Italy Day Two – 4.24.07

It’s amazing how much time one can spend simply wondering in a new place, especially a place where there is little frame of reference. To our credit, we had just planned a wedding and spend little time researching what to do in our various locations in Italy outside of the high-level details. There were broad strokes planned: relax; get a massage; be taken care of; have wine appear before us in the afternoon. Decisions were sometimes awkward and uncertain, and sometimes just wild guesses. The wild guesses generally led to spending great quantities of money needlessly.

On the first real day in Italy we woke early. In the dark the night before, we seemed to be a secluded location on top of a mountain, only reachable by foot, no car traffic, and we later found out this was true. The windows were open all night. It was a lovely evening and a relief to be in a bed and not in a plane seat, and to be married and not planning a wedding. And to be in Italy for the next three weeks. At 5:30 I started hearing strange sounds. The sounds were difficult to identify. Dogs started barking at the strange sounds. Ravello is indeed a mountain-top village and much of it is unreachable by any sort of work vehicle. There is a solution to this, which is the same solution that has been used for 800 years: tie together three donkeys, craft some harness with enormous side bags, fill up the bags with whatever material you need, and lead the donkeys to where you need to work. The dogs didn’t like this. They likely have not liked this for 800 years. I didn’t really expect to see donkeys in Italy, especially in the middle of what is essentially a resort village, but they seemed natural and I could only chuckle. Beside, we would have been up half an hour later anyway, waiting two hours before breakfast was served.

There wasn’t a point in trying to sleep. Its odd being up that early, at least for me, but with jet lag you are just up. No point fighting it. Besides the sun came up and we slowly were able to see where we were exactly, and it was amazing. The room’s small balcony overlooked the outdoor patio seating of the Villa Maria, a garden below, and the canyon spread out below us, narrowing to the Mediterranean. Small clusters of houses and small villages dotted the hillside to the sea, and several monasteries dotted the cliffsides above them. There were likely no short visits to these monasteries. They seemed impossible to reach and made one wonder if they were only accessible by long ropes. The sun rose. The views were amazing.

We chose to get a half pension at the Villa Maria, or more specifically to have breakfast in the hotel in the mornings: this was maybe the one thing that I later missed in our subsequent lodgings, having an excellent breakfast easily available without having to plan or decide which place, where… The wait staff surprisingly spoke no English. None. But then the breakfast was laid out for us, and we only had to describe the sort of coffee we preferred. Though the cappuccino was spectacular, there is something to say for the quantity of coffee with café Americano. It was also quite good coffee. The breakfast assortment was odd. There were: dry cereals poured into bowls with serving spoons, a small plate of chocolate with sage, several varieties of tortes and cakes, an antipasto platter, orange juice, pomegranate juice, sparkling and still water, various breads including the best croissants I’ve ever had. They were filled with just a bit of apricot preserve, and were incredibly light and flaky. Needless to say that I had a croissant for breakfast each morning we were there, as did Gaby with a juice and some sparkling water. Life is good.

We had decided before arriving that on our first day we’d take one of the Ravello walks mentioned by a colleague who had visited before. Sun, we were also told, is the best way to recover from jet lag. The hiking path was described as a walk down the cliffsides through lemon groves, olive orchards, and vineyards to the sea-side town of Amalfi. The path just below Ravello quickly turned to dirt and the stairs were in need of attention. This was different than what I had imaged but in no way bad. Beginning the hike, the most striking thing is that there really are little farms stepping down the cliffside in terraces that were made many generations before. One would not imagine that it would be likely or feasible to farm this way, but there they were. Each time we passed one of these cliff-side farms, there was a corresponding gate in front of dwellings of varying degrees of habitability, everything from storage shacks to little cottages. More amazing still was the fact that each of these gates had one of those cute tile plaques you see in Italy with a street number. We came to find that the path down was not a hiking trail at all, but a path to many people’s homes that were inaccessible except by foot (and donkey one would think). We later found that Gore Vidal had only recently sold his own mansion above Ravello a few years before. It was only accessible by foot.

After twenty minutes of the hike, we finally rounded a corner to a view of the Mediterranean. Progressing further down the path to Amalfi produced dizzying views down the cliffs to the water. The density of the villages increases as you approach the sea, and there is never a right angle to be found. After wondering through several of these villages we made it down to Amalfi. The hike was maybe two hours, the sun was hot and I was remarkably tired: jet lag, recent wedding, days in a row without sleep.

We later realized that we were lucky to have received the advice to stay in Ravello. Had we stayed in Positano or Amalfi, we probably would not have enjoyed it nearly as much (though we understand Priano is amazing and quieter). Amalfi was packed with tourists and shopping, staring with the view of the Romanesque Duomo up winding streets lined with tourist shopping. But at that point seeking shade was important, and some food. We stopped at one of the pastry shops recommended by the Fred Plotkin book. Generally, I’m fairly comfortable with diving in. Oddly, this place next to the Duomo was the first place we really were on our own, so to speak in Italy, and it went oddly. We sat down and no one came to the table. We discussed this. A nice Australian man sitting nearby explained we needed to go inside to order, which I did. I went outside and waited. I felt perplexed. I went back in ordered again, this time it inexplicably worked, but I remain uncertain why.

