Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Amalfi - The Coastline of the Rich and Famous

Wednesday, June 29th, The Amalfi Coast

Giuseppina serves us breakfast in her garden and her two tiny dogs bounce around our legs begging for food. There is plenty of bread, butter and jam and freshly squeezed orange juice, but only one cup of coffee each and I wish for a second cup. 

Amalfi Coast Beachfront
Breakfast in the Garden

We walk ten minutes down the road to Hotel Antiche Mura, our pick-up location for our chauffeured tour down the Amalfi Coast. We are the first three of six passengers and Art sits in the front seat of the pearl grey Mercedes mini-van. John and I choose the window seat that will face the ocean on our drive down the coastline. John sits beside me with a clear view ahead and to my right. Next we pick up a well-dressed Finnish/Russian couple, followed by a young woman from New York who works for a Jewish Birthright non-profit and is taking a short break in Sorrento. Antonio, our experienced driver, is charming and narrates his well-rehearsed commentary as he expertly maneuvers the car along the narrow and twisty road. 

Amalfi Coast Hillside Villages

Village houses cling precariously to the cliff sides high above the Tyrrhenian Sea. The rugged coastline is very Big-Sur-esque and I snap hundreds of bad photos out the van window, most of which I later delete. We have read about the white knuckle Amalfi Coast road but I feel no angst with our competent driver and a stone guardrail separating us from the sea below. We make a rest stop at an upscale café/tourist shop and John and I order cappuccinos. The blue of the counter visually melts with the blue of the ocean beyond. 

Blissful, Amalfi Coast Cappuccino

Amalfi Coast Vista
Too Cool on the Amalfi Coast

The ocean below is dotted with boats and some extremely large yachts. Our driver tells us that many of the hotel rooms in the area rent for over $1,000 a night, making owning a yacht rather like having an upscale motor home. We stop at the Emerald Grotto and take the elevator down to the beach, pay our 5 euros each and enter a small cave with a few stalagmites and stalactites. The six of us climb into a long wooden boat with bench seats and our guide rows us around the tiny cave giving us a lame and repetitive commentary. The grotto tour is short and we are grateful that our guide does not break into song like the boat tour before ours. 

Our next stop is Ravello, the furthest town south on our Amalfi Coast itinerary. By stopping at Ravello first and returning North  along the Amalfi Coast we hope to avoid the majority of the cruise ship day trippers. These famous and picturesque towns are all built into the hillside and Antonio drops us off at the top of Ravello town so that we may walk downhill into the town center. He suggests that we start with the view at an upscale hotel and we walk into a plush lobby overlooking the valley and ocean beyond. The terraced hillside is picture postcard perfect, dotted with villas, vineyards and olive and lemon trees. 

We have precisely two hours to visit this hillside town and to partake of lunch. Antonio recommends a rustic restaurant in the lower part of town but we are not charmed by their inside tables or the prices on the menu. We wish to celebrate this beautiful day outside and we find a deli where we buy sandwiches and tiny bottles of Campari Orange and champagne and have a picnic in the nearby park. The view is delicious and the champagne goes down like water and we soon send John back to the deli for more of the tiny bottles of libations and enjoy a perfect al fresco lunch overlooking the terraced valley beyond. 

Al Fresco Picnic with Campari and Champagne in Ravello

I am not interested in the touristy shopping street so we climb the stairs back to the upper plaza, drink cappuccinos at an outdoor café and eventually wind our way back down along narrow cobblestone lanes and through the tunnel to a congested parking area where we meet Antonio to continue our Amalfi Coast drive. 

Walkways in Ravella

Cappuccinos in Ravella

Antonio drives North towards Sorrento and we keep our seating positions so that those on the inside of the van earlier now have the cliffside vistas. The road winds down to beach level and we have an hour in Positano Village. Sun worshippers rent yellow and green beach umbrellas and recline in their shade, the umbrellas so closely spaced that they touch each other. 

Positano Beach Umbrellas

We start our walk from the jam-packed beach parking area and climb up into the town crowded with tourists and lined with gift shops. John and Art pop into a knife shop and John buys a ship in a bottle for a friend, but the tourist souvenirs and shops selling crisp linen clothes and Italian pottery have no appeal to me. Precisely an hour later we are back in our van and heading north to Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Beachfront

In spite of the fabulous vistas, I grow sleepy on the return drive and find myself nodding off as we are chauffeured to Amalfi. This time we are deposited at the top of the town and walk down the cobbled shop-lined street. An overhead trellis of bougainvillea shades much of the pedestrian walkway. We find a café and sit down for service but after being ignored for five minutes by at least four idle waiters we leave and order cappuccinos at the stand up bar instead. The drive from Amalfi to Sorrento is less than an hour and we watch the countryside scroll past and inhale the dramatic views of the coastline far below. 

Because we are the first of our group to be dropped off, Antonio drops us off at the bottom of our hill and we hike back to the Lemon House to shower and change before enjoying our final dinner in Sorrento. 
Art vs the Lobster

O Canonico Restaurant

O Canonico Restaurant, Sorrento

We splurge on an upscale dinner at Restaurant ‘O Canonico in the main square. We sit on the restaurant's raised outdoor terrace and are welcomed with a glass of prosecco and a vegetable and crouton appetizer. Our main entrees are a delicious lemon and butter baked fish, a lobster pasta and duck in a balsamic wine reduction. We share a bottle of red wine and when the bill arrives, are surprised that the bill has already been paid?  John paid the bill earlier in the evening when he excused himself to go to the restroom. It’s been a lovely evening and a lovely surprise to be treated to dinner by our remarkable son. 

Early evening in Sorrento

In Sorrento, the main street is closed to traffic at 8:00 p.m. each evening so that pedestrians may stroll, shop and drink. Art and John buy gelatos and we continue our stroll. Eventually we find an outdoor café where we can sit and order drinks. Art discusses the Brexit with the Irish couple sitting at the adjoining table. The walk back to our Air B&B seems especially long tonight.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Over-hyped - Ile de Capri

Tuesday,  June 28th, Sorrento to Capri Island

Art wants to spend a relaxed day in Sorrento while John and I go to Capri to visit the Blue Grotto. The three of us walk the long and now familiar hill from our Air BnB down into Sorrento. John and I are catching the early ferry to Capri in hopes of beating all the tourists visiting the Blue Grotto. We part ways above the marina leaving Art to wander in search of his morning cappuccino at the perfect café.

Arriving in Capri Harbor
The Ferryboat to Capri

When John and I arrive on Capri, we find that the Blue Grotto is closed because of the tides. We wander the touristy and very boring waterfront hoping that the tide situation will change but when it does not, John and I choose to take an around-the-island tour instead. Our island tour doesn't depart until 10:00 a.m. and we buy sandwiches and drinks for the boat and overpriced flip flops for John. Our open boat is lovely and there are about 20 of us on board. We cruise past the Blue Grotto with its entrance mostly submerged by the tide. I wonder if this situation is more the norm than the exception but that tourists aren’t informed of this so that we continue to take the ferry boats out to Capri and book other excursions instead? Our boat continues to motor around the island stopping at the Emerald Cove and squeezing through an impossibly small arch opening in the rock. The weather is blissful and it’s a lovely two hour circumnavigation of the island and we are only slightly disappointed that we are not allowed to swim. The passengers from the private boats are swimming cliffside in the intoxicating blue-green waters. 

Emerald Cove, Capri Island

Cliffside Caves of Capri

Cliffside Caves of Capri

Silhouetted Rock Archways

Back at the Capri harbor, John goes swimming off the narrow pebbly beach where young and old, thin and fat, play in the mild surf and sun bathe on blankets. Although I am happy to be experiencing this pebbly beach, I question how this island and the Amalfi coast became so popular for the rich and famous? In my mind it lacks just about everything that the perfect beach should have. One cannot leave footprints in non-existent sand and the pebbly impressions on my behind are less than glamorous. Where are the beautiful people?  I am just one more flawed tourist on this over-hyped beach although I see eyes turning to admire John's youthful physic and his confident swagger. 

John on Capri's Beach
Sunbathers on Capri's Beach

Sunbathers on Capri's Beach

Cordoned Swim Area - Capri's Beach

We catch a 1:00 p.m. fast ferry back to Sorrento, walk the boardwalk beneath the vertical cliff back to the elevator and whoosh up to Sorrento above. 

