Thursday, October 26, 2006

We awoke to another perfect day (how can they stand it?) with plans to take the train north to Castellammare di Stabia, where there were Roman baths and ruins and a train-y thing (funivia) up the highest mountain on the peninsula to a nice overlook.

Realizing that good maps are the key to getting around this area, and knowing that our guidebook was sorely lacking, once we got to Stabia we spent some time futilely seeking out the Tourist Information office. Failing at that, we strolled out to the palm tree-lined promenade that faced the waterfront. Stabia's topography was of a gentler nature than that of the other towns, so most of the city was at sea level. It was known as an industrial center of the area, and this fact was immediately obvious from the port activity and the neglected bay. But the promenade was a good effort to make it more attractive, and may have succeeded if it weren't for the copious volume of trash washed up against the marshy shoreline a few feet away. It seemed to be a popular spot for those taking the air, though. There were numerous water fountains burbling forth on the walkway, and many people were stopping by for a drink or to fill up bottles. We concluded that these were the famous healing waters. Naturally we had to taste it: the water was a little fizzy, tasting like diluted alka-seltzer, perhaps. I felt better already.

We forged ahead mapless, and ended up walking further to the ruins than we thought we should have, yet there was only one road, hot and shoulderless, so we knew we were on the right track. Eventually we got to the first of two sites, both of which had been buried in Vesuvian ash. Part of the attraction of the ruins here is that they were free and uncrowded, in contrast to Pompeii and others. And how. It was just us and a grounds crew, on their lunch break from mowing (and sitting on some conveniently placed broken columns and other antiquities). Upon entering we got a good look at some amazingly hued walls and saw some other frescoes behind a protective rail. Already it was turning out to be a satisfying experience. We turned the corner and...discovered much to our surprise that we were allowed to go INTO the rooms, tread on the mosaics, eyeball the frescoes so closely that you could see the masterful individual brush strokes and even in some cases light scratches in the wet plaster that outlined where the artist should paint. Wow! Here and there tile was popping out of the floor and you had to be careful not to kick the small pieces, about the size of Chiclets, all over. We somehow managed to resist the urge to touch the walls, in spite of their nearly magnetic pull.

At some point in the 18th century the site was dug up by the Bourbons and many of the most spectacular pieces were removed. Some that were left behind were defaced to increase the value of the ones they took. They then reburied the ruins. In spite of this, a good portion of the site was intact, and we found a lot to be impressed with. The view from the hillside overlooked the town and port below, and we could imagine what it would have looked like back in the day without the mid-rise apartment buildings in the near distance.

After a slice of pizza at a bar next to a car wash (the many eateries along the road seemed to only be open at night) and peaches from a streetside vendor, we got to the next archaeological site via a dirt road that passed by someone's field and animal pen. There were two people in a tiny shelter monitoring the visitors, and the gentleman offered me some bottled water to splash on my hands since I had just finished my peach. All this service for nothing! This site was more compact and at a lower elevation than the last, indicating the lesser status of the owner, but it was architecturally more interesting and had more intact frescoes. We saw some guy with the head of Medusa, a tiny Cupid, and some scantily-clad ladies.

We decided that the baths were too far away to reach on foot, so we would head back into town via a different (and hopefully more pleasant) route and then make our way to the funivia to the overlook, which was back at the train station. Since the town was situated in a sheltered bay, I figured heading towards the water would be adequate to orient ourselves. Unfortunately, as soon as we got to the bottom of the hill we lost sight of the Mediterranean and had to go on sheer grit and determination. Eventually we hit the water at the far north end of the promenade, but not before being stopped twice by passing trains, seeing a giant Coke bottle perched on a building, and generally getting the eye in the working-class quarter. The town, which was usually quite noisy, came to an immediate and silent standstill in the face of the train crossings--ambulances ceased their wail, children waited petulantly on their bikes, cars didn't honk. Then after the guard rail went up, the circus started up again like nothing happened.

Eventually arriving back at the train station after more healing water tastings, we discovered that the funivia was unexpectedly closed for the day. "Domani," the ticket seller said. Tomorrow. Defeated, and since we were already at the station, we headed back to our hotel perch to decide how to spend the evening. I never even got to try the local specialty of a biscuit stuffed with pickles.

