Barbara back at the family apartment with a view of the Maradona Stadium, I hop in the car to check out a local open-air market with my cousin Fabrizio. We pick out fresh shellfish for a spaghetti alle vongole he later whips up, as good as in any quality trattoria.

On our last day in Naples, I decide to head out on my own on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. “Just relax, stay inside, everything’s closed!” I was implored by my mother and family, as if I decided on a whim to climb Everest in socks. But how often does one find themselves with free time in Napoli? I eventually bust out and wind up finding a hole-in-the-wall bar with delicious ice cold glasses of wine on draft—the perfect precursor for when they later pick me up for dinner. As we cram into a car driving down those wild streets, I turn up Pino Danile’s “Napule è” and we all sing along to its anthemic lyrics, Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance.

An unrecognisable woman is sitting on a train, with the focus on the scenery out of the window.
An unrecognisable woman is sitting on a train, with the focus on the scenery out of the window.

Shuttling between cities to care for her sick father, writer Marianna Cerini finds herself captivated—and comforted—by a world viewed through the train window.

After teary goodbyes to our family, we hop on a Trenitalia car, unwieldy luggage and all, to the Eternal City for one final hurrah: a stay at Rome’s Hotel Hassler. It’s a special place considering Audrey Hepburn called the Hassler home when she filmed Roman Holiday. We watched the 1953 classic during pandemic-induced isolation together, when a trip like this was a distant dream. As the hotel’s doorman, complete with top hat and tails, opens the door to its opulent lobby and a piano player tinkles keys in the distance, that dream solidifies into reality.

In the evening, after we throw a coin into the nearby Trevi Fountain (as I play Frank Sinatra’s “Three Coins in a Fountain” on my iPhone), we relax on the Hassler’s terrace with spectacular views of the cityscape. I sip on a lip-smacking dirty martini and sweat bullets; today is one of the hottest in the long history of the Eternal City, yet we still take selfies on the terrace with the city’s famous landmarks in the distance—to let everybody know we got to Rome safely, of course.

But we’ve also changed over these past two weeks. Like the glasses we’d draw together to clink, we’ve grown closer thanks to a shared array of once-in-a-lifetime memories—and an ability to roll with the punches, whether that be the sweltering heat or an abundance of stairs. The latter is a welcome epiphany: The signature of the Hotel Hassler is its “ideal” location atop the mighty Spanish Steps. All 135 of them.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler