Category: Italy


Italy Day Three – 4.25.07

April 28th, 2008 — 7:42pm

Interestingly, crossing Amalfi’s coastal range is similar in climate to crossing the mountains east of San Francisco. One goes from a cool welcome climate to severe, unbearably hot desert quickly. Still in a jet-lag induced stupor we took the directions to Pompeii from the hotel concierge. They assured us it was easier than getting the trip to Herculaneum. They were so nice and willing. and we were mostly rudderless. We should have known better as the directions led back over the coastal range through Cava.

Setting out in the daylight, the drive up the coastal range was spectacular: lush, green, and bucolic. And dangerous. Rounding a corner on a wide, state road we had to wrestle the punto to an unexpected sudden stop in order to refrain from mowing down a herd of unruly sheep.

Cresting the coastal ridge one is accosted by “the other side of the ridge,” so to speak. Cava unveiled in daylight reeked of baked, third-world industrial drearyness and desert heat. Not good combinations. The driving chaos had not improved from the trip in two days before, and unclogged by dueling buses the traffic flowed much more quickly. This time it was apparent that the road was not wide enough for the combination of speed, oncoming traffic, and cars darting into traffic from side roads when there was a space of more than eleven inches between bumpers. Thwacking another car’s side mirror didn’t even cause a pause for consideration of what had happened. Having driven in various places in Europe even – Sevilla, Spain and Athens, Greece – Cava is a new experience. Traffic in those places seems somewhat orchestrated, as if there is some method to the insanity like following schools of fish. A schools of fish darts everywhere and turns on a dime, but it moves in harmony. Driving in Cava was like multiple, separate, belligerent schools of fish darting at one another oblivious and uncaring of the outcome. The stress is unparalleled, and then one gets through it after making a dozen last second decisions in direction, often at the last minute and just as often illegal. And of course signs that clearly say Pompeii on them with an arrow indicating a right turn. But then in the moment you don’t recognize the icon for the sign or the Italian sub-head beneath the huge lettering for Pompeii that you find out is really the “Pompeii Supermarket” only after you’ve fully committed to making the turn. Emotionally exhausted, we finally found parking outside of Pompeii literally called, in English, “Safe Parking.” Oddly, we did not once consider the safety was for the car or our possessions, but pulling in and parking on the grassy lot we felt safe for the first time since leaving Ravello. Gaby literally put her head on the dash and cried strongly considering staying in Safe Parking rather than going back through Cava.

Despite being emotionally drained Pompeii itself was interesting. It brings to mind the passage from Kirk Vonnegut:

“It posed the question posed by all such stone piles: how had puny men moved stones so big? And , like all such stone piles, it answered the question itself. Dumb terror had moved these stones so big.” –Cat’s Cradle

After the drive and a couple of hours in the afternoon heat it is difficult to really engage with a ruin, especially one as expansive as Pompeii. The coliseum was architecturally amazing. The forum baths were amazingly well preserved and culturally fascinating, and the preserved bodies macabre. We cut the visit somewhat short and enjoyed the walk around the wooded perimeter as well as the main attractions. We also needed to preserve something for getting back to Ravello.

With trepidation in starting back down the state road to Cava, there was a moment of brilliance. This kind of thing would never occur when home, but going down the coastal road rather than back through Cava was illuminating. After a split-second exit and paying twice for tolls, we headed north instead of south we were on highway. The road widened and widened again. We slowly made our way through well-spaced mountain-side villages with smiling school children. And the Amalfi coast in all is beauty was waiting for us as we crossed the ridge. No feral dogs, no mad drivers darting about. Sitting on the cliff-side porch back at the Villia Maria we had the two best beers of our lives and sat and watched the sunset and the canyon below leading down to the Mediterranean.