John and I hike back to our Air BnB. Art is resting and John and I shower and get horizontal for an hour before walking back into town to arrange tomorrow's tour along the Amalfi Coast. The tourist information office is very helpful, giving us directions to the chauffeur and car rental service we request. Naturally, the office is on the other side of town but after a few wrong turns we find the office and manage to book a shared car and driver for tomorrow. We will be the first three to be picked up in front of a central Sorrento luxury hotel (unfortunately, we are not guests at this hotel). We are promised that there will be no more than 7 of us, plus driver, for an all-day excursion along the Amalfi Coast in a Mercedes mini-van. The price for this is 85 euros per person; or about $300 for the three of us.

John and I are famished and we search desperately for a place to sit, relax and to eat a late afternoon snack. As is typical, one or the other of us find something wrong with each café we pass. It is hot, we are all tired and we are not having a good time. Eventually, Art suggests we go to the restaurant where he had breakfast earlier but naturally we have strolled in the opposite direction. We turn around and walk the several blocks back and enter a lovely garden café with rabbits grazing in the grass. Cool drinks and a light lunch revive both our bodies and our spirits.

Sorrento Garden Cafe
Garden Cafe Rabbit

The fact that our Air BnB is not centrally located is putting a damper on our Sorrento experience but as we walk back to our hotel, we pass a shop with a ceramic octopus in its shop window. Inside the artist is cutting intaglio octopus carvings into the surface of ceramic cups and bowls. His work is delightful so we buy several of his pieces and Art takes a photo of me with the artist and his octopus sculpture. 

Sorrento Ceramic Artist with Octopus Sculpture

We trudge back uphill to the Lemon House to clean up and to rest before dinner.

Hiking Home to the Lemon House

Scott, my ex-husband, and his wife Shari have been to Sorrento several times, love the town and have suggested that we eat dinner at the Foreigners' Club. Music is playing as we enter the open air dining patio and we are escorted to a table not far from the railing overlooking the ocean below. Unfortunately, dinner is far from memorable and the music is not to our taste. Art is unusually quiet and eventually tells us that he doesn’t feel well. Two wedding receptions are in full swing on the expansive patio and we amuse ourselves watching one of the parties perform overly choreographed line dancing at the same time trying to control one very drunk and out-of-control guest. Three limoncellas accompany the bill and we slurp down the too sweet liquor and return to our hotel.  

Monday, June 27, 2016


Monday, June 27th, Rome to Naples to Sorrento
View of the Sorrento Harbor

Our morning train to Naples is delayed 40 minutes. We know that when we arrive in Naples we must transfer to a different train line for Sorrento. When we arrive, Art asks a cluster of loitering men for directions to the local trainline platform. One disheveled, middle aged man, reeking of alcohol, takes it upon himself to escort us through the terminal and to the local line. I’m quite sure that his escort will come with a price, but he does his best to reassure and charm us and repeatedly tries to help me with my luggage.  Indeed, when we are reach the ticket turn style, he asks Art for ten euros. Art chuckles and hands him five and we join the other passengers gathered on the platform to wait for the local train. It arrives shortly and there is a rush and push to board the crowded train and we stand, sardine-style, much of the way to Sorrento. During the push to get aboard, Art is blocked and jostled by several men and when he settles on board he discovers that the button to his cargo pants pocket is undone. He is upset, but fortunately, still has his wallet. (This episode will inspire Art to purchase a decoy wallet in Sorrento into which he will put a small amount of cash and keep in his upper accessible pants pocket. He will also buy a pack of safety pins to pin closed his lower cargo pants pocket where his will keep his real wallet.)  

The Lemon-House; Air BnB Sorrento Italy

Our Air BnB host, Gisieppie, picks us up at the train station and drives us the ten minutes to our accommodation at the Lemon House. She is in her mid 50s, large and gregarious, and we are grateful for the direct delivery to our room. This is the first Air BnB that we have stayed at and the room is exactly what is pictured on the web site. Unfortunately, the drive to the Lemon House is mostly uphill and I realize that the “short walk to town” will be more like a hike. We settle into the immaculate and spacious room with a queen bed and a pull-out sofa for John. The bathroom is updated and more than adequate, but Gisieppie rambles on with complicated instructions about how to close the shower door properly. She suggests tours to Capri and tours along the Amalfi Coast and although we want to do both, I simply want to be left alone and to read travel details in the Rick Steves guide book and check my email. I feel that she is annoyed that I don’t commit to one of her tour suggestions where she likely receives a commission but I feel equally annoyed and pressured by her. She eventually leaves us alone in our room and we attempt to log onto the Lemon House wireless. The connection is painfully slow and will continue to be problematic over the next several days. 