As previously mentioned, the B&B also is a cooking school. Each day they post the evening's menu and people staying there can sign up for dinner. It seemed like a good idea to give it a try, since it was cheap and sounded interesting. We arrived a few minutes after the appointed hour to discover the communal tables almost entirely full, and sat down at the two remaining spots. At our table were a couple from New Zealand, an American couple living in Warsaw, a Hungarian, two Germans, and a guy from Atlanta who was doing a culinary internship in the area (and seemed to have accidentally chopped off part of a finger judging by the bandage wound around and around it). The woman living in Warsaw had participated in the class and walked us through what we were eating: fried risotto balls, gnocci with tomato sauce, veal with porcini sauce, and a custardy upside-down cake. Definitely worth the 15 euros (plus 5 more for a liter of wine shared between guests). The cake was the highlight, as it had a subtle lemony flavor and wheat berries that seemed to have been stewed in sugar that gave it a bit of a chewy texture. Everything was great, though.

The conversation on Jack's end of the table veered towards strange theories expounded on by the Hungarian veterinarian pathologist, some of which was not appreciated by the German biochemists across the table. My side mainly talked about travel and living abroad and food. Nothing controversial, thankfully. And that was that.

The next day arrived bright and clear (could this much good weather make one crazy?) and we headed out after breakfast for the coast ride. You hear all sorts of things about the bus from Sorrento to Amalfi, one of which is that it's obscenely crowded and your chances of getting on the first one you wait in line for are slim. But we did, getting prime seats in the very back next to the window on one side and a chatty young woman on the other. At times the coast road is built not into the cliffside but out over the sea, so it really was a bit nerve-wracking watching the vegetation beside the road disappear and nothing but blue water replace it. I've been more afraid on icy back roads in WV, however.

Once we got to Amalfi we hopped off the bus and headed towards the heart of town, a lovely cathedral that befitted its status as a maritime republic back in the day. We took the self-guided tour of the church and were intrigued by the layers of paint that were being stripped away in places to reveal the original structure and decoration (it was later doubled in size and the interior reoriented, so there's not much of the first incarnation to see). In a basement there is a chapel to St. Anthony, who apparently protected the town from some invaders long ago. The chapel is special because there's a vial containing some kind of liquid that changes to solid and back to liquid again, a testament to the saint's enduring power and relevance in today's world.

Exiting the church, we wandered around the tiny "streets" that are narrow, white-washed passages with stairs, inaccessible to cars and those with triple-wide strollers. Good thing Italians historically have not had a lot of children. We found a place on a back street that was serving pizza, so I ordered the one with "zucca" on it, which turned out to be pumpkin puree, seemingly straight from the can. It was surprisingly good. Jack had one topped with gorgonzola and arugula, also tasty.

We pulled out our trusty old hiking guidebook to lead us on another adventure to a town above Amalfi. We chose one that was less strenuous than the last, limiting the possibility of getting lost and missing the ferry ride back. This walk was mostly a straight shot up stairs and paved paths, but still afforded great and ever-changing views and opportunities for snacking. To my dismay, the beautiful persimmon tree overhanging the trail didn't have any ripe ones within reach.

Upon reaching the town above it began to threaten rain so we hung out for a while to make sure we wouldn't get caught in a downpour on the way back. The main square contained a church, the bus stop, an ancient looking drinking fountain, and a small bar where we ordered refreshing lemon granitas to pass the time. We watched and were watched by the other patrons, the passengers alighting from the bus, and a trio of elderly men passing the time in front of the church. The old man behind the bar gave us a free postcard of the town when we left.

Once we decided the coast was clear precipitation-wise, we hiked back to Amalfi via another path, this one immediately dropping us into the wide, lush valley, the stream for which was used for paper mill operations in an earlier era. After arriving back in town, we used the map to find our way to a cemetery set into the hillside above town that looked like a colonnaded passageway that wasn't connecting any buildings (a "loggia", if you will). At one point we encountered and an elderly woman in a housedress, out tending to domestic tasks in front of her house, who tried to tell us that we were making a wrong turn (many of the passages dead-end on someone's doorstep after a couple of twists and turns, so it's difficult to be sure you're on the right track), but she was speaking Italian in a conversational tone rather than sharp admonishment so we thought she was talking to someone else. Eventually she called in Primo to set us straight.

