We had bluffed our way through a few weeks in Italy before we finally bought a guide book. We resist them for a few reasons:
a) they are heavy.
b) i don’t wont to go where everyone else goes and order food by pointing at faded pictures on laminated cards.
c) something deep in my ego figures we should be able to do this unaided. So wrong.
One day in Rome I was just tired of looking at astonishing buildings, fountains and ruins and not fully understanding what exactly made them so astonishing. I caved. While paying (way too much, that’s another reason) for the book I asked the woman at the desk where her favourite place in Italy was. She said “Venice.” Knowing we were travelling in the opposite direction I said…”what about south of here?” She didn’t hesitate for a second “then it’s Sicily…by far.” Very definitive statement.
I also surveyed very helpful friends on Facebook (because who need Lonely Planet when you’ve got FB) about whether it was worth tossing and turning on the 12 hour overnight ferry from Naples and got several positive replies. Everything from “big wines” to “best ice-cream” to “Yes!!” It was the double exclamation points that did it. We headed south.
First stop Sorrento. The quaint little coastal town of 16,500 would be the hub for our spokes of nosing around out to Pompeii, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. When we arrived we were met by our host Salvatore and his Dad Giuseppe (Pepe) who informed us that our car was too ‘beeg to feet’ up the road to their house. It’s not a large car at all by Canadian standards so this made us wonder what kind of goat path we were heading up? Pepe loaded our bags into the back of his ‘not-so-beeg machina’ and we raced up the hill like a pingpong ball in a vacuum cleaner hose. There were high stone walls on each side and not an inch to spare. I think he went extra fast on purpose to give us a thrill and maybe show off a little. We were nervously laughing/shrieking while Pepe just kept tooting his horn and saying ‘no problemo’ as we wound our way around blind corners up the hillside. We found out later that the narrowest section of the road, and I use that term loosely, was 120cm’s wide. Pepe’s car was 110cm’s. That left 5cm’s on each side. There was no room for error. Most…no wait…ALL of the cars we saw had scrapes or dents of some kind. “What if we meet a car coming down?” we asked Salvatore who had been appointed translator. “Eeez no problem” he just smiled “don’t worry.” We found out later that there are small alcoves every few hundred meters and someone just backs up. They system actually works very well. Toot toot! No problem!!
Salvatore’s family was very kind and warm. They had prepared a welcome gift of Mama Rita’s homemade cakes and Nona’s limoncello. So much for easing off the carbs. Our apartment was next door to their home and dished up an expansive view of the Bay of Sorrento and the Island of Capri in the distance. It was in a restored 16th Century farmhouse. Well, the front was restored, the back, not so much. Business in the front, party in the back! It’s amazing what you can accomplish with some paint and a decent electrician.
Salvatore was a slight and energetic 19 year old who took his hosting duties very seriously. He shuttled us down and back to town whenever we wanted and was at our beck and call when the power went out or we needed local recommendations. Even when we tried to sneak by his door and walk to town he insisted on driving us. The hills of Sorrento are blanketed in lemon trees. For a Canadian this is quite a remarkable sight. Hello lemon water!! They also grow enormous lemons the size of melons with a very thick sweet white pith that is used for making a salad with olive oil and salt. Quite nice really. One afternoon Slavatore and Pepe proudly toured us around their terraced grove of 300 lemon trees. These juicy specimens are used to make ‘official Sorrento limoncello’. None of that fake knock off limoncello for this family. Papa Pepe had helped his father plant these trees about 40 years ago when he was just a boy. They kept their tractor in a cave and had four hunting dogs. Salvatore always had a look of great concern on his face and was ready to help us out at a moment’s notice. Except when he had a special night out with the slightly older Valentina. There was a lingering trail of manly cologne in the car the next morning when he gave us a lift down to town.
Exploring the quiet backstreets of Sorrento, or any town or village, has become one of our favourite things to do. I love it because it makes me feel like I’m stepping back in time. These lanes are 500 years old. I can’t help but picture centuries of people walking these same streets with their families. Going to church on Sunday when the bells ring. What were their lives like? Who laid the stones for this road? What were they interested in? What were their dreams? What made them joyful? What pissed them off? Did they worry about their children too? Did they send personal emails on company time? Just checking to see if you were paying attention still.
While wandering high up on the bluff overlooking the port I spotted a small sign, in Italian of course, that I thought said ‘Gallery of Modern Student Art’ which is my idea of a pot of gold, so I cautiously stepped inside. At the end of the cobble stoned entrance hallway there was a light dappled green inner courtyard, similar to many church cloisters we’d seen before. There was a hunched, humbly dressed woman of about 60 sitting on the edge of the inner wall. I looked at her to see if perhaps she could point us toward the art exhibit. When our eyes met something strange passed between us. A weird current of negative electricity. Zing! She stared at me with an almost intimate hatred. Like I had killed her father and should prepare to die. I was startled and smiled at her thinking there must be some mistake. Why did she glare like that? She stepped down off the wall and faced me full on. I kicked my smile up a notch to try to break the spell of negativity. She amped up the anger. As I tried to utter a friendly ‘ciao’ she took a few aggressive strides toward me cursing in Italian dripping with acid. I was flustered and didn’t understand what was happening. That’s when she started hitting me. Her lower teeth jutted out like the nasty neighbourhood dog and she smacked me repeatedly on the shoulder and back. WTF? We turned and left in a big hurry. Still don’t get that one. Perhaps my happiness was just too much for her? We never did find the art show.