Waiting for our laundry to wash

Technical challenges - soap dispenser

We bag up our dirty laundry and, with map in hand, walk into town with finding a Laundromat first on our agenda. Once again, our friend Rick Steves gets us directly to one of the two laundromats in town and I watch with amusement as Art and John try to figure out how to purchase soap from the dispenser and operate the washing machine. (I have learned that trying to help in these “technical” situations only leads to disharmony). When the comedy of errors is over and the machine is agitating our laundry instead of the men, Art and John tell me they are off to buy sandwiches and leave me to guard our laundry. They are gone a very long time, but in the meantime I make many friends at the laundromat. 
Although I am alone to begin with, a newlywed couple arrives, the young woman looking terrified with the prospects of domestic duties. Soon a group of seasoned and gregarious Australians arrive and the sterile laundromat turns into a party as they open bags of dirty laundry and bottles of beer. They struggle to operate the machines but I watched Art and John carefully and I am forthright in disclosing the idiosyncrasies of the machines. Art and John return just in time to decipher the mysteries of the dryer cycle and to confess that they have been watching a soccer game while I watched the laundry spin.

With stuff bags filled with clean laundry, we set out to explore the more interesting parts of Sorrento. It is late afternoon and the sun basks the city in a golden glow. The Italy versus Spain soccer game is underway followed by the England and Iceland game and all the cafés are filled with enthusiastic fans. Art and John want to watch and they manage to find a shared table at an outdoor café where they can sit, watch and drink beer.  

Art and John watching a Soccer Game in Sorrento Italy
A winning soccer maneuver, Sorrento

Not a sports fan, I take this opportunity to stroll the picturesque city alone and I stumble upon a cliffside elevator down to the marina several hundred feet below where I hope to investigate times and prices of tickets to Ill de Capri. The elevator pops me out at beach level and although it is late in the day there are still people enjoying the fading sunlight.  

Private beachside cabanas
Peter's Beach, Sorrento

The various beaches are all private with deck chairs and dressing cabanas alongside a narrow boardwalk that winds between the steep cliff and the various beach enclosures. The scene is picturesque and I make the mistake of stepping onto a private deck to take a photograph and am reprimanded for my intrusion. The marina is just a short walk ahead and when I arrive I find the ferry office still open and pick up a printed schedule so that we can plan tomorrow’s trip to Capri. 

The New Marina, Sorrento

I meander back on the narrow boardwalk, enter through the turnstile for the cliffside elevator, pay my half euro, and am quickly transported back up to Sorrento. The elevator regurgitates me onto the cliffside square and I walk to the railing to admire the view of the marina below. After inhaling the view, I leave the park and see a Franciscan Church adjoining the square. 

Sorrento View
Franciscan Cloister
Franciscan Cloister

I have read about this church cloister in our Rick Steves guide book and step into the courtyard. The courtyard glows in the late afternoon sunlight; bougainvillea bright against the Gothic stone archways. I stroll the perimeter and decompress before heading back to the main street to join Art and John and to partake of the soccer festivities. In between cheers for the teams, Art is in conversation with two British couples and they heatedly discuss Brexit and what it signifies for the U.K. and the European Union. 

When the game finally ends, we walk down to the Grande Marina in search of dinner. The winding cobblestone pathway descends steeply toward  the sea and we arrive at the marina just in time for sunset. 

Walking down to the Grande Marina

Sunset at the Grande Marina

Sunset over the Marina

The lighting is magical and we are in good spirits. Because it is sunset, the many inviting restaurants are filling up quickly and choosing which one to dine at is stressful but we see one with an available table at the edge of the patio and sit down impulsively. 