We made it to the cemetery at last, only to discover that it was closed. There was a nice plaza in front of it with an old woman sitting on a chair, and after we looked at the sign on the door she said to us: "domani." The story of our lives, it seems.

Descending to the port, there didn't seem to be much activity going on around the ferry lines. The one we were to take back was closed, and I overheard someone say the seas were too rough so they had shut operations down early. So, back on the bus. Naturally, everyone else who had hoped to take the ferry was in the same situation, and the bus was already thronged by people waiting for the doors to open. Since we were near the back there seemed like there was no hope getting on, but a crowd rushed the back doors when they opened and we moved up in line, since the group was told in no uncertain terms that they had to get on by the front door.

The ride back was uneventful, although over the course of the hour we were able to better decipher the elaborate honking code that the driver used on the narrow roads:
+ "I don't think anyone's around this turn, but just to be safe"
+ "I see you and would appreciate it if you could let me go around this hairpin curve so that both of us don't get stuck on it (and you will be the one to back up)"
+ "Beware, pedestrian/dog/lizard in the road"
+ "Please pass me"
+ "Hello"
+ "Thanks"
+ "You're welcome"

We decided to stay in town for dinner and were wandering around, looking for a good place (the guidebook was singularly unhelpful in this effort, in spite of mentioning 3 restaurants in Sant'Agnello, none of which we ever found) when we encountered the American couple living in Warsaw from the night before. We went back to the bar overlooking the water and had a light dinner and shared drinks with them. We inadvertently selected a table next to the Hungarian with the incendiary ideas from the night before, but he didn't seem up for conversation other than greetings, thankfully. Thus, the night ended on an amicable note.

More photos of Italy and everything else at our flickr site.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Let's see...where was I before the onslaught of assorted interruptions? Ah yes, bella Italia. In our last episode, our intrepid travelers were getting ready for their trip down the coast to the Sorrento peninsula.

Monday afternoon we arrived by milk train to the small town of Sant’Agnello, one north of Sorrento. To get there we changed trains in Naples, known for excellent pizza and the Camorra crime syndicate. We were told to watch our wallets while in the station for the transfer, but we managed to only get pickpocketed 17 times in the 20 or so minutes we were waiting for the train. The sneak peeks of the Mediterranean we got on the ride to town were riveting.

We reached Mami Camilla B&B, a confusingly laid-out compound surrounded by a wall and containing a number of buildings, a small grove of lemon trees, and two dogs, and checked into our room, a little addition all alone on the third floor of the big building, accessible via a catwalk built over the roof of the floor below. The view from our perch was wonderful. Later we went out to investigate the town, and we ended up at a bar overlooking the sea, built precipitously on top of a cliff. The panorama included a distant view of Vesuvius.

Following our fantastic repast of beer and sandwiches from the bar's refrigerated case, we made our way over to neighboring Sorrento. Many of the coastal towns on this part of the peninsula were constructed in two-tiers: the bustling upper city, and then a lower portion that contains the harbor, beaches, and sometimes a smaller community. We went down to the lower part of Sorrento by way of a set of stairs, visited with the hydrofoils that go to Naples and Capri, and watched the sun set.

Up by a second set of stairs tunneled into the cliff face and back to the city center, and then back down to another part of the lower town that was not accessible from the first (except by water) for dinner at a recommended place. Jack got the fritto misto, always a safe bet, consisting of a plate of fried sea delicacies. When it came out, we discovered that this restaurant’s version was a huge plate of small whole fried fish, heads and eyes and bones and all, with a batter so thin it was almost non-existent. It was a tough slog because the fish were generally big enough so that their bones weren’t edible without some discomfort and small enough that the bones were difficult to remove, but Jack made a good dent in it (including eating a head) before giving up. We surreptitiously fed some fish spines to the cats wending their way between the tables. Two musicians came by and played accordion and maracas backed by a drum mix on cassette.

