Most travelers to Italy focus on the le grandi città, big cities like Rome, Florence and Venice. Yes, everyone should feel the lingering spirits of the souls at the Coliseum in Rome, see the perfection of Michelangelo and wander along the canals in Venice. But it’s the small towns, the piccole città, that capture the true spirit of the Italian people. It’s these small villages that hold the history and paint the brush strokes that define the hue of a country.
One such town that often escapes the attention of most American tourists is Gaeta Italy, a small walled in city an hour south of Rome. It’s a gentle town with fiery people and breathtaking beaches. One of the reasons Gaeta has not gotten the visibility it deserves is a lack of published information about what it offers in the way of restaurants, hotels and scenery. That is until now. Local Gaetan, Nicola Tarallo, has recently published a series of travel and cookbooks that fill the gap. His ebooks include Gaeta, the Ultimate Travel Destination, Gaeta, a Peek into the Past, Mangia Tiella!, and Mangia Dolce!
To say that Tarallo is enthusiastic about his hometown, well that would be an understatement. But to say he is exaggerating, that would be false. I can say from personal experience, Gaeta is unique place that is more than just another Italian beach town. Though Tarallo and I do not know one another outside this story, I had the pleasure of living in Gaeta in the early 1990’s. I too had been to le grandi cittàs and thought I knew something about Italy. But I knew nothing about the country until I met Gaeta.
When I arrived I spoke two Italian dialects—food and shoes. Unlike other countries where you are hung out to dry without speaking the language, within a few short months, I knew locals’ favorite local places to buy bread, vegetables and flowers. Most importantly, I knew my neighbors by name.
One of the reasons the locals embrace visitors is their unique history with Americans. The reasons date back to WWII, when American soldiers liberated the town from German occupation. The US Navy’s Sixth Fleet was stationed there for many decades. And, in Boston, there are more immigrants from Gaeta than there are Gaetans in the city itself.
Tarallo’s books are a reflection of this history. He tells visitors about the port city from an insider’s view--where to walk, what to eat, where to shop, where to meet locals and where to spend some quiet time on the beach or in a church. If it’s possible to have a local guide with you at all times, Tarallo captures all the hidden sites in Gaeta that one might miss otherwise.
Gaeta is a city of walls, narrow alleys, twisting stone steps, sandy beaches (some only accessible by boat) and underground beauty, where the water has cut through the rocky shores over the centuries. Even after living there for two years, there are hidden gems that I learned about from Tarallo’s books. Here are a few excerpts from Tarallo’s guide to Gaeta to peak your interest:
Monte Orlando is the rounded mountain the rises above the old city of Gaeta.
Monte Orlando is home to the Montagna Spaccata or split mountain. The legendary story is the mountain split into three deep crevices when Christ died. The three stone crevices capture light off the turquoise waters making it an inspirational destination for artists, writers, religious pilgrims and romantics.
“It offers to visitors spectacular views of unbelievable beauty and interesting evidences of the long history of Gaeta. The ruins of the formidable military fortifications of the bourbon era, bulwarks, powder magazines, gun emplacements and tunnels are a still visible testament to the important role that Monte Orlando had for centuries in the defense of the stronghold of Gaeta. Its coasts are rocky and vertical. The wave action has formed some caves in zones of weakness in sea cliffs. The extreme western tip of the promontory has three deep splits, easily visible from the sea.”
In the summer, Gaeta is one big Roman holiday. The beaches are lined with tourists, the streets are buzzing with mopeds and the restaurants are packed with hungry diners.
“Blessed with breath-taking sands and crystal blue waters, Gaeta's beaches earned themselves the distinction, “Bandiera Blu,” or literally “Blue Flag” an honor reserved for only cleanest, most pristine beaches and bodies of water in Italy.”
Just as summer is a party in Gaeta, winter is a time for families to celebrate and reflect on the gifts that come from living in such a magical place. On Saturdays in September and October, Gaetans relish in the bounty of the season with a weekly food festival.
“One of the most interesting and memorable events is the gastronomic journey on Saturday evenings in the heart of the city, on Via della Indipendenza. Local housewives, wearing traditional, authentic clothing from the 19th century, prepare various local fish and vegetable dishes that can be purchased using the ancient currency of the Duchy of Gaeta, the follaro.”
One of Gaeta’s most well-known local dishes is the tiella, a double-crusted savory pie that is filled with a variety of vegetables like artichokes, escarole, zucchini, Gaeta olives (yes those little black olives are actually from Gaeta), as well as meats and local seafood like mussels, shrimp, calamari and anchovies.
I learned to make tiella from my neighbor. There was no recipe, it was a lesson in taste and touch. Tarallo takes the guess work out of the long standing traditional dish in his most recent book, Mangia Tiella! He too learned to make tiella from a trusted source, his grandmother. Tarallo shares her secrets, like covering the dough with a woolen shirt, rolling out a thin top crust (2mm thick or about 1/8 of an inch) and not adding too much filling. Tarrallo divulges tips that took me years to learn.
If you go to Gaeta, Tarallo recommends using the Zantour Travel Agency at http://www.zantourviaggi.it. They can arrange for hotels, tours, activities like deep sea fishing, rock climbing or just hanging out at the beach in your own private cabana.
Nicola Tarallo’s ebooks:
Gaeta Italy, The Ultimate Travel Destinations
Gaeta, A Peek into the Past