The hotel had suggested and arranged for tickets at the Villa Ruffolo that evening. Ravello is know for its summer music festival and reportedly one cannot get within miles without reservations a year in advance. This seemed more aligned with the hotel’s knowledge set. The concerto was piano and and violin. Elena La Montagna and Pierfrancesco Borrelli (Piano). Mascitti, Haendal, Nicola Antonio Porpora, Bach Tomaso Antonio Vitali. The day ended harmoneously.

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Italy Day Two – 4.24.07

April 24th, 2008 — 9:35am

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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Italy Day One – 4.23.07

April 24th, 2008 — 9:33am

Arrived in Rome (Fuimancio) around 3:30 and wondered around lost in the airport for some time looking for the car rental place after no sleep, intro into a foreign country and a foreign language. We finally got the car keys after nice exchange with car lady, and left for Campania on the A1, got lost, and ended up downtown. After execute extraordinarily illegal turn and getting back on the autostrade, we were on the way to Ravello.

We got lost again south of Napoli. Thankfully this is not too great a theme. We spent much more time not lost really, but not really sure of where we were or where to go, but not caring for one reason or another. Gaby triangulated our location and figured out a good exit for us to exit. Inexplicably, the hotel has given directions to come across the coastal range instead of 165, which can have very heavy traffic and conflagrations between drivers and buses, etc. But we missed the A3 exit for Angri and ended up on the A30. Gaby figures out we can rectify this by getting off at Nocera and we end up going through there to Cava di Terrini. This part is interesting. It’s an industrial town of 30,000 people with narrow, busy streets and barely enough room for two way traffic. We are not really certain 100% of where we are or our direction in general despite glimpses of occasional signs pointing the way to Ravello, or more accurately not to Ravello but festival and advertising signs for events and places in Ravello. The obvious landmark of the mountain range doesn’t work in the semi-urban canyon just after dark either. At some point things seem wrong and we turn around only to find ourselves in full-on grid-lock. Two busses do not have the room to pass on the main street through Cava, but cars have packed in behind them and they are incapable of moving forward or backward, with the bus drivers actually outside of the busses yelling at random people and avoiding the motorcycles speeding through the grid-lock maze. Realizing this is going nowhere anytime soon, I weave my way to a side street a ¼-block ahead through random cars, pedestrians and motorcycles in order to turn around and get the hell out. It’s totally dark now. The side street turns out to be a couple of blocks long and is flanked by an enormous pile of trash and several feral dogs engaged in their evening meal. This ended up being fortuitous because soon after the turn-around, we find the actual sign to Ravello, and Gaby has located us on the map. The driving stress is alleviated some, but the trip over the coastal range takes another forty-five minutes and you have to proceed even with the undercurrent of uncertainty you have only in foreign countries.

We thought finally reaching Ravello would be a relief. It was partially. We even found signs to the hotel. However, the way to the hotel seems to dissipate into the 15th century winding footpaths that make up Ravello’s center. Determining we cannot go further, we back out the 100 feet or so back into the plaza and turn around. After even more fruitless meandering to this side and that of Ravello, we decide to park and walk. Oddly, the moment we park, someone stops next to us and asks “Villa Maria?” (the name of our hotel). “Eric Fain?” My name. Then “follow me.” That exhausted this particular man’s English. It was enough. Disconcertingly, we followed him down the same path we had just determined was impassable and through several spots where the car fit with maybe four inches to spare on either side of the car. Trellises of pink-blossomed vines covered the parking lot, and some kind soul awaited to take our three heavy bags the remaining few hundred yards up the footpath to the hotel. This was easily the trips most beautiful sight.

We check in to the Villa Maria, get to the room, shower, and have dinner at the Villa Maria on the terrace overlooking we know not what at the time because of the darkness, though we can guess. I ordered a Barberesco, which the waiter disparagingly referred to as “oh, Toscana,” because it was not from Campania, the region we were in. Gaby’s pasta fresca with eggplant and mozzarella was fabulous. The chinghale ragu over tagliatelli was disappointing, but it the hotel was beautiful and peaceful and we knew we’d be taken care of there.

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