Grande Marina Sorrento, Italy
Close up at the Grande Marina

The silver sheen on the water is lovely but the service is slow and although Art’s seafood pasta is good, John’s and my dinners are disappointing. We stroll along the waterfront after dinner, find the bus that departs every 30 minutes and take it back up into town. The evening is balmy and we enjoy after dinner drinks at an outdoor café, and when the bill arrives they also bring us shots of limoncello, the local aperitif that Sorrento is famous for. The thick sweet liquor tastes like melted lemon jello with a kick.

Campari and Limoncello


From there we hoof it through the town center and uphill “the short walk” to our Lemon House Air BnB. When we crawl into our beds it is after 11:00 P.M.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Our Roman Holiday - Part Four

Sunday, June 26th - The Pantheon and the Heart of Rome Walk.


Taxis are affordable in Rome and we take an early morning taxi to the Pantheon and enter the cool and uncrowded building. Art has downloaded the Rick Steve’s audio guide onto our phones and we listen to the history of this monumental Roman temple and admire the immense dome that inspired the domes of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence and Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s Dome. 


Interior dome of the Pantheon

Interior of the Pantheon
Interior of the Pantheon

We leave the cool of the marbled Pantheon and are stuck by the heat as we wander towards Plaza Navona to admire the Plazas  three fountains. At one end of the plaza is a fountain of Neptune wrestling a giant octopus and coincidentally, Art is wearing an Octopus T-shirt from Apo Islands in the Philippines. John takes photos of Art beside the fountain. 

Fountain of Neptune battling a giant octopus. 
Art wearing Octopus T-shirt

The center fountain is the most famous; the baroque Bernini, Four Rivers fountain that is crowned by an Egyptian Obelisk and where horses plunge through rocks and exotic flora and fauna. The third fountain at the opposite end of the plaza is a Moor wrestling with a dolphin but it is the Octopus fountain that most impresses me.  

Four Rivers Fountain by Bernini
Four Rivers Fountain

John wants to go to Castel Sant’Angelo, a middle age castle, prison and tomb for emperors. The  formidable castle is build of ancient bricks and stands at the edge of the Tiber River. John walks the quay while Art and I stroll above and towards the elegant bridge to cross to the Castle. Our Roma passes get us a deep discount and we spend two hours within its stonewalls looking at armory and admiring the structure itself. The view of the St. Peters Basilica, the Vatican and Rome from the battlements is wonderful. 
Panoramic View of St Peter's Basilica from Castel Sant'Angelo

Art, John, St Peter's Basilica
Castel Sant'Angelo

River view, Castel Sant'Angelo 

View of the Tiber River from Castel Sant'Angelo

We continue the “Heart of Rome” walk; step into a stunning Cathedral and pass the crowded Trevi Fountain again and eventually pop down into the Metro near the Spanish Steps. 

Interior, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Tree installation,  Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Egyptian Obelisk

We take the metro to the train Station to buy tomorrows  tickets to Naples and onto Sorrento. John and I hope to still make it to the Catacombs of Priscilla (open on Sunday) but by the time we have figured out the train tickets, time is short. Art is more interested in horizontal time than exploring the Catacombs and we part ways. Our three-day Roma passes get us free bus and metro travel and the bus to the Catacombs leaves from the train station. As we wait for our bus, I pull out my Roma pass and realize that I have Art’s pass as well. I don’t want him to have to walk back to our hotel and scan the plaza in front of the train station. Miraculously, I spot him crossing the street a block away and John sprints towards him. When we catch up I give Art his pass and John and I return to wait for the bus but it’s after 3:00 P.M. and last entry to the Catacombs is at 4:30.  Reevaluating, I am afraid that this might be a wasted trip and when I scan the plaza I see National Sculpture Museum of Rome at a far corner. This is the main branch and according to Rick Steve’s, our new best friend in Rome, houses the greatest collection of Roman art anywhere. John and I flash our Roma passes, get a nice discount and spend two hours looking at the collections of Roman Sculptures and an extensive collection of Roman coins. 

Bronze Sculpture 

Discus Thrower - Roman Copy

Fish Mosaic


Marble Roman Carving

Ancient Roman Coin

Last night, John made reservations for dinner at a Monti neighborhood restaurant. Our reservations are at 8:00 P.M. and we have a reserved table on the street.  It is by far the best meal we have had in Rome and I regret that I didn’t  jot down the restaurant’s name or what dishes we ordered.