Amalfi Coast of Italy - Summer 2004.
From Sardinia we sailed to
the west coast of Italy, where we were joined for 4 days by Catherine
and Pietro, friends and neighbors of our daughter and son-in-law,
and by now, our friends as well. Catherine attended Dartmouth with
Lisa; Pietro is Italian, but spent much of his teen years in California.
Each year, they take a couple of weeks off for bike riding through
various parts of Italy -- they keep their bikes at Pietro's parents'
home (in Milan), and travel by train from there to wherever they're
going to tour. When they met up with us they had just crossed a
couple of 3000-foot mountain ranges in the rain, staying in little
pensions wherever they found them. They were wet and, we thought,
looked pretty beat. We stored their bikes atop Akka, wrapped up
against salt spray, and cruised along the Amalfi coast towards Naples.
We had a wonderful visit, talking about everything from politics
and economics to food and wine.
We took thorough
advantage of Pietro's language skills. When we'd pull into a marina,
he'd do the negotiating, referring to Rob as "il capitan." He turned
out to be a better negotiator than simultaneous translator. The
scenes were reminiscent of the old vaudeville shtick where a guy
asks a simple question, the translator talks in the foreign language
with the other guy for what seems like an eternity, then turns to
the English-speaking guy and says "He says no." Pietro would have
a long chat with someone and summarize it as "He says 50 euros a
night," which, of course, even we had understood! Pietro also took
care of buying all of our provisions and cooking for us during their
visit -- a definite treat!
Our first stop
was Paestum, a little-known ruin on the south of the Bay of Sorrento.
It's unusual for Italy, in that it's Greek, not Roman. Paestum was
a large Greek trading city, but its location was swampy, malarial
and snake-ridden, so it was abandoned and nothing replaced it --
and amazingly it was left undiscovered until the 20th Century! As
a result of this, its buildings were not destroyed to build other
towns, and today 3 magnificent Doric Greek temples stand on a plain
in the middle of nowhere. On all of them the interior walls as well
as the exterior colonnades are preserved. They're a lovely golden
sandstone color and truly beautiful in their isolated splendor.
We spent a
perfect warm Mediterranean night in the charming tiny town of Amalfi.
Try to picture a normal town turned vertical, cover it in bougainvillea,
and you get an idea of Amalfi. We were amazed to learn that Amalfi
once governed a substantial part of the shipping in the Med (and
was where the compass was invented).
had told us that the local "ormeggiatori" (mooring helper),
Aniello, was a great guy, who would row out to meet you in his blue
boat, help you moor, and take care of all formalities. This turned
out to be true: Aniello not only met us but tied his little boat
in the slip just outside where we were to moor, jumped onto the
dock, handed us the docking line, and got us all settled right inboard
of a large white mooring ball. He told us that we could pay the
€50/night mooring fee when we left, but the following morning there
was no sign of Aniello. Rob met the Port Captain instead, who told
him it was free to tie to the dock at the wall if you tied up outside
that big white mooring ball. Inside it, it costs €50/night. But
Aniello didn't tell us that. He put his dinghy in the way, and allowed
fishermen to sit on the edge of the free section of the pier, to
discourage us from going there. Not such a great guy, after all.
On our way
from Amalfi to Naples, we came close by the Sirens of Odyssey fame,
and despite the fact that Rob was not tied to the mast, we passed
safely. Next, we stopped for lunch under the cliffs of the amous
Isle of Capri (pronounced, oddly enough, with the accent on the
first syllable). After lunch we dinghied over to the the White Grotto,
which is less famous than the Blue, but free if you have a boat
to get there. We decided to skip the crowded, expensive town of
Capri itself and instead headed into the Bay of Naples.
We found a
little port near Naples from which we could tour Pompeii. Our memory
of the story of Pompeii that we learned in school was of people
literally fleeing by trying to outrun a lava flow, but that wasn't
the case. Pompeii, a city of some 20,000, was slowly buried in hot
ash from Mt.Vesuvius's eruption in 79 AD. Many of its people escaped,
but the ones who didn't had hidden in homes waiting for the ash
fall, very much like a huge black blizzard, to end. Unfortunately
the ashes also brought toxic gases, so many suffocated and were
eventually buried in 12 meters (something like 40 feet) of ash.