Ascending to the main town again by a different route (past the wastewater treatment plant!), we got stuck in a campground that overlooked the water for a while. We decided that next time around, we’d go the camping route and save some scratch.

Tuesday we woke up to another beautiful morning, and went down to the breakfast on the patio outside of the cooking school building. There were coffees and breads and a wide assortment of homemade jams--a perfect start to the day. We headed to Sorrento to start a hike in one of our guidebooks up to one of the villages located in the hills above the town.

The first leg was up a set of stairs that, every time we came to a switchback, displayed a Station of the Cross in full 3-D Technicolor ceramic tile. We made up captions for them to pass the time, such as "Jesus Naps for the First Time". At the end there was a small chapel open to the air being swept up by an elderly man. We walked up some small roads and footpaths through orchards further up the hillside, sampling the trailside treats as we went. I collected a pocketful of fallen hazelnuts, and noticed that others (primarily children) were doing the same.

At the top of the hill was Sant’Agata, which straddled the backbone of the peninsula and had views of the sea in the distance. We ate some pizza to fortify ourselves for the second leg of our journey. Once on the road again, we passed an industrial laundry situated in a half-ruined ancient dwelling, and a child care center blasting creepy "It’s a Small World"-esque music. We eventually ended up on a path paralleling the ridge overlooking the Amalfi part of the peninsula, walking through uncultivated areas that were full of diminutive fig trees, flowers, shrubs and tall grasses (as well as some sadly inedible artichokes).

After spending some time on a promontory with a good view of the landscape and the water, we pushed onward even as the trail, which had previously been well-marked (although not always obvious) with red and white blazes, petered out before us. We backtracked and tried another path. And then a third. Nothing.

Meanwhile, ominous clouds began rolling in over the hillside, portending either rain or a pea-soup-thick fog, neither of which boded well for traveling on foot over unknown, rocky terrain. There were two men conversing across a wall that divided a pasture from the hill, and figuring an actual road was better than a hillside we couldn’t get off of due to steep cliffs and fences bounding each side, we attempted to ask them where the nearest road was. They were unwilling or unable to assist. Abandoning any efforts to get where we were going by the prescribed route, we trespassed onto someone’s farmland, and then climbed two decaying fences to get out to a dirt road. We finally found a landmark that we recognized on our detailed area map (thank you, Tourist Information Center of Sorrento!), and then immediately got lost again because none of the offshoots were marked and we couldn't be sure if they were driveways or actual roads. Since we were running out of time, I arbitrarily decided that a footpath was heading in the general direction we were supposed to go and we descended towards what sounded like a major thoroughfare. It was the road into the next town on our route!

By this time dusk was falling and the clouds were more threatening than ever. Our choices were to continue on the hiking route, hope that the next bus was going to arrive on schedule (the books said they sometimes came early or late or not at all), or walk back by the road in the dark. The connecting footpath was nowhere to be found and the road seemed treacherous even in daylight, so I optimistically opted for the bus. I figured if worst came to worst we could find someplace in town open for dinner if we missed the next bus, since the following one wasn't due for 2 hours. We could call a cab as a last resort.

We bought our tickets, and since the next bus was to arrive in 20 minutes, we decided to check out the small and unassuming town of Colli di Fontanelle, which had some cheerful colored lights strung on the telephone poles. There wasn't much to see, but on the way back to the bus stop a guy tending his backyard orchard on a ladder handed down a couple of peaches over his wall. We thanked him for his generosity, even though the peaches looked a little pale and wan. However, they turned out to be a perfectly ripe variety that I'd never encountered before--light yellow bordering on green with just a hint of blush, yet juicy and full of flavor.

We sat down to wait in the approaching darkness and the bus was right on time. Halfway down the hillside it started pouring rain. We got dropped at the train station one town north of Sant'Agnello, hung out there for a while, planning on walking back after the rain let up, as it was not far. The rain failed to slacken, and it occurred to us that we could just take the train back, so we did. By the time we got there the rain had stopped, and we had dinner consisting of the local pasta specialty, perfect for being underdressed on a damp and cool evening. We tottered off to bed to nurse our psychological wounds and vowed not to hike again the next day.