Invariably, travels take people to some big destination city. After all, that's where the airports are, and said destination city is probably chock-full of wealth and wonders, museums and mausoleums.
But there's something infinitely charming and memorable about the little side trips on the way to and from those destination cities.
Is the delight of the small locale wrapped up in its lack of options? Are they winsome because big cities offer predictable experiences and guidebook-ready hot spots, while little villages and tiny towns pop up into your world with no expectations at all? Is the charming side trip completely the product of surprise?
That's probably a big part of it. It's probably also why one person's charming side trip is another person's boring little town in the middle of nowhere.
I don't think one can will or recreate serendipitous travel magic. That said, I will highlight the beguiling little spots I happen across. Maybe you, too, will discover wonder in these tiny map-specks.
Chicken graffiti in Anzio, Italy.
In Anzio, Italy, just a short train ride from Rome, we arrived hungry. A wander down to the beach led us to the Mare Nostrum Taberna, attractive because it was:
1. Open for lunch.
2. Near the beach.
3. Apparently a seafood restaurant.
Although there were no other customers in sight, when the proprietor told us they had their own dedicated fishing boat that brought back the ocean-fresh seafood he served in the restaurant, we were sold.
Ocean-fresh fritto misto di mare
The pasta and bread were forgettable, but all was forgiven when the Fritto Misto di Mare* arrived. Large plates of assorted fresh sea life, dipped in an angel-light batter and fried until crisp and steaming. Even the lemon wedges were fresh, sweet and fragrant, like peak-season Meyer lemons.
Midway through our munching, the proprietor came from the kitchen with the head of a swordfish plunked onto a plate.
A swordfish head the proprietor brought out from the kitchen
He proceeded to tell us (in Italian) all about the migratory path of the swordfish, even going so far as to draw a map.
"They follow the same route every time," he said. "So we know just where to find them."
Minutes later, the chef scurried out of the kitchen to reclaim his precious head.
Unfortunately, Anzio does observe the siesta with great enthusiasm, so most of the shops were closed all afternoon. The beach, thankfully, was not.
Nor was the artisanal gelateria on the town square, from whence as we walked back to the train station, we scored some of the best gelato we ate during our Roman holiday.
In sum, Anzio, Italy's treasures turned out to be:
1. Ultra-fresh seafood
2. A lazy, lounge-y beach
3. A cute harbor full of boats
4. Really tasty gelato
Worth a meander? Yes. All hail the side trip!
Ciao for now!
* If you happen across a bunch of supremely fresh and tasty-looking little fishes, squids, shrimps and things, you can do your own version of this dish without too much trouble. All you'll need is a deep pot of hot (375°F frying oil), and a seasoned flour coating in which to roll the fish, etc., some lemon wedges and some paper towels on which to drain the crisp-fried results. Sprinkle the hot fish with kosher salt and serve with a dry white wine. Bliss!