Friday, November 03, 2006

Friday we woke up to the sound of torrential downpours around dawn. Ah, the secret to not going nuts in sunny Sorrento: it's not sunny all the time! It was actually quite nice listening to it thrum on the roof, although the intermittent thunder meant we weren't going back to sleep. We took our time getting ready to go down to breakfast, since it was in another building and we didn't want to risk a drenching. Our door was unable to contain the onslaught of water running down the face of it and a puddle formed on our floor. We held it at bay as best we could, but in no time the towel berm was saturated and the water began seeping through. The floor was slightly sloped so the water made its way to the far end and formed a lake on Jack's side of the bed. Eventually the rain slackened enough for us to dash over to breakfast, and I told the staff of the problem. They said they'd send a crew to clean it up.

Based on the potential for more rain, we decided to keep close to town so we could duck in for shelter if need be. Our first stop was at the bar across the street from the B&B for supplemental caffeine, since the coffees at breakfast didn't take due to the morning's anxiety over the flooding. The espressos we received were in the tiniest of cups and the tablespoon or so of liquid only filled up about half the volume. We added some sugar and drank it down, receiving an immediate recharging.

We went over to Sorrento's municipal museum, which was full of ancient stuff they had dug up over time. My favorite was a stone tablet that apparently had an order for a clock repair chiseled in it. Written communication must've been so much more complicated back then. It also contained the art and housewares collections of the previous occupants of the manse (including a number of small chests of drawers that they referred to in English as "commodes") as well as an extensive temporary exhibit of what I felt was a very untalented living local artist. After a while we had had enough of the place even though we had spent a good bit of money for the pleasure of spending as much time as we wanted there.

Across the street was a municipal park/lemon grove that was supposed to contain old men doling out samples of limoncello, but due to the earlier precipitation it was a mucky mess and there was no one to be found. We strolled towards the center of town to check out some of the other highlights, which were all closed. As we were seeking out another restaurant from the guidebook that was impossible to find, we encountered the old mill. It was roofless and perched at the bottom of a narrow gulley a few stories below street level, sadly inaccessible to the public. As we continued up the street looking for the eatery, we passed under a bridge carrying the traffic of the main thoroughfare and ended up in a quieter, non-touristy section. We realized that it was unlikely that the restaurant was this far up and turned back around to descend to the main area when a downpour popped up not far off. I quickly sought refuge under the bridge but Jack continued to saunter, not knowing that he was being tailed by a curtain of water, even though I was urging him to hurry from my dry spot. He found out the hard way, but fortunately he didn't get too wet.

We had lunch at a spot memorable only for the fact that it was dry and the women's bathroom somehow escaped my notice so I used the men's room. The urinals were separated from the corridor by only a set of swinging saloon doors, but there was also a private stall. Later we visited the ruins of the Roman wall built around the town. On our way back to Sant'Agnello we wondered what state our room would be in. I retrieved the key from the office and the staff member there offered us a new room, since he couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen again if it rained. We considered it, not wanting to be too much of a bother, but in the end we decided to move. We gathered our possessions and said farewell to our airy perch in the sky and descended to the floor below. The new room seemed to be part of the original construction, with a high, domed ceiling and a bathroom carved out of one corner. We settled in for the afternoon to plot our evening's entertainment of eating and hanging out.

