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).

Cruising friends 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 today.

Pietro and 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.