From Sorrento we took a day trip to the famed island of Capri (KAH-pree as the locals say) and while we normally don’t buy into bus tours we thought it might be the most efficient way to see the whole steep island and it’s frightening cliffside roads in a few hours. It was a great call as our guide (another Salvatore) showed us the whole island including the famous Blue Grotto way more efficiently that we could have on our own. There was so little clearance at the entrance to the cave we had to lie down in the belly of our little white wooden boat to whoosh through between waves when it was impassable. It was worth the chilly splashing just to witness the sparkling electric blue of the water as the sun shone through the tiny entrance illuminating the white sand bottom below. Inside we were serenaded with the cheesy echoing strains of Volaré (woah, woah, woah, woah) in our little wooden boat. Sadly, Mr. Boatman was not wearing Capri pants at the time. Apparently these originated with either Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O when she asked a local tailor to make her some pants like the fishermen wear. Depends who’s story you prefer. Capri is really beautiful with it’s quaint port and plunging views but it’s also all glamour and designer shops and eight euro cappuccinos. Special mention to the bus drivers of Capri who can clear un-turnable corners, cantilevered cliff roads with the grace of ballerinas and squeeze through the smallest spaces without a shedding drop of sweat.
Another day we set out to discover Mt. Vesuvius and the ancient buried city of Pompeii. We spent a few extra hours lost in GPS confusion (aka: hell for married people), Italian highway on and off ramps and dead end un-mapped streets. The bonus of this was we got to fully enjoy the lovely scenery in rough, decaying, downtrodden neighbourhoods where mothers elegantly prop babies on their hips while dangling cigarettes from their lips and men look at you like they might kill you between sips of their espresso and not really think twice about it. Once we found the badly marked road leading up the mountain we were treated to a long parade of strewn garbage, abandoned burned out buildings, broken windows, crumbling walls and of course never-ending graffiti. Not the good creative kind, the ‘I stole this marker and want to write my name everywhere’ kind. Maybe the mob has forced these once viable businesses to close or it’s just the current economy in Italy but this surprising discovery made us sad. This was not in the guide book. When we finally found the entrance to the volcano park a man in the parking lot tried to rip us off for 5 euros for parking that was actually free. When we told him that was unlikely the expression on his face and his body language gave us the distinct impression that he might slash our tires while we were gone. The dark veneer of desperation put a bit of a damper on our discovery of the crater of Mt. Vesuvius. I mean, it was still vast and steaming and we know the basic history but there was no explanation, no signs describing the events of the past, no ‘audio guide’ to help tell us understand the story ore fully. Just a dirt trail and tacky plastic souvenir bottles of ash. It may have been fake ash.
Pompeii was a totally different story. We spent hours there walking around imagining life before and during the violent eruption of Vesuvius. The excavations have been extensive and much of the once buried town is now accessible. The area was fairly well marked (for Italy, where direction signs seem to be an afterthought) and once we got inside the ancient city with our little map and guide we could explore all over from the markets to the baths to the …ahem…’fun house’ (brothel) as my husband called it to the two amazing amphitheatres which could seat 1,500 each on of benches of pure marble. Truly mind boggling and saved the otherwise miserable day. To top it off we discovered “granita” which is basically an ice slushy made with fresh squeezed lemon juice. Major sour puss face and brain freeze at the same time. Pow! Pow!
An easy (in the off-season at least) drive south of Sorrento is the picturesque Amalfi Coast. This 40km stretch of winding mountain road is what Italian fantasies are made of. The post cards don’t lie. The first most westerly village of Positano positively pins the charm meter. Pastel coloured terracotta houses, villas and hotels drip down the steep hillsides into the indigo sea. Unlike our dreadful visit to Vesuvius, everyone here seemed to take pride in their town. The whole population was out sweeping, planting flowers and painting every available surface to prepare for the coming tourist season. The whole place has a freshly scrubbed, first day of school feeling. Optimistic, bright and well rested. Oh, and beauty? In spades. After finding a parking spot, which is not easy, we wandered the narrow car free streets and alleys and basically drooled over the quaintness and took way too many photos. Down at the beach at the bottom of town we enjoyed a sunny seafood risotto and white wine lunch before winding our way back up. We felt fortunate to be here before the cruise ships start funnelling thousands of people into the streets. We had it pretty much to ourselves.
Our next stop was almost overlooked. As I yelled, yet again, ‘could you please stop so I can take a picture?’ I spotted a tiny port waaaaaay down below us, almost under the slim ribbon of road we were driving on, perhaps 300 ft below a the base of the cliff. We wiggled our way down many hairpin turns to the little fishing dock and boat launch and there found Cafe Armandino where Armandino’s wife had made all the fresh cakes. Naturally we had to try them with a powerful cappuccino. I would not be getting much sleep that night. Oh, the magic of these little towns. Little seaside foot passageways carved from the cliffs, tiny hidden restaurants, cheap house wine that kicks the shit out of most vintages at home. Could we become citizens per favore?
We couldn’t leave the area of Salerno without sampling the ‘best pizza in the world”. We were going to try to navigate the insane traffic of Naples to find THEE spot that was recommended in our travel guide and many online sites but our hosts Rita and Pepe said they knew of a better one. Pizza Metro in a small town called Vico Equense. It’s called Pizza Metro because you can order your custom pizza by the metre. Did you know that one metre of pizza can feed 5 people? It was suggested that 60cm’s would do the trick for our family. The pizza is hand rolled and baked in a wood oven (natch) then wheeled to your table on a metal cart where the server slices it up for you. We tried the wild mushroom, the proscuitto and arugula, the bacon and fresh herbs. All were so delicious we just couldn’t stop until it was gone. Truly the best pizza experience of my life. Haven’t had another slice since and don’t know if I can. I’m pizza ruined forever. Sort of like flying first class then having to go back to economy. You’ve seen the other side and you like it.
We rolled onto the night ferry at the port of Naples in a pizza coma. Next stop Sicily…but that will have to wait until next week.
Love and Ciao!