Does anything ever go as planned? Not really, but if it did there'd be nothing to write about. We walked towards the center of Sant'Agnello to have dinner at a restaurant I had seen advertising their roasted meats. When we got to the main road, we noticed that traffic had been stopped by cops. We passed the main square where there was a festive air and a handful of vendors were selling trinkets. After browsing for a few minutes we continued onwards to the restaurant. We then noticed that there was a large crowd gathered in the middle of the street in front of a roadside shrine to Mary. A priest, surrounded by altar boys in white and a plume of incense, was reciting a benediction through a couple of bullhorns lashed together and raised on a pole. We watched as the ceremony came to a close and the crowd began to disperse in our direction. That was interesting, we thought. Suddenly we realized the mass of people was reconvening and we soon discovered why--a roadside crucified Jesus, backed by a wheel of lights, was being feted as well, this time by very loud fireworks. We retreated across the street to a gas station to be safe from the immediate danger of something fiery flying in our direction, to hold our ears (the explosions seemed very loud, for some reason) and to take pictures. It went on for several minutes, after which the crowd really dispersed. Unfortunately, my chosen restaurant was right by the action so it was completely full by the time we arrived. The Hungarian from our B&B was standing in the middle of the tables, looking lost. We waved at him and quickly exited, heading for the restaurant we had tried to go to the previous evening.

Although the interior of the place reminded me of the many wood-paneled establishments you encounter when you leave the US interstates, for some reason primarily in PA in the winter (way too big for the number of patrons, tacky furniture, lacking decorations, and a bathroom waaay on the other side of the nearly-empty place), the fennel salad with bresaola, shaved parmesan and balsamic vinegar was fantastic. I followed it up with an entree-sized salad, which was also good and a refreshing break from the pizza and pasta. To compensate for our limoncello misadventure earlier in the day Jack ordered one as a digestive. Delicious.

We sauntered back to the hotel, taking in the evening air, and ran into the Hungarian again. He regaled us with how good the restaurant he went to was, in spite of the wait. Best pizza, reasonable prices, blah, blah, blah. I think he had mentioned at that first dinner that he was a university lecturer, and he felt free to expound on the wonderfulness of the meal compared with the others he had had. Eventually we managed to beg off and sent him on his way to the bar overlooking the water where we had encountered him the day before. Ensconced in our comfy new room, we quickly drifted off.

And awoke to another morning of rain. Good thing we changed rooms! Once we got down to breakfast we overhead one of the staff people (who I decided were all part of a large extended family, including an elderly woman I referred to as "Nonna" who seemed to be shouting angry things at the sky as she carried her broom around) say it was the beginning of their seasonal rains, which were late in coming this year, and that it hadn't rained all summer before that week. Thanks for the warning, guidebooks.

We decided to go to the island of Capri so as to do something manageable and a bit different on our last day in town. I wasn't terribly excited about going there, as it was said to be the home or vacation spot for the very wealthy and packed with throngs of tourists, but decided to give it a go nonetheless. Plus we had been denied our previous ferry ride and there was the potential for riding up a mountain on a ski lift, so it couldn't be all bad. On our way out of the compound after breakfast we encountered the Hungarian again, who had thankfully already been to Capri and settled for telling us how wonderful it was rather than inviting himself along.

Before we left we stopped at a church in Sorrento that was notable primarily for the fact that they had a gigantic whale rib bone, but it turned out to be secreted behind a temporary wall so we could only see the top peeking over. We went in to light a candle for our trip, and there was a man a few steps ahead of us making the rounds to all the icons, dumping a few coins in each slot, then flipping the switches on nearly all the "candles", not pausing before going on to the next one--he must've needed some serious divine help for whatever his problem was. We found an unlit one to wish on and proceeded to the port.

We took a 25-minute hydrofoil ride over to the island. Sadly the open-air top deck was closed, and we soon found out why: the seas were pretty rough, sending spray cascading over the boat. The whole journey was pretty nauseating. Staff kept moving greenish passengers to the center of the back, where I assume it was a little less bumpy, but even so there were barf bags passed around. It was worse than the ride across the Chesapeake from Tangier Island in the 6-passenger crabbing boat during the remnants of Hurricane Ivan. But I digress. We managed to arrive in one piece and high-tailed it out of there.

