Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pompeii to Florence

June 30th, Sorrento to Pompeii to Florence

Art wants to add a Florence leg to our Italian itinerary so we wake early, eat a quick breakfast in the garden and Gioseppina drives us to the nearby train station. There are no fast trains between Sorrento and Pompeii and the local train stops at all the stations. We arrive at the Pompeii Scavi stop at 8:00 A.M. The opening information in our guidebook is wrong and Pompeii opens at 9:00 A.M, not 8:30. We are one of the first in line but the morning is already hot and we stand impatiently in line to purchase our tickets. Like bulls out of the shoot, we rush into the site along with throngs of other early bird tourists.

Hurrying to enter Pompeii

Immense paving stones to slow chariots

Pompeii Central Forum

Pompeii Forum
Column detail, Pompeii

Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and put an end to the prospering city of Pompeii. The impressive archeological site spans many acres and we attempt to follow the Rick Steve’s pod cast but many of the routes have been diverted and some ‘avenues’ closed for renovation so we are frustrated and confused following the audio narrative. Nevertheless, Pompeii is amazing and I am in awe of the public squares and forums with immense, if incomplete, columns surrounding the perimeters.

Listing to our Audio Guide
Streets of Pompeii

We enter a stunning and beautifully preserved public bath house with ornate carvings still intact and faded frescoes on the walls.

Public bath house Pompeii
Ceiling decor
Detail of bath house

The stone streets are paved with immense stone blocks with obvious chariot wheel grooves cut deep into the rocks. This city prospered in the first century A.D. prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and had a sophisticated aqueduct and lead pipe water delivery system.  We see remains of private estates with re-created manicured gardens and shopping streets where restaurants once thrived.

Private estate garden
Stone work
Estate fresco

Restaurant counter with cooking holes
Art heads for the entrance but John and we retrace our path along uneven stone streets in the sweltering heat until we come to the plaster casts.  Discovered in the 1748 the body cavities within the ash have been filled with plaster and we gaze with compassion at these figures who suffocated in the ash some 2000 years ago.
Plaster casts of Pompeii casualties
Before going to our prearranged meeting place to meet Art; John and I visit the exquisite Temple of Isis and the impressive Amphitheater.

Amphitheater, Pompeii

When we arrive, Art is just leaving the Amphitheater so after our intense four-hour visit of Pompeii we rush to the train station to catch yet another slow local train to Naples where we will change trains to Florence. We are traveling well as a family, each of us contributing in our own way. John with his youthful strength hauls suitcases up and down stairways and carries our day pack; Art figures out train schedules and our plan of attack for Florence and I keep our tickets organized and our valuables safe. Once on the train between Naples and Florence we all relax and nap to the rhythm of the train. 

The fast train to Florence
We have no hotel accommodations in Florence but walk across the plaza to the Tourist Information Office and while I am buying our Florence sightseeing passes, Art calls a nearby hotel that happily has a triple room available for two nights. The Florence pass is expensive, 72 Euros for 72 hours of sights and we expect to be in Florence for just 36 hours and to use these passes for just one full day of sightseeing. Nevertheless, the pass will allow us to skip the lines and we have come to Florence to see the art.

Hotel Montreal, a two-star hotel just two blocks from the station is simple but acceptable. Our triple room costs 109 Euros and although worn, is clean and has a great bathroom which we immediately take advantage of to wash the Pompeii dust and sweat from our bodies. Refreshed we head out to get our bearings and to find dinner. Florence is a small jewel of a city and the Duomo is within walking distance.

The Duomo facade

The Duomo, Florence

The evening light casts a golden glow on the multicolor marble of the immense cathedral and we stroll around the bustling plaza, people-watching and stopping to admire the bronze Ghiberti doors of the Baptistery. These doors are old friends of mine but are no less impressive on my fifth visit to Florence.

Sunset on the Arno River

Ponte Vecchio Bridge

We walk down to Arno River and across the Ponte Trinita Bridge. Bicyclists and a parade of Harikrishna are just part of the entertainment. The late afternoon light is magical and we sit upon the stone block banister of the Ponte Trinita bridge and see the covered Ponte Vecchio Bridge beyond.

We have worked up an appetite and meander back along narrow cobblestone streets in the direction of our hotel reading all the restaurant menus. We suffer our usual indecision but eventually settle on a small restaurant just down the street from our hotel. Art orders a mushroom fettuchinni, John a pizza and I order a chicken breast in wine sauce which is served pitifully naked and unaccompanied on a plate. I ask to taste the red house wine before ordering a carafe that is sadly uninspired and the waiter bring me a taste of another red wine, also uninspired. Resigned, I settle on a carafe of the house wine for 9 Euros. We share the warm and watery wine, pay the modest bill and return exhausted to our hotel. 

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.