In the 17th and 18th century, excavators realized that the bodies
had disintegrated, leaving perfect hardened-ash molds. So they filled
the molds with plaster of Paris and made amazing "statues" of people
curled up or lying down, on which you can clearly see the garments
they were wearing. This is a bit morbid, but it's also rather fascinating.
The excavations at Pompeii, while extensive, have unearthed less
than half of the large town, with its shops, laundry, public baths,
marketplaces, even a brothel, as well as numerous houses (from modest
to grand) and temples. Our favorites were small shops called "Thermopoli",
open to the street with long marble counters in which big jars are
embedded. These held hot food to go. The Pompeiians didn't prepare
lunch at home, instead stopping in at one of the many thermopoli
and grabbing a bite to eat, or to take out. We decided to call them
"McDonald's". Another favorite trivia: when men wanted to run for
office, they went to the forum to declare their intentions, wearing
a special white toga called a "candida", thereby identifying themselves
as candidates! The white robes signified honesty (candor) but we
suspect didn't guarantee it. The candidates also painted political
posters and slogans on the walls, and these ads are still visible
Catherine left us the next day to continue their bike tour. Before
they left, they took us into Naples to treat us to a real Neapolitan
dinner. This turned out to be a great time, but a near disaster
due to transportation coordination. We arrived in Naples by train
about 8:15 PM and discovered that the last train back left at 10:30.
Pietro had to stand in line to buy his and Catherine's tickets for
the morrow, while the rest of us scurried around in pursuit of information
about returning trains (there are two separate lines, and of course
the Information people for each line don't know anything about the
affairs of the other, plus without Pietro we were handicapped linguistically),
so by the time we left the station it was after 8:30. Pietro suggested
we take a taxi to the restaurant and swing by the bus station en
route. This was a good idea, as we found an 11:00 bus and the restaurant
was literally miles away -- Naples is huge! The taxi drive was spectacular
-- we drove the wrong way down some streets and used the tram lines
on others. The driver blithely explained (by way of Pietro) that
this was allowed for taxis, but that didn't explain why we had to
dodge a private car and a motorcycle going the opposite direction
along the tram tracks! Dinner was really superb, reaffirming Naples'
reputation for fine cuisine, and worth the death-defying taxi rides.
Before we left
the Naples area, we also toured the ruins of Herculaneum. In contrast
to Pompeii, Herculaneum was directly in the path of the lava flow
from Vesuvius, and a wall of lava traveling at some 40 mph totally
buried the place, in some places 100 meters deep. Here, the covering
was hard rock. In fact, you enter Herculaneum from above, crossing
a bridge high over the excavation, then descending into it. In the
large public baths, they've left some of the lava in place on the
walls, and you can imagine the force of it filling the place, and
also imagine the painstaking effort it takes to remove it without
destroying the surface of the walls it has adhered to for nearly
2000 years. Very impressive. They've only excavated a small portion
of the town, because over the centuries modern city buildings have
been built over it. Herculaneum was a Roman resort town with fairly
grand villas and fewer "ordinary" buildings. The mosaics of floors
and walls, as well as frescoes, are remarkably preserved. In the
1990's archeologists discovered about 300 skeletons under archways
that had been used as boathouses, at the foot of the city wall which
once was the seawall. These were the people who tried to outrun
the lava flow, heading to the sea in an effort to escape and being
trapped at the edge. They were killed instantaneously by super-heated
gasses from the eruption. The audio guide points out how valuable
these skeletons are because the Romans cremated their dead, so these
provide a rare opportunity to examine human remains.
The next day,
we left the Amalfi coast for Sicily and then the Adriatic. The Amalfi
coast was somewhat out of the way for us, in our voyage from Barcelona
to our summer cruising grounds in Croatia, but we were very glad
that Catherine and Pietro encouraged us and accompanied us to visit
this beautiful and educational area.