There was a funiculare that climbed the hillside through a tunnel to deposit people at the city of Capri on the top, but we took some paved paths and steps up to the main square. Sure enough, there were tons of people loitering around looking like they were just bursting at the potential for a celebrity sighting. We made quick work of the town center and hurried to a less crowded spot, the Arco Naturale. Predictably, this was a natural stone arch. The stroll there, on a path that overlooked the whitewashed rooftops of many dwellings, was pleasant, as was my lunch of rabbit at a hillside spot with a view of Sorrento. The threesome at the next table were busy discussing the decorating ideas of one of their party. I couldn't see them so didn't get a good feel for whether the three were friends or a rich woman and her hired hands, but Jack concluded it was the former. Based on their discussion of the redecoration, my only conclusion was it was true that money can't buy taste.

We took a path high above the water, passing an ancient nymphaeum (outdoor bath in a natural grotto), a funky-looking house that was previously owned by a member of the Fascist party, and many rosemary shrubs perfuming our steps, making our roundabout way back into town. We walked by the shop that developed the original Capri pants and then stopped off for a gelato sandwich on brioche, which was cool because the melting ice cream dripped into the bread and there was no mess. Also quite tasty.

We decided to hop the bus to Anacapri, the other town on the island. This was another perilous bus ride, in part because most passengers were standing and it felt like if the group didn't hold on tight enough we might end up throwing our weight to one side of the bus at the same time, toppling it over the edge. At the top we checked out the ski lift only to find that it was shut down. Not being much else to do that wasn't a hike, we hung out in the square plotting our next move. It began to rain a bit so we decided to look for the nearby church of St. Michael. We arrived there in time to wait out the worst of the downpour. The floor of the church was entirely made out of tiles depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Most of the myriad animals shown had human-like eyes with a knowing gleam in them, as if they had all eaten from the tree of knowledge--when was it that people began looking at animals closely enough to realize they didn't look like that? Surely it was before the floor was constructed. Perhaps it was artistic license. We spent the storm in the organ loft, listening to the couple below try out cell phone ring tones. How rude!

We exited the church and Jack spied a rainbow over the town, which could only bode well for the rest of our stay on Capri. We headed back towards the main square by another route and were excited to see the chair lift going, although when we got there we discovered that it was only operating to let people down off the top. Another denial! As it was getting on in the afternoon and we were out of ideas, we felt it was a good time to head back to the port for the ferry ride home. The line for the bus was very long, though, and the first one passed by without picking up any new passengers. Unreasonably fearful of being stuck there (Tangier Island memories again), we decided to take the Phoenecian steps down. The steps used to be the only thing linking the two cities until they built the road, and were described in our book as "punishing" to go up, so I wasn't really looking forward to them. The only other alternative, though, was walking the road itself, which seemed to have a higher potential for disaster.

As we made our way down, it was easy to see why the steps were described in such negative terms: each riser was about 1.5 times the normal size, which I imagine would be a workout to climb. Our biggest threat was from the rain-slicked, rounded stones that made up the treads. That and the fact that we weren't supposed to be on them at all--about 1/3 of the way down we encountered signage indicating that the steps were closed. Given our options, we decided to keep going, and it turns out that a small section of the stairs had a tree across them that we had to bypass. No biggie.

We got to the bottom and made our way to the port. There were some people a few steps ahead of us on the road, and when we passed them the woman asked me something, which I assumed was along the lines of "what were the stairs like?" I said "oh," blew out my cheeks to demonstrate tiredness, and made some swooshing motions with my hand to indicate the steep angle of the steps. Given my obvious inability to speak any Italian, she then proceeded to ask a follow-up question! It involved the word "rapide", so I just said "Si, si!" and we hustled past the group to prevent further interrogation.

We made it just in time to catch the ferry, thankfully a smoother ride this time. As it was our last night in Sorrento, after visiting some of the previously-closed attractions and having a beer at an English pub during another downpour, we decided to go for a fancier place than the more casual eateries we had been frequenting. The back of the restaurant opened onto a glass-enclosed orangerie and in general was a very pleasant setting. I had a white bean soup with arugula and quail ravioli--a satisfying end to this portion of our trip.

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