For most of us who have been fortunate to visit or live in Italy, there are the wonderful cities of Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples. They all have their own special qualities, their own nuttiness, idiosyncracies and uniqueness. I've never been to Milan, and to be honest for me Florence was over-rated, crawling with tourists and over-priced places. The best memory I have of Naples is an entire family riding one motorino, with a week's worth of groceries and a dog. In the background was the looming Vesuvius, the chit-chat of people going of markets, and the dramatic sea sploshing against the sides of the city. Naples has the marvelous presepi markets, the best pizza in the world (go to fratelli la bufala, among other places), and the most insane driving I've ever seen. One-way streets are meant for two-way traffic, red lights really are mere suggestions. Memories of Venice are a fantastic little osteria called La Zucca, the zig-zags of the streets without cars that make for great chases with young kids, and looking for any trace of Vivaldi (which surprisingly are non-existant or really really hard to find). I also remember wanting to trace the steps of the characters from the film Pane e Tulipani, a film absolutely worth seeing that is one of those heart-wrenching love stories but without the cheese and will make you want to play accordion.
Living in Rome for eight years I have so many memories, which are more about actually living -- and that makes for a whole different kind of memories. I loved Rome, really. Mostly I loved eating in Rome at places like Paino's near Piazza Navona for the best pizza in town, and at Sora Lella for lunches, and any bar for a good cappuccino or macchiato. It's a marvelous city, could be the best on earth if it were just less chaotic. But I think what I enjoyed the most was when we packed our car with beach chairs, suitcases filled with bathing suits, towels and sunblock, and we drove two hours south to Sperlonga, which for me is heaven on earth.
Sperlonga has an old part which hangs off the cliffs above the gorgeously clean and passionate sea, houses looking like they are stacked on top of one another with narrow alleys and mazes, steps that bring you here and there, with laundry hanging from ropes above you, ripe tomato plants and flowers decorating the white-washed walls of each house. The smell of the sea is so prominent here, and the breeziness of the place combined with the strong sun gives everyone a glorious color and smiles all around.
Walk the beach to the former Villa of Tiberius, with happy fish still making their home in the pools left by the Roman emperor. There is a museum worth visiting, you can get some ideas of the emperor's villa and what it was like, and you can nap on the grass in the sun where Tiberius surely enjoyed a few moments too.
Eat at L'Angolo, particularly for lunch.
Sit outside. Let your kids play with other kids soaking in the sun, and help yourself to any of the seafood dishes, they are amazing.
Then climb the steps to the old city and get a bomba calda at the corner shop that also sells ice cream. Look in the picture below. Go all the way down to the end of the shops and on the right side there is the best place in Sperlonga for bombe calde. You can get them without anything inside, or with cream or nutella. Ummmmm.....Then sit in the piazza in the middle of the old town, if you have kids let them run around and burn off the sugar with other kids.
A good place to stay is Hotel Major. They've got great food for breakfast and dinner and is in the newer part of town, close to the beach and the basketball court. It's perfect if you have kids. If you want to stay in the old part, rent an apartment.
When Luca is feeling homesick for Italy, he remembers Sperlonga, and so do we. The cities aren't what captured our hearts, it's places like Sperlonga. It's a gem.