One thing to note in Italy in any café is that there will always be a row of people who have ordered coffee at the bar. They stand to enjoy their coffee rather than linger at tables. They often read, but generally just talk with one another. These people block access to the individual or individuals one needs to communicate with in order to get one’s own coffee. I never figured out what to do in these situations. Trying to make eye contact with the barista failed. I wasn’t up for wedging myself between the coffee drinkers but suspect that’s the real answer.

Back into the sun and heat, we really were at a loss as what to do next. The guide book we had was very thin on things to do, and we were not up for going into the Duomo. We were tired and had been in the sun for a while. These things flare tensions faster than any other thing I’ve encountered. Besides it was early in the afternoon, and didn’t feel like time to return to Ravello. We considered taking a boat tour of the coast, and there were several booths set up on the pier, but speaking to them was like speaking to a carne. They were in the business of selling tickets and not discussing the nuances of where the ticket would cause its passengers to go. We finally gave in, thinking that a boat sounded nice, cool, and, if not supine, close to it. Turns out the boat went north, or west, up the peninsula toward the direction of Napoli a short way to the Grotta Samaldo (or Emerald Grotto, or Emerald Cave). Being on the boat was fantastic for the views from the sea, for the breeze, for sitting down, for all the reasons above. The grotto was amusing. It could not have been more than a fifteen minute boat ride from Amalfi, but was apparently only discovered in the 1930s, odd considering there were ancient Greek settlements in this area. We dieseled up and were led into the concrete dock by a jovial Italian man wearing a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt. His joviality was studied I suspect, for the tourists. Turns out that once you depart the boat for which the ticket was purchased, you go through a small opening in the side of the cliff into a cave, and board another boat if you want to see the emerald grotto. But only after paying the ferryman inside the cave another five euros. But then what the hell else are you going to do? It was beautiful, and the ferryman tried to be entertaining, calling each group there by nationality: Australia, England, and California. We introduced ourselves as from California always. He ran with it. We, together, were California. The water was indeed emerald blue and seemed to glow in the dark. The formations in the cave were fascinating. The whole thing was about the size of our apartment. It would not be our last experience with emerald caves.

Returning to the Amalfi pier we decided it was time return to Ravello, and by bus. We had learned to recognize the word for ticket, biglietto (bee-ly-eto) and found a gelato store that sold SETA bus tickets. Go figure. Getting the ticket was a breeze, but after wondering around the vicinity trying to find the actual location of the bus, we were stumped. Gaby braved going back to the gelato vending ticket shop, or ticket vending gelato shop, or whatever, and proved her navigational prowess again and landed us in the right place which was a stop that was only for buses destined for Ravello. Mostly.

We were to discover over the next few days that it was the unknowns that cause the most travel stress. Where do you get the ticket? Where do you catch the bus? What time does the bus come? Those sorts of things. Turns out you can get a ticket just about anywhere, that you can ask where to catch the bus, and that you can have the hotel print schedules for you. Unarmed with this information, there is doubt and waiting. Waiting causes second guessing, and more doubt.

We waited for the bus for almost an hour. The doubt grew. There was a growing crowd of people looking for the same bus, and a great deal of uninformed speculation about what was happening, and when the bus for Ravello would really come. On top of this, directly across from the gelato-ticket store was a huge parking lot filled with, yes, busses. Worse yet, from where we were waiting at the bottom of the road to both the left and the right we could see more busses come down the hill and head to the parking lot and remain there. With each mew bus driving down the hill there was ongoing speculation that each bus must be the one we waited for. The reverse of the multitude of clowns exiting a VW Bug was happing. Innumerable buses went to the parking lot. Very few left and none of the buses leaving were heading to Ravello. After the hour we waited the crowd was big, it was sun drenched, and in no mood to wait for the next bus to Ravello if one would ever indeed come. It was panic. Everyone feared being the one standing outside when the bus was declared full and the doors closed. But then this is Italy and the busses are just not declared full. People pack on. The ride to Ravello was uneventful, aside from the precipitous cliffs and one-lane turns. Gaby insisted I sit on the window side. The views, again, were amazing.

The afternoon/early evening was spent napping with the jet-lagged sleep that feels like every molecule of your body is being pulled relentlessly into the bed. You feel like stone. You sweat. It’s a black, dreamless sleep. You awake feeling renewed with the realization you are in another country with the excitement that new things await. Ravello was quiet and peaceful on this Tuesday night, and few restaurants were open. We had a pizza at an out of the way place. Well, it was a three minute walk from the Piazza, but seemed out the way an on a main road. The pizza was fine. Gaby rather liked hers. My expectation was too high. We accepted the recommendation of an odd sparking red wine from Gragnano, a village we’d later pass through. The evening passed in wonder and haze. We would get our sea legs eventually, but